All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna

All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna. City Lights, 2007. 178 p, color, hardcover. $24.95. View the online archive.

I like to think I keep up on what’s new in comics, so I wonder how it is that I found this book by happenstance on the shelf of Million Year Picnic in Cambridge while vacationing in May. I haven’t seen any word of it from the numerous comics blogs I follow. How can something like this go unnoticed?! I will have to fill that gap. This book is beautiful and thoughtful, and you should read it. The strips collected in this volume are very different.

All Over Coffee is a strip that runs in the San Francisco Chronicle. It started in 2004 with multiple strips a week: daily strips of the conventional wide proportion and taller Sunday strips. More recently it has switched to a Sunday only format. What immediately sets this strip apart is its lack of people. There are no images of people in any of these strips (a strip that post-dates this collection from April 1, 2007 shows a person as an April Fools joke). Which isn’t to say there are no characters, just no images of them.

The images in the strip mostly consist of San Francisco cityscapes with occasional interiors or landscapes. These images are beautifully rendered ink lines and gray washes, which vary strip to strip from cool to warm. At one point Madonna begins to use colors in the strips: a little pink on the blossoms of a tree, a few bright colors on buildings in the distance, a string of red lights, a rainbow of colors for hanging laundry, colored paintings on a wall, stained glass windows, or a cloud in the sky. These colors are small punctuated surprises to be found in some of the strips, and only in the rarest of occasions are they more than a small part of any image.

The strip uses what McCloud would call a parallel word-image combination. The words, written in narrative boxes or directly on the image, are tiny narratives, dialogues, or aphorisms. The narratives range from a sentence to a few paragraphs. I imagine them as the stories of people living in that city which is so lovingly shown in the images. Little beyond this vague sense of placement links the words and the images, though one can make small narrative connections.

In this strip one might link the partially obscured cross as a symbol of death and a precursor to the text: “And then there’s space, other planets, galaxies, and an infiniteness of unknowing.” Or this panorama reads as the first view of the unnamed “he” as he leans over the railing. While, the long narrative in this strip (that’s a poor reproduction on their site, in the book the gray is very warm) seems completely unconnected to the image (which shows off Madonna’s interest in light in his drawings).

The strips are usually only a single image. Many of the earliest strips have two or three panels (such as this one), but as time passes a variation from the single panel is rare. Madonna paces his strips without panels through the use of composition and text layout, for instance, this strip which breaks up the text for pacing and adds a certain symbolic resonance through the chasm in the middle of the panel. Besides pacing the text in chunks, he often also uses strong verticals in the image (steeples, telephone poles, and the like) to subdivide panels. This unusual strip uses a word collage that puts the words into the third dimension by partially obscuring some of the narrative boxes behind parts of the building in the drawing.

Madonna makes subtly astounding variations on his limited scope: silent strips, abstracted images, small elements of the fantastic, inset panels, patterns, the occasional time sequence. His drawings are beautiful in their realistic style, and if the text is occasionally too twee, it does hit the right note most of the time with a mix of the banal and the sublime. The sheer audacity of doing a strip like this (all landscapes) would be in itself worth noting, but that Madonna manages to do it well, making the strips both aesthetically pleasing and narratively suggestive, means this deserves a wider notice outside the bounds of San Francisco. Add this to the small list of comics that do not feature any people.

The book itself is a lovely hardcover collection with one strip printed per page. The colors are much nicer than the web versions I’ve linked to above, particularly the depth of grays. The book’s afterword by Madonna does go on a little too long about the strip, the artist, and their history, but it doesn’t mar the collection. That City Lights published this book probably accounts for the lack of notice in the comics world, so to speak, but I hope somebody else will take notice.

(All links in this review are episodes from the strips online archive. The reproductions are much nicer in the book.)