Review by Ian Keogh
Penguins is a puzzling collection. At well over 250 pages of wordless cartoons it’s a massive undertaking, yet says everything it needs to say in the first dozen, with the remainder just variations on a theme, most predominantly a fatalistic despair. Will the penguin introduced at the start of any strip still possess a life at the end? Most likely not.
To begin with at least, Nick Thorburn’s tidy cartooning disguises the repetition to a degree. Any individual strip concerns a person resembling a penguin drawn in black and white without an expression, but looking simple, neat and engaging. When Thorburn moves into other areas of illustration, it’s almost as if he’s deliberately displaying artistic talent beyond simplicity in case there were doubts, although that comes with some heavy nods to Robert Crumb and Johnny Ryan.
Part of the reason for the large page count is Thorburn’s storytelling methods. Despite the contrary evidence of a densely packed cover, he includes just a few illustrations per page. Four pages are allocated to a simple story of ducks in the rain because Thorburn uses three illustrations running down the centre of each page. The novelty is just the story being read vertically, which is one of many ways Thorburn experiments with form, characters climbing out of panels and hanging off the borders. Surrealism and absurdism feature, but to note it makes Penguins sound more interesting than it actually is because Thorburn is unable to refine his bleak statements to their essence. He’ll sometimes hit on a theme and hammer it to death by running several consecutive variations, and consistently provides pages that may make a good t-shirt design, but say nothing. The addition of flat colour from the middle section makes little difference except these characters tend more to facial features.
Ultimately Penguins showcases a very good cartoonist without any sense of direction other than existentialist ennui. The nihilsm of everything turning to crap allows for a few initial smiles, but by the end, attuned to Thorburn’s mindset, it’s possible to predict his punchlines several panels before they arrive. That end can’t come soon enough.