Spring 2006

Shaggy dog tales

Pictures & Words, New Comic Art and Narrative Illustration

Eds. / Art Directors: Roanne Bell and Mark Sinclair. Design: Brighten the Corners – Studio for Design, and Tom Gauld. Laurence King Publishing, £19.95

This is a classy selection of international work, with an informative foreword (the history of comics in a nutshell) and brief but pithy texts fronting each of the three sections: ‘Silent’ (pictures without words), ‘Single Panel’ and ‘Text and Image’. Bell and Sinclair present works by 33 artists working in a great variety of styles, from the rigidly mechanical to the loose as a goose. The foreword cites ‘comics are just for kids’ as an ‘old adage’ which we ‘still hear all too often’. That seems a tad disingenuous at this late date and in this deluxe context, but never mind. A lot of fine art these days looks like comics / narrative illustration. Do comics want to be art, or do they want to preserve what’s left of their outsider exemption? Or is that question meaningless in a post-outsider culture like ours? Whatever, after enduring years of the deprivations caused by Photoshop and other digital programs, it’s nice to see so many people drawing again. The hand is back! I was particularly struck by Anna Bhushan’s dreamy watercolours and the loopy line drawings (like ‘untied handwriting’ to use Jean Cocteau’s phrase) by Benoît Jacques.

There’s a handsome modern look to the volume’s overall layout but design smarts don’t interfere with legibility. The collection boasts a fine cover by Tom Gauld whose talents are also well represented inside. Part of the charm of Gauld’s strips is that the events they break down for our scrutiny are so minor. ‘Guardians of the Kingdom’, for instance, is not the adventure romance the title might lead you to expect. It’s about a couple of bored conscripts in a remote outpost killing time while on duty. A bit like Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ except that, unlike the metaphysically inclined joker and the thief in Dylan’s song, Gauld’s guardians limit their exchanges to mundanities. And gradually, in their predicament, tenderly rendered with masterful use of short hatching, we recognise our own.

Like the work of many contemporary comic artists, Gauld’s is in the anti-narrative tradition along with Zen koans, shaggy dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Waiting for Godot, Monty Python and a host of post- and post-post-modernists whose work elevates ‘nothing’ to the status of ‘something’ with the didactic aim of making the audience self-aware. These days we’re all semioticians, adept at deciphering glyphs, separating signal from noise, savouring nuance, negotiating ellipses, obliquity, irony, etc., in our search for meaning. The need we all have to make sense of things is such that it is nigh impossible not to project some kind of connection, a narrative of sorts, on any sequence of signs. Persistence of vision is responsible for the illusion of movement in animation. Persistence of something else is the basis of the illusion of coherent narrative in several of these strips. In that sense their true subject seems to be the act of reading, of deciphering itself.

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