Clever joy

Nuria Martinez cultivates a self-consciously naïve cartooning style, but her sophistication as an illustrator, and her narrative facility as a comics artist become quickly apparent from the outset of Outspace, her cute, colourful one-shot for ShortBox Comics. An upturned roller-skate in the fourth (or third?) panel of the first page transforms something that apes the surface qualities of a child’s crayon drawing into an unambiguous representation of motion in space. On page 6 the protagonist Erin looks back over her shoulder, again in what appears to be a crudely assembled set of flat coloured shapes, in a way that conveys precisely her movement, her physicality, her body language—the narrative significance of the panel is as transparent as Martinez’s pages are decorative. Or look at the cover: the psychedelic, abstracted form that strides from right to left is not conventionally mimetic, but there’s no difficulty identifying the slim red oblong in her hands—the characteristic smartphone hunch is unmistakeable.

The wobbly outlines, distorted forms, bold, flat colours, and dynamic layouts come together in a distinctive, individual, and above all coherent style. This is someone who knows what and how she is drawing, from the first page to the last. She also knows what story she’s telling, and the ability I’ve already noted to specify physical action is matched by the simple clarity of her panel-to-panel closure. Her layouts are forthright and straightforward, although sometimes they are connected by bridges across the gutters which direct the reader to a boustrophedon path through the page—I missed this the first time around, but it’s not inadequately signalled.

Some of her layouts are not narrative so much as they are taxonomic. The story concerns, as it says on the back cover, ‘friends, videogames, space stuff and lesbians’: the specific (eponymous) videogame that features is a space exploration and conquest game with social features, and we get to watch as Erin generates her character. Some of these pages show a visual menu of branching possibilities, and given Martinez’s tendency to abstract and aestheticise the forms in her drawings, some of the available choices become almost asemic. In fact, I was reminded distinctly of the Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini’s surrealist encyclopaedia, in which almost none of his images can be interpreted denotationally, and which is also filled with asemic text which has resisted all attempts at translation across several decades. Clearly the images here do have meanings, even if they are not immediately available to the reader, and the same is true of the two fragments of constructed script which appear later in the book.

The narrative is pretty outlandish, although it’s never exactly clear how allegorical or hallucinatory we should take it to be, but even if we take it quite literally it remains a story of ‘friends, videogames, space stuff and lesbians’. At the centre of the story is the question of sociality in online gaming. The pros and cons of finding community online are something I’ve had ample opportunity to explore myself, as someone who lives in a rural location, takes an interest in a wide range of cultural production, and enjoys games somewhat more than they probably should—I spent several years in the metaverse of Second Life, and I’ve played a number of massively multiplayer games. As such I found elements of this tale very familiar—the character creation screens especially, but more importantly the rapidly formed connection that Erin makes with an online friend. I won’t drop any spoilers, but let’s just say that she has the opportunity to compare that experience to her in-person friendships. Martinez tackles this amusingly and compassionately.

Outspace is an engaging and vibrant book, a creatively uncompromising and individual essay in the art of comics which never indulges in contrived avant-gardism. Martinez draws her characters and her worlds with the right balance of concrete detail, observant compassion, and sheer decorative jouissance to make them both fun and plausible. This is an unassuming comic, one which doesn’t thrust its cleverness at the reader, but it is nevertheless an extremely smart, as well as a pleasingly joyful piece of work.

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