Not Just More Grist For The Mill

I didn't even have a chance to get to the comics to figure out that Mudman was just a little bit different. On the inside cover, just to the right of the indicia (you know, the information about the comic and the publisher, that little bit of a periodical that no one but Jon reads) is a little column written by the comicsmith, like the kind you find just before an old letters page. It's got the same sort of pop-philosophizing that those columns have, the same sort of short, terse, joyful sentences that remind you that rarely does anyone do comics just for the paycheck, that everyone who is in the medium is in the medium because they love comics.

It's pretty clear, from reading that little column, that Paul Grist loves the medium, and not only the medium, but the traditional understanding of the medium, and the medium's traditional delivery system: the comic book, "not," he writes, just to be sure that we understand, "floppies of pamphlets or any of those other slightly derogatory terms that people use to belittle the format." He's not talking, either, about "'sequential art' or any of those other terms folks use when they're trying to be clever about comics," nor is he "Writing for the Trade" or "planning on cramming the collections full of 'DVD extras' like deleted scenes, sketches, and 'directors commentaries.'"

Mudman, then, starts out with a little bit of a manifesto, with an explicit declaration of what it is and what it isn't, with a clear warning: what you have in your hands, says Paul Grist, is nothing or more less complicated or clever than a comic book. It's a pretty bold statement, when you think about, and it's one that's entirely unnecessary: Mudman is a hell of a comic book, the kind that is, actually and despite what Grist might like to claim, quite smart in what it has to say about comics, simply because it does well what comics do well, that is, it tells a story through only the essential parts of that story; everything else is left to the reader to fill in.

All comics, of course, operate in that way; the gutter is what makes comics comics. But Grist uses it particularly well, in part because the story he's beginning to tell, of a young Englishman, Owen Craig, who wakes up one morning and finds that he has the capability to become mud, is as much about the gaps in what happens as it is about what we (and he) know to have happened. The plot comes to us in bits and pieces and, in this way, reflects the way that the medium works. Grist is saying something about comics, and he really is being quite clever about it.

It helps that Grist gives the gutters such an important role on his page: rather than force them towards the edges with too many busy panels, the lines that surrond the action are thick and, although he isn't afraid to draw into them every once in a while, more often they invade the space normally occupied by action than the other way around. What's really impressive about it is he doesn't give a centimeter on this particular principle: the gaps are pretty uniformly twice or three times the size they are in most comics. When he does do something funky, it's a good clue that you're supposed to be paying attention: something outside of the normative boundaries of the universe has happened, or is about to happen. The panels, they really are the world that Grist is building, but there's something intriguingly ephemeral and metaphysical about what surronds it.

And that's all before you get to the art. I've wondered for a long time about Chris Samnee's influences and, if Grist's stuff on Jack Staff looks anything like this stuff here, he has got to be one of them. Mudman's got this great look, blocky and stylized and flat, and the characters move without seeming too loose or slippery. Sometimes it gets hard to tell his characters apart, particularly when they're wearing school uniforms, but that very well may be the point. Another side effect of the gutter-width, perhaps intended and perhaps not, is that the art has room, the characters don't feel cramped even though his art is relatively detailed. What's so amazing about that detail is that there is this preponderance of random seeming lines, but even those add to the art, and, upon closer examination, they make the figures complete.

If there's one thing that seems a little off it's how, on initial reading, the plot seems to barely hang together; there are a few things that just seem to be missing. What's sort of goofy about that, though, is that those holes, rather than being frustrating, draw you back into the book, make it seem really interesting and subtle. Whether or not it all fits together, I suspect everything is going to become clear in the next few issues but, whether or not it does, Paul Grist, by not trying to be clever, by embracing the medium as it was, has put together what may very well be the most interesting and important mainstream comic of 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment