As part of our coverage of the last in-person East London Comics and Arts Festival I covered Clio Isadora’s short comic Is it Vague in Other Dimensions?, a very individual take on autobio work that explored the realities of being brought up in an anti-vaxxer, conspiracy theorist environment. Since Isadora self-published that story she has gone on to become part of the Avery Hill Publishing line-up, with her debut, full-length book Sour Pickles debuting last year as part of AHP’s 2021 list. This slice-of-life offering is described as “a semi-autobiographical comic about being bi-racial and working class whilst struggling to finish the final year at a prestigious London art school”. For those familiar with Isadora’s previous small press comics Sour Pickles certainly lives up to the promise of her existing body of work.
The reality of being a student post-millennium is that it’s hard. Graduates leave with overwhelming debts, have to take on jobs around their course and studies just to makes ends meet, and insidious cuts to arts funding only make life more of a struggle. In Sour Pickles, Isadora introduces us to Pickles Yin and her friend Radish, art school students whose world provides a window into the contemporary undergraduate experience.
It’s an account that collects together a number of smaller dark comedy-drama set pieces into an overarching whole. Some sequences could work as individual strips in their own right, for example, as in the case of Pickles and Radish’s unsuccessful attempt at drug-induced productivity that simply results in her creating the same work multiple times. But amongst the bleak humour there is a rich vein of social commentary – the need for widening participation in higher education to ensure that arts course don’t become the sole domain of students from wealthy backgrounds; how privilege plays such a massive and unacceptable part in determining who can and cannot attend art school; and, as such, how market forces long since replaced the pursuit of knowledge as universities’ governing reason for existence.
Of course, there’s also much here that will be familiar to many from their student days but it’s cast in the light of a very 2010s spotlight. Those of us from previous generations may joke about pulling all-nighters during their time at university with a degree of wistful, romantic nostalgia but there’s little humour to be found there for those who have to sacrifice self-care just to meet deadlines and work around jobs and studies. One particularly tragic section only underlines those pressures all the more.
Similarly that nebulous, anti-climactic post-uni period where graduates suddenly feel in freefall is poignantly captured in Pickles’ feelings of failure, struggle to find direction, and of course the inevitable being expected to work free for “exposure”. That latter has an extra layer of insensitivity for Pickles when it comes with the added realisation that she’s being valued more on her ethnicity and someone’s desire to improve their optics than on her practice. It all works towards what is almost a punchline ending; one that is quietly damning and brilliantly realised in its delivery.
In the past I’ve spoken of the “raw directness” of Isadora’s visuals and the way they pull us so intimately into the trials and tribulations of her characters. That’s very much in evidence here with visual characterisation being both markedly pronounced and yet somehow subtly communicative too. Sour Pickles is intercut with representational fuller-page images depicting artistic process, creative productivity and student social life that act almost as mini-montages to depict the wider university life around them and the passage of time between scenes.
Clio Isadora’s self-published comics never got the amount of coverage they deserved but as part of the AHP catalogue her profile will hopefully get that much due rise in status. Bleakly funny, incisively critical, and empathetically communicated, Sour Pickles brings an artist many may be unfamiliar with to an entirely new audience. Which, of course, is something that Avery Hill are second to none at achieving.
Clio Isadora • Avery Hill Publishing, £11.99
Review by Andy Oliver