The Lab is a wordless visual journey into the grim machinery of exploitation. Its nameless protagonist is held in solitary captivity, alternately poked, prodded, starved, drugged, and worse. Brief glimpses of other test subjects, undergoing their own ordeals, are few and far between. But is all this abuse and isolation purely arbitrary? Or is there a purpose? Painstakingly and evocatively rendered, Allison Conway’s debut graphic novel explores the spectrum between lifeless gray and vivid color. It asks uncomfortable questions about the treatment we tolerate and the injustices underlying our modern world.
Conway's debut, a grim, silent science fiction fable, unfolds with deliberate, anxiety-producing pacing, though it's narratively slight. A slender, big-headed humanoid, its only features two pained-seeming eyes, pines away in a grimy cell alongside countless identical figures in identical cells. From time to time, mechanical claws carry them away to laboratories and subject them to automated experiments involving beakers, tanks, and syringes of colored liquids. Nothing else apparently exists in their gray, robotic world. After a seeming eternity of torture, the prisoners haltingly plan an escape. Told in large or often full-page wordless panels, the simple, organic-looking art, with densely cross-hatched shading and sparsely applied but jarring colors red blood; purple and yellow test tube goo evokes the scale of the massive test facility. Pathos builds up as the spindly, ugly-cute figures collect bruises and scars. By design, the comic lacks defined characters, and repetition replaces plot complexity, which pares the story down to its basics but also leaves it with little to say the dreary exercise simply moves through the machinery of its premise. But, as a shuddery dystopian nightmare goes, it's nicely crafted, with skillful bare-bones art. From this unnerving first outing, Conway shows herself to be a creator worth watching.
Allison Conway shows an impressive proficiency with the medium and The Lab unfolds with brilliant pacing supported by thematically cogent artistic choices through a mastery of visual spacing and deft coloring.
As a self-contained wordless meditation on industrial exploitation, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.