When you live in a world beyond parody then satire is hard. James Albon’s A Shining Beacon, though, is less about exploring a dystopian future as much as extrapolating its reality from current events. Published by Top Shelf Productions, whose eclectic curation always delights, Albon’s account of an artist inextricably and impotently caught up in forces beyond her control is a frighteningly familiar scenario of implacable regimes and their fearful subjects.
Francesca Saxon’s quiet rural life changes forever when she is given the opportunity of painting a centrepiece mural at a huge swimming pool. the facility is being built for propaganda reasons by a ruling elite that holds its population tightly in a vice-like grip of order and terror. Wanting something suitably symbolic to boost their authority and control they ensure that Francesca’s life becomes a neverending round of concept rejections and unreasonable demands.
As her creative inspiration begins to wane, she also realises she is now trapped in the capital, ominously separated from her husband, and monitored by the state. Constantly accompanied by a state Warden named Redman to make sure her loyalty is unwavering, Francesca’s life becomes one of regimented observation as her artistic vision is slowly manipulated, and threatening behaviour coerces her into toeing the ruling elite’s line. With her few friendships proving not to be what they seem, she soon finds herself caught up in the conflict between the authoritarian excesses of the establishment and the reckless, ruthless pragmatism of the forces of rebellion that oppose them…
Thematically, there’s a lot going on in A Shining Beacon as questions of ideology, artistic vision and freedom come crashing together, building up to an almost inevitable and inescapable denouement. Albon’s characterisation of Francesca interweaves these disparate elements as the sympathetic protagonist finds herself helplessly swept along in the flow of events, wanting nothing more than to return to her old life but unable to break free of the puppet masters on both sides using her as a pawn in their scheming.
That sense of being caught up in a world both familiar and alien is echoed in Albon’s page layouts which are often tight and claustrophobic and yet regularly open up into full illustrations or double-page spreads where Francesca’s circumstances are mirrored in her environment; a powerless soul lost in the enormity of her surroundings. Albon’s impressionistic use of colour is also sharply resonant, adding emotional layers with subtlety and nuance. The final dramatic section, where his structural choices in terms of page layouts come chaotically crashing apart to underline the drama and immediacy of events, provides a level of pathos that is deeply affecting even if it feels predestined.
A Shining Beacon is more effective when it’s acting as a spiralling Kafka-esque nightmare than as an Orwellian-style social commentary. The first third of the book is almost more chilling for the unrepentant sinister bureaucracy it depicts than the overt political conflict that emerges. Nonetheless, in these pages Albon gives us a fatalistic parable that captures the zeitgeist with disarming insight. One of the most brutally relevant graphic novels since Hannah Berry’s Livestock.
James Albon (W/A) • Top Shelf Productions, $19.99
Review by Andy Oliver
James Albon will be a guest artist at the Gosh! Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw on Thursday January 30th.