Review of Rina Ayuyang's 'Whirlwind Wonderland'

December 28, 2010

In Whirlwind Wonderland, Rina Ayuyang depicts herself as a dutiful daughter and doodling daydreamer. Beautifully illustrated in styles as varied as the topics of her stories, her debut graphic novel is a charming assortment of meditations on family, culture, and city living.

In Whirlwind Wonderland, Rina Ayuyang depicts herself as a dutiful daughter and doodling daydreamer. Beautifully illustrated in styles as varied as the topics of her stories, her debut graphic novel is a charming assortment of meditations on family, culture, and city living.

A Pittsburgh native turned Oakland resident, Ayuyang offers insights into her daily life, interactions, moods, and idle thoughts. The book includes select strips from her minicomic series Namby Pamby (2002-2006), as well as contributions from other published anthologies. Unfortunately, for a reader unfamiliar with Ayuyang’s previous work and unable to pick out the “old favorites” from the “new stories,” it can be difficult to follow certain narrative threads as the comics jump back and forth in time, quickly changing pace or point of view.

Despite these disruptions that result in an uneven flow, the stories delightfully revolve around everyday subjects with a subtle humor that points out life’s small absurdities. The story “Crack O’ Dawn,” for example, describes her early morning commute to work, and Ayuyang ponders in perfect rows of capital letters: “It’s funny how we take such a wonderful and relaxing route only to end up at places that we don’t want to be.” The illustrated frame depicts a dramatic full-page foggy sky as viewed through a bus window.

Such charming musings as accompany her illustrations, of moments as banal as staring blankly at a computer screen until jolted back to life by the “ding” of a new email, are wonderful in their ability to stir excitement from the almost unbearably normal.

Ayuyang’s stories are often light-hearted and silly, as when she revels in her Steelers football fanaticism, or proclaims her undying love for the television show Murder She Wrote. Sometimes they descend into gloomier states, as when she is somber over urban sprawl, bereaves the closing of a favorite diner or worries about not feeling more connected to her father.

Most of the stories are laid out as formal comic strips, where the variance in drawing technique adds to the lovingly mish-mash flavor. A few stories are exclusively pen stroke, while some are smoother and shaded with gray ink. At other times, pages seem more like doodles in a diary. A ten-page spread in the middle of the book is saturated with color and fascinatingly scribbled over an old datebook, with the names of the month and days of the week still peeking out behind the images and words she’s drawn on top. Bright, bold, deliberate strokes of color pencil show a vibrant depth and texture, and suggest a wild inner mind compared with the humdrum instances and episodes she details before and after.

The world she depicts in this color interlude is whimsical and free-floating (“Crazy experiences with the moon again”); as if the drawing came first and the insight followed. Ayuyang’s most striking and profound moments are nestled within these vivid pages of color, and in the return to black-and-white comic strips, one wonders why life can’t always be as exciting as the imagination.

Reading Whirlwind Wonderland is like flipping through a friend’s crate of favorite records. Certain visual images connect you instantly with shared feelings and emotions, while those unfamiliar stir interest and curiosity. You’re intrigued by the mix of genres -- nostalgic and contemporary, serious and fun. The experience of them all jumbled together, though disjointed, still wins you over.

Nicole Wong is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. This is her first piece for the Hyphen blog.

Contributor: 

Nicole Wong

Senior Editor

Nicole Wong is a senior editor for Hyphen living in San Francisco. By day, she's a media engagement strategist at Active Voice, tackling social issues through the creative use of film.

Comments

Comments

This looks like a great read, I've always love books with lots of pictures.  Thanks for th recommendation