I really want to do justice to Pierre Wazem's and Frederik Peeters' Koma YET I don't think I can quite articulate how special this book is. I'm acutely aware that I have a lot to learn about comics, writing and reviewing: it's a constant process of learning and hopefully improving. Mostly I try to be honest and as clear as possible and hope something translates. Sometimes though, a book comes along and makes me really wish I had more knowledge, more words, more insight, just MORE, to be able to convey exactly what it is that sets it apart. Koma is such a book. Bold and skewy, imaginative and fresh, bursting with ideas, humour, charm, weirdness and above all just so much heart: in the story, but more from the people behind it, whose sheer effort and talent is evident on every page. It's that heart which pushes you onwards through its flaws and knotty, convoluted bits.
The daughter of a chimney sweep, Adidas accompanies her father whilst he's working, helping him by manoeuvring into the small tricky nooks that he can't reach. It's a risky business, particularly as she suffers from a mysterious illness that causes her to blackout at any time for indeterminate periods. Her father is angry and disgusted at himself for putting his daughter into such a position, having lost his wife to a similar fate, but chimney cleaning is his livelihood and only means of income- one that's already under threat from rival sweepers. Meanwhile, deep below them, gleaming, long-armed inky black/green creatures operate machines that correspond to every human on earth, each creature assigned one person/machine. When a machine stops working, the person it is allocated to dies. At the same time, the police and government officials are drafting men for the smallest misdemeanour to work on a mysterious cavernous pit on the outskirts of the city. And so a course is set towards an inevitable meeting of worlds.
There's no conventionality to Wazems' storytelling, apart from that it's linear. It jumps from genre and plot-point to sequences like a joyful little character bounding through the stages of a video game, incorporating everything from super-heroics, otherworldly creatures, mystery, family drama, emotion, surrealism, creationism. Wazem surprises constantly by taking the story in unexpected directions and by all accounts it sounds like a mess, one that shouldn't work, but somehow does: the breadth and scope of ideas instead never allowing for boredom, running from one to another in an evolutionary progress that prevents it from feeling disjointed. Peeters's art is the extra factor here, a live, bossy, presence that pulls you along and muscles you into attentiveness. His depiction of the grubby, suffocating industrial city is viscerally realised and the shift to a finer, clearer, style in the second half scenes is equally evocative. The colouring is hyper, a smorgasbord of shades that conversely don't seem quite right, yet contribute to the overall effect of being enveloped into this strange world.
Much relies on Adidas and her characterisation: as the central figure around whom everything revolves, she is determined, intelligent, resourceful and off-beat cute. She possess that almost visionary clarity that children have- an unfettered understanding and grasp that is lost in the mires of adulthood. Her relationship with her father is a introverted, she supports and calms him when he grows frustrated at their situation, cooking up plans and schemes to outwit the competition.With the loss of Adidas' mother, the two have only each other and so Adidas is more of a companion to her father than a child. But there is also something special, something of the other about her, as many interested parties slowly realise. Despite her huge melting brown manga eyes, she's a smart and intuitative child, well aware of the way people view her- nicely illustrated in this instance in which she's just come round after one of her blackouts in a restaurant:
Her father is a wonderful, eccentric fellow, written and drawn with a surreal Herge-on-speed humour, combining the bumbling of the Thompsons and Professor Calculus, amped to 100 and stealing every scene he's in. There's a passage in the book after the middle that's just a bizarre, joyful, careening romp, rather like a carry-on sketch, with misunderstandings and confusion and lots of running around- for me, the strongest point of the story where Wazem's kaleidascope of ideas falls beautifully together. His decision to keep the creatures fairly mysterious also works- despite meeting one and seeing a few others, not much is revealed of them and their origin, enabling them to retain their otherness and thus their interestingness The worst accusation you can level at Koma is that the plethora of ideas and genres is at times too much, making it a little muddled, but it's an invigorating and engrossing read whichever way you read it: as an extended metaphor for Adidas' illness, as an adventure between worlds or as comment on life, science and being. Read it.
You can buy Koma from Humanoids