A fairly tail

Well, that’s two ShortBox comics in a row with a cultivated visual naïveté. However, where Núria Martínez’s Outspace is very obviously a digital work, Charlotte Mei’s Pipette & Dudley: Charming Dog Adventure wastes no opportunity to foreground the physicality of its artwork, the texture of Mei’s thick impasto bulging off nearly every page. When I read comics digitally I usually feel like I’m doing their creator some kind of a disservice, but with Charming Dog Adventure I almost feel the same about reading a printed paper edition—perhaps the right way to read this comic would be to walk through a gallery, viewing the original artwork in sequence.

Mei abstracts the forms in her art to simple shapes realised in flat colour, and with their bold tones and visible brushwork her pages resemble late post-Impressionist paintings, or a less abstract take on Matisse’s cut-outs. When it comes to faces she’s clearly cartooning, however—the toolbox of comics and illustration is pretty much irreplaceable for clear visual narrative. Charming Dog Adventure is somewhere on the boundary between a comic and a picture book: some pages have multiple panels, but many just one, and where there are several they’re rarely separated by gutters. There are passages of dramatic dialogue, but one of the most dialogue-intensive pages is effectively just text, and many pages’ text is simply a line or two of narration, just as one would find in a picture book.

This is an appropriate formal touchstone, as Charming Dog Adventure is a modern fairy-tale, written for adults, but with the same kind of gentleness that’s found in a children’s picture book. As it’s a fairy-tale, Pipette is, naturally enough, a princess, but framed in terms relevant to the lives of Mei’s audience, so she’s an ‘influencer princess’. The handsome prince she meets is also a DJ. Her talking dog might not seem out of place in fairy-tales of an earlier era, but he uses his verbal prowess to write a blog, and is also keen on ceramics and photography. On first exposure I felt a bit reluctant to run with Mei’s apparently uncritical take on late capitalism and its various cultural tropes, but she won me round: fairy-tales don’t need to be permanently stranded in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, and their politics are more deeply embedded than simply endorsing or traducing the kings, queens, princesses and princes that inhabit them. They are symbolic narratives, and in Mei’s fairytale influencers, DJs, and photographers with a big Instagram following are symbols of good fortune, in the same way that royalty are in traditional folk tales.

The story pokes a gentle sort of fun at social media and its economics, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s not really ‘about’ anything in particular, apart from friendship, but its intended purpose, as far as I can tell, is to provide its readers with a cute and fluffy few minutes of diversion, and this it does admirably well. It presents itself as though it were the first in a series of Pipette & Dudley books, and I kind of hope it is, although ShortBox isn’t in the habit of publishing series. I have to admit I usually read stuff, in prose or comics, with a greater sense of peril, a more critical perspective, more ‘difficulty’, more nastiness… but this Dog Adventure is exactly what it says on the cover: charming.

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