August 19, 2019

Death Is A Stage: Rob Clough reviews THE TENDERNESS OF STONES by Marion Fayolle

The editors of the New York Review Comics line have shown exceptional taste in their choices for reprinting obscure and untranslated comics. Some of their choices, like Dominique Goblet's Pretending Is Lying, are amongst the best comics I've ever read. Likewise, Marion Fayolle's The Tenderness of Stones is every bit as innovative and emotionally devastating as that work, only in a completely different way. In discussing her father's cancer (initially in remission) and his eventual decline and death, Fayolle unleashes a steady stream of lyrical, whimsical, and even absurd visual metaphors that blend into and stack atop each other. Like Goblet's work, this is a comic about coming to terms with a difficult relationship with one's father, only this comic carries a sense of time and circumstance preventing a true understanding. Even in his decline, Fayolle’s distant father is elusive, and the closeness she feels to him is illusory. At the same time, her family (mother, younger brother, and her) becomes a kind of actor's troupe in service to her father, creating a bond out of duty and performance.
From the very beginning, Fayolle's genius is in transforming medical realities into magical realist imagery. Her father had lung cancer and surgery to remove the diseased organ. The ubiquitous "men in white" had it taken out and told him to bury it. Thus began one of many instances in which she insisted her father was somehow trying to pull a prank on his family, that burying his lung was his way of seeing who would show up to his funeral. Fayolle later claimed that her dad was behaving like a child so he could be taken care of like one; acted as though he were a king in order to receive royal treatment; and was only pretending to be ill as he secretly went pub crawling at night. While these instances of magical thinking were all tongue-in-cheek, there was a deeper truth underlying them. Her father was always closed off to her. She never knew what he was thinking or feeling, and so she used a childlike sense of storytelling logic to make sense of him and his slow decline.
Visually, Fayolle employs a deadpan style reminiscent of Gabrielle Bell. The top-notch production values of NYRC are in evidence with the full album format, good paper, and richness of color. Instead of standard word balloons, the comic is narrated by captions told from Fayolle's point of view, written in cursive script. This is an important detail, because this is very much Fayolle's narrative, not her father's, and cursive makes this feel like a personal diary. Fayolle layers the story with multiple interpretations of events, and sometimes those accounts work in concert and sometimes they are contradictory. Infantilization is a running theme throughout the book, and Fayolle's magical storybook approach reflects her own self-infantilization in response to this ongoing trauma. It's all part of what makes reading The Tenderness of Stones such an overwhelming experience: it's a diary, it's a fairy tale, it's a family trauma, it's a child trying to make sense of a confusing world, it's an adult coming to terms with the death of her father.
The simplicity of the plot and even the childlike quality of the narration allow Fayolle to use complicated techniques to solve visual storytelling problems. The second chapter, in particular, is one long visual tour-de-force. There is an extended meditation on the idea that Fayolle's father had become a child again, much to her annoyance: "He had entered a time machine, and he had not taken me with him." Of course, the reality is that her father had deteriorated to the point of being unable to feed himself, dress, or even walk. Fayolle depicts this as though he is an infant, lying in a crib with a mobile above him or being cuddled in a rocking chair. Her formerly icy father now demands a kiss on the forehead before he goes to sleep and needs the door open as he goes to sleep. Throughout this transformation, and throughout the book, Fayolle measures her own identity against his. If she was now older than him, how could he be her father? Who was she now?
Furthermore, this changes her relationship with her mother. She describes her as a big woman whose body always provided security, and she depicts her as bigger than the panel can contain, as she and her adult brother both disappear under her skirts, feeling safe. She suspects that her father had always wanted this kind of mothering, which led him to become a child. However, Fayolle turns it around as an act of kindness on his part, as he did it to distract her mother from noticing that she and her brother were growing up and leaving for new lives. Fayolle depicts herself and her brother with suitcases, floating away from their mother, but the siblings return when they realize their father is too fragile to leave behind.
This is also the moment where Fayolle realizes her new goal: of deciphering the mystery of her father, of wanting to "meet" him at last. She depicts her father as being a silhouette that they slap up images of him on, desperately trying to figure him out and "see" him and hope that he will let himself be seen. This kicks off an inspired series of pages where she has to act as his mouth--literally taking the lips off of her own face and putting them on his so he can talk to his friends. Then she and her brother have to lend him their hands, their legs, and more, in a brilliant 8 x 8 grid that slowly and painfully gets across the difficulty and frequent ennui involved in this level of caretaking. On another page, also with an 8 x 8 grid featuring a different displaced body part in each panel, Fayolle cartoons herself pushing aside panels and tearing a number of them down in an effort to find her leg. The only instance of word balloons in the comic is the next segment, where she and her family start talking for her father, pasting up word balloons of their own design. She admits to changing some of his words before putting them in the word balloon, making him kinder and more loving than he normally would be. It's an intense push-and-pull, where she feels her own personhood in pieces but perceives that she's also altering his agency. It's an almost self-destructive kind of empathy, as she begins to feel his pains and mimics his movements on the page.
There are many other inspired sequences, including likening the presence of home health/hospice personnel to that of an invasion of the men in white. Of note, many of the dreaded, judgmental men in white are women, but Fayolle conflates all authority as being male, due in part to the influence of her father as this remote, frightening authority figure. Conversely, her mother is a comforting and nurturing figure, and because the women wearing white are neither, they are all referred to as men. What creates tension in the book is a series of these reactions based on childlike, binary logic. If my father needs care like a child, he must have chosen to become a child. If he demands constant care and needs to be the center of attention, he must consider himself to be a king. If he's still hard to know, it's because he's lying about his illness and is sneaking out at night to drink with the fellow lost souls in the local bar.
One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sequences is at the beginning of chapter three, where Fayolle discusses how she hopes the illness will erode away her father's rough edges like the sea gently smooths over the rough edges of boulders. She writes, "My father was a boulder that I longed to cling to without being wounded. That I longed to shelter beneath without feeling threatened." Instead, as she depicts with beautiful simplicity on a series of splash pages, he becomes even more jagged and "you could still cut your fingers and hurt yourself if you held him too close."
Holding too close and being unable to let go to one's parents in various capacities and with various consequences are also running themes throughout the book. This is finally resolved in the fourth and final chapter, as the men in white decreed that he was dying. The image of invisible, cancerous cells falling from the sky like meteorites herald several pages that all have a single caption: "Dad is going to die." On each page, Fayolle chooses a different visual metaphor for his exit and his family's assistance with it: closing a curtain, packing a suitcase, making him disappear like a magic trick, and levitating off a bed. Fayolle steps outside the narrative for a moment to reveal that she had been in the middle of drawing this book when she learned he was going to die, which made her feel as though she had caused it somehow by drawing his diseased lung. She resents this ending being imposed on her: "I could have come up with a much better finale." This is a moment where she reveals just how dark her sense of humor is, playing around with this naive binary. It's clearly her coping mechanism.
In the end, that humor is abandoned as she depicts her family and herself preparing her dad for one last performance. It's all framed in the language of acting and pumping him and saying he had what it took, that he had been rehearsing for years. The final images are both surreal and exquisitely and painfully beautiful. The spotlight on his last performance remains, with flowers being thrown on stage in celebration of his life — a twist on flowers being sent to the bereft when someone dies. His family is sitting on a bench as they watch the performance, with Fayolle applauding. In a book full of dense backgrounds, this is a page with just a few images and an almost overwhelming use of negative space. The funeral is depicted as a crowd of people smoking cigarettes as his giant body lay outstretched. The smoke looks like stone and also like his diseased lung, which I imagine is no coincidence. The smoke grows thicker and obscures his body. Everyone goes their own way, and the final page sees his body disappear.
The Tenderness Of Stones deals with sickness, end-of-life issues, family bereavement, and caretaking issues with a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity. Too often, narratives about the dead and dying try to smooth over the reality of how we relate to them in real life. Using a clever series of visual metaphors and deliberately making her narrative tone naive allows Fayolle to really "spill some ink" and get at her feelings while still being sensitive to her father's and family's plight. Every page is a marvel of composition. The torrent of visual metaphors brings to mind Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning, which is about the death of his young daughter. It's as though the layer after layer of metaphors is like Fayolle wrapping herself in blankets for comfort or bandages for healing. At the same time, the clarity of storytelling is remarkably sharp, as she stacks metaphors in some instances and elides them in others. The Tenderness Of Stones is a remarkable achievement whose power in depicting the personal pain of one person and her family resonates for anyone who has ever experienced a loss or been a caretaker.
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

August 12, 2019

Everyone Thinks This Is Normal: Kawai Shen reviews BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore

BTTM FDRS is a horror comic written by Ezra Claytan Daniels and drawn by Ben Passmore. The story centers around Darla, a young black artist who moves into a cheap apartment in Bottomyards, a formerly thriving working-class neighborhood in South Chicago. At first, it seems as though Darla and her white bestie, Cynthia, will overcome their initial reservations about Bottomyards. They quickly warm up to the opportunities presented by the neighborhood and its residents: a thriving cultural scene populated by young artists - and potential buyers drawn to them. However, they are unable to shake their unease about the new apartment and eventually discover that there is much more to fear than they could imagine...
True to the horror genre, BTTM FDRS introduces a social anxiety - in this case, gentrification - and quarantines it in tangible, monstrous bodies. The title itself is pretty clever. Bottom Feeders references the residents of Bottomyards but the manner in which it is spelled (all caps, sans vowels) suggests how newcomers see the neighborhood: a fashionable trend. This begs the question: who are the bottom feeders? Long-term residents at the bottom of the American social class? Landlords seeking "artistic" tenants with an eye for property investment? Newer residents and businesses displacing older ones? Anyone extracting whatever cultural capital they can from the next person one rung lower on the social ladder? Or perhaps the answer is not as figurative as it seems.
This critical, but playful and open-ended manner of addressing a social issue is maintained throughout the comic. Views of gentrification are tackled directly, but they are filtered through the characters' personal history with Bottomyards so it’s never didactic. How they speak - and don't speak - about the ways race and class privilege play out in their lives is one of the comic's strengths. Dialogue mercifully sticks to subjective experiences rather than academic theories about gentrifiers. Word bubbles, after all, preclude the kind of preachy monologuing one can find in other mediums like theatre. Instead, you have revealing exchanges, from the landlord who calls Darla "Donna" to Cynthia tearing up over how she can't help being born white.
What I appreciated most about BTTM FDRS is how the neighborhood is humanized. So often, "rough" neighborhoods are stereotyped and stigmatized in the media, which in turn stereotypes and stigmatizes residents. BTTM FDRS instead invites us to view the Bottomyards as a place with a rich history - and its older residents as people with full and complex lives, whose identities do not revolve around their displacement. Of particular note is Katherine, a black adjunct history professor who advises Darla, "No matter what you have, no matter how little it is, they're gonna take it from you eventually." Without resorting to spoilers, BTTM FDRS gives you not only the what and the who of this equation, but the how and the where.
The artwork also gives Bottomyards a friendlier treatment. Instead of an industrial palette of rust and concrete, everything is rendered in saturated colors that could have been derived from a handful of Starburst and Skittles candies. Passmore's palettes often draw on complementary color blocking or split schemes for a dynamic and pleasing effect. It jars readers’ expectations of a horror comic as well as underscoring the neighborhood’s new bright and shiny reputation. At times, this choice proves effective and can give a sense of a creeping, lurid, psychedelic nausea. However, at other times, I found this style detracted from any sense of actual fear. It's difficult to feel afraid for your protagonist getting bashed to a pulp when the walls are a sunny yellow and she’s covered in millennial pink goo.
If there's something about BTTM FDRS I find unsettling, it's not the actual horror or threatening action. It's also not a sense that Daniels and Passmore are exploiting the subject matter - unlike a lot of art dealing with "social issues" I never feel the story is being manufactured to profit from a white gaze (in fact, this issue is addressed in the comic itself when Darla criticizes a black musician for profiting from dressing like a pilgrim). For me, I think it's the candy-colored casualness of it all.
There is one image I cannot shake from my mind from when I was living around Chicago, right in the heart of the city on Michigan Avenue, an area that is all but calcified with a concentration of wealth. It was a sunny afternoon. A man was panhandling on the sidewalk. On his upper thigh was an open, festering sore about the size of my hand, fingers spread. He had clearly been wounded for some time without treatment, yet he was sitting mere blocks away from a hospital. The image struck me - still strikes me - with a visceral horror. It wasn’t the wound itself. I used to volunteer in a hospital and I know sick bodies. It was the understanding that here was a man being denied healthcare in an area so monied, I could practically smell the filthy lucre in the air. And what made this all so surreal to me was not how calm the pedestrians walking past him were - it was how calm he was. This kind of horror is normal here, I realized. Everyone thinks this is normal.
Living in Toronto, in the past year alone, one of my close friends began fighting their landlord due to an illegal eviction and another fell homeless for close to a year following a renoviction. This doesn't count friends who have also been evicted or pushed out of the city's core or out of the Greater Toronto Area altogether. And they are not all, as one might imagine, the most marginalized people in this city - some are white people from middle-class backgrounds, employed in full-time jobs requiring a university education. Displacement and illegal evictions are a new normal here: renters living in a free-floating fear that their home will be seized next while luxury condos blister the landscape and units, bought for investment purposes, sit empty. Despite being set in a different city, something about BTTM FDRS felt very familiar and mundane - and not nearly horrific enough to me. And that seems truly frightening.

Kawai Shen is a Canadian writer and cartoonist. You can find her at or on Twitter as @kawaishen.

August 9, 2019

Books In Bites 21: Recent Readings -- Elkin Edition

Here are 10 books that I've recently read and enjoyed in the past few months. All text is copied from the individual solicitations for each book.
30 Miles of Crazy #7 
By Karl Christian Krumpholz 
Available HERE 
“Slice of life comics and true stories about modern life and living in The City by Karl Christian Krumpholz, 28 pages, Full Color. 

Includes the stories: ‘My Mugger‘, ‘A Gesture‘, ‘Walk of Shame‘, ‘Darkness‘, ‘Indifference‘, ‘My Only Stan Lee Story‘, ‘The Show Girl’, ‘Agoraphobia‘, and others.”  


Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me 
Written by Mariko Tamaki, Illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell 
Published by First Second 
Available HERE 
“Author Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Rosemary Valero-O’Connell bring to life a sweet and spirited tale of young love in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, a graphic novel that asks us to consider what happens when we ditch the toxic relationships we crave to embrace the healthy ones we need. 

Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley's dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There's just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend. 

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy's best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it's really Laura Dean that's the problem. Maybe it's Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever. 

Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.” 

Minor Leagues #8 
By Simon Moreton 
Available HERE  
“The eight issue of Minor Leagues is entirely given over to part three of 'Where?', a book-length memoir that explores life, death, history, landscape, and nature in the South Shropshire hills. 

This installment is a fever dream of remembering childhood; a visual essay of country living through the unreliable eyes of a child; drawings, paintings, comics, found archival text, photos, weird stuff.”   

Gender Queer: A Memoir 
By Maia Kobabe 
Published by Lion Forge 
Available HERE 
“In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. 

Now, Gender Queer is here. 

Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. 

Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.” 

Written by Ezra Claytan Daniels, Illustrated by Ben Passmore 
Published by Fantagraphics 
Available HERE 
“This Afrofuturist graphic novel explores gentrification and cultural appropriation with a clever blend of horror and humor. 

Once a thriving working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, the “Bottomyards” is now the definition of urban blight. When an aspiring fashion designer and her image-obsessed BFF descend upon the hood in search of cheap rent, they discover something far more seductive... and deadly. 

Gentrification and body horror collide in this brutal satire from the award-winning creators of Upgrade Soul and Your Black Friend.” 

By Michelle Kwon 
Published by Shortbox 
Available HERE 
“Does sticky have to be icky? Mac is at one of life's dead-ends: no job, no motivation, no idea about what to do, and living at her twin sister's place while she (sort of) tries to figure it all out. Into this picture arrives Boogsy- a boyfriend made up entirely of her sentient boogers. The two instantly embark on a relationship, and, it seems, down a path of further self-destructive behaviors.” 

Frontier #18 
By Tiffany Ford 
Published by Youth in Decline 
Available HERE 
“For the final 2018 issue of Frontier, Animator Tiffany Ford shares with readers a refreshingly immediate and raw side of her work. Tiffany presents sketches, studies, and daily comics pulled from her own diary, kept in a sketchbook on her honeymoon traveling in Japan with her husband Myles.” 

By Molly Mendoza 
Published by Nobrow Press 
Available HERE 
“In this epic tale of friendship, compassion, and growth, Molly Mendoza’s stunning art and gripping storytelling immerse you in alternate worlds filled with mystical creatures and dazzling landscapes. 

When Bloom is thrown from their world, and Gloopy is exiled from their own, the two youngsters find in each other a much-needed kindred spirit. But as they skip through dimensions and encounter weeping giants, alligator islands and topsy-turvy 2D worlds, they find that their greatest challenge will be facing their own fears back home.” 

By Gareth Brookes 
Available HERE
A beautifully embroidered comic that captures an overheard candid and moving conversation about love between two elderly ladies on the train

Steve Gerber: Conversations 
Edited by Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman, and Dominick Grace 
Published by University Press of Mississippi 
Available HERE

“Steve Gerber (1947-2008) is among the most significant comics writers of the modern era. Best known for his magnum opus Howard the Duck, he also wrote influential series such as Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, The Phantom Zone, and Hard Time, expressing a combination of intelligence and empathy rare in American comics. 

Gerber rose to prominence during the 1970s. His work for Marvel Comics during that era helped revitalize several increasingly clichéd generic conventions of superhero, horror, and funny animal comics by inserting satire, psychological complexity, and existential absurdism. Gerber's scripts were also often socially conscious, confronting, among other things, capitalism, environmentalism, political corruption, and censorship. His critique also extended into the personal sphere, addressing such taboo topics as domestic violence, racism, inequality, and poverty. 

This volume follows Gerber's career through a range of interviews, beginning with his height during the 1970s and ending with an interview with Michael Eury just before Gerber's death in 2008. Among the pieces featured is a 1976 interview with Mark Lerer, originally published in the low-circulation fanzine Pittsburgh Fan Forum, where Gerber looks back on his work for Marvel during the early to mid-1970s, his most prolific period. This volume concludes with selections from Gerber's dialogue with his readers and admirers in online forums and a Gerber-based Yahoo Group, wherein he candidly discusses his many projects over the years.” 
Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser City, The Comics JournalPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWACand PanelXPanel. He's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

August 7, 2019

A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things: Rob Clough reviews THE SEA by Rikke Villadsen

The vast sea is still a potent go-to metaphor for any number of things: mystery, death, eternity, etc. For Rikke Villadsen, it's also an opportunity to explore toxic masculinity, the erosion of ego, and desire. In The Sea, Villadsen eschews inks and colors, and, instead, the pages are shot directly from her thick, scribbly pencils. This gives the book a rough and slightly distorted quality that adds to the heightened sense of strangeness throughout. From the very beginning of the book, Villadsen puts "reality" on rocky ground by way of a series of narrative techniques that turn in on themselves halfway through the book. 
The first few pages are crucial to understanding the rest of the action. Three pages of watching an old salt tie knots on his little fishing dinghy are followed by him suddenly turning toward the reader (or no one in particular) and narrating his story. What story is happening? Who is telling it, and to whom? He is insistent on being called a sailor, not just a fisherman, oddly narrating his story through a series of tattoos, most of which are of naked women. Indeed, he speaks of being unable to choose between "whores in harbor and spices in cargo," but, in this, he indicates his superficial level of engagement with anyone and his understanding of the world as a series of commodities. 
His nemesis at sea is the fog, an apt metaphor for a character who professes that all he has left are his memories. When those are fogged up, he feels that his doom is at hand. Through the first twenty pages of the book, this is still just a story of a fisherman lost at sea, until he pulls in his net and finds a baby and a talking fish. What follows is a hilarious, bizarre series of arguments between the sailor, the fish, and the baby. The fish relentlessly insults the sailor, including scolding him for his use of the word "fuck" instead of something like "chowderhead." Worse, he calls the fisherman an amateur, taunting him that he'll never find shore in order to sell them at auction. The fish mocks him for being afraid of the seagulls as well.
This is an insult at an existential level. The fisherman has no identity outside of seeing himself as a sailor. That kind of insult is a total negation of self, and the fisherman undermines himself further by not swearing as a sailor should. The fisherman delays further self-examination by questioning the baby on its origins, which leads to a segue to the sea and then to a woman on an island. After pouring a cup of what appears to be her own menstrual blood in the ocean, she "nurses" the pot she poured it out of and calls it her child. Villadsen then flips this maternal scene on its ear as she starts goofing around with the pot and transitions from silliness to pure desire. The woman strips, and, for lack of a better way to describe it, she fucks the lighthouse on her island. This is an eight-page segment, four panels to a page, and the way Villadsen draws the woman drawing pleasure and fulfilling her desire with her "partner" is not played for laughs at all. This is not to say that it isn't absurd, with the final panel of the top of the lighthouse lighting up, as if it were experiencing an orgasm. 
As strange as the whole experience seems, Villadsen grounds it in an almost visceral sense of reality. The woman's body language, her facial expressions, and the way she touches herself and the lighthouse are sensuous in a way that most sex scenes in comics aren't. The nearest comparison I can think of for that kind of in-the-moment rawness is Julia Gfrörer, who also uses the gritty quality of fine pencil work to achieve that stark, unadorned sexuality stripped of fantasy and pretense. This is why that scene has such a charge: it's a fantasy sequence, depicting something impossible, yet in a way that feels authentic and lived-in. There's no deception at work here.
On the other hand, the story the fisherman spins about his mother is told with words as well as images. However, the text serves to frequently undermine the pictures, as the fisherman is an unreliable narrator. As his memory falters, the words serve only to obfuscate meaning and memory. He conflates dreams, fantasies, and actual events, unable to remember if the branches he recalled were really scraping the window of his nursery or if his mother's breast was brittle and wooden. He's inadvertently fooling himself as well as the reader. It's all in line with the narrative slowly dismantling his inflated sense of ego.
If the first part of the book is introductions and the second part is origins, then the final section is all about exits. A storm picks up, the fisherman panics and gets seasick as the fish continues to berate him. It's another attack on not only his identity but his masculinity as well. For this character, being a sailor is the same thing as being a man -- being a "fisherman" is nothing if not emasculating. Being a sailor implies bravery, bold narratives, steely nerves, and unshakable courage. Being a fisherman means physical weakness, fragility, literally diminished status (with regard to the size of his boat), and cowardice. When the baby then disappears, and the fisherman questions why, the fish says, "What baby?" Then the fish says maybe he's imagining the baby and that there's a talking fish there. The waves break on his boat, finally removing all illusions of control at last, and he winds up on a shore, face down, being picked at by the gulls that he despised. The last thing to go for the fisherman is his grip on reality itself. 
The final image is of the woman from the baby's story, who looks at the fisherman, the bones of the fish, and the pot, and remarks "Then the child will come soon and the tale will end." Whose tale is it? Hers? The baby's? Or is the title of the book more than just a setting, and is this a story about the sea itself (or is it herself)? 
What we learn is that it's not the fisherman's story, not really. He's only a small part of it, even though his ego demands that he's a great sailor, a master of the sea. The reality is that he's a man in a tiny dinghy, afraid of gulls and prone to seasickness. His identity, wrapped in the masculine ideal of the sailor, is a sham. The sea -- both mother and father -- is the true force here. Respect it, as the woman does, and you will find yourself a part of its great mystery. If you earn its scorn, you will wind up like the fisherman: dead, stripped of identity, and forgotten. 
The Sea, despite its seemingly simple veneer, is deeply rich in imagery and symbology and can be interpreted as a feminist text, an ecological text, and a detailed account of one man's descent into existential terror. 
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

August 5, 2019

Letting the Devil In: Nicholas Burman reviews THE PURITAN’S WIFE by Liam Cobb

The Puritan’s Wife is something of a thematic and stylistic variation of what one might expect from its author. Liam Cobb is an artist usually associated with pastel shades and surreal modernist settings. In previous works, such as The Fever Closing and The Inspector (previously reviewed on YCE by Ryan Carey), he has taken great pleasure in re-contextualizing recognizable figures such as Bibendum and Mayor McCheese, while taking a sideways glance at contemporary issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its title, The Puritan's Wife is neither warm nor modern. Cobb has put together a tale that encapsulates many of the stereotypes of 17th century New England settlements and settlers, with the obligatory miasma of witchcraft thrown in for good measure.
The opening page is a clear indication of the tone of the rest of the work. The reader is positioned looking up from six feet under; our view is eventually obscured by earth shoveled on top of us. It’s a claustrophobia-forming introduction. The comic remains silent for nearly six more pages, encouraging the reader to focus their energies on the mourners and the austere commune they live in (itself framed by a forest). While the characters may be physically positioned in the great expanse which is, to them, the New World, that sense of claustrophobia from the first page is echoed with a repetitive and precise six-panel layout which dominates much of the book. 
In The Puritan’s Wife, events take place in an isolated community led by John Cotton, the patriarch of this particular flock. The aforementioned funeral was for a child, one of a handful of the God-fearing community’s young who have passed away recently due to illness. From here on in the reader becomes embroiled in a family drama set in the context of a small-minded cult, in which subsequent deaths make members of the commune suspicious that black magic is at play. It all concludes in a suitably dramatic and somewhat biblical manner. Cobb keeps the plot moving along with enough pace and narrative precision to keep you involved, even as you develop pessimistic premonitions of what’s ahead. 
The story itself isn’t wholly original, but that is part of the appeal of such a tale. Puritan Horror is a subgenre with certain conventions and themes. In a review of M. Night Shyamalan 2004’s film The Village, critic Will Self wrote that “the US owes its character to [...] schismatics - whether Puritans, Amish or Mormons, heading off into the wilderness so that they can live according to their conception of the good, free from the corrupting influences of the parent society.” The dramatization and exploitation of these historical scenarios lay at the heart of Puritan Horror, and The Puritan's Wife is a great example of the category. Consequently, fans of The Crucible or The VVitch will find plenty to enjoy here. And thankfully, the ending, as well as further details about the commune itself, is just ambiguous enough to lend the work an identity which doesn’t feel totally copycat. 
A benefit of genre is that spectators are not expecting to be surprised by the plot (in broad terms, we often know what’s coming), but can instead take pleasure in the style and execution of the work. With his more common dayglo environments on pause for this volume, Cobb seems interested in ensuring that the various textures of his tools are on display in this grayscale work. In terms of style, The Puritan’s Wife seems to be Cobb returning to his self-published 2016 work Green Graves. Pencil and crayon marks are left to represent the dust and dirt of the New England landscape.
As Ellen, a key protagonist and maligned member of the commune, walks into the woods, frenetic oiled chalk marks represent her impressions of the shrubs and underbrush. The sense that the commune’s surrounding ecosystem can be flattened into abstraction reoccurs in the comic’s final moments. These flashes of distortion reinforce the notion that this is a world dictated by subjects whose perspectives sometimes wildly differ from typical representations. These representations of nature are reminiscent of van Gogh’s Tree Roots, in which personal, psychological troubles collide with obscure, natural patterns; both ended up representing the other.
Background details are sparse. Thanks to the modesty of the lives of the inhabitants, there isn’t much to show. Cobb adopts gradients to create a soft binary between above and below. The use of halftone repeatedly creates a distinction between the dark “up there” and the bright “down here” in many panels. This isn’t only appropriate period detail, as the only source of light is from candles and torches, it also creates an ominous atmosphere befitting the plot.
Aside from one splash page and a handful of oversized panels, the page layouts remain in a two by six formula throughout. Within this regimental structure, small motions and hesitant expressions take center stage. This is a story which mostly occurs at the level of intimate gestures in tight, domestic spaces, and The Puritan's Wife beautifully showcases Cobb’s gift of being able to draw a story that relies on non-verbal, interpersonal actions. While being so minimalist with its deployment of typically “action” set pieces, The Puritan's Wife would be best described as an action book, albeit actions of the minutest type.
As many of the face-to-face encounters take place indoors, the characters are often surrounded by bare, wood walls. Rather than ensure through digital processes that the patterns of these backgrounds are coherent for each repeated shot, Cobb has instead allowed his free-flowing hand to imagine these patterns anew each time. This gives the somewhat magical realist impression that the characters’ surroundings are in constant flux and that there is a slippery, psychedelic quality to the commune. This also ties in nicely with the impressionistic flourish to the representation of nature and the forest discussed above. It seems that no matter how much the religious mind attempts to give order to the world, the messiness of nature will, much like the devil, enter the home and bring chaos with it regardless.
The Puritan's Wife is published by the UK’s Otto Press, a quality outlet for a range of artists and experiments based in London. Imperfections in the booklet, such as the fact that the width of each sheet doesn’t quite match, and that art regularly bleeds into the margins and over gutters, seem purposeful. They’re nice aesthetic touches for a work that thankfully largely avoids overbearing and distracting design quirks such as a “ye olde Englishe” font.
Cobb has made his name by sampling cultural icons and reappropriating classic storylines (his long-form work The Prince was a reappraisal of the Frog Prince fairytale). In his imagining of Cotton’s commune, Cobb encapsulates society’s ideas of the isolated and superstitious community, in which the hatred of women is never far from materializing and escape seems impossible, thanks to the mental prison bars as much as any physical barriers. In the exterior scenes, it is clear the characters are never far from the impenetrable silhouette of the trees, and you imagine this acting as an invisible wall. The final sequence suggests that the outside world will swallow you whole, that nature will overwhelm you. The reader is left wondering just how long the community can last before the roots and the whims of the wider world will overcome it, too.
Nicholas Burman is currently based in Amsterdam, from where he writes about comics, experimental music, ambient artistic practices, and DIY culture for The Comics Journal, MusicMap, and Amsterdam Alternative, among others. You can find his portfolio at: