Donkey Head issues 1 & 2
by Daniel Baker
When you describe your comic as “envisaged as William Blake does Tintin” you’re really setting the bar quite high. And although I can see what Daniel Baker’s trying to do with Donkey Head and why the William Blake, Tintin and clear line references do sort of apply, it’s still some way off where it really wants to be. This is not to say it’s not a success. Just that aiming so very high is almost a guarantee of failure.
Donkey Head tells the tale of Eric, a young man, brought up by his grandma, after first his mom, then his dad abandon him. The story starts with the appearance of George, a man with a donkey’s head who will lead him on a dark and mysterious journey to find his father.
(Eric, meet George. George has a Donkey Head. And that’s not going to be the strangest thing you’re going to see on the journey you’re about to embark on. The bottom two panels are part of the apparantly disconnected events from Eric’s childhood. From Donkey Head # 1 by Daniel Baker.)
The world Eric finds himself in immediately stops making sense and he’s plunged into increasingly surreal and disturbing scenes; venturing into a huge supermarket he’s taken by George down a staircase to a room full of hoarded detritus being sucked up by a huge hoover. (Told you it was surreal). Hoovered up with the rest of the floor clutter, George and Eric find themselves in some Faustian pit of everyday objects, the assembled supermarket trash dancing around them, releasing it’s tin can and plastic bag souls to the air. It’s a confusing but enthralling couple of issues, full of as much symbolism as you want to read into it. Like it says on Baker’s website:
It is a world composed of our collective nightmares, and dreams, a kind of hell, but it has no logic in its relation to our world (it is more like a drain into which our unwanted or forgotten ideas and fantasies have been emptied). The two figures of Eric and the donkey-headed man travel over alien landscapes: luminous pools and grey deserts; piles of discarded machines; rivers of black gold; through which half-familiar characters, false leads, mirages and multiplying narratives are threaded, playing out their own perverted games, missions and storylines.
As with much so called ‘magic realism’ the fantasy element is a device, to allow a new imagining of the familiar. It intersects the main narrative line with political commentary, historical retellings, cultural ghosts and monsters, utopian ideals, and fantasies of an afterlife, drawing on a rich heritage from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, through Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, to David Lynch.
Except, within these two issues, very little of that has actually happened. This is really two issues of surreal setup, introducing us to our characters, then dropping them into the nightmare world they’re going to be journeying through on their quest to find Eric’s father. There’s a great sense of expectation and anticipation through the pages, sufficient to have me wanting more. As Eric and his guide are sucked through the worlds, I felt myself being dragged along with them, intrigued as to where Baker is going to take us on this journey and thoroughly enjoying the view on the way.
Similarly, Baker’s split page technique – the surreal journey takes place on 3/4 of his page whilst beneath it, runs a strip rooted firmly in the reality of Eric’s previous existence, looking at his life to this point; the abandonment of both his parents, his virtual adoption by his grandma who seems increasingly at a loss to deal with her new role and slowly but surely is losing her grip on her own reality as Eric journeys through a place completely cut off from his reality. One wonders at what point the two distinct narratives will begin to merge, another sure sign that Donkey Head had my attention all the way through. It’s definitely made me think hard about the symbolism and nature of the reality on display in both strips.
(Baker’s art, whilst never really getting to the Herge-esque, is still sufficiently well done to be able to get over the sense of the surreal and threatening that’s needed. George’s disappearance from reality, casually fitting into the background reality is particularly well done. And underneath, there’s the mundane yet somehow relevant story of Eric’s childhood.)
It’s skilfully and entertainingly done stuff, at least in terms of the writing on show. Blake meets Tintin? Not so sure. A few more issues will be needed to see the validity of that claim. Artistically however, the comparisons to Herge’s line are a little hopeful. Baker’s not a bad artist at all, but I struggled to find the clear line he was promising. Again, not really a criticism of Baker, just a case where the self-hype can’t live up to the reality of the work. The art is in Donkey Head is well crafted and expressive stuff. There are moments where Baker nails the surreality of the situation Eric finds himself in – the shot of George literally disappearing from reality into the background is really impressive – but there are also moments where Baker finds himself struggling to achieve artistic representation of the ideas.
Donkey Head is available from Daniel Baker at the Donkeyhead.org website. Two issues so far, full of strange and bizarre delights, and certainly well done enough to make me wonder where it’s all going.