I’ve seen Steven Ingram’s Left series several times at comics fairs, but as there were multiple volumes to catch up I usually ended up buying some of his other comics from his stall. Now with a handsome paperback volume collecting the series I figured it was time for me to pick it up. Sam Scott is a young woman living in Edinburgh with her friend, Kat. Sam has been, a little nervously, carving a life out for herself, not uncommon for a young person after moving to the city, of course, except Sam has had to adapt to making her own way in the city after an unusual upbringing in a strange cultish group called the Community, and she’s always been looking over her shoulder, fearful that she hasn’t entirely left that life behind.
Now it seems she may be right to be so wary: an odd man seems to be following her. Or is it just her imagination and paranoia ? But a letter from the Community finds her in her new life and home; not only have they found her address, the letter was hand-delivered, no postage stamp or mark, meaning someone from the Community has physically come to her home. Her old fears rush back, and Kat attempts to calm and support her friend, finally deciding that the pair of them will sneak out the flat when they are sure no-one is watching, and head down to London for a few days, without telling anyone, but when Sam finds Kat phoning her mum to let her know where they have gone her paranoia and fear gets the better of her, she feels betrayed by the one person she can rely on, and runs off like many a lost soul before her into the teeming crowds of London.
Left is a fascinating and beautifully emotional tale about families, both the actual relatives and the extended families we build around ourselves (or in some case have built around us). The Community, tucked away in rural Scotland, is not the usual religious whackadoodle cult that you might expect, and I think it is to Steven’s credit that a group that so easily could be a two dimensional set of nasty characters actually develop until, although we may not agree with them or their methods, we understand why they live as they do, and why their leader, Oliver, is looking for Sam. This experimental Community also explains why Sam has some of the characteristics she has, from the carefully cultivated rules there when she was a child.
Rules she started to question as she grew, those questions about their way of raising people (logically, rationally, at least to them, to us it just seems bizarre, perhaps), and that questioning nature is driven by her artistic talent. There’s a rather lovely strand to this tale which deals with how artistic self expression can free us from shackles we didn’t even know we had, enhance our view of the world, understand ourselves and others better, as well as the simple joy of creation (a moment where Sam abandons her rigid grid layout plan for some street art with a very nice young artist she met in London, and instead asks him to just freeform the art with her is a pleasure to look at, it’s a woman coming out of her shell because of her own abilities and realising that power). But there is emotion even on the shadowy cult-like Community too – they are people too, and she was one of them all through childhood, and there is still a connection there, one that she and they have to deal with.
Left could very easily have been a one-sided diatribe against over-controlling groups or families, the effect they have on their kids, the struggle to escape from them, to establish their own sense of self, a difficult enough task when you first leave home and strike out on your own, far worse if you have been brought up in such a closed group. Instead Steven gives a much more nuanced and balanced approach, not simply vilifying the Community, but exploring their side, their humanity and thoughts and emotions and needs, as well as Sam’s, and in doing so he also fleshes out Sam further, because, like it or not, that was a huge part of her life and has shaped her. It’s also a story of friendships, of the power of artistic expression, told in a measured, almost gentle manner.
The black and white art works nicely, with some simple but powerful tools deployed, but sparingly so as not to be overused – a couple of panels in London have Sam and Kat in white, but the mass of the city’s crowd around them all in gray, that anonymous, vast city herd that is so easy to lose yourself in (but finding yourself takes far more), and Steven is confident enough to have several sequences which are almost wordless, allowing his panels and art to carry the reader along. It’s a lovely, warm and engaging story; while most of us didn’t grow up in some strange experimental cult, I think most readers will still engage with Sam, because those problems of trying to find your way on your own as you grow up are ones we’ve all faced.
You can buy a copy of the collected edition of Left from Steven’s Etsy store.