Ghost Worlds

As Artist and Illustrator Nick Burton presents his new comic Our Plague Year, a HOME Commission, Jason Wood, Creative Director: Film & Culture at HOME discusses the connections between comics and film. 

Conceived and created by artist and illustrator Nick Burton, Our Plague Year is an alternative retelling of life in Eyam in 1665-66, when the local community made the decision to quarantine themselves to prevent the Plague from spreading to their neighbouring towns and villages. Using fictional characters and presented as a weekly comic strip, the project explores with candour, humour and in sight self-isolation and human behaviour through the lens of the effect of the bubonic plague on the Derbyshire village in the 17th century.

“From a modern-day perspective, I’m watching what’s going on around the world with regards to Covid-19 with a particular interest on how people from different parts of society are reacting to what’s happening in their community. Some people accept what’s happening, while others rail against it,” comments Burton. “People are generous, people are selfish, some just want to get back to their lives, while others are reconsidering their lives. People are happy. People are angry. People are sad. And it’s probably not much different to how people have always reacted during times of crisis. I want to take these reactions and layer them over a similar event from 350 years ago,” he continues.

The cast of characters are broad and diverse, challenging received histories of the period – from non-white British citizens, to deaf and disabled characters. Essential needs are re-evaluated, not simply food and medicine, but friendship, desire and inequality. The seemingly imbalanced duo of spoilt-little-rich-girl Godelena Berrycloth and her meek sidekick, Edith Webster, is more symbiotic than at first appears. Wise woman Granny Dankworth, whose prophecies are ignored, speaks a muddled truth but holds no authority within the village hierarchy. Village gossip, George Gribble, blames the fairies for all misfortune, while young Godfrey Berrycloth, confined to a wheelchair from a young age, is perhaps best positioned to ride out the inconvenience – his rich interior world within a moment’s reach.

My colleague and fellow curator Bren O’Callaghan describes the comic strip as offering a litmus test of the prevailing social climate. “Just as a satirical cartoon can cut to the quick of a complex topic, I believe Nick’s alternative-universe of a reimagined Eyam will allow us to explore many nuanced and complex emotions that arise in our own current reality.” This has often been the role of comic strips and the work of those working as graphic artists. Our Plague Year feels particularly timely, both in a universal sense and on a more personal level. Issue one coincided with the arrival by post to my lockdown bunker of The Swamp, a collection of early works by Yoshiharu Tsuge, one of the most influential and acclaimed practitioners of literary manga comics in Japan. Bucking the tradition of mystery and adventure stories, Tsuge’s fiction focused on the lives of the ordinary citizens of Japan. These mesmerising comics, beautifully re-published by Drawn & Quarterly reveal a gritty, at times desperate post-war Japan, whilst also displaying Tsuge’s unique sense of humour and point of view.

Though undoubtedly a novice when it comes to graphic novels (and of most things some might argue), I was alerted to Tsuge’s work by the comparisons in the press to the output of his contemporary, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1935, Tatsumi began writing and drawing comics for a sophisticated adult readership in a realistic style he called “Gekiga.” Acclaimed for his visionary short-story collections The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye—originally created nearly forty years ago, but just as resonant now as ever—the legendary Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi has come to be recognised as a precursor of today’s graphic novel movement. My introduction to Tatsumi’s work came through Tatsumi, director Eric Khoo’s animated documentary that portrayed how Tatsumi’s work led Japanese comics into a darker, more sophisticated if introspective age. Next on my radar was A Drifting Life (also Drawn & Quarterly), the artist’s eleven years in the making monumental memoir, which begins with his experiences as a child in Osaka, growing up as part of a country burdened by the shadows of World War II. Perhaps most poignant in the memoir is Tatsumi’s dream of following in the considerable footsteps of his idol, manga artist Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Apollo’s Song, Ode to Kirihito, Buddha)—with whom Tatsumi eventually became peers and, at times, a stylistic rival.

A Drifting Life was edited and designed by Adrian Tomine, a Californian graphic artist who began self-publishing his book series Optic Nerve when he was sixteen before signing to, you’ve guessed it, Drawn & Quarterly. Tomine’s work frequently deals with loneliness, apprehension and a faint sense of existential angst in a world slowly spinning off its axis, which would seem to be exactly the sort of art and culture I am repeatedly drawn to.

The moving image is the prism through which I am exposed to a variety of other non-moving image culture and so it was with graphic novels.  It was whilst working in film exhibition in 1998 that I was alerted to the work of Daniel Clowes with his striking design for the poster artwork for Happiness, directed by Todd Solondz. The film was not directly adapted from work by Clowes, but with its look at suffocating loneliness, sexual frustration and unhappy people living miserable, isolated lives in an uncaring society it could well have been.

Born in Chicago, Clowes began his career as an “alternative” cartoonist in 1985 with the short-lived comic book series Lloyd Llewellyn, a feature loosely based around the adventures of a private detective which, in its gleeful embrace of the detritus of post-war pop culture (1950s science fiction, bad detective fiction, Russ Meyer movies, EC comics, etc.) predated many of the popular art trends of subsequent decades. He ended the series in 1987, anxious to move forward with different types of storytelling.

In 1989, Clowes created the seminal Eightball. The first among many stories to gain notice was the darkly comic Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. These were followed in the mid-’90s by the breakthrough Ghost World, which in 2001 would be adapted into a feature by Terry Zwigoff. Zwigoff had previously directed the documentary Crumb, 1994, an intimate portrait of controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb and his traumatised family. An idiosyncratic portrait of adolescent alienation that is at once bleakly funny and wholly endearing, Ghost World is set during the malaise-filled months following high-school graduation and follows two friends, Enid (Thora Birch), and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), as they attempt to navigate the cultural wasteland of consumerist America. With its parade of oddball characters, Oscar-nominated script, and eclectic soundtrack of vintage obscurities, Ghost World is one of the twenty-first century’s most fiercely beloved comedies. It is particularly astute on the subject of male record collectors, of which I sadly am one.

Zwigoff and Clowes would again collaborate on Art School Confidential (2006), for which Clowes would also design the poster. The film follows Jerome (Max Minghella), an art student who dreams of becoming the greatest artist in the world. Scripted by Clowes from a short comic story that originally appeared in Eightball, the film is less accomplished than Ghost World but is not without its own particular pleasures, not least a sure sense of characterisation, an apt appraisal of the type of characters that become comic book artists (a sense of social awkwardness would seem to be something of a prerequisite) and a standout performance from John Malkovich as Professor Sandiford.

The most recent screen adaptation from Daniel Clowes source material is the Craig Johnson directed Wilson (2017), in which Woody Harrelson plays the titular Wilson, a lonely, neurotic, and hilariously honest middle-aged man as he reunites as he with his estranged wife (Laura Dern), and meets his teenage daughter for the first time. Only fleeting successful, part of the problem with the film is that characters that were interesting on the page feel less so on the screen, with the archetypal Wilson having been more successfully articulated by Larry David.

We anxiously await a screen adaptation of any of the masterpieces of Chris Ware, the genius behind Quimby the Mouse, Rusty Brown, and Jimmy Corrigan, whose stories have elevated the comic art form with their complex narratives about people in suburban Midwestern neighbourhoods in which Ware poignantly reflects on the role memory plays in constructing identity. Surely Charlie Kaufman, whose Synecdoche, New York (2008) felt like a Ware project made flesh is the person to do it. Meanwhile, here is the Ware designed poster for The Savages (2007), the Tamara Jenkins directed tale of two ostensibly unpleasant and self-obsessed siblings, played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star if Synecdoche.

It was also cinema that delivered Harvey Pekar to me. Pekar was undoubtedly one of the most important, idiosyncratic, and eccentric writers that the medium has ever produced. A lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio, Pekar spent most of his adult life working a blue-collar civil-service job as a filing clerk at a veteran’s hospital and writing comics scripts in his spare time, scripts that that detailed his relationship woes, health issues and battles with bureaucracy. (a future story would be titled “Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day.”)

Like Steve Buscemi’s Seymour from Ghost World, Pekar loved jazz and collected vinyl albums from thrift sales, a passion that he shared with one of his most sympathetic artist-collaborators, Robert Crumb, who encouraged Pekar to keep writing and illustrated one of his early scripts.  Documenting his life in the American Splendor series, first published in 1976 and billed as being “from off the streets of Cleveland,” Pekar was pivotal in ushering a new age of autobiographical realism to comic books and graphic novels, writing scripts that were illustrated by artists such as Crumb, Gary Dumm, Dean Haspiel, Drew Friedman, and Rick Geary and in the process earning comparison to Chekhov. Pekar even went on to enjoy a brief period of TV stardom as an occasional guest on David Letterman’s NBC talk show.

A synthesis of stories by Pekar from American Splendor and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year, which detailed Pekar’s health issues, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s film of the same name perhaps remains my most beloved attempt to transfer the graphic novel from page to screen. Starring Paul Giamatti as the straight talking Pekar and interspersing documentary footage of Pekar himself with animated sequences from the original comics and dramatised live action sequences, the film was instantly acclaimed by critics for its honesty, integrity and ability to articulate the concerns and sensibilities of ordinary working class people. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I am well aware that I am keeping you from the most recent instalment of Nick Burton’s Our Plague Year so I’ll conclude by briefly pointing you in the direction of two other screen adaptations from graphic novels. The first is Canadian auteur David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) from a text by John Wagner and Vince Locke; the second is Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own autobiographical Persepolis (2007, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud). Detailing Marjane’s experiences as a young girl coming-of-age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and her escape to an education in Vienna followed by a bittersweet return to her native country, both book and film have the ability to combine history and realism with wider allegorical qualities.

Persepolis certainly puts me in mind of Our Plague Year, not lest because of Burton’s citing of Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant as an influence (alongside others) and the notion of “dealing with history as told through a contemporary lens”.

Jason Wood. With thanks to Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics Books.