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18th September 2012

The real thing

A look at Austin English’s avant-garde comics

“DOMINO BOOKS believes that all people – not only those that call themselves artists – have images and phrases lying in their hearts and minds. We’d much prefer a world where people sit down and try to bring these things to the surface, rather then attaching widgets to gears for someone else’s benefit.”

So reads DOMINO BOOKS’ About Us section on their website. They are a company with a mission statement, a motive. One that it is easy to deride, but much harder to believe, let alone to contribute towards; a world-view such as this.

DOMINO BOOKS is a small publishing house set up a couple of years ago by avant-garde comics artist Austin English. English publishes his own work through Domino, and also endeavours to support and nurture unsung creative talent in the comics world. As I said, a company with a mission. So if you do find yourself at a loose end now, or soon, may I suggest that you take a few precious moments out of the well-worn Facebook-email-article-StudentNet groove of your own personal Internet microcosm and check out DOMINO’s wares. They’re unlike any comics you’ve seen before. I promise.

Let me just preface what is to come – by way of a disclaimer – that I am not a comics nut, graphics novel reader or ‘fangirl’ – in fact, I’ve never bought a comic before (except the Beano, but that was mainly because it used to come with a free drumstick so probably doesn’t win me any comics gravitas). I have no pedigree to talk to anyone about anything comic-related. But bear with me, and it all may or may not be worth it in the end. I promise I won’t pretend to have any specialist knowledge.

So what exactly is it that we’re talking about then – you may be pondering. Comic – cartoon – graphic novel – which is it? As far as I can tell, ‘cartoon’ is used generally to denote the smaller, snapshot scenes that appear in the corner of your newspaper or magazine. ‘Comic’ is the broader, catch-all term for drawn stories. Whereas ‘graphic novel’ is altogether a bit hazier: typically it’s a longer, bound book versus the flimsy ‘zine-ness of its comic counterpart, and much more expensive. So whereas all graphic novels are comics, not all comics are graphic novels.

English defines comics as ‘just words and pictures together’, and it is within this generosity of genre that Domino’s books find space to experiment. To my mind, whatever you want to call comics/cartoons/graphic novels, in the end, in the hands of a reader, it either will or won’t be art to him/her.

After discovering Austin English on Canadian novelist, Lee Henderson’s blog, I ended up buying The Disgusting Room – the book under discussion in Henderson’s interview with English – off SparkPlug Books. The Disgusting Room is a full book, a 48-page spread of mixed media. It’s big, 10.5” by 15”, and printed on newspaper. In short, it looks great, like something you want to pick up and handle – and you can! for only $6. An expensive newspaper, but surely the cheapest art you’ve ever bought.

The story takes place inside rooms, which are represented inside (or by) thick black frames on the page. There are three characters, with good, solid names like Margaret and Bobby, who take up most of the rooms they inhabit. They change shape almost every frame, and keep track of them by their hairstyles.

The action that unfurls is as strange as the pages that tell it – catalysed by the cramped spaces that frame it. The images are abstract, weird mixtures of bold line and sombre colours, but the story is not as difficult to follow as it sounds. Lee Henderson cites the American artist Basquiat as a reference point for English’s images, and he’s right, Basquiat with the murk of something like a Van Gogh palette.

These images are coupled with words that are seem somewhat opposite – short, direct, plain strands of thought that direct the imposing, abstract images. But they are also fitting: blunt sentences for blunt, bold lines. Sentences like ‘Theo sat solidly in his chair’ are perfect examples of the written fragments that have the directness of George Saunders’ prose, and that seem like weird cryptic messages about what you are viewing – titles, almost, that merely allude to the profundity of the work, whose depth you are left guessing. That the visceral punch of English’s visual contains the words they become part of the image and are deciphered in the same glance. It is their combination that makes the pages so compelling, one look and I am completely sucked into the world they create.

These are all attempts to explain how the comic is doing what it is doing, and yet somehow they don’t really begin to explain why, when I look at English’s work, I feel everything expanding; that the promise of the world Domino’s mission statement sketches could be fulfilled at any moment. That feeling you get when you look at really good art, or listen to great music.

It has something to do with Austin’s insistence on reaping no rewards, on working for the good of art, the good of the comics themselves. Novelist David Foster Wallace described the importance of an artist’s intention thusly: “it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text” and if that agenda is pure and good: “The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller.”

It is these intentions that surely manifest on the page, making the art “real” in such an unusual way. English’s words on the subject only confirm this authenticity and love for the medium. He describes the “physical pleasure” that he gets from drawing, and his excitement for what lies ahead – a consideration he takes very seriously: “We are in a phase where beautiful things are being created each year and I can’t help but feel very carried away by that and wanting to contribute my two cents to all of it as hard and as seriously as I can.”

The comics world also seems to be in an interesting position with regards to this point. English describes comics as “low, low stakes – economically”, but to him this is a great position, because? “the only reason to be doing this stuff is for the art”. And the purity of intention that reigns supreme in The Disgusting Room seems to somehow fulfill the idealism and premise that comics were founded upon in the first place.

Austin English wants to keep making comics until he grows very old and grey, and I can’t see anything that would stop him doing this.

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