The first thing about Rites of Dionysus that will strike you is the artwork, which is gorgeous and colorful and full of life. If you’re a fan of comic books, you might find the format unsettling or tricky to follow at first; Zak Plum eschews many of the conventional forms and formats that we’ve grown accustomed to in graphic novels. His characters speak in rhyme, in handwritten letters that swirl outside of the neat lines of panels and vary intriguingly from character to character.
But if you’re like me you’ll soon get absorbed in the flow of this magical tale, which unfolds according to the logic of a dream or a psychedelic trip or a shamanic journey. Rites of Dionysus can be fairly considered to be all three of these things; it’s a magical intervention into a patriarchal culture that seems bent on destroying the wildness within and around us, all the queer emergences and vibrant life that won’t fit into the stern lines of corporate factories and patriarchal bureaucracies. The comic (or epic poem, as the subtitle has it, which seems an apt description) faces this darkness head on, and finds, in the cracks and outcasts of a destructive society, plenty of hope and inspiration.
Isaac, the main character, is a young queer punk searching for love and liberation amid all the social dysfunctions mentioned above. In the first part of the epic poem, his journey is just beginning. He is finding the mentors and spiritual allies who will guide him on his quest. In an early scene, his friend Callisto pulls a Tarot card for him, and it’s the Fool. This is what she says about the card:
“you are off to new places/filled with faces/some grinning, some cruel
“the fool is adventurous, brave,/and maybe a bit wreckless, his weakness,/but also his greatest strength–the length/of his journey is long, filled with song,/much could go wrong or right,/but either witch way teaches, wherever he reaches
“the fool has many names in many lands,/but the same clown is ever around/he wears many masks, but always the same task/to ask questions and shatter conventions/he is Heyoka, he is court jester/clever, mischievous prankster/trickster/and rule bender/both genders in balance/extravagance!/he is the shaman, the less common/two-spirit walks between worlds/ and shows us new angles unfurled”
This quote is an excellent sample of the style and substance of Rites of Dionysus, which seems rather akin to The Fool itself. The story is exuberant, full of hybrids, pulling together a patchwork of mystical lore and symbols from a wealth of sources, leaping from scene to scene, full of lectures from college professors that seem like characters from Waking Life.
In short, Rites of Dionysus is a crash-course in how to locate signs and symbols in your dreams and the world around you, in how to discover hope in the midst of despair, in how young queer men might find ways to move through a world that too often doesn’t love us or welcome us or see the sparkling gifts that we hold in our hearts. I’m grateful to Zak Plum for sharing some of the beautiful gifts from his heart in the form of this epic poem, this prayer for liberation. I wish I could have read it when I was younger and more lost.