The complex demands and rewards of the graphic form make it an ideal genre for exploring a close-knit traditional community as it grapples with change. In Jonathan Dyck’s recent Shelterbelts, tension reigns in Hespeler, a fictional Mennonite town in rural Manitoba, when a non-denominational mega-church opens on its outskirts, forcing long-standing ideological differences to the surface. Less a novel than a series of interwoven vignettes, Shelterbelts mobilizes the inherent tensions of the graphic form—its simultaneous deployment of words, images, design elements, and movement among panels and pages—to explore community members as they choose between traditions and the demands of the contemporary world. Multi-layered characters and myriad, often very subtle references to history, geography, culture, theology, literature, music, and food regularly complicate Shelterbelts’ black-and-white clear line style and its surface nostalgia for a simpler time. In a wonderfully understated early irony, for instance, a history teacher borrows a copy of Resident Aliens from his pastor but is presumably undeterred by the book’s argument (essentially that Christians should not involve themselves in secular politics) and protests a Remembrance Day military recruitment site with his guitar and peace songs from the ’60s.
A reader-viewer does not need to be expert in Mennonite history and theology to appreciate Shelterbelts, but it helps to have a working knowledge. The high-school English teacher is a useful character in this regard, as she delves into her family’s history across several of the vignettes. Eager to challenge her people’s desire to see themselves as exceptions and as exceptional, she grapples with the disturbing realization that some of the community’s revered conscientious objectors, including one of her grandfathers, spent their war years teaching at Residential Schools. Belying its accessible appearance, Shelterbelts tackles complexity, discomfort, contradiction, and conflict on almost every one of its initially straightforward-seeming pages.
Dyck, an award-winning illustrator, designer, and cartoonist based in Winnipeg, puts comics’ resources through their paces, deftly manipulating panel size and page layouts to shift tempos, temporalities, and perspectives, often in quietly humorous ways. He knows, for instance, that vehicles are essential to rural life, and regularly invites us to see his interconnected characters in their cars and pickup trucks, and to view the world and one another as they do through their windshields and their (often deceptive) side- and rear-view mirrors. Dyck reserves his most explicitly beautiful work for scenes in nature, lingering visually on an abundant late-summer berry harvest, delicate foliage, shallow pools of flitting minnows. It is especially ironic, in this frequently ironic text, that the only double-page spread features carefully rendered heavy machinery tearing up trees to make way for the mega-church expansion.
Most of Shelterbelts’ vignettes are relatively straightforward, but a few use subtly positioned flashbacks to deepen perspectives on potentially unlikeable characters. In “Better Times,” for instance, we discover that the middle-aged farmer who argues unpleasantly with environmental activists has been caring for his disabled brother all his life, sometimes to his own emotional and material detriment. Shelterbelts raises a plethora of contemporary issues—LGBTQ+ inclusion, Indigenous land rights, environmental and climate concerns, and the Mennonite legacy of pacifism—but it deals with none of them sufficiently. That sounds like a criticism, but it is the opposite. More than anything, Shelterbelts reads like the first book in a series, a whip-smart, visually intricate invitation to search out many more stories about this complicated community, which is home to, among others, the youth rebel turned mega-church pastor, the not-quite-closeted forty-year-old on the verge of love, and the curious librarian heading to the pipeline protest carrying boxes filled with homemade food.
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