Big shiny robot | Indie ‘Upstate’ Comic Shows Us Life Isn’t Always Easy, But It Can Be Beautiful


The following is a guest article by Lewis Figun Westbrook.

I read Northern State with no idea what i was heading towards and on the 8th page i was sucked into the world. Northern State by Stephen Pellnat is a weird, unrefined take on coming home, feeling lost and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. The first two pages show us the life of Ryan Essen in these photos. There are classes with kids who don’t care about her and Ryan meets his new best friend, Amanda. There are two graduation ceremonies and fights. Sexual assault and the famous “no, I like boys too” conversation. And that’s just the setup. Things build slowly until the first break. The decision to come home after 14 is silent and comes with a low bank account balance and a surprisingly easy coin to pack

I found some parts of the installation a bit slow. The snapshots kept us as readers at bay and I think these characters really started to shine when we saw the full picture. When they were just living rather than parts of those flashback pieces. On my second read, I really enjoyed seeing these little moments add up, but it’s a tough intro when you don’t care about the characters yet.

The comic continues with Ryan struggling to keep his head above water. Scene after scene of her failure, of all the ways she disappointed the people around her and herself. In one of the scenes, she reads her ancient writings. She is disappointed with both her old stuff and her inability to write more. In most of the others, she tries to convince people that she is not drunk. It’s such an honest look at failure that sometimes it’s a little scary. This is the definition of many and it is one of the strengths of this story.

Some of my favorite pages are the ones without any dialogue. I find myself holding my breath as I absorb the images and all that accompanies them. One particularly powerful page involves Ryan learning about how his mother takes care of his sick father. He’s had cancer for years. Normally I am wary of stories of sick relatives as they often come with a bucket full of ableism and disability being treated only as a conspiracy. I’d be curious what other people with disabilities think, but something about it seemed simpler. It was just a fact of this universe, it sounds realistic. Ryan struggled with his father’s illness, but it felt right for the character rather than the writer’s ableism that crept in.

From a technical point of view, I could edit this comic. but I do not want to. The dialogue is not always centered and the size of the bubble often seems too large. And I like it. Sometimes a calm word has the most impact. I can’t stop thinking about the little “oh” surrounded by a bubble as big as Ryan as she finally faces something she’s been running from. I love the irony and the symbolism of it.

The artistic style and black and white color palette also lean on this almost perfect imperfection. It reminds me of the idea of ​​someone needing to pull this story out. It breathes on the page and is not pretty, in a palatable way. I loved watching the details and the way people felt particularly embarrassed or flawed. It made me care more about them.

I strongly suggest Northern State but it includes many difficult topics that make for emotional reading and could be triggering. Physical copies of Northern State can be found at Floating World Comics and Books With Pictures, both located in Portland, or by contacting the author and visiting his website.

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