The Naked Artist: Comic Book Legends
Writer: Bryan Talbot
Artist/Cover artist: Hunt Emerson
Publisher: Moonstone Books
Price: $11.95 US
One of my favorite memories from the Comic-Con International San Diego in 2003 was sitting on the balcony of the hotel room I shared with Randy Lander, drinking dirty rum, reminiscing and telling stories. I thought back on the times we worked for a couple of different website companies together, talked comics, talked about women and laughed about it all. That con also saw a couple of unusual incidents (mostly alcohol-related) that will no doubt serve as future balcony-conversation fodder. The Naked Artist is a collection of the kinds of stories that comics professionals tell one another and recall together, no doubt over fine food and drink. This prose collection of true stories and false but fabulous myths is made up of short essays and even shorter snippets of a few well-known but many unknown yarns about the trials, tribulations and terrors experienced by creators whose work comics fans adore. The subtitle of “Comic Book Legends” refers not to legendary talents but to the secret legends told in alehouses and artists alleys, occasionally brought to life by the over-the-top cartooning of artist Hunt Emerson. This is a book, not a comic book, about comics creators, but it’s an entertaining and easy read. Its recent release during the height of conventional season was a smart move on Moonstone’s part, and not only should it sell well for those fans who enjoy cons and glimpses behind the curtain at their favorite creators, but the potential is there for more volumes to come, perhaps from other pros in the industry.
Customarily, the second paragraph of one of my reviews is dedicated to a short synopsis of the plot, but The Naked Artist is a collection of anecdotes. Sure, there are those short stories with conflict. There’s occasional violence (or the threat thereof). There are personality conflicts, inner conflicts and conflicts of interest. Talbot shares his own stories, others’ tales, myths that have changed and grown over time and flat-out fabrications. He pokes fun at fans and creators alike. Most of the anecdotes are told to elicit laughs, but there are a few cautionary tales and war stories in the mix as well.
I’m not familiar with British cartoonist Hunt Emerson’s work, but the influences are unmistakable. I was immediately put in mind of Gilbert Shelton’s art from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Emerson has been drawing comics since the 1970s, and his work definitely takes one back to the underground comics movement of that time. His simple illustrations also seem like the sort of fare one might find in Mad Magazine, either today or 30 years ago. Emerson’s image of a dangling Robert Kanigher also put me in mind of Bill (Calvin and Hobbes) Watterson’s work.
Though the customary drinking stories are included in this book, there’s also a refreshing diversity of subject matter, real-life “characters” from throughout the industry and locales. I was most impressed with the international flavor of Talbot’s personal remembrances and those of others. Just about every North American comic-book devotee is well aware of Comic-Con International in San Diego, but Talbot takes us on a journey of several European comics festivals, where unconventional creators, talents unassociated with Spider-Man or Superman, are lauded for their work. France’s Angeloume festival is well known, as are a couple of conventions in the United Kingdom. But Talbot takes us to Scandinavia, Italy, Spain and even Russia. While the focus of those comics-oriented events are often different from similar events in North America, Talbot makes it clear the love of the medium and the spirit of celebrate are just as strong, even moreso in some cases.
The tone of Talbot’s prose is a straightforward one. He doesn’t tend toward hyperbole or sensationalism. He tends to tell the stories in a rather matter-of-fact manner, but he doesn’t do so in a cold, detached tone either. There’s calmness to his words, with a hint of bemusement emerging at times. There’s never any bitterness in his words, and when he includes himself in a tale, there’s a definite sense of humility at play. Though he tells a few stories about personality conflicts and grudges, Talbot himself offers no judgments. Even the moments of baser human behavior or bodily functions are presented with a kind-hearted touch. At its worst, The Naked Artist comes off as silly rather than scandalous. 7/10