Dakota McFadzean
Conundrum Press, 2020
204 pages
ISBN: 978-1-77262-049-8

Reviewed by Brendan Wanderer

Written and drawn by Dakota McFadzean between 2013 and 2020, To Know You’re Alive is a collection of graphic works printed in a combination of pink and black ink on white paper, allowing the medium to take on the characteristic look and feel of the ‘funny pages’ of a local newspaper. A splash of colour adds beautiful elegance to McFadzean’s simple art while delving into complex ideas with an often-chilling subtext. This unease invites the reader to question what they take for granted to be safe or familiar.

McFadzean’s work is not only unique in how it presents its subject matter, but it also pushes the boundaries of form. The book opens with “Gnoshlox,” a story about a child’s accidental creation of large sand creatures. It begins with a typical set of panels and the familiar white margin acting as a border, but when these creatures appear mid-story, McFadzean breaks the pattern with two overstated panels, allowing them to bleed into the corners for emphasis.

Similarly, in “Hollow in the Hollows,” he employs a full-page bleed behind the panel sequence to present an unsettling classroom filled with masked children and a hollowed-out tree with the head of a stag. The disruption of a familiar comic panel structure serves to build discomfort without fully stepping into the world of horror.

In “The Truck,” a boy experiences fear and guilt after unsolicited information causes him to intentionally smash a truck window. In “Debug Mode,” a Canadian computer programmer discovers parallels between the practice of finding and removing coding errors in video games and the absurd quest of a person who spends all day pushing – yes, pushing – a wall in a back alley.

Yet by far the most chilling of these is the final story, “To Know You’re Alive,” which concerns a stay-at-home dad and his experiences introducing screen-time to his two-year old son. The father’s narrative juxtaposes the safety of Mr. Rogers reruns with his pseudo-addiction to real-life videos of an unsettling and graphic nature.

In this story, McFadzean presents only one panel per page, shifting boldly between white and black backgrounds. By the story’s end, the once calm father finds himself reacting to his son’s tantrums in unbridled anger. Moments later, he slips out of the room to gain composure, only to be called back by his son’s screaming because the ‘safe’ episode of Mr. Rogers now contains an unknown figure moving about in the shadows of a darkened set.

What is so striking about this collection is how McFadzean’s subject matter—not ghastly or terrifying in a traditional sense—captures the imagination in ways that are more than a little unsettling. McFadzean has buttressed his bizarre images and descriptions with just enough explanation to be suggestive without drawing definitive conclusions. Readers connect the dots and will find the monster hiding under the bed.

McFadzean’s style works because he leans into the unknown and expertly blends “autobiography and supernatural horror” as described on the back cover by Alex Hoffman (Sequential State). Fear of the unknown doesn’t need to be crippling so long as it can be understood, but when viewed through the eyes of a child without these tools it is terrifying. 

McFadzean is an alumnus of The Center for Cartoon Studies. He has been featured in MAD Magazine and The New Yorker, and has worked as a storyboard artist for DreamWorks. To Know You’re Alive is his third publication with Conundrum Press, following Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in On, and Don’t Get Eaten by Anything. He is also co-editor/co-founder of Irene (a comics and art anthology), as well as the ongoing minicomic series Last Mountain, which he distributes himself.

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