Poetry Is Useless, Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly, £19.99
“Dear stranger, while we wait in the DMV to receive this license [sic] to auto-mote let us not forget there is no God.” Cartoonist Anders Nilsen’s work is very Ingmar Bergman at the drive-in.
Poetry is Useless is a compilation of sketchbook pages which thrives on Nilsen’s sweet-and-sour dynamic of big philosophical questions with comic punchlines. The punchlines don’t negate the questions. They just give them extra flavour.
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Artistically, Poetry is Useless offers wonderful examples of Nilsen’s pointillist, detailed style – particularly in the travelogue sections – but he’s just as happy roughing out vaguely human black silhouettes to provide mouthpieces for his dark-night-of-the-soul comedy routines. The sketchbook format means Poetry is Useless jumps around between ideas and found images, imaginary shapes and intricate observations of the back of some man’s head, but the whole accumulates – coagulates, if you prefer – into something really rather powerful.
Oh and look out for the scrappy strip on page 36. That’s the equivalent of a perfect Richard Ford short story tossed off in 12 panels.
Step Aside, Pops Kate Beaton, Jonathan Cape, £12.99
I think my favourite image in Step Aside, Pops is the Victorian-era woman (or is she Edwardian? Her creator would be appalled by my lack of knowledge) marching around in a big puff dress, smoking like a trooper and carrying a phonograph on her shoulder as a male cyclist looks on in disgust. Wonder what the 19th-century equivalent of Run DMC’s It’s Like That is anyway?
Beaton has a lovely eye for this time-shift comedy. She skits on historical and literary figures – from Napoleon to Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights – in the sharp, spry, short comic strips that make up Step Aside, Pops. Byron, Wonder Woman, Cinderella and the Black Prince all turn up at various points and all are mined lovingly for humour. She also draws a great Janet Jackson. Recommended.
Hip Hop Family Tree 3, Ed Piskor, Fantagraphics, £19.99
Did someone mention Run DMC? They’re on the cover of Hip Hop Family Tree 3, Ed Piskor’s ongoing graphic history of B Boys, graffiti taggers and rappers. This third volume covers the years 1983 and 1984 and features Rick Rubin, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and early appearances from the likes of Chuck D and Ice T.
It’s an enjoyable and informative piece of music journalism (or maybe you all already knew that synthpopster Thomas Dolby had worked with rap trio Whodini). But it’s the way that Piskor presents it as an alternative universe Marvel comic, complete with eighties style Zip-a-Tone shading and hip hop superhero poses that makes it purr. Don’t you wish Marvel had done an Afrika Bambaataa comic back in the day? With George Tuska on art, say.
Stroppy, Marc Bell, Drawn & Quarterly, £14.80
You can’t dip into Marc Bell’s comics. You have to immerse yourself. There’s a depth to his wild and crazy imagery that demands you pay attention, let your eye take in the rubbery detail, its strangeness and cartoony density.
The result is something that owes something to the underground comix of the 1960s, the world creation of animated cartoons and Bell’s own vision of the world which might be best summed up as savage, acid-flavoured whimsy.
In Stoppy our eponymous hero works for Monsieur Moustache on a processing plant factory line removing the brains from “small beings” who are then transformed into private security. (Listen, that’s all in the first two pages. Things get much more complicated and weirder than that).
You can, if you like, unpick an attack on capitalist organisation in Stroppy but, really, it’s a bit like mining for gold in a wheat field. The stuff in front of you is what matters. And that’s the complexity of Bell’s vision of the world as put down on the page.
To be honest, the story here doesn’t do much for me, but there’s a visceral quality to Bell’s casual cartoon violence and sequence in which he gives us tableaus which incorporate both a music contest and a crazy golf game is remarkable. It also made me think of Ken Reid’s Jonah comic strips in The Beano. Like Reid, Bell knows quite how far you can stretch the form. And how much fun you can have in doing so.
Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer Sylvie Rancourt, Drawn & Quarterly, £15.15.
At the start of the 1980s Sylvie Rancourt moved to Montreal and started dancing in strip clubs. In 1985 she started recording her experiences in strip form. The result was Canada’s first autobiographical comic. This book collects six of her comics into book form and the result is singular, a seemingly off-the-cuff account of a life lived on the margins.
Rancourt’s stories are post-watershed soap operas. It’s about the jealousies among dancers, the casual awfulness and sometime kindness of the strip club punters and the selfish uselessness of Melody’s boyfriend Nick (who is on this evidence, quite frankly an utter pillock).
Rancourt is not retelling her story from a feminist perspective here. There is no real reflection on the world in which she inhabits (if anything it seems like she enjoys the work to some degree). She is certainly not animated by anger or disgust. There’s a this-is-what-it-is-like quality to her storytelling.
Her art, meanwhile, is unsophisticated. You could push it and call it naïve. But for all that there is a crudeness to her character drawing you are never confused or unsure what is happening on the page. It is effective and has some lovely offhand grace notes from time to time.
Yes, there is a lot of nudity. The odd sex scene too. But given the simplicity of the art it’s hard to argue that any of it is titillating. This is not pornographic spectacle.
What it is, instead, is an example of how lines on paper – even very crude lines – can take on a personality if you are consistent and you have a story to tell. Rancourt certainly has that.