Jawbreakers For Your Eyes

Ronnie Scott tells us why art comics are the true radicals of the graphic novels world, from Paper Rad to Kramers Ergot.


It’s been a long time since the 80s and getting longer every day, but looking at headlines about comic books you wouldn’t really know it.

It all started with three books that changed the game forever: two apocalyptic reimaginings of the superhero origins-story, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Holocaust memoir in which mice menaced by cats stood in for the Jews and Nazis.

‘BANG! POW! ZAP! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!’ And so they weren’t. Comics was suddenly recognised as a medium as unique as text or art or film, which led to a general explosion of cultural weirdness as the world tried to separate the medium’s most likely content – tights, capes and funnies – from its potential, which was largely untapped. This is roughly the time we got the term ‘graphic novel’. At best, it’s a descriptive term, like hardcover or paperback, for a book-length work of comics that’s bound into a codex. At worst, it’s a class category – a way for publishers to indicate that their readers should expect serious stuff.

The problem is that there’s always more than one way to be serious. Because while the headlines have stayed pretty much unchanged since the 80s, comics has expanded in directions nobody back then could have foreseen. A side effect of comics’ ongoing quest for legitimacy is that the ones that tend to get the most cultural space are, well, literary. And by literary, I don’t mean complex and thrilling and boundary-pushing and smart and fun (although frequently, they are). I mean they tend to be the comics that have a whole lot of text – the comics that are most like written books. But when the space devoted to discussing comics in newspapers and magazines is so limited, this means a whole slew of terrific work gets swept under the rug.

Much of it belongs to the non-genre you can loosely group as ‘art’. It’s the medium being pushed and squeezed and distorted by fine artists, installation artists, architects, programmers … the list goes on and on.

By far the best and most consistent publisher of art comics is PictureBox, a Brooklyn-based outfit fronted by Dan Nadel, who also co-edits The Comics Journal (the best online venue to keep up with this stuff). One collective of artists producing great work through them is Paper Rad. One member, Ben Jones, makes hallucinatory animations for the Cartoon Network. To give you an aesthetic idea: it’s absurdist, retro and wild.

A world apart, there’s Renée French, also publishing through PictureBox, who has more in common with H.R. Giger, designer of the monster from the Alien movies, than with psychedelic cartoons. We can part-claim French as Australian, since she’s sometimes based in Sydney, but her work belongs to a beautiful and terrifying dreamscape that’s often purpose-built for rendering her chronic migraines. Her pages dizzy you.

For my money, the most interesting artist working in comics today is C.F., the alias of Rhode Island-based artist Chris Forgues. He’s highly memeable, having spawned even Melbourne-based copycats, and one look at his pages shows you why. They’re deceptively simple, with wan, lanky, malleable characters interacting in a world of quick, clean lines.

In his ongoing series, Powr Mastrs, they’re all coalescing into a sci-fi-inflected fantasy universe that will eventually – you imagine – make sense. But maybe it won’t, because Forgues’s bright, shocking characters might just be tools for him to exhibit his ingenious grasp of form. A page might be devoted to showing a drop of liquid falling (I won’t say what kind of liquid; his comics are very adult). But the same drop of liquid is shown almost identically across 12 panels, which confuses the very dimensions of comics. Which panels are meant to show space? Which are meant to show time?

In the hands of Forgues, basic sense-making questions like ‘how long?’ and ‘how far?’ become ontological exercises. If you let them. Unlike dense, difficult prose, they’re also stunning visual documents, which means you’re entirely welcome to dissemble them – or just drink them up.

C.F., Renée French and Paper Rad suggest alternate futures for comics. They’re equally radical departures from the sophisticated narratives towards which the 80s forefathers directed the form. For anyone who loves books, they’re also just the start. Mould Map is a gorgeous, tabloid-sized publication from UK set-up Landfill Editions. It defines its content as ‘narrative art’, lets artists run wild and prints on sumptuous paper. Kramers Ergot, edited by also-sometimes-Australian Sammy Harkham, unearths fascinating artists and puts them in contrast and context with Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes (Time magazine called one issue ‘a jawbreaker for your eye’). Dig deep on blogs and you’ll find more.

Comics is attracting more types of readers, thinkers and practitioners than ever before, and nobody knows what the medium will look like in ten years’ time. As artists continue their excursions beyond the realm of the book – into online platforms, mobile devices and even 3D media, such as sculpture – we’ll be seeing work that demands fresh answers to the question ‘what is a comic?’ for longer than any of us will be alive. For now, comic-makers are taking the question of what books are to deep places, and since they’re artists, they know how to make experiments look nice. For the lazy home decorator, I’d even suggest them as a low-investment alternative to succulents.

Ronnie Scott is a contributor to The Believer, The Australian and Meanjin, and is the comics and graphic novels critic for ABC Radio National. In 2007, he founded The Lifted Brow, a free-form culture and fiction magazine; nowadays, he’s the art editor. Find him at www.ronalddavidscott.com.