July 3, 2006

Megan Kelso’s The Squirrel Mother Stories (Fantagraphics) have a wonderful combination of sweetness and bite. She has a real knack for investing everyday moments with multiple layers of feeling and meaning.

Take “Kodachrome,” where Kelso juxtaposes the posed prefabrication of a family slide show with the reality of the experience the family is remembering. Do the posed, frozen moments do justice to the reality? Or do they just distill it and act as touchstones for more detailed and personal remembrances?

My favorite pieces in the collection are three different views of Alexander Hamilton, “Publius,” “The Duel,” and “Aide de Camp.” The first sees the noted constitutional scholar through a kind of teen idol haze. A high-school student invests her paper on Hamilton’s political philosophy with the passion of a crush, and the resulting counterpoint of intellectual and visceral admiration is imaginative and very, very funny.

In “The Duel,” Kelso moves further along the lifespan to a more rock-star phase, and “Aide de Camp” reaches the point of mature reflection without losing any of the fancy or fervor of the previous two. Taken individually, they’re delightful. The cumulative effect of seeing a shared passion from three distinct perspectives and places in life is even more engaging.

Kelso varies her storytelling approach as well. Sometimes a piece is a straightforward examination of an experience. In others, she invests them with expressive visual imagination, taking the mundane someplace wilder. The book as a whole shows Kelso to be a storyteller of wonderful range.

Her style (or styles) of illustration is very appealing. Her images have a natural warmth and sweetness, but she picks unusual, even awkward camera angles to give individual moments more depth and interest. Some pieces are in black and white, others in full color, while others feature carefully chosen splashes or washes of specific hues. She varies her line and level of detail as well, always to good effect.

Kelso has demonstrated versatility and skill in service of emotional precision with The Squirrel Mother Stories. Each story is entertaining and successful in its own right. The whole package reveals a tremendous talent and makes me eager to see what Kelso does next.