Review: Jenn Lee's Garbage Night
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Dystopian fiction is having something of a cultural moment in these recent politically turbulent days. If you’re looking for a fresh approach, Jen Lee’s Garbage Night is a lighthearted and charming take on the genre, which follows on from her first published book Vacancy, featured in Nobrow’s 17x23 series.
Set in a town completely vacant of human life, Garbage Night opens with a group of young friends, Simon, a once domesticated dog, Cliff, a plucky raccoon, and Reynard a downbeat deer. They spend their time scavenging for food and hoping for the return of the bountiful ‘garbage night’. They seem to be caught in an unending limbo until one day their routine is shaken up when they encounter Barnaby, an aloof and independent dog who is only passing through town on his way to greener pastures, or at least fuller garbage cans. He convinces the trio to join him as he travels to the next town, but their journey is fraught with dangers, obstacles, and discord within the group. It’s a fun and exciting romp with all the characteristics of a childhood adventure.
Lee’s setting is desolate and empty, and the atmosphere is one of stale in-betweenness, but this is contrasted with the trio’s youthful energy and the sense of adventure. Overall, the feel of the book is very familiar, with strong resonances in a variety of well-loved genres. Naturally, there are elements of dystopian and end-of-the-world stories, but it also has a lot of the elements of eighties adventure movies, such as Stand By Me and The Goonies. These are a motley crew of kids who band together on an adventure that leads them way out of their depth. There are even such hallmark features as an creepy abandoned fair ground and a threatening group of older kids (or in this case coyotes). These familiar elements give the comic the sense of being set in an alien future but also a nostalgic past.
While the dystopian setting certainly sets the tone and the atmosphere of Garbage Night, the heart of the book is in the friends, their relationships, and their daily quest for food. The plot stays light, with quite a fast pace. There are few surprises or twists, but it nicely sets up the characters and the settings for what we can hope will be an extended narrative in this world. The volume also contains Vacancy, Lee’s original comic in this series, that shows us the how the trio came together in the first place, which gives the reader some nice background details.
The draw of the story lies in Lee’s art. Her character designs are charming, and beautifully detailed, with a particular eye for fashion. Domesticated Simon’s clothes are new and relatively clean cut, next to his wild animal friends, whether it’s Cliff and Reynard with their assorted array of mismatched items or Barnaby’s grungy aesthetic. These strong character designs stand out against her desolate backgrounds. Lee also makes extraordinary use of the sky, her beautiful gradients for dawn and dusk are reminiscent of Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls. The sky’s colours move through the spectrum throughout the book, reflecting not only the time of day, but also the tone and mood of the scenes. Lee’s clever use of different types of panelling allow these blocks of colour to really stand out and create an atmosphere, without becoming overpowering.
In comparison to the style of Vacancy, while the two have maintained a certain level of consistency, Garbage Night has a lot more space to let the characters breathe. There are bigger panels, lighter colours, less compact lettering, and there is a change from Vacancy’s black framing to larger white borders. This sense of space lends itself to the feeling of emptiness in this abandoned world. Garbage Night’s style feels a little more pared back, without losing the distinctive character detail. In looking at the progression between the two stories, it feels like Lee is hitting her stride and settling into the world’s style.
Of course Lee’s artwork is set off perfectly by Nobrow’s always beautiful production quality. Nobrow relish the details, this softback edition includes french flaps and patterned end papers. The covers are thick matte paper with a gloss finish on the characters, so that they really stand out. There’s a loving attention to detail that make Nobrow’s books a joy to own and read.
Garbage Night is a fun and fast read that blends a serious and bleak setting with lively characters. The artwork is immediately striking and charming, and deftly creates the post-human world. The plot is straightforward but the characters endearing enough that you’re excited to go on their adventure with them, so together we set off into the unknown. Undoubtedly there is plenty more to explore.