FAIRBANKS — Plenty of people wash up in Fairbanks looking to escape their pasts, so it comes as no surprise this would be the topic of the first graphic novel set in our humble burg. “Freebird,” by Fox resident and near-lifelong Alaskan Layla Lawlor, tells the story of a middle-aged woman named Karen who burns her driver’s license and heads north from Illinois, fleeing a situation that will remain vague until the final pages.
Though bound for the Arctic Ocean, a broken down car and the lack of any towns further up the road leave her stranded in Fairbanks. So Ben Avery, a hitchhiker she’d met, puts her up for the night in what turns out to be an abandoned bus in the woods near Fox. Since she had introduced herself as “Karen Bird,” he dubs her “Freebird,” lending the main character and the book their names.
From this entirely plausible beginning — by Alaska standards, at least — Lawlor spins out a slice-of-life tale of the minor mishaps and small triumphs that Karen experiences as she settles into life amid a collection of mostly lovable losers who are in Fox because they’re so cantankerous they can’t even hack it in Fairbanks proper. It isn’t a deep read, but it is a sweet account of a group of people with exceedingly strong and usually clashing personalities trying to find some semblance of tranquility despite their close proximity to one another as neighbors or family members.
Karen’s first encounter with one of those neighbors comes the morning after her arrival when she is awakened at gunpoint by Matt Heldiver, a weapons toting semi-survivalist who owns the land she and Ben are squatting on. After pacifying him with the promise of rent money, she finds herself in need of a job in order to make her payments. This leads her to the home of another neighbor, Richard Courvier, a physics professor and aging hippie with decidedly firm opinions about himself and others. He and his second wife, Liz, who is barely older than his eldest daughter, take Karen in as a housekeeper and nanny for their youngest child.
With the stage fully set, Lawlor lets events run their course while the various characters dance around each other, more often than not stepping hard on one another’s toes.
Richard is at constant odds with everyone, so much so that at times the story seems to be as much about the karmic suffering he brings on himself as it is about Karen. His middle daughter is a punkish type forever needling him about his hippie days (her name is Rainbow Moon, but having none of that, she insists on being called Miranda). Meanwhile, he’s perpetually on the edge of violence with Matt. And making matters worse, Ben the bus dweller pops back up midway through the book and doesn’t leave, having flunked out of his engineering classes, been freshly booted from his girlfriend’s apartment, and completely broke because he spent all his student loan money on pot. This fully ignites the last smoldering millimeter of Richard’s fuse, leaving the long-suffering Liz and Karen, who hasn’t anywhere else to go, the only sane ones standing.
Clearly this isn’t an overly serious endeavor. Unlike many graphic novelists nudging the form toward literary fiction, Lawlor isn’t afraid to let her sizable sense of humor push the story along. There are quite a few riotous scenes and some very funny dialogue (anyone who’s lived here will double-over laughing when they hit the line about Alaskans and their dogs). Nor are the characters overly dramatized. They’re all pretty typical of people in Fairbanks, particularly Ben, who, like any cabin-dwelling type, is always scamming for someone else’s running water, and Richard, who, despite spending much of the book in need of a severe kneecapping, does have his good points. The comic aspects of this story keep it from devolving into soap opera.
“Freebird” originated as a weekly cartoon in the old FBX Square entertainment newspaper that the News-Miner published in 2006 and 2007. When that publication was replaced by Latitude 65, the serialized strip was left hanging. So Lawlor finished up the story and posted it online, then added more to it for this book.
Owing to the fact that “Freebird” was written in weekly installments, the story as gathered up here is a bit choppy at times, but by leaving it in its original form, readers can see Lawlor’s artistic and storytelling skills improve over the course of the book. The early pages are a bit fuzzy visually, but as she gained confidence and grew familiar with her characters, the artwork and the plot came into far greater focus. It’s artistic development in real time. There are also lots of overt and covert visual references to Fairbanks that locals will enjoy spotting.
Lawlor has included some previously unpublished back stories on Richard and Matt, a few samples from when she contemplated making “Freebird” a gag strip rather than a long-form story, and a brief essay on how the cartoon evolved. She mentions that she once considered having political differences dominate the plot, but she was wise to drop the idea. In letting her story be driven by character development rather than ideology, she’s avoided tedium and written something that will stand up better over time.
“Freebird” isn’t high lit, but it is a good way to spend an hour or so. Lawlor has created some great characters, and I hope she brings them back for another installment. If any town deserves to be turned into a comic book, it’s Fairbanks, and Layla Lawlor has this place pegged.
“Freebird: The Complete Collection”
• By Layla Lawlor
• Susitna Mythographics
• 154 pages
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.