I’d like to preface this review by stating that, yes, Inés Estrada is my good friend, and yes, I have virtually nothing negative to state about her book. In fact, reviewing this article post writing I can say with absolute certainty that I very literally say no negative thing about her book or comics as a whole. This positivity may come as a surprise to those who know me, very likely including Inés herself who has more than once documented my slogan as:
While it’s maybe true that my reputation is one of an overcritical grouch – in the case of Inés’s new book, I can sure-footedly state to you that it does not suck.
Originally serialized in Xeroxed mini-comics throughout 2016 and 2017, Inés Estrada’s debut graphic novel with Fantagraphics, Alienation, collects the content of the six issue series of the same name - its enthusiasm, artistry and love intact, condensed and rewoven into a beautifully designed, carefully recalibrated volume.
Set in the not-so-distance year of 2054, Alienation exists in a harsh future-reality where North America’s current predicaments have festered to their apex. Capitalistic greed has run rampant and climate disasters have pushed humanity to new extremes. Estrada selected Prudhoe Bay, Alaska as a last bastion metropolis – the rest of the continent is presumed uninhabitable as the result of climate change. We’re introduced to Elizabeth and Carlos, a young couple attempting to find their footing in a society imprisoned by corporate authoritarianism and wanton weather phenomenon. Their saving grace is their access to the Internet – now physically implanted in an individual’s mind as a ‘Google-Gland’ – allowing the pair to escape into virtual reality at will to explore a seemingly endless catalogue of experience and whimsy.
For the uninitiated, Inés Estrada is a jewel among the last decade of comics and comics adjacent artists – her productivity, ingenuity and influence is enviable while her craving of exploration and experience has always kept her work fresh and exciting. Her pioneering embrace of the Internet as a platform for distributing her work has had a visible influence on how young cartoonists and illustrators approach forming a successful practice today. Her comics for the most part have been completely self-motivated and self-published, shared selflessly online beginning over a decade ago on extinct social media platforms. Only recently has the volume of her body of work begun to spill over into the awaiting hands of commercial publishers.
There are few citable artists in comics who can match Inés’s deep intuitive understanding and love for drawing and creating images. From cover to cover, Alienation is a masterwork in sublime, featuring personal cartooning from an individual whose tool is constantly moving. Her competent and confident illustrations are crafted from a lifetime of drawing anything and everything – cataloguing her surroundings, documenting trips abroad, methodically organizing daydreams and nightmares into tight readable narratives - resulting in pages that are uniformly unrestrained and natural, with line-work that is bouncy, bold and seems frustratingly effortless.
The chapters of Alienation are often bookended with forays into virtual-reality, where Ines’s characters Elizabeth and Carlos explore their fantasies, chill out with extinct animal species and visit by-gone musical acts. These sections play perfectly into Inés’s sensibilities; specifically her enthusiasm for exploration and her history as an obsessive doodler. She eschews the mold of the traditional start-to-finish graphic novel by jumping playfully between stories and settings, harkening back to the freedom of the narrative’s original zine form. In the VR world, her cartooning goes into overdrive, decimating the sterile future-apartment where her protagonists dwell with a multitude of cascading splash pages, shifting character designs and the lush overgrowth of a VR jungle-world. A standout section of the book lets readers play along with the virtual-interface by prefacing an intermission of short comics with a cho0se-your-own-adventure type menu. These VR breaks are incredibly whimsical and fun to look at, and we get the sense that despite the obvious hardships the characters live under in Alienation, their Internet is almost a worthy consolation.
At the beginning the depiction of the Internet in Alienation feels like a sort-of love letter to the early days of online access – when logging on felt like entering a new frontier – a seemingly boundless space of intrigue and possibility mostly free of the intense corporatization it’s ruled by today. As the narrative unfolds the online world becomes increasingly hostile and invasive, and Elizabeth’s virtual experience beings to fragment as she’s continuously reminded her Google-Gland is out of date. She’s subjected to unwanted solicitation and force-fed advertising and eventually, in a significant about-face, a trusted Artificially Intelligent friend and confidant in Worlds (an online chat and virtual reality platform in the narrative) reveals sinister ulterior motives – collapsing the illusion of freedom the Internet provided and revealing it as only another form of control and confinement. Despite its futuristic setting, Alienation does its best to mirror the evolution of services on the Internet in our own timeline, reminding us of the loss of anonymity and personal security associated with putting-yourself-out-there online.
Though its depiction of the future is bleak and certainly cautionary – Alienation is not without a strong grounding basis in hope and humanity – depicted in the resilience, commitment and bond between the two loving protagonists – and in it’s odd conclusion – where sort of anticlimactically, the real and the virtual synthesize into one glorious hybrid, who emerges to ultimately declare: “Fuck it, I just want to chill.” It’s this sort of playfulness in Inés’s work that really resonates with me – unexpected turns and denial of assumptions that make for a surprising and satisfying read.
The comics I love the most are ones by people who aren’t afraid of breaking the rules of the medium – and in both Alienation the rest of Inés’s body of work, I find an artist completely unshy and dedicated, who is embracing the limitations and liberties of the printed page while always providing something new, fun and exciting. Her work pulls the reader along on her terms, spinning points of reference and continuously challenging their expectations. Alienation leans into the endless narrative opportunity of comics, limited only by what you can personally imagine – your own perfect Internet, untouchable and free of exterior influence or capitalistic degradation. Alienation was crafted in that space. It’s a thrilling and inspiring reminder of what made me love and want to make my own comics in the first place.