The Bay Area is a great city for comics, but one of the bummer parts of the West Coast is its distance from Europe – when European cartoonists come to the US, they’re much more likely to head to New York or Toronto than all the way here, 12+ hours away from home. That’s why my heart sank out of jealousy when I saw that BCGF had lined up a stellar roster of European cartoonists this year, since I figured there was no chance that any of them would make their way further west. I know I should just stop complaining, put my money where my mouth is, and head out to New York, but it’s an expensive trip, and I hate traveling unless I’m going on vacation with my wife (and she’s not much of a comics fan).
Included in the line-up of European guests at BCGF is Nine Antico, a French cartoonist of whom I’ve been a fan for a couple years, ever since I bought a copy of Coney Island Baby that Alvin Buenaventura brought back from Angouleme in 2010. Antico is crazily talented – her drawing style is very intimate, and it draws the reader into an immediate connection with her characters. There’s no gimmick here, no ultra-violence, no gloopy sleaze, and no sci-fi erotica, even though her subject matter is frequently erotic and sleazy (especially in the case of Coney Island Baby, which is a dramatized biography of Bettie Page and Linda Lovelace). Her figures remind me a little bit of Frank Santoro in that they are suggestive rather than demonstrative, although not in the same way. Whereas Santoro uses a sketchy line and meticulously organized page elements to lead the reader’s eye from panel to panel to the point that the overall experience of the page becomes more than the sum of its parts, Antico leaves her characters half-finished, often without mouths, or without lines delineating the edge of a face or the side of a body. After reading a bunch of clear line comics, Antico’s art presented this revelation to me that maybe all these lines aren’t always necessary, that leaving them out can open up the drawing in ways that a more “finished” look would close off.
Of all the artists at BCGF, I was saddest about missing out on seeing Antico, so I did what I always do when I start fixating on something, and I set about trying to see if I could somehow be there by proxy. On Tumblr, I offered limited edition Chance Press stuff in trade for signed books or sketches, but no one bit. In a last-ditch effort, I emailed someone at the French Cultural Services arm of the French Embassy who was involved in bringing some of these artists to the US to see if they had any ideas for me… and to my good fortune, they responded that Nine Antico would be on the West Coast for (horribly publicized) events at the Seattle Art Museum and at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I was super excited, but I couldn’t find any info on the CCA appearance, and no one I talked to at CCA had heard about it. I finally found out a couple days before the event that it wasn’t being promoted because it wasn’t an event inasmuch as Antico would be a guest speaker during an illustration class for CCA students. Thankfully, it was open to the public, so I got to go anyway, though Chris Diaz and I were the only “public” that showed up.
It was a great event, because I got to hear about her process and her feelings about her own work in more detail and in a more intimate setting than the typical presentation or convention panel. The class instructors were clearly looking for her to do more of a formal demo/live drawing, but she went in a different direction, giving an overview of her work and then showing a slideshow of her inspiration, which mostly consisted of photography, rather than other cartoon art. (I always find it funny when cartoonists say that they aren’t really comics fans, but I guess you can’t choose what you’re good at just like you can’t choose what interests you.)
The two things that jumped out at me from her presentation were, first, that her work is driven by a passionate interest in the subject matter. Reading her work, this is readily apparent, and it gives her stories an energy that I often find missing from comics in which the cartoonist is clearly a better artist than a storyteller. In the case of Coney Island Baby, it is obvious that she had done an incredible amount of research because the subject fascinated her, and the comics form is how she best felt able to reconcile her feelings about these women she had been studying. An interesting sidebar here is that she described how she always keeps two projects going at once to avoid getting burned out, and that she worked on the books Girls Don’t Cry and Tonight, which consist of single-page slice-of-life strips about a group of teenage girls, when she needed a break from the bigger project of Coney Island Baby. The thing that surprised me about this is that Girls Don’t Cry and Tonight are great books in their own right – the writing is really witty in a Lena Dunham kind of way (though Girls Don’t Cry preceded Girls), and again, the story treats the girls, who are often self-absorbed and petty, compassionately, suggesting deeper personalities beyond the strips presented.
This idea of the characters being deeper than what is on the page segues into the second take-away – that she leaves her drawings incomplete in an effort to pull the reader deeper into the book. Leaving the drawings half-finished encourages the reader to fill in the blanks, to imagine expressions, and even to envision the surrounding environment, all of which give the reader a sense that he/she really knows these characters, since the reader is partially responsible for creating them. I’ve written at length in other essays on this blog about reader response theory and how cartooning shapes reader response in really interesting ways, but Antico is one of the best at pulling the reader in without being either overly programmatic or abstract. It’s a really satisfying balance – for instance, on a Frank Santoro page, your eye is predestined to move the way it does, because Santoro has broken down the page in intricate detail and set everything in motion for you; the paradigm of reader response here is that you’re responding to the page in a way that the author intends, which can be an exhilarating way to read – like being a passenger in a car driving through the Grand Canyon. (Reading Chris Ware pages often has the same effect, although I could write thousands of words about reader response theory and Chris Ware’s comics.) In an abstract comic, on the other hand, your freedom to derive meaning and emotion from the comic is almost entirely divorced from the author’s intent – the forms on the page are suggestive, but certainly not declarative. In Antico’s work, it’s somewhere in between; the story is happening around your interventions into it, and so the effect is of being familiar with the characters and understanding them on a deeper level than if you were just reading about them and looking at them, but not so much that you lose the page-to-page flow of the narrative.
It’s a shame that more comics fans from the Bay Area couldn’t make it to this event, either due to lack of promotion or because they hadn’t heard of Antico, whose work hasn’t been published in English yet (though the release of Coney Island Baby from Blank Slate Books in the UK is scheduled for Winter 2012). I can understand why CCA wouldn’t have wanted the event overrun with the likes of me, though, and so I really appreciate that they kept the event open to the public in the first place. Really, I can’t recommend her work highly enough, and it’s worth checking out a book or two even if you don’t read French. As a bonus, she signed some of my books with some great drawings, and she was super nice about it, too.