When we look on things a few years from now (assuming we make it that far), there’s a damn good chance that 2020 will be seen as a turning point for small press, self-published, and otherwise independent comics. Not only did we have the “heavy hitters” like Simon Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone and Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits, we had diary comics galore from any number of cartoonists, as well as a smattering of “lockdown”-themed anthologies — artists, like the rest of us, were looking for anything to keep them sane while they were (by and large) stuck indoors, and new (predominantly digital) distribution methods were utilized, both by choice and necessity, to get their work out there. In many ways, sure, it seems like only yesterday, but in others it seems like a lifetime ago, so completely has the landscape shifted. And the changes to production and distribution that the pandemic engendered have proven to be every bit as resilient as has COVID-19 itself, really — I mean, how many comics are you reading on Instagram these days? I bet it’s more than you were in 2019.
I was somewhat surprised, then, to receive in the mail recently a handsomely-produced little anthology called Isolated, edited and published by Tana Oshima and featuring work produced primarily (with some exceptions) during the “height” of the lockdowns, that is available only in printed form. This is not a complaint, mind you — I made mention of Instagram comics a moment ago, but the truth is I don’t even have an Instagram account myself and prefer to keep things as “old school” as is humanly possible. I’m well aware, however, of what’s happening in the digital comics realm in a general sense, and so the idea of a a collection of pandemic-themed strips that bucks the trends and stays with the tried-and-true is inherently appealing to a stick in the mud such as myself — and even more importantly, so are the comics that Oshima is presenting here.
Of course, how could they not be given the veritable “murder’s row” of international talent she’s managed to put together? Roll call, in order of appearance : Celine Hudreaux on covers, with interior stories by Pedro Pablo Bacallao, E.A. Bethea, Angela Fanche, Ana Galvan, Jessica Garcia, November Garcia, Ness Ilene Garza, Marie Gilot, Kim Lam, Drew Lerman, Lui Mort, Roman Muradov, Hue Nguyen, Weng Pixin, Areeba Siddique, and Lane Yates. Veteran readers of my blathering will no doubt recognize many a cartoonist I’ve sung the praises of included in this list of luminaries, but there are a handful of names that I admit were new to me here as well, and lo and behold, they contribute some of the strongest entries in the book, so that admittedly shop-worn “something old, something new” axiom with regards to putting together a successful anthology? It absolutely rings true in this case.
Everyone is given four pages to work with (apart from Galvan, who only uses two), and as one would expect, pretty much all these strips are autobiographical in nature, but even the ones that aren’t in form are in spirit, given the same thing was resting heavy on everybody’s shoulders all over the world at the time — which rather brings me to my main point here : expect a uniquely unpleasant and harrowing reading experience with this as you look back on a time that absolutely no one is nostalgic for. These are all cartoonists operating at the full height of their considerable powers, so that semi-apocalyptic sense of dread we all felt in 2020? You’re gonna feel it all over again. It hangs over all in Sword of Damocles fashion, even in the strips with a nominally “lighter” tone. So if you’re understandably not yet ready to go down that road, while I’d still strongly urge you to get this book — after all, who knows how many copies are even out there — I’d likewise advise that you put it aside until you really feel up to it. Please. For your own sake.
Speaking for myself (because that’s the only person I’m remotely qualified to speak for in the first place), the predominant sensation this collection evoked in me was the strange dichotomy of those times — we were all going through the same thing, but since we were separated, we all experienced and processed it in highly personal ways. It didn’t help, I suppose, that politics did its level best to wrest control of the situation from science — and I’ll always find it as tragic as it was predictable that the same assholes who lectured us about “coming together” in the wake of 9/11 so they could pursue bloodthirsty and profit-driven wars of conquest abroad were the ones telling us to piss in the face of unity during the lockdowns — but by and large the very nature of isolation itself gave rise to myriad interpretations of both what the lockdowns meant and how best to navigate them. This book, by dint of the wide range of distinctive voices it presents, captures the essence of what it means to individually experience a collective nightmare.
Also worth noting : thanks to the efforts of Oshima and her predecessor on the project Andrew Losowsky, grant funding was secured so that all of the contributors were paid for their efforts — and we all remember how vital that was at the time. You can feel good about buying this comic, then, even if it’s not a “feel-good” collection per se — it is, however, a vital and necessary one, as well as a testament to art’s ability to help us get through the roughest of rough times.
Isolated is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/isolated.html
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