SPX Spotlight: Freewheel Volume 1 by Liz Baillie

This is part of Panel Patter's SPX Spotlight, a series of reviews of work from creators or publishers who will be attending SPX in 2011 leading up to the show on September 10th and 11th, 2011!

Freewheel, Volume One
Written and Illustrated by Liz Baillie
Punchbuggy Press

Foster kid Jamie Bell wakes up to find her brother Jack missing. She lights out for his potential destination of Ithaca, NY, but is stopped by a scout, Fingerfoot, who takes the hungry, tired girl to "the nest," where she encounters a band of friendly transients. Bedecked in fashionably tattered clothing, and using whimsical technology such as Dixie cup walkie-talkies, the hobos live a life that's both strangely idyllic, yet endangered, both by the cops and from the magical forces at work in the forest. The hobos are resourceful and helpful, and they might be able to get Jamie to Ithaca... if she can complete three quests in order to see the enigmatic Contessa.

While the reality of hobo life is decidedly grimmer, Baillie's vision of a hobo camp as a safe, magical refuge from the vagaries of life is a far more fanciful one. With a unique art style characterized by unusual panel structure, Freewheel is a delightful tale of a journey that starts out ordinary but morphs into anything but. Fans of hobo-centric humor such as Adam Koford's Hobotopia and the stylings of John Hodgman will find this right up their alley. And although not an all-ages book specifically, I think this would also make a good read for children ages eight and up, due to its young protagonist and gentle humor.

The story ends very much on a cliffhanger, but even within these first five chapters there are hints of character progression. Motherless Jamie finds a caregiver in the nest's den mother, Little Jackie, and a semi-father figure in Fingerfoot. She's shown to be more worldly than the nest children, having braved a notorious cavern to gather mushrooms necessary (in a roundabout way) for her visit with the Contessa. She is by no means a passive participant in adventures, but a resourceful actor who never forgets her goal: to be reunited with her brother Jack.

The art is somewhat reminiscent of Nate Powell, in particular the use of unusual panel structure and lettering. For instance, in the scene where Jamie talks about her parents, the lettering winds around circular panels illustrating snapshots of Jamie's early childhood, conceptualizing memory in a way linear panels just wouldn't. Baillie's art has definitely progressed from the more primitive work in her long-running mini-comic My Brain Hurts, and I'm excited to see where she goes next.

You can read Freewheel in its entirety at Baillie's site. Unfortunately, the series is currently on hiatus while she works on another project, but there's still plenty here to enjoy.  Or you can pick it up at SPX!  If you can't make the show, Baillie's store is here.