Present

Leslie Stein (Writer and Artist)
Drawn & Quarterly
October, 2017

Leslie Stein’s Present has garnered the kind of praise that an artist can only dream of. “Like Kandinsky illustrating Virginia Woolf” reads a blurb by The Globe and Mail on the back of the book.  Everyone everywhere, from Paste magazine to The Comics Journal seems to be raving about her tiny abstract figures, the splashes of colors across each page, and her unique lettering. What the reviews don’t mention is that getting used to Stein’s idiosyncratic style is a bit of a learning curve (albeit a pleasant one), but once you get past the initial hurdle, the rest of her comics are a smooth, rewarding ride.

present

The book, just like her earlier work Bright-Eyed at Midnight (2015),  is a compilation of diary comics that Stein first published on Vice.com, along with some new material and an introduction. For someone not familiar with Stein’s work, the vibrant color, the angular multi-colored lettering and the free-flowing drawings unmoored from traditional panels create a bit of a barrier in reading her comics. If you’re a longtime reader of comics, there are certain conventions that you come to expect while reading comics, whether they are autobiographical, humorous, or superhero-driven. Most of these conventions – such as panels, headers, speech balloons – were a direct result of the limitations of the print format, which is where some of the first comics made their mark. Now, in the age of webcomics, where no such restraints are in place, artists are free to work as they please, leading to a freshness, both in terms of form and content. Stein’s work in Present is a great example of the kind of diversity and originality that breaking the rules of the medium can create.

Stein’s lead character, based on herself, is an abstract creature, drawn without outlines. She is often missing an eye, always missing a face and has sticks for arms and legs, radiating out of a cylindrical body. The character is a great exercise in experiencing firsthand the brain’s need to fill in the details where there are none. It is this quality of her work that makes you take pause and complete the details in your mind before moving on to the next drawing. For comic artists everywhere, the challenge is always between creating a storyline that is riveting enough for the reader to want to turn the page, but on the other hand, it is also a bit of a bummer knowing that the reader spends less than a second looking at the panel you spent hours drawing. The wonderful strangeness of Stein’s work makes you appreciate each drawing and spend a little bit more time on it than you would on a traditional comic. The jagged lettering, the temperamental watercolor splashes and the strangely-drawn characters give Present a vulnerable quality, like you are peeking into someone’s private sketchbook, used only for quickly jotting down emotions, in all their colorful, irrational forms.

Possibly the most endearing comic in the collection is the one titled “Peace Sign” in which a man walks into the bar in which Stein works part-time, and tells her how great things are going to be, now that Trump is the President of the United States. The cartoon Leslie is visibly terrified, shaking and sweating as she fixes him a drink and goes about her job. It is these little moments of life, of desperation, loneliness, and connection that Stein specializes in, capturing perfectly the colors of each state of elation, sadness and despair with her broad palette of colors.