REVIEW: QUARANTINE COMIX – a not-so-black mirror into lockdown

NOTE: this is a reconstructed post from a failed upload, originally posted in the middle of May but which my website neglected to make 'live' and subsequently lost! I've taken my original notes, updated a couple of points and included quotes from an email interview I've held with Rachael in the past few days...

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It’s safe to say that 2020 has been, without a shadow of a doubt, an utter shitter of a year – and it’s not even August yet. The financial upheaval, societal trauma, and physical and psychological damage we have all endured over the past months will leave scars that this country – this entire planet – will feel for years, if not decades, to come.

Throughout my own lockdown, I have been running my Talkin’ Con: A Cup O’ Tea with An Englishman In San Diego podcast from once to twice a week in my own small attempt to bring closer together the community of comic convention fans that I have personally found as an audience, as well as a way of marking the relentless thud of time for myself (time becomes such an abstract concept when your mind and body is trapped within four walls – I’m sure many of us have lost track of even what day of the week it is at several times this year!).

One of the first guests I had on shortly after restrictions were implemented in the UK was cartoonist and illustrator Rachael Smith who, over this unprecedented summer, kept time and kept herself occupied in her own way and with a project that has become, in my mind, one of the true bright lights of the entire pandemic: Quarantine Comix, a daily series of autobiographical cartoon strips chronicling Rachael’s own journey through the lockdown.

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Started on Monday March 23rd, QUARANTINE COMIX is a black and white four-panel strip, posted to Rachael’s social media every day with the week, punctuated by a full-page, full-colour piece once a week. Similar to her critically acclaimed and hugely popular work WIRED UP WRONG, the project was intended to be a way for Rachael to process the challenging mental hardships that the situation inflicted on her and, in doing so, serves a mirror for the good, the bad and the ugly her readers are all going through.

Rachael Smith is an acclaimed independent comics creator based in Hebden Bridge, a picturesque town in the Calderdale area of West Yorkshire, whose work has been seen in the pages of LUMBERJANES and Titan Comics’ DOCTOR WHO, as well as her own works such as the afore-mentioned WIRED UP WRONG, the award-nominated THE RABBIT, STAND IN YOUR POWER, FLIMSY’S MEWSINGS and the delicate yet powerful JACK & LUCY comic Rachael created with fellow illustrator Jacob Philips, a work raising awareness for mental health issues in young people.

These strips, like all of Rachael’s prior work, are charming, funny, emotional and beautifully rendered – from a purely technical standpoint, Rachael’s storytelling has always been fantastically on-point, getting to the nugget of an idea in the most wonderful fashion. What’s striking about Quarantine Comix is how incredibly honest and unflinchingly raw she can be about her feelings from day to day: she will chronicle not only those bright moments during lockdown (when she was able to video conference with Rob or socially distance-meetup with her friends, for example) but she will also illustrate those days when everything seems difficult and overwhelming.

Image may contain: text that says "QUARANTINE CoMIX SITING IN my GARDEN... WITH A GLASS WINE AND THE SUN ON my FACE... CAN ALMOST IMAGINE I'm ON HOLIDAY. PEOPLE ARE DYING. STOP ENJOYING YOU YOURSELF THAT' BETTER"

Hebden Bridge is a particularly pretty part of the world to be locked down in – but that means nothing when quarantined inside, away from friends and family and especially your partner, as she did; Rachael found herself away from her boyfriend Rob, although she did still have her flatmate Iain throughout lockdown. Like so many of us, Rachael found herself very much in the company of her own thoughts which are manifested in the strips as two dogs, one black and one white, representing those negative and positive thoughts that often whisper and cajole and nag and prance and dance and sit snugly around our consciousness.

Image may contain: text that says "QUARANTINE CoMIx AFTER THE QUIZ FELT A UTLE DOWN THE DuMPs. ARE You SAD BECAUSE you LOST QUIZ? you ARE AN IDIOT AND YOUR FRIENDS ARE SUPER CLEVER. You MUST BE USED BEING INFERIOR TO THEM BY NOW. MISS BEING INFERIOR THEIR FACES.. USUALLY GET HUGS..."

Rachael: “Barky (a black dog, and manifestation of my depression and anxiety) and Friendly (a white dog, and manifestation of my common sense and optimism) have always fought for my attention, the pandemic has just given them something else to argue about! They’re also not always small animals; their size depends on how powerful they are that day. When my mental health is very bad then Barky is always bigger than Friendly – and vice versa.”

These two manifestations could be seen as a complete dichotomy but Rachael presents them as both ever-present and essential elements of her personality, sometimes drawing strength or inspiration from either separately or both of them at the same time – they curl up beside her feet or perch on a nearby wall, whispering both helpful encouragements or hindering cynicism, growing in size and influence depending on her mood. But what’s revelatory is that both forms of these whispers come from both animals equally – Rachael teaches us that we learn and develop when we recognise that both aspects are always with us, that we become fully whole when we welcome them equally through the door.

Image may contain: text that says "QUARANTINE comix ME AND my HOUSEMATE GOT INDIAN TAKE AWAY ASA FRIDAY TREAT! THAT ONE'S YOURS, THINK WHY AREN'T YOU EATING THE CHILLIS? BECAUSE DON'T HATE MYSELF! රනද THAT'S THE FIRST TIME SHE's EVER SAID THAT OUT LOUD! DIDN'T COUNT WAS WAS JUST JOKING! WHO"

Like all of us, Rachael found herself either driven by inspiration for strips – sometimes posting up to three in a single day – or finding the whole situation that we’re all undergoing crippling and difficult to cope with, admitting on the page that she was struggling with ideas for the day. However, she has said in posts that putting the strip together itself has been a motivation to get out of bed on a morning and get things done.

There’s also been the growing popularity of the strips since their inception, with many people, including myself, citing Quarantine Comix has being a genuine bright high point to come out of the pandemic. The attention even reached across the pond with the likes of Gail Simone also recognising the universal appeal of the strips.

Rachael says, “The reactions have been so so humbling and wonderful. I get messages every day from folks saying that my comics are helping them get through these awful times and that they make them feel less alone about how they’re feeling. Messages like that make it all worth it. One of the comics greats Lew Stringer said a couple of months ago that my comics were ‘the best thing to come out of lockdown’, that was a highlight!”

“My profile has certainly been raised since doing Quarantine Comix. I get the odd bit of hate mail now so I must be getting famous, haha! I suppose that has affected my work in the way that I now feel a bit of pressure to do the comics every day – they’re not just for me anymore.”

Image may contain: text that says "QUARANTINE coMIx SINCE THE LOCKDOWN I'VE BEEN DRINKING LOT LESS ALCOHOL. RECYCLING:G GLASS IT HELPS WITH m4 DIET, AND IT HELPS WITH My MENTAL HEALTH. FEEL GOOD! BRIGHT EYED AND BUSHY- TAILED HAVE MORE TIME my EVENINaS FEEL LOADS LONGER ONLY 9PM! THE ONLY QUESTI IS... WHAT THE HECK DO DO WITH THEM? NEED DRINK"

Artists and creative people were put particularly under the hammer of austerity enforced by the lockdown, with the only government support provided being a slush fund for the self-employed which proves difficult for people in the creative arts to list and quantify financially, working as they do from project to project. Quarantine Comix, then, has also served as an invaluable income source, with the original pieces often selling out within minutes on Rachael’s Etsy page for £15 a strip with the full-page colour pieces selling at £50; Rachael also plans to publish the full run of strips as a complete book at a future undetermined date.

And that begs the question of when Rachael could feel that a line could be drawn under the project – the fluid nature of England under lockdown, with national guidelines and local measures shifting on almost a day-to-day basis, leaves no immediate end in sight. (EDIT 31st July 2020: restrictions have been re-implemented in parts of the UK, including the North of England, in light of a spike in infected numbers in the region.) Quarantine Comix started as a form of self-help therapy; fans of Rachael, like myself, are now becoming concerned that it could become a document into a country’s on-going psyche.

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I asked Rachael about what she could see as the final closure of Quarantine Comix: “This is a really hard question as I obviously can’t see the future…for a while I thought that I’d stop when Rob and I were reunited but now that’s happened and the world is still so strange. I still have a lot to say about the situation and probably will do even after we have a vaccine. I guess I’ll keep going until I realise the comics aren’t about the pandemic anymore.”

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The opening of social media and the news over the course of the past months since this dreadful situation has relentlessly rolled on has often been something to be wary of, perhaps even fear – the headlines can be oppressive, the public reaction to then frightening. However, while they continue to appear on the timelines on those who know about them, the strips provide Rachael’s followers a sense of unity and a true representation of that oft-heard (and increasingly tired) phrase, “We’re all in this together.” Quarantine Comix serve not only as a stark mirror into a reader’s own collective hopes and fears in the face of COVID-19 but also a shimmering pool of empathy which is as wide and deep as our own, a welcome cool respite during a harsh summer that none of us will ever forget.

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Find out more about Quarantine Comix by following Rachael on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/flimsykitten), Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/flimsy_kitten/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/rachael_).

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