Thursday, August 27, 2009

Memory and Form: Windy Corner Magazine #3

Rob reviews the latest issue of Austin English's comics/criticism project, WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE #3 (Sparkplug Comic Books).

What I like best about Austin English's ongoing WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE is that it seeks to clarify the artist's relationship with memory and the narrative that we form from our memories, and how this is different from nostalgia. That theme was particularly evident in this issue, given features like Frank Santoro writing about Gipi's GARAGE BAND, memoirist Vanessa Davis interviewing memoirist Carol Tyler, as was as English's own explorations of his past. Of course, there's a wonderful quirkiness to this magazine that sets it apart from other comics-related publications. That quirkiness is not a pose, but rather an expression of the many hats English wears. He's a cartoonist whose style continues to evolve from issue to issue. He's an editor managing submissions, but also a curator of sorts who looks to add just the right piece to create the desired aesthetic effect. He's a critic who seeks to understand and illuminate what art means to him. Above all else, the mission of WINDY CORNER is to get artists thinking about other works of art and how it affects them, as well as the processes of other artists.

English seems to be shifting his style from crude figurework to a blockier style defined by color patterns more than line. A lot of the art in this issue leaned heavily on decorative touches as opposed to a more stripped-down narrative. That was certainly true of the introductory illustrations by Lilli Carre' and the comics-as-poetry inspired table of contents by Molly O'Connell. Carre's use of tiny blasts of color on a white page, culminating in a single figure talking on the phone with her hair on fire, created the sense of a mind gone haywire. O'Connell worked in purple ink, using the most conservative line in the entire issue for her figures that wrapped around the contents. In English's own "Life Of Francis" series, that heavy use of blocky/blobby images dominates this entry, giving a certain sense of frightening solidity to Francis now becoming an adult and living on her own. I don't think English is doing any favors to this slow-moving story by serializing it; it would likely be a more interesting reading experience taken in one shot.

On the other hand, his ongoing exploration of his earliest memories proved to be a highlight. Done in a very loose line and filled in with crayon, "Drawing" really got at the heart of his struggle with drawing, wishing that he could be like one of his friends, whose "hands always knew which line to draw next". "Bernal Heights" is another exploration of living with his family as a child, remembering odd things about the next-door neighbors as only a child might. Of particular interest was "In The Museum", a black & white piece that employed that blocky/blobby style for a story about a father's recollection of a day out with his daughter. This is an emotionally intense story, one where he's trying to figure how to communicate with her and feels constant frustration. I've always liked the direct way English deals with emotion, and the way he intermingles ambivalence and affection with his characters.

The other comics in this issue varied wildly in approach. Sakura Maku's "You Turn My Lights Into Rays" is an intense assault of color, mixed media and calligraphic effect. The way that Maku slips between painting and cartooning and song is dizzying yet exhilarating, reminiscent a bit of Souther Salazar's work. Jason Miles' interpretation of a letter received by Windy Corner uses tiny panels, blotchy art and splotchy colors in an effort to get across the sense of cartoon fellowship the letter-writer felt with English. Both comics are meant to be looked at as much as read, a reflection of the more painterly nature of the magazine. Indeed, the back cover is a painting by Joseph Hart, an assembled piece with different color and textural elements juxtaposed against each other in a way that's hard to take one's eye off of it.

As much as I'm interested in WINDY CORNER's comics, it's the analysis and interviews that engaged me the most. English once again used his intuitive, personal critical style to look at the work of children's book illustrator Garth Williams. This is the most personal essay I've read to date from English, noting that Williams' drawings had enormous power despite their simplicity. Not only in terms of what looking at them meant to him, but in terms of possibilities in terms of making marks. He singles out Williams as the biggest earliest influenced he had in becoming an artist and loving art.

Deceptive simplicity was a running theme throughout the issue's analyses, as Frank Santoro turned his brand of from-the-hip commentary on the pauses and rests of Gipi's GARAGE BAND. Santoro is very much a critic/reader who demands that Something Happen in a narrative framework, yet he found much to love in a story that was entirely driven by character beats both overt and subtle. In particular, he talked about "the synthesis of drawing, color, narrative and symbolism" and how each element informed the other in turn. The color of the skies reflected emotion and possibility, while the elements drawn in each panel reflected the theme of family, both biological and acquired. I loved the way Santoro went chapter by chapter and not only broke down what he saw, but related how they affected him emotionally.

That running theme of how a work affected an artist echoed through Vanessa Davis' interview with Carol Tyler. Davis' free-flowing approach to creating memoir comics owes much to Tyler, and it's clear that the interview touched on a number of Davis' own concerns as an artist: the appearance of productivity, the use of a painterly (as opposed to clear-line) style in comics, the responsibility of the artist when writing about others, and whether or not autobio in general is a worthwhile pursuit. There's an intimacy to this interview that made it feel as more like an intriguing conversation that interested readers would want to eavesdrop in on than a formal discussion. At the same time, Davis managed to zero in on the heart of Tyler's work in terms of both art and artist that I hadn't seen in other interviews. The only problem I have with the interviews in WINDY CORNER is that they seem too short. While the their airm is not a career-spanning blow-by-blow, I wish I could hear a bit more of these conversations.

Even the sloppier elements of WINDY CORNER (smudges, smears, spelling errors, odd fonts, a lack of page numbers) are somehow endearing and sum up what English is all about. Translating what he sees in his mind onto the page has obviously been a career-long struggle for him, yet he continues to push forward and find ways around this problem through sheer effort and love of the form. He's sort of a younger version of Art Spiegelman in that respect--an artist with a deep love and understanding of the history of comics whose brain and eye are far more developed than his hands. Despite that difficulty, both artists soldier on. English may not be at a juncture in comics history when he can dazzle with formal inventions (ala BREAKDOWNS), but he does somehow manage to be two steps ahead of other observers when it comes to sniffing out new talent and movements in comics. English looks to the past like Spiegelman, but seeks out a different set of inspirations--and from sources even more unusual. Poetry, painting and certain kinds of film provide a framework for English's goals as much as comics do, and the observer can see the presence of each discipline start to slowly shape his work. English has a long way to go before he reaches his mature stage as an artist, but his curiosity and determination to push himself and comics in general mark him as an artist to follow.

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