By Pierre Wazem, Frederik Peeters, and Albertine Ralenti; translated by Samantha Demers
Koma is, in every sense of the word, a wonder. An empowering and irresistible chimera of a book, it delights in simultaneously touting the unbridled potential of imagination while utilizing an infectious charm grounded by the unfettered resilience of one very special little girl. Wazeem, Peeters, and Ralenti, forge a Spirited Away meets Inside Out by way of I Kill Giants to create a tale that joyfully dances with allegory and adventure to ensnare you in a world that couldn’t be ours and yet, couldn’t be anything else. Reading Koma is to grow with Koma; an immersive and often personal experience that will sting and enchant while urging you always to remember that to live is to tell your own story, not read someone else’s.
At the center is Addidas, a young girl helping her chimney sweep father in a Dickensian dystopia who’s prone to fainting spells (or small comas, if you will) with a penchant for crossword puzzles and Western films. She is unapologetically adorable even to those with the coldest of hearts. She longs for the “countryside” an unknown utopia that no one truly knows exist outside their constrained and oppressive structure until a fateful trip to the world below starts her, and everyone, towards the mesmerizing unbelievable truth.
Addidas is introduced wonderfully, allowing for her quirks to naturally sink in with subtle dialogue beats that reveal backstory even as they inform her character and the setting. It’s deftly done and Wazem’s script works in tandem with Peeters and Ralenti’s welcoming art style to take you by the hand and guide you in a wistful fashion while kindling that sense of wonder as to what’s to come. There are glances of the subterranean machinations both literal and thematic that are sprinkled among the more grounded emotional hooks of learning about Addidas, with the very first two pages dedicated to depicting the mysterious creatures at the reigns of ominous gadgetry. From there our adventure begins to unfold, our heroine and a most unlikely companion form a kinship that leads them to what ultimately becomes a surprisingly complex and rich metaphor for, well, how to tackle life itself. It all flows effortlessly, requiring no mental gymnastics allotting for filling in gaps either temporal or logical, as a straight forward adventure until it slowly entwines its underlying themes into a haunting tapestry of very real fears, doubts, passion, and free will.
From the anachronistic city rife with its plumes of sickly smoke rising from its countless chimney stacks to the limitless hotel that exists outside space and time and staffed by flickers of lives long lost, Koma champions the imagination throughout and yet the most affecting wonder of all is the unassailable tidal wave of emotions it induces. In Addidas we have a character whose pain is palpable and whose triumphs inspire strength. The loss of her mother is doubly deepened when she learns of the real details surrounding it and the back and forth guilt it causes in both her and her father is complicated and real. Throughout it all is an undercurrent of love; for a father, for a daughter, for a friend, for yourself. Wrap all this is some subtle commentary on conformity and some not so subtle commentary on determinism and Jungian philosophy and you have a rewarding experience on a number of levels.
The only aspect to the story that feels just slightly amiss, if it really is at all, is the one element that prevents this from being a true all-ages graphic novel; namely, a particularly gruesome step-by-step verbal description of a torture procedure complete with one very….let’s say…unpleasant image. While the subject matter of the entire work is a brilliant composition of philosophical ideas paired with whimsical adventuring akin to the type of appeal all Pixar films have, this one scene really shuts the door on making this something to hand off to a little one. Add in a few swears here and there, and we move farther away still from opening the accessibility doors. The scariest parts of Koma are the existential bits, but those will likely fly over most kids’ heads as they enjoy the girl and her monster friend, but there’s nothing sub-textual about torture of course. Likely, Wazem and company never intended for this to be read by children, but it’s got far too much fairy tale DNA to not ensure that it could be. It’s performed by villains that border on one dimensionally cartoony, so it is used most likely to very intentionally heighten the evil in the hearts of those who wish to control what they cannot control, but perhaps a step too far nonetheless. Let’s call it a case of missed opportunity.
None of the heart would shine through so strongly if it weren’t for the elegant cartooning of Peeters. Above all else, it’s the dynamics of these characters’ facial expressions that makes this work soar just that much higher in order to punch you in the gut only to tickle it the next. Deceptively simple, Peeters injects so much life into his characters in a style somewhere between Hergé and Charles Schulz. His figures are framed by a bold, round, living line and given texture with thin scratches to indicate motion and stress. The seemingly smallest line change from one panel to the next, of a close-up on Addidas’ face as the truth of her mother’s death sinks in is absolutely heartbreaking and it’s unmistakable yet near indecipherable at the same time. It’s largely economical, but there’s undeniable elasticity and weight to Peeter’s figures and settings. He applies shadowed texture throughout to great effect via a loose wood etched style, giving depth to Addidas’ underground ally and a sinewy sense of unease in its cavernous dwellings. Panel borders are rough hand drawn boxes that occasionally transition to borderless scenes meant to highlight the ethereal mystery surrounding it all, and near the conclusion the borders themselves turn into a living cornucopia of flora that grows around and into the story itself. Raw honest emotion spewing forth from the animate and inanimate alike, creative worlds that feature the hope-filled and the fear-filled, masterful pacing that creates a natural animation in the action; it’s all thanks to Peeter’s skill and the result is a thoroughly immersive experience that compels you to empathize with the characters and turn every page.
Complementing the more otherworldly facets of Koma are Albertine Ralenti’s colors. This is a world just slightly askew of our own, and Ralenti reflects that a darker palette rife with odd shade pairings of sickly greens, magentas, oranges, and steel blues. The hues feel off and eerie, but placed atop Peeter’s charming and welcoming figures, there’s a sense of curiosity instilled. It’s a surprisingly flat application, one that allows Peeter’s strokes to form most of the texturing, but firmly establishes the unnatural ambiance all its own. Occasionally, Ralenti washes the values down for the more mundane scenarios inside a police station or the prattling among workers in their bunks to create a setting once again reminiscent of Tin Tin. It all culminates in a euphoric blend of vibrant and lushly saturated colors at the same time Peeter’s borders mutate into a mirror of the life affirmations present towards the story’s climax.
Touching and deceptively intricate, Koma is an enchanting look at one’s resolve starring a rich cast of character with a truly heroic heart in Addidas. Accept your realities, but don’t define yourself by them. Let the machine drive you or take control of all the imbalances that make you who you are and embrace them. Forge your own story. It’s just the beginning.