Dunja Jankovic is one of my favorite creators in what I refer to as the “immersive” camp of comics. Immersive comics is a style that demands total reader engagement, due to the way pages are crammed with images, and because the text takes on a plastic element. This can make individual pages difficult to decode at times, but once the reader figures out how text and image interact, the experience is a powerful one. In Jankovic’s case, her comics are immersive to the point where the reader might feel that they are drowning.
Habitat is the second book in a series focusing on a hyper-exaggerated account of modern living through the persona of a nameless female protagonist. The first book, Department of Art, focuses on the soul-crushing nature of the workplace—especially one where art is a purely commercial entity, stripped of personal meaning. The second book sees our hero come home to her suffocating and depressing apartment after leaving (or rather, escaping) work early.
Jankovic goes far beyond the usual cliched complaints about work and the lonely, suffocating feeling of apartment living, thanks to her bizarre sense of humor and relentless commitment to creating a visual environment that envelops the reader in our hero’s psychological and emotional states. Jankovic mixes cartooning, painting, collage, and psychedelic art & patterns to blur the line between fantasy and reality. That blurred line allows for moments of absurdity and dream logic that then slip into actual dream sequences, which in turn epitomize the sense of ego loss the hero feels throughout the issue.
There’s a sense of griminess in Jankovic’s art that evokes the squalid nature of urban life. Nearly every panel is deeply shadowed with lots of gray wash adding that extra layer of dirt. Every character is grotesque, from the awkward & angular hero and the lumpy & misshapen creature that appears in her nightmare to the protagonist’s grunting, obese neighbor. One of the running jokes in the series is that one’s upstairs neighbors collect the rent and immediate co-workers are charged with issuing censures from work. That sense of living on the bottom of a very long chain defines the mood of this comic, as each person is trapped in a prison in which they are entirely complicit, willing jailers and prisoners.
Jankovic’s protagonist frequently drifts into nightmarish scenarios that involve infestation, decay, drowning, suffocation, and vertigo. Jankovic uses psychedelic checkerboard patterns, vibratory lines, exaggerated motions that resemble an animator’s storyboard, patterns that resemble African masks by way of Picasso. She juxtaposes this through highly simple figure work and sudden, shocking negative space, which keeps the reader interested and off-balance. Jankovic creates a sense of oppression and despair with these visuals, while using dialogue to play up the absurdity of the protagonist’s predicament. This allows for an extreme sense of detachment for both protagonist and reader, as though the comic were some sort of demented amusement park ride that one simply exits after it’s over. Indeed, after receiving a box in the mail, the protagonist finds herself enveloped in packaging from a useless product and simply flees her apartment. As in the first issue, an untenable situation reaches an extreme that causes the main character to simply opt out. First came work, then came home, which makes one wonder what Jankovic will tackle next.