With new tales for old characters, two types of Seth and something for the Bowie fans, it’s the latest roundup of new comics from Pete Redrup & co
Ebony Flowers - Hot Comb
The way childhood is depicted in the first story Hot Comb reminded me of Lynda Barry. This is not in a derivative way, but rather in the affectionate but unflinching depiction of childhood poverty and the complexity of family relationships. Since the book shares its title with this story, we can assume its high status in this collection. Hot Comb recounts a girl named Ebony's first time getting her hair relaxed, aged 11. Having moved from a trailer park to an all-black neighbourhood near Baltimore, her natural hair gets her bullied and so her mother, grudgingly, assents. What follows shows us a little of life in the trailer park, her mother’s fears that her children were becoming too white as they copied their friends, and more about how things changed in the new neighbourhood. A story about hair on the surface becomes a nuanced reflection on race, class and identity. This is what the best writing does - resonates with those whose experiences are similar, and produces empathy in others.
The other, shorter, stories cover wide ground. "Big Ma" is about addiction and the impact this has on the wider family, while "The Lady On The Train" describes an encounter laden with casual racism. "My Lil Sister Lena" has a black girl’s hair as object of curiosity for the white girls on her softball team and "Last Angolan Saturday" shows the pleasures of a trip to the beach where the journey with friends is as important as the destination.
Ebony Flowers is an important new voice, and it’s great to see her work coming from a large publisher. There’s so much to enjoy and unpick here, great storytelling with multiple layers celebrating family, friendship, race and community. In a time when many are keen to bring division between different groups it’s so important for voices to be heard, for people to see their lives reflected in books, and for others to hear those voices. This is clearly a view widely shared, as Ebony Flowers has just won the Ignatz for Best New Talent.
Seth - Clyyde Fans
Once again, it’s a huge Drawn & Quarterly book that has been over 20 years in the making - they seem to have produced a few of these recently. Clyde Fans is an eyecatchingly opulent hardback in a slipcase, as solid as the buildings depicted within. This is a quiet story about pretty ordinary lives in which not much happens. Were Seth not such a gifted artist this might be a problem, but in his hands the gentle amble through this selective history of the titular fan manufacturer and the lives of the Matchcard brothers is a pleasure from start to finish.
The story is divided into five parts with a non-linear chronology. Beginning in 1997 we meet Abe as he walks through the old offices of the long defunct company, and the family home on the floors above. Almost a hundred pages are devoted to this meander, as he fills in some of the back story and muses on the art of selling. The next section introduces his brother Simon as he embarks on a disastrous attempt to become a salesman 40 years earlier. As a painfully introverted character, it’s hard to imagine anyone less suited to this life, and when we move forward to 1966 he has pretty much become a recluse while he cares for his elderly mother. The brothers seem very different and their interactions are fraught with tension and a lack of understanding of each other. It’s nearly 350 pages before they have an honest conversation which reveals something of their true selves.
In interviews Seth has described the brothers as being the two sides of his personality, and this makes sense as both of them need a little of what the other has. Neither is particularly sympathetic when we first meet them, but that changes once we see beyond the faces they present to the world. One brother is looking for his father, the other for himself. Seth is telling us not to be paralysed by inaction, wallowing in thoughts of the past, nor to lead the life that isn’t the one you want, or you will end up bitter and unhappy.
Don’t pick this up expecting much to happen quickly or you will be disappointed. It’s an introspective work with much of the heavy lifting being done by the outstanding illustration, a cautionary tale that tells us to be like neither character. There’s also a sense that this has taken a little too long to come to conclusion. I feel, appropriately, nostalgic for the story I first started to read more than a decade ago, but the comics landscape has changed. Compared to the rest of D&Q’s current output this feels a little dated, the introspection telling us about Seth but not revealing many wider truths about the world we live in, although it is unquestioningly a beautiful book.
Nick Maandag - The Follies of Richard Wandsworth
The first major release from Nick Maandag, The Follies of Richard Wandsworth is a darkly comic collection of stories concerning a neurotic academic, an unhinged fire marshal and a young monk struggling with abstinence.
The first arc concerns Richard Wandsworth, a professor struggling to manage an obsession with a young female student and intellectual oblivion at the hands of a professional rival. In Richard Wandsworth, Maandag crafts an obnoxious – and at times perverted – figure who’s easy to pity, and even detest. Despite this, it’s hard not to secretly root for him, despite his social ineptitude and proclivity to alienate peers, colleagues and students alike. Whether it’s being caught attempting to climb a wall after eavesdropping on a private conversation, or stripping off after smoking too much weed at a college party, Richard falls into Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque embarrassing situations with alarming regularity. The strength of this first section is its subtlety – conversations between professors at work functions provide much of the witty dialogue, while the inner turmoil of Richard’s thoughts provides a candid look into a deeply troubled mind.
"Night School", the second – and weakest – of the three stories sees a fire instructor hosting a chaotic visit to a late night business class. While dealing out bizarre punishments to unruly students, namely the consumption of a charred dead squirrel, this bizarre story contains flashes of early Daniel Clowes-style absurdism and a barely comprehensible ‘plot’. This second act, while entertaining, doesn’t provide the same narrative payyoff as the other two.
The final section, "The Disciple" concerns the sexual frustration of a young monk at a co-ed Buddhist monastery. The protagonist, Adrian, struggles to focus on achieving inner peace ahead of his raging libido, lusting after fellow monk Anastasia. Surrealism is never far away, even in this minimalist tale, with Brother Bananas among the cast, a fellow Buddha devotee who happens to be a small monkey. We soon discover that abstinence doesn’t apply to everybody at the monastery – especially those at the top. Following an ultimatum with his master, Adrian is taken on a series of amusing sex education lessons, with Brother Bananas in tow.
It’s tough to be actually funny – most books with pull quotes claiming “it had me crying with laughter” don’t usually raise more than a wry smile in practice. Follies bucks this trend, with genuine moments of deadpan comedy. Maandag creates a sense of unease in all three stories that’s difficult to define, flitting between unsettling weirdness and well-crafted visual jokes. If either, or both of these themes appeal, Follies is well worth a look.