Ibrahim R. Ineke is nearly as mysterious as his work. Producing comics for at least 10 years now, and involved in the Dutch fine arts scene for longer than that, his treasure trove of hard-to-find material has been both self-published and put out through Sherpa, the publisher of Eloise. He has previously produced comics with the same title, though I don’t have first-hand experience with those and can’t say whether this is a prequel or a continuation of them.
This Eloise is a self-contained story that treads recognizable ground: a family is upping sticks and taking their school-aged daughter (the titular protagonist) from the city to the suburbs. Before leaving, Eloise says goodbye to a goat skull-headed spirit, who is at first left overlooking an industrial neighborhood covered in smog and dotted with cranes, but finally appears to have lost their soul once Eloise is taken out of town. It’s an ambiguous start to an ambiguous tale.
In the new town, Eloise makes friends with a bookish, solitary kid (we never learn his name), who shows her around and tells her about the mysterious ‘green man’, a homeless person who is given dangerous significance by parents in order to keep their kids in check. Unsurprisingly, this ‘green man’ ends up playing a key role in how Eloise’s story pans out. Meanwhile, young people do in this town what young people do in every town: spraying graffiti and killing time in odd spots just outside of the urban development.
One of the aspects of Ineke’s approach to settings that I like most is how he creates a recognizable place through the depiction of the sort of infrastructure that marks towns like this. We spot an old and menacing brick water tower, a rusted basketball court, and a bridge that bows above overgrown shrubs and a muddy stream. The repetition of Eloise’s quotidian surroundings throughout the opening pages means that the surreal and disorientating conclusion packs a giddying punch. This juxtaposition of the spiritual with the suburban is always a winner; it’s thrilling when humanity’s strange intensities, buried beneath the surface of middle-class, semi-detached life, spill out uncontrollably.
An original nine-page strip by Ineke called "Presence", published online by SOLRAD in 2020, works as a good introduction to the artist’s style and themes. It also provided him with a chance to alert us to what I suspect is his general philosophy when it comes to making a story: "Supernatural fiction constitutes an attempt to create a certain receptivity in the reader. Mystery is a key element in this. Uncertainty. Things not connecting." Uncertainty and ambiguity are certainly words that I’d associate with the man after reading Eloise.
In terms of the literary influences that have made an impact upon Ineke, 19th century horror and the gothic genre are both present in Eloise, as is his interest in British TV shows such as Children of the Stones and The Owl Service. These inputs come through Ineke’s work in general ways: such as how, at times, everything becomes subsumed by black; or in the way a suburb is depicted as an inherently alienating place; and how a monolithic structure takes on an (uncertain! ambiguous!) allegorical significance. Ineke’s comic requests the reader do a majority of the work in terms of generating the significance of it all.
The book’s final scenes find Eloise chasing after a mystery, only to be engulfed by magical, cosmic happenings. At one point, Ineke turns to drawing with white ink on black paper, giving a great sense of a world in darkness.
There’s a reference to the 1999 film The 13th Warrior in here too - a story about a 10th century Arab traveler, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, making friends with Vikings, but with elements from Beowulf thrown in for good measure. Amongst all the mythology, it is essentially a coming-of-age drama. Ineke's allusion to this film makes sense given the context, since the central themes in Eloise are who one is and where one belongs, ideas that permeate coming-of-age plots that trace the outsider status that many people feel while growing up.
Ineke provides readers with yet another reference point at the back of the book, this time in the form of a reproduction of Rembrandt’s 1655 etching Abraham's Sacrifice. This etching depicts the moment an angel is sent by God to tell Abraham that “oh, I didn’t really want you to kill your child. That was just a test! A ram will do.” This Biblical tale certainly relates to Eloise’s themes of childhood, sacrifice, and divine intervention. And, in the way in which his dense cross hatching collides with negative space and scratchy lines, Ineke’s draftsmanship also echoes the etching aesthetic.
Eloise’s poetic open-endedness—the way that things don’t quite connect, to borrow Ineke’s phraseology—is what makes it intriguing. What ensures that all this uncertainty works is that Ineke has a strange ability to imbue even the most abstract of sequences with narrative punch. And though at times it seems like he’s dedicated to making the least amount of marks on a page as possible (unless he’s coloring the whole thing black), there’s consistently an atmospheric and emotional depth to his characters and scenes. He also performs the impressive task of writing realistic dialogue, though a lot of the comic is wordless.
Eloise is an engrossing work that keeps drawing me back in - in the same way that the book’s titular character is always drawn towards the seemingly dangerous and otherworldly. Upon each return I pick up on braided details, and try to work out exactly how Rembrandt’s etching and the loose threads tie together. Ineke wrote about wanting to awaken the reader’s receptive functionality. He succeeded.