When artists’ love outweighs their fear of risk, the result is Bizarre Romance. Author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and illustrator Eddie Campbell (From Hell and Alec) feature 13 heart-wrenching prose, fairytales, historical reinterpretations, and quirky satires. Together they create an imaginative collection that explores a full range of relationships extending from the mundane to the fantastical. Niffenegger and Campbell make it clear there is no universal relationship model. At its core, Bizarre Romance provides readers with a counter-narrative to the dominant conceptions of romance. This results in an anthology that celebrates eccentricity while subverting normativity.
Niffenegger and Campbell are married and “living happily ever after” (vi). This is lovingly demonstrated by the cover’s image of a tiny heart between their names evoking the classic lover’s symbol. Bizarre Romance is the first time they’ve melded their talents. The entire collection exhibits a balanced interplay of words and images without one voice becoming too overpowering. Several stories were previously published in the Guardian‘s special edition “Novelists Do Comics” while others are printed for the first time in Bizarre Romance.
Bizarre seems like too harsh a term to describe some of the relationships in this anthology. Indeed, some are unconventional, such as “The Composite Boyfriend” or “The Ruin of Grant Lowery”. Yet other tales just feature offbeat relationships. For example, “Thursdays, Six to Eight PM” depicts a couple that agrees to spend time apart on a pre-agreed-upon date and time. To the character Ellen Tripp, the request made by her partner Charles Waters is unnerving but benign enough to not jeopardize the relationship. Yet suspicion and jealousy weigh on Ellen. She hires private investigators to track her partner during these evenings. She finds out that he merely wants to stay home alone with the cat and read books. That’s not bizarre at all. That actually sounds like an incredibly enjoyable way to find personal balance. What is bizarre, though, is Ellen’s inability to effectively communicate.
Niffenegger and Campbell portray imperfection as a relationship norm. Regardless of whether the accords are familial, platonic, or romantic, they all highlight the commonality of weirdness. For example, “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels” is about a relationship between a man and an infirmed angel. “Backwards in Seville” exhibits the emotional difficulty of juxtaposing one’s love for an aging parent against impending death. The deep and cerebral connection between a human and an animal is described in “Digging Up the Cat”. Niffenegger’s and Campbell’s understanding of romance captures the mystique of the ordinary. Yet these relationships are labeled as bizarre because they subvert the standard depictions that are white, heterosexual, affluent, and childbearing. Bizarre Romance normalizes the outré while challenging dominant culture.
For Niffenegger and Campbell, romance can also be dark and tragic. For example, “The Wrong Fairy” plays with fairy tale conventions by ending happily ever after the main character is turned into a hamster. “Girl on a Roof” beautifully paints tragedy as analogous to love. The characters endure a natural disaster that personifies true heartache. When she can’t find her partner, one character pleads “you have to be safe, because I am wrecked without you. My levees are breached, and you have flooded me, and I am a city underwater now” (74). It’s unfortunate, yes, but also the reality for so many individuals.
Campbell’s art is compelling and at times brilliantly develops Niffenegger’s prose. The sparse yet alluring illustrations for “Secret Life, with Cats” encapsulates the persnickety attitudes of kitties and the reclusiveness of the characters. Small flourishes, such as drawing a lounging cat on top of a capital letter “T” endows Bizzare Romance with a jovial spirit. Campbell is probably best known for his pen and ink style due to the popularity of From Hell. This technique is revisited in “Motion Studies: Getting Out of Bed”. But he develops the aesthetic familiarity by drawing in a style resembling antiquated film. Each story includes different mediums and styles such as digital imagery, minimalism, and traditional comic-strip art. Bizarre Romance shows readers the artist’s more playful and experimental sides.
I would have liked to have seen Campbell include an overview of his artwork and his approach. Niffenegger begins the anthology with an introduction explaining their motivations. She states that this is “a book that neither of us would have made alone — a book that is ours” (vii). This aptly contextualizes the entire anthology. Yet Campbell’s perspective would have nicely rounded out the introduction. Including conversations of Campbell’s work would have also helped the woefully uninformed, such as myself, further enjoy the illustrations.
The anthology as a whole provokes readers to question what exactly is bizarre about these relationships. None are toxic, abusive, or problematic. They all display degrees of functionality and imperfection that renders them relatable. Some of the chapters brandish fantastical elements but these aren’t bizarre either, they’re enchanting. Much as the success of Niffenegger’s and Campbell’s previous individual endeavors, Bizarre Romance is expectedly outstanding.