“Blown Away”, independent comic, Alyssa Jo Varner

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Blown Away is an independent science-fiction comic book, written and drawn by Alyssa Jo Varner (alyssajovarner.com, @alyssajovarner). “In a small town that lives at the mercy of the weather, a 13 year old girl is lost to a tornado. Years later, her best friend stumbles upon evidence suggesting that storm was no act of god.”

I love the title lettering, and the bold, graphic cover design–the way the outlines of the main character’s body merge into the background. It’s an unusual portrait of a woman, even for indie comics. She’s clearly in distress (I’m not sure I like her undefinable expression, though), dripping with unsexualized sweat, and her hair snakes out in tendrils, clumps.

The issue title (“Fair-Weather Friends”) works well for me–it’s considered, the perfect title for the matter of the issue. Varner, who writes and illustrates Blown Away, is clearly in control of her project, and making thoughtful decisions about all aspects of the manuscript.

The story’s set in the Autumn of 1980, and Varner’s office interiors have a pleasing retro clunk to them. The boxy tech and rigid backgrounds remind me of playing Glider Pro as a child. Varner conveys rather subtle emotions with expressive eyeliner cuts–that too is a bit retro, like old-fashioned television eye-lighting. You can see a modern example of eye-lighting in JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek film, which (cracks about lens flare aside–and they’re true, we’ve just made them all) attempts to evoke the aesthetics of the classic series through, among other things, resurrecting this out-of-fashion camera technique (observation ℅ Red Letter Media, who care way more about technical film-making than I do–it’s a good spot).

Varner’s either gone with hand-lettering or something that looks sufficiently like it, to my untrained eye. The occasions on which she uses precise fonts that don’t look hand-lettered are thus somewhat jarring. She’s gone a bit heavier on the bold (and simultaneously italic) text than I like–but then, I have a weird hate of bold. It’s a normal thing in comics, I knoooow, but different titles vary in how they use it, and I prefer a strict, plain, Calvanist comic grammar. Double-outline balloons are Satan’s word-bubbles.

The story of the mysterious disappearance of the main character’s childhood best friend–an unexplained event that still haunts the main character–gets told more because the narrative needs us to know about these events than because the moment warrants its telling. We learn main character Hallie’s full name in a similarly unwarranted way. I’m not sure why the main character wants to rehash these painful events (which she says she’s gone over many times before, only to be disbelieved and misinterpreted) with this person, who she’s just met today, and who hasn’t particularly endeared himself to her. Is it her commitment, as a budding journalist, to making the true facts known? Does she often offer this story to new audiences, hoping to be taken at her word for once? I’m not sure, and I feel like I should have an idea about her motivations here. This section is also too lyrical for normal dialogic speech–and as a result, it yields good lines like “I still wake up inside those screams.”

Varner hasn’t yet managed to consistently translate her strong writerly voice into this new medium. In contrast to this lyrical section, her dialogue is often a bit too–consciously-comicy? I feel like that’s teething troubles, though? First issues by established comic writers are often wonky, as well–remember how much *better* V for Vendetta gets over the course of the story?

Varner’s body-posing is still a little awkward, most notably around characters’ lower bodies. (There’s also a sequence in which a male character’s open mouth makes it look like he’s wearing black lipstick.) I like the wood-cut look of the illustrations, and Blown Away demonstrates some innovative play with the visual approach–Varner’s efforts to play with comic formats and expectations are a bit tentative as yet, but her visual storytelling isn’t as straightforward or apprentice-like as you might expect from a first project. The color-inverted flashback sequence is good, as is the literal rear-view mirror transition into it. I like the smallness of two girls against the expansive cornfield, standing in for the larger world they’re trying to run away to.

We’re told tornadoes don’t form in autumn. Our protagonist’s best friend was, people suppose, nevertheless lost to one on Halloween. There HAVE been autumn tornadoes, though? They’re not *as common*, but “autumn is considered the “second” tornado season. According to Tornado Expert Dr. Greg Forbes, the second half of October and November can be ripe for severe storms and tornadoes.” Then again, this is a pre-internet age, and little oddities like ‘sometimes they do!!’ aren’t readily wiki-able. The main character is also generally suspected of having lied to cover up a kidnapping–why does the media think that, rather than that she’s been traumatized? The friend, Emma, disappeared in the 70s, which falls within the sweet-spot for media interest in brainwashing and pop-psych repression.

I appreciate the metaphors (“deafening, like a ghost train”) because the grammar of them is so Mid-Western, so agrarian/rural, and it makes me realize how little more East-Coast and urban publishing cultures account for and speak to the experiences of what they’d vomit-inducingly call the Fly-Over States. Jesus Christ America needs to import/recover a conversation about regionalism like they’ve only-just-managed to import/recover a conversation about class. Chet is A+ Iowan, more Chet plz.

The story casually, easily passes the Bechdel test, and obliquely captures the nasty policing small towns can engage in. As a child, Hallie isn’t allowed to forget that she lives in a trailer park. As an adult, she’s never allowed to forget her own past–the townspeople’s constant, unfunny ‘jokes’ function as a momento-mori litany, for someone who’s never stopped remembering the traumatic events in the first place. There are also oblique references to racism–some townspeople stopped subscribing to the local daily when the new editor–black and female–took over, despite her being over-qualified for the role.

The conclusion strikes the right note of wistfulness and mystery, and I look forward to seeing more of this story–and certainly more from this writer/artist, as her comfort with the form grows.

DISCLAIMER: I know Varner from university, and so my perspective on her work is inflected by that. I nonetheless consider this review relatively honest, on par with my reviews of the work of people I ain’t never met.

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