Without Words: Sarah Howell’s Untitled Squishface Booklet

I know that’s an ironic title considering that this is a writing blog, but it is also about a comic and I rarely use graphics on here anyway. The comic I want to talk about–created by Australian artist and cartoonist Sarah Howell–is challenging in this way to say the least.

In fact, I will be honest and say I never heard of Sarah Howell or the group she co-founded Squishface Studio, but I’m glad that I did. I didn’t actually run into Sarah or her work until after the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (or TCAF) a month ago. I’d finished my Volunteer shift there–mostly moving, taking apart boxes, and cleaning stuff up or what I really like to call the Teardown Shift–and after some dinner that was way too expensive I went to Lee’s Palace (which some of you might know from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, or just by living in Toronto in general) for the post-volunteering celebration.

It was actually Sarah who started talking to me first when she saw my rather bright sort of orange-pink TCAF shirt. She introduced me to her husband and collaborator David Bluemenstein and the rest of her team. They had apparently been on the Caravan of Comics Tour: an event in which Australian cartoonists traveled to comics events throughout the North-Eastern USA and Canada. So then over some very loud conversation and music we somehow managed to cover a wide area of subject matter. And yes, Neil Gaiman did come up. In fact, the ideas that formed my earlier Blog post about Jeff Smith and Bill Watterson came–in part–from our conversation at Lee’s Palace. Really, it was the most I’d talked with anyone at the Festival: before or after.

But at one point myself and another Volunteer asked her about her work (at least I think so over the noise, err music) and she placed in front of me this small chapbook. And now here is where the challenge really begins. Basically, Sarah’s comic is about a 16-paged booklet–double-spaced–with a scene on each page. It has no title and in fact it is a wordless sequential story: a wordless comic.

This is a concept that has fascinated me. I have seen really old woodcuts and copies of said woodcuts that do something very similar in just telling a story in pictures and little or nothing else. In fact, the only words in it were “The End” and Sarah’s professional email addresses on the very back of the booklet. Also, the way each sequential image is on its own page–instead of on different panels on one–is reminiscent of an illustrated book: except without words.

The figures in the book are drawn like glyphs. There is something very elemental and–if I had to choose another word–essential about them. I really wish I could find more bibliographic information on this untitled, wordless comic or even post a link to the comic itself because I feel that by describing it in words, I’m really not doing it justice. I feel also feel like Nevin Martell and his Looking for Calvin and Hobbes book that has no illustrations from the comic strips whatsoever, only even worse because I don’t have anything to really show here from it. It does figure these two characters–these snippets taken from Sarah Howell’s website–in the first and third pictures. There is also another picture in the Gallery of her site, but I don’t want to link to that because I don’t want to create any intentional spoilers. I will say though that the character resembles a well-known comics super-villain but it is not that being.

Sarah Howell’s comic was about two beings that meet and get to know each other: but when one seems to unwittingly overreach everything changes and it takes the third character to step in and change things some more. And he does not change things in the way that you may think he does when you first see him. That is all I can really say: that and even in the relative darkness of the Club, from what I could see then the story was touching enough to still make me cry a little.

It was a beautiful silent comic. Of course the term “silent comic” is a misnomer or a bit of wordplay in itself. After all, even written words do not have sounds unless they spoken verbally. I said something similar in an earlier review I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel Signal to Noise. In a lot of ways, and I’m sure Scott McCloud has said this to some extent, comics is a silent art: as is writing in a lot of ways, but works like Sarah Howell’s here are all the more so.

Sarah Howell let me keep this sample of her work after she showed it to me and I will treasure it always. I’m not sure how or if you can order some of them, but I imagine if you query her on her website she will let you know, or have some kind of FAQ that might deal with it. I wish I could be more helpful. In a lot of ways, this comic is one of the most simplified but mysterious ones I’ve come across. If anyone has more direct information, you are more than welcome in posting it here. Also, you should definitely check out Sarah Howell’s works–and works in progress–at her above website.

Whatever the details, I’m glad I have it. I learned new things, met new people and got a comic. It was one of the highlights of my time at–and after–TCAF.

5 thoughts on “Without Words: Sarah Howell’s Untitled Squishface Booklet

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