The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack
By Nicholas Gurewitch
I have a much treasured copy of the first edition of The Perry Bible Fellowship book (sorry – Almanack). It’s a vertical book rather than a horizontal one. With red curtains on the cover drawing back to show one of the doughy white protagonists calmly sitting under a tree. When it starts off it’s incredibly crude. I mean – the very first cartoon is this:
Which erm yeah. Isn’t really how a book of pure comic (both senses of the word) genius should begin. Next page is this one:
At which point I can imagine most people just closing the book and looking around for something else to read. I mean – it’s the kind of humour you might expect from a teenage boy but that kinda stuff is definitely nowhere near as popular as it used to be. And you know – you don’t want to get accused of being an edgelord or anything like that.
And well yeah being dark just for the sake of it will only take you so far. The first small glimpse that maybe there’s more to it is a strip called Rainbow which I’ll admit doesn’t seem like much but is the first point where Nicholas Gurewitch does a little something interesting:
Granted the distance between the first image and the third one isn’t that large. But it does sound a fledgling interest in the idea of subverting images which grows over time as the comic matures and Nicholas Gurewitch’s skills and technique gradually improves. And then (after a while) you start getting to little miniature masterpieces like this:
Doing this Book Club and thinking about comics and films and books and stuff I’ve come to the conclusion that all stories are about the delivery of information and wow I mean yeah the first time I read Mrs. Hammer it did take me a little while to get it but when I did it kinda hit me like a thunderclap and I actually nodded my head in recognition of the handiwork (so to speak lol). And well frankly I have actual trouble thinking of any other comic out there which is so adept at using images to convey information – to the point where some of the strips almost kinda abandon the idea of a typical punchline and it’s just the joy and inventiveness of the strip itself which is the main attraction:
Like: it’s here that The Perry Bible Fellowship kinda stops being about making jokes and becomes something that’s more just about how much fun you can have with a few panels and a big idea and – maybe even more importantly and impressively – how little you can say and yet still tell a whole story:
There’s a part of me that thinks that you could probably make the case that these are actually some of the greatest comics of all time just because of how smart and inventive they are. I mean – after all: most comics you only need to read once to get but with the best of the Perry Bible Fellowship strips you often need to read them 3 or 4 times until you can make it all make sense which well yeah: seems like magic to me. Almost like they’re electrical diagrams or something that require your brain to complete the circuit before it can make the light come on.
And yeah. You know. They’re funny too.
So, a quick few thoughts about the Perry Bible Fellowship, then. Yeah, the “schoolboy humour” (apologies to all the sensitive refined schoolboys out there!) put me off. Technically, I can see the appeal, it does some strange things with the comics form. That first, wordless strip, on it’s own just seems kind of odd – adding the title (“a stiff breeze”) turns it into a lame joke. The one with the screwdriver head and hammerhead guys fighting over the headless, limbless wooden female torso is strange and dark and surreal – and wears it’s misogyny up front too.
There’s some rich stuff to be mined in playing with the formal style of the four-panel gag strip, and this stuff almost gets there sometimes, but it wasn’t enjoyable. Film-maker Lars von Trier springs to mind – for me, that desire to shock and provoke gets in the way of whatever else they might be trying to do.
Here’s my fave exploration of the newspaper gag strip form, courtesy of Scott McCloud’s “morning improv” back in the day – full thing here: http://www.scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/mi/mi-15/mi-15.html
It’s interesting seeing what Perry Bible evolved from. I long had the impression that Gurewitch started as a genius and has continued to genius ever since, to the point that when I saw his first strip, I didn’t think it was bad. I decided I had missed something. I nearly drafted Gurewitch a handwritten apology note for failing to appreciate his humour and enclosed a picture of me laughing at another of his jokes to try and absolve myself of my cultural sins.
Nope it’s just a slightly pretentious dick joke.
That said, it’s interesting to me that the underlying sense of humour hasn’t really changed or evolved since – it’s just the communication of it has become much more effective. The jokes, of course, become smarter. To the point that you feel like they’d be able to fell a 30 Rock writer in their tracks out of the sheer force of their conceptual brilliance. The art gets alot better. Not only does Gurewitch managed to move past uniform thick lines and bland, block colours – he’s able to switch between a variety of styles. From subtle, surrealist paint to… well, more suitably varied line thicknesses and less bland block colours. I agree a big part of this evolution can be seen through him becoming more at home manipulating the gaps between panels to convey a surprising narrative. The final panel in a Gurewitch often takes the same sucker-punch added context role that a caption in a Gary Larson strip does. Where a line as mundane as “Frank had overcooked the steaks” elicits a cackle when you read it after seeing a picture of angry cows that have come to dinner in his house. (I think I just made up a terrible Far Side strip to avoid looking one up as reference for this bit. Gary Larson you owe me £5.)
But after all that, he’s still got the same adolescent black comedy to him. That ability to look into the abyss, see it looking back and wonder aloud why the abyss didn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday night.
I continue to howl at this one:
The prurient, darkly absurd sense of humour that put a dick in the clouds is the one that drove a bald man to start a food fight in a relief effort. This time though, Gurewitch understands how panels work. How the length of story leaps between them force a reader to infer varying lengths of passed time. That can, in some strips, force a reader to infer that a dog mauled a child on Halloween. It can also be used to do a rare thing in comics and hardwire in a sense of comic timing. The Food Fight strip is an apt example of this – unlike alot of other PB strips – it doesn’t leap between big moments. It’s a single moment. No time leaps. We just have to zoom out to see the added context of how stupid this man is.
Lars Von Trier is an interesting counterpart to flag up – maybe that says why I can’t be bothered with his films. He wants 2 hours of attention in a dark room with a massive screen. He wants to lecture you as he explains his subversive, dark humour and formal playfulness through a seemingly endless narrative. Gurewitch has a picture that usually takes as long to read as it does to notice 5318008. A lot less investment, for a lot more reward. Notably, unlike Trier, Gurewitch switches up styles magnificently. So you keep clicking forward, to the point that you often aren’t looking for another gag – your looking for another piece of art to look at. Some strange fantastic beast with a joke you don’t entirely get yet, but you don’t mind because it’s so damned satisfying to look at.
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