Friday, August 5, 2011

Sequart #123: Hall Of Best Knowledge

This post originally appeared at in 2008.

Ray Fenwick is one of my favorite new regulars in Fantagraphics' flagship anthology Mome. His work stretches the very definition of what comics can be, because it bears only a passing resemblance on the surface to what is understood to be comics. His Hall Of Best Knowledge is a series of single-page panels, each of which is about a different topic by an unknown "author". While each panel contains decorative touches, there's very little in here in the way of pure illustration in any kind of conventional sense. Instead, the stylized extremes of Fenwick's lettering, combined with those decorative extras, combine to create a narrative flow that is entirely different from a typical prose story. The amplification of a part of comics that is usually invisible to most readers, lettering, helps create a unique reading experience.

A musical comparison might be to funk, a form that brings the usually-hidden rhythmic components of music (bass and drums in particular) and turns them into lead instruments, while the typical lead instruments become secondary and in service of the former rhythm instruments. So it is with Fenwick on the comics page, only in a more extreme manner. The prose on each page is stylized for reasons that only become clear at the very end of the story, though we do get hints dropped throughout. Each page contains a "lesson" on some topic, explained in a bombastic and florid manner by "the author". The lessons are frequently hilarious (though unintentionally so) as we are led to believe that he's a professor of some sort, dealing with a class of frequently ungrateful students. Some of his lessons get "cancelled", sometimes due to mysteriously hurt feelings.

Some of the lessons seem entirely unconnected, while others have a very clear linear connection. The effect is never disorienting thanks to the way each page acts as a complete entity of its own. We are left wondering as to what's going on while still being able to fully enjoy each page as its own discrete unit. The result is a package that is a tremendously engaging work of graphic design, calligraphy and good ol' comics lettering filtered through a dry sense of humor, an unusual set of narrative techniques and a surprisingly cohesive story in the end.

In addition to forming an ultimately pathetic (but somehow uplifting) account of "the author", Hall of Best Knowledge also acts as a scathing satire of rhetoric for its own sake. Lines like "I am, of course, a powerful golden eagle of mental fitness, able to swoop down on this unsuspecting topic and snatch it up, my powerful talons locked around its helpless form as its family squeaks below in desperation" are typical utterances from the pompous author whose lack of self-awareness contribute so much to the humor of the book. Combined with an unusual method of packaging from design ace Jacob Covey (a wrap-around ribbon has the title of the book on the cover, and strips are only printed on right-hand pages), Fantagraphics has made a bold move in publishing such an unusual work. I can't wait to see what Fenwick comes up with next.

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