“Disconcerting Youth Military”
by Jason Turner
b+w, 32 pgs
review by BK Munn
Over the last several years Vancouver’s Jason Turner has slowly been building an audience for his quiet, meditative mini-comics and short stories, with a regular gig in Broken Pencil and two collections of his webcomic True Loves published by Ed Brisson’s old New Reliable Press some of the higher-profile showcases of his talents. His latest, Farm School, is a concise “done-in-one” graphic novella published by Retrofit that manages to condense a nuanced character study and a pastoral post-apocalyptic travelogue into 32 sparse pages.
As a cartoonist Turner is a minimalist, closer to the John Porcellino/Tom Hart school than Alex Toth. His figures and landscapes are blocky and angular, with only the barest detail of a few lines used to establish the basic age and occupation of his characters or to register subtle emotions (a half-milimetre line is a teenage smirk; a Herriman-esque baseball bat is the sole emblem of office for a laid-back librarian bodyguard). Given these basic tools and a limited amount of dialogue, Farm School has more than its fair share of emotionally-taut scenes, including terse confrontations with former friends and employers, street fights, and slow burns.
The plot of the book follows survivalist Hester Bailey as she makes an infrequent return to what remains of civilization, checking in with the old gang and running a few errands. Along the way, she acts as chaperone for the village baker’s daughter, also heading into town to deliver bread; their brief conversations about family and the dangers of the wider world contributing substantial backstory and worldbuilding through hints and gestures. Hester is gradually revealed to be something of a Catcher-in-the-Rye type, concerned with protecting young people from the twin threats of heartbreak and the lure of “far away” –the perils of adulthood. As a hunter on the fringes of society, Hester purposefully keeps family at arms length, with the mixed result being what you might expect from a “nothing ventured” philosophy. To borrow another proverb, like the wild deer she stalks in the fields and forests, once burned by loss, Hester is twice shy of intimacy.
Farm School is also an exercise in Turner’s own brand of sci-fi comics decompression, where Hester’s days-long journey through a wasteland is an analog for our own daily routine of minor epiphanies and robotic tasks. At the core of the book is the theme of communication. Hester’s actual mission is revealed to be checking her email, a once effortless job complicated in this comic book future by illiteracy and a post fossil-fuel economy –restricting contact with distant family members to brief, twitter-like messages interpreted by a priestly caste of telegraph-operator-like civil servants. Likewise, the time and effort devoted in Farm School to returning a library book and baking a breakfast baguette remind us of the networks and connections essential to even the most simple, pedestrian joys in life.
Part of my appreciation for what Turner does in this book is attributable to the very real sense of place he creates, a highly subjective experience since most of the setting of Farm School seems to be based on Turner’s familiarity with my own homebase of Guelph, Ontario, the University town where Turner spent his teen years. Hester’s journey through devastated suburbia and smalltown Thunderdome can be easily mapped* onto a short local bus route, a half-hour trip that, in another act of decompression, Turner transforms into an epic walkabout that involves two nights of sleeping under the stars. Despite whatever future conflagration serves as prequel to this story, it’s nice to see certain Guelph landmarks escape into the future. Hester treks over the Hanlon Expressway and down Paisley Street to a decimated downtown where the banks on St. George’s Square look like they took a hit, and the Quebec Street Mall is nothing but rubble (so long, Dragon comic shop!), but the Bookshelf, Red Brick Cafe, and against all odds, the hideous building that replaced the Crystal Palace arcade after it burned down, survive in something like their current forms. You don’t need to be a Royal City refugee to enjoy Farm School, but this kind of detail adds a delicious extra layer to the cake Turner bakes.
*I made a map!