Stop and look

I’m still undecided what I think the precise aesthetic or narrative effects are of using anthropomorphic animals as characters in comics. They clearly invoke a long tradition, which is dominated by materials produced for children, but that tradition is so varied in its contents that the mere presence of such characters doesn’t tell you one thing or another about the author’s intentions. Nowadays they often crop up in stories with pronounced adult themes, such as Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, or Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, where they might add a layer of irony or highlight any transgressive element in the work (for me there’s something slightly disturbing about sex scenes between such characters). Jack T. Cole’s Temple lacks any obvious examples of irony or transgression, although it does feature some nudity, in which its fox-faced and -tailed protagonist is revealed to have an emphatically primate physiology under their clothes. Cole’s choice to draw this hybrid is clearly a deliberate and artistic one, but there is no obvious reason for it, and no clear singular effect proceeding from it. He just likes anthropomorphic animals, as do many other cartoonists, illustrators and animators.

Cole draws detailed, fantastical, and inventive illustrations, in a similar vein to Farel Dalrymple, James Stokoe, Simon Roy, Brandon Graham et al. Like those artists and others, he is very adept at resolving the tension that often exists in comics between the narrative and the decorative. Even if an artist’s pages are extremely clear in their narrative flow, there is a risk that the reader will just stop and look at them if they’re too pretty, which obviously brings the story to a halt. This is a risk of which editors are very aware, as can be observed from the fact that many of the most successful, high-volume commercial titles contain art that is absolutely not worth stopping to look at, but which encourages the reader’s eye to move through it as quickly as possible. However, with a one-shot like this book that Cole has drawn for Shortbox, the opposite may apply: you need to get the reader to linger over it, or the whole thing will be over in a flash, leaving little impression on their long-term memory. In fact, I read it several times, in both directions. The story is slight, and almost irrelevant to the experience of reading, but the imagery is imprinted on my brain. I could spoil the plot for anyone reading this in about fifteen words, so I won’t say anything about it, other than to note that while Temple is not a ‘silent’ comic, it is nearly wordless, as its protagonist has nobody to hold a conversation with. Without the exegetical function usually played by dialogue, it takes a while to tease out the narrative content, and that’s all to the good, as the book becomes a gentle sort of puzzle, and the figuring-out of its minimal plot becomes a pretext to spend more time gazing at Coles’s gorgeous inks and colours. This is yet another uniquely beautiful comic from Shortbox.

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