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British Comics:

New Brits On The Block - Part 2

It’s easy sometimes to forget that behind all the printed panels and publications are people, trying to make comics their way and trying to make a living too, at comics or alongside them from some other income. So, I’ve decided to pick out six new, and not so new, writer-artists (OK, one is an editor) whose projects and example marked 2002 in British comics for me. They’re not in any order of preference or priority, but simply, and appropriately, alphabetical, A to Z.


Mapping The Streets Of Comics
by Lars Arrhenius
I first came across the Swedish artist Lars Arrhenius at BIG, the Arts Biennale festival in Turin, Italy in 2000, where he exhibited a narrative sequence of crisp, iconic images of street life that weaved their way around the gallery walls, starting in a single, straight horizontal straight line, left to right, but then branching off, above and below that line, and deviating into tangential or parallel stories. Reading these divergent and sometimes convergent threads of his story forced me to retrace my steps, to stand back to get my bearings and interact physically with the work. It impressed me as an arresting way of presenting comics stories in a gallery space as pathways interweaving across the walls.

In 2002 Arrhenius mounted a new exhibit at cool East London gallery Peer. I managed to miss this, but, unlike his previous site-specific display, seeing this in its original setting probably could not be the same as experiencing it in its final intended form as a printed book, also from Peer. Arrhenius has woven his storypaths through the pages of a precise facsimile of the classic A-Z mapbook of London, with its recognizable logo, paper stocks and white wire binding. The London A-Z breaks down the rectangular extent of the capital’s streetmap into a grid of double page spreads, stacked in six rows of eight across. Arrows point left and right, up and down, to the four compass points, directing you to where the map on that page continues, sometimes on the very next spread, but more often several pages hence.

This is a perfect labyrinthine reading system for Arrhenius’s overlapping streams of urban encounters, his nameless characters drawn in a detached clear line, flatly colored, all thoughts and speech communicated through symbols, the style similar to airline passenger safety manuals, the meticulous pacing reminiscent of Chris Ware. In eighteen varied scenarios that evolve through over 250 text free illustrations, characters flow into the mapbook from non-existent pages, navigate their route through the pages, often crossing paths, and sometimes stories, with other characters, before continuing off the mapbook to other non-existent pages, in a formation not dissimilar to the London underground or subway layout. Conventional reading order is confounded. The reader is invited, and actually has no choice but to explore and investigate where stories come from and lead to.

Instead of the usual index, the back pages offer Andrew Wilson’s art history appraisal, in which he compares it to Hergé‘s ‘web of intertextuality’ in the Tintin album The Castafiore Emerald, while Geoff Ryman sets a handy page-by-page questionnaire, at times thought-provoking, at others unanswerable, to guide and stimulate the reader. Lars Arrhenius’ A-Z (ISBN 0-9539772-2-6) is distributed by Art Data (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) and comes in an edition of one thousand. I know Lars is a Swede, but this work was commissioned, exhibited and published here and is rooted in London’s very streets, so sue me if I add this to my round-up of the British year. Dylan Horrocks has been theorizing lately about the similarities between comics and maps; this book puts the theories into fascinating practice.


Now in Glorious Crayon
by Les Coleman
In Art School Confidential, Daniel Clowes famously vented his spleen at the arts education system, which he had experienced as a student. Now comes Meet The Art Students, firing from the other side of the classroom. For twenty years, humorous artist and writer Les Coleman was a visiting lecturer teaching at art schools around Britain and became all too aware of their peculiar world. On long train journeys, he started noting the phrases and appearances of his students. These writings and drawings gradually built up into a portrait gallery of sharply observed types, each staring face on as if in a photo booth or an identification parade, their telltale comment hovering above them, the whole frame crowned with an apt caption title. ‘The Great Procrastinator’ gives his excuse: "I’m waiting to borrow a video camera from Photography." ‘Piss Artist’ explains, "All my best paintings are done when I’m completely wrecked", with a footnote ‘Seeks brewery sponsorship’. For his new book Meet The Art Students: Now In Glorious Crayon (ISBN 1-871539-03-X, In House Publishing, £7.95) Coleman has selected forty-eight no-hopers, whose self-delusions, ruses and pretensions we can all recognize in others, and if we’re honest perhaps in ourselves too.

Not that their teachers get off scott free. Coleman is as mischievously accurate about his colleagues in his limited edition hardcover, The Professors, by showing them all typically busy elsewhere and totally absent. Coleman handcolors their empty portrait frames, and adds captions to undermine their feeble excuses with the cutting truth. One teacher says he is "over on the other site", but really "fancies the new secretary", while another claims to be busy with "reports", but is "making a scale model of the Eiffel Tower in his spare time". Coleman has also published a print of his pointed mock advice on ‘How To Make It In The Art Business’, turned into a 12-panel comic strip lecture drawn by Neal Fox, himself a student and budding comix self-publisher. Coleman’s is a scathing indictment of the spent British arts establishment, which concludes that "Opportunism is the only ‘ism’ going on these days."


Sturgeon White Moss
edited by Sylvia Farago
Many of us can recall an epiphany, when a certain comic blew open the doors so that we could never think about comics, and maybe our perceptions of the world, in the same way again. For Canadian Sylvia Farago, weaned on gooey Archie Comics, reading Al Columbia’s Biologic Show at the age of fourteen was her epiphany, a rude awakening to creepier and more riveting aspects of humanity. I learnt this when I was introduced to Sylvia after a packed comics discussion, which I helped to orchestrate and chaired one evening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall, not far from Buckingham Palace. Panelists Dave McKean, Dave Gibbons, 2000AD‘s new fledgling editor Matt Smith and Tom Gould, strip cartoonist for Time Out magazine and his own publications, were invited to talk about the issues raised by the use of computers in comics. In the bar afterwards, ICA PR man and the evening’s host John Dunning insisted I meet Sylvia, a brand new editor and co-publisher of experimental comix in Britain, something that’s been missing for too long since the demise of Scenes From The Inside  and Inkling. She was buzzing with the excitement of getting the first issue of her new comix anthology back from the printers.

Its bizarre title, Sturgeon White Moss, she assured me had come to her boyfriend Alex Tucker in a dream. The 44-page, £5 premiere brims with potential, mixing London-based newcomers, including Tucker’s eerily rendered silent nightmare, and international contributions from Alexander Zograf’s biography of an obscure 19th century Serbian poet and atypical cartoonish cover to Mike Diana’s visceral dissections and musician Jeffrey Lewis’ ongoing R&B chronicle. Sylvia is a natural born editor, selective and alert to where the medium is heading, and her imminent second issue will put SWM on the map. Lewis and Tucker return, joined by Tom Gould, Sophie Crumb, the cult Canadian illustrator Marcel Dzama and more, behind a lurid Dave Cooper color cover of naked girl grapplers that on its own should make copies fly out of the shops. Check out whitemosspress.com for more details and orders. I can’t help think that SWM in turn will turn out to be someone else’s comic epiphany itself.


Life’s A Witch
by Lorna Miller
Lorna Miller is the sassy Scottess and one-woman mistress-mind behind the wild and wilful Witch. Lorna started Witch as her own self-published zine and mini-comics, then had the best bits and new bits packaged into a graphic novel from Slab-O-Concrete, and finally took a trip to San Diego to find a publisher and signed up to do a quarterly comic book with Slave Labor. But on top of everything else, this has proved just too much work, solo and unpaid. Admirers Pete Bagge and Kaz had scripted stories for her first two issues, and in 2002 she squeezed out her third, with a wacky guest five-pager by Tobias Tak. Her fourth is still some to come, with a cameo strip by Marc Baines.

Not that our Lorna is slacking. "I did Witch while I was working part-time as a colorist on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s comic. Now I am working full time, I’m lucky if I get one day a week to draw, and it takes me so long to warm up." There’s also the challenge of serializing three different gritty, grotesquely funny graphic novels at once- The Mad Cows, Angela Sales Assistant and The Two Marys - not ideal with long gaps between issues. "I decided that I wanted issue 4 to be the last Witch comic and to bring out trade paperbacks instead." It does make more sense now that the market for original graphic novels is more established.

Lorna’s had to pay her dues: recovering for six months from the after effects of coming off the anti-depressant seroxat; now joining a lawsuit with over a thousand other British victims; toiling away at coloring cartoon choo-choo trains to pay the taxman; knocked out for three weeks by a nasty tooth infection (her swollen self-portrait adorns the inside front cover). It is any wonder she told me, "I give up comics every few weeks."

The web has offered her one silver lining. "I drew a strip for the women’s web site http://www.mythingie.com (an adult site) because they were paying me and because I was able to work in colour for a change. I’m really happy with how this turned out and have started work on a new one for them." She’s also set up a funky website: lornamiller.com. Online or on paper, in her various guises as comedienne, raconteur, satirist and softporn artiste, from Aubrey Beardsley paper dolls to dark dreams of cats and mirrors, Lorna pours uncompromising vigor and invention into her comics. Somehow I know she’ll tough it out and pull through, like her feisty characters, with her canny wit and cartooning punch.


Crayon Therapy
by James Parsons
In his white coat as Dr Parsons Ph.D, James has been treating George W. Bush using his revolutionary Crayon Therapy. The President’s alarmingly revealing scrawlings first saw print as a 16-page color-xeroxed zine in 2001, childishly drawn, shockingly spelled, borderline psychotic. Now Scribners have put on record the therapist’s whole file about Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s "special relationship" in a timely 100-page hardback, Tony & Me by Georg Bush (ISBN 0-7432-3962-8). It’s debatable whether this admitted contrivance works as well over so many pages, especially since to my mind Parsons’ handmade little zine had more pith and impact. Still, the book is as angry and crude as the warmongering it lampoons and its guerrilla nerve is funny, and would be even funnier if it wasn’t so terrifying in these warmongering times. "I Lov Americer".


Lost Shoe Found
by Alex Potts
Apparently, Grant Morrison has prophesied that we’re due for a comics renaissance any day now, in the UK I believe. I think he’s right, it does feel like the stars are aligning again and maybe this time it will all go a lot better. There’s a groundswell of small press productivity that bodes well, and among the past year’s new offerings, one name new to me, Alex Potts, appealed with his Lost Shoe Comics Number 2. This mildly naughty 28-page farce sees Henri Martini lose a shoe and wind up caught in flagrante with barmaid Barbara by her father, and is served well by Potts’ confident caricatural artwork and grasp of comic techniques. If he can find some more time for comics between gigs with his band The Ulcers, Potts could well be part of that promised British renaissance.

Posted: April 2, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of The Comics Journal, the essential magazine of comics news, reviews and criticism.

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Lars Arrhenius
Les Coleman
Sylvia Farago
Lorna Miller
Dr. Parsons
Alex Potts

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BRITISH BOOKS
A-Z
A-Z
by Lars Arrhenius

Meet The Art Students
Meet The Art Students
by Les Coleman

Sturgeon White Moss
Sturgeon White Moss
edited by Sylvia Farago

Witch
Witch
by Lorna Miller

Tony & Me by Georg Bush
Tony & Me by Georg Bush
by Dr. Parsons

Lost Shoe Comics
Lost Shoe Comics
by Alex Potts