Latvian publisher Kus! didn’t need to look too terribly far ( probably just a few towns over, if that ) to find a Zane Zlemesa, the painter/cartoonist who produced the fourth title in their idiosyncratic and consistently-interesting Kus! Mono line — bearing the curious but intriguing title of Fenix — so credit goes to them for introducing a local talent to an international audience, but a “big break” is only what you make of it, I suppose, and the proof, as the saying goes, is always in the pudding. Or, as the case may be, on the pages.
For their part, these pages are certainly visually arresting — Zlemesa’s masterful use of paint is imbued with a fair amount of confidence throughout, and her intuitive understanding of sequential narrative is strong, with her larger-than-normal panels giving her colorful artwork plenty of room to “breathe” while simultaneously allowing for nicely-paced story progression. That story, however, is where we run into a few problems, so we may as well not ignore the elephant in the room any longer —
Zlemesa’s narrative begins on the set of a TV newsroom, which is a great way to accclimate readers to the general and essential character of her fictitious Fenix City locale (the introductory double-page map also helping considerably in this regard) , and the parameters she sets for this pseudo-society are certainly unique, bordering on the compelling, as the town seems founded equally upon the at-first-glance-contradictory endeavors of fine art and casino gambling. Those two worlds are about to come crashing together, though, as a high roller who hits the largest slot jackpot in history has decided to invest his winnings in building a new art museum.
One could be forgiven for assuming that the raison d’etre behind this work was to draw some sort of distinction between the world of art and the world of commerce, gambling being the hyper-charged and perhaps inevitable end point of capitalism in general, but Zlemesa’s narrative instead seems to posit that the two can co-exist and even complement each other in crucial ways, the beauty and richness of art providing a necessary counter-balance to the predatory ugliness of exploitative economic institutions such as casinos, while said casinos can, perhaps, furnish the necessary capital for an arts community to thrive, but who are we kidding? This view is incredibly naive, and to her credit Zlemesa has already internalized this naivete and reflects it back in the sunny, free-wheeling tone of both her art and story. There’s a problem inherent in this approach, though, or at least in Zlemesa’s execution of it, in that there is precisely zero narrative tension on offer here, events simply skipping from the big slot machine win to opening night at the new museum, and one wonders why she felt compelled to stick with such a straight-forward, if admittedly threadbare, linear progression here at all rather than just eschewing such limiting strictures altogether — as plenty of other Kus! publications have done, often with a sense of outright glee. Go figure.
The TV news anchors we meet at the outset function as the audience’s eyes and ears throughout the book, and as they make their way to the gala opening they have a fascinating, and no doubt symbolically-rich, encounter with one of the mythical Phoenix birds the city is named after (well, one of them does, at any rate — the other doesn’t see a thing), but Zlemesa bizarrely dispenses with this sidebar almost as quickly as she introduces it, leaving a distinct feeling of under-developed ideas in its wake and of genuine potential squandered. It’s frustrating, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’m entirely in favor of unconventional narrative structures that challenge the reader to “fill in” a fair number of deliberate “blanks” themselves), but it’s frustration introduced in service of no larger goal, as our protagonists simply arrive at the big event (complete with catered food and a band, as one would expect), and then the story doesn’t “end” per se so much as it just (merely?) stops. It’s a damn good thing that the art in this comic is so vibrant and immersive, because otherwise we’d be firmly in “pretentiousness for its own sake and nothing more” territory here.
I mention the art again not only because it merits the additional praise, but also because I think I’m bound and determined to give you some reason to support this book, since Zlemesa is a talent who may very well have a bright future ahead of her and I’m a firm believer in the evolving aesthetic project that Kus! is engaged in as a publisher, but the more I mull it over, I simply can’t in good conscience recommend that you drop 16 of your hard-earned dollars on this thing. I dearly wish that I could, and it’s entirely possible that a couple more re-reads will reveal more than the three passes through it I’ve already made have, but I really do think I “get” what Zlemesa was going for here — unfortunately, she just doesn’t manage to achieve her aims, and as a result allows a fascinating exercise in so-called “world building,” as well as several pages of very strong (hell, sumptuous) pages of painted artwork, to go to waste in service of a failed narrative experiment. If you choose to blow off my opinion, though — as is your prerogative — and check Fenix for yourself, it can be ordered directly from the publisher (with shipping “on the house”) at https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/28887654/fenix-zane-zlemea