Leslie Stein, Present (Drawn and Quarterly, 2017). $21.95, hc.
Leslie Stein is a tremendous talent in the comics world, so when I saw her new book Present on the ‘new releases’ shelf at my local library I snapped it up with glee. Call the stories in this book autobiographical, call them diary-based, call them slice-of-life… they are regularly focused on random encounters and minor moments, along with equal doses of delightful and trying experiences (for her, not the reader).
While Stein’s drawing style has remained relatively similar over her young career, a small evolution can be seen when comparing her most recent work to that from only a few years ago. Her approach to drawing the human figure is distinctly minimalist, much closer to the sparse lines of Ivan Brunetti’s work than to most other cartoonists. But where she would draw the outline of a face in past years, Stein now typically leaves a blank space atop her character’s shoulders, favoring only a hairstyle and two small dots for eyes. This approach works like a visual signature because it is so unique, but what I love about it the most is how it pushes Scott McCloud’s ideas about the role of the icon as it applies to human faces to new extremes. McCloud tells us that we only need a circle with two dots and a line inside of it to recognize the image as a human face with eyes and a mouth. Stein foregoes the circle and the line altogether, choosing only the two dots for eyes with other elements (hair, clothing) used as surrounding contexts for our ability to see the sum of these parts as human.
It’s a style that might take some readers a few pages to fully appreciate, but its formal innovations will surely grow on you if they don’t immediately spark joy…. especially once Stein’s watercolors begin to flourish on the page. All of this being said, I do find that Present is a book best read in small doses at a time. It’s many chapters are brief and episodic, and best savored over time rather than guzzled quickly all in one go (…given the amount of wine consumed by the characters in this book, I think it’s a fitting metaphor!).
Blair Davis is an Associate Professor of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. His books include The Battle for the Bs: 1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low Budget Cinema (2012), Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page (2017) and Comic Book Movies (2018), all from Rutgers University Press. He serves as a Member-At-Large on the Executive Board of the Comics Studies Society, and appeared on two episodes of the AMC series James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction.