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Russian Olive to Red King: A reminder that I often don't "get" art

In my long daily commutes to and from work, I generally listen to podcasts to help pass the time.  One such show, the iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast, produced a weekly program reviewing the comic books that came out the previous week.  Through them, I've tried a number of new books that I never would have found otherwise.

Every second month, the people at iFanboy release a "Booksplode" edition, wherein they read a graphic novel and discuss it at length, not unlike a book club.  I usually skip these, as they normally read a book about which I care little.

However, in January 2017, the book discussed by the iFanboy team caught my attention.  They were reading "Russian Olive to Red King", an original graphic novel written by Kathryn Immonen and drawn by her husband, Stuart Immonen,  I had not heard of the book, but I've enjoyed stories written by Ms. Immonen and absolutely love the art on some books drawn by Mr. Immonen.  I found the graphic novel at my local library, so I decided to give it a read, and then listen to the podcast.

Image from


There are two elements of this book, a graphic novel taking up the first three quarters of pages, and an essay taking up the remainder.

In the story, a woman named Olive lives with her boyfriend, a man named Red, and her dog.  Olive goes on a small plane trip to study some Russian glyphs found somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.  Her plane crashes, and while she survives, she is stuck.  Meanwhile, Red and the dog await her return, but it becomes clear that she isn't.  It's an emotional track downwards as he realizes the woman he loves is gone.

The essay is framed in a weird way; a narrow column of text, representing one short paragraph per page.  It appears to be the story of a man with a rather mundane life, who hopes to one day find out what happened to his father, who abandoned his family years earlier.  There are comparisons to the death of the famous Jumbo the Elephant.


In situations such as this, I often go back to the simple idea that I often don't "get" art.  I've been to a few art museums where I can appreciate a beautiful painting or sculpture, but then find some modern piece and it confuses me.

When visiting Luzern, Switzerland last November, I visited the "Kunstmuseum" (museum of art).  I would not have gone, but I felt I had not spent enough time in the city, and it was next to the train station.  I had little to lose, and it was reasonably priced.  The paintings and sculptures in the permanent exhibit were lovely, and though there wasn't enough accompanying information to help me understand the meaning, I enjoyed what I saw.  But the temporary exhibit was a piece by Laure Prouvost called "And she will say, Hi her, Ailleurs, to higher ground..."  I didn't "get" it.  More to the point, the weirdness of it all assaulted the senses in a way I found deeply uncomfortable.  I walked through the entire exhibit, but was so anxious that I wanted to leave the entire time.  Later on, I looked into the artist and the exhibit, and it appeared this was not the intent.  It was here that I really embraced the conclusion that there is some art that just goes over my head.

This is how I felt about the latter half of this book.

The main part of the graphic novel, the story of Olive and Red, worked for me.  We don't get much about their lives, but we get enough to know that they're in love.  I can empathize with Red in his feelings of loss and despair, thinking first that the love of his life has left him, learning of her plane crash, and slowly falling into despair as he realizes she isn't coming back.  This part was effective, in that I was made to feel what the character felt.

I should also mention that Stuart Immonen's art is fantastic.

The latter part though did nothing but confuse me.  The essay, presented in narrow columns as if it's poetry, along with photos of broken windows on a warehouse building, seemed unrelated to the story I had just read.  I later learned that it was supposed to be the essay Red writes for his friend's art pamphlet, but I didn't get that from context.  I didn't get the comparison of the death of Jumbo the Elephant, being abandoned by his father, and Olive's disappearance.  That latter connection never even occurred to me, and I still don't see it.

Listening to the iFanboy podcast, I found my opinion falling in between theirs.  One cast member hated the book in its entirety, not caring about the characters and finding the essay pretentious.  The other two loved it.  I was in the middle, really enjoying the first half, but hating the second.

This book would be absolutely amazing, if it ended on the tragedy of Olive and Red.  But the artsy essay that followed negatively impacted my enjoyment of the story.  If you're a big fan of the Immonens, and have more patience with "art" than I, then please give this a read.  If necessary, stop when the art stops.  And perhaps I won't be so immediately drawn in by a creative team I like.


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