Stoke-on-huh?

Sam Wade’s Stoke (published by the fabulous ShortBox) is set, presumably, in Stoke. Given that the place-name element ‘stoke’ means (roughly) ‘place’, there are quite a lot of those in England. With its ethnic diversity, mattress store and bare-knuckle kick-boxing, my guess was that it’s probably not the true-blue, rural Stoke that I live in, the same elements probably ruling out Stoke Mandeville, Stoke Prior, Stoke-by-Clare, Stoke Golding and many others as well.  Stoke Newington seemed unlikely, as most people call that borough Stokey if they don’t use its full name, so my money was on Stoke-on-Trent. Then I realised that Wade is American, and so is the paper money we see in one frame.

This comic is a vanishingly brief psychodrama set in a fragmentary glimpse of a criminal underworld. It concerns a young woman, who is an MMA fighter, and ‘solves problems’ on the side. She is recruited to solve one particular problem, which turns out to concern her rather more intimately than she expects. To tell you more would be pointless, as there’s not a great deal to the plot, and dropping a massive spoiler would signally fail to inform anyone what this book is ‘about’. The lineaments of the story are spare, economical, and carefully crafted to carry the maximum weight with the lightest of structures; precisely the same could be said of Wade’s drawing. There is hardly a panel in this short book in which it would be difficult to count the number of individual pen-strokes, and the art is coloured with flat fills in a narrow tonal range, using a palette that amounts to no more than seven tints (including white and black).

So what do I think Stoke is ‘about’? I wouldn’t really like to say, but the reason I enjoyed reading it is that it constructs an atmosphere with the same kind of hip humility as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, where the cool with which each dramatic or aesthetic gesture is imbued grows inevitably from the author’s love for a particular time and place. Being in Stoke (wherever in the world it might be, and whichever of the world’s many Stokes it might be) is like being in a movie, not because exciting things are always happening there, or because anyone is deluded that its narratives are orchestrated to tell their own story, but because every brick in its walls is freighted with the same mythic significance as the places that have been valorised by Hollywood’s terrifying glamour engine.

This is a very beautiful, delicate little one-shot, which does more or less the same thing for its setting that Alan Moore’s brick-like Jerusalem does for Northampton. But where Moore produces a monument, Wade produces a fragile wisp of visual discourse, as fragrant and ephemeral as jasmine. It’ll take you ten minutes to read, and a lifetime to digest.

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