Joe Decie takes us on a holiday to the woods with his young family in his funny and relatable new graphic novel. Decie captures all the drama of a glamping (glamourous camping) trip; the packing; the getting lost on the drive; the worrying about leaving the oven on at home; in a way that remains constantly true to reality.
Written and Illustrated by Joe Decie
“Collecting Sticks” is a graphic novel about a family glamping trip. (It’s like camping, but much more expensive.) Loosely based on actual events, but sometimes veering unexpectedly into fantasy, the story plays with the challenges nature presents to city folk as they forage for berries, get stuck up a tree, make perilous encounters with stinging wildlife, compete to build the best fire and discover the importance of finding good sticks. Also, it rains. It’s about the human desire to get back to nature. Or to return to childhood and hit things with sticks.
Decie very quickly establishes a quirky, humorous tone for the book. “Collecting Sticks” opens with a prologue of campers saying ‘I never want to go camping again,’ followed immediately by ‘Another Prologue’ featuring the exact same scene. This is done with the obvious dramatic irony that the reader will have read the blurb and know that they are going camping again. Even if that is a somewhat glamourous variation on camping. (Although quite how much glamour you can add to camping is questionable, camping always seems horrible).
This irony is acknowledged by captions at the bottom of the page. ‘oh dear’ in the first prologue, followed by a resigned ‘ahh well’ in the second. Captions like this run through the entire book, offering wry observations from Decie the author, looking back at his behaviours surrounding this trip. The first scene of the book shows Decie trying to convince his wife that camping’s a good idea, while the captions interject in the panel gutters, ‘maybe we don’t go on holiday very often because I find it difficult to make decisions. Or because the decisions I do make. They are often mistakes.’ These captions are some of my favourite parts of the book, existing inbetween the panels as commentary on the action. However, there are moments where doesn’t quite work. Since the captions are the bread in a panel sandwich, sometimes the filling overpowers the flow of the captions’ comments. For the most part it works but there’s these few moments where the flow of captions and the flow of the panels feel out of sync.
The panels that those captions surround are wonderful. The characters (Decie, his wife and his young son) are instantly recognisable as people, it all feels very natural and authentic. Down to the way they stand, the way the dress, the way they talk. The lettering has this jagged quality that gives the sense of the uneveness of speech. Decie’s dialogue and art cohere in a remarkably natural way that just feels like the truth of this middle class, British family. It rings true to my experience growing up in that middle class British setting.
I find the art style of “Collecting Sticks” (and Decie’s work in general) hard to define. It manages to feel both abstract and realistic. Characters are very specific – their faces and mannerisms feel true and precise to a real person. But then there’s also a sense of the universal in Decie’s work. It takes a moment to realise the amount of specificity that is there, rather when you first look at the book it seems broad and universal. I don’t come from an art background. I’m a writer. So I’m not entirely confident in expressing how this is achieved but I think it has something to do with the shading that’s done in this in this painterly way that adds a softened layer to the more detailed line work.
I just said that I am a writer. I mainly come at things from a story perspective and try to talk about how that story and those characters are expressed through comics craft. And the story side is where “Collecting Sticks” doesn’t quite work so well. I’m not really sure what the story is, outside of ‘I went glamping this one time.’ Every story is a descent into an unknown before an eventual return with a change. I guess with this book that unknown is the glamping place and the change is a reminder that camping is not that great, which Decie’s character had forgotten between prologue and story proper. While this is an arc, and a very real one, it isn’t exactly interesting. The problem is that there is little dramatic tension or drive, there’s no change within relationships or character. I read this over a few sittings and those sittings had fairly large gaps between them. And that’s not because I didn’t enjoy it at any point – it always remained funny and relatable and authentic — it’s because there was no dramatic hook. There was nothing to compel me to return.Continued below
This is understandable given the goal of presenting the real feel of the experience. Real life doesn’t generally operate in grand dramatic arcs. This quiet arc, a reminder of the awfulness of camping, is one that is more authentic to reality. Maybe this read in the mode of the novel, as a singular story, but more as a collection of moments, memories, anecdotes from this trip to the woods. More a diary than a story perhaps? Because finding the thread of a story in something based on real life, personal experiences is difficult.
Even if “Collecting Sticks” is lacking in overall story, Decie still manages to create beautiful and honest portraits of the people and places around him. Giving an authentic and loving look at some of the quirks and challenges of British family life in a well crafted book.