This post originally appeared at The Panelists on January 27, 2011.
This isn’t a comic. Or is it? Does it matter? I’m really not concerned with definitions (at least, not recently), but I am concerned with stretching the limits, expanding the family that is comics.
Mark Laliberte’s Brickbrickbrick (BookThug, 2010) is labelled “poetry” on the back and published by a literary press specializing in experimental literature (primarily poetry). Yet, the connection with comics is unmistakable, and I can’t help but read it as comics, as perhaps a poet would find herself reading it as poetry. I’m not really familiar with the concept of visual poetry (which this book is, I understand, an example), my knowledge of poetry at all is surely a bit above average (which isn’t saying much) but nowhere near the point where I would even say I’m well read. So I can’t address this book as poetry, but I can address it as comics, of which it is an abstractly immersive example.
BrickBrickBrick consists of nine titled sections of 8-12 pages each. Each of the pages shows a single square image of drawn bricks accompanied by a single word above it. Going into the book (and the reason I originally searched it out), I knew that the brick images were all appropriated from a variety of comics. The words above each image, one quickly realizes, are the last names of the source artists, which show a great range from the familiar to the unknown (to me at least), including Schulz, Clowes, McKean, Gerhard, Bachalo, Herge, Verbeek, Vaughn-James, Barks, Miller, etc. I’m guessing many of the ones I am unfamiliar with are French artists from the mainstream (of which my knowledge is limited) or perhaps even mainstream American artists (ditto).
From 'The Sleepwalkers' section.
While the images at first might look like simple appropriations without the hand of Laliberte himself, they are in fact much more of a construction than that. In a brief video interview posted by his publisher, he explains that the images are a product of copying, erasing, drawing, shifting. Laliberte has constructed his own walls from the bricks of cartoonists. Yet, those bricks still retain the stylistic markers of their original sources. And one, immediately perceivable, reading of this book is as a series showcasing, through the simple and easily overlooked brick wall, a stylistic microcosm of all those artists. The high contrast Miller, the sharply inked Burns, the white-on-black scratching of Ott, the smooth simplicity of Barks: the style of each artist is, in some ways, hidden within these images, outside the bounds of figuration where the most recognizable stylistics of a comic artist usually lie.
At this level alone, the book is an engaging read. As a dictionary of brick drawings, it provides a lesson in varieties of line, texture, and form. But, these images of bricks are organized, both into the named sections and within those sections. The images within each section often share certain visual connections. For instance, the “Urban Gothic” section contains dark images that have show textured line work or a sense of wear (cracks and the like). “Sleepwalkers” is primarily images with shadows on the bricks. “Past Midnight” has images that are primarily black. Beyond this visual grouping, the order of the images within the sections seems to be quite purposeful.
From the 'Into the Wilderness of Everyday Life' section.
I first noticed this sequencing in the “( Wal (l) ow )” section which starts with images that have a vertical emphasis, switches to those with horizontal emphasis, and then to those diagonal and more chaotic. “Tetris in a Tempest,” a series of unfinished walls and those with missing pieces, ends with “Barks,” a brick wall showing a single hand, holding a brick, coming into the top of the image about to add another brick to the wall. Admittedly the connections are subtle or perhaps even primarily created by my own desire to see sequence where there is only series (that is, to see an order where this is only contiguity). But there is an unmistakable rhythm to moving through the images that is outside of any narrative sense. These sequences have very much in common with abstract comics, where the thrust of narrative in sequence is replaced by purely visual (repetition/variation) means of connection.
Only after multiple readings of the book did I find the video interview (see above) wherein I learned that Laliberte considers each page its own poem, while I was reading each grouping of pages as the poem. My tendency to “read as comics,” looking for sequence/series/juxtaposition, created a different work, or at least a different emphasis than intended. It speaks, I think, to how much “comics” is about reading protocols (which got touched on a bit in the comments of my last post). Is it comics because I can read it like comics? How much does my method of reading change the work? Some of the books in the Abstract Comics anthology rest in that grey area, where, depending on your approach, they either read as comics or they read as drawings/paintings/illustrations. A series of images could just be a bunch of images next to each other, or they could be a comic, a narrative, a sequence of some kind. If I read them as sequential, if I make my own connections from one image to the next, have I changed the work?
Brickbrickbrick itself provides an interesting metaphor for these shifting readings, through the movement from part to whole. If most comics rely on the panel as a building block (multiple, sequential, iconically solid(arity)), the images in this book are themselves formed of small parts built into a whole. Laliberte didn’t just copy brick wall images, he builds them anew brick by brick. And if he (again see the video) sees them as words building a poem, I (again with the different reading) see them, metaphorically, as panels in a comic. Oddly enough, I can’t read those bricks like a comic. I can’t read each one brick by brick, left to right, top to bottom. To me, they read as a whole, single image, one my eye moves around, if not randomly then at least with no set path. It’s only at the next level that I begin to see the order and conglomeration of multiple, sequential parts.
I shouldn’t fail to note how lovely the images in this book are. Laliberte has done an amazing job putting these images together, they are seamless, only occasionally are repeated brick obvious (at least, when I was really looking for them). Any drawing work he has done shows his skill at pastiche. And in the end, there is something comic-ally (comic-esque) primal about these brick walls, harking back to the bricks of Krazy Kat, the conversations atop a brick wall between Charlie Brown and Linus, or the brick buildings lurking in the background of scores of superhero fight scenes.
You won’t find this book in your local comic store or probably most bookstores, so you’ll have to go right to the publisher for a copy (link above where the book is first named), and I think it’s worth the investment.
A few comments from the original post at The Panelists: