The first time I read Zane Zlemeša was in the Eisner-nom'd Dada issue of kuš's š anthology, for which she did the cover and had a story called "Portfolio Manager".
When I think back on "Portfolio Manager", despite the fact that I remember not liking it on my first reading, the work stuck in my head: I vividly remember what occurs in that comic, both visually and in terms of events. The latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that nothing much happens!
Two things, one broad, one less so, help me grasp what sticks out about Zlemeša's work. The first is literally just the visual aesthetic she employs. Muddled grays provide a drab layer where rooms are often given just enough dimension to help you understand where characters are situated. Often things appear to be sloping upward (really often) instead of more subtle types of perspective.
Also striking is the fact that even though everything is penciled out in her initial run through the art, nothing really has hard lines (except for the characters in the case of "Portfolio Manager") and inks are never anywhere to be found (again, excepting characters here). For me, this has the interesting effect of making my mental picture of things happening in the comic feel like stop-motion. Something about not having any hard lines made the settings feel like they had a clay-like texture, although the thought never explicitly occurred to me while reading; but, I can't imagine the characters moving about naturally in any of her work.
So, broadly, Zlemeša's aesthetic is less focused on draftsmanship or even motion and is more focused on people and objects and literally how they're situated with respect to each other. It's like a steadily shifting focus on set-pieces.
And, more specifically, I find that this is expounded upon in the strange things her characters think and say. What makes me remember "Portfolio Manager" are the awkward, stream-of-consciousness vignettes that spill out of character's mouths. Above, the eponymous portfolio manager punctuates his melodramatic gesture with a quip about being scared of a tiger drawing. In other contexts, it would seem cute, but earlier he was thinking about how he needed a shorter candle, and now the fellow getting his portfolio reviewed is wondering about how professional this guy is.
Essentially half or more of the things people do or say in the Zlemeša stories I've read are people evincing things that land in this untrodden space smack in-between the mundane and the very-minorly-outlandish.
Fenix is exactly that: centered around things, how they're arranged, how people relate to them in mundane ways, and the just-beyond-the-pale impulses of the average person.
Here we see a news anchor announcing a jackpot at one of Fenix's many casinos. It would be one thing if this anchor constantly behaved in this manner--if he constantly got over-excited or otherwise acted out in some sort of way--but it's really just this moment, as evidenced by his co-worker's surprise in the initial panel and by his reddened face in the second. You might wonder, "is this really necessary?"
Parsing work like this is a matter of forgetting loaded questions like, "is this necessary?", "what's the point of this?", or even sometimes, "what's going on?"
Take it at face value. Absorb it.
Yeah, like that. Zlemeša shows us the news anchors appreciating art (at this point each one is looking at a blank black and a blank white canvas) in the new museum built by the jackpot winner. We're zoomed in here on the anchor's forced, apparently-thoughtful, chin-touchy art appreciation. It's the kind of idiosyncracy that Zlemeša is constantly blowing up in her work.
The weirder people seem to you in Zlemeša's work, the more surprised you'll be when you realize that each odd thing you see someone do in this book really is just out of the scope--and sometimes right within the scope--of something you know somebody is out here doing or thinking in your daily routine. Situating those kinds of moments in this stop-motiony aesthetic makes Fenix feel like it's a complete world built from an awkward cross-section of our own.
Fenix gave me a kind of direct channel into various things I take for granted in other comics, and I both enjoyed that and the unique kind of clumsy-cool aesthetic of its main character and the city of Fenix.
But some things were puzzling in such a way as to be really frustrating.
Above, the news anchors are on the way to Fenix for the museum opening. Now, I can live with the inconsistent facial structures given Zlemeša's style, but I almost had a fucking conniption on the train home because the driver and the passenger just magically swap for only the penultimate panel as you can see. Is it a mistake? Am I missing something? If it's on purpose, it's way out of place with everything else in the book, which is a different brand of offbeat.
(Seriously, even sitting and resizing this image was upsetting to me, I gave up on taking a better picture).
Another thing was the following couple of people depicted at the museum opening.
This really sucks! Given that Zlemeša has clearly shown that descriptive facial representation, beyond gesture, is not the most important thing to her, to go out of her way to paint Asians this way felt really icky to me. Someone might argue that this is a takedown/parody/direct-and-uncritical translation of how people might be presented at an event like a museum opening in a place that might as well be Vegas; however, it is grade-A wack that this kind of detail is pretty back-burner for the whole story but then effort was put in to telegraph the presence of Asians by drawing slant-eyed figures.
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