Sunday, 11 October 2009

The New Action

from CF's Powr Mastrs 2

In recent years an informal school of cartoonists has emerged whose work, though firmly rooted in the expressive, experimental tradition of art comics, revels unashamedly in action, adventure and fantasy genre tropes. Encompassing such comics as CF’s Powr Mastrs, Ben Jones and Frank Santoro’s Cold Heat, Dash Shaw’s Body World and Shawn Cheng and Zak Smith’s On The Road Of Knives among many others, this emergent movement (though its practitioners are not keen to classify themselves as such) has recently been solidified by Sean T. Collins’ ‘The New Action’ panel at this year’s Small Press Expo, where several of the cartoonists listed above discussed their work and the work that inspires them.

As the North American comics mainstream has moved towards TV-inspired, ‘police procedural’-style realism under the guidance of such writers as Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker at Marvel and Greg Rucka and Geoff Johns at DC, it seems as though many alternative cartoonists have looked to the mainstream’s more expressive past for inspiration. It’s no coincidence that the rise of the New Action cartoonists has coincided with the recent release of a series of beautifully designed books from Fantagraphics reprinting superhero comics from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

from Fletcher Hanks' I Shall Destroy All The Civilised Planets

The most notable of these is the two-volume complete works of Fletcher Hanks, whose grotesque, bizarre and violent superhero comics seem wildly inventive by the standards of today’s anaemic mainstream. Similarly, recent hardcover collections of Jack Kirby’s superhero and science fiction comics of the ‘60s and ‘70s have made his groundbreaking work more accessible than ever. Kirby’s explosive, kinetic style and the sense of power and energy it conveys have had an almost universal impact on the New Action cartoonists, providing an irresistibly gleeful alternative to the drab realism of contemporary mainstream comics art and encouraging a renaissance in the kind of inventiveness and playful surrealism that characterised early North American genre comics.

This emphasis on invention and play doesn’t only originate in comics though; the New Action cartoonists are equally inspired by the creative energy and violent excess of video games. This can be seen most clearly in their approach to character design, which often makes use of the expanse of visual shorthand and symbolism found in video games to immediately separate hero from villain and weak from strong. By rearranging these conventions in new and bizarre ways, whether it be in Kevin Huizenga’s constantly evolving, abstract combatants or CF’s sexually charged monster/wizard/scientist hybrids, the New Action cartoonists are able to draw attention to the grotesque physicality of their characters, with blood, gore, piss and shit, among other bodily fluids, comprising the visual currency of many of their comics.

from Kevin Huizenga's Ganges 2

Similarly, the geography and terrain of many New Action comics is inspired by the way characters move through space in a video game. In a New Action comic each chapter is a new level, platforms dominate the landscape, a hero’s home is his save point and the reader is lost without an easily accessible map. This obsession with action packed geography does more than simply define the look of New Action worlds though. It also allows for, and encourages, incredibly dynamic page layout and composition. As Sean T. Collins put it during his panel at SPX:

I remember the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. There was this shot when they're running down the big bridge underground: Legolas shoots an arrow, and the camera follows the arrow until it hits the orc, who then dies. When that happens, the angle switches, and you see that just by following the arrow, you've visually described this whole space and opened this whole vista up. I think that's one of the things that action can do really well, and is perhaps underappreciated when people focus on the genre aspect or the narrative aspect. It's a way to get you around the page that's different from more straightforward comics.

In a format such as comics, where the arrangement of space on a page plays such an integral role in controlling pace and narrative, the conventions of both video games and action movies, are an incredibly useful tool.

Which brings us to Prison Pit.

The latest graphic novel from Angry Youth Comix creator Johnny Ryan, Prison Pit takes the vibrancy, momentum and physicality of the New Action school, and combines it with Ryan’s obsession with bodily functions and the violence and grotesqueness of life, to create a comic that is part 120 page fight sequence, part dick joke compilation.

The book begins as it means to go on: a vast spaceship’s long elevator shaft slowly, silently and none-too-subtly probes a hole in the surface of a rocky planet, until up pops the blocky, declarative title ‘CHAPTER ONE: FUCKED’. A moment later, after a short scuffle with his guards, our blood-drenched barbarian antihero is propelled down the tube to the planet’s surface, punching and kicking all the way: the planet has been fertilised with action.

From this point on, the comic takes action as its modus operandi, both in terms of narrative and the way that narrative is communicated, proceeding to chart the barbarian’s various, always violent, encounters with the prison pit’s other inmates as he explores (in notably video game-like style) his new home. What is remarkable, though, is the fundamental role the prisoners’ bodies play in their fights. One creature squeezes the acne on his chest to project a stream of razor-sharp goo capable of slicing off our hero’s arm, while another prepares for battle by jerking off to create a gigantic, mind-controlled suit of armour made entirely of ejaculate. These characters constantly spew or consume bodily fluids: they are drenched in black ink-scratches of blood, foam continually at the mouth, spit and piss on one another, and always eat the bodies of their vanquished foes. This is action as the base constituent of life.

This concept gets it’s apotheosis in Prison Pit’s finale. At his lowest ebb, missing an arm and covered in so much blood his features are almost indistinguishable, our hero finally finds a ‘slorge’. In the world of Prison Pit, the slorges are a species of small, human-faced slugs that lick the pus-like ooze from an alien cactus before excreting it as a drug called ‘fecid’ that supposedly “makes you feel like you’re the #1 fucking awesome maniac.” With our hero unconscious and certain to be killed at any moment, the slorge slithers over to him, inserts its rear end into the bloody stump of his left arm and shits fecid straight into his blood stream. As you can probably imagine, he immediately goes on to beat the living crap out of his opponent. What you might not imagine though, is that, having slumped down against a rock to rest, his newly attached slorge-arm slowly reaches down to his crotch, pulls his wrestler’s pants down and, as the final page’s panels slowly zoom out, begins to suck his massive, spiny barbarian dick. Far from coming as a shock though, this sequence makes for a perfect ending. After the constant abject, body-shock violence, the serene, self-satisfied final panels are both completely unexpected and absolutely appropriate. The barbarian has fertilised himself with action. This comic is an epileptic fit in a dildo factory and should be read by absolutely everybody.

Prison Pit is available now from Fantagraphics Books.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Comica 2009: Joe Sacco: Return to Palestine

This Tuesday, American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco spoke about his life and career at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and gave a tantalising sneak preview of his upcoming graphic book, Footnotes in Gaza.

The latest in a series of reports from war-torn regions of the world, Footnotes marks Sacco’s return to the Gaza Strip seventeen years after the visit that inspired his breakout comic, Palestine. This time though, rather than simply journeying around the troubled state, Sacco had a clear purpose: to discover, through interviews with local Palestinians, what really happened in 1956, when 111 Palestinian refugees were reputedly shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Having spent seven years constructing this 432 page tome (by far his longest comic to date), Sacco impresses with the consistent and rigorous impartiality of his approach, letting the stories of those who remember the massacre speak for themselves. In fact, when the event’s moderator, the comics historian Roger Sabin, asked Sacco whether he believed that the massacre’s culprits should be found and prosecuted, he responded simply by stating “It’s not for me to say”. To Sacco, the evidence must speak for itself.

However, despite this admirably detached approach, Sacco’s book is not completely bias-free. Most notably, the vast majority of his sources are Palestinian, with only the occasional Israeli counterpoint. Sacco is very clearly taking the victim’s side in a story that has, in the past, only been told from an Israeli point of view. Interestingly though, Sacco mitigates this bias by constantly confronting the reader with the problems inherent in investigative journalism: contradictory stories, incomplete accounts and unwilling interviewees. By acknowledging that he may not have the full story, he arguably presents as honest a picture of his discoveries as possible.

As well as discussing his latest work, Sacco had some interesting things to say about the comics form in general. When asked why he chooses to use comics rather than prose, he cited the medium’s unique ability to deal with time. On a comic’s page a cartoonist is able to depict past, present and future simultaneously in a way that is not possible in prose or film. This co-mingling of timeframes allowed Sacco to emphasise the importance of the events of the past on Palestine’s present, explicitly linking the lives of the Palestinians he interviewed with the events that befell them in 1956. Similarly, his use of cartooning, also a particular feature of comics, has a distancing effect similar to that used by Art Spiegelman in his seminal Maus. This allows Sacco to confront such issues as mass murder in a way that forces us to look at them in a completely new way, uninfluenced by the stark visuals of newspaper photography and TV news channels, creating an experience that would not be possible in any other medium.

The Comica festival, of which this event was a part, continues at the ICA in November with presentations from such cartoonists as Eddie Campbell and David Lloyd.

Footnotes in Gaza will be available from December 3rd from Jonathan Cape.