When you think Kelly Froh, you generally think of superbly-constructed and heartfelt memoir and autobio comics, either short-form or long, but with her latest self-published ‘zine, The Downed Deer, she blows that perception right out of the water — and the results are quietly, and frighteningly, glorious.
One of the best Short Run debuts I picked up this past November, this handsomely-formatted comic is riso-printed in rich burgundy ink on thick cream-colored paper, so it’s a pleasure to look at before you’ve even looked at it good and proper, but I should probably warn you : don’t give this even a cursory glance-though prior to reading it or you’ll “spoil” the whole damn thing. There’s a key surprise toward the end that is best left exactly that, so I’ll refrain from giving too detailed a plot recap here.
What I will say is that the fluidity of Froh’s cartooning has never been stronger or more refined — her clean, simple lines are complemented and accentuated by her use of borderless panels and intuitively-arrived-at page layouts that belie a hidden sophistication lurking just beneath their naturalism; this is well-executed illustration with a veteran sensibility that doesn’t force itself to be noticed, but its sheer strength is nevertheless seen and felt from first page to last. Sequential art that matches smarts with heart this masterfully doesn’t come around too often — so take your time with this one and enjoy every second of it.
As far as the story goes, I said it’s not autobio — or even non-fiction — but you could be forgiven for thinking that it probably is for the first few pages, given that our protagonists are Froh herself and her partner, fellow cartoonist Max Clotfelter. We join them on a road trip through Florida, but this is no ordinary road trip : the first weird thing that happens is that they notice a haggard “wild man” running through the woods on the side of the road, and shortly thereafter, when they pull over in order for Clotfelter to relieve the call of nature, he just plain doesn’t come back.
What follows is surreal and harrowing in equal measure — when police searches come up empty, Froh simply camps out in place, becoming something of a local media sensation, with TV and print journalists covering her story and old ladies bringing her casseroles. When she’s alone, though, she takes to staring into the woods and trying to mentally will her old man back into existence though the power of sheer desperation — and that’s when things get even stranger. To say any more would well and truly be to say too much, and so I shan’t, but it seems clear that Froh is very adept at channeling her inner David Lynch.
Froh appends her work with a revealing afterword that lays bare her story’s roots in her fear of being alone, but the comic itself does a plenty good job of communicating that throughout. The so-called “final act” comes out of left field and really works, but that intrinsic sense of fear that permeates the first two-thirds of the book is still there in its last (roughly) third as well. This, therefore, is a tonally consistent, hermetically-sealed comic that creates, and then subsequently sustains, a unique “vibe” all its own, and stands as proof positive that, creatively speaking, steps out of the nest are often the most rewarding — for artists and readers alike.
The Downed Deer is available for $8.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro (which, full disclosure, is also where I poached a couple of the scans included with this review from) at https://www.spitandahalf.com/product/downed-deer-by-kelly-froh/
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