Comic failure

A collection of comics inspired by dreamy Belle & Sebastian shows young artists with talent to burn. Too bad they can't tell a story.

By Douglas Wolk
March 7, 2006 5:46PM (UTC)
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"Put the Book Back on the Shelf: A Belle & Sebastian Anthology" isn't a bad idea for a book, exactly, but it's not an obvious one, either: short comics by 24 cartoonists (and writer/artist teams), inspired by songs by the Scottish indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian. Good comics can sometimes be adapted neatly into other media, as Hollywood knows well, but worthwhile comics adaptations from other media are rarer. The cartoonists who've made something good out of borrowed source material are usually the ones who've taken enormous liberties with it: David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik tearing open Paul Auster's "City of Glass," Gary Panter riffing wildly on Dante in his "Jimbo's Inferno" and "Jimbo in Purgatory." Song-comics are mostly unexplored territory, too -- the only serious, large-scale attempt at them has been Charles Vess' "The Book of Ballads," and Vess and his collaborators had the advantage that the tunes they were adapting were heavy on plot and fantastic imagery.

The advantage that "Put the Book's" contributors are working from, on the other hand, is that their fans and Belle & Sebastian's overlap considerably. These cartoonists mostly represent the new generation of American independent comics -- artists who draw more on ideas from fine art and illustration than from the mainstream comics tradition. Their work is published by small companies like Oni Press and Slave Labor Graphics, and in anthologies like Kazu Kibuishi's "Flight" series; it tends to be about the same sort of bookish, lovelorn youth valorized by Belle & Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch.


Even so, Murdoch's songs are particularly resistant to the comics form; for all his lyrics' dramatic personae and striking imagery, they're hard to refashion into a short, visually compelling story. That's not surprising, actually. Most of Belle & Sebastian's lyrics aren't really narratives at all -- they just sound like they are. See, for instance, this verse from 2000's "The Model":

I will confess to you Because I didn't think about the message As I walked down the alleyway it was a Sunday All my friends deserted me because you painted me As the fraud I really was And if you think you see with just your eyes you're mad Lisa learned a lot from putting on a blindfold When she knew she had been bad She met another blind kid at a fancy dress It was the best sex that she ever had

There are plenty of signs of a plot there: action, chronology, characters, a couple of kinky surprises. But the more you think about it, the stranger and more ambiguous it gets. Most of the motion is actually going on in the language, which slides from first to second to third person and from "painted" to "see" to "blindfold" to "blind"; "confess" is echoed by "Sunday," "model" by "painted." "Fancy Dress," Jennifer de Guzman and Brian Belew's adaptation of "The Model" in "Put the Book," involves a guy wearing what looks like a blindfold to a formal-dress party; called out by a woman for flirting with her to get close to her friend, he writes her a letter beginning, "I will confess to you, you painted me as the fraud I really was." That's a lot less complicated, and a lot less interesting.


Other stories in "Put the Book" also grapple with pulling narrative arcs out of Belle & Sebastian's more impressionistic lyrics. Rick Spears' and Rob G.'s "The State I Am In" expands a couple of lines in the song's first verse to an eight-page scene about familial dirty laundry being aired at a wedding. (Of course, one of the things that's great about the song is that it telegraphs a lot of plot in its first few lines.) Ande Parks' and Chris Samnee's "If She Wants Me" steamrollers over its inspiration's reversals and winks and ambiguities -- "if he smiles, it's no more than a genius deserves/ For all his curious nerve and his passion" -- and replaces them with a cheaply sentimental scenario in which a man reads a letter from his father, who died in World War II, at his mother's funeral.

"Expectations," as Murdoch wrote it, is a sketch of a teenage girl who's miserable in her school and in her job, and promises her redemption: "write a song, I'll sing along." Christopher Butcher and Kalman Andrasofszky's adaptation extends the plot to her eventual victory as an artist, which is where it turns ridiculous. "After I got the excerpt published in 'Teen Voices' there was this huge bidding war," our heroine declares halfway through the story, and you'd think that would be enough, but no. She proceeds to fall from grace with her publisher, then return to literary stardom, perhaps since the song's chorus ends, "you're on top of the world again." As a certain band once asked, is it wicked not to care?

Understandably, some of the cartoonists in "Put the Book" don't bother much with the original lyrics. Kako's "Dog on Wheels," in particular, is a spectacular exercise in deliberate point-missing: The lead car in a high-speed race is driven by a huge, menacing dog (with an insignia modeled on the Hot Wheels logo), who throws a Belle & Sebastian cassette out his window, then crashes. The most visually impressive contribution to the book is Jacob Magraw's "Fox in the Snow," an ornate collage/painting that involves some snow and not much else having to do with the song, other than a few scribbled phrases from the lyrics. Over the course of seven pages, a character chops wood, goes inside, goes outside again, and flies into the air; it takes considerable staring even to puzzle out that much.


Magraw's piece is gorgeous as visual art, but it's terrible as comics, and it's a product of this peculiar moment in comics history. The indie-comics scene's most recent crop of young and youngish cartoonists make beautiful pictures -- more sophisticated than any generation of cartoonists has created before. They've got individual style to burn, when they're not trying to grow past their manga influences. They often come to comics from art school, or from an interest in animation; they're intimately familiar with digital art techniques, especially for their color work; they're at the vanguard of the illustration and fine-art scenes. And a lot of them can't actually tell a story to save their lives.

That's a big problem in "Put the Book," and although a lot of the fun of comics anthologies usually lies in discovering impressive new voices, the most satisfying pieces here are by people who've been cartooning for many years. Andi Watson, the writer/artist of the fabulous "Little Star" and "Breakfast After Noon," attaches the lyrics from "I Could Be Dreaming" to an otherwise wordless story that plays with the song's theme of fantasies that make ordinary life bearable; his witty, minimalist artwork has more psychological depth than it seems to at first. And David Lasky's ingenious "Piazza, New York Catcher" is a bittersweet, quirky little three-character drama that actually makes Murdoch's cryptic lyrics comprehensible as dialogue and captions. (Lasky's not a stranger to adaptations; 15 years ago, he famously drew a nine-page minicomic version of James Joyce's "Ulysses.")


Unfortunately, too many other stories are attractive but vacant. Matthew Forsythe's spare pen-and-ink drawings (with a different background color on each page) are splendid, the sort of thing that might have appeared on a particularly hip book jacket in the '60s. His collaboration with Erin Laing, "The Chalet Line" -- the song it's named after is in fact called "The Chalet Lines" -- features a gigantic naked woman, a normal-size naked man, his bed, and London's public transportation system, and makes zero sense. Bruno D'Angelo's take on "Ease Your Feet in the Sea" (surely someone could have corrected the first panel, in which the title is presented as "Ease You're Feet Off in the Sea") is eight graphically striking, thoroughly vapid pages of zooming in and out on a seaside scene. Almost nothing in the book looks bland or generic, but almost all of it evaporates as soon as the page is turned.

The nature of the task here may have tripped up "Put the Book's" contributors. Pop-song lyrics don't need to tell stories, because music takes care of the problem of leading their audience from beginning to end. Comics, on the other hand, are all about narrative, almost by definition: Their point is the way the world that the artist is imagining changes between panels, so there has to be something pulling the reader from one panel to the next. There have been a few notable non-narrative comics, but almost none longer than a page or two, and there's no such thing as a good comic with a dull plot.

"Put the Book Back on the Shelf's" failures are almost all failures of storytelling, which is doubly frustrating: Its artists' willingness to break with tired visual formulas is exactly what American comics need. The collection's title comes from another Belle & Sebastian song, of course: "You'll write another one/ Now you've got a story that's worth talking about," Murdoch sings. When they do, these cartoonists really ought to.

Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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