December 10th, 2013
A thought occurs to me as I drag my sickly drunk head back to Glasgow from the Thought Bubble convention in Leeds: aren’t DECADENCE comics all a bit super-boyish in the end?
My throat too hoarse to speak with due to Saturday night shouting and Sunday con hustle, my brain so detached from its immediate environment that at one point I have to croak at Mister Attack to ask if we are in fact going backwards, the only thing I am able to do properly is comics. And so, I read through Lando’s Olympic Games, taking in page after page of landscapes that look as bare and arid as my larynx feels, squinting at the characters in survival suits, loving every second of it but questioning myself all the same.
“He’s just ridiculously on, isn’t he?” Mister Attack says.
I wince my agreement and keep on flicking.
It’s the survival suits that give me pause. As I shift out of Olympic Games and into a couple of comics by Stathis Tsemberlidis, Neptune’s Fungi and Epicurean Paradox, my drunken brain starts to worry that the spacesuits are emblematic of an attempt to build a stylish fictional identity, a barrier between person and world. My earlier thoughts about this aesthetic being “super-boyish” already seems glib and reductive to me, even if I can see where this thought came from. Something about the collision of cool influences, the sense that you’re reading the works of people who read only right comics from France and Japan, combined with a knee-jerk panic that aesthetics this good must in some way be suspect.
Where did I get the idea that comics could be cool? That they could communicate with the world while seeming at ease in it? From Brandon Graham, maybe, or perhaps just from The Internet.
Why would an encounter with these values provoke scrutiny? Perhaps because these comics do not reflect the values associated with my own formative experiences of the medium, bound up as they are with alt-comics and (sub-)superhero stories that mirror my own awkward, convoluted brand of self-reflection a little bit too clearly.
Comics scholars more erudite than me can argue about which specific artists have influenced Lando, Stathis and co, and armchair psychiatrists can deal with my issues at some later date – in this moment, my bleary brain is only capable of tracking where the lines on my face are going, rather than where they come from.
Thankfully, the future view they provide is expansive.
Epicurean Paradox is the one that brings everything back into focus for me. A head trip through a circular narrative, its spacesuit provides the reader with the perfect combination of omniscience and helplessness, and as I crash down through the panels with the book’s central figure all my worries about the stylistic ease of Decadence comics are obliterated:
The protective suits are revealed, then, to be a way of experiencing reality – a metaphor for the point of Decadence experiment in microcosm. It quickly becomes clear to me that the sense of impeccable cool isn’t the purpose of this aesthetic. Instead, its a fictionsuit to allow a closer examination of reality. Epicurean Paradox makes this explicit, what with its close encounters with all sorts of common everyday brutality:
It’s the familiar nature of some of these terrible scenes that lends Epicurean Paradox its power: we may not have access to heavy duty fictionsuits of the variety we find in this comic, but the fact that we recognise these sites works as both incitement and condemnation.
The theme is equally present when I look for it in Neptune’s Fungi, contained in every little mark Tsemberlidis makes on the page – and he makes a lot of marks on the page, layering crinkly texture onto the beautiful, open environments he creates.
These inky wrinkles lend a nervous physicality to even Tsemberlidis’ most immaculate Mobius (s)trips, an awareness of human frailty that is enhanced rather than diminished by Stathis’ cosmic vantage point:
My stomach grumbling, my mind suddenly eager for more, I find myself licking blood off my cracked finders and flicking on to the Decadence #7 anthology. Some of the strips contained within stray closer to the territory mapped out by my original fears, but taken together there’s value in everything here, from Daniel Swan’s god-fingered formalism…
…to Dan Hallet’s strangely organic space age shape-making:
The sense of collective purpose is key here: these strips might not add up to much on their own, but in context they serve to probe the extremes and possibilities of this style of sci-fi comics.
Still, even to my fuzzy mind, it’s obvious that the best strips in here are the ones by Lando and Stathis. Tsemberlidis’ entry stays true to his Ballardian blurring of inner and outer space, and throws a rapidly withering cock into the mix to boot. Lando’s Island 3 strip, meanwhile, brings his whole aesthetic into focus for me. His pages may not show the wear and tear of the world quite so much as Tsemberlidis’, but there’s a deceptive fragility to his line work that’s exposed throughout this strip, never more so than when his harangued cyclist makes harsh contact with reality:
I drift back to Olympic Games, eyes newly sharp with this way of seeing, and cut through the tired cloud my previous viewing had left over the text.
Lando’s conflation of brutal, desert based violence and celebratory pageantry could easily seem heavy handed or didactic, but thankfully the same slick tricks that initially caused me doubt also serve to place the reader within these fictional environments, to involve them so thoroughly in the scenario that the barbs of in its construction are absorbed as part of a vivid, hallucinatory experience, rather than as part of an obvious attack. Sean Collins missed the abstractprop aspect on his first go round, but he didn’t miss the way it’s expressed, as this passage on the horrific grace of Olympic Games’ composition attests:
Lando’s skill with pacing and action choreography is tough to match among people making these kinds of alt-SFF comics today; his perspectival cross-cutting between embattled areas, and his use of blankly linear lasers to traverse that space and shift our viewpoints, is especially exciting
My throat still sore as fuck, nerves rattled I start to find Olympic Games more than exciting. The sense of harrowed physicality is built in to every thrilling laser blast, every frantic attack or dash for shelter:
There’s a lack of weight to Lando’s line, a sense that everything has been reduced to its bare essentials and that it could easily be reduced even further still:
These are comics with a sense of cost, then, and thank fuck for that. If I had any voice left in me, I’d turn round and tell Mister Attack that he was even more right than I’d previously thought, that Lando is ridiculously on. Thankfully, I don’t need to bother.
Even at their most minimal and compelling, these comics are more than capable of speaking for themselves…