BOOK REVIEW: Nick Thorburn – ‘Penguins’

BOOK REVIEW: Nick Thorburn - 'Penguins'

In June and July XS Noize did something almost unique that few music zines would do and have done; introduce their readers to the amazing and sadly virtually untapped world of music-related graphic novels. The lives and careers of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave were told in an interesting, imaginative and quirky new light. XS Noize courtesy of Fantagraphics now has the privilege of revealing that the genre of music related graphic novels is far wider and more mind-blowing than people could have possibly imagined. Musicians themselves are writing and illustrating original graphic novel material. Nick Thorburn (The Unicorns, Th’ Corn Gangg, Islands, Reefer, and Human Highway) is about to release his debut graphic novel: Penguins.

Those who have a keen interest in graphic novels may know that Nick Thorburn is not the first musician to do this. Several years ago Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance) launched his own graphic novel: The Umbrella Academy which is now set to be developed into an American television series by Steve Blackman and premiered on Netflix in 2019. However, Nick Thorburn’s Penguins does something unique: “(Penguins is) Told almost entirely without words, Penguins is one of the most playfully original graphic novels in recent memory.”

With over one hundred and twenty different penguin characters, one hundred and twenty-four to be precise on the front cover, with the exception of a nose, no other human facial features are gifted to these penguins. In Penguins Thorburn shows love and empathy to these birds that “go through a lot of hell that could be avoided if they had the ability to fly. This cruel irony lends itself to humour, as well as sadness. Death and the desperate search for love and companionship seem so tethered to life as a penguin, as well as for humans, and so the goal was to bridge those two and make them funny.”

When drawing the penguins and the majority of the illustrations, Thorburn makes much use of circles, transporting you back to your encounters with non-verbal reasoning exams, the first for most being in your final year of junior school with the prospect of entering your local grammar school and again for many years later in psychometric testing upon entering the world of work. This unique method of illustrating a graphic novel will inevitably take you back to forgotten times of nervousness anxiety, uncertainty, inadequacy and possibly disappointment (if you didn’t get that job or didn’t get into the grammar school); nonetheless you are compelled to read, study, ponder and analyse each interconnected strip to search for Thorburn’s meaning, meaning for the penguins as well as for yourself. This is challenging as not a single speech or thought bubble is used in Penguins. The prose is seldom used.

Penguins is an ideal rite of passage for Thorburn who has had success, particularly as the frontman in both The Unicorns and Islands. The Unicorns toured continuously with The Decemberists and Arcade Fire. “Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?” was issued through Alien8 Recordings in October 2003, and called “a cult hit upon its release”, making Pitchfork’s Top 10 Albums of 2003. The Unicorns reunited in 2014 ten years after disbanding by opening for Arcade Fire across North America. Islands 2008 LP, “Arm’s Way” made it into top 10 of the US Top Heatseekers charts.

Penguins would benefit from a contents page and titles for the different strips/stories. No names are given for the penguin and non-penguin characters. A potential deepening of the bond with the penguins could have materialised if at least a couple of the main penguin characters were named.  Nonetheless, “Relying on visual expression and the physical movement of his penguin characters, as well as the formal properties of sequential drawings (with penguins routinely moving within and without each page’s panel borders), Penguins is a series of interconnected short strips that, without words or human characters, does more to showcase the breadth of emotion we as humans experience than most prose novels.”

The Unicorns have been accused of being “slackers who definitely never gave a shit”, whether there is any truth in this or not is irrelevant here for no one can dispute that Thorburn cares about Penguins and has deftly gift wrapped his soul in the strips which collectively constitute Penguins. Thorburn has proven himself to be a pioneer and innovator in the evolution of the graphic novel.

Penguins is available to buy via


Xsnoize Author
Michael Barron 282 Articles
Michael first began writing whilst studying at university; reviewing the latest releases and live gigs. He has since contributed to the Fortean Times as well as other publications. Michael’s musical tastes vary from Indie to psychedelic, folk and dubstep.

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