Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Sorry for Laughing: Toronto Graphic Medicine Conference July 2012

(number 1&2 tourist destinations in Toronto: The Beguiling Comic Shops and Honest Ed's, weird discount store where a lot of Vice Magazine readers probably buy their clothes)

  I fully intended to post this a lot sooner after the event but between preparing for, moving to, and settling in at Dundee to start my Mlitt in Comic Studies I haven’t yet found the time. So hopefully what I have written will still have some impact and not be totally redundant, especially after the brilliant analysis and reflection provided by a number of the other conference delegates. I will try my best to offer my own take on things, as usual any attempts to be brief and succinct have gone straight out the window.

First and foremost, the subheading of this years conference ‘Navigating the margins’ was extremely appropriate given the wide range of boundary pushing artists that were on show. These artists and writers did not let themselves be limited to a traditional and stilted definition of what comics should be, for them the rules were only made to be broken, and they were definitely colouring way outside the margins!(*1) I’m not sure how the amount of lesser known artists compared this year to last years conference, but personally discovering a whole body of new and exciting work was one of the best things about this conference for me. 

The bar was set pretty high right from the opening reception when we were treated to a screening of the short documentary The Paper Mirror directed by Charissa King-O’Brien. The film follows painter Riva Lehrer (who does fantastic portraits of people in the disability community amongst other things) as she works on a large scale portrait of cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel (Dykes to watch out for, Fun Home, Are you my mother?). To a more casual observer it might seem like a documentary about making a painting might seem as dull as (forgive me) watching paint dry, but the film is handled in an extremely sensitive, interesting, and at times quite amusing way. There is a real rapport between Riva and Bechdel and the fact that they are both going in similar directions in their art at the time of filming (wanting to break away (in Riva’s case momentarily) from what they are both known best for) raises some very interesting questions and helps us to examine both artists motives for creating. As someone who enjoys reading comics about the process of making comics (Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life and Eddie Campbell’s Alec are particular favourites of mine) to see the amount of detail, hard work, and innovation that goes into Riva’s work was pretty awe-inspiring. In the Q+A Riva also revealed that she goes through a three year interview process in order to get to know her portrait subjects, which shows real commitment! Riva was also one of the small number of people to do a sketch of me (as well as some of the other delegates) during my talk (these pictures I will file under ‘pictures that make me look better looking than I am in the flesh’).

The first proper day of the conference started early with an opening talk from comics historian, publisher, curator, journalist, and all round nice guy Paul Gravett. Paul took us on a whistle stop tour of some lesser known and frankly quite odd examples of medical themes in comics, providing the appropriate voices for each one. As well as this he introduced us to some new and exciting work (The Nao of Brown looks great) including work the less multilingual amongst us (that would be me!) might otherwise not have as easy access to. Paul also rather kindly mentioned my own work in this talk for which I was extremely grateful as well as slightly mortified.

Joyce Brabner’s keynote presentation left me pretty speechless, as I’m sure it did a lot of people. She asked interesting ethical questions about the power we have as storytellers and what happens to us when we tell these stories, drawn mainly from her first hand experience as an activist/journalist covering the experiences of children of war. 
Joyce seemed hyper intelligent, ever questioning, and a force capable of grounding us and forcing us to look at the limits (and indeed the potential harms) of what we are doing. Oh and for anyone who has been living under a rock Joyce Brabner is the widow of pioneering autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar creator of the series American Splendour and co-author of the ground-breaking and extremely moving memoir Our Cancer Year with Harvey and illustrated by Frank Stack, 

The following two days were made up of concurrent sessions of talks as well as panel discussions and workshops. The workshops were something that I hadn’t experienced before and were a welcome addition, it was nice to give attendees a chance to be more hands on with the information they may have absorbed from the talks. This was a conference where doodling was openly encouraged as a valuable cognitive function and I was pretty happy to see plenty of people rising to MK’s manifesto (borrowed from Sunni Brown)of ‘Doodlers unite!’  

I attended both MK Czerwiec’s (aka Comic Nurse) and Michael Green’s Drawing for Non-Drawers workshop, and the Cartooning Fundamentals (Mastery of time and space) workshop lead by Brian Fies. The room and the set up made me feel very much like I was going back to school/university, except that this was a lesson I was very much happy to be in!

I liked how MK and Michael’s workshop weaved the academic reasoning and (science) behind creativity in with the practical side of the workshop whilst still keeping things light hearted, fresh, and accessible. Brian Fies's   workshop again was very egalitarian but the wealth of his experience and his knowledge and gentle critiquing style was highly valued by all those in attendance. With any luck some of Brian’s mastery has rubbed off on me, as panel-to-panel transitions, the passing of time, and indeed panels in a traditional sense, are the things about doing comics that scare me the most/I feel I have the most difficultly with. The sharing aspect of both the workshops was vital as it did a lot to connect people in the room and created a lot of laughter and encouragement, without making people feel pressured or worry about the quality of their work. 

(the face that says it all!)

We were able to take away handouts from both the workshops (including MK’s excellent little comic which you can now view online here) which I look forward to pouring over in the future.  

I would like to have gone to a few more of the workshops but there was so much to choose from that there were things that were bound to clash. Here’s some of my highlights from the two days.

Neil is an Australian travelling psychotherapist (like Australians famous flying doctors only for the mind) who gave a talk about the similarities between comics and the process of therapeutic hypnosis, a talk which contained an anecdote about a boy, his warts, and a cartoon warthog, which has probably been the most press referenced thing about the whole conferences (‘Comics cure warts!!!’ etc etc). I have to admit I thought the link might have been a bit tenuous but was curious nonetheless, however Neil presented his ideas and myth-busted hypnosis in such a way that was very easy to understand and pretty credible (he talked about hypnosis as the process of forming stories in your mind using pictures). His own life experience of living in and around various mental hospitals as a child and being taught the pleasure of art from one of the inpatients sounds like one worthy of putting down on paper, which thankfully he is in the process of doing. Neil also runs Shrink Rap Press which produces educational illustrated books on emotional and mental problems both for adults and children, a very worthy pursuit.

Dana Walworth (couldn't find a link)

The next speaker acted as a pretty smooth transition from Neil, as there were certain hypnotic qualities to the way she presented her work. I asked her afterwards if she had ever done any acting/performance as her use of repeated words, sentences, her hushed tones, singing, and acting out of conversations between her mother and herself, added a whole other layer to her work. Her memoir is entitled Alicehiemer’s and is about caring for her mother during her declining years. She uses collage, very appropriately cutting out sentences from Alice in Wonderland to use as her mother’s clothes etc, the whole thing consists of snippets, moments of sharp and powerful clarity amongst the gut-wrenching senselessness of it all. Her imagery often goes across the dividing line of the  sketchbook spine and the inclusion of the visible sketchbook surface and borders is a very nice touch. Her pencilled artwork does bear a striking resemblance to Tennel’s original illustrations as well as evoking the history of other famous illustrators take on this infamous tale (I am thinking of a mix of Mervyn Peake and Tove Janson here). Her work is not comics in the traditional sense but I think that her work is capable of broadening our definition and pushing us out of our comfort zone into exciting new terrotority

Another speaker at the conference who also uses collage was Mita Mahato, and the fact that she uses a scalpel to cut out her images is very fitting.  Although she sticks to a more traditional panel format she plays endlessly with the gutter space making this not an empty zone in which we must imagine the passing of events but a part of the action itself, she is very much a fan of ‘breaking down the forth wall'. She also invokes fairytale imagery to describe her state of being after the loss of her mother, which she describes as being ‘lost in the woods’ and indeed, beautifully cut trees are a big feature in Mita’s work. The child-like rendering of herself acts as a perfect representation of what happens to us, no matter what age we are, when we loose a parent. Mita’s work is very tactile, and leaps off the page, whilst the sepia and autumnal tones give it a sober and sometimes somber and wistful edge. The sparse use of words throughout her comic along with the colour scheme and the child-like perspective used in her imagery also lead me to draw certain parallels between her work and that of fantastic picture book illustrator and writer Shaun Tan at least in terms of tone.

Jenny Lin was yet another speaker who doesn’t allow rigid definitions to get in the way of her creative flow and who combines elements of the traditional artists book as well as the pop up book to tell the story of her recovery from severe injury at the wheels of a rubbish truck. 
The pop up elements allowed us to view things from Lin’s largely horizontal point of view, which is a great device to immerse readers in the story. Lin also tackles the subject of post-traumatic stress in her work, turning what she considers to be quite a banal incident into something worthy of our attention. However for me it was the little banal details that make Lin’s work so personal and so compelling, and she manages to add a rough sketchbook come diary feel with wonderful layered diagrams that evoke the cross section books I used to love so much as a child.  

Nancy combines gorgeous ink and wash work with animation and film to relate her experiences of ICU-related trauma. Her work to me is akin to visual poetry, with elements of calligraphy and even a hint of Japanese and Chinese watercolours. They are very often visual and not verbal but they seem to convey so much about her own experiences in such a  breathtakingly succinct and dream like manner, and there is something almost soothing about her drawings. Like Dana Walworth she offers a more in depth back story in the form  of personal essays and research on her website, and I think the act of separating her writing and her art is an interesting one, especially if you perhaps view her images before her writing or vice versa. 

Although Sarafin works with a more traditional format her manga inspired fictional tales of both overcoming and embracing madness are far from conventional. The comic was started whilst coming out of a state of psychosis in what she describes as ‘a sub par Toronto mental hospital’ and follows the lives of four disparate figures with their own unique problems, delusions, and quirks. Drawn partly from her own experiences the characters in Asylum Squad are like an extremely dysfunctional (scratch that, barely functioning) version of the Justice League of America. I haven’t yet had a chance to read through the whole thing but Sarafin has cleverly printed the comic in an episodic manner skipping between incidents in the various characters lives, and from my initial reading I can tell you it is funny but also very thought-provoking. There are some hard hitting and incredibly genuine and poignant moments nestled amongst the fetish wear and zombie horse demons, and I think that exploring an often harsh and misunderstood reality through the realm of fantasy is definitely an interesting and unique approach. Having had a chance to chat to her during the conference I discovered that Sarafin is involved in the Mad Pride movement in Toronto, and whilst her views on mental health may split people down the middle, they will certainly inspire debate, which I think is defiantly the mark of a good artist/writer. Sarafin has also written some personal but well thought out essays in the back of the book, which cover her own experiences as well as the labelling and treatment of mental health which are well worth a read. 

(the auditorium where I did my talk (I promise it was a lot fuller when I was talking! and me during my talk-which went down pretty well and got a lot of laughs)

So in conclusion...

In my comics as well as when talking about my illness, I have quite often rallied against the idea of building a community around illness, showing that it can have negative as well as positive effects. However, having now been to two Graphic Medicine conferences, I am beginning to see the people involved as the closest thing to a positive model of a community based around illness that I have so far encountered. This is precisely because the people I have encountered both in Leeds previously and in Toronto are incredibly open and willing to have their beliefs and experiences cross examined and challenged, and very rarely do they allow themselves the status of victim. The self-deprecation and neurosis which are often the go-to tool of defence for a lot of comic artists make up a vital part of the stories they have to tell and allow us the readers to take everything they say with a pinch of salt and draw our own conclusions. 

These artists and writers may discuss their experiences in their work and when talking about their work, but they also seem to understand the importance of ‘switching off’, of not spending every moment analysing what it is they, or others like them, do, and how they live. From talking to these people the first thought that pops into your head isn’t that they have or have had some terrible illness, or have had to watch the decline of someone they love. This is something I’ve always strive for in my own life, and I am lucky enough to be healthy enough so that the fact that I have CF isn’t usually the first thing people notice about me (it’s more likely to be ‘that guy is weird, why does he rub his eyes when he’s uncomfortable?’) 

I used to say that I don’t want to be defined by my illness and whilst I still believe that there is so much more to me than CF, I can’t deny the fact that it has played a significant part in the way I’ve turned out and the direction in which I’m heading now, as a semi-professional sick kid. So I guess I could settle with being the one in charge of how I am defined by my illness.

One thing perhaps that I took away from the workshop aspect of the conference is that maybe we need to look beyond comics, and also aim this kind of thing at a wider variety of people. I think it’s great that there are people out there giving doctors and medical students the tools they need to see things more clearly from the patients point of view and even to allow themselves in a safe environment to show and discuss their own vulnerability and fears, but beyond the art therapy model in hospitals I’m not sure how much this sort of thing is available for public consumption: from those with illnesses, to the family, friends, and carers of those with illness. I also think that a strictly artistic based model can and will have its limits. Despite the mantra that everyone can and should draw (and I certainly agree with the cognitive science behind it all) what is perhaps ignored is that some people simply might not want to (and not just because they have had it beaten out of them at an early age), and might wish to tell their stories in different ways, or not at all. 

People have different sensibilities when it comes to these things and different means of coping, and whilst I personally am in the business of letting it all out, of making a lot of my private life public, and making light of it, there are those who will be uncomfortable about doing this, let alone reading works like these. I agree that it can be a good thing to talk about your experiences because sometimes this will help you gain some perspective on them, make you realise you are not alone, give you the opportunity to talk to people who understand. But as I mentioned in my own talk at the conference this act of separation can also be potentially damaging, it can encourage self-pity, bitterness, even a sense of entitlement and superiority. I often find myself employing a reverse tactic, I look to my so-called ‘healthy’ friends to keep things in perspective for me, and my link to ‘normal life’ is what I find helps keeps me grounded. 

Something Joyce Brabner said during her keynote speech sticks in my mind here. She talked about the act of ‘turning our nightmares into a kind of entertainment’, which on the one hand can be a liberating thing, a way of owning it, even a way of defeating it. But on the other hand this can have a lingering and damaging effect, especially if this entertainment is successful and we are forced to relive these nightmares over and over (something various comic artist friends of mine have testified to). I’m not trying to be deliberately negative here, I have very much embraced Graphic Medicine(*2) and it’s positive effects, it’s sense of togetherness, it’s breaking down of hierarchies etc, but I think we better ourselves by allowing ourselves to be constantly critical, and self-aware, and so long as we don’t over indulge in the meta-fiction, to include this struggle and self evaluation in our stories can often be a useful tool for people going through similar things. 

I do think that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the comics medium and that the storytelling skills and open discourse that comics teach us, I believe, can be transferred into the non-creative realm, simply as a means of talking about, overcoming, and coping with illness and trauma. Of course if you were to ask me how, I’d probably come back blank right now, maybe I’m just pulling ideas and grand theories out of my arse!

 As for other mediums beyond comics, I think the cross-pollination of different approaches to comics that I witnessed in Toronto was a very encouraging sign. I’ve always thought comics was a pretty open medium that was unashamed of borrowing from other mediums such as film, prose, poetry etc. So if we were to look at other mediums alongside comics, I’m sure this wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

For example, I think the power of comedy and of laughter is another useful area to examine, and one that fascinates me. What with the constant debates on the limits and potential damages of humour, what is and isn’t funny, what is and isn’t in bad taste, who can and can’t tell certain types of jokes, and whether or not humour can truly challenge the status quo, the potential for examining and cross examining perceptions of and experiences of illness and disability are pretty ripe.

The chasm of opinion and misunderstanding that potentially divides people like Jim Sweeney (former Comedy Store improv star and writer and performer of one man show My MS and Me), American comedian Julia Sweeney (not related), ‘stand up’ comedian Brett Eastburn, and ‘sit down’ comedian Laurence Clark, with the likes of Ricky Gervais, Robin Ince, Warick Davis, Nicky Clarke (of the campaign People Not Punchlines) and heaven forbid Frankie Boyle, is one well worth examining in further detail.

But it seems the effects of humour have been largely ignored in academia, the early writings on humour mirrored the early writings on comics by saying that comedy was trivial, throwaway, even at times sinful. There were a few thinkers ahead of their time though: first Erasmus with his In Praise Of Folly (although he would later do a U-turn on it, claiming they were not his beliefs but a fiction), later came Freud with his Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, and then a great deal of time later Mikhail Bakhtin’s study on the work of Francois Rabelais. But some people on both sides of the opinion fence have started to appear out of the wood work, from Peter L Berger’s brilliant Redeeming Laughter and Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, through to Henri Bergson’s Laughter , Michael Billig’s Laughter and Ridicule and Sharon Lockyer’s Beyond A Joke.

I think as comics as a medium conjures up these same misconceptions, questions, and challenges it would make sense not to study it in an isolated bubble, and to study it alongside comedy seems the perfect place to start, especially considering a lot of graphic medicine uses humour as an essential narrative device. It is my firm belief that a serious and emotive message can be transmitted to a reader/viewer, whilst still making us laugh. In Toronto laughter was a big part of the shared experience and atmosphere of the conference, and through this laughter there was definitely a sense of what Ted Cohen likes to call ‘a community of intimacy’. And hey, I may be no Norman Cousins, but this can’t be a bad thing right?!

(the last supper (Jewish Deli food, bad American accents by yours truly and plenty of beer)-Susan Squier, Alex Thomas & Gary Ashwal of Booster Shot Comics, Neil Phillips (Shrink Rap Press), Joyce Farmer, Paul Gravett, Sarafin, Dana Walworth, Ian Williams, MK, Mita Mahato, Shelley Wall, Nicola Streeton and Suley Fatah (sorry if I've missed anyone out!) 

(click here for the conference collective memory, blog posts by other attendees, photos, and art)


(*1) This isn't a euphemism for completely nuts, although....
(*2) After all I don't want to bite the hand that feeds...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Webcomic of note: Jordan Crane's The Doctor Will See You

Disquieting is a pretty apt description of this ongoing webcomic from master of the form Jordan Crane. The plot of this comic is similar to one of those arty multiple narrative films (think Babel) where it all comes crashing to a head with the seemingly disparate lives of its characters becoming violently intertwined with often tragic results. In fact the cinematic comparison here is appropriate too as the whole thing engrosses you and pulls you in like a very powerful film, all the time you are waiting for the powerful moment that you know is going to happen but you aren't quite sure about how it is going to manifest itself. It also dips in and out of fantasy and reality to the point that you feel intoxicated and are never quite sure which is which. Is the protagonist paranoid and imagining all the worst possible case scenarios of what could have happened to his girlfriend, or did it actually happen and his absence from the scene leaves him to fill in the horrific details...I'll leave you to find out. Brilliantly nuanced, overlapping the breaking down of relationships with happier memories, guilt, and an abundance of medical themes (still birth, ectopic pregnancy, death), The Doctor Will See You Now is a webcomic that will literally take your breath away with its inventive brilliance (which Jordan Crane manages to make look so easy, damn gifted bastard).

Read it here.

(On another note Jordan Crane's comic/children's book Keep Our Secrets looks pretty amazing too, as it uses heat sensitive ink to hide details within the picture).

Friday, 27 January 2012

Following on from the last post. Images you can click and resize.

Drawing Blood: The CF Diaries Issue 2-a work in progres

I thought I'd post about the progress of the second issue of my comic as certain stones have started to be unturned while scripting and drawing this that I think are interesting to discuss, if not at great length.

Firstly bare in mind that most of these images are rough, incomplete, and liable to change, although it'll give you a general idea. The focus of this issue is an event in my life that happened a number of years ago which is forever referred to in my medical notes as 'massive Hemoptysis', which in laymen's terms means that I was coughing up a lot of blood, over the course of one weekend.

The story branches out from there and touches a little more on how my friends dealt with it at the time, and how the way in which my friendship dynamic worked and why it was good for me in terms of my illness and how I wanted to be treated, and I indulge myself a little more in explaining my ego and my failings. Despite what could be considerably a downbeat subject I have tried to go into it with humour again, talking about my feeble attempts to wipe bloody fingerprints off the walls which still showed up weeks later, trying not to get blood on the leather upholstery in my dad's car, and (how could I forget!) having my pubes shaved by a male nurse called Moses on my birthday.

(The nurses found it very amusing that my birthday present was a dry shave and itchy balls, but they did get me two birthday cakes for after the procedure)

(I thought I was being ultra considerate trying to clean up the blood that I got in the bathroom as and when it happened, turns out I'm a pretty poor cleaner, my friends were finding blood fingerprints everywhere for weeks!)

I also try and touch upon the often conflicting memories and perceptions of the event in question by myself, my friends, and my parents.

(abstract/psychedelic representation of procedure I had done on my inflamed/bleeding arteries, it was either called (something) embolisation or bronchial angiography)

However drawing and writing this event as well as thinking about it did mean that I touched upon an issue which I know I am going to have to talk about in greater detail in the future: Death. (If your not a fan of self-indulgence I suggest you stop reading now)

(This image to be used in a later issue)

At the end of the issue I plan to relay a conversation I had with a friend following a piece of good news from my liver doctor. When I was diagnosed with CF-associated liver disease at the age of 10 I was given approximately 4 years before they estimated I would need a transplant. Since then my liver function has improved dramatically, due to nothing but oral medication (and certainly not due to my nun like aversion to alcohol *cough cough*). I was told that I would most likely never have any real trouble with my liver, that I seemed to be one of those select group of CF patients who was diagnosed young but who fully recovered. I still needed to see him every two years to be sure but everything was fine, there was no scaring at all, and the latest test results were just back in the normal range (that is the normal range for everyone not the normal range for people with liver disease). When I told this to my friend over a drink (very apt!) she was overjoyed:

This got me thinking about catharsis. For me the process of making these comics is almost the opposite of catharsis, I'm not working through things with words and pictures but rather holding them a distance. When writing and drawing these comics I am not thinking in terms of 'these are things that have actually happened, could happen, or will happen' but simply as creative problems to solve. I think about it in terms of the best way to tell a story, of the most creative and interesting way to represent it visually. It only really dawned on me lately when I was trying to think about the best way to draw myself vomiting blood at the side of a motorway and I had to stop and ask myself if that thought process was weird.

For me (and I guess I'm very lucky in this respect) and for my friends, my CF hasn't felt too real most of the time, which is why I sometimes worry that researching CF, and writing and drawing about my CF, might just be pouring salt in the wound. I'd be interested to know how other comic artists feel about this, which is why I think the whole process of creating these stories and the effect it has on yourself as well as those around you is an important thing to include in the story itself. This is something I thought was underrepresented in comics but going back through a lot of the medical themed graphic narratives I've read it does pop its head up more often than not. Sarah Leavitt reading her creative writing piece to her mum in Tangles, Darryl Cunningham talking about how the reaction to his comics online in a sense 'saved him' from depression, are just two examples I can think of off the top of my head. Of course you probably need to be sparing with this and not go into over blown self-indulgent postmodern meta-fiction overdrive, but still its something worth thinking about.

Finally to end things on a more upbeat note, I am quite flattered (but also equally anxious) to have had The CF Diaries Issue 1 selected as the small press comic to be examined and scrutinised by Mike Medaglia and Mark Haylock's monthly comic reading/discussion group Comic Gosh! in April alongside Nicola Streeton's excellent graphic memoir Billy, You, and Me. This group has been endorsed by much more heavyweight members of the small and mainstream comic press than myself and I have only heard good things about it. I intend to attend and might attend March's session as well as they will be discussing David B's Epileptic alongside transatlantic woman's comic The Strumpet. My ego will either take a bruising or will have to get it's own chauffeur, we'll have to wait and see. Read the rest of the reading list here.

(speaking of ego's, here's a funny little section I drew for my comic, not entirely sure where to place it yet)

I will also be concentrating on drawing the second issue of my good friend Emma Mould's second autobiographical comic about living with Borderline Personality Disorder in time for her presentation at next months Laydeez Do Comics alongside Karrie Fransman and Dr Ann Miller (author of the fantastic theory book Reading Bande Dessinee) on the 20th of Febuary at the Rag Factory in Brick Lane. Starts at 6.30, £1.50 to attend, homemade cookies, beer and wine, great talks, and the chance to go out for a curry afterwards.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Review: Absence-Andy Luke

Absence is a short autobiographical comic about epilepsy written by Andy Luke and illustrated by Stephen Downey. Everything about its format, from its length to the style of the images, the way it's all arranged, and the various logos that adorn its pages suggest a medical information leaflet disguised as a comic. However whereas anything purporting to give information to a certain audience (especially if that audience consists of younger children and teenagers) that uses comic as a form of communication often suffer horrendously from a patronising voice and a painful attempt at 'being down with the kids' (usually through a skateboarding talking animal or something along those lines).

Thankfully this isn't the case with Absence. It skilfully weaves essential facts and courses of action for epileptics alongside more sparse and at times even whimsical reflections of Luke's childhood and beyond. Something tells me Luke would be a skilled writer of textbooks or educational DVD's for disinterested youth, because he would be able to make children learn without them knowing, this is how easily digestible the information in Absence is, even with all the jargon.

Although the visual style is for the most part fairly straightforward harking back to the angular age of superheroes mixed with the kind of visual approach that might have been adopted by the artists of spin off Grange Hill comics there are moments of McCloud-esque multi media abstraction and visual wit to bring a smile to your face. I also find the bookending of the comic both with the information on the comic and various important associations and charities, and with repetitions of the opening and closing page, a very effective advice to draw readers in.

Luke and Downey have done a great job of producing something clear and concise but at the same time enjoyable and with real emotional weight. The potential for comics to be used in this way has already been explored(*1) by the Wellcome Trust and Edward Ross with his short comic on parasitic disease (see my review here) but Luke and Downey go one better. It is the personal element that readers will really empathise with, just as Darryl Cunningham's admission to his own struggle with mental health at the end of Psychiatric Tales reaffirms the message of the book, the advice and guidance seems much more palatable coming from someone who actually knows. Absence would be a welcome addition to any library, hospital, or charitable organisation. You can order it online for free or read it online for free via the website here.

(*1) I believe it needs to be explored more so long as these comics/information leaflets are produced by people who make or have a passion for comics otherwise the patronisation or the appalling visuals tend to rule supreme.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Animation of the week: Screenplay-Barry Purves

This is another one from my Christmas wish list, this time taken from the excellent first volume of the anthology DVD British Animation Classics (featuring some top notch independent animation which doesn't skimp on the female animators either-Joanna Quinn, Alison Snowden, Erica Russell, and Alison de Vere are all represented).

Purves is a master director, writer, and animator of mainly puppet based animation and has done work with countless animation studios including Aardman, Pixar, Dreamworks etc. Despite the fact that his own independent work only amounts to six short films he has been nominated for countless awards and is highly regarded in the British film and animation industry. He embraces a strong tradition of animation that stems from the likes of Ladislas Starewicz, Ray Harryhausen, George Pal, Lou Bunin, Jiri Trnka, etc, and carries on to the present day in the works of The Brothers Quay, the Bolex brothers, and Suzie Templeton (among others).

Screenplay is one of his two works that embraces the art and tradition of the setting for the story being told. The other example being Achilles which is obviously inspired by Greek art but is also staged like a Greek tragedy.

The title 'Screenplay' literally refers to the used of traditional Japanese screen painting as part of the storytelling process. The story is adapted from the legend of The Willow Pattern, a famous British ceramic pattern designed around 1790. The story is a Chinese romantic fable invented in England which follows the classic formula of star-crossed lovers of a different class who ultimately meet a tragic end.

Purves seems to create a fantastic sense of staging. The play part of the title is also highly appropriate as it feels like this is what we are watching, and the smoothness of the action and of the transitions almost make us forget that we are watching an animation. Scenery changes are swift and inventive and movement despite being stylised (due to the obvious influence of Kabuki theatre on the film, along with the English sign language narration) is fluid and believable. The use of everything from traditional umbrellas and pieces of material to represent everything from water to blood, and the constant use of a revolving/floor set keep the action confounded to one space very effectively.

It seems appropriate that Purves's films were chosen to be shown as part of a special season on Japanese puppet master Kicachiro Kawamoto back at the Watershed in Bristol in 2008, his influence on this film is very obvious although I think Purves adds a certain amount of wit to the tradition as well as making a massive improvement on the usual pacing. The action is quite fast but still you don't miss a beat. A truly beautiful piece of film!

(watch it here)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: Tatsumi

In his epic five hundred plus page manga autobiography A Drifting Life , Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the godfather of alternative manga(*1), talked about the profound influence cinema had on the stories he came to create, so it seems appropriate that his life and his stories should be made into an animated film.

Directed by lifelong manga and indeed Tatsumi fan Eric Khoo, the film treats the comic text, and the visual style of Tatsumi, as sacred, and the animators have gone to great lengths to make you aware that these animations are based first and foremost on ink drawings done on paper. Everything from the crosshatching, the monochrome shading, and he dotted printing effects of his first full length work Black Blizzard, are all lovingly recreated here. Not only this but the animation is deliberately rough in places, as Khoo wanted to be as faithful to the experience of reading these stories on the page as possible, which is why the movements and expressions are perhaps much more limited then your average animation, to good effect.

While colour is added to the events that happen in Tatsumi's real life, his fictional stories that are interspersed within the overall narrative are distinguished through the recreation of their colour schemes. So we get a mixture of moody purples and yellows, sepia tones, and black and whites. The general feel of these stories I could describe as being the manga equivalent of film noir. Some of the stories even incorporate deliberate cracks of age and haze around the images to add to the atmosphere.

The visual mood of course perfectly mirrors the overarching sense of doom in the stories, and like in film noir we are presented with the seedy underbelly of a supposedly affluent society. Like the 1950's crime comics we are treated to sordid sex and perversions, violence, and an easy escape at the bottom of a bottle. But one thing that Tatsumi has over those EC artists and writers is a heightened level of intelligence.

His plots have clever little twists that seem surreal but that also make perfect sense. He really seems to get at the absurdity of life and maybe it would be hyperbole to liken him to existentialist writers such as Sartre, Knut Hamsun, Jean Genet, etc. Even though his stories are short and sharp (and quite often bitter) on the screen they come across as having qualities of merit, this is indeed literature (in hushed tones).

These stories were formed out of a personal bitterness that Tatsumi himself reflects on in the film (it his own voice that narrates the events of his life). Post-War Japan finally brought itself out of hardship and started to experience economic growth, a growth that Tatsumi felt personally that he and thousand others like him, were not entitled to. Tatsumi tells us that he 'vomited out' these frustrations in his stories. Bleak allegorical tales about the dull thud of progress and modernity in an increasingly overpopulated world where no one communicates face to face must seem pretty prophetic when we look back on them now. But these were written and drawn mostly in the seventies!

The additional layer of sound is also a very important one. In the story Beloved Monkey, we are immersed in the maddening noise of the factory, we feel it thudding around us even as our hero leaves the factory out onto the sickeningly overcrowded streets of Tokyo. The moronic and slightly idiotic voice of the American G.I in 'Goodbye', all these details suspend our disbelief that this 2D world of paper figures is anything less than real life.

The one thing this film could not do sadly was capture the great width and breadth of Tatsumi'sautobiography, but on reflection I realised this was not such a bad thing after all. I thought originally that this film showed a rare example of the limitations of animation but I think I was probably suffering from the old 'read the book before I saw the film' tunnel vision. I wasdisappointed by the omitting of huge chunks of his life story (although starting with the books ending, and the death of Sensie Tezuka, was a nice touch) but realised considering the pacing of this film was a tad on the slow side at times, this mammoth tale was probably best kept between the pages of a book. With 'A Drifting Life' you could dip in and out whenever you liked, and it was easy to pick up. At around about two hours in length, putting anything else in might have stretched it to bursting, and certainly a film consisting only of his life events might have been a bit boring. Intersecting his fiction into the film became a key device in the plot anyway, by helping to explain a lot of Tatsumi's own mentality when it came to life and manga.
Tatsumi is a master storyteller, a master of his craft, and upon reflection Eric Khoo has done him proud and hopefully opened up a whole new audience to his work.

(*1) Or as he and his colleagues came to christen it 'gekiga' (meaning 'dramatic pictures')

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review: The House That Groaned-Karrie Fransman

I live in an extremely quiet block of flats where everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, so a graphic novel which imagines what our neighbours could be getting up behind closed doors is going to instantly appeal to me.
And weird goings on in confined spaces and broken down buildings has a pretty rich history in storytelling(*1), particularly in cinema. Even before setting out to read this graphic novel, going on the limited information I had, I had already made some preemptive comparisons and expectations. Knowing that there were to be surrealistic and creepy elements to the story made me think in particular of Roman Polanksi's The Tenant(*2), the fancy dress scenes from The Shining, and parts of Rosamary's Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist etc.
However the fact that The House The Groaned didn't meet many of these expectations is not to be considered a bad thing, Franman's debut is a complete unique animal.
Scratch under the surface (which in this book you literally can do, with cross sections of the house revealing crumbling and damp walls, dodgy electrics, and rats) and this book is about much more than just a story about a seemingly normal girl moving into a building full of nut jobs.
This is a book about the fronts we put up for other people, the secrets and weaknesses we hide behind our carefully presented exteriors and the way in which early experiences can have a formative effect on the way our lives turn out, and the ways in which we compensate for what is missing.
Karrie weaves moments of magic realism and pomp amongst an unfolding soap opera that is far more believable than anything I have ever seen on Eastenders. The Midnight Feast Front Woman is a voluptuous Greek goddess of excess and in her eyes she represents freedom from norms and constraints, but towards the end of the story we see the sticky end to which her excesses have truly led her and the sudden transformation is jarring, surreal, and quite cinematic(*3). But it is her and Brian (the man sexually attracted to the terminally ill and morbidly obese) that are perhaps the most over the top and cartoon-like of characters and therefore they are the ones I care for less. Their origin stories are perhaps less solid and sympathetic than those of the other characters. Although the Midnight Feast Front Woman tidily fits nicely into a triangle formed by the protagonist Barbara and the fanatical and highly disciplined dietitian Janet representing two extremes of our obsession with body image.
The use of flashbacks gives a sense of plausibility and humanity to the remaining characters and helps us to understand better their psychological makeup, the fact that all of this centres around the building of the house during Victorian times is a nice touch, obviously indicating that this is where all their lives are going to come to a head.
Moving on from the story itself, Karrie's visual style is very unique. Her iconic cartooning is perhaps most effective when it comes to the design of her main character, the vain beauty obsessed girl-next-door with a deeply buried secret, Barbara. The circular cheeks and down pointed nose make her look both plastic and emotionless (as so many cosmetic surgery/botox obsessed celebrities do) as well as slightly grotesque(*4). Although the other character which really puts her style to effective use is that of the retoucher Matt who is afraid to touch, you can see the fear and the timidness in such a small number of lines. Of course she really gets to go to town with the elderly Mrs Durbach, a character who seems to be left behind and forgotten in life due to her age and her failing body and as a consequence, she literally fades into the background (she is hidden on every page and it is up to you to find her!). The inventive moulding of her body to chairs, railings, and bookshelves is a visual treat to try and decipher.
She also makes great use of a plethora of comic iconography whilst giving it her own unique twist. Sound effects, speech balloons, and in particular the text inside the speech balloons are constantly played around with in order to fit the precise moment in the story, at times becoming an active leading device in the story itself. The pacing of the panels, the use of wordless panels, and the atmosphere created(*5) is also spot on.
It ends with a punch as well, which will probably knock the wind right out of you. Without giving too much away I would say that Karrie's Argento-like shock twist towards the end of the book is a brave and refreshing move

The House The Groaned is a story of fantasy dripped in reality and I recommend you follow the advice of The Midnight Feast Front Woman and gorge yourself on it immediately.

Check out the site for the book here. Karrie's site here. And a much more articulate and perceptive review here.

(*) Think Dave McKean's epic Cages, or Brecht Evens The Wrong Place
(*2) If you haven't seen this film I can highly recommend it. Insane neighbours cross dressing and attempted suicide!
(*3)I can image this sequence of the book would be pretty fantastic animated.
(*4) In a chubby-cheeked cartoony kind of way
(*5) There is a particular tense moment when the lights in the building go out which reminds me at times of Charles Burn's Black Hole

Not comics but amazing nonetheless

When someone dedicates a large chunk of their lives (35 years!) to creating a toothpick sculpture of San Francisco you have to wonder if it was a colossal waste of time. But then you look at the amount of detail that has gone into it, and the fact that this is a kinetic sculpture with multiple 'tours' that can be travelled through using ping pong balls and you realise that this is a testament to the ingenuity of the human mind, a flagship of creativity , and most of all , passion and obsession. The fact that this sculpture is constantly changing, and the inventive witticisms dotted throughout, make this sculpture, 35 years well spent. Click here to view the video. View the original article on Colossal here.

(It is worth noting that the blog that hosted this article, Colossal, is a fantastic art and design blog mainly fixated with impressive scale, ingenuity, and invention, but also showcases some pretty lovely small scale design as well).