Unsettling + beautiful: Kate Brown's Fish + Chocolate

Comics review.

Fish+ Chocolate

Kate Brown

SelfMadeHero, 128pp, £14.99

Fish + Chocolate is unsettling. Part of the reason I feel that way might be the route I have taken through the work of Kate Brown, the creator of this collection of three short stories. The majority of Brown's work to date has been for the all-ages comics the DFC and its spiritual successor the Phoenix, where she created adventure stories with a slightly darker twist than most work for children. Spider Moon, serialised in the DFC Weekly, was cruelly cut short by the cancellation of its parent title, and only reached the end of the first of an intended five-volume run, but the Lost Boy, about a shipwrecked young boy and his lemur, launched with more achievable aims, and finished its 35 episode run last August. (Owing to the impressive tautness of the Phoenix, those 35 episodes only amount to 70 pages)

The Lost Boy was one of the slower stories in the first six months of the Phoenix, taking too long to subvert the boy-goes-on-treasure-hunt plot with the menace of the islands other inhabitants. Those shadowy figures would become the focus of the story, but I fear by the time Brown played her hand, the immediate thrill of Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron's Pirates of Pangaea may have proved more seductive. (The latter also had pirates and dinosaurs, basically rendering it eight-year-old kryptonite)

What the Lost Boy really had going for it, though, was Brown's art. Expressive characters — well, character — and beautiful foliage (it's a niche talent, but it's a talent nonetheless) combined with her keen understanding of the ability of the palette of a work to set the mood to instantly evoke the tropical paradise her hero was stuck on. That's an important skill, given the constrained space she had to work in.

In Fish + Chocolate, we get to see Brown in the exact opposite mode. Where Spider Moon was for all ages, the three short stories contained here are emphatically adult in tone, and one is fairly explicit to boot. And where the Lost Boy was compressed down into just two pages an episode, these are decompressed, allowing her art and characters room to breath.

The best of the shorts is the opening one, "the Piper Man". It's a loose retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, set in the modern day with a single mum and her two kids. We all know the ending of the fable; but we also all know the stereotype of the creepy weirdo who plays with other people's children. It's a stereotype that many—including the mother in the story—aren't quite comfortable with, but who's going to be the one to let their principles get in the way of their children's safety? And so the conflict isn't just between the mother and her kids. It's also an internal one, as she tries to summon up the courage to keep the piper man away for good.

"The Cherry Tree" doesn't wear its plot on its sleeve in the same way. It still concerns the relationship of a mother and her child (as do all three stories in the book) and in the end, tragedy ensues all the same. But the menace here is entirely conveyed through tone and setting. Prisca and her mother have moved into a new house with a cherry tree in the garden, which, both passively and actively, enters the daughter's live. But Prisca is left to her own devices, and the negligence takes its toll.

Both Cherry Tree and Piper Man also use the same mastery of colouring that Brown demonstrated in Lost Boy to great effect. As the stories go on, and menace creeps in, the colour slowly drains from the palette. The difference, when you look back and forth, is stark; but you barely notice it when reading through. The similarities also demonstrate attention to the placing of the two stories in the book. In Piper Man, the menace is explicit, and the desaturation serves to emphasise that, but by Cherry Tree, the same effect is already mentally associated with menace. The pages thus unsettle, without any good reason why. Until the end of that story, that is. That pattern is subverted in the final story, Matroyshka, which begins desaturated after tragedy has already occurred. It's a gut-wrenching depiction of mental illness, but ultimately a hopeful one as well.

Fish + Chocolate is the work of a phenomenally talented author. Were it not frequently wordless, it would be called "literary"; were they not telling stories, the images alone would be art. Instead, it's just damn good comics.

Fish + Chocolate is the work of a phenomenally talented author.

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

Show Hide image

If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game