by Vik Gill
There's a weathered-looking man, with distinct creases across his forehead and emanating out of his eyes. He looks wearied; his arm is supporting his head and he has a downward-cast expression with sunken-in eyes.
All of that humanity is obscured by the cover's aesthetic. It's one that filters and assaults the image—look at those diagonal slashes across the center, look at the texture of his arms. It seems as though it was put together by hand, a product of several rounds of cutting, pasting and photocopying. It's almost overwhelming, but never offensive.
There are those other contributors to the brutal feeling being affected: the bikes stacked like scrap metal on the right side, the prominent stenciled letters, and the orange, prison-evoking shirt.
That the reader is not immediately able to reconcile the cover’s humanity with its harsh aspects makes it compelling. Questions are raised: who is this man? What sort of world does this man occupy?
The back cover blurb offers some background, and indicates the larger themes of the book and its subject, Igor Kenk. Here, as on the front cover, the book is described as “a graphic portrait.” The subtitle does not serve to distinguish the book from a “comic,” as such labels tend to do—the blurb goes on to say that Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a “journalistic comic book.” It’s a deliberately chosen subtitle: a portrait is a likeness of a person, an approximation of a person, and not necessarily a one-to-one representation of that person. The subtitle, then, introduces an element of ambiguity into the way the reader interprets the work: it invites them to pay close attention to the way Poplak et al. depict Igor Kenk. Maybe even doubt it.
Before Kenk: A Graphic Portrait begins, there’s a note by Jansen and Poplak.
The latter explains that the book is derived from footage taken “during the year leading to [Igor Kenk’s] arrest.” The book will surely end or climax with this.
Also of note: Poplak explains the book’s aesthetic as one that takes after subversive underground press from 1980s Yugoslavia. Consider that a portrait of a man has been done in the same style as work that was published in opposition to a state-run, ostensibly corrupt institution: it ennobles the man. Igor Kenk’s arrest must have been unjust.
Before the reader has even turned to the prologue, they have been affected by Poplak et al.’s subtle, layered influence. The authors have introduced a conflict between the human Igor Kenk on the cover and everything that surrounds him. The conflict is resolved when they suggest that he is being oppressed; that despite the fact of his arrest, he does not deserve to be vilified.
But it’s too easy for Poplak et al. to make the reader sympathetic towards their subject. They cast their depiction of the man into doubt by calling their work a “portrait,” as if admitting that they are going to be biased in how they portray Igor Kenk. It is a second, larger conflict: the friction between this doubt towards the man and sympathy for the man is engaged by the authors for over 250 pages before a resolution is reached and the reader may come to a conclusion.
This is indeed a journalistic comic book.
Into the prologue and onwards, the book is generally drafted with variations on the nine panel format with splash pages interspersed. Poplak states in an interview that the book ”has some serious superhero pedigree built into its DNA;” the layout takes after Alan Moore’s Watchmen and superhero comics.
The nine-panel pages are bounded by black borders, enhancing the constrained feeling inherent within the format. Save for a few flashes of something more, these pages don’t quite capture the same nuance as the nine-panel pages of Moore’s work; for example, while Moore’s work uses the format to emphasize symmetry, there is little-to-none of that here.
The panels are sequenced skillfully, implying considerable draftsmanship. Take the page above: following the dialogue box, Igor Kenk sees himself in his coffee cup: self-reflection. There’s the “IM TIRED” coupled with the sorry state of his eggs; the last panel’s reaffirmation of his present, and portent for his future. These pages are not a means to an end, but significant themselves.
And despite the format being inherently constraining, a well-judged splash usually stops the reader from feeling the same.
The book’s most significant flaw is its binding: the book’s cover is glued to the spine, and after a handful of months of non-rigorous ownership, it began to peel away. This can either be an inconsequential thing or a tremendous thing.
Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a literary comic, one that engages its subject, stated themes and the reader in a significant, intelligent way. It is a fine piece of journalism that would certainly appeal to those who don’t typically read comics: it is presented in a clear way with tight panelwork and splash placement. There is so much more that can be said and so much more that deserves to be said about this book--but it’s best to hear it from the creators themselves. Here, here and here are great places to start. The last “here” also doubles as a terrific review that addresses the other significant themes of the work, a discussion barely touched upon here.
TL;DR Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore and Nick Marinkovich’s Kenk: A Graphic Portraitis a journalistic comic book with an extremely broad appeal; it is dense, literary, and aesthetically unique. Its major flaw is its binding, which causes the cover to become unglued from the spine in a short span of time.
Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a journalistic comic book by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore and Nick Marinkovich. Published by Pop Sandbox, ask for it at your local comic book shop or support Spandexless by purchasing through our Amazon store.
A review copy of Kenk: A Graphic Portrait was graciously provided to Spandexless by Pop Sandbox.
Vik Gill is eminently unqualified to be speaking about comics at length, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He lives in Queens, NY.