In comparison to my previous experiences of Grace Helmer’s slice-of-life/autobio work Speck is a very different comic indeed. And yet within its fantastic, millennia-traversing narrative there are, perhaps, certain existential themes that tie all her work together. At their heart, of course, autobio comics are about journeys of self-discovery and finding our place in the world, and despite its reality of dinosaurs, sentient particles and often bizarre imagery, the experiences of Speck’s protagonist similarly have the most human of parallels.
Speck follows its titular character (who out of obvious storytelling necessity we’re reminded in a disclaimer at the beginning is not drawn to scale!) from the inception of the universe to contemporary times. Speck is exactly what they sound like – a nondescript, self-aware, piece of matter who was present at the beginning of time and who we accompany as their experiences of the formation of the world inform their understanding of themselves. Speck’s globular being takes on various incarnations as they become part of a leaf ingested by a dinosaur, spend centuries within the ground within a rock formation, exist within a rain drop, or for one notably extended period, experience the world empathetically through the everyday perceptions of one woman.
But what of Speck’s own place in this world? Can they too find a sense of fulfilment in a reality that they drift through rather than directly effect?
Helmer’s tale has an engaging storybook feel to its pages but that narrative buoyancy contains some quietly profound truths and observations. Speck’s quest for purpose and identity casts them as something of an everyperson, mirroring our own endless searches for self-realisation in an extended visual metaphor. Helmer’s signature use of colour is as evocative as ever; so carefully chosen and crafted to elicit an immersive connection with her pages. Her visuals in Speck are rooted in the strange incongruity of dreamy allegory and familiar realism – the seeming contradiction of that juxtaposition of the naturalistic and the fantastic nevertheless making Speck’s journey all the more relatable.
This is a story that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, either as a surface layer, endearing fantasy or as a deeper exploration of the way in which we look to construct or assign meaning to existence. Grace Helmer is one of that number of creators who have been active on the UK small press scene for a few years now without having had the degree of attention their work deserves. Speck is a delightful comic that will speak to its audience with its charming quirkiness, and one you should certainly be checking out if you’ve yet to discover Helmer’s entrancing approach to the page.
Review by Andy Oliver