The Bun Field begins with a typical comic-strip scenario: An adolescent girl lies in bed, dreaming of talking ducks and dinosaurs. This Slumberland scene displays little Winsor McCay–like polish, though; the Disneyesque ducks are rendered with childlike simplicity, and the dinosaur is as crudely penciled as a drawing taped to a kindergarten wall. The child smiles and winces in her sleep and then, at the sound of nuts being cracked, awakens to a daylight world scarcely less surreal than the one she just left behind. In her debut graphic novella, Finnish cartoonist Amanda Vähämäki proves to be a master at depicting the indeterminate menace and subtly modulating emotional atmosphere of dreams, recognizing that nocturnal visions can shift into nightmares in the time it takes a matronly woman to set down a tray of food and pull out a pair of dental pliers.
Strange encounter follows bizarre event in The Bun Field, without explanation or ostensible logic. Downstairs from the girl’s bedroom, an enormous, amorphous stranger sits in the kitchen, near a refrigerator stocked with worms and sludge. Outside, a friendly bear shows up to offer her a ride. As they drive around aimlessly, he suddenly surrenders the steering wheel. “I can’t drive!” shouts the girl. “If you won’t drive we’ll both die,” replies the bear. Later, while blood gushes down her face from a busted nose, the girl drinks an unidentifiable liquid from a beer bottle, under the gaze of a bar full of vaguely threatening adults.
There’s a rich tradition of comics that explore the imagery of the subconscious, from Little Nemo’s stilt-legged walking bed to Robert Crumb’s anthropomorphic forks and knives to Jim Woodring’s candy-colored monstrosities. In a way, every comic depicts a phantasmagoric dreamscape: Squint just right, and everyone from Spider-Man to Dilbert is revealed as a nightmarish figure. Vähämäki, however, is up to something a bit different. She draws from the more primal (if not necessarily more powerful) imagery of nature—the old, dark woods of fairy tale—rather than the four-color classic-cartoon grotesques that Crumb and Woodring tap into. Vähämäki’s talking animals are less Warner Bros. than Brothers Grimm. It may be a clue, and not a coincidence, that the Donald Duck look-alikes that introduce the story are so quickly gobbled up by the dinosaur.
Vähämäki was born in 1981 and, like many cartoonists of her generation, seems to have been influenced as much by the traditions of fine art as by those of comics. She eschews many comic-book conventions, leaving her smudgy, expressionistic pencils uninked, inscribing her characters’ thoughts directly into their heads instead of using thought balloons, and allowing carbon tracings of revised drawings, only half-erased, to haunt her panels. These doubled (sometimes tripled) images not only replicate the déjà vu effect so common in dreams but also suggest the kind of instant revision of un-satisfactory episodes that sleep permits.
Of course, the strengths of the dream story carry corresponding weaknesses. The logic behind a dream’s succession of events always lies just beyond the reach of the dreamer (or, in this case, the reader), and dream-inspired tales can suffer from too-literal symbolism or an abiding sense of inconsequentiality. It’s a mark of Vähämäki’s control that, with the exception of a brief, tear-filled scene late in the book, she manages largely to avoid the first trap. As to the second: At their most affecting, dreams hint at messages too abstract, profound, and disturbing to be grasped. It is unfashionable, post-Freud, to assign these feelings much significance, yet somehow most of us can’t resist doing so. In The Bun Field’s best moments, those most evocative of dread and wonder, Vähämäki replicates this ineffable power. Compared with this rare feat, whether the tale actually means anything at all seems beside the point.