First published in The Webcomics Examiner, April 2006.
Earlier this year, Hope Larson garnered buzz for her dream-like exploration of young adulthood, Gray Horses. Before taking on young adulthood, however, Larson gave a similarly thoughtful and surreal treatment to childhood and adolescence in her first graphic novel, Salamander Dream. Though originally published in 97 online pages, Salamander Dream is now available in print from Adhouse Books.
With a limited color palette and a minimum of text, Larson tells the story of Hailey, a lonely young girl with a secret friend known only as “Salamander.” Salamander is not a constant presence in Hailey’s life, appearing to her only at those times in her childhood when she stands on the verge of great personal changes—on the verge of puberty, or just prior to her departure for college—to support her with stories of his own adventures.
Salamander is totemic in appearance, showing only the face and feet of a salamander on an otherwise human body. Less animal than animal spirit, his visits to Hailey read as vision quests, helping her through the trials of her burgeoning adulthood; it is telling that we don’t see Salamander’s mate until Hailey herself is in her late teens. Through these vision quests, she becomes ever more cognizant of the world around her (various real animals and plants are labeled in the artwork, as a sort of field guide), leading her not toward a world of vague mysticism, but to a world of natural science.
The text of Salamander Dream is sparse; pages go by with hardly a word, indulging in a beautifully visual world. Hailey is a solitary explorer, venturing into the deep woods on her own, and we experience her discoveries as she does, taking in all there is to be seen at a comfortably relaxed pace. A few brief conversations with Salamander lead into the silent stories of his adventures. Most of the text resides in the chapter introductions, which take the form of letters sent by an adult Hailey to her long ago friend.
Larson’s choice of colors—basic black and white, offset only by a single shade of green—makes clear from the first image that the verdancy of nature is to be a central theme of the story. But besides the vibrancy of her colors, Larson’s artwork is particularly striking for the near-complete absence of straight lines. No surface is purely linear; everything—from the trees, to the rocks, to Hailey herself—is composed of organic curves, and waves, and swooshes. In the natural world settings, this curvature emphasizes the fullness of life, a world constantly in motion, even when it’s at rest. In the magical world of Salamander’s stories, these waves heighten the sense of dream, the unpredictable flows of the impossible.
Larson’s is a world of wonder and delight, right down to the tiniest atom. She weaves magic into the realms of nature and science not to make the ordinary world more magical, but to show us how magical the ordinary world already is.