September 2008

Brandee Strachan


Visual Mythologies: Comic Book Tattoo

I’ll be honest: I’m not a Tori specialist, nor am I a comic book aficionado. I dabble in both, but as I’m not overly passionate about either, I didn’t expect to get much out of Comic Book Tattoo. What drew me to the book in the first place was the cover art; it wasn’t until after I’d finished reading that I came across the acclaim. And by that point, of course, I wasn’t surprised.

Comic Book Tattoo is a collection of fifty-some stories, each connected with one of Tori Amos’s songs, and sometimes only tangentially. Each story is prefaced with the lyrics by which it was inspired, and though the book itself is 480 pages, each story is short, coming in under fifteen pages. They’re not exactly novel-length, then, but many of the artists have done incredible things in creating worlds within those confines.

Of course, as it’s a comic book, there’s really no escaping the visual atmosphere; that part is obvious. I just didn’t expect it to be so well done, to work as a collection of tours as well as stories, rather than just as the latter. All of the stories have their own atmosphere, winding through the songs, text, and images alike. Sometimes the atmosphere is used to a greater degree than others, defining the story -- see the mountains of “Winter,” the dual worlds of “Leather,” and New York itself -- but whether the stories take place in bars, in schools, on the streets or in fantasy worlds, the settings are unforgettable. The artists’ styles create atmosphere as much as the locations themselves do -- the muted, cold colors of “Past the Mission” or the chill blues and icy whites of “Cornflake Girl.” There’s warmth, too, of course -- see “Teenage Hustling” and “Honey,” especially.

Some of the best, the most haunting, stories, and thus places, herein are wordless: the dark carnival of “Marianne” is told entirely with images. It’s an eleven-page nightmare/tragedy/story; the images and the mood they create are everything. There is no need for words. In fact, words seem superfluous.

Not all of the stories worked for me, but considering the variety of artists (a total of over 80 individuals) who worked on the book, it’s pretty much a given that not all will work for everyone. I found some of the stories to be a little forced, a little precious -- but then, I’ve never been much for straight-out fantasy. (And even though I didn’t care for those stories, the worlds were still beautifully rendered.)

While the characters in Comic Book Tattoo go on journeys -- travel in the traditional, linear sense of the word -- the journeys tend to be more mental and/or emotional, rather than physical. The stories here are not necessarily about progression, about development, though that certainly does factor into some; they’re really more about immersion. Comic Book Tattoo can be seen as a collection of extremely vivid postcards, glimpses into a series of worlds both real-ish and entirely fantastical. I don’t know all of the songs on which the stories were based (which might be some kind of heresy; if so, I apologize). But it’s a testament to the artists that the stories worked despite that fact, and when I heard the songs after, they fit, like being reminded of a place you used to go (or somewhere you saw once in a dream, which is sort of the mood many of the stories seem to go for, and they do succeed).

“They were stories packed dense and twisted tight, all gears and curls and knots and fragments. I would listen to her songs and I would want to imagine. She made me dream. I listened to her songs and I created stories,” writes Neil Gaiman in his introduction. That sentiment is precisely what Comic Book Tattoo is about -- the songs, and the stories they create. Of course, it’s one of the points of stories, too -- the places that might otherwise go unseen, the moods and dreamworlds sometimes forgotten.

So maybe it’s not a journey, this month, at least in terms of cross-country treks or trips with clear beginnings and ends, but as far as travel -- as experiencing new places, new locations, new worlds -- Comic Book Tattoo definitely qualifies.