The Present Is Not A Purgatory and Speaking Of Not Knowing – Diary Comics 2008 and 2009
James Nash draws a diary comic, three panels a day, pretty much every day over a year. And then they’re collected together in one of the most unusual formats I think I’ve ever seen in comics. Made on A3 paper that’s folded along the mid-length, the finished volume is something beautifully impressive – skinny and ridiculously tall.
I first saw his work at the Birmingham Zine Festival in September 2010. And I said this:
“James’ work was obscured by punters when I wandered round the first time and it’s thanks to a lovely pint of Guinness in the company of Matthew Craig that I had my first exposure to his work. Matthew’s already coined the phrase “skyscraper format” to describe his beautifully scratchy black and white diary comics on folded A3 stock, presented tall, very tall. It’s something I’d seen in children’s books but this is the first instance in comics. Fortunately the quality matches the originality in formatting. More on his work very soon.”
Very soon (to my shame) has become many months later. But the look of the comics have lost none of that original wow factor. Matthew’s “skyscraper format” comment really does sum up Nash’s work so well. Although it is an absolute pain to try and scan. The pages in this review are about 3/4 length, just to give you an idea of the sheer physical scale of the thing.
But all the clever formatting in the world only gets so far. What’s the damn comic actually like….
Inside each volume, Nash shows us isolated, daily snapshots of his life and his world. It’s certainly not going to be for everyone – most autobiography isn’t after all – and if you don’t like that sort of shoe-gazing style of introspective reflection and frustrated depression that Nash’s autobiog strips definitely belong to, I’d really think you’re better off just going “ooooooh” at the look of it and moving along.
So here you go, have an ooooh….. I shall return quite a way down the page:
(Some early work from 2008’s The Present Is Not A Purgatory by James Nash. And that’s not even a complete page length.)
But for those of us who are partial to this sort of thing (and yes, I am indeed, thanks awfully for asking), Nash’s comics are really, really good.
The strips document everything about Nash’s life, yet because of the nature of a (normally) 3 panel snapshot, they can hide so much as well. The end result is rather intriguing, a puzzle to be put together by the reader, a join the dots of someone’s life. It’s tantalising and involving.
Each strip is just as likely to have absolutely nothing happen; a casual conversation with a friend, a random night out, what was for dinner – as it is to have something of great import.
In other words, Nash is living our lives right there on the page. We see moments of job frustration, depression, illness, going to gigs, comics fairs, dealing with his father’s illness, family time, girlfriends, breakups, meetups, nights out, lots of drinking, friends, and lots of time spent overanalysing and reflecting on his life and where he thinks it’s (not) going.
(Girlfriends, days off, gigs, flatsharing, odd moments of despairing thoughts. From James Nash’s 2009 Speaking Of Not Knowing)
But like all the most enjoyable autobiog of this style, Nash is never that far away from raising a smile – even if it has to be at his expense sometimes. But quite often, it’s in our seeing his reaction to something life has thrown his way, and he’s a good way with words, each snippet feeling like some overheard conversation, some mini argument, a rant you overhear as you pass by – enough to keep me smiling as I devoured each page.
Indeed it’s pretty hard to actually put the comic down, these short bursts of daily life are quite addictive. As you read each year’s worth – and it’s something that I’d definitely recommend – don’t dip in and out – you find yourself drawn in, getting involved, absorbing so much from just these minor snapshots of a day.
Each short day’s strips hit, you move on, letting a portrait of a man’s life build up in your mind as you vicariously experience all the moments of big and small emotion, all the important stuff, all the small joys of obscure moments that make up our lives, all the minutiae we experience. And all the while the experience is building, becoming almost immersive, and a really impressive read.
(Toward the very end of 2009, art spilling over the page, a more confident artist, although still juggling the same issues two years later. From Speaking Of Not Knowing by James Nash)
There’s only so much more Nash can use this format for though. He’s definitely outgrowing it. Across the two years represented by these collections his art gets more impressive, more expansive, more expressive.
When it starts, and through 2008 it’s small, scratchy, introspective stuff with huge amounts of white space between the very defined three panels per day. This keeps on through early 2009, the art reflecting the quiet introspection and character of the artist perhaps. But somewhere in 2009, Nash seems to just start opening up on the page, and by the end of 2009, it’s practically overflowing with artwork, so much so that his earlier three panel regime is lost, panels start to merge and a day’s art simply flows through the pages.
And that progression is very impressive indeed. By the end few strips he’s filling the page with some really beautifully crafted lines. I got to the end of Speaking really wanting to see where he went next, both with his life and most importantly, with his artwork. It’s a pleasure to be able to share, not just Nash’s life, but his development as an artist. I’ll be really intrigued to see 2010’s diary strips, but really hope he finds a way to break free of the constraints of this format, beautifully original though it is, and show us something of the great potential on these (huge) pages.
Nash’s work is available at his website shop.