Saturday, 3 January 2015

Family Portraits by Sam Orchard

Sam Orchard's three-part comic, Family Portraits, should be read in a single sitting. Approached as a unit, the books cohere into a nuanced exploration of gender, sexuality, culture, place and creativity (while still finding time to touch on questions of class and social privilege).  

If that description comes across as if Sam has created a kind of sociology text book in comics form then I'm not doing the work justice, or adequately conveying the way in which these constructs are so expertly teased apart and examined - or the highly personal and personable manner in which Sam manages to do this. He is a excellent host, inviting you to consider and think with not a hint of judgment or condensation.  

Family Portraits is a mixture of stories Sam has collected from individuals in the LGBTI community, along with personal reminisces, asides, observations and slight remixes of older strips and Sam's week(ish) web-strip Rooster Tails. This stringent description however fails to convey how deftly, and in what an original manner, these parts are woven together.  Too often in comics the idea of rhythm seems to boil down to a rigid staccato beat with no room for legato intervals. Family Portraits sidesteps this contrivance neatly and opts for an ebb and flow, each piece finding its own pace, its own length, its own voice, its own expression.  

That might sound like a description of a piece of music but Sam seems set on creating something akin to a symphony. So far we've probably just had the overture. Reading through the three books as they stand you begin to get a sense of the rich ground Sam is exploring, of the many, many strands of 'music' he is pulling together to produce his grand composition.
While it is the myriad voices which make Family Portraits compelling it is Sam's cartooning craft that supports those multitudes. Not flashy or sophisticated, there is little on the page which does not need to be there, Sam has a fine command of the page and the varying components that make up the whole. Varying styles and subtle use of colour usher the reader along, providing cues and reminders, allowing for changes in mood or tone. He is also a natural draftsman.  Sitting next to Sam at the 2014 Auckland Zinefest it was interesting to watch him draw as we talked. The pen never hesitated or faltered, all the time producing gentle, rounded, confident lines. Images appeared. Batman kissing Superman. Wolverine sporting a strap on. All warm, a bit naughty and funny. It was a pleasure to see someone so naturally extend themselves onto the page.  

Social messages aside a big part of Family Portraits appeal is the sense of play on the page. Along with Sam directly engaging the reader, in what feels more like a conversation than a monologue, there is also a lovely appreciation for the artifice of the page. At one point the action, of what looks like a draft version of a story is interrupted by a scribbled out panel. Turning the page we encounter a miffed Sam discouraged by the narrative, admitting that he's sidestepped difficult aspects of the story he is trying to tell. Eventually we return to the action but this time the previous stark black and white images are touched up by monochrome highlights. Panels, sometimes whole pages of them have been added, not just expanding the scoop of the story but complicating our interpretation of what we read before. Family Portraits is stuffed with that sort of invention, investing the book with a fun feel, a lightness of touch that is rare when engaging weighty issues.

Family Portraits is a great read. If there is any justice in the world it will soon be available in libraries and schools up and down the country or, ideally, sitting on your bookshelf or bedside table. Supporting Sam should, hopefully, allow him to continue with his great work, to continue his dialogue with the world and himself and help us all to open our minds and make the world a bigger, safer, more interesting place.

You can read Rooster Tails here (it contains exerts from Family Portraits) and you can buy the finished books here.

Libraries and schools can purchase copies of Family Portraits from Wheelers.

Kelly Sheehan
Faction Comics + Earth's End

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