The democracy of the small press is embodied in books like Theora Kvitka’s Dispatch from the Desert. I first discovered Kvitka’s autobiographical minicomics when she tabled at London’s ELCAF in 2016. Given their very small initial print runs though (more on that in a moment), the chances are that this collected edition of Dispatch from the Desert will be new to most readers. The tail end of 2018 saw all four issues alongside supplementary material released via Black Market Books giving a potentially far wider audience the opportunity to read her slice-of-life work.
While it’s obviously entirely redundant to describe autobio work in terms of the personal, nonetheless Dispatch from the Desert comes from a place of profound introspection. Back in 2015 Kvitka moved back to live with her parents in Phoenix, Arizona for an extended several month period. She created her minicomics series as both a way of keeping in contact with friends and family and an artistic experimentation at a point of unpredictability in her life. The comics have a very zine-like approach, giving an almost scrapbook feel to her collected thoughts about her hometown (to the point of even reproducing paper ephemera). They also document her evolving style in that time as subsequent pages show a growing and noticeable confidence in her practice.
Given the origins of the project, then, it will come as little surprise perhaps when I say that there’s something quite fragmentary about the contents of Dispatch from the Desert. That, however, is also a large part of its charm. From diary-style travelogue explorations of Phoenix to political outbursts, through to slapstick comedic takes on the climate, Kvitka slowly builds up a picture of that strange feeling of interacting with an environment that is at once both familiar and yet changed. Shards of experiences that give insights not just into location but also her state of mind at that point in her life.
While earlier entries are less sophisticated in terms of structure and visuals, and marked by their brevity, there’s a growing sense of craft as the short individual issues progress. Clever touches play with the possibilities of the page – an overheated dog’s panting tongue lolling over the border of a panel or an emotional Kivitka almost merging into her surroundings in the comic’s final scene. By the time we get to that final story, wherein Kvitka takes a trip to the Sonoran Desert, there’s a marked confidence in approach to the page in a story that makes rich use of a limited colour palette to create a sense of place and mood, and provides a fittingly serene coda to the collection.
There’s something lovingly old school small press about Dispatch from the Desert in that it feels created for its own sake. If you’re looking for carefully structured narrative this won’t perhaps be the book for you but if you enjoy slice-of-life comics that focus on the smaller but no less important moments of life then Theora Kvitka’s collected zines will have a genuine and endearing appeal.
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Review by Andy Oliver.