By Rhys Tarling
Each of the nine artists on display for the Comic Tragics exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA have wildly differing styles – running the gamut from stark realism to strange expressionism – but are linked by their collective fascination with the personal and the mundane. The pathetic and all-too-human creatures that inhabit these small comic book panels are not glossily rendered super-heroic personifications of our kindest and toughest selves; they’re mirrors made of ink and pencil.
There were three artists who stood out to me – Gabrielle Bell, Anders Nilsen, and Emma Talbot.
Gabrielle Bell’s illustrations eschew the widescreen, decompressed aesthetic that many comic artists – at least mainstream ones – embrace, in favour of an old-school style that is reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s work. Steve Ditko is most famous for co-creating Spider-Man in 1962. His panels were rigidly structured and each polaroid-shaped panel was its own self-contained story that only gently suggested that you read the next. He wasn’t concerned with “What’s going to happen next?” but rather “What’s happening now?”
Bell’s use of this aesthetic is not mere affectation. Her semi-autobiographical writing is concerned with the anxiety of now – I need ideas for this comic book now, this date is going horribly now, my life is going nowhere now. The calm and ordered illustration of life that the rigidly structured panels imply, provides an amusing and sad contrast to the chaos that Bell’s stand-in is submerged in.
On the other end of the spectrum there is Anders Nilsen. His art is cinematic. Each panel seamlessly flows to the next and are in the shape of a widescreen. There is a focus on action, not action by way of violence, but by way of movement and the suggestion of constant momentum. His illustrations are gorgeous and the draftsmanship is impeccable – we are never overwhelmed or confused by the constant motion; only captivated.
This style works in perfect thematic tandem with his main piece on display “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow” a short, grief-fuelled story about a man reminiscing about his deceased fiancee. The story constantly builds and builds to the moment where he pours the ashes that used to be his fiancee into the ocean.
Nilsen’s writing is as intensely personal as any letter, but the coldly constant motion of the art suggests that even when consumed by grief, time waits for no one. It’s an interesting artistic choice to make, particularly in the context of a medium that often encourages solipsistic expression.
Emma Talbot was unique amongst the nine in that her art didn’t follow any established format that comic book readers are familiar with. You couldn’t label her pieces as old school or cinematic; you can only say that Emma Talbot makes Emma Talbot comics and that they are beautiful in their specificity.
Her most memorable piece were a series of – not panels, exactly – but small discreet windows into the complicated life of single mothers. The action doesn’t flow via linear action or cause and effect but rather through snippets of haiku-like musings. The rich and ornamental backdrop is a visually rich, but also elevates the illustrations of ordinary life into the realm of poignancy.
The people in her art have no facial features, but she captures motion so accurately and writes with such feeling, that the lack of eyes, nose, and lips scarcely matters.
The Comic Tragics: The Exploding Language of Contemporary Comic Art is a free exhibit at the Art Gallery of Western Australia that ends on July 25. I highly recommend checking it out to gain an appreciation for an under-appreciated medium.