Into the Wild with Jen Lee’s Vacancy: A Review
Jen Lee (artist/author)
Left behind by his family in an overgrown backyard, Simon is a bespectacled dog who dreams of joining a pack of coyotes in the wild. When an odd couple, raccoon Cliff and deer Reynard, literally crash his place, Simon seizes his chance to go into the woods with some pros who know their way around. Thing is, Cliff and Reynard aren’t as wild as they seem—and Simon’s expectations of the woods are very different from its reality.
Jen Lee has a flair for storytelling not only with what she puts on the page but what she leaves unsaid. Many panels resemble film reels cataloging motion over a short period of time; for example, when the raw meat Cliff offers Simon makes him ill as they travel, we see his head droop and his body shiver over three panels. The use of color (pink and purple palettes for sunup and sundown, blue and green for nighttime) and cartoonish character designs (Simon’s enormous glasses) invite levity that doesn’t mirror the world’s abandoned feeling and the narrative’s dips into loneliness.
Vacancy’s world exudes after-the-end vibes from the first page. Though the flap states that Simon has been “forgotten by his owners,” I couldn’t stop thinking that his owners had been wiped out, along with the rest of humanity. Similarly, the coyotes’ reasons for not coming into the suburbs is hinted at but not expressly stated. The skeleton of the suburbs paints a post-apocalyptic picture I want to know more about, but I appreciate that Lee maintained focus on Simon’s story.
Though the characters are anthropomorphized animals, their physicality echoes animals in times of primal emotions, such as stress and anger. One scene in particular at the story’s climax juxtaposes two-legged, human running versus four-legged, animal running to communicate the divide between reasonable and unreasonable characters with great success. Lee bookends her story with Simon’s shadow, first in profile and last facing forward—a nice summation of his journey.
My only gripe is a question left unanswered: what exactly is in Cliff’s backpack? The characters question it twice, piquing my curiosity, and so drawing that attention to the backpack without payoff frustrated me. As a standalone piece, Vacancy grabbed and held my attention; I enjoyed the character interactions and felt that the plot balanced humor and sadness well. Lee’s world has me intrigued, and I can’t help but theorize about how it got to be the way it is. I look forward to diving back into this world in Lee’s webcomic Thunderpaw.