Authors: Josh Tierney (writer), various artists
Publisher: Archaia (an imprint of Boom! Studios)
Pages: 90 (main story) / 176 (including short stories)
Price: US-$ 19.95
Sometimes, it takes little to make a good print comic out of a good web comic (e.g. Robin Vehrs’s Western Touch/Enjambements, reviewed on this weblog). Spera was a good web comic, too, and when its print publication was announced, I was looking forward to it. The concept of Spera was crazy, in a good way: the entire script was written by Josh Tierney, but every 3-8 pages (some of which have large “infinite canvas”-like layouts) the artist would change.
Over 40 artists contributed back then, which resulted in a variety of styles, and also in vastly different levels of quality. Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out what was going on in the illustrations if you hadn’t read Tierney’s synopsis at the start of each section. For the print version, it looks like Tierney (or his editors at Archaia?) wanted to have more consistent art, so the same script is now illustrated by only four artists: Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, recent Eisner Award winner Emily Carroll, and Olivier Pichard. Don’t get me wrong, all four of them are superb artists, and on average, the art is probably better in the book than in the web comic.
However, this printed Spera is no longer a bold experiment in comic-making. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fantasy story. The only element in the story that some readers will find interesting is the gender-bending aspect. Furthermore, the dialogue is often awkward and clumsy (“I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons”).
On the other hand, the book is designed beautifully as a heavy hard cover volume with golden ornaments on the cover, a map printed on the endpapers, and other nice touches (but still reasonably priced). That’s one advantage over the online version. Still, overall I’m disappointed of how this book turned out, and I probably won’t read any of the following volumes (three to date). If only they had given this book another title, “Spera Reloaded” or something like that…
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.
There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:
Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.
My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.'” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.
Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.
This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.
But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.
For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.
Review of Western Touch
Author: Robin Vehrs
For me, Enjambements was the webcomics sensation of 2011 (although it had already been around since 2009, unnoticed by me). A selection of episodes has now been collected into an A5-sized paperback titled “Western Touch”.
A typical Enjambements episode consists of roughly square panels arranged in 2 columns and 4-8 rows. These panels are populated with pixel figures so crudely drawn that they make Diesel Sweeties look photo-realistic. The backgrounds are filled with ever-changing patterns reminiscent of computer graphics software from 25 years ago. These characteristics result in an overall art style that seems fitting for a digital medium.
In the printed book, this style works just as well: the images look like printouts from said era, retaining their simple and rough appeal. The grid arrangement practically lends itself to the portrait format of the book page (even more so than to the landscape format of a computer screen on which the webcomic version is probably usually read), with longer episodes being spread onto two facing pages (e.g. an episode with 2 x 5 panels is divided into a 2 x 2 and a 2 x 3 page).
The strength of this comic, however, lies not so much in its form but in its content. The absurdity of each little story is acted out with both straight-faced consistency and relish: where other cartoonists would stop after the gag in the third panel, Robin Vehrs just adds more panels, more gags and more absurd twists, each funnier than the one before.
Robin Vehrs is the most innovative German humour cartoonist since Joscha Sauer, and one can only hope someone will attempt to translate Western Touch into other languages. At the very least, this book is a fine object of study for anyone interested in webcomics mastering the transition to print.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○