Review by Hailey Austin
Jen Lee’s Garbage Night follows an abandoned dog named Simon and his friends Cliff, a raccoon, and Reynard, a one-antlered deer, as they search for food in a deserted, post-apocalyptic town. The trio meets a travelling dog, Barnaby, who encourages them to look for food in another town. Emotions run high as the group faces starvation and being hunted by various predators in the woods.
Garbage Night has a dynamic, emotional storyline that pulls up themes of abandonment and perseverance. The character design is a nice touch, as animals wearing hipster clothing lulls the reader into assuming this is a children’s book, but while appropriate for children, it explores universal themes that both humans and animals face. Lee’s written and visual humour comes through her characterisation of the anthropomorphic animals that remain animal. Reynard is a skittish deer who stops and listens every three steps. Cliff the raccoon loves garbage. The coyotes are bad guys with cigarettes and ripped ears. The coyotes also seem to be inspired by the Big Bad Wolf from the Three Little Pigs cartoon, adding depth to her art and story. Including these kinds of elements injects humour into the otherwise sad tale. The dogs recall their past owners and question whether or not they will come back for them.
The greatest aspect of Garbage Night, however, is the beautiful backgrounds and colours. Lee is clearly a master of gradient backgrounds and mood colouring. Her sunsets are second to none, with beautiful purples and oranges that so clearly foil the story’s abandoned, black cityscape. She uses stunning red backgrounds when the group is in danger and is not afraid of black or white empty spaces. Each page has beautifully rendered colours that either play into the post-apocalyptic setting or enhance the mood of the work. This is accompanied by the phenomenal panel work. The pages never follow a grid and include wide gutters that let them breathe. Lee includes circular panels, borderless panels, and dynamic speech bubbles that break through the panel borders and draw the reader’s eyes across the colourful pages.
Garbage Night is the second book in Lee’s Vacancy series. This volume, however, includes the first comic Vacancy at the end of the book. While a welcome addition, it is confusing to have the first story after the second, especially when it was not clear that Garbage Night was a sequel or part of a series.
Overall, Garbage Night has a playful design, great characterisation, and stunning colour work. The cute characters traverse through difficult scenarios, asking big questions along the way. It’s a surprisingly deep, sweet read.