“An Entity Observes All Things” from Box Brown and Retrofit Comics is both funny and heartbreaking, carving out a troubling, gelatinous future.
Written and illustrated by Box Brown
Stories of science fiction and mental exploration from Box Brown, New York Times-bestselling author of Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Lizard aliens! New Physics! Electromages! Wastelands! Star Warrior robots! Social media cults! Pizza!
With colours you can hear in the back row, and concepts that are upsetting two hours later, this is a weirdly enduring series of vignettes. “Sci-fi” is a pretty good umbrella term, although some veer more into fantasy, and none go exactly where you’re expecting.
Tonally, the first story, “Memorexia”, will let you know whether you’re on board for the rest. In white, bright red, and navy blue, a man steps into a machine to relive his unhappiest memory. With layouts that bust into splash pages, chequerboard shading, and a dad that keeps floating apart on the page, it’s about as visually punchy a tale as it is incomplete.
Throughout, Box Brown’s art is clean, almost geometric, situating lumpy figures in bubbly, twisted worlds. It’s also flexible, veering more or less regimented as a particular story requires, but always getting across a kicky, futuristic vibe.
The colours – a different, limited palette for each story – are chosen for brilliance, and keep the stories distinct in your memory while adding coherent doses of atmosphere.
With tales that almost invariably take place in a mildly dystopian future, it’s hard to say whether Box Brown is making a statement about technology or just kinda extrapolating where social media might really take us. “New Physics” does the latter most directly, telling the story of a social media cult and its awful realities. It’s too dreamlike to be preachy, but it makes its point, with happy followers inhaling a gas that causes at least one more problem than it solves.
Then there’s the funny bits, that I feel odd singling out because maybe I shouldn’t admit that a submarine called The Calzone makes me laugh. That gag aside – and as it tends to in sci-fi – the humour stands right on the knife’s edge between goofy and existentially horrifying. Or maybe you feel differently about a waffle so delicious it justifies self-immolation. LMK!
Mental health is also a theme that crops up, with “Travel” addressing it most directly. In black and white, and with a slightly looser, more grotesque cartooning style, it tells the story of a panic attack in a future with many more travel options than today. It does not neglect the soothing qualities of streaming entertainment, foregrounding a generic workplace comedy that acts as lullaby. And the sprawling underwater city is a visual highlight.
The title story is likely the most coherent, even if the art is a little less polished. It tells the story of Bebeshit, an entity that, you guessed it, observes all things. With Tim Burton rings under her eyes and monitors all over her home, she longs for more – and her story winds up being cyclical.
“The Lizard” – one of the longer tales in the collection – makes for a solid end. Constructing one set of circumstances in black in white, then knocking them down in black and fuchsia, it’s an odd little fable about dreams and ambitions and reptilians that probably does better by not pushing its moral hard. A sequence detailing the different life forms in the universe – “Life is rare, but it’s the same throughout” — is oddly moving, with visions of aliens that are just fantastical enough. Later, its insights on dreams – why does everybody dream about bathrooms? — strike just the right tone.
It can be easy to ignore short story collections, because they’re bitsy and not as satisfying as full-length reads, but the best ones occupy a fidgety, Sunday-morning headspace that certainly has its place. With its myriad of concepts, dark underbelly, and sharp art, “An Entity Observes All Things” is a zippy little collection that’s easy to recommend. (Or: I read it even though I really, manifestly, 100% need glasses right now, and that should be recommendation enough.)Continued below