British publisher Nobrow returns to its 17 x 23 line with renewed vigor this year, releasing five new comics from Andy Poyiadgi, Jen Lee, Joe Sparrow, Wren McDonald, and William Exley. The aim of the short format 17 x 23 books—which gave rise to Luke Pearson’s Eisner-award nominated Hilda series, while also bringing Mikkel Sommer (Obsolete) and Bianca Bagnarelli (Fish) to the attention of international audiences—is to showcase stories by fresh, contemporary talent with the aim of providing a springboard into more ambitious projects. It’s an exciting time for Nobrow, who expanded into the U.S. in late 2013 with a New York office, and has also recently ventured into digital, with the launch of its own comics app, on which the 17 x 23 range will be simultaneously available.
The most notable book among the five new titles is Vacancy by Jen Lee, who is best known for her animated web-comic Thunderpaw: In The Ashes Of Fire Mountain. A post-apocalyptic tale of two dogs attempting to journey home after a mysterious, fiery cataclysmic event sees them abandoned in a car, Lee uses flickering motion and a tensely evocative gray and orange color palette to create an atmosphere of ominous dread. It’s a stunning work of foreboding beauty as the dogs battle gangs, predators, fires, and themselves, en route to a home which they no longer know exists, with the animated features adding to the sense of unease and restlessnes. Lee makes the most of the web format, incorporating the endless canvas and scroll functions to give real scope to the eerie sense of desolation and devastation.
In Vacancy, Lee presents new characters in an original, self-standing story that looks to take place somewhere within the Thunderpaw universe, extrapolating on similar themes of belonging, identity, and dependency. The A.V. Club has an exclusive preview of four pages of Vacancy and spoke with Lee about her work.
The A.V. Club: Can you tell us a little bit about Vacancy?
Jen Lee: It’s about becoming comfortable and honest with yourself—how doing so will help you figure out what you truly need in a changing and scary environment. Simon is a pet dog, but he’s been abandoned. Without his human family he thinks what he needs is to live in the woods and become a wild animal. He’s very naive about what being wild is about and finds out he just doesn’t have the chops—and that’s okay.
AVC: How long have you been working on Vacancy, or had the idea for this story?
JL: I’ve had the characters with me since middle school, but they’ve changed a lot. The original story I had in mind long, long ago when I was younger was pretty bad. Over the top and confusing world building. Later I knew I wanted to do a story with them, being actual animals, but suburban ones. Thunderpaw was meant to be my practice in writing about how animals think, so it’s good to know that’s going well. I started to really nail down the Vacancy world and designs last August, but I think I was asked to pitch something in May? I think I took weeks figuring out the palette, too. [Laughs.]
AVC: How has the experience of working on a shorter story—as opposed to a long-running narrative on Thunderpaw—and your first major published work been?
JL: It was challenging because with a webcomic I’m able to improvise with the monthly updates. Vacancy had to be planned appropriately—I had to identify the themes a lot sooner, and make sure I’m giving enough information for readers. It’s way, way different from how I usually work, but I think it was necessary so that I get something out as cohesive as it could be. I love working independently, but having an editor is very fun and helpful. It’s good to have that other person there who isn’t your brain pointing out things. To have that helpful input from another but still given freedom is great.
AVC: Is this world connected to Thunderpaw?
JL: It is, but not too directly. Vacancy happens in a different time and area. Whatever happened to the Vacancy town probably has something to do with what’s going on in Thunderpaw—maybe a while before. But it’s not meant to be a prequel or anything like that.
AVC: There’s some Animal Farm strains in Vacancy between the wild and tamer animals; themes of freedom, independence, and autonomy.
JL: Simon has very innocent ideas of freedom and independence. “Being wild” is what Simon starts off wanting, but in the end what he wants is structure, sense of purpose, and companionship. And of course structure exists in nature, but it’s a lot more harsh—it’s not for him yet.
He has only been aware of an ecosystem put in place for a domestic animal, so he sees Cliff and Reynard, thinking they’re these free spirits with no rules, but it’s only what he wants to believe. They had depended on human luxuries almost as much as Simon but abide by different regulations. The deer and raccoon have more physical freedom, but the caveat is that they share that world with a lot of different animals who may want to eat them.
Simon still has a lot to learn—maybe he won’t have to live in that yard forever, and it’s so scary to admit your vulnerabilities in a time of crisis. But he has to be okay with needing more help and familiarity, and not worry it’ll get in the way of his search for independence.
AVC: The implications of the lack of humans in Vacancy is quite sinister. The inference seems to be they existed—because Simon is a tame dog—but they now all seem to have disappeared.
JL: Yup! And that they all disappeared not too long ago, considering he can still scrape by alone in the yard. It’s pretty grim. Though, I hid a little drawing on the fridge when you finally see inside the house. I wanted to imply that he was loved so for whatever reason they had left was necessary and done in a rush.
AVC: You generally work with anthropomorphic characters. What’s the thinking behind that choice?
JL: The number one reason is I enjoy drawing animals, especially fashion[able] animals. Especially worried, grumpy, a-little-sad fashion[able] animals. Beyond that I’ve also been real into animal behavior, particularly dogs. Animals have a strong drive to just feel safe, and it’s like that for humans too. Writing about fears in animals has helped me identify what mine are.