Reviewed by Andy Fraser, Steve Welsh, Shura Price & Zoe Collins from Todmorden Wednesday Writers
Writer: Graham Cooling
Release date: 29th February 2020
Which direction is your potatropy? Personally, mine leans towards chips – fresh from the chippy, wrapped in paper, liberally salted, but no vinegar. I like a tangy taste but no soggy bitterness. And therein lies the issue. Potatropy, a graphic novel by Graham Cooling, is brilliantly illustrated, with a healthy dose of satire, but the storyline’s bite doesn’t quite match up to the promise of those unique, wonderful drawings. Or does it?
Potato Boy is a self-aware potato. Often, painfully self-aware. He’s struggling to find meaning in a world populated with other potatoes not so blessed (or cursed?) with the awareness that life could be so much more. The metaphor is clear-cut and the illustrations even more so. The quality and detail in the artwork, and the framing of each page, are of the highest order. The black and white sketched style is the perfect reflection for the greyscale world that pulls Potato Boy first one way and then another.
Let’s face it, the choice of a potato as a metaphor for our own existence is unique. Alongside the striking artistic style, this combination offers huge potential for the examination of the human condition. However, we found the narrative never achieved the movement suggested in the title. Potato Boy’s musings on his condition struggled to go beyond a superficial level. Maybe because he is the only character and we never get to hear any other viewpoint posited, but these musings become a little too self-absorbed and veer away from the pointed social criticism they set out to be.
Sure, Potato Boy is disaffected, doesn’t feel he belongs and is struggling to find some meaning to his life. All of this is well realised and we can all identify with such feelings but the narrative needs to go deeper if it’s to say something to us. There are also niggles in the text – spelling mistakes and awkward sentence construction – nothing major, but enough to distract us from the narrative.
And that’s the vinegar on the chips. We still get to taste the salt. The world Cooling has devised is foreboding, the satire scathing, Potato Boy himself is well drawn. He is believable as a headstrong young potato with ideas who finds the battle against the system too hard and the search for that subtle unknown, ever elusive. These aspects are sprinkled liberally over everything in this graphic novel and add real spice. But it’s the vinegar which makes the whole thing a little soggy and leaves us with a bitter taste.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe, by forcing us to eat the chips, vinegar and all, Potatropy is offering us a more subtle reflection upon ourselves. By being deliberately obtuse, by refusing to take prisoners and give us the resolution we were expecting, maybe Potato Boy is warning us to expect disappointment. Perhaps, it is intentional that there is no hidden narrative, no ultimate meaning and no pearl of wisdom to take from this. Potato Boy is, after all, just a potato.
So, is the message of Potatropy that I have to get used to having vinegar on my chips?
Graham Cooling is an artist living in Lincolnshire. Fosterer of multiple projects under the guise Yelling at Concrete, including standalone traditional and digital pieces, conceptual artwork, comics, zines and podcasts.
Potatropy was his first foray into anything written and published, and the title was self-published at the beginning of 2020. He was interested in exploring the structure of graphic novels and how they can be used, along with his visual work, whilst remaining abstract. The result was Potato Boy, a short comic originally published in the zine Null Point and which has grown into a bi-weekly comic. Potatropy is the tale of that origin.
Working in the surreal and dark and often looking in an obtuse manner at the impact systems we have around us, Potato Boy allows Graham to ask questions without expecting an answer as in the end, he’s just a potato.
Todmorden Wednesday Writers are a group of writers, performers and reviewers based in Todmorden, a little town on the balance-point between Leeds and Manchester. Find them @TodWedWriters