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The Meandering, Beautiful ‘Artichoke Tales’ [Review]

Artichoke Tales” is an ambitious new book (out this week from Fantagraphics) by the celebrated cartoonist Megan Kelso. It’s a multi-generational fantasy epic about a divided, warring people with artichoke leaves for hair, focusing on the experiences of a single family with ties to both sides of the struggle.

The central character is a young woman named Brigette, the latest in her family line, although she hardly exists as a person in the pages of the book. Her main purpose is as a conduit for the reader to learn about the history of her family, and the history of the war between the North and South of the artichoke-people’s land.

True, the book opens and closes with her, but we’re treated to a much more substantial view of her parents and grandparents through stories and flashbacks. Her mother, father, grandmother and grandfather — even the potentially mythical Queen of the Land — all present themselves as people with wants and needs and obstacles and problems.

Brigette, by contrast, is simply a wandering, curious, restless, lustful teenager for most of the book, a blank canvas on which to project the stories of others. In the last few pages, we see her in a very different stage of life, having made some potentially alarming decisions in the interim, but we never know precisely what those decisions were or get any glimpse into why she might have made them.

There are many strong moments in the book, but as a whole it lacks a center, and while there is a strong theme of detachment and yearning that suggests that this might not be an accident, it makes the experience of the book one of a meandering, unfocused story with a lot of heart and craft, and your enjoyment may be directly proportionate to your willingness to sift through the parts you don’t care about to find the wonderfully executed parts that you do.

I’m perfectly willing to believe that there are a lot of people who will get more out of this book than I did. Heck, I’d even bet on it. Kelso’s art will carry a lot of people, as it almost carried me. Her thin lines, empty figures, expressive curves and powerful shading are a delight to look at, though I have to lodge a minor complaint at occasionally having difficulty telling some characters apart. But aside from her art, I also think that the scope of the story has a lot of appeal, and the persistent theme of every character finding themselves incapable of staying anywhere near their closest family is probably a relatable one to many.

For myself, there were moments that made me glad to have read the book, even though I found my interest waning through most of the first half. The beginning of Chapter 5 is a beautiful page, with an immediacy to the visual storytelling that seems missing from much of the rest of the work. I liked that the history of the war is delivered through an unreliable mixture of myth and memory, and I especially liked one interpretation that had the Queen of the land waging the war because Southern cooking gave her the runs.

There are also sad and disturbing moments that linger: A casual discussion of murdering the infant queen to avoid the potential pitfalls of monarchy. A daughter blithely disregarding her mother’s last requests in her funeral rites. The overwhelming tendency of the characters to capitulate to the notion that “it’s simpler to love” your loved ones from a distance.

There’s a perfect moment near the end of the book where, after the sweep of family history, military myth, and teenage wanderlust have swollen the narrative to bursting, we get a pair of images of people standing outside a drugstore, thinking intently about their ailments. Thought balloons read “sciatica,” “boils,” “earwax.” The kind of mundane discomforts that are actually what take up 90% of all of our thoughts at any given time, when we’d like to think we’re the stars of some epic story. Artichoke Tales is at its finest when it delivers the banality of life from the pretense of grandeur, and it is when Kelso flexes that muscle that I come close to liking this book as much as I wanted to.

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