Is there such a thing as an Ideal Comic, and would anyone be foolish enough to try defining it?
Sure, why not?
Here’s a working definition: “A narrative which functions most perfectly
within graphic illustration.”
Clunky, but it hits the main points: it’s gotta be at least slightly narrative (otherwise you’re doing numbers in a series) and it’s gotta be something that works best within what people awkwardly call “the medium.” Graphic illustration sounds like porno circa 1964, but is a broad catch-all that avoids a favoring of, say, ink washes over photo collage. You’ll note that nothing is said about the limiting term “Sequential Art.” Narrative ain’t sequence, ladies.
This ad hoc definition ends the never ending battle of ART COMIX versus SUPERHEROS by indirectly pointing out, that, hey, both sides suck. We gather a strange insight from Jack T. Chick who, upon seeing Mao-era Chinese propaganda comics, realized that something about the essential cheapness and their very low threshold of entry (a pen and very modest talent), allows a didactic directness and immediacy unavailable in other artistic forms. In essence, Chick sussed out an unfortunate truth: if you’ve got something to say, but no way of saying it, you can always make a comic. In rough terms, this is why present day superhero comics are usually movies made by Hollywood failures or people with no hope of directing, and contemporary art comics are often boring roman-a-clef novels or memoirs authored by people who can’t write.
Rather than start off trashing people’s work, I’d like to try the novel approach of praising a few books that highlight the Ideal. First up is the recent Phonogram, by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. This is the best series I have read in four years.
Phonogram is about a bunch of British wanker magicians for whom music is their magic. The series rambles on about Britpop and is, to a certain frame of mind, readable as the final and inevitable apotheosis of record store employees and music journalists as Gods of Their Own Making. Is there a book which sounds more horrible? Britpop! Again: Britpop! Written and drawn by English people who like it! So. As one may deduce, this is a title with a lot going against it; and yet, it works. It really, really works.
This is not to say that there are not problems. The writing of the first issue, featuring a truly sad HEY! IT’S LESBIANS! reveal, is far weaker than the next five, and while I think McKelvie’s art is great, it must be said that the dude has a real problem drawing faces that I can differentiate. Thankfully, Phonogram‘s characters are all music hipsters, so they can be identified by hair styles and piercings. Theoretically, one could argue that this is an hilarious comment on the Follower Paradigm of popular music fronts, or that the characters were all born in the Forest of Dean, but I’m pretty sure neither is the case.
Also, yeah, it’s a six issue series about, you know, Britpop.
Minor complaints aside, Phonogram is the Ideal Comic. There’s no place but comics where a creative team could get away with this story and not be laughed out of the building, let alone be able to compellingly build an extremely dense symbolism on top of, well, Britpop. Britpop. Blur! Oasis! Manic Street Preachers! And lesser bands that you’ve never heard of! (We exclude Pulp from this sordid mess.) Used for necromancy and geomancy and every other -mancy striking the author’s fancy. Where else but comics could this work?
By sticking to a black-white-and-grey color scheme, McKelvie has achieved something close to a perfect method of having the graphics strengthen, inform and drive the narrative without overwhelming it. The use of half-tone is wonderful; it evokes the distant world of zines and mainstream publishing’s last gasp before it gave over to the Internet and Adobe. It unostentatiously reminds us that coming at 94-96, Britpop was the last hurrah before music fandom moved to the web, a place where it’s languished and withered on shit blogs and, worse yet, Pitchfork.
Gillen has chosen the only medium that could support the story’s essential goal– to examine what seemed, at the time, like a modern mythology being made from nothing. It’s too sparse for a novel, too dense for a film, and too weird for either. Pop music always has been about image and wish fulfillment; what better place to examine that kind of fantasy than comics?
That, basically, is Ideal.
And here’s one really great page:
Drudge in Hollywood
On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan