In the Flesh

By Koren Shadmi
160 pages, black and white
Published by Villard Books

I’ll freely admit that I started reading Koren Shadmi’s collection In the Flesh because of the pull quote from Rutu Modan. (I’ve just heard an entire publicity department jumping for joy, screaming, "They work! They work!") I’ve loved Modan’s comics for years, and while Exit Wounds pushed her into the well-deserved spotlight, her short stories for the Actus Group have shown that she really understands the medium. So if she was pushing Shadmi’s short stories, well, the book certainly deserved a look at my end.

The book starts off well enough. "The Fun Lawn" is in many ways the perfect opener for the book because I think it has most of what I’d quickly come to recognize as Shadmi’s trademarks: a slightly pathetic and adrift protagonist, problems with relationships, and a slight twist for an ending. "The Fun Lawn" assembles all of these in the form of a man who dresses up as a dog to be on a children’s show, only to be pursued romantically by a makeup artist who fits just what he likes—a younger and more attractive woman. Our lead here is almost the pure definition of "sad sack," with his doughy face and body, and the fact that he never actually gets any dialogue throughout the entire story. One actually feels a little dirty by the time you’re done with "The Fun Lawn," a sensation you will have to learn to accept if you’re going to read Shadmi’s stories.

Soon after comes the high point of In the Flesh, the short story "A Date" where Shadmi uses the visual of bags over people’s heads as a metaphor for how much or little of our real selves we show to other people. It’s short and to the point, and while it’s populated with Shadmi’s usual pathetic people as protagonists, it’s told with such skill that it’s hard to not feel bad for the lead by the time it’s over. That’s also true for "Radioactive Girlfriend," where a high school student falls in love with a girl who was the one person that didn’t go to the blast shelter when a far off nuclear explosion occurred. People in "Radioactive Girlfriend" almost all need a good shake and yelling at, but at the same time Shadmi makes its lead a likeable, interesting person that you want to see succeed even as failure looms more and more on the horizon.

The big problem with In the Flesh, though, is that a little Shadmi goes a long way, and having his stories all collected together doesn’t do him any favors. It’s hard to not get tired of a parade of losers walking across its pages; the dual paths of after a date in "What is Wrong With Me?" just made me want to strangle the character who was whining, even as the story stretched on for far too long after its point was made. Likewise, the obsessive character in "Pastry Paradise" is hard to feel sorry for, or even any real emotion at all; she just come across as a one-note character, an idea that overstays its welcome. Some stories, like "Grandpa Minolta," get by on Shadmi’s attractive and slightly creepy art, pushing them into an overall victory. But there’s only so much that his art can save, and by the end of the book it became harder to care about any of these people.

In the end, I think Shadmi’s a creator who I think is best served appearing in an anthology of different people. By having just one story of his on display at a time, it’s harder to recognize any sort of creative tic that keeps reappearing in his work. All together, the weaker stories stand out a lot more simply by standing next to similar-but-stronger pieces by Shadmi. I’m glad I read In the Flesh but I wish the highs of those early stories had stuck around throughout all of his output. He shows a lot of promise, but I think this book would have been better suited if there had been a greater selection to choose from.

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