When I say that I have always found Sajan Rai to be a curious creative voice I mean that in a distinctly positive way. His work feels notably different from project to project and is never easy to pin down in terms of easy genre definitions. Neither of these are bad things and, indeed, we need far more unpredictable creators that I can hang that “curious” label on. From his contributions to the Backwards Burd collective a few years back to his utterly out there and (as far as I’m aware) sadly uncompleted in print Petty Beach, through to his adventures of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Rai continues to carve out his own small press niche with no concessions to the delicate sensibilities of a potentially wider audience (as the name of his publishing imprint Childish Butt-Vomit underlines!). I think that’s rather splendid.
Rai’s recent long-term ongoing project has been a series of illustrated haikus which have been posted on social media, with a dedicated Instagram account of their own. Last year he collected 199 of them into a book with the appropriately functional title of Illustrated Haiku. Set in a fragmentarily realised fantasy world, each individual haiku is the work of a single narrator who gives their observations on this plane of existence. In terms of chronology they are not presented in sequence, meaning the reader picks up and pieces together the particulars of this realm in a non-linear sense, fostering a more intimate interaction between reader and narrative.
Rai’s poetry here is delightfully contradictory in tone. As he introduces us to this imagined land he can be portentous and brooding, bathing in the mysterious majesty of its environs, and yet Illustrated Haiku is punctuated with multiple moments of wonderfully, incongruous irreverence as well: “All butts clenched in dread/When she strode in. leaving with/Jester’s head in hand” reads one description of a frightening warrior woman. People being dropped from a monastery roof to endure 50-foot wedgies, sphinxes with terrible stand-up comedy routines and a city whose main defence is that its moat is fed by its sewer are just a few examples of the dark humour in these pages.
The orcs, gorgons and wizards that live here are perhaps the most pedestrian inhabitants of this strange world of marvels in comparison to some of its other sights: a waterfall formed from the grieving tears of an inconsolable giant; an eerie, millennium-old, giant flame that exists within the ocean and boils unwary fish that cross its path; and the horrifying sight of a race who live here whose eyes, ears, nose and mouth are all one organ. Added to this fairy godpiglets, frozen theme parks, aphrodisiac plants used as weaponry, and belching valleys are just some of the bizarre features we encounter.
Rai’s illustrations are utterly captivating throughout. It’s not simply the imagination behind the weird concepts he brings to life but also his spellbinding use of colour to draw the eye in and it’s refreshing to see a sci-fi/fantasy realm inhabited by a diverse cast of characters. Each single image feels like an entire story in itself with the audience not so much filling in the gaps between panels as the narrative space surrounding each illustration. It’s up to the reader, then, to put together the recurring themes, events and motifs of the wider picture. This is the kind of excellent experimental storytelling practice that acts as a reminder of how undefined comics as a medium still is and how much we continue to discover about its structural potential.
Review by Andy Oliver