The Little Black Fish graphic novella
Writer: Samad Behrangi
Artist/Adaptation: Bizhan Khodabandeh
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Price: $7.95 US
I acknowledge there’s been a strong focus on DC and Marvel properties in my various posts as of late, and I’ve been meaning to bring more diversity to the subject matter here on Eye on Comics. One of the benefits of having written comics reviews for so long is that little-known, independent and unusual projects pop up in my inbox. I don’t have the time to even scratch the surface of those seemingly endless submissions, but I try to take a look at some here and there. There was something about the email promoting Little Black Fish that caught my eye — the title of the graphic novella in question, to be honest.
This comics project — an inaugural effort by writer/artist Bizhan Khodabandeh — proved to be an education for me. I’d never heard tell of the 20th century fable of the little black fish, penned by an Iranian educator decades ago. The strong message in the parable is a universal one, transcending time, culture and geography. One could argue it could be too ham-fisted and too familiar, but there was something about Khodabandeh’s presentation that kept drawing me further and further into the late Samad Behrangi’s tale. Truth be told, as I made my way through the first few pages of this book, I initially found Khodabandeh’s style to be a little crude, but as I followed the title character along his journey and quest for knowledge, the art won me over. The Little Black Fish isn’t at all like other comics storytelling being produced today, and that alone should merit it a wider audience upon its release in March.
Fed up with swimming in the same circles in the part of a stream in which she was hatched, a little black fish announces she is striking out to see where the stream ends and to see what wonders the world has to offer, in defiance of her community’s beliefs and rules. She quickly learns there are amazing sights and friendly creatures beyond her small corner of the stream, but she also discovers there are dangers. Armed only with her bravery, cunning and a dagger fashioned from a lizard’s horn (yes, a dagger), the little black fish makes a mark on the natural world that will live on long after she’s gone.
As I began to read this graphic novella, Khodabandeh’s artwork initially reminded me — just a little, mind you — of the work of Brandon (King City) Graham. Now, Khodabandeh’s style doesn’t boast the same organic curves or minute detail that Graham’s does, but it was so unusual and boasted such a weird vibe, that’s where my mind went… at first. Upon a second look at the cover, though, I realize that impression might have been fostered by the cover logo, which definitely boasts a Graham riff. In any case, the more pages I perused, the more I saw Khodabandeh’s art as something else, something one doesn’t find in comics at that often. Each panel began to strike me as a meticulously crafted mosaic, with crude, sometimes jagged shapes converging to form iconic images that boasted a mythic tone (just as the story does).
Khodabandeh does well with the production values here. I found the lettering to be crisp and clear, and the artist’s decision to distinguish the dialogue balloons of each character with distinct colors was a wise move as well. Generally, his page layouts are inventive, though occasionally the sense of flow from panel to panel stumbles a bit, but it’s a rare misstep in an otherwise well-crafted project.
Until one reaches a scene featuring an armed game hunter, I would have had no trouble accepting this was an adaptation of an ancient story, a parable mined from antiquity. The original writer, Samad Behrangi, fashioned a deceptively classic yarn with philosophical, social and personal dynamics that challenge the reader while also connecting with him/her. I was so impressed with this book that I kept going through the supplementary pages after the story ended, and I discovered that in adapting Behrangi’s work, Khodabandeh made a couple of changes. Based on his explanations in his afterword, I think Khodabandeh made some wise choices. He left out a moment in 1960s history that he felt might have distracted from the focus on nature, and I agree it might have. However, more importantly, he disconnected the story from a moment in the not-too-distant past that might have anchored it too much to a specific time, making for a more universal, classic quality.
The naturalistic qualities of the story, settings and characters lead me to believe The Little Black Fish might appeal to comics enthusiasts who enjoy David Peterson’s various Mouse Guard comics. This book boasts some similarities, not the least of which is the tone of the dialogue and the anthropomorphic intelligence imbued in the animal characters. Mind you, this is also a much different beast (pardon the pun) than Mouse Guard at the same time, but that audience’s willingness to look beyond the bombast of more “mainstream” comics material could mean it would be open to and appreciative of Khodabandeh’s work here.
Ultimately, what makes The Little Black Fish such an engaging story — likely in any medium — is the fact that it’s about curiosity, nonconformity and bravery. If the reader can’t recognize himself or herself in the little black fish, then s/he can certainly see qualities to covet and admire. The piscine heroine’s odyssey is entertaining and enlightening, and when trying to think of something else to which I could compare it, my thoughts drifted to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” at least in terms of its initial message about casting aside society’s expectations and conventions for an effort to be true to oneself. 8/10
The Little Black Fish is scheduled for release March 15. More information on this graphic novel is available on the publisher’s website, and for more on Bizhan Khodabandeh’s comics work, you can visit his website.
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