Last week I walked into the Cold Cube Press offices in Pioneer Square to see what kind of book art they'd prepared for the First Thursday crowd, and I became completely enamored with the risograph prints and books of a Spanish artist named Cynthia Alfonso.
I knew nothing about her work before I picked up her first large-scale book, Behind Is Late, but the soft-touch laminate cover felt good. The quadruple-stacked all-caps title (not shown in the above mock-up photo) looked good. And the cover image of a series of circles creeping up, caterpillar-like, into a hole made me want to leaf through the pages to find out where that thing was going.
The first few pages show the sun-colored circle creature crawling out of one hole and then entering another. Throughout the comic Alfonso refers to this object as "it," and "it" ends up serving as a metaphor for fear, sorrow, and whatever you call that dreadful, inescapable wraith that sits on your chest some mornings, obstructing your path toward happiness, love, or even just a cup of coffee. After a while, and at the risk of perpetuating two internet cliches, I just started calling it the Feelings Monster.
This geometric being overtakes a blurry, female figure who's only ever seen walking from behind. She tries to walk away from the Feelings Monster, eventually gains some kind of control over it, but then comes to the understanding that it's always going to be there.
Alfonso's choice to use lush, warm colors for the Feelings Monster bucks the convention of seeing sorrow as a cool, dark thing, and gives it the heat and life it has when it swims around inside us and overwhelms our senses.
Using abstract shapes to render these feelings increases the sadness of the narrative, but it also offers an uplifting reading. Turning the peculiarities of our troubles into pure shapes shaded with primary colors suggests that we must place ourselves so far away from those troubles that they become completely abstract. (Needing to turn your sorrow into a bird is one thing. Needing to turn it into a yellow sphere is fucking bleak.) But the ability to roll up depression, or fear, or existential loneliness, or sorrow, or whatever into a big warm yellow ball and then manipulate it around a page in ways that other human beings can understand hopefully suggests that we can have power over our pain, and that we're not alone in it.
Aside from whatever personal emotions and struggles that I'm clearly projecting all over this Feelings Monster and Alfonso's lyrical narrative, the book is also, plainly speaking, rad as hell. Alfonso's bold visual language makes you want to stare at her pages forever, and the way she plays with the constraints of that language keeps things interesting.
In my favorite spread, her geometric Feelings Monster bursts off the page, crawls across the book's spine, and burrows into the hole on the next page.
And in the middle of the book, she includes a bonus little mini-comic that seems visually related to the narrative, but that also stands alone as a mini-meditation on transformation.
Alfonso is an designer/illustrator/animator from Galicia, a northwestern state of Spain. She's been featured in a couple of anthologies in Europe, and she has a few smaller books out, but Behind Is Late is the first large-format book she's published. Raquel Senra Fernández translated her original text from Spanish.
Cold Cube Press publisher Aidan Fitzgerald tells me Alfonso's status as a newer artist was one of the reasons he and co-publisher Michael Heck wanted to work with her. "We like working with new authors. Not to say we wouldn't work with an author who has a huge body of work, but it's more exciting for us to explore a book with an artist," he said.
Fitzgerald and Heck became fans of Alfonso's work through Instagram. They liked "her oblique methods of storytelling and image-making," and so they sent her an e-mail last year to solicit a unique book for 2018.
"It's a comic, but it's not really a comic. It's a poem, but it's not really a poem. It's an art book, but not really. It's like six different Venn diagrams working together. It's an undefinable medium, and that's the stuff we like to push," he said.