A typical graphic novel presents a fusion between sequentially presented art and some form of narrative. Nowhere, however, is it written that graphic novel narratives must necessarily include text. (terrible pun unintentional.)
This is a point that Marta Chudolinska drives home with her graphic novel Back + Forth: A Novel in 90 Linocuts. Back + Forth, originally published last October by The Porcupine’s Quill, was just recently announced as a finalist for this year’s Doug Wright Award for Best Book.
It presents a story that examines the relationship between time, geographic place, and our sense of self-perception. If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s meant to be – one of the advantages of structuring a narrative based purely around visual impressions is that it allows much to be left to the reader’s (or more accurately, the viewer’s) interpretation.
Marta credits Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author as a significant influence on her ideas about creating a wordless narrative.
“I think the best part about it,” she says in an interview with The Fabler, “Is that people can bring their own interpretations to the story, and see something that maybe I didn’t intend or connect to something that I didn’t think was there. I also like the potential for emotional resonance – it’s sort of like when you’re adding words to something, you’re taking away from the power of the image. Without words, the image is allowed to become so powerful it can smack you in the face with the emotional charge of it.”
The emotional resonance of Marta’s images in Back + Forth certainly succeeds in carrying across the struggles with identity, sexuality, and isolation depicted within its pages. Beyond that, the powerful imagery she concocts also serves as a sort of melancholy love letter to two distinct Canadian cityscapes – Vancouver and Toronto.
“I had this desire for a few years before I made Back + Forth to make a book that celebrated Canadian places, and Canadian cities,” says Marta, “I had been reading Douglas Copeland, who was writing about Vancouver, and I thought ‘this is so cool that somebody’s writing about Vancouver instead of choosing an American city’. Also I really wanted to create a story about Toronto because I haven’t really encountered many, and I thought there was really a lot of potential to use it as a setting.”
As is indicated by the title, Marta’s first major foray into graphic novels is also unique in that it is composed entirely of linocuts. To choose to take on a project like this and do it entirely with lino-carved prints falls into an ‘epic endeavour’ category in my books.
“I think part of the reason I was able to pull of the project,” says Marta with a laugh, “Is that I didn’t know how much work it was going to be. I mean it was in my last year of studies, and I also did a thesis in drawing and painting so I did a fully body of work for that in addition to doing the book. The last few months of that whole process were absolutely insane.”
When asked if she’d do it again, Marta doesn’t dismiss the idea.
“I think that finding that exact motivation might be hard again,” she says, “But maybe getting involved with a publisher or just having a really, really strong idea would push me to do it.”
Chudolinska, who says that the book was largely based on her own experiences, describes her initial reaction to the momentum generated by Back + Forth as amazement.
“When I first started the book, it was very much a personal project. I made it on a small scale by myself, and then talked with the publisher, and I didn’t know what to expect from my first published work. Just seeing it slowly build up into what it is now and then seeing it nominated for this award has been very, very amazing.”
Regarding the Doug Wright Award for Best Book, Marta is up against such major Canadian comic creators as Seth and Marc Bell – a fact that she says she considered ‘jaw-dropping’ when she initially found out that she was shortlisted.
“Even before I found out about the shortlist,” Marta says, “One of the first things that really amazed me was when my publisher forwarded the request to me from the Doug Wright Awards asking for several copies of my book to review. It said something like, ‘please send five copies to the head of the jury, Chester Brown‘. For me that was like, ‘holy crap, Chester Brown is gonna read my book’.”
Achieving recognition from the comics art community is especially significant to Marta because of her longstanding interest in comics herself. Marta says she has been reading comics since she was a little girl.
“I fricking love comics,” she states, “I was born in Poland, so I had a bunch of Polish comics – my brother had a bunch of Marvel superhero comics and I ate that stuff up too. I read Archie comics like crazy, and my Mom would actually threaten to take them away when I was spending too much time reading them.”
In recent years, Marta has moved more away from serialized comics and into the realm of graphic novels – she also says that she doesn’t read so much superhero fare anymore, with a few exceptions.
“I also read a lot of webcomics,” says Marta, “I have an extremely long list of links to comics that I check regularly. There are probably about ten people whose webcomics I follow daily.”
As for what’s next from the wonderfully talented Marta Chudolinska, she is reluctant to divulge specific details but does have this to say:
“I do have an idea for my next book, which has fermenting in my brain for probably the last two years or so. I’m really not sure how it’s going to manifest, but I’d really like to do a project based on my family history. My family immigrated to Canada from Poland in the early 90’s and I’d like to explore that, as well as some of their history in Poland. I’d like also to explore the different perspectives on history I’ve learned between attending Polish school on Saturdays and what I learned in regular Canadian public school.”
-Written by Kevin de Vlaming