Lately I’ve been thinking about Glenn Dakin. He’s a marginal figure in the grand scheme of comics, not by dint of talent, just someone who made a brief bold stance before being defeated by the ever-enduring menace of reality. It’s the same scenario in every medium, at least when the emphasis is on personal expression - names seen often and then rarely at all – and doubly so in comics, by virtue of their oft-low status on both the cultural and economic totem poles. You may not know his work directly, but you might be familiar with his several appearances in Eddie Campbell’s Alec, most prominently in Alec: How To Be An Artist (which Campbell dedicates to him), where, courtesy of the second-person self-mythologizing tone of that book, Dakin emerges as something like Alec’s artistic conscience.* He was a significant presence in the eighties British small press scene, a solar system of names – Woodrow Phoenix, Phil Elliott, Campbell himself, among others – which revolved largely around the redoubtable Paul Gravett of Fast Fiction and Escape Magazine.
No one’s gonna begrudge you ignorance of his actual comics, considering how few of them are currently collected and in print – at the moment, you can fish around, with some likely profit, for Temptation (Active Images), Abe: Wrong For All The Right Reasons (Top Shelf), and, with Phil Elliott, The Rockpool Files (Slave Labor Graphics), with the rest of his corpus waifs and strays haunting basements, forlorn long boxes, and the fourth dimension, presumably. For much of the current millennium, his focus has been less on cartooning and more on television writing (he’s partially responsible for the hours of enjoyment me and my nephews have spent watching Shaun The Sheep) and media tie-ins, along with his very recent Candle Man series of children’s books; may success greet him in his attempts to usurp Rowling’s throne.
Among that bunch, I recently got my hands on (courtesy of the wonders of the interlibrary loan system) Temptation. It’s a fine piece of work – Krazy Kat is invoked by both Campbell (in his introduction) and Stan Lee (blurb-wise) and it’s certainly prominent in the strip’s DNA (or at least the Sunday Funday full-page format that probably cues up in your mind whenever anyone brings it up), with each installment another variation on a basic conflict – the Man, the Devil, the Man’s soul which the Devil craves – played against a barren oft-mutable environment. Although strong enough to be immediately noticeable at a glance, it’s a comparison which only goes so far – there are no linguophilic phits of phrenzy nor is Dakin inclined to make each instance a connect-the-dots event of physical movement and off-center design, much less the synaesthetic fever dream of the Kat’s later years (Temptation, in book form, being strictly black & white beyond the strip included on the back cover). No, Temptation’s layout rhythm is a more stately saunter and its verbal sophistication, while lively, not quite as singular – it owes as much to Herriman as it does to the dialogue-dialogue-punchline structure of the typical mid-century syndicated strip ala Johnny Hart’s B. C. and it’s ilk. (I cite B. C. not from personal knowledge but because Dakin himself mentions it in a brief introductory note.)
But Herriman is a cruel standard to impose – it’s hard to imagine how Temptation’s spare premise would mesh with that idiosyncratic graphic vocabulary. As a story foundation, though, it’s plenty solid, with each page a reliable dose of witty off-hand morality, our central characters both specific enough to ensure each comedic punch hits proper and easy to generalize into a grand unending battle of wills, the lone Man vs. the wily Devil, their backdrop elastic enough to be either the mythic Then or the relevant Now. Campbell notes that the strip was initially pegged as “most likely to succeed” by those in the know, so appealing and user-friendly it seemed, with something like a hypothetical regular weekly slot and a ready rhythm of collections as its final reward. Instead, Temptation proved a series of false starts, appearing sporadically throughout the eighties and nineties, jumping from one small-press haven to another, before inevitably petering out, with this collection, released a decade after its heyday, all that remains. (Although, quite recently, Dakin did break it out again for the Spirit Of Hope anthology, to benefit victims of the Japanese earthquake.)
But if you want your source of Dakin as pure as can be, without the market-ready constraints of a single page premise or a kid-lit tome, your best bet is Abe: Wrong For All The Right Reasons. A few months back I hunted a copy down from one of my discount sources and another few weeks after that, located another one in the clearance shelves for three dollars, so keep those eyes wide and may fortune guide your step.
It’s a collection of Dakin’s “Abe” strips, natch, your source for proper personal expression in the unfiltered-lens-capital-A-artist sense; Warren Ellis, in a nice bit of hyperbole, described Dakin’s work as “…comics that sounded like the best bedroom indie you ever heard…” and this, almost certainly, is the work to which he’s referring. You don’t put a cover of your protagonist standing upon a grassy precipice before the becalmed splendor of the sea – contemplating the boundary he’s treading, with nature in front of him and the world behind, or simply gazing into blank space, the silent vista before him a ready canvas for his thoughts – as anything other than a statement of sincere intent, singer-songwriter album cover style. You can rest easy knowing that, in this book, it’s an image that won’t steer you wrong.
“Abe”, y’see, first began as “Captain Oblivion”, a decidedly understated approach to superheroics. It’s an appropriation of genre sans convention; close-ups, splash pages, a backdrop of “realism” against which our Supergod may stand all the more mighty, and so on – those are all non-issues. Like all of Dakin’s work I’ve seen, it proceeds from the physical base of the early twentieth-century daily newspaper strip (Gasoline Alley; Thimble Theater; Herriman, obv.), its panels nice and tight, with an implicit proscenium arch up above so as to render all characters in equal proportion within its space – a form fitting for its central character, the most unassuming of superheroes.
It’s little surprise to learn it began in Dakin’s adolescence, what with the brashness of juxtapositing the word “oblivion” with this indubitably mild man of mystery; that may be a tell. And perhaps Dakin gave Captain Oblivion an actual secret origin, but it’s one that remains secret, away from our eyes in some notebook or zine (like many of his adventures, one imagines), all-around irrelevant before the image which prevails, one of a reasonably normal fellow, probably not unlike you or me, with a cape, tights, and the typical template of extranormal abilities to justify those ridiculous pieces of clothing. Oh, and he’s in the 25th century. In light of Douglas Wolk’s claim of the superhero genre as the last bastion of the “novel of ideas”, you’d be wise to notice the undercurrent of ideology all throughout, esp. w/r/t the rogues gallery the Captain found himself up against (when he’s taking on villains at all) – a series of smooth-talking charismatic types intent upon remaking messy, unpredictable reality (which amounts, in these stories, to the community, the neighborhood) into a corporate model of logic and efficiency, and thus, at bottom, dehumanization. But all within the context of gentle satire – bemused glances at how outside forces (sometimes malevolently, sometimes misguidedly) may intrude upon private space, set well within the context of the humdrum world.
And any time the concepts of “superhero” and “satire” come within contact of each other, there will invariably be a few jabs at the genre itself; you’ll find a few here, but superheroics function primarily as a convenient tool for use, with no real qualms. Violence is largely eschewed, with Captain Oblivion positing himself not as a force of will, with all its attendant ethical complications, but more as an example for all who offers the occasional helping hand. Or at least from our privileged extra-textual POV – there’s a running joke of our hero refusing that more imposing role and being pegged as such anyway; an old premise, but one that rarely fails. He’s already a marginal figure in his stories by the time the book begins, with Abe the clear dominant force – plenty of the earlier stories here bear the “Captain Oblivion” title and feature no hint of the character, just plain Abe and his adventures in introspection. Frequently they’ll be writ large through the use of fabulist tropes (Abe encountering Poseidon and birthing a new idea, Abe inheriting the moon, and so on), but they’re just as likely to see our hero navigating the social swirl in romantic comedy mode – whatever suited Dakin’s fancy.
And so, about a fourth of the way through, the good Captain is sent on his way. It’s not a decisive break – he returned in a nice one-off later in the book – but, from then on, Abe remained mere Abe, his cape cast aside and his mild-mannered lenses thoroughly in place, the Captain Oblivion persona traded in so as to better stand in for the man wielding the pen, with his surrounding World Of Tomorrow following suit, more closely resembling our own (which it pretty much always was, minus the odd spire and antenna). Dakin even gave him a nice epitaph:
You could draw a comparison to Jaime Hernandez, considering the similar trajectory both Abe and Locas follow – a cycle of stories setting out into publication with genre training wheels before finding a surer footing when they untethered themselves from that context, with that later blossoming somewhat visible in the earlier work. But if the quality soared once Jaime jettisoned the Rockets and gave the Love his full attention, the learning curve isn’t too steep for Dakin’s “Captain Oblivion”; they’re swell reads, with no anxiety of influence or stake in the genre to throw the writing or art off its course.
With no man of mystery, the strip went from being a celebration of the idiosyncratic meandering life to a depiction of it. Dakin’s penchant for the fable remains, so genre may be gone but the fantastical is never entirely absent – regardless, all dues have been paid and Dakin then hits upon a groove which doesn’t let up for the rest of the book.
Autobiography does become predominant and, considering the close connection, it would be easy to peg Campbell as an influence on this shift, what with the occasional use of the illustration-with-caption-up-above format in Abe, a Campbell trademark by the force of will imposed by 700-some pages, omnibus style, never mind the transparent alter-ego. Perhaps he was an impetus (Campbell, in How To Be An Artist, implies (and only implies, hence this paragraph) they were both plowing the same field before they’d met), but Campbell’s work is that of an inveterate storyteller and a canny operator, his own handmade style one of literary stylistics transformed via some unknown alchemy into pure comics, with even the most incidental narratives allotted a place in an arc, along with running motifs ingenious enough to induce whiplash and a dry-as-the-Gobi sense of dramatic irony.**
Dakin, in Abe, is a far more instinctive beast (note “The Demon Cartoonist”, his chosen nickname), a termite to Campbell’s white elephant. There’s no whiff of memoir here and the tendrils of continuity never coil too tight. Abe will frequently prove to be less an onstage character and simply a more porous filter, a handy P.O.V Dakin wields whenever apposite. Thus the longest piece here, a travelogue through northern Europe which runs to fourteen pages of Abe contentedly drifting from one observation to the next, with circumstance his preeminent guide, takes its place next to a jolly sketch of Abe interviewing a mopey but stoic Hiawatha. Very often, a strip will proceed with not so much a story as a subject of inquiry, a question asked or a topic introduced. Take “At the End of the Rainbow”, which begins as a glance at nostalgia and becomes a monologue on uncertainty. From there, the strip makes its own wayward promenade across six pages: a blunt lesson on survival from a tree is learned and a parable about two ninjas is recounted, along with images from Doctor Who and a scene from D. H. Lawrence’s Women In Love among many an et cetera; every few panels a new motif, some evoking the titular rainbow - the treasure at its end which may never be reached - and some only tangential to the theme, if that. In the end, the strip climaxes with an evocation of pastoral bliss in poem form.
Such is this book’s m. o. You’ll find a smattering of proper narratives, but it soon becomes clear that stories are no longer the book’s central concern – the focus isn’t on the life lived, its dramatic moments of note dutifully tallied off. Dakin’s preoccupation isn’t with narrative, only the moment, both the moment captured – the fleeting observations and, occasionally, epiphanies that can be experienced anywhere, on a night out or staring out into space when you’ve got work to do – and the moment he’s absorbed in right now, the speed of thought as he’s moves from association to association across the page; various strips are cut-and-paste affairs, making that sense of performance just a little more immediate. But the spotlight here is never pointed at process – for all his frequent play and experimentation, Dakin’s not a formalist; each action is devoted to getting the idea, this mood, this odd nexus of ideas, its own space, before it fades.
There are songs, poems, stuff that probably happened and stuff that most certainly did not – as you might have gathered, nothing here is defined too concretely; modes will frequently shift from one to the next, ever mutable, each piece thoroughly reveling in its status as pictures on a page. A quick flip through the book will see the plot-happy foundation of tiny dense panels to which we’ve grown accustomed more likely to dissolve and break apart, its once-dense flow of information now sparser and the statements often as self-sufficient as koans. It’s all confidence and no strain, scratchy, sloppy, and crystal clear in terms of linework and storytelling, achieving a simplicity so off-handedly assured as to suggest years of study, a keen foundation of discipline (esp. considering Dakin’s age when he produced these – from his early twenties to his early thirties). Very often they seem to have coalesced on the page by sheer happenstance, Dakin’s loose lines floating together to form a wispy vignette, the frequent lack of panel borders leaving the image’s negative space to trail off into the edges of the page. Nothing is irrelevant; everything is of a piece, resoundingly whole under Dakin’s all-powerful sensibility.
Dakin probably drew them the way Frank O’Hara wrote poems, on the fly, the strip he’d be working on something that needed to escape his nervous system, with his mind already intent on both the strip he’d work on tomorrow and the strip he’d start while he buses it to a friend’s place later in the evening. It’s not a unique approach, but it’s palpable when you look at the pages, a restlessness unhindered by perfectionism, the need to move move move, onto the next panel, the next idea. Even the quietest strip suggests a relentlessly mobile pen, a poem jotted down while the inspiration remains. Territory needs to be covered!
And like O’Hara, there’s a sense of intimacy which ensures none of it is precious. In a less talented cartoonist, these strips would veer either toward insufferability - an adolescent’s notebook of poems put on display – or gnomic abstraction, a hazy work-intensive plod through half-digested ideas. Here you’ll find no barrier between you and the artist, only generosity; they read like letters from a good friend, a friend who can’t help but take in the joy and sadness of being alive and will compulsively share them with you every few weeks, another email about what the world is like at this holy moment.
This may be stretching, but, if I squint hard enough, I think I can see one more comparison (as is my m. o.) – indulge me. If you or I were to make a go of writing our own version of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet, cataloguing our own solipsism, the extent to which we’re out of sync with the rhythm of the world around us, it would probably be pretty close to Abe, except nowhere near as good. Abe/Dakin – social, charming, ceaselessly peripatetic – is far from Pessoa’s hermit – recoiling from the world, preaching inaction and reclusion, defining the entirety of his universe as four walls, a bed, and a great many books – but the books do share one obvious point of congruence – each being a document of notes, sketches, figments, and monologues dictated directly from the deep interior of one man – along with some nice glib ones: you can flip randomly to any page of each and uncover an able epigram; both are, at bottom, manifestos for slackers. There’s no missing the exuberance in Abe, but you’d be hardpressed to neglect what it shares with the Book Of Disquiet: a sense of disconnection, an unmistakable dissatisfaction with a standard of measurement that is axiomatic with society. Abe at no time approaches Pessoa’s full-on nihilism (plenty do, but often the only testament to their beliefs they leave for posterity are suicide notes); he’s just a man who knows his own definitions of freedom – mystery, chance, stillness – stand in direct contrast to a life that demands practicality as a necessity, which requires set goals, a pre-programmed sense of progress. It may be a losing game – the subtitle of the book doesn’t deny it.
And, perhaps incidentally, both books seem infinite. Abe is only 174 pages but it has all the density of a white star. There are strips here, some lasting one, two, or three pages – each a simple flow of near-calligraphic images dredged up from somewhere, with not much in the way of motion or movement forward – which, in my mind, never seem to stop; I continually play them like pop songs, easy and abstract. The connections they make are vast, continually expanding, and the mysteries (or is it just one? I return to that word ridiculously often in this essay, but there’s no more perfect word) contained therein always beckoning. There aren’t many books like this, with so many landscapes at play, unknown vistas. You might be obliged to take a cue from Ignatz in the image up above, nodding in quiescent siesta before that moon, immutable, ineffable.
Or you can find a spot on a proper precipice and then, as is natural, stand and stare.
*It runs both ways – Eddie (along with his daughter, future Comics Journal contributor Hayley Campbell) makes an appearance in the strip “Abe In Australia”, collected in Abe.
**If you can see some trace of Campbell in Abe, then Campbell himself claims Dakin as a direct influence, specifically on Graffiti Kitchen, arguably the least illustrative of the Alec books, with each image reliant more upon a scrawled spontaneity and less on pictorial effect.