At first glance this looks like it might just be a new art school favourite. The linework is soft and rounded, occasionally crumpling into more naive forms or vacating the page completely in favour of washes of expressive colour – it signals the intimacy of experience in a way that is immediately recognisable to anyone who’s managed to read past the superhero comics on the graphic novel shelves of their local library.  Elsewhere, the colouring takes on an active role on the page, sometimes embodying a shift in perception and understanding, sometimes becoming a source of unexpected affect – it signals a sort of deliberate intelligence of design in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has read as far as Asterios Polyp.

All of these qualities are exemplified in Take It As A Compliment, but the book resists praise on the grounds of mere formalism.

Drawn from the true tales of those who’ve experienced various forms of sexual assault, Take It As A Compliment sees Maria Stoian using the full range of her artistic abilities to give voice to those who have been on the receiving end of this shamefully commonplace form of violence.

These pages are full of crowded or empty streets, appeals to a horrific spectrum of threatening outcomes (“If you don’t your dad will be mad!”) and various forms of complicity (“Oh he was just trying to be funny“) but they are always centred on the experience of the victims.

The use of colour alone makes these experiences inescapably vivid in a way that demands a trigger warning, and the Stoian brings these stories together with an explicit purpose: “in sharing we can make it easier for survivors to deal with their experiences, and create a society that does not tolerate sexual violence!”

Do we sometimes flinch from art that is so clear about the impact it wants to have on the world?  And if so, does this reaction come from a lack of belief in our ability to affect the world or from a conviction that the goals of art are somehow incompatible with such efforts?

Take It As A Compliment is so delicate and powerful that such perspectives seem impossible while you’re reading it.

It gives voice to experience without forcing those who have already suffered to risk further suffering; it makes the social conditions that allow this suffering explicit; and it does all of this in a way that cannot be separated from its aesthetic excellence, from its commitment to exploring all the different ways that the intersection of words, shapes and colours on the page can reflect the reality of the human experience.

These stories are not my story so I can’t comment on what they have to offer to anyone who might find their reality reflected here.

But I am still a part of the society in which these abuses take place, and if I come away from Take It As A Compliment without finding extra determination to be there for those who need listening to and to confront those who need to be stopped, then the failing will be in me rather than in the book itself.

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