A Frog in the Fall (and Later On)
Written and illustrated by Linnea Sterte.
Book design by Olle Forsslöf.
Edited by Olle Forsslöf, Mikael Lopez, and Patrick Crotty.
Published by Peow Studio.
It seems a simple enough story. A minor frog who has yet to see a winter dreams of a life beyond their garden. Two toads traveling to the tropics before the snow comes becomes three amphibians on the road together. The titular hero of A Frog in the Fall (and Later On) packs clothes and sandals, some umbrellas, some candies, some money, and goes on an adventure. Linnea Sterte has created a folktale for Peow Studio, collecting photographs of unnoticed moments, documenting a journey to nowhere.
From Redwall to Trondheim, we’re accustomed to the adventures of animals in arms and armor. But with stories of knights comes purpose; the errants are wandering, yes, but in search of a quest. Not so for A Frog in the Fall. One toad carries a knife, but only talks about using it. They are vagrants, not knights, too poor to forge a sword or keep a garden. They’re headed somewhere, but then they’re headed somewhere else. It is the frog that sees the Romance in being a vagabond. The bindle contains a flower spirit to be delivered to its final repose. Frog has never had adventures before. Everything is so new. One can’t help but be swept up.
Sterte loves the earth like the frog and the vagabond. Nature’s presence, documented like specimens and captured like the moment, comes through in the comic so that you and frog (and Sterte) are taken along the same rushes. The ease in storytelling reminds me of Zao Dao’s Cuisine Chinoise. Folkloric and feels like a primary source (which it essentially is) rather than an adaptation or modernization. The comic speaks in a perennial voice. Visually, it’s Beatrix Potter’s academic realism depicting animals and plants colliding with her putting them in charming little outfits. A minute mimic world for animal people existing alongside mankind, so that animals have to deal with both their shit and ours. Timeless.
A Frog in the Fall is talking about the season, but sort of set at the end of the Edo period, and also a dash of Yasujirō Ozu reconciling the modern world’s presence. Just a little technology, a screw-top jar for the plum wine, a car to fear when crossing the road. People are reading The Golden Bough and thinking about what the seasons turning to winter means to those whose survival depends on agriculture, what it signifies to a young frog who has never seen a bare branch or a snowflake, or the ocean. Or they’re listening to Elvis to forget their worries. A time when the world seemed bigger than it was before, as it does when everyone is young, but combined with the millennium turning the page, the feeling when the page has just been turned. A marvelous reflection of life in impossible miniature. The animal towns one comes across on a long journey each have their own unique draw. A turtle to chat with, or a cat smoking a pipe who gives sound directions, some helpful mouse. Share Pocky with the chicken that pulls the cart. Just mind the melon dog.
Speaking of, between Bark Bark Girl and this from Peow Studio and books like Oksi from Levine Querido and Little Monarchs from Holiday House, I can officially no longer tell the difference between a small press book and a YA book. A Frog is every bit as elegantly worked as The Magic Fish but lies quiet and sparse and measured in its execution like Land of the Sons. I said Beatrix Potter earlier but really it’s Akira Kurosawa. Jidaigeki with attitude. Every character is a big talk badass who is simultaneously and charismatically down to earth. The frog is one co-star, the Fall the other. Kurosawa understood how to fill a wide frame so that someone you’re surprised you care for stands out against a vivid natural landscape. As does Sterte.
Panoramic binding gives Sterte’s landscapes extraordinary space. The book is open spine bound, and lays flat. The digital version would be considered widescreen. CinemaScope! And within this dynamic space, beauty. Delicate lines. Incredible detail. But, not polished. Lively. The world lives and breathes with the freedom of a sketchbook or a field journal. Natural clutter and marvelous screentone work giving the pages with empty space more dimension and not overworking the line art. The text placement reminds me of Carla Speed McNeil’s Talisman, a comic about traditional approaches to reading and writing in a future fantasy setting (of course), narrated from a powerful inner voice. A Frog in Fall has the same mix of thoughts and exposition crossing the page, drifting in and out of word balloons, blotted-out corrections made to the text have it looking like a literal diary at times. But we know it’s unwritten. Comics! You really get a lot out of this book, despite its seeming simplicity.
The journey home with an unlikely friend reminds me of the Catbus. Another rush. The frog has the mind about them to cherish the fullness of the moment– a moment that isn’t the culmination of the book, despite its drama and placement. Everything has been new to the minor frog, not just the extraordinary experiences, but the meaningless ones. Even the familiar comforts of home take on a new light when you try to apply them to your life elsewhere.
An elegant little trick, this book. The end takes you where want. Better than that! But if your narrative-seeking brain is looking for the meaning, it ain’t there. The big conflict that provides our sweet young frog with a change, before and after this moment, does not exist, cannot exist. The Puppeteer scoffs at Major Kusanagi. We are always changing. That is what it is to be alive. We won’t be who we are later on. Always growing. Consider the greater frog who doesn’t go on a journey, because wonder is present at home in cultivating their garden. The middle ground between My Neighbor Totoro and Ghost in the Shell that A Frog in the Fall travels through is something I recognize from John Berger’s work. The peak experience. The moments that free us from the shackles of time and place. Reduce us to nothing but self. Berger said those moments when we are at peace are outside the narrative of our lives.
Sterte captures this story outside the story in her book. The catalyst is leaving home. The destination is the shore, beyond. The moments that matter? Looking at an ugly tree. Taking a bath. Boiling water for coffee. The fate of two umbrellas. All these experiences collected like beads along a cord, lining up like poetry, or life. Feels like art, like when we talk about cinema instead of film. Feels like anthropology, showing how the amphibians lived instead of telling what they did. Mostly just feels. Sterte has the wisdom and grace to leave the philosophical wrestling beneath the surface; A Frog in the Fall (and Later On) is pure pleasure to read.
A Frog in Fall (and Later On) is available now from Peow Studio and wherever finer comics and books are sold.