I write a lot of reviews about comics. A lot. Lately I've been writing between three and six reviews a week for this site, and often about rather challenging books like Ted McKeever's Mondo, Dan Clowes's Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Eddie Campbell's The Lovely Horrible Stuff and Glyn Dillon's The Nao of Brown.
These are all challenging books: complex, thoughtful, idiosyncratic works that thoroughly reflect the unique worldviews of their amazingly talented auteur creators. They're works of unique power, tremendous artistic versatility and real intellectual and emotional complexity. I tend to like reviewing the more difficult material, the stuff that's outside the mainstream. I think I write pretty insightful reviews of those books that help to increase both my and your appreciation of them.
But I've never had as much problem reviewing a book as I've had with the new Gary Panter collection, Dal Tokyo.
This book is so beautiful in its offbeat way; so surreal and narrative-based at the same time; so filled with amazingly weirdly diverse art styles and a thoroughly complex interior/exterior approach that I have trouble coming up with the vocabulary to describe this book.
So I did the best thing I could do under these circumstances: I interviewed the amazingly talented Mr. Panter at the Fantagraphics Bookstore on September 8. He was tremendously gracious and interesting, and you can see in there that the master artist offered me a crucial clue in reading this book: my real takeaway from that conversation is that it's important to look for a plot but to also let the book wash over you. I need to allow Dal Tokyo to work its own kind of peculiar magic on me, allow the very experimental and improvisational work to put me into the sort of completely different mindset that only great art can create.Because the world of Dal Tokyo is the closest equivalent that I as a reader can get to living in a strange alien world, just outside of our dimensions and slightly oblique to our way of doing things. It's an artifact from a place that's not just some sort of bizarre amalgam of Tokyo and Texas on Mars; the world in this book is a world where our perceptions of reality are skewed. It's a world where we see inside the heads of others, where our views of the world change continually, from page to page, where the very way that we see the world changes from week to week.
This is narrative. It's narrative in the literal way that we all learned in high school that narrative is created. Characters move and change in a fictional world, moving from place to place and interacting with each other. But it's also a different kind of narrative. Dal Tokyo is a deeper sort of narrative, the kind of narrative that echoes our id and superego and bubbles up from our subconscious and allows us to see things not as they are or how they should be but how they just kind of might be if we squint out one eye in just the right way.
We get completely different art styles juxtaposed next to each other — clean action next to surrealism straight out of Kaz's Underworld next to pages that just show realistically drawn fish swimming in a sea of crosshatched lines that seem to be water next to deliberately crude depictions of people in a cave or somewhere.
It's a strangely empowering, exciting, oddly interactive way that the reader is asked to work his or her way through this book. It's not interactive in the way that one might read an Agatha Christie novel trying to figure out the killer or even a Bill Sienkiewicz comic trying to figure out what the artist means with his complex symbolic iconography. No, this is different. This is a deeper sort of interactivity that we need to bring. Readers are asked to bring our perceptions to these pages, to bring our intelligence and passion and appreciation for abstraction and love for everything that feels different and yet the same as everyday life.
In short, my friends, this is Art with a capital A. It does what art should do, and what great art does to you without you having any ability to control it.
This kind of Art lifts you up and spits you out. It changes your perceptions of the world in completely abstract ways. This is not a narrative with a shattering ending; instead this is something that goes to a deeper and stranger part of your existence and takes you to places you never would have gone.
Yeah, it's fucking amazing.
No wonder I didn't have the words to describe this book. Because it's a book that defies words. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture and all that. Great Art denies easy analysis.
For more Dal Tokyo, check out Jason's interview with Gary Panter.