Comic Review – Steam Clean by Laura Ķeniņš

The first round of books from Retrofit’s 2017 Kickstarter campaign made it to me this week. I immediately dug in to Laura Ķeniņš’ graphic novel Steam Clean. My knowledge of Ķeniņš’ work comes from the kuš! comics mini she did, Alien Beings. Ķeniņš’ body of this work seems focused on interpersonal conflict; Steam Clean is no different.
Steam Clean is an 84-page full color graphic novel set in a sauna in northern Europe. All the characters are convening for a sauna party in early November. The partygoers are looking to de-stress, but their conversations lead to tension. The heart of Steam Clean is this interpersonal conflict and tension, and it works. I like the way Ķeniņš writes these interactions; they seem real and lived.
Despite the strong interpersonal dialogue in Steam Clean, the book struggles to find its footing. Transitions between scenes are choppy and uneven. There’s also a supernatural element to Steam Clean that seems a little out of place. During the sauna party, the anceint Latvian goddess of women, Laima, shows up, but her appearance as a character and as a queer goddess feels odd. There may be a Latvian cultural cue I am missing here, but I questioned her role in the book. There also seem to be serpentine spirits that flit around the comic, escaping with steam and cleaning up messes, but their purpose is unclear.
It’s clear that Ķeniņš is using the cast of Steam Clean to talk about the experiences of modern women. Workplace misogyny, assault, rape, and body image are all part of the discussion. There’s a lot of nuance to these discussions. The sensation of community is really strong in this comic, and one of the major thematic features of Steam Clean. Some of these conversations lead to arguments and others lead to resolutions. Ķeniņš uses all to good effect.
How the reader approaches the discussions in Steam Clean is a point of discussion. There are some readers who will not have interacted with these topics before. This comic will likely read as a shocker to those folks. For readers who are familiar with modern feminist writing, these discussions might read as surface level. No matter where they approach the work, Ķeniņš doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Putting faith in the reader to make sense of these conversations is smart. It keeps Steam Clean from sounding like a lecture and makes it more natural.

Ķeniņš’ colors are a blended colored pencil and pastel, and the style eschews photorealism for a blurry cartooniness. Pastels are not a precise tool, but I get the feeling that there are parts of Steam Clean that could use some polish. Most of the hands in the comic look like the end of a broom. There’s a monotony to the comic – most of the panels are set in a medium close up shot. With only shoulders and heads of the women talking in frame, there’s a visual sameness that’s hard to ignore. It could be that the constrained setting for the book lends itself to this talking heads style. Regardless, it was off-putting.
While the panel flow and page composition seem to be lacking, Ķeniņš’ color work is lovely. The pages where a few people are out in the woods beside a body of water are the best in my view. The blending and mixing of these colored pencils works well with the cartoony style.
Ķeniņš’ Steam Clean is hard to nail down. While its strong colors and interpersonal dialogue make it a quick read, the problematic technical aspects of the cartooning are hard to ignore.


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