Putting animal heads on the characters in cartoons is a widespread and long-established device—as I very recently noted with respect to Bryan Talbot’s Grandville. Through this device, the cartoonist, who aims to visually communicate any number of observations that couldn’t emerge through mimetic representation, is able to access a smorgasbord of expressive effects and opportunities for comment. Sometimes such anthropomorphic representations go unremarked, but at other times they are acknowledged within a narrative, and incorporated into the artist’s world-building. In Grandville the varieties of animal-headed people are recognised as different races, albeit ones that share a single society, and humans figure as one of these races, the ‘dough-faces’, a species of hairless chimpanzee from Angoulême. In Jen Lee’s Garbage Night the characters are animals, both wild and domesticated, whose lives are largely defined in relation to the (absent) human race, but whether they are a wild coyote, a domestic dog, or a suburban deer or racoon, they are bipedal and fully clothed.
Lee’s website informs us that she ‘make[s] comics and draw[s] animal juveniles for a living’, which sounds like an amazing life, and offers an insight into her book. The narrative is concerned with the dynamics, trust and enduring friendship within a group of animals living in a suburban area that has been abandoned by the human race. In the tenor of their dialogue and interactions, as well as in their mode of dress, the characters appear to be teenagers, although I would guess that ecologically we’re intended to interpret them as adult members of their species. They are drawn as caricatures, in contrast to Talbot’s characters in Grandville, in a style that feels consistent with Lee’s background as an animator. They have clear outlines and block colours, with what few gradients are present restricted largely to the backgrounds. The layouts tend to feature bold white borders, without outlines, and relatively few bleeds—dialogue and sound effects often spill across the panel boundaries however. One technique that Lee uses for pacing is to simply expand those borders, letting certain panels sit in an expanse of white space, which I found very effective. The result is very clear, measured visual storytelling.
The characters are given forms that reflect both their personality and their moral function within the story. The central group of friends are generally rounded, fluffy and/or large-eyed, while anyone liable to be nasty tends to be a bit pointier, with smaller eyes. A large scary bear is an exception, but I felt some sympathy for them, and I suspect I was intended to. The main thrust of the story is a parable built around this distinction, in which a bond of warmth and trust comes under pressure from a charismatic and manipulative interloper. As the protagonists grow hungrier and hungrier, waiting for a mythical ‘garbage night’ which never arrives (humans having abandoned the town), they join forces with a travelling stranger who encourages them to take the initiative and seek out new pastures. Any further synopsis would constitute spoilers, but suffice it to say that lessons are learned, and the value of friendship is reinforced. This is all very well as far as it goes, but I have to say I felt some reservations about the presence of characters with whom the reader is not invited to empathise at all—in particular said travelling stranger. A tale of regretful loneliness would probably have emerged if the book were narrated from his perspective, but there is no sense that he should be regarded as anything other than an antagonist.
Garbage Night is a sweet and touching tale, in which the importance of love and loyalty are reinforced. One character’s determination that his humans will someday return and tell him what a good boy he’s been is just heartbreaking, and sets us up to see how crucial his friendships are to his wellbeing. This book also includes Lee’s earlier comic Vacancy, to which Garbage Night is both a sequel and an expansion, in which the central relationships are established. It’s by no means essential to an appreciation of the later story, but it is an enjoyable read if you’ve formed an affection for the characters (which I certainly did). Notwithstanding the reservation noted above, I found myself engaged by the warmth and humour of Lee’s storytelling; she has a talent for creating moments, whether dramatic or contemplative, that live in the memory.