A Thousand Words from the Ninth Art

'Keep Britannia Tidy'.  Illustration © Copyright Mark Barnes 2014

‘Keep Britannia Tidy’. Illustration © Copyright
Mark Barnes 2014

An exhibition of work by four very different, but striking, comic artists, Bryan Talbot, Joe Decie, Ian Williams, and Mark Barnes, is currently running at the Rochester Art Gallery.  In an essay written to accompany the exhibition, John Miers remarks that A Thousand Words aims to “[play] on and [disrupt] many of the expectations people have of comics…”, and “… show the world that there’s more to the medium than stripy-jumpered menaces and world-saving musclemen with their underpants on the wrong way (not that there’s anything wrong with either, in moderation)”.

The genesis of this exhibition came last December when Megan Donnolley, Medway Council’s Artistic Director and Fuse Festival coordinator, put forward the idea.  A former member of London’s Comica and, “…a huge comics fan…”, Megan wanted to showcase comic artwork to a wider audience.  With her contacts through Comica, Megan was well placed to encourage Talbot, Decie and Williams to exhibit their work in Medway.

I bought my first comic with my own cash in 1977 – the second issue of 2000AD. I had read Dandy, Beano and Warlord, but this new sci-fi comic hit the newsagents and I wanted it.  Like punk on the music scene this comic, for me, shook the tree.  To this day I have never looked at any comic other than The Mighty Tharg’s creation. Although I no longer read 2000AD, the memory of its old issues have a special place.

Are comics special?  In the last decades of the twentieth century to the present day, comics have grown and developed.  There are very few that don’t deal with social issues or look at the way we interact with the world around us.  In fact, “…most people don’t realise there’s a whole world of comics, covering every imaginable genre…”.  Slowly, I think, more and more people are appreciating the effort and creativity that goes into bringing graphic stories to life.  A Thousand Words is part of this shift in establishment attitudes towards comics, illustrations and graphic novels.  Comics have probably been with us as long as newsprint, but rarely have they been considered art, or even in the mainstream.  The problem comics have had over the years is an image of being juvenile, and not containing serious art.  As John Miers states, this exhibition is part of “a global trend” that has seen similar shows at the Louvre and Sydney Opera House.

This juvenile image has been pushed away somewhat. Firstly, in my opinion, by the work of the guys at 2000AD, but more notably by artists and writers like Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman.  Imaginative exploitation of the comic genre has created worlds of wonder and magic realism where preconceived ideas and concepts are explored, bent double and repackaged.  The graphic novels Grimm Fairy Tales take folktales and turn them into something darker.  A Thousand Words offers people a unique opportunity to get “…an insight into how comics are made: you get to see original, un-coloured and un-lettered art at the slightly larger size [than] it’s drawn”.

Of the four artists at the Rochester Art Gallery, Bryan Talbot is the most well known in comic circles.  An artist for over 40 years, he has provided a quality selection of his work; notably from Grandville, The Tale of One Bad Rat and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (a graphic memoir in collaboration with his wife, Mary Talbot).  His imagination is as vibrant and crisp as the art in his magic-realist Grandville series.  He demonstrates depth of detail superbly in the soundless episode of Dotter of Her Father’s Eye, page 78.  Talbot is able to display dramatic scenes with fluctuating emotion in a quick fire way; the graphic equivalent of a submachine-gun.

Joe Decie draws with a sense of realism.  He describes his own work as “Almost real life”.  Humour plays an important role in his art; for example, the sequence The Mall.

Decie states how he “…hates these places”.  Then inside the mall is a bench with a plaque that reads:  “In memory of Joe Decie – he hated this place”.

Ian Williams’ style seems more two-dimensional prima facie, but he exploits the genre in a striking way, such as in Paralysis.  Like Decie, humour is prevalent.  In Metal Town the detail of his work almost matches Talbot’s in its depth and diversity.  It follows the No.66 bus.  On the top deck there’s a conversation about the antics at a rock concert, while religious and satanic motifs surround the journey.  And right outside C&A a dog defecates.

'Queen's English'.  Illustration © Copyright Mark Barnes 2014

‘Queen’s English’. Illustration © Copyright
Mark Barnes 2014

Mark Barnes is the local talent.  His style is crisp and simple, yet detailed.  Plenty happens and, again, humour plays a key role.  His Queen’s English is a pastiche of the Marvel/DC-type cover.  Then he takes on the pulp comic-horror genre with Tales From the Vicarage, while a super hero ladders his tights in The Trouble With Tights.  Mark sums up his own style as, “Hilarious.  Stylish.  Essential.  F*** knows.  Retro-styled tat?”

There is certainly no “tat” on display at A Thousand Words.  If any criticism is levelled at the exhibition, it could be that these examples stand in abstract, out of context; that there is no real sense of story.  I suggest you look at each piece individually and not stray either side of it.  Enjoy the art.  Dive into it, in fact, and be inspired by what you see to find out more about the work of these guys, and graphic novels and comics in general.  Their work can be found at:  www.bryan-talbot.com, www.joedecie.com, www.graphicmedicine.org/ian-williams/, and www.markbarnesillustration.com.

The exhibition is at the Rochester Art Gallery, Visitor Information Centre, High Street, Rochester, until 10th August 2014.  And all the prints displayed are for sale.

Words:  Malek Montag

Pictures:  Courtesy of Mark Barnes

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