Dig Comics: No Tale to Tell
Guest columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” – Mark Twain, author’s introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A couple of years back, I had the unenviable task of leading a discussion with a group of seasoned comic artists in which I was defending the position that sequential art does not need to follow a narrative. I was up against giants of the field like Sergio Aragonés, Bill Morrison and William Stout. What I proposed was borderline blasphemy to some in the room: that you can do something BESIDES tell a story with comics. And to make matters worse – I am not a professional illustrator. I can’t even draw a decent stick figure. But I am a student of art and I firmly believe that as with film and writing, the assumption that any art form is but a vehicle for “story” is wholly wrongheaded. Poets have proven this for centuries, using words not to convey a series of comprehensible acts with a summary resolution, but merely singing (or screaming) in strange places. The 20th century brought narrative in literature to its knees when the likes of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner introduced stream of consciousness prose. And I won’t even get into James Joyce. Non-narrative film is a bit more esoteric. Many people have great difficulty with the works of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner. I sure did when I was first exposed to them. But eventually, my need to challenge my mind and surprise my senses got the best of me. And so it is with comics.
Sam Hiti is one of my favorite independent comic book creators. Diligently self-publishing everything from horror to far-out sci-fi, his rugged and expressive style is always an eye-grabber. With his sketchbook collection, Ghoulash, he offers a window into a period of inky drawings which seem grown from a series of mythic and hellish visions. He makes no pretenses as to any order in the images. Aztec gods, bizarre undead figures, voluptuous femme fatales, even the visage of John Rambo all flow from one page to the next, as if compiling some impossible-to-follow fantasy action film. I doubt Hiti would admit any reasoning for the sequence of the images, and surely they make no comprehensive sense as a “story” – and yet I can’t shake the feeling that not only do these pictures all go together VERY organically, I feel even more sure that there is, at least, an unconscious motive in the grouping. After putting it down, I definitely feel like I’ve been to a real place, that something happened, but it is ineffable. I am not a fan of most sketchbooks, they are usually meant for completist uber-fans or fellow travelers studying technique. What Hiti delivers here compels me to believe his psyche really was in this series of happenings, his hand drew it, and the whole block of pages together may as well be a slide show of a vacation to the darker parts of his mind. And I love it.
An altogether different sort of sketchbook – which may in fact be a very deliberate work pretending to be a sketchbook – is Do It Yourself Doodler by David Jablow (published by AdHouse Books this September). More lighthearted, this very interesting entry from last year is actually more of a game for your mind in the form of comics. Jablow’s formula is very simple: he issues page after page with the same female figure in the same position, resting on the same part of the page. The thing is, each page is a totally different scene. On one, our protagonist is floating in space, in another she is a cowgirl riding a bucking bull, on another, she is a riveter working on a skyscraper. If it sounds boring – it really isn’t. I rarely use the term “clever” as a compliment, but Jablow plays against our expectations very cleverly indeed, pranking us with his seemingly effortless jaunts around a static character. The result is a dynamic and fun journey through a pan-genre landscape of recognizable pop culture milieus, employing humor and graced with excellent draftsmanship. Jablow really has taken a rather mundane doodle and transposed it through the many worlds comics readers find themselves in so often. His is an enjoyable experiment, not the least bit pretentious, and with great reverence of the history of the art form for good measure.
I save Pim & Francie for last because I hate talking about it. It scares me. No, that’s not right – it shakes me DEEPLY, to the soul, brings into the light the worst of fears. The great Al Columbia’s compilation of sketches – not to be confused with a sketchbook compilation – amounts to the graphic interpretation of nightmare. Not in the classical sense, mind you. There’s no particular situation, no old legend, no blood and guts. That’s not what nightmares are. Nightmares are those experiences where menacing figures you can’t understand stalk you, where the floor you are walking on dissolves like mist under your feet exposing you to the abyss, where a child’s idyllic image of the world has that one bit of corrupted stage prop, where the veil of reality becomes thin all too quickly, disorienting the dreamer instantly, dizzying, and all the while, death and worse is close behind. Your worst nightmares never make sense, you just know they are terrible. The visual information can’t add up, adding to the unknowable fear. Columbia uses exacting skill to take your eyes there. In one panel, children look out a window, where the background is in bold ink, but their legs and feet and the floorboards are thinly sketched in pencil. Which might not matter, except that something terrible is approaching the house and their only possible sanctuary is disappearing. A walk through the woods includes malevolent plants and flowers. A four-armed creature wielding knives with an uncannily seductive smile keeps popping up on random pages, often lurking too close to the children. That’s Columbia’s mastery. He knows how to take the symbols of comfort and joy – the kids, a smile, a flower – and put just the right touch on them to pervert the feeling they convey. His style goes a step further, employing the stamp of early comic strips like Thimble Theatre and The Katzenjammer Kids – even perhaps Buster Brown. The touchstone of that bygone era of early comics, where the magic was used to delight, makes the distorted landscape all the more terrible. What we end up with is a map of lost innocence, or perhaps a guidebook to just how terrifying the ignorant world of childhood can be. It’s a long book, and it offers no redemption or respite. Just like a nightmare, you have to awaken from it: it has to just end. It’s a true masterpiece from a genuinely disturbed mind and it shocks me even to recall it…
There are no stories here. You have to end such expectations if you wish to seek the next level of artistic consciousness. What is communicated in the end is something far more sublime than any narrative can deliver: experience. These works put you in a place with no guide but your eyes and mind. You don’t have the luxury of being told what to think, what to feel. You have the privilege of discovering something wholly other, relying on your wits alone. Folks like Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Van Gough and Frieda Kahlo did this for us in the realm of painting. I invite you to follow that same path which these great comics have laid out for us as well.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Posted on June 22, 2012, in Columns, Dig Comics and tagged Al Columbia, David Jablow, Dig Comics, Do It Yourself Doodler, Ghoulash, Miguel Cima, Pm and Francie, Sam Hiti. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.