Ink to make you think and dream
Pen Erases Paper By Sam Wallman Self-published, 60pp, $15 Squirt-Stone: The Collected Plump Oyster Volume 1 By Ben Constantine Milkshadow Books, 208pp, $22.95 FOR the past 30 years, creators and publishers of comics have been engaged in a culture war and the weapon of choice has been terminology. The term “comic books” has fallen steeply out of favour, since it connotes pamphlets about costumed supermen. Plain vanilla “comics” sounds a little bit less loaded, but implies the contents are meant to be funny, which often is not the case.
In the 1980s, we started hearing about “graphic novels”, a term that’s popular because it carries automatic weight: “graphic” — as in naughty, as in adult — paired with “novel”, as in Tolstoy. So far so good — except not all comics are graphic novels. Sometimes the important work of the medium isn’t very novelistic, even narrative, at all.
The Italians use “fumetti”, meaning little puffs of smoke, a reference to the look and feel of word balloons. In lieu of switching to Italian, which seems a little fancy, comics is the word we are stuck with most of the time.
It’s also the only word appropriate for two significant new works by young Australian artists. Squirt-Stone: The Collected Plump Oyster Volume 1 gathers more than 200 pages by Brisbane artist Ben Constantine, originally published both in local street press and in overseas magazines such as Vice. The publisher describes Squirt-Stone as a miscellany of “stories, visions, art and other inky hallucinations”, the artist’s “essential, earliest ramblings and notions”, which is roughly right. Pen Erases Paper, by Melbourne-based artist Sam Wallman, is considerably thinner, and is simply introduced as “a book”.
Both are compendiums of the artists’ recent works, in which there are panels, gutters, stories and, yes, word balloons. But while each book makes sense as a holistic object, each is also a miscellany. For a novelist, essayist or poet, this would mean books intended for especially devoted readers. What’s interesting about both Wallman and Constantine is that both have so far produced only miscellanies: piecemeal works that go together due to their aesthetics and themes.
Constantine is best understood as an artist who descended quickly into a strong, narrow aesthetic from which he’s plumbed impossibly good things, year after year. Many of his comics are single-page works set by the ocean or in a forest, featuring just one or two characters but also many objects to which the story distributes some degree of animacy.
Take, for instance, “Eternity Escapades”, in which the constituents of a forest — a rock, a tree stump — “speak” the mathematical symbol for infinity. As the comic moves down the page, it’s not just rocks and tree stumps speaking: it’s a monster, a giraffe, a hole in the forest floor. Even one of the speech bubbles has its own miniature speech bubble, which contains the infinity symbol as well.
The page concludes with a woman “saying” both a love heart and the infinity symbol beside a skull-faced boy. In the final panel, marked “Six Trillion Years Later”, the woman has placed her hand upon the skull, and they’re both saying the infinity symbol together.
Constantine’s dark, inky style is suited for telling stories about characters with bottomless black holes for eyes, set in the types of places best illustrated with stray flicks of ink. Hence forests and skulls. Also sweating people, rained-on people, people by the sea. His work is so rich with detail that it’s almost tough to look at, especially in a compendium like this.
However, his stories are also sentimental and tender. They’re often love stories that would read as saccharine if they weren’t so heavy with dark symbolism. If they contain sweaty, monstrous figures, they are probably declaring their enduring love.
The last piece in the collection is called “Oysterface”, and at 30 pages there’s both more to chew on and more room to breathe. It centres on a girl and boy hanging around the ocean, eating crab and falling asleep. The girl asks the boy why he decided to become a shellfish. He says: “I get to live naked and free in a dank, wet rock hole by the sea. I thought I would like that kind of life that’s how I am me.” It’s not the most straightforward explanation for Constantine’s world-view, but it’s almost a better artist’s statement than the one the publisher supplies. In Pen Erases Paper, Wallman
Pen Erases Paper, gives the reader plenty of breathing room (perhaps not unexpected when the title assigns the act of drawing a negative outcome). An early image, framed generously with creamy blank paper, confines a billboard that reads “LOOK HERE” to a low corner of the page, gifting space — and thus importance — to clouds, birds, a lone airplane. Below the roomy image is printed a tiny line of text: “Why can’t I be as attentive to the blank part of the wall as I am to the area with the written word on it?”
Much of the book looks like an attempt to wrangle with this question, with diagrammatically complex comics interleaved with freefloating art. Many of the former are overtly political discussions, in which characters explore everything from the gentrification of the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood to possible reasons for attending a “longrunning exuberant indigenous queer party”.
Like all good essayists, Wallman is less interested in answering his questions than deepening them, and some of the best moments are those that leave his characters at philosophical crossroads. Many of Constantine’s best moments, too, come at the intersection of textual and visual poetry — moments where language and art bind themselves inextricably, and where rhythm gains greater importance than narrative sense.
The title of Wallman’s collection is drawn from a single-panel comic in which one character tells another that “the pen does nothing but erase the paper”. It doesn’t seem logical, but it sounds terrific, and both characters — like the ideal readers of these two books — are happy to let the statement stand.
by Sam Wallman