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Toby Litt misses the stench of adolescent bedrooms at the very first Comica Festival in 2003. His review first appeared in The New Stateman.

Teenage Exile: Toby Litt misses the stench of adolescent bedrooms in an exhibition of comic art.

Imagine a cartoon panel with a door at the end of a corridor in a house. The door is covered in stickers and scrawls. A sign dangles from a nail: “DANGER! DO NOT ENTER!” Zaggy lines around the door’s edge show that it is vibrating to the beat of loud, angry music. The caption at the bottom reads “America”.

In the second panel, we have entered the room behind the door. If a bomb were to hit it, the result might be a little tidier. There is junk and garbage everywhere: CDs, trainers, pants, gloopy shapes. A stack system vibrates zigzaggedly. But our attention is drawn to the figure at the far end of the room. All we can make out is a bent-over back, a long-haired head. More lines show that their right elbow is moving up and down. We can just glimpse what looks like a magazine. The speech bubble reads: “Nnggg, Nngg, Nnggg.”

The third panel is the revelation. Looking down from a point directly above the figure, we see that the magazine isn’t a magazine, but a comic - and that the rhythmic elbow movement is explained by the pencil with which our long-haired hero (or heroine; it’s still impossible to tell) is copying the comic’s first panel, which - you guessed it - shows a door at the end of a corridor.

You will not have found this cartoon strip at the recent Institute of Contemporary Arts mini-exhibition Comica: A Festival Of International Comic Art & Literature, for it is my own cartoon strip. At the ICA the annual celebration of underground comics or e-comix also belongs behind a door - at the end of the American corridor. Comics (which, in this one-week only mini-exhibition, means underground comics or e-comix) have a pretty clear lineage. The fans of one generation become the stars of the next with work that pays homage to the ideals of the past. A quote from Charles Burns, one of the current stars, sums up a large amount of the work displayed under glass in white cases here: “The theme I always come back to is sexual horror, the fear of the physical, the conflict between the mind and the body.”

To say comics are perpetually adolescent is not to undermine them. The popular caricature of comic fans as geeks, freaks, trainspotters and losers is not entirely inaccurate. I once went to a comics fair with a lanky friend of mine. He walked through the door, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Then he spread his arms wide and surveyed the various mutants flicking through troughs of plastic-sheathed rarities. “My people!” he said. Comics, like adolescents, and like comic fans, both do and don’t want to grow up. The adolescent’s questions are also those of the comic. How can we go on when the world is such a horrible place? How can we live in these disgusting, leaky, lumpy bodies? How can we ever be loved? This is the dissidence of adolescence from the internal exile of the bedroom.

Comics are supposed to have grown up several times. In the 1980s, the graphic novel - Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for example - achieved a brief respectability. Something similar is happening today with equally engaged comics like Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area: Gorazde, or the film adaptations of Road to Perdition and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth won the Guardian First Book Award: an honour, as Ware puts it, “generally only bestowed upon those authors who refuse to learn how to draw”. When I asked staff at the Gosh comic shop on Museum Street what they thought of Comica, they said ICA’s festival was “a bit too Guardian”. In other words, it’s the same comics getting yet more attention from the same mainstream readership.

However, the exhibition, accompanying a number of sold-out live events featuring among others Sacco, Ware and Burns, remained marginal, even within the building. Located in the long white corridor that leads from the entrance foyer to the bar, the main part of the show was a special commission from OuBaPo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinee Potentielle, or “workshop for the potential of comics”). This collaboration between roughly 15 artists makes a virtue of being staged in a transient space. A large number of different stories (all on yellow Post-it notes) cross, collide with and jump off from a simple linear strip by Tom Gauld, whose similar Move to the City appears in Time Out magazine. The most outstanding contribution came from Ware, whose old-fashioned style of clear line and definite inking is both moving and elegant.

Across the corridor there was a brief history of underground comics, starting in the 1960s in the bedrooms of West Coast America and spreading out across the country. The most powerful image here was Joe Coleman’s poster-size mommy/daddy, in which the left half of Mommy and the right of Daddy are displayed in symbolic crucifixion. The bottom of the picture shows their tomb-stones and rotting cadavers. The rest of the exhibition comprised covers and two-page spreads from classics. This is where the white glass-topped cases come in. It might be overstating it to say that comics can only be appreciated with an accompanying teen-bedroom stench of sock, scalp and crotch, but there is something weirdly antiseptic about this form of display. Better to trudge up Charing Cross Road to Comic Showcase or Forbidden Planet. At least there you can browse. That said, the ICA Bookshop has put together a fantastically wide selection of comics, to be touched, admired and purchased. Perhaps even taken home and copied.


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