The unnerving horror- or sci-fi-tinged comics produced by Philadelphia-based artist Anuj Shrestha have been featured in various anthologies and have been cited in Best American Comics, but I discovered him by way of illustration commissions.
For Penguin Random House Canada’s online magazine Hazlitt (and elsewhere), Shrestha has contributed art for essays as well as fiction, and his work there isn’t far removed from his comics. His wordless Resident Aliens zine (November, 2015) collects both illustrations and strips populated by monstrous otherworldly creatures that are mostly upright and clothed humanoids. They appear to have come to terms with a prominent vegetation-like mass that Shrestha renders in limitless worming lines that envelopes their faces and heads.
Like an amalgam of Charles Burns and 1988’s Alien Nation, Resident Aliens mostly positions Shrestha’s creatures — some peering out with one eye from behind their rubbery extraneous flaps of flesh — in ordinary situations. They’re in classrooms, in a park, getting out of the shower — each a part of a universe called “Genus” that Shrestha writes is “inhabited by two species; those who appear human and those who are alien.” I’m struck by a “photo album” motif in his zine; it’s as if someone is scrambling to capture Kodak moments within these both tranquil and disturbing panels, a balance served well by the spare black ink on cream paper. My hope though is that Shrestha seeks to firm-up a story within “Genus” one day, wordless or not. There’s a strong foundation for more than just concepts in these pages.
No aliens walk among us in Shrestha’s gorgeous five-page science fiction comic for Retrofit/Big Planet anthology Future Shock Zero, although they can be seen elsewhere in the new collection, which features comics from Sophia Foster-Dimino, Alex Degen, and many more. Seven issues preceded the 136-page book that landed in late 2015, but when all copies of the seventh Future Shock (pictured left) ran out, that corner of the “astro-psyche-out-sci-fi” world that the previous publisher Josh Burggraf had taken to talking about when discussing his series had gone quiet. Shrestha contributed one of the the first issue’s eight stories, but his striking cover for issue seven — starring a steely-eyed, punkish-looking figure wading through a crimson Kool-Aid-hued lake, flip phone in hand — not only speaks to the anthology’s said “astro-psyche-out-sci-fi” overtones in its hilly, vintage science fiction comics-type setting, but its playful inclusion of (somewhat) modern technology aligns nicely with the story that would follow for Future Shock Zero. The new book came to fruition when Retrofit’s Box Brown expressed interest in resuscitating Burggraf’s project.
In “Hear No Evil,” Shrestha doesn’t so much render prototypical aliens as he does an alien experience. Muted earth tones and formal narrative technique here temper the splashy colors and less tethered though equally wild and fresh stories within the rest of Future Shock Zero, and the grounded approach from him is welcome. Mimicking Apple’s sleek packaging and our encounters in its sterile retail space, I dug the comic’s depiction of our troubling appetite for flashy technology and what’s perhaps even a reverence for the handicapped populace of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” But there are larger forces at work.
In employing contemporary America’s goofy tech hangup as a device to comment on the frequent conversations that encircle gentrification’s effects on our urban centers — while possibly mulling what has set into his very own Philadelphia — Shrestha addresses displacement and the overall disruptive consequences it has for metropolitan areas. Bug fixes for new hearing devices are rolled out in “Hear No Evil” by the day to lessen the chance that neighborhood newcomers catch wind of “the horrible sounds of the city,” namely the impact they’re having on their surroundings. Shrestha’s word count is thin and it would be mighty difficult to miss the message here, but this is good sci-fi storytelling.
“My cousin got kicked out of his place last week,” says a bystander amid Shrestha’s cleanly drawn system of cranes and overbuilt city skyline. The main character darts past, though. She’s expectedly oblivious to a world that barely differs from our own, wrestling with her personal devices to keep all of the harsh sounds out.