Review: Kuzimu - Vol. 1

Review by: Ed Allen Wow... Where do I even begin? Kuzimu is almost as awkward to review as it was to read at times. If that sounds cruel, it is deliberately so - if ever there was a graphic novel in need of some brutally honest criticism it is this one. I don’t mean that it’s an outright bad comic, but it does have flaws that can’t be ignored. When a creator’s work feels lazy I have no problem with taking it to pieces but when someone has poured so much of themselves into a comic as Brett Uren clearly has with this book I struggle because I don't want to be unfair to their dedicated efforts.

I suppose it’s best to start with a summary of what Kuzimu is ostensibly about: Pt’eros, a reptillian being is trapped in a spirit-world afterlife inspired by the Maasai culture (of eastern Africa) and is pursued by various forces who seek to manipulate or destroy him while he tries to find his way back into the world of the living. The story is drenched in mystery, pseudo-scientific concepts and imaginative body-horror.

The book suffers from a lack of direction until roughly halfway through; it wasn’t until page 96 that the central plot became apparent to me and though things did significantly improve after that point, the drawn out early stages reeked of self-indulgence. Things get significantly better as the book progresses but even the strongest of finishes cannot excuse such a beginning.

KuzimuI found the first chapter to be a completely alienating experience. While I appreciate that the rules of storytelling are there to be broken, those first 27 pages were supposed to be crucial for drawing readers into the world, setting up the protagonists and antagonists, foreshadowing the conflicts to come and giving us the motivation we need to follow the journey ahead. Kuzimu's opening chapter did none of those things - and that’s the greatest flaw in the entire graphic novel, because even though the book vastly improves from the second chapter onwards I honestly didn’t want to continue beyond the first; if it weren't for the fact that I am reviewing it I would have put the Kuzimu away at that point and written it off entirely. As opening chapters go, that's a truly catastrophic outcome and it betrays the far superior work that comes later on.

There are several parallel plotlines that run through this graphic novel. The primary plot follows Pt’eros as he travels through the limbo world of Kuzimu, encountering and being pursued by various demonic forces he can’t understand; the secondary plot involves human scientists led by Professor J. Knightsbridge who are attempting to break into Kuzimu (although I’m still not entirely sure why); another follows religious fundamentalist spirits who seek to destroy or convert the “heretic” Pt’eros; there's a poor struggling mother in New Orleans; and of them all my favourite character arc follows Jose Zempa, a skeletal mercenary of the underworld, as he spies on Pt’eros. To his credit, Uren has given each character their own distinct voice and as the various threads draw together towards the end of the story the interplay between them provides the dramatic tension that was sorely lacking earlier in the story.

There are far more positive reviews on the web than this one, and if I hadn’t read Kuzimu through in three separate sittings I would probably have assumed that I was simply too tired or too lazy to understand some of what was going on. I applaud Uren’s attempt to achieve something that’s so very different to most comics, and I think his desire to tell the story on his own terms is commendable, butKuzimu is far too esoteric for me. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there’s some secret code or hidden perspective which could unlock the meanings that Uren is undoubtedly trying to convey, yet I can only judge the book on the information I took from its pages. Even towards the end, when the pace of the story picked up and became more obviously dramatic (and enjoyable), the text was often almost impenetrable and seemed to mistake elaboration for genuine complexity.

Despite all of the critical things I’ve said here about Uren’s script, his artistic ability is beyond question. He has a remarkable capacity for dreaming up some truly horrifying monsters and these twisted, grotesque spirit-beings make for some uncomfortable viewing. Similarly the world that Uren has constructed in the pages of Kuzimu is incredibly well designed. Pt’eros moves through a hellishly beautiful environment that’s desolate, cold and imposing. The generally sombre palette is broken up by flashes of rich, vibrant color (often from the demonic monsters) that contrast strongly against heavy inks. Some of Uren’s splash pages are spectacular (particularly in the third and fourth chapters) and I think it’s fair to say that his style noticeably improves as the book progresses. Uren also has a gift for designing layouts which in combination with his vibrant high-contrast style and grotesque figures makes for some stunning pages. Unfortunately for Kuzimu, Uren's incredible artwork can’t carry the story on its own.

I hate giving negative reviews, I really do, but in the case of Kuzimu I see problems that are too significant to gloss over. Uren’s nightmarish illustrations are genuinely impressive and are the standout feature of this book but - however effective the artwork is - I sadly can’t recommend to everyone a graphic novel that is seemingly uninterested in whether or not it can be understood. Too much of the book reads like bad poetry and there are far too many times when Uren’s writing should have been omitted to allow his art to speak for itself. It’s clear that Uren is an extremely talented artist (one who is perfectly suited to making sci-fi and horror stories) and I will be on the lookout for any future work Uren produces. I would be very surprised if Uren didn’t go on to have greater success in the comics medium but - in this reviewer’s opinion - the Kuzimu script does not always make the best possible use of his abilities. My subjective assessment aside, if you enjoy disturbingly monstrous comic art that practically stares back into your skull when you look at it, and don’t mind wading through the treacle of the first few chapters, you’ll surely get a kick out of Kuzimu.

To some it will seem as though given Kuzimu a pretty harsh score but I feel that it’s a fair reflection of the exasperation I felt at times while reading it. I’m no philistine - I understand what that much of the first half of this graphic novel is trying to do, I appreciate that it’s supposed to progress at a meditative pace and I am well practiced in decoding poetic verse - I simply don’t think that its reflections on the afterlife succeeds until real conflict is introduced in the later stages of the book. I’d love to read comments from anyone who found the writing to be as compelling as I did the art (and I'm willing to admit I might have missed out on some crucial aspect of the book which could invalidate everything I've said here) but just as Uren has produced his comic on his own terms, I have got to review it on mine.

Score: 2/5

Writer/Artist/Creator: Brett Uren Publisher: 215 Ink Price: $15.99