Mary Fleener's first new book in years, Billie the Bee, is one part Jon Lewis' True Swamp (a favorite of Fleener's), one part Jay Hosler's Clan Apis, and one part Fleener weirdness. If you're one of the fortunate few who read her eponymous series Fleener back in the '90s, you'll have a sense of what you're getting into here. Fleener uses highly stylized and surreal character designs, exotic settings, and an overall bizarre aesthetic that differentiate it from Fleener's more familiar autobiographical comics.
Billie the Bee is set in a coastal lagoon that is also part estuary, with a mix of fresh and salt water in the environment. Fleener has clearly done a lot of research into this subject and mixes nature facts into her narrative in the way that Hosler did in his story about a beehive's inhabitants. Fleener adds footnotes regarding these facts and scientific classifications of the flora and fauna in the area. The various insects and animals that we meet have anthropomorphic qualities while still retaining their natural qualities. Things don't get quite as weird as they do in True Swamp, as Fleener is clearly interested in hewing as close to the actual qualities of the creatures as possible, and resists adding the bizarre and supernatural elements that are present in Lewis' work.
Fleener's comics have always walked the line between naturalism and cartoony expressionism even in her autobio work, and in Billie the Bee</i, she uses a number of techniques that further blur that line. First, Fleener's work has always been soaked in blacks. She generally uses a thick line weight for all of her figures and spots blacks in panel after panel. Fleener is best known for the highly expressionist bursts of her "Cubismo" style, wherein emotions or intoxicants produce an effect in her characters that renders them like a Cubist painting, only dominated by psychedelic black & white patterns. These often appear as splash pages to maximize their effect, but sometimes she'll use this pattern on a single character in a single panel as a quick way of maximizing emotion or confusion. For Billie the Bee, Fleener adds dense hatching and crosshatching to her visual toolbox, and the effect is stunning. It's not just crosshatching for its own sake, either, as she reserves much of it to create a lush, rich green environment without the use of color, in a way that simply using grayscale or blacks would not have achieved.
When we first meet Billie, she's chewing her way out of her waxy birth cell, and the denseness of the crosshatching really gives the reader a sense of how much labor she had to exert. Fleener adds a touch of crosshatching to her Cubismo panels, creating another pattern for the eyes to whip across in those crazy compositions. In Fleener, the artist created drawings that were highly stylized because of their fantasy content, and she picks right up from that style in Billie the Bee. Conversely, her character designs are beautifully simple, with fantastic little flourishes here and there (like the queen bee distinguished by the pearls that she wears).
The plot quickly establishes that there's something unusual about Billie. First off, she's way too big to be a worker bee. Her first foray into the field ends with her nearly being eaten by a sea bird, saved only by the poisonous effects of a plant she is trapped inside. The queen then visits her personally and appoints her the ranger of the hive, whose job it is to fly around, explore, and make friends, as well as sense trouble before it starts. Fleener informs the reader through the queen that there's something about Billie that she wasn't telling and that the effects of this knowledge could be disastrous.
Billie meets a rattlesnake named Rayleen and a coyote named Kay, both of whom are friendly and love the fact that she can sing. Fleener is a musician herself and loves to depict music in comics form using Cubismo. There's an amazing page of Billie singing to a delighted Rayleen that Fleener footnotes with "Think Ella Fitzgerald jammin' w/ Thelonious Monk." While there are all sorts of delightful and friendly interactions with this trio of creatures, Fleener doesn't shy away from depicting the relationship between prey and predators as Kay encounters a raccoon set loose by humans, and the result is a vicious, Cubismo-rendered spread of splash pages that are intense, visceral, and psychedelic.
This sequence establishes how the tone of the book can veer from cheery (like Laura Knetzger's Bug Boys series) to something far darker. After establishing Billie's friendships with Kay, Rayleen, and a couple of foul-mouthed turtles named Mo and Flo, Fleener manages to mix in plenty of funny hang-out time with the characters while balancing that with the main plot and a variety of other threats. The key to the book's success is a fluid set of transitions between amiable and amusing hangouts between the animal friends and tentpole plot events.
One running plot line revolves around the ways that humans have had a powerful effect on the estuary. When Kay waits for humans to release rabbits into the estuary so she can eat, they instead release a raccoon and a skunk. Both wreak havoc on the estuary until they are dealt with. Mo and Flo freak out when their brothers disappear, only to find that some teenagers have unthinkingly taken them for a science project. They are returned when their father, who is an estuary caretaker, makes them put them back. Of course, the main plot line revolves around Billie and her mystery. It is hinted that the hive will need to relocate at a certain point, but a natural disaster accelerates that process and reveals Billie's secret at the same time.
Given the book's violence and language, it's definitely not made for a young adult audience, even if a lot of it feels ideal for that age group. Given its focus on the science behind the ecosystem of the estuary, Billie the Bee feels like a slightly foul-mouthed educational aid as much as it does a narrative. It also feels like a book one might sneak to a kid on the sly; they would enjoy it because of its visuals and the thrill of reading something that's not age-appropriate. Its potential audience aside, this book is a testament to Fleener's quirky interests, appealing storytelling and characterizations, and absolutely masterful craft.