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.
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.
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.
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.