Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dancing About Architecture: Side B

Rob reviews "the music lover's comic anthology", SIDE B (Poseur Ink), edited by Rachel Dukes.

Trying to get at the core of one's feelings about experiencing music is enormously difficult to do in ink, be it text or image. This is due, I think, to music being the most ephemeral of the arts. With music, there is no distinction between a copy of the recording and the original recording. Even the physical housing for a recording has no special aesthetic quality inherent to the art. There's an immediacy to hearing music that is so tied to temporality that hearing specific songs at certain times ties the two together forever in one's memory. The experience of seeing and hearing music live takes on a certain tribal quality for those who see it together, binding it even further to time and place. More than any other art form, one can talk about and around music, but never hope to capture the experience of listening to music with language.

Armed with both word and text, there have been a number of examples of comics that tried to tackle this problem. Steve Lafler's BUGHOUSE is probably my favorite, capturing the spirit underlying the creation of music, the camaraderie of being in a band, the sparks of collaboration and the power of live performance. Jaime Hernandez is well-known for his achingly accurate depiction of a music scene in his stories concerning the punk scene in Los Angeles and the travails of a small-time band. More than that, so many of his stories center around the ways that music creates meanings, often secret meanings (this was the centerpiece of his great "Wigwam Bam", for example).

Cartooning about music isn't easy and is rife for failure if one isn't completely committed. The old Comics Journal Special Edition centering around music from a few years back had an astonishing array of cartoonists, but many of the biggest names clearly mailed it in. Cartoonist and editor Rachel Dukes is so devoted to the topic that she has done a second anthology about music, SIDE B (the obvious sequel to SIDE A). It's a "mom and pop" operation, assisted only by her fiance Mike Lopez and self-published at considerable personal expense. It's clear that music is a strong enough force in their lives that they feel compelled to make this kind of commitment.

Unsurprisingly in an anthology comprised mostly of young and/or unknown cartoonists, the results were uneven. There also tended to be a certain amount of repetition in the themes chosen by the artists. That's inevitable in an anthology with a fairly narrow theme, but the better examples of each theme tend to make the lesser examples look even worse in comparison. The story categories roughly broke down as follows: the live music experience, music in relation to specific people in one's life, mixtapes, childhood remembrances of music, a special connection to a particular artist, love stories centering around music and the nature of music itself.

There were surprisingly few stories about the live experience, which I thought odd given the opportunity to draw audiences or bands in motion. Jeffrey Brown checked in with a funny anecdote about Cat Power looking right at him during a show and how that made him swoon. Dino Caruso and Josh Kemble's story about Caruso being sneaked into a David Lee Roth concert as a teen was also cute and revealed much about the strength of their relationship. On the other hand, a number of artists tried to tackle the nature of music and everyone came up short. For example, Rob Guillory's two pager was an illustration with a paragraph about his conception of music, and it just died on the page. R.S. Carbonneau and Jonathan Bass' clumsy attempt at depicting the way music can inspire writing metaphorically as a spacewalk spoke to two different problems. First, collaborating on this topic is enormously difficult, because a writer is most likely going to overwrite instead of letting the art tell the story. Second, as Brandon Graham noted in the clever introduction, depicting music is a matter of "show, don't tell", where the artist needs to "build a cool". Most of the lesser pieces in the book are too direct and earnest, trying to spell everything out instead of evoking something about the experience of listening to music.

That's why the most successful comics in SIDE B were those that focused on the relationship between music and memory. Liz Baillie's "Radio Radio Radio" and Box Brown's "A Beggar's Banquet" both tied specific songs to the funeral of someone close to them (one being fictional, the other autobiographical). In both instances, the song was a way of bridging the gap between life and death, and listening to it reinforced the connection they all shared. Here, music became a sort of shorthand for emotion. Ed Choy Moorman's story was along the same lines, going over a lifetime of musical experiences with someone close to him.

The comics form is obviously best known for its narrative qualities, and so stories about particular musicians and how they connect with each artist's life is a natural fit. Most of these tended to boil down to "I listened to band x in high school and his is how it made me feel", which unfortunately became repetitive after a while and uninformative unless you were directly familiar with the group in question. The stories that succeeded best told us something about the musician in addition to the cartoonist. That list included Colleen Frakes' story about Portland performance artist Jason Webley (done in her trademark loose style that featured a lot of black); Jim Mahfood's funny story about the effect Gary Wilson's odd stylings had on his personal aesthetic; and Noah Van Sciver's attempts at blazing out the bohemian's path ala Bob Dylan. There's an unabashed enthusiasm in each artist's story, showing that allowing someone to go on at length about an artist they admire can reveal something about the storyteller as well. The grittiness of the art of Mahfood (much less precious than much of his art) and Van Sciver brought the stories to life in a way that some of the slicker artists in the anthology don't.

Going back to one's youth so as to explore what music meant to each artist was another move that made sense, especially given the intensity with which teenagers feel everything, but especially music. I enjoyed Lucy Knisley's account of having all of her music disappear from her hard drive, with both a sense of loss and freedom from musical memories. Lawrence Gullo's story of Prague in 1968 was an interesting reminder of how Western music was a symbol of freedom to those behind the Iron Curtain, while Patricio Betteo's blotchy figures nicely captured the shadowy nature of music's grip.

Connecting music to love stories is another intuitive move, given that so many songs are about love. Three stories stand out here: Morgan Pielli's hilarious silent entry about dinosaurs and the first notes sounded (which brutally subverted sentiment in its final panel); Cathy Johnson's scribbly comic about missed opportunities for romance at a concert; and Warren Wucinich's stylish account of a night spent in the city, looking for live jazz and finding romance. The latter story wraps in the mixtape concept in slyly, with each song triggering a different memory. Jon Chad did something similiar in his mixtape story, with a specific track bringing back a particularly traumatic event while the character is making bread. Both stories are virtually wordless, instead using sweeping imagery and iconography to get their ideas across.

A few other stories bear mentioning: Mitch Clem's hilarious adaptation of the song "Checkers Speech" by the Mr T Experience, putting Richard Nixon in a new light; Jon Sperry's fun story about a band of anthropomorphic cats fighting aliens; Madeline Flores' twisty story about a teenager adjusting to the music and customs of a new land; the editors themselves with a cute entry about how the game Rock Band became a new way to bond over their shared love of music; and Megan Gedris' zip-a-tone heavy story about being courted by her various muses and how she wound up with the muse of comics instead of the muse of music. Like most anthologies with open submissions, I would have expunged about half of the entries and tightened it up a bit more. That said, Dukes' commitment to presenting a wide range of visual approaches was admirable, from the naturalistic Vertigo-esque art of Ryan Kelly to more abstract approach of Betteo. SIDE B's main problem was a sameness in conceptual approaches, which is where a stronger editing hand might have weeded out a weaker entry that was too similar to a stronger piece. Still, SIDE B's stronger stories were clever and affecting, displaying how motivated so many cartoonists were in addressing an art form so very different from theirs.


  1. Nice review. I think it's definitely a concept that can be explored successfully. There so much opportunity for resonance when it comes to music.

    Best thing I read recently was the new Phonogram series 'The Singles Club'. First time I've dipped into the series and it totally nails the whole music / memory / magic thing. Best thing I've read this month in terms of single issue comics.

  2. Thank you for the honorable mention! It was indeed a tricky thing to tackle - but I reckon as long as there is personal enthusiasm leading the way, it's bound to be interesting.