This is a romance set in Manchester UK and drawn in a clean "cartoony-realism” style. It's a coming-of-age tale if there ever was one; we follow Iris as she navigates her late teens. Parents, religion, boys, drugs, fast food, and daily life are the fare.
There are a range of ways in which I could tell you about the story and how it unfolds and how it’s drawn. However, I would like to focus on the fact that I usually don't enjoy this type of story. There's usually something heavy-handed in the presentation. It’s too cutesy, or too serious, or just not well made. And here is a story that is not cutesy, or too serious, and it’s well made. It just breezes by like a good movie which you want to watch again, or a TV show that you re-watch rather than wait for the next episode. I can binge read this book.
I have to wait for the next episode, which is slightly disappointing as I thought this was a complete narrative when I began it. And the first episode came out in 2012. So it’s a long wait. I know, I know, that’s the nature of the form (marketplace) and the author is a parent and on and on but selfishly I just wanted it to be complete and perfect now and not in two years. Sorry, I had to get that out of the way.
Our story concerns a young woman named Iris who is living at home with her mom and her mother’s boyfriend. Mom gets into the church pretty heavy and Iris starts to go too. Then Iris stops going and disappoints Mom. While working at the fast food burger place Iris fancies a co-worker and they hangout. But then the co-worker dude gets all fucked up and pukes at the party and tells Iris to not do heroin. Somewhere in there the dude, the guy Iris fancies, gives her a micro-dot of LSD. That’s when the story really begins. The rest is just set-up to take us into Iris’s world. And this was the part—or was especially the part—that I thought was really breezy and well made.
It’s delivered in a straightforward way: the drawings don't get all trippy and “better” like I’ve seen in other comics which attempt to portray a drug-induced dream. Mardou’s Sky in Stereo is a success because it brings the reader into her world and conveys who Iris really is and what she wants without losing you in the transition. The focus of the story goes inward - we explore Iris’s world and then understand the character whom Mardou has built narratively for the first two chapters—and then deconstructs her. When Iris forgets to go to work, it’s a surprise—I was so carried along with Iris on her LSD trip that I experienced the space/time warp that Mardou is expressing through Iris walking along for page after page looking for signs in the street. When the real world comes back in the form of Iris’s mother, it WORKS because Mardou has maintained this straightforward approach by decompressing the time slightly yet still upholding the “documentary” cartooned realism. So, to me, I felt surprised by the end (no spoilers) and then was pissed I had to wait for the next one—which I guess is good. It means the book left me wanting more. Which is what I want from any romance I guess. Even if it’s just with a cartoon character.
“All the things I’ve seen - I can’t get them down,” Iris writes in her notebook at one point. “I’m stuck in this limbo. The world doesn’t seem quite real… I saw something like Heaven.” Mardou draws this scene without too much fanfare. Small panels with Iris and the setting—a playground magic mushroom slide—play against close ups of her scribbling in her notebook and clear memories of her futurepast last few days. This scene illustrates that careful balance between keeping the reader in reality and bringing us into the protagonist’s world. Generally, this balance leans towards graphically rendering the drug experience in a way that ruptures the narrative. When that happens it is difficult for me to often go back to the “regular” rendering of the narrative. Mardou balances out the highs and lows by decompressing the time and not leaning on wacky drawing to deliver the drug experience and then going back to non-wacky drawings for the rest. After the scene at the playground she decompresses the time so that Iris actually meanders through the book in a pleasing formal way ACROSS the spread. We are taken with her in a fashion that seems to reflect, I think, what that emotionally raw feeling of youthful revelation IS. The way it unfolds is jolting in this way because it depicts reality and then reality skewed quite well and twisting it at the end in a way that was pleasing in a cliffhanger way. Bravo.
Postscript: Kudos for Revival House for publishing this book. It’s a different kind of book from what publisher Dave Nuss does normally. Revival House doesn’t do “normcore.” Not that Sky in Stereo is normcore. Hardly. It’s about ye olde days of youth culture before everything was ironic. I just mean that in a way it’s refreshing and breezy and rare to find a book like this and especially from an avant-garde-y publisher. I think it speaks to the depth and strength of the North American comics scene these days.