Friday, 15 July 2016

In the Short Box: Quality and Stuff

The Theme is Quality

I will preface this post by saying that I was extremely saddened when I heard that Comics and Cola was shutting down. I’ve been lost ever since, erring on the internet trying to find good sources of review of alternative comics and have yet to find something as excellent as Zainab Akhtar’s thoughtful analysis and reviews of comics. I’m not going to lie; I even sent her a fan letter when I heard the end of Comics and Cola. I wished her all the best in her new endeavor and hoped it would still somehow be related to comic book. I couldn't have been happier to hear about her new initiative, Shortbox, a curated international comic box. I was suspicious at first upon hearing the concept. It sounded an awful lot like Loot Crate or Comic Blind Box, a concept I'm not fond of I've often described as an expensive landfill delivery system that never seems to provide any comic book of real interests. However, after reading her pitch for Shortbox, those fears were quickly whisked away. The focus is on comic book, good ones, with a side of tiny extras along the way. I had much faith in her ability to select interesting comics and dispense with the unnecessary fluff.

I was lucky enough to get one of those boxes and I thought I’d come out of blogging semi-retirement to talk about the content of Shortbox from front to back. Without further ado, let’s take a look.

Neebo, by Violaine Briat

The first thing the reader is greeted with is a magnificent cover featuring a yellow humanoid with a splendid red cloak sitting in a sunbeam in the middle of a dark forest. The colours are deep and vibrant, our first indication of Violaine Briat's extensive focus on colorus throughout the comic. Neebo is the tale of an anthropomorphic humanoid looking to keep a turtle (the titular Neebo) safe in a violent magical post-apocalyptic fantasy land. Our protagonist, named Jonas, appears at first to be a likeable character, as he rescues the turtle from a violent fight to the death between two other anthropomorphic beasts. But our opinion quickly changes as his intentions are revealed to be not as noble as they might have seemed initially and that he may be as bad as everyone else in this land. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Neebo appears to be it's use of contrasting colours. Mainly, each page uses two central colours with a dash of a third one every now and then. The colours are not uniformly applied. One panel for example shows a forest, the trunks of trees are red while the tree tops are purple, only to reverse that colour scheme in the very next page. It's jarring at first, but the reader quickly adapts. This reinforces the effect of the book where not all is quite what is seems. Our protagonist is a nice man, but he might not be. The tree tops are red, or purple, or green. Good & Evil changes depending on when the action occurs. It looks gorgeous. It sometimes removes depths to certain elements in the background, but it mostly enhances the panels. There's a panel where Jonas is in a pool and only the water is a dark green color, while everything else is lime green. It was hard to make out what was what and how far things were supposed to be. In another pane, he walks into the forest and the trunks are yellow and everything else is green. It really helps to showcase how lost he feels; how vast and dark that forest truly is. It's a great use of colours. 

While the sharp contrast between colours is the first thing you'll notice, the comic actually creates a fantastic mythology using nothing more than it's background imagery. The ruins of a hotel; cannons across a battlefield overrun by grass and moss; medieval soldiers lying dead in a staircase... It hints at a larger world. A world that has been overtaken by rot and the supernatural; by violent anthropomorphic animals and seers giving divine instructions. I'm reminded of Lando's Garden of Glass and the story about the "Olympic Games", where astronauts are trying to escape a sci-fi world surrounded by decay and where violence thrives. Briat's use of colours somehow renders this world even creepier.

I particularly liked the gallery in the back of the book. A great way to intrigue readers and show a different range of art. It whets the appetite for more work from this artist.


Phantom, by Aatmaja Pandya

This was perhaps the most interesting comic I've read in awhile and a top contender for the best comic of 2016. Phantom is the tale of an exploration of belonging; how memories affect our understanding of self and space; and how modern free movement and gentrification changes neighbourhoods.

Gentrification is an interesting concept I've seen explored in comics before, mostly in Tom Kazcinski's Beta Testing the Apocalypse and in Ben Katchor's Hand-drying in America, but never on such a personal level. How does the changing demographic of a neighbourhood affect your sense of self? How does it feel to realize that the place you identify as your home, where your fond memories of your childhood happened, has changed so drastically as to become unrecognizable? Phantom delves deep into the heart of the artist as she recalls her life in Queen's and how the changing population and composition of the area affects her. I have rarely seen an exploration of a concept like this on such a personal level. It comes from a place of distress and sadness at knowing the inevitability of change and the inability to prevent it in any way. Pandya challenges the notion that someone can truly belong anywhere and the foolishness of feeling attached to a neighbourhood. Here, I can feel my roots more strongly than I ever could anywhere else, even back in India. But the foundation around me is changing. I don't see history anymore. Pandya talks about the very real feelings of anger at the changes happening, while understanding that the rapidly evolving demographics means that there is no way that this can stop.

Phantom is about more than just gentrification. It is also about memories and the fickleness of our brains. Pandya recalls not only the neighbourhood, but also her childhood memories. What struck me as interesting was how hazy these recollections are. What remains aren't clear images, but feelings. She remembers stars stuck to the ceiling that she could touch from the top of her bunk bed. Or maybe it was from the bottom bunk. But whether it happened from the top or bottom bunk is inconsequential. It's the feelings these memories evoke that are connecting her to her roots. This is illustrated in various ways, mostly by deliberately making an image slightly blurry.

One of my favourite aspects of this comic might be the way Pandya is able to weave all of the themes together so effortlessly. You can read it HERE for free but you can also get a physical copy HERE. I have read it both digitally and in print form and I must say I felt the reading experience was more cohesive as a whole in print form. I felt that those themes of belonging resonated more strongly in the print version. Phantom on paper is an artifact that grounds the reading to a physical element. It is tangible and it's tactile aspects brings a weight to the comic the digital format cannot quite convey. A screen is too multipurpose to properly address those themes.


Light OCD, by Mathilde Van Gheluwe

Mathilde Van Gheluwe takes us through the various symptoms (habits and behaviours) that comes with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). We are made to see the world from the perspective of someone suffering from OCD, or at least would want to see. Whether it is extremely messy or hyper organized like in the above page, Van Gheluwe is able to convey the duality at the heart of OCD. It conveys the need to see the world in a specific way, and not being able to function if it isn't in that particular way at that particular moment.

Light OCD uses mostly full page drawings, but the space allows Van Gheluwe to spread her art over a full page. It's delightful to see. Her style reminds me of German expressionism and how it plays with shadow and composition of black and white. This sort of exaggeration of reality really helps the book to stand out. I was enamoured with it from the first page. The ink on the page is thick. It looks extravagant and really helps the style shine through.

I really liked this comic, yet I'm having a really hard time describing why. It's good, trust me!


Alcathoe & the Giant Girl, by Isaac Lenkiewicz

Alcathoe & the Giant Girl is the tale of a little girl who wanders through the woods too close to the house of Alcathoe, the grumpy/evil witch of the village. She annoys the witch and is transformed into a giant. It's up to her mother to confront the witch and reverse the spell. She has met Alcathoe before and this time, she'll take her head off.

There are interesting concepts in the comics, such as the mother having to once again face her childhood bully as an adult. The lesson is seemingly that to face a bully, you also have to be aggressive and become a bully yourself, even if your intentions are noble. I'm not quite sure this was the intended message, but it felt this way. I'm sure other readers will have different reactions to it, perhaps I'm too cynical.

Alcathos is a gorgeous comic. I like riso-printed comics and this one was quite spectacular. It uses only 2 colours throughout (blue and white), to great effect. I felt as though the colorus benefited from the thin pencil strokes of Lenkiewicz. It allowed the smaller elements to really pop out of the page, such as gusts of wind or the lawn of a house. The hand-crafted panels, loosely drawn by hand, gives each page an eclectic charm. I don't often talk about paper stock, but I loved the one used here. It seems like it's recycled paper. It's imperfect and has minor discolouration in various places, but it really adds to the charm of the comic.

This was unfortunately, my least favorite comics of the box, mostly because I felt the other comics that came with it were so strong. It was bound to look weaker by comparison. While it is well-crafted and is a quirky take on a conventional fairy tale, I had a hard time enjoying it. I like the comedic aspect of the book. I even read it to my newborn son. I just don't don't think I'll read it again for myself.

Kupala, by Kaska Gazdowna and Kaska Klas

A forest is almost always shrouded in mystery. It's dark, dangerous and mysterious. Even more so now that most of us live in cities, far removed from the natural world. The sheer volume of sounds and animal activity roaming in the woods at night seems supernatural.

Kupala tells the tale of a young boy who falls in love with a mysterious girl in the woods during Kupala, a summer solstice event in which the supernatural interacts with the world of the living. While the boy receives fair warning from his grandmother, he doesn't heed those warnings and returns every year to this mysterious woman until tragedy strikes. 

What struck me about this comic was how light the tone was considering the horror and violence with which the book ends. There was a sort of casualness to it all. The world is cruel and violent. Things in the woods will attack you. They'll eat your kayak. It's just the way the world is. Life is miserably bleak. It isn't just the distant past, but our present is just as bad. We may lie to ourselves and pretend there's light in this world, but it's delusional. In Kupala, love is dangerous. It brings with it a false hope that things will get better; that someone cares for us and wants us to be happy. This comic is a stark reminder that happiness is a construct yielding few good outcomes. The protagonist of Kupala will not have a happy ending and neither will any of us. We're all doomed. 

I really liked the art. It's pacing and layout was extremely competent. I liked how the artist used primarily black and white and a layer of black dots on white to create a gray colour. This mesh layer is expertly woven throughout to create depth, light and textures. For such a dark comic, the use of white made it seem quite bright. It doesn't play with colour as much as Violaine Briat's Neebo, but it is a solid comic. It does share with other comics in the box a sort of bleak view of the world, a dark vision of the world. I really enjoyed this comic.


The REST, by Michael Deforge, Seo Kim, Ryan Cecil Smith & Zainab Akhtar

The latest batch of retrofit had a few extras, a print from Michael Deforge with his signature style. It reminded me of some stuff he’d done for his Ottawa art show exhibit “Dogs”. It looks great. There’s a sheet of bunnies and cats stickers from Seo Kim. I could care less about stickers, but I’m sure my son will make good use of it. Either in a few years when he can play with them, or maybe I’ll randomly use them to seal birthday card envelopes. Regardless, it’s always nice to see her art. I’ve been meaning to read Cat Person for a while, and this was a good reminder to look it up. My favorite concept of the box is possibly the contributors credit sheet. Designed by Ryan Cecil Smith, it’s a nice introduction to the artists showcased in the box. I thought it was a really neat idea. These comics are not made in a vacuum, they’re made by artists, people you may want to look into if you like their work. There’s also candies, which was sweet. I half expected some soft drink, the aforementioned cola, but I doubt a can of soft drink would travel well with paper. 

In conclusion

In conclusion, Shortbox was nothing short of phenomenal. I hope the trial run went well. It apparently sold out in an hour. I’m one of the lucky few who were able to get one out of pure luck given the time difference between the UK and Canada (my newborn son was awake and not falling asleep at the time and I just stumbled onto the open ordering time). I would encourage anyone who is even remotely interested in alternative comics to look into Shortbox. It probably was pricier than I expected, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I liked almost every single comic in the box, but it’s about more than the content, it’s also about the care and attention given to it. From the box itself to the colorful tape, to the candy in the box, and how the comics were wrapped. There’s all these little thing I didn’t focus on that really makes you understand the passion for comics that Zainab Akhtar has and she wants you to love the stuff in the box as much as she did. I’m looking forward to seeing what will be in the next box and, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get one. Pre-ordering for box #2 starts Monday July 18th 2016.