Posted: September 20, 2014 in Chat
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Comic writing has come a long way in such a short time. Ten years or so ago we had the big spectacle of Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOUR books, and his CANCER YEAR. Both adopted successfully to film.

We had Daniel Clowes’ GHOST WORLD, another successful film based on his comic strips.

Harvey is no longer with us. He had the good fortune of knowing Robert Crumb, before Crumb became a comic writer. The connection proved good for Pekar.

Mark Beyer, though has a wholly innovative technique, and customary bleak story lines.
I dug out my copy of AMY AND JORDAN for this write-up – all the strips are black and white! I remembered colour! His AGONY is colour – and the colours are always strong washes and planes of colour. The images are so strong, though, they colour themselves in memory.


Mark Beyer grew up in Pennsylvania, with a troubled childhood, by all accounts. He had always drawn and illustrated but it really took off in his later teens.
First of all he self published – A DISTURBING EVENING and OTHER STORIES, 1978.
And then his breakthrough DEAD STORIES, 1982

From there he has published successfully AGONY, 1987

AMY AND JORDAN, 1993 and 1996


And then the big AMY AND JORDAN, 2004.

What is it about his work that is so interesting?
Wiki cites a childlike, geometric drawing style, coupled with themes of disaster and dismemberment, death and humiliation. Typical angst, then.

What is really innovative of his work is his use of panels. Every comic strip is composed of panels to be drawn in, and a gutter between. Manipulation of space here is a key to pace, and tension: a wider gutter, or a wider panel between two regular ones, adds as much to the storyline as the text.

Mark Beyer has experimented with panels so well it is difficult to come back from.
Why must a panel be a rectangle or square? So he tried spherical panels. He tried triangular panels; he even drew panels that defy geometrical description.


It is also a basic truism that the more complex the drawing, whether background, or figures, both the slower the read, the more complex the experience.
So Mark Beyer drew simple figures – yes, but complicated with in-filling and design. He still used voice bubbles within the panels. His characters are shown from odd angles, perspectives; their bodies are pliable, plastic, he drapes them, morphes them, he slews their bodies like a Chagall. They turn into skeletons but keep their characters. They do terrible things.


So what’s with the bleakness and misery? Amy wakes to find a huge bug-like creature standing on her bed. It explained it was an ancient demi-god; its abdomen consisted of a series of drawers where she could learn all the secrets of the world discovered over millennia. So, like a memory-palace, then? She was too taken up with discovering a bug on her bed, though, she squashed it.

What works here, is the drawing style, awkward it may be but carries its own logic and authority, and the off-setting of theme by innovative use of unusual panels.

Mark Beyer is using the form to transgress – it is our disturbance he is manipulating: he has stepped over the line and altered our perception.
Comics do that anyway: we see horrors and wonders that cannot possibly exist, and we accept them.

– Scott McCloud’s book UNDERSTANDING COMICS: The Invisible Art (William Morrow/HarperCollins 1993) is excellent background reading on the art of comics.

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