USEREVIEW 100: Five from ‘CONUNDRUM 25’

Mark Laliberte/ November 2, 2022/ Book Review

Happy anniversary to us, it’s our 100th review!

In this sweeping traditional review of five books, reviewer Mark Laliberte takes on a handful of early samples from Conundrum Press’ Conundrum 25, a series of graphic short stories, each presented as a small volume of its own, in honour of the publisher’s 25th anniversary.

Joe Ollmann
Day Old (2021) — #1 in the Conundrum 25 Series
ISBN 978-177262-058-0 | 107 pp, 4.25 x 6.25 in | $10 CAD

Patrick Allaby
The Water Lover (2021) — #2 in the Conundrum 25 Series
ISBN 978-177262-059-7 | 116 pp, 4.25 x 6.25 in | $10 CAD

The Man Who Walked Through Walls (2022) — #4 in the Conundrum 25 Series
ISBN 978-177262-065-8 | 60 pp, 4.25 x 6.25 in | $10 CAD

Kim Edgar
Sasha Strong (2022) — #8 in the Conundrum 25 Series
ISBN 978-177262-074-0 | 120 pp, 4.25 x 6.25 in | $10 CAD

Elisabeth Belliveau
Condolady (2022) — #10 in the Conundrum 25 Series
ISBN 978-177262-076-4 | 112 pp, 4.25 x 6.25 in | $10 CAD

Released by Conundrum Press — BUY Here


This is a partial series review of CONUNDRUM 25, an ambitious collection of 25 pocket books Conundrum Press began releasing in May 2021, continuing over a five-year period (so I guess they’ll trickle out at about five volumes a year), what they refer to as “a celebratory compendium of collectable work.”

Each of these attractive perfect-bound pocket books presents a short, self-contained comic by one of Conundrum’s many talented creators: 25 individually authored titles, smartly designed and uniformly formatted — with an eye aimed at the eventual foot-long sweet spot this overall collection will occupy on a completist’s bookshelf. Every cover in the series has both a number and title on its spine, and is designed using a different Pantone colour (which, to the delight of detail geeks everywhere, is numerically indicated on the corresponding colophon); the interiors are economically printed in black & white.

Of course, the casual reader can dabble with these releases independently as they see fit: the series offers a great way to sample short works from a cross-section of creative talents on the press’ roster. Over the last little while, we’ve received five review copies here at USEREVIEW HQ, which I’ll briefly discuss below …

Hamilton’s Joe Ollmann opens the CONUNDRUM 25 series with Day Old (specified as Pantone 032) — a sharp little tale about an overextended mother who takes her brood of children to a bagel shop situated across the street from a hospital she’s currently spending time at while she waits for a specialist to show up and assess her sick child. At the shop, a micro-drama featuring a host of well fleshed-out characters spins quickly, telling its humanizing tale. Day Old is a rich example of Ollmann’s gift for short-form storytelling; it is both humorous and sad, a wonderful lead story that sets a high bar for the series.

The Water Lover by Patrick Allaby is equally impressive. It’s a fictional slice-of-life comic loosely based on the author’s own experience of being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — one that has lived many previous lives as a slideshow / performed work, a way of workshopping the text over time that’s obviously paid off. This semi-autobiographical portrait of a student struggling with life at many levels (with completing a thesis; with recognizing and responding to the symptoms of a sudden health complication; with the self-isolating, self-aggrandizing intricacies of music fandom) offers a complex view of a person who is learning what to prioritize as his life continually shifts. Importantly, it accomplishes this by presenting artwork & text that is well weighted on the page, in a manner that feels just right for this pocket format.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Obom (aka cartoonist Diane Obomsawin) is a graphic adaptation of Le passe-muraille (1941), a magical realist short story by Marcel Aymé. It’s a fun read that definitely finds its own way to interpret Aymé’s iconic tale, employing artwork that is flat, angular and open. Clocking in at just 60 brief pages / panels, it’s unfortunately over before you know it, and feels like a bit of a surface skim of a rich narrative; I definitely wish it went longer and deeper into the meat of adaptation.

Sasha Strong by Dawson City’s Kim Edgar is a comic about a champion athlete who is suddenly plagued with a mysterious illness and struggles to remain both active and social in the face of her waning vitality. Like Sasha in the narrative does on the final page of the story, for me this book kind of falls on its face: neither the art nor the storytelling are particularly strong here … it’s better described as slight. I mean, chronic illness is a subject that can and should be approached with a bit of humour once in a while, but it’s a balancing act, and the artist never actually explores their character’s central dilemma with the depth it deserves. Still, I’ve seen other works by Edgar, mostly in colour, that seem to have a complexity and visual richness that this work lacks — perhaps an assumption about the modesty of the format’s canvas got the better of them?

Elisabeth Belliveau’s Condolady offers up a kind of self-portrait of its author living out her life during the pandemic. This is revealed in four chaptered, stream-of-consciousness sequences, each presented as a series of tonally rich, diaristic watercolour sketches. Sentence fragments and topical lists enliven the images, revealing to the reader, in a disjointed way, everything that preoccupies Belliveau over a two-year period — interweaving a wealth of information to ponder: what she’s been watching or reading, the dreariness of academia during the great online pivot, her fascination with her local West Edmonton Mall and, importantly, a flood of challenges associated with an unexpected, geriatric pregnancy. Condolady is a multilayered, self-reflexive study that succeeds because it knows exactly what it wants to be.

Looking at these five books together, I couldn’t help noting that, generally speaking, the graphic shorts created for CONUNDRUM 25 are all structured in a similar manner: their narratives are uniformly paced — a single large panel per page, with no variation from beginning to end. It’s a logical approach given the format’s miniaturized canvas (and in several of these narratives, it’s clearly the right choice); but still, it does somewhat present a barrier that delimits the kind of visual storytelling being attempted. Most comics creators are aware of the power of page layout — its ability to affect rhythm and excite the reading — but here that’s mostly being set aside. With so many books in the series still to come, I have to wonder how many of the forthcoming artists will strive to find creative ways to break the format open a bit, to tickle the constraint of a small page … my hope is that several in the Conundrum roster will rise up to the challenge!

Other C25 books currently available include: Spells by Graeme Shortens Adams, We Were Younger Once by Kiona Callihoo Ligtvoet, Next Time Around by Billy Mavreas, Petrozavodsk by Alison McCreesh and Maladies by the late, great Henriette Valium … with 15 new titles still to come over the next couple of years! Stay tuned.

MARK LALIBERTE’s pageworks, comics & poems have appeared in countless publications, including Ink Brick, Poetry, prairie fire and Vallum. His publications include BrickBrickBrick (Book*Hug), asemanticasymmetry (Anstruther Press), Explosive Comic (Swimmers Group) and A Trip to the ZZOO (Collusion Books). He is the editor of CAROUSEL, and a member of the collaborative writing entity, MA|DE. More: here
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