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The Raft & Other Stories

Ragnar Brynjúlfsson
Self Published

Review by Joe Palmer

The Raft and Other Stories is a collection of five pieces spanning a decade from Icelandic cartoonist Ragnar Brynjúlfsson. “The Raft” and “Tim”, by far the longest stories, serve as bookends for three short works placed between them. These two long stories also share the theme of love between two pairs of young best friends.

In Brynjúlfsson’s opening story “The Raft”, Nathan and Devon are the best of friends. Together they’ve secretly built a raft and plan an adventure to sail to a nearby island and provisioned it with food and wine stolen from Devon’s mother. But each of the boys has a secret. For Nathan it’s that he intends to confess his love to Nathan. So he’s noticeably upset in typical teen fashion when he learns that Devon’s surprise is Janet, a girl that Devon has fallen for, or at least his hormones have. Nathan might have decided in his fit of pique to storm back home for a good long sulk, but Brynjúlfsson takes another route with Nathan jumping on board at the last moment. It’s a far better choice as what follows is a very intriguing exploration of relationships between the trio. Surprisingly Nathan warms up to Janet and accepts her on friendly terms rather than as a rival, much to her benefit at a later point when an accident occurs.

Other surprises abound as well. In two back to back seqeunces Brynjúlfsson explores the dichotomy of public and private acts. In the first one Nathan becomes justifiably confused by an unexpected act that Devon initiates in front of Janet, yet it’s one long wished for by Nathan. It just isn’t playing out the way that he dreamt it would all this time. This is followed by a scene between just the two boys in which an intimate suggestion is tentatively put forward by Nathan. Based on Devon’s prior boldness one would think it’s a logical progression, but once again something else happens. Without Janet’s presence as a sort of homo-safe buffer (she’s retreated into the makeshift cabin) means the act would be real and not some display. Nathan hides the disappointment well unlike Devon who earns a bruised ego after misinterpreting an expression on Janet’s face. Turnabout can be such fair play!

What is truly beautiful about their brief sailing adventure is how Brynjúlfsson brings Nathan out of his fantasy world inhabited only by the notion of an idealized relationship between he and Devon and to the realization and gracious acceptance that their mutual friendship with quasi-romantic undertones for the gift that it is. I quite enjoyed this story. Well, more than that. It’s my favorite of the bunch here!

Brynjúlfsson’s “The Pillow Method” has nothing to do with this “Pillow Method” as a tool for building empathy or, thank you, Jesus, anything in common with this pillow method!  Rather, it’s a tongue in cheek approach for people facing the dilemma of making a difficult choice. Don’t try this at home, folks! In this case, young Rod can’t decide if he’s gay, bi, straight, or any number of other possibilities swimming around his head. Thankfully Rod comes to a realization before suffering the consequences.

The consequences of sacrificing oneself in a desperate situation is explored in the short story “Kamikaze”. Teenaged Nanahara knows his time is nearly up as the Japanese Imperial Army conscripts teen boys to fight in the waning days of World War II. Thanks to the unrequited love of another boy (and friend) who volunteers, Nanahara makes good on his escape. This five paged story is so packed full of emotion and elegantly told that I found myself wanting to know more about this pair of boys living in a small village. How did the younger, nameless boy fall in love with Nanahara? Did Nanahara have any idea the other boy loved him? Was he able to make it to the north as he planned? Such unanswered questions aren’t necessarily a liability in storytelling. Instead I see them as an asset, much like a film whose ending leaves the viewer left pondering and perhaps deciding the fate of its main characters on their own. Since my first reading I’ve thought about what life would have been like before this fateful day. It certainly is welcome to have a writer touch on homosexuality in other cultures, especially Japan in this instance as I’ve long been interested how homosexual relationships fit into its society before and after the Meiji Restoration during the latter half of the 19th century as the nation began to find its place in a post-isolationist world. I’ve no idea where this story falls chronologically amongst his other work, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this story was pivotal in Brynjúlfsson’s evolution.

Of all the stories only one did not succeed for me. This was one of the short pieces, “Haul”, a surreal recounting of a father trying to save his family who are clinging to life from a rope he’s thrown over the mountain edge. It may well be my differences in senses of irony and humor at work here.

A beautiful and romantic moonlit sequence revealing young Tim playfully trying to catch best friend Luke’s attention opens the self-titled “Tim” as the closing story. Alas, it’s only a dream in lovelorn Tim’s mind. In real life Tim and Luke are indeed best friends who often go on tagging adventures together. After one of these exploits that Tim works up the courage to tell Luke he’s gay which leads to both expected and unexpected reactions from Luke. Quite a nice touch here as it all seems very natural on both boys’ parts. There’s no time for either to really process the changes as the boys set off by train to meet Tim’s errant father who seems most comfortable with sailing and drinking rather than being a family man tied to the land. Brynjúlfsson makes Tim more fully rounded by having him love and miss his father and at the same time be realistic about his father’s alcoholism. Compare this to his mother who would prefer Tim have nothing to do with the man. Boys will be boys. So they devise a plan for their biggest tagging enterprise to date and then put it into action when Tim’s dad passes out drunk. Tension runs high when the boys are nearly caught and arrested by local police; the adrenaline rush lifting their spirits all the way back to Tim’s father’s boat at the docks. But is it simply adrenaline and teenaged hormone levels serving as pretext for Luke’s fumbling and playful wrestling around or is it the beginnings of mutual interest? Perhaps the answer is the latter, at least I want to believe so. Brynjúlfsson appropriately ends the story as it began, with an intimate dream sequence of the boys. Only this time they are in each other’s arms while it gently rains.

Art wise there are two different styles at work here. One makes use of thick line work and stylized heads and likely influenced by his animation work, which is alluded to on the back cover. The other method has thinner line work with rounded faces though he’s enjoying some individual artistic mannerisms here and there, as with eyes for example. Not in a Cubist Picasso sense, mind, because it all melds together very nicely.

The Raft & Other Stories has some touching stories that captured my attention and should most appeal to the American comics reader with indy sensibilities.

Visit Ragnar’s website, Queer Tales. Copies of the book can be purchased on Create Space  or on Amazon.

My friend François has also reviewed this book and given what may or may not be a different take. I make it a practice not to read his reviews of a book while I write mine.

March 7, 2015
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