I have to give the Xeric Foundation credit; they certainly know how to pick a comic. Each year, Xeric provides grants so comics creators can self-publish their work, and I have yet to come across a Xeric winner I haven't liked (Xeric winners reviewed here include Tyler Page's Nothing Better and Box Brown's Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing).
JT Yost's Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales is no exception to my Xeric love. This brief anthology consists of five stories that have little in common, save that they all show off Yost's remarkable talents as a visual storyteller. He is one of those rare creators who understands how much information can go into a single, deceptively uncomplicated panel and at the same time knows firmly what his stories are about. Take the titular tale "Old Man Winter." It chronicles the days and encounters of an elderly widower, but it's really about the small indignities that the old may suffer at the loneliest time in their lives -- at the hands of strangers, aquaintances, even their own family. It certainly asks us to rethink our own encounters, but Yost's hand is sympathetic rather than judgmental, rendering his aged protagonist with gentle affection, and demonstrating his quiet embarassment with understated expressions. Even the people who inflict these humiliations upon him are shown to suffer less from cruelty than a failure of empathy. It's a low-concept, high-execution endeavour that is surprisingly humanizing without ever feeling like its trying too hard.
There's a similar vein running through the other stories in this collection. Three of the remaining four deal with animal cruelty. One, "All Is Forgiven," peripherally references the contraversial rhesus monkey experiments of Harry Harlow. Another, "Roadtrip," has been used by vegan outreach groups. But even if this isn't your particular political bent (and, carnivore that I am, I can't say it's mine), they're still well worth the read, marvelously juxtaposing human pains (in the former) and pleasures (in the latter) with the suffering inflicted on animals by humans. "All Is Forgiven" is stronger as a classic short story, but "Roadtrip" is the more visually engaging of the pair. What's refreshing about "Roadtrip" is that it gets its point about the horrors of factory farming across without resorting to PETA's brand of grisly pornography, recognizing that anticipation and aftermath are often more powerful than action. The third of these stories, the not quite correctly titled "Running Away To the Circus/Running Away From the Circus," takes a similar tack, comparing the abuses that force young people and elephants to work the big top in a pair of parallel but opposite pages.
But it's the least flashy tale in the whole lot that gets me the most excited to read Yost's future work. "Logging Sanjay," which is sandwiched in the middle of the book, is an apparently autobiographical story about a childhood prank played on a friend's family. It's a straightforward, unpretentious anecdote that doesn't have the emotional power of "Old Man Winter," but offers hints of what a longer form piece from Yost would look like -- engaging, honest, and filled with mostly good-natured fun. That, combined with his more advanced visual prowess, is what's going to have me keeping an eye on Yost for what I expect will be many, many projects to come.
Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales will be available in August. In the meantime, you can check out the online preview or order it from Birdcage Bottom Books.