Review: Windowpane

A comic book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment.

Windowpane is likely to be the best looking book you will hold this year. The comic, from new indie publisher Breakdown Press, is rather unassuming when closed. Stapled spines, soft covers, and a relatively standard size mean that you may expect it to be a standard small-press piece: nice black-and-white art, printed relatively cheaply, and then bound with a smarter cover.

In fact, the book acts as a showcase, of sorts, for a style of printing called risograph which, according to the printers, "sits in the realm somewhere between screen print and offset lithography, but with a unique aesthetic." It's not that rare, and a few other books have been printed with the same technique – Philippa Rice's Soppy, for instance – but Windowpane is the first to feel like it was drawn specifically for it.

The effect really has to be seen to be understood, but it leads to a book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment. Each page is more the sort of print which one would pick up from an art fair in East London than a part of a book. Printing a whole book with the technique is almost certainly not an idea which scales up – in other words, even if Joe Kessler's work makes it to the mainstream, don't bet on anything looking quite as good as this.

Windowpane is an anthology, of sorts, with Kessler providing all the art and most of the words (the exception being a 12 page collaboration with Kenyan writer Reuben Mwaura). The stories within largely share a dreamlike quality. A couple walk through an eternally burning landscape, getting closer and closer to the fire itself, where they find a flaming stag; a man, spurned by his lover, flees in his car and and hits a bull; an ambassador's conversation with his queen takes an unexpected turn.

All are illustrated in variants of Kessler's simple style, which uses thick blocks of colours and basic linework to varying effect. Some of the simplicity is apparently the result of the printing process; a "behind-the-curtain" peek is offered in one of the stories, where the alignment crosses have been left on-page. From that, it is easy to see how tricky it would be to do anything too intricate unless it were in monochrome – and doing that would not be playing to the book's strengths.

These aren't thrilling tales; Kessler certainly knows which side of the art/commerce divide he wants to come down on, and isn't afraid of being opaque. Some of the pieces feel like they exist as little more than a frame to hang the artwork from (not that that's necessarily a bad thing; the one-pager "Kawanishi's Greenhouse" is the best-looking single-page in the book), but others succeed in being deeper. The best two, the aforementioned collaboration with Reuben Mwaura and an extremely formalist piece about deaths from a prairie fire, use Kessler's style, colouring and, yes, the risograph printing to tell a story which oughtn't be told any other way.

Windowpane is a difficult book, and almost certainly unsuitable as someone's first – or even tenth – comic. But put a little bit of effort into it, and it gives back a lot more.

Windowpane is published by Breakdown Press, £7.00 plus shipping.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear