If you love really good-looking comics then good-look no further. Sweden’s premier underground comics publisher, Peow Studio, has been cranking out the hits since I wrote about them last year and this month I’ll be writing about three excellent new books which they were kind enough to supply review copies of. Seriously: these books are nice. All the artists Peow works with are great, so I want to give them credit for solid curation, but the thing that sets them apart the most for me is how fantastic their books are as objects. Every Peow book is expertly designed, especially when it comes to decisions about color. This attention to detail enhances the reading experience, sure, but it’s also a convincing argument that printing real ink onto real paper can still be worthwhile for comics. Thanks, Peow!
Dust Pam – Thu Tran
Thu Tran obviously isn’t the first cartoonist to anthropomorphise her cat, but she might be the first to combine her pets with cleaning supplies. The eponymous main character of Dust Pam (an odd hybrid of cat and dustpan) dabbles in the feline, meowing and eating mice, but is truly passionate about tidiness. During the day, Pam works at the “Best Snacks” factory sweeping cheese dust off the floors. After hours, she returns home to clean some more and to fret about the bugs who hang around eating crumbs from the carpet. Those bugs (a friendly ant and cockroach duo, plus a slightly malevolent spider) act as a collective Jerry to Pam’s Tom, replacing the classic cat & mouse dynamic with bugs & broom. Pam wants them gone, but either the bugs don’t understand or they don’t care, so each time she dumps them outside with the garbage, they casually slide back in. Other characters include a dog-broom co-worker, a sort of vampiric Roomba, and Pam’s boss’ two puppy-like static duster kids. I don’t think it’s irrelevant to note that Pam’s fondness for all them is based in their respective cleaning abilities.
As noted above, all of Peow’s books are beautiful. But of these three, I think Dust Pam most benefits from their “house style” of carefully chosen color palettes. I’m not saying Tran’s doodles would be uncompelling in black and white. Her characters, even those that are half-inanimate object, are wildly expressive and that would be true in any color of ink. I am saying, however, that there is something exceptionally exciting about the combination of bright yellow, soft red and green which was chosen for Dust Pam (and which colors are lovingly nicknamed in the back of the book, alongside their Pantone color codes*). There’s a duality in Dust Pam, a zany balance between glitz and grime, that exists in large part because of an emotional reaction to the colors used. The palette’s overall warmth raises the energy of the comic’s action, but that seafoam-y green also emphasizes the motionless details of organic grit in the many drawings of garbage. Dust Pam is bright in a psychedelic, almost nauseating way. It’s like taking mushrooms and then noticing how dirty the baseboards in your kitchen are. So, uh, accept the chaos, enjoy the ride, and don’t stare into the mirror too long. And read this comic, because it rules!
*”Cheese” Red (811U), Yellow Cheese (803U) and Green Cheese (334U) can all be referenced on the Pantone website.
Stages of Rot – Linnea Sterte
It starts with a rocky desert landscape and a sky filled with glistening crimson blobs. As the blobs float by, they attract attention and creatures are taking to the air to find their source. There are gulls and buzzards, but also giant flying hagfish and some even stranger things shaped like huge boomerangs. On the ground, blue-haired people in weird clothing peer through a telescope at an enormous whale floating in the distance. It’s covered in wounds and slowly crashing towards the earth. Those red drops are its blood. In a few short pages, a horde has descended upon the whale’s body, brought together by what an unseen narrator refers to as “a sudden abundance of meat.” Stages of Rot is a chronicle of what happens next, over the course of centuries, to that body fallen like a gift from above.
There’s a bit of a vogue in comics for fantastic and alien biologies. Not just for their inclusion (though that’s certainly popular) but for their exposition. Writers and artists who populate their stories with fictional creatures always needed to spend at least a little time thinking about how those critters work, of course. Worldbuilding has always been central to science fiction and fantasy. But often in comics, a reader only finds out as much about something as is needed to advance the plot. The rest is left to the imagination, or conveniently ignored like the reverse side of a backdrop.
But for certain creators now, the pleasures of stretching the imagination and developing detail have displaced the centrality of narrative. Brandon Graham’s writing for Prophet comes to mind, with its seemingly endless (and delightful!) tangents about different alien societies. Some of Michael Deforge’s earlier short stories fit too, such as Spotting Deer: a comic framed as a documentary about a type of deer-imitating slug. Or there’s the recently translated manga series Delicious in Dungeon, where Ryoko Kui twists her tabletop game-inspired setting by foregrounding the study of monster anatomy (by way of culinary technique) over adventuring. All three are fascinated with the metanarrative of life cycles and take some cues from educational media. All are comics that I love. But none of them capture, in the way Sterte does in Stages of Rot, the overwhelming wonder and beauty of the natural world.
Few artists could, probably. Not only does Sterte’s masterful draftsmanship make them a peer with their most obvious comics influences (i.e. Moebius and Miyazaki); it nearly makes Stages of Rot a contender with documentaries like Planet Earth. Sterte’s line flourishes on the page like a field after rainfall, reveling in the biological forms it describes, whether based on real-world species or the artist’s original designs. Nature is meant to be appreciated as much as learned about in Stages of Rot and the level of care Sterte takes with the artwork clearly conveys that. Anyway, full knowledge is never really an option. The narration in Stage of Rot is minimal and though it provides frameworks for understanding the ecosystems that develop around the whale’s decomposed corpse at various times, the reader is mystified as often as enlightened by their observations. All the same, I could happily observe another thousand pages of this stuff. There are no clever gimmicks or metacommentary here. Just the ebb and flow of time, lovingly handed from the imagination of one observer to another.
Rule Break – Anna Syvertsson
There’s some mischief going down in Sweden… or at least this is what the artist would have you believe. In this collection of autobiographical comic strips, Syvertsson rejects the image of the sensitive observer of the world to instead present herself as a goof, troublemaker and general wrench in its works. Her drawings provide her costume for the role. Button eyes and hair like floppy dog ears grant Anna the Cartoon Character cutesy charm, but they also frequently mask her expression with a poker-faced unreadability. In this form, she’s a trickster with obscured motives, someone who might be plotting devilment to get ahead or might just be stirring the pot for the heck of it.
…or maybe she’s just a rule-abiding citizen like the rest of us. A lot of Rule Break’s humor, in truth, comes from how minor Syvertsson’s social transgressions actually are. Her list of misdeeds includes things like: saying “hello” to strangers (“like a dick”), giving an old woman bad advice about ghosts, coveting her friend’s clothing, and wanting to cut flowers from the flowerbed of a pub near her apartment (but never actually doing it). Syvertsson’s depiction of herself on the cover of the book (smirking in hell) is half-aspirational and half-ironic. She obviously wants the freedom to break from societal norms but again, like most of us, fear of judgement and desire for acceptance keeps her coloring inside the lines. Not to mention, Syvertsson lacks any real desire to hurt others for self-gain, so even when she’s moved to make a threat, it comes out as harmless self-parody. In one perfect strip, she warns readers and nerds to be wary, because she’s going into the woods to “kick [her] own ass… and to collect rocks.”
The comic strips that make up Rule Break feel like they were assembled from the pages of a sketchbook or diary. They’re not completely unfiltered (at least one strip has been redrawn from its original posted form) but the effect of Syvertsson’s casual art is still of reading snippets of day-to-day life recorded shortly after they happened. With the exception of a longer anecdote about losing a game of brännboll with a bunch of hungover dudes in superhero costumes, these comics could have been scribbled in a classroom in order to pass around and amuse friends. In a sense, this is how they functioned online, where they were shared and resposted on sites like Twitter or Tumblr and properly praised for their humor and relatability. Because we’re all good people, but shouldn’t we get to break the rules every once in a while?
(Unless you’re trying to mess up the dinner rice. That’s just wrong. C’mon, dude.)