Do your cats hate plants? Ours certainly do, to the point that we can’t keep them any more — plants, that is. As if you were even wondering. But the feline protagonist of cartoonist Lauren Barnett’s 2019 Tinto Press-published Bernadette takes plant hatred to a whole new level.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this probably sounds like a threadbare premise to carry over the course of 42 pages, but it’s not like Bernadette just sits around stewing about her owner’s new houseplant the whole way through. Like any cat, she also likes to eat, sleep, jump around a bit, and — well, that’s about it. So, is all of that, then, enough to fill out 42 pages? I guess that’s the real question.
In the hands of most artists, the answer to that would, of course, be a pretty unequivocal “no,” but Barnett is a special talent. Her loosely-articulated and highly inviting cartooning style is inherently smart and her page layouts belie an intuitive sense for sequential storytelling — even admittedly simple sequential storytelling — that is more understood than it is learned, and gives meaning to the old adage “you’ve either got it or you don’t.” I mean, let’s be real here — all the story construction skills in the world fall apart in the comics genre if your visual timing is off, and there are few better showcases for visual storytelling “chops” than one with an inherently limited set of concerns and locales. In short, there’s no faking it when you’re making a comic about a cat in a house : you’re going to rise or fall entirely on the merits — or lack thereof — on display in your work.
Yes, this is me admitting that there’s absolutely nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking going on in this very nicely-produced little squarebound book, but what of it? If you can’t do the tried and true — and this subject matter being explored here is very tried and very true, indeed — you probably can’t do much of anything else, and Barnett ably demonstrates herein that she knows how to put on a veritable clinic when it comes to filtering old-schools comics sensibilities through an entirely unforced contemporary lens. Her book feels timeless on the one hand, absolutely, but very much a product of the here-and-now on the other. Hey, you know what they say : cats don’t change, but the times do.
Okay, maybe “they” don’t say that, but I just did, and I kinda like it — not least because it’s accurate. And Bernadette remaining true to her inner nature is sort of the whole point here.
What, then, is that inner nature? Well, in a word, it boils down to cleverness, and the same is very much true of this book itself in a general, “macro” sense. Perhaps the most clever trick Barnett pulls off, though, is making you remember why you love both comics and cats — and she does so seemingly without breaking a sweat, and certainly without breaking her stride. This is fluid, emotive, and utterly charming cartooning in its purest form — and Bernadette herself, of course, would be the first to agree.
Bernadette is available for $10.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/bernadette
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