A gently chromatic narrative

The Island is a short and beautiful allegory. It’s a simple exploration of solitude, of withdrawal, of re-engagement, and of the fear we may feel of aspects of ourselves. The story is told with a minimum of dialogue, and a lot of delicately shaded crayons. It’s a consequence of the ways that comics have developed along with printing technologies, that the relationship between drawing and colour usually resembles that found in nineteenth-century Academic painting – which is to say that line is the assumed repository of meaning, and colour plays an ancillary role. It is common in commercial comics for colour to be applied to images almost as an afterthought, after a writer and two artists have already determined the plastic form of the work. Although this division of labour rarely applies outside the mainstream comics industry, many artists work in ways that reflect its stylistic influence. Joy San’s background may be in illustration rather than mainstream comics: I don’t know, but it seems likely, as that is a field where a wider range of techniques is commonly employed. Whether this is the case or not, she is clearly a colourist as much as she is a draughtsperson.

Her panels are built up from blocks of shaded and graduated colour, delineated only by their own edges, unless it is necessary to distinguish objects of the same tone, such as the fingers of a hand. Colour is also the principal field in which atmosphere is articulated in the book, and it is the subtlety with which this is done that gives the story its particular character: its moods do not offer a simplistic commentary or reinforcement of a narrative that lives elsewhere, in the words or lines, but interacts with the other narrative elements in oblique and thoughtful ways. Sometimes colour is the main or only driver of the narrative – one page is composed of four panels with no figuration whatsoever – but this is not an abstract comic. Nor is its allegory the sort that the reader is supposed to feel clever for working out (or stupid for missing); the topic of the story is completely undisguised. The titular metaphor is present less to re-cast the way we imagine the protagonist’s predicament, than it is to render the narrative with sufficient verbal concision to permit San’s joyful countermelody of chromatic affect the space to sing out.

Formally the book is characterised by a measured regularity, three and four panel layouts moving the action along, with double or single panel pages marking significant moments. There are no bleeds, and the integrity of each panel is maintained, until the central transformative moment of the story, in which the protagonist’s divergent tendencies are uncomfortably reconciled, and the division of the page collapses. The outer border is maintained however, safely enclosing the narrative, which put me in mind of Puck’s reassurance from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:  ‘if we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear’. Such gentleness seems entirely in keeping with the way that San treats her characters, who are left slumbering with their very fine cat on this warm-hearted comic’s concluding double-page spread.

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