thinking about culture, art and democracy
Last autumn Nicola Streeten published her first comic book. Billy, Me & You is about a couple coming to terms with the loss of a small child. It is a personal account, some 15 years after the event, of an unanticipated death and a long journey of recovery. Streeten draws on – in every sense – memories, diaries and photographs to turn her experience into art.
To some extent, this is as it should be. Art works first because of what it is about and only subsequently, if at all, because of its formal realities. Professionals care most about the latter, since that is their work, and don’t always see that readers, viewers and listeners take them for granted, simply as ways of delivering content.
But formal questions do arise when the form used has low status in the art world – as is the case of comics in Britain. So Channel 4’s angle on Billy, Me & You was to see it as an example of comics ‘growing up’ and dealing with real life rather than fantasies of superheroes. (Most of art history would be disqualified by a ban on fantasies and superheroes.)
Such ignorance would be unacceptable in a report on a ‘serious’ subject. Comics have been a serious art form in many cultures for decades (or, depending on your definition, for millennia). But there’s no need to go back to the great innovators of the 20th century when there are contemporary artist-writers such as Michel Rabagliati and Seth (Canada), Jean-Claude Denis, Etienne Davodeau and Marjane Satrapi (France), Art Spiegelman, Larry Marder and Alison Bechdel (USA) – the list could go on a long time.
There are dull, formulaic and just plain bad comics. But there is dull, formulaic and plain bad music, painting and poetry. It shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but no form is intrinsically better or more ‘artistic’ (whatever that might mean) than any other. The only thing that matters is whether an artist has something worth saying and the ability to say it well.
In Billy, Me & You, Nicola Streeten has both. Given its subject, the book is naturally moving, but its humour, honesty and insight are certainly not inevitable. They are the result of artistry – the alchemy of turning the lead of everyday lives into the gold of art.
And this is where form comes in.
Streeten could have cast her story in the form of a memoir or a film, an exhibition of paintings, a tapestry or a blog. Each would have offered a different glimpse of truths too large and complex to be fully understood. But in using the form of a comic book – a narrative in pictures – she exploited its unique ways of knowing. This form, each form, tells a story in a way that none other could. A single panel from Billy, Me & You will illustrate the point.
John’s anger is clear in the quick hard lines of the eyes, while his dark hat sits on his head like the lid of a boiling pan. The softer lines and staring eyes of Nicola’s face express her anxiety as clearly as her cautious words. But it is the middle speech bubble that can only work in a comic. ‘Listen’, says John, but his carefully composed letter is represented simply as a stream of handwritten hate. His actual thoughts – which literally don’t matter – are turned into a visual sign whose cramped edges say it all. The word ‘hate’ is both text and image and neither. It expresses a truth that can only be communicated in the panel of a comic.
Form is easily underestimated in a culture gripped by scientific literalism. It is equally easily overvalued in the inward-looking discourse of professionals. But its restless, ambiguous relationship with content is the stuff of art – and life.
I showed this post to Nicola before adding it to the blog and she observed – among other interesting comments about the nature of ‘me’ and ‘you’ in the title – that in my list of comic writer-artists I had included only two women and no British people. Understandably, she’d omitted herself, the actual subject of the post, which makes it three women, one of them British.
But I didn’t change the names I’d chosen. I certainly could have added more: I have loved comics all my life and there are dozens of artist-writers whose work I could have mentioned, including Belgians, Japanese and, yes, British. But I wasn’t choosing a jury, just giving some names that came unprompted to illustrate a point. Ask me next week and the list might be different. One nice thing about a blog is that I have only to represent myself, to speak truthfully if I choose to speak at all. That’s the extent of my obligation here, I think.