Colin Turnbull; A Tall Story -In The Kingdom Of The Blind The One Eyed Man Is King (even if he has cataracts)
Mr Paul Ashley Brown offers us his opinion. The title is my own.
I Am The Milkman Of Inhuman Unkindness - Some Rambling Incoherent Opinion on the Jonathan Cape/Observer Graphic Short Story Competition. (With Sincere Apologies to Tall Milkmen Everywhere, honest. )
Just this week I took time out from doing some of my really futile drawings to check out the latest winner of the Observer/Jonathan Cape Graphic Short Story Prize, a yearly competition open to UK comic-book artists and wannabes desperate to get their hands on £1000 of prize money and see their comic appear in the pages of the Guardian/Observer. Hopefully a small step on the road to Graphic Novel Stardom, Fey-yet-mildly Psychotic Art-Girl Groupies, and all the deluded AlanMoore-like God-Worship you can muster from Over-Needy-Nerdy- Male- Acolytes- Desperate- for- Attention. I was wondering what exciting talent may have been unearthed, that might lead us into an exciting new dawn for the Comic Strip medium, a Brave New World where a startling voice and vision smashes the mirror of comic book conformity into smithereens and opens the door to an entirely challenging and frightening universe of possibilities.
"WHAM !!!" as comic book tracer Roy Lichtenstein might have put it. Or "FOOOOM !" as Deranged Drawer of Banana-Fingered-Open- Mouthed- Tombstone-Toothed-Cosmic-God- Superheroes Jack Kirby might have it.
But well DROKK ! if what I got instead was a 4 page story of a Tall Milkman ! "Gott In Himmel !! AIEEEEE !!!" as a dying German Infantryman might put it, in one of those not-at-all-stereotypical-yet- strangely-stirring-and-often- beautifully- drawn Commando War Picture Library books of my childhood ! This was the winning entry ? The Winning entry mind you !!! What on Earth were the rest like, if this won it ? Alan Moore must be turning in his grave at the level of ordinary-ness here !!! ( What's that Ed ? He's not dead ? Well, he may as well be !!!)
"Cor !!!" I hear you say," you've hit a new low here Brown ! Where do you get off? Attacking the work of a fellow artist, one who's only just starting out on his story telling journey, having to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous and unwarranted vitriol from some jealous jaded hack begrudging someone a small moment of triumph and encouragement ! Surely you know the struggle involved in creating anything ? Surely you know the agony inherent in every failed line, every piss poor panel redrawn, every vague inaccurate rendering of the figure, every badly lettered balloon, every mixed metaphor and cliched dialogue, every half-arsed idea unrealised, every page torn up and thrown into the bin that just wasn't good enough !!! You, You know better than most, what it means to remain unseen !!!! Surely you won't deny this young man's right to success, his right to bask in the simple glory of winning a little competition, and his fifteen minutes of fame ????"
Well, put like that, then....maybe ! In truth, I read Matthew Dooley's Colin Turnbull; A Tall Story in an initial mood of trying to be fair and reasonable. It's a rather gentle, pleasant little story of a Tall Milkman who each year enters a Tall Milkman of The Year Competition, each year losing to the same rival, until fate lends a hand. Not dissimilar, as it happens, to the artist himself's attempts at winning this competition, as the accompanying feature by Rachel Cooke reveals (this was the fifth time he'd entered.Ooooh, the Irony !!!) It has a soft, gentle humour, and it's both written and drawn simply and competently. In relation to the competition's criteria, it probably ticks all the right boxes by way of length of story, narrative intent, visual cohesion and comprehension. I'd probably admit that yeah, I could see why it might be chosen as the winner.
Unfortunately though, after my feeble attempts to be fair and reasonable, my over-riding thought was GOD !!!THAT'S SO FUCKING DULL !!!! THIS IS WHAT YOU FUCKERS ASPIRE TO ? THIS???THIS IS WHAT YOU JUDGE AS A WORTHY WINNER ??? THIS IS WHAT YOU THINK COMICS SHOULD BE? AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGH !!!!!(As any poor comic book victim of a rampaging Underpant-Wearing Alien Monster might say ) I continued to swear to myself loudly and vociferously, as if I too, was a giant rampaging Underpant Wearing Alien Monster from Mars, ready to descend upon the offices of The Observer and tear it's comic-strip judges eyeballs out of their sockets in my self-righteous wrath, then tear their bodies limb from limb, before spending the afternoon laying carnage to Tokyo with Godzilla and his mates ! I tried to be reasonable again, tried to calm myself and think rationally. Why was this making me so angry?? What was it about a story of a Tall Milkman that had turned me, a mild-mannered, anonymous drawer of miserable unread comic zines into a rampaging Ball of Senseless Wrath and Alien Fury.
Well it was this : I saw in Matthew Dooley's winning entry everything I find currently problematical in what passes for part of the enviroment that is British Comics right now. And I really don't mean this as a slight on Matthew Dooley, and I would genuinely wish him well,and as I've already stated here, I can see the qualities in his work that have won him the prize. While his work may be competent in it's drawing and story, will be liked and enjoyed by a lot of people who see it and read it, it's also for me, personally, indicitive of everything that's wrong with these things,this type of competition, the current comics landscape, which is that it's bland, dull, ordinary, spineless, safe, pleasant, nice. Perfect in it's inoffensive simplicity. Offensive in it's gutless tastefulness. A sad reflection of both what's required and expected in the lovely new world of British Comics, where those who bleat on about some new Golden Age of Comics fashion an Emperor's New Clothes of naked tedium and dull writing and dull artwork. The Bland lead the Bland to the ever overhyped frenzy of the new age of Graphic Novel Greatness, a medium capable of so much reduced to something vacuous and hollow, often bereft of content and real voices and vision, mindless dull stories and pretty pleasant pictures. A homogonised perfect lawnscape (or rather, yawnscape) of Middle-Class values and content, a self-congratulatory smugness of average, don't-frighten-the-horses talent, lacking edges and danger. In his interview in the Guardian, Matthew mentions the comics he grew up reading, Asterisk, Tintin and 2000AD. He mentions discovering Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. Fair enough, and pretty good influences to be honest. But to me, 2000AD in the Seventies and early to mid-Eighties when I read it had balls and attitude, was street and punk, had spunk and guts, took risks, had substance amid the dizzying style. Had satire, wit, energy, violence. Had a fucking IMAGINATION. There's little of this in the current landscape. Spiegelman's MAUS is one of the few canons worthy of being considered akin to the power, weight and scope of the Literary Novel. It had horror and frankness, it told you what it means to be human, what we're capable of and not capable of. And it did it with Scritchy and scratchy scribbles of cats and mice, it had edge, it was bleak, it was moving, it was heartbreakingly human. It had a spine. Something a lot of the current crop of comics and Graphic Novels lack. Again, I'm not really wishing to disparage Matthew Dooley (honest !) In the end it may well be simply a question of taste, just as it's down to the judges taste as to who wins or loses, who's considered good or not good enough. I'm more than aware of how unreasonable my position may seem. I wish at times, I really didn't care about this stuff. But I do. I care about a medium I see as being gentrified, adhering to a certain narrowness of what's possible. Being stifled by tastefulness, shaped by Safe, Spineless Middle-Brow Mediocrities.
I wonder at the value inherent in these competitions as outlets for new or developing talents, and if there's not a danger of a new conformity being developed if the type of work considered has to fulfil a certain criteria to get somewhere, or simply get seen. Especially if that art has to conform to not just the particular tastes of the judges, but of the received audience, a primarily Liberal, Middle Class one; after all, these days, they're probably the only people who can afford that new Graphic Novel the Guardian has made it's Book of the Week ( the duration of which means it'll still be fashionable enough to discuss at dinner). To be fair and reasonable ( "Are You Capable? HA !-Ed ), a previous winner of the Jonathan Cape/Observer competition was the artist Isabel Greenberg. I mention her here because she is proof that there are young artists out there with real talent, natural storytellers who have a real understanding of their medium. But that understanding comes through an engagement with their medium over time. Isabel Greenberg didn't draw comics to enter and win competitions-she had been making comics and zines for a few years before she won the Observer competition.I would imagine she made them because she wanted to make comics, and she wanted to tell stories. She honed her craft and skills at book and zine fairs, in an enviroment of like-minded souls putting their work out there on their own terms, not needing a competition judges approbation, just the audience they were developing themselves. It's a similar story for the other two "Bright Young Things" of Graphic Novel Land in recent years, Katie Green and Gareth Brookes, artists who developed their work in their own way, on their own terms, over time in the Mines as it were, before emerging into the new bright Comic Book Dawn.
I would argue that what's required if you genuinely want to see new artists with individual voices and vision, with commitment not just to their craft but to the medium of comics, is not a competition that promotes a certain narrow criteria and taste, but the development of an enviroment that embraces all kinds of expression, all kinds of work, all kinds of approaches. A landscape that nurtures wildness and invention, that allows you to shout and scream, cry and laugh, be angry, be vicious, be belligerent, ugly and chaotic, poetic, calm, considered and beautiful. To be absolutely anything you want to be, and want your comic to be.To not be dictated to by a certain narrow agenda of a small minority of tastemakers and judges. And not be safe, and pleasant and nice and dull and spineless and Middle-Class. You don't find this landscape in competition necessarily. You may find it in Community. Fuck the New Conformity. "The Future is With the Proles !" Paul Ashley BrownSometime Artist and ZinemakerFull-Time Miserygob and Ranting Egomaniac.
Apparently Comica and Bleeding Cool think this is fabulous...they ignored the fact that some great art was ignored but the "contestants" were oh so pleased they'd been allowed in. Comics + UK = RIP