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Watching the Penguins

Comics that swap out humans for animal analogues usually try to fall somewhere into a set range of messages, typically based around the idea people are absurd and that reducing them to anthropomorphic representations highlights their ridiculousness. There are exceptions -- sometimes talking people-style animals are there to evoke pre-existing media in a sort of wry commentary, or are just aesthetically striking to the creator and their fanbase -- but if you're going to make the protagonist of your comic an awkward, monochromatic flightless bird, there's bound to be some type of deliberate contrast with the normal societal state of things, whether that penguin is sympathetically, idealistically naive, a mania-fueled absurdist, or an abstracted empty-vessel vehicle for visual comedy.

That might be part of why Penguins, the graphic novel debut by singer/musician Nick Thorburn (Islands; The Unicorns), initially seems to operate from a basis of familiar shorthand. During a brief phone conversation with Thorburn, I picked up on the notion that his artistic influences and technique share a common lexicon with the last few decades' worth of indie and alt comics. There's the usual suspects in Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Joe Matt, and so forth, paralleling a teen-years interest in making DIY Xerox zines and following a childhood interest in the gag-driven simplicity of Archie comics. That's fairly unsurprising, given what emerges in Penguins -- a blend of juvenilia and melancholy that's grown into a default setting for a significant cohort that grew up in the same context.

To dig further down into what that common experience actually translates to on the page, then, takes more than just an interrogation of influences and comparisons. And if Penguins proves anything, it's that Thorburn has taken well to the narrative potential and visual simplicity of a mute, almost-faceless character going through physical mayhem in ways alternately (or concurrently) amusing and despairing. "I wanted to be as low-res as possible," Thorburn explained, "and have these characters that weren't quite human, weren't quite penguin, had no facial expressions, didn't speak… to me, having it be flattened like that made it all the more cruel." The old Mel Brooks line about the difference between tragedy ("when I cut my finger") and comedy ("when you fall into an open sewer and die") is blurred when the characters all look largely identical and it's unclear, save your own perspective and whatever mood strikes you at the moment, whether you're supposed to empathize with them or laugh at their misery.

The ideas seem simple enough early on: a fourth-wall-breaking sequence where a penguin-man dies attempting to scale what looks like an empty panel, met with heartbreak by a presumed lover emerging from inside. Another penguin-man plummets to his death from the ledge of his apartment attempting to retrieve a bird that's just escaped its cage; the bird, of course, flies back into the cage by itself. A third penguin-man is shown undergoing a series of simple three-part premise-setup-punchline moments of failed exercise: a push-up ends in a collapsed heap on the floor, a squat culminates in stretched-out relaxation in front of a TV, and a sandwich proves easier to lift than a barbell. It's simple enough, just a display of visual silent-gag fundamentals with sharp timing and clear body language, the kind of thing you could easily use to introduce a comics neophyte to the idea of simple gag creation.

That these illustrations are often surrounded by what appears to be acres of blank space, with characters that bend and twist and stand with a physicality that seems a little too alive to be purely slapstick (though slapstick does figure prominently), holds the key to something more intrinsically isolating. And as a cumulative work, Penguins emerges with a perspective that needs this simple comedy to offset what feels like a cynical fatalism -- one that's not unearned, but might be exceedingly bleak if the abstracted funny-animal trappings didn't add that additional layer of strangeness. Both good deeds and cruel manipulations are met with tragic consequences: a duck given an umbrella to protect it from the rain is carried away in the wind by the handle, its ducklings left to die; the winner of a quick but gory swordfight is left traumatized; a penguin who makes the unnecessary move of stomping on a little blip of a creature that looks like a pill only winds up creating a swarm of them that replicate and then consume him. Generosity, ambiguity, malevolence -- all have the same morbid consequences.

But then there are other illustrations that divert from the simplistic penguin iconography to toy almost psychedelically with a few varied styles, often in color: a page filled with melting Muppet-like faces, wigged-out illustrations of Basil Wolverton-via-Paper Rad grotesques, dancing figures that look like loose reworkings of '60s underground comix marginalia. They feel inserted as a deliberate respite from the minimalism of the penguin-starring comics, narratively detached and garishly grotesque where the other comics are bleak and austere. Whether it's complicating the collected vision here or actually expanding on it, it's a bit hard to tell; nothing from a cursory glimpse of the book and its description actually anticipates it. That these in-color characters are human, or at least humanoid, at least speaks to some kind of deliberate contrast, the opposite end of a spectrum meant to render the flaws of humanity: when a cartoon penguin's drawn with his dick out, it's comedic; when a human is, he's an overweight, wrinkly, aging grotesque who proceeds to dissolve into goop.

So we're either largely featureless figures meant to be something other than human, or excessively, specifically, disturbingly detailed humanoids who are unnerving to look at for more than a moment or two. Seems about right. Thorburn chose penguins as his subjects for a specific sort of pathos he remembers feeling while watching a David Attenborough special: "They live in extreme temperatures, they travel countless miles for food, and they get banged up on the rocks. They barely get home to their brood and sometimes they don’t make it… and there’s a deep sadness to me in that, compounded by the fact that these are animals that are birds and don’t fly. There’s just an inherent tragedy in that that I thought was really darkly funny and sad, and funny and sad are kind of my favorite flavors." That he found multiple angles of this perspective is distilled neatly in the last sequence, a story where one of his penguins watches a movie featuring faux-Happy Feet cartoon representations of his kind saved from a melting ice floe by a Muppetoid human. The penguin falls asleep mid-movie, only to wake up on a concluding scene where two humans in penguin suits declare their love for each other before kissing. There's a whole bunch of different ways our experiences with love, companionship, and survival can be reflected back to us so artificially before all we can do in response is doze off. Penguins at least assures us that our ensuing dreams will be even more intangibly strange.

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