Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column
Zejian Shen’s 44 page, black and white comic Keep Fresh, draws a thick, black line between our desires and our nightmares. From a Freudian perspective, it functions as a psychic apparatus, reflecting the Id’s cascading Raman noodles of unrestrained hammer bashing, all the while constrained and sweating condensation in the white Styrofoam take out package of the Super Ego. To further the metaphor, Shen’s cartooning is the Ego balancing the two desires, making sense of the chaos, translating foreign matters into a pidgin-English lexicon you can “easily fit a grown man inside”.
Is this a love story gone wrong – some sort of Shakespearean case-of-mistaken-identity comedy staged by Antonin Artaud as Theater of Cruelty? Or is it an exploration of our inherent desire to escape the inanity of the mundanity of our slogging day-to-day, a world where products like “The Rocket Plug” and “Blood Away” make as much sense in terms of escapism, as does a diet designed to “achieve the gaunt and chiseled dark lord body of your dreams”?
Whatever the intent, Keep Fresh provides us with a take-out menu of a media saturated world restaurant where love and justice and child-rearing all require a certain blood letting. It describes a place where our desires run counter to the formality of expectations because that’s what we’ve become, that what we deserve. Shen draws us into an atmosphere where savagery is wrapped nicely in a polypropylene glycol bag that has a Smiley Face emoticon emblazoned on its front. The Face stares blankly at us, its Smile more of a “Come-at-me-bro” than an exhortation to celebrate.
Or maybe I’m reading this all wrong. Maybe Shen wants us to understand Keep Fresh as a bildungsroman, a tale of a young woman who, in order to become who she really is and embrace her maturity, must destroy the expectations of her elders, subvert the authoritarian system, and become brutal in order to fly, the savage moth who escapes fluttering from the cocoon of social order. And yet, in a twist that carries with it a monosodium glutamate tang, ideas about identity fluster and tragedy is all that is left.
In a box.
Stuffed in a curbside recycling bin.
Still other options of interpretation exist, too, which only speaks to the artistry of Keep Fresh. Isn’t there something rabbit-like in Shen’s depiction of the takeout bag on the cover of this book? Within its pages, isn’t there a rabbit-dude who seems to be wielding a hammer to the faces of the heavy personalities, those in charge, those who tell you what to do, those who expect things of you, those who lie to you as much as they lie to themselves? Why the similarity in form if not a result of artistic intent? Here, then, again, Shen must be trying to give us access to some larger truth. Is everything disposable in a world in which the rapidity of response is more important than its quality? How can we “Keep Fresh” if freshness itself is called into question? If all we consume is prepackaged and convenient, what happens when we become what we eat?
This is the sort of thinking that Keep Fresh demands of the reader. It’s one of those small gifts that inspires questioning, and insomuch as it is that, it is art. It’s worth the effort of taking your time, savoring its flavor, and keeping it fresh.
You can purchase Keep Fresh from Retrofit Comics here.