The Walrus Blog

Marc Bell’s Songbook

This comic book does not exist. Don’t look for it. Don’t ask for it. Forget you ever heard about it.

Marc Bell’s Illustrated Cartoon Videos is a comic book that doesn’t exist. Don’t look for it. Don’t ask for it by name. Forget you ever heard about it. If it did exist, though, it would be just what the title says, a pictorial playing-out of songs good bad and indifferent, the imagery trucking on by in Bell’s busy, bigfoot style. I can’t say such a book exists, though, because litigious record company suits would get all up in arms—as the cover to Illustrated Cartoon Videos might warn us, or brag, this whole deal is very, riotously “unauthorized!”

From 2003 to 2005, Bell drew a series of single-page comic strips for Vice, the Montreal-founded downtown-trash lifestyle rag. Vice has often awarded space to talented cartoonists—from Geneviève Castrée to Gary Panter, or MAD’s Al Jaffee, or current resident gag-king Johnny Ryan—but Bell made particularly good, goofy use of his full-size showcase. Each month, he’d pick another ditty out from the pop ether—Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover,” say, or Britney’s “Oops! … I Did It Again”—and set his menagerie of characters to grooving along with it, spouting the lyrics in their long-legged ambles from panel to panel.

Late last year, an exhibition of the black and white originals opened Toronto’s new Paul Bright Gallery. If a full-colour, magazine-sized collection of nineteen of these strips were ever to be published, it would have been in support of that gallery show. I’m not saying it was published, of course, so much as I’m opining that such a comic would be something to behold indeed, a worthy companion piece to Bell’s last solo foray into full-fledged comics, 2004’s superfun parade of nonsense, Worn Tuff Elbow.

That book, along with Bell’s other major comics work so far, 2003’s Shrimpy and Paul, were both executed mainly in black and white. His cartoon “videos” all appear in colour, which animates his otherwise evened-out and tightly packed compositions, guiding the eye breezily through his jumbles of curlicues, wee potato-men, and other assorted flotsam. Colour allows Bell’s characters to waltz to the forefront of his strips like lead singers stepping out from among their backing elements. It’s a delight to see them strut—they’re all knuckles and nipples and big toothy grins, weirdly constructed creatures with their own rangy, aerobic comportment.

Bell’s hup-ho! attitude and very physical style ally him with Robert Crumb, who has also adapted song lyrics to comics form. But Bell explores the possibilities of adaptation a bit more thoroughly than Crumb’s few experiments did. Sometimes Bell’s “videos” feel like a hallucination, only vaguely inspired by the lyrics—which is how most actual music videos work, and which might be why these kinds of strips don’t seem as novel as some of his other attempts. His interpretation of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” for instance, can’t help but be out-bizarred by the canonical music video, and his effort to even just keep pace with Ghostface’s flow in “Daytona 500” ends up more impressive than it is productive.

More often, though, Bell comes up with real winners (and thank you, sir, for introducing me to The Fall’s absolutely unstoppable b-side, “I’m into CB”). He layers even more comedic energy onto the already classic SCTV sketch “I Hate the Bloody Queen” by having a single-minded, spoiled young tough act the part of petulant, excitable Martin Short. The full-page blow-out that Bell dedicates to R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” is as grandiose and trumped-up as that tune—rightfully—makes itself out to be. And his adaptation of the hateful “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” turns that song’s beefheaded ugliness against itself, feeling like a big glorious key dragged all over the finish of Toby Keith’s gas-guzzling pick-up.

Most of these strips work so well, I suspect, because rather than simply drawing inspiration from a song, they are instead just stubborn and literal dramatisations of their lyrics—a strategy not even the cheesiest of music videos pulls off with any success. The most allusive or suggestive of lyrics get the same treatment as the most obvious ones. So Sabbath’s wizard, never talking and spreading his magic, is easy enough to depict, sure. Surprisingly, though, so is Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, spitting out the pieces of his broken luck (huh?), or Ghostface slapping box with Jesus and licking shots at Joseph (wha?).

The affinity here is obvious: like pop songs, Bell’s comics remain blissfully oblivious to just how little sense they make. It seems not only natural, then, but cosmically somehow right, that in my favourite strip here part of the gibbering chorus to Bowie’s “Fashion”—“We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town. Beep beep!”—becomes a line of dialogue delivered by an actual squad of E.C. Segar-style goons who are, yes, coming to town. In cases like this one—the strip ends, like the song, with a pre-verbal babble of “oh bop”s and “do do do”s—Bell’s comics align perfectly with pop, each form attuned to capture the blips and burbles that gurgle out from our subconscious, without question and with great and unconstrained gusto. Beep beep!

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