When do our lives become magical? Why does that alchemy occur? What is it that might, if only occasionally, transform the raw stuff of everyday existence into a moment that’s not just meaningful, but, perhaps, every once in a while, even transcendental? A great mass of our fictions still insist that life’s most vital moments arrive as the result of some exhausting struggle crowned with an improbably hard-earned triumph. For those for whom triumph is, at best, an exceedingly rare visitor, it can feel as if a well-lived life is supposed to be a parade of arduous victories after each of which is granted the salutes of our peers beneath a giant Mission Accomplished banner. No matter that such grand fictional achievements are often intended as metaphors for more mundane and circumscribed experiences. The weight of expectation shaped by the myths of The Heroic Endeavour and The Grand Destiny can at times chaff with those of us for whom the likes of paying the bills and staying civil in the morning to our loved ones are a challenge in themselves.
It can be hard to remember that life is only a narrative – heroic or not – when it’s remembered and reordered as such, and that, for most of the time, our days are composed of a slalom course of one darn thing after another, many of which are largely beyond our capacity to shape in all but the most minor of details. It can also be tough to recall that the most satisfying and even apparently profound of experiences can be those that emerge in the least dramatic and demanding of circumstances. Frequently they arise in the complete absence of design or control. The wistfulness as autumn rain falls on an office window while daylight fades. The pricelessly unexpected hullabaloo of sparrows disturbed by an outdoors bin being filled up. An hour ebbing in and out of sleep on the sofa while chatter from the kitchen babbles on in the background. A poached egg on toast after months of forgetting that poached egg was even an option. Our supposedly slightest moments may just end up having been our best ones too. This we know, to one degree or another, and yet, this we can struggle to hold onto. For aren’t we supposed to be doing something more with our ever-dwindling lifespan? What of all the things we meant to achieve and all the people we intended to be?
If there is a God to hitch our carts to under all but the most desperate of circumstances, and maybe even then, it may well be a God of Small Things. Not only because small things are mostly all we have. But also because small things often work when it comes to generating a sense, passing or not, of a life well lived where matters of great and terrible consequence frequently don’t.
Those Gods of Small Things, should they exist, and if they’re looking in our direction, would surely think highly of Tim Bird’s Asleep In The Back, an account of a lifetime’s journeying by car along local roads and motorways between the homes of three generations of family. It is, in itself, a small thing. A5 in size, with just 29 pages and 50 panels, more or less, of story, Asleep In The Back features a restrained palate of red, grey and brown tones. Bird’s narrative is similarly low key. There are no physical dramas or psychological crises. Instead, it’s a gently told tale that admirably relies upon close observation of mundane events as channelled through innovative storytelling. A casual glance might suggest that Bird’s art is suspiciously naive and overly direct, but that would almost totally obscure how appropriate his style is for his story. (Somehow the 21st century still contains critical voices insisting that a naive style cannot in itself be purposefully used to great effect. They’re quite wrong, of course. Often, a studied naivety can create effects that no excess of hyper-realism can ever equal.) With the minimum of show, Bird evocatively distills the experience of travel as it’s shaped by love, routine, landscape, nostalgia, speed and time. Revealing depth of feeling through silence, repetition and restraint, Bird excels in describing experiences that are so frequently taken for granted that their existence can pass by uncelebrated; the comforting rhythms of oft-repeated car treks, the backseat womb-world of childhood hours spent safely travelling, the satisfactions of growing old and ensuring that one’s own children are as cared for and secure as we ourselves once were, and so on.
At his very best, as on his aching lovely abstracted cover, with its rivers of headlights cutting through the darkness of a motorway at night under a star-splattered sky, Bird’s work is as remarkable in terms of its design and control as it is in terms of the emotional experiences it channels. Elsewhere, his storytelling, for all its apparent straight-forwardness, is never less than effective. In truth, it’s remarkable how much Bird can suggest without ever seeming to be striving to do so. For this reader, Asleep In The Back frequently succeeded in summoning memories of similar youthful experiences of family and travelling. When Bird depicts children in the rear of a car as they slip into soothing weariness and boundless imaginings, his touch as a creator is so gentle and assured that it triggered in me an associated nostalgia for days when I too was habitually placed behind the driver’s seat on long hauls and expected to be patient. There are a great many things that I have, it appears, almost, if not quite, forgotten.
Presenting but a single page of dialogue in the whole comic strips away some of the specificity of Bird’s family tale and allows other voices, other memories, other journeys, to echo in the panels he leaves silent. After all, few of us haven’t stood in the driveways of relatives and waved goodbye. Belted into cars that, fully laddened, potter past the little-changing landscapes is a common enough experience. At moments, Bird even abandons his visuals entirely and instead offers nothing but a list of place names. The effect is both beautiful and bordering on the hypnotic. As they do to a traveller lost to the spell of a lengthy journey, the appearance of the names of potential destinations – Meadowhall and Deptford and Bawtry Road – suddenly appear seductively enticing. Not just markers on a trail from and to home, but quietly magical destinations in themselves.
For me, Asleep In The Back is the most delightfully enchanting comic book that I’ve read in years. A tale of inescapably intertwined routine and beguilement, it traces out the shared passing of miles and minutes with a subtle and canny understanding of how familial love can express itself in duty and intimacy. Yes, any God of Small Things worthy of the title would treasure it. The magic, Bird appears to quietly insist, can be, and often is, far more in the trek than the arrival, and far more in the conditions of the travelling than in the progress of the travelling itself. In Asleep In The Back, he lovingly details a species of quiet wonder that our culture too often lacks the words to describe. For what are the terms that we might use to evoke the dreams that can be unlocked by a secure and predictable expedition between familiar and fondly regarded locations? How is that delicious feeling of safety and belonging that’s created by a drowsy drive home in loving company to be efficiently communicated, when there’s no simple expression for the experience? For all the ease and speed by which the ceremonies of awe-inspiring triumphs can be summarised, we’re woefully short on the language we ought to have for the everyday moments that are both common and special. I doff my hat to Tim Bird, who, in his continuing exploration of liminal spaces and less spoken-of experiences, succeeds in mapping out the personal worlds described in Asleep In The Back with such skill, insight and tenderness.
Asleep In The Back, in addition to a great deal more, can be ordered from Tim Bird’s site, which you can find here.
For a fair while now, the contemporary superhero comic and I have been going our separate ways. The break was only intended to be temporary, but it’s already lasted longer than I’d imagined it ever would. You know how it is. An enforced disengagement occurs, a return is planned, and yet, for any number of reasons, the distance hardens and then hardens again. A brief holiday becomes a season, and then two. A year has suddenly gone by. What was once an apparently unbreakable habit fades away into the stuff of nostalgia. What was life-enhancingly familiar seems, as time passes, progressively more strange and, sadly, even unduly draining.
This shouldn’t be taken to indicate any loss of faith in the potential of the form or the worth of the stories being told in superhero comics. The truth is far more prosaic, and begins and ends with the considerable cost of comics as anything other than an occasional pleasure in these straitened times. Yet given the mass of superhero titles that appear in serial form every month, it’s surprisingly easy to lose touch of plot developments and stylistic trends alike. To be engaged with superhero titles is to be involved, to one degree or another, with a dizzying degree of ever-developing lore and creative approaches. To seriously ration the number of comics that are bought doesn’t interfere with the reader’s ability to enjoy the medium as a whole. Comic books remain comic books. But the grand immersive universes of the superhero lines are remarkably easy to become disconnected from, because they are so insular and complex and, for reasons good and ill, demanding.
Still, as one-off personal indulgences go, the 98-page, squarebound anniversary issue that’s Detective Comics 1000 appeared surprisingly enticing. With 10 self-contained stories by a host of celebrated creators, it promised a comforting and substantial return, albeit temporary, to the world of monthly super-people tales. What I hadn’t foreseen when I ordered it was the bafflement it would cause me. For after a lifetime’s devotion and with only a relatively brief period away, I found myself being progressively more defeated by the storytelling before me. Despite my expectations, problems piled up, not as elements of a well-worked thesis, but rather as individual obstructions unhelpfully encountered as the book continued. Many pages appeared to demand far more in the effort to comprehend than they returned in terms of effect. The rules by which each story were told were dizzingly distinct from one another, which left less a sense of creative freedom and more of one-darn-thing-after-another anarchy. Even the simplest of set-ups often appeared missing or hard to nail down. How did the characters in this story relate to those in that? What was past and future, canon and play? Where were we, and why did it matter? At points, I struggled to even recognise where one tale ended and another began. In short, what appeared to be a festival was actually manifesting itself as a trial. No longer acclimatised by my weekly exposure to the superhero tale and its wonderful, if oft-peculiar, traditions and developments, I had, strangely, dispiritingly, become an outsider. The cost of involvement had become too great for the pleasures released by the effort.
As a young man, I used to wonder why the superhero comic was so difficult for non-devotees to get a taste for. As the years and inches piled up under my belt, it became far easier to sympathise with those who struggled to immerse themselves in a genre that so frequently presented newcomers with any number of unique and potentially trying challenges. But I’ve never been in a situation where I was that outsider. With no other form of comics do I currently experience such a sense of being unduly tested and unhelpfully alienated. But in Detective Comics 1000, and despite the presence of individual tales that were perfectly comprehensible, I found myself asking all the questions that I’d previously found myself attempting to answer from comics neophytes. From “Is this Batman the same as that one?” to “How does this panel relate to the previous frame?” to “Why aren’t these people and situations being introduced to us?”, there I was, confused and somewhat tired and unsure of why I’d want to concentrate so hard on stories that, as a rule, were taking my attention and involvement for granted,
I am in no way suggesting that the stories in Detective Comics 1000 are poorly-worked things. Some may be, from this perspective or that. Some seem impeccably made. To generalise about them all without care would be to unfairly obscure their very different approaches and achievements. But taken together, one after another, they do pose serious, cumulative challenges to the reader who’s no longer comfortable with the many and often taxing demands that they set.
But, as is also frequently the way with folks who’ve rarely if ever come across super-people stories on paper before, I found myself hanging onto moments that were easily understood and enjoyed. The Last Crime In Gotham, by Johns, Jones, Madesen and Leigh, reads like an absurd and exhausting attempt to merge Silver Age comedy with Dark Age storytelling, but it does have Ace The Bat-Hound. And the sight of a crime-fighting dog in a franchise costume is highly likely to always amuse me, even in the context of a story that seems designed solely for the dedicated fan. Dogs I like. The company of dogs I enjoy. A super-dog has my attention from the off. Here was one small part of Detective Comics 1000 that I could immediately and happily associate with.
I once tried to introduce my first serious girlfriend to Frank Miller’s Daredevil. It was the very early 80s. We were very young and I was very stupid. As is only to be expected, she struggled with the title as a whole. Why wouldn’t she? But, with what seemed to be considerable relief, she settled happily upon the figure of everyman lawyer Foggy Nelson, who came across to her as recognisably human, as affable, kind and fallible. Without powers of any sort, Foggy’s struggles were mostly nothing more fraught than his weight, his conscience and his love life. He laughed alot, he loved his friends and he struggled to make sense of the dark tribulations that his relationship with Matt Murdock/Daredevil so often found brought him. For my girlfriend, each Miller meisterwerk was 20 largely unrelatable pages of Daredevil’s grimdark trials within which might be eight or ten cheering panels of The Adventures Of Foggy Nelson. Everything except for them was noise to her. At last I don’t just understand what she saw in Foggy, and why she felt as she did about superhero comics as a whole. Now I believe that I’ve felt as she did too.
There are, of course, superhero tales that don’t exclude the unacclimatised reader. (Some of them are, as I’ve implied, in Detective Comics 1000 itself.) I still intend to enjoy them when I encounter them, and perhaps, one day, I’ll recapture a taste for the most determinedly self-involved examples of the form too. But at this moment, I can’t help but feel that the superhero title I’d most like to read would be a DC/Marvel crossover featuring a team-up between Foggy Nelson and Ace The Bat-Hound. They could go for walks together. Pizzas could be shared, minor-key misadventures could be enjoyed. That’s all they’d need to do for me. I think I’d enjoy that very much.