December 7, 2014

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The Little Red Fish

Written by James Moffitt
Illustrated by Bizhan Khodabandeh
Published by Sink/Swim Press

A small community of fish are harassed by herons, protected only by a hawk who understood what it was like to be a fish himself. But one creature against many can only hold so long, and soon the entire tenuous status quo is changed forever in this first part of a long-form retelling of the Iranian Revolution.

I absolutely love how the cover of this comic shows you exactly what's going on, but does so in such an abstract way that you don't realize it at first. Looking closely at the design, it's clear that the herons (at the bottom of the image) are attacking the hawk, whose spread wings protect many, many fish, the central one being the titular red fish. It's incredibly well done, and the simplicity of the figures and shapes really makes the internal art, which is lush, intricate, and warm, pop out to the reader.

As we open the comic, the amazing design work continues. A splash across two pages with with the credits and copyright information gives us an overview of the world. We have a heron dominating most of the pages, with its bent leg off-setting the credits from the rest of the image. In the main section, there's the world of humanity off in the distance, with a lighthouse giving scale, while the closer work, indicating the focus, is on the birds and the fish. The credits themselves rest upon some sea rubble, which is our first hint that something's amiss.

Look even more closely at the image, and you'll find that bent leg is bloodied, with its fluid changing the water into a sickly pink. Other fish wield spears. This is going to be a violent story, and we learn this all before a single line of dialogue or narration comes into play.

Look at this amazing splash! The details! The structure!
I had absolutely no idea who Bizhan Khodabandeh was before I was contacted about reviewing this comic, but I came away extremely impressed. The line work reminds me immediately of P. Craig Russell, both in the style itself and the way he uses color. Put this side by side with something like Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde* and I think they compare favorably. Khodabandeh is probably a bit more angular than Russell, but the time and care taken on individual lines, images that are both realistic and fantastic at the same time, and the pattern-like way every page and panel are constructed definitely are all traits he shares with the iconic creator.

Khodabandeh comes from the world of design, and I think that's very clear. He describes himself in his bio as being both an artist and an activist, so working on a comic that relates to the Iranian Revolution makes perfect sense. Working with James Moffitt, the two are planning to chronicle the events of the revolution, whose impact still registers to this day, but in this first issue, we're very much in the initial stages.

I'm not as familiar with this part of world history as I should be, so I can't really tell you exactly what angle the pair are going for. Given that they mention interviewing "leftists" as part of their research, I'm guessing this will likely be critical both of the overturning of the Shah and those who end up in charge at the end of the struggle.

For this first issue, the Hawk stands in for the Prime Minister, who was outsted as part of a coup backed by Western Interests. Key lines like "the Hawk was once a fish" make it clear that the herons (predators of the fish) are going to be our first set of villains. Moffitt isn't trying to be subtle about this, either. The fish struggle against the herons' oppression, some fish conspire against them with the herons, and in the end, the herons take control. If I understand things right, that makes them the allegory for the Shah and his impending oppression.

If you understand the politics at all, it's clear what Moffitt and Khodabandeh are going for. Moffit successfully avoids overdoing it, however, allowing the story to unfold without being heavy-handed. He's not writing ham-fished lines for the fish--or the herons for that matter--which is something many political comics fall victim to, destroying their impact. This story is similar, but not exact, to the events, alluded to, and Moffitt allows the changes to flow. The entire time, Khodabandeh provides amazing visuals that look spot-on for what we'd see in actual shallow waters. There's some human trash, barnacles, rocky, uneven ground, and other little touches that anchor--no pun intended--the narrative to a sense of place that feels like it's the fishes' world, not ours.

The Little Red Fish is a great example of how you can use animals as stand-ins for humans, if you strike the right balance. With some of the best art I've seen in a mini this year and history in its heart, this is one worth seeking out. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it, and I look forward to the next installment of the series.

You can get a copy of The Little Red Fish directly from the publisher here.

*As an aside, those are 100% recommended.