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Committed: 8 of my favorite surrealist authors

Recently I’ve been revisiting the surrealist comic book authors who have successfully conveyed the kind of disruption of reality which I experience in dreams. I want to pinpoint the ways in which they have been able to successfully communicate and provoke a kind of emotional dissonance with their work.

051414_sandmanNeil Gaiman (and by extension, artist Dave McKean) immediately comes to mind, specifically on his long-running and groundbreaking series; The Sandman, but also in works like Black Orchid and The Books of Magic. In many ways this is the most linear representation of  truly surreal environments that I can think of. He provides us with entire universes of insane, nonsensical, mythical imagery and logic, but he presents each story in a very direct, linear manner. His way of telling a story in this context is very much like a fairytale, with one event leading inevitably to the next, it is deceptively comfortable, almost hiding the craziness inside. When he does move the storyline towards something more evocative of chaos (i.e. towards the end of the books) he still lays all of the elements out carefully so that by the end the reader can happily piece together a logical continuity (that is to say it is logical within the context of the universe he has created).

NeonomiconAlan Moore would be my next and most enjoyable weaver of many different kinds of surrealist experiences. From horror comic books like Swamp Thing or Neonomicon, to adventure comic books like Promethea or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen he is always finding new ways to play with our perspective of reality. In every story he writes he takes us to places within ourselves which we might not be aware of, viscerally changing us. Moore’s ability to create a surreal environment in an organic fashion, escalating the experience gradually so that eventually we’re neck deep in his insanity and the unknown, is part of the magic he works with his writing. Layering his stories to gradually unfold and reveal each secret to us as we read is yet another way in which Moore draws us closer to the flames of his stories. It is the things we don’t know or understand about our primal existence which are the most disturbing to us and by leaning into this human tendency, Moore compounds the impact of his work by making it feel personal and intimate.

051414_heavyliquidPaul Pope’s work on Heavy Liquid is probably one of my favorite unfulfilled science fiction stories. I say unfulfilled because we’re never actually allowed to perceive the aliens or understand their communique. Beautifully and lovingly crafting a relatable but strange futuristic society, Pope shows us a reality where aliens’ transmissions are experienced by humans (and interpreted by them) as simply an inexplicable drug high, with every aspect of the story building to a gradual growing awareness of this alien communication. Just as our protagonist is grasping at answers and ready to open the doors of perception as it were, the story ends and it is this untold aspect of the story fascinates me. By never actually revealing the full impact of this alien contact, or what they’re trying to say to us, Pope works a tantalizing trick. While it is somewhat frustrating, it is actually absolutely essential in order to allow us as readers to create a more tangible interpretation of the aliens in our own imagination.

051414_meta4Ted McKeever’s science fiction comic books are almost all uniformly dirty, nasty, confusing and very, very surreal. Books like Meta 4, Metropol, Plastic Forks and many more give us glimpses of wild, untamed, post-apocalyptic worlds. In each he depicts civilizations so different and strange from our own that only showing us glimpses of them is enough to reveal how confusing and upsetting life there is. Without the basic logic of human interaction, let alone the logic of physics, we’re forced to read carefully and try to empathize with the poor, lost characters in order to understand their struggles. In the same way that Luis Bunuel and Dali’s groundbreaking surrealist film Le Chien Andalou provokes deep emotions of loss and confusion by showing us dissonant imagery, McKeever gives us just enough information to know that we are not standing on solid ground, that in his universe nothing will make sense or functions in the way that we expect.

051414_willworldSeth Fisher‘s work on Green Lantern: Willworld stands out amongst superhero books for it’s fantastically immersive visual trip of a story (though all of his books have a surreal style). Along with colorist Christopher Chuckry, Fisher crafts a gorgeously psychedelic journey for our hero, throwing him (and us) from one crazy situation from another. Using massive scale disruption, dramatically changing angles, and incorporating expressive graphics the dream-like state of the story is clear. There is no unifying logic to the imagery, as in a happy dream there is dissonance and whimsical chaos throughout. It is Fisher’s talent for this style which made him such a pleasure to read. One of his loveliest, most dream-like tales was his work on a Batman comic book written by J.H. Williams (more on him later); Snow. There, Fisher took what could have been a classic back-story of the detective’s past and imbued the book with the tragic sadness of lost dreams and barely-glimpsed nightmares.

051414_prometheaJ.H. Williams ability as an artist to convey the eerie, lost quality of dreams is utilized perfectly in books like Promethea, Batwoman, and Seven Soldiers just to name a few. His evocative water colors and dramatic, inventive use of panel arrangement are clever tricks of storytelling, but it is his talent as an expressive artist which really stands out. Williams ability to depict complex situations and emotional journeys for multiple characters is due in large part to his willingness to play so fluidly with viewpoints and movement. The flow which he creates moves us through his stories gently, easing us into a false sense of security as reality shifts under our feet. With the true eye of a surrealist, Williams darkly playful art dances across the page to conclusion, weaving a world where artifice and truth merge seamlessly.

051414_arkhamasylumGrant Morrison’s writing definitely aspires to be surreal in places, but in many ways this is the most elegantly simple of styles cited here. It is his ability to convey empathic stories from the point of view of the mad which stands out, i.e. things seem less insane because to the characters they make so much sense. It is almost as if we’re being shown the world not through a warped mirror, but directly through the eyes of someone else – and to that person it all seems quite normal. Somehow in the most natural way he entices us to feel compassion and care for the least reasonable of characters doing the most outrageous things. This talent comes to the fore in an old book of his; Arkham Asylum, in which Dave McKean as artist does the heavy lifting in terms of communicating the horror and broken surrealism of the asylum environment (as he did for Gaiman on Black Orchid). Morrison’s ability to have us care about and feel pity for these broken villains, and to firmly grasp the connection to Batman as their erstwhile hero is the sleight of hand here. Despite every terrifying aspect of the asylum, there is a logic and sense to the characters’ journey within the faulty logic of their world.

In many ways these story tellers are working a kind of magic by weaving entirely new realities for us to inhabit and experience. While the above authors are just a few of my own favorites, if you can think of others who you feel successfully convey surrealism in comic books, please note them in the comments below. Thank you!

15 Comments

Mike Loughlin

May 14, 2014 at 11:12 am

Great topic! I’ll add:

Bill Sienkiewicz- Read Stray Toasters. It’s extremely offkilter, hard to follow, and exhilerating. To me, he is the best surrealist in the medium.

Gilbert Hernandez- His non-Palomar stories can get bonkers. Stuff happens without making any sense, often in the backgrounds, and the results can be unsettling.

Steve Gerber- like Gaiman, a “straightforward” surrealist. Read Howard the Duck, especially the infamous “Dreaded Deadline Doom” issue to see how he could twist Marvel comics in unexpected ways.

David Mack- In Kabuki, he took the medium to its brink, reducing pages to singular images with swirls of texts. He also incorporated Escher images and poetry into the series.

veganwithayoyo

May 14, 2014 at 11:34 am

Don’t forget Sam Kieth! The Maxx was one of the first surrealist things I ever read back in the 90s, and he’s done plenty of great stuff since then. I’ll continue to plug My Inner Bimbo every chance I get… weird, nonlinear, fully of strange symbolism and dream logic, and utterly brilliant in every way.

Friends on social networks also added Moebius, Charles Burns, Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo!

Travis Pelkie

May 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Bob Burden on Flaming Carrot is a good one.

Some elements of Cerebus get surreal at times.

His works go too far off the deep end for my tastes, but a discussion of surrealist cartoonists must include Jim Woodring.

Your usage of the term “surrealist” doesn’t seem to relate to any widely accepted usage of the term, especially not in regards to fiction. Jim Woodring or the guy that did The Bus (whose name I can’t remember) would be surrealist, yet I see nothing else on this list in that vein or even vaguely similar.

Not that it’s a big deal or anything… It’s just that I expected actual surrealism when I saw the title and the article delivered none.

sur·re·al·ism noun \s?-?r?-?-?li-z?m also -?r?-\
: a 20th-century art form in which an artist or writer combines unrelated images or events in a very strange and dreamlike way.

Full Definition of SURREALISM

: the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.

From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/surrealism

I think all of the creators listed in the column at least dabble in surrealism and all of them have been influenced by surrealism so I think every one of them is a fair inclusion.

Yeah, you know, using a general purpose dictionary to define speciality terms does not do justice to your argument. I think there are few authors, especially of superhero comics, of which could be said that they haven’t “dabble in surrealism” at some point in their career . Especially if we basically consider surrealism to be synonymous to “somewhat weird”.

McKeever I guess could be described as surreal. At least in stuff like Meta4. And Willworld indeed makes use of some dream-logic and surreal imagery, but I don’t think it’s enough. It is too grounded, too clear. For Paul Pope and J. H. Williams I can even…

As for Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, they referenced everything. And were influenced by people like Nicolas Roeg, Jim Starlin, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Moorecock, William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick. Postmodernism with a touch of psychedelia.

here is the real definition of surrealism as stated by none other than andre breton ( the actual creator of surrealism) : “pure psychic AUTOMATISM , by which it is proposed to express , verbally , in writting or by other means , the real functioning of thought. the dictation of thought , in the absence of all control excercised by reason , and outside all esthetic or moral preoccupations ” so yeah, i agree with the anonymous guy. none of this guys actually qualify as surrealism…not even grant morrisons doom patrol.

Holy crap no Peter Milligan? I’m not the one writing the article but damn.

True, it may be splitting hairs, because the word “surrealism” often has been used to describe anything that is fantastic and weird, but surrealism-the-artistic-movement has little to do with most of these writers and artists.

However, one can make a case for Grant Morrison having many elements of surrealism in most of his works. I think Morrison would admit to that himself. Steve Gerber also flirted with surrealism.

Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, not so much. Alan Moore is a very logical, very ordered sort of writer. He is the opposite of a surrealist. One of the hallmarks of surrealist storytelling is that there is no plot to speak of. Alan Moore’s stories are intensely plotted, sometimes with a crazy level of detail.

Neil Gaiman is softer and not quite as logical as Moore, but his stories still have very defined beginnings, middle, and endings, and they obey logic. Not a surrealist.

I recommend to anyone interested in surrealism to watch the early movies of Luis Bunuel to get a good idea of what it is.

Yep, funny to see the old debate on a site about comics: should Andre Breton be the only one to express what surrealism is? i don’t think so myself and i think that one should not limit himself to discuss surrealism in this frame.
One very important understanding of the term permit to express a continuity between the creators of today and the sensibility that Breton draw upon. The exploration of the dreamscape, the dreamland, the self association of sensations are central to a movement that cannot be limited to Breton.

Breton was a genius but also a dogmatic with a huge ego. He put some of the greatest writers of the time out of is circle because they would’nt follow his more and more specific directions for something that was at first caractrised by a sort of free spirit. What he did was nonetheless pretty influential not only in litterature but also in art: for example he was one of the first european to defend for esthetics reason the arts of the so called “indigenous”. With some of the scientific progress of the time, like the “pensée sauvage” of Levy-Strauss or the discovery of the inconscient, they are pretty influential in the discussion about rationality and the exploration of the world of the nocturnal mind, as opposed to the diurnal and rationalist spirit.

Further, the esthetic of surrealism is clearly influential but not central in the work of some of the artists that were cited.

So to add some names to this list, i think the great french artist Fred and is serie “Philemon” desserve a spot. There is a travel on the letter of the atlantic ocean, flying castels a circus… A ture great if not really know outside of bande dessinée. (https://www.google.ch/search?q=phil%C3%A9mon&safe=off&client=firefox-a&hs=5cg&rls=org.mozilla:fr:official&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=TzF2U4uFCKWx0AX68YDICw&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=682&bih=571)

Hugo Pratt, in works such as “Mu” or “les Helvétiques” dessrve a mention, they are clear exploration of imagination with such gems like a dress in a non existent color. Such pieces as “on a distant sky”,which tell of dreams and aviation, are also worth looking. Pratt has also a unique way to open a picture with some kind of stranges forms that came to make sense in the follwing strip, such as the opening of “Mu” where a circle is a fish and a fish is a greek philosoph and the philosoph is an old warrior.

I like Schuiten and Peeters, the serie “les Cités Obscures” (The Dark Cities”) are stranges tales with a very classic design but very inventive: one of the book use two different papers on the same pages . This white and grey is primordial for the story. Some stories are better than the other but the overall is awesome.
(Nogegon, from Luc and François Schuiten, is an amazing achievement, a palindromic comic book.)

Some of the more recent works of Enki Bilal are also more and more between symbolism an surrealism. Bilal is a kind of superstar and his work is today a bit outside of the comic.

They are a lot of other artist, like Matsumoto and Gogo Monster, but i have allready made a wall of text. I hope some of those awesome comics can be found in english, (i doubt greatly that somebody will translate Philemon) but check some of the pictures that are available online.

Epimethee –

Even with an expanded definition, it’s hard to see some of the guys listed by Sonia as surrealist. Alan Moore, for instance. Even when he is talking about magic and the afterlife, he is extremely rational and ordered.

@renenarciso

Having no plot or storytelling is more of a Dada thing than a surrealist one (even Un chien andalou has sort-of a plot). Although there is a continuity between the two and other forms of non-narrative arts that are usually narrative(film, prose, theater). So the line between what is Dada, what is Surrealism, what is Absurd, what is Abstract is not always so easily traced simply by aesthetic means. It needs a lot of context. And keeping the historical context in mind there are few comics authors that could be considered any of those things.

But, expanding upon the strict definition of Breton and leaving the premises of the actual art-movement, surreal storytelling consists of dream-logic, free association, ascribing new surprising meanings to objects, challenging perceptions with illusions, challenging norms of identification and self-identification. Which are also some of the problems that post-modernism tackles. Only that surrealism does it more by mistake striving for automatic reaction and surveying the psyche while post-modernism does it by design. And post-modernism, when it tries do similar things goes a lot further in some areas.

So what could be considered surrealist in the works of some of the listed authors (again, I’m not sure what Pope and Williams are doing here) is more likely an appropriation of techniques used by surrealists or references to surrealist works, but filtered through a post-modernist ethos.

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