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Sean Karemaker dispenses with the rigid panel grids and other conventions that most people commonly associate with comics for The Ghosts We Know from Conundrum Press. In fact, a good segment of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based artist and video game designer’s book brims with hallucinatory, fluid standalone drawings — built of broad, sketchy lines on toned paper — that rush out to the borders of the page. There are both rubbery experiments with perspective and renderings of surrealistic landscapes that find human faces tucked within trees and clouds. Considering Conundrum’s now 20-year-old tradition of publishing work that shares provocative middle ground between art books and comics, Karemaker’s assemblage of both here is an apt addition.
The stories, sometimes limited to two-page comics, are inward-peering and candid. They’re the author’s own experiences, often summoning Karemaker’s youth or profiling modern-day run-ins with old friends and strangers. “The Kits Collector” comic has Karemaker lugging a vintage typewriter home from the junk collection of the neighborhood eccentric, the fraying hairs of his chalky white beard popping amid the artist’s feathery black shading. There’s little conversation between Karemaker and the man in the lot — the copy on the page mostly stems from the creator’s observations. It’s the same for “The Brass Bell,” a probing, intimate yarn that goes down in the tavern for which the story is named. Karemaker’s narration there — set in white lettering atop boxy smudges for captions — tells of “the alcohol in (his) blood” boosting his confidence in approaching a woman at the bar. The booze works, and mid-level shots of their late-night interactions are interspersed with more drinking, and painterly depictions of “comfortable silences” shared in the sand along the coast of Crofton, British Columbia. Karemaker’s prose, sometimes looking as if clipped from another page and pasted onto the ashy gradients he produces for the night sky, is as vivid as it is pithy: “I edged closer to her. She was receptive. My heart swelled as she sunk into my shoulder.”
While there are tangible characters that are typically set in familiar situations here, The Ghosts We Know‘s stories are prone to flow a bit too freely. They evolve in nearly the same loose manner as Karemaker’s ambling illustrations do, but they’re obviously intended to be sequential in nature. Narrative text is streamed along the edge of a car seat or a house’s exterior. The face of a figure who is speaking is sometimes larger on the page, prominently set in the foreground atop the rest of the action or dialogue. These nuances amount to a steadily blurring line between Karemaker’s sketchbook-like meanderings and stories. It gets confusing and will render the comics-styled parts difficult to navigate for some readers. Those less inclined to dig into the artist’s venturesome mid-2000s-era Astronaut Journal (some of which gets proper reproduction here), for example, will need to shuffle past any preconceived notions about the comics form.
Within the visuals of The Ghosts We Know’s stories — such as in Karemaker’s broad, blocky letters or the curious composition of the pages — we can easily detect a background in graphic design as well as in painting and in illustration. An enduring influence of those afternoons he spent reading comics is perhaps more overt. Karemaker actually draws himself retreating to the comfort of superhero books as a child, particularly while navigating the difficulty of fitting-in. Those memories materialize in the playground bullying of “Origin,” a window into his past as a “shy, withdrawn kid” through the eyes of his art student in “Time Machine,” or, from way out in left field, when the artist takes the shape of a long-beaked bird in several stories. The anthropomorphic turn relays his break from conformity. Karemaker discards learned ideas about “what (he) should look like,” and with a collection of work that frequently challenges us to ditch our own biases about what comics should be, he marks a territory that’s distinctly his own.