On the night of 13 November 2015, hours after terrorists massacred 130 people in a series of attacks across Paris, a young French illustrator, Jean Jullien, posted a sketch on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. Hand-painted in black ink on white paper, Peace for Paris – as Jullien tagged the image – depicted the Eiffel Tower enclosed within a circle, referencing the peace symbol designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Jullien was already well known as a commercial artist whose brightly coloured, scruffily drawn, comic book-style images had featured in high-profile campaigns for companies including Transport for London and Stella Artois. Peace for Paris, however, exposed him to a new, global audience. Within days of posting the image – thanks partly to retweets by celebrities such as Harry Styles and Jamie Oliver – Peace for Paris had been adopted as a symbol of international solidarity with a city reeling in grief and pain, and was reproduced on countless T-shirts, banners, placards and flags.
The gestural simplicity of Peace for Paris was integral to its appeal: it is difficult to imagine a focus-grouped digital logo or ironic post-internet gif striking the same populist note as Jullien’s rough-around-the-edges drawing. It is precisely this visual boldness, however, that often leads comic books – and the styles and techniques associated with them – to be thought of as an unsophisticated art. This idea dates from the Renaissance, when cartoons (from the Italian cartone, a large sheet of paper) were sketched out in advance of the painting of frescos and murals. It was cemented at the turn of the 20th century, when newspaper moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer introduced strips to Sunday editions in an effort to boost circulation. The comic form was also, of course, exploited by pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, for whom the medium represented the brash exuberance of mass media, in deliberate contrast to the perceived over-seriousness of abstract expressionism.
Another reason for the outsider status of comics is the mongrel nature of the form. Graphic novels do not fit neatly into either ‘visual art’ or ‘literature’ but, rather, occupy an indeterminate space between the two categories, allowing for sophisticated patterning of pictures and words, defined by pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner as ‘sequential art’. The form came to prominence in the 1970s, and has enjoyed a surge in critical recognition in recent years: in 2014, for example, the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel won a much-deserved ‘Genius Grant’ from the MacArthur Foundation. While some contemporary artists – such as Ed Atkins, Heather Phillipson and Cally Spooner – have straddled the divide between art and literature with artworks informed by linguistic abstraction and modernist poetry, others have turned to the earthier realm of graphic fiction to produce works distinguished by their striking visual qualities and multivalent, at times fragmentary, approaches to narrative.
Graphic novels do not fit neatly into the categories of either 'visual art' or 'literature' but, rather, occupy an indeterminate space.
The opening scene in Operation Paperclip (2014), a graphic novel published by the London-based artist Patrick Goddard features two schoolboys discussing a recent event in which one of them stuck his fingers up a Staffordshire Bull Terrier’s rectum in a futile, and humiliating, effort to halt a vicious attack on a young boy. The exchange sets the blackly comic tone for a narrative that veers from scatology to sociology, sibling rivalry to Nazi occultism, over the course of a week in the life of its characters. In Goddard’s inversion of a familiar comic-book trope, the adolescent protagonist discovers that he is not, in fact, a superhero but a clone of Adolf Hitler. The identity crisis this precipitates furnishes the book with a narrative arc that allows the artist to explore philosophical concepts such as genetic determinism, free will and the banality of evil (the protagonist’s grandmother is based on the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase to refer to the horrors of the Nazi regime), all filtered through the puerility and nihilism of adolescence. Operation Paperclip’s dense, heavily cross-hatched draughtsmanship, hand-drawn in pencil before being arranged in Photoshop and augmented with halftone shading, is reminiscent of Eddie Campbell’s illustrations for Alan Moore’s seminal 1999 graphic novel From Hell and Raymond Pettibon’s monochromatic, punk paintings. The chiaroscuro style lends a dismal intensity to Goddard’s investigation of fascism, as well as reflecting the angsty, death-metal affectedness of its protagonists.
An asset of the graphic novel is its ability to juxtapose multiple historical periods and geographical spaces within the same pictorial space. In Operation Paperclip, Goddard uses this device to convey how the horrors of the 20th century continue to shape the historical consciousness of the 21st: on one page, the leering visage of the Nazi physician Josef Mengele hangs ominously in the sky above a brutalist London housing estate, indicating the perverse attraction such figures continue to exert on young minds. This confluence of a sensory present and an archival past (Operation Paperclip closes with an appendix of historical documents) reflects Goddard’s ongoing engagement with narrative form and authorial tone across numerous media. In his films, such as Gone to Croatan (2014) and Greater Fool Theory (2015), the first two works in a planned trilogy, the artist both explores and mocks the role of the artist as would-be anthropologist. In the series ‘Ministers of Finance and the Dark Arts’ (2015), Goddard recasts the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and others as malevolent super-villains who spout hypocritical euphemisms. Here, the comic strip – a form long-associated with political satire and anti-establishment mockery, from William Hogarth to Steve Bell – provides the context for a scathing attack on the economics of inequality.
The drawings, paintings and graphic novellas of the French-born, London-based artist Marie Jacotey, a 2013 graduate of printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London, are often narrated from multiple perspectives that produce a compelling ambiguity about who is speaking and from where. Her graphic short story The Fiasco Night (2014), for example, features three voices: the fretful narrator, the intimidating girl he is about to sleep with and a goading, off-stage friend. This fragmentary style of narration – in which inner thoughts are being divulged, yet it isn’t always entirely clear who is confessing them – has the transgressive effect of eavesdropping on a gossip session or reading someone else’s diary. In one panel, an alarming yellow text-box at the top reads: ‘I heard my best buddy’s voice resonating in my head: “She is the one for you”. I could have done without the pressure.’ Beneath it, an eerily doll-like girl kneels on a bed, her nipples visible beneath a peach-pink top. ‘Don’t you want to come closer?’ she asks.
Jacotey’s comics draw on a wide range of references: the French comic-book artist Blutch; the novels of Charles Bukowski, Marguerite Duras and Françoise Sagan; fashion design and photography; as well as the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Quentin Tarantino, François Truffaut and many others. Her colour-pencil technique evokes comparison with David Hockney’s drawings from the 1970s while the settings of her images reference modernist design, from Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture to minimalist architecture reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. These disparate references are woven through an ongoing exploration of female subjectivity and self-representation. Indeterminately poised between innocence and experience, seduction and vulnerability, the young women who populate Jacotey’s works often appear in poses recognizable from any number of Instagram selfies. In ‘Dolly’, her 2014 solo show at London’s Hannah Barry Gallery, the artist presented a shattered portrait of a young woman across a series of colour-pencil drawings on small plaster panels, which added a sculptural solidity to the typically ephemeral medium of comics. (Jacotey’s degree show, by contrast, featured comics painted onto diaphanous sheets of black plastic and draped on the walls and floor.) These works eschew the polyphonic narrative style of The Fiasco Night in favour of evocative, yet entirely text-free, scenarios: images that point towards, but do not specify, narrative events in the life of the titular protagonist.
The graphic novel form grants the artist enormous freedom to experiment with structure, imagery, content, distribution and pace.
For Stuart Middleton, currently studying at Frankfurt’s Städelschule and represented by London’s Carlos/Ishikawa gallery, comic books are a key reference point in a wide-ranging practice that incorporates drawing, painting, sculpture, animation, text, installation and performance. The works in his series of sculptures, ‘Sad Sketches’ (2014), resemble botched DNA-splicing experiments between drunken revellers and minimalist furniture. The lower halves, sculpted from papier mâché – a medium that references the pulpy materials on which comics are printed – and hand-painted with varicose veins, bleeding fingernails and stretched, sinewy muscles, depict a series of tumbling, tripping, scrapping and urinating figures; at the waist, these bodies abruptly morph into spotless white discs resembling table-tops in an upmarket bar. The stark, visual shift from rugged, structurally vulnerable, recognizably hand-sculpted figuration to wipe-down, plinth-like surfaces reflects the ‘underground’ status of comic book art in relation to the high-spec abstraction common to the contemporary art market.
‘Sad Sketches’, as the title implies, have an observational, drawn-from-life immediacy: you can imagine these chimerical drunkards staggering blindly around a London pub. Middleton’s work often features narrative elements – animations, drawings and texts – that make his art something to be ‘read’ as well as experienced. ‘the gonks’, his 2015 solo show at Carlos/Ishikawa, was dominated by a luminous white, polytunnel-like installation that visitors had to stoop inside in order to navigate. In a far corner of the gallery, however, the grimy, limescale-encrusted basin of a disused shower displayed a series of miniature sculptures of domestic objects hand-carved from polyurethane – a mattress, stove, toilet and chair – that suggested, in a diorama-like form resembling a set for a stop-motion animation, larger frames of narrative reference than the meticulously constructed installation implied. An epistolary fiction charting a disastrous series of email exchanges between a misogynist CEO and his female employee, published as an accompanying pamphlet, added further complexity to this fictional ‘footnoting’ of the central work.
Middleton cites classic comics such as Hellblazer, Transmetropolitan, Doom Patrol, DC’s Animal Man, as well as emerging comics artists like Connor Willumsen, as influences on his approach to patterning text and image across multiple formats. His semi-autobiographical graphic novel, A Year Passes Like Nothing, produced for a performance at London’s Limoncello gallery in 2013, reframes scenes of domestic abjection – chip packets and cigarette ends, pissing in a toilet, sweeping up dust – in hallucinatory ways, creating a sense less of physical than psychological space: a vortex of perception, sensation and memory. Here, as in Jacotey and Goddard’s works, the graphic-novel form grants the artist enormous freedom to experiment with structure, imagery, content, distribution and pace. In a climate of digital immateriality and post-internet aesthetics, graphic novels are one of a vast spectrum of media now available to contemporary artists. They are also among the most urgent and arresting. As Middleton puts it in A Year Passes Like Nothing: ‘If you can’t picture exactly what I’m talking about, where the fuck have you been?’
Marie Jacotey lives in London, UK. Earlier this year, she had a solo exhibition at Francis Carrette Galerie, Brussels, Belgium. In 2015, she had solo shows at Hannah Barry Gallery, London, and Robert Blumenthal Gallery, New York, USA.
Patrick Goddard lives in London, UK. He had solo shows at OUTPOST, Norwich, UK, in 2015, and Matt’s Gallery, London, in 2014. In 2015, his work was included in group exhibitions at fig-2, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Transition Gallery and MOT International Projects (all London). He will have a solo show at Almanac, London, in June 2016.
Stuart Middleton lives in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In 2015, he had a solo show at Carlos/Ishikawa, London, UK, and his work was included in group exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre, and Berlin at Space (both London), as well as at HBK Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main.
First published in Issue 179