This is a collection of short Manga all written by Fehed Said, whose last book The Clarence Principle was thoroughly enjoyed by Katherine back here. Talking To Strangers is themed around some concept of connections with strangers, and they all sit beneath a simply gorgeous cover by Nani Li, with it’s modern conceit of the raised headphone a perfect metaphor for truly opening up to engage with the world.
Inside the book we have six stories, all of decent length (the shortest is the bonus story with just 8 pages – but that’s the exception, most are 30+ pages), something I’m increasingly convinced is necessary in any anthology, and especially Manga, where the storytelling structure and the relatively faster pace of the artwork demands a bigger page count to tell even the simplest of stories. The art is all Manga styled in some way but within that each tale manages to have it’s own, very distinct style; we have very traditional Manga, very Westernised Manga (think Bryan Lee O’Malley for that one), pure cute “bighead” style and much more besides. A veritable visual feast.
(What does an agoraphobic do when his TV breaks? Makes his own TV through his window. Slightly creepy voyeuristic romance from Static by Fehed Said, Wing Yun Man and Faye Yong in Talking To Strangers from Sweatdrop Studios)
I’ll start and end with the best in the book, stories and art working perfectly together and resulting in two fantastic shorts and the first of these is Static, with art by Wing Yun Man and Faye Yong. It tells us the hope filled tale of an agoraphobic, trapped in his littered apartment, newspaper taped to the windows to keep out the world, with television his only friend. But when the TV breaks and his life turns to static, he notices the light coming in through the window where the newspaper has peeled away. Suddenly he has a different view on the outside world, one that’s better than TV, one with a view of the park and two possible lovers. Totally engrossed in their story, just as I was in his, he is eventually challenged to leave his prison to effect a possible reconciliation. It’s a wonderful little story, visually inventive, playful, surreal and great fun, yet still just that little bit strange, just the pleasant side of voyeuristic creepiness.
(A terrifying nightmare – boxed in, trapped, but where? Why? The answers are far more than you’d expect. From Box by Fehed Said and Nana Li in Talking To Strangers from Sweatdrop Studios)
The first tale in Talking To Strangers is the creepiest story of the lot; Box, illustrated by Nana Li in traditional style full of expression and quite a lot of chilling images. I’m loath to spoil the ending as it’s definitely not what you think it will be, but suffice it to say that it’s a bizarre, slightly nasty tale of two strangers who find themselves trapped in something worryingly like coffins; are they alone, are there more strangers out there in similar circumstance, and what connection does it all have to the grieving families in a hospital? Mysterious, slightly ghoulish and a great start to the book.
Malignant, with art from Chloe Citrine is more emo-esque fairy tale than out and out horror. A good enough tale, but too heavy handed, starting with “There once was a boy carrying the weight of the world on his shoulder” on a page with a boy pulling a large rock, chain attached to his neck, up a hill. The hill gets steeper, the rock gets bigger, he meets others along the way all tethered to the earth by their own chains. He’s planning to throw the stone off the bridge and rid himself of it. But what if the stone is too big, what will he do then when the weight of the world gets too much? Well, he is on a bridge with a chain attached to his neck…… like I said, heavy handed. Nice enough, a pleasant read, but it was always struggling to get past that concept that (ahem) weighed it down.
Hero with art by Sonia Leong is another very dark tale, of an abused boy putting up with his father’s beatings and finding a strange ally and potential saviour in the hooded figure who lives opposite. It’s a horrible subject and handled as such by Said. But there’s just something about it which fails to connect, the story seems too fragmented, the mystery too forced. Again, good but not great.
The final story; the 8 page The Old Man with art by Faye Yong is the weakest of the book, with a story that’s just too trite and simplistic – oldest man on earth has press conference to talk about how he got to live to 150, ends up spinning a parable about living for others and being a citizen of the world. It takes just 8 pages because there’s not really that much to say.
(From Flowers by Fehed Said and Faye Yong in Talking To Strangers from Sweatdrop Studios)
And I’ll end with the best thing in Talking To Strangers, a story that’s just packed with imagination and wonderful storytelling, and as the couple of panels above should tell you – a lot of perfectly timed comedy as well; Flowers, done in fantastic “chibi” style by Faye Yong. A brother and sister, Simon and Elowena discover an abandoned square, fenced off from the world and containing two little flowers. Poor Elowena takes one home, innocently telling it “I’ll put you back after show and tell on Friday“. It ends badly for the flower the following morning.
From there this tiny slice of life tale becomes something far more sci-fi, as we discover we’re in a future where flowers have been extinct for 200 years and Elowena has stumbled across two (now just one) of the last specimens in the world. Her increasingly desperate attempts to look after this last flower, through summer, autumn rains and the eventual, devastating winter (for both flower and girl) are equal parts funny and heartbreaking. And at times it’s very funny, with the set piece of Elowena’s puffer jacket being so restrictive it forces her to walk along as if she’s trying to fly a highlight early on. Smiles and laughter. Brilliantly paced, perfect timing.
Elowena realises that she was too selfish with her treasure and, after the flower dies in the winter she just wishes she could have the chance to share the magic with her friends. And so do we. It’s staggeringly simple, beautifully good, full of simple, evocative emotion, and quite wonderful.
Talking To Strangers is a strong anthology, with at least two stories (Static and Flowers, maybe three in Boxes) that are absolutely top notch examples of great storytelling. But like any anthology of worth, my favourites may not be yours, in which case, please, please, seek this out and discover it for yourselves. It’s available from the Sweatdrop Studios website for just £6 – and considering my favourite stories have 100 pages between them that’s excellent value.