Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Intermission 5: Comics.

It occurs to me that for a number of people reading this blog, this'll be one of their first experiences of reading comics as an adult. I was a fairly late starter to comics myself. I'd enjoyed The Beano and Calvin and Hobbes as a child (you're never too young or too old to enjoy Calvin and Hobbes), but never appreciated what comics could be until I was almost 17.

The first thing you realise when you actually look at comics is that they aren't a genre as so many misconceive, but a whole medium. That much should really be obvious, but it isn't, for far too many people. In the murk of cultural snobbery comics have either been dismissed as kid-lit and macho, violent escapism, or in the case of some works (Art Spiegelman's 'Maus', Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' for example) have been elevated in an almost exaggerated fashion by cultural commentators, who it feels to me, see these works as flowers that have grown out of the muck of the rest of the medium. It's a start at least that some comics are getting mainstream attention, and the works of both Spiegelman and Satrapi deserve their stature, but my question is why this polarity has to exist at all? Why can't we learn to pick up comics off the shelf the same way we pick up novels? Why is there shame associated with a medium that can juxtapose all the power of prose with that of illustration? Why is this exciting young medium invisible to most, a mere flirtation for some, and an obsession for the rest?
It's always considered safe to start with something that's been critically lauded in the mainstream press. That's how you hear about excellent stuff like 'Maus' and 'Persepolis' and 'Epileptic'. It's definitely a good place to start... if you're playing it safe. But my favourite comics aren't safe, and for every person they've convinced to rethink comics they've put off another. Not the best tactic if you're wanting to persuade people I guess, but I love the comics I love.

I'd start with Chris Ware. If I could re-read his work again for the first time, I would... I'm jealous of you if you decide to pick up his work. He's got a clean, fresh style, influenced by classic kids' comics and 50s aesthetics. He's also got one of the most exciting minds in comics, creating books that are beautiful to look at, dense and involving to read, and formally challenging. He creates pages that knock you back when you first see their tiny panels and precise details, and then draw you in and make you weep as you work your way through. In Quimby Mouse an old woman's wound bleeds through the page and soaks into the next few sheets, a tiny, sad moment that echoes down the line, disrupting the frivolity of those future pages with memories of the past. He's an artist who truly uses the medium to its fullest, creating something that could only be told as a printed comic work.

"Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" by Chris Ware. © Chris Ware.

I've come to really love autobiographical comics over the last few years. Many have heard of Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, inspiration for endless iterations on the same self-obsessed autobiographical work. But that's not what inspires me. We owe a lot to that bunch, but you can now see a new generation of work emerging that is funnier, more real and oh so much more tender than Crumb's nihilistic, scratchy world. At the top of my list is Jeffrey Brown, whose comics are some of the greatest autobiographical comics ever created. His linework is charming, disarming and evocative of so much more than you expect when you first lay your eyes on it. His stories are lovely and heartbreaking, so real and so, so honest. You must read his work, starting with his first book 'Clumsy'.

"Miniature Sulk" by Jeffrey Brown. © Jeffrey Brown.

And I don't just want to recommend accessible stuff, the work that's the comic book equivalent of stuff you might have already read.  There's nothing to be ashamed of in reading sci-fi, superheroes, fantasy.  In fact some of the most beautiful, evocative and challenging work created in the comics medium is being done in these genres.  Start gently with the breathtakingly gorgeous 'Mouse Guard' by David Petersen, the chronicles of a band of armed mice fighting off snakes, crabs and owls in one of the most fully realised and tangible fantasy worlds I have seen.

"Mouse Guard" by David Petersen. © David Petersen.

And if you dare stick your nose in the 'muck' of superhero comics, there's a lot of amazing work.  Play it safe and mainstream with 'Batman: Year One' by Frank Miller, one of the greatest Batman stories, rendered like a modern noir, and full of so much that you'll end up loving.  If you're a bit cynical to all those capes and pants worn on the outside, at least give 'Powers' by Brian Michael Bendis a go.  It's a deconstruction of the superhero myth perhaps even better than 'Watchmen', drawn like a Saturday morning cartoon, only with blood, sex and swearing.

I could keep on recommending comics forever, I really could.  If you're interested now, or still unconvinced, I'd say pick up a comics anthology at the nearest opportunity.  It's how I found Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka and dozens more artists I'd never heard of before.  And you're bound to find something that'll make your eyes feel good.  I recommend 'America's Best Comics 2008' for U.S. comics work.  It's a fantastic collection, the best in the series so far.  I'd also strongly recommend grabbing a copy of 'Solipsistic Pop', a new bi-annual collection of U.K. artists.

For those who want to take that step forward, who want to open their eyes to a whole new undiscovered medium... start now.


  1. Amen!

    Great post and thanks for passing on the positive thoughts. The world of comics is a wonderful and extemely wide one; a 'medium' and not a 'genre' as you say. Down with snobbery and narrow-minded judgement, onward with lots of reading and love for creative visual storytelling and the vast possibilities and pleasure that the comic or graphic novel format allows.

  2. I do agree with you, but feel that the polarity exists for all forms of art - from novels to films, and even to people. Some are ridiculously and undeservedly celebrated, while others are forgotten or overlooked. I don't know if it's the way the media works or just the way people work.