Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 7 | Brendan McCarthy

“Pop!” one-page strip in Solo #12 (2006).  Brendan McCarthy.

At times the things that can be achieved by comics’ usual mode of sequencing — strings of single panels after single panels — can seem almost limitless.  Looking at it from the inside out, as a comics-literate reader who can see the vast differences in approach to sequence that distinguish a Ware from a Kirby from an Eisner, it’s easy to get lost in just how diverse the pages can get.  But take a step back and look at comics as one visual medium among many, a vehicle for creating information to be absorbed through the eyes, and the methods of sequencing used by its artists begin to look surprisingly limited.

Think about it — or better yet, get out a bunch of your comics, all genres, all drawing styles, as diverse and differentiated a selection as you can find, and give them all a flip-though.  While comics have no shortage of different colors on their pages and different methods of mark-making swimming through their panels, a ridiculously large majority of them stick to that one typical mode of sequencing — boxed panels following boxed panels, groups of them fit more or less perfectly together like puzzle pieces, jammed snugly into the rectangle of the page.  The grid, as wonderful and variable a sequencing tool as it is, possesses a downright tyrannical stranglehold on the comics form.

Now I don’t know about you, but personally I like reading comics better than I like reading prose chiefly because their pages don’t all look the same.  And it’s frustrating to see how many comics lock themselves into prose’s side-scrolling, line-above-line sequencing pattern to put their information across.  Try to think about a page of comics as a painter or a sculptor would and it’s almost laughable.  Why does everyone stay in those safe little boxes all the time?  A page of comics is a canvas, a big pure space that can contain anything, and yet for over a century now, its artists have jailed their pictures in panel borders rather than exploring the possibilities of setting them free on the page, leading readers’ eyes along lines that aren’t straight and short and easy.

This Brendan McCarthy sequence is so interesting precisely because it breaks free of tradition, denying the grid and composing comics by simply laying multiple images down on the page.  It isn’t rocket science, people — draw one thing in one space and then another in close enough proximity and you’re working in the medium.  McCarthy, a fine-art student, brings a painterly awareness of the page-as-unit to all his work.  You can see it on his gridded pages, which always hew to a larger, unified color/design scheme, but it’s most apparent in single-page comics canvases like “Pop!”, quite possibly the most formally audacious, revolutionary piece of comics ever published by DC.

“Pop!” is a gorgeously cohesive thing, a page that can’t quite be reduced into its component parts, demanding instead to be viewed as a whole.  That’s interesting enough on its own in the context of a medium that typically propels its stories by demanding that the reader ignore the whole to follow the progression of little bits and pieces, but “Pop!” also bends its form to its function.  This is art-comix as pure as they come, but that doesn’t mean it lacks meaning beyond the pictures.  “Pop!” is a story about the world around us (circa 2006, but at least as relevant and applicable to this current instant), an attempt to encompass the dissonant, clashing currents at play in our real lives, to unify completely different things into one superstructure — just as Reality itself does.  The images give us three things: the rage of a bloody war, a sedate, bourgeois home life… and the world of hero comics, as perfectly symbolized by a Curt Swan Superman sample.  They aren’t subdivided into their own separate boxes, allowed to exist in private, hidden from one another.  They stretch all over the page, overlap and dialogue.  These are three real things McCarthy’s cartooning about, facts of life for every English-language comics reader, and in “Pop!” they’re taken out of the hermetically sealed arenas they usually occupy, stripped of separators, forced into contact.

The sense of flow in “Pop!” is beautiful.  Rather than the usual syncopated, stop-start motion that powers gridded comics pages, McCarthy’s page is a single extended movement, a long gesture from a beginning through a middle and into an end that fades out rather than full-stopping.  The near-satanic evocation of war at the top of the page has a literal stake in McCarthy’s caricature of the average well-to-do American’s peaceful home life.  The typesetting, understated but beautifully considered, forms a neat ‘L’ shape that takes the place of a panel border, separating the first image off from the second while leaving the total composition plenty of room to breathe.  McCarthy’s deft sequencing of his text pieces deserves just as much credit as his placement of the art fragments: a cohesive story can be easily grasped from hand-scrawled titles, a neat logo, a scattered bit of poetry, and a few disconnected balloons.  That story, of course, is one of idealistic revolution, peace triumphing over war, the mellow hippy type in the second image taking power from the American military-industrial hegemony symbolized by Superman, seen admitting his final defeat.  (In a world where the cultural revolutionaries are the good guys, superheroes are not only outmoded, but dangerous, after all.  You ever read something you just can’t believe they got away with?  I have.)

It’s an action comic with absolutely none of the action shown, but the constant motion of McCarthy’s free sequencing, the telegraphic power of the images he uses, and the amplified rhetoric of his words leave little in doubt.  A story like “Pop!” simply couldn’t exist in a grid: the images are so diffuse, the connections to be drawn between them such large leaps of logic that visually separating them would destroy the comprehensibility of the whole.  Only by presenting the images as parts of a single, indivisible canvas can McCarthy create the dialogue he does between them.

It’s the closest comics have come to emulating the pop song in word and image: the psychedelic color-field background unifies everything on the page with its brilliant pastels, giving it a shared tone and the sense of music’s continuous motion through time.  The song’s three “verses” flesh out the narrative in broad, colorful arcs, and the slickly designed “Pop!” logo works just like a catchy hook, a repeating motif between verses to tie it all together, as well as a final, indelible note to fade out on.  It’s almost like animation, this kinetic, flowing motion of one image into another; but instead of creating actual moving pictures to be experienced by a passive audience, McCarthy draws the mind in, providing a definite sequence of image and word to be moved through without stopping, lining up the breaks between drawings and balloons with the mental connections the reader has to make for it all to line up.  This is hardly the usual way of making “pictures that move” with comics — but that unusual approach, the wholesale discarding of comics-native tropes for something that simply works better to achieve McCarthy’s purpose, is exactly why “Pop!” is such a raging success.

(A final note: don’t you love that thin little strip of color running down the right side of the page, utterly harmonic but obviously disconnected from the main image?  That’s actually a bit of the next page that got pushed out when I laid the book flat on my scanner.  It looked so lovely that I left it on rather than crop it, because I think it makes the page a lot stronger as a whole.  The sequencing McCarthy plans for is incredible, but the total accidents that lie far outside of authorial intent can make artwork magic.)

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Oh man, I got the chance to borrow Swimini Purpose from a mate the other day, and I can only read a few pages of it at a time, because McCarthy’s art is so goddamn wonderful it HURTS. You’re right, Matt – “Pop!” is a fine example of McCarthy at his best – instantly catchy, amazingly thoughtful and brilliantly coloured.

By the way, this line from your essay – “I like reading comics better than I like reading prose chiefly because their pages don’t all look the same” – sums up everything I’ve ever tried to say about comics in 19 terrific words.

Thanks! yah I’m proud of that line….

Matt,
I LOVED that issue of Solo from DC… I told everyone I knew to pick it up. It was to me, a manifesto of where comics could go. There was more pure creative inventiveness in that single comic book than I’ve seen in most creator’s entire output. And yet McCarthy is almost completely ignored by the comics’ cognoscenti. I think he’s easily as formally radical as Chris Ware or Art Speigleman, and even his Spider-Man Fever series was seriously nuts, while appearing to play the mainstream Marvel game…
Also, I find his work very ‘warm’ emotionally. It has a lot of heart, like the best music. McCarthy has repeatedly banged on about seeing his work as derived from musical structures rather than film narrative. Seen as ‘drawn movies’ his comics don’t really work… but as ‘drawn music’ albums, I totally get them.

I finally managed to track down a copy of his ‘visual autobiography’ Swimini Purpose, after reading Solo 12. McCarthy himself said in an interview at the time that Solo was a kind of continuation of Swimini Purpose. But I think it’s more than that: A hidden narrative gradually makes itself known as the comic develops — the final ‘track’, “Slouch World” (referencing both silver age DC World’s Finest and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World) crazily swerves direction and detonates the buried charge of the hidden story in the last pages. It’s very effective.

Even the apparently ‘straight’ Batman story in Solo is the strangest Batman story I’ve ever read. It has the surreal flavor of the 50’s sci-fi Batman stories — with a plague of giant hands (who applaud at the finale!) on the rampage — but it’s framed as a piece of cod ‘comics anthropology’, about the obscure dead artist who drew the actual strip (all of them Brendan McCarthy in disguise, naturally). I was feeling pretty mind-mangled after that one!

I think the Superman ‘Pop’ page you have highlighted above is one of his best ever. You’ve said it far better than I ever could. I feel that McCarthy should really be seen as a ‘Gary Panter’ type of fine artist, who happens to work in the comic idiom. For one of the most original creators working in comics today, it’s a shame he produces such a small amount of work. But maybe that’s what makes it good.

I’d like to see more comics/poetry/collage mash-ups like this. It’s beatnik-cool and something a bit different to get into. I saw Fever by this guy with some awesome Dr Strange chops, which I liked, but the writing style was a bit like Stan Lee or someone from another age. I’d like to see a Steranko type of psychedelic comic, but get Peter Milligan to write it as they are a good creative team, as in Rogan Gosh, which is great if you’re wasted.

Don’t know a lot about this guy’s work. Looks interesting. I’ll check it out.

How nice to find such an insightful appraisal of Brendan’s work.
As a proud and happy owner of a copy of Swimini Purpose I feel a part of a very select club . Nonetheless, I want to encourage anyone with the time and inclination to track down all those who know and love the book, elicit and record the, no doubt, glowing testimonials that would be readily volunteered and forward them to a major publisher, in the hope that they would see the value of having a version of the book in the shops by Christmas.
It’s a wonderful piece of work and deserves a much larger audience.

Thanks for the article, Matt and – that flash down the side – genius!

Have you read ‘Skin’? From memory there are lots of spreads telling the story exactly like this, a borderless stream. Classic McCarthy.

Another example which is more similar to POP! is THE HOLLOW CIRCUS which appeared in A1. I think this is his first comic story unhindered by panel borders.

If you want to find out more about Brendan’s work visit: http://www.brendanmccarthy.co.uk

I’ve been fortunate enough to read Brendan McCarthy’s Solo comic, as well as the incredible (or should I say amazing) Spiderman series, and to sum up his work, spectacular! I have never enjoyed an artist more who has the imagination and creative talents to artistically portray music so stylishly to pictures that one can hum the tune. Mr. Seneca, you have done the ultimate job of describing this to perfection, good work!

Damian DelaRosa

July 4, 2011 at 11:08 am

When this Solo issue came back in ’06, someone made a review that said something among the lines of “The biggest fault in the comic industry right now is that Brendan McCarthy is not making more comics than he already is.” He’s in my opinion the best comic book artist on the planet right now, and as your review so wonderfully put it is the only one stretching the limits of what a comic book can be. I am myself an amateur comic book artist/writer, and I hope this generation stops worshiping the works of Stan Lee and fellow Silver Agers and start looking to this side of the industry, I hope people like McCarthy and Sam Kieth (Whose similar non-traditional book “My Inner Bimbo” took my breath away) are viewed as the next icons and idols to be, and the industry gets a real revolution on the next decade or so.It’s only up to our imaginations.

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