Elegance In Design: Solipsistic Pop 2

Posted by on October 1st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Solipsistic Pop #2; Various;Tom Humberstone, ed.; 64 pp., £14.00 (inc p&p – International)

Cover copyright 2010 Luke Pearson

Solipsistic Pop is an impressive anthology designed to showcase the talents of U.K. alt-comics cartoonists.  The small-press scene has been flowering in Great Britain over the past decade, as it has striven to get out of the shadow of the mainstream comics that have dominated the isle for several decades.  That need to demonstrate just how different the first issue was from the average reader’s understanding of British comics creators resulted in some slightly blustery manifestos and statements of purpose, as my review of the first issue noted.  The second issue was content to proceed without feeling a need to explain itself, other than to offer up a single word as the issue’s theme: “middle”.  The production values, design and overall aesthetic feel of SP2 is elegant.  It’s lush without being overly fussy, sticking to a variations on a blue-green wash for most of the stories in color.  It once again has a “Funnies” section, mimicking Sunday-comics in the form of an 8″x12″ broadsheet insert.  Most of the cartoonists in that section choose to either work big or else actively emulate the multiple strips one would ordinarily see on such a page.

Some of the artists in this anthology seized on the “middle” theme and formed their comics around it, like Julia Scheele’s “Middle Of The Storm,” a story from the “Funnies” section that sees a female character battling a whirl of personal demons but finding peace in the eye of the storm with a lover.  Scheele and Matthew Sheret’s “Mean, Median, Mode” approaches the “middle” concept a bit more obliquely, using the extremes of emotions related to memory to create a sort of middle ground.  Sally Hancox’ “Brooks And Streams” is more about being stuck in the middle of something (literally), as the narrator recounts a childhood spent damming up a small stream as a game, only to be confronted by her town being flooded after a corporate buy-out.   Hancox’ figures have a simplicity and directness that is flattered by the bright aqua she used for water, with the lonely figure of the church steeple the only remaining trace of the town.

The common thread that seemed to connect the stories in the main volume is a sense of feeling out of place, disconnected, trapped or adrift.  The wide variety of styles used in the book worked well in exploring these themes from different points of view.  Kristina Baczynski’s “Sapling” finds a man sitting under a tree getting paralyzed by a seemingly innocent leaf and then transforming into something surprising.  Jack Noel’s “Sweet Mystery” starts off as the story of two boys terrified by tempting bits of candy left out in public, traumatized by the idea of a creep doing something bad to the treats. The final reveal of the story, indicating that fear had twisted the boys into something horrible as adults, flips around the idea of outsiders into something less than sympathetic, as a different kind of transformation was made.

Daniel Locke’s “1987” is a memory piece distinctive for his use of aqua in depicting himself as a boy, creeping around the house while others are unaware of his presence.  Adam Cadwell’s “The Tears of Tommy Cooper” is a contemplative piece about a young man helping an older man; the younger man is clearly between major life decisions, and the naturalistic style is fitting for an encounter that seems insignificant but still sticks with the reader.  Becky Barnicoat’s “Gnomes,” on the other hand, depicts the life of a uniquely British outsider still living with his mother, told in a grotesque and stylized fashion.

Image ©2010 Lizz Lunney

The book goes a bit more lo-fi with the funny animal adventures of a pair of sad sacks named Sour Rabbit and Crispy Duck, a cutely rendered tale by Lizz Lunney that hits the usual middle-school and adult loser beats with a few funny twists.  The fact that it ends on a cliffhanger is more than a little annoying for an anthology that comes out so rarely.  Matilda Tristram’s “Mud” is somewhere between Lewis Trondheim’s minimalist strips and David Heatley’s weirdness, adding a bit of welcome visual simplicity and narrative obliqueness to the proceedings as its main character fumbles its way through its world.

Luke Pearson’s “Ghosts” and Octavia Raitt’s “Kept” both turn their premises on their head.  The former begins with its protagonist frightened after seeing a ghost, but later becoming desperate for another spectral encounter as proof that he’s not alone.  “Kept” is about a confused woman, desperate to go home, who may or may not be a prisoner.  Like the best stories in the volume, much is hinted at but little is explicitly revealed.  The last story in the volume, Marc Ellerby’s “Art Star,” feels wildly out of place.  Its manic pace and hip character design (a bit reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley) seemed to belong in a completely different anthology, one with a different energy.  His “Polar Opposites” strip in the Funnies section was a much better fit in terms of slightly askew gag-work.

Image © 2010 Mark Oliver

The “Funnies” section is the most distinctive part of Solipsistic Pop 2.  Anne Holiday and Tom Humberstone’s “Xena The Warrior Cat” was an especially lovely strip, marked by clever panel design, rich colors and the same sense of mystery that pervades the rest of the anthology.  “Intruder In the Quadropticon,” by Mark Oliver, was a red and blue visual feast done in a rubbery style similar to that of Tom Neely.  The actual text didn’t do much to enhance the Escher-esque space that Oliver created, but it didn’t interfere much with it either.

Funnies Section ©2010 Stephen Collins

Once again, the two standouts of the collection are Anna Saunders and Stephen Collins.  Saunders’ work is both lyrical and cheeky, as her “The River” and “My Girlfriend” combine text and image to create a friendly form of comics-as-poetry.  Collins “Jumble” mixes the serious with the absurd in its story of a suicidal man whose life is turned around by a chance meeting.  Seeing the sheer ridiculousness of an older woman who delightedly tries on a jacket with Freddie Mercury and some wolves’ visages airbrushed on the back short-circuited his elaborate suicide plan, snuffing out that downward spiral due to the sheer random silliness of the encounter.  Collins’ versatility makes him a remarkable artist to follow, given the stylized but lush details of that story compared to his “Funnies” strips.  The three gags about the Internet trying to survive the apocalypse, the makers of the iPad employing some rather extreme upgrades and Sylvia Plath exercising a heretofore unknown ability are told in a stripped-down style with a muted but effective use of color.  Collins simply knows how to pack a punch in just a few panels, alternating mood and tone to great effect.

Much like in the first volume of the anthology, there’s nothing here that’s especially innovative.  Indeed, the anthology takes its cues from others with the idea of a comics broadsheet, its stylization, its use of color, etc.  None of that matters all that much, because Humberstone absorbed all the right lessons on how to create an anthology series.  He maintains a thematic consistency without reducing the contents to mere iterations of a restrictive idea.  He put a lot of thought into how he wanted the volume to look and read as a whole, creating a couple of different experiences for readers.  Once again, the phrase “elegant simplicity” comes to mind when thinking about this comic, as Humberstone clearly exercises as much restraint as possible in the book’s design while still creating a memorable art object.  Solipsistic Pop continues to set the bar high for other British comics anthologies, and it seems as though this community of artists is committed to the anthology’s future success.  It’s the rare anthology where I wanted to see more work from virtually everyone included, and that sort of quality and effort reflects the commitment it took to make this such an engaging read.

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One Response to “Elegance In Design: Solipsistic Pop 2”

  1. […] “Solipsistic Pop continues to set the bar high for other British comics anthologies, and it seems as though this community of artists is committed to the anthology’s future success.  It’s the rare anthology where I wanted to see more work from virtually everyone included, and that sort of quality and effort reflects the commitment it took to make this such an engaging read” – Rob Clough, The Comics Journal […]