Monday, 14 July 2014

Knitting with Coalsmoke

John Bagnall Knitting with Coalsmoke (2013)

I wouldn't ordinarily make the effort of setting virtual pen to imaginary paper for something so slim as a single forty-page small press comic book, but this one seems to have enough going on to justify an exception to the rule. I've been vaguely aware of the existence of John Bagnall for at least a couple of decades, and I'm fairly sure we've both contributed to the same periodicals at one point or another. I tend to think of him as a small press cartoonist due to former association with a loose group of individuals including Ed Pinsent, Carol Swain and others with whom his work exists at a similar tangent to the mainstream. I suppose, to commit an extraordinarily crass analogy, you might take it that I'm referring in this instance to the cartooning equivalent of obscure European cinema, tons of subtitles with nothing happening slowly in black and white, and before we get too carried away, I'm not saying this is a bad thing.

I'm out of my depth here in the sense of having drifted away from the small press many years ago, somewhat repelled by a glut of gratuitously self-referential autobiographical material, low content queerzines published by pierced middle-class teenagers now in their leathery fifties and still dressing like members of Haysi bloody Fantayzee, and general wank apparently justified by the idea that hey, at least I'm expressing myself. It still pains me to consider the ocean of horrible drivel in which the good stuff, such as what we have here, is but a drop; but anyway...

Bagnall doesn't really do strip cartoons so much as invoke details of times past, specifically of an England which will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the sixties or seventies. However, this is some way removed from Stewart Maconie chuckling over Spangles and the Bay City Rollers, or any Harry Enfield pastiche of a public information film. The nostalgia industry tends to focus on that which most people remember without prompts, and so our punk documentary - for arbitrary example - will be about the Sex Pistols rather than Eater, the Prats, and the Bears, despite that anything looming so large as to remain in the memory has usually become its own discreet phenomenon and as such can no longer quite be considered part of the general texture. John Bagnall's excavations, on the other hand, are all about the texture, the background noise we barely even noticed at the time, let alone ever had a chance to properly forget. His style is particularly well suited to the task, stark and simple lines tracing solid forms without strongly resembling anything which has gone before, thus allowing for these historical examinations to unfold without unnecessary caricature or kitschy nostalgia clogging up the signal.

There's something very haunting in these tales, or at least these anecdotes of subjects so small and lacking in quantifiable moment that I'm not sure they could be told by any better means than they are here. The silent panels showing the new town centre, or the trades which might be pursued by dexterous young men seem particularly affecting, unburdened by any editorial implication of a better, simpler world gone by, serving simply as an affectionate record of that which should be preserved if only for poetic reasons. This really is a beautiful piece of work.

Purchase your pleasantly musty copy here.

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