Domen Finžgar, Stripburger 53

The Slovene Comic delay

Every time somebody in Slovenia writes about comics, the writing always starts in similar fashion, saying that reading comics used to be one of the lesser activities, usually reserved for teenagers, that comics still aren't seen as art form, that comics in Slovenia still aren't seen as lucrative business. This may be a serious problem, not only for publishers, but also for the artists. However, by simply repeating same old already known facts, the comics' scene cannot be successful in communicating with public and potential new readers. Articles of this kind only confirm decade-old facts and are not really needed anymore, now that Slovene public is familiar with the likes of Miki Muster, and Art Spiegelman is appearing in textbooks. These articles merely repeat the basic knowledge regarding comics. But we tend to forget, even though we often equate comics with literature, that language is a living organism that keeps changing all the time. The language of comics is growing and developing constantly. There's an ever growing number of artists that discard the definitions of comics, cemented in people's heads, like telling a story in sequences, through speech bubbles.*

But the comics language isn't the only thing that is changing, the way we read comics has changed, too. For a full comics-reading experience, one needs an extensive prior knowledge, not just common knowledge, but knowledge about comics themselves. A familiarity with basic, classic comics is expected when reading certain comics authors. At this point we can discard the obvious references or, more appropriately, homage comics, like the ones referencing Peanuts for example. The Peanuts characters and motifs appear in short comics by Art Spiegelman (Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy), Seth (Good Grief!) and Chris Ware (Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, ...). In same manner, we can skip over the fleeting references about comics' scene in diary comics by Julie Doucet (My New York Diary). But we certainly cannot overlook the fact that comics by Canadian threesome Seth, Chester Brown and Joe Matt can only be fully understood when we familiarize with their characters as they're described in their comics. The three creators socialize in private lives as well and since their comics are autobiographical, it is expected that their characters appear in each other's works. In reality, this means that Seth's sarcastic comments in Matt's comics sound completely different, because Seth portrays himself in his comics as a misunderstood romantic who would never hurt a fly (It's a Good Life if You don't Weaken). In The Poor Bastard, we can follow a telephone conversation, where Joe Matt is retelling the story of one of his favorite early Peanuts episodes. Equally interesting is the comic Emmaüs by Lewis Trondheim (Racham Poutch, 1991), in which four sequences from Spiegelman's Maus appear. In these sequences there is Art Spiegelman, complaining about the fact that his relatives already used all of profitable media forms (film, tv series and novel) to tell his father's story and that all he is left with is comics.* Without basic knowledge about Maus, reader cannot make much use out of this kind of material.

As far as comics' language goes, 2009 was the year it took new courses. This development was maybe most obvious in Driven by Lemons (J.W. Cotter, Adhouse Books) and Asterios Polyp (David Mazzuchelli, Pantheon) The former was recognized as a madman's diary by critics and was praised as one of the best comics of the year and best innovation since Chris Ware. The comic book is indeed designed as a Moleskine diary, to which a patient could scribble his thoughts. So the comic has a bit of everything - from heavy, condensed read that doesn't tell much, similar to thoughts that can be quite empty sometimes, to light, quick sequences that can be processed in few seconds. Along with the reading dynamic, the graphic style changes too. It jumps from meticulous pencil sketches to stacks of black sequences, obviously drawn very quickly. The storytelling side of the comic leaves us somehow unsatisfied in our expectations, as there's no classical drama triangle, just a series of seemingly unconnected events. But Cotter does not just serve the story on a silver platter; it has to be woven by readers themselves. Driven by Lemons transforms into a story of a man on the verge of suicide (or did he already attempt one?) who in the end somehow manages to achieve his life goal. But at the same time, author suggests we're still talking about a lunatic whose ray of hope can easily become his most morbid thought. The feeling of anxiousness experienced by reader in the beginning of the story does not disappear when the reading is done, but perhaps is even more accentuated. Can this comic book be described as one of the best comics of last year?

In my opinion, the author offers us an excellent starting point for comics' language that could use some completion in many areas. It can be said that we are dealing with a prototype of some sort, a work that shows us an idea of endless possibilities comics have. To be quite honest, a number of similar attempts have been recorded. One of my personal favorites among comics experimentalists is Dutch Stefan van Dinther, who in his comic CHRZ (Bries, 2005) managed to present a happening viewed from nine different angles simultaneously on the same page while keeping it,  most importantly, wonderfully readable. The other pioneer comic is an overlooked mini album The Heroic Mosh of Mary's Son (Malcy Duff, Missing Twin Publishing, 2008), a wonderfully unpretentious story I found among usually unnoticeable Scottish comics. It's a story about dreams dreamed by a teenager conceived at a rock concert. This vague description can not describe the fact that the comic book is so out of whack in graphical sense, where the author uses photography and even words instead of drawings and where human figures are simplified to the point where the only thing that separates them from brooms is their ability to speak, but the comic has also a unique narrative style. The narration is very detailed and objective at the beginning, whereas the ending is confusing and subjective. CHRZ may not be the diary of a madman, but Mosh of Mary's Son somewhat resembles Driven by Lemons in its concept. The battle between two comics is lost by Mary's Son due to its lack of recognizability, a fact that could only be blamed on market differences, publisher's power, promotion, etc. But as I said: Mosh of Mary's Son is an unpretentious comic book, intended for comic reading gourmets, while Driven by Lemons is a well thought out product with beautiful colors and hard covers.

The other comic book of the past year worth mentioning is Asterios Polyp. The book was a bestseller even before it was published, largely because of its author David Mazzucchelli, (Asterios Polyp is his first album since City of Glass). It's not very common for a comic to cause this kind of a stir before its publication, another fact that tells a lot about comics' development. Despite of all the excitement, the album didn't receive positive reviews by the critics. And I can agree with them. Not that the comic is bad, but it's just that it doesn't deliver what was expected from it. This is a typical love story between seemingly incompatible characters, brought together by fate. It's full of incredibly well, never before seen graphic solutions (the interweaving of speech bubbles for example as main characters approach each other, or the spotlight that slowly advances from the shy girl to the dominant man, etc.) On the other hand, we just cannot lose the feeling that the story is not important and that the atmosphere and the characters show only through play of colors and lights, as drawings are architecturally cold (the main character is architect by trade). In my opinion, the choice of drawing style was a mistake; we do get an insight into a cold character, but this unfortunately reflects in the book as a whole. While the comic itself is aesthetic, it is also quite cold. Asterios Polyp does not offer many reasons for re-reading: all surprises are served to the reader all too obviously.

The cases of Asterios Polyp and Driven by Lemons open the question, what is the ideal ratio between the story and graphical image. The answer is simple, in fact. If the tendency for equality of comics and literature exists (and is necessary), as I've stated in the beginning, then this equality should be consistent. It should be realized that as much as there is diversity between different literary expressions, the expression in comics is just as diverse. Stories that were once strictly classical now allow deviations from expected patterns. And this is just what the Abstract Comics collection (Drawn and Quarterly, 2009) is all about. These lyrical, experimental comics, mostly one pagers, correspond more to painting than they do to literature. On the other hand, Alan's War (La Guerre d'Alan by Emmanuel Guibert, L'Association, 2000-2008) somewhat puts the (otherwise excellent) drawings on the side. The story of a veteran of WW2 is executed as masterfully as any serious novel. As the author put it in the preface, the abridged drawing (the only drawn things are human figures and objects of importance, made in very interesting water drawing technique; sometimes the backgrounds remain simply white and empty) was intended for readers to fill the missing parts with their own mental images. The artist also states that the story was drawn long after the war was over, so certain memories remain hazy; only the most important ones remain. These two radical cases do not only show that some works cannot be compared directly, but also that comics aren't being created strictly by comic artists, but also by painters and writers. Comics are becoming an object of communication in which writers back up an indescribable emotion with a picture, and graphical designer add words to similarly back up their pictures. The latter thought leads us to the manner of thinking advocated by Wostok. In his Mala antologija turbo folk stripov (Turbo pekmez, marmelada: pontonski mostovi, Forum, 2006) he states that everybody should be a comic creator; that comics should not become domain of elites of theorists and artists, but it should remain open for new creative approaches. Nothing wrong with that thought; however, in my opinion, only comic creators can exploit the medium in its entirety. Creators who can get the most out of literature and graphic design. Such masters of the medium remain Art Spiegelman, David B., Daniel Clowes, etc. Perhaps not people who are pioneers of the new comics' language, but people who are simply masters of this language.

There it is. The article that is ending is supposed to be encouraging readers to read more comics, now that the selection has grown immensely. At the same time, I'd like to stress out that writers of articles related to comics should be aware of the growing production. They should not allow the delay in following the comics' scene, which exists for decades now, to go on. There are comics for dreamers, hard workers, lumberjacks, students of Faculty of Social sciences, moms, politicians, celebrities and students. There are comics for everybody. Best bookstores and libraries are quite well stocked and online shopping is easier than ever. There really is no reason to reminisce on times when comics were cheap and available on every corner. The times are changing. Why shouldn't comics? (Finžgar)

* Speech bubbles are not a product of comics. They appeared in much earlier cartoons.

* Maus contains several scenes where Art talks to his father Vladek. Sequences from these conversations can also be found in Emmaüs.