Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #94 by Drew Barth
A Quiet Island
Silence in a graphic novel is oppressive. We as readers must face the images directly. This directness is what we see throughout Stanley Donwood’s Bad Island. But his latest work is more than just a directness of images—it is a sweepingly haunting work of cyclical disasters and unspoken horror. Without a single word, Donwood is able to evoke a near constant feeling of unease and dread throughout with only 170 woodblock carved images.
Bad Island, for the most part, is a graphic novel about disasters on a single island in the middle of the ocean. We’re witness to the island giving birth to new life—large creatures with sharp teeth not unlike dinosaurs—before the island splits open with a great volcano and swallows them whole. But there are survivors. Smaller animals and people rebuild. Houses and kingdoms rise from the ground, large buildings and power plants follow before they’re bombed into ruins. But another cycle of rebuilding and survival brings them back from destitution before the final atomic disaster decimates whatever is left of the island. All of this story is presented as stark black and white images similar to the cover and without a single word besides the title.
These images are what make Bad Island such an evocative story. Each full-page image reads like a tarot card predicting disaster. And there is a disaster lurking somewhere on nearly every page. The shadow of humanity looms large across the images, hidden between trees and waves and clouds before it ensnares the island fully. Even if we don’t see an actual person on the page, we see the void humanity creates in just a silhouette and two little dots for eyes. But we see what that humanity does to the island—cuts down forests until nothing remains, builds until the animals disappear, harvests energy until the clouds blacken, and bombs until the island is just a skid mark across the ocean.
It isn’t until you see the whole of earth’s history in a microcosm throughout Donwood’s carved images that the effect of his wordless work hits. Bad Island reads like an enigmatic poem—its desolation recalling The Waste Land—with only the imagery to speak for its story. As readers, we flip through each page expecting revelations on this island and why it is continually meeting disaster. But we never get those answers outside of what we make ourselves. We only see the world revolting and humanity destroying and are left wondering where the island could go afterward.
In the end, Bad Island will occupy many shelves with many readers over the years digging further and further into its thick lines and negative spaces. As far as wordless works go, it is easily one of the strongest to fully embrace the visual nature of comics and create images that speak more than words could.
Get excited. Get silent.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.