Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming
Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded is one of the most charming series in comics. Amy is an imaginative, rambunctious nine-year-old, the daughter of a weaver and a barbarian ex-warrior clockbuilder living in the queendom of Goredd. Until now, she’s been independent, but as she becomes aware that she’s growing up, she has hints that becoming an adult might not be a completely pleasant experience. Previously, she’d get carried away in her fantasies about living lives more interesting than her own. Although her silliness usually has a positive effect on those around her, she’s learning when *not* to make herself part of the story.
This book takes place during the summer that she’s going to turn ten. She and Bran, the neighbor boy, realize that they’re not going to have many more lazy summer afternoons. The children climb the church bell tower and see the entire surrounding countryside. This action is a symbol for their growing awareness of the larger world and foreshadowing that larger forces than their families and neighbors are about to affect their lives.
They’re distracted from this realization, though, when the dragon Lalo (in the form of a human scholar) comes to visit Bran’s brother to research the effects of the story of Belondweg on the women of Goredd. Linda Medley, in her introduction, compares Amy to a modern-day Jo March (Little Women), calling her spirited and independent. That comparison is appropriate for a book about the inspiration of heroines. The Belondweg of the title was a legendary warrior queen who saved her people (with the aid of trickster Pau-Henoa) in an epic poem. Her actions, whether true or not, still set examples for Amy and other members of her community.
As the story progresses, we visit with a variety of women, including a wealthy textile merchant who will lose her business because she’s unmarried. Amy begins to fear for her future, as she imagines being constrained by the expectations and demands of others. Will she will be confined in what she can do solely because of what she is? How can she be heroic like Belondweg when women have little freedom? When Amy’s father is thrown out of the weaver’s guild for refusing to lower his standards of work, things look even more dire. Another major plot thread in the book deals with the possibilities open to an unmarried woman.
The contrasting conflict imposed on her father helps put things in perspective for the reader. He’s trying to do things differently, always putting out his best, most creative work. His competitors are inconvenienced and try to stop him, not because of his sex, but to control and tame his independence. Although the women in this world (and ours) are more likely to face such problems, it’s a situation that can happen to anyone who has to deal with jealousy.
There’s a beautiful scene with a huge variety of women in their traditional “court”, the kitchen. They’re protecting each other in the face of discriminatory laws. Friends are often the best help at such times. With loving support they can help each other overcome the limitations of their situations. Sometimes, heroism depends on context. Belondweg is a hero because she saved her people in battle. Pearl-Agnes is a hero because she sacrifices her happiness for those who depend on her.
All of this is contrasted by another possible match that can’t be allowed to happen. As one grows up, marriage becomes a question of balancing your priorities, or doing what you feel you have to, or even making the right deal, instead of something based solely on romance. Sometimes love doesn’t conquer all, although it can make life better. Emotions can often conflict with the practical thing to do. As a child, Amy can still escape to a good book when things get too difficult, although she’s beginning to understand more as she discovers boys as boys, instead of playmates.
Instead of the simplified roles of friends or lovers, Hartman presents more mature and varied combinations of the relationships between men and women. The characters are incredibly real, and overall, this is a wonderful meditation on beginnings, endings, and life in relation to stories.
Rachel Hartman has beautifully captured the freshness and charm of youthful imagination. Amy’s optimistic perspective on life is inspiring, even when things look bleak. Watching her grow up is subtly and artistically shown; we know what’s going to happen eventually, and we can pick up on the hints of what’s coming, even if Amy doesn’t. Sometimes age does matter, but there’s still much to savor before rushing ahead.
Hartman has a wonderful eye for movement; much of the characters’ moods and feelings are communicated without words through their expressions and actions. As a self-taught artist, she uses simple lines that tell the story directly. Her work has rapidly developed, and it continues to grow surer and more confident with every chapter. She’s also experimenting with sound effects and lettering styles as a more significant part of the panels, which contributes to the emotion of the scenes.
The culture is well-fleshed-out, likely due to the author’s classical studies. She’s created a full, functioning society, with its own holidays, festivals, saints, customs, and songs. Hartman knows her history, and although she calls it “mix-and-match medieval”, she makes it all work together, whether French-influenced buildings or English-style clothing. As her cast continues to grow, she also demonstrates her insight into the subtleties of different personalities interacting. This book starts with an illustrated character introduction. There’s a whole community to meet; after all, doesn’t everyone come to a wedding? She’s built a fully developed world where people are happy doing what works for them.
Amy Unbounded deservedly won the 1998 Ignatz Award for Best Minicomic. Aside from this volume, there are an additional eight issues with more stories of Amy, her family, and her world.