You should minimise time spent outside your home, but you can leave your home to exercise. This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area.
So says the back cover of Oliver East's Blocks, the primary, and almost only context for his beautiful collection of comics. So also said the UK government, as these were part of the lockdown restrictions following the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people took such restrictions as oppressive tyranny; Oliver took it as the parameters for art, and as such he made one of my favorite comics from the past year.
The first comic I ever read by Oliver, issue 4 of his former zine Trains are... Mint, was a narrative about his walking and camping around Norway. Ever since, he's been using walking as process, medium, and narrative, creating art and comics from his own walking (and, on occasion, others'). He walks, he draws; less narrative or autobiographical, though, than a record of a project (like Sophie Calle but hand-drawn). The projects often (or always) have some kind of restriction, like following a train line or a line of longitude. When autobiography enters, it is less the subject of the work than the personal leaking into the project: glimpses and allusions. In a recent article at SOLRAD, Kim Jooha includes Oliver's work in the category of "Navigating Space Comics". He is not telling a story, but exploring space in visual sequence.
With Blocks it feels like he has reached some rarified version of these walking comics, shorn of a narrator (there are no words in the comics except those within the subject of the drawings themselves, like graffiti), any characters (other than the artist behind the scenes), colors, or much of an explanation. Like a lot of art I much admire, beneath all these many conventions of comics, Oliver found something really wonderful.
While the back cover text establishes a time context for the book, the only other typeset text in the book establishes the space. This 64-page book is divided into six sections with a chapter page listing a neighborhood (I bet the British have a different word for the geographic boundaries he is using) along with a sort of visual map table of contents: black shapes in the form of city blocks noted with page numbers laid out like an incomplete and abstract street map. The subsequent pages of comics are underscored by the names of streets, one for each panel. It is barely a leap of logic to understand that these comics are a record of Oliver's once-a-day walks in his local area. In another recent book of drawings and text, Van Diagrams, Oliver describes the project without naming it: “I embraced the government issued ‘One exercise a day’ dictate. Oh, the restriction with added impetus!... I only draw what’s there in the moment. Never from memory. The reverse used to be the case.”
I'm not sure he could pare down the work any more, except by removing the street names also. They seem to be there as a kind of street sign, marking off the walker's location, and they tempt me to go into a map application and try to find images of these streets: where are they, what do they look like in "real life" (or at least the real life that is some mapping car driving along the street at some unspecified point in time)? I got as far as opening up a map to Manchester, before I stopped. Do I really want to see a nameless, faceless view of these spaces when I have here before me Oliver's no doubt more interesting and poetic view? I think not. I closed the app.
As for the comics themselves, they look to be drawn with a marker (or two) - a soft consistent line, a fast moving line that doesn't linger, delineating edges, shapes, details, roving around the panel to bring forth an almost graffiti-esque image. Swirling between representational and abstract, specific objects or items appear amongst the lines, often to generate context and pull together the whole into a scene. No matter how abstract it gets you can always pick out a fence post, a window, some foliage, a roofline, some graffiti; something that anchors the rest of the lines, forming the streets of Manchester. Some of the images might be almost completely abstract out of context. An occasional figure sticks out: a woman reading in a window, a person standing at a car. They sparsely dot the images, a remembrance of the purpose of all these buildings and a reminder of the isolation of the lockdowns.
The page layouts are based on an eight-panel grid -- though rarely going as far as using eight panels -- and the drawings are mostly full-page width, appropriate to images of streets. The panel borders, drawn in a light grey, leave no gutters between images, allowing for some interesting juxtapositions of line and shape from one panel to the next. For instance, on page 28, a chimney pipe in panel one becomes another pipe (or maybe a downspout or trash shoot) in panel two, and becomes what might be a tall chimney silhouetted in panel 3, which collapses into blacked out car windows in the last panel. In a similar way, on page 56, the line of an antenna, perhaps, becomes the side of a building in the next panel, unbroken and crossing right over the panel border. The edge of a large black rhomboid shape lines up with a ladder standing askew in the next panel. These compositional juxtapositions add an overarching visual design to the pages, allowing the reader to see the page as both a whole and a sequence of parts.
As seen in my description above, there is often some work to filling in the gaps, both at the level of the drawing itself and at the level of representation. The drawings have a loose, open quality to their construction: shapes are unclosed, large areas are left blank. Similarly, at the representational level, a tree is sometimes just a scalloped line of foliage, a building just a roofline and a rectangle for a window.
This openness is well served by Oliver’s use of white space on the page in conjunction with the placement of black shapes. Some pages are airy and light, some dense and darker, but they always feel balanced visually. And this use of space and dark scattered across the page anchor the panels and let the lines breath. He is not afraid to let most of the panel stay empty, with just one section on the side devoted to an object or the edge of a building.
You can sometimes see repeated elements in the pages; two views of the same sign in two adjacent panels, for instance, that can give a more direct spatial relation to the panels than you get in most of the pages. On page 62, we see a spiral staircase from multiple angles (or, multiple spiral staircases around the same block), showcasing a wonderful kinetic drawing that centers the page, the panel sharply divided between black and white, the staircase itself like a whirling mobile or the fractured motion of Duchamp’s famous nude.
There is some awkward, out of place use of white paint that appears a few times and then disappears, which makes me think Oliver realized it wasn't working really well. It also makes me wonder if the book is sequential in time (that is, the pages arranged in the order they were drawn) and unedited (it’s unclear how the structure of the pages relate to the time of walking). Oliver seems like the sort who would make this project with some parameters and then stick with them out to the end.
I should add that the book itself is a nice physical object too. The thick paper the comics are printed on has a bit of tooth and feels nice to hold. The minimal color cover has an eye-catching design that points at its map-like structure. Just in that respect, it’s certainly one of the nicer self-published comics I’ve held in a long time.
I started walking around my block more (perhaps many people did) after the pandemic started, and this context comes into Blocks for me. Instead of a trip somewhere or following a line of some kind, it's a "staycation" of sorts - a turning inward, or at least less outward, to what is right around you and how you see it. In many ways this is an inspirational book, both to go out and look and to go out and draw. The drawings are beautiful, simple, and to me they look joyous; pleasurable as an act.