Voids by Shayna Marchese

One of my earliest memories of comics as something people did (as opposed to something I just read) was a Batman panel from a 1940s reprint that showed in lavishly-detailed cutaway a schematic drawing of the Batcave.  It’s difficult to underestimate the effect of this.  Suddenly the Batcave wasn’t just an abstract landscape, something characterized by a few choice details–giant coins, dinosaurs, you know it all–the Batcave was a real place, with real clutter to boot.  Batman had to actually think about where to put his giant computers to get the best wireless access; somebody (probably Robin) had to sweep the place out every once in a while.  Through the clogged arteries of assembly-line production, family-friendly DC editorial policies, and general schlock, some anonymous ghost artist allowed me to glimpse life.

All of this Batman talk is meant to explain why I think Shayna Marchese’s Voids is so goddamned great.  Voids is a comic about a space: about a city, about its unseen connections and correspondences.  These connections are highlighted for us over and over again, from the obsessively detailed power lines looming in the background to the pennies that Sara, the protagonist, keeps finding in her path.  Different parts of the city become animated: the man who collects cans for recycling emerges into the foreground for a few panels here before fading again; these postcards lie on tiny, well-rendered shelves, just waiting to be discovered.  The process of moving is even central to the plot: when we meet Sara, we see the stack of boxes that her life has become.  When we see Sara’s new apartment for the first time, we’re troubled by the reduction of circumstances it seems to imply for our heroine.  And when Frances, Sara’s former co-worker, redecorates, we’re cheered up by the curtains, the books, the neatly hanging kitchen utensils.  Something about the changes Sara’s environment undergoes allows us to perceive, however generally, the changes Sara undergoes.  And when we can see that, Sara abruptly becomes real.

This wouldn’t work, of course, if Marchese weren’t such a good artist.  Voids’s art is nothing if not coherent, combing a stripped down approach to details (which reminds me more than a little of Adrian Tomine or Jason Lutes) with a three-tone process to provide depth.  It keeps the lines and composition simple, which not only gives a clear idea of the environments surrounding the characters, but which allows you to empathize with them, to feel your emotions linking to them.  I was pretty keyed up by Sara’s passing this restaurant a couple of times in her walks, for example.  The layouts are no slouch, either, especially in the early chapters: we barely see an unobstructed view of Sara for the first several pages, the camera instead lingering on boxes, lonely subway stations, those ubiquitous pennies.  Instead of a clearly-visualized character, we get a glimpse of an inner life, of broad thematic strokes: not the traditional choice, but a strikingly effective one.  It’s just impossible that this is Marchese’s first attempt at comics: the instinct for which frames to show, the willingness to experiment with typical comic expectations, and the robustly detailed mind obviously at work indicate either several years of Secret Dabbling or a creepily preternatural talent–or, not unimaginably, both.

I can’t muster quite the same enthusiasm for the actual plotline.  It works, and I’m interested to see how a few mysteries will turn out (those postcards, that Andrew person, Kara), but there’s a certain tone of wide-eyed Amelie-esque sentimentality that grates on me every once in a while (she finds pennies!  In the street!  Pennies that other people just ignore!!), and some of the characters (Frances and the bookstore boss in particular) seem to exist in order to fulfill a narrative function, rather than existing as breathing characters in their own right.  The same charges can be levied at all of the characters from time to time: although some are decidedly quirky (Veronika and Kara, for example), I just don’t get enough sense of a consistent personality from anyone. 

For a comic whose environments are so well-detailed and whose narrative instincts are so sharply-honed, this is a shame: I want to feel nearly as much about Sara as I do about her apartment.  Although a space lets me know, in broad strokes, something about the characters within it, I want something more specific still from my characters: I want the kind of specificity I can only get from well-crafted dialogue and imaginative situations.  And I do get those a little bit (Andrew’s falling asleep in the doorway here being a giant leap in the right direction), but I want more, more: it’s a shame to have such a vibrant world with such often-flat characters in it.   

But however long it takes to get there (and if that’s the direction Marchese chooses to go), I’ll keep reading Voids for that restaurant, for those pennies, and for those moments when the strip reaches beyond mere narrative talent, however excellent: when Voids achieves that rarely-glimpsed sensation of life.

-- John Thornton

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