By Noel Myaing
CRASH! BAM! POW! BANG!
Comic books and graphic novels have exploded into the consciousness of Western contemporary culture over the last decade. It isn’t difficult to find a billboard advertising the next big Marvel or DC comic action blockbuster. The superhero genre has dominated the comic book medium since Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, in 1938. But the understated genres of graphic storytelling long overshadowed by larger-than-life superhuman beings are brought to light in a much quieter manner in Silent Comics at this year’s annual Graphic Festival.
Curated by Jordan Verzar and Virginia Hyam and only in its second year, the festival celebrates graphic storytelling, animation and music over the weekend of August 20th and 21st. Set in Sydney’s iconic Opera House, Graphic features various events that encompass a wide range of media, from discussion panels with legendary illustrators to original animations from emerging Australian directors. These animations are screened during Australian multi-instrumentalist Gotye’s live Animated Album Preview set. Graphic’s focus on the relationship between images and sound is explored further in Silent Comics, one of the Festival’s last events on the Sunday evening. A unique world premiere event in six parts, Silent Comics sees a lineup of international and local musicians perform live original scores to classic and contemporary wordless comics by renowned illustrators.
Silent Comics takes place in the Opera theatre, where a large projection screen is hung from centre stage. The promo animation for the festival plays on the screen. The Opera House’s distinctive sails are re-imagined as a futuristic glasshouse dome-like structure atop a floating island in the sky, running on oversized propellers. Flying towards it is a fleet of helium blimps with large LCD screens, playing animations, comic book pages and the Festival’s tagline; ‘Meet the mythmakers of the modern world.’ This is accompanied by Mingus, an ambient track by Sydney-based electronic trio Seekae, one of the featured artists in the show. The atmosphere is set, and the helium blimps land on the floating island utopia where the mythmakers of the modern world await.
A particular language doesn’t confine silent narratives. They instead use a more universal language to convey an action through sequencing, pacing and gestures. Silent Comics explores the idea of an entirely pictorial language of storytelling, which is enriched and emphasised through the universal language of instrumental musical scores, varying from jazz, orchestral to electronic.
This can be seen in Part Two of Silent Comics, performed by Sydney electric string quartet FourPlay, who score UK-based artist/writer Roger Langridge’s comic Nowhere Special. The story follows the comedic misadventures of Fred, a simple, single-toothed clown and his anthropomorphic, tailcoat-wearing ape companion, illustrated and rendered in heavy black ink and meticulous crosshatching. The comic pages move along the large projection screen as the quartet play behind it.
FourPlay’s jazzy score created entirely with two violins, a cello and viola changes tempos as Langridge’s protagonists enter a mysterious house. Creaking strings imitate the sound of a creaking door, as they encounter wild animals and other surprises. Sweet, serene music is played when a beautiful peacock, the only figure in full colour, entrances Fred. This serenity is cut short however, when the hungry circus ape companion blows off the peacock’s head with a shotgun. The simple, slapstick humour silently illustrated through the pacing of sequence panels on the pages and character gestures, is enhanced by FourPlay’s perfectly timed electric orchestral score.
Legendary cartoonist Will Eisner (1985, p. 24), credited for creating the first graphic novel in 1978, notes that: ‘Images without words, while they seem to represent a more primitive form of graphic narrative, really require some sophistication on the part of the reader. Common experience and a history of observation are necessary.’
Unlike the myriad of sequential images in film to show movement in time, graphic narratives use only the most essential images to communicate meaning. What makes graphic narratives so engaging is exactly this primal requirement for the reader to decipher a story from images alone. It isn’t surprising, as graphic narratives are rooted deep within human artistic history. Pioneering urban artist Mark Wigan (2007, p. 57) plots these points in history:
‘Graphic art and pictorial storytelling has a long rich history that can be traced back to the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux, Egyptian hieroglyphics … and Roman manuscripts. Antecedents and precursors of today’s narrative illustration can be found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Japanese woodblock prints … and the idiosyncratic book art of William Blake.’
The earliest comic books emerged with print media, drawing inspiration from satire and music hall slapstick comedy. Today, the comic book medium has moved beyond just comedy, and encompasses a variety of genres. However, the sequential nature of pictorial narratives is inherently effective in the adventure genre. This is shown in Australian illustrator, animator and toy designer Nathan Jurevicius’ adventure graphic novel Scarygirl. Sydney electronic act Seekae in Part Four of Silent Comics scores this charming adventure story, following a mysterious pirate-girl who is lost and befriends wonderfully weird creatures. With the help of a giant octopus guardian and a wise rabbit guru, Scarygirl searches for her creator. Perhaps the most visually vibrant silent comic in the show, Scarygirl’s journey through colourful, erratic landscapes is flawlessly scored by Seekae’s heavily textured electronic sound, layered with ambient synthesisers, glitch-driven beats and live percussions. The camera directs your eyes across the beautifully illustrated pages, simulating the act of reading a comic book. No longer are you sitting in the Opera theatre looking at a projection screen, Silent Comics feels more like reading a comic book in your bedroom with the perfect soundtrack playing on your stereo.
As with all the other musicians in Silent Comics, Seekae performed behind the projection screen and images. This idea mirrors the exact reverse of The Velvet Underground and Nico’s performances in front of large slide projections, in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. This of course was back in the late-sixties and Warhol also had dancers. But perhaps extravagance wasn’t the intention behind this idea in Silent Comics. The talented musicians and noisemakers performing behind the screen keep the silent comics in the spotlight, and the interaction between visual and musical narrative becomes the star of the show.
While the stories of Nowhere Special and Scarygirl may seem simple and appealing to children, this isn’t always the case with the comic-book medium. The art of underground Comix pioneer Robert Crumb, wrought with confronting sexual imagery in a bold cartoonish style, is hardly recommended reading for children. Comix, an underground genre of comic books spawned from the late-sixties counterculture, is suitably spelt with an ‘x’ for its x-rated content openly exploring sex and drugs. Graphic co-curator Jordon Verzar told The Sydney Morning Herald that, ‘[Crumb’s] work helped define a generational movement, a certain zeitgeist’ (Purcell, 2011, p. 41).
Crumb’s silent comic Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics (1967), is scored by Captain Matchbox in Part One of Silent Comics. The score becomes increasingly discordant as the screen trails along Crumb’s rebelliously jagged sequence panels, depicting odd organic forms and dark humour. Generally, Crumb’s art would be admittedly uncomfortable, but it forces us to confront a repressed human psyche and question exactly why we react in such a way.
Bell and Sinclair (2005, p. 7) comment that, ‘[the] old misplaced adage that … comics are just for kids [is] an accusation that comic-book art and, more generally, narrative illustration have seemingly battled against throughout their history. Only relatively recently have they started to receive the recognition and status as an art form that they deserve.’
Written language in graphic narratives doesn’t always succeed in telling a story. Perhaps sometimes the best way to say something is by not saying it at all. Narrative illustration, comic books and graphic novels continue to be an emerging presence in our contemporary landscape. Silent Comics succeeds in re-invigorating the highly understated medium of silent narration through combining the primal pictorial and musical languages. The diverse musical scores give the silent comics a voice that does not speak over it, but rather complement its artistry as a contemporary medium for storytelling. Silent narrators and modern musical composers are brought to centre stage at the Opera House, and Silent Comics ends Graphic 2011 with a bang, without even having to spell it out.
Bell, R & Sinclair, M 2005, Pictures & words: new comic art and narrative illustration, Lawrence King Publishing, London.
Eisner, W 1985, Comics and sequential art, Poorhouse Press, Florida.
Jurevicius, N 2003, Scarygirl: Art by Nathan, Outré Gallery Press, Melbourne.
Purcell, C 2011, ‘I’m a very eccentric, oddball character’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2011, p. 41.
Skinn, D 2004, Comix: the underground revolution, Collins & Brown, London.
Wigan, M 2007, Sequential Images, AVA Publishing, New York.