Nobrow’s project to introduce new comics voices in an accessible format brings us enjoyable work from William Exley, Jen Lee and Joe Sparrow.
This year has seen the welcome return of Nobrow’s 17×23 format – “A graphic short story project designed to help talented young graphic novelists tell their stories in a manageable and economic format.” These little volumes, which have previously introduced the work of Luke Pearson and Robert Hunter, are never less than lovely objects, mixing a limited page count (24) with the publisher’s characteristically exquisite design and production.
As well as Andy Poyiadgi’s delightful Lost Property, three other emerging cartoonists have made their mark in this latest batch, highlighting the strengths as well as the potential flaws of the format.
Of the three, William Exley’s Golemchik is the one that comes across most like a work-in-progress or experiment. While it might have the most immediately appealing art style of the three, it probably comes up a little short in terms of narrative satisfaction compared with the other two.
Golenchik tells the tale of Kevin, a kid left facing summer on his own after his little posse of pals head off on various holidays. After the intrepid young explorer leaves a baseball cap on top of a pile of rocks in the woods that act as his playground, something strange happens overnight to animate the stone into a giant but clumsy companion for the boy.
Despite Kevin’s attempts to rein in the well-meaning but destructive creature, its efforts eventually bring it into town and into conflict with the local residents.
There’s no doubt that Exley’s ‘big head’ art style has charm coming out of its ears (despite a few wobbly panel borders that left me a little seasick), but the narrative as a whole has an improvised quality to it that kept me slightly at arm’s length. The force that brings about the transition from rocks to golem is sketchy at best, and there seemed to be a slightly jarring transition from what I assumed was a timeless American setting, where shiny-faced kids go off to summer camp, to a very British suburbia, complete with cricket-bat-wielding dads.
The other two titles provide a greater sense of narrative cohesion. Vacancy, by Jen Lee, has some superficial similarities to Golemchik in its all-ages art style. However, with its oblique link to the creator’s Thunderpaw webcomic, it pulls off the trick of stealthily building a post-catastrophe world where humans have disappeared, leaving behind their (anthropomorphic) pets to fend for themselves.
One such pet is Simon the dog, whose existence is bounded by his garden fence until two streetwise scavengers (Cliff the raccoon and Reynard the deer) smash their way in. Seeing a way out, and keen to connect with his wild coyote ‘cousins’ in the nearby woods, he leaves behind the comfort of familiarity to go on an eye-opening adventure.
The set-up provides the opportunity for a lot more character interplay than Golemchik, and the bickering of Cliff and Reynard crackles along, highlighting the contrast between their hustling outlook and Simon’s naivete.
By the end, Lee creates a real sense of menace and provokes a bit of thought on the need for self-awareness, as Simon reconsiders the relative attractions of life in the wild versus the comforts and constraints of domestication.
Relations with the animal world also lie at the heart of Joe Sparrow’s The Hunter – a pleasing fable about a blood-thirsty aristocrat who tries to flip off his low self-esteem by going on a genocidal spree through the mythical beasts of his land, eventually finding himself making the switch from hunter to prey.
It’s a neatly turned tale, and while the climax might not be the biggest surprise you’ll read all year, it’s executed very strongly, in not quite the way you might expect, with an little bonus pay-off at the end.
Sparrow is predominantly an animator, and the dynamism of that form comes through here, along with a highly distinctive ‘pixelated’ art style that’s a little distracting at first, but blends with the retro dot-matrix lettering to create a strong lo-fi aesthetic. The various beasties that end up staring down the wrong end of the Earl’s rifle are also created with wit and imagination.
The neat formatting of the 17×23 series makes it eminently collectable, and with other new titles by Wren McDonald (Cyber Realm) and Bianca Bagnarelli (Fish) joining the above, it remains a very pleasing and accessible way to sample some fresh comic voices.
Golemchik • William Exley (W, A)
Vacancy • Jen Lee (W, A)
The Hunter • Joe Sparrow (W, A)
Nobrow Press, £6.50