Amongst fans of comics and graphic novels, there are certain names that get bandied about as luminaries. Writers such as Alan Moore, Stan Lee, and Neil Gaiman; artists such as the late Jack Kirby and David Mack; do-it-all-ers like Frank Miller; these are a few of the people called “visionaries” by comics fandom, and that is just amongst the American/British tradition. If we were to talk about the prolific Japanese manga culture, many more names would be added. For a medium that is generally so slighted by the mainstream, the comics industry seems to be rather top-heavy with geniuses.
Despite the prodigious talents of all these creators, perhaps the accolades that they accrue are awarded a bit too quickly. This is not to denigrate any of these men (or their oft-ignored and unfortunately less prominent female colleagues, who, I must shamefully admit, I am not as familiar with). Despite all the grand ideas that they bring to the page, and there are many, few of them ever stray beyond certain safe confines, and when they do it is an exception rather than the rule. Whether it be the subject matter of the superhero genre, the format of the 22 page comic book, or the panel-by-panel storytelling frame, certain rules inform their works nine times out of ten. I don’t intend to be reductive or dismissive; all of these creators have published work that has pushed and redefined the boundaries of what one considers a “comic book”. However they have as an aggregate also published a significantly greater amount of material that fits squarely within the medium’s conventions, even if that material is imaginative and wonderfully crafted.
Soft Skull Press, however, have seemingly made it their goal to expand the market of “experimental” graphic novels. Drawn Out, an autobiographical, original graphic novel by Don Nace, fits no standard or existing categories of the comic medium. In fact, Nace’s style may alienate average comic book readers, even the more sophisticated ones.
More of a fine artist’s sketchbook than a coherent, uniform narrative, Drawn Out is a collection of heterogeneous prints that purport to tell the story of Nace’s life. In both the visual and narrative aspects of the work, there is a far greater sense of experimentation than there is of a unity of style. Nace’s artistic influences appear to be impossibly broad, and only a true aficionado of modern and post-modern art could catalogue them. The majority of the prints do appear to be sketches, in the traditional sense of the word. Rough, crude and monotone, they have the kind of haphazard lines that give the impression that they were quickly tossed off during a few free moments. Even among these, though, there is great variety. Some have the kind of disturbed childishness of Basquiat, others feature the angles and composition of Picasso. There are also far more “formal” pieces, with the look of a more extended and focused period of creation. There are some with the dense textures of Van Gogh, others with the kind of distorted hyper-polished look of a Dali. I even saw one that I swore was referencing Tom Phillips’ A Humument.
The rapidly shifting visual style of the book keeps the reader always a bit distant, maybe even confused. Unlike a standard comic book, in which the goal is to render a continuity from panel to panel, the subjects of Drawn Out are always changing. One is never sure whether the figures are meant to depict the artist, some relative or other character from his life, or perhaps even just some “other” figure, an abstract representation of an aspect of his existence. The narrative strategy that Nace employs also complicates matters. There is a fairly straightforward narration, from his childhood, through his father’s death, his struggles with depression and women, through marriage and children, and finally into sexual betrayal. That story is told in a simple fashion, but again the visual aspect of the story works against the grain of that ordinary narrative. The “dialogue” in the prints is almost never relates in a direct way to the “action” being narrated. Instead, Nace attempts to capture the abstract poetry of inner thoughts and fantasies.
Connecting such seemingly random phrases with the story of Nace’s life proves a challenge. In fact, there are moments when even the most interested reader will likely feel frustrated with the book, whether because of the art, the story, or both. The price of experimentation is that often, experiments fail. Certainly some of the work in this text, much of which is visually or conceptually disturbing, just seems to fail for some reason or another. Sometimes the chaos on the page simply prevents any sort of comprehension. At such times, the block of Nace’s idiosyncratic style is more of a detriment than a benefit. But most of the time, the reader is kept invested, if only to attempt to meet the challenge. While it is not likely to win many readers in the local comic book shop, Drawn Out is very worthwhile for those interested in contemporary art and pushing the boundaries of the graphic novel.