This is a partial and rough English version of my blog Just Indie Comics (Banner by Pat Aulisio)

lunedì 7 luglio 2014

Comics People: E.A. Bethea

I discovered E.A. Bethea in Tusen Hjärtan Stark, a tabloid format anthology edited by Austin English and published by his Brooklyn-based Domino Books with the attempt to present the art of rarely-translated European artists alongside difficult and innovative works by American cartoonists. In this first issue I appreciated the comics by Warren Craghead and Joanna Hellgren, two cartoonists I already knew, but it was E.A. Bethea's contribution that impressed me most. Five of her seven pages are based on a fixed grid of four tiers, creating a layout between 11 and 13 panels. The contents are focused mostly on the writing, while the drawings are essential and sometimes they disappear completely. Some panels are filled only by a text so intense that the frames seem too narrow, as if the words wanted to come out from the borders and turn into stream of consciousness. And perhaps without boundaries the text would give life to pages and pages of ink. These comics with a traditional macrostructure are joined by two full page illustrations with an explanatory paragraph below. However the contents don't change, as Bethea's works are structured more as digressions than as conventional narrations and use the language and the rhythm of poetry. This poetic streak becomes passionate lyricism in Poydras St. Coffeewharf, a nocturnal tableau of life in a harbor, and Blue for Night, Amber for Dawn, a philosophical and far from ordinary memory of a lost love. In other tales E.A. Bethea chooses the tools of biography and crime stories, telling in a visceral and direct way the adventures of a prisoner, a prostitute, Blanche Barrow, Lee Harvey Oswald and Malcolm X. Sometimes it seems to read a poem, other times a portrait of a famous man, an article from a newspaper or a personal diary. And the best part is that all these registers - combined with a subtle but almost ubiquitous humor and with a predilection for sexual and morbid elements - are often in the same page, making Bethea's art a well-defined body of work.

After reading Tusen Hjärtan Stark, I looked for some infos about the author, but the about-me section of her website tells simply that she "is a New Orleans-born artist, writer, musician, and record collector who lives in Brooklyn". Recently she added a link to her Tumblr and a list of publications where her drawings and comics have appeared, including some issues of Josh Bayer's Suspect Device, the magazine Smoke Signal and above all her personal anthology Bethea's Illustrated, published by Sad Kimono Books in 2009. At this point I had to read the book, which features in 88 pages comics made since 1999, for the most part published in xeroxed zines, and confirms the general tone of the works in Tusen Hjärtan Stark, mixing history, crime stories, humorous full-page portraits, biographies, real or imaginary autobiography, sex, dreams, references to literature and to the French nouvelle vague.

The first tale in the book is Speakeasy, set in the days of Prohibition, confirming the author's fondness for hidden bars, taverns, dives, harbors, seen as places where everyone can be a different person and clandestine sex is consumed. Her comics have a Thirties feeling and bring us back to the Great Depression, fitting in the period between The Great Gatsby and the Beat Generation. However the most of them isn't focused on a single theme, since E.A. Bethea has the unique ability to create free-form pieces, starting in one way and veering off in a completely different direction. And it's also unique her skill to give a melancholy and sometimes romantic form to her usual prosaic situations, as in Shaky, Makeshift Bridges, a love story between a prostitute and his client that among pimps, drugs and joyrides ends in this way: "When you wanted to leave me, you riddled me with questions of which I could provide no answer: does water have taste? Green or blue? Knife or fork? I was at a loss. I wanted to say both, but knew I was wrong. Now my eyes are slits and I am riding down a long bridge over black water. You are my destination and you are either very far or very close. Tell me, which is it? Have I chosen the right bridge or will I wake up without you, thrashing through wild waters & wreckage?". The images, the rhythm and the assonances give strenght and evocative capacity to the text.

Sometimes the lyricism becomes a poetic manifesto, as in Art Brut, where the artist describes herself as a "non-professional", "psychotic", an "amateur graffiti-writer". But in her comics the technique isn't important as the urgency to express herself, giving vitality to the drawings. Bethea's line is also improving year after year, so if in Bed & Board and My Days at Sea - both dated 2000 and dominated by a white background - the drawings are naive and sketchy, pieces like the same Shaky, Makeshift BridgesParchman Farm and Uncorking are more refined and detailed. From an aesthetic point of view the best results are in some full page illustrations, as A Depraved Murderess Drowning Her Husband, drawn in a Nineteenth century style, and the visionary The Babushka Lady. And Smoking Between the Cars, a new page published recently on her website, presents an interesting use of ink, expanding the horizons of Bethea's art.

I started writing this profile months ago, after reading the Domino books anthology. In the meantime I read Bethea's Illustrated and I revised and rewrited this text a lot of times. I don't know if I managed to describe E.A. Bethea's art and how much I appreciate it. Scott Longo of Sonatina Books did definitely better in his Tusen Hjärtan Stark review. In these months I also spoke to the same Elizabeth (her first name) through email. She mentioned among her influences David Collier and Aline Kominsky Crumb, told me that before his premature death in 2011 Gerard Smith of TV On The Radio had the idea of publishing Bethea's Illustratedthat her background is poetic and that she never took drawing lessons. While I was writing these words, Elizabeth contributed with some illustrations to the literary magazine No Tokens, with works also by writers such as Rick Moody and George Saunders, and to Suspect Device #4, where she is alongside the best American underground cartoonists. And she is always working to her comics, which will be collected in a new anthology one day.

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