Society is fractured. Life for most is a desperate struggle. Natural Resources are scarce and the discovery of a miracle source of new, clean energy only serves to deepen the cracks. As the planet reaches breaking point, the sudden appearance of two mysterious pillars…
Schism is the first volume in The Sunderland trilogy of graphic novels by Jon Renzella in conjunction with Eric Weiss that addresses the tribal nature of humans – and it is made up entirely of woodcuts.
Speaking as someone who has attempted making woodcuts a couple of times, I can tell you that the process is a gruelling one. Wood isn’t as malleable as lino, not as soft, so every cut must be made with precision, a delicate balance of force and control. The fact that all 450 pages of Schism were formed as woodcuts is staggeringly impressive – and no little wonder that it took a full two and a half years of daily toil to make.
Renzella, the creator of the series, is an American artist and printmaker living in Taichung, Taiwan, where he runs the non-profit Lei Gallery. His artwork brings together the busy elements of everyday life through a unique, cross-cultural lens, as can be seen in works like Lost in Taiwan and the impressive woodcut room installation that was the visual basis for the world of The Sunderland.
The resulting style is very bold and unapologetic, and Renzella’s creative flair shines through in the volume’s often surreal (or drug-fuelled) ‘interludes’ and landscapes, with the images and compositions ranging from beautiful to rather disturbing.
The first thing that struck me when I started reading the book, beyond the images, was its tongue-in-cheek humour – for example, the naming of Rupert Tits, spokesperson of extractives company Petrolol. The characters are presented in a similarly sardonic fashion, with the religious zealot/professional swindler Dr Stella Von Mite depicted with absurd hair and a dopey expression as she appears on television to assure followers that they need only to send her money to ensure their salvation.
Much of the story takes place on the BUH People’s News in the form of interviews and dialogue, and the text is at times dense and imposing, much like the clear-cut contrast of the black-and-white prints. The portrayal here is of a world divided into sects, with the media acting as a major influencer of public opinion, as of course it is in reality, and the facilitator of discussion between the other groups – interspersed, naturally, with adverts favouring the highest bidder. Meanwhile, the interviews are little more than opportunities for posturing from all sides – the military, resource tycoons, ecologists and so on.
“Everyone was so dug in that there was virtually no middle ground to find. Because the attendees were, largely, the most vocal and radical members of society, conversation consisted of grandstanding and shouting past one another.”
Each group stands opposed to the others in a fractured, distrustful society.
“The idea for the structure of the story came more from internet culture, and the idea that people can find their own groups online and never stray from them,” Renzella tells me. “Group thinking and confirmation bias emerges from not accessing different viewpoints, and this is the thinking behind the Schism, the fracturing of society into isolated, like-minded subcultures. When the Conduits appear, each group ‘knows’ where they came from, and use their explanation to reinforce their worldviews.
“I’m surrounded by an ever-changing community of expats, most of whom have travelled extensively, which proves quite a contrast to growing up in a place where most people never leave the country. This combined with my own travels has given me many opportunities to think about and explore this idea of institutional or cultural ‘knowledge’, and driven home the importance of questioning assumptions.”
Oddly enough, I wrote something similar on the subject of feminism for issue 20 of Global: the international briefing around Christmas last year (and I hope you’ll excuse me quoting my own writing here…):
There is a big problem with just labelling oneself as a something-ist, because once this happens the something-ism becomes part of one’s identity … Instead of continuing to exist as a person with millions of individual ideas, one’s identity becomes compartmentalised into set parts – feminist, capitalist, vegetarian – each of which have their own assumed beliefs and ideas. What this means is that it’s easy for a person to find themselves defending issues that they don’t personally agree with simply on a misguided principle. Everything else becomes the evil ‘other’ that should not even be considered.
This submergence in group identity in which the loudest rule can easily lead to a distortion of ideas or a loss of personal perspective. It becomes harder and harder to identify the flaws in one’s ideology and the urge to defend such flaws increases. And this is a problem.
The narrative jumps from one faction to another, introducing the ideology and nature of each in light of resource scarcity, ecological issues and the schism itself – the moment that society ruptured and each group went its own way, making up its own ideology and ethics en route. It’s a piece of social commentary that is always relevant, whether you see the real-life divisions as lines on a map, in terms of profession or, as Renzella points out, online – on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, where you can choose to see updates only from likeminded people; on Google, which alters your search results based on your search history.
At a time when more information than ever before is available to us and, simultaneously, is vetted by us or by companies into conforming to the beliefs that we already hold, The Sunderland is more relevant than ever.
The Sunderland Vol. 1 – Schism is due to see a new print run in September and can be purchased through Renzella’s site.