PETITS LIVRES reviewed in Eye Weekly

“From the page to the wall” / Eye Weekly / Guy Leshinski / September 8, 2005

The big news for art-comics fans in Toronto this summer came wrapped in official lingo: the Art Gallery of Ontario announced in June that it recognized the comics medium as "a fully articulated art form on its own terms." And to prove it, the gallery was buying a large pen and ink drawing by Guelph cartoonist Seth and hanging it among the Warhols and Picassos in its permanent collection. The stiff-chinned institution was letting the yammering upstart into its den, and not as some post-modern meta-statement but as "a fully articulated art form on its own terms." Not that Seth fans needed government approval, but here was tangible evidence, beyond the spectral sales figures and windy musings, of just how far the comics medium has come.

In some quarters, the notion of comics as art is so incontestable that it's the subject of lavish books glorifying the cartoon, collections without stories or panels or any organizing principle beyond the publisher's editorial authority and the unassailable art-ness of the medium.

Such artbooks have become the bed and boudoir of Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly, which gives even its regular graphic novels the gallery treatment -- witness the lovingly dimpled and wan Louis Riel hardcover. With its latest artbook series, D&Q is preaching to the masses, squeezing every precious detail into paperback digests half the size of the usual hardcovers -- and, frugal readers take note, half the price.

The first of these Petits Livres ("little books") is the kaleidoscopic Lady Pep by alt-comics grande dame Julie Doucet. Its illustrations, collages and linocuts are from what her publisher calls Doucet's "post-comics" career -- grim news indeed for fans of her gorgeously sloppy Dirty Plotte series.

There's plenty of slop in Lady Pep too, however: women with gushing pudenda, horses spitting and snorting, their wangs wagging. Full-colour photos of her early zines show crude drawings superimposed on yellow roses or pages torn from stock reports.

What does it all mean? Depending on your politics, it could be high-concept or low, enlightening or impenetrable. This is art, after all. It borrows comics' methods -- cartoons and words in juxtaposition -- but it's not exactly comics. What's read is the image itself. Instead of serving a story, here the artwork holds the whip.

Understanding this, and taking the time to "read" the image, is key to unpacking Marc Bell's The Stacks and Peter Thompson's The Chronicles of Lucky Ello, two more Petits Livres. Like Doucet, Bell uses found objects in his Artoons. His dense collages are like the inner workings of a sputtering cartoon steam engine, ejaculating random phrases ("Piece of tofu") and shaky, wimpled shapes. Some of these repeat and you can follow them like bread crumbs throughout the book.

One such crumb, Bell's famous brick snake, slithers through Peter Thompson's The Chronicles of Lucky Ello. The artists have collaborated on comics and gallery shows before, so the shout-out is only natural. It's the rest of their work that mystifies.

In Ello, every page embellishes on a single image: that of a pipe-smoking elephant named Lucky Ello. The drawing on the cover is deceptively plain; the art quickly mushrooms in enigmatic displays of "psychedoolic" improvisation, with words and shapes melting together across a checkerboard landscape. My head feels lighter just describing it, and Thompson salts his random captions with drug references to let us know he's on the level.

Artbooks like Ello, The Stacks and Lady Pep scoop up the language of comics and splatter it on art's limitless canvas. Slick and mass-produced, they're like heralds, halfway between comics' pulp origins and the museums they're destined to fill. The next step is off the printed page and into a frame.

That's where Michael Comeau's Regal Beast steps in. The Toronto cartoonist binds his handmade artbooks in Duo-Tangs so readers can remove the pages and frame them or tack them to a wall. Some of these pages are hand-painted, not just pictures of art but original art themselves. Both Bell and Thompson appeared in last summer's Regal Beast 2, alongside the cream of the indie crop: Billy Mavreas, Fiona Smyth, Chris Hutsul and others. Seeing their work unshackled from comics' constraints has its own distinct pleasures. Not least is the knowledge of an art world under invasion.

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