Olivia Sualdea’s propensity for communicating theme, emotional depth and character through wordless narrative is an essential part of her comics work that I have long admired. Sualdea was, of course, one of our Broken Frontier ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch’ back in 2019 and, as such, it is especially pleasing to see her as part of this year’s ShortBox Comics Fair line-up. Release is her strongest material yet, emphasising both the nuanced power of “silent” comics and the particular skills required to tell a story in the medium without the props of dialogue, narration and exposition.
At 60 pages Release is also Olivia Sualdea’s first long-form comics work. It follows the story of Mari who, after being jilted at the altar, discovers a strange half human/half fish creature in the woods. This unlikely entity becomes her new soulmate. But this is a one-sided relationship based on loneliness and Mari’s need to fill an empty space in her existence. As time passes it becomes more obvious that she must release her object of affection before she destroys it forever…
As extended metaphors go Release is a fantastical embodiment of that realisation that sometimes we have to step back to move on. Sualdea’s wordless approach is all the more haunting for requiring the reader to fill in the emotional story beats of the duo’s interactions for themselves, and it’s this selfsame deceptive simplicity that makes Release such an empathetically sophisticated comic.
With its muted colour palette hinting at the sadness of the characters’ lives, Sualdea playfully uses her page structures to great effect. Mari ageing before our eyes when left at the altar to denote her inner devastation, for example, or the passage of time being represented by a double-page spread of the pair’s lives in framed photographs. Moments of anxiety or intensity are heightened by occasional shifts to pages with just three panels floating on white backgrounds, forcing the reader to focus on characters’ distress or longing. Release is a comics fable from a promising creator long overdue their moment in the spotlight.
Olivia Sualdea (W/A) • ShortBox Comics Fair, £6.00
Review by Andy Oliver