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Hearing the comic, seeing the sound

Friday 17th March 2017

We talk to some of the artists who helped created Sonic Comic, an anthology that celebrates comics and music together.

An excerpt from Indira Neville's story in Sonic Comic.
An excerpt from Indira Neville's story in Sonic Comic.

Illustration: Indira Neville

If you’re not Catholic, you may not have heard the story of Saint Agatha, the virgin who refused the advances of a powerful judge to protect her virginity and stay true to her faith. The judge had her imprisoned, chained, whipped and stretched on a rack and burnt, until eventually ordering that her breasts be cut off.

It’s a brutally gruesome story, one that Indira Neville — musician, artist and educationalist — took as inspiration for her contribution to audio-visual anthology Sonic Comic, a publication, playlist and exhibition celebrating musicians who make comics and comic artists who make music.

“Because she had her breasts cut off, I had this image come to me of her breasts being replaced with speakers. Then I thought 'Well, if she has speakers in her breasts, what would they be transmitting?’, so I thought, her heartbeat! And because I like to make comics that are a little silly and have a punch line, I decided that the breasts were dancing to her heartbeat,” says Neville.

“I'm not religious at all, but I'm fascinated by the extremity and violence of religion, as well as these heroic woman saints who stood fast against terrible social pressures and physical torture … I like to take things that are sort of hideous and flip them around and make the woman empowered. I'm a great believer in comics that make you smile and laugh and have a punchline.”

While some may find the depiction a little strange and crude, the beauty of Sonic Comic is there’s a little something for everyone. Varied in story, style and substance, each comic and song is the individual embodiment of the artist’s creativity. Sonic Comic’s editors, which include Neville herself along with Chris Cudby and Beth Dawson, gave each contributor the creative freedom to do things their way. Their only instructions related to its size (the same as an LP record), its colour (black and white, for cost purposes) and the audio’s length of time (a three-minute limit).

“We decided early on that our definition of comic was going to be: If the artist says it's a comic, then it's a comic,” says Neville. “We weren't interested in examining comics and saying that they have to have a narrative or have this many panels or have this many words and text. Same thing with the audio. No specifications around it having to be a song or anything.”

The end of result of that freedom is Sonic Comic’s “glorious and nutty” display of variety. While Neville’s creations are inexplicably linked, others such as Dean Ballinger’s comic shows a series of notes which, when played on a keyboard, makes up the audio component. Then there are others, such as Hamilton duo 7 Keys, who use audio and visual to convey a narrative.

“They said that what they had in common was a love of B-grade films. So they did these laser eyes, like an old VHS cover, and the soundtrack is the narrative of that. You get the engine of the car revving and then you get the car chasing whoever through the night,” explains Neville.

While most people remain oblivious to the comics/music tradition, for Neville, Cudby, and Dawson, the link between the two art forms was as natural as anything, meaning they had little trouble finding contributors for their experiential and multimedia art project, from The Clean and The Bats’ Robert Scott to The Wireless’ own Toby Morris.

“Toby Morris is kind of our token 'competent boy' cartoonist. He’s really wonderful at what he does and he makes quite mainstream comics which appear in a lot of places … but he's got quite a secret punk rock heart,” says Neville. “His comic's really fun because it’s all about mispronouncing the word 'quiche', and the song is all about that as well.”

Illustration: Toby Morris

While there are countless examples showcasing the link between traditional visual art and music (think David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Kim Gordon), the link between comics and music still seems like a tenuous thing. But Neville insists there’s a strong pull between the two disciplines.

“I think there's just a particular type of person or artist who needs to get stuff out of themselves and, rather than become technically skilled in one medium, prefer to use as many channels as possible just to get whatever's inside them out,” she says.

“The other thing is this sort of punk/DIY idea around the fact that both music and comics are really easy to make. You only need something to bang on and something to draw with and you can do it. So there's a really strong DIY/punk theme running through that community and that's reflected in the anthology as well. Then what happens is those kinds of DIY communities meet up and connect with each other, encourage each other, and it becomes sort of a snowball where more and more stuff is generated.”

With Zap Comix pioneer Robert Crumb and former Toy Love frontman Chris Knox being notable examples of this DIY/punk spirit, Sonic Comic’s editors hope their latest project will help bring the community to the fore of people’s minds.

“Last year I was also an editor for Three Words and for me, that project was about making this comics discourse visible in a way that it hadn't been before, and Sonic Comic is a similar kind of thing for me,” says Neville.

“We want to help make this rich, long and varied tradition a little bit more visible to the general public, but also just to dedicated musicians and dedicated comics to say 'Hey, we're here! We've been here for a long time and we do some pretty cool stuff.”

*Sonic Comic launches with an exhibition at The Audio Foundation tomorrow. The book and album can be purchased here.

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Jihee is a freelance writer on art, culture, and everything in between.
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