Freewheel: Chapter One by Liz Baillie

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Freewheel, formerly a web comic on fallofautum.com, opens with an image of a freight train chugging into the great unknown with some plump cattails waving merrily in the breeze. After a nicely done transition, we are introduced to two foster kids, 12-year-old Jamie with her stuffed raccoon and her brother Jack, dressed like punk rock high school kids the world over. Because of Baillie’s deft choices, we learn in a mere two pages that Jamie loves to draw, that she adores Jack and that their foster situation is anything but cozy. When Jack runs away, Jamie decides to try to find him.

The characterization of Jamie is just about perfect. In a perfectly child-like way, she believes that her bro wouldn’t just leave, that he was thinking of someone other than himself when he did, and that his disappearance is a mystery that she must solve. It’s both sweet and heartbreaking. Baillie gives Jamie naiveté and manages to leave open the question of how much of this trait is a reaction to a crappy life.

One neat aspect of the fact that this issue is basically a prologue to what I imagine will be a lengthy story is that the story moves back and forth through time— we see Jamie sleeping rough on her quest to find Jack, we meet Jack in a flashback, we see Jamie with her legs swinging out of the open door of a boxcar. One reason this works is that Baillie is great with details that provide foreshadowing and back story — the foster mother’s slipper-shod foot grinding out a spent on the floor shows the squalor and tension of Jamie and Jack’s living situation, the various paper scraps in the trash in Jamie’s room give clues to his desires and, my favorite, the full page dedicated to all the items that will end up in Jamie’s running-away-knapsack show how young she is (a troll doll), as well as her dedication to finding Jack (a map and a picture of the two of them together). The beautiful and precise Black and white art helps readers stay grounded as well; Baillie’s characters have a consistent look, you can tell what even the tiniest items on the page are and the characters’ expressions are very telling, not that I expected anything less.

Jamie’s journey really seems to begin with a voice in the night, “Well, hey there, little bear!” Out of the woods comes a man in patched overalls that looks like somebody’s marginally creepy, hippy dad, called Mr. Fingerfoot (!) who explains that he is a “scout” for “the Contessa.” In a smart choice of dialogue he says that Jamie “must be new at this,” leaving us to consider exactly what Jamie has decided to do. She resignedly follows Mr. Fingerfoot into the darkness (another cue that makes me think that her short life was full of un-choices) and is surprised to find a band of raggedly, but friendly kids around a campfire.

With that hopeful image Freewheel: Chapter One ends, leaving a strong desire to see what happens next. Along with the anticipation though, Baillie’s further exploration of punk youth culture (See My Brain Hurts, kids) leaves a slight feeling of the story seeming about two dollars short, but I guess a lady’s got to make a living.

Check out Robin’s interview with the artist here.

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