Comics, Art for the Idiosyncratic

With little pressure to conform to storytelling or visual norms, comics are rife with artists like Jason Shiga, who bends and splices genres, and whose aesthetic sense is readily identifiable as his own.

One of the best books I've read this year is Jason Shiga's Bookhunter (Sparkplug Comics, 2007). The joy and pleasure I get from this work starts with the art; perfectly expressive cartoon figures, richly detailed backgrounds, and shades of brown for color that give the book a vintage feel, like sepia or black and white in film.

There’s also the narrative, which is a crazy mashup of period piece (1970s Oakland, California), police procedural, and action-thriller. There’s also the twist: the police in question work for the public library, and are on the trail of a thief who stole a bible from the rare book room of the Oakland Library.

Shiga fills the panels of Bookhunter with images of ‘70s library technology -- card catalogs, microfilm readers, databanks on magnetic tape – that, for some, will bring back memories of days past and, for others, will be windows into a seemingly alien, analog and proto-digital world. While reading Bookhunter, one realizes it could only have been a comic.

Graphic Novel: Book Hunter

Writer: Jason Shiga

Publisher: Sparkplug

Publication date: 2007-05

Length: 144 pages

Image: to other popular visual and storytelling media, comics are an exceptional enabler of the idiosyncratic, or the airing of peculiarly individual narratives, interests, and obsessions. This is not a technical matter -- in purely formal terms Bookhunter could be a movie or TV series – but rather this is a question of where different media fit into contemporary cultural economies and along the array of artistic practice.

One reason that comics are so well-suited to the articulation of singularly odd and innovative narrative visions is that the barriers to entry are low, not just in comparison to film and television, but in absolute terms, as well. At base, all you need is 1) a tool for drawing and 2) a surface for drawing on. Ideally, both will be made for easy reproduction. As a general matter, pencil and paper will do the trick.

A talent for drawing is necessary, of course, but because comics are also a narrative form, one where story, character, and dialogue matter as much as their visualization, simple figures in interesting situations or conversations can make for a good comic. Anders Nilsen's artwork, for example, seems almost designed to prompt reactions like, “Hey, my kid could do that,” and while fair enough, that same kid is unlikely to draw two men, one with a scribbled out head, in a satirical dialogue about semiotics. More to the point, comics are a medium where it hardly matters if, in fact, your kid could do that.

The low barriers to entry not only mean that just about anyone can become a writer and artist, but also that just about anyone can actually afford to do so, too. While digital technologies have made filmmaking and television production more accessible than ever, working on a shoestring in those media is still a much different proposition than it is in comics where, again, pencil and paper will suffice. Financially, comics can sustain idiosyncrasy much more readily than movies or TV.

For the artist, such affordability means that that there are virtually no limits to what one can do visually or narratively. For example, the opening set piece in Bookhunter would require a significant investment to stage for a movie or for television, but here it doesn't cost anything beyond the initial investment in paper, pencil, and ink.

The relatively low financial stakes in comics further means that small audiences are rarely a reason why a book won't get made. It also means that there are fewer pressures to conform to storytelling or visual norms. Comics are rife with artists like Jason Shiga who bend and splice genres, and whose aesthetic sense is readily identifiable as his own.

Even the biggest publishers with the biggest titles can afford to indulge their creators. While this is not always a good thing, letting artists run wild in the corporate garden can produce deliciously creative results like Warren Ellis' and Stuart Immonen's Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (Marvel Comics, 2006-2008), which, despite the lack of creator ownership, is as singular as any small press book. In film and television, because the pressures to find and categorize the potential audience are more intense, works that defy such pigeonholing are more difficult to get made and then, to get distributed.

This is not to suggest that there aren't artists making highly individual works in film and TV, of course, but the ability to be productive in that way in those media is more circumscribed than it is in comics, where the creator can set her/himself up at home, writing and drawing in her/his off-hours, and making copies for distribution at the local copy shop (or, even, individual handmade copies).

That image of the lone artist working at home points to another reason for the amenability of comics to idiosyncratic art: while the medium often is collaborative, it in no way needs to be. The digital technologies that make film and TV production more accessible financially also make it technically possible for a single individual to be their own studio, but that is not, I think, the best way to work in those media. Even at their most stripped down, the skill sets required to make film and TV are different enough that few can manage to work on their own in an effective and efficient way.

The collective nature of authorship in the production of narrative moving image works makes those forms interesting and exciting, but it also makes them fundamentally different from comics, where the individual creator can, in fact, exercise their particular demons and fixations without having to compromise her/his vision with others.

When considering distribution, the differences between comics, film, and television begin to blur. In all three, reaching a wider audience still largely requires business, and possibly corporate, partners. However in all three, there are increasing opportunities for creators to retain creative control over their work while relying on others for distribution. Individual artists in all of these forms can also self-publish online, but in all cases the internet is a noisy, crowded, and cluttered place that poses challenges for any independent producer to navigate and get noticed.

When getting down to the most basic ability to share one's work with others, the simplicity of comics production is matched by the simplicity of distribution. I can carry a stack of comics with me and hand them out, or sell them, to whomever I find that shares my interests or is intrigued by my work, and I can do this with relative ease and minimal cost, as compared to comparably handing out a film or TV show, both of which require additional technology to be seen, not excluding costlier production. In much the same way as individual artists can control the production of their work in comics, so too do individual readers control their experience in ways that is not quite possible with moving image media.

The potential for such individual exchanges is why comics conventions, especially those that cater to individual creators and small publishers, work as effectively they do for writers, artists, and readers alike (in fact, I purchased my copy of Bookhunter at this year's Stumptown Comics Festin Portland, Oregon).

The apparent simplicity, and sometimes crudeness, of comics makes it easy to look on the form as necessarily lacking in artistic value. What this impression misses is the creative latitude and freedom that the medium grants to artists. One of the truths hidden in the “comics aren't just for kids anymore” cliché is that comics are a medium wherein it is possible, common even, for an artist's vision, in all of its idiosyncrasy, to flower.

As much as I love film and television, I know that I will find more unique and singular works in the catalogs of small and independent comics presses than I will in theaters or on TV.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.