A few weeks ago, a number of Comics Bulletin writers got into a debate about why so many critical analyses of comics fail to talk about art. As we discussed this, Keith Silva brought up the so-called "silent issue", specifically Larry Hama's G.I. Joe #21, as an example of visual storytelling. Silva's observation made me think of Powers #31, the famous monkey fucking issue from Bendis and Oeming. While this is not necessarily a "silent issue," as there are all sorts of Grunnk's and Hurugh's and whatnot, none of these "words" convey any meaning. Yet Powers #31, like G.I. Joe #21, is an intensive narrative. Panel to panel, it explores themes like the struggle for power, the intricacies of intimacy, and the nature of community. The reader makes the connections between art and idea through juxtaposition and closure.
The "silent issue" can be a powerful storytelling device as it engages readers on an even higher level in order to convey narrative. It trusts the reader to understand not only the conventions of the sequential art form, but also trust him or her to have enough background knowledge in order to put the pieces together. The emotional content of the story comes from the reader, as it were, it is the artists who provide the road map to those feelings.
But like any map, if it is poorly executed, the traveler will get terribly, terribly lost.
I write all this as a lead in to a review of Polish creators Piotr Nowacki and Bartosz Sztybor's comic It's Not About That because it, too, is a silent narrative, and more importantly, because using it as a map I got a bit lost.
Ostensibly, this is a book about a robot, Robot 150186, who does the same thing every day. He makes meals for its "family", he waters the garden, cleans the house, trims the hedges, and fixes things when they break. Robot 150186 is, for all extents and purposes, the prototypical science-fiction trope, the robot maid/butler. The story focuses on the days before Robot 150186's retirement (he's planning on a tropical island location). I'll let the solicitation for this book fill in the rest:
"But if suddenly something changed, something went wrong, and everything else would turn out to be a lie? What then would 150186 do to save his boring everyday life?"
So yea, it's that kind of story.
A "silent issue" requires that the creators give the reader enough information to understand the characters, understand their motivation, and understand the conflict. It's Not About That doesn't do a particularly good job of this. It's not necessarily confusing – I could follow the "story" for the most part -- it just didn't add up to anything interesting. Nowacki's art is cute and serviceable, but for a narrative of this sort, it needs to be more than that. The onus is on the artist to convey the writer's intent, and in this case, there seems to have been a bit of a disconnect. Plus, given the nature of what happens in the story, I'm not sure who the audience is for this book. The art points to an all-ages sensibility, but some of the story, a young boy's drowning death in particular, may not be appropriate for children.
Ultimately, Nowacki and Sztybor have spent a good deal of time and passion creating this map (you get the sense that they are passionate about their creation), but really this means nothing if I don't end up where they wanted me to go.