We’ve been telling you a lot about Cathy G. Johnson’s work lately (see here and here), and I know I, for one, am particularly excited about the forthcoming No Dogs Allowed. But 2017 is far away! Luckily, Johnson has lots and lots of work posted on her website that you can read for free right now, as well as some artful short books available for sale. Given that No Dogs Allowed is a middle-grade graphic novel, it bears mentioning that all the work currently on Johnson’s site is for adults. It’s all thought-provoking, beautifully illustrated stuff, but this week I’m going to focus on Jeremiah, a story about a quiet boy living on a farm with his father and cousin, whose reality is shaken by the arrival of a hired hand.
When Johnson introduces Jeremiah, he’s in the corn field with Catie, his cousin. It’s a bucolic scene—a field of corn, a bright blue sky, a white farm house. But there’s an odd dynamic between Catie and Jeremiah, which only gets odder when they encounter enigmatic Michael, whom Jeremiah’s father has hired to help out. And as the sun goes down, Jeremiah’s father gets drunker, crueler, and more dour.
The farm becomes a more and more unsettling place as the story rolls forward. Jeremiah’s father seems to loathe his son. Troublingly, there are no other people around. Jeremiah barely speaks, except to Michael, who is guarded about his past. Catie is fiercely protective of Jeremiah, but that protectiveness turns into possessiveness and sexual attraction, which makes Jeremiah uncomfortable. The corn gradually withers and yellows, night falls alarmingly quickly, and Jeremiah starts revealing pithy secrets about his past to Michael.
The transition from pastoral tranquility to eerie and otherworldly is subtle, and Johnson signals the change with quietly poignant facials expressions and dusky, moody shadows. Her depictions of night skies go from colorful aqueous watercolor washes with bright white pops of starlight to gray swathes of moonless darkness. Soon, the oncoming doom snowballs. Jeremiah is more and more drawn to the dead corn field. Their well dries up. Jeremiah’s father disappears. Night falls earlier and earlier. Jeremiah’s mysterious crippling stomach pain grows as he becomes aware of the pernicious realties underlying his life on the farm, but he’s trapped: when he tries to escape through the woods, he’s attacked by a vicious wolf.
It’s no mistake that the farm’s disasters have biblical overtones, just as it should come as no surprise that Jeremiah’s name is no coincidence. The old testament prophet Jeremiah railed against the evils of the world and promised impending destruction, but Johnson’s Jeremiah is largely silent. There’s very little dialogue at all, in fact, and that quietness, along with Johnson’s sunny, beautifully expressive ink-and-watercolor panels, contributes to the overall haunting atmosphere. Though the story closes with a verse from the book of Jeremiah, the connection to the biblical prophesies is left mostly ambiguous, which is, thankfully, more thought-provoking than frustrating. What does it mean to be a witness to degradation and cruelty, Johnson seems to wonder, especially if that witness is a silent one?
Johnson has a masterful grasp of visual storytelling, registering pivotal moments more in gestures, glances, and visual motifs than outright exposition or action. Lucky for readers, this deceptively simple story is available online in its entirety right now, so you can easily take it all in at once. Check out Johnson’s other work while you’re there, and mark your calendars (if they go that far) for the release of No Dogs Allowed in 2017.