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A COMICA REVIEW BY:

ALISON FRANK


That's Novel! Lifting Comics From The Page was an exhibition held as pat of the 2010 Comica Festival at the London Print Studio between 22 October and 18 December in 2010. Alison Frank's article on That's Novel! was published in the March/April (38.5) issue of Afterimage. Alison Frank holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford, where she wrote her thesis on surrealism and cinema. She is a freelance writer based in London, England. You can follow her on Twitter.

COMICS UNCONTAINED

Comics have long transcended the domain of children’s entertainment in the Saturday papers. Although some persist in seeing the medium as lightweight, there are many credible reasons for taking sequential art seriously. One is its implicit relationship to film: both film and comics are based on a series of frames used to visually narrate events in space and time. On a practical level, films and comics closely resemble each other in their early stages. A film’s storyboard resembles a comic book’s sequential appearance, while the planning stage of a comic strip often involves cinematic descriptions illustrating the way the frames should be drawn.

That’s Novel! Lifting Comics From The Page presented highlights of contemporary British and international comics. It was the centerpiece of last year’s Comica, an annual international comics festival in London. In addition to numerous special events, the festival included a smaller exhibition featuring the winners of The Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize 2010 (at Orbital Comics in London’s West End). This year’s winner, Room 208 (2010), is writer and illustrator Stephen Collins’s stylistically unique breakthrough piece about an unusual honeymoon. In this comic, each frame adds its own piece of information to the story, as is standard, but the frames also fit together to form a larger image that fills the entire page. With this uncommon use of visuals, Room 208 stands out when compared to more traditionally styled comics. 

Each artist in That’s Novel! was given a single panel on the wall of the gallery space that could accommodate one very large frame, a page-long comic, or a single page excerpted from a graphic novel. A few were 3D comics, but the exhibition was overwhelmingly low-tech: no projections or animation were involved. It took some time to adjust to this exhibition; rather than encouraging the usual distracted spectatorship, the exhibition’s format and content required visitors to take the necessary time to read each comic properly. This was not always easy, given the small size of the text and the occasional above-eye-level display. Nevertheless, the viewer’s efforts were amply rewarded by the superb quality of nearly every comic in the exhibit.

As if to assert from the very beginning that comics are a medium worthy of weighty ideas, the first display in the exhibition featured comics exploring creation myths. A particularly beautiful example of this notion was Jon McNaught’s Pilgrims (2010). Like Room 208, which plays with viewer expectations about the limits of the frame, Pilgrims implicitly draws a link between comics’ sequential visual narrative and Christianity’s use of stained glass to tell Biblical stories.

Conversely, the end of the exhibition presented the apocalyptic, dynamic, and passionate vision of John Hicklenton. The artist suffered from multiple sclerosis, and took his own life in March 2010. His posthumously displayed work, 100 Months (2010), depicts the earth goddess Mara taking revenge on capitalism for its role in environmental destruction.

Another section explored the way in which the medium can be used to cope with mental illness. Brick’s Depresso (2010) recounts the artist’s experience with depression and the pressures it placed on his job and marriage. The slightly childlike and caricatured style of illustration makes the characters appear all the more vulnerable and sympathetic, increasing the story‚Äôs impact. By abstracting real life through illustration, Brick’s graphic novel relativizes depression - however crippling and all-consuming the illness can be, it is described as transitory - something best endured with patience (and even humor).

Comics exploring migration and xenophobia constituted another unexpectedly serious - and political - use of the medium. That’s Novel! presented a panel from Judith Vanistendael’s Dance by the Light of the Moon (2010), a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about the relationship between a Belgian woman and a Togolese immigrant and their struggle with parental and societal acceptance.

The subtitle of the exhibition, Lifting Comics From The Page, points to one of its more innovative and memorable aspects: work that literally moves comics from a two-dimensional page into a three-dimensional space. A series of photographs document Tito na Rua’s street comic, As Aventuras de Zé Ninguém e Cão Viralata (2009), in which the artist makes the brick walls of Rio de Janeiro the canvas for his comic strip. Where a wall ends, his characters spill out onto adjacent walls and around corners: in this way, the comic strip’s diegesis appropriates real three-dimensional space.

In Philippa Rice’s My Cardboard Life (2010), the two-dimensional protagonist is punished for stealing a pair of 3D glasses from a cinema by being forced to live in three dimensions - a disconcerting reality shift for an inhabitant of the comic’s two-dimensional world. Rice, whose entire comic strip is made in a charming cut-and-paste style, uses pop-up book techniques to render the strip three-dimensional at the appropriate moments.

Conversely, Karrie Fransman’s Behind the Mirror & Other Stories (2010) exhibited a darker sense of humor in a three-dimensional comic. Here, the artist uses the disarming form of an actual dollhouse to tell a gruesome tale. In order to “read” this sequential art, the viewer is required to press a button that lights up the rooms of the doll house, and to peer through each window in turn. The vignettes in each room illustrate different stages in a developing horror story.

Of all the pieces in the exhibition, Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith’s draft of Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson (2010) most overtly posited the link between comics and film. Bingley’s script for the comic describes each frame in distinctly cinematic language, going so far as to speak of “the camera” and its perspective on the scene.

The most refreshing aspect of That’s Novel! was its refusal to allow comics to be limited by comparisons with other media. Like cinema, which initially suffered from its proximity to theatre and literature, comics are most readily associated with jokes, live action and animated films, novels, and visual art. Although comics bear a relationship to all of these media, they cannot be perfectly identified with any one of them. That’s Novel! leaves visitors with an overriding impression of talented writers and artists working in a medium that defines its own way of approaching a broad a range of themes as the genre continues to explore new ways to expand its expressive vocabulary.

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"...one of the most interesting and high quality celebrations of comics the country has ever seen."
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