Adorable But Sad Animals Navigate A Lonely World: Jen Lee’s ‘Vacancy’ and ‘Thunderpaw’
Nobrow has released cartoonist Jen Lee's comic Vacancy, and like her currently-running animated webcomic Thunderpaw: In The Ashes of Fire Mountain, it's about animals left behind. Also like Thunderpaw, Vacancy is adorable but sad, with masterful and compelling storytelling, although it lacks some of the surreal and truly impressive moments of the former. Both are worth a read, although for different reasons.
Vacancy is about a dog named Simon who is left alone in his back yard, where he tries to work up the nerve to go beyond the fence. One day, a raccoon and a deer come to the yard to get some food, and he asks to join them in the wild. Simon has been thinking about being a wild animal for a while and is excited. As the three friends travel through a forest and back into the suburbs, they meet enemies, and eventually Simon realizes that the truth of living in the wild isn't quite for him.
If you're a fan of what Nobrow usually puts out, you won't be disappointed here. Vacancy has all the hallmarks of a Nobrow book --- including high-end paper and a solid cover with French flaps, which isn't all that common on a book that is saddle stitched. It's not a long comic at 24 pages, but it's not an expensive comic either at $5.95. The color palette is rich, if a little dark, and it plays particularly well on the paper stock the publisher used. It's part of Nobrow's 17x23 series, which they use to try out new talent in a shorter format (for instance, Luke Pearson's first Hilda book, Hildafolk, was part of this series).
It's certainly interesting to see what Lee does in this space, although it might have been nice to see the comic be a bit longer. The story doesn't feel rushed exactly, but there are moments that could have been drawn out for better effect, and some pages feel crowded. To be fair, though, that's one of my only complaints about Vacancy as a standalone comic. My only other real complaint is that the lettering meshes too well with the color palette of the comic, so at times it can be hard for the eye to track where to go next --- particularly a problem on busy pages.
In general, though, Lee tells a sweet and sad story that could symbolize a lot of different moments in life. The loneliness of Simon, his desire to be a wild animal, and his ultimate realization that he is not made for the wilderness --- it's a path that has many possibilities in terms of what you see and feel in this story. The characters are animals, certainly, and adorable animals at that, so one could see it as a commentary on how humans treat animals and what would happen to those animals if we were gone. But they are also animals clothed as humans, and while animals-as-stand-ins-for-humans is not a new trick, it's given extra weight here where all the animals have a bit of a hipster edge. I'm certain readers will project any number of feelings and experiences onto this story, which gives it both a universal appeal and an added weight.
I do feel that part of my desire to see more of the world of Vacancy is enhanced by reading through Thunderpaw while researching this article. I wasn't familiar with the project prior to that, but I have been blown away by it. Every once in a while, someone does something to remind people that webcomics don't need to be bound by format or style choices that reflect print comics, and Lee does that so stunningly in Thunderpaw (which has a Patreon running, if you're a fan).
On the one hand, I love print and I love the format and feel of Vacancy. On the other hand, reading through Thunderpaw, which is either set in the same world or in a very similar world, it makes me greedy for that extra little bit of something special that Lee does with the digital storytelling. Given her impressive grasp of how to push the boundaries of storytelling in webcomics, it feels like one should expect her to take some real storytelling risks in Vacancy, and I just didn't feel that. There's no doubt in my mind that she is an incredibly talented cartoonist and I hope that future endeavors include some fascinating work in both print and digital.
For now, folks can read Vacancy and enjoy a rich, too-brief story about a dog trying to find his way in a nice print copy, or they can read Thunderpaw and enjoy a rich, still-evolving story about a couple dogs trying to find their way in a nice digital format. Either way, readers win with cute animals playing out sometimes devastatingly sad stories.