Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Review: Solipsistic Pop volumes 1 & 2

The title of this UK small press anthology is taken from the philosophy of solipsism, which is the idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist, and that any knowledge of anything or anyone outside of your own mind is unjustified, we cannot know the outside world and other minds and therefore they might not exist. Perhaps this mixed with the word pop gives these anthologies their stand alone, us-against-the world feel, as although comics are a form of popular culture they can be much maligned. What this anthology attempts to do however (according to the highly vitriolic manifesto on the first page) is give comics back to the world. It doesn't want to be confined to specialist shops and specialist shelves, it wants comics to be passed to people on their way home from work, it wants our children to learn to read with comics. Whether or not these anthologies achieve this is something I will come back to later.
Edited by Tom Humberstone the man behind the hilarious Art School Scum(*1) and inspired by more artistically inclined publications such as Raw and Kramors Ergot both volumes of this anthology are a joy to hold, well designed, and printed on high quality paper, each with their own Sunday supplement style newspaper inserts. Highlights from volume one include Julia Scheele's tale of undercover atheism in a central American faith school which although doesn't stand out visually is a great example of excellent pacing, placing of panels, subtlety, and effortless storytelling.
Visually Stephen Collins and Daniel Locke are the most unique artists in this collection. Collins is clever with his images, at times coming across like the British Chris Ware in terms of his panel composition. In the newspaper pullout he provides us with an excellent send up of the London Underground map entitled 'Commuter trains of thought' in which the thoughts of various different commuters intersect at well timed points for comic effect. His more in depth piece in the anthology 'Exit music' is pure eye candy bringing new meaning to the words 'splash panel' (see below)
The beauty of this strip is twofold: firstly a subtle dark surreal humour that does well to veer away from being too Mighty Boosh/Flight of the Concords influenced, and secondly, the smooth reading experience despite the less than conventional page layout.
Anna Saunders breaks up the anthology nicely with her playful and elegant existentialist doodles 'The Daily Grind' and 'Insomnia', which act as an effective example of the 'less is more' school of cartooning. The weakest strip in the collection in my opinion is 'Spiderwings' by Rachael Reichert which scores painful on the twee scale by mimicking the art style of a four year old child. Humberstone himself rounds off the collection nicely with a sepia toned tale of a friendship drifting a part which captures minute changes in facial expressions brilliantly and in my opinion Humberstone's work in limited colours is superior to his full colour work as it posses more atmosphere, depth, and even a sense of warmth that you might not expect from duller tones.

For the second anthology Humberstone has taken a back bench in terms of his own contribution (he appears briefly in the Sunday supplement pullout) and instead has pulled out all the punches design wise. As well as a beautifully conceives gatefold cover by Luke Pearson, a lovely little tote bag, and yet another glorious foldout newspaper section, it seems that this volume has a colour theme to bind all the strips together (a variety of blues, turquoise, black, and grey).
The strength of the strips in this volume don't quite hold up to the first, often meandering into nowhere and the stripped down approach of Lizz Lunney's animal soap opera 'Sour Rabbit and Crispy Duck'(*2), Becky Barnicoat's 'Gnomes', and Matilda Tristam's 'Mud' all fail to hit the mark for me. However there are some notable entries to make up for this. Daniel Locke is once again on form working brilliantly within the anthologies colour scheme and capturing some great moments frozen in time within his panels and Octovia Raitt gives us a brilliant strip about senile dementia in which the shapeless blobs that represent the nursing staff of the care home sum up perfectly the confusion inside the protagonists head. A pleasant surprise is Adam Cadwell who when given more room to breath outside of his usual short webcomic format certainly makes the most of it. He gives the story of a brief but sentimental encounter with an elderly man in a wheelchair which is bookended perfectly with segments of silent panels at the beginning and a return full circle plot wise at the end. You also get much more of a sense of the extent of his artistic talent in this format as well, due to his well rendered backgrounds and lovely clear lines.
Another revaluation I am forced to take is of Marc Elleby's work who usually falls too far into the 'emo/indie' category of comic book artist for my liking(*3) Finally Mark Oliver's nonsensical comic/poster in the Sunday supplement has obviously been heavily influenced by the comics discipline of Ou Ba Po and reminds me a lot of an early experiment by Killoffer only more surreal and slightly grotesque, visually it's great although the words that go with it don't really do much for me.

So have these anthologies broken down barriers? Probably not, as far as I know these anthologies are only being stocked in specialist comic book shops (although getting it stocked in The Beguiling in Toronto is a pretty big achievement) and due to the content of the strips I can hardly see them being use as reading aids for the young, but the question is does this matter? With comics there's always a risk of preaching to the converted but Humberstone's belief is what carries these anthologies, as well as a desire to turn out a well designed well edited product. The fact is I haven't seen something that looks this good in the UK Small Press scene. There are real possibilities on the horizon for Humberstone and co and I can imagine things can only get better!

(buy it here)

(*1) If you haven't read this yet-have you been living under a rock? It's a great observational guide to the kind of delusional idiots you find at art school and is far superior (due to it's distinctly dry British feel) to Clowes's Art School Confidential.
(*2) For a better example of clever and charming anthropomorphic comics check out My Cardboard Life by Philipa Rice (whom I'm pleased to say will be in the next volume of this anthology)
(*3) Similar to Bryan O'Leary of Scott Pilgrim versus the World fame

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