When I look for new comics or zines in a shop, at a festival, or online, I tend to browse wildly and pick up anything that catches my eye. We are blessed to live in a comics era filled with small presses and distros that are putting a variety of wild, creative work out into the world. It’s exciting to find and love a new book from an unfamiliar press, and then dive into the rest of their offerings to discover more. During my last visit to Quimby’s Independent Bookstore, I had this exact experience books from PEOW Studios.
PEOW started out as Sweden’s first Risograph print shop, founded by Elliot Alfredius, Olle Forsslöf, and Patrick Crotty. They now have a varied and exciting catalogue of, as they say on their website, “playfully designed books.”
I picked up a random sampling of PEOW books at Quimby’s and was so blown away by each one that I had to share my love. What follows are short reviews of three PEOW titles: Salmon, Run! by MacKenzie Schubert, Sim Sim Magica by Chu Nap, and P.E.O.W. by Jane Mai. Each is a unique example of how PEOW is building a stunning catalogue of comics, each containing engaging stories and worlds readers won’t find anywhere else.
By Mackenzie Schubert
Salmon, Run! by Mackenzie Schubert takes place in a struggling, impoverished world whose inhabitants rely on the salmon run for survival. While they must fish no matter what, relying on the run has become dangerous — some of the fish are actually shapeshifters intent on stealing people away. When Mira’s brother is taken, she pursues the shapeshifters hoping to get him back, and discovers the mixed-up magical world upstream.
Schubert has created a stunning, immersive world in Salmon, Run! Crumbling houseboats, lighthouses, and layers of staircases give the impression humans here had to hastily build atop existing infrastructure to keep their world stable, and to keep up with the density of the population. People seem to be living very much on top of each other. Schubert uses an all grey and white color palette, but this dulls none of the emotion or vibrancy of the upstream world — although it would be wonderful to someday see it in color. There is a compelling strangeness to the world communicated through the casual way in which regular townspeople react to the appearance of huge soldiers in almost medieval armor. That, coupled with the carefully crafted visual clutter of the comic — whether it’s city buildings snug against each other, junk filling up a museum or even actual piles of fish — gives an incredible sense of history and contrasts that against the now-dulled existence shown in Schubert’s story.
Mira is exactly the kind of scrappy, resilient character one would expect to thrive in such a world. She’s strong and acrobatic, but she also knows how to keep quiet and hide to stay safe. Her dedication to her brother feels natural for a girl who lost her father young and has long been fighting to survive, as does her incisive critique of the upstream world. In a particularly fascinating scene, Mira finds herself in a museum dedicated to preserving history, and swiftly accuses those running it of failing to take action and be part of history. The poor people downstream who rely on the salmon for their livelihoods have no choice between action and inaction; action is survival, for both oneself and one’s family.
Sim Sim Magica
By Chu Nap
Galey, the Elfien protagonist of Chu Nap’s Sim Sim Magica, also lives in a cluttered urban world, but with a very different purpose than Mira. They’re studying at the Academy of Magica, and, as a fourth year student, there’s a lot on the line. Their final project, and thus ultimate success at the Academy, will determine what kind of guild they can join after graduation, what kind of jobs they can get, and how their life will proceed.
In a time filled with academic stress and anxiety, Galey also seems to be struggling with identity. They want to be more confident and more sure of themself – and that desire draws them to Sim Sim Magica, a sort of magical version of Second Life or virtual reality, which allows users to be present in a digital/magical world. Sim Sim Magica is constantly growing and changing, and it seems like something mysterious and wild is waiting there, looking for someone exactly like the desperate and ambitious Galey.
Sim Sim Magica is the first volume in a duology, thus it largely focuses on world-building layered with backstory about Galey. However, Nap provides an emotionally heavy setup which perfectly captures how frightening it can feel to be a young adult, about to be independent and out in the world but without a strong sense of what the next step should be. Each of Galey’s friends seem to know exactly what guild they plan to join, and have a clear sense of what work they’d like to do. Whether it’s jobs, cool clothes or even shoes, Galey feels lost, without a sense of what they should be doing or wearing or even wanting. That makes the possibility of pursuing a “want” all the more enticing, and even dangerous.
Like Salmon, Run! Sim Sim Magica has two-tone art, but Nap brilliantly plays with what appears to be 3D modeling, changes in font and more intensive shading to draw sharp distinctions between the world of Sim Sim Magica and reality. It’s easy to see why Sim Sim Magica would be so enticing to a person like Galey, with its unique vibrancy and a wildness that is starkly different from the world they see every day.
Nap also leans into cute character designs and glittery details put the story into the magical girl genre — something it could potentially lean into in the second volume. Galey’s friend Mee has a very cutsey, Cardcaptor Sakura-esque wand, and every character has an adorable rounded face/ While Galey themself has a pretty androgynous style, several characters wear cute, high femme fashion, allowing Nap to branch out with patterns and silhouettes. It’s a very visually fun comic to page through.
By Jane Mai
Cute juxtaposed with the emotionally heavy is, of course, a trademark of Jane Mai — along with a dash of macabre violence to complete the unique style of her comics. Mai published P.E.O.W. with the premise that she’d reveal all the shenanigans editors from PEOW get up to at comics festivals, and the book certainly delivers! However, it ends with a look at Mai’s struggles with mental health and depression, and how working for PEOW allowed her to pull herself out of a dark place — by searching for the ultimate embarrassing experience.
I am a longtime fan of Mai’s autobio comics, and the PEOW book is what initially drew to me to look more widely at the publisher’s offerings. The first 2/3 of P.E.O.W. looks similar to See You Next Tuesday; it’s more of Mai’s autobio sketch comics! I love them! Mai has long had a penchant for turning silly, embarrassing and often relatable moments into autobio strips with great punchlines. The PEOW crew travels internationally to conventions, and all the complications of such travel yields perfect material for Mai’s comics. She captures the exciting feeling of being important first class flyers… on a fifteen-minute flight. Mai also offers up the hilarious revelation that the PEOW crew is obsessed with spending their hard-earned money on cool kicks, that they’re all embarrassing fans at heart, and that the best chair in PEOW USA headquarters is the toilet. Always work on the toilet.
For the final third of the book, Mai switches to the style readers of So Pretty/So Very Rotten will recognize – clean line work, cute character designs and lots of detail put into the adorable fashion choices of each of the characters. The entire book is in black and white with pink spot color, and the pink stands out especially in this section. Mai uses it to single herself out in panels, emphasizing feelings of stress and isolation which eventually build into a depressive spiral.
In Sunday in the Park with Boys, Mai used images of centipedes and insects to visualize her depression. In P.E.O.W., we get the Great Demon Lord Tante, a cute one-eyed bat and the enemy of the story. To defeat Tante, Mai goes after the ultimate, heart-racing emotion that allows one to feel the “thrill of living” — embarrassment. She sees the ultimate opportunity when she joins PEOW’s ranks in hopes she’ll have a terrible fangirl interaction with the incredible Inio Asano. If she can accomplish this task, perhaps she can finally face Tante head-on.
Comics and stories about mental illness and depression often involve drowning metaphors, or visuals that show protagonists in dark, low places. With P.E.O.W. Mai focuses on the desperate pursuit of escape from those dark places, and strength it takes to fight one’s way out. There’s power in a cute, mismatched outfit worn on purpose, in a ridiculous social media post, and in saying something dumb in front of one of your heroes. The Mai that we see in the last third of the book is, yes, struggling – but she’s also STRONG, and awe-inspiring.
“Inspiring” is a great way to look at all three of these cartoonists, and PEOW and its offerings as a whole. These three books are innovative, disparate in their styles and themes, and utterly engaging to read. PEOW seems to have a knack for supporting artists with unique voices, and the variety of work they’ve published is evident in just these three titles. There’s bound to be something in their catalog for everyone.
You can purchase any of these or other PEOW titles on their website, and check your local indie comic and bookshops, too!