Austin English is truly a singular cartoonist. While he favors a dense, immersive style that doesn't use negative space in the panels themselves, his style of drawing and his use of color forces the reader to reconsider the rulebook regarding gesture, character design and the ways in which bodies interact in space. To describe his drawings as crude misses the point entirely, because his work isn't a failed attempt at drawing something "normal" or a compensating by overdrawing with a lot of lines for a drawing that didn't look right. Instead, we're seeing shapes and forms entirely from the artist's imagination, and the effect evokes an emotional reaction on page after page, even if the source of that emotion can't be adequately explained. In that respect, English has more in common with painters like Pablo Picasso (warped figures depicting simultaneity of motion and emotions laid bare) or Mark Rothko (with a calculated desire to make color fields evoke certain emotional reactions) than any cartoonist I can think of, with the possible exception of Gary Panter. While Panter's ability as a draftsman is more traditionally refined than English's approach, Panter also clearly approaches his work uninterested in conventional rules and draws to please himself above all else.
The irony of his new collection, Gulag Casual, is that it was clearly pleasurable to draw and mold for English, while at the same time so many of the stories are about being made to feel uncomfortable, even in spaces one once thought were safe. English's comics make the familiar seem strange, the friendly seem threatening and upset notions of stability and sometimes even consensus reality. It's very much a series of stories set in a city, with all of the anxiety that living in a city can bring. Throughout the book, there are unwelcome door-crashers and intruders, people listening in on private conversations and then judging others for the content of their speech, and the particularly unpredictable threat of people who have clearly lost their minds. English taps into the kind of paranoia that someone on drugs might feel, that things are not only no longer safe and familiar, but that the world is starting to actively cave in on you or conspire against you. Everything looks and feels strange as a result.
Consider "A New York Story". This is English's most recent story and the most beautifully drawn, even if the images are warped and odd. Indeed, the image of one character bent over on the sidewalk as he recovers from a verbal thrashing is both funny and disquieting. The story follows someone talking about a person named Melo and then being confronted about what he said by a pair of perfect strangers on the street. That kind of public confrontation in a tight city space is hellish to think about, which is why English zeroes in on that feeling and magnifies it.
"The Disgusting Room", on the other hand, sees English burst free from all restraints as an artist, using paint, fabric, marker, pencil and construction paper to create a narrative of sorts about an expanding series of relationships. This is all about disturbing equilibrium as well as the concept of alienation in tight spaces. The main character seeks to be "good" as she takes on more and more responsibility, only to snap and abandon all of her responsibilities and relationships. It's also a story about mental illness (a running through-line in the book) and its "othering" qualities, both for those who are ill as well as those who are their caretakers.
"My Friend Perry" is all about violations of personal and emotional space as well as the ways in which intimate bonds can be shattered. In it, the main character seeks comfort from his strange and lazy best friend, only to learn that his sister (whom he lives with) has been traumatized by someone breaking into their apartment. This story has English's most expressive figurework, even if his figures resemble lumps and blobs. Despite that visual approach, English draws out fear, anger, affection, paranoia and dread through the ways his figures interact in space as well as his idiosyncratic use of color. "Here I Am" takes that idea of home invasion a step further, as a stranger initially welcomed by a family becomes deranged and threatening, even as English implies that the stranger is imaginary, a metaphor for guilt. Finally, "Freddy's Dead" takes all of that paranoia and strangeness and ratchets them up, as a pair of friends are separated and both wind up hanging around dangerous, unpleasant people they're not sure how to ditch.
The last two stories were done in pencil and hinted, along with the first story, of English starting to slowly refine and gain better control over his style. While "The Disgusting Room" throws the entire visual kitchen sink at the reader with no respite, English starts to focus more on bulbous, warped facial features in his later stories, and there's a strong emotional resonance to them as a result. "A New York Story" also uses negative space in the form of white space around a panel or two on a page, which allowed the story to breathe and encouraged reader identification while still heightening tension. The awkwardness, tenderness, intimacy and tension of human interaction in cramped environments is what English does best, and his evolving approach is only heightening those tendencies.