It’s been too long, way too long since John Cei Douglas had a full comic out. But what a wonderful return. Evocative, beautiful, thoughtful strips to fall in love with.
Since his incredible Buffalo Roots back in ’08 it’s been the odd page here, the odd strip there, but nothing substantial. Then he gets in touch to tell me about not one but two comics he has out this year. One of those Christmas and birthday at once moments.
First up, we’ll take the short story collection…
A collection of short comics from 2010-2013, Holding Patterns is a beautiful assemblage of Douglas’ recent work, and just a simple comparison with Buffalo Roots shows how far he’s simplified and smoothed out his artwork, still full of detail where needed, but never afraid to focus tightly on his characters, getting huge emotional range onto the pages with such minimal lines.
The collection starts off so beautifully, with Footnotes and Living Underwater delivering an emotional one-two punch so intense that the incredibly well crafted and fun tales Bottling It and Lost & Found are something of a minor disappointment at first. Subsequent readings tells me they’re no such thing, Bottling It’s a delightful and inventive tale of desert island magic, a bottled bit of aggression coming back ten-fold and more, whilst Lost & Found is, on the surface, silliness and nothingness, but actually looks a little deeper at urban isolation and the ability to drift off into loneliness way to easily. Likewise, the final single pager Follow Me (from Paper Science) is pure fantasy that recalls the yearning we all have to meet someone, and here, in an innocent bit of fantasy Douglas plays all that out – sadly it worked a lot better on the bigger newspaper page of PS than it does here on the slightly more than A5 page, but get in close and it’s just as enjoyable.
But as good as Bottling It, Lost & Found, and Follow Me are, they aren’t the high points of Holding Patterns. No, that honour goes to three strips that, in just 10 pages, deliver more than so many artists would spend three long and involved graphic novels attempting to deliver….
Footnotes (from Solipsistic pop 4)
This was from the Solipsistic Pop map themed issue, and in four beautifully laid out wordless pages, Douglas maps out a relationship from beginning to end, charting the course of love; blossoming, flowering, and eventually dying.
The couple meet, as all couples in love should, on railway platforms, and their joy and love for each other is writ large across the page and across their smiles. But flying so high means it’s so terribly painful to see the love fade, and as sure as summer turns to autumn turns to winter, the smiles turn so slowly to frowns.
It’s deceptively simple, with Douglas packing so much much into the pages that it reads far longer. The ending, with a slow fade out through the railway station is quite beautiful to see.
Living Underwater (from Solipsistic Pop issue 3)
It always seemed a slightly odd fit in the kids issue of Solipsistic Pop, this beautifully constructed and crafted tale of depression and isolation. But here, surrounded by Douglas’ melancholy beauty, it fits perfectly, and we’re looking at a strip that’s equally beautiful and traumatic, inside the world of a young man being slowly worn down with depression, living underwater a perfect allegory for the pressure, the despair, the acceptance of feeling so washed out and miserable as your new normal.
It’s just two pages long, but there’s so much emotional depth and beauty in those short couple of pages. It ranks up there with Julia Scheele’s Burnt Out as a perfect description of struggling with life. And that’s high, high praise indeed.
Tan Lines, produced in collaboration with Alessandra Genualdo
Where the previous works were all clean line beauties, this is rougher, looser, more in keeping with what I’d previously seen of Douglas’ work. It’s rawer, younger, and perfectly suits the 4-pages of teen angst here, a sweet and sentimental coming of age thing, two cousins having their first fag with friends before the end of summer.
It’s all powerful cusp of teen-hood stuff, illustrations and captions fitting together so well. So many little moments captured so beautifully; the “our breath tastes like an ashtray” line, the holding hands, the clumsy kiss, the looks between the two, and that beautifully wistful last page of looking back over summer, a 13th birthday spent alone, adult life just round the corner. Gorgeous, evocative, beautiful stuff.
Reading this back, I realise I’ve possibly overused beautiful as a description of Douglas’ work. But thinking it through, it’s oh so apt, he does make such beautiful work, in word and in picture. For the life of me I simply cannot work out which of these three comics delights and impresses the most, each has so much about it, so many positives to scream to the rooftops. John Cei Douglas may not make that many comics, but oh my, those he makes are wonderful things.