Surprising Ecology with Style

Billie the Bee rezensiert von Glenn Willmott

This graphic novel wonders about the unexpected swarm of styles—conventional and unconventional—in Fleener’s story of a bee, and how these relate to the ecopoetics of the comic and its possible audiences.

The genial cover of Billie the Bee seems to announce to us a children’s picture book. Its cheerful array of vibrant blue, red, yellow, white, sienna, violet, and green immediately jostle for attention. The line work is curvaceous, unfussy, and welcoming. The two animal figures, a bee and a crane, appear relaxed. The bee must be Billie, because she flies across her own title lettering. Her eyes are wide open, ingenuous. A recumbent stork looks up at her, eyes just as wide, drawing a line of friendly curiosity between them. (Never mind that on the pages within, this crane will attempt to eat Billie and instead die a terrified, hallucinatory death, poisoned by a datura.) The swooping red lettering of the title echoes the style of countless, everyday children’s books—on proper brushing of teeth, say, or standing up to bullies—and the rest of the lettering is an inviting garden green.1 The effect of the whole is to suggest that a tale awaits us, young or old, of an amicable bee in an amicable world (with some problems, however, that our plucky pollinator will have to solve), from whom we can all learn. While this impression turns out to be quite true, it does not turn out true to expectation. As someone once said, never underestimate the element of surprise.

As we open the cover and prepare for the tale, we may pause to appreciate the stylized, geometrical bee design of the end papers. The design is pleasing, with a different, Art Deco feel from the bold, organic style of the cover, and also from the more meticulous style of the opening panels of the story. At the opening we are introduced, via a series of page-width landscape panels, to Billie’s home, “a coastal lagoon by the Pacific Ocean.” The line work is close and detailed, and individual plants and landforms of that region are clearly identifiable. This style, which Scott McCloud describes as realism, will continue to be woven into the fabric of the story to come. But it will not, as the opening might suggest, be comfortably sustained. A couple of pages later, when we meet Billie, the style shifts into a looser iconic mode. Unashamedly cartoony bees say things like “Ahoy!”; they flutter wings or gesticulate with anthropomorphic hands composed of only a couple of simple strokes. This shift is not at first noticeable, because we are likely used to comics using more realist, object backgrounds together with more abstract, personified characters. Even so, by the time Billie is interacting closely with his lagoon friends, the contrast may be jarring, because the turtles (Flo and Mo), rattlesnake (Rayleen), coyote (Kay) present in the realist mode, as do most of the other animals. Moreover, the experience of these animals may depart from both realist and iconic modes to express states of mind and feeling: we are plunged into wonderful cubist abstractions, reminding us why McCloud puts an example from Fleener “at her most abstract” at the lonely extremity of his style chart; we are disturbed by expressionist panels reminiscent of nineteen thirties woodcuts; we are delighted by Op Art and other stylistic journeys.

Abb. 1: We are disturbed by expressionist panels reminiscent of nineteen thirties woodcuts.

The animalized character in comics (sometimes, in shorthand, known as the funny animal) may be understood to be created somewhere along two axes of possibility: the personified and the anthropomorphic.2 We recognize characters on the one hand, because they are like persons, with agency and focalized perspectives, rather than mere background objects. On the other hand, we also recognize that personhood itself may be either more human or more animal and more alien to us. The mixture of styles from panel to panel, and within panels, of Fleener’s storyworld undoes the stylistic glue that stabilizes such differences in animal comics. We are always aware in Billie the Bee that our images of animals are stylized in order to convey different things we know, and don’t know, about them. They may be nothing but food for each other, or they may be mysterious agencies, or they may be just like us.

These are the lessons that Billie learns and represents to her own hive. The animals Billie befriends behave as persons, and even though they look “other,” as realist, non-anthropomorphic animals, their talk mixes the anthropomorphic (e.g. Kay referring to cinema-going) with the animal (e.g. Rayleen’s hiss), and so does their behaviour. We are just as likely to hear that turtles like telling dirty jokes as to hear scientific facts about their biology. Meanwhile, other animals less known to Billie’s circle, like the dogs whose only language consists of “bark,” “yelp,” “growl,” “hiss,” and “snarl,” or the silent raccoon, may be represented without a recognizable mind or personhood. The mixture of style, however, in which the coyote and sometimes acts similarly to the dogs, means that one can never be sure that that lack of recognition is not a misrecognition. Indeed, an episode with a visiting skunk begins with its silence, and its fixation on other animals as food, just as with the raccoon, until it breaks into speech with, “You are a good lookin’ li’l snakelet, yes, indeed!”

An impatient reader may feel that the book lacks stylistic coherence. And that would be to miss the surprising adventures of style, which mirror those of its protagonist. Billie can never know what another animal will mean to her, and to her chosen community, until she is involved in a story with it. It is an interlocking but shifting and disunified world, like the cubist-inspired panels that punctuate its pages. Everything in her environment comes at an oblique angle, as a surprise. Thus her character is an ingénue, like Alice in Wonderland, with wide eyes and an openness to whatever will come her way. Like Wonderland, the ecology of Billie the Bee has no single, underlying fabric; what is crucial is in the now. For this reason, too, the mystery of what kind of bee Billie is—she is abnormally large for a female, like a drone (the turtles call her “kinda butch”), and unsuited to worker bee tasks—does not have to be solved with recourse either to human allegory or apian facts. The surprise ecology of Billie’s world has plenty of room for lives that don’t fit into a typically cartoon world.

Reaching out to those lives, however opaque or transparent they may seem to one’s experience, is at the heart of this graphic novel. It is an ethical good, but it is not idealized. Kay kills mice for food that might easily have been characters in the story; so do the other likable animals. Utility, predation and death are an ambivalent part of life in the ecology of the lagoon. Reaching out in empathy, then, is always haunted by another kind of reaching out, by the shadow of the hunt, of the ongoing consumption of lives by lives whose justice remains inevitably obscure. Here is the dark thread in the novel that distances us from that first impression of children’s literature: in children’s literature, empathy rarely has limits, even when terrible things happen. By contrast, in Fleener’s comic, empathy has borders, which come upon the reader by surprise. We don’t really know what a raccoon thinks or feels when it preys on a turtle. We use styles of representation to reach out, to try to understand. Or, we use styles to remind us what we cannot know. Fleener’s roots in comix associate her with a tradition of modernist style, in which a unique style is the signature of authenticity and value, the mark of an outsider auteur. This economy of cultural status, one historically guarded by men, is here eschewed in order to put styles to work for the story, for what I’ve called its friendly, if risky, ecology of surprise. Neither children’s literature nor comix, or some “royal jelly” transformation of both, this graphic novel, like Billie, refuses to be pinned down.



  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.
  • Willmott, Glenn. “The Animalized Character and Style.” In Animal Comics: Multispecies Storyworlds in Graphic Narratives. Ed. David Herman. Bloomsbury, 2017.


  • 1] To me, a Canadian reader, the lettering also echoes the bold, red logo of Billy Bee brand honey, popular in my childhood.
  • 2] See Willmott (2017).


Billie the Bee
Mary Fleener
Fantagraphics, 2019
125 p., 14,99 USD
ISBN 978-1-68396-173-4