18 June 2011

Review: The Collected John G. Miller

The Collected John G. Miller - John Miller (w/a)
Braw Book Publications, £11.99, Buy it here

It’s not surprising that John Miller uses Frank Zappa as one of his semi-autobiographical stand-ins.  Encountering his work for the first time is much like the first experience with Zappa’s music — the elements are all familiar, and it seems close to what you understand music to be, but the composition and arrangement is strange, alien, almost a sensory overload.  Substitute “comics” for “music” there and you have a perfect description of Miller’s work.  Rendered in stark black and white, the images seem practically carved out of the paper, as Miller abandons curves almost completely in favour of regular, uniform angles, while his stories concern the exploits of secret agents, super heroes and spacemen, that seem to share the tribulations of working-class Scotsmen. The end result is somewhere between the freeform wackiness of children’s comics and primitive tribal art; and much like both those forms, and indeed the music of Zappa, it is raw, unaffected and completely sui generis.

The Collected John G. Miller is a most welcome and long overdue assemblage of the artist’s work which, until now, has existed piecemeal in various underground anthologies, or slim self-published efforts.  This first volume (of a predicted three) covers the 1990s, arguably his most prolific period. The collection is arranged by subject matter, to give the fractured publication history some continuity, and help the thematic weight of the work to emerge more clearly.  Given the divergent nature of Miller’s stories, the repetition can help the reader to find the core of the tales. What may begin as a story about avoiding religious assemblies at school, can become an encounter with Jesus selling bad dope — and subsequently leave us fumbling for some kind of point — when placed in tandem with other half-true accounts of the artist’s experiences with religion, the flights of fantasy make more sense and the literary tenor is more evident. Given that it’s easy to dismiss Miller’s strips as “just crazy,” this is incredibly effective in inviting us to take the work a good deal more seriously.

Sometimes it can be difficult to take it seriously, though, as the artwork practically buzzes with manic energy — forget Kirby crackle, Miller’s pages are bursting with starfields, op-art waves, shattered glass, lightning bolts and mod chequers — the antithesis of the somber, serious tone we’ve grown accustomed to in literary comics.  (And all that spotted black?  It’s obsessively inked with ballpoint pen — the original pages can almost be read like Braille.)  The subject-matter, too, often moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, with cats from U.N.C.L.E. fighting the fascists who are trying to ban alcohol…with mind control…in Lanark.  Some of the characters, though, are clear analogues for Miller himself, like the aforementioned Captain Zappa, who is imbued with the psychedelic power to fight the establishment; or the many underground zine artists that are saved by Ghosty (a psychic superheroine). It’s all too obvious — sadly so — that Miller has struggled with his art being accepted, rather being dismissed as subversive, dangerous or just garbage.

Occasionally, though, we are treated to strips like “Girl at the Bus Stop” or “A Girl Called Ailsa” that eschew all power fantasies and appear to portray the real, unmasked Miller, and can be genuinely moving.  The vulnerability and shyness that is hidden in the meta-personas is brought to the fore and presents an altogether more fragile authorial voice.  It’s in these strips that we realize exactly what Miller’s art means to him — a vital, necessary outlet to hew order from his chaotic thoughts and stamp out an identity on paper.  From marginal details in some of the strips, it becomes apparent that Miller sees several psychiatrists and may experience hallucinations as a symptom of schizophrenia.  After this slow realization, all the blurred identities, concerns of paranoia and spying, half-remembered autobiography and outsiderism make sense.  And struggling through it all is a glittering intelligence that can riff on Andre Breton, David Gascoyne and Wordsworth, with a love of the surreal and the sublime that can channel his condition into Art.
Within these pages are some of the most original, inventive and urgent comics that have been set to print.  They are never an easy read — whether it be from the eyeball-bending visuals, the surreal leaps in logic or the brutal confessionalism — but always rewarding and a lesson in how far the limits of the comics form can be pushed.  Miller ought to have more recognition than the underground infamy he currently has, it would be hoped that this collection will do well to garner him the praise he so rightly deserves.
-- Gavin Lees


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