“God is Good!” exclaims the preacher at the beginning of Freddy Carrasco’s graphic novel GLEEM. The close-up panel highlights his wide mouth, with any glimpse of potential sincerity hidden by his impenetrable sunglasses. He is putting on a show and the faceless crowd goes wild, arms outstretched in a holy frenzy. In the midst of all this stands a kid, Femi, whose facial expression would surely be all too familiar to those who have ever been dragged to a Sunday service. “Can you feel it?” asks the speaker. Femi, it seems, cannot.
Set in an Afro-futuristic world – a constant in Carrasco’s work – GLEEM is split into three short stories. Carrasco’s characters don clunky headgear and space-themed athleisure wear – yielding an aesthetic that could exist in the same galaxy as outfits we’ve seen o Rihanna, TLC, Lil Uzi Vert and OutKast. Like Femi, characters also wear bored expressions — an immediate signifier of youth and a glaring reminder that just because the children are the future, it doesn’t mean they want to be.
Often wordless for pages on end and drawn in simple, scratchy black and white (bar a few key pages), GLEEM occasionally turns into one big expanse, becoming a void as black as space itself in its attempts to articulate the overwhelming nature of isolation. Here, Carrasco’s panelling is key, going from twelve panels a spread to none in the mere flip of a page, creating a wormhole of sorts. And at the vacuum’s center are these kids — Black kids — who all look positively bored out of their minds. It doesn’t matter that they live in a future of endless possibility they’re still trying to escape it all in search for something better.
Boredom and the isolation of youth (Black youth in particular) is a theme that Carrasco has continued to revisit, first seen in his previous graphic novella Hot Summer Nights. In GLEEM’s first story “born again,” Femi eventually turns away from the preacher, transporting himself to his own personal heaven. In another story called “HARD BODY”, a bathroom stall in a nightclub acts as a doorway to another realm. In both tales, the two protagonists share the same itch to be elsewhere, seeking respite and freedom away from the crowd.
At times, Carrasco’s linework becomes almost too frenetic. For example, the panelling of the club scenes in “HARD BODY” is abstract and overlapped, mimicking the choppy and rhythmic movement of Black bodies throwing it down — a sharp contrast to the scenes from behind the stall door, which take up the whole spread, almost vibrating with the jagged, digitised linework. Here, the itchy energy of youth is ready to burst forth, right off the page. Throughout GLEEM, narratives and images blur into one another, making you look again and again, longer and more intently each time. This seems to be the novel’s intent, to encourage its readers to step away from reality and fall head first into the abstract. Carrasco doesn’t let up even for a second, denying a passive reading experience. At times, it’s almost headache inducing — almost — that is, until you snap your head back out of that wormhole and see the entire universe before your eyes.
GLEEM by Freddy Carrasco (2019) is now available from Peow.