undertow by ellen lindner
Congratulations to ellenlindner …it’s finished! I’ve been waiting with great anticipation for the completion of this book, ever since she presented some of its early artwork to our MA Illustration class at Camberwell art college. I read it in snippets, and Ellen even hired me to do some tonal work for a few sample pages, which gave me the confidence to colour my own first few comics digitally. I owe this novel and Ellen a huge debt of gratitude; I remember (with burning cheeks) talking with Ellen about comics early on in our course, wrinkling my nose and naively asking, ‘but aren’t almost all comics for adults just full of guns and tanks and boobs?’ Several things quickly helped change my opinion, but by watching Ellen work on Undertow, I came to admire the way her comics brought both flair and subtlety to a sophisticated and sensitive story.
Set in Coney Island in the 1960s, we follow a fiercely independent and street-smart teenager named Rhonda, whose mother rarely surfaces from alcoholic stupours, a brother with a police record and friends burdened by drugs and poverty. When Rhonda’s friend disappears while swimming in the sea, Rhonda alternates between her hard-as-nails act, despair, and whimsical moments where she take pleasure in small things like learning to dance. Rhonda wants more from life than what she finds in Brooklyn, but she’s not sure she wants to accept help from a Harvard boy, an earnest uptown social worker named Chuck who sometimes seems well-intentioned, sometimes seems to take a creepy interest in her, and who has no clue about the people around her.
I’m intrigued by the character of Edie Abrams, a socialite photographer friend of Chuck’s who insists he take her slumming with him so she can document scenes from the teenagers’ lives. This photography theme resurfaces when we discover Rhonda has photographic memory. Ellen also created a shorter comic for The Whores of Mensa magazine about another photographer from history, Lee Miller, and takes inspiration from the old photos she uncovers in her research. I’ll be interested to see how she continues to tackle the interlinking relationship between photography and her comics medium.