Ink to make you think and dream

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott

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

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