Thursday, 12 July 2012

It's Dark in London (Festival Village; Oscar Zarate, Iain Sinclair, Stella Duffy, Alexei Sayle)

The other night we went to an event at the South Bank Centre to mark the recent publication of It's Dark in London by indie comics powerhouse SelfMadeHero.

The book is an expanded reissue of a very solid anthology originally published in 1996 (gulp), featuring strips from independent comic luminaries Woodrow Phoenix, Ed 'Ilya' Hillier and Carol Swain, as well as creative teams including Neil Gaiman and Warren Pleece; Iain Sinclair and Dave McKean; Chris Petit and Garry Marshall; and Alan Moore and the book's editor, Oscar Zarate.

Zarate led the event and was joined on stage by Sinclair, as well as Stella Duffy and Alexei Sayle, fellow contributors to the book, which now includes a few additional pieces of prose and poetry.

However, the nature of the event meant that apart from slides of various pages projected on the stage before the start, the core identity of the book as 'comics' wasn't really explored (or, at least, not until Woodrow Phoenix hijacked the mic from the audience during the Q&A to redress the balance).

The event was the first to take place in the 'Festival Village' – a new space cobbled together under the concrete mass of the SBC that was very hot and stuffy, despite London's current meteorological filth.

Iain Sinclair picked up rapidly on the 'underground car park' ambience, and soon began to riff characteristically on its nature as a place that has no history but still absorbs a 'generic' history from its nature and surroundings. Before long he was reminiscing about JG Ballard and speculating about multi-storey car parks "leaking their psychosis" into their users.

(Nicked from Woodrow Phoenix's Twitter stream: @MrPhoenix)
Zarate, probably one of the most undervalued cartoonists I can think of, opened the evening with a quote from Italo Calvino that reveals the way individuals construct the nature of the city around them:Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

He linked this to his aim with the book: London conceals its information – it doesn't want to give anything away and if you have to work hard to get beneath the surface. He hoped that drawing in collaborators from a number of artistic fields would enable them to unveil and understand London's unique 'darkness'.

Sinclair elaborated on this, saying that darkness has always been an element of London; as its buildings cast their physical shadows, they also cast psychic shadows over those living beneath them – a 'topography of darkness' familiar to anyone who's seen Hawksmoor's ominous Christ Church Spitalfields looming over the unfortunate characters in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell.

He also outlined the attraction of the comic form to him, using a quote from The Griffin's Egg, his collaboration with Dave McKean: Stick any two postcards on a wall and you've got a narrative. He cited material like Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition and the work of William Burroughs as examples of clashing images and concepts producing a narrative.

His first reading was from one of the new prose sections in the book, describing how he picked up the phrase 'Ghost Milk' from two adjacent bits of graffiti, and how it suggested the notion of a fluid that surrounds the city's inhabitantspart amniotic and part embalming.

Even though I find his prose a bit dense to be really enjoyable (as playfully parodied by Alan Moore recently in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century), he's a very strong reader of his work, giving it a muscular sense of rhythm. He may now be more associated with Hackney than his native Wales, but he's still retained something of his homeland's hwyl.

Next up was Stella Duffy, who took the unusual step of almost disowning the story she'd written (illustrated by Melinda Gebbie) for the original volume. She then outlined her biographical link with the city and read two pieces: a section from her South London novel Empire of Lost Things, and a poetic narration she wrote for Radio 4, From the River's Mouth, in which the personified Thames berates those who refuse to cross her and recalls those who have fallen beneath the surface into her 'care'.

Finally, Alexei Sayle introduced 'his' London. As the son of Communist parents, the city was first and foremost to him a place of protest; he said that he struggled to find his way around when he wasn't walking down the middle of the road and shouting.

He also read two pieces: the first was an extract - probably a bit of a tall tale - from the in-progress second volume of his memoirs, recalling the chaotic flat in South Kensington that he moved into when he arrived in London to study at the Chelsea College of Art.

The second was The Catwoman of Crouch End, a slight piece from the new edition of It's Dark in London about a woman who decides to stop worrying about human concerns and to start living more spontaneously, like a local cat.

After a stuttering start, the audience questions were the usual mixed bag, leading the panel to offer their thoughts on great London films, to what extent there are two (or more) Londons, divided by wealth and class, and their favourite parts of the city (Sinclair – Bunhill Field; Duffy – Brixton Market; Sayle – Westfield (!); Zarate – Highgate village).

All in all it was an enjoyable event, but I couldn't help but feel that the opportunity to promote comics to a broader literary audience wasn't really seized (despite Woodrow Phoenix's valiant effort).  

Hopefully a few of the audience will have had a good look through the exciting SelfMadeHero catalogues left on the seats.

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