The three artists that constitute Plum Press — Haejin Park, Sophie Page, and Paige Mehrer — configure themselves to create four separate collaborative works that make up this book’s contents. Together they conjure a delicate and brightly-colored world. It’s a more cohesive book than what results from the typical approach to anthology-making, but the trade off is at the expense of any individual artist’s voice or personality. What you see is style, a collective sense of matching, with a watercolor palette heavy on purples and greens that unites the three of them inside the onlooker’s eye, but the general things that constitute fellow-feeling among a group of friends, like a sense of humor, don’t make it to the page.
Some of it looks like the children’s book drawings of Eric Carle, reconciled with a shojo manga’s sense of how to render eyes. This is the work of Haejin Park, as I recognize it from a publication called 7 Songs, published by Perfectly Acceptable. Looking at Instagram, Paige Mehrer uses watercolors, like Park, but seems more often to have recognizable human figures with body and shape. Sophie Page is the most likely to work in pencil drawing. One can break down the constituent elements of visual style, but there is little in terms of themes or voice beyond that to detect, in terms of what each artist’s interests are. The storytelling, such as it is in the absence of story, feels like a collective thing. Spreads are meant to be taken as a unit. Individual panels denote shifts so small that they feel like key frames of an animation, arranged into mandalas. The impact of any individual page is close to nil, multi-page sequences need to be excerpted to create the full effect of how the feeling for transformation works in sequence. Still, the full effect lacks a sense of accumulation, reading more like ebbing pools of watery dissolution.
Part of what makes the reading experience so unsatisfying is that, while three people collaborated on this book, there ends up being only one note to its collective emotional register: Softness. While attempts are made to stretch this into capturing feelings of tenderness and intimacy, and arrive at a place that’s emotionally moving, there’s no grit or flinty hardness for it to exist in contrast to. While there might be a depiction of the shucking and eating of an oyster, zoomed in on for maximum cunnilingus parallels, the work itself has no bit of sand or grit to build itself around and transform into its pearl.
The world is hard, of course. A book can provide a respite from the tiresome conflict found everywhere outside. However, by not acknowledging the existence of conflict within its bounds, the book-object ends up functioning simply as another product for sale. Avant-garde art should feel like an act of resistance to market forces; this doesn’t. The gesture communicated here is not profound enough to answer the question “Why not just make children’s books, you’d make a lot more money?”
Non-narrative comics are a tradition that’s fairly recent but has led to some noteworthy examples. Souther Salazar’s “Please Don’t Give Up,” a zine reproduced in issue 4 of Kramers Ergot, marries a form similar to children’s book’s direct address but gives it a sense of urgency appropriate for adults to find inspiring. Dunja Jankovic’s comics unfold myriad abstract approaches across multiple pages to create something simultaneously nightmarish and beautiful. The Plum artists might not have encountered either of these creators’ work; when comics-adjacent artists leave comics behind, and they’re no longer fighting for a place within the bustling commerce of the small press fair, the history of their contribution is not likely to be well-preserved. I’ve found an interview where the Plum artists cite Margot Ferrick and Tara Booth’s works as inspirational. These are artists whose work is uniquely individual to them; by working collaboratively in a non-narrative mode, the Plum artists end up producing comics that feel not so much abstract as they do merely decorative. I might not like the book, but I would gladly hang any number of individual pages or spreads in my kitchen or bathroom. It’s all easy enough on the eye, even though there’s little in the reading experience worth retaining.
Obviously, the inclusion of a narrative leads to whole other whole set of demands and expectations. The journey to create satisfying art is defined by a Zeno’s paradox of seeming impossibility. But in the absence of any conflict within the book, I feel like I am just observing a completely closed system, like pond life, or a collection of amoebas, rather than something with a spine that can walk upon dry land. There remains the sense that even a tiny development could take the work beyond itself in the form it currently exists in, that a spark could occur that might set off an entire evolutionary process, but until then, I’m sort of just looking at some stuff that’s purple and green.