(This review was originally published in 2007.)
Reading Windy Corner Magazine #1 was a special pleasure because I’ve always found Austin English’s taste to be impeccable as a critic and now as an editor. It was a bonus to see so much of his new work as an artist as well. What makes this publication distinctive is its focus on artists and their experiences as artists—how they feel about drawing as much as technical or biographical information. To that end, English has an interview with Andrice Arp, Steve Lafler writes about an anecdote from his art school days, Paula Salemme contributes a few pages from her sketchbook and Richard Hahn has a comic regarding his thoughts on Saul Steinberg.
I often speak of artists who discuss the pleasurable sensation of drawing, and English is a prime example of this. His draftsmanship has always been primitive, even childlike, but he makes this style work for him with sophisticated composition and a huge bag of storytelling tricks. He has two different storylines in this issue: “Life of Francis”, about a girl growing up in the midwest, and “My Earliest Memory Comics”, which are self-explanatory. The two different stories feel connected thematically, as Francis grows up poor but becomes an artist. Along the way, she discovers her father’s infidelity to her mother, an event fraught with profound significance. We later see him out of the picture as we delve into another memory, and that’s what this multipart story is: a series of memories, presented as vignettes. There’s one telling page where Francis is drawing and telling her infant brother about the experience. “It’s so hard to draw but also so much fun. I can’t draw the way I want…but I like the way it feels, the way my arm feels”. The act of drawing as a sensual experience is exactly what English is all about, and when someone asks to buy one of Francis’ drawings, we see a twinkle in her eye that suggests a lifetime of balancing the pleasure of drawing with its mercenary and popular aspects.
This story directly segues into English’s memory stories, where we see him tagging along with his mother (an artist) at a gallery opening. It’s not made explicit, but it’s strongly implied that Francis was, in fact, his mother (or at least the inspiration for same), and Austin is seeing the world of art through her eyes now. English is especially dynamic in telling his story here, with breathless stream-of-consciousness narration applied to each individual panel, forcing the reader through his memories as fast as one can speed through the word balloon. The narration is not exactly done the way a child would describe it; instead, English is clearly trying to reach back to that memory and describe it as an adult but filtered through the emotions he remembers of that event.
His second memory story, “North Beach”, sees him spending time with his father. It’s clear that their relationship is very different than with Austin and his mother. There’s obviously still a great deal of affection but perhaps not the same kind of closeness, and his memory of going to Chinese New Year with his father (“he knew what a little kid would like he knew this was something I would like”) was simultaneously delightful and tinged with danger.
The last story, “Red Balloon”, was the sort of small event that can stick in a child’s memory for a long time—just a little anecdote about seeing a film in a library with his mother that for some reason lingered on. It’s not surprising to see English plunder his memory for materials in these stories, because he always seems obsessed with connecting the emotions one feels as a child with how one engages the world as an adult. It’s a theme that rang true in Christina and Charles and certainly is at play here. This is not to say that his comics are simplistic or juvenile—quite the contrary, there’s enormous complexity to his work, as English understands that actually capturing these emotions and experiences is extremely difficult. There’s a disconnect between experiencing an event, having a memory of that event, and creating a narrative related to that event–they are all discrete activities that are often conflated as one and the same thing. English seems to understand this and uses a strategy that makes each of these three components as transparent as possible for both himself and the reader. This can be somewhat disconcerting for those who aren’t used to seeing the mechanics of autobiographical storytelling laid bare, but the result is a story that is rich with depth and meaning.
The sketchbook paintings of New York’s Lower East Side fit smoothly with English’s comics. The vivid, almost garish colors of the buildings are almost characters unto themselves. English is generous in the full-color images he reproduces for the Arp interview. As noted earlier, the questions are very much of the sort an artist might wonder about another artist: does she see writing and drawing as the same thing? Is drawing pleasurable? Can you recall your first memory of drawing? How do you modify your drawings to make it understandable for an audience? What’s your drawing set-up like, and how much do you draw in a day? What is the benefit of spending time with other artists? English drew out Arp nicely, and the interview was clearly interesting to him because her approach was very different from his. This is where English’s status as artist/critic comes into play: though he has a specific approach to his art, he’s fascinated by how and why others work. The combination of his understanding of the artistic process with genuine intellectual curiosity is why I’ve always been interested in both his art and critiques.
Anyone who’s ever read any of Steve Lafler’s prose knows that he is hilarious. The story of his Advanced Drawing professor in art school torturing the students with seemingly-impossible assignments was a nice counterpoint to the more sober entries in the book. At the same time, Lafler was trying to prove a point about learning not just how to draw but how to see the world in a different way. It was as critically relevant as anything else in this issue, just done from Lafler’s off-beat perspective. I hope that Lafler will continue to contribute to Windy Corner, especially now that he’s moved to Mexico.
Finally, Richard Hahn (an enormously underrated artist) contributed a startling comics essay of sorts. It’s much looser than his normally tight, angular work, giving the sometimes mysterious images room to breathe and play with each other. The comic seemed to be both a continuation of the empty cityscapes Hahn is known for exploring along with a commentary on Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cartoons.
Sparkplug Books fills an interesting niche in the world of comics. The work that Dylan Williams publishes is hard to reduce down to a particular type or genre, yet at the same time as a whole is very different from any other publishing concern. It makes sense that he’s publishing a comics magazine that’s dedicated to featuring artists who get overlooked and discussing ideas not explored in other publications. Each new book by Sparkplug reveals a comic that you didn’t know that you needed to read until someone handed it to you.