The strange and fantastic world of OM – a realm with its own bizarre rules and evolutionary changes; a flowing, metamorphosing plane of oft unfathomable entities and their distinctly alien life cycles. Broken Frontier 2018 ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch’ artist Andy Barron has been weaving eerie tales of the denizens of this weirdly captivating environment for a few years now, combining often “silent” comics storytelling with a vibrant use of colour to emphasise the inescapable otherworldliness of OM.
Mantra collects four of Barron’s previously published OM short comics alongside three stories new to this volume. Let’s get down to the basics to begin with; Barron’s OM is a brilliantly bewildering setting of which the artist explains little but, instead, asks the reader to discover its peculiarities through a process of observation.
We slowly learn about its organic rituals and harsh rules as its characters live them, piecing together recurring motifs and elements but always staying tantalisingly adrift of a full understanding. It’s this sense of the ephemeral to the world of OM, of an epistemological disconnection between events and our comprehension of them, that makes it such an entrancingly fascinating place.
Most of the short stories in this compilation run between several and ten pages with the question of whether OM is the name of the surroundings or the protagonist fittingly left unanswered. Our frequent point of view character is a doughy white creature with golden teats. This individual’s journeys through this terrain involve a contradictory moment of spiritual epiphany that feels both enlightening and indefinable at the same time in ‘The Touch’; an encounter with a mask-wearing quadruped that is not quite what it seems in ‘Hoss’ (below left); and a rise to power that comes with a hideous cost in ‘Gemba’.
Weaving in and out of these tales are the exploits of a smaller being, somewhere between a distorted frog and an ambulatory pea, whose interactions with the other inhabitants of OM always lead to the most grisly of fates. Indeed, the implication is that this ‘Pea’ character is just one of many. Its adversarial nature providing the darkest and most disquieting of comic relief in amongst the profound symbolism of the parallel narrative. ‘Pea’ finds itself constantly sacrificed, eaten and otherwise mangled, but its death does on occasion spark new life, underlining what seems to be one of OM’s core themes.
Indeed, in these pages – that seem to eschew an internal chronology – existence and rebirth, and a constant cycle of being and unbeing, are recurrent ideas. We watch in awe at the bountiful majesty of nature emerging from a lonely demise in ‘The Storm’ and guiltily laugh at a bleakly comedic take on the circle of life in ‘Pea’s Progress’ (above right). In this regard the world of OM is both unforgiving and yet giving.
Barron’s art has an animated vigour that is further emphasised by his inventive panel placement and construction. In ‘The Storm’ that is portrayed in the suddenly erupting plant life relegating the strip’s ostensible protagonist as it bursts into the forefront of each page. In ‘The Chorus’ (right) one of the unfortunate Pea creatures becomes the victim of three predatory characters. The corresponding view of events sits to the side in a series of circular panels that, when juxtaposed with the main action, imply quiet and surreptitious inaction from the pictured observer.
What Barron has created here is a world that embraces its contradictions. It has characters that initially appear enchanting and whimsical and yet are capable of the most terrifying brutality and cruelty; one that is wordless and yet needs no exposition to speak volumes. Resolution is irrelevant here because what we’re witnessing is not so much narrative as literary ecosystem. In Mantra you have the perfect introduction to a plane of reality that, once visited, can never truly be left behind.
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Andy Barron is a guest artist at the next Gosh! Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw on Wednesday February 28th. More details here.