True fantasy is a lost art in the modern age, only to be found in the nooks and crannies of the world. Yes, there is fantasy, that pseudo-medieval world inhabited by orcs, elves and dragons, but I am speaking of the fantastic. Not the hyped, or the over-glorified, but the subtle, the strange, the vivid, and the mystical. One modern example is to be found in the webcomic world, a thick forest of imagination that by now has reached an age where there's old growth. Not necessarily in the age of the comic itself, but where creativity has spread its gnarled roots.
Sara Valta's Alchemilla is the delightfully wet mat of leaves that coat the forest floor in the autumn, turning into mulch underfoot and floating odors most pungent through the nostrils. Well, depends on where you live; that doesn't happen around here, although I *have* had the pleasure of visiting a friend's family vacation home in Wisconsin, where the forests do indeed have leaves piled thick and deep. You get the picture, though. There's something earthy to her work, a feeling of decay that isn't the dull stink of death, but rather that continual recycling of life that is the forest itself. It's not just the hues and tones she chooses to depict her world and characters, each of whom is a vibrant individual that inhabits a rich, otherworldly, and yet absolutely human world of flaws and foibles; it's the overflowing details, the potent expressions on people's faces, the chaotic bustle of the city in which her story takes place, the festivals, celebrations and messiness of day to day existence laid bare.
Well, there's monsters there too; Valta's world is full of them! Goblins, trolls, fantastic beasties and what have you. But these are humans in monster's skin; underneath all their warts and scales are worrywarts and depressed drunks. Delectably rendered in watercolor-like blotches, the stage is set at a magical social worker's office that deals with downtrodden magical folk. The counselor is a wizard. Who doesn't wizard, but from his scruffy, ill-kept beard to his limpid pools of eyes and long, flowing robe, it is an open secret hiding in plain sight. Which is to say it isn't hidden. He's a wizard. Who doesn't wizard.
That said, dealing with disembodied heads of Trojan heroes, sirens whose siren song can't lure sailors to their doom, and an overly messianic plant-like being inhabiting the body of a cat must be considered some type of magic. Datura, you know. Takes you, rattles you up and shakes you to the bone. You'll see once you read the comic.
It is within this world of monsters as people and people as monsters, that the grey area grows vast and you start wondering about what's truly human. And none of the protagonists in this series are as dear to the heart as our most magnificent guide to the human spirit, Valo. Valo is a conundrum that is wrapped up in a numbnut who is so totally crass and out-of-control, yet guiding one ever closer in to understanding what is at the root of being human. As one reads through the strip, Valo seems to stay the same but the direction we are looking at them shifts, revealing new facets as one rotates around a person who just can't help but being who they are, and being it very loudly. If you are enormously irritated with the character the first time you meet them in the comic, then Valo's done their job of being Valo.
I won't spoil things further. The story is sinuous and organic, like a vine coiling around abandoned masonry out in the middle of a grassy meadow, and is worth being revealed through reading it yourself. Several times illusion is called up in the comic, and these dream-like worlds that parallel the "real" world, like drifting clouds, are as mirrors to the psyche of the characters. But the way Sara Valta depicts her world is like a dream, with a romanticism for architecture and texture.
Like a dream. That's where we touch on the true essence of fantasy. Fantasy is actually more complicated than just a dream, because it is conscious, waking minds which create the fantastic in art and literature, even if its root might be in the fertile mulch of the subconscious. Somehow, the seemingly irrational connections of our mind's undergrowth survive the waking process to become paintings, sculptures, sketches and poetry; whatever the medium used, the result is wild, unrestrained imagination. And it is there that Valta's visual story finds common cause with the Russian painter Marc Chagall.
A recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art brought a lesser-known facet of this early Modernist's work to light; that of his work on costume and set design for ballets and operas. The exhibition, "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage," was fascinating in one major aspect, as it showed how Chagall took his imagination from two dimensions to three. Graphite sketches filled out with gouache, watercolors, and india ink were his version of what we in the twenty-first century would call concept art. They practically sprang from his mind's eye onto the paper, so lively and lyrical are their poses!
Yet, these were precursors to the final result; magnificent, crude, bold ensembles, cut from cloth, adorned with animal hair, papier-mâché, and other accessories, and finally painted by hand, courtesy of Chagall himself. These costumes depict maidens, beasts, monsters, fairy kings and queens, and those constructing them put in great effort to ensure they were faithful reproductions of Chagall's initial designs. Oh, to see these magical creations worn in real life, dancing about the stage!
Chagall's creatures would not find an easy box to fit into, using today's tropes and categories. They are fantastical, yet one would be hard pressed to label them fantasy, as we would define them using contemporary fiction's world of orcs, elves, dragons and ents. Fantasy nowadays is a bit of a straitjacket; born from J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal epic, itself influenced by Norse ancestry, married to a twisted and tweaked interpretation of the Middle Ages, most everything we call fantasy is set to a certain rhyme, iterations of a time half-remembered, but reimagined. In a way, it is a method of making sense of our past. Orcs, goblins, bugbears and other dark entities represent the other; cultures which we may have seen as alien and frightening. Elves are manifestations of the exotic; distant, unreachable, yet desirable. Dragons, of course, are the wild, untamed power of nature, the beast unleashed. Imagination uses metaphors as the language with which it describes reality, and fantasy is modern day memory (just as science fiction is our way of contemplating the future).
But dreams draw from a different well. Dreams do not have to make sense, and indeed often don't. You can argue about retcons and inconsistencies in the stories of Middle Earth, Warcraft, and Game of Thrones, but the primeval power of dreams cares not for continuity or logic. When we talk about fantasy as the mainstream genre, this power does not figure into the discussion, except for the bare threads of discord that creep into it from the most gifted dreamers. Fantasy as imagination, is about what inhabits the realm between the conscious and the subconscious.
That is the thread that weaves together Alchemilla and Marc Chagall. Chagall's costumes, and the seeds behind them, are such a madman's stitch of reality and the fantastical that it is hard to discern which came from where. But sometimes, the lines are there. Chagall's time in North America, as well as Mexico (which for obscure labor union laws he visited in order to paint the backdrops for his operas) must have suffused him with inspiration. In his costumes for the Firebird, you can see how Native American katsinas, such as the Squash Katsina, were recalled in his imagination to become the monstrous servants of the dark prince, Koschei. Another "monster", with a black, domed head, replete with multi-colored polka dots, is so similar to the Zuni Kokoshori (loosely translated as Firewalker) Katsina as to be indistinguishable. These spirits, so artfully depicted by generations of Native Americans, lit a sympathetic fire in Chagall's heart. Russian folklore is full of similar creatures, gods, witches and ogres, and to him the fraternity between the two cultures was clear. He paid homage to their brotherhood by bringing their deities to life in what was to him a contemporary creation of myth.
There is no great degree of separation between mythology and modern fantasy. You could argue that they are the same thing, just from different eras, one being the ancient past, the other, the present. Yet there is something missing in much of today's fiction. A crucial element, a missing link, something which deadens the art despite having more special effects, more grandiosity, more oomph and wow and pizzazz than we have ever had in our stories, and that is imaginative thinking.
Imagination is qualitatively different from what we currently have, which is imitation. Imagination is the mind's willingness to let go, and to walk into uncharted territories. It is where the constraints of logic and reason are relaxed, and more subtle connections are explored. Imagination is not without its own rules; it does not come from nothing. Indeed, it is drawn directly from experience. The alchemical transmutation that occurs follows lines of relation that our conscious mind cannot fathom, but which exist nonetheless.
This is the wilderness that Chagall so passionately inhabited, and which in her own way, Valta speculatively investigates, as carefully as a gardener, planting seeds which bear growth as dreamscapes and ghosts and divine entities. At the same time, her comic Alchemilla is so very grounded in the human world. Its characters deal with issues as mundane as a janitor grumbling as he cleans up yet another mess, of skipping work or running away from home to find a moment of sanctuary with a relative stranger. Chagall worked in the opposite direction; in a time where the chains of reality were closing in, when the industrial age was making man into machine, he sought to liberate the mind from its bonds, giving us vast playgrounds that verged on the nonsensical. Though their approaches differ, each shares a rare gift to those of us seeking the mysterious in life.
You can read Alchemilla here. Start at the beginning.
Though now closed, you can visit the exhibition page for LACMA's "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage" here.
Further reading: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell's exhibition review in Ornament Magazine.
Julia Felsenthal's 2015 review of the show at the Fenimore Art Museum in Vogue.
A historical overview of the LACMA show by Discover Los Angeles.
Photographs by Patrick Benesh-Liu/NineWindBao.