Thursday, April 12, 2012

Comics-As-Poetry: Badman, Moreton, Zervakis

Let's look at some recent minicomics examples of comics-as-poetry:
No Way Constant and Untitled (Sternwood), by Derik A. Badman. Badman is a critic whose comics play around with appropriating and repurposing the texts and images of others to create new and frequently elliptical meanings. Untitled is one of his most successful comics to date. The front half of the comic consists of images appropriated from stills taken from a variety of film noir examples, including The Big Sleep. We see close-ups of doors, telephones, revolvers, cameras, statues with hidden compartments, shower stalls with bullet holes, and finally a wisp of cigarette smoke in the dark. Badman is ingenious in the way he strings together unrelated images and completely eschews depicting any people to create a more accessible narrative, yet the atmosphere he creates and the images he chooses make it easy to roughly understand what's happening. The key here is his choice of a midnight-blue wash in every panel, truly creating the "noir" atmosphere found in those sort of movies. The back half of the comic has a dark yellow wash and similarly depicts a place and a set of objects. The difference is that it's modern-day and that the things he depicts are stripped of the cultural meaning imbued in film noir: it's just a normal person going about their day. Yet, many of the objects he portrays could easily have a sinister bent depending on coloring choices and the juxtaposition of images. This comic is a witty depiction of how we read, comprehend and contextualize images.

No Way Constant is just as intriguing in its own way, working as a mash-up between Robinson Crusoe and 1940s/1950s romance comics and jungle girl comics. The way he juxtaposes Crusoe author Daniel DeFoe's prose regarding desire and danger with both the sort of action one would see in a jungle comic and the yearning found in a romance comic is especially clever. The one problem with this attempt is that Badman's attempts at copying masters of motion like Jesse Marsh comes out looking stiff. The sheer lushness of image that made those comics interesting is absent here, and as a reader I found myself being taken out of the page by the crudeness of some of the drawings--especially the figure work. It was an interesting experiment, but it's nowhere near as fluidly successful as Untitled.

Strange Growths #15, by Jenny Zervakis. For a variety of reasons, this 90s and early 2000s minicomics mainstay has had a reduced work output over the past few years. Like her friend and peer John Porcellino, she does autobio comics with a heavily poetic bent, focusing on the meaning to be found in small but significant moments. Her line is scribbly and warm, echoing the way her text invites the reader into her life without necessarily giving them much context. It's a portrait of a life lived, moment by moment, told in a series of short anecdotes. "Iceberg", for example, talks about an iceberg screensaver on her computer that comes to represent the feeling of stasis she herself was experiencing--especially with regard to being creative. This issue marks the melting of that iceberg, as she herself put forth the question. Much of this issue focuses on family, like the sort of things her daughter says or connections back to her relatives in Greece. Zervakis seeing the world through the eyes of her daughter is especially fascinating, as she treats her observations seriously but without overt sentimentality. Zervakis also has an ear for what others say that's reminiscent of Harvey Pekar, like a conversation she overheard on a bus between two people who were putting down someone else. There's a lyricism present in her work that gives each story a satisfying quality on its own, but the accretion of her short stories in this issue adds up to a gestalt that's warm, sincere and honest.

Smoo Comics #4 and The Escapoligist, by Simon Moreton. Moreton continues to refine his voice as a poet and cartoonist. Smoo #4 is an especially lovely meditation on the town he grew up in as a teen-ager called Marlow, which is essentially a suburb of London. Working with a spare, scribbly and occasionally smudged pencil line, Moreton evokes memories through geometric figures, lines and shadows. The way in which he leaves so much open space on each page allows the reader to fill in the gaps while still maintaining the essential sketchiness of both image and memory. Moreton takes the reader on a recapitulation of his perceptual journey of Moreton, going from the awe of childhood to the contempt of his teenage years to the ways in which he and his friends tried to create meaning. The revelations Moreton provides about his sense of growing old externally but not feeling it internally are not especially innovative, but that does not diminish the impact of the revelation as he feels it, nor the beautiful way that he expresses it on the page. I loved the added touch of Moreton attaching an envelope that has a postcard and a hand-drawn map of Marlow.

If Smoo is Moreton's take on John Porcellino, then The Escapologist is his attempt at Warren Craghead's style of comics-as-poetry. Here, Moreton cleverly juxtaposes the solidness of place (brick walls, bushes, lawns of carefully cut grass) with his geometrically spectral figures. Like in Smoo, this is a comic about being from a particular place and knowing particular people, and how the sum total of our personality is constructed in part by our relationships with others. It's a short and sweet depiction of a feeling and a sense of loss, of being connected and feeling apart.

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