By Igor Baranko and Vyacheslav Xenofontov, translation by Anna Provitola
What if you could change time? Change the course of events as you’ve known them? Does time move like sand in the wind or the water in a stream? Could it bend to your whim, if you were so willing? And what if you’d give all of time itself just to be with the one you love? Igor Baranko explores this and far more in the hauntingly beautiful and mystically charming Shamanism. Taking place in a mirror-world filled with an alien history, but presenting a devastatingly familiar humanism, this is a book that stays with you, like the wistful, poignant dreams depicted within. It’s up to you how you choose to interpret the larger meaning of their savage poetry.
The nomadic, plain-dwelling Lakota people consider Sitting Bull their greatest champion ancestor, for it was he who birthed the world. Long ago, with the aid of the “masters of time” the Paiute people, he chased away the pale-faced, boomstick carrying demons that invaded this land. This is the world of the “Second-Attempt”, where history as we know it never was. Or rather, it was until it wasn’t. Through their time-manipulating dance, Sitting-Bull and the Paiute ensured that the white man’s triumph never occurred on the sprawling expanses of the Western world. Reputed to be destined for great things, Prince Four-Winds of the Lakota is a proud warrior who answers to no one. It is with this strong will that he seizes the greatest object of his desire, the Pawnee Princess Moon-in-the-Clouds. That’s not a romantic type of “seize” either, he quite literally gallops up on a horse in full warrior make-up, kills five dudes and straight up kidnaps her. He’s…got a lot to learn about the ladies. In fact, he does it twice, but only because she gets kind of dead a couple of times. Look, he’s a slow learner. Feeling lost without his true love, he sets out to find the Paiute and in doing so, unravels time and space. Shamanism takes the reader on a spiritual dance through time, dimensions and illusory visions following Four-Winds as he tries to set right what went astray via his interferences in the name of love. It is a wonder to behold and a slithering snake of a story to grasp in just one go-round.
Well known in Europe, Ukrainian author and illustrator Igor Baranko is a comic auteur who likely was influenced by the likes of novelists Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Baranko crafts an appropriately mystical tale that is in line with the Native American pedagogical tradition of storytelling, allowing ancient spirits, traveling circus analogues, and proud nations to all intermingle comfortably. It’s linear at first glance, although because of the nature of temporal displacement it can occasionally feel as though you’ve missed something from one page to the next. Four-Winds seemingly becomes more and more insightful as he progress through the book, almost inexplicably so if not for his stated connection with the powerful creator-spirit of Wakan Tanka. And still throughout, Four-Winds is unfortunately not a very…likeable character. Baranko forges him as brash and arrogant and even if Four-Winds’ mission is essentially admirable, it still starts out inherently selfish. Luckily, there are a host of intriguing, beguiling characters along the journey, most notably the Loki-esque She-Who-Slithers-Like-a-Snake, the devilish jester Man-Woman, a mad literary-enthusiast conquistador and a trifecta of Iroquois Queens that are both more and less than what they seem. The journey is utterly, inescapably captivating filled with placid horrors like a flutist’s empty corpse continuing to play a song via the wind coursing through its hollow husk and out its orifices. The joy is in the journey, because as poetic as it is, its conclusion is partially flat and just a step away from matching the wonder that was the prior 147 pages. It’s not unsatisfying by any means, and the trip to get there needs to be experienced, but is hits with more of a jab than it does an uppercut. While the entire narrative sounds as though it should feel cumbersome and larger than life, it is elegantly grounded and accessible thanks in large part to the natural wonders of the visuals.
Baranko’s line is razor-sharp thin and confidently tight. He’s a master of form and anatomy, but still incorporates an expressionistic style, specifically in facial expressions, that will send shivers down your spine. The amount of design and detail is staggering; there are hundreds of patterned fabrics with traditional designs, intricate masks, lush and barren landscapes, cosmic happenings, and, the truest litmus test of any illustrator, well drawn horses. The colors Xenofontov employs are evocative of the moody palettes of Dave Stewart and Francesco Francavilla, with a muted earthen, almost clay-like, array of browns and reds during daytime scenes and incredibly hushed yet luminous blues and saturated oranges for nighttime happenings. And just when you think you have a handle on the visual tone of this book, Baranko and Xenofontov will bust out an LSD-level, trip fantastic of cosmic rainbow proportions when Four-Winds leaps about in time. It is some legit Age of Aquarius stuff that is such a departure from the rest of the book; you will likely need to do a double take before gleefully drowning yourself in the charismatic color orgy.
Shamanism demands multiple reads, which is wonderfully apropos for the subject matter. It needs to be re-lived, a feat which no doubt will continue to affect you as powerfully as the first time. It’s a love-story and a history lesson for a world that wasn’t and a love that isn’t. It defies so many genres that it should be tried by everyone, but most especially those who are swayed by magical realism or poetic storytelling akin to the aforementioned Marquez or even Gaiman at his Sandman apex. Shamanism is an incantation of a book, a unique and mystical artistic experience that will linger in the hallways of the mind long after reading.