Friday, June 09, 2023

Meläg: Town of Fables by Bong Redila

When we think about folklore, do we separate it into categories? Are there the things we know from our own cultures - maybe wampir, maybe chupacabra, maybe aswang - which are closer to us, and everything else, which is mysterious and new? Or do we think about the stories, to divide the helpful or at least neutral spirits from the malevolent ones?

Or are they all coming from the same stew, and we delight in finding new iterations of things vaguely familiar, new nature spirits and genus loci and lares?

Bong Redila's 2021 collection of comics Meläg: Town of Fables is somewhere in the middle of that tangle of questions, a grouping of original stories sometimes inspired by Philippine folklore, sometimes entirely original but still clearly folkloric, all positive and mostly happy, all set in the fictional town of the title - inasmuch as their specific setting matters in these stories, which it generally doesn't.

Amusing to me, it was published by Fantagraphic's smaller-press imprint F.U. Books, which usually has more boundary-pushing material - but Meläg is entirely nice, the kind of book I could see being published for younger readers by some other company or pitched as a collection of positivity-inspired stories. (I may have expected something else, given the publisher and that my familiarity with Philippine folklore has mostly come from Trese, which tends much darker.)

Redila tells these stories mostly quietly, atmospherically. Children "borrow" a witch's broomstick to make her hut fly, which we only find out on the last page. A blind girl does not lose her sandal. Two boys go to a carnival. Other children have unusual friends and playmates.

The characters aren't all children, but they tend to be child-like: not important, not central in their worlds, not doing anything big. Where they are adults, they're taking trains across the country in the middle of the night or ferrying people across a big river.

Redila's art is black and white, filled with cross-hatching, making the whole book something like a happier Edward Gorey collection.

So it's not at all what I expected, but it's a lovely, uplifting, nice book - and that's always something to celebrate.

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