Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Review: A Map in the Dirt, Jess Smart Smiley from HIVE FOUR

Excitingly, Jess Smart Smiley recently sent us his contribution to Grimalkin Press’ upcoming fourth HIVE anthology. Entitled A Map in the Dirt, it’s a short and, at times, abstract tale featuring a group of animal-people on the run from the barbarism of the human world.

Mysterious from the outset, the story follows the protagonist, Deer, and her friends Bird, Rabbit, Bear and Fox, as they attempt to evade the murderous hunters that have intruded into their habitat. Curiously, these characters are (mostly) presented as humans wearing animal masks and their behaviour has a similarly  conflicting naturalistic ritualism to it. Jointly human, animal and anthropomorphic, the exact nature of these creatures remains unclear, but the ecological and existential themes they represent are anything but.

Smiley describes his piece as a “short story in comics form” and it is easy to see why. Rather than adopting the traditional panel and speech-bubble form entirely, A Map in the Dirt begins with pictures simply acting as loose illustration for Deer’s narration. Although the story eventually adopts a more traditional comic form, this opening section evokes comparisons to a lovingly-constructed children’s book from decades ago. I couldn’t help but think of dusty second hand 1970s picture-books whilst reading it; such is its charm.

Visually, this old-time storybook feel is supplemented by Smiley’s realistic yet dreamlike artwork, which constantly walks the fine line between being life-like and cartoony. This stripped-down realism helps create the story’s otherworldly vibe: familiar and disorientating all at once. 

My favourite part of the comic is the ethereal coda that is used to conclude the piece. Smiley uses the narrative economy of short-fiction well and neatly ties together the supernatural and scientific with a series of panels that are both diagrammatic and mystical.

You can read A Map in the Dirt in its entirety as part of Grimalkin Press’ HIVE FOUR anthology this April. Featuring some of the brightest talent on the small press scene, including Noah Van Sciver and ATF-favourite Lord Hurk, it’s looking more and more like a “must-have” purchase for 2010.

Make sure to visit Jess Smart Smiley’s blog (link below) for more great illustrations, comics, sketches and art like this piece:


  • Jess Smart Smiley's Blog
  • Grimalkin Press' Blog


  1. Smiley's work is really unique. I am excited to get a hold of the HIVE anthology myself. Nice prose Martin.

  2. A map in the dirt makes me light up! just like all the other things that light up.... way to go, jess. good luck with the future =)