“One of 2020’s most remarkable achievements in comics” was how I described Quarantine Comix, Rachael Smith’s autobiographical series of comic strips a year or two back at Broken Frontier. Originally created as a response to the early months of the pandemic, with one new strip being published online on a daily basis from March 2020, it was Smith’s attempt to process her own feelings about those dark days when Covid first cast its ominous shadow, and to simultaneously connect with her readership and remind them that they were not alone in their experiences.
While we ran a major interview with Smith about Quarantine Comix after it was picked up for print publication by Icon Books we somehow neglected to run a review. But that may actually have been an opportunity in the making, because returning to the book now and looking at it with the benefit of a degree of hindsight allows us to evaluate it from a different perspective. At the time Smith was first putting these strips out to an online audience I remarked that I believed they would be an invaluable piece of social documentation in the future. Indeed, in the couple of years since then pandemic comics have become a vital subgenre of graphic medicine giving us an invaluable depository of sequential art accounts of the crisis from a rich array of vantage points and approaches to the subject. You can browse our pandemic comics resource list here at BF.
Of course the idea that the pandemic is over, or even coming to an end, is a nonsense that needs to be immediately dismissed. But what looking back at Quarantine Comix affords us is a chance to return to a window of time when, out of the blue, our lives were suddenly changed forever and to revisit how we slowly began to adapt and come to terms with those developments, especially in the pre-vaccine timeframe.
Smith already had a fine pedigree in autobio work with her accounts of living with depression and anxiety in the pages of Wired Up Wrong and Stand in Your Power gaining deserved critical acclaim. But, arguably, it’s Quarantine Comix that has to date reached the widest audience for this strand of her practice. Each strip comprises anything from as few as two panels to several, and gives vignette-style observations of quarantine life. These are usually delivered with a humorous slant but also take in the feelings of poignancy, despair and worry that echo the readers’ own struggles during those months.
From a 2022 viewpoint it’s fascinating to see all those gradual changes that would come to redefine our lives being played out on the page. Smith’s self-deprecating comedy fits seamlessly with her subject matter. She irreverently covers topics like the proper dress code for a Zoom work meeting, the pointlessness of social media doomscrolling, those skewed interpretations of the passing of time, dealing with anti-maskers and the selfishness of those who refused to socially distance, with the result that we are taken back once more to that specific window of time. The gradual external responses to Covid – lockdowns, isolation from loved ones, social bubbles and the like, are all given extra resonance by being filtered through her own perceptions.
Cartooned in Smith’s ever expressive style, what really stands out here is her pacing and timing. Not just comedically, as excellent as that is, but also in terms of those build-ups to a more poignant “punchlines”, while the new colour illustrations inserted intermittently give us time to pause and dwell on each previous section. Strips range from pure slice-of-life to the metaphorical through to wonderful flights of fancy, and frequently touch on Smith’s own battles with her mental health, a familiar feeling no doubt for many since March 2020. Throughout them all a vibrant cast of “characters” add layers to the proceedings, including sidekick Rufus the cat (often anthropomorphised to give his feline views on events), friends Rachel and Heather, flatmate Iain and, of course, boyfriend Rob whose distance from Smith becomes a story arc in itself.
Rachael Smith’s work has crossed genres and formats but the one key unifying factor in that time has been her place as the keenest observer of the foibles of human nature. In my pull quote mentioned above I said Quarantine Comix was one of 2020’s most remarkable achievements in comics. But two years later I’m going to revise that. It’s actually one of the most remarkable achievements in post-millennial British comics, and an essential record of the one of the greatest crises of our times.
Rachael Smith (W/A) • Icon Books, £12.99
Review by Andy Oliver