A COMICA REVIEW BY:
The following article by David Thompson appeared in The Observer newspaper on 22 June 2003.
Slick On The Draw
A new ICA exhibition gives the graphic novel a chance to win over those who doubt it is an adult form.
Writing in the New York Times, Dave Eggers famously declared: ‘The graphic novel is not literary fiction’s halfwit cousin but, more accurately, the mutant sister who can often do everything fiction can, and just as often, more.’ To prove the point, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts will be hosting Comica, a 10-day festival of comic art and literature from around the world.
Running from 27 June until 6 July, Comica features some of the most highly regarded figures currently working in the form, with appearances by Jimmy Corrigan creator Chris Ware and Joe Sacco, whose Palestine, a collection of graphic war-zone reportage, was published earlier this year.
Another notable visitor is the Philadelphia cartoonist Charles Burns. Burns is famed for mordant, stylish morality plays that mix droll draughtsmanship with visceral surrealism. His lurid and compelling cautionary tales typically centre on any number of comic-book clichés - sinister scientists, dogged detectives and teenage lust feature regularly. However, this familiar pulp iconography is given otherworldly life in Burns’s cartoon laboratory, and his oddly gripping narratives vividly evoke childhood’s intrigues, fantasies and fears. Doomed romance, architectural hairstyles and the perils of interspecies transplantation are some of the subjects covered in his latest volume, Skin Deep (Fantagraphics, $24.95).
David Greenberger’s long-running Duplex Planet series is populated not by extraterrestrial beings, but by real-life senior citizens. Since 1979, Greenberger has been visiting nursing homes across the United States, documenting the stories and musings of the people he encounters. His latest publication, No More Shaves (Fantagraphics, $18.95), adapts these miniature dramas into comic form, with Daniel Clowes and Dave Cooper among his many collaborators.
The book’s anecdotal oddities include the nature of embarrassment, the indeterminate size of snakes and the misfortunes of the Frankenstein family. (‘They lived over there in Bavaria; wasn’t it West Germany?’) As the author states in his introduction: ‘Since my quest has been to show a spectrum of people in their waning, I needed to include those who have lost the ability to maintain linear thought and orderly discourse. They’re not going to return to reality, so I needed to follow them wherever they may go…’
However, Greenberger’s studies in befuddled dislocation never sneer at their subjects. The mood is one of strangely charming decay, with unexpected moments of insight and delight.
Rest-home ambience also figures in Chris Ware’s acclaimed cartoon periodical, The Acme Novelty Library (Fantagraphics, £9.95). In the wake of Jimmy Corrigan, another Acme regular appears in a volume of his own. Ware’s Quimby the Mouse (Fantagraphics, $14.95) draws on the aesthetics of early animation and Thirties advertising to frame the existential adventures of the eponymous mouse. Typically fastidious, in both rendering and reference, Quimby fuses neurotic alienation with unhinged and pointed comedy.
The jacket for Quimby reproduces Ware’s mural for Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Centre in San Francisco, an intricate diagram depicting the development of the human race, along with its efforts at, and motivations for, communication. The theme is sympathetic with the centre’s philanthropic function to encourage young writers. Given Ware’s artwork is a combination of inspectable illustration and fiendishly small typography, the translation to such a vast public space is something of an irony. As is the ideal viewing position - the middle of a busy street.
The first volume of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) records the author’s childhood in revolutionary Iran. Satrapi’s faux-naïf illustration is suitably childlike and disarming, luring the reader into unexpectedly adult territory. A tale of pious oppression and engaging defiance, Persepolis contrasts collective hysteria with smaller, more personal, acts of rebellion, such as when a pair of blackmarket Nikes or an inch of visible hair become gestures of truly hazardous proportions.
Persepolis has much in common with David B’s recent Epileptic, in which the juncture of the private and public is a central concern. Satrapi’s memoir offers an insight into a culture that, for many, now seems more alien than ever.
Chris Ware, whose Jimmy Corrigan has sold 100,000 copies and garnered a clutch of literary awards, is one of a handful of artists to escape the ghetto of specialist stores and comic-book devotees. Indeed, the graphic novel’s disreputable status is a thread throughout his work. (The paperback edition of Jimmy Corrigan depicts a nightmare scenario of being shelved in the booksellers’ twilight zone - amid science fiction and role-playing games.)
This dubious reputation is, Ware argues, due largely to a lack of understanding; a failure to grasp the fundamentals of how the comic form actually works: ‘Cartoons are conceptual signifiers: partly picture, partly word. They’re intended to be “looked through”, not studied. For this reason, they don’t really fulfil the expectations of visual art, where expression is generally linked to line quality, and clarity is dismissed as illustration. Comics demand a different sort of appreciation, which has more to do with reading pictures than with seeing them.’
Despite the diversity of the aforementioned titles, comics and graphic novels are often on the receiving end of a critical double standard. Booksellers, along with one or two broadsheet editors, tend to prejudge the medium rather than pause to consider its content. For many, comics invariably equate with mutants, monsters and men in tights or with simple-minded slapstick.
Such kneejerk rejection is rather like dismissing cinema as an invalid art form on the grounds that Jean-Claude Van Damme movies happen to exist. For 10 days, the ICA is offering doubters a chance to see things very differently.