In their collaborative graphic fiction, Old Growth, Olivo and Bavarksy drew in tandem, trading the panels back and forth, each adding new details, both and neither taking the role of primary artist-writer.
Niv Bavarsky, Michael Olivo
Sometimes the mark of a good comic is its inability to be summed up in words. Here's my one-sentence attempt for Old Growth:
Sentient mushrooms build a city in the forest of an expelled caterpillar who returns as an avenging butterfly tasked by angels to prevent the mushroom people from completing their tower of Babel and invading heaven.
That plot summary may be engagingly odd, but it's neither the most engaging nor even the oddest thing about Niv Bavarksy and Michael Olivo's graphic novel. Old Growth is foremost a visual work, and no verbal description will do it justice.
That includes the authors' attempts. In a concluding four-page interview, Olivo writes: "The book is largely an exploration of immature and arrogant attainments of power, and the two polarized factions represent the individualistic and collectivist manifestations of that."
Bavarksky wisely adds: "I'm not personally inclined to explain too much. Maybe it'll become clearer over multiple readings or be interpreted very differently from our personal interpretations and I welcome that."
I welcome it too. Exploratory interpretation is even built into the DNA of the two artists' creative process. They began with no story, no character, no situation, just a few panels they passed back and forth by Dropbox (they live on opposite US coasts). Like their later readers, they had to figure out what was going on based on initially ambiguous drawings, before working backwards to build a foundation for the sequence and then forwards as the narrative coalesced panel by panel.
That's not your typical approach to comics writing. More often a scripter hands a penciler page-by-page descriptions of would-be panel content paired with dialogue and narration. The artist doesn't start drawing until the writing is over, making most comics just illustrated scripts. The penciler divides up the pre-determined number of images into layouts, sketches them, and then hands the work-in-progress to an inker who finalizes the line art, before handing it off again to a colorist. That's the conveyor-belt production style of mainstream companies like Marvel and DC.
Olivo and Bavarksy worked nothing like that. They instead drew "completely in tandem", trading the panels back and forth, each adding new details, both and neither taking the role of primary artist-writer. Little wonder Old Growth took three years to reach maturity.
They offset their complex creative process with formal simplicity. Most of the novel's pages divide into a 2x3 grid of equal squares, providing a comfortingly simple progression through an internally complicated world. The choice of squares isn't random. Bavarsky and Olivo recount how their first collaboration began when both were separately commissioned to draw an album cover. Instead of competing, they submitted a single, combined work. (They don't name the album, but I'm guessing it's Cartoons by the Australian band Hollow Everdaze. Apparently, the shape appealed to them, because Old Growth includes over 600 more.
The only images not co-drawn are the authors' self-portraits, and there it's clear that their styles are so merged it would be impossible to identify either's specific contributions anywhere else in the novel. Their cartoons also evoke a higher level of abstraction than the majority of graphic novels. Sometimes panels seem to be shifting arrangements of flat, single-color shapes more than a storyworld of environments peopled by characters. The caterpillar, for example, is a string of overlapping pink circles with an anthropomorphic eyeball at one end but no other facial features. The opening full-page image highlights a yellow triangle, which only after rereading with information gleaned from later pages can be deciphered as a heavenly ray of light bursting through darkened clouds.
Most panels are isolated images, but some pages (usually those depicting underground networks of mushroom roots) are appropriately interconnected, as though the white of the gutters blocks the view of the full picture. The second chapter (which might be an extended dream or prophecy?) breaks form, with squiggly panel edges and an eight-page sequence of full-page images that heighten the authors' abstract style and push even harder against the novel's narrative coherence.
As a result, it's one of the most interesting segments in the novel—though I admit I equally enjoyed the visual allusions to 1970s Godzilla movies when the caterpillar suddenly has a death ray emitting from its head. I also suspect the authors have seen a few Harry Potter movies, since the death ray and a mushroom laser tank lock beams like Harry and Voldemort.
Given that level of visual playfulness in both style and content, it may seem odd to interpret the novel as a philosophical struggle between domesticated comfort and antagonistic growth, as Olivo suggests. He argues that the key to happiness is the understanding that pain is necessary. I'm guessing it was also Olivo who drew a literal key in the novel—a skeleton key with a skull for a head—that unlocks a heavenly door to the unknown.
I prefer Bavarksy's description. When you're taken "out of your comfort zone", make something positive from the challenge. I suspect Old Growth will take some readers out of their comfort zones too. Personally, I wouldn't mind a little more happy discomfort and a deeper exploration of heavenly unknowns, but it's a treat to watch such an unusual collaborative process regardless of what flavor of fruit grows from it.
(slice of the back cover of Old Growth)