Written by Loo Hui Phang Art by Frederik Peeters
The Smell of Starving Boys is a clever inversion of the cowboy genre. Most of us are familiar with tales of rugged men imprinting their will on the untamed frontier. These stories are so iconic and so divorced from reality that over time, they’ve attained the sheen of mythology. And like many myths, their central characters bear little resemblance to real people.
Unlike the classic Western, The Smell of Starving Boys gives us three characters who are both flawed and relatable. Over the course of the story, the reader is introduced to Oscar, a closeted photographer, an angelic farmhand named Milton and a swaggering colonist known only as Mr Stingley. The central theme of the graphic novel is rationality versus a connection with the natural world so deep that it could pass for shamanism. As the narrative progresses, the character are forced to choose a side. Over and over again, it’s suggested that the rational self cannot co-exist with belief in a higher power, in this case, embodied by nature.
But Phang refrains from casting explicit judgement on the characters’ choices. Unlike many writers, she doesn’t use the cast as mouth pieces. Instead, defining character moments are shown through action rather exposition. In one telling scene, Mr Stingley urinates over the unspoiled land, marking what he perceives as his territory. In comparison to many mainstream comics, the dialogue is tense and sparely used, only occasionally punctuated by poetic monologues. Phang trusts the reader enough to let us follow the undertones and hidden tensions without a map.
Peeters’ artwork is richly colored, lush with detail, its intricacy perfectly balancing the lean narrative. Combining delicate line work with an earthy palette, he manages to summon up a fantastical version of the West, a place that could only exist in the imagination. This allows scenes to shift between plausible and surreal as events come to a head. The climax proves both shocking and cathartic.
The graphic novel opens and closes with an inverted image, a landscape seen through a camera lens. The West through which Oscar and Milton move exists as both a mundane and spiritual dimension, just as this time period is preserved in our collective consciousness as both history and myth.