Barry Dedcock review
Founded in London in 2007, the graphic novel imprint SelfMadeHero has carved a niche for itself by publishing biographies and memoirs alongside more experimental work, and by promoting writers and artists from around the world. In its list, you can find a history of medicine and wine, the biographies of George Orwell and Diego Rivera, an exploration of the friendship between Sigmund Freud and American physician Horace Frink, and an adaptation of Robert Tryssel’s original 1914 novel, The Ragged Benefactors Shattered.
Perusing my bookshelf for titles bearing the publisher’s logo, I find an intriguing Hitchcockian psychological thriller called Tommolt, an autobiography of doomed dancer Isadora Duncan, and a Siberian Haiku, detailing the experiences of two Lithuanian children at the hands of the Soviet Army in 1941. It doesn’t even come close to describing the actions of SelfMadeHero.
A new project of the publisher is the Graphic Anthology Program, which aims to develop, nurture and bring to market color comic book authors. Seven participants spent 12 weeks in a type of comic book training camp participating in workshops and orientation sessions. At its end, each of the seven as well as their mentors produced an eight-page tape. The result is Catalyst, a collection of 11 stories by a group of UK-based writers and artists, three of whom live in Scotland.
They are Pris Lemons, originally from the Cayman Islands and a self-described gay artist who focuses on sex and sexuality; Shuning Ji, who was born in China and now lives and works in the capital having completed a postgraduate illustration course at the University of Edinburgh; and Asia El Fassi, a Libyan born but raised in Glasgow after her family moved to Scotland when she was a child.
When considering the choice of the title, the preface to the anthology references its meaning as “a call to action, to change” but also promises that readers will find “very different perceptions of what the catalyst could or mean, from the magical to the terrifying, the cosmic to heal.”
Macabre definitely describes performances by Shuning Ji and Dominique Duong. A twisted look at technology and modern life With more than just a whiff of the rear window around, Ji’s near-dialogue-free camera unfolds in a faceless city at sunset (or is it sunrise?) and finds a young man receives a new digital camera. He shot some test photos out of his window but what he sees when he zooms in on one of these photos will have horrific repercussions on the next two pages.
In Duong’s story, One Small Thing, crisp graphics are rendered in the grayish background panel – but it draws the reader’s attention to the woman in the red hat lounging in the perimeter of the scenes where bad things happen. Angel of Death? Some kind of monster? In both mood and style, she has some sense of Anna Lili Amirpour’s Iranian vampire skate cult, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
In terms of narrative, the three most direct stories are the strongest. In Sonia Leong’s Just Like Me, we follow an unfriendly schoolgirl obsessed with manga as she finds a clan spirit in a comic book artist who comes to give a lecture at her school – during the deadline to submit a topic for her upcoming comic strip. It is elegantly visualized and presented in a style that gently refers to its subject matter. Using the style of stories within stories, Glasgow-based Asia El Fassi presents a multi-layered tale of women’s empowerment against the backdrop of traditional Arab societies. Once again, it ends on a neat kicker.
Finally, Woodrow Phoenix Convolute, a fascinating biopic about Hazel Fellows, presents the black seamstress who led the team that made the spacesuits for the Apollo 11 mission that first put a (white) man on the moon. The astronauts lived or died in the literal sense of the word depending on how well she did her job. She was lucky for them, she was very good. “There, your hands are everything. Down here, they mean nothing.” Phoenix doesn’t need to work on this point – the fellows were an unsung hero of the space race who wasn’t allowed to use toilets at NASA.
Not everything is simple or traditional. Catalyst, as its mission statement suggests, offers a range of approaches to creating graphic novels, some of them delightfully vague. Using what appears to be an arsenal of rainbow-colored Sharpies, Pris Lemons plays with time, memory, and perspective in her story, Orbital Decay, that begins at a party and then kind of… melts. The result is a story that is mysterious, poetic, and intriguing enough to make me come back
to repeat the readings. The same goes for Calico NM’s weird, vibrant, sci-fi-born movie because I got all of you. It dispenses with the title page entirely, decorates the painting’s frames with floral designs and uses techniques like Roy Lichtenstein’s favorite Ben-Day Dots to create a cartoonish feel. It’s a great trip.
Catalyst is as good for aspiring creators as it is for readers. There’s hardly any illustrated fantasy or comic book style that isn’t used somewhere here. Lettering ranges from hand-drawn to tabletop, art from fine airbrushed to coarse engraved, and narration ranges from broken inner monologues to traditional annotation, dialogue, and annotation layouts. Hands extend from the panels, text fades as it runs down the page to indicate memory erosion and in The Host by Catherine Anyango Grunewald, who opens the set, the story is told through obscure images, faxes from the screen captured from video conferencing platforms we are all very familiar with by now. , and phrases such as “install video”, “mute” and “remove” are clearly visible.
It’s an inspiring and thought-provoking collection.
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