Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Time For Adventure with Marc Bell: Stroppy

Marc Bell is weirdly one of the most influential cartoonists of the last twenty years but also one of the most obscure to most audiences. His stylistic flourishes are partly a continuation of classic bigfoot cartooning, partly a continuation of underground comics (I see bits of R.Crumb and Skip Williamson in there), and partly an outlet for the feverishly vibrant concepts that spew forth from his imagination. Marc Bell is an artist who puts the lie to Scott McCloud's notion that comics by nature must have multiple panels to tell a story, because even his single page/single panel work seems to move and pulsate on the page. In reading his comics, one almost sees Bell as less an artist crafting a narrative than as an anthropologist dutifully observing and recording the goings-on of the cultures that happen to inhabit his brain. Another influence seems to be Will Elder in terms of the incredible detail and many "eye pops" (or "chicken fat", as Elder called) that can be found in every panel of Bell's work. Bell piles joke upon joke upon joke, providing callbacks to his own comics as well as references to the wider culture (pop and otherwise). Despite the frenzied energy of each panel, Bell counteracts that mania with languid, casual interactions. Conversations between characters can go on for pages. There's a sense of the characters just hanging out as Bell observes them doing their thing.

Bell is an obvious influence on many of today's comics surrealists (Matthew Thurber would be one example, Michael DeForge another), but he's had an even greater influence on a generation of animators. Virtually every single original show on the Cartoon Network owes a debt to Bell's work, from Uncle Grandpa to (especially) Adventure Time. The trippy visuals, the weird background details and even the relaxed pace of the narrative mirrors Bell's work. The main difference is that much of Bell's work can be hard to access without a plot to latch onto. Those shows have had success precisely because they've mixed Bell's visuals with a very simple premise and plot. Bell's latest book from Drawn & Quarterly, Stroppy, is Bell's attempt at reclaiming his aesthetic by similarly grafting it onto a simple plot.

The plot of Stroppy is as follows: the titular characters loses his awful job, his home and even his clothes thanks to an annoying guy advertising a concert by a mysterious local collective of musicians. Said musicians are advertising a songwriting contest that Stroppy enters with the work of a friend of his who happens to be a poet. Meanwhile, his ex-employer is concerned with the amount of power these musicians are accruing and launches his own investigation. The storylines converge in the contest and Stroppy's subsequent attempt to rescue his poet friend from the clutches of the musicians. It's a slightly odd story, but straightforward enough, as the reader is always kept aware that Stroppy is having abuse heaped on him, that the musicians are weird and vaguely sinister, and that everyone with the slightest amount of power is an asshole. Bell further keeps things simple but structuring the narrative as a series of four-panel pages, very much taking a cue from the early comic strip masters. That keeps things chugging while allowing Bell to reset on every page, adding flourishes as he goes.

That narrative spine allows Bell to go off the deep end into total silliness, weirdness and satire (this comic is one long, Kafkaesque attack on capitalism) while still retaining thematic and aesthetic unity. It's an insane world that Stroppy lives in, but one with internally consistent rules and reality. Oppression, the abuse of power, disregarding the efforts of hard work, bureaucracy, and the whims of those in control are taken as givens. The musicians, the All-Star Schnauzer Band, are a collection of megalomaniacal lunatics. Stroppy's boss, Monsieur Moustache, is the embodiment of slimy greed. The guy who accidentally gets him fired, Sean, wins my vote for "character you'd most like to see pummeled" as an unctuous bootlick who is oblivious to the harm he causes to others. Bell's lyrics are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and just when you think the book has climaxed during the songwriting contest, Bell takes things to the next level with Stroppy fighting for his friend by way of playing an elaborately and psychotically designed miniature golf course. Bell reclaims his spot as one of the top humorists in comics with Stroppy, making his work more accessible without sacrificing an ounce of his aesthetics.

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