Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blank Slate, Blazing a Trail

I started out to write this by grabbing a couple of books from the bookshelf: The Piers Plowman Tradition, ed' Helen Barr, Theory and Cultural Value, Steven Conner, British Writers of the Thirties, Valentine Cunningham, and Modern Literary Theory, eds Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh. I was going to include ideas about the notion of dangerous literature, the way "graphic novels" are viewed as cultural artifacts rather than works of art, publishing cliques, and the literary Canon, and literature as an ideological form, and how all these ideas relate to graphic novels today. Then I looked at my collection of Blank Slate books, and thought about the scans of the artwork from inside those books, and I realised that if I started going on and on and on about all that "stuff", we just wouldn't have the opportunity to enjoy the books themselves. Which really defeats the entire exercise, doesn't it?

So let us start with what matters; the books themselves; the covers, the work on the page, the drawings, the paintings, and the words. And the differencse between the individual books. The difference between the works Blank Slate is producing is very important. The eclectic mix of their books puts me in mind of, and it might just be because the stark black and white cover of Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales puts me in mind of the logo, Stiff Records, during the birth of Punk. Although, having said that, I don't think it's just a superficial resemblance, to me Blank Slate is part of a Punk movement; they are, arguably, the Sex Pistols or the Clash of British publishing.

My main fear for graphic novels in the UK was, as I made clear in this blog-post in 2007, that the creative talent here in the UK would have to continue to go abroad, or self-publish, or create comics rather than books, because the gatekeepers of literature in Britain have no idea what this new artform, the "graphic novel" is. Oh, they are perfectly happy to reprint successful graphic novels like Persepolis, or Ghost World, but they are not really prepared to encourage new talent over here. And that, as I recall from my time as a DJ, is a situation analogous to the music scene in Britain in the late 1970s when the major music labels and the BBC music shows and chart compilers (there were 2 number 1s and the BBC didn't play punk) just didn't "get it".

And what is it they just "don't get"? Well, it is, apparently, the often symbiotic nature of words and pictures in a graphic novel, and the possibility of the continuing movement of narrative and description through, sometimes, the illustrations alone.

Which brings us neatly to the work of Oliver East. I have to admit that to someone used to just reviewing or reading words on a page, looking at Oliver's books might be something of a culture shock. His pages sometimes look like Medieval English tapestries, the panel borders hinted at with trees or fences or roof tiles or dialogue or leaking into one another. It is often a landscape one second civilised and the next primitive, as his story continues its movement of narrative and description through the words, word and picture combinations, and even through illustrations alone.

Like most works of art, East's stories can be enjoyed on a number of levels, but if you are willing to make the effort, they can be very rewarding indeed. I like to speed-read on my first run at a book, and what struck me when I first flashed through East's work was, as I have mentioned, the tapestry-like look of the work, it's autumnal colours often merging town and country into one landscape. It also reminded me of allotments, of cities and towns, viewed from the windows of a train flashing through the countryside - occasional blinding me as the sunlight made me look away. This is, I think, where a book like East's Proper Go Well High, for instance, works so well, there is such momentum in the visual narrative, that the train journey is almost a stream of consciousness, playfully distorting the pace of the written words, slow then fast, then trailing off. I think I've read this book about six times and counting.

I've mentioned the "differences" in Blank Slate's range of books; of course there is a range of titles with traditional mainstream publishers, but that range is more genre than anything else - typed words are typed words, after all. But traditional large mainstream publishers do generally publish a wide range of illustrated or picture books, and that is often not the case with independent publishers who publish graphic novels. Some independent graphic novel publishers insist that all their titles look like they've been drawn by Frank Frazetta, or by some superhero comic artist, so whilst they may publish a range of titles, they publish a range of titles that all look alike. I can think of a number of independent publishers who would not have published Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales simply because of the way it looks (like me he draws very flat) and I'm betting there are more than a few who would have been too timid to publish it because of its content. But it is proving to be a solid ambassador for Blank Slate because it is a little gem of a book.

I like Darryl Cunningham's drawings. As you can see from my terrible lo-res scans they are legible even at this tiny blogger-friendly size - that's not easy to accomplish - and it is something that will become increasingly important as this book is ported to other mediums. The drawings, black and white line with solid black used as a colour, are tremendously effective and I don't know if it was a conscious decision (rather than a financial one) to use this format to illustrate the often black and white issues around mental illness; but it was undoubtedly the right one.

This is a thoughtful and tender work, sometimes at odds with its less than tender subjects. I love the page above, one panel of which is being used for the cover of the US edition of the book, it pulls back from its subject making him small and human as it does so.

I think that is what is at the core of this book; is its humanity. It's a study, and not simply a superficial one, of a difficult subject, handled with care and despite the fact that black and white artwork can often be brutal, with tenderness. Psychiatric Tales will, I think, one day, be seen to be as important a graphic novel as Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies.

In addition to publishing new work, Blank Slate are introducing some established overseas cartoonists to Britain. The story of Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician, by German cartoonist Mawill, is incredibly silly, but great fun. Mawill makes no excuses for a world where the central character is an electrician who happens to be a Hare, and nobody seems to notice, except to crack the odd joke about his funny looks and his lack of height. There aren't enough little quality pocket books like Sparky O'Hare around; it's a marvelous little book.

I remember, a few years ago, that Patricia Storms asked the question "why are graphic novels so bleak, obsessed with autobiography, and so lacking in humour?". When we tried to put our heads together and come up with an answer, the best we could do was suggest this was maybe an attempt to establish the artform as "serious"; especially in the eyes of those who regarded graphic novels as picture books. It was, and remains, a very good question. It must look to outsiders as if cartoonists really are a bunch of whiny bitches; too insecure to lighten up and have some fun. Although it is worth bearing in mind that the cartoonists are not publishing the work, they are simply producing what the publishers are willing to publish. It would seem to be the publishers themselves who are insecure about the work.

I think printing Sparky O'Hare shows that Blank Slate have no such insecurities; they love comics and it shows. There is no better example of that than Nigel Auchterlounie's Spleenal comic. This collection, in a book for "over 18s" is a joyous little foul-mouthed smut-fest that delivers a thick compendium of the sort of comics one used to find in the old skin-mags. It's uproarious fun. It's not Nigel's "Ulysses", but it's a great read and its full of marvelous drawings. There just isn't enough of this stuff being printed.

I'm delighted beyond mere words that Blank Slate has reprinted Belgian cartoonist Randall C's Sleepyheads in its original format. It's a gorgeous production, and a marvelous book. The comics, stand-alone and also linked by themes of dreaming and the sea, and by a story that comes and goes like the tide itself, manages to combine both the playful qualities that Blank Slate are not afraid to embrace, and a deeper level of meaning. Each chapter, or vignette, like "The East", printed below, is like a little masterclass in cartooning. The position of the text, the shape of the word balloon tails, and the body language of the actors, controlling the languid pace of the story:

I could go on filling this page with scans, but I'd urge you buy this book and see it for yourself. There is, for instance, a page in chapter two of Sleepyheads, The Sea, where the protagonists are discussing that song of clouds that for me boarders on the sublime. I can't recommend it highly enough.


Huw Aaron said...

Thanks Rod - nice intro to these books. Santa brought me a couple of books as recommended on your blog - sleepyheads and we can still be friends. Both great, cheers!

Rod McKie said...

Hey Huw, I'll be sending you an email today or tomorrow.

Bren said...

Thanks Rod, I'm intrigued by all of these. I love Oliver East's art work, and found Psychiatric Tales very good to look at and very sensitively done. The depiction of dementia was spot on and emotive. I want to see more of Sleepyheads too - great art, and wonderfully surreal storyline.

Rod McKie said...

Sleepyheads is a really nice book, Bren and it has enough sea-stuff in it to keep you happy:)

TimHarries said...

Another informative post Rod - thanks for taking the time to write it.

Treated myself to a shedload of graphic novels recently (great way to recuperate while recovering from the flu :) and Psychiatic Tales was one of them. Terrific work from Darryl - a difficult subject that he handles so well. I can see why it was in so many of this year's 'best of' lists - it's certainly in mine. Blank Slate were wise to sign him up.

I believe Blank Slate are going to be at the Cardiff Comics Expo, so that'll be an excellent chance to pick up Sleepyheads, Sparky O'Hare (really like the look if that one - looks fun) and a few other titles, plus hopefully have a chat with them. They seem like good folk.

Bought a couple of the Self Made Hero titles too - Mountains of Madness and the Holmes adaptations. All well worth getting, and all proof that there's a lot of talented creators out there. Really glad that these publishers are giving us the chance to see them.

Think I've rambled a bit - I had other thoughts but they've gone off somewhere.

Anyway, cheers for the post - always good to read reviews from someone who's opinion you trust. Keep up the good work Rod.

Rod McKie said...

I'm blushing, Tim.

Glad you are over the flu.

I agree with all you say about Blank Slate and Self Made Hero. It's a little like "if you publish, they will come" or at least stop going abroad. Things are looking up. I'm pretty sure Nobrow Press will be there too, and I'm sure they will all look forward to meeting you. Send them tweets in advance to let them know you'll be looking in.

My goodness me, when you think about it, it's not so long back you and I were looking at LULU as the only outlet for new ideas, and now look what's happened - we have a growing graphic novel publishing industry. Let's make the most of it.