So, yeah, that didn’t work out very well.

But you know what did?

This strip, entitled ‘Now Showing’, was the first peek at Nicholas Gurewitch’s wonderful The Perry Bible Fellowship that I ever had, and I wasn’t quite sure if I’d got it quite right.

Because it had to be an accident, hadn’t it, that it should be so succinct, so dead on witty and concise, and yet conjure an entire world and such a sophisticated take on the way our historical perspectives are potentially skewed by distance from the subject and mediation in the space of three brief panels? The comic strips at the back of the G2 were never this funny, intelligent and absorbing…. It was as though the Monty Python animation team, after blasting out of the Earth’s atmosphere in 1977 to explore the vast reaches beyond, had returned that sunny day in early 2007, touching down and setting up base camp on the bottom right hand corner of the last page of the Guardian’s daily magazine supplement, and began their war with reality anew, armed with a day-glo, snappier visual soundtrack for our soundbite ridden age.

Or something like that.

It definitely shared very little in common with the charming, but jobbing, and for a brit often impenetrable, Doonesbury, or Steve Bell’s exemplarily unfunny political satire strip, If…. I’d just never seen anything like it, so I had to perform a quick aesthetic double check just to be sure I hadn’t been drawn, like so many broadsheet readers inevitably are, into the ranks of the real commuter, paper crackling between my firm grip, brows furrowed seriously as I perused the headlines, but always eager to break into braying guffaws at the singularly rubbish comics they fob off on us as *comedy* littering the puzzle pages. In short – an actual dickhead. No sireeboawwb, I was gonna run this’n by my colleagues and see what they thought before I made up my mind.

But of course I was only met with the odd, befuddled, slightly glassy, stare.

The fact is, while most of my (now ex) colleagues generally approached my four colour obsession with a kind of good humoured, if slightly condescending, enthusiasm, most of them, with the odd, notable exception, just couldn’t wrap their heads around exactly why comics are GOOD. This was down to various factors – that they weren’t by and large used to reading them, that they were perhaps slightly intimidated by them, or they just plain couldn’t be bothered with anything other than films, pubs and pop music generally. Whereas I wasn’t sure if this was just a one off, random fluke of an excellent newspaper strip – one that would inevitably let me down next week – many of my work mates had no inkling that a comic could be as perversely, surreally, funny as the one I laid before them, and I think that meant some people dismissed the thing out of hand without giving it a chance.

Anyway, in true misanthropic geek fashion, I interpreted this to mean the Perry Bible Fellowship must be amazing, and that only I, the misunderstood but altogether brilliant nerdboy, alone in the world appreciated Nicholas Gurewitch’s pictoral genius.

Turned out I was wrong of course. Diamond have never pre-ordered more books than they did copies of the collected PBF edition, The Trial of Colonel Sweeto, either before or since.

I’d always meant to throw up a post about the Perry Bible Fellowship, from the day Zom suggested we put together this site, though somehow I’ve never quite got around to it, but I was thinking about the not so recent, and very minor, ‘humour should be a factor in short strips!’ debacle that centred around our very own one panel comic and the limitations that imposed on it as an art form, and PBF reemerged in my mind as a fantastic rebuttal to this. Not because it isn’t funny – as I made abundantly clear above, it very definitely is – but because if that was all it had going for it I’d be very bored by now, and I wouldn’t have a vested interest in pushing it on you freaks. So in this piece I want to talk about the humour, sure, but I also want to talk about the colour, the mood, the strangeness and the strips other objectives – objectives that don’t concern themselves solely with tickling your funnybone. In short, I want to talk about why PBF, and inadvertantly perhaps why so many mini strip artists, from Edward Gorey, to Michael Leunig (when he’s on top form), to Dan White rock, and why we should be looking for more in this kind of art than a laugh response.

I think the comments section of our weekly strip that highlighted one reader’s hedged in expectations, is probably indicative of people’s responses to strip art generally. If long form comics are commonly dismissed as a childish diversion, then what dreadful fate the short form? I think we’re all guilty of treating this stuff like visual junk food, to be honest, and there’s a number of factors that contribute to this. I suspect that in large part this has something to do with inhabiting a high velocity culture, where an endless round of media – pop ups, adverts, viral marketing ploys, shop signs, hoardings, packaging, book blurbs – vies for our attention at every moment, and this has necessarily engendered in us a kind of rapid fire aesthetic sorting mechanism. The truth is, unless we’re particularly vulnerable to it at that given time, or it is, for whatever reason, especially pleasing, we quickly jettison most of the information gunning for us on our daily stroll to the bus stop. But as any acid head will tell you:

‘Check out the Refreshers’ packet, man! It’s full of tentacles!’

The truth is, if we just bloody well stopped for once and really drank in some of this shit, it would emerge as pretty bloody cool. Or frightening. Or weird. And when it’s good art like PBF, it might even inspire us. The problem is, the short form or one panel strip very definitely belongs to the realm of easily jettisonable media, perched as they are in the daily text bomb of the newspaper, where everything from the Renault Clio, to cheap holdays in Spain, to global warming, fashion shoots, the latest killings, crosswords and horoscopes clamour for just the briefest of nods from our awareness. That we live in a channel surfing culture is a truism, but I think it carries some weight – I always mean to pull out that lovely, two page photograph sleeping in the centre of my Guardian and really give it some time when I have a moment, but I NEVER DO. How many of us do? I have one friend who might – and I know has because some of these centrespreads are blu tacked to his living room walls – but definitely not me, and probably not you.

But I have on occassion done the same thing with comic panels.

Back when I was going mad reading the Invisibles, my bedroom was flooded with one panel blow ups from the comic; later, when a less insular insanity dawned, I met the whirling, fiery girl from my first collected irritant soundtracks piece, and even now Batman and Robin bounding across the DKR skyline adorns my desktop. As Roy Lichtenstein would be the first to tell you, there’s something incandescent about a comic panel jettisoned from the strip itself. It gains an extra charge because we’re forced to provide the story surrounding it ourselves, and because it’s not diluted by narrative, its voice is louder than it otherwise might be. As a child, I strongly disliked the way lyrics prescribed a song’s meaning, and I think the pleasure I take from an isolated comic panel or a short strip connects to that idea. Things are often more powerful when they’re to some extent undefined.

Take Gotcha the Clown, for example. I love this darling little mini comic. Again, it was one of the first PBF’s I read, and I was taken aback by just how effective it is. We cheer Gotcha’s last minute escape with the rest of them, not simply because he’s a beacon of clowny fun in a grey, drab revolutionary world, but also because Gurewitch’s strip suggests a vast backstory of cheeky escapes and gay derring do. The ingeniousness of Gotcha and Gurewitch is in making us feel we’ve come in at the final act of an already hilarious and exciting story – the punchline of a the long, protracted joke that is Gotcha’s war with Robespierre. Wait a sec! Did I say ‘joke’? Hmm. I suppose you might laugh at the strip, but I’m fairly certain that wasn’t my original response. Wowed was more like it. I simply wanted to applaud the way in Gotcha the bendy logic of the cartoon and the fantastic bested the greyfaced, banality of the everyday. In short, it had more going on with it than straightforward comedy.

Oh, that reminds me.

and

are perfect examples of Gurewich’s understanding of the way colour contributes to a punchline. The raw, abrupt shift from gentle pastels to blood red, burning oranges and yellows and drab grey in the culminating panels tells us all we need to know even before our head kicks in and supplies the whys and wherefores of the story. Although in the second strip, Book World, we might retrospectively conclude that the colouration of the book, in stark contrast to the characters around it, signified a warning before the kids made the plunge into hell. And Hell it very definitely is. There’s more TEH DARQ IMAGININATION23 in the last panel of Book World than there is in all the books of King and Barker combined. Just take a look at that spider skull thing (careful! People’s eyes have been known to bleed..) and tell me exactly what the fuck is going on with it’s weird, insectoidal two-dimensionality – the way it straddles the line between architecture and organism. Go on. Or the heaving intestinoid sea the children are drowning in! Explain the fuck out of that. Cartoon art is far better equipped to articulate horror than its realistic progeny, simply because it’s more unbounded – less constrained by notions of is/isn’t, should/shouldn’t. In short, it’s just so much harder to reduce. The cartoon universe doesn’t give a fuck for traditional notions of perspective, function or any of the the conceptual building blocks of the rational world, and Gurewich knows it. Hey! Hey! Keep one eye on the spiderskull! I think its sockets just narrowed.. It’s fair to say that the world of PBF is 1 part comedy to 5 parts scary. That guy chained and blazing is just about as an uncomfortable image as any I can think of. A huge element of the laughter response has to be fear. It’s just so ridiculously conclusive and stark; and because the image is the last word, because it hangs timelessly in diegetic space, it sells the idea of an enduring, endless eternity of suffering like nobody’s business.

As does this.

But the horror here is more conceptual than literal, but if you were to sit down and explain to someone exactly why it was good, all you’d probably raise would be a dull smirk, because its the pictures that sell it. The image of the rag-doll climber buffeted deep into space on the black astral winds is actually pretty nasty. It put me in mind of the times I’ve stared out of a plane window at mountain caps below, or worse, out into the empty blue horizon, or up….. This strip speaks of the lonely places in the world, and the nothingness within which we’re suspended, into which we might float away at any moment, and of how utterly empty our conquests are in the face of that. Hyperbole, maybe, but because the statement is so concise it is necessarily entirely emphatic – the message purer, harder than it would be were it embedded in an extended narrative. Like Gotcha, Book World and so many others, the strip employs the language of colour to great effect, moving from the friendly, life supporting blue of the first panel, into darker, ominous shades as the climber plunges deeper up and out of his depth, and, finally, just cavernous darkness. This economy, this precision engineering of the basic informational elements within the frame is typical of Gurewitch, and one of the things that makes the spaces he conjures so strong, assured and vibrant.

This kind of abysall, existential unpleasantness characterises an enormous amount of Gurewich’s work, from the scrambled, unhinged histiography of Now Showing to the arbitrary theological violence of Puppy Love, and I think it’s one its core strengths. Chris is acutely aware of how utterly hilarious, absurd and terrifying the world outside can be and it’s wonderful that he was able to slip PBF under our radar and out into our fag breaks for so long. Sure, A Softer World, the G2‘s replacement strip now that Chris has waved bye-bye to his creation, tries very hard to hit the same conceptual STRIKE!s as PBF – indeed it often veers towards a situationist manifesto – but sadly it often (but not always) comes off as a po-faced, pictoral reimagining of Chris Morris‘s Jam, complete with irritating, suspension of disbelief suspending, bestubbled Hoxtonites. As much as I want to like it, it’s never caused me to splutter into my plastic coffee cup and scald myself the way Gurewich has. While Gurewich’s individual strip’s ultimate meanings may remain to some extent open to interpretation, distorted and strange, its fair to say there’s a clarity to his work, a sense of purpose – it’s never vague. He doesn’t hide behind stylistic/textual ambiguity – always prepared to put all his cards on the table in and sell a concise message, no matter how weird. Basically, he’s the guy who invented the best joke you know doing the rounds right now.

How’s this for precision storytelling?

BE AMAZED as Nicholas recapitulates the entirety of human history in the space of just four panels! GASP as he deftly removes a Prime Mover, meaning and purpose from the sky. TREMBLE when you realise the universe is an endlessly recursive loop with a black hole in the centre! LAUGH RUEFULLY at the idea that all human progress will eventually resolve itself in our own annihilation! PONDER the mystery of the cosmic keyboard upon which the button is set!

On closer inspection there’s almost something Woodringesque about the mise-en-scene in the third panel – the blobby, amoeboic buildings with their eye-windows, smoothing out the transition between it and the organic pinks and browns and time-lapsed evolving fishes of the second. And look how the lizard fish clambers up onto the rock only for it to morph into a strange orange future car, while the rock itself becomes the skyway below it! One image becomes the visual and conceptual answer to the other, and this is why the strip works. The temporal elipsis is not made jarring by a dramatic scene-shift from devonian swamp to gleaming society of tomorrow – Instead we feel as though we’re experiencing the process of a single organism, charging – GROWING! – confidently and inexorably towards it’s own dismal conclusion. Perhaps Gurewitch is describing the journey of all life, from humans to cells to plants – an endlessly complexifying, reiterating program, with the reset button hanging just outside it in the blackness, waiting to be pressed.

See! You see what happens when you lie in bed staring at the panels on the wall for too long! And Gurewitch’s work – in fact all the short panel strip creators, no matter how bad – fuck, as I said before, the form itself – invites this shit like nothing else. Its insistence on sketching out only the major plot beats of a decontextualised story/universe means that it demands this level of interpretation. This is Scott McCloud territory par excellance. The gutters between panels decribe tracts of time so vast whole universes fit in there, and this, it strikes me, is why Gurewich’s creations are so convincing. We’re forced to fill in the blanks in Reset, Now Showing and Gotcha in a way we wouldn’t were we reading a drawn out ‘story’.

But there’s more to it than that. Gurewich’s rampaging, homunculous mini-worlds are made all the more real (and threatening) by the art. He gives his strips such varied and distinctive looks. Check out this bunch.

The stylistic theme-shifts are essential to the impact of each strip. In the first, Punch Bout, the otherwise rather stupid punchline, that the protagonist really does have to fight a boxing planet, only works because we’re in Atari land, where people do have to fight absurd end of level bosses. And then there’s the sheer jaw splitting violence of the scrap itself…. Mario World is a gentle place whose inhabitants simply bounce off the screen upon death – they certainly don’t spit teeth and blood. But I think the funniest thing about it is the final panel, where we can actually *see* the image on the monitor flick to the freeze framed, pixelated horror on the coach’s face. There’s something about the innocence and simplicity of the old school computer game environment being infected by the viral, fleshy confusion of the real world that really sells this strip, and creates, again, a real sense of the yeeuchs.

And as for the next example, Utter Pig, here we find ourselves bathing in the soft, rounded, pinks, greens and browns of pastoral tea-cosy art, where the last thing we expect is gang violence and creamy showers. The fields and farmyards of Beatrix Potter are replete with naughty little pigs who might engage in saucy japes like scoffing down on Mama Cow’s teet (if we were viddying the uncensored version – normally they’d probably just nick a pail of milk or something), but they wouldn’t normally end up lifeless in a ditch. Once more, though, I feel the strongest thing about the piece isn’t the punchline itself, but the disgustingly greedy look on the pig’s face as it opportunistically darts into the panel and gets its suckle in.The thing is actually irritating. We want to deck it too. Nick as to nail elements like this with such enormous precision to get the tone of the thing exactly right, but he’s aided and abetted by hot-linking to a land of cheeky porcine’s we were sold on by the time we were 8.

As for Christmas Cards, well, this is Christmas card illustration, innit? But with the bringer of divine law as rulebook, instead of golden haired caucasian boy. I’m not really sure this strip counts as blasphemous – it’s just a well observed metaphor. It really would make a nifty Christmas Card, actually. I wonder if my Mum would be insulted…?

As I’ve stated above, it’s pretty easy to reach the conclusion that the reason each of these strips possess such oomph and weight is because the environments they conjure tap into pre-existing fictional universes already floating around in our minds. Universes with distinct laws, gravities and aesthetics, and it’s the interplay between these ground-rules and our expectations that makes them so funny, so solid and so complete. When it’s Gundam time, it’s the mangaverse, when it’s psychedelicism it’s Robert Crumb (one of my favourites)….

I could go on and on, but due to several disasters in my personal life, it’s taken me forever to finish this piece and it reminds me of a whole world of shit that I’d rather forget right now. So fuck it. It’s wayward, there’s very little point to it, other thaan exploring an area of the comicverse I find fun, and you’ll just have to suck it up, mate.

The amazing thing about the short strip, particularly Gurewich’s, is the way it simultaneously juggles a conceptual/narrative expansiveness, via it’s resonanting, frozen iconography, just as a photo does, whilst embodying a deeper exactness and precision than a 23 page batbook. It’s hard to imagine a 3 paneller written and illustrated by two separate people, only because, for one to be effective, all the elements within the frame have to be controlled so rigidly. If you’re trying to sell a joke, a mood, or an idea in such a tiny space, you really need to have everything working for you – everything has to say something – you can’t allow the strip ‘breathing room’. There can’t be mistakes. There isn’t enough time. Gurewich’s work is never loose, and, consequently, each panel is singularly deliberate. There’s more charge and intent in the short form stuff, like in a poem, advert, painting or sigil, where meaning gets distilled a la orange squash.

Hnh.

And we all know what to do with sigils.

The short strip, far from being an empty receptacle, a vehicle for a two second chuckle, is, at its best, literally crammed with information and atmosphere. It’s wriggling with noise.

Forget your preconceptions and your limited ideas about what this art-form should do. Read PBF. Read Terminus. Shut up about ‘buh dinnah larfh’.

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8 Responses to “Wayward musings on short strips and The Perry Bible Fellowship”

  1. Papers Says:

    THIS POST IS DINNER.

    I can’t even process it all and I’ll have to read it several times, but you’ve whet my appetite for tracking down some Perry Bible Fellowship; I love strange comic strips that crack with very, very contained madness– there’s something about those samples that pings of Winsor McCay, particularly the ragamuffin following into the dark sky — same sort of very precise draftsmanship.

  2. Zom Says:

    This has been clogging up the draft section for so long I was starting to think it would never go up on the site. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t encountered PFB up until the point when this post pointed the way.

    It’s just extraordinarily fantastic comics

  3. Wayward musings on short strips and The Perry Bible Fellowship | Atari Alumni Says:

    [...] Click Here For More… [...]

  4. Linkblogging for 07/09/08 « Thoughts on music, science, politics and comics. Mostly comics. Says:

    [...] Mindless Ones have yet another excellent post (I should just set up an RSS feed from them here, I link to them so [...]

  5. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 8, 2008: Far too stuffy Says:

    [...] The Mindless Ones on Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship. Hey, and there’s a new PBF strip up [...]

  6. Damian Says:

    PBF is awesome. Gurewitch’s art belongs in a museum.
    So we’re gonna put it in one:
    http://www.kam.uiuc.edu/pr/outofsequence/

  7. Zom Says:

    Interesting project. Any comic strip recommendations, Damian?

  8. cravensworld Says:

    excellent post

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