The eye is unavoidable throughout Rebekka Dunlap’s debut comics collection, Dream Tube. In the first of the book’s stories, “Brooklyn Witch Tweets”, readers meet a sexually-frustrated illustrator with an eye for a head. In “Cities and Spaces and”, a man and a woman take a plunge through a large, eye-like portal but don’t find themselves much closer for the experience. And in “Colony”, an advanced society’s eye-shaped messaging technology delivers unwelcome news. The eye has limitations, the eye can be overwhelmed, and yet many times, it’s our best means of processing experience—including the experience of reading Dream Tube. Dunlap is an inventive, challenging storyteller; her comics ask a lot and give a lot, and engaging with them requires variable ways of seeing.
A determined reader could attempt a game of spot-the-influence on every page of Dream Tube, not because the stories read as derivative but because Dunlap appears to have synthesized work from so many different places. A piece like “Brooklyn Witch Tweets” offers up some applied ligne claire work, character designs and reaction shots that recall manga, and the occasional use of a severe, page-flattening perspective popular within contemporary indie comics. There’s enough happening, and enough elements cohering, to certify Dunlap as a globally-attuned cartoonist, even if “Brooklyn Witch Tweets” finds its satirical targets close to the artist’s doorstep.
“Witch Tweets” begins with the titular witch attempting a summoning inside a bathroom stall, then follows her through the paces of a hookup with a potbellied, hooded-executioner type. From there, the story becomes increasingly more associative in its depiction of mystical millennial courting rituals. Dunlap spends a few pages with the sad-sack eye-guy and ends on a scene with one of his classmates: a giant, mid-makeover. These characters’ on-page backstories are nonexistent, but even so, the piece feels rich with context. Dunlap has confidence enough to throw digressions and non-sequiturs at readers and expect them to stay on board, and the story is better for it. When a spider droops down from the bathroom wall to tell the witch “not all men,” for instance, it’s a humor beat that heightens the story’s atmosphere.
“Cities and Spaces and”, the next piece, is likewise light on scene-setting. The comic begins outside a kind of modernist hut, in a world readers see just enough of to appreciate how the piece’s characters might live. (Dunlap starts on a quiet moment within this modest setting, focusing on an interaction between two cats separated by the hut window.) With that established, Dunlap segues to a woman describing a dream for her partner. The transition happens quickly enough to make readers glide along with the story, keeping their attention on its emotional content: the distance between these people. As with “Brooklyn Witch Tweets”, Dunlap’s compositional choices have as big an effect as the narrative ones. This is the only story in Dream Tube in which she uses a font rather than lettering dialogue by hand, and the decision underscores the mediated nature of the couple’s interactions.
Of the book’s three stories, the final one, “Colony”, fits most neatly into a recognizable genre—by most measures, it’s sci-fi—though it’s as elliptical in its storytelling as the other two. Readers get glimpses into a distant future, or a world some galaxies away, but the story does not anchor them to the setting via exposition or composition. Our lack of footing becomes an asset of sorts, as “Colony” is interested in the hazards—and uncertainty—that its main character finds in her life and work. Traveling to a distant location for a reconnaissance mission, the character knows more details than the reader does, but still not enough of them, and Dunlap’s depictions of her dilemma once again put emotion and sensation first. (There are also pages here that work simply as delightful cartooning: urgent, fluid body language during a moment of discovery; a giant using her own severed arm to knock the main character toward safety.)
Per the publisher, although “Colony” is the one story created just for Dream Tube (Dunlap had previously self-published the other two), Dunlap originally composed all three in black and white (hence the B&W digital previews seen here), with the artist and Youth in Decline settling on the book’s dark-blue-on-cream printing independent of any one story. That said, the choice of color elevates “Colony” in particular. Full-bleed pages are a rarity in advance of this piece, but “Colony” features many of them. In fact, it begins with a wordless sequence across a mysterious landscape, captured in deep blues that fill most of the pages, complemented by subtle gradients and grainy textures within the panels. The story’s world immediately reads as lived-in, though still unfamiliar, and piece projects a mournful tone even before the first lines of dialogue.
Other reactions may vary, of course. There’s no one way of reading or seeing the comics in Dream Tube. Each story provides a small window into a larger, complex world, with the view likely to differ for each reader. Even the glimpses of familiar genre features come within scenes of real interpretability and depth, the tropes used in service of stories about the distances between people. Dunlap’s a versatile cartoonist who’s nonetheless working with a set of clear concerns and visible, unmistakable talents.