Do Anything 010 by Warren Ellis

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Comics creators who are also performers:

• Afua Richardson, singer
• Paul Pope, DJ
• Alan Moore, vocalist
• Robert Crumb, guitarist
• Antony Johnston, musician
• Kieron Gillen, “Bez”

Styles are tricky things to nail down in comics.  In music, they’re defined either (and rarely) by the creators, or by professional critics, and in the latter case tend to be subjected to a peer review smacking of a more refined and genteel version of a Hell’s Angels’ circle-stomp.  There’s a terribly polite conversation going on right now about “hypnogogic pop,” as identified by a WIRE journalist, for instance, trying to lay fencing around a field with Animal Collective and Best Coast wandering around in it.

In comics, a figure like Paul Pope is rare.  For any number of reasons, to be honest, but not least because he’s got the spine to give names to his own styles and discuss them in public.  I remember when he named a personal style “Cutie Pie.”  Cutie Pie stories were teenage-girl-adventure, superfast, supersmart, almost liminal, an approach derived from his time working in manga, and the elements of his previous work that had appealed to manga publisher Kodansha enough to work with him.  In conversation with Ray Mescallado, he says:

“I wanted to find out exactly what it was about THB they liked and then distill that. Because whatever it is they’re responding to is genuinely mine, since it’s in my work and it’s not something contrived or compromised. And it occurred to me it’s the aspect of the teenage girl — actually what has since evolved into the cutie-pie style, which I’m thinking is actually kind of a genre, maybe, or maybe kind of a style, a style of cartooning that exists in my stuff and that I’m working on over the course of time…”

This is a thing you don’t see a lot of people in comics talking about, or admitting to thinking about this much, because there’s really a profound anti-intellectual lean to the Anglophone end of the shop.  People are made uncomfortable by any kind of intelligent analysis, let alone self-awareness and a willingness to ask questions, let way fucking alone a joyful and vigorous intent on experimentation and exploration.

I remember when Jim Lee, in a period of fascinating artistic exploration — from a clever, straightforward artist who’d been an integral part of what people came to call “Image Style,” for Image Comics — was asked at a convention panel what style he’d be using on BATMAN.  At the time, Jim was working in a few different ways, and was clearly in a space where he felt like he could take chances and, well, do anything.  And it was reported that writer Jeph Loeb quickly yelled over the mic, “a kick-ass style!”  And that was that.  Don’t look for new ways to make marks and shape figures, Jim.  Batman wouldn’t like it.

Don’t even have the nascent self-awareness of Jack Kirby when he changed his line to better fit the romance-comics genre he was inventing, and then get rawer and craggier for superhero comics ten years later.

Jim remains locked into his standard commercial superhero style, not noticeably different from what he was doing on WILDC.A.T.S in the early 90s.  He remains a gifted artist who produces attractive superhero comics, and I’m certain there are many refinements from the elements he introduced to the form — the full-length figure dominating the page is, I’m fairly sure, something that Jim introduced, and it was cited to me as such at Marvel when it was a badge of the X-Men comics in the 1990s.  It works almost like the “straight-up” street fashion photography that i-D magazine introduced, fetishising the costumes, the physiques and the pose.

But the time when he could test Frank Miller’s mid-period approach and then adapt it into stunning chiaroscuoric pages for Vertigo’s FRINGE that were like nothing you’d ever seen… those days are long gone.

I’m pretty sure Jim would say that an experimental style would be inappropriate for an intended commercial comics juggernaut like BATMAN, and that a more familiar and accessible approach was far better suited to the parameters of the job.  And, frankly, he would probably be right.  These books are selling to a very specific audience, after all, a couple of hundred thousand people who know what they like.

But you can’t help but wonder about Paul Pope, distilling his essence and attempting to evolve it into a whole new style in order to do the job for an industry that still makes the equivalent of four billion American dollars a year…

ANYTHING

Buy my graphic novella FRANKENSTEIN’S WOMB this week or I’ll cry.  Available from better comics stores from this Wednesday in North America and from Thursday in the UK.  It’s an odd little thing.  Here’s a preview: http://issuu.com/avatarpress/docs/frankensteinswomb

COLOPHON

I can be sent things via Avatar Press at Avatar Press, 515 N. Century Blvd., Rantoul, IL 61866, USA, but I cannot promise a response or a review.  Although, let’s be honest, it’s fairly likely, as eventually the ANYTHING section will need to be about comics.   You can email me at warrenellis@gmail.com, but I warn you, it’s a dump address, not my regular email address, so it can take me a few days to check it.

DO ANYTHING IS © WARREN ELLIS 2009, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.