As a kid, artist Austin English was surrounded by comic books and modern art. "Some people have divisions in their mind between art and comics," English explained in an interview with The Huffington Post, "but I always had them in my mind as equal -- they were pictures and books."
In his new graphic novel Gulag Casual, English presents the glorious aftermath of a lifetime of artistic cross-pollination. Featuring work made between 2010 and 2015, the unorthodox comic compilation eschews sharp lines and mythical narrative in favor of protean, mangled figures that mutate from one frame to the next, engaged in narratives that are just as unstable.
Throughout his childhood, English's mom collected art monographs and had images by Matisse, Kandinsky, Hopper and Miro hung around the house. While Kandinsky's abstract color constellations and Hopper's stark moments of loneliness might seem beyond the intellectual grasp of your average elementary schooler, English recalls feeling at home amidst the flood of carefully composed colors and shapes. "My mom would get art magazines and tear images out of them and hang them up around the house," English said. "She wasn’t precious about them, so they were really accessible. They just seemed like part of day to day life."
And then there was English's early fascination with comics, specifically, Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi's "The Adventures of Tintin," about a relatable reporter whose research leads him to a variety of mysteries and misadventures. "I looked at them so much, I had them read to me before I could read," English said. The visuals are very classic Belgian cartooning -- clean line, no shading. They almost looks like little animation cells, they're so tightly drawn. They virtually read themselves to you; your mind interprets them as a really clear sentence. I would read through them over and over."
Looking back, Tintin's crisp lines and Miro's spontaneous spurts of color seem to have become enmeshed in English's mind. Without the context to denote one art form as "high" and the other "low," English explored the space between, however gnarled.
English has been drawing ever since he could remember, however, when he took his first drawing class his introductory year of high school he almost failed. Luckily, he quickly abandoned the notion of making art the right way instead of making it at all. "I was precocious -- even as an early teenager I felt like I could express [my]self in any way I wanted," he recounted. "Like, I don’t care about math, but I would still learn the correct way to do it. Art felt like the one thing you could just do however you wanted. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. You want to learn how the artists you respond to solve certain problems."
So English kept drawing. At the time, he loved comic books, but he couldn't see himself ever actually making one. "Comics seemed inaccessible," he said. "They were always professionally printed, on this glossy paper, in color. It was like seeing a movie." It wasn't until he discovered the underground world of zines that English saw a culture he could imagine himself in.
"Seeing people self-publish zines was really powerful," he said. "I was like, 'Oh, instead of approaching people and submitting my work for publication, I can just take it to a local copy shop and make it into a final product.'"
His junior year of high school, English embarked on his first comic endeavor, a biography of Thelonious Monk. He had been reading a book on the jazz composer and adapted the material into five issues of comic content.
From the start, it was clear to English that his style diverted greatly from the classic comic book formula. The artist explained to me that the first rule of cartooning, to his understanding, is that the characters must look consistent from panel to panel, from beginning to end. When making his own images, though, English couldn't resist changing figures from one panel to the next, turning over the visual guidelines he'd just established. "The urge to break the rules is completely irresistible," he added. "When I draw the comic for a second time I want to make a larger stomach or bigger feet."
Following no principles but his own, English continued to create disorderly stories, yielding paneled images with the deformity of Francis Bacon, the sweet nastiness of Philip Guston, the aggressive instinct of Willem de Kooning, and the quick pace of a “South Park” episode. The drawings also allude heavily to outsider art or art brut, a favorite subject of English’s, with their raw sense of urgency and ambivalence of rules.
There is one protocol, however, that English adheres to, even if it too is arbitrary, by his own admission. Although many of his comics are created in different media ― including colored pencil, graphite, ink and collage, glue and cloth ― he would never switch medium within a single comic. “I do think one story should be told in a consistent medium,” he said. “My work is arbitrary, but that’s one rule that I have for myself.”
Gulag Casual is made up of five unrelated comics over the course of five years. Not too surprisingly, they don’t quite stick to the standard comic tropes of superhero tales or noir mysteries, but rather, melting and slowly decomposing narratives loosely strung around a simple scenario, such as a disgusting room or his friend Perry. Each in its own materials, moving at its own speed, the comics are like stories just as an ambiguous stew is like meat. It’s like the characters and plot have been cooked to the point of softness, fallen off the bone and mixed with flavors to the edge of recognition.
Looking back on his oeuvre, English notices the way his work has changed over time -- not just from one story to the next, but even from panel to panel, left foot to right. "Comics, they take so long to do," he said. "They’re so intimate in this way. You see the artist’s way of making images change as the images go on. At the end of each story, I’d be working in a different way than I started, and carry that into the next. It’s like a map or a diary; you see the terrain changing. It feels really personal. You see someone’s attitude and relationship to their own art changing in this little condensed passage of pages."
Now, English feels no compulsion to choose between comics and art. "I feel more healthy as an artist and as a person trying to do both, not being exclusively married to one kind of making." Furthermore, the two fields balance each other out, each assuaging frustrating aspects of the other. While in the comic world the rules and culture can be restrictive, the art world sometimes experimental purely for the sake of it.
Somewhere in the space between, English has found a rhythm that works for him. "We live in this moment where you can do what you want in any medium and it doesn’t mean you have to reject anything," he concludes. "When I was younger I felt this need to reject traditional comics. Now I see the value in them, the quality of having boundaries."