There are two kinds of one-man anthology comics. On one hand, you’ve got the “curate’s eggs”. Perfectly packaged, designed, and considered comic book gems (at least in theory), these ones show off a selection of the more flawlessly cut facets of their artist’s surface before concluding. All killer and no filler. Every issue of Optic Nerve and Pope Hats is one of these, and Acme Novelty Library and Eightball were as well toward the end of their runs.
Then on the other hand, there are the “studio tours”. These present a more comprehensive look at their artists’ creativity, including lesser work, format experimentation, non-comics art, feature spots by buddy artists, fake ads, and whatever else along with comics that comprise the meat of the book. Early Acme Novelty and Rubber Blanket were good examples of this approach. Currently the best example is probably John Pham’s Epoxy.
Sumptuous art showcases wrapped in confectioner’s packaging, the first two issues of UK cartoonist Joe Kessler’s series Windowpane were definite entries in the studio tour category. In barrages of stories evincing various levels of development, Kessler burned through more drawing styles and risograph printing approaches than plenty of artists put to publication in a whole career. The first two Windowpanes, along with Kessler’s process/art book Escape to the Unfinished, are fascinating works that also provide no small amount of frustration. Kessler’s approach to color and line is dizzyingly variable, switching from pinpoint precise to smeared almost to the point of illegibility on a panel to panel basis, and occasionally within a single frame. Poetic narration matches fanciful or metaphoric illustrations. The visual intensity of a picture is often all the justification it needs to appear on the page. From the jump, Kessler’s talent as an image maker is apparent; but the stories in Windowpane 1 and 2 are almost all gossamer-thin and elliptical, acting mainly as launching pads for suites of beautiful imagery. Oh well! I liked those issues anyhow, because like every fan of alternative comics I have subjected myself to way too many well written comics that were totally hamstrung by shitty art, and it was nice to see the shoe on the other foot for a change.
2015’s Windowpane 3 turned the corner in a big way. You know those well written comics with shitty art? They still bear following because it isn’t too uncommon to see a cartoonist’s artwork improve as they find their own niche and rhythm. It’s a lot rarer to see a grade-A artist suddenly manifest an equal talent for storytelling. Yet Kessler did exactly that in his third issue, scaling down his book’s trim size and page count and narrowing its scope as well. Here Windowpane moved into the space it occupies currently, an ideal position right in between curate’s egg and studio tour. One story per issue, and really good ones at that. A more unified trade dress for the books. A consistent color pallette. Focus.
But what makes “Goodbye Strongbody”, the story in Windowpane 3, so compelling, is that Kessler leaves none of his earlier comics’ visual experimentation behind. It is simply folded into a narrative much more developed and resonant than anything in that earlier work. The joy of comics is such that this doesn’t really take away anything from the impact of the “holy shit” images and printing acrobatics Kessler wallops readers with – when you see them, you can’t help but goggle at them – it just adds another equally strong flavor to the stew.
“Goodbye Strongbody” is at its heart a modernized entry in the hidebound and in-danger-of-becoming-truly-archaic genre of romance comics. She’s the head of a big shipping corporation! He’s a married manual laborer on one of her ships! Complications ensue et cetera! It’s the kind of material that sinks or floats (fnar fnar) entirely on the strength of its handling, and Kessler handles it excellently. There’s never a thumb placed on the emotional scale or much sympathy with one or the other of the characters inferred. They are simply observed carrying on a pleasant affair before the dude ships out once again. The emphasis is placed on material objects, physical comforts, luxury.
This light narrative touch is counterpointed to great effect by Kessler’s super-stylized art, which zigs and zags to a rhythm of its own – one distinct from that of the story but complementary to it. Highly impressive architectural drawing backgrounds simplified figures whose body language is striking in its clarity. Gorgeously put together sequences of darkening or lightening skies punctuate quieter moments, while the characters’ big fucking scene is an almost shunga double-page splash, dominated by crouched full figures ingeniously printed on either side of a single page. One wonders if Kessler’s approach of simply observing his characters do their thing without comment is a side effect of his preoccupation with the formal elements of drawing, printing, and composition. He reminds one of a film director more interested in adjusting the focus and color balance of his camera than making his actors hit their marks with robotic precision. The result is a storytelling style that feels fully of a piece with the expansive imagery used to realize it. “Goodbye Strongbody” reads a little like David Hockney in his art school days attempting a comic and finding an affinity for the medium.
With this year’s Windowpane 4, Kessler trains his newfound sense of narrative focus on a higher plateau. Tipping the scales at 82 pages, the issue could easily have been marketed as a complete graphic novel, but Kessler retains his admirable commitment to the single-issue format, complete with staples and everything. The untitled story trades in the quotidian world of “Goodbye Strongbody” for something more akin to a modern fable, in which a lone man seeks shelter and escape from societal oppression. Is he a criminal? A dissident? A heretic? A minority? We never find out, and it doesn’t make a difference. The story is about repression in general, about the other shoe dangling and then dropping, about the difficulty of life on the run. It is split into three parts, the breaks telegraphed by changes in the risograph printing process.
Part one, printed in blazing green, red, yellow, and blue, tracks the man’s progress through hostile territory. He has a group of friends who help him; he is abandoned by some and betrayed by others in an expertly observed scene of cowardice and self-interest that speaks volumes with a few well-written word balloons. Left to fend for himself, the man works his solitary way through the beauty of nature, before encountering a woman who takes him into the shelter of her remote pottery studio. Kessler’s nature drawings throughout are lovely in their simplicity and impressive in the visual imagination they display. The rising sun is drawn as a blooming red and yellow flower, a tree as a single, expertly shaped green blob. Combined with the bright primary colors, Kessler’s interrogation of nature’s forms and his radically simplified figurework bring to mind children’s book illustration more than comic book art, though fans of Frank Santoro will recognize something familiar in his approach.
Part two, in red, turquoise, and black, shapes the story into another romance comic. Confined to the house, the man and woman quickly fall into a sexual relationship. Domesticity follows close behind, and there is a bittersweet savor to the rapidly shuffling scenes of cooking and eating, sex and sleeping, chores and conversations, as the hostile world’s seasons blow by outside the sanctuary. The warmth of these pages is genuine, with the feel of scenes taken from real life, not unlike the quieter moments of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. The drawing here is almost entirely put to service of the content, vernacular sketchiness mirroring the homey feel of the interlude. One panel of the house with a snow-covered roof is a minor masterpiece of minimalism, though to my mind a more precise touch on the figures and faces would have helped elevate what is clearly the emotional crux of the book.
Then, of course, the fugitive is found, and the deep and soothing tones of the previous segment explode back into searing primaries as he and the woman are taken in chains to meet their fates. Here too, the book’s sense of the fabulous explodes as well, in an unforgettable and visually pyrotechnic conclusion so strange and singular that I’ll refrain from descibing it. Suffice to say that it’s one of the more memorable scenes I’ve seen any medium put together this year, and that it ends with a literal ride into the sunset, just like all good romantic adventure stories should. The concluding segment is as good as Kessler’s art has ever looked, and yet another higher gear hit by a comic book writer who is really coming into his own.
Windowpane 4 rewards repeated readings; I was flummoxed and somewhat let down by my first trip through its panels, deeply appreciative on my second, and marveling by my third. That’s how it goes when you run across something a bit different than the things you’re used to reading. If there is a criticism of this book, I would say that it doesn’t leave me with a strong sense that its sum exceeds its parts. But by saying that, I really mean that its parts, both visual and narrative, are so unusually juxtaposed that it’s tough to tell exactly where and how they join together. Yet join together they do. Here is truly enigmatic work by a serious talent that comics is lucky to have.