A few years back when I selected Anna Readman as one of our 2019 Broken Frontier ‘Six to Watch’ artists it was on the basis of one very short digital comic inspired by a Cormac McCarthy novel and a series of troll illustrations on her website. That may not seem an awful lot to go on when you’re promoting someone as an exciting emerging voice but in this case I could immediately see the immense potential in Readman’s work from just a handful of pages. That promise was underlined a few months later when she published Area 07 online, a remarkable blend of coming-of-age motiifs and visual metaphor.
In recent years Readman’s work has featured twice in 2000 AD (including the return of Abelard Snazz for the old-time nostalgists) and she’s also been published by Z2 Comics. Last autumn she posted a series of well-received diary comics through the month of October detailing her “daily life working at a comic book shop in the north of England, the struggle of trying to be a cartoonist, and trying to not get killed cycling in Leeds.” Each of these Instagram posts have been reformatted as one-pagers and compiled into a self-published print collection of black and white strips under the title Handlebar Gumbo.
Like all the best diary comics Handlebar Gumbo succeeds not because of the minutiae of what it records but because of the way it brings us so empathetically into the world of its “protagonist”. Readman’s month is a catalogue of recognisable observational commentary: the frustration of Christmas displays going up in September; the banter and micro-culture that builds up between housemates; and the perils of the everyday commute to work. But it’s also a self-referential visual essay on the life of a budding cartoonist, and replete with knowing and engaging pop cultural references as the worlds of film, television, video games and comics bleed in and out of Readman’s urban life in a regular reality-bending procession.
Readman’s workday in Leeds’s much loved OK Comics is a staple of the strips, as is her nightly Halloween horror film marathon with her partner and flatmate which frequently sees their world morphing into reflective cinematic terror. Indeed much of the fun of Handlebar Gumbo is in its flights of representational fancy – Readman’s head exploding from her torso when an Eisner-winning cartoonist compliments her work; an Indiana Jones homage when the shop wi-fi goes down and the team has to rely on the archaic wonders of compact discs; and an entire strip revolving around the exploration of an alien terrain that proves to be something altogether more mundane.
Also of note are the meta flourishes the comic is peppered with like an exhausted Readman in the final panel of the opening strip realising she now has to draw the preceding events of the page, and her lively and energetic cartooning is full of background details that you may not notice on a first reading (a visual gag centring on an Invisible Man costume during the Halloween pub crawl at the comic’s end is particularly rewarding).
What I’ve most come to appreciate about Readman’s work is her versatility. She’s not just a practitioner of the form she’s also a student of its language, intricacies and nuances. As at home with slice-of-life storytelling as she is with grandiose science fantasy. Even if you read these strips in their original social media incarnation this is still a highly recommended purchase, giving you the chance to interact with them in a more rapid and immediate form of delivery. Handlebar Gumbo is available from Anna Readman’s online store here or from OK Comics here.
Anna Readman (W/A) • Self-published, £3.99
Review by Andy Oliver