With Glasgow Comic Con approaching, you can expect many of my upcoming reviews to likely be dominated by the latest offerings of the Scottish independent scene. As mentioned in my recent preview of the con, one of the comics I was most excited about checking out was The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal, from cartoonist Neil Slorance. After first coming to my attention with his fun artwork on Jonbot VS Martha, Neil really put himself on the radar with Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin, his good-natured autobiographical travelogue comics that I marked out as among the best creator-owned comics of last year. The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is a return to the realm of fiction, with a oneshot that has scooped up multiple SICBA award nominations. Does it live up to the hype, or does it buckle under the weight of expectation?
I’m pleased to report that the answer is very much the former. The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is a delight, another elevation from an emerging comics talent who continues to refine his cartooning style. At first glance, with his noseless, smiley-style faces and his handwriten lettering, Neil Slorance’s work may appear rough and simplistic, and that may have been the case in his earliest output. But now, particularly with The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal, I think it’s clear that Slorance has a structure and evolving style all his own. Like Art Balthasar or Dustin Nyugen’s Lil’ Gotham stuff, or even the more adult output of Jeff Lemire or Matt Kindt, there is an appearance of looseness and simplicity, but it follows its own internal logic, and is actually finely crafted with a grasp of pace and storytelling that can not just be replicated by any layman. Right now, Neil Slorance’s work sits nicely in the realm of small press, with a charming, personalised touch to the handcrafted physical product, but with a bump up into the production values I feel like his style could also settle nicely into a more mass-market comic publication.
Similarly, the story is ostensibly straightforward, about a young woman who escapes the stress and bustle of the big city to enjoy a quiet night out in the countryside stargazing with her telescope. But Neil Slorance has mastered a discipline I shall hereby refer to as “the ninja feels,” where you think you’re reading a slight, cutesy adventure, only for a powerful amount of heart and pathos to sneak up on you and turn the whole thing into a surprisingly emotional reading experience. See, this isn’t really about astronomy at all, no matter how much of the book is taken up with “this star is cool” and “that planet is interesting.” It’s about loneliness, and the isolation that can so often be a part of adult urban life, and the ways we try and capture the happiness of our simpler childhoods. This may be projection, but the wording of the woman finding “her dad’s old telescope” or remembering how her dad “used to take her stargazing” gave me an impression that her father was dead, and this had been left to her. But even if that’s not the case, there’s still an argument for how we lose that intimacy with our parents as we grow older and can never quite recapture it. Our protagonist’s loneliness is brought into starker relief by a blighted love story filtering through the periphery of the tale, one whose resolution should soften even the hardest of hearts.
The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is the most accomplished work yet from a cartoonist I’m enjoying more and more. His reputation has quickly flowered on the Scottish comics scene, and I think he’s now well-positioned to connect with a wider audience. His offbeat brand of sweet slice-of-life is something the comics world can always use more of, and I eagerly await bigger projects from Neil Slorance and the bigger audiences they will deservedly attract.