What It Is & What It Was

Published On March 7, 2011 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Reviews

What It Is & What It Was

(Issue 36 of Strip For Me)

By Douglas Noble

What It Is And What It Was is a complete reworking on Noble’s 2006 24-hour comic, with a rewritten script and new artwork. And it feels nothing like a 24-Hour comic. But it does feel very much like a Douglas Noble comic. Here’s how he describes it:

“The Thirty-Sixth issue of Strip For Me contains a totally reworked version of my 24-Hour comic from 2006 but featuring entirely new art and a substantially rewritten script, neither of which have been seen previously, and presents a whole story complete in this issue. Inside, you’ll find the generation-spanning story of an unlikely friendship, international travel, romance, death, religion, snow based sculpture and the supernatural.”

A few weeks ago, when reviewing Complex, I commented that:

“That’s where I think Douglas Noble’s work is approaching, he really does run that fine edge between incomprehensible, all too clever abstraction and absolute genius. And you know what? Most of the time he’s teetering into absolute genius”

I have to say I found What It Is… equally captivating and frustrating. This time I think he’s gone a little too far over that edge I talked about above. As an evocation of a mood, of a gathering, slightly creepy atmosphere it’s perfect.

But the frustration comes with the realisation that an evocation is really all there is. It’s 24 pages of pure mood, very well done, but too little else.

The basic story of What It Is.. concerns the empty life of Mrs Hauser; a widow in a big, old house in the middle of nowhere and it opens with a secret; Mrs Hauser, when she was younger, when her husband was alive, seemed to be in love with her husband’s brother.

It’s never definitively stated, but in a comic where absolutely nothing is definitively stated, this fact is about as concrete as you get. Following her husband’s funeral we see the gradual retreat of Mrs Hauser from life which leads to her friendship with Trudy.

(Mrs Hauser and Trudy – walking and talking. From Douglas Noble’s What It Is & What It Was.)

Jumping forward to Mrs Hauser as an old lady, she meets and befriends a local girl, and spends time each week walking and talking with this little girl, whose parents are secretly hoping for a mention in the old lady’s will.

As the comic progresses we learn a little of Mrs Hauser’s life, and a loss she suffered many years ago which may be the reason for her closeness with Trudy, the little girl. Or it might not be. It might be a horrific ghost story with layer upon layer of meaning that I just didn’t get.

And there’s the problem. I found myself reading and re-reading this one, trying to get everything I could out of it. But either I’m missing something or Noble’s written something a little too nebulous and vague for it’s own good. It nails the foreboding and the sense of mild, uncertain unease. But nothing more.

The girl comes round more and more. There’s a feeling that this is not healthy. It’s certainly not healthy for the girl, who eventually comes to resent and dread her meetings with Mrs Hauser.

As for Mrs Hauser’s motives in her friendship…. I could say more, but that would give away too much. However, I’m just not seeing the supernatural element to Noble’s description of his comic. He may have thought it when he was writing it, but it doesn’t translate to the final story. All I see in Mrs Hauser is a woman bitter at the way her life has ended, looking back on a moment where she lost something, or someone that could have been special. Little Trudy is a replacement of sorts, but she can never really fill the void in the old lady’s life.

Noble’s artwork is always exceptional in it’s simplicity, but here he’s really done great things. There’s little touches throughout, little moments where I found myself interrogating his artwork – piecing together any clues I could find, and they’re there…. but with the problems I had with the story to What It Is… I just felt I was looking too hard at everything on the page – desperate to make sense of the greater meaning behind the simple story.

Sometimes it’s lovely, sometimes just frustrating…. in fact, here’s two examples to illustrate what I mean….

(This is just stunning – Mrs Hauser, just after burying her husband, looks through her wedding pictures. And what I take from it is a complete disconnection between bride and groom, the bride’s body language, the groom uncomfortably looking away – all of these things plant in my mind the idea that Mrs Hauser may be marrying the wrong man, that her life could have been so much happier.)

(Is that blood? A shadow? What does it mean? It’s just dropped into the story here, no explanation given – an example of Noble pushing the vague just too far)

At it’s end, it’s a beautiful little mood piece, but veers too far into the mysterious. I’m by no means averse to a little thinking with my comics but Noble seems to go out of his way here to make his comic as difficult and vague as possible. It’s a risk he’s always going to take – again, it’s the teetering at midnight thing I talked about.

But I’m glad he’s willing to try this sort of thing, glad he’s confident to try these comic ideas out. The occasional mis-fire is to be expected, even applauded.

It would be too easy to stick to one thing. Noble’s work does far more than that,  and I think that an occasional failure (in my eyes) is a small price to pay for the brilliance of his other work.

What It Is & What It Was is available from Noble’s Strip For Me site.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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