A Strong Brew of Comics
by Sean O'Toole
As an exhibition that aims to introduce audiences to a range of contemporary comic book styles, 'Comics Brew' is quite successful. It offers a fulfilling - although hardly comprehensive - overview of what appears to be a thriving local community. Of the South African artists on show, Anton Kannemeyer, Karlien de Villiers and the Igubu Collective's Daniel Hugo impress the most.
Karlien de Villiers is a Pretoria-based comic artist who has already published work in Bitterkomix and Garth Walker's I-Jusi.Her short strip Amper Twaalf is a brief but poignant vignette with strong autobiographical origins. It chronicles how a father explains to his two daughters that their mother has cancer. Hope is similar to the work of new American comic book artists Daniel Clowes (Eightball) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), and situates itself in the turbulent emotional world of an angsty bunch of twentysomethings.
"Karien's work is very similar to new work coming out of Europe," commented visiting Swiss artist JP Kalonji. "We were touched by her work. It's very emotional and specific. It's sort of on a Woody Allen trip."
Amongst the attendees I spoke with on the opening night, many expressed high regard for JP Kalonji's black ink drawings. An artist with a varied portfolio, Kalonji also showcased snippets from his comic book O'Malley, a detective story set in Victorian London circa Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. As with European pop antecedents Lucky Luke and Asterix, O'Malley is characteristically European in line and style. The debonair detective, replete with bowler hat and big nose, is cute, affable and potentially iconic. Contrast this overtly pop work with his watercolours, works deeply indebted to the graphic style of hip-hop and skateboard cultures.
Cape Town's Igubu Collective is comprised of a group of four young comic artists, each with disparate styles. Daniel Hugo's When Travelling, Oneironaut evidences the collective's influences: 2000AD comics and the work of Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl). Hugo's work is, however, steeped in complexity, and evidences shades of graphic artist MC Escher's Cycle and House of Stairs. Another Igubu artist worthy of a mention is Moray Rhoda. According to JP Kalonji, "Moray has such great style." Using pagan myths with a European bent, Rhoda nonetheless manages to situate his stories in a local Cape Town setting.
Less 'adolescent' than Rhoda is the output of Swiss artist Thomas Ott. Ott is to comics what David Lynch is to film. His 'scratch technique' consists of lines and planes scratched into black coating painted on white cardboard. The style complements the pervasively gritty tone of his stories. A master of sequential narrative, Ott's world is one of iconographic silence and macabre detail. His stories obtain a chilling menace due to their lack of any speech bubble dialogue. Judging by the speed with which his books sold out, many of those attending were intrigued by his consummate skills.
Viewed as a whole, 'Comics Brew' is a successful show, an inviting appeal to sample the work of an impressive range of talents. Ultimately though, it is also just a sampler, an entr�e that ought to prompt the curious viewer to purchase an entire comic book by his or her favourite artist. For while comics may be an art they are also consumer objects - books. And books, as we all know, are meant to sell, in large quantities.
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