Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Unearthing Old Classics - Through the Habitrails

Even though I’m a mere 8 years into my ongoing love affair with comics, I wanted to take a moment to turn back the clock and focus on one particular book that inspired my ongoing passion for the medium.

The book in question is Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails, and whilst it wasn’t the first comic to make a favourable impression on me, it did mark the beginning of a spate of exploration. Habitrails acted as springboard of sorts, spurring me on to investigate small press and self published comics. Armed with a newfound hunger for the unknown, it wasn’t long before I was reading the work of creators like Carla Speed McNeil, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Charles Burns and David B.

As these new vistas opened up before me I fell in love with comics in much the same way I’d fallen in love with music as a teenager. The sheer wealth of beautiful, expressive and idiosyncratic work on offer was intoxicating, and it awakened in me the same sense of excitement and adventure that I’d always associated with discovering new music. Like music, there was always some obscure hidden gem just waiting to be found.

What stuck me about Through the Habitrails was its unique blend of the surreal and the everyday. Nicholson’s art is at turns both hallucinatory and grounded, merging the visually metaphorical with a linear narrative that’s flecked with autobiographical elements. Rendered in stylised black and white, the comic charts its protagonist’s journey through a series of short vignettes, most of which are based in or around the workplace.

The illustration firm where much of the action takes place feels like an amalgam of all the worst offices you’ve ever worked in. The employees of which, are quite literally drained of their creative juices via taps inserted into their bodies, dispensing a steady stream of 'creative fluid' used to feed the office gerbils. If this all sounds a little off the beaten track to you, well, it is, but taken as a whole it operates as an elegant metaphor for the subjugation of creativity in pursuit of a wage.

Nicholson’s nameless protagonist suffers through dull office parties, unrequited love and failed relationships. He copes as best he can, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and finding fleeting moments of solace in his own artistic pursuits. When he discovers he can increase his productivity by immersing himself in beer, he fashions a glass tank around his head to keep himself ‘pickled’ 24/7. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the boundaries between reality and fiction begin to blur, culminating in a dramatic life changing face off with the Gerbil King.

For all its bizarre twists and turns, Through the Habitrails remains an incredibly engaging comic, one which almost anyone will be able to relate to on some level. Stripped back to its bare bones, it deals, quite simply with one man’s struggle to achieve his own creative vision, in a world where we are frequently denied the time to do so. Nicholson offers an often bleak, yet realistic portrayal of life stunted by tedious, soul sucking office work. He asks all the questions and struggles to come up with the answers. His is a journey steeped in disappointment and desperation, but not without a little light at the end of the tunnel. Whilst Through the Habitrails isn’t exactly the most upbeat read, it is rendered with such creative passion that you’ll be glad you were along for the ride. Eight years down the line, I still find myself coming back to Through the Habitrails, which should be testimony enough to its enduring appeal.

If you haven't stumbled across Nicholson's work before, I'd urge you to seek out a copy of Through the Habitrails. To this day, I am still indebted to Mark at Page 45 for recommending the book to me in the first place.

Review by Matthew Dick.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After graduating from art school I did a brief (thankfully) stint at the phone book. Yes, Habitrails nails it perfectly.