Class with Frank part 2
Saturday, October 16, 2010
DOIN’ THE CHESTER
Howzitgoin’ CC faithful!? Good? Good. This week we are studying the evolution of Chester Brown’s grid layouts in Yummy Fur issues 19, 20, and 21. Seriously. What? You don’t have these comic books in your collection? What? How old are you? It’s okay. I know it’s hard to collect comics. But you gotta try. For me. You can have a better sense of the maker’s intent if you dig up the original issues. Track these comics down. They are essential reading. Yummy Fur #19 contains “Helder” and issue #20 contains “Showing Helder” both of which are collected in The Little Man from Drawn and Quarterly. We will also be looking at Yummy Fur #21 which contains the first chapter of The Playboy (originally called Disgust). FYI comparing Chet’s original comics with the eventual collection is a sport in and of itself. Things change and rearrange.
The set-up: Yummy Fur 19 came out in the fall of ’89. It was a big deal at the time because Chester had stopped doing his Ed The Happy Clown feature and switched it up to produce something more personal. Issue 19’s “Helder” is a ridiculously rich story that I can’t even begin to describe here. There was also a short Gospel of Matthew story in the back. Plus a great letters page. Man, did I love Chester’s letters pages. Anyways, Yummy Fur 20’s “Showing Helder” was the making of the Helder comic essentially; the drawing of it. And finally YF 21 would be Chester’s first longform auto-bio strip, The Playboy. To me, this is a rapid and remarkable development not only in content but in structure. Why? Because in three issues Chet abandons the fixed 6 panel grid that he has maintained for the entire five year run of the book – 18 issues – and replaces it with a more organic collaged sequencing using panels of a more varied shape. And where it hinges is on issue 20, “Showing Helder”, where he uses no panel borders at all – but still maintains the grid’s left to right zig zag reading.
I think what’s interesting to consider is what Chester may have learned during those grid years and how he applied the skill of balancing the grid to his more organic approach .
Ed The Happy Clown was a heroic, action-adventure story and it read like a Kirby monster comic, like a 70s Kirby grid. Quick, like a storyboard almost, but depicting moments a movie would not – it’s all timing – the way all the pieces, moments fit together. The grid accommodates the heroic and the banal moments all the same. It’s like a metronome. Then Chester switches to autobio and he now has the spacing to make the everyday seem heroic – look at the distortion in The Playboy! – it’s KIRBY – yet Chester manages to be so spare and clear in tone like Miles Davis wiping away all that re-bop noise chatter and just creating tones and simple phrasings – Chester’s work reduces so beautifully – The Little Man collection is smaller than the original comics but it looks fine – imagine reducing a current Marvel comic to book size – so while mainstream work has gotten more clogged because of the format, Chester’s 5 inch by 5 inch squares are perfectly phrased notes, simple melodies strung together on a metronome that sound just right at any volume.
And then, he makes the phrasings even more clear as The Playboy storyline goes on. Chester is is still “on the grid” when he is creating his organic grid but he is centering things in the middle of the page like word balloons – something he could not do when he maintained the rigid fixed grid. So for example the below page’s word balloons become a “center focus” in a way they could not in a fixed grid. And this text is relevant to the story so it is a focus; a center. As the storyline continues through the next few issues and Chester begins creating very spare pages, one can almost feel him composing new arrangements to old songs. Meaning he’s still on the grid but he is using the invisible architectural power of the fixed grid to reinforce his own “intuitive” phrasings. Sort of like playing spare and sometimes “off” notes along a familiar melody.