Review: Nobrow’s 17×23 Showcase: moon men and hopeful dystopias

17×23 Showcase

Contributors: Isaac Lenkiewicz, Kyle Platts, Henry McCausland, Nick Sheehy, Joe Kessler

Nobrow Press

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Following on from the success of the excellent Nobrow anthology- a bi-annual publication of two halves: one comics and one illustration, and their Showcase series, a smaller format paperback comic which launched Luke Pearson’s much-lauded Hilda adventures, Nobrow produced this last July : 17×23- a new anthology combining features of both. Where the Nobrow anthology limits contributing artists to producing strips of 2/4 pages, with these then liked thematically (the last theme was ‘Brave New World’), and Showcase presents the work of a singular author, here we have 5 comic creators telling individual stories over 10 pages each.

As one has come to expect with Nobrow, the production values of 17×23 are very high-the paper’s thick and grainy and the inner cover has a gorgeous cloud print; I’m the sort of person who gets a little pervy with paper (I work in a library and we do a lot of sniffing and feeling of books). There was some initial apprehension as I first flicked through this; having recently read the ‘Brave New World’ anthology, I immediately recognised the distinctive art styles of Henry McCausland and Nick Sheehy, both of whom had contributed to that publication. I was worried that this would diminish my enjoyment of this volume, particularly as McCausland and Sheehy create very particular worlds in as much as that they draw a certain way, but that concern was soon put to rest.

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Isaac Lenkiewic’s ‘BroadBright’ opens the book and it’s the kind of story and character the word charming was invented for. Created by his grandfather the moon as a ‘just-in-case’ scenario, BroadBright has always been a bit of a dreamer. Now with his grandfather missing and nothing to light up the night, it falls to BroadBright to find him, talking to his friends the cats and birds, trying to best handle the situation. The interplay between BroadBright and the animals is love-lily done, they all seem older and wiser than him, recognising his innocence, youth and good intentions, and guide him nudgingly. The dark green palette is a good choice, offsetting the luminosity of the creamy moon-man less starkly than black. It’s a light, straightforward comic, which works well as an opener.

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Moving on to McCausland, his tale is set again in a dystopian future, a ‘Sticklands’, where people are divided by interest and old occupation into not unattractive allotment-like plots: his world-building is very effective: even on encountering this place for only the second time, it’s already something graspable and immersive that you can invest in. Returning from its rounds one day, the scrap truck brings back with it an exciting discovery: cardboard boxes. The people pass them over fences as they try to figure out their purpose, each group with a different idea for what the boxes were once used.

McCausland really manages to capture the wonder of cardboard boxes and the literal passing on builds the story in a way that’s both magical and folkloreish, in a mirroring of traditional oral storytelling. It perfectly represents the magic of boxes in that they can be whatever you want them to be, whilst also reflecting the personality of each group as they ponder over it. I love the way  McCausland depicts his people: fine-lined, almost faceless, stick-like figures, with billowing, scuffed, shabby clothes- they seem hopeful and happy despite, or perhaps as a product of, their circumstances.

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Nick Sheehy’s characters always remind me of Alice in Wonderland, that combination of the weird and strange with the familiar to produce something a bit creepy and unsettling. They look like nursery rhyme characters but have an eerie, dead-eyed, taxidermy feel, with the lack of words simply adding to the disconcerting effect. I’m still finding my way in silent comics, but there’s a definite greater freedom at work that allows the reader to interject their own dialogue to a larger extent. Having mentioned Lewis Carroll, ‘The Drummer’ is easily read as an interpretation of the Jabberwocky, as a single egg/bird being is chosen and sent off alone in a boat to defeat a fearsome creature on a nearby island. There’s lots to take in, with new detail uncovered as you return to it and I particularly liked the ending- a little whimsical but not definitive.

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I’ve never been a fan of gross-out comics rendered in that super bright, psychedelic face-melting style, but I can now say I am a Kyle Platts fan. I’ve been following his work online and this story cemented my interest. While the art may not be to my personal taste, Platts’ story of ignorance and nepotism in fire-fighting of all things, incorporates humour, social/political commentary and a dose of the gross, to deliver an incisive punch. There are many who dabble in this genre and style and fail totally- Platts shows what they should be aiming for: being disgusting to provoke is fine, but to be able to convey something further with that is the bar.

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The final story, ‘A Scar’ is a little too ambitious in scope, reaching for a emotional threshold that it can’t quite grasp. It’s a memoir of  Reuben Mwaura’s experiences of growing up in the African slums of Mathare, entwined with stories of his mother. I get the feeling they were aiming for something  evocative and resonant, but trying too hard- it falls flat, and fails to really make an indelible impression of any sort.

Overall, this is an excellent anthology and another notch on Nobrow’s (surely buckling) bedpost. They are, of course, experienced in putting together anthologies, but the choice to have only 5 contributors, thus allowing each story its own place and standing, and the size and format do indeed, um, showcase, the comics beautifully. Highly recommended and eagerly anticipating the next volume.

You can buy 17×23 Showcase here.

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