After reading this fine book I was tempted to describe it as a Rosetta Stone for the comics industry, but that would not be remotely accurate. In all honesty it might sound like a workable and easy to understand cover blurb, but it would be a bit like describing water as wet. The Rosetta Stone served as a translator from a dead, lost tongue into a known, spoken language. The language of comics and how they work is not a lost language, just one people take for granted in much the same way non-musical people think of what goes into composing a piece of music, that most songs write themselves.
Most comic readers, including ones who have enjoyed the art form for a long time, possess brains which are hard wired to process the language of comics without a translator facility, their senses attuned to the mysteries of navigation in the deep, deep waters of sequential storytelling. They do what they do without ever having to articulate to anyone what they are doing, in much the same way an educated ear listens to and appreciates even the most arcane musical track. The most ardent musical fan will most likely never string two notes together during their life time. Yet the language of comics is well worth learning even should one only ever listen and appreciate its fluency rather than ever exercising the requisite skills necessary to practice its many nuances, again, something most comic readers do without realising they are doing. It is almost hermetical, the artistry that allows a bunch of lines coming together to tell tales, communicating in un-noticed silence, the way comics do, how they work.
Dave Gibbons and Tim Pilcher have produced a very entertaining and illuminating guide to just what makes a good comic work well. If you were determined to learn what makes a comic book work you should instinctively gravitate towards someone who, for decades has produced comics which are both adored and respected. I once had the good fortune to be at a chum’s wedding and chat for a while to Dave Gibbons about the nature of good comics and why some work better than others, and why some last the ages while others are forgotten.
To be honest I was trying to steer him towards talking about the joy of reading the Doctor Who comics he created along with Pat Mills. No fictional character has been explored in so many mediums as the good Doctor, saving perhaps Sherlock Holmes, but this run of stories stand as among the very best ever told in any of those forms. For some reason I brought up my favourite painting, at that time, The Night Watch by Dutch painter Rembrandt Van Rijn. In a casually, teacher-like fashion he told me about an art book he had recently bought called Rembrandt’s Eyes, which detailed the artist’s own changing face and the way he recorded the world. At the time it seemed quite daring to me to casually throw a revered painter such as Rembrandt into a comparative conversation about comics, “to see through Rembrandt’s eyes” he added wistfully.
“ To see through Dave Gibbons eyes” I would like to now iterate. Not wistfully but with deserved respect. He wears his knowledge and insights lightly, sharing his wisdom in an affable but no less scholarly fashion, when so much of what is learned or indeed scholarly seems to demand we do not smile but frown gratefully with weighty gratitude. I think Dave Gibbons would have made a good teacher, the noblest profession we can aspire to. For here is a manifesto for defeating the tyranny of the blank page, for those who strive to find expression using comic book story telling techniques, here and now, not in some golden age of Dutch masterpieces. Also, as far as I am aware Rembrandt never completed a manual detailing how to replicate his craft, nor even a single issue of a comic book for that matter but we should not judge him for that.
If I was to compare this fine book to another which changed the way we viewed a subject then I would have to say this is the comic book equivalent to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. One which could well elevate this bastard breed of an artform to its rightful place as one of the most influential of the twentieth century (and beyond). The medium, after all, has piggy-backed through our shared cultural zeitgeist and influenced millions and to this day, and continues to do so for …er, lots of people. For The Voyage Of The Beagle see The Life Of Dave Gibbons; The Secret Origins Of Comics. In his, and Tim Pilcher’s company, listen how the comic book art form in its many iterations has circumvented massive cultural upheavals, world wars, Wall street crashes, witch hunts, political super-novas, and which continues to stand defiantly in this era of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Ed Sherrin.
In recent times the craft has staggered sometimes, like a wounded white elephant, but it remains safe for now in that we all now know where the bones are buried, ripe for resurrection. It is an art form which has survived critique, censorship, demonization and fires, but one which will not survive apathy.
As a child I was sent to a Gaeltacht, an Irish school where one learns to speak Gaelic, the Irish language. Going from an English speaking person to a bi-lingual person was not the easiest transition for me to make. Until a teacher advised me not to constantly translate an English word into Irish, just think about what you are seeing and the words will follow. It is surely much the same with comic art and comic book storytelling for those whose brains are already hard wired to do so. For those who cannot, who better to act as a translator or navigator than a maestro and proven “captain my captain” than Dave Gibbons. This book will teach you how to communicate those words and pictures to others. He and Tim Pilcher have come up with a book that makes its own space on an artist’s shelf.
I wanted a copy. I have a copy. And I heartily recommend you do so too.
That is how we work.