Comics For Which to Watch Out

1 July, 2006 at 11:08 pm (comics)

Every so often, life conspires. How often have you gotten a summary of posts to a listserv that seem wholly irrelevant? For those of us who subscribe to listservs, the answer is “daily”. So it’s especially joyous when those collections of announcements and updates and queries and classifieds actually contain something of note. Case in point: despite the fact that I have well and truly graduated from Simmons College, I still receive daily updates on the parking construction, upcoming campus events, and job opportunities in Boston. Now, considering that I don’t live in or around Boston, these announcements are less than useful, and have been for two years now. And the fact that I didn’t unsubscribe from this list the moment after I’d joined the alumni association would be an utter mystery, if the universe hadn’t rewarded me for my patience. Because midway through last week, the was an announcement that comic-strip artist Alison Bechdel would be giving a lecture on campus. A quick glance at her website indicated that she would also be heading westward for a stop in Northampton, thus making herself available to the twin poles of the Massachusetts women’s college communities.

Northampton used to be home to the Words and Pictures Museum, as well as other brainchilds of Kevin Eastman and Denis Kitchen, and has therefore been the New England seat of a thriving comics community (which may have moved north up Interstate-91 these days), but aside from the occasional hosting of a 24-hour comics event, it hasn’t been the most happening comics or “comix” spot in the recent past. So it was nice to hear that Ms. Bechdel was choosing to stop there on her promotional tour for her new graphic novel, Fun Home.

It also gave me the opportunity to do something that I don’t do very often: be exposed to something about which I know nothing.

A panel from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOMEI am very review conscious. I don’t always allow myself to be influenced by critical response, but I read trade magazines and hype magazines and reviews and large swathes of the internet, and so it is seldom that I come across a film or a comic that I know absolutely nothing about. I have usually encountered early gossip or a plot summary, or I know something about the directors, actors, or creators. I have some degree of context and familiarity. However, I had never read anything by Ms. Bechdel. I’d heard of Dykes to Watch Out For, but never encountered it, and therefore had no previous exposure to its content as comic material, as fiction, or as artwork. And because I am conscious of the fact that I am very review conscious, I occasionally try to make sure that I read or watch something about which I possess no pre-knowledge. It’s harder than it sounds, and the fact that I even recognized Ms. Bechdel’s name could be construed as a bit of a cheat, or at least of compromise.

However, I was once again glad of the vicissitudes of circumstance. I’m not sure I would have been so impressed with the artwork or the multimedia presentation that was the heart of Ms. Bechdel’s appearance had I been familiar with her earlier work. As it was, I found the linework, the compositions, the color, and the overall technique to be marvelous and moving. The fact that she blew up each panel to be projected upon a screen allowed for one to see with considerable clarity the intricacies of the artwork. Also fascinating was the presentation itself. Comic books, as a medium, are perhaps singly effective at being able to present to the reader two parallel and interactive narratives simultaneously. The words, usually in captions, can tell one story while the images tell another. The intersections and echoes between these two narratives is often what demonstrates the most clever and evocative comics work — pristine examples can be found in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, for example. Bechdel read the captions from her narrative in tempo with the pictures, and allowed the audience to “read” the images on the screen. This was an extremely effective way of recreating the experience of actually reading the book. Comics are difficult to give live readings of, as the interplay of caption, dialogue, image, and voice don’t create the flow that reading from prose can have. And Bechdel’s presentation would not work for every graphic novel… But it was astonishingly effective for her parallel narratives.

For those interested in her creative process, Ms. Bechdel gave a brief presentation in between the two chapters she read from in order to give a visual demonstration of her artistic process. She had given a similar demonstration in a streaming YouTube video, detailing the sort of modeling she does in order to capture body language so effectively. While this video doesn’t demonstrate the second half of her interlude — the transformative process of layering in lineart, word balloons, and an ink wash — it still gives an interesting view into her particular artistic endeavors.

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