Follow Me In by Katriona Chapman manages to be so many different things all at once and does them all beautifully.
First and foremost, it’s an intensely personal memoir, but it also manages to combine the portrait of an artist whose desire and passion to draw had left her with a coming of age tale, and wraps everything up in a sweet love letter to Mexico, the place, it’s people, and it’s culture.
Katriona Chapman is a familiar name to those following Brit comics. Her work first came to my attention with the graphite anthology Tiny Pencil and Katzine. But, compared to what she’s made before, Follow Me In is a real step up, she’s created a beautiful, thoughtful piece of work, with her artwork made up of a palette of sun-drenched Mexican reds, yellows, and terracotta browns, contrasting strikingly with the muted greys of her life back in the UK.
Kat, the subject of our tale, who may or may not be Katriona, the artist of Follow Me In, is an artist who’s fallen out of love with drawing and hasn’t committed anything to paper in five years. But, that’s not the worst thing in her life. Sadly, she’s in a long-term relationship with boyfriend, Richard, whose drinking issues she’s ignored or tolerated for far too long, despite all her friends knowing about them and worrying about her because of it.
But, even though there are problems, the pair of them decide it’s time to bid farewell to Britain, as both of them quit their jobs and head off for their adventure of a lifetime, travelling to Mexico, intending to stay their at least six months.
During the time in Mexico, Kat will rediscover her art, pick up her pencils once more, and take the first, vital steps to facing up to the problems she faces with an alcoholic boyfriend who, like all those with unresolved substance abuse issues, simply can’t take responsibility for himself, never mind facing up to the psychological abuse he’s putting Kat through.
You see the pain etched on her face, a subtle thing, she’s not yet at the point of blowing it all up, instead she’s where many who have to cope find themselves, living in a constant state of stress, just waiting for the inevitable. And, despite Richard staying off the booze at times through their journey, she knows, as do we, that it’s only a matter of time. And when it does happen, Chapman delivers it just right, all the stress, all the disappointment, the coping, the regret… it’s all done perfectly here.
But, it’s not a book just about Kat and Richard’s relationship and their issues with drinking. No, it’s so much more than that.
We follow the pair through their adventure, with Chapman detailing all those minutiae of travel, the hotels, the visa issues, money problems (exacerbated by a very out of date Mexico guidebook), the heat, the problems of Mexican water, the subsequent sickness and a trip to hospital. It’s all in here, all documented in fascinating and entertaining fashion by Chapman. And then there’s the love letter to Mexico. It’s there from early on, the lush colors and the artwork tells their own tale, easily shows us just how wonderful a time Kat is having, how much she loves the country, no matter what issues might be going on in her life.
Better yet, she picks up a pencil once more, finds what she’d lost, discovers that little part of herself. It’s a small step, but it’s the first step in making things better.
We explore the country with Kat, share her wonder at the sights, all through some glorious artwork. And we also see, through Kat’s eyes, the poverty and the exploitation of tourism at first hand. It’s reportage done with a sympathetic eye, perfectly illustrated in one scene early on, as Kat and Richard’s tour group are taken to one of the islands where locals hold vigils to honour the memories of the dead. The tour party looms over the grief of the locals, and then, worse still, the inevitable photographs that show complete disregard and disrespect for the sacred spaces.
The structure of Follow Me In never really settles on one thing, changing both format and shifting to and fro in time throughout, yet at no point does it feel difficult, at no point does it leave you confused. Chapman lets her art, her narrative do the work, and tells her tale in such a way where the back and forth of the narrative seems natural, the way memories happen. Thus, you’ll find pages of comics alongside cleverly constructed infographic style pages, even sketchbook pages later on.
It all sits so naturally together. In fact, the only element that didn’t really work, simply because it wasn’t needed, is the thing you see on the cover, with that luminescent snake wrapping itself around Kat’s shoulders. Obviously, it’s representing her anxiety, the problems with Richard and his drinking ever-present, but tightening about her when he goes off, disappears, leaving her wondering just what state he’ll be in. It’s a simple illustrative device, but, to my mind, it’s just unecessary, as everything we need to know of how Kat feels is there in those perfect moments, as Chapman shows, with the simple facial expressions, so much more than the snake metaphor ever could.
In the end, Follow Me In is a beautiful, emotional book. Seeing someone have to deal with alcoholism, all the self-doubt, the excuses, the emotional and psychological abuse… it’s a painful thing.
But, this is far from a miserable, downbeat book. Far from it, instead it soars and dives with the mix of emotions and illustrates a journey in this artist’s life as she shares with us the most beautiful country and all of her experiences.
I’ll leave you with just one perfect image, where Chapman’s art just flows so incredibly beautifully…
Follow Me In by Katriona Chapman, published by Avery Hill Publishing. Available at the Avery Hill website.