Lighter than My Shadow - Katie Green

Lighter than My Shadow  was one of my picks in our 2013 year-in-review podcast. It's the best Sad Comics I've read in a while, and definitely one of the better comics I read last year. It's acute and painful, and sometimes hopeful, and it's beautifully produced and drawn.

Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie GreenYou need to be having a good day to get through it, and even then the odds are fair that it'll make you cry.

Lighter than My Shadow is a a life story in the mould of something like Fun Home or Blankets. It owes a debt to both, and if you want to picture it easily, you could do worse than mentally crash the two together, with a focus on Bechdel's early memories of compulsion disorders. In this case, it's Katie growing up with and slowly working through an eating disorder, sexual abuse, and the resulting trauma. But while that gives you a small measure of tone and theme, it really doesn't go close to either the intensity or the artwork.

The book doesn't take the heavy-handed line that Katie drew herself well again, although it does use a version of that image. Instead, the act of drawing - to recover, to internalise, and to externalise - is one of the refrains it works through its story. Lighter than My Shadow is keenly aware of its status as a world on paper, and uses a movement between paper tones, the tearing of edges, and the degradation of its line to move readers through its emotional and psychological states.

Detail from, Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie GreenWe begin with clean, simple lines, and tight regimented gutters. They're torn paper edges, but there's a formalism to the arrangement. Colour is carried by the paper tone, and is initially stable and constant. But it doesn't take long (as Katie begins to experience the first difficulties in her relationship with food) for three structuring motifs to appear. The panel arrangement can be disrupted by tears: swathes of the pages that seem ripped through into others, revealing scenes in a different colour palette. The colours often code for era, signifying memories, and the tears can be sharp, often unwanted recollections.

Other times they are jolts of mood, and the most stark shifts of colour are two brief sections,one entirely white, one black.

The sheared pages are introduced along with the black cloud - a kind of messy scribble that begins small, and at its most powerful, replaces the gutter and panel structure entirely. It's an externalisation of Katie's illness, but it's also an incredibly precarious visual metaphor, running a phenomenal risk of cliché. What saves it is the intensity and versatility.

Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie GreenIt moves around Katie, figuring for food, mood, traumatic memory, even inspiration. In phases, she visually pulls it into her pencil, externalising it again the same way. At its most savage, it surrounds her, replacing the paper reality with scratchy inkwork, and holding her suspended.

You could argue, I think, that the comics structure of regimented panels and clear, factual representation is a kind of control mechanism, not unlike the young Katie's compulsive behaviours. The torn edges and dependency of the colour palette on the underlying paper tone then begin to look like little nods and winks about the fragility of this structuring of the world.

There are scenes where imagined paper cut-out monsters creep in from the gutters, and this is not unlike the ripping of the pages pushing us between eras of memory. In turn, Katie herself can disrupt the world-on-paper by drawing on it. This third device is introduced early and used more sparingly. It's the one distortion of the world that she can control, and the only thing apart from the rips and the ink cloud that can disrupt the panel structure. When it's used, clearer lines on flatter backgrounds flow out from her pen in gentle curves. The newly-drawn worlds obscure the panels as the cloud can, often in a meandering swirl that picks up the recurring garden-path image.

These structures come together to tell us a wonderfully, painfully, non-simplified recovery story. A young girl struggles with eating, builds compulsions to control her life, and develops anorexia. Her recovery is slow, incredibly difficult, and littered with anxieties and relapses. She meets an alternative therapist who seems at first to give her confidence, betraying it as he sexually assaults her. This is not easy reading, and it continues not to be as the trauma of the assault drives further relapse and a suicide attempt.

As she approaches this crisis, we move from the most tightly regimented page of the book - a simple, deliberate, 3x4 grid - to a page that's tearing, not into a new image, but into blank white:

Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green

It gives completely:

Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green

Then, gradually, she is able to draw:

Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green

It doesn't end there, nor does Katie give us a neat, symmetrical moment of realisation and healing. The final quarter or so of the book is a slow but less brittle recovery. She finds both art and ways to manage her illness, but never lets us forget that the paper can change colour, or be scribbled over or torn.

It's beautifully done, and having been through just a little of what she describes, it's immediate and powerful.

What really gets me about Lighter than My Shadow, though, is the way Katie Green suddenly uses whole pages and double page spreads. The assault scene uses the claustrophobic press of the ink cloud obscuring the page to convey a helplessness that's pretty unpleasant to read:

Assault scene, Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green

The text bubbles here feel desperate, and the view point forces a reader into an uncomfortably voyeuristic position. You don't want to be looking at this. The cloud recedes slightly as the scene expands, but it follows her and grows as she flees. Another spread uses the torn paper to show the cloud remaining, hovering over her, as time passes. Later, remembering, this is mirrored as an intrusion of those memories:

Colour changing spread from Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green

Lighter than My Shadow isn't perfect. The first half moves a little slowly, and is arguably over long, while the ending is a little compressed, for instance. But what I love about this book is the way it captures particular - often painful - little moments. Those sweeping spreads of Katie's distorted body vision are only part of it. There are quieter, smaller panels that are doing just as much work: a glance at a mirror, the flash of a painfully gaunt collarbone.

It's not always easy to read, and it's by no means a manual for recovery. But it is ultimately hopeful, and it's a beautiful book.


(The NHS provides some resources on eating disorders here, if you're interested and/or affected by any of this.)

Gently Deconstructing Achewood

Yeah, not the whole thing. Doing that would take years, and is almost certainly a whole department's worth of PhD theses in some terrifying future academic paradigm. People lose sight of the fact that Chris Onstad is just a man, with a man's courage, and not a god. Even though he's put more than a decade of his life into one of the funniest and most consistently pitch-perfect webcomics of all time. I come to discuss Onstad's work, not to venerate or castigate him for what he chooses to do with it. The briefest of autobiographical notes: I got into Achewood back in '08 or so, mostly because of this strip:

I make no secret on the internet of being the guy who sucks, and it kinda struck a chord with me. So I did a bit of research into the character of Roast Beef, who owns bad t-shirts which make him undateable and hails from circumstances, and found that I liked him. Especially his flowchart. But when I went back to the beginning of the archives, the early strips were kind of impenetrable. It was a gag comic without real gags, and Onstad hadn't really had a chance to develop the voices of his characters (which is where the comic really shines). It was vaguely offputting, but I kept clicking through. And, boy, was I glad that I did.

As a long-time defender/proponent of Achewood, the three things I hear most often are: "the art is so bad that I can't read it", "they're a bunch of anthropomorphised animals" and "it took too long to get going and I gave up." I don't write about comics as a way of telling other people what to do, but maybe I should - GO NOW AND TRY AGAIN, HUMANS. Do it right this second. Yes, the art isn't always* stunning (though it is expressive, particularly in terms of facial subtleties, and in this sense it matches Onstad's verbal subtlety very well), and, sure, the whole thing takes about a year's worth of strips to hit its stride, but you will not regret it. Particularly when it gets really, really good. As for the anthropomorphic animals? Well, I didn't think I'd warm to them either, but I like them more now than some actual human people to whom I'm related.

It's also very, very weird. Super weird. Did I mention it was weird? From Cartilage Head to the repeated use of Mexican magical realism as a theme (for variation upon, if not really for debate or narrative - beyond deus ex machina, that is), Achewood is super fucking weird. I love that; ymmv. Even if you find it - heaven forbid - too weird around the edges, Achewood still delivers on the "humour" side of "offbeat humour".

Anyway. I have blathered this paean for long enough. Time for some gentle deconstruction.

I've gone with one of the most recent Achewood strips for several reasons: because it shows that they're still funny, because this one represents (to me) Onstad hitting his stride again after a long-ish period of hiatus/intermittence**, because it does a number of things which are typically Onstadian (some classic Achewood, etc.), and because it's intrinsically funny, insomuch as anything can be.

This is the strip we're going to be stripping down (*cough*) and building back up (link here):

So. Why is this funny?

1) "Oh dang man I gotta fierce case of Early Meat"

This is funny because:

- No punctuation (classic Roast Beef vernacular)

- "fierce" used as an intensifier

- "Early Meat", including capitalisation

2) "Early Meat" followed up with "Urban Pinocchio" and "silent ruckus"

These are all slang terms no one would conceivably use for having an erection in the morning. By this point, I am laughing helplessly.

3) Panel 6

The cat - the married cat - the married cat in his own house - is ashamed of his erection. He calls it a "crime scene". He wonders what his wife will think.

4) Panel 8, aka "four ladles"

"I don't know who we think we are with four ladles", etc.


4.5) "I don't know who we think we are"

The technical term for this is tragicomedy***. The cat has been so deeply disturbed by his traumatic early life that he cannot conceive of taking four ladles to the garage to hide his shameful erection as anything other than arrogance. Arrogance! This is a recurring theme.

5) Panel 9

You don't need me to deconstruct this for you.

6) Panels 11 - 13

The cat, bedsheet tent visible for the first time, has a Damascene moment. He's going to rock this.


His life is his porno and his porno is occurring. He's rocking this!

It's a setup.

8) Panels 16, 17

This is the bit where it stops being funny and it just gets kinda sad. Is Onstad going to leave us on a total bummer, with the cat's wife going off to the gym all mad because he's proven himself to be an unreliable dude? Say it ain't so!

9) Fortunately, it ain't so







No one is ever going to win alt text more than Onstad has already won it, with this glorious little snippet which ties the joke back together and leaves the reader happysad. Or sadhappy. Or something.

Anyway. There we have it. Achewood deconstructed. If you would like any more comic-based close reading done, please send an email to

And thank you for reading. The moral of this story is that you should go and actually read Achewood, instead of reading me saying weird stuff about Achewood.





*it is occasionally stunning; the man can do wonderful things in monochrome.

**about that whole hiatus - there is so, so much Achewood out there that you don't need to worry about running through it all too fast and then being stuck loving something that never updates. Well - you do - but not for a good eighteen months or so. 

***this is not technically true.

Sad Comics Reviewed: Susceptible

Geneviève Castrée's Susceptible (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012) is a coming-of-age comic (Bildungscomicheft?) about a young girl growing up in Quebec with a whole swathe of problems. At times, it's almost impossibly raw, bordering on painful to read.

Susceptible treads the line between fiction and autobiography carefully (autobiography being impossible, apparently). The story is told from the perspective of Goglu (who, like the rest of the main characters, has a nickname for a name), but it's clear from the immediacy of the emotion drawn upon throughout that it is firmly rooted* in some version of Castrée's reality (past or present). And it's not a happy reality.

Unusually, for a comic on the subject of a troubled adolescence, very little mention is made throughout of the names society gives to the troubles common to this stage of life - depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. Rather than dwelling on these neat, medicalised categorisations of suffering, Castrée explores her protagonist's anguish as it is lived, not as it can easily be explained, and, in doing so, proves the limited utility of such categories as a lens through which to view human misery. The destructive, claustrophobic nature of the relationship between Goglu and her mother and stepfather, for example, builds throughout the book, and in doing so packs more of a punch than the few panels which touch upon her interactions with the medical establishment.

What I took away from this was a point well made about the experience vs the impression of suffering - the vast majority of art which focuses thematically on unhappy experience dwells on the expression more than the experience. And, whilst experience and expression may be inextricably linked, especially when it comes to something so fundamentally untangleable as one's early life (and art made out of those feelings, memories and years), Castrée successfully manages to focus on how Goglu feels, rather than the symptoms and expressions of those feelings. Which, in my experience, is a rare thing for a comic like this to do. And I liked it a lot.

Susceptible is not an easy read - it's painful and it's difficult, even with the moments of levity and humour that balance out the narrative - but I'd recommend it anyway. I guess this comes back to one of the reasons sad comics interest me - comics are often "easy", compared to prose or other media: they're frequently shorter, they tend to read faster, the narrative can flow more smoothly with the aid of visual cues and visual fluidity, and they're often light in tone as well as physicality. The point of sad comics is that they use the versatility of the medium to make something which isn't easy - something challenging, or confusing, troubling or (well,) sad. Susceptible is not an easy read, but great art isn't, always - and it's powerful and moving enough that I'm convinced of its merit in that regard.

*The opening pages show Goglu, becoming entangled in an ever-thickening patch of vines and leaves as she develops from a child into an adolescent, whilst the narrator describes the difficulty in picking apart how much sadness is innate and how much it's environmental. Metaphor drift, yo.

Sad Comics Reviewed - The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln

Quick bit of due diligence to get out of the way first: this is not the first book I've read about the melancholy of Abraham Lincoln (that honour goes to this one). But Noah Van Sciver's graphic take on the subject, whilst overlapping a fair bit with Joshua Wolf Shenk's study, is fresh, charming and probably a much better introduction. In case the mental state of the 16th president is something you're interested in. Which you definitely should be.

The Hypo opens in 1837, with Lincoln travelling to Springfield, Illinois, to set up a law practice and escape his an engagement to a woman he doesn't love. Whilst finding his way around town, he meets a storekeeper called Joshua Speed and the two share a room above Speed's shop. Eager to help his new friend forget his fiancée, Speed recommends the services of some local prostitutes to Lincoln, thus setting up one of the best few panels of character exposition of anything I've read recently.

He can't go through with the act, of course, but he's very nice about it, and this encounter sets the scene for the rest of the book. From his political aspirations to his fraught courtship of Mary Todd (who was a total badass, knew her own mind and was into politics even though this was not a seemly interest for ladies in the mid-19th Century), Lincoln is the underdog in his own life, and Van Sciver's depiction is sufficiently sympathetic as to make the reader really root for him as he struggles against rival suitors, Mary's family and his own anxious temperament. That's not to say he's presented as infallible - at times, in fact, he's a bit of a dick. But at the end of the book, with Abe and Mary safely wed, I found that I couldn't help but wish them a brighter future than the one they actually got (biographical spoiler alert: it isn't all up from then on for the Lincolns).

What with the whole course of love not running smooth thing, Lincoln and Mary Todd get engaged after courting for a while, but Lincoln breaks the engagement off some time later. Mary tells him not to bother coming around any more, Joshua Speed goes home to Kentucky after his father dies and Lincoln is left alone. A nervous breakdown ensues - or, in the parlance of the time, an attack of hypochondriasis (the "hypo" of the book's title) - and Lincoln is treated with hot baths, cold baths, mercury and bloodletting in an attempt to save his sanity. Which makes these bad boys look like something of a walk in the park. Van Sciver's depiction of this episode, in particular, is very moving and involving - at times almost claustrophobically so - and the ten or so pages detailing Lincoln's treatment are built upon visually and thematically in the epilogue: an illustration of the anonymous poem 'The Suicide's Soliloquy' which is thought to have been written by Lincoln.

The good news is that they manage to sort themselves out and get married, the book ending with a wedding (I've read enough Austen that this is a pretty damn good ending for any book). There's also a duel along the way, which is fantastic. Because duels.

Even if The Hypo doesn't promise you the same weird intersection of your interests as it does me, it's definitely worth a read. It was my kind of thing because I like Lincoln, his melancholy, the excellent depiction of his firecracker of a fiancée and anything to do with historical & graphical depictions of mental illness - but the fact that it's endearing, engaging and an all-round good read should make it your kind of thing as well.

Sad Comics Reviewed: When David Lost His Voice

David's first grandchild has just been born when he learns that he has terminal cancer. When David Lost His Voice, by Belgian comics artist Judith Vanistendael, is the story of David's last days, framed through the lens of his experiences and those of the women around him. This is sad comics fare on a number of levels: the English translation (from the original Dutch) is beautiful and poignant, the artwork is watercoloury and lovely, and cancer is definitely one of the sadder things to make comics about. Top five at the very least.

Vanistendael's art works within the visual idiom of comics - her characters are cartoony, and the majority of the narrative plays out within panels - but it also transcends the more traditional visual identity of the medium. Or, rather, the art of When David Lost His Voice seeps out beyond the edges of its own constraints. Vanistendael's arresting, vibrant use of colour is tempered by the fact that the book is entirely watercoloured, usually with incredible precision but increasingly chaotically as the narrative progresses. The paint spills over the linework in places, just as the art spills out of panels and onto single- and double-page spreads, breaking down structurally in parallel with David's body and becoming insubstantial with his flesh.

The imagery, too, is gorgeous. Morbid, certainly, but beautiful nonetheless. I'm a total sucker for a good danse macabre, and there's a two-page spread of perfect dancing skeletons to be enjoyed in one of the early sections of the book. Skeletons, unsurprisingly, are a strong visual theme throughout the commic. David's eldest daughter, Miriam, sees his skull staring back at her when she visits her father in his bookshop (I'm also a total sucker for the whole skull-through-the-skin thing). And the cover image of the English translation is of David's wife, Paula, lying in the foetal position next to a skeleton she has constructed out of chopped-up scans of her husband's metastases. It's a very subtle birth/death parallel, and one which echoes the same theme within the narrative - the Dutch cover, interestingly, is somewhat more explicit and less allusive in this regard - and it works.

The narrative is split into five parts. The first and last sections are David's story, whilst the middle three depict the experiences of Miriam, his adult daughter, who has just given birth to her first child, Paula, his young second wife, and Tamar, the eight-year-old daughter of their marriage. Each of the sections is prefaced with a few lines of poetry - something which often doesn't work, but in this case absolutely does. It is very much a story of people not talking about things: Paula is frequently frustrated by her husband's reluctance and failure to communicate with her, and Miriam is hurt when her father waits months before mentioning his diagnosis to her. This theme is more profoundly realised when David's larynx is removed to allow him to breathe more easily - after keeping so much to himself for so long, he has been forcibly silenced, and it is only then (through handwritten notes) that he is finally able to express to Paula in words what he admits he has never been able to say: that he loves her.

However, the book's silences represent more than frustration. After spending his last holiday alone with Tamar doing things intended to delight her, David puts his young daughter to bed, goes out to the back of the houseboat they're sailing around a lake on and smokes a cigarette alone in the dark. It's a powerful scene, and evokes something which would be more or less impossible to do with words.

The words, though, are also incredible in their simplicity. There's something haunting about an eight-year-old child crying out to her father, "Please Daddy, don't die."

When David Lost His Voice is one of the saddest of the sad comics, but there's hope in tragedy - a single robin seen from the window of the hospital canteen while Paula and Tamar hide from the man they love as he dies - and redemption and love in the the final days of David's life, and in his death. It's a thing of splendid, moving beauty, and you should absolutely check it out.


Sad Comics Reviewed: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes

Good news, everyone! Comics aren't just for kids any more! I know we've been saying this for a while - about Watchmen, about Fun Home, about Maus - but we really mean it this time. Adults of impeccable taste who enjoy really good books, as long as they're reliably proven to be literature by the judges of major literary prizes sponsored by famous coffee chains, are finally allowed to read stuff that comes with pictures as well as text. Huzzah! Now, I don't begrudge Dotter of her Father's Eyes its success. I don't begrudge it anything, in fact, because it's splendid. It combines two of my favourite ographies, biography and autobiography, and does so with aplomb. If you're not familiar with Mary Talbot's work on critical discourse analysis, or Bryan Talbot's stint at 2000AD in the eighties and/or taste in bad puns, there's no need to worry. Even if you weren't lucky enough (as at least two thirds of the ConSequential team were) to see Bryan bumming a smoke off someone outside the main hall at Thought Bubble this year, you've got nothing to worry about with Dotter. It's both charming and accessible. Maybe that's why fancy people love it so much.

I should confess at this point that I, too, am fancy people.

Fans of Asterios Polyp will enjoy the fact that the Talbots use no fewer than three different art styles to delineate the boundaries between their present (or near past), their past and the life of Lucia Joyce - bold colours and strong linework for the present, pencil and sparse/muted colour for Mary's youth and a gorgeous palette of dark blues, greys and blacks for Lucia's story. The panels depicting the end of Lucia's life are particularly powerful.

The sections dealing with Lucia Joyce are excellent both in terms of their emotional impact and in the storytelling, dialogue and sheer vivacity of character that they portray, but no good scholar of critical discourse would let us get away with a simple biography. The details and events of Lucia Joyce's life are used to draw parallels between and associations with Mary Talbot's childhood and youth, and it's very much Mary's story, rather than Lucia's, which really steals the show. It's even Mary who crops up on the cover, which almost certainly means something about something.

The two histories in question complement one another well: they're tales which share common themes and threads, but by no means the same outcome. The last years of Lucia Joyce were not happy ones, whereas Bryan and Mary, in spite of their circumstances and setbacks, seem to be doing more or less all right (they've just won a Costa prize, for one thing). And perhaps it's this which makes me feel that their story is more central to Dotter than Lucia's. The life of Lucia Joyce, if treated as a straight biography, would be as sad as the saddest of sad comics. But when similar themes and experiences from Mary's youth are highlighted, and comparisons invited, there's a sense of triumph and a very real glimmer of hope. Lucia could not right the wrongs of the past, but the Talbots may well have managed to achieve that.

In terms of sad comics specifically, there's a lot here for fans of the genre: class issues, daddy issues (both Mary's and Lucia's), thwarted hopes and dreams, parental pressure, incarceration, people doing bad stuff to ladies (at least in part simply because they happen to be ladies at a time when that wasn't necessarily a good thing), living in Wigan, getting knocked up and subsequently married really young because that's the thing to do, and plenty more. Some solid sad comics fare for those of you who enjoy a really sad comic.

I hope that people will read Dotter because it's a fantastic comic, and not just because it's fantastic and also happens to be a comic. I haven't said a lot about panel structure, but the three distinct art styles do interesting things within the medium, and it would be nice to hear some more about that and a bit less about how it's safe to come out of the comics closet now that the middle classes have been reassured (which brings us gently back to class issues. Boom.).

If this hasn't been enough to make you want to go and read Dotter, I'd like to close by quoting James Joyce himself (as Mary Talbot quotes him in the book): "It's enough if a woman can write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully."

If nothing else, Dotter proves Joyce to be as much of a jerk as that quotation suggests. Enjoy!

Sad Comics Reviewed - The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

  The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

It's often said that there's something out there for everyone, and I knew from the moment I saw some of the preview pages from The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song that it would be absolute catnip for me. Frank M. Young and David Lasky, with the help of 150 or so Kickstarter backers, have pulled off something very special. It also happens to be a perfect constellation of my interests: comics, sadness, biography and folk music, set against the somewhat dour backdrop of rural early 20th century America.

Very brief history lesson: country music as it exists today grew out of the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan (before he went weird), Johnny Cash and countless others of that generation and style. And pretty much all of those guys and their contemporaries were heavily influenced by the Carter Family. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle (mother of June Carter Cash) played music together as the Carter Family from the early 1920s to the mid 1950s, had a crowd of musically talented children between them, revived interest in hundreds of traditional songs from their native Virginia and set the stage for basically all the American country music that followed. Not bad going. I'd tell you more, but the whole story is in the book and you should definitely read it.

I'm approaching The Carter Family with my interest-in-sadness-and-comics rather than my interest-in-folk-music hat on, but it wouldn't be possible to review a book with so much music woven through it without spending a minute or two talking about that. As an absolutely brilliant bonus, the book comes with a CD of original Carter Family recordings. I can almost guarantee that I'm going to be listening to nothing else for the next couple of weeks. Music in The Carter Family is represented straightforwardly using words and pictures, but it's done really rather well – the feeling of having lost something by not being able to travel back through time and sit silently in the living room, recording studio or radio booth with the Carters while they sing and play is intense and palpable, but Young and Lasky's writing and art nearly makes up for the fact that no one's figured out time travel yet. I ached, as I read it, to hear the songs. The depiction of A.P. Carter and Sara Dougherty's harmony – the moment in their courtship when all her other suitors admit defeat, the couple's voices blending together in a red cloud above their heads – is one of the most perfect visual interpretations of sound that I've ever seen, and it's this skilful representation which makes something so thoroughly grounded in sound actually work on the page.

That Maybelle Carter could certainly play guitar

However, if you know or care little about music (of this period & genre or in general), there's still plenty to like about The Carter Family. As with all the best (true) stories, the narrative is strong and deeply human, infused with a lingering sadness as the Carters achieve musical and financial success but find that they're less happy than they were when they were poorer. The story can be a little jarring as it jumps forward in time, but it's a powerful enough tale that this doesn't really matter. The Carters are, at heart, good people who end up out of their depth. By the end of the book, it's still about the music, but everything else around them has changed. And in terms of the art, Lasky's linework and muted colour palette suits the Depression-era setting perfectly.

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song was a joy to read, and you've a real treat in store for you if you haven't picked it up yet.

Sad Comics Reviewed: Ellerbisms

I finished Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms over the weekend. It was both a quick read and a good one. What with the nice colouring on the cover (yep, I judge books by their covers too) and with Marc Ellerby being such a genial chap when I met him for all of thirty seconds at this year's Thought Bubble, I didn't immediately peg Ellerbisms as sad comics. From the blurb on the back of the printed edition* - "A relationship told in pictures through the autobiographical comics of Marc Ellerby, Ellerbisms catches a glimpse into the life of a young couple, their highs and lows, their sighs and lols." - it could have gone either way. And there's a lot of light-hearted stuff to be found in the pages of Ellerbisms. Plenty of the strips are about two young people geeking out over stuff and being in love. It's very sweet and very funny in many places. In others, it's pretty desperately sad. And, every now and then, it goes to some really rather dark places. As much as it's about a couple of kids in love, it's also about a young guy trying to process some difficult experiences, and the fact that Ellerbisms is autobiographical means that that processing feels truer and rawer, perhaps, than if the same themes had been presented behind the veil of fiction.

The fact that they're daily diary snapshots ("The idea of Ellerbisms originally was to take a moment of the day, no matter how trivial and small it seemed, and illustrate it as a comic in a Moleskine sketchbook"**), and not just autobiographical comics, has some pretty interesting ramifications in terms of the overall narrative. Ellerby is fairly upfront about the fact that he used the collation of a series of strips which were originally webcomics into a printed book as an opportunity to give the narrative more shape, but it's still fragmented - much more so than anything with a more traditional narrative style - and the prologue and epilogue which were added to round out the story for the print edition share this fragmentation rather than easing it.

The strips are small scenes from a greater life, the details of which we as readers are not totally privy to. We're left to fill in the gaps - both literally and emotionally - between the events Ellerby depicts, and this process of constantly playing catchup within the shifting scenes of two people's relationship is both fascinating and exhausting. Ellerbisms drags the reader through a series of emotional cruxes (often the things which naturally would have stood out on any given day - it's not a surprise that this is the stuff he picked to draw) with minimal explanation or editorialising. And it's this, I think, which gives Ellerbisms a lot of its rawness and power as a story and as a book.

It's not all dark, and there are plenty of cameos and in-jokes for anyone even fleetingly familiar with the UK (and occasionally transatlantic) comics scene - my favourite being "Jamie McKelvie appears courtesy of Kieron Gillen" - but Ellerbisms is, at its heart, a comic about love and loss. They're very human themes, and Ellerby handles them tenderly and largely without comment, which is adds to the emotional potency of his treatment.

It's a charming, sweet and funny book, the art is lovely and I thoroughly recommend it - but Ellerbisms is definitely sad comics.

* I'm aware that this tactic is the blog review equivalent of opening an essay or presentation on any given topic with the dictionary definition of that topic, but bear with me here.

** Marc Ellerby himself, in the introduction to the print version

Why Sad Comics?

Let's talk comics. Sad comics, specifically. After all, comics aren't just for kids any more, and I'm very interested in the darker side of things. This isn't much of a surprise – I started out as a strange, morbid child reading 19th century children's novels (the kind where someone dies of scarlet fever or typhus once every twenty pages or so), graduating onto Will Self and Don DeLillo and all kinds of disturbing postmodern shit by my early teens. Not to mention a meandering detour through the sad lady novelists of the last fifty or so years, from The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted through to Prozac Nation. I prefer my melancholy anatomised and my demons noonday. The sad comics were waiting for me, and I was waiting for them. But there were obstacles standing between us. Mostly the fact that I'd spent those dour teenage years modelling myself as a serious student of literature, and then went straight from that youthful posturing to fancying around in a ludicrous neoclassical enclave. I meant serious business, and comics were not serious business. Oh, sure, I took the odd foray here and there. I delved into the Sandman series in my second year, smugly appreciating the Shakespeare-y bit, and someone forced Watchmen into my hands about six months before the film came out. I liked both comics a great deal, but had no idea there was more (equally good, much sadder) stuff out there. I had no one to curate my first tentative steps into the world of comics, and no real idea where to begin.

Fortunately, all of that changed at the beginning of 2011. A dear friend gave me a copy of Fun Home, and it legitimately changed my life. Fun Home was my road to Damascus. The scales fell from my eyes. Until that moment, I'd had no idea that comics could be so good. Or so sad. It became my litmus test – my Bechdel test, almost, if that weren't already something awesome – and I spent the rest of the year trying desperately to find something sequential that pushed every single one of my buttons in the same way. It took a lot longer than it should have to properly plug into the specific kinds of comics that happen to get me going, which is mostly the reason I want to write up some reviews and do a bit more exploration of the subgenre: so that today's sad kids can find more of the good stuff and less of the less good stuff*, and more quickly.

Since then, I've been very lucky in finding comics which hammer on my sad, sad buttons like nothing else. Stuff which lights up every miserable neuron the way Fun Home did when I first tore through it in the space of an afternoon, gasping at every crisp, unhappy turn. And I want to share them with the world – few are as well-known as Bechdel's recent work, but many are just as good.

After all, misery loves company. So join me. Let's dive into the slough of despond.

*There are plenty of comics out there which look or sound, on cursory inspection, like sad comics. And yet they are not. It's a dangerous liminal space, and I'd like to guide as many miserable children through it safely as I can.