Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Marta C: A Personal History in Comics

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Marta C: A Personal History in Comics

1. The first comics I ever read were in my native tongue. These provocative collections of colourful images and Polish text arrived from an unknown source and into my life to change everything. One particularly inspiring book featured two protagonists, one long and thin, one short and fat, transported into a surreal and magical world on a quest for... tonic water. Yep. There were also several issues of a comic featuring a rather inappropriate monkey called Tytus who often fell into fantastical adventures. My older brother came into possession of a near full run of Thorgal, a Belgian comic illustrated by a Polish artist. The series is a fictional story based on Viking lore in which Thorgal, the protagonist of most issues, is simultaneously a mythic hero and an outsider.

2. Next I became aware of comics printed in English. Through supermarket visits accompanying my mother, I slowly acquired a reasonable collection of Archie comics. They lived in a cardboard box under my bed when they weren’t constantly being thumbed through. My mother hated comics and threatened to take them away from me on multiple occasions: summer days spent inside, re-reading the same Laugh Digest for the twentieth time. Despite my obsession, I could see that the comics were repetitive and kind of stupid. Veronica and Betty’s feud over Archie always seemed morally off, something that would tear a real friendship apart. Eventually, I preferred to use the images in the comics to make paper dolls, and then create elaborate paper wardrobes and imaginary life stories for them, perhaps one of my first forays into the world of narrative.

3. Somewhere around this time, my brother acquired an impressive collection of superhero comics, which I was allowed to peruse if I followed his handling rules accordingly. I can’t say with any certainty where they came from. Most likely they arrived in our lives like much of the toys and treats of our childhoods: fandangled by my father from advertisements in the Pennysaver, newspaper classifieds or handed over from another Polish family where he was doing electrical work as a “side job”. Over time, my brother added to this collection from his own pocket, but remained inspired by the titles he had inherited: we were always hungry for Marvel comics over DC. I was always aware of Batman and Superman, but they could never compete in my eyes with X-Men, X-Calibur, X-Factor and all the other X-families. These comics offered to me powerful female characters (even if they all shared similar hyper-sexualized body shapes and scantily clad attire) and a sense of team work and team accomplishment, in comparison to DC comics where the heroes worked alone and women were only for saving. Also, Wolverine could kick Superman’s butt. No lie.

4. The last great inspiring comics of my childhood years came to me in the form of old MAD magazines from the 1970s and 80s. Found through used book sales and at old cottages rented by my family for summer weekends, these perverse, aging books were full of inappropriate sex gags and political jokes far beyond my time. Nonetheless, Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of… strips instilled in me a love of plot twists and eye-rolling puns. Sergio Aragonés comics were an inspiration of absolute silliness and some of the first wordless storytelling I had encountered.

MAD mag jackpot

5. I spent most of my teen years absorbed by novels, occasionally revisiting the comic books described above. The most influential visual narratives I can recall from this time period are the Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock. Though more of an adult Jolly Postman than a comic, these books combined art and text in a beautifully creative way. There were real letters you could remove from enveloped glued into the pages. The tactile experience of these books was as intoxicating as the outlandish storyline.

6. Near the end of my high school term, again inspired by my brother, I discovered comics on the internet. This discovery marked the beginning of hundreds of hours spent in front of a computer screen, absorbing comics while ignoring other obligations. The first webcomic I encountered was the now-defunct but still archived online horror that is The Parking Lot is Full (http://plif.courageunfettered....). These one panel comics were perverse, inappropriate, offensive and absolutely hilarious. My brother and I still quote them to each other here and there, one of our many private hilarities.

7. I honestly can’t remember the first graphic novel that I ever read. Now they swim in my head like a mass of names and titles, all important in their own ways. I became aware of Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, Julie Doucet, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine and so many others through the magic that is the public library system. I would read almost anything I found on the shelf (manga and superheroes being the large exception). Graphic novels suddenly existed and seemed to me to be the perfection of the comic genre: replacing serialized cliff hangers with solid and well-developed plots, presenting stories and characters I had not seen in comics before, and allowing for a variety of artistic styles which I had not previously encountered. Though I can’t come close to remembering my first, I can still remember the one graphic novel which for me defined the medium, and still does to this day: Epileptic by David B. This fat, black and white tome tells the story of the author’s childhood, growing up with a brother with an extreme case of epilepsy. His family’s attempt to navigate alternative approaches to living with the disease is presented with a blunt honesty of a child. What truly blew me away by the book however, were David B’s visual metaphors for feelings, memories, imaginary friends and dreams. To visualize the intangible seemed like a magic act in which I wanted to get involved.

8. I thought I knew a lot about graphic novels, most of what there was to know (rather presumptuous), until I took a bookmaking class with George Walker at the Ontario College of Art and Design. George introduced the class to the medium of wordless novels made with relief prints (linocut, woodcut and wood engraving) and to the magnificent works of Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward and Giacomo Patri. In a research quest for my own wordless novel, I visited the Art Room at the Toronto Reference Library where I requested to view original copies of these artist’s works. Masereel’s work in particular resonated in my eye, with vibrant, emotive characters and street scenes leaping off yellowing pages. It was this spirit that I tried to emulate and share in my own wordless tale: Back + Forth, a novel in 90 linocuts (http://porcupinesquill.ca/book...).

9. Webcomics. Webcomics. Webcomics. There is a lot more to say, but that is a story for another time…

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Marta Chudolinska

Marta Chudolinska is a printmaker, bookbinder, zinester, painter and writer. Her first (wordless) graphic novel, Back + Forth: A novel in 90 linocuts, was published in September 2009 by the Porcupine’s Quill Press.

Go to Marta Chudolinska’s Author Page