By Oliver Gerlach
Hannah K. Lee’s Language Barrier is a collection that self-identifies as “zines, comics, and other fragments” on the cover. That’s an important piece of categorisation, as is the Koyama Press website’s description of it as “[an] art book”. This isn’t really a comic, and shouldn’t be treated like one. It’s a giant zine or a surreal art project or something like that. Yes, there are comics in it, but I wouldn’t call it a comic in itself. Whatever it is, though, it’s profoundly weird and unsettling, and doesn’t sit comfortably in any major category.
Lee is a letterer and designer as well as an illustrator, and that really shows. The visual design of this book as a whole is very eye-catchingly weird, and really stands out. It’s a beautifully put together collection that will read far better in physical form than it does digitally. The interior, however, is a little less structurally coherent; Language Barrier seems, as far as I can tell, to collect four separate earlier collections. The contents page lists four units, each from a different year, but those four are not individual stories. I’m not entirely sure what the rationale behind assembling it like this was, and I’m not completely convinced that it’s the best way to do something like this, but it all kind of works in its own weird way.
I would have expected a collection of comics ranging from 2012 to 2017 to showcase the artist’s development in some way, but all of the content here is so strange that there isn’t really any visible difference between Lee’s earlier and later work. All of her art is delightful; it’s simple and surreal, with a beautifully limited pastel colour palette. Every page of this book is a beautiful piece of art in its own right, and several of the individual pages feel distinctly reminiscent of some of Leonard Cohen’s later art. There’s a lot of powerful and unsettling imagery here, and the overwhelming feeling is one of loneliness and discomfort. The few sequential stories in here are all surreal and disconcerting in some way, and there’s nothing comforting to be found anywhere in the book.
All of the art on display in Language Barrier is very good, and Lee has a fascinating perspective on life, but this really isn’t something with mass appeal. It’s a good art book, albeit one I’m not sure I’d particularly want to revisit, but it’s not a comic. This is an artistic endeavour, and feels a little self-indulgent, but it’s not really a commercial venture. I think I like it quite a lot, and the sense of solitude and discomfort within the book is palpable. Just be warned that it is very, very strange, and will probably leave you somewhat unsettled.
Writer/Artist: Hannah K. Lee
Publisher: Koyama Press