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The Bart Dickon Omnibus

Written and "illustrated" by Borin Van Loon
Severed Head Books
108 pages, £14
ISBN: 0955157900
www.bartdickonline.co.uk

Of all the things for which Situationist mastermind Guy DeBord really needed a good and bloody beating, no offense strikes me as more grievous than the concept of "detournment." In theory, it sounds like the sort of thing that great art is made, and indeed, the process of appropriating and recontextualizing the art and communications of our surroundings has occasionally led to just that. The sound-collage ensemble Negativland, for example, have created astonishing and thoughtful pieces out of spare parts on any number of occasions.

That said, even Negativland fall on their collective faces half the time. It's a difficult trick to pull off, and many dangers — obvious symbolism and inane attempts at shock value among them — lie perpetually around the corner. More often, detournment is used for cheap laughs that inevitably read like something you've seen a thousand times before, and recontextualized comics are among the worst offenders. There's only so many times you can take old romance comics and turn them into odes to cocaine-fueled buttsex before the joke gets old. And let's face it, by this point the joke is most certainly old: Have you ever opened a copy of Comics Buyers Guide and stumbled across an example of John Lustig's Last Kiss strips that you actually found funny? Me neither, and Last Kiss is actually the best of the lot. At the lower end, you've got the comedy stylings of Kieth Giffen, and it doesn't get much more pointless than that.

 

Lights! Action! Recontextualization! Panel from The Bart Dickon Omnibus, ©2005 Borin Van Loon.

 

All of this may well be a roundabout way of saying that I'm probably not the target audience for Borin Van Loon's recent collection of cut-and-paste funnies, The Bart Dickon Omnibus, but I must confess to have found it halfway interesting anyway. Partly, it's because this book is one part detournment, one part intricate, Max Ernst-style collage, and the latter goes a fair way toward justifying the former. Mainly, however, I'm willing to give Bart Dickon a pass because its creator isn't interested in making you laugh so much as simply weirding you out — a goal at which it sometimes succeeds quite well.

Van Loon uses a combination of old woodcut illustrations, panels from decades-old British comics and quasi-anarchist gibberish to create a collection of "stories" — scare quotes intentional — that seem like they'd be vaguely subversive if they weren't so flat-out bizarre. It almost reads like a parody of more earnest U.K. socialists; alas, the current variety of English left-wing thought tends more towards humorless sloganeering, whereas The Bart Dickon Omnibus seems to delight in seeing how close it can come to sounding like it has a point of view while still clinging to utter nonsense. Consequently, it comes across like Chumbawamba getting loaded up on magic mushrooms, finding themselves possessed by the Butthole Surfers and staggering off to play with the glue and scissors awhile.

 

Actually, this is about as close to straightforward as it ever gets. Panel from The Bart Dickon Omnibus, ©2005 Borin Van Loon.

 

It helps that the British comics of old were even more bland and personality-starved than the old woodcuts with which they're juxtaposed in these pages, and that Van Loon takes his time to make everything look as seamless as possible. It doesn't always work — there are any number of places in The Bart Dickon Omnibus where differences in source material make the end results look kludgy, and vast chunks of text fail at exactly the same sort of jokes you'd expect from something like this — but that it works at all is itself something of a minor miracle. I'm not sure I'd recommend this book; "Wow, this doesn't totally suck" is the closest I can come to a pull-quote for future editions, but it's far more than I expected to say in its favor. That's something, I guess.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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