Grass of Parnassus Review

By | Thursday, December 09, 2021 Leave a Comment
Back in 2018, Derek Royal and I reviewed Kathyrn and Stuart Immonen's Grass of Parnassus for the Comics Alternative podcast. (The main site is gone, but you can still find the podcast if you dig around a bit.) At the time, it was only a couple months into the story as they were serializing it as a webcomic on Instagram. They eventually wrapped up the narrative, reworked the introduction and ending a bit, and pubished it in a handsome-looking dead tree format a few weeks ago.

I'll start by pointing out that I used the word "narrative" instead of "story" in the previous paragraph. It's not really a story in the traditional sense; it's more of a series of vignettes all centered around life aboard this flying spaceship/rock thing called Grass of Parnassus. In the book itself, Kathryn describes it as "all of the below stairs workers on a malfunctioning flying space rock but it's also mostly about -- and this came as a surprise -- love and friendship." Most of the pieces are, at best, on tangentially related and we never really learn what each being is doing or why. They're clearly working on the ship doing maintenance of some kind but the specifics tend not to make sense. How and why are psychotropics oxide cats in a thermal exchange conduit? What is the sentient arm's primary platform for its Presidential run? Why did the Wunderkrust unplug the smart slime? Why was the Independent Panic Broadcast banned? Is the spider crew on strike just because of the poor lighting? We don't get the answers to any of these -- and many similar -- questions but that's not really the point. It's technobabble that recognizes itself as technobabble, and serves pretty exclusively to carry any subtext. Most of what everybody says, at face value, is meaningless. So by making the surface discussions effectively nonsense, the reader is left studying the subtext of all the conversations. In some ways, it ends up being more communicative to the reader than if it sounded like Star Trek and there was enough semblence of logic that you could spend time trying to sort it out. By being so far removed from understandable, you can't do anything but find the subtext.

Stuart's art is easily and elegantly read throughout the book. I first came across his work back about 20 years ago, and was immediately a fan. This type of work is why. Dozens of clever and innovative character designs, unique and impressively lived-in environments, and a surprising simplicity of line seems to float effortlessly somewhere between Jack Kirby and Hergé. Interestingly, since this was originally developed as a webcomic, the panels are virtually all squares. The few instance where they're not were, I believe, originally presented as squares online, but they've been collected together into a long, horizontal panel.

The back quarter or so of the book is ancillary material. Rough sketches, hand-written script pages, photo references, and the like. The Immonens do add a few explanatory notes, but most of it is self-evident and doesn't require explanation. So if the fact that the comic itself is no longer online wasn't sufficient to get you to buy a printed version, you might find the extra back matter worth your while.

When I first looked at Grass of Parnassus as a webcomic, I was -- as always -- impressed with what the Immonens were doing as storytellers. However, I was very much not a fan of serving it up via Instagram. That has a horrible UI for reading webcomics, and any success they may have seen in their readership at the time, I can all but guarantee came from their respective reputations as comic creators. I can't see much of an audience putting up with that interface otherwise.

But you know, Grass of Parnassus was an experiment for them. Both the narrative and the venue. And while the original venue was less than successful, the story was and I'm thrilled to see it presented in a much stronger format. The book retails for $29.95 US and is available from AdHouse Books.
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