Fedor Jeftichew, otherwise known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, is one of the more recognisable symbols of that era when unusual medical conditions were paraded as “freakshow” entertainment for the masses. Jeftichew had hypertrichosis resulting in extreme hair growth, and spent many years as a sideshow performer touring with P.T. Barnum’s travelling circus.
In his comic Fedor, published by Hic & Hoc, Patt Kelley takes these historical events as his starting point and builds on them to tell a fictionalised version of the life of the titular character. The focus is on a purported romance between the “Dog-Faced Boy” and his childhood sweetheart Helena, who goes on to become the circus’s Tattooed Girl. It’s a relationship that spans two decades as the couple drop in and out of each other’s lives; their existences interweaving at critical junctures.
Patt Kelley is one of those creators who has produced consistently excellent comics over the last few years (What Am I Going to Do Without You?, Scout) but has perhaps only recently started to receive the fuller recognition that his work deserves. Kelley has always had a distinctive artistic style – I’ve described it as Tim Burton-esque at Broken Frontier in the past – and a penchant for darkly appealing storylines. But those eerie and often disturbing tales are replete with perceptive observations on the human condition.
Fedor is without a doubt Kelley’s strongest work and marks a stage in his practice where pure comics craft is as much at the forefront as his engaging visual approach to the page. With its constantly shifting timeframes, the comic gradually reveals the complexities of Fedor and Helena’s relationship through a carefully constructed and deliberately fractured narrative. Further playing with comics’ unique relationship with the passage of time, Kelley’s tight multi-panelled pages give a feeling of rhythmic reality; claustrophobic layouts heightening a sense of tension and fatality in places, and the sepia colouring providing a feeling of chronological detachment.
The pliant visual characterisation that is such a vital part of Patt Kelley’s work is as pronounced as ever with Fedor and Helena’s interactions indicating their perceptions of self in subtle, unforced vignettes. The extraordinary becomes commonplace and unremarkable in their worldview as the theatrical is stripped away and the two very ordinary souls at the heart of this story are revealed. It’s a relationship that constantly reflects itself in these splintered shards of time.
Touching, funny and so very, very human, Fedor is Kelley’s most accomplished offering to date. Check out the link to his website below because, without a doubt, his work deserves to be appreciated by a far, far wider audience.
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