Review by Frank Plowright
Even when taking into account how much the creative comic community has expanded in the 21st century Leslie Stein’s work stands alone as instantly recognisable. Her approach is unique, featuring borderless panels, with lettering bunched around the illustration, sometimes innovatively coloured, all on toned paper, but with a puzzling lack of facial features. The latter makes it all the more remarkable that her comics are so personal and expressive, as with the self-imposed limitation on facial communication so much more is dependent on the writing.
That’s very much apparent in this collection of short strips up to 2017, which so often concentrate on mood and feeling. There’s an attractive lyricism to them, but they’re also frequently slight and in the moment. Strangely, though, that isn’t the meaning of the title, explained as a reference to how Stein views art as a gift rather than a challenge, which is nice.
Perhaps the lack of faces is consistent with the concealment within the strips. Stein can be a coy autobiographical cartoonist, people she’s having conversations with anonymous, and matters dropped in passing that might make for more interesting strips than those they’re mentioned in. Alcohol problems, anaemia and a tendency to push people away within relationships are all noted and brushed away. That’s in the context of strips that often flit from subject to subject. ‘Accidents’ begins with a car crashing into a building next door to the bar Stein’s in, morphs into recollections about her clumsiness and ends with her noticing someone at the end of a bar and wondering why a pretty girl is sitting alone, before realising she’s looking at her reflection in a mirror. This is all very matter of fact and observational rather than narcissistic, but only the two pages about clumsiness have a theme.
The better strips maintain the reflective mood, but also convey more about Stein, and while it’s not a definitive separation, they’re primarily gathered in the second half of Present. These are more focused, run with a theme or two and many concern Stein working at a bar. She notes ‘Mom Guilt’ as a strip receiving a lot of comments, and it’s a gentle charmer, with Stein mentioning the difficulties in visiting her mother generating comments around the bar. Although rarely actually shown, family members are on Stein’s mind a fair bit, although the complications are often hinted at rather than mentioned outright.
Final strip ‘Perfect Day’ is a perfect closer, almost a love letter to New York and the opportunities available in a major city where so much is on offer. Not everything hits the mark in the same way, some inclusions are personal, referencing rather than revealing, and don’t transmit as well, but the hit rate increases throughout and the joy of observational reflection is exposure to different thoughts about everyday experiences.