Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Feeding Snarky on Photojournalism Versus Picture-Art.

The assignment is "journal comics," and I read some. And yet, I’m turning in a column on my two favorite photo comics, instead of one on actual journal comics. This is because I can’t do anything entirely right.

And yet, when I think of "journal comics," even though it’s completely… well, not the genre at all… I think of Sinister Bedfellows by mckenzee. And whenever I mention Sinister Bedfellows, someone else mentions A Softer World by joey comeau and emily horne.

As an aside, what is it with producing a photo based comic strip and using all lowercase letters in your name? I’m just asking?

On the surface, the two strips do seem similar. Photographs, often single photographs divided by panel borders, though also with three or four individual photographs made into separate panels, with black text backed by white caption boxes. There is a commonality between them.

And yet, looking more seriously at them, the areas they have in common seem more like the definition of a genre than actual duplication. The same way pen and ink drawings of girls with big eyes and small mouths form a continuum of discussion, we are seeing the seeds of a sequential photo art that blends imagery and text with a certain disconnect.

Where comparing these strips becomes more interesting, to me, is in looking at their differences. Sinister Bedfellows seems like a journal comic to me because, in the end, it is forged from the pictures mckenzee takes on his regular walks through Paris and its environs. Looking at October 31’s strip doesn’t feature Halloween hijinks, for example…it features a panorama of paris, including the Eiffel Tower, and a group of simple words. "NY has King Kong… Tokyo has Godzilla… I have Madeline." This becomes less a joke (though it is a joke) and more a koan. An understanding of what the photographs mean to mckenzee. A sense of inspiration being derived from what mckenzee sees during his day and what mckenzee sees going over his pictures at night.

And in the end, how is that not a journal comic? We’re seeing the world through mckenzee’s eyes, and at the same time we’re getting his sense of what that world is. Sometimes, this sense is fanciful (these statues clearly weren’t talking when mckenzee took their pictures), sometimes this sense is introspective (the October third strip, one of my favorites, is a picture taken in a curved reflective surface — some kind of mirror or chrome, featuring the artist and the ancient world behind him, with the legend "Every act of creation… is a self-portrait. Genesis 1:27), and sometimes there is simple whimsy in the mundane. ("Why does she spend so much on flowers?" the little dog asks. "I’m just going to eat them.)

There is a sense, almost, of accidental art here. A sense of discipline being applied to the undisciplined. A sense of how mckenzee sees his world, and perhaps how the world sees mckenzee. That contains a certain intimacy… a certain understanding of how the mind of the photographer changes the reality of the photographed, that to me seems as intimate as James Kolchalka’s daily notes.

On the other side of the equation we have A Softer World, a strip of greater range and greater deliberation. The photographs here have filters and noise applied. They tell more of a story. And they’re far more likely to be staged. There is a real feeling that comeau and horne are often thinking of the strip they want to produce, and creating the photograph to match it. Take September 3rd’s strip, for example. A man, lying face down in the dirt, with a woman’s hand (I’m assuming, from the purple nail polish she seems to be wearing) holding a gun pointing at the back of his neck. "in my dreams the guns are toys," we read. "i have to bluff that they’re real to make you notice me." A slightly chilling, slightly thought provoking strip. But quite honestly, if comeau and horne were walking down the street and came across a girl about to put a gangland hit on some guy, I’m hoping they call the police instead of stopping to take closeups of it.

This doesn’t make A Softer World unworthy. Far from it. It tells simple stories, often full of wonder deflated by the world. The mundane accenting the magical. Take August 20’s strip. Three pictures in black and white, darting around a woman in white. "she sits outside every morning and cries," they say. "and where each tear lands a flower grows. The neighbours think I beat her." A miracle, turned ugly by small minded people.

mckenzee couldn’t produce these, because they have an intentionality about them. If mckenzee wanted to do a strip about a man in a wedding dress, he’d have to actually find a real one on his walks. comeau and horne aren’t saddled with that limitation.

Likewise, not all of the images that appear in A Softer World are taken by horne and comeau. On November 3rd, they produced a reflection on George W. Bush’s victory using photographs from the news, for example.

Sinister Bedfellows and A Softer World share many things in common — the photographic perspective. The black text on white. The almost zen-like, poetic language. But they take these tools and apply them in completely different ways. Where A Softer World creates a new twist on more traditional (albeit alternative) sequential art, Sinister Bedfellows captures moments of the world its artist walks through, and sends those moments through the mind of its creator. Both are worthy, but of the two, Sinister Bedfellows feels more like a reflection of the world the creator walks through, and A Softer World feels more like photographs creating a new world.

Eric Alfred Burns is a writer and poet who comes from Maine and lives in New Hampshire. He has worked for Steve Jackson Games as a developer for In Nomine and has published articles, short stories and poetry hither and yon. He’s also the writer and developer of Websnark.com, proving he has far too much time on his hands. His one webcomic was terrible, and he has a cat.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.