Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Shelterbelts’

“Everybody needs a little place they can hide, somewhere to call their own, don’t let nobody inside”

I like Jonathan Dyck‘s Shelterbelts (which is published by Conundrum Press) so much because it’s the kind of thing I try to write: Stories about regular people that have some drama in their lives, but which isn’t super-melodramatic, and people who aren’t big jerks all the time or heroes all the time, but are just trying to live their lives. Shelterbelts contains a bunch of short stories, and characters connect in different ways, and we occasionally see them from different points of view or at different times in their lives, so we get different perspectives on them. I enjoy those kinds of stories, so it’s not a surprise that I like this comic.

The book is set in the Canadian town of Hespeler, the population of which seems almost exclusively Mennonite, although some of the people have left the church. Dyck gives us a large and fairly diverse cast of characters (I mean, it’s all white people except for a brief interlude in Mexico, but the people are diverse in character traits) and lets them move through their lives, showing us the triumphs and frustrations of regular life. The main conflict in town is the split between two Mennonite factions, and Dyck shows this in interesting ways. The first story sets up the conflict nicely. The minister of the smaller church has a gay daughter, and he has taken steps toward becoming more inclusive, which dismays the more conservative members of the community. As a result, he’s losing congregants to the other church, which has a more “mega-church” feel to it – the minister is younger and hipper, but also, it’s implied, more in line with “old-fashioned values,” so he’s gaining members at the expense of the other church. What’s excellent about this story, as an example of the rest of the book as well, is how understated Dyck makes it. In superhero comics, people are always stating outright their beliefs and what they’re going to do about it. In this story, no one ever says the hip, young minister is more close-minded, and he himself seems to exhibit the traits of a caring Christian (except for one tiny moment, which doesn’t affect the larger narrative but gives us a peek into his mind). The first minister does talk about being more inclusive to his daughter, but he never disparages the other minister. Even his congregants don’t come right out and say they don’t like gay people, but there’s the undercurrent on intolerance there. It’s very well done, because even the people who, it seems, don’t want to welcome “deviants” into the church don’t come off as monsters. They’re just people.

It’s tough to write too much about these stories, because it’s not like they’re plot-heavy or action-packed. They’re just little slices of life, but through them, Dyck reveals not only the connections and fissures in the town’s community, but a bit about the history of the town and what the community means to different people. He shows how some outsiders react to the Mennonites, again, not in a dramatic way, but just in the way that curious but decent people might react to a somewhat less-than-mainstream sect of Christians. He gives us a character whom one person thinks is a jerk simply because of the situation in which they met, but whom someone else thinks it decent simply because of the situation in which they encounter each other. As the stories aren’t dependent on plots, many of the actual plot-like situations don’t get resolved, they just taper off, which is what happens in real life. It might sound frustrating, but in this book at least, it’s much about what the situations reveal about the people rather than how things get resolved. Dyck does a very nice job showing how people interpret Christianity and what it means to them – even in a small community where almost everyone is a Mennonite or, at the very least, an ex-Mennonite, Christianity means different things to different people. Without beating us over the head with it, Dyck shows that deftly.

Dyck’s art is solid and unspectacular, which fits the subject matter. He gives us a good sense of the people, turning them into real characters, and he uses subtleties quite well – characters slouch a bit occasionally, not everyone’s haircut is flattering, the clothing is generally functional and unfashionable, the dude with the thinning hair on top and the ponytail in the back doesn’t look kewl like a 1990s Marvel character but like the aging hippie he is. The characters look a bit worn down by life, which happens, of course, but Dyck is sure to make them hopeful about things, too. They’re people, in other words. Dyck puts them in a place of some natural beauty, and it’s interesting to contrast that with the bland ugliness of the man-made structures in the town, where everything is utilitarian and boring. As I noted above, the characters don’t show extreme emotions, and Dyck’s body language work picks up some of that, as they often react more with the way they relate to other characters rather than by yelling or crying. He uses crisp hatching instead of shading, which links up with the tone of the book, as the artwork carries the “moral” unambiguity that Dyck is subtly condemning in the writing. The art provides no place to hide, in other words, and it’s an interesting parallel to the writing in the book.

There’s a good amount of depth in the book, and I can’t go into all the nuances here. Suffice it to say that Dyck does a wonderful job showing a community slightly at odds with the modern world and trying to figure itself out as all the people within it do too. It’s a very good comic, and I’m interested to see what Dyck does next. Check it out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆


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