Martha Verschaffel



240 pages

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If you had the choice, would you also want to stay here forever?

Passages is a graphic novel about getting lost in nowhere. Much of the work concerns the navigation of vast, empty plains - limbs of treetops winding into forks in roads that branch around hills and mountains sparsely covered in patches of grass grown and tangled like pubic mounds, rolled up into a cloth borne by a mysterious traveler that seemingly stretches and folds into the earth. Sharp breezes flow through these pages, its smudged graphite environment one of the cold frost not quite seen in the days suspended between autumn and winter. This comic can give you goosebumps. You may find yourself ducking your face down to stifle a sneeze.

Two girls explore the woods, the outdoors, the place that they are, vast. They try not to lose each other. One girl has blonde or white hair, the other has raven hair rendered with the darkest depths of the artist’s pencil. They may or may not have met before. The two are not close together; they speak to each other as they push themselves through the branches. These stretches of nine-panel grids and open splashes feel at once stuck in place and endlessly advancing, possibly forward. How far have they gone? Where have they gone? Do they know where they are? Meanwhile, the traveling woman’s cloth bunches up and overwhelms her. She seems to be getting lost.

The passages of Passages are punctuated with interior sequences set in hexagonal frames - an older woman in a home, or a lodge, is waiting for someone’s return. The visitor is late, but the woman insists that she is coming. “She’ll be here any time now,” she mutters as she painstakingly busies herself about her kitchen in slow, pained, movements. Perhaps she is waiting for the girls, or maybe she is one of the girls at a later date. She waits, sets the table with plates and cups, brews coffee, pours it into a thermos, the thermos gets cold, she brews again, the hot coffee boils over, she cleans the spill, she waits.

In another room, someone (A man? A woman? A child? A lover? Something else?) hunches over a monitor, obsessively playing a computer game, their face lit by its glow. It’s a rudimentary side-scrolling platformer about a deer in two-dimensional space. The game resembles the dinosaur game that displays on the Google Chrome web browser when it cannot access the internet, when there is no signal. Amazingly, the one sighting of the modern digital in the pages of this world situates it even more deeply in the experience of being away from modernity, away from anything else. With nothing to connect to, the unidentified figure plays and plays, and the pixel deer forges forward until it falls, overwhelmed by its environment. The player slumps back, absorbed in the fleeting pain of defeat, and begins again - sinking deeper into the glow of the backlit screen separating them from their dark surroundings.

Ants overtake the pages of the comic. It ends, its disparate scenes collapsing unresolved as a grid of spaces emerges, divided by linens; a cloth is thrown up into the air like a flame that winds into smoke, burning in one place, while the land that extends beyond it remains cold, still. The press release included with my review copy informs me that the artist, Martha Verschaffel, “starts from her dreams and nightmares for her more visual stories.” Passages is most certainly a nightmare of loss, but whose loss, and loss of whom, may be questioned. Is this a mother’s loss of her child? A young woman’s loss of another woman, whom she loved? Is this a visual story about missing someone, or about being missing? Who is absent when everyone starts to become alone? Passages leaves readers to dwell on these questions with only the cold, the places, the limbs, the lights, the fabric, the girls: the spaces and distance in lands we might all journey through when we long for someone, when we fear for their safety, when we fear for ourselves and wonder how long we will remain alone.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: While the sparse dialogue in Passages is presented in Dutch, an English translation sheet prepared by the artist is included in copies for non Dutch-speaking territories; such a sheet was used in the above review. Be advised that some copies–purchased second-hand, for example–may not include this translation sheet.