When I selected Charlo Frade’s Goatherded as one of our weekly Staff Picks here at Broken Frontier this week I remarked that if there was one thing of which you could never accuse Avery Hill Publishing it was of having a “house style”. One thing the South London micropublisher should be particularly proud of is that the concept of a “typical Avery Hill book” will remain a forever elusive and intangible one. From Simon Moreton to EdieOP, Ellice Weaver to Rachael Smith, Tillie Walden to Steven Tillotson, their publishing list is ever extensive in style and admirably broad in approach.
Debuting this weekend at TCAF, Goatherded continues AHP’s track record for supporting exciting new voices in the medium with a one-shot story that transcends the literal and takes us on a journey across strange alien landscapes and the expanses of space that, contradictorily and enticingly, seems both impenetrable and yet – on another level entirely – oddly and beguilingly familiar at the same time.
Jettisoned across the cosmos in a stellar explosion, a mass of gelatinous cubes containing preserved lifeforms descend onto a desolate planet. On landing, one passenger, a young boy, is quick to free himself from his vessel’s confines and to begin exploring his new environment. Thus begins a surreal and unpredictable odyssey that will take in metamorphosing goat people, talking potted plants and soda-assisted ritual sacrifice…
It’s always a lazy critical fallback to compare one creator’s work to another but, if you’ll forgive the indulgence on this occasion, I will say I was brought in mind of Alexander Tucker’s World in the Forcefield when reading Goatherded. That same notion of a nonsensical yet self-defining mythology being played out before our eyes and of a story that was drifting along at its own alluring pace, steadfastly refusing to make any concessions to narrative clarity and being all the more captivating for it.
Goatherded is replete with loose metaphor that actively solicits interpretation from its audience; a comic for the individual reader to make their own connections with and take their own meaning from. Ideas of liberation, exploration, belonging, change and discovery abound in a science fiction/fantasy-style cyclical rite of passage that takes universal themes and wraps them up in the visual trappings of the outlandish and the extraordinary.
Frade’s often dreamily washed-out art with its sketchy layouts, skewed perspectives and rapidly switching viewpoints adds to the book’s ethereal and haunting quality in the book’s first half. It’s a notable contrast to the second section of Goatherded where colour is used strikingly to heighten tension and build a foreboding feeling of impending doom as the story comes to a climactic conclusion.
There’s something that lurks on the very peripheries of recognition in this two-act struggle of one boy trying to find his place in the universe; something that gnaws away at the reader, reminding us that although events on the page are phantasmagorical and representational, the emotions they elicit – the awe of discovery, the freedom and relief of escape, the yearning for understanding – are familiar ones indeed.
While it may be their most oblique offering since Abe Christie’s Swear Jar in 2015, Charlo Frade’s debut book is proof positive that Avery Hill’s established reputation for unearthing and nurturing the next generation of acclaimed indie talent is a deserved one indeed. Make sure to pick up a copy if you’re at TCAF at the weekend. Goatherded should be on every festival-goer’s “must-buy” list.