As a rule, I try not to review publications by my friends, but some cases demand an exception.
Mia Wolff is probably best known as the artist of BREAD & WINE, the graphic novel written by Samuel R. Delany. To me, she’s a painter of dream landscapes whose best work I find comparable to that of Max Ernst. She’s always had an affinity for water that recurs in her paintings, so I was excited when she told me she was working on a picture book with an aquatic theme.
ABOVE & BELOW: THE VOYAGES OF VIRGILIO (named for her son, Virgil) exceeded all my expectations. Narrated in rhyming verse and rendered in gorgeous calligraphy, the story takes the form of a fable. The hero sails away from the quotidian world of New York City and out into the open water where “the sea was strange.” A powerful storm carries him into a land of mythological creatures where, in true hero fashion, he “danced with the dead.” As dawn breaks, he escapes and makes his life-giving return to the known world.
In keeping with the title, many of the paintings contrast the world of air with the world of water, including my favorite, showing Virgilio swimming on the surface as a beautifully delineated whale seems to urge him on.
Celebrating strength and self-reliance, the book provides an adventure story for younger readers and a parable about confronting death for older ones. It’s a beautiful package that invites repeated visits.
UPDATE 30 June 2021: Mia just sold VIRGILIO to Fantagraphics’ Underground imprint. Great news for Mia, but it means the book won’t be available for purchase until the Fantagraphics edition comes out. Watch this space for the latest info.