Another day, another interesting debut from another micropublisher. This time around, it’s the UK’s Breakdown Press in a comic that looks like a lost cousin of the Closed Captioned Comics art collective. This is an oddly-proportioned comic (about 7 x 10″) that looks like it was printed on a Risograph. The use of color in its five separate stories is wild, vivid, and at times trippy. It’s not what I would call directly psychedelic, since the color patterns aren’t trying to form the sort of wave patterns one associates with that sort of effect, but there’s a kind of rich, off-kilter, intense effect created by Kessler’s use of color that complements his frequently oblique storytelling.
The first story follows two simply rendered, nameless characters on a tour of land that was first devastated and later reinvigorated by a massive, still raging fire. One character starts the story in a lush forest, and takes the other through a landscape that is increasingly bizarre and alien; they run through hills made of ash until the see the fire itself. In it, they see that life has mutated in a short time to an alarming degree, as a flaming deer assures them that it’s fine, “going strong.” It then runs away on a page where its running form slowly unravels to become part of the fire and then just a series of red and yellow squiggles. It’s a page that reminds me a little of Michael DeForge in terms of effect but not rendering. On a later credits page, Kessler notes that he copied the painters John and Paul Nash for a starter image, and the desolate, post-war forest landscape of Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World seems to be that particular starting point.
In the second story, “Kawanishi’s Garden”, the artist Kawanishi Hide and his bright but subdued color sense provide the inspiration for a series of interweaving stories about a woman who rules over a city with dense, almost wild vegetation and listens to one of her traveling counselors go on about a death dream. When she challenges him on this, he calmly and unexpectedly starts to talk about his role as the literal and accidental creator of the universe, as a result of an accidental trip through time to the moment of creation. As his story becomes increasingly bizarre and unlikely (though told with utter conviction), the images of the story become more abstract, breaking down into color squiggles much as the first story does. It’s a cross between a bit of fascinating philosophical musing and a shaggy dog story, which describes much of what Kessler does.
The third story is a bridge, as it’s a collaboration between Kessler and someone named Reuben Mwaura. This is a grim, stripped-down story about Mwaura’s abusive childhood, with very minimal figure drawing and a monochrome wash on each page. That’s until the end of the story, when the abusive lover of Mwaura’s mother tries to barge his way in and then sets fire to the house with Mwaura and his younger brother still in it. A deep purple represents the terror of night until a florescent yellow arrives to signal that the house was aflame. They survive, but the end of the story is a mix of relief and terror at the new level of poverty they have sunk to. Kessler makes great use of a simple but harrowing memoir to create a number of memorable images.
The fourth story is an all-pictorial experiment set during wartime, as the language barrier is represented by characters speaking in pictograms. Though interesting-looking, the pictograms are distracting and make reading the story a slog; the effect is that of a not-quite-successful gimmick. On the other hand, the last story, which involves a jilted man being told by his lover that he didn’t love him (“What a moronic question … I suppose the answer’s no.”) The reaction of the jilted man is hilariously over-the-top, as big tears run down his face to the point that snot starts running out of his nose. The jilted lover goes through a strange experience as he accidentally runs into a bull with his car and tries to create meaning by connecting events, an attempt that is immediately shot down by his ex. It’s a funny variation on the old philosophical argument of “everything is connected” vs “everything is random,” one that has no resolution in this story.
Kessler runs the gamut of genres, philosophical ideas, and storytelling styles, filtering them through a color sense that dominates the comic more than any other element. A sharply rendered figure often yields to a color pattern field that in turn becomes an abstraction, all in the service of telling a story. This was one of the best comics I read in 2012 by an artist who uses the means of reproduction as a powerful storytelling tool as he shifts from concrete to abstract and back again. Considering that creation and destruction (especially the purifying and terrifying destructive force of fire) seem to be his main focus as writer, alternating between the two extremes through the conductive element of color and color patterns is an ideal storytelling solution.