I am a little bit excited because this blog post is to be celebratory and joyous not frustrated and critical. Rather than my usual grumpy yapping-at-competent-comics schtick, I hope to explore and explain my LOVE for something comics; the works and thoughts of David Shrigley (although obviously I will squeeze in a tiny bit of slagging off. It's what the fans want).
It’s on record that David Shrigley is happy to describe himself as both a ‘cartoonist’ and an ‘artist‘ but mostly and pragmatically and intentionally he seems to use artist. As he says, "cartoonists don't generally get the Fourth Plinth commission".
He is from the UK (fun fact – he has a sister who lives on Auckland’s North Shore) and is one of those Renaissance-types who does all kinds of things like making films and music videos and pamphlets and guitars and football mascots and album covers and sculptures. He also makes comics.1 At least I call them comics, he calls them ‘art’.
Weirdly I don’t mind the art thing at all. For me it feels different to when comics are called ‘literature’ which just makes me want to grate my elbows all over Watchmen. I think this is because if you were to develop a (nerdy and pointless) taxonomy (exactly the kind of thing I’d do) art would be at the top. Comics would be on the next layer down as would literature (and crotchet and doom metal etc.) Comics and literature would be equal and recognised as their own separate things with their own attributes, not as sometimes happens, one medium needing a leg-up to become another, apparently more important one.
David Shrigley is clear about not personally calling his work comics. He says he likes the term art because it is wide open with the potential to encompass all that he does (as per my fiercely accurate imaginary taxonomy). Fair enough. I think though, that among all that he does are some comics, at least as I conceptualize them. His comics are for me a platonic form or embodiment of my strongest comic ideas and passions. They have text and image; panels; stillness; flatness; jokes; rebelliousness; honesty; brutality; ridiculousness, and it's all wrapped up in the classiest and most beautiful incompetence. And this, along with death-of-the-author-type theories mean I’m (unusually) chill about the nomenclature. Besides sometimes people other than me call his work comics and David Shrigley has said he doesn't mind when we do.
David Shrigley’s comics are part of the fine art world rather than a Marvel or Fantagraphics or Kodansha or DC Thompson universe. They generally hang in galleries and sell for lots of money but are also sometimes collected in lovely big books. One thing I like to happily imagine is that his comics wouldn’t be selected if submitted to one of those patchy, desperately-printed anthologies that say they seek (direct quotes) “professionalism” and “only the best quality work”. The words 'professionalism' and 'quality' in this context are not defined, but probably they mean something like 'competent comics, ideally made on a computer' rather than 'unique and awesome comics which provide their maker with a great living and are internationally acclaimed'. Yes, this scenario is speculation but the probability is reasonable and it makes me smile every time.
When I see a David Shrigley comic I laugh and sigh and wince and peer closely and for longer. I also think interesting things and I feel things and it is glorious. I do not have this intense and multiplicitous reaction to many other comics (but when I do it’s just as fantastic).
David Shrigley’s explicitly defined political cartoons are the works I like least, yet he is still one of my favourite political cartoonists. Another favourite is Mary Leunig and the work of the two have things in common. Both have a singular drawing style; both are lateral yet devastatingly pointed; and neither rely exclusively on caricatures or current events. Obviously I would never say that people and/or policy cartoons aren't important or that there aren't skilled makers of these or that I'm never affected. But I do like it when ‘political’ is clearly an adjective and is wide and philosophical rather than closely entwined with the ‘politics’ noun.
In addition to making wonderful comics (art) David Shrigley talks about comics (art) wonderfully. I do not agree with all he says (as you will read) but he does seem to articulate and live a lot of my comics values and ideas. I often wish that I had said or done what he said or did.
Please note all the following quotations are from various sources but all are David Shrigley. I figure since this is a blog post on the internet and not an essay in a university, I don’t need references.TRUST ME.)
Attitude-wise the first thing I like about David Shrigley is that he’s insubordinate and funny and he's these things on purpose. He likes to do “exactly what you’re not supposed to do and see what happens”. He also says his work is “a rebellion against the seriousness of art”. He understands that art is no less worthy because it’s funny. In respect to comics I am absolutely committed to this idea. I say that laughter and tears and happiness and sadness are all heavy-as; and Maus is in no way inherently ‘better’ than Whizzer and Chips (just like Whizzer and Chips is no better than Maus).
He also does not care about drawing things-that-look-like-things and relishes ugliness, “I just like the fact that you draw this beautiful naked young woman and she looks really ugly in my drawing with a really big head and small hands”. This statement is particularly exciting for me because I too draw big heads and small hands! Also I love that drawn things do not have to look to look like real things and in fact I much prefer it when they don't. If I want to see a realistic thing, I’ll look at the thing - duh. In art and comics I only really want to see things or representations of things that I cannot see anywhere else.
David Shrigley appreciates the ridiculousness of his drawing situation and (lack of) skill “the funny thing is that I’m a famous artist, because people who don’t know anything about art say, “how can you be a famous artist if you can’t draw?” This statement resonates hard because sometimes - despite my bravado and bluster - I feel insecure about my drawing. This is partly because there was a period when a sub-set of competent boys repeatedly told me via words and deeds, that I couldn't draw or that I couldn't draw to the ‘required standard’. When you are insulted and patronized it makes you feel stink and sometimes weepy (true story). David Shrigley reminds me that incompetent drawing can totally be amazing art (comics) and that I should always be staunch about this. (Although I should say that I have recently received a few compliments from another, though-slightly-overlapping sub-set of competent boys, which I guess is nice).
Just like me, David Shrigley is fascinated by how the combination of text and image creates meaning. I use the rather prosaic 'interaction' to describe this phenomenon. David Shrigley uses the much more interesting and dirty word 'slippage'. In my comics I entwine text and image mostly for the purpose of making jokes. Jokes that would not work without both elements, but jokes that are blatant and intended (and some may legitimately say lame). David Shrigley’s text and image combinations are much more open, fascinating and absurd than mine. Often the two things don’t relate at all and this slippage is what creates the absurdity and humour. It also opens up the potential for multiple understandings of individual works, something he thinks is important, “your response is the correct response to the work, whatever that may be or whatever my intention was. My intentions are never that plain. It is what it is.”
The last David Shrigley thing I’m going to write about is his analysis of what art is and what art isn’t, and this time I don’t think what he says works for comics (disorientating!) He mainly defines art by comparing it to other things like design, saying for example “design is about form and art is more about ideas.” (In expressing this David Shrigley is in no way slagging off designers. He also says “I think it's better to have designers designing stuff than artists…I think there's nicer stuff out there that designers have made.”)
When it comes to comics I kind of think the idea/form statement is simplistic and unhelpfully binary, and that in comics (even competent ones) design and ideas are particularly tangled (explaining how and why is a different blog post). In their work I think most comic-makers consider both. Me? My heart swells for ideas, but it also swell for panels. These are a crucial part of a comic’s design, and I decorate them loudly in celebration of this.
So there you go. There are comics that I love and David Shrigley makes some of them.
1 You will NEVER convince me that just because they have only one panel they are not comics. You can read about why I think this, here.