August 17th, 2010
Gary Lactus and myself recently went along to the Hypercomics exhibition being held at the Pump House gallery in Battersea Park. It’s part of the excellent Comica festival a truly diverse celebration of comics culture, which has been running since 2003. It featured the work of four very different comics creators: Warren Pleece, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Dave McKean and Adam Dant. But what exactly is ‘Hypercomics’? Well, why not allow the exhibition’s curator, erstwhile British comics legend, creator of the legendary Escape magazine and all round decent bloke, Paul Gravett fill us in…
Q: Daniel Merlin Goodbrey provides a definition for ‘hypercomics’ in the exhibition programme, but I was wondering if you could provide your own definition of the term?
I think the key to Hypercomics is their ability to branch off into multilinear yet interrelated storylines and push against the traditional constraints of the page format or panel layouts we’re used to. Comics have been defined for so long by their print incarnations, and even now most webcomics conform to individual ‘pages’ within the standard rectangular computer screen. Hypercomics explore where the medium might be heading next, especially with the growth of iPhones, iPads and other Readers and the scope of greater interactivity. I’m convinced that there’s massive potential still to be unlocked in how we create and experience ‘the shapes of comics to come’.
Q: How did the exhibition come about? How did you settle on the artists who exhibited?
Exhibitions Officer at Pump House Nick Kaplony knew about the Comica Festival and contacted me about a year ago to start developing a comics-related show. From a long list of candidates, the four artists were selected to create contrasting content. To secure the funding, at least one of the four had to come from exhibiting in the contemporary art gallery scene, so that was one criterion that brought in Adam Dant. I was aware of Dave McKean’s and Warren Pleece’s previous gallery-orientated projects along these lines – Dave’s Coast Road show in Rye and Warren’s Montague Terrace digital media show in Brighton – and thought they would be ideal. And from the outset I wanted Daniel Merlin Goodbrey as the UK’s true techno-guru of rigourous comics experimentation. Daniel was closely involved back in 2003 at the start of Comica with the still-remarkable collaborative PoCom or Potential Comics wall which was shown in the ICA Concourse Gallery. You can see it here: http://e-merl.com/pocom.htm
Q: The Pump House is a great location – did you find the space before deciding on the exhibition? Are there any plans to take the exhibition anywhere else?
You’re right, it’s a hidden gem, a quirky four-floor tower tucked away in Battersea Park, in fact it really was a huge tall pump house built in 1861, 250 years ago next year. The location came first and came to me. I saw it as defining the exhibition, as both a space and a setting, and I asked all four artists to respond in some way to it in their pieces, imagining their stories around it, creating an alternative existence, past, present or future, for the building.
Q: I noticed a flyer for an upcoming book by Warren and Gary Pleece, to be published by Escape Books – could you tell us a bit about this? Is this the first publishing you’ve embarked upon since the mid/late 80′s? What else is on the horizon?
Yes, The Great Unwashed is the first graphic novel to come from the reformed Escape Books. Other projects are percolating nicely at the moment. The original Escape Magazine from 1983-1989 had a major influence on comics and not just in the UK. In 2010 the need for a new Escape has become very clear, a new model and new focus to help advance comics still further. The Hypercomics show is actually part of that movement, because Escape is not only about comics in ink and paper, but also digital and gallery forms. More advance info will be forthcoming on www.escape-books.com if you sign up for our Newsletter.
Q: You’ve been curating the Comica Festival since 2003. How do you feel about it now? Have you achieved what you set out to?
Comica is not like most other comics festivals. I may curate it, but it’s constantly open to input and ideas from other individuals, institutions, groups and venues, it’s flexible, undefined by one space, discipline or approach to the medium. Comica may have been started by me in collaboration with John Dunning, then Film Promotions Manager, at the ICA back in 2003, but it can happen anywhere and in partnership with anyone. I also like the fact that it can respond whenever and wherever opportunities arise, as with Hypercomics now, or earlier this year inviting Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware over. There are still lots of projects and international guests I’d like to programme for the future and I welcome suggestions. This year’s Comica is different again, with one major element being a three-month exhibition and related programme I am curating right now for the London Print Studio Gallery on innovative graphic novels. As well as showing original artworks, it’s a show as much about demonstrating and expanding the processes of making and printing comics, using every technique from etching, litho, silkscreen to the latest digital options and escaping the page entirely.
Q: Some of the artists in the exhibition have a strong connection to the small press – Warren Pleece and Daniel Goodbrey in particular – and part of the Comica festival is the Comiket Small Press event. What do you like about the small press?
That small press connection is certainly true about Pleece and Goodbrey – but it’s also true of McKean and Dant who both started out by self-publishing, Meanwhile from McKean and Donald Parsnips Daily Journal from Dant. And of course both Pleece and Goodbrey have been published by regular American comics publishers too. When Nick Kaplony and I started to work out a programme of related events for Hypercomics, we both hit on the idea of an independent comics fair early on, because there’s so much innovative and interesting material being produced now, it’s going through a real resurgence. Of course, not everything from the small press is automatically brilliant, and exactly the same is true in the American mainstream genres, or autobiographical comix, manga, or bande dessinée. Good stuff is out there everywhere and it’s exciting to discover it sometimes at its earliest stages within the small press scene.
Gary Lactus: The Pump House Gallery is a pleasing brick of a building, allowing four artists a room each on every floor.
Upon entering the Pump House we were greeted by Warren Pleece’s animated piece Montegue Terrace. A comfy sofa and a coffee table with pertinent objects on it sits in front of a screen. To the left of this projection is an entryphone with four buzzers on it. Each button triggers one of four scenes from inside the titular block of flats. The animation is minimal but effective with Pleece’s heavy brushwork simplified to more of a clear line style. The animations are atmospheric, employing appropriate sound scapes. The puppeteer works away whilst puppets twitch and organs in jars move when he’s not watching. An old lady sits alone with a shortwave radio broadcasting in morse code. The pamphlet fills in the picture a little more, providing us with names and potted histories of the individuals depicted on the screen. On a wall next to the screen is mounted preview panels of the forthcoming Graphic novel by Warren and his brother Gary Pleece. As an installation, Montegue Terrace works best as a promo for the garaphic novel. What do you think, Beast?
I agree. I love Pleece’s brushwork, and Montague Terrace looks like a fine piece of work. It was a nice atmospheric beginning to the exhibition, with the faint music and sound of air-raid sirens filling the space, but I would have liked Pleece to go a bit further with the interactivity. Still, any Scott Walker reference in life is welcome innit?
Gary Lactus and I were discussing Pleece in the wankily overpriced pub afterwards (don’t worry readers, we soon loaded up on cheap lager and bad samosas and decamped to Battersea Park to watch the ducks like a couple of tramps) and we were both in agreement that he sums up an era when British indy comics seemed vaguely adult and sexy. You’d see the Pleece Bros’ excellent ‘Velocity’ advertised in the back of CRISIS and Deadline, along with Hewlett and Martin’s pre-Tank Girl ‘Atomtan’ and Nick Abadzis’ ‘Hugo Tate’. The aesthetic they developed seems to be fully realised in ‘Montague Terrace’ with it’s depiction of a very English tower block peopled by washed up pop stars and menacing magic rabbits. I look forward to reading more.
GL: The Archivist by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey is an experiment in non linear storytelling. The art is of a pleasingly computer aided graphic nature. Each of the three pieces presents the viewer with a grid of panels linked by various reading fronds which guide the eye away from the standard left to right, top to bottom order. Some panels have more than one of these panel bridges, asking the reader to choose which direction to take. This was a canny use of the space as such a format wouldn’t work in book form. Unfortunately for me, Goodbrey is asking a lot of someone to stand there and put the time and effort into following these stories. Perhaps a comfy chair and some opera glasses could have made for a more immersing experience.
TBMD: Yeah, again I agree, although there was something very iconic and satisfying about Goodbrey’s use of colour, and his minimal repetitive style. I was reminded of James Turner’s ‘Nil: A Land Beyond Belief’ published by SLG a while back. The rigid grid of panels offered a dense and multi-stranded reading experience. I suspect that the narratives may have performed some Ouroboros-like move and ended up back where you started, although, as Lactus says, it required a fair amount of concentration. People’s natural inclination to drift through exhibitions ay prevent the strips true charms from revealing themselves. Nonetheless, it was a lovely pop-toned, well-balanced art space. Clean, crisp and maybe a little dry. Goodbrey is clearly a funny, talented creator with bags of talent and ideas.
GL: Dave McKean’s The Rut impressionistically told a tale of a random violent act using media too numerous to mention. Numbered images in the panel windows outside the room lead the viewer in, along the floor, into mid air, into a large digital print in an ornate frame then off into nebulous sculptures, drawings and a deer’s taxidermied head painted bright red. The piece tells the story from many perspectives, inside, outside, past and present with an overarching theme where McKean draws parallels between the violence of men and rutting stags. Anyone familiar with McKean’s self written work such as Cages will not be surprised to find that much of the writing here was maybe a touch oblique but overall, The Rut was the winner for me.
TBMD: Yup. McKean (perhaps unsurprisingly) embraced the gallery space and concept fully and delivered a visually stunning mixed media treat. I’m not the world’s biggest McKean fan – I find his photoshop work over-rendered and aesthetically cluttered. I’m much more dawn to his bold, scratchy ink-work. ‘The Rut’ featured some truly exceptional drawings, and the simple technique of placing the work ‘suspended’ in perspex with the restrained typography on the surface created a lovely effect of timelessness and memory. His sculpture work was equally as impressive, and managed to convey the violence at the heart of the anecdote in a fresh and disturbing fashion.
McKean really took the idea of the comic page exploded across a 3 dimensional space and ran with it, delivering a piece that told a tale of adolescnt violence in a poetic,brutal and beguiling fashion. The writing was a bit purple though.
GL: The Library of Doctor London by Adam Dant occupied the fourth and final level of Hypercomics. All four walls were furnished by painted canvasses depicting book shelves. Each section was labeled with a London borough and a Latin medical term relating to an area of the body’s functions, respiratory, digestive, epidermic, etc. The book spines followed each theme accordingly. Some of the sections were empty. Whether this was intentional or simply a result of running out of time on this ambitious project is unclear. It’s a lovely format but the visual impact was slightly dulled by the uniform colouring of all the books. Unfortunately the point of the piece remains unclear and lacked emotional resonance.
TBMD: Hmmm. Yes. Whilst I’d give props to Dant for his esoteric knowledge and multi-layered vision of London, the piece lacked a visual punch and left Lactus and myself a little underwhelmed. I love cultural excavations of London so I should be the target audience for this I guess. I’m using to reading Iain Sinclair and feeling adrift in the dense cultural references and allegories, but his razor sharp turn of phrase and visceral word play can carry you through even the most obscure passages. Dant’s work clearly had a ton of thought behind it but it was lost on a couple of cavemen like us. That said there was a pleasingly musty feel about the ‘library’ and it particularly suited it’s location at the top of the Pump House.
GL: Overall this was a brave and rewarding exhibition which sought to break new ground and in some ways succeeded.
TBMD: Certainly. A throroughly pleasant way to spend the afternoon and a very creditable attempt to do something different with a comics of exhibition. Four very different artists tackling the brief in a very interesting way.
Also, it would be remiss of me to mention that the Comica Comiket, showcasing some of the finest independent and small press UK comics and zines, is on Sunday 22nd August at the very same Pump House Galery in Battersea Park. Details can be found here: http://www.comicafestival.com/index.php/events/detail/comica_comiket/
I’ll be there selling ‘Terminus’ and tap-dancing for small change. If you’re in the area come on down.
Thanks to Paul Gravett with his assistance.