Zebedee and the Valentines is not the first time 2019 Broken Frontier ‘Six to Watch’ artist Abs Bailey has been published by Avery Hill. Two years ago, in the Comic Book Slumber Party anthology Escape from Bitch Mountain, she illustrated one of its irreverent fantasy-based short stories under the name Barbawk, providing some of the standout visual storytelling in the book.
Bailey’s inventive cartooning is always a treat (you can read a full profile of her practice here at Broken Frontier) and she’s one of two past ‘Six to Watch’ artists with a debut book coming from Avery Hill this year (the other being Shanti Rai whose Sennen is published later in 2020). Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, Zebedee and the Valentines takes place in the early ‘80s and follows the musical misadventures of the titular band fronted by the insecure Zebedee and the long-suffering Rocco, Morris and Kate.
Playing pubs to virtually non-existent audiences, the group get their big break when asked to play at a gig with a number of higher profile bands. But the self-doubting Zebedee’s paranoia is manifested in his appalling behaviour towards his bandmates at the event. As tensions rise and the band fractures, life will change forever for the quartet in the most dramatic and, ultimately, unforeseen manner…
Zebedee and the Valentines is a story of friendship and regret, of fall and redemption, and of loss and discovery, all wrapped up in a retro musical package (with the odd foray into mind-bending psychedelia). Those who have followed her work in the past in publications like Beyond Death and Swim will know how fully Abs Bailey can immerse the reader in the psyches of her characters through powerful visual metaphor and pages that potently project their emotional states onto the reader. Zebedee and the Valentines epitomises that, taking what at first appears to be a simple slacker comedy into wholly unexpected territory.
Bailey is also superb here in the notoriously difficult job of portraying a mostly aural medium in a visual one. There’s a kinetic energy to early band sequences, for example, that plays with time and space through panel placement and sequencing to effectively capture both the mechanics and the vibrancy of collaborative performance. Lettering effects are cleverly used in this regard with song lyrics snaking around singers or audience adoration escaping the confines of individual panels and seeping into the gutters between and around them.
Pure visual storytelling tricks then abound here. The shattering effect in the background every time Zebedee’s fragile ego is punctured is a neat running sight gag while the post-gig journey from intoxication to blackout is framed in the blurry excess of liquid spillage. It’s in the book’s later pivotal developments though when Bailey’s pacing and manipulation of page structure to elicit acute emotional responses from her readership is so impressive, particularly with a poignant use of black space and fragmentary images. A hallucinatory dream sequence later on also gives Bailey latitude to explore her protagonist’s processing of events with a surreal slant.
It is, of course, always a joy for us at Broken Frontier to see the artists we’ve championed as ‘Six to Watch’ being picked up by publishers of the calibre of Avery Hill. When the work is as confident and as affecting as this it’s all the more of a delight. Using anthropomorphism to ironically emphasise the sheer humanity of the cast, Zebedee and the Valentines is an intense and rewarding character study with surprising hidden depths.
Abs Bailey (W/A) • Avery Hill Publishing. £12.99
Review by Andy Oliver