THE TULIP TWINS is the new mini-comic from the New York based Laura Knetzger, which premiered at MoCCA Fest last month. At only 12 pages, THE TULIP TWINS tells the story of a young girl named Mary who grows up in a small town. When she is very young her grandma shows her two little objects that look like mailboxes. These, her grandmother tells her, are where the Tulip Twins live. Mary’s grandmother explains that the Tulip Twins are little sprites that grant wishes. Completely enamored by the idea of having her wishes magically granted, Mary spends the next several years occasionally making offers to the sprites, trying to placate them and earn favor. She asks for: a TV, a hamster, a new doll; regular kid stuff/material objects. Much to her dismay the sprites don’t respond. But when her friend Miriam’s appendix bursts, Mary rushes to the sprites. She cuts off her pigtails and offers them up, “Save her,” she pleads. And for the first time the sprites appear and grant Mary’s wish. She never saw them again, Mary says as the story ends. But she’s okay with that, and after that first experience she finally feels at home in the town that had once felt like a prison.
I blew through the story fairly quickly, because it is, after all, only 12 pages. And Knetzger’s art has that same smooth, innocuous aesthetic that I see a lot with her contemporaries. She’s more concerned with nailing basic components of storytelling—clarity, succinctness, emotive facial expressions—than with biting Chris Ware’s insane page layouts. It’s refreshing to see someone focus on making sure they know how to do the stuff that matters, and I think Knetzger’s looseness and fluidity really serves her story well. THE TULIP TWINS is something that could easily meander into that common mode of alt-comics pap-pap, but Knetzger manages an air of whimsy and lightness that really surprised me.
And I think that balance of heavy or melodramatic content and a guiding, inviting surface comes down to the Miyazaki influence. Knetzger’s made pretty explicit Miyazaki references in other work, and there’s one panel in THE TULIP TWINS where the way Mary’s face is positioned, and the way her hair falls off her head, jumped out at me as a KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE callback—though, I’ll admit that maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.
Adding to that aesthetic is Knetzger’s heavy use screentone (or, more likely, a digitally recreated screentone effect) for the grays. It lends a nostalgic quality to the story, which makes it feel older than it is, and it makes those spaces textured instead of just flat and opaque; it helps to make them more tactile, and adds a very specific sense of visual depth that you don’t find a lot anymore.
But the thing that most obviously impressed me about THE TULIP TWINS is that it takes a really simple idea and communicates it via dramatization, something that is depressingly uncommon. What THE TULIP TWINS is (as opposed to what it does) is a story about how you shouldn’t wish for things that are selfish and banal and material. If you have that opportunity, the opportunity to wish for something and have it come true, and you waste it on yourself? That’s shameful. When Mary is making offerings to the Twins and asking for stuff in return, nothing happens. I’m not going to try and authoritatively state what Knetzger is saying, but what I’m hearing is: Mary doesn’t get the stuff she asks for because that’s not what magic is for. But when Miriam is in trouble, when the wish is selfless—truly selfless, not that Randian “I do for you so you do for me”/quid pro quo nonsense—that’s when you deserve to have your wish come true. It’s an idea that can easily come off as banal and obvious, but THE TULIP TWINS is impressive because Knetzger manages to make it come off as “Oh, hey, that’s a good point” instead “Well, duh.”
I attribute this quality to two things: 1) The succinctness and length of the story, and 2) the fact that Knetzger saves it until the end of the short.
The relative length of the story gives everything a heightened quality and makes it feel inherently—not “rushed,” because that’s a pejorative, but it does give a faster pace to something that would ordinarily feel very slow. It keeps Knetzger from holding or ruminating on anything for very long, so everything feels more matter-of-fact or casual than it might otherwise. And then saving it until the last minute makes it feel more natural; it becomes a part of the story instead of the story. It’s a minute differentiation, but one that I think elevates THE TULIP TWINS in important ways.
But then on top of a pretty sharp treatment of something that would otherwise come off as cliché, there’s a second reading of the ending that I didn’t notice until I read the story for a second time. As Mary makes her wish, the Tulip Twins make their first/only appearance and say “Bye.” Miriam is fine, and Mary says that making wishes never worked again; the twins didn’t help her when her grandma or Miriam’s mother died. “I got a TV eventually,” Mary says. “Miriam and I are still best friends.” And Mary finally comes to enjoy living in the town. It appears as if Knetzger may be saying that the Tulip Twins never actually existed, that, when they appear, Mary is imagining them. You don’t need magic to not die from a burst appendix, after all, and it explains why the wishing never worked again. This reading turns THE TULIP TWINS into a story about growing up, letting go of childish superstitions or beliefs, learning to accept that letting go or loss is a part of life; the world changes, and that’s okay. It’s an interesting idea that Knetzger appears to be toying with, especially in such an accessible (Knetzger herself describes it as “all-ages,” which it certainly is) book.
Either way, THE TULIP TWINS is a comic that is so much more than it appears on the surface, and I love that Knetzger presents her innocuous, deceptively simple story in ways that is actually fun to read can have multiple interpretations.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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