Sunday, 30 October 2016

Obscure Comic of the Month - The Illustrated Guide to the Elements: Volume 1

Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.


The Illustrated Guide to the Elements: Volume 1 by Jenna Whyte – 2012

The Illustrated Guide to the Elements is not, technically an obscure comic. Okay, it isn't a comic full stop, but you know what? It's got words and pictures and I want to talk about it. This is my column and I can break the rules if I want to.

The conceit behind Jenna Whyte's Guide to the Elements is a fairly straightforward one, but it's also sort of brilliant. Take the periodic table, reinterpret the elements as 'emotionally dangerous' women and write the guide in the style of a psudo-Victorian/steampunk psychological study, with some beautiful, period appropriate illustrations to go along with it.

What really makes Whyte's book interesting is that it has things to say both scientifically and socially. The scientific side is fairly obvious, re-framing elemental properties as personality quirks makes reading about the elements both fun and memorable. Seriously, Whyte's book would probably come in handy if you're a high school chemistry teacher and want to get a bunch of goth kids interested in the difference between H20 and H202.

But what the book also does, through the way it looks at it's elements-as-characters, is also remind us how oppressive the nineteenth century was to those who found it difficult to fit into society, especially difficult women. The steampunk genre loves to mine the trappings of the Victorian era while often having very little to say about the period it cribs from. Whyte's book is a deconstruction of sorts, and hearing tales of Lithium being attended constantly by psychiatrists and Flourine's varied escape attempts from 'The Asylum for Electron Challenged Elements' are as sobering as they are informative.

The book tells us, in great detail, the tales of criminals and social climbers, spurned lovers and deadly killers. But it uses the elemental system to give the impression that it is society that made them that way.

There's an intense streak of black comedy that keeps Whyte's book from being truly grim however, and the book is chock full of characters straight of out the era's penny dreadfuls. Poisoners are common in Volume 1. Compulsively, like Thallium, or by trade, like Bismuth. Whyte doesn't shy away from telling us, in grizzly detail, what fates would befall us should we ever encounter the wrong end of these troubling elements.

Whyte's art, of course, is the true star of the show, having a real flair for capturing the vitality of period dress, without going too overboard on the steampunk influences. It's got a taste of Lewis Caroll without falling into Tim Burton. There are finely dressed women, and sultry dressed women, posh nobles and deranged convicts, each rendered in a grimy watercolour style that manages to be both elegant and decadent. The writing and the art goes hand in glove.

Still, there's room for improvement. Whyte's writing is very evocative, but at times certain entries can drag on a little too long filling up far too much of the page with information. At the same time some entries are woefully short, feeling a little underwritten and sparse. Whyte is clearly well versed in the science behind the book, so she probably gave serious consideration on what to include and what to pass on, but at times the book feels unbalanced, and it's hard not to notice that.

There's also handful of typos but that's part and parcel when it comes to self-publishing, so I'm not going to fault her on that.

Another issue I have is that given that the book has such a grand collection of characters, it unfortunately buys in to Victorian myth of England's whiteness. There are a couple of characters who are vaguely Asian looking, but by and large it's a collection of mostly white folks here. This feels like a missed opportunity and a disservice to Whyte's own artwork, and I feel the book could have been even more interesting with a more racially diverse cast mirroring the diversity of the elements they are based on.

Still, there's Volume 2 that I'm long overdue in checking out, so maybe these criticisms have already been resolved, and Whyte is still producing artwork that's well worth checking out, so here's looking forward to what comes in the future.


Jack Harvey 2016. The Illustrated Guide to the Elements (c) Jenna Whyte. Images used under fair use.

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