Review: 'Nobrow 9: It's Oh so Quiet' Silent InterludeA comic review article by: Keith Silva
The 'It's Oh so Quiet' Betty Hutton and later Björk -- and a haufen of Germans and Austrians before them -- sing of is the lust and love (of getting laid after a dry spell) when 'the devil cuts loose' and 'the sky caves in,' the 'wow bam' and 'zing boom.' For Nobrow Magazine's latest prestige project, thirty-one illustrators and fifteen cartoonists groove on silence. Where Björk, Hutton and those Austrians and Germans exalt the kineticism of sex, the assembled Nobrowers cast a wider net of emotions, of human behaviour, to prove quiet isn't silent, silence is never (oh so) quiet and art always lives out loud.
I'm mad for wordless comics. For the sake of this review, I won't babble on about G.I. Joe #21 or detail how Larry Hama rewired my ten-year-old brainpan and forever changed me as a comic book reader. Since Silent Interlude, the wordless issue in mainstream comics, at least, -- when done, like Hama, with purpose and not as a stunt -- speaks the loudest, an auger to break through the monotony of the mundane to middling. A wordless comic allows the reader to prize emotional logic over straight-up narrative rationality; it's like parsing a dream. These (oh so) quieter moments also allow readers to slip the bonds of that Venus in furs, the binary of words and pictures; it's like Bizarro world, for comics.
Illustrators outnumber cartoonists in this collection, but the flip book design gives each equal weight and their own space. I grok the need to keep each discipline distinct, for the sake of purity and to retain consistency with previous editions; however, given the silent milieu, what's the fuss. Wordless comics define difference, allow readers to focus on details, to give up the gloss, the distraction of words. In this aspect, Nobrow 9 feels like a missed opportunity to unite the clans. What's gained through the segregation of these two similar (but different) art forms? Illustration sets its own pace, our peering and pondering is self-directed and built-in. Comics, on the other hand, differ from illustration (Venus, again), but wordless comics are a much different breed, almost atavistic, even illustrative. Silence aside, each artform functions best in conversation, with itself, its counterpart and the reader.
When silence serves as a departure point, it comes as no surprise many of the illustrators choose to feature flying, floating, stars and snow. Sarah Jacoby sets a winter scene with bare trees of spare lines. Someone pulls a sled that cuts a swathe of sky while dogs roam about. Big nature dwarfs all and is lit by white moonlight. In a blue black sky, Roger DeMuth imagines starry cephalopods as they streak above a coastal town. The biggest squid waggles a pink tongue, the kind of impudence one expects from a giant sky squid. Jacoby's peacefulness and DeMuth's fanciful flight noodle on the grandeur of silence, its singleness, the feeling of eavesdropping on grace and of being present, of being both apart and a part.
For the singer and the song, 'It's Oh So Quiet,' celebrates interstices, the (hopefully short) spaces between the rush of love and of something else. Jun Cen and Owen Davey see post-coital lovers from separate ends of a love's lifeline. Cen when all one wants is to be in another's arms (drifting snow be damned) and Davey at those refractory moments when one's desire is to be as far away as possible, even if the furthest distance one's courage allows is the other side of the bed. If Davey and Cen's couples could talk, would there be warnings or encouragement? Would either recognize the other? Wow bam.
Conor Nolan and José Luis Ágreda picture post-conflict, after a screaming comes across the sky. Ágreda heads underground where silhouettes, some in bandages and others in tin hats find shelter and the silence in the impermanence of survival. At least in this liminal space there's space for hugs and a dog. Ágreda uses the color of saffron (of spring, rebirth) to lead the survivors down the tunnel on the upper right hand side of the image to a spotted dog in the lower left hand corner. The dog is easy to spot, it points towards solace and (perhaps) safety. Yes, lines define illustration, but an illustrator of Ágreda's stripe knows color counts too, yet another layer to sift, another way to read the image, the story.
Straight up: Nolan's downed Zero haunts me. Its timelessness unsettles. Are those clouds or distant ship smoke on the horizon? How long has this aircraft been here? Where was this aircraft going to or coming from? Nolan's choice to cant the angle of the earth and the plane adds to the disorientation and makes the image much more difficult to discern -- the organic and the inert enmesh, dents and wrinkles on the wing reflect the roots of trees. A completely transitory image cast in a pale ambers, air force blues and thick ink. Know this: if Conor Nolan ever works the opposite side of the street, the flipside, you know, draws a comic, buy them all.
Until such a time, Nobrow 9 offers ballsy cartoonists like Kirsten Rothbart, who turns in a story she calls 'Dead End' about rock-and-roll, a pink teddy bear suit and how to persevere with bitchin' hair. Joseph Lambert finds a clever way to fit word balloons (or not) into his story, '○ □,' as a comment on the challenge of being heard/understood, (or not). Jamie Coe plays with the idea of communication as well in his story, 'Fitting In.' The impressive chutzpah Coe shows in the last few panels makes for the best kind of advertisement for his upcoming graphic novel, Art Schooled. In 'Wings' Kyla Vanderklugt proves the best action sequences never need words and heavy is the head that wears the crown, also giant bugs. Vanderklugt demonstrates an esprit de Hama in how the composition of each page has purpose and meaning and gets reflected in the story itself. It's a small and quiet detail that sheds light on the history, culture and fate of the characters. Genius.
Wordless comics have an intrinsic, almost resonant rhythm, like holding a seashell against your ear; it's not about the 'sound of the ocean,' but the hint of another reality -- a presence from an absence. Will Morris adapts the British ballad, Clerk Colvill. The story is an old one and dates back to 1550 and even earlier, 1310, so spoiler warning: a married man (Morris imagines more playa than dutiful husband) is seduced by a mermaid, it doesn't end well. As with the illustrations of lovers by Cen and Davey, love is ineffable, words are wasted. The object of desire Morris pictures is more stacked and sonsie than slip, more Beyoncé than Kate Moss, she's killer, put it that way. It's Morris's color palette that brings me back to revisit this sordid little tale of marital infidelity and death. Honestly, it's his use of the color orange, the color of sunset, of candlelight, it burns through each page and every panel, the color of fate. The line Morris uses is so clean, so strict; it looks almost architectural, perhaps, an echo of the blueprint blue of the titular Colvill's natty suit and the color of his car. 'Clerk Colvill' may be a British import, but it plays as Grit-Lit, a Southern Noir as fit for Penzance as South Beach and further proof strange women lying in motel pools plying drinks is no way to keep one's marriage or one's life.
The sexy silence of Morris's murder ballad disappears in the story that follows, Bianca Bagnarelli's 'Say Hi For Me.' To write about Bagnarelli's story is what it must feel like to describe color to the blind or music to the deaf. On second thought, the solemnity and sublimity of this simple but emotionally complex account of a young girl as she travels by train from the arms of one parent to another could cause the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Bagnarelli draws these incredible ears like the mouths of trumpets. Is it an inside joke, a nod, a tug perhaps at Nobrow 9's silent theme or another sign of the presence of absence?
The overhead shot of the train as it speeds through an unbroken white landscape would be my 'spirit panel' if such a thing exists. Like Vanderklugt and Morris, Bagnarelli's individual panel compositions fit within the overall construction of the page. In the panel directly above the slanted parallel lines that form the train tracks, Bagnarelli draws the little girl looking out of the train's windows. What does she see? The buck in the next panel to the right or is she looking down on her own train or something else only she can see? It's montage done with such style and sophistication as to become transcendent. And when she gets where she's going -- when this young girl sees the person she's supposed to say 'hi' to -- Bagnarelli draws a final panel that puts everything in perspective, she is a poetess of the divine -- L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stele.
Nobrow 9 is a gift, a collection of quiet moments, moment in the art of cartooning, illustration and storytelling; and a souvenir of what a great time it is to be reading comics.
Nobrow 9: It's Oh So Quiet is available from Nobrow Press.
Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin and Twitter: @keithpmsilva. And no, he doesn't know why Destro has that weird chess set in G.I. Joe #21.