Urban sketching is a lot of things: fun, stimulating, useful, and an all-around creative workout, especially the more you add to it. I like a little salt and pepper to spice things up, and usually little to no hot sauce. I’m being silly but, yeah, I’m just saying here that I find I’m usually doing more than just urban sketching when I do it. Often, it’s part of a bigger project. Or, like in this example, I’m also crafting a little movie, which is a whole creative endeavor to itself. That said, it’s really part of the process to relax and become one with the subject, regardless of anything else going on in the background. This time around, I tackle one of Seattle’s most beloved landmarks, and one of the all-time great tourist attractions, The Fremont Troll!
He’s always there ready for a hug.
The Fremont Troll is in the spirit of the great roadside attractions and then some. Due to the fact of its scale, history, intention, and overall artistic merit, it all adds up to a very unusual yet significant local treasure.
The Fremont Troll is definitely a thing, if you didn’t realize that. There doesn’t appear to be a totally quiet time for the guy as there is always a steady stream of visitors. Like clockwork, whole families pile out of minivans in order to situate themselves to best advantage for a pose with the landmark. The Troll goes back to the hippy-dippy days of the ’70s, well, actually, late ’80s. It was decided that Fremont needed something else that would speak to the quirky counterculture vibe it had cultivated over the years. And so it began as an art competition in 1989 and so it was, the following year. All the way up to today. No matter what your political bent, or vibe, there seems to be something about this community effort that can resonate with people on just about any level.
Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation. Liana Finck. Random House (April 12, 2022). New York. 352pp. $28.99
Cartoonist Liana Finck (born 1986) is the Millennial generation’s answer to James Thurber (1894 – 1961). It’s not an exact match but close enough for the purposes of this review. The two main points of comparison are first, that Finck is, like Thurber was in his day, a superstar cartoonist at The New Yorker; and second, the fact that she draws in a very spare manner. Thurber’s own artwork is similar in sensibility. He was primarily a writer and it seems he was content with a relatively basic cartooning style. So, these are two very different people but both are equally beloved all-time favorites at The New Yorker, and that says plenty about each cartoonist’s respective zeitgeist. For Thurber, his writing, and cartoons, featuring the battle between the sexes, were reliable sources of amusement, beginning in the 1930s. During a time that saw the ascendance of the American male, Thurber was well equipped as a writer to question that position; and, as a cartoonist, to poke fun at less than infallible man. Finck does something similar with her cartoons as they confront current societal conflicts. Both Thurber and Finck represent The New Yorker at the highest level. Recently, the magazine devoted numerous pages to promote Finck’s latest book. This is all to say that Finck’s book, on the subject of The Bible no less, is one of those books, a big deal kind of book, set up for heavy scrutiny. As for me, I can see what Finck is doing as following her own quirky creative path. Maybe she’d prefer not be the voice of her generation but, at the same time, I see where she can genuinely embrace that. In the end, it makes sense for her to tackle Adam and Eve and Old Testament dogma and put a whimsical stamp on it, one that gently comments on gender roles.
God making a world.
The biggest comment on gender in Finck’s biblical retelling is having a female God. Of course, that doesn’t have any of the shock value that it might have had in Thurber’s day. In fact, it’s possible that Thurber would have been just the cartoonist who could have gotten away with having a female God. Think of all the god-like women in his cartoons! Today, maybe the shock value might be found, for those looking, in Finck maintaining distinctive male and female roles as opposed to today’s focus on gender fluidity. If Finck had wanted to break new ground, or be a provocative voice of her generation, she could have gone down that route. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, I think she holds true to a more fundamental view of her generation and that is of attempting to be more humble and modest. What you get in this book is a bunch of very gentle low-key humor.
Asking the big questions.
It seems that Finck is taking her cue from a quote she provides at the beginning of her book by Jamaica Kincaid that she found the King James version of the first book of the Bible to be a book for children. That quote sets the tone for what follows. Keep in mind that it has often been pointed out that children can be far more perceptive than adults. In an excellent cartoon or comic, however light, irreverant and spare, you can find some of the deepest meaning. For instance, upon realizing she’s naked and should feel shame, Eve is worried about whether she looks fat. That’s funny and quite poignant. It certainly keeps with Finck’s sense of humor.
Once you’re settled in, this book has the ability to charm you if you let it. Finck’s God is definitely a hoot. We all know about that famous temper but Finck’s God also happens to be rather neurotic, prone to worry. In short, she can be a softie too. When she sees that Adam is having a hard time, she reaches out to him. Indulging the fact that Adam mistakenly sees God as a stern old male authority figure, she tells him he was right to name her, Jehovah. Again, very funny stuff and pure Finck.
Like a grand painting that has been cleaned from numerous layers of restorations, Finck lays bare the main players in this drama. Finck lays out a simple narrative with vulnerable characters, pared down to their most basic forms as cartoons, observed simply and directly. When Lilith offers Eve an apple and Eve resists, Lilith leans in for some sympathy and says, “Listen. God never liked me.” But then she goes one better and reveals to Eve that God doesn’t like her either and confides, “But if you have knowledge, then you don’t need to be liked. Here. Take it.” Funny and with a bit of a subversive touch.
The bigger question is whether or not Finck has a bigger vision to pursue beyond a gentle rapping over the knuckles of King James and his lot of biblical scribes. First off, Finck is compelled to make the Bible relatable to younger readers and does a wonderful job of inserting insights connecting it to the Torah. To be sure, Finck has plenty to say about the patriarchy, beginning with Adam, then Cain, and steadily progressing through a laundry list of male culprits. By midway through the book, Finck makes some big creative leaps, like superimposing biblical scenes onto contemporary settings. The results can be quite moving as when she follows Abraham’s pursuit of an art career in New York City only to discover that his success leaves God utterly unimpressed. Ultimately, Finck is at her best in the quieter moments as when God falls in love with Noah and it leaves Noah pretty stressed out. It’s in these strange little moments that Finck is fully in her groove. And then she’ll take things one step further as in a beautiful passage where she depicts how God created the world only to gradually make herself recede into the background, although not completely. Perhaps a gentle poking fun of less than infallible man is the spark to going further. It is not only in keeping with a long tradition of mellow and subtle New Yorker humor but actually hits just the right notes for a wearily self-conscious and sensitive younger generation. So, let there be light, and it doesn’t have to be overwrought or blinding. In the process, you can end up saying just what you need to say. In the end, Finck knows, and demonstrates in this book, how to reach those high points and make the work transcendent.
Susan MacLeod has developed a crisp and smart cartooning style that puts her shoulder to shoulder with today’s cartoonists. In this interview, we chat about MacLeod’s new graphic memoir, Dying for Attention, a focus on the nursing home care industry. MacLeod also talks about the creative process: growing as an artist, cartoonist and graphic recorder.
MacLeod got an in-depth look at the Canadian nursing home care system through the years that she oversaw the care of her mother and she could see it was wrong. Her conclusion, borne out by research, is that for-profit nursing home care is too invested in the bottom line to ever provide adequate care. It’s the value of human life versus capitalism. An ideal resolution is not likely anytime soon. But being aware of the realities is a first step.
MacLeod is someone with a drive to do good. She finds it highly rewarding when she does a graphic recording session with residents at a nursing home. She always leaves enough room for everyone to have a chance to come up on stage, grab a marker, and add their own contributions to the mural-in-progress. It’s during this process of putting words and pictures together that people try to solve problems and make connections. MacLeod knows this better than many folks. She’s modest but quite insightful too. She knows that what she does matters. And maybe she prefers to let her book speak for itself. In that case, she’s got the best calling card any cartoonist could hope for.
Think on the Page. Sarah Firth. 2021. purchase here.
Sarah Firth is a very busy and quite popular artist and all-around visual storyteller. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, Firth is a Eisner Award-winning cartoonist, comic artist and writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. This book is a collection of various observations which all add up to a heady stream of consciousness, an expansive working out of this or that issue or problem, plainly said or with a touch of mystery. Just one human, being human, being real. She’s made an art out of removing any filter and letting all the bits and pieces of life tumble out in messy, funny, and profound ways.
The theme of this book is about embracing the process of problem-solving, not overthinking it, going with your first impulses, and drilling down to something authentic. It’s part improvisation, part meditation. It’s what happens when you think on the page! This is about comics, art, illustration, and especially that curious beast, live illustration or graphic recording, where the creative is engaged with the subject in the moment and proceeds to not only document but to synthesize, digest, and filter down to the essential. The results can be pretty awesome.
Here’s an insight I’m happy to share again and again: there is an art to sketchnoting. What Firth does with her graphic recording is an art. The industry mantra is to say that any form of quick concise drawing is not art because the thinking is that this message appeals to a general audience. So, sure, the tools and techniques involved here are generally in the service of commercial and educational interests. But what it all amounts to depends upon who is using these tools. If you need remarkable results, something that truly resonates, then you hire a professional like Sarah Firth.
More wisdom I can pass down to you: sketchnoting and comics do indeed mix. Now, the general misconception is that the world of graphic recording and comics have nothing to do with each other. Again, this is an industry mantra thinking that, to even suggest otherwise, is going to confuse people. Ah, and again I state that it all depends upon who is making use of the virtually limitless possibilities available to any artist/commercial artisan. Yes, anyone can doodle (and gain so much from it) and some folks cultivate a special skill set that includes doodles and beyond! Okay, as you can tell, I’m passionate about comics and the wider world it is connected to. That is what is so wonderful about Sarah Firth’s work. This is someone who said, hell yes, here’s a massive playground of creative fun and I’m diving in and making the most of it! As you can see from these examples, Firth is a master at taking choice bits of images and text that result in compelling content that invites discussion and contemplation.
Let’s focus in on one of Firth’s longer comics in her book, this story is entitled, “On Loving a Difficult Creature.” It’s an 11-page story told with a sharp and vivid energy. The little guy who stars in it is named, Ferretie. This is a very specific tale from Firth’s youth when she inherited a ferret from a previous relationship. It all sort of just happened. Firth never intended to find herself with such a challenging pet. Ferrets might seem cute but they pack a wallop of a bite and can take down a rabbit within seconds. It became an ongoing thing for Firth to explain to newcomers to the house that, when Ferretie began to gnaw on your finger, he was only playing, actually holding back quite considerably. What is so impressive to me is how clean, crisp and clear the whole narrative is. That’s not to say it can’t be messy, unclear and ambiguous because that approach can definitely work as you are figuring something out. Firth is capable of whatever vision she wants to share. My point is that there is much to celebrate for well-executed clarity of purpose. What drives this story is providing a portrait of Ferretie and Firth. The ferret proves to be an intelligent, loving and noble little soul. Firth, despite feeling misgivings, does very well by her furry friend and learns many valuable life lessons on responsibility, empathy and compassion. Ferretie lives on in Firth’s own noble and genuine work. Firth is the real deal with her memorable and engaging comics.
Dying For Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care. Susan MacLeod. Conundrum Press. Quebec. 2021. 184pp. $20
Attention all hipsters, know-it-alls, and the like: We are all growing old and will die. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Now, a book like this may inspire utter dismissal by some self-appointed taste-makers and aspiring trend-setters, but the book I present to you is, without a doubt, a book anyone will benefit from and, yes, it is a worthy book to anyone who cherishes what the comics medium is capable of. Yep, that’s one of the driving forces for what I’m all about, sharing with you comics that are really worth a hoot. One way or another, we are all going to die. It’s the ultimate equalizer. If we care about social justice, then we must care about issues related to aging.
Sorry, Charlie, but nobody gets out of here alive. If you truly appreciated that, what a world this could be!
Aging is somebody else’s problem until it’s not. Parents in need of care can become an abstraction; a project that needs to eventually be confronted. All the while, we seem to forget that we’re all going to die. That reality should humble us. Susan MacLeod has created a book that answers a lot of questions through words and pictures on nursing home care by way of her involvement in the industry and her own personal experience with her mother and the long-term care system. MacLeod’s hand-drawn cartoons bring life and levity to this serious subject and even offer hope.
MacLeod’s approach is part whimsical James Thurber, mystical John Porcellino, and part concise reportage via sketchnoting: brief drawings and text that get to the point fast. It is a hybrid of graphic memoir and the emerging genre known as Graphic Medicine, comics focusing on medical issues. I offer up the term, personal Graphic Medicine. In the hands of MacLeod, it all adds up to an immersive and informative experience. The narrative kicks into gear with brutal honesty as MacLeod paints a picture of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. As a child, she felt so marginalized by her parents that her way of coping was to repeatedly beat up her little brother. While the image of a big sister slugging her smaller sibling is a classic comics trope, the reality of such an exchange is dark to put it mildly. MacLeod acknowledges this and doubles down by showing how this messed up dynamic has haunted her to the present day. To her credit, she follows this line of inquiry to illustrate the potential challenges that can face a family navigating the labyrinthine world of assisted-living with its myriad of limitations. It requires real determination and a united family front certainly helps.
The title of the book, Dying for Attention, speaks not only to the ongoing struggle of elders to be heard amid bureaucracy but to MacLeod’s own journey to find a voice. Going back to when MacLeod was a child, she had a passion for drawing that was repeatedly discouraged by her mother. Drawing was her outlet, within a dysfunctional family, and she never let it go. Back then, she managed to gain attention through bad behavior which resulted in the wrong kind of attention, like her father slapping her across the face. Fast forward to the present, MacLeod is modest about her comics, as she shares in the book’s acknowledgements page. But the fact is that many authorities in comics support this book, including The Center for Cartoon Studies and various notable creatives, like comic artist Colleen MacIsaac. MacLeod’s work has a deceptively simple vibe to it, akin to the energy in a doodle. However, it’s one thing to doodle and quite another, as MacLeod does, to sustain an offbeat style. Add to that a compelling need to create. It was only after her mother’s death at 99, after a nine-year journey with her mom and nursing home care, that MacLeod reached back to her fine arts background (yes, she did end up going to art school) and set out to share her story with words and pictures. She wanted a format that would allow her to share such a heavy subject with a certain amount of levity.
Doodles are complex: enlisted as anti-art tools (look up Sunni Brown); or part of an artist’s palette. MacLeod spikes her doodle-like style, loads it and mixes it. The results are in her pacing and flourishes: the way she hurls a character through space; or the way she evokes transition. So, it is within this relatively simple, or accessible, style, that MacLeod masterfully boils down facts and insights gathered from books, her own interviews, and her own experience in the trenches. Her career was in public relations for the Canadian Health Department where she learned the hard way that spin is everything. She endured the wrath of the government when she dared to include in a public statement that there’s a waiting period of at least six months for elders seeking public nursing home care. In the meantime, they are kept in hospital, where they are less than welcome, known as “bed blockers.” MacLeod comes back to this term in her narrative, fully aware of its visceral effect, putting her skills in using concise language to good use. That is MacLeod’s appeal for me. It’s not bravura drawing skills. And, let’s be honest, skills are only part of it. Moomin, for example, is not an incredible work of art, per se, and yet there’s something endearing, worth staying with. I think MacLeod not only has her heart in the right place but she demonstrates to me a genuine need to share what she knows and make it compelling and accessible. While some cartoonists inspire suspicion in me, I don’t get that from MacLeod.
It’s actually not an easy thing to draw in an easy style. People often think they can completely lean into an easy style and just sleepwalk their way through. It doesn’t work that way. Pitfalls range from generic mush to a style that is too slick and formulaic. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but I think MacLeod’s determination and sincerity serve her well with a style that has integrity. It’s a simple comic strip vibe punctuated with a heightened sense of whimsy here or a smart hint of perspective there. On one page, for example, one panel sums up denial quite aptly: MacLeod is racing up a flight of stairs pulling her frail and disoriented mother along behind her, who is flying like a rag doll. It’s not a “great” drawing and yet it is real and it is memorable.
MacLeod’s most ambitious motif has to do with the notorious call bell, which demonstrates the ongoing struggle her mother was having in alerting the nursing home front office about her needs. First, her little buzzer, the call bell, kept being placed out of her reach. Later, it became obvious that the staff was avoiding her buzzing. For MacLeod, this became a game of trying to figure out the nursing home culture. All this avoidance of buzzers was taking its toll on the quality of life of both residents and staff. Spoiler alert: MacLeod does find a way out of this mess. She discovers a technique which has staff regularly ask residents about their needs. By the time MacLeod is wrapping up her book, she switches from depicting her mother as a cartoon character to a more realistic rendering. The very last drawing is of her dead mother with one hand as if frozen in time, as if holding a call bell.
Keeping a tally of all the slights and missteps she must endure, MacLeod provides an uncanny report from the nursing home front lines. No curt or rude remark goes unnoticed. Each is duly noted and followed by the recurring question, Who taught this person this is the way to respond? No wrongful act goes unnoticed. For instance, when MacLeod discovers her mother’s soiled underwear in her mother’s hospital closet. This leads to a page in the book devoted to a chart that follows the chain of events. Apparently, it all comes down to a recurring problem: a breakdown in communication. And, finally, no problem-solving conversation goes unnoticed. Whether based on various meetings with small groups or interviews with experts, MacLeod consistently mines for golden bits of wisdom. For example, a popular refrain from politicians is to gut public funding for administrators when, in fact, it is going to take funds to attract the best administrators to tackle systemic problems and make sound public policy.
We don’t die in vain when we value life!
In lieu of any all-encompassing solutions, the answers to how to deal with a parent in a nursing home come right back to the child. MacLeod learned the hard way that it takes every inch of self-awareness one can muster to see it through. MacLeod’s mother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more affectionate. MacLeod’s brother wasn’t going to change and suddenly become more cooperative. And all the other factors in the world that one could blame, from the patriarchy to ageism, they weren’t going to change suddenly either. In the end, MacLeod had to rely upon herself first in order to move forward.
MacLeod’s book is going to help many readers in search of a better understanding of what’s involved when a parent needs nursing home care. It’s not an easy process and it never really ends. In broader terms, MacLeod’s book offers insights into the search for wellness in general through self-discovery and an appreciation of what it takes to live a worthwhile life.
Grant Snider is an artist working in the grand American tradition of the comic strip. Many years ago, let’s say a whole century ago, if you asked someone what amused them, they would likely say the funnies in the newspaper as a first answer or very close to it. Today, that essential comic strip format, a neat and concise words ‘n’ picture presentation, remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. The general public today might not use the word, “funnies” or even “comic strip” but they consume it all the same and, more often than not, they recognize the concept right away. So, the past, present, and future of comics is as secure as a bug in a rug. Here to stay. Like jazz, it came into its own in America and retains a unique American tradition. One of today’s great practitioners is Grant Snider. His latest book is The Art of Living, published by Abrams, available now for pre-order, release date: April 5, 2022.
It is a great pleasure to chat with Grant. We got into a nice informal conversation and I believe we ended up covering a lot ground, particularly some interesting observations on the nature of comic strips. Is the ambitious cartoonist today thinking about pushing limits and breaking new ground? Grant looks at it more as working within a tradition. And that certainly makes sense. Contemporary cartoonists can definitely still add their own unique contribution. But they’re also part of something bigger. I set it up during our Zoom interview so that I could display any page from the new book and one page prompted Grant to mention that the snow scene was a homage to the great cartoonist Frank O. King (1883 – 1969), known for his comic strip, Gasoline Alley. That turned out to be a great example of what he was referring to, the continuous chain of progress.
So, I welcome you to check out the video interview. There’s some good shop talk and some fun insights into how the book came together. If you like the image above, we specifically focus upon it, part of a two-page meditation on the qualities of light.
As always, your comments, shares, and likes are very much appreciated. Let’s keep spreading the word about this little oasis for discussion on comics, culture and related issues.
The Art of Living: Reflections on Mindfulness and the Overexamined Life. Grant Snider. Abrams. New York. 2022. 144pp. $18.99
Grant Snider creates comics that are often poetic and always engaging on some level. Going back to 2009, it has been Snider’s goal to create at least one full-page comic strip since he began posting to his site, Incidental Comics. Scroll around and you’ll see how his style has progressed. A perfect example of what he does now can be found by simply going to the latest post. The one below is the current post as of this writing and a new comic…
These quirky heart-felt comic strips have attracted a legion of devoted followers (over 100k followers to his Instagram) and have led to book collections. There is one book on creativity, The Shape of Ideas. And another book on literary matters, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf. And now we have the new one, The Art of Living, due out on April 5, 2022, published by Abrams. Each of these books are pithy, witty and a joy to read.
I think it’s just beautiful to see how Snider has totally blossomed into the artist that he is today. Without a doubt, Snider has moved up to a level of excellence that can draw comparisons to any number of the all-time great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz. I take that statement seriously as I know that I risk stirring up all kinds of controversy and head-spinning wrath from a small but fierce faction of die-hard Schulz loyalists who won’t accept any comparisons to their god. It’s the same sort of sell-appointed expert thinking that is nutty and useless but I digress. Actually, this is relevant to mention given that, while a student, Snider won the Charles M. Schulz Award for college cartoonists. It came with a $10,000 prize and a trip to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. So there!
What I’m trying to say is that Grant’s work has been around, it is appreciated and loved, has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, as well as The Best American Comics anthology series. It’s bona fide good stuff! There will always be snobs and elitists that one can never convince but we’re way past that here. That’s what I’m saying. And I feel very confident is saying that because the universal appeal to what Snider is doing rings very true to me. A fine example is the above two pages: a meditation on light. With relatively simple forms, muted flat colors, and clean crisp lines, the reader is transported to a zen daydream.
Considering the evolution of Snider’s work, from silly gags to a specific vision, I see an artist at work, someone steadily chipping away to what matters most; I also see a cartoonist mining for the very best work and pushing the limits of what is possible within the framework of the comic strip. Snider takes the comics medium very seriously and it shows. The ambition travels well on its way to the reader who gets to enjoy a smooth and pleasing experience. In essence, what Snider is doing is meeting all the aspirations of the best in comics in being compelling good fun, artful, and popular. Yes, popular. One can argue that it’s not enough for a work of comics to be a delightful work of distinguished art and yet remain completely obscure. Well, it can be enjoyed by a certain rarified audience, that’s true. But these same guardians of taste really don’t have a leg to stand on if they try to dismiss the popular works in contemporary comics. Again, a mild digression but worth stating, for sure!
In the end, it is the marvel of creation that Snider can enjoy over and over again–and his readers get it. I can tell you from my own comics-making that magic is definitely possible during the creative process, just as legitimate as in other art forms. What Snider does is go to the deep end of the pool and work his magic. Snider is a true storyteller; his art often, if not always, has a literary quality to it. What Snider ends up giving the reader is work that one can truly come back to and enjoy for multiple views/readings. Through the process, you end up with stuff that reverberates, is iconic, or is simply just the thing you need at that moment.
Let’s check in with underground comix artist Hurricane Nancy who lately has been experimenting with anthropomorphic images. Her comment on recent activity: “I love when animals take on human character and humans take on animal character and how all try to communicate.” That says it all. These are beautiful pieces. While I’ve had the honor to add color to some of Nancy’s work, we don’t want to lose sight of the glory of black & white. It’s pure comix! We begin with Turtle, which is definitely not your traditional everyday turtle.
Next up, What the Elephant Talks About keeps the groovy vibe rolling.
See My New Hairdo rounds things out with a dazzling stream-of-consciousness tableaux.
I direct your attention to a short film I made. My goal was to open things up and see what I might come up with in a day-in-life or a window into the creative’s mind. I had some hurdles to jump, namely creating some decent pieces of art on the fly while filming to actually show me being creative; and then it was touch and go as I worked my way up to a moment where I say something to pull it all together. YouTube provides the option to transcribe and create captions so I did that. Here are the words that I spoke, my grand soliloquy:
When we’re drawing, we create a sacred space. We do that because we need to do that. We need to allow ourselves that freedom, that security, to just do whatever. Just do whatever. That goes for just about any kind of activity that requires concentration and focus. We create a sacred space.
We as humans are constantly gathering information. And a lot of the information we’re gathering is just to confirm that we’re okay. Are we okay? Yeah, we’re okay. Is everything fine? Everything’s fine. That’s constantly going on.
So, we gather information. We process data. Ongoing thing. Ongoing activity. There’s a great demand for that. A great demand for collecting data and processing data. What does that have to do with drawing? Well, a lot. I think a lot because I think drawing, well, we know, drawing can simplify things, and highlight things, and bring the essential points into focus.
With clear spot on drawings and concise words combined together, yeah, the act of drawing, it’s there to help in so many ways. So many ways. It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of things. It’s a form of self-expression and a form of making sense of the world.
Strays. by Chris W. Kim. SelfMadeHero. London. 2021. 192pp. $19.99
Chris W. Kim draws a certain way and not for the pursuit of a particular style but as a way to best express what’s deep inside him. It’s a scribble style, but a very refined and elegant network of scribbles that he’s leaned into and allowed to develop over time, nourishing the accidental and letting it grow into the intentional. You don’t always know what works…until you do. Random marks, along with words, build up and graduate into perfect moments of joy. It’s the stuff of revolutions. This uncanny vision has the power to tell bold stories and one of the boldest in comics right now is a modern-day fable questioning what we owe society.
Life as we know it.
This is a hard luck story about a simple but persistent guy, in a similar vein to Kim’s debut graphic novel, Herman by Trade. You can read my review here. This is a very different story, to be sure, but it shares that same whimsical spirit. The writing is just as quirky as the art. Every aspect of this story’s world has been attended to, like a Wes Anderson film. Essentially, what you need to know is that our main character, who goes unnamed, was part of a work crew that experienced a monumental explosion at the work site leaving everyone at loose ends. Our hero makes it back home to his sister, Carey, and, from there, lands a new blue-collar job, this time as a deliveryman. There’s much to enjoy in Kim’s depictions of everyday life and the offbeat beauty amid the daily grind. The words-and-pictures narrative vibrates: cars, trucks, city dwellers, the whole urban landscape, dancing along Kim’s jittery vibe. This is a strange urban dreamscape with a hypnotic glow, the people as elongated and lopsided as their surroundings.
Just as the main character has settled into his new work routine, he crosses paths with one after another of his former workmates: Sammy, Lionel, Jun, Gina, Sean, Ameya, Yama, the list goes on. It’s a whole village of people, the numerous becomes countless; the individual blurs into the faceless. No one stands out. Kim underscores this by rendering them with a thicker line turning them into an endless sea of dark brooding figures. No one speaks up or distinguishes themselves. But our hero believes in them, while he has his own receding qualities, deliberately nameless and unassuming.
Kim is unrelenting in depicting the soul-crushing and dehumanizing effects of life in the big city for the average human being, especially the wage slave. There’s a certain haunting beauty to his rendering of wave after wave of utterly anonymous crowds of people. Even people with names have only a fleeting sense of individuality. Perhaps the only character with a dynamic personality is a rather dour-looking house cat named, Kurt. In fact, Kurt will play a pivotal role towards the end of this tale, whether he realizes it or not.
What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone?
So, everyone from the old job is now in the big city with new entry-level jobs keeping them afloat. And that works out until it doesn’t. One by one, the whole gang find themselves out of work again and homeless. Somehow, it becomes our hero’s mission to save them all. But what happens when you can’t save everyone? It’s a very difficult lesson to learn and our nameless hero is too stubborn to contemplate it. No sooner does he discover the plight of his numerous down-and-out friends than he implores his sister to take them all in. Of course, she balks at the idea but ultimately gives in out of a sense of charity. She doesn’t want to appear to be a not-in-my-backyard naysayer even though she can ill afford to help in the first place. It’s not going to be easy to properly accommodate a mass of humanity in a tiny apartment for too long, is it? Kim is at the top of his game as he bends reality in order to allow room. Bill Plymton, another great spacetime-bender, would be proud.
Finding a way to survive.
Reality has a way of breaking through, even in the most whimsical of settings. A utopian homeless encampment is as unsustainable in a fable as it is in cities tinkering with social engineering. What our nameless hero comes to appreciate, push comes to shove, is that he can’t impose his crazed over-the-top misguided ideals on the back of his sister, the one person here who is steadily making a living and being responsible. It’s just too much of an ask. Kim shows how our nameless hero learns the hard way that he can’t always do for others what they ultimately need to somehow bring about for themselves. In the end, Kim finds a way out of this self-made predicament for our nameless hero culminating in a satisfying resolution to this most unusual, and most timely, urban tale. Suffice it to say, in a story where a cat can earn more respect than a human, it’s clear that humans can’t be treated as little more than strays.