From February to June, in 2013, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard did Scatterlands, a webcomic alternately stylized with all-caps, no caps, and a mix of capital and lowercase letters, which was one panel and minimal text per release. It was about making the entire thing count, every single panel, every passage, every line. They ran a total of fifty panels on Ellis’ personal website.
It’s not even that each panel has a lot of individuated content. They are not loaded with tiny minutia and in jokes, there are not hidden images or focus-and-you’ll-see reversals. The panels are drawn and colored very clearly, very direct. What you see is what you have.
The writing is also direct. Elegant in its bluntness.
What they relate are complex moments. That they can communicate complex emotional, political, physical states with direct passages and solitary, simple to digest, black, white, and red imagery, is astounding.
I’m not overselling that.
Scatterlands is amazing.
And, Scatterlands is beautiful.
So many comics are made for transient, brief attention and then, at best, loads of nostalgia. The average English-language comic is produced as part of a perpetual serial, on extreme deadline, specifically for release (and that’s okeh). Corners must be cut. Added to that, many times, in a narrative story, passages must be lightened in order to weight up the other areas that are meant to be moments.
Scatterlands has no moments. Every panel is it. While Ellis has discussed a disinterest in doing purely narratively-driven work, in the past, most of his comics are still, after all, stories, and story-structured. The Harlequin Bones shorts and some one panel or short gag strips, like Stabbity Jones are about the moment, rather than a narrative progression, and very little of his work has ever been stop-the-bomb pure narrative in the fashion of political thrillers you buy in the airport to kill time on the plane. There is a continual interest in extended moments.
Howard’s lines and shapes give an incredible depth of field, and depth of focus. A small, unexpected shift in texture may give a scene an inexplicable feeling of weirdness. This is frisson comics, and I cannot think of a better artist to bring the tone across than Jason Howard. To say that Scatterlands is his playground, is not to assume that only laughs and goofing went in. Some people play hard. But, regardless of play, someone also builds the playgrounds. Howard may swing on the swings, but he also worked the steel, arranged the equipment, loaded the sandbox, laid the pavement, and painted the slide.
Every panel of Scatterlands takes you on a ride. That’s why narrative can take a backseat. The story of riding a slide will never compete with the sensation. Rollercoaster’s are better than narrative. Slides and rollercoasters are too good for narrative.
Narrative is how we tell ourselves things are important. A tactic for building them up, propping them. Narrative is the stand for the Christmas tree. This is what we mean, when we talk of poetry as being what remains when the blue sky is cut away, the tedious grammar or punctuation. Because, poetry does have grammar, poems have forms or structures, even if they feel organic or are original to a single work. Paintings have borders and balances. The most abstract or non-representational painting is still “when blue touches green,” and the most “no story” song, still takes you along a progression.
We mean that the progression is less significant to us, than the moment’s experience. We know there will be a progression. We know there are potential stories. Scatterlands is a serial. We know to expect serialization. It’s less important than the panel we are on, the words we read as we see the single image. The moment we live with. The moment we live within.
Scatterlands does not culminate, it has no denouement, no arc and settlement. Scatterlands both goes and it goes entirely within the scope of its panel, each time. Scatterlands is Howard and Ellis presenting us a scattered deck of panels, a spread of being. In the moment, experiential being.
One panel reads, “Under the dead city is the room that will lead her home.”
Another opens with, “But the construction is alien to her.”
These are explanatory, but they evoke more than they explain. They imply. These are titles for standalone works of art in a sequence, a series. You can run through a museum, scan every piece as you pass. You can stay, hover, observe and ponder each in their own moment, giving them due.
Living the Moment with Scatterlands
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