Comik motorik

February 8th, 2011

A Tuesday review of Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix, Myriad Books, 2008

It doesn’t seem so obvious until you start reading this book, but the visual language of roads, the set of consensual signifiers that give punctuation and meaning to the otherwise meaningless grey expanses, the easy-to-read fluency of the roadsigns and road-markings, the minimalist and directly unambiguous design principles they adhere to – are an almost too-perfect subject for interrogation via the comicbook medium. When Rumble Strip starts to accelerate, a few pages in, and the road and its cluster of accepted meanings start to vanish in the distance ahead of you, before their inevitable return, renewed and redefined, permanently mutated… You realise Kerouac, Ballard, Kraftwerk – if they had really wanted to nail this thing down, they should have been doing comiks. And they should, impossibly, have done them as well as Woodrow Phoenix.


Although the road is presented as a fully dehumanised, an aggressively anti-human steel and concrete world, a violently disruptive symbolic landscape monitored by implacably alien stanchions, bridges and pylons, Phoenix is actually striving to turn the reader away from the cliché that allows us to psychically bracket the road off as a depersonalised space-unto-itself, where human laws and norms are suspended. Through the righteous force of his polemic and the choppy, dissonant momentum of word and image, he forces the concept of the social back into the road’s ontological horizon.


The inhuman symbolic terrain of white paint on tarmac and isolated authoritarian roadsigns, with their blank alphabet of arrows, boundary lines, and neat abstract shapes is recreated with an incredibly observed artistic eye. Phoenix tensely opposes both the duotone palette and the bottom-up/forwards-to-vanishing point windscreen POV with the downward-running and deliberate, percussive blocking achieved through his dryly terse captions to exquisite formal effect. The shapes stretch and warp as you look at them, as if you really are moving through this comic on four wheels. The roadbound traffic jam of signs moves through documentary-realist modes (I often drive the roads Rumble Strip names. This is how they look, and this is how they feel beneath your wheels.) to the pure abstraction of panels where the fixed locus of attention has been wheelspun on its axis, with the familiar and reassuring vocabulary of the road turned hostile and confusing. The multidimensional sense of speed and motion this book conjures, while featuring an absolute minimum of things that could be described as discrete objects or even fixed spatial referents, is simply astounding.


It’s important though to express how natural this book feels, how timely and how key to our ongoing national conversation – like ripped pornmags or a Big Mac box, Rumble Strip and its thesis are simple roadside fauna, a natural consequence of the driving mentality in our cultural environment. These spaces, for all their mystique of alienated weirdness, their absent presence cut into the land, their essentially mediumistic functionality, are in fact blandly quotidian, very much there, and we by racing along them, observing, passing-through and bringing them to life, are all complicit in their destructive dominance of our lives. There are a million more cars on British roads than there were ten years ago, but there’s no room and no desire to grow an accommodating infrastructure – whether physical, social or personal – to alleviate the grindingly inevitable, sociopathic stresses of roadbound existence.

Rumble Strip shares characteristics with similar works published around the same time, such as Phonogram and Alice in Sunderland – ambition, skill, and an essential awareness of the medium’s potential for exploring concepts of geography, landscape and space, and it stands right alongside both as one of the most original, impressive and essential British comics of the last ten years.

rmbl4Buy it here.  Enjoy it a lot.

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