Pay Attention: David Collier’s Chimo
by Jeet Heer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
If the past is prologue David Collier’s new book Chimo, which will be widely available in early 2011, will probably receive far less attention than it deserves. For me, the four great Canadian cartoonists are Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet and David Collier. Of the four, Collier has received the least praise and press. So it’s worth inquiring what makes Collier’s work so special and also ask why his appeal, so far at least, has been limited.
Thanks to the Beguiling, I got an early look at Chimo and it has all the peculiar qualities that distinguish Collier’s output. The book is a free-ranging memoir that deals with Collier’s life-long relationship with the army. He joined up in the 1980s when he was in his 20s. He initially did only a few years and then became a full-time cartoonist. Launching his eponymous comic book series Collier’s was published by Fantagraphics in 1991. But more recently Collier rejoined the army, in part to participate in the Canadian War Artists Program but also to work as a regular soldier.
Collier has already done a few stories about his soldiering career but Chimo offers the most extensive account yet, and is his longest sustained narrative, clocking in at over a hundred pages (with samples of Collier’s earlier military cartooning filling out the book).
Anyone who knows the cartoonist will immediately recognize that “Collier in the army” is an inherently rich topic because he is among the least-likely soldiers imaginable. Collier is very much a man who goes his own way. He’s not very good at following instructions and has the disconcerting habit of almost always speaking his mind. Compared to David Collier, other cartoon-soldiers (Willie and Joe, Sad Sack, Beetle Bailey, Dopin’ Dan) are the very models of military propriety.
Reading his latest book, it occurred to me that Collier is not unlike Wilson, the anti-hero of Daniel Clowes recent graphic novel. To be sure, Collier is much more benign than Wilson, but both the cartoonist and the fictional character have an ornery honesty and an unsettling bluntness. If you can imagine Wilson telling his own story and possessing a much stronger self-awareness and talent for self-reflection, you’d have a good idea of what Collier’s latest story is like.
Like his earlier works, Chimo is a stream-of-conscious narrative, a story that weaves back and forth in time, that ruminates and wanders. At one point, Collier draws himself looking like Andy Gump, and it occurred to me that Collier’s work belongs to the tradition of mid-western cartooning that I’ve been tracing in various books. Cartoonists like Clare Briggs, Sidney Smith, and Harold Gray weren’t just interested in narrative but also cared about the daily texture of life. Their characters have a tendency to wax philosophic, to use incidents and events to reflect on human nature and the meaning of life. The same is true of Collier. He’s the most essayistic of major cartoonists, at least since the glory days of Gray’s Little Orphan Annie.
This essayistic quality sets Collier apart from such peers as Seth and Chris Ware, both of whom have been more influenced by contemporary fiction and design. Collier is a year younger than Seth but Collier’s art and storytelling, not to say his sense of design, seems more rooted in an earlier tradition of comics storytelling. Collier’s lack of a design sense is a real problem, as witness the off-putting cover of Chimo. I often wish that Collier (or his publishers) would ask Ware or Seth to design Collier’s books. They’d not only put together a nicer package, they’d also, paradoxically, find a way to highlight the strength of Collier’s art that his own covers hide.
What immediately struck me about Collier’s comics when I first read them was his draughtsmanship. He had clearly been influenced by Robert Crumb, whose cross-hatching density and gnarly line he inherited, but Collier also had a distinctive thatchy and roughhewn quality to his work, as against the bouncy roundness of Crumb’s style.
Collier’s essayistic storytelling style calls to mind not just older artists like Sidney Smith and a certain strand of Crumb’s work (stories like “Where Has It Gone, All the Beautiful Music of Our Grandparents?” and “Trash”) but also the autobiographical comics of Spain Rodriguez. As with Spain’s work, Collier is given to abrupt shifts from one scene to the next. You have to puzzle out, often, what Collier is up to, what are the thought processes that link one anecdote to the next. Characteristically, we only find out what the title Chimo means in a wayward panel halfway through this book.
Collier’s stories, in both Chimo and his earlier comics, perfectly match his art: wayward yarns about eccentric characters, they reflect a world rarely seen in art or literature. Whether writing about soldiers who sneak out for a little unregulated rest and relaxation or about historical tricksters like Grey Owl (an Englishman who pretended to be a native) or prickly athletes like Ethel Catherwood, Collier has a penchant for noticing eccentric characters and telling their stories with an intense, non-judgmental honesty. Some of his characters are punk rockers living in downtown Toronto, others are soldiers preparing to go to on global peacekeeping missions, still others scientists who experiment with drugs. What unites them all is their unwavering individualism, a quality that Collier as an artist shares.
Visually Collier excels not just in depicting the natural landscape but also, a much rarer quality, in capturing the feel of industrial and post-industrial urban life. No one artist that I know of has better captured the tone and texture of Hamilton, Ontario with its aging smokestacks and redolent machine age nostalgia
Collier is not, as I’ve hinted, an easy cartoonist to grasp through a quick read. You have to work at his comics a little, make an effort to understand what he’s doing and the connections he is making. But the rewards for this effort are manifold. Collier has the rare ability to take the reader inside his own mind, to show the world through his eyes. Once you tune yourself to his wavelength, Collier can change the way you look at the world. Cartoonists who do that are very rare and worth cherishing. I’d encourage everyone to pick up Collier’s latest work and also to go back and revisit Collier’s earlier comics, especially the stories in Portraits from Life and Just the Facts. Chimo will be hitting quality comic book stores in March.