By Zack Quaintance — The Cloven: Book One has a great first line, a great first page, and a great first opening sequence…and this work just evolves from there, keeping the level of graphic sequential storytelling quality high throughout. It is, perhaps, fitting that the book reads as rapidly and smoothly as it does, given the nature of the subject matter. On its surface, The Cloven: Book One — out July 28 via Fantagraphics from writer Garth Stein and artist Matthew Southworth — is the story of a new type of humanity, in which individuals essentially have goat-like traits (furry hind legs, hooves, hard heads) and are being ostracized by the wider world in turn.
When they do come together in a group, these people (the titular Cloven) stampede through forests, streets, and society writ large, doing so amid dazzling bursts of high-intensity colors, and, really, that’s how the book reads as a whole. It’s a tense and disorienting (by intent) page-turner of a story, one that expertly spans lanes between more literary comics and the action-heavy monthly fair.
Make no mistake, however, the lightly-political escapism that marks most direct market monthly comics is not at all what this book is about. While the pacing and set pieces may be evocative of the style, the thematic interests are varied and mature. The first quarter of the book blurs through a rapid tour of 2020 America (not literally), touching on values that protect babies before they’re born but not after, the ubiquitousness of guns, self interest winning over morality, fearing the other but liking them when you meet, homelessness, government inattention, and on the list goes.
What this book also does well is deploy poignant metaphors within that thematic framework. Our protagonist, for example, is an unwanted and marginalized child who survives and thrives when he’s held tightly and given love. With The Cloven standing in for underserved populations, it’s easy to see the power behind the notion, which is not at all heavy handed, subtly being another consistent strength of this graphic novel.
In addition to that intellectual complexity, the visuals work really well on their own merits. The Cloven: Book One uses coloring in ways that feel deliberate and interesting, almost unprecedentedly so. Artist Matthew Southworth captures the tone of the scenes he depicts with shades that are unexpected and original. I have, for example, never before seen the aftermath of violence depicted with a soft backdrop of spring-time blues and yellows. Nor have I seen neon pink and purple conveying animalistic eruptions of freedom and instinct. The best visual work, however, comes in a sequence at the end, which I won’t spoil because this book easily scores my hearty endorsement.
Put simply, you should pre-order The Cloven: Book One today, before it ends up on all of the best comics of the year lists come December.