Opal Fruits, Milky Bars, toy soldiers
Rereading Still Life by John Smith and Sean Phillips.
I got a couple of new graphic novels for Christmas, which might be a surprise to readers of this blog to whom I’m a fanboy Amish who refuses to admit the existence of anything published after 1995. I’ve spent half the last month reading Brandon Graham’s King City and The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon, a Crisis alumni. Both are pretty substantial works – the first 400 black-and-white pages, the second 200 pages of painted colour – and both are labours of love for the artists who wrote, drew and lettered every page before shepherding them to publication. Graham had to rescue his from the closure of Tokyopop, who didn’t enjoy the best reputation as publishers, and do it all again through Image whose publishing model is that you take the risk. Dillon’s has an introduction from his wife’s best friend explaining just how hard he worked on it and how personal it was.
I feel, therefore, something of a cunt for wanting each to be longer. The artists have given everything they’ve got, and my response is “that’s not enough.” I wish it wasn’t. For King City, that response is muted; there’s a huge amount of build-up to the climactic confrontation with the tentacled demon, the world is at stake etcetera, but it is entirely in keeping with the characterisation of Joe the Catmaster, and the Zen way the Catmasters live, to turn away from it to something more personal. It’s been set up and it pays off. But I couldn’t help wondering if there would have been more if not for the circumstances of its creation. Graham’s admitted on Twitter that just writing, which he mainly does for the relaunch of Prophet, is so much easy than drawing your own work. You make decisions differently when it takes a day to write six pages rather than six days to draw one. If he’d been a prose writer, if he’d been writing with a team of artists like on Prophet, might the ending of King City have been different? Longer?
And The Nao of Brown is an amazing book. Life, real life, minutely observed and beautifully drawn. There are pages where nothing happens, like Nao getting home and allowing herself to notice the missing lock on the kitchen drawer, that couldn’t be done with as much subtlety in any other medium. The raw, dusty tones of the storeroom below the shop, the meandering procrastinating conversations between Nao and Steve, the way it’s only in occasional half-unguarded moments we begin to suspect how he feels. But it ends abruptly, with two climactic incidents panting at each other’s heels and an epilogue which explains things hardly hinted at and fails to explain the events that have evidently transpired. I’m not the only person to think so, and I only found reviews that agreed with me when searching to make sense of what I’d read. Again, I can’t help feeling that a prose writer would have let it run longer. Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, another book minutely observing character in social situations, runs to 400 pages with an unexpected 90-page epilogue. Dillon couldn’t do that. I’m sure the ending was planned, I’m not saying he found himself with only a month left to finish and had to wrap it up quickly, but what he wanted to do isn’t in sympathy with what, for artistic and commercial reasons, the book’s length had to be.
Comics have a problem with length, is what I’m saying. They can’t get it right. A 100-page graphic novel can take 30 minutes to read, can be less substantial than a 20-page prose short story. A graphic novel 400 pages long can feel rushed. Or a short story – say Alan Moore and Don Simpson’s 13-page Pictopia, or Krigstein’s eight-page Master Race – can be substantial enough to influence the whole medium. Or one character’s story can be twenty years long, the works of scores of creators, and be essentially meaningless. Part of Moore’s success with people who don’t read comics is his density; he can pack 300 pages with enough action and character for it to seem novelistic, substantial. Not everyone can do that or should do that, but comics that are celebrated for being artistically different or daring can be breezed through, can feel thin. And in a medium which offers less bang for your buck than almost anything else, that’s a barrier.
And sometimes, an eight-page story can be long enough to make an impact. Still Life, by the Straitgate team of Smith and Phillips, always felt to me like an answer to, or a coda to, that longer work. Published in the Revolver Romance Special, part of a brief Fleetway Explosion that became an implosion before Revolver could finish any of its stories, it’s the other side of adolescence edging into adulthood. David of Straitgate walled himself up, so afraid of adult relationships that he pushed everything away. The two protagonists of Still Life have opened themselves up. Young lovers, teenagers – children, really, but you don’t know that when it’s you – taking that step that makes them grown-ups.
It’s a narrative equally weighted between the symbolic and the naturalistic. Our lovers begin by quoting The Smiths’ tremulous and impassioned anthem for barely-required love There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. The couple are in a Brighton B&B unpacking for a weekend away, and their suitcase is full of the trappings of childhood. They play lover’s games on the beach, take wordless strolls on the pier, the babbling of busy minds silenced by each other’s presence, by the enormity of what they mean to each other. And by what they’re going to do, by what they’ve come to this seaside town for.
A friend of a friend, on losing his virginity, announced it by saying “Well, lads, I’ve done it. I’ve popped me clogs!” He meant cherry, of course, mixing his idioms, but the adolescent mind does associate sex and death. They’re the monumental realities that we awake to when childhood ends, and consequently it’s common for the adolescent mind to become obsessed with both. This story is about sex, about two young people in love doing the Mr and Mrs Smith thing to lose their virginities, a 1960s ritual that probably still had life at the beginning of the 1990s. We see them acclimatise themselves, become comfortable with their strangeness in this strange place, skirting around the edge of the big subject. We see them in bed eating KFC, fast food restaurants providing the perfect buffer zone for anyone uneasily easing themselves into the grown-up world in which food is so important. We see him trying a bit of humour, the laughter surely occasioned only by nervousness, before they get serious. They prepare for their sexual connection by reaffirming the emotional connection, their lives flashing before their eyes before the little death.
We don’t see the sex. That’s more likely a commercial decision than a purely artistic one; there’s no sex in this adult comic, and comics themselves struggle to depict sex without tipping over into erotica or pornography. The full-page splash, another of Smith’s odd impact/pause moments, of the boy washing the girl’s back is a substitute for it. The captions on that page would work over a splash of them mid-coitus, and that’s what we’re in effect seeing. Then we see the aftermath, the return to the solitude of consciousness, and the swoop back to our narrative theme. The sex is done; it’s time for the death. Our couple walk into the sea, depart the only lives they’ve ever known for something big, chaotic, unknown, frightening.
Almost everything, apart from that final walk, that the couple do is naturalistic. Believable dialogue, a pair who in Sean Phillips’s luminous watercolours looks at once childish and adult, ordinary and beautiful. The captions, trying too hard to be poetic, the setting, everything. The symbolism is around the edges; the abandoned Action Man on the dresser, the murder line traced around his body, the bottle of pills that we open on that recurs after the climax. It’s a perfect miniature. We don’t need any more, and it does it all in the same number of pages the average superhero comic spunks on a minor fight scene.
Straitgate was personal to me. Oddly, this story also became personal; I had the ponytail of the boy when I was his age, and my first B&B stay was in Brighton, a stone’s throw from the Palace Pier in the story. Then I moved there, and for two years I lived on the same street as that B&B, no doubt close to where these lovers stayed, on a street of guesthouses. It’s where I did my growing up, as well, though not quite all at once like them. Perhaps that’s one reason why I like it so much when it’s more forgotten than almost any Future Shock. But in an era of realistic comics where realism came to mean violence and gore, it was an attempt to move in the other direction and hold a mirror up to the readers of the new comics, to empathise with them rather than catering for them. It’s a seed that never grew, a side of John Smith’s writing we’ve never seen again, a gentle exploration of the possibilities of the medium that even now is rarely seen.
How do these eight pages work as a complete story when 200 pages can seem too short? The answer is in the relationship between comics and other media; comics and novels, comics and films. A comic that’s trying to be a novel, that straps its artistic experimentation to a beginning, middle and end, can suffer by comparison. Look at Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp; the genuinely innovative, visually masterful sections everyone talked about are yoked to a pedestrian story with a device (the three objects saved from the fire) that’s taken from the movies and seems superfluous on the page. In other comics, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or John Porcellino’s King-Cat or Oliver East’s Trains Are Mint travelogues, the landscape expands to become the story and nothing else is required. Still Life, with its nameless characters and symbolic drowning, would be an achingly pretentious short story in prose. Phillips’s art gives the ciphers life, gives the setting weight, and we’re transposed over to poetic territory where plot and character are replaced by flow, by image, by the rhythms of music. In aping more successful media comics lose what makes them unique. This is a brief, epic, timeless and glowing reminder.
Still Life by John Smith and Sean Phillips was published in Crisis Presents: Revolver Romance Special. It’s never been reprinted, so I’m making it available for download here. If the copyright holders have any objections, please contact me and I’ll immediately remove it.