I don’t know who James Collier is apart from being the creative mind behind The Lonesome Shepherd, but he seems to have learned from the best. His book is a beautiful thing, light in the hands and easy on the mind. It is a meditation, a koan in comic form that asks: "What is a shepherd without a flock?"
The first publication from boutique comics webstore Wig Shop, The Lonesome Shepherd takes readers on an evocative journey: a stroll alongside our nameless shepherd—at times melancholy, at times bizarre—as he navigates a bucolic landscape and intrusive thoughts of self-doubt. While we know nothing beyond what we see of our shepherd, the art is ample evidence to send us on our way. He is a lonesome wanderer with a floppy brimmed hat and a crook in need of sheep, and that is enough. Even if he isn’t so sure himself.
I may be biased in thinking this book will appeal to all readers of comics, but it’s no stretch to say that Collier is working within the early 20th century cartooning tradition - the thin, confident line work of that era. Reading this book may give you Kevin Huizenga vibes, though there is a bounciness to Collier’s drawings, a roundness and curvature inherent in both his characters and their environs that remind me more of Sammy Harkham. And to an extent, that nigh-on-deific figure, George Herriman.
When one invokes a name like that, it seems necessary to explain in just what manner the comparison is warranted. Consider the backgrounds.
Herriman is lauded for the sense of motion in Krazy Kat, conveyed by the ever-changing scenery from panel to panel. Collier’s pages aren't always so replete, but there is nonetheless something reminiscent in the clever and effective visual language he uses to show movement. Even Collier’s static scenes are drawn in an interesting way where perspective shifts adding a much appreciated dynamic to this rollicking tale. Never underestimate the power of a well placed clump of grass.
Through the events that befall the shepherd, we encounter other characters out wandering the sparsely-populated landscape, each on their own seemingly lonesome path where they are working out their foibles. There is the wooly hermit, the masked hobo, the writerly cottage dweller. There is even a lonesome sheep. These characters and their interludes are a welcome addition to the shepherd’s adventures in that they round out the world to a degree, and zig where you may expect the story to zag.
While there is a definite narrative here, it is loose, light, and held together as though by a delicate yet trustworthy thread, not unlike Collier’s line. Clean, crisp, and spartan. It is this characteristic that gives The Lonesome Shepherd its meditative quality - that, and the often silent pages that luxuriate in soulful landscapes. It is a story that ends much as it begins, without an answer. In that sense, maybe Collier is playing it safe. But what good is a solid resolution to a story about struggling to find one’s purpose? After all, life is open-ended. Rather than supply a simplistic answer, Collier hits upon an immovable truth: when in doubt, only one thing is certain. You have to keep going.