Light by Rob Cham (Anino Comics, 2016)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
How to review a book without words? I was confronted with this dilemma when reading Rob Cham’s graphic novel Light, a comic in which two characters – both, of course, nameless – journey through the dark underworld in search of crystals capable of returning color to earth’s surface. The challenge when reviewing a work without words, or even character names, is the instability of the critique – how can you document the emotional arc of a narrative experienced through visual images alone?
In order to talk about Cham, I realized, I would have to think like Cham. I would have to view story as a play of shapes and colors, rather than as the weaving together of words. This is in fact, the only strategy that Cham uses to tell his story – the comic relies on the introduction of color at the end of the comic to give the reader closure, and to make sense of the hero narrative that drives the plot.
Cham begins his narrative with a white, indistinct blob-like character, who leaves his home and journeys into a dark cave – at this point, his reasons for journeying are unknown to the reader. As soon as he steps into the darkness, the floor gives a resounding “kraak” and the hero tumbles through the floor to the depths below. It is here that he meets the second character, a big-eyed, greyish creature who protects the hero from harm when he is caught stealing a glowing, red crystal. The two becoming friends, and venture deeper into the underworld in search of the remaining crystals, which are guarded by enormous frogs, bats, jellyfish, and monsters of indeterminate inspiration. The pair conquer these beasts, finally acquiring the last crystal from an ancient nautilus-like wise man, who helps them condense their collection of crystals into an orb of white light easily transported to the world above. In the end, after befriending the very same monsters they stole from and securing a ride back to the mouth of the cave, the friends release the orb and color washes over Cham’s pages, filling the black outlines with depth and definition.
While the magic of Cham’s underworld is reason enough to dive into this book, I think there’s more depth to this comic than the wonder of a world full of massive biolumiscent jellyfish and furry cave-dwelling humanoids. There’s a nod here to the creation of the comic itself – the artist draws the outline of an image, but it isn’t until the image is filled with color that the piece feels complete. Even beyond that, though, Cham is doing something interesting by including color in the underworld, but removing it from the surface. For me, the book became a metaphor for psychological hardship – the surface-dwelling hero slipped into the dark pit of the subconscious, fought some monsters, made peace with others, and gathered the slivers of light that lived there in order to make the world above more colorful, more meaningful. In this reading, the hero literally colored his world with the distillation of past experience. And the result was a startling, deeper, more complete universe.
I encourage everyone to read Cham’s graphic novel, Light, not only because it’s masterfully crafted but because it has both the singular satisfaction of a hero narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and moving emotional and metaphorical depth. The book is concise, simple, but gestures toward more complicated themes. I think Rob Cham proves that there is incredible potential for comics to do the kind of philosophical and emotional work that critics typically reserve for literary fiction, and I look forward to seeing Cham and other contemporary comics venture further into this territory.
You can find images from Light at Cham’s website: http://robcham.me/light/.