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Friday, January 19, 2024

Letting the Everyday Speak its Own Power: The Works of Von Allan - A Review Essay

 by David Beard, University of Minnesota Duluth

Canadian graphic novelist Von Allan (a pen name) persistently plays with the tension between the mundane and the enchanted in his work, which is usually self-published. In Love, Laughter, and Loss, Allan funnels the enchanted and the emotionally powerful through stories that emphasize the mundane, sometimes for humorous effect, sometimes for tragic. In Wolf’s Head, probably his best work to date, the fanciful elements of a science fiction tale are masterfully pulled into a grounded, emotionally realistic story about a child grappling with their mother’s legacy. As Allan has moved into nonfiction (both in his public writings for the Ottawa Citizen and in participating in the documentary I Am Still Your Child), he continues to pull us deeper into the everyday, hoping to find the meaningful, and the tragic, therein.

 In Love, Laughter, and Loss, Allan works through two modes of storytelling. In the first half of the book, he inverts our expectations of fantasy storytelling. Traditionally, we have read high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings and then seen those gorgeous fantasy worlds translated, often unsuccessfully, into the tropes and tricks of roleplaying games. The “halflings” in Dungeons and Dragons are a way to recreate the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings without violating copyright; role playing games are like a strainer, sucking the depth and elegance from high fantasy so that it can be brought to a table with dice and miniatures.

 In his stories, such as “The Cowardly Clerics of Rigel V,” Total Party Kill,” and “The Two Magic-Users,” Allan tells us stories that begin with mundanity of role playing games. What would, in high fantasy, be the story of two wizards becomes the story of “two magic users.” In starting from the limitations of the tabletop roleplaying game, Allan makes us chuckle at the deflation of the genre.

 That same tendency (to start with the mundane) also undergirds Von Allan’s attempts to show us tragedy in Love, Laughter, and Loss. In a story about the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft (“When I Find You Again, It Will Be In Mountains”), Allan begins with a simple dream of lost love. It’s only at the end of the dream that we see that the dreamers are actually spacecraft. Similarly, “I Was Afraid For My Life” begins as a story about a boy and a dog, only in the last pages revealing its powerful statement on race, violence, and policing.

 In all of these works, Von Allan’s commitment to pulling the fantastic and the tragic into the everyday makes it easier for him to tell a story that creates a laugh or packs a punch.

 Wolf’s Head is a stronger work than the bits and pieces collected in Love, Laughter, Loss, and so deserves a closer look. Wolf’s Head begins, in a way, where “I Was Afraid For My Life” leaves off, and its introductory page is remarkable in that it uses texture to convey the energy of the moment. The figure in the foreground is angry, and the play of texture behind her propels her forward. The lines radiating from something like an explosion of color represent, in texture, what she is feeling inside: Lauren Greene’s anger is propelled by the structural racism and violence inherent in policing, especially after the events of 2020 in Minneapolis. Her conscience won’t abide her participation in that system, and so she quits.

 I love this panel because it really shows the nuanced ways that Allan uses both the extraordinary and the simple to communicate. In a longer work like Wolf’s Head, the interplay between the fantastic dimensions of his stories and the tiny details of life in his art are what makes his voice unique in contemporary comics.  

 When Lauren finds a new job, Allan deploys those same texture techniques (crosshatching and some computerized spotting) to create a muddy picture of the place where Lauren now works. Instead of being propelled forward, Lauren is caught in the muck and darkness of her new life.

Allan introduces us to Lauren’s mom with the same techniques. I absolutely adore this first image of her mom (all solid colors and dark, thick lines), in sharp relief against (again) the complex textures of the apartment hallway and doorframe. On first, quick read, it’s possible to miss the oddly shaped musical note coming from her bag.

 That “bag” is the touch of the extraordinary in the Wolf’s Head story. Lauren’s mom works as a janitor in a research & development firm (Advanced Research Projects Corporation). The singing shoulder bag is actually a shapeshifting machine, an ARPC invention that has achieved self-awareness. It protected Lauren’s mom from an explosion at the factory and becomes her companion and guardian. When Lauren learns about her mom’s self-aware machine (and the goons from ARPC who want it back), she and her mom get into a fight about what to do next. Their reunion is possibly the most touching moment in the book. The goons kidnap Lauren to get at her mom. While Lauren’s mom is interrogated, she passes away from a heart attack, and Lauren is left with the self-aware machine and the ARPC goons in hot pursuit. The machine protector steps up and saves Lauren from the ARPC.

Wolf’s Head is at its best in the small things – Lauren’s search for meaning after leaving the force, her reunion with her mother. The story of the self-aware machine is the tiny twist that helps bring Von Allan’s gift for bringing the everyday into view. It’s difficult not to read this touching, loving mother-daughter relationship in Wolf’s Head without a sense of Von Allan’s interest in mental illness in families. His 2009 work, the road to god knows, is no longer in print, but the narrative arc (of a mom separated her from her child) resonates.

 In the road to god knows, the separation between child and parent is more painful than the separation in Wolf’s Head. In the latter, Lauren’s mom finds and comes to care for a sentient machine – anything, including reconciliation with Lauren, is possible in such a story. In the road to god knows, parent and child are ruptured by an illness that cannot be removed, only struggled with.

 In an interview with the CBC after Allan won recognition as a “trailblazer,” we learn that his late mother had schizophrenia; in other of his writings, he has addressed mental illness. In interview and essay, Von Allan’s penchant for crafting a picture of a realistic world helps him communicate the complexities of living with mental illness. In his writings for the Ottawa Citizen, Allan (writing under his real name as Eric Julien) shares his relationship with his childhood friend,David Thomas Foohey. Allan lays the facts of Foohey’s life on the table for the reader: his struggles living with older, blind parents who divorced; his struggles losing those parents (in 2004 and 2008). His depictions of Foohey’s attempt to grapple with mental illness are straightforward:

In Dave’s case, the medication emotionally “flat-lined” him. He phrased it this way: all of his emotions, not just the sad ones, were shunted off. Not sad, not filled with loss, but equally missing out on happiness and joy. There was just nothing at all. As a result, Dave gave up on the medication. He never did try another.

No hyperbole, no drama – whatever emotion you draw from Foohey’s story, you draw from the straightforward presentation of Dave’s story.

 Allan knows that his power as a storyteller comes from letting the everyday speak its own power, whether in the short stories of Love, Laughter, Loss, in the longer works (the road to god knows and Wolf’s Head), or nonfiction essays like “Dave’s Story.” Across his diverse works, by placing his focus on the everyday, Allan makes me laugh, makes me sad, and gives me hope.


Von Allan Studio website:

“Julien: Dave's Story — and the Agonizing Dilemma of Mental Illness.” Ottawa Citizen July 4, 2022

Love, Laughter, Loss. Ottawa: V. Allan Studio, 2021.

the road to god knows. Ottawa: V. Allan Studio, 2009.

Wolf’s Head. Ottawa: V. Allan Studio, 2021.

 “Trailblazers: Eric Julien.” CBC Interactive. March 23, 2019

I Am Still Your Child. CatBird Productions 2017

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