Life in Plastic

January 24th, 2019

Go-Bots #1-3, by Tom Scioli

You Can Be Anything™, by Sophie Bainbridge

You’ve mounted me and there you sit,
you rotten shit!
You’ve mounted me an there you sit,
but even that won’t really make me think like you.

For the horse thinks one way as he strides;
thoughts quite different from the one who rides” – Alexandre O’Neill, The History of Morality

“We are what we’re supposed to be
Illusions of your fantasy
All dots and lines that speak and say
What we do is what you wish to do” – Aqua, Cartoon Heroes

If I’m honest I never really gave a fuck about the Go-Bots. I was always aware of them, but only to the extent that the shapes Tom Scioli draws here are familiar from my childhood, albeit they’re not the most familiar shapes in their own comic:

As a measure of my unfamiliarity, consider the fact that I’ve had to edit this piece twice now because I got confused about whether I should be writing “Gobots” or “Go-Bots” throughout. Unlike Scioli’s previous work on Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, then, Go-Bots provides me with a deeply unsettled experience rather than a complex nostalgic one – where I was able to process that earlier series’ abundant exuberance as both a celebration and détournement of a lifetime’s worth of merchandising that I had somehow mistaken for my soul, this latest project has a more genuinely uncanny quality to it.

The figure-work here is similar to Scioli’s previous work in this arena, similarly true to ’80s toys and box art, the (crayon? pencil?) colour tones still evocative of everything from old tie-in comics to the adventures you’d draw yourself if you were an abnormally talented kid. As in TF/Joe, there’s a sense of play to every page of the comic, the sort of play that thrives on the creation and destruction of relationships – any order that is established is soon found to be ripe with chaos, and all chaos comes complete with the threat of latent order.

This drama is played out in Scioli’s page layouts, which tease the possibility of a break from the two-dimensionality of the comics page…

…while also constantly reveling in the expressive possibilities of that same flatness, stacking images on top of each other, keeping just enough of a sense of narrative coherence while pushing ever closer to the joyous impurity of collage:

Given the nature of these franchise comics, their origins as indifferent product, this flatness extends to the narrative ruptures and inversions. Are the Go-Bots loyal friends or alien monsters? Is treating them like chatty tools justification for a bloody revolution or yet another example of bad dating etiquette? Are any of these binaries any more real than the shite we were sold as children?

Like the best of Scioli’s TF/Joe work or his Super Powers strips for Young Animal, Go-Bots is good enough to sustain the illusion of real freedom for the time it takes to read any given page. This sense of possibility takes on a more demonic aspect here, an aspect that comes to the fore in this third issue, which gives the reader the same perspective as a group of disorientated astronauts who spend the issue trying to navigate a planet full of these warring toys. What we find here is a triumph of mechanistic forces over anything they appeared to be there to support - whatever part we have played in dreaming up the means of our destruction is now but an interesting footnote to the carnage itself.

Was it always going to feel like this or would it have been different if I’d gotten involved, if I knew these characters, if I’d previously found meaning in their stories? There’s nothing unusual about a child imagining that the toys they play have life independent of them, but barely acknowledged playthings might be a different story altogether, and the deranged animist energy Scioli brings to the comic the sense of something repressed, or perhaps of something under-loved that has come back to haunt us…

This might just be an illusion though. All too often it feels as though we were always doomed to be buried under merchandise, whether we ever actually bought it or not, and that the only difference is what we are able to feel while the plastic fills our lungs.

***

I spent more time in the zine zone than I usually do last year, courtesy of trips to Glasgow Zine Fest and the new Ghost Comics Festival, events that existed in the interzone between the zine world and comics land. What I found myself attracted to in this context was the specificity of it all, the urgency, the fact that so little of it reads like an audition for a wider platform.

These qualities are in short supply in this current media landscape, and Sophie Bainbridge’s You Can Be Anything™ embodies of all of them while also showing that none of this is incompatible with craft, intellectual rigor or raw feeling. A perfect performance piece, it examines all that’s restrictive or constraining about the stories we’re sold while we’re young while also giving elegant expression to the new realities they might have helped us to nurture.

The format is simple, rhythmic even. Five times over, Bainbridge provides us with a snapshot a period in their life accompanied by an illustration of their favourite Barbie at the time…

…before offering a little more context on how all of this plays into their story so far:

While everything in this zine is immaculately well drawn and sharper than a freshly buzz cut Barbie, it’s in these more storied sections that the shards of broken plastic really start to dig in. The first two of these parts depicts the formative attachments of early childhood playing out in a realistic environment, with the young artist eagerly enjoying their favourite toy, even wandering off into the realm of fantasy with it.

As the story moves forward, these vignettes start to take place in a more fragmented space. You Can Be Anything™ is built out of collage from its first pages on in, but this aspect of its aesthetic takes on a more prominent role as the narrative develops, with scraps of text, self-portrait and pirated iconography tumbling over the page like scraps of meaning dropping into the void:

When You Can Be Anything™ is charting the artist’s break with Barbie and all the traditional ideas about gender and play she seems to embody, these stretches of black ink give the artist’s angst a physical embodiment on the page.

The persistence of these backdrops in the stretches of the zine is more complicated. In these sections, which that deal with the way that Bainbridge has been able to re-integrate their feelings about Barbie with their own expanded self knowledge, every passing slip and slither of two-dimensional information is loaded with experience. They’re also clearly movable, reflecting a new understanding of the artist’s interaction with their childhood idol, one more savvy as to the blurring of desire and desire-to-be that was always there plus more fluid in its interactions with gender and identity.

The abundant, inky darkness of these pages and the carefully drawn, empathetic figures Bainbridge sets against it go some way to underline the zine’s insistence that no closure has been found here. The artist’s life, their story, and their relationship with this fantasy figure are all ongoing. The limits of Barbie as a fantasy are implicit in the fact that no new coherence has been established. Moments of pure fulfillment exist beside moments of isolated anguish. Product is used but the advertising around it is not allowed to dictate the terms of our understanding.

Inasmuch as reality can be said to exist, then, this is it – a series of fragmented parts held together by the force of our relationships with them.

That might sound a bit despairing, but where Scioli’s Go-Bots makes compelling pulp out of the prospect of our subservience to the junk of our childhood, You Can Be Anything™ suggests that we might yet be able to figure out ways to survive it.

2 Responses to “Life in Plastic”

  1. plok Says:

    “Desire-to-be”. Barbie, it reminds me of the (slightly silly) study done recently that showed religions arising in the wake of complex societal organization, instead of seeding those complexities. Well, didn’t we all know that already anyway? But “complex societal organization”, that’s rather a name without a number, to my mind…

    Surely what it means is just “overwhelming prevalence of symbols”, I mean what are we supposed to do with all these fucking symbols, amirite? Maybe you’re right on the money, and what we do is make a sort of language of them, or at least a sort of grammar. For about twenty years I’ve been airily voicing the view that language didn’t “develop” from non-languaged utterances, but is surrounded still by a massive cloud of them, like the Milky way is surrounded by clouds of gas, or like a yolk is surrounded by albumen. The onomatopoeic associations of words with things not after the fact but BEFORE. Too late, this year, I discover the name “ideophones” and realize I’ve reinvented the wheel…

    But dear God that flat grid of Go-Bots (“I can’t shake him off!”), like a matrix of mah-jongg tiles, it almost could be a mosaic of bathroom tiles of random scenes…moments with no order but what the looker bestows on them…

    I’m already attached to You Can Be Anything, just by three panels. The second panel kills me, to be honest: when’s the last time I saw a thought-bubble drag me across a living-room floor like an action figure myself? Direction, and movement, the precise dynamism that Go-Bots lack.

    I’m interested in this, Doctor Jones. I like to think that comics panels are units of speech, but sometimes they’re whole sentences and sometimes they’re individual words. Sometimes, even, they’re particularly potent LETTERS.

    And sometimes they’re particularly-potent blank spaces!

    Oh why must you always make me want to look at things I haven’t seen.

  2. plok Says:

    “Desire-to-be”, yeah. What could ever need such fluid representations, except that? Robots, dolls, homonculi, little copies of us, or parts of us, suggesting a whole but not prescribing it, barely even requiring it. I was wondering why gorillas pick up favourite sticks and carry them around, why little children slip rocks from the beach into their pockets and spirit them home…well what is that impulsion? Are we just trying to gradually accrete to ourselves something we…

    …Like?

    Can operate on?

    Can possibly assemble?

    Forgive me, I know I restate the obvious. The thing is, I had these two glasses of scotch.

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