Sunday, June 08, 2008

PROPAGANDA Reviews: Trains Are...Mint

Trains Are…Mint

By Oliver East.

First a disclaimer…….
Trains Are…Mint is published by Blank Slate Books, a new company co-owned by Kenny Penman and James Hamilton who are both directors at Forbidden Planet International. Kenny’s also the gent who suggested I review for the FPI weblog.
I Just thought we’d get that out of the way before any accusations of bias can be thrown my way. I’m pleased to be able to say that there’s not a single word in any review on the blog that has been in any way influenced by anything other than my enjoyment or otherwise of the book in question. And that includes this review.
I felt the need to write the above paragraph because I’ve been trying to write this review of Trains Are…Mint for days now and each time I’ve produced something far too safe and restrained. I was deliberately avoiding using the language and intensity in the review that I felt when I was actually reading the book and I realised that part of the reason for toning it down was because of the connection with the FPI blog and Blank Slate.

But sometimes a book just catches you perfectly, you fall into it’s sweet spot and are overwhelmed by it. So it is with Trains Are…Mint.

Where to start? I could dive right in and proclaim it as my book of 2008. Because unless something unimaginably spectacular comes along in the remaining 7 months of the year, I really think it will be. I could build up slowly and carefully, explaining just how special the book is and how Oliver East has delivered something fresh and new onto the comics medium. Or I could just play it safe and give a blow by blow account of the book. But that wouldn’t really work, as Trains Are … Mint isn’t about the narrative and the story, It’s about the process, it’s about the experience, it’s about the sheer bloody joy of holding the book in your hands and realising it’s very, very special indeed.

It’s a spectacular success. Oliver East’s Trains are…Mint is one of the most intriguing, complicated, difficult, strange and altogether wonderful books I have read in a long, long time. Yet when you attempt to describe it the first thing that comes to mind is to label it as a simple travelogue. But East obviously loves what he’s doing, loves the simple pleasures of his walk and his time just observing and it shows on every glorious page.

(Such a simple page, yet with this imagery and that one word in the top left corner
you get just a small sense of the simple joy and contentment that radiates from this book.
Mint indeed.
From Trains Are…Mint by Oliver East, published Blank Slate Books.)

Since reading Trains I’ve found out a little more about Oliver East and it’s instrumental in understanding his work. For a start, he’s using Trains as an artistic process, merely a step of his progression as an artist - his own artistic journey if you will. Because East is approaching being a comics artist not via comics but from an art perspective. He was part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s experimental interactive arts course. One thing led to another led to photography led to attempting to use a tent as a pinhole camera to document life in caravan parks. Luckily for us, the pinhole camera idea failed miserably and, two days prior to the exhibition opening East was faced with a gallery of blank walls. This was when he realised he had stories to tell of the process of failing to get the photographs he wanted and the exhibition became just the tent surrounded by East’s writing about the process itself. He found himself increasingly marrying text and image until he arrived at producing his own comics, of which Trains is the latest.

(Finding the beauty in the urban mundanity all around us.
Another page from Trains Are Mint by Oliver East)

Trains is the latest in Oliver East’s marriage of image and words to produce his art. At it’s most simple it’s merely a diary of the walks East has undertaken from Manchester, Blackpool and Bolton, travelling as close to a set of train tracks as he possibly can. The comic is a travelogue, a diary and a detailed social commentary, looking at the urban spread and the people who populate this area. East picks out the beauty of both urban environment and natural surroundings with ease, and effortlessly defines the people he meets with a brief description and a few, deft brush strokes. As he walks the paths and roads of Manchester he picks out the good and the bad, yet does so in such a way to make it all vibrant and important in this urban landscape. Whether he’s looking at crappy graffiti, dumped sofas or blank, monotonous buildings it’s all interesting and valuable.

It’s this ability to discover beauty in the everyday and the mundane that gives Trains a marvellously uplifting feel even though East’s natural voice is a downbeat, slightly cynical one. Trains is written completely from East’s point of view. It does away with dialogue and balloons and integrates his commentary into the artwork on signs, billboards and wherever it works best, all in the same longform and easy going conversational style.

(More from Trains Are … Mint, where East uses his easy going conversational style to draw you in to share the joy of the everyday beauty he sees in a particular arrangement of street, houses, tracks and bridge.)

His art is a simple mix of traditional linework and watercolour washes. He draws direct to page, with very little preparation, no sketching, no perfecting. What you see on the page is pretty much exactly as Oliver experienced it. As such, East’s artwork is a difficult thing, demanding many readings of the book to fully absorb all of the little touches. Before I’d even read it properly I kept receiving little insights into the artwork and East’s thought processes via his blog:

“The one concept I wanted to stay true to throughout Trains Are…Mint is that I wanted to learn how to draw in front of my audience. However small that might be, I wanted them to be able to see me develop in the books themselves. I don’t have a sketchbook to work things through in. i don’t draw all the time, out of habit. I don’t practice. the only time I draw is for a Trains book, and then I’ll use the first page I draw. I could have easily squiraled myself away for a year or two, with some anatomy books, learnt how to draw, then brought a book out. I don’t know; I just thought it might be of interest to someone with the same concerns as myself. So what you see throughout all Trains is the first draft of every page, with very few exceptions. Unless a page is truly dreadful, in which case I’ll have another stab at it, then it goes in.”

I love the idea that Oliver’s learning, developing and improving as he goes with Trains. Every issue brings new insights into how he processes his observations, and his artwork is developing in new and incredibly interesting directions. Again, from East’s blog:

“Still not being able to draw like, you know, a proper cartoonist and that means I’ve had to come up with coping mechanisms to get round a lack of innate talent. It’s like with the stammer; you come up with ways to get round saying certain things. So, because I’ve still got a hang-up about how to draw people, in particular faces, I’ve had to develop ways round it that still look good. For the most part they’ve worked out all right. The problems come when I try and draw people the way people look. Then they just look bad…. If I relax, don’t worry about it so much, then it gets a lot better. Like this circle of schoolgirls.”

(Circle of Schoolgirls, as yet unpublished art from an upcoming Trains Are…Mint by Oliver East)

The abstraction of his work is simply breath-taking and to my eyes it’s wonderful. The schoolgirls smoking illustration is taken from a yet unpublished Trains Are…Mint volume and I chose it simply as East refers to it directly from his blog to act as a perfect example of East’s increasingly abstracted and representative style. But there are delightful art abstractions everywhere in Trains, as East refines and develops his art from page to page.
Yet things like this are so difficult to pick up on a cursory look and much of the context of the book is missed on the first read through. But like all truly great things Trains rewards subsequent readings with layer upon layer of understanding and realisation.

(More unusual artwork from Trains Are…Mint.
This time a point of view from beneath East’s hood of the path he’s travelling.)

Possibly the greatest thing about Trains Are…Mint and Oliver East is that is plainly obvious that he’s just getting started and he’s getting better with every page. The material in this beautiful hardback collection is wonderful, but even through the book you can see East developing his style, honing his art and perfecting his storytelling.

Kenny Penman, co-publisher of Trains has talked previously of the book having real crossover potential and I can only concur. It should be everywhere, it should be a spectacular success and this time next year we should all be talking about how incredible each new issue is and how much we’re looking forward to volume two, because East, as we’ve already mentioned, is only getting better and better. All I can do is implore you to pick up this book. Some of you may not get it, but for those of you that do, you’ll fall in love with it and talk about it in much the same way I just have.

The Trains Are .. Mint collection of issues 1-3 is available from the FPI webstore, from Blank Slate Books and from these stores in the UK right now, but it will be available from Previews soon.
Individual issues of 1-3 and the uncollected as yet issue 5 are available from Oliver East’s website. Personally I’d say get the collection (and so does Oliver). Production values are absolutely top notch and it’s just class. It’s no exaggeration though to say that the story and the artwork in Trains 5 is an incredible step up from the brilliance on show in this collection. Like I said, he’s just getting better and better.
Issue 4 of Trains is available online. It’s a departure from the first three as it’s never going to see print as far as I can tell. East produced it for an art exhibition based on his travelling round Norway camping 150m from houses (bizarrely this is part f the law in Norway, if you’re over 150m away from any dwelling, you get to camp for free). It’s a complete change of pace and style but still amazes.
Also free online are Oliver East’s 24 hour comic and his three original mini-comics (scroll down to the second half of the main page to get them.

Trains Are…Mint is a stunning, intoxicating experience of a comic.
The book of 2008 so far.

Originally posted at the FPI weblog here.

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