Having enjoyed her self-published work in the past, I’ve been wanting to give Shazleen Khan’s comics some Broken Frontier space for some time now but have sadly never quite managed to get to them while they were still in print. Cat Festival is a related precursor one-shot to Khan’s Buuza!! webcomic, itself described by the artist as a story about “found family, diaspora and religion, set in an urban fantasy 90s Middle East and central Asia.”
If you’re worried about its relationship to a wider storyline you can rest assured that Cat Festival is an entirely accessible short story that works as a self-contained tale in and of itself. It is, therefore, an entry point to Khan’s ongoing webcomic for those wanting to investigate that longer-form narrative further but, just as importantly, it also serves as an introduction to her engaging visual storytelling style. Sliding anthropomorphism into slice-of-life scenarios, this 14-pager follows central character Musa’s efforts to celebrate Eid festivities without his sister’s company. With the help of his tight-knit social group Musa puts his disappointment behind him by attending a local street fair and enjoying the festival with them at his friend Emira’s auntie’s home. There he learns that family is as much about affinity and understanding as it is about genetics…
Cat Festival is a perfectly executed piece of heartwarming comics. Khan’s skill as a storyteller is embodied in the fact that we feel so invested in her characters, and so delighted to be in their company over such a relatively short page count, that it’s only when the reader looks back on events that they realise they know virtually nothing about the cast… not even most of their names! So fully does she bring the reader into their lives, though, that those details seem almost irrelevant. We’re simply too engrossed in the wonderful humanity of the story to even notice.
That’s a mark of Khan’s hugely expressive visual characterisation which in many ways tells us far more about the characters and their lives through the subtleties of their interactions and inter-relationships than any exposition or overt narrative device ever could. Just look at the body language and facial expressions in this shot of Aunty and Musa (below) and what it says about the respect between the two, and the sheer sense of joyousness and love that this comic exudes.
Khan has a fluid, almost dreamy drawing style but it’s not simply her character work that impresses. Her panel-to-panel storytelling is also cleverly structured, adapting to highlight differing emotional responses from her characters or, conversely to evoke specific reactions from her audience. Transitions in time being used particularly adeptly in their application to create a sense of place and movement. We say this a lot in comics commentary but there genuinely are comics that act as the perfect gateway into a creator’s practice. Cat Festival is an excellent example of that and we will most certainly be returning to the world of Buuza! at Broken Frontier later this year.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a story that you’re going to come away from feeling far better about the world than you did before you started reading it then Cat Festival is definitely the comic for you.
Review by Andy Oliver
Shazleen Khan is a guest artist at this week’s Gosh! Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw.