Friday, December 28, 2012

On Frans Masereel’s The City

Those in the know, who follow my Finnegans Wake illustration project, will have recognised that I’ve been shamelessly ripping off the art of Frans Masereel for months. The City is a 100-page series of unconnected woodcuts without words known as an “image novel”, and I’ve been fascinated with it ever since I discovered it.

Frans Masereel was a Belgian artist who lived in Paris in the early 20th Century. Although he also produced paintings, he’s best remembered now for his series of woodcut prints. I haven’t managed to see many of his other works, but of what I have seen, The City, published in 1925, is by far the most interesting. A sprawling, polyglot metropolis in perpetual night, the unnamed city could be a vision of Babel. The surrounding countryside is visible in only one image; in the others, the forced, disjointed perspective sends buildings climbing up the page and crowding out the sky.

On one level, Masereel draws his disconnected images into a universalised vision of dizzying modernity, stalking the crowded streets from palaces to slums, from the crush of traffic to the swelter of factories; from murders and executions to cabarets and brothels, riots and revolutions. But what makes the book enduringly fascinating is the shadow of overbearing menace that casts every scene with the aspect of a dark and troubling dream. Sex, death and generalised fear infect the atmosphere in lurid advertisements and suggestive statuary, as if city is being overrun not by revolutionaries, but by its inhabitants’ own nightmares.

The whole series can be viewed online in atrocious quality, but it really deserves to be seen in print. Dover has a fairly hideous edition, which I was saved from having to buy when I found this eccentrically produced copy, a tiny little book in a burlap dust jacket, with an introduction by Stefan Zweig. I carried it around with me everywhere until eventually it was put in the washing machine with my jacket. It’s never been the same since.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The City Character Sketches

Because I need something to occupy myself in the ten minutes every day between changing my son’s nappies and my daily nervous breakdown, I realised that I need to start a new project. The City is an idea for a comic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and it’s finally approaching the stage where I might be able to post a few pages in the next few weeks. It’ll be a mixture of spy fiction, gag strips and Kafka, inspired by the great proto-comic by Frans Masereel (of whom more later). I’m not sure when I’ll get the whole thing going, but here are some preliminary character designs to be getting on with.