Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Comics Carousel: god, man and the sea

Reviews! Or something approaching them... As ever, click on pictures to enbiggen, and click on bolded titles to lead you to places where you can buy said publications.

Flocks #3 by L Nichols: My first impression of the third installment of Nichols' Flocks, in which she reflects on her relationship with her sexuality and religion growing up, was that it wasn't as stronger as the previous issues. Where they were a little more traditionally narrative focused, providing excruciating interchanges with her family, friends, congregation, this book is more contained, as Nichols' articulated stuffed doll persona sifts through an internal discussion about her beliefs.

It opens with a  delivery of a sermon: '... and if you listen closely, you can hear the still, small voice of God,' a quote which resonates intrinsically with the young Nichols at a time when everyone else seems to be telling her who she is is wrong and un-natural, as the teachings against homosexuality become increasingly hateful, she finds solace and truth in those words and the idea behind them. The notion of finding God- not so much in church, or through praying, or doing things one way or another, but finding him within yourself, seeing him in the world, finding him in everything around you- 'This is the one thing that made sense to me' she repeats over and over. Spending time outdoors, with nature, plants and animals, away from all else, she builds a stronger sense of self, and begins to be more at pace with her sexuality. Here she can see that she does belong, that her existence is meant to be and not dependent on other people's acceptance. Religion and faith is always an individual, personal relationship, and this is the formation of Nichols relationship with God and her faith as she works out what it means and does for her, an acknowledgement that belonging to people doesn't necessarily matter as long as you belong to God.

Though the change of course in direction ultimately works, it feels like a slighter book, and that's due to the way it's delivered, with Nichols adopting a faux-sermonic tone, with just a line or few on each page. The breaking up of lines and words for emphasis across panels 'panel 1: God was all around me, panel 2: blank, panel 3: there was no room for this..., panel 4: here' doesn't always work in execution, cutting off reading rhythm instead of setting it. It feels very much like a chapter issue, which is fine, but by which I mean it slots in better when read with its predecessors- it's maybe not as fulfilling on its own. Nichols is a very smart and thoughtful creator, though, and words aside, the alternation between panel usage is great and emotionally directive- the sudden blowing up to a full page splash in happiness, or to convey the glowering wrath of others judgement, small, insidious 3 panel strips with close-ups of mouths spewing 'faggot' 'dyke' 'burn in hell.'

Flocks always reminds me of that fantastic line in Men of Black, delivered by the incomparable Tommy Lee Jones, explaining why the existence of alien life must be kept a secret, 'A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.' He's referring to mass panic, but that, for me, fits in with the larger concept of Flocks, of people adhering to a party line, a status quo, simply because they want to belong, they want to fit in, they want to remain comfortable in what they know and understand. The need to fit in, or to be part of something overpowers so much else, that having the strength of character to step outside of that to an extent, takes something immensely powerful. For Nichols it's the difference between living a life of suppression and deceit or being true to herself. She chooses herself.

Hideous Fiesta by Heta Bilaletdin, published by kus!: The thing that struck me most about Hideous Fiesta is how stuffed it is with imagery and symbolism and references: Alice in Wonderland,  big doors, little doors, talking animals trapped in bottles, repeat motifs of people with their back to the reader, children sitting with dogs, totem-like animals, black and white patterns- there's so much to infer and look at.

There's a meandering narrative that sometimes follows a woman as she wanders through various rooms in a vast house, filled with people partying, dancing, smoking, lounging around, oblivious to what appears to be a political funeral (the killing of a revolutionary? there's a strong hint of suppression, something failed, lost) going on outside. Somebody closes the curtains as the procession passes by. 'Turn that crap off!' a woman snaps as the radio reports on the event. It's designed to provoke thought, rather than make a statement: what you choose to see, choose to do, choose to believe.

If I'm  honest, I'm not a huge fan of collage art, I feel it can lean towards the cutesy and affected, and a lot of is just not very good, but Bilaletdin uses it sparingly, relying on her beautiful, fine line that seems to effortlessly loop into these  incredible characterful figures. She's super good at infusing tone, the obvious association is a LSD trip but there's something sinister to proceedings, a creepiness as the lady with the odd face disappears and reappears, sometimes with face close up to the reader, sometimes moving silently between pages, like a horror film glitch.

The whole comic is truly exquisite, but I've added a couple of my favourite pages below: on the left, I really like how the pink wash gives a hedonistic glow, again suggesting an altered state, a particular cloud these group of people are in, with the pink expressing the cloud is a sickly pleasant one. The chalk outline bear reaching towards some sort of illuminating altar marks another door through which we pass, the double outline/exposure makes it appear like he's moving, physically transferring that illusionary, dizzy effect to the reader. Essentially, kus! are still doing unparalleled work in finding fantastic interesting artists and getting them to make comics. Long may it continue.

Beach Girls by Box Brown, Retrofit Comics: Can I talk a little about the format of this first? I love the physicality of comics, of books too, but especially comics, because you can do so much more with size and paper and form. It's floppy, with the size comes just under A4 (love when floppy comics are larger, bigger pictures and malleable), and the cover is a sweet spot; velvety soft, but with textured colours. I know very little about such things, so I asked Brown himself what paper/technique was used and apparently it's an 'offset printing on 50# bleached newsprint.' End dirty talk.

Brown's story is ostensibly very simple, almost to the point of parody, which I think is intentional. It features 3 girls arriving at a beach resort to holiday, and two boys who live and work at the resort. Brown takes familiar character moulds, sexy girl, pimped up dumb gym guy, outsider girl, surfer dude, and uses them for the purposes of the story; he doesn't empahsise or reiterate names much, because it doesn't really matter. Anyway, the former group are preparing to have a fun-filled holiday- drinks, parties etc., the latter anticipating holiday season hook-ups and commerce. On either side there's one tropey character who feels different, wants more out of life, doesn't fit in and naturally the end up gravitating towards each other. However, neither is overtly likeable (which puts you in a space where you can observe them more)- one odd and obsessed with surfing to the point of religious experience, the other obnoxious and bent on finding herself as she disdainfully separates herself from her friends due to her insecurities- 'I was gaining years of perspective,' she declares at one point, because smoking a little weed and surfing will certainly provide you with that.

I once read someone describe Brown's art as minimalist, and I can see why, though I don't know that that's how I'd label it. True, he doesn't do huge detailed backgrounds or clothes, but his art is precise and shapey (there's lots of curves and roundness) with some lovely touches and textures: for example, the raindrops are fat raindrop shapes, which I think is magical- that sort of unreal, kid's picture book rendering pared down in black and white. There's a superb party scene where he he depicts sound via lettering, with the 'oonce oonce' of the music translated into huge, loud letters filling and surrounding the page. In that same scene, instead of drawing crowds of people, he puts them in silhouette (apart from the main characters, of course)- he uses blacks cleverly and effectively throughout- another standout page is a splash page of the ocean, inky black, cliff-like waves picked out in white, with icy lashings of rain. I like how the skateboard flip in the page below is a diagram tutorial almost. The whole aesthetic is insanely appealing.

There's no big pay-off or discovery at the end, but in between there's small moments of significance and epiphany- perhaps, after all, it's enough to feel changed- which I guess is the overarching 'message'- life can be very cliche but what's important is the meaning we ascribe to things, in choosing what's matters to us, regardless of how others perceive that thing. Or something.

Hand by Alex Potts: I've not read any auto-bio comics in a while and this collection from Alex Potts is pretty refreshing: light and pleasing in tone, though not insubstantial. While a lot of them depict Potts as he struggles for motivation to draw, chastising himself over whether it's any good, he never sinks into self-involvement as such, keeping things amusing and relate-able. He does a stream of consciousness/going off into imagination territory tangent that reminds me of Joe Decie's work, beginning with the real- what he's doing right now (usually sat at a desk) and will end up doing handstands on a dog.

The strips and shorts vary in length, though most come in at 1 or 2 page, and the shorter format keeps things interesting and fresh; Potts has a nice sense of pacing, one that fits well with his anecdotal subject matter, there's sort of a nice beat, a jump from one comic to the next. One of the aspects which I find humourous is the way he gives each strip/page a Friends-esqe title, emblazoned at the top in 3D block lettering 'NO, I DON'T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THE FUCKING OLYMPICS' 'YEAH THAT'S RIGHT I LIVE ON THE ROOF NOW,'defiant proclamations that make you smile before you've even started reading.

The  ruminative, self deprecating narratives comics are inter-spliced with sedate, wordless pages; blue-washed observational, geographical drawings of various places: Leeds, Bramley, Paris, Brighton. 9 rough panels showing a chimney top, spires, a woman at a cafe, the balcony of a building, a duck on the beach. I think these add to that pacing talked discussed earlier, though they veer away from Potts' reflections, they're similarly mellow in tone and break up his often emphatic internal monologues nicely. The simplicity of the painting here is appealing, too, his water-colours are generally clear and colour choices appropriate, but there's a few pages in the latter half of the book which are overwhelmed by red, in that it dominates both the visuals and words.

Two strips that I subjectively would like to point out: the first in which a handyman comes to fix the oven, the rendering of said handyman is and he renders him perfectly, in articulated, wooden puppet fashion, scary, wide un-blinking eyes, a square, almost separate jaw that's parroting some shit, an over-egged cheerfulness. I like 'Alex Potts is Disgusted' for the sheer emotion pushing it, it's a quintessentially British diatribe against poor manners, Tories, people who vote for the Tories and judicious with the swearwords, of which I'm a fan. 

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