Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Spotlight on Shortbox

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of most comics conventions, many independent publishers have lost out on one of their prime markets. In lieu of getting to browse for these books in person, I have been ordering a few from various folks online. Today, I am going to spotlight one of these publishers, Shortbox, a UK-based company with an array of strong creators. I bought these four books and am excited to review them here.

Cry Wolf Girl was the first book I read from this batch, and it was very affecting. It's a story about a woman who has experienced great trauma, losing her entire family to a great sickness. Feeling empty and lost, she begins to act out, literally crying wolf many times. She may or may not be imagining these creatures, and they might be manifestations of her grief. Still, the tribal elders start to grow weary of her behavior, and with the Wolf-Hunter absent, they leave her to fend for herself. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it is a testament to the unique storytelling aspects of comics, a powerfully moving conclusion told through exquisite imagery and pacing. This story impressively communicates  complicated emotional states and has lingered with me for what I think will be a long time.

This book's creator Ariel Ries is based in Australia, and they also have published the Ignatz Award-winning webcomic Witchy, which has been partly collected by Lion Forge.

All of the reviews I have read about it have been glowing. Pipedream Comics concluded, "Marvellously drawn and coloured, Cry Wolf Girl is a compact, masterful exploration of the ignorance of patriarchy and the compassionate strengths that empathy can offer to someone." Fred McNamara called it "a comic where everything clicks into place and rattles along at breakneck speed."

Dead End Jobs for Ghosts is actually the book that brought this publisher to my attention. I follow its creator Aminder Dhaliwal, the animator who published Woman World, on Instagram and saw that not only that she had this new book but also that the publisher was having a sale. I am really glad I happened upon both.

The premise of this book is a wild one, namely that the 1990 movie Ghost (the cheese-fest starring Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, and Patrick Swayze) was in fact non-fiction. In this world, the ghosts strike a deal with humans, and they make a company that revolutionizes labor. The ghosts animate machines in a way that makes them seem like highly capable robots. The entirety of human history is profoundly altered by this industry, but there is also some interesting interactions between the ghosts and their living relatives that make things very complicated. This book is whimsical, for sure, but it also is a commentary on work and how it affects people's lives (and afterlives).

I was not able to find many reviews of this book, but it currently has a 4.2 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

The artwork in Don't Go Without Me is breathtakingly excellent, but the stories are also provocative and complex. The first, the eponymous "Don't Go Without Me," is a science fiction tale about a romantic couple who decided to travel to a parallel dimension. Without spoiling things, I'll say that once there they experience that the place operates on a logic that has disastrous results for their lives.

The second story, the Eisner Award-nominated "What is Left," is another science fiction tale. It explores the aftermath of a deep-space disaster involving a spaceship that is powered by memories. The third, "Con Temor, Con Ternura," is more an existential fantasy tale, where a race of people develop multiple theories about a sleeping giant who is prophesied to awake. 

All three stories deal with profound topics: love, loss, memory, science, and faith. And they do so in earnest and engaging ways. I think that they are the best sort of sci-fi/fantasy stories, ones that have fantastic premises that allow for a frank, deep exploration of authentic human issues. I found them entrancing and exquisitely constructed. This book was the stand-out from the very deep field here.

This book's creator Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is a relative new-comer to comics but has already won major awards, including  the 2020 Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker for that year's Best Publication for Teens Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. She was also the 2020 Ignatz Award winner for Outstanding Artist. She speaks about her work on Don't Go Without Me in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book has been glowing. Rob Clough called Valero-O'Connell "the comics equivalent of a five-tool baseball prospect." Rebecca Burke wrote, "Valero-O’Connell’s beautiful spreads balance immense detail and powerful compositions with soft words and captivating storytelling." Keith Silva opined, "Perhaps Valero-O’Connell is the cartoonist of these socially-distanced days."

The fourth book I got from Shortbox was the first one I had seen from the publisher. Minötaar was nominated for multiple Eisner Awards, and I just loved its premise. The story focuses on two friends who go on a shopping expedition in an IKEA-inspired store named IKOS. Dena wants to get the bookshelf of her dreams (and eat some meatballs) and she brings along Mel to help keep her on track (and also eats some meatballs).

The premise sets up what seems to be a humorous situation, but this book gets much deeper than that, delving into matters of desire and identity as well as what constitutes a strong friendship. This venture tests both women's mettle, and it is a pretty harrowing adventure. I loved the clever mix of mythological archetypes, introspection, and comedy at play here.

This book's creator Lissa Treiman is story head at Disney, and has worked on multiple films as an animator, including Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, and Tangled. In terms of comics, she is also accomplished as the artist on the Harvey Award-nominated and Eisner Award-winning series Giant Days.

I had a hard time finding reviews of this book, and David Harper called it "a singularly unexpected and tremendously well-done read."

Summing up, I loved all four of these books, and I think they are all exceptionally well-done. I will definitely check out more titles from Shortbox, keeping an eye out for any future Kickstarter campaigns. You can order and preview all these titles on their website, or if US-based readers want to skip out on international shipping fees, you can also find most titles from indie-comics shops via web-searching.

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