Reading things after the pandemic is different from reading things before the pandemic. The fact that it is everywhere means that it colors everything, even the things written and drawn way before it. I read Disa Wallander’s Becoming Horses before the pandemic and decided I wanted to write about it. Then I went on Spring Break and came back to a different world. I stopped reading comics and writing about comics for weeks. It felt like something from the old world, until it felt like time to do it again. Thankfully, Becoming Horses belongs to both worlds. The people in it wander around in a world they’re trying to figure out and dryly utter their confusion. Sometimes they cry and cry until it feels like they’re going to drown everything, even as they can’t articulate why they’re so sad. Perhaps it felt stranger before the pandemic. Now it feels like a book that can exist just fine through the looking glass.
Lewis Carroll is a good analogy here. Wallander’s characters are named or particularly differentiated, but they encounter nonsense with aplomb, which makes the reader question whether it’s actually nonsense at all. The difference between sense and nonsense is a pretty thin one, especially when you’re living in a world where people are murdering other people for over their rights to infect one another with a plague. Becoming Horses is not very plot driven. It’s a series of scenes set in the same universe, and it’s often hard to tell whether a scene will include at the end of the page/spread or go on for five more pages. That also makes it feel like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was more of a chance for Carroll/Dodgson to amuse himself than a real attempt at a journey of the hero. The other immediate comparison is Tove Jansson, not because Wallander is also Swedish but because of the look of her figures and their generally bad posture. Their hair is rendered through scribbles and dashes. Their noses are pointy beyond belief or don’t exist at all. The way they talk to each other is equally flat and dreamy. Are there jokes? Not exactly. Wallander focuses on the sense of scale a lot. Her little people get swallowed by a bigger person. They are dwarfed by giant flowers and, in turn, dwarf some mouse-sized horses. Scale is a way of pulling you out of yourself and making comparisons with other things and people.
Wallander puts her scritchy-scratchy people on top of abstracted photo material in reds and pinks and purples. Sometimes these backgrounds show through them, and sometimes they don’t. Watercolor and ceramics intrude occasionally. You know the feeling you get when you round a corner in an art museum and see something that makes want to lie down on the floor and remove your eyeballs from your head and dunk them into the work of art? Wallander is operating from that same feeling. Art is for immersion in something else, for getting out of yourself, but at the same time, you can’t really do that. We’re all trapped in our own heads and our own bodies and, these days, our own spaces. If this book is really about anything, it’s about being an artist even more than about experiencing art, and you could pair it with Eleanor Davis’s Why Art? pretty nicely. As Wallander’s characters walk around, they talk to people they encounter, each of whom is some sort of artist. There’s the one who’s built a replica of her womb that she never wants to leave, the one who makes art because she craves human interaction, the one who tries to capture the feeling of something beautiful, the absurdist performance artist, the one who realizes that everything she makes (no matter how abstract) is a self-portrait in some way. All of these are indeed different kinds of artist, and Wallander’s main characters appear to stand in for herself as she tries to figure out exactly what she wants to do. All of them find a way to interact with the world. If there’s a spread that sums up the book, it’s the one in which an artist asks, “Why do I do it?” and answers herself, “I suppose I’m hoping that someone will see it and say they love it and that’ll make me feel like they love something in me.” “Does it work?” asks the interrogator. “Sometimes,” answers the artist. And fin.
Are we still making art? It’s hard for us as a species not to. Maybe art can serve as even more of a way to connect with one another at a time when the usual way of making those connections feels dangerous. Why horses? What does she mean by her title and her fixation on those creatures? Horses feel free when we watch them, driven by their bodies, not their brains. They don’t get depressed. They seem grounded in a way that’s hard for us to be, and they’re beautiful to watch. Can we become that? It seems impossible, and it would take art out of the world, but also it’s okay to try if that’s what we need.