Thursday, January 19, 2017

Slipping Through The Shadows With Roman Muradov

Roman Muradov is one of the few cartoonists I can think of who is somehow an appropriate fit for NoBrow, Uncivilized Books, Kus! and Retrofit. Take Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art (Uncivilized), for example. The mystery angle, satirical elements and stark black & white drawings are all perfect fits for the highbrow/lowbrow mix that Uncivilized is known for. (In A Sense) Lost & Found  (NoBrow) is far more clearly laid out and an easier read in general, and its use of color and its lush design puts it firmly in that NoBrow aesthetic. The End Of A Fence is a smaller-sized art object in vivid color, making it a nice fit in the Kus! family. They're all unmistakably Muradov in terms of the whimsical, angular drawings; a continuous use of shadow; and a bone-dry sense of humor that occasionally veers into too-clever preciousness.

Jacob Bladders is a sort of noir parody set in a ruthless 1940s publishing world where illustrators can get roughed up to get at their work. Even if it's the mediocre work of the titular cartoonist, whose drawing of "career ladders" for the New York Daily News provides steady filler. In many ways, this entire book is a shaggy dog joke, as it imagines Twitter existing in a slightly different form in that era (called Tweeter), with certain elite tweeterers being named as Twitterateurs, leading to the punchline of a book heavily influenced by the aesthetic of painter Paul Klee. The book claims that his ink-and-watercolor piece The Twittering Machine (below) was a satire of Tweeter, providing a groaner of an end for that shaggy dog joke. While Muradov's figures sometimes resemble that of Klee's fellow Der Blaue Reiter member Wassily Kandinsky, the famous Klee smudges are omnipresent in this comic, often deliberately obscuring dialogue and even action. This is a book about conspiracies at a high level, thuggishness and brute force at a low level, and art theory at an abstract and concrete level, with the drawings in an Expressionist style and the narrative being all about the value and meaning of art, especially with regard to how it interacts with commerce. This is decidedly the densest of Muradov's comics, and there are points when visual and narrative thickness becomes nearly incoherent, but Muradov is always able to bring it clearly back around to the narrative just in time.
The End Of A Fence has a pretty simple high concept: a world where one can be redirected to a different area where one can meet one's perfect match. The book starts with a break-up and a woman with a perfectly coiffed bun hairstyle going elsewhere. In this book, the characters are smooth and essentially piles of geometric figures carefully arranged to create what looks like people. The story is fairly predictable, as the protagonist learns that it's the differences that make relationships interesting, and too much agreement is not only boring, but can lead to conflict on its own. This was what I meant by Muradov's comics being a bit on the precious side, because if it wasn't for the remarkable use of color, this would be a fairly generic story. Indeed, Muradov's juxtaposition of colors makes the characters shimmer and shine on the page. The way Muradov dips colors into pitch black and out again is a particular visual highlight, as is his unusual lettering and neologisms that develop out of text that's slightly altered and bent. In Muradov's comics, reality has a slightly elastic quality, and the dance of color forms across the page is what makes this comic fun to look at; the actual text is of far lesser importance.

(In A Sense) Lost & Found felt like a kind of middle ground, wherein Muradov used a traditional comics grid (9 panels) and a russet-brown/deep purple color wash to tell this story of lurking in the city's shadows. Muradov is fond of doing homages to other artists and writers, and the introductory line of this comic ("F. Premise awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find that her innocence had gone missing...") seems to be a direct reference to Franz Kafka's classic The Metamorphosis, wherein "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." In the case of Ms. Premise, that transformation was similar to poor Gregor's in that she instantly became an outcast; her father told her to not ever leave the house now that it was gone. Exactly what "innocence" meant in the context of the story is left deliberately vague; it could be an awareness of how the world works (especially with regard to how women are treated), it could be one's virginity, but it's definitely something specific to being a woman.

She launches a quest to track it down, leading her to a fatalistically depressed bookseller who saves her from an angry mob. From there, she follows a clue to an underground series of merchants where she learns that her innocence had been taken to a certain address. She's forced to put on a pair of baggy pants to disguise her gender before she goes out, however. Eventually, she discovers her innocence has been mass-produced to make neckerchiefs, at which point she realizes she doesn't need it anymore. After that final, life-changing encounter, she negotiates her environment that shifts from the nightmare world of Pablo Picasso's Guernica to The Dance, by Henri Matisse. In other words, from the brutality of a judgmental world to a way of reclaiming her innocence on her own terms. Unlike Gregor Samsa, F. Premise lives through the nightmare and comes out the other side, thanks entirely to her own newfound understanding of her self and the power that not caring about social mores gives one. At the very end, she is literally writing her own story as she repeats the first line of the book's narrative, an indicator that her identity is something that can never be taken away from her, but it can be given away. The result of her quest was discovering that she had indeed never really lost it in the first place, but rather it had transformed into something she, and only she, had control over. Once again, the use of the grid and the mixture of total storytelling clarity mixed in with shadows, darkness and visual chaos made for a perfect blend in representing someone who started to see the familiar world as something new and confusing.

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