“. . . both fantastical and touchingly human.”
The Forest is a short, wordless, graphic novella, a series of haunting images that tell a story both fantastical and touchingly human. Much of what gives the pictures their potency is the medium the author-illustrator has chosen, scratchboard, with the dark background scratched away to reveal the white parts. The dense cross-hatching gives the art an old-fashioned weight. The heaviness of the black works well with the sinister and macabre aspects of the story.
The first page shows a memorial service. Family members grieve in somber clothes. The main character, a boy, sits alone on a sofa. His feet dangle over the side as he perches uneasily. The next pages show him sneaking out of the house and entering a dark, dark forest.
Not surprisingly, this forest is the stuff of nightmares. The boy sees one terrifying thing after another, but he keeps going until he sees an older man sitting on a log in a glade. The two hug and talk. The boy has been looking for this man the entire time, somehow knowing in the mysterious way things are sometimes simply felt, that he would be there, in the deep, dark, scary forest.
Walking back through the same black forest, the boy’s face is calm and happy, no longer anxious or fearful. When he comes back to the house where the funeral meats are still being eaten, he heads upstairs. It’s not a surprise, but in fact expected, that he’ll go into the room with the coffin where the deceased is laid out. The trip to the forest, after all, was how he was saying goodbye to a beloved grandfather. Back in the house, he tucks a sprig of fern taken from the forest into the hands of his grandfather, crossed peacefully over his chest. Having felt his grandfather in spirit, the boy is ready to leave his body.
The art is mesmerizing, with rich details that will only be noticed upon repeated readings. The tone is both haunting and uplifting. The complete dependence on images with no text at all proves a strangely effective way to talk about death, those we miss, and how we can still connect with them.