The humble nature of a pair of Y-Fronts is a recurring theme in Alex Potts’s Underpants, a comic with a name that was no doubt designed to cause sniggering guffaws in the audience of any hapless reviewer who mentions its title and creator in the same sentence. Potts is a long-term mainstay of the UK small press world having contributed to anthologies like The Comix Reader, Off Life, Dirty Rotten Comics, Wu Wei, To Arms! and A Bit of Undigested Potato. A Quiet Disaster, his unforgettable tale of one man’s meanderingly aimless day off work, was published by Avery Hill in 2014 to great critical acclaim.
Underpants is a collection of his short stories, bringing together work from the last few years that ranges from wistful melancholia to detached comedic farce. By its very nature it’s a little patchwork in terms of tone but it acts as a telling showcase for this most under-rated of comics practitioners.
Much of the material herein is autobiographical (or at least features an on-page version of Potts as its protagonist) and eagle-eyed fans of his comics may spot elements that were later reworked into his longer narratives. There are occasional forays into absurdist humour, however, and it’s one such entry that kicks off proceedings here as a noted academic queries the singular/plural nature of the male underwear garment to tragic consequences.
Indeed, underpants as a recurring motif for life’s great mysteries – or simply its pointlessness – pop up throughout the book; whether that be as clues in unsolved crimes or as poignant discarded symbols of the fleeting and ephemeral nature of existence. In fact there’s a kind of gentle nihilism throughout Underpants whether it be in understated psychogeographical tours underlining the casual indifference of the universe to its inhabitants or in Potts’s own struggles with the challenges of modern living. That latter can take the form of annoying Windows updates, irritating commuters or an apprehensive fear of the workplace – all signifiers of a greater worldweary malaise that permeates these pages with an unyielding and stubborn sense of foreboding.
Potts’s own idiosyncratic approach to the established rules of short storytelling is very much in evidence throughout. The build-up of ‘Alex Potts is Empty’ for example – a study of late night boredom – deliberately tails off to a non-punchline conclusion with a sublime, lackadaisical resignation. ‘Walthamstow Library’ is a series of random observations on library etiquette that are thrown out without need for approbation or agreement, coming to an abrupt and jarring end. And ‘It’s Raining Outside’ is quietly reflective on the comforts of being inside during inclement weather that unashamedly has no profound point to make beyond its simple self-evident premise.
Potts uses a panel structure that can be slightly untidy and slanted but nevertheless perfectly embodies the sometimes slightly rambling nature of his on-page thoughts. In similar fashion he often zooms in and out on his on-page self to cleverly heighten a sense of tension or unease with his surroundings. There’s a raw appeal to his art then that echoes the jaded apathy of his protagonist but, make no mistake about it, there’s also a subtle sophistication and a delicate pacing to his visual storytelling that ensures the shorts here are such a relatable reading experience.
Underpants is a comic about existential angst for people who can’t summon up the energy for existential angst. Pick it up and see exactly why Alex Potts was so deserving of being shortlisted on this year’s Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.