Think back to when you were a kid and you read Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time. Do you remember the first place Milo visits? It’s called the Doldrums, and with its absence of color and heavy injection of lethargy, everything that occurs in the Doldrums feels like a dream. The inhabitants never move, and if they do it’s not of their own volition--something is making them move. I always thought this was an interesting place for Milo to start his epic journey. Rather than hitting the ground running, he does the opposite and gets bogged down in a world where laziness is the key to success and any action is too much action.
Now picture a 400-page book taking place in the Doldrums, and you have Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky’s Garlandia. Garlandia tells the story of a group of peaceful beings called gars. One day their shaman Zachariah reveals a prophecy that bodes misfortune for their race, and Zachariah's son, Hippolytes, sets out to prevent the prophecy from happening.
This is Mattotti and Kramsky’s second collaboration, and it’s worth noting that Mattotti, the illustrator, gets top billing. That says a lot about what you need to know about the book from the get-go: it’s going to be illustration-driven, not text-driven. The textual plot is entirely coincidence-driven and there is no doubt that it’s because the text is simply a backdrop for the illustrations in this book. In fact, without Kramsky’s words the story would probably convey much of the same thing: text only appears when a character is speaking aloud and there are very few onomatopoeic sound noises. Rather, the purpose of the book is to provide Mattotti with a platform to build and subsequently explore an intricate, curious world full of imaginative creatures with exaggerated sexual organs and nonsensical actions. The presence of the text, therefore, merely provides readers with opportunities to connect to the characters and their experiences. The fact that Hippolytes is a parent trying to do the right thing for his child, or Zachariah’s concerns that he is letting down his family give readers touchpoints to relate to and reasons to invest in Mattotti and Kramsy’s journey. After all, it’s hard to invest time in a 400-page book if you can’t connect to a single experience in it.
Mattotti’s illustrations are pen and ink, so he heavily relies on techniques like line weight and cross-hatching, and his attention to detail is immaculate. Even when images are framed from a distance Mattotti captures small details like the furrows on the gars’ brows to larger, more abstract concepts like the blowing of wind and vast raging waters. When the volcano blows we see ash, lava, smoke, and fire contained within a single panel and yet the sense of scale, motion, and density is clear. When the walls start to cave in on Hippolytes while he’s underground, Mattotti’s lines get dark and heavy all around, and yet there is such a preciseness to every stroke of his pen that there’s never any question about what we’re seeing or where Hippolytes is. It’s also worth mentioning that the story is book-ended with Mattotti’s character sketches, which lends credence to the intentionality of the visual narrative and the specific framing of each individual panel. Credit is also due to the production and design teams for the work that went into designing the book itself: the paper is textured to feel like every page is an original ink drawing, and the case cover is lightweight and delightfully novel.
While I wouldn’t call Garlandia a masterful piece of storytelling, Mattotti has total control over his medium, and it’s his careful attention to visual world-building that makes it an artistic triumph worthy of experiencing.