“Dreams Factory” is a story with very small leading characters in a very big world. In our review, we’ll discuss this contrast and how it is used as a narrative device. While I don’t go into major spoilers, I do discuss the thematic shape to a degree. Also, you’ll really just get more out of this review if you’ve read the comic already, as I’m doing a deep dive into the visual language of the book.
Written by Jérôme Hamon
Illustrated by Suheb Zako
Colored by Lena Sayaphoum and Suheb Zako
Translated by Jeremy Melloul
Lettered by Chris Northrop
A thrilling adventure through a Victorian era of magic, corrupting darkness, and powerful family bonds by writer Jérôme Hamon (Niles: The Tree of Life) and illustrator Suheb Zako (Arcane).
“Dreams Factory” was originally published in French in two volumes, ‘La Neige et l’Acier’ and ‘La Chrysalide des coeurs’ in 2018 and 2021. The English edition came out September last year in a single volume from Magnetic Press. Normally this would have me worried—American publishers have a habit of publishing what I’d call compromised versions of French comics, often shrinking the size of the page to the American standard. However, Magnetic Press has gained a bit of reputation for their beautiful books. While not quite as large as the original French editions, “Dreams Factory” is presented in Magazine format, the same size as DC’s Black Label. And I assure you, the size is warranted. There are frequently panels less than an inch and a half tall. Printing this story at the standard American page size would not only be compromised, it would break the storytelling.
This is because Jérôme Hamon and Suheb Zako frequently use the language of scale to communicate the themes of “Dreams Factory.” Indira and Elliot, the child protagonists of the story, exist in a world that is not made for them. Things aren’t just big, they are overwhelmingly big. The angles Zako uses to frame the story are often low to the ground, sometimes to the point of distortion.
This is a pervasive element throughout the book. Importance, at least importance as the society in the world of “Dreams Factory” sees it, is conveyed through height and size. When we first meet Indira and Elliot, they are living with an unnamed man. In his brief appearance in the comic, his face is never seen, but we do see his hands, almost as big as Indira herself. We see him cutting bread, which he does not share with the children, and we hear him barking orders at Indira to go to work and to get more bread on her way home. And on page two, that’s the last we see of him. Indira and Elliot are on their own.
The way scale is used gets more interesting as more characters are introduced. First up, there’s Anton. In the first panel that he appears, all we see is his metal prosthetic hand in the extreme foreground, absolutely enormous compared to the tiny figure of Indira. He is both literally and figuratively introduced as an iron fist. Then in the next panel, we get our first real look at him: he’s a child just like Indira, but he’s in charge, so he’s standing on a platform above her. This is a key part of his visual language; Anton is often perched higher than other characters, reinforcing his status despite his size.
Then we’re introduced to Olin, an elderly man—he’s an imposing figure, but ultimately kind hearted. He’s in a position of power over Indira, so he is initially framed to emphasize his size compared to her. However, when he has to talk to Anton, he has to lift his eyeline—Anton, though in a lower position at the factory, has the power in this relationship. Then, as the scene progresses, Olin’s kind heart is revealed. He lowers himself almost to Indira’s level, the eyelines between the two only gently showing the difference in height.
Further along we are introduced to Ms. Sachs who owns the Dreams Factory. Her voice comes from the top of a panel, and when Elliot looks up toward her, he’s looking far into the sky, where she sits on a balcony. Even sitting, she is above everyone. She’s flanked by her guards, seemingly two children, Noah and Soham. These two have the most power short of Ms. Sachs herself, yet they have diminutive statures. Unlike Anton, they do not perch up high to express their status, instead the world turns to express it. Zako uses Dutch angles to artificially give them height in panels. This is seen most clearly in Noah’s interactions with Olin, where the size difference between the characters is extreme, yet the distortion of the angel makes Olin’s eyelines have to travel upwards in the panel to meet Noah’s eyes.Continued below
But the Dutch angles have another effect too: they feel unnatural and wrong. And this is very purposeful and a key part of Noah and Soham’s visual language even in sequences when status isn’t being expressed.
Then there’s the factory itself, which is obviously larger than everything else. But the factory has influence beyond the scenes where it is physically present, so other visual cues are used to express the factory’s power and influence. The world of “Dreams Factory” is blue and shadowy, with cold light. Yellows, oranges, and reds are rarely used, and when they are, they are tiny or cooled down. . . until Elliot sees a toy store, and the light from its windows is golden. It’s so bright, the light eats away at Zako’s linework. It’s like staring into the sun—the light obliterates the details inside the shop. This is the only time we see warm, golden light like this. It represents the siren song of the factory. Warm colors and light that consumes the linework remain a part of the factory’s language, but it shifts throughout the story. Notice the little mechanical toys are all bronze, showing that they are an extension of the factory.
When the true threat of the factory is revealed, the golden light returns, but it’s a sickly version of it. Instead of looking warm, it looks pallid. The lighting takes on that consuming quality again—the factory is hungry and that manifests through the light. And then, at the worst of it, the color changes once more, this time to blood reds with cold shadows. While the factory’s defining colors are warm, they are used in ways that make them cold. Before the end, there is a single moment when true warmth comes through in the colors, but that moment belongs to Indira and her sacrifice.
“Dreams Factory” isn’t just a visually impressive book, it’s a book that’s narratively dense in its visuals. Every aspect of its design is enhanced by the larger page size. With a truly larger page, Zako can push how small a character can be. I mean, just look at the cover; even there Indira is much smaller proportionately than you usually see a lead character on a comics cover, barely a third of the cover’s height. This is a story where the page size is a critical part of the telling, and I for one am glad to see Magnetic Press preserved this aspect for the English edition.