Present (2017) Book Review
Stein’s beautiful watercolors and sincere storytelling make for an undeniably refreshing combo.
Written by: Nathan Evans October 9, 2017
Leslie Stein is a Brooklyn-based cartoonist, musician, and regular person trying to make her way in this bustling existence we call life. She just chooses to showcase hers in beautiful watercolors and pastel renders. Perhaps some of you are already familiar with her Eye of the Majestic Creature series, or have seen her various webcomics elsewhere. Getting to discover Stein’s artwork for the first time was especially thrilling, and I’m glad that Present was my starting point.
In many ways Present is a sequel-of-sorts to Bright-Eyed at Midnight, another volume showcasing Stein chronicling an entire year (January 1st 2014 through January 1st 2015) by drawing a single comic per night. It’s also her second collection of autobiographical comics, culled this time from Vice.com and bundled in a lovely hardbound edition. While her work may have moved from Fantagraphics Books to Drawn and Quarterly, the focus seems unchanged, which is good.
While you may come for Stein’s gentle stories and adventures, stay for the artwork, which is rendered in trippy watercoloring that looks like a bag of Tropical Skittles exploded across the page. I didn’t realize just how much I needed these colors in my life before opening Present; they make me happy just looking at them. Practically nothing in Stein’s work is what you’d consider ‘conventional’ by cartoon standards as panels are panel-less, while her hand drawn font fluctuates from block lettering to stylish cursive, switching from upper-to-lowercase and different sizes as needed. When you think about it, that’s a good way to describe Stein’s unique style; it’s exactly what’s needed to make her stories sing.
Speaking of breaking conventions, Stein’s characters – including her own – have little in the way of facial features – or actual faces. But this omission turns out to be a masterstroke of creative design, allowing us to imagine the events she’s experiencing firsthand and to drawn our own conclusions. Or maybe not, and it’s just a stylistic choice. Also, we never see any of her ex-boyfriends, only ‘hear’ them off-page as they engage in conversation with our heroine.
There’s actually not much to say about the actual cartoons, other than they beg to be looked at, again and again. To list out individual favorites in a collection like this would be like attempting to disentangle a loose thread from a beloved sweater; you might win, but at what cost? These are personal narratives from a person attempting to illustrated, quite literally, not just those individual moments but the essence of them. How refreshing to see a cartoonist eschew the shallow narcissism and sharp crassness that so often sullies autobiographical comics. There’s a sense of real empathy and compassion in Stein’s work that comes across, even when we see characters shout [expletives deleted!]
When Stein turns inward to her personal life there’s no judgement or explanation necessary; that she maintains healthy, adult relationships with both of her divorced parents is realistic, as is her dealing with her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s (“The Littlest Memory”). Many of her daily ‘resolutions’ feel like accidental haiku (“The Sun’s Coming Up, I Paint Another Circle, The Endless Loop”) or like profoundly simple, yet truthful, advice (“All the pain…it can make you a better person…if digested properly).
How she deals with the aftermath of the 2016 President election may be the single most healthy and progressive thing I’ve seen in a modern comic in ages (“Peace Sign”), one others in these politically charged times could stand to learn from.
I’ve said it before and will sing it from the rooftops; so much of autobiographical comic works are saddled with boring, pointless introspection, little of it examined or profound. This goes double for cartoonists writing about (what else?) cartooning who laden their work with endless stories about their struggles with insecurities, failures in dating, attending conventions, and how keen and insightful they are noticing the ‘little things’ in life others clearly fail to. How pretentious and boring this drivel is; it’s like flipping through a strange family’s album and being told how adorable their bundle of joy is. Bleach.
Stein wisely avoids (most of) these stale tropes, yet still manages to engage readers with the daily grind of her life in The Big Apple. Yes, underlying many of these illustrated anecdotes are your standard fears of isolation and those insecurities we all face; perhaps artists tend to focus on these areas as they excel at bringing to the foreground those thoughts and visions not easily expressed elsewhere.
There’s also plenty of drinking, and not just the type limited to her job bartending. Alcohol is a constant in her work, almost another character. So much so that I was nervous such a sweet character might be on the road to a nasty addiction. Still, I’m curious if those incidents we see are cancelled out by those we don’t; biography can be a balancing act of offered truth and slights, engineered for maximum effect. Life isn’t a clean path, no matter how much we’d like it to be, and those looking for Mary Poppins Perfection in their heroes have a long road ahead.
Also, a word about the book’s production values, which are phenomenal. Those gorgeous single-page comics come printed on high-quality paper, clearly heavy stock stuff. Even better, the cover is hardback cardboard, with three circles cut out to accentuate three entirely different sides of Stein’s faceless persona. In this day of digital publishing and disposable media, publishers are going to have to work harder to convince people to shell out 20 bucks for reprints of webcomics, and that’s exactly what Drawn and Quarterly has done here.
There’s something special to Leslie Stein’s work, and while I can’t quite my finger on exactly what it is, I’m sure you’ll feel the same after reading through Present. Maybe it’s the way her bright, evocatively colored drawings make everything feel like Christmas morning, or how her perpetually optimistic outlook feels like something worth aspiring to. Whatever the case, it was impossible to not be affected by what she’s accomplished here. Present was my first introduction to the work of Leslie Stein; it won’t be the last.