I'm always interested in the comics that result from a Xeric Foundation grant, for good or ill. The organization tends to value narrative above all else, but they've never shown a particular preference for genre work and have given a number of unconventional artists an opportunity. Above all else, the grant seems to reward ambition, and there's no doubt that Breena Wiederhoeft's debut graphic novel, Picket Line, is an ambitious first work. Wiederhoeft is best known for scribbled autobio work that she published on her website, so to see her make the leap from that to a fully realized book is kind of astonishing. That her book is so fully realized and nuanced (albeit fairly conventional) is even more surprising. She weaves in multiple character arcs around the central plot of whether or not a stretch of redwoods in northern California is going to be razed at the hands of a developer. As a result, she's able to effortlessly make the political into the personal without resorting to didactic techniques.
Cleverly, she makes her main character, Beatrice, a blank slate of an Everywoman who moves to northern California from Wisconsin because she's someone who tends to move every time she feels unsettled in life. She's never found her own place in the world but the move is not so much comforting as it is terrifying. She meets an odd man named Rex, who is unusually kind and sports the slight deformity of having extremely short arms--much like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Wiederhoeft gets a lot of mileage out of that image, as her cartoony line lets her get away with replacing Rex with a T. Rex at various points in the story. Her figure work is extremely simple and basic, with a cuteness that resembles the work of James Kochalka or Todd Webb. I sometimes found that cuteness to be distracting if not cloying over the course of a 200+ page book, but Wiederhoeft wisely never exploits that style for easy emotional tugs on the heartstrings. Indeed, while there are moments of humor, this is a serious book with characters who are frequently in turmoil. Sometimes those conflicts work at cross-purposes with the cute character design, but Wiederhoeft is usually able to get her point across without adding too much dialogue.
Still, there's no question that this is a very talky book. The character designs serve as conveyors for the dialogue that drives the story, but once again Wiederhoeft is clever in the way she draws her backgrounds. She intensely hatches and cross-hatches details on nearly every page, and the forest scenes in particular have a density to them that gets across the majesty of the setting. This is crucial, because the one thing that Wiederhoeft has to do in this story is make the reader understand just what is at stake. Stick-figure drawings of trees simply wouldn't cut it. She's also careful, through the character of Beatrice, to slowly consider a variety of viewpoints. Beatrice is a reluctant activist, as she at first works for Rex's landscaping service, only to eventually quit after he takes a job with a developer who wants to strip an ancient stretch of forest. We meet a variety of activists, some noble and some petty. We meet people just trying to do their jobs in a harsh economic climate. Wiederhoeft takes her time to allow the reader to get to know all of the key characters before slowly raising the dramatic stakes and making the central question of the book the crux of Beatrice's conflict: is Rex a good person or a bad person?
Wiederhoeft obviously likes the idea of a exploring grey areas in terms of ethics and relationships. While Rex's story is what drives the plot, she also explores the relationship between Rex and his wife (a rising star), between Rex's daughter Liz and her husband, and between Beatrice and a fellow worker named Thomas. Fidelity, deceit, and self-expression are at the heart of these conflicts, as Wiederhoeft explores the complicated question of how one can stay committed to another when one partner has obsessive dreams that might take them away from their home. Rex's wife is an actress and Liz's husband is a musician, and their passions obscure their devotion to their partners. Thomas is unwilling to fully explain his past to Beatrice, even if their affection for each other is obvious. It's pretty clear by the end of the story which side of the fence Wiederhoeft is on regarding all of these issues, and there aren't a lot of surprises as to how things wind up.
There's a natural disaster that occurs in the book's climax, that (while strongly hinted at throughout the course of the story) does feel a little like a deus ex machina. Luckily, Wiederhoeft creates enough good will for the characters and makes the ending plausible enough for the reader to want happy endings for them. Beatrice finds her sense of purpose in a roundabout way, and that's valuable enough for her to turn down a chance to go off with Thomas. The grounded characters stay grounded in this book, rather than let themselves be uprooted by prospective mates. Indeed, while the book shows some degree of compromise in having the actress and the musician keep aspects of their creative lives intact, there's no doubt that their desire to stay with their grounded partners keeps the relationships set firmly by terms dictated by the non-artists. In Wiederhoeft's world, fidelity goes hand-in-hand with forgiveness and ambition must be tempered by devotion if relationships are to have any meaning. It's a message conveyed not through sentiment, but through hard-won lessons, and it's far more central to the book than the more simplistic environmental message.