Tuesday, September 20, 2011
On The Trail of Martin Millard
My back-issue find of the year surfaced at the comic shop in Los Angeles, wrapped in painted Jerry Moriarty covers and printed on heavy black-and-white paper stock that recalls the California public school textbooks of the mid-1990s. It's issue number 2 of the Ben Katchor-edited Picture Story magazine, an anthology of comics and theoretical pronouncements that takes up the high intellectual demands placed on the reader by Art Spiegelman's Raw (generally accepted as the opening salvo in the explicit positioning of Comics As Art), but with none of that publication's reactionary posturing or uptown snootiness. By the time of Picture Story's 1986 release, Raw had done a great deal of the hard work for it: no longer did a magazine of comics have to distance itself from superheroes or address the worthwhile aspects of commercial comics' history. All Picture Story does is present the form as it is and could be, with short after stunning short putting forth a wide-ranging but aesthetically unified vision of comics as the medium for the "common thinking man", approachable and unpretentious but full of ideas about drawings and stories that can't quite be contained by any other art form. In that sense, it's one of the earliest examples of the modern comics anthology, in which the material's worth is a given and all that matters is the context and presentation of it.
But the most surprising thing about Picture Story #2 is that amid a treasure trove of stellar work by All-Time Great Cartoonists like Katchor, Moriarty, and Mark Beyer (not to mention the mind-expanding contributions of Peter Blegvad), the best comics come from a complete unknown by the name of Martin Millard.
Two short stories by Millard, one five pages and one four, bookend the issue, unified by thematic similarity. The first, "Truck Journey", is exactly what it sounds like, a wordless document of a delivery truck driver's passage from London to Dover through the thick darkness of an English night. The driver stops for a cup of coffee, continues, drops off his delivery at the despatch office in Dover, and spends the night in a hostel before refueling his truck and heading down the road once more. The quiet tone and observational quality of the tightly gridded pages bring Chris Ware to mind, but the flawless mid-20th century period detail and clusters of dense, energetic pen lines also have much to do with the work of Eddie Campbell. Millard's "Truck Journey" pages balance flow and density with an ease that's all his own, however, switching from strings of close-up coffeehouse snapshots to the widescreen gloom of a truck barreling through moonglow, headlights blasting pure white onto the road as it blurs by. The pull of the comic comes less from the story information than the impulse to see how Millard will draw whatever he draws next -- artist and subject are perfectly matched here, the craggy, casual virtuosity of Millard's pictures bringing a pin-point clarity to the gray English highways we can all see hazily somewhere in our imaginations.
There is an intense tangibility to Millard's penwork here, which trails long, gently unspooling lines through open areas of white space and stamps down bold shapes filled with the near-black of his tight crosshatching. These are drawings whose existence as lines made on paper is just as important as their depictive quality: the fuzz of light shadowing marks on a pant cuff or the blots of stubble on a pubgoer's cheek are instances of ink that catch the eye as much as the full effect of the panels holding them. Millard's unruled panel borders, his use of hatching to fill black space, and the resolutely handmade stray marks scuffled across his backgrounds all help bring the comic close to the aesthetic of early observational film -- wavery, grainy, and somehow truer to life than what our eyes show us most of the time. Though an aching nostalgia runs through "Truck Journey", it isn't due to any sentimentalism on Millard's part. Rather, the world he depicts is so beautiful and feels so close at hand that the reader can't help but wish to have been a part of it whenever it was real.
"A Trip To Wales", the second story, goes even further into the documentary roughness of "Train Journey", stripping away even the thin coat of illustrative polish covering that story and leaving the bare bones of a diary entry in comics -- one which isn't quite discernible as either fact or fiction, taking up residence in between in the territory occupied by the best yarns. This time the journey referred to in the title is taken by train, from London to Milford in the Welsh countryside. The narrator (who himself is never glimpsed, acting strictly as the conduit for the reader's viewing of his story) watches the rain and passing stations from the train, eats "a moderate meal at a high price" aboard it, debarks in Milford, meets an old friend at a pub, suppers at his house, and then takes the train back home. No small amount of warmth is curled in each 20-panel page, the dreariness of industrial Wales counterpointed by Millard's studies of the human bustle beneath the scaffolding and derricks and his detailed descriptions of the food and drink partaken of during the journey. Here, unlike in the previous comic, the story is everything, its smallest wrinkles brought to paneled life for our consideration.
As before, Millard's drawing is the real delight, though what sticks out about "A Trip To Wales" is the jettisoning of the stylistic mastery that runs through "Truck Journey". Each small panel is sketched out with incredibly broad strokes, a few lines implying whole landscapes, the compositions pulled strictly from the world as seen, the camera mounted firmly on the ground and its subjects brought to life with little more than a scribble or two. The casual grace and confidence behind Millard's line is hugely impressive: the story is like a master class in showing as much as possible with as little as possible, and the varying density of Millard's scratched marks betrays a nuanced understanding of tone and texture. The scenes Millard depicts are never less than perfectly clear and readable, as are the pen-in-hand gestures that brought them to life (the squiggles of rendering line in every frame slant down and to the left, giving the whole thing a feeling of speed and unity that makes it hard work indeed to stop reading). Rather than word balloons or text boxes, Millard captions each of his drawings with a few lines of text, handwritten with the same brusque elegance that powers the drawings. It's a trick Kyle Baker would make much use of later in his career, and the breakdown from the jagged refinement of "Truck Journey" to the freehand ebullience of "A Trip To Wales" recalls the similar breakdown that occurs halfway through Frank Santoro's Storeyville -- but Millard was there first in both cases, with these two remarkable comics from 1986.
I came away from Picture Story #2 convinced I had discovered the work of a bona fide Unheralded Genius, a cartoonist whose work stood shoulder to shoulder with that of Katchor and Moriarty while pointing forward to that of luminaries like Ware and Santoro. However, scouring the internet for further Millard appearances was next to useless: he had apparently dropped off the map after his brief surfacing in Picture Story. I could find no comics by him for sale, few mentions of Picture Story and none of his work in it, and hardly any clues as to who the man even was.
But there is another fragment of Millard art in Picture Story #2: a quarter-page advertisement for a minicomic called "Wartime Experiences", showing an observational two-panel gag strip about anti-German paranoia drawn in a style somewhere between that of the two stories featured in the anthology itself. A crudely handwritten note following the comic encourages readers to send four dollars to the Picture Story offices in Battery Park. 1986 was the early days of minicomics, and 25 years is a relative eon for a xeroxed, low-run piece of sequential art to survive over. Needless to say, I myself have never seen a copy of Wartime Experiences, and my attempts to purchase one using the internet were utterly fruitless.
However, I was able to track down what seems to be the sole mention of the comic online. English zine artist Ed Pinsent's online gallery of UK minicomics contains the scan of Wartime Experiences' cover seen below. And not only that, it has information on two other British minis that Millard contributed to. The first is 1989's Ugly Mug #3, which also featured work by Brendan McCarthy collaborator and Fantagraphics publishee Carol Swain. The second is 1988's Fast Fiction #25, the page for which gives the most compelling clues I've found as to Millard's existence beyond his nine pages in Picture Story. The table of contents listed reveals that Millard drew a three-page story called "Sudden Disappearance" for the issue, and the footnote Pinsent provides states "Martin Millard, also a painter, was associated with Jerry Moriarty’s Picture Story magazine." Here, finally, was a concrete link between Millard's brilliant entree into American comics and some kind of presence in the UK comics scene.
From what I understand, Fast Fiction was a long-running minicomics anthology and mail order service founded by notable critic Paul Gravett in the early '80s before being handed off to Pinsent. Sold at bimonthly comics conventions in Westminster and through the post, Fast Fiction was a highly visible and well-remembered platform for the minicomics aesthetic in the UK, as well as a home for early work from prominent artists like Swain and Eddie Campbell. And, as it happened, Martin Millard. Martin Millard, who was also a painter.
There is a website -- oddly designed and apparently rarely updated -- showcasing the paintings of a UK-based Martin Millard, but at such small size and low resolution that it's next to impossible to discern any mannerisms and hiccups of style that might give a clue as to whether this was the same man who drew those brilliant comics a few decades ago. There is no mention of any comics work there, and it's a common enough name. To make things even more perplexing, the website's "Information" page is completely blank. But one of the headings under which Millard's paintings are listed under on the main page is "Multiple Images", a tab which leads to a small gallery of pictures like the one below, all reproduced at miniscule size -- but comics nonetheless, paintings of different subjects set into sequence on a single page, with something of the brusqueness that characterizes the image-to-image sequencing in "Train Journey".
A bit more searching unearthed mention of a Millard art exhibition in Fall 2010 at Potterton Books in Kensington, entitled "Town & Country" -- and a PDF copy of the catalog for the show. The catalog's brief introduction refers to Millard as a "local artist". It also reveals that he graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1975, which places him at the school while Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Art Spiegelman were teaching classes there, only a few years before students like Mark Newgarden, Drew Friedman, and Kaz took Spiegelman lecture courses that turned into Raw contributions. If ever there was a place for a cartoonist to have come from, this was it.
Finally, the Potterton Books website led me to this painting, scanned at a size big enough for it to be scoured for clues as to its artist's past. The casual mastery of the black marks are the same, as is the easy facility with shadow and light. But what really does it is the scrawled note captioning the painting, which tells the viewer that this is "13 Mallard Street, Chelsea, the house where the author of Winnie The Pooh lived." It takes a bit of study, but it's recognizable as the same hand that captioned each panel of "A Trip To Wales" with warm, understated descriptions of pictures that barely clung to depiction.
Below that is the signature of Martin Millard, who, it would appear, is a painter living in London.
* * *
NOTE: I've contacted Millard as well as Katchor and Pinsent in hopes of fleshing out this article with some solid information to complement my guesswork and online sleuthing. Hopefully there will be more about Millard available soon.