Chicago – A Comix Memoir

By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-878-6 (HB)

One of the things comics can do better than almost any other medium is autobiography. Words are immensely potent, but when wed to the images a confessor wants you to see and has devised especially for that purpose, the response is always immediate, visceral and permanent.

Cartoonist, illustrator and editor Glenn Head (Hot Wire, Snake Eyes, Weirdo) studied under Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Art in the early 1980’s but bided his time in commercial illustration for publications like Advertising Age, Screw, Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, and with comix such as Guttersnipe and Head Shots before releasing his first graphic novel in 2015.

It was worth the wait…

In monochrome hardback Chicago – available in sturdy hardback and trustworthy digital formats – Head turned a harsh, stark spotlight on his own life, literally baring all and detailing how a troubled teenaged virgin from New Jersey turned his back on the American Dream and his own personal hopes and aspirations before touching bottom and courting madness to reach his current (still tenuous) state.

Following an incisive Introduction from Phoebe Gloeckner, the history lesson begins in a graveyard in the Garden State. “Glen” is nineteen and troubled, but not necessarily unhappy: he’s just painfully aware that he doesn’t fit in.

It’s the summer of 1977 and he’s obsessed with the cartoons and paraphernalia of the hippie Counterculture then experiencing its death-throes. Dad works on Wall Street and desperately wants to understand why his son seems at such a loss. The boy doesn’t even seem happy to be going to Art School in Cleveland, even though he claims that’s what he wants…

What Glenn actually wants most is Sarah: his best friend and a girl appallingly emotionally scarred by the treatment she has received from her Holocaust-Survivor parents. She’s already well down the road to dissolution though: pregnant, a runaway and being used to turn tricks by her latest scumbag boyfriend…

The season turns and Glen reluctantly reports to the Cleveland Institute of Art, his intolerant, abrasive attitude winning him few friends amongst staff or students. There’s something indefinably wrong inside his head and before long he drops out and starts panhandling to survive.

A casual conversation with another student attains the status of a sign from God and Glen – who we’re starting to think might suffer from bipolar disorder – abruptly hitchhikes to Chicago, determined to sell cartoons to Playboy magazine…

And thus begins an intense period of privation, hallucination, harassment by hustlers, constant danger and creeping horror, all punctuated by unexpected kindnesses from strangers, rejections, connections and moments of incomprehensible good fortune as chance meetings with Muhammad Ali and Robert Crumb begin turning the street-meat’s life around…

‘Decompression’ sees Glen in January 1978, back in comfortably suburban Madison, N.J. thanks to his amazingly understanding yet still-uncomprehending father. Although the threat of imminent starvation and murder have faded, the boy is still at risk – from his own actions after a telephone conversation with idealised inamorata Sarah’s manic mother and his own father’s poorly hidden handgun…

The final section of this diary occurs in 2010 as Brooklyn-dwelling single-dad Glen gets an email one morning. Sarah, the one that got away, the great missed opportunity, has tracked him down and wants to meet up. Is this his chance to stop being that painful, pathetic, unresolved 19-year-old virgin at last?

Breathtakingly candid, intoxicatingly forthright and irresistibly visually exhilarating, Chicago is a startling examination of the power of obsessions and memories: a potential roadmap to finding your own identity… as long as you have the nerve and stomach to try…
Chicago © 2015, Glenn Head. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

The Roles We Play

By Sabba Khan (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-30-6 (Deluxe Paperback) eISBN: 978-1-912408-98-8

Do you know what’s one of the most scarily charged questions in modern life?

“Where are you from?”

It used to be a neutral opening: a simple introductory gambit when meeting new people, but has recently become fraught with purely British angst, dipped in layers of second, third and fourth-guessing for all parties concerned. Are the words a friendly, casual enquiry to establish social parity and share past experience, or is it a setting of the scene for a judgemental inquisition or even targeting for imminent disparaging condescension?

I’m Hertfordshire-born baby-boomer English, via a German mum and Polish dad: the whitest Old White Male you could ever imagine and my accent is just right to be wholly acceptable to doctors, publicans, posh gits, shopkeepers, schoolkids, sports fans of all descriptions, raving Gammons and sneaky leftist liberal socialists alike. In modern terms, that’s winning the British community lottery, but deep within, I’m tainted with foreignness to my core. Anybody feel like treating me differently now you know?

Not ticking all those boxes has made life increasingly difficult for a vast pool of my fellow Brits: a point I can perfectly prove by reference to the debut graphic novel of Architectural designer and visual artist Sabba Khan. She’s British too, but has to constantly remind not just the people around her, but also her own family…

Told over three transformative, illuminating stages The Roles We Play follows a young girl reared in a loving, abusive, restrictive, nurturing home that gave no shrift to individuality or accommodated personal dreams, but instead made everything of a culture, history and tradition forsaken for a new life in an incomprehensibly different world.

Khan grew up in East London when she was outside, but lived in a house that was a static box of ancestral Kashmiri life constructed following her parents move to England. They came as part of an Asian diaspora triggered by the 1947 partition of India and subsequent flooding of the Mirpur valley in Azad Kashmir in 1961. The project created a dam, power source and stable water supply, but forcibly displaced 15 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had previously farmed the valley in peace for generations.

Apparently, two thirds of British Pakistanis trace their ancestry back to the Mirpur Valley and the 1961 Water Treaty between India and Pakistan which still resonates in the ongoing battle for control of the Kashmir region…

Although womanly skills, and general history and context were abundant and scrupulously shared and passed on in the house, tolerance of British ways was not. Sabba grew up drawn in two directions: cherishing the love of family, support of faith and familiar ways, but constantly chided for her incomprehensible interest in the places, ways and temptations of the different life beyond the house walls.

Always keen to chart her own course, Khan spent years seeking to balance two lives before choosing to pursue art and architecture. She claimed independence: breaking away from controlling family, constant judgement, wheedling scrutiny and soft-power governance to create her own career and multicultural clan with a man of another world and friends of her own choosing.

Her ruminations, observations and bittersweet reminiscences are cannily transformed here into a captivating testament to a life of choice: exploring the truth of growing up Asian in Britain, seeking to assimilate the new whilst embracing the traditional. Seen in macrocosm, her superbly imaginative graphic designs and illustrative scenes trace a life of introspection and longing, deconstructing issues of race, alienation, rejection, cultural identity and sense-of-place-and-worth, whilst confronting on a personal level countless incidents covering a history of intolerance over religion, skin colour, gender, history, class and yes, race again…

Deftly sustaining a captivating balancing act between a British now with the idealised Kashmir she never knew, Khan has manifested a compelling journey laced with humour, warmth, hope and unshakable determination that should call out to not just the many migrant communities that make up modern society – and who have built the notion of Britain since before the Roman Invasion – but also to all of us who used to proudly welcome strangers here…
© Sabba Khan 2021. All rights reserved.

The Roles We Play is published on 15th July 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

This Was 2020

By Peter S. Conrad (
ISBN: 979-8-589501-56-8 (Digest PB)

Peter Conrad (Markdown Dreams; Love, Death and DRIVING; Vidrio Café) is an artist, designer and author working in San Francisco, and one of those bold, diligently disciplined creative souls who maintain some form of cartoon journal. Last year was pretty remarkable for everyone, so rather than keep all those pictorial observations to himself and his intimate circle, he opted to publish and share his experiences.

The result is this captivating monochrome paperback (available through Amazon and on Kindle) which invites us into the life of a rather sedentary couple, who became – like all of us in non-critical occupations and services – passive observers and commentators on life in a total bollock of a year…

In gentle tones, and while never really surrendering a sense of wondrous bewilderment, Conrad details the intimate side of enforced self-internment for people like all of us, with the reader doubtless remarking “yep, we did that” or “nope! Not us”, while also detailing that other stuff happened too…

While remarking on celebrity fatalities – as opposed to disease-induced deaths – such as Kobe Bryant, and personal losses he lists other inescapable communal acts we all mostly lived through. There’s civic insouciance; cancelled plans; loss of social contact, murder hornets (!); the social niceties of quarantining; new hobbies and occupations; unexpected consequence of “staying fit” and the general lulling of human expectation, before the artist hones in on how everything changes after the murder of George Floyd seized the world’s attention…

Certainly, for the Conrads and their neighbours, life was a little more dramatic. Having to sit pat for riots on the streets of San Francisco (Black Lives Matter), endure how stressed people legally owning guns relieve tensions, vote in another – hopefully final – election involving the Orange Idiot in Chief, and barely escaping California’s worst fire season since the last – or next – one, totally trumps my part of scenic Kent enduring Brexit-inspired traffic chaos, but I suspect we all feel each other’s pain here…

Or maybe not.

Simultaneously encompassing and embracing stifling ennui and radical change, mass death and truly global lack of leadership, this superb graphic memoir laves on a laudable everyman perspective to the best and worst of times; serving to confirm that when we finally reach the actual apocalypse, we won’t have learned a damn thing and will still make the same mistakes again…

With any luck, there will also be books like this on to remind us that empathy, grace and hope are also parts of the human condition.
© 2021 by Peter S. Conrad. All rights reserved.

Couch Tag

By Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-676-8

In modern trend for graphic novels combining autobiography with a touch of therapy as they recount the lives of their authors is well established now, but once such “tragicomics” were a scarce but inviting commodity. Immensely appealing and frequently painfully unforgettable, they prove our medium fully capable of tackling the most contentious issues. One of the most moving and impressive came from veteran Indie cartoonist and mini comics self-publisher Jessie (Dreamtoons; Ten Thousand Things to Do; Lovf: An Illustrated Vision Quest of a Man Losing His Mind) Reklaw: who’s generated unmissable thought-provoking strips and stories since 1995 when he was working towards his doctorate in Artificial Intelligence.

Born in Berkley, California in 1971, he grew up in Sacramento before attending UC Santa Cruz and Yale, and his earliest publications – just like most of his modern output – delved into the phenomena and imagery of dreams. The experimental Concave Up led to syndicated weekly strip dream-diary Slow Wave, which uses readers’ contributions as the basis of the episodes. It ran from 1995 to 2012 in both printed periodicals and as a webcomic and is sorely missed.

His graphic autobiography is just as beguiling: a life reduced to brief vignettes serially grouped into 5 innocuous-seeming chapters which, through cleverly layered and carefully tailored reminiscences, describe Recklaw’s strangely unconventional (if not actually dysfunctional) family and personal struggle for stability.

Primarily crafted in monochrome wash, the history sessions begin with ‘Thirteen Cats of My Childhood’ – which older readers will recognises from Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, where it was also published – wherein succinct and ferociously functional recollections of a succession of ill-starred family pets serves as a splendid and powerfully effective narrative conceit to introduce the far from ordinary Walker clan.

By following the brief lives of ‘Black Star’, ‘Frosty’, ‘The Triplets’, ‘Mischief’, ‘Figgy Pudding’, ‘Gene’, ‘Survivor’,‘Tiger’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Harry’, we see a family of decidedly alternative outlook whilst also relating the rules of the furniture-based children’s game which gives this book its title.

‘A Note About Names Part One’ follows, revealing more about the sensibilities of the author’s parents, after which ‘Toys I Loved’ continues the amazingly instructive anecdotes about formative influences, as games and playthings act as keys to memory in increasingly unsettling, discordant and disturbing tales beginning in infancy with cuddly toy ‘Ruff-Ruff’ and skipping through a childhood dotted with sibling rivalries and sporadic best-friendships.

Jess, Sis, Mom and “Daddy Bill” are all defined courtesy of ‘The Mask’, ‘Me’s’, ‘Blankie’, ‘Sprinkler’, ‘Play-Doh’, ‘Stretch Armstrong’, ‘Six-Million-Dollar Man’, ‘The Hulk’, ‘Firecrackers’, ‘Green Cup’, ‘Diecast Robots’, ‘Drawers’, ‘Comic Books’, ‘Action Figures’, ‘Dirt Pile’, ‘Doll House’ and ‘Barbies’, before the life-changing advent of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

‘The Fred Robinson Story’ details the potentially obsessive nature of teenage pranks with Jess and like-minded buddy Brendan – over a number of years – bombarding a complete stranger with a barrage of creative celebration; turning a random name in a phone book into the recipient of odd gifts and star of music and handmade comic books in ‘The Box’.

The lads develop their musical tendencies in ‘Los Angeles’ and penchant for creative vandalism in ‘Batsigns’, before returning to their lengthy cartooning crusade in ‘Fred Robinson X-ing’: relating how the prank publishing campaign mushroomed and Brendan’s girlfriend Kristin changes the status quo, after which Jess gets a ‘Letter from Norway’ and‘Better Fred’ reveals how things eventually ended…

‘The Stacked Deck’ recounts educational episodes and memorable moments resulting from the entire extended family’s passion for card games and tendency towards compulsive behaviour, as seen in ‘War’, ‘Go Fish’, ‘Spades’, ‘Pinochle’,‘Crazy Eights’, ‘Speed’, ‘Poker’, ‘31’, ‘Rummy’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Spite & Malice’ and ‘Ascension’

Final chapter ‘Lessoned’ is delivered in a succession of distressed colour-segments: raw and disturbing pages of evocative collage and experimental narrative dealing out a unique tarot set of A-to-Z insights and disclosures, beginning with ‘Adults’, ‘Birth’ and ‘the Crash’.

Ranging between early days and contemporary times, the alphabetical summary and keen self-diagnosis continues with ‘Disease’, ‘Earache’, ‘Family’, ‘Gifted’, ‘Humor’ and ‘Invulnerability’, turning a corner towards understanding with ‘Joint’, ‘Kiersey Test’, ‘Legal Guardian’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Number’ and ‘Obsession’.

After cleverly addressing the revelations of the author’s bipolar mood disorder and explosive determination to take control of his life by rejecting sickness and weakness, ‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Question’, ‘Role-Playing’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Tests’ and ‘Unconscious’ carry the account to a new normal with ‘the Vandal’, ‘Walker’, ‘X-Mas’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Zero’.

Bleak yet uplifting, nostalgic and distressing, harsh and blackly funny, Couch Tag is a devastatingly moving account of coping with adverse heredity, sexual deviancy, social nonconformity and familial discord which I suspect could only be told in comics.

This is not a book everyone can like, but it’s definitely a story to resonate with anyone who has felt alone, odd or different.

And surely that’s all of us at some time…
© 2013 Jesse Reklaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

By Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-410-0 (HB)

How does memory work? Are your recollections neatly sorted and filed away: dry, dusty documents effortlessly relating time, place, event and response, or is the act of personal recall mired in apparently extraneous passions and seemingly irrelevant sidebars of emotion, pulling you from the topic far and away before circling back to what originally set you thinking?

Mine’s that last one, and it’s a phenomenon used to devasting effect by Mannie Murphy as they pull together deeply intimate musings on famous – but presumably unrequited – imagined inamorata who endured tragic fates, peppered with youthful school experiences and personal philosophies while powerfully delivering a chilling expose of the proudly racist and white supremacist history of hometown Portland, Oregon.

Rendered as a personal diary with sometimes-impenetrable cursive script married to wash-&-ink images, Murphy details long-distance, strictly hands-off relationships with teen icons River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves (specifically as observed in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho); Kurt Cobain and less well-known or admired personalities: all while deftly dissecting the far-from-savoury development and current state of a region long considered the promised land for Far Right fantasists and dreamers.

Available in hardback or various digital formats, the meandering masterclass opens with ‘My Own Private Portland’setting the scene for a mesmerising journey through the city and state through the lens of damaged, disenfranchised and frequently doomed youth. Second chapter ‘Ken Death is Dead’ expands the discussion detailing the career of a beautiful poster child for Nazi extremism and convicted mass killer, who was just another pawn in a cruel game played by older, nastier Machiavellians, after which the story of Oregon and its awful record of racism, exclusion and mass murder – much of it permitted or committed by a complacent and compliant police force – is covered in ‘Flood’.

A hard-earned, personal view of the educational set-up and its grim consequences is related in ‘Victims of Groupthink’with perspective supplied by further reference to celluloid Lost Boys and their connections to bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other notable outsiders, all cleverly married to distressing accounts of tragedies and disasters that systematically shaped the city and the kids growing up the Oregon way.

The miraculous transport of curated memories then closes with a chilling Epilogue as ‘Young Hatemongers’ revisits the Ken Death trial and media storm around it with revelations that came to light during the later stages of this book’s creation.

Dark, brooding, deeply upsetting while brimming with potent immediacy and rough-hewn passion, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is an apparently rambling but carefully steered narrative of seemingly random remembrances that serve as a warning from history and heartfelt plea for people to be better than they are…
© 2021 Mannie Murphy. This edition © 2021 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dog Days

By Anja Dahle Øverbye, translated by Agnes Scott Langeland (Centrala)
ISBN: 978-0-9933951-9-2 (TPB)

Friendship is a strange and potent thing, especially if formed during or overlapping and surviving the fraught transition from little kids to turbulent teen…

Released as Hundedagar in 2015, Anja Dahle Øverbye’s award-winning debut graphic novel is set in a timeless “Then” in North West Norway as a small group of schoolgirls endure the dull tedium and decimating heat and foul odours of the annual Dog Days – when the usual nothing-to-do is cruelly exacerbated by debilitating heat and still air to match the static lives of the same old crowd.

Anne is having a difficult time. She’s too old for silly pranks, stamp albums and other kids’ stuff, but not old enough to go with life-long friend Marielle to interesting new places like the youth club. Worse yet, annoying creepy Carrie is monopolising Marielle’s time. They’re forming a bond: a clique of two who seem to spend most of their time being mean and playing nasty pranks on Anne.

Endless days go by and even tragedy at a neighbour’s house, the big fair and that creepy adult hanging around can’t dispel the tedium. The situation between the rivals worsens, so Anne decides to act. If she wants to restore the status quo or be part of a new one, she needs to adapt. Happily, shy, quiet Kate is around to take the cruel heat…

A sleek but chilling examination of unformed personalities instinctively vying for dominance, Dog Days is a deceptively powerful treatment of friendship and alliances that will remain with you long after yo finish reading.
© Centrala Ltd./Anja Dahle Øverbye. Translation © Agnes Scott Langeland. All rights reserved.

A Journal of my Father

By Jiro Taniguchi translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian with Chitoku Teshima (Fanfare-Ponent Mon)
ISBN: 978-1-91209-743-2 (HB)

Unless you’re a dedicated fan of manga, you probably haven’t heard of Taniguchi Jirō (14th August 1947-11 February 2017). Despite his immense talent as both writer and artist – in 2011, France knighted him a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres – his “gekiga” work has been slow to reach English speakers since his 1970 debut in Young Comic with Kareta Heya (A Desiccated Summer).

With nearly 50 different series and collections to his credit – originally hard-edge crime like City Without Defense, The Wind of the West is White, Lindo 3, Blue Fighter and Knuckle Wars – the 1990s saw him move into more universal and mature themes with Kamigami no itadaki (The Summit of the Gods), Kamigami no itadaki, and – in 1997, in collaboration with Moebius – Ikaru (Icarus).

He expanded into straight drama with Botchan no Jidai, Inu o Kau and the remarkable A Distant Neighborhood (a major, albeit Belgian, motion picture since 2010).

Joking aside, Mr. Taniguchi was a major force in international comics and now his most personal masterpiece is at last available in English, thanks, I suspect to a career-long and most appreciative French connection. Hopefully, that will extend to digital editions fairly soon …

Beguilingly mild, understated and packed with suppressed and repressed emotion, Chichi no Koyami details how a quiet, diligent parent is called back to his home town after years away in Tokyo. Yoichi Yamashita has spent decades away, carving out a life and family for himself while avoiding all contact with his own father.

Now the old man is dead, and the dutiful son returns for the funeral rites. Talking with family and friends, he gradually learns of a man and life he never really knew and, as he re-examines his side of a never-changing story probably repeated in every household in the world, Yoichi reassesses and apply an uncompromising lens of hard-earned experience to the life he made after leaving so long ago.

In dignified, revelatory slices, beginning with ‘A Sunny Place on the Floor’ and ‘Traces of Spring’, he reconsiders his life. ‘Crimson Memories’, ‘New Roads’, ‘My Beautiful Mother’, ‘Summer Recollections’, ‘Separation’ and ‘Another Mother’ fill in details like a detective thriller with all the clues and evoked memories of ‘A Particular Photograph’, ‘My Uncle’s Words’, ‘Revolving Seasons’ and ‘Hometown in Spring’ drawing him into long-delayed emotional metamorphosis and catharsis…

Gentle and lyrical, rendered with staggering visual authenticity and ruthless honesty, this old, old story is mesmerising in its power to move: an emotional tonic every father and son should apply lavishly to their own experience and a truly grown-up picture book we should all use as manual to navigating family life.
Chichi no Koyami by Jiro Taniguchi © Papier/1995 Jiro Taniguchi. All rights reserved. © 2021 Potent Mon for the English language edition.

Biscuits Assorted

By Jenny Robins (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-91240-82-90 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Utterly Captivating Human-Scaled Enticement… 10/10

There’s a 1944 Powell & Pressburger film called A Canterbury Tale, where a group of disparate but loosely associated characters weave in and out of each other’s klives for a defined period, gradually proceeding towards a shared denouement. It’s about far more than that and is really good. You should see it.

Biscuits Assorted is a bit like that, but also completely different. You should read it. It’s really, Really good.

Artist, teacher, Small Press artisan and author Jenny Robins is clearly a keen observer and gifted raconteur deftly attuned to nuance and ambiance and quite possibly hopelessly in love with London. Her award-winning debut graphic novel is a paean to modern living in the city, recounted through overlapping snapshots of many women’s lives in the months of June, July and August of a recent year (and don’t worry about which one).

If you need the metaphor explained, there are different varieties and, occasionally, they don’t do what it says on the tin…

Seriously though, here in captivating monochrome linework are a plethora of distinct and well-round individuals of differing ages and backgrounds working, playing, living, dying, risking, winning, failing and constantly interacting with each other to a greater or lesser extent, all united by place, circles of friends, shared acquaintances and enjoying – for once – full access to their own unexpurgated voices.

Strangers or intimates, life-long or Mayfly-momentary, this addictively engaging collection of incidents and characters all share locations and similar pressures as they go about their lives, but the way in which they all impact upon each other is truly mesmerising. I’m a bluff old British codger and I’ve met these very women and girls all my life, except for those who are completely new to my white male privileged experience. Now, however, I know what they’re like and what they’ve been thinking all this time…

And it’s outrageously funny and terrifying elucidating, rude in all the right ways and places and able to break your heart and jangle the nerves with a turn of a page.

Biscuits Assorted is a brilliant and revelatory picaresque voyage that is impossible to put down and certain to become a classic of graphic literature. It’s also the most fun you can have with your brain fully engaged.

Yesterday we published our Top Ten of 2020. Be sure to add this to the list. We did.
© Jenny Robins 2020. All rights reserved.

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott

By Zoe Thorogood (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-56-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Topical Tale of Tragedy and Triumph Over Adversity… 9/10

I almost included this stunning debut in our Halloween horror program, but decided that no matter how disturbing the concept, this is essentially a very upbeat and joyous tale and one in need of being read on its own terms…

Zoe Thorogood is a young freelance artist and concept designer from Middlesbrough, who pays attention and thinks through what she conceives. That sounds overly obvious, but – speaking as an extremely aged freelance artist and concept designer from the halcyon days of social equality, equal opportunities and a sense of responsibility – it’s a rare level of consciousness that usually takes decades of mistakes to attain.

Having branched out into graphic novel storytelling, Thorogood has sagely stuck to what she knows for irony-drenched The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott. Here a struggling artist doubting and second-guessing her life in a poverty-afflicted northern town suddenly realises her greatest dream at the beginning of her career. After – incredibly – winning the “2020 New Artist of the Year Competition”, Billie is awarded her own gallery show of new works in London, and a guaranteed entrée to the shimmering world of the Art Business glitterati.

After an understandable moment of confusion and prevarication, she gets to work on the ten new paintings only to learn that she is going to abruptly, rapidly and incurably lose her sight in mere months…

Confronting her past and future, Billie packs up the bare essentials and heads on a pilgrimage to London, encountering and embracing the lowest tawdry dregs and survivors of modern society as she races to complete the last and most meaningful images she will ever see herself create…

Will she make it? Is it even worth the effort?

The concept isn’t new, but this delightful and evocative take on the Trials of Job is at its heart a delicious celebration of simple humanity and the fact that people are complex and must not be reduced to talking points for the worthy or used as PR fodder for governments who seek to equate being poor or nonconformist with criminality, deviancy, otherness or antisocial “unworthiness”.

…And, as every sanctimonious plutocrat, pious reformer or obsequious political self-server always seems to forget, if you push us too far for too long, eventually we rise…

In equal parts an examination of the creative impulse, indictment of Post-Austerity Britain and affirmation of the human spirit, this book is also a captivating tale beautifully rendered in smart line, restricted palettes and – when most impactful – glorious full colour. Positively Dickensian in tone, sublimely modernistic in delivery and splendidly displaying the community we all need to be, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is a damn fine read we all need to share.
© Zoe Thorogood 2020. All rights reserved.

Sublife volumes 1 and 2

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-946-3 (TPB vol 1) 978-1-60699-309-5 (TPB vol 1)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Excellence Cannot be Allowed to Wither… 9/10

Born in Saigon and raised in the USA, self-publishing wizard and minicomic genius John Pham joined with the wonderfully progressive Fantagraphics to release two volumes in a proposed twice-a-year book series dedicated to the sheer joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, miracle-free world, blending joyous creation with incisive social interrogation. These astoundingly satisfying anthologies are still available in paperback or digital formats and if you or yours love the power of comics to engender reaction, they really belong with you….

The initial offering, a sublimely designed landscape-format tome printed in quirky two-tone (Magenta and Cyan combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading Beano or The Dandy) features a series of intertwined tales featuring the odd denizens of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

Poignant and surreal by turns, the lives of exhausted ‘Mildred Lee’, dubious stud ‘Vrej Sarkissian’, tragic and disturbing religious studies teacher ‘Hubie Winters’ and those guys ‘Los Hermanos Macdonald’ are a captivating and laconic examination of the kind of people you probably wouldn’t like or make time for…

The silent, deadly pantomime of the house cat seeking safety outside is worth the price of admission alone, but when the abstract and symbol-stuffed existences on display here shuffle into your head and just sit there twitching, you too will wonder how you ever got on without this on your “must-read” list.

The second volume dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, wonder-deprived world, is also crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue here combined to produce a huge variety of colours) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’, wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece reminiscent of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming Pham’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go “dog-training”…

This leads into anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume recounts the adventures of ‘The Kid’: a practically wordless post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn. It deals with scavenging and the price of love, channelling of – and deeply respectful to – Mad Max, with perhaps just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume fun finishes with nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’: a fond paean to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. Fascinated by modern prejudices, he tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re wearied by mainstream comics but still love the medium too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…
© 2008, 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.