I first met Isabel at Comiket, and on Friday evening, went to her launch at Gosh! Comics in Soho, where they're selling a special bookplate edition.
I fell in love with Isabel Greenberg's work the first time I saw her mini comic, The River of Lost Souls. She brings together in her artwork so many of the things I love about folk art: the chunky lines of Russian woodcuts and flat, almost awkward poses of Andre Rublev's painted icons...
...the lack of traditional perspective you find on antique carved whale tusks...
...and the city clusters you see in medieval paintings and maps.
She sticks to a very limited, well-chosen palette, reminiscent of early colour printing. Her hand lettering reminds me of those little labels you see on old curios in the Pitt River museum (such as the witch in a bottle)...
...and you could almost imagine finding this book in a back storeroom in the collection, wrapped in caribou leather that cracks when you unwrap it.
And, gosh-darn, the pages just SMELL nice.
Isabel's writing is remarkable confident for her age, this woman's going to go far. She sets up the book as a collection of mythical stories from the dawn of civilisation, stories, diagrams, maps and explanations which weave in and out of each other in a very human-feeling jumble. She has a light, funny touch, which brings a sparkle to what could be heavy pseudo folk history and mysticism; the humour is what makes it vibrate with magic and rise out of the heavy museum case.
The book begins with a love story between a man from the north pole and woman from the south pole who fall in love but cannot touch each other because of a strange magnetic phenomena, a trick of the god Bird Man. Since they decide to live together, without being able to touch, they have to find other ways to share intimacy. The book kicks off around the fire as the woman asks the man to tell her his stories.
It's fun seeing Isabel pick out some of her favourite pieces of folklore and make them her own; we revisit creation myths, Homer's Odyssey and the story of the Cyclops and the Sirens, biblical stories such as Moses in the Bullrushes, the Judgement of Solomon, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark (I suspect she liked its mysterious reference to Nephilim), the Tower of Babel, Jonah and the Whale. Our hero, the Storyteller, at one point is trapped in a situation not dissimilar to the bride in the Arabian Nights. Often Isabel will merge stories, swap around genders, and adapt the stories to work in a more northern setting. In the Jonah and the Whale story, the whale is one of the three gods who looks after him, and when the whale swallows the Storyteller and he panics, I laughed at the way the god/whale tells him to sit down and shut up:
I admire how Isabel will start out a section of dialogue quite formally and seriously, but then let it drift into hilarious informality. And I love how unpredictable she was with her humour; there was no obvious pattern, it would pop up and surprise me in unexpected places.
And the children of the god Bird Man are named Kid and Kiddo.
Some of the stories resonate on quite a deep level, such as the boy who is split as a baby into three to appease his arguing sisters, comes back together, but finds he is still missing a piece, and goes searching for it.
She also creates some lovely moments of silence.
Occasionally the comics format is slightly clumsy; speech bubble tails intertwine slightly confusingly and once in awhile I had to think about which panel to read next, and which words went with which panel. But because of the folk art format, this was more forgivable than it might have been in a different style.
I detected a bit of Tove Jansson's character Little My in her Old Woman character, a woman who balks at her culture's practice of old people going away to die when they become a burden to their familes. She refuses to die, and bargains with her children that if she can slay the menacing giant, they'll leave her in peace.
Some passages are beautifully poetic:
Such gorgeous maps... this is exactly my kind of book. I almost got a bit weepy reading this; it's such a wonderful thing to want something, and not quite be able to make it or even know exactly what it is I'm wanting, and then one day, to find it.
And on top of this being such a good book, it's wonderful to find another woman in comics whose work I admire so much, and who cherishes so many similar influences, even if our work looks very different to each other. Do browse Isabel's website, where you can read several of her mini comics online.
I haven't had a chance to ask Isabel about her influences, but if you love her work, you might be interested in looking up these artists:
* Tom Gauld: (his Goliath comics does something slightly similar in its reworking of the classic tale).
* Luke Pearson: Luke also makes a gorgeous nordic-influenced comics that make a reader's heart ache.
* Paul Bommer: I think Paul and Isabel could happily geek out together forever about printmaking and line.
* Eleanor Davis: Lovely artwork, also with very folk-inspired themes.
* Drew Weing: I love the way he draws ships and water in his Set to Sea book.
* Russian Lubok woodcut prints
* Early Kandinsky, when he was still in his folkloric stage
* Viktor Vasnetsov - Lovely solid-looking, epic paintings from Russian folklore and history
* Nicholas/Nikolai Roerich - I particularly thought of this painting, Visitors from Overseas.
* Rie Muñoz - One of my very favourite watercolour painters, based in Alaska. There's not all that much of her artwork online, but she's worth seeking out.
* Hope Larson - Like Isabel, Hope cleverly weaves some aspects of folk art into her comics.
* Carson Ellis
* Natalia Goncharova
* Mikhail Nesterov
* Akseli Gallen-Kallela
* Tara Books
Actually, I could keep going for a hundred more links, but I'll stop now and not overload you. Oh, and we mustn't forget the cupcakes. Here are lovely ones Isabel provided at the launch. Thanks, Isabel!
Speaking of women in comics and nice treats, fellow comics colleagues Ellen Lindner, Kripa Joshi and other women have got together a bunch of new comics for The Strumpet magazine, this time on the theme of food. Do have a look at their Kickstarter campaign and think of supporting them and getting your own copy of the comic: