Review by Ian Keogh
Iris is fourteen when her mother becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, leading to even greater emotional conflicts than she’d be experiencing anyway at that age. Three years later she’s being encouraged to consider the future, while conflictingly her mother’s telling her there’s no point as the New Kingdom is imminent. When the inevitable fracture arrives it’s bitter, but at least Iris isn’t disowned by her mother like some church friends have been, and her stepfather remains supportive, on that matter at least.
(Sacha) Mardou is astutely observational, and Sky in Stereo is packed with small insights that coalesce into a complete person, most obviously in Iris’ case, but also with minor characters. An unpleasant store manager only appears for a single conversation over a dozen panels, yet her entire personality transmits, and it’s possible to extrapolate what the remainder of her life is like. This insight applies to many others. Scenes of teenagers working in fast food joints are generally used as shorthand for a dead end, but Mardou notes the tasks and surroundings in detail, opening a new world, and the intricacies of that working life continue as Mardou uses it for a natural progression in Iris’ life.
Although at first glance the simplicity of the art seems nearer the functional end of the quality scale, it’s actually equally nuanced, with a humane and sympathetic quality because Mardou is as good at characterising people through their expressions as she is with words. However, it’s not just the people. Mardou’s skill at evoking the environment of 1990s suburban Manchester supplies an understanding of how lost Iris becomes, the ludicrous locations heightening her experience.
Everything combines to make Sky in Stereo a compelling story that it’s rarely possible to predict, as it’s atmospheric, but the tone keeps changing. It seems to be heading into romance territory, and then swerves elsewhere, but never randomly. Given her conflicted existence and circle of friends, a more signposted turn is Iris experimenting with drugs, and the nonsense of an acid trip that seems so meaningful at the time is extensively and compellingly explored. The associations sparked by trivial sights occupy the entire final chapter, including the sample art, and it’s some compelling storytelling. Everything is centred on Iris and what she experiences, and the way it’s written transmits both her wonder and the feeling of despair at what she’s going through. It’s masterfully handled.
For someone producing their first graphic novel both the sensitivity and storytelling are first rate. We don’t fully realise how lost Iris has become until the final chapter, yet Mardou has been foreshadowing her circumstances all along. A resolution of sorts ends this volume, and sets up Volume 2.