Taking a look at 2013’s releases from London-based indie publisher, Breakdown Press, it becomes quite clear that their roster of up-and-coming artists are dedicated to exploring the medium of comics as more than merely an object to be read. Joe Kessler’s two volume collection Windowpane has received the kind of acclaim for its incomparable risograph printing and compounded display of genres that has established Breakdown Press as an ambitious and visionary comic conquest, as equally impassioned for the act of visual storytelling as it is in manifesting an art object. Released stateside at CAB, Antoine Cosse’s J.1137 signifies a melding of the pictoric nature of comics and film, employing a transmedia-inspired tale that weaves together cinematic visual storytelling and metafictive narrative, all the while contemplating the representation of fictional illusion and reality. J.1137 successfully demonstrates the diverse potential of the comics form, as Cosse’s fearless style explores and expands upon the accepted norms of the medium.
The numerous affinities between graphic narrative and cinema have been duly noted—besides the similar parallel histories the two forms share and the many media traits that comprise them, in their most basic relation lies their production of visual storytelling. While this process of successive, sequential images differs in terms of how it is received and experienced by the viewer/reader, the vast majority of comics and film are predominantly narrative, and the strategies deployed by cartoonists and filmmakers can share a creative desire to present new fictional worlds embedded with untapped characters and plots. The two forms quite explicitly influence and limit each other in the scope of their representation, and it is rare to see a work that constructs a story that jointly blends and highlights the differing specificities of each form.
Such is the case with Antoine Cosse’s J.1137, a naturalistic tale set in pseudo-science fictive, dystopic world where fame is beholden by android actors, prison cells are cageless units built high in the sky, and guards come in the form of indistinguishable men with donkey-heads equipped with machine guns. Cosse begins the comic by dismantling the typical application of boxed caption for narration—the text appears to come in the form of a voiceover, setting the stage for what seems to be a film in the works. However, what is read is strikingly in opposition to what is seen: the perspective shifts in the page’s 6 panel grids much like the camera movement in film, rhythmically zooming in and out, simultaneously establishing and de-establishing the reader’s sense of place and setting.
The reader’s perception is furthermore distorted once more as the view pans out to reveal J.1137 being filmed, a word balloon filled with the bolded text “CUT!” as we now see the layered realities in reference. Cosse wittingly uses a visual showcasing of the meta device as the comic unfolds in moments of metafiction; the framing then suggests a questioning of each of these multiple levels of reality. You begin to wonder which narrative thread to hold on to, and you hesitate to align with a single voice of authenticity. This air of struggle permeates throughout the comic, and Cosse adeptly infuses a deliberate gappiness in the bracketing of his page’s panels, where the negotiation of diegetic time and space is left up to the reader’s construction.
Cosse treats this positional maneuvering in the same smooth manner of a filmmaker, using the panel as the lens to track and scale certain shots. J.1137 is peppered with luminous splash pages and two-page spreads that are textured, vast, and at times bleak in their brute simplicity, and Cosse is able to render his landscapes to be as evocative as any accompanying words.
Surroundings and characters are not confined to roles that reflect or mirror each other in their purpose or feelings. Rather, Cosse unifies them, allowing the overarching idea that fame and escape from reality are mutually exclusive, as J.1137 strives to discover the beyond within his own world yet continually finds himself in an outcast cycle of perpetual blankness. It’s this successful mix of atmospheric portraits and stalking sequences that make J.1137 so complex and aesthetically appealing.
I enjoyed how Cosse begins J.1137 with this oppositional coordination of the text and image, as you are unsure what narrative information to grasp from these panels, yet in a way the resistance works synchronically to pull an understanding of the emotional context for the character J.1137, the android celebrity who is as lost and displaced from his own world as the reader is in the beginning of the story. There is a shared bond of experience for reader and character, as each attempt to make sense of the dips in spatial relations and reality, with Cosse completely controlling the fluidity of perception, allowing and rebuffing the degree of access to comprehension.
The majority of the text in J.1137 (as well as in Cosse’s other works) is written in cursive and as such renders a subtle, affecting tone; the interlaced narration is colloquial, re-emerging almost lyrically throughout the comic. Sometimes it is spoken by Harold, J.1137’s human bodyguard, or a beheaded donkey guard, and while it is unclear as to whether or not it pertains to J.1137 or storytelling at large, it does seem to pick apart the rudimentary, basic elements of everyday life that is universal to all of his characters. The separate narrative threads within J.1137 and the coordinating visuals allow the reader to dwell on the comic’s meanings and imagery, as both’s material make-up transcend an easy distinction, and it’s this devotion to a slow reading that sets the work apart from a lot of other short, non-narrative comic work.
While J.1137 does have some flaws in the obscurity of its text and narrative, Cosse is undeniably a cartoonist that is unafraid to have a mixed sensibility when it comes to his art form. J.11137 is a comic that flourishes from its acute contrasts, and Cosse does well in appropriating cinematic tropes without letting it overwhelm his work. The dramatic core of J.1137 lies in Cosse’s pictorial orientation as cartoonist and director, and he carries the comic with an awareness of perspective delight, making every panel and page slowly breathe and weave amongst each other. Cosse has a number of comics slated for release in 2014, and one can hope that he will continue to endeavor to experiment with comics as a hybrid visual medium.