The Acid Tongue
Dear Catastrophe Comic Book
Selected By Cyril Wong
Comic Failure - that is the title of this review on 7 Mar 2006 by Douglas Wolk on Salon.com of Put the Book Back on the Shelf: A Belle & Sebastian Anthology, a series of comics by twenty-four cartoonists inspired by songs by the Scottish indie-pop group, Belle & Sebastian. The tagline that follows the title is equally blunt:
A collection of comics inspired by dreamy Belle & Sebastian shows young artists with talent to burn. Too bad they can't tell a story.
Wolk sets the tone by referring to past a past, successful attempt at song-comics:
Good comics can sometimes be adapted neatly into other media, as Hollywood knows well, but worthwhile comics adaptations from other media are rarer... Song-comics are mostly unexplored territory, too -- the only serious, large-scale attempt at them has been Charles Vess' "The Book of Ballads," and Vess and his collaborators had the advantage that the tunes they were adapting were heavy on plot and fantastic imagery.
But he insists:
Murdoch's songs are particularly resistant to the comics form; for all his lyrics' dramatic personae and striking imagery, they're hard to refashion into a short, visually compelling story. That's not surprising, actually. Most of Belle & Sebastian's lyrics aren't really narratives at all -- they just sound like they are. There are plenty of signs of a plot: action, chronology, characters, a couple of kinky surprises. But the more you think about it, the stranger and more ambiguous it gets...
Understandably, some of the cartoonists in "Put the Book" don't bother much with the original lyrics. Kako's "Dog on Wheels," in particular, is a spectacular exercise in deliberate point-missing: The lead car in a high-speed race is driven by a huge, menacing dog (with an insignia modeled on the Hot Wheels logo), who throws a Belle & Sebastian cassette out his window, then crashes. The most visually impressive contribution to the book is Jacob Magraw's "Fox in the Snow," an ornate collage/painting that involves some snow and not much else having to do with the song, other than a few scribbled phrases from the lyrics. Over the course of seven pages, a character chops wood, goes inside, goes outside again, and flies into the air; it takes considerable staring even to puzzle out that much.
For a while, Wolk consents to the aesthetic, but to little else:
Magraw's piece is gorgeous as visual art, but it's terrible as comics, and it's a product of this peculiar moment in comics history. The indie-comics scene's most recent crop of young and youngish cartoonists make beautiful pictures -- more sophisticated than any generation of cartoonists has created before. They've got individual style to burn, when they're not trying to grow past their manga influences. They often come to comics from art school, or from an interest in animation; they're intimately familiar with digital art techniques, especially for their color work; they're at the vanguard of the illustration and fine-art scenes. And a lot of them can't actually tell a story to save their lives.
Then Wolk points out some good things:
...although a lot of the fun of comics anthologies usually lies in discovering impressive new voices, the most satisfying pieces here are by people who've been cartooning for many years. Andi Watson, the writer/artist of the fabulous "Little Star" and "Breakfast After Noon," attaches the lyrics from "I Could Be Dreaming" to an otherwise wordless story that plays with the song's theme of fantasies that make ordinary life bearable; his witty, minimalist artwork has more psychological depth than it seems to at first. And David Lasky's ingenious "Piazza, New York Catcher" is a bittersweet, quirky little three-character drama that actually makes Murdoch's cryptic lyrics comprehensible as dialogue and captions.
Then he finishes the review on a mostly dismissive note:
QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006
Unfortunately, too many other stories are attractive but vacant… Almost nothing in the book looks bland or generic, but almost all of it evaporates as soon as the page is turned…."Put the Book Back on the Shelf's" failures are almost all failures of storytelling, which is doubly frustrating: Its artists' willingness to break with tired visual formulas is exactly what American comics need. The collection's title comes from another Belle & Sebastian song, of course: "You'll write another one/ Now you've got a story that's worth talking about," Murdoch sings. When they do, these cartoonists really ought to.
Can any comic book improve on Belle and Sebastian anyway? Discuss this in the Forum!
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Return to Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006