The Art of Jonathan Bowden, vol. 2: 1968–1974
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2009
Last time I saw Jonathan Bowden, I asked him how he was. His answer, delivered with bared teeth and so typical of him, elicited peals of laughter from Bowden himself, “I am always superb and getting stronger!” Bowden, you see, loves an audience, but he is quite able to entertain himself without one, as the second volume of his art eloquently shows.
The present volume differs substantially from the first, which I reviewed last November: where the latter compiled the artist’s adult work, the former compiles his juvenilia, covering his childhood through to his majority.
And what is it that we find between its covers? Anybody who has met Jonathan Bowden and spoken to him for any length of time will easily guess the answer: comic strips, of course! What we have here is a 200-page coffee table book bulging with comic strips, or graphic novels, drawn by a fervid, truculent little boy, obsessed with power and violence, with a brain the size of a planet balanced on a toothpick.
Unfortunately, as in Volume 1, we are deprived of a full-length, scholarly introduction, so, to gain a deeper understanding of his early output, one has to go directly to the artist’s maw. My initial attempts resulted in a couple of profuse emails from Bowden, replete with erudite references and overflowing with theoretical verbiage.
His efforts were highly entertaining, of course, and gave me a flavor of the sort of introduction he would like to have added to a future edition of his art books: obviously, a lengthy, esoteric text of such impenetrable density as to require nanonic circuitry implanted on the brain to permit a modicum of comprehension; a text, needless to say, bursting with quotes from, or mention of, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Thomas Carlyle, D. H. Lawrence, Grünewald, Balthus, Bacon, and Buffet, and comprised of epic, syntactically-complex sentences with enough sesquipedalophilia to titillate even an excessive logovore like Alexander Theroux.
Yet, to me this was insufficient, for such introductions, interesting as they may be on a hyper-intellectual plane, often obscure more than they clarify. A game of cat and mouse thus ensued, with me attempting to corkscrew useful biographical data from Bowden, an insatiable orator who is permanently on stage, even when he has an audience of one. My efforts yielded interesting results.
It is impossible to imagine Bowden as a child. For one, he has looked forty years of age since he was eighteen (visit his website and browse through his gallery, if you doubt me). For another, he appears barely human: whereas Tomislav Sunic is so down to earth that he will happily receive visitors in slippers and pajama, Jonathan Bowden is the exact opposite, to the point where one decides that he probably sleeps with his shoes on, wearing a suit and tie, in a coffin, with his eyes wide open.
But a boy he was, once upon the time, and the following anecdote will give you an idea of the kind of little monster his patient parents had to put up with. In 1972, when Bowden was 10, he witnessed a man slip on a banana peel, strategically placed by life on a high street pavement. The man, morbidly obese, fell with such force that he dove straight into a shop window, which shattered and rained a million pieces all over the man’s face. The demon child burst out laughing, of course, and roared with gleeful hilarity, his short body convulsing in a paroxysm of decachinating sadism as his pointed finger drew attention to the source. Bowden tells that this went on for so long that his mother deemed it necessary to scold him publicly. “Don’t laugh, Jonathan” she apparently said, “Don’t you see that the poor man is suffering?” Like a true Nietzschean, Jonathan replied, “But that’s why it’s funny!”
Such scorn for the Christian values of empathy and compassion is evident in every story contained in this volume. It is clear that Bowden was heavily influenced by Marvel comics, and his graphic novels faithfully reproduce all the expected tropes: ghoulish, power-crazed villains; mad science; ornamental women; a tardy and rather useless police force; and an indefatigable, unconquerable hero.
What is significant, however, is that his chosen alter ego happens to be Iron Man. (One smiles knowingly at the thought: how could it be any different?)
What is more, his stories are crammed, and indeed self-consciously make a virtue of, ruthless violence – and this violence does not result from a moral struggle of good versus evil, but from a struggle for power between subhuman and superhuman. Where the villains possess superhuman powers, they are specializations suggestive of science or nature pushed to its most grotesque limits. In this titanic struggle, ordinary citizens are, needless to say, helpless, and political leaders weak, corrupt, and irrelevant.
Indeed, there is evidence of political as well as linguistic precocity, as we find here references to American political crises from the early 1970s, such as the energy crisis and the Watergate Tapes. It is impossible not to notice that these references are all negative, all linked to weak and/or corrupt political leadership, so we can conclude also that political precocity and contempt towards democratic politics came at an early age. (Then again, is this surprising, when one considers that Bowden grew up in a decade when there were brownouts, three-day weeks, and frequent labor strikes?) This is where we notice the divergence between the Marvel original and Bowden’s reinterpretation.
Another area where Bowden’s personality is felt is in two facets that in his adulthood were channeled into segregated media: coloring technique and torrential verbosity. The latter is just as prominent as the violence, and each page carries a great deal of text, coming from three sources: the character’s mouths, the character’s minds, and Jonathan Bowden, the invisible and irrepressible narrator. The individual stories follow relatively elaborate plots, carrying narrative threads that are – or were intended to be – ongoing and involving numerous, interacting characters.
The coloring technique, on the other hand, attempts to mimic that of the old Marvel strips, but ends up being almost an abstraction: Bowden used color pencils rather lightly before applying a black marker to highlight outlines and shadows. This he did very intricately and belaboredly, to the point where each page ended up looking like Roy Lichtenstein doing an impression of Jackson Pollock. Save for the vignette outlines, we find few straight lines and it is all executed rather nervously and obsessively.
This reveals the dual nature of Bowden’s personality: one side is inclined towards madness, chaos, brute force, excess, raw emotion, and hyper-individualism; the other side is inclined towards meticulousness, fastidiousness, authority, and order (the latter is quite apparent in his electronic communication, where even mobile text messages are impeccably formatted, punctuated, and grammatical). These two tendencies form a tense and turbulent nexus that many probably perceive as dangerously unstable and volatile: I would not be surprised if, while in education, his coevals saw him as a gifted loner and a loose cannon. He certainly seems to have spent a great deal of time drawing these graphic novels.
Is it original? Evidently, like most children, Bowden had no conception of copyright – and like most gifted children, his brain was like a sponge, like that alien blob that gobbles and grows, ready to absorb anything that came in its way. In this case, it was, for reasons as yet unclear, Marvel comics. That he responded to them in the way that he did seems now almost inevitable, given what we know about him now: this is the man, after all, who caricatures everyone, cartoonifies every situation, and extrapolates and exaggerates everything to the limits of the absurd, the monstrous, and the insane; for whom each moment in life is a vignette in a Nietzschean comic strip.
Yet, as can be inferred from my discussion, it is possible to see where Bowden departs from his original inspiration and begins to assert his own vision, however derivative it might have been in his childhood years. This is really the most important aspect of this volume, for, otherwise, it is all quite haphazard, with the unfinished and overlapping plotlines, the randomness, and the omissions that are typical of an age when one tends to bore easily and divert attention each time a novel stimulus comes along.
The preservation of this early work is rather remarkable, given its age (indeed some of it is quite degraded) and the fact that parents tend to dispose of at least a part of a child’s possessions every time they move. Obviously, this proto-portfolio was both jealously guarded by Bowden and ignored by his progenitors. Bowden tells me that his parents were never really interested in his pop art and that, in fact, they rather disapproved of it. They thought that it would “warp” his mind. If Bowden was anything like me, he would have replied: “The fact that I am drawing it suggests my mind is already warped; and since you made me, you only have yourselves to blame!”
The Art of Jonathan Bowden, vol. 2 can be obtained through the artist’s website for a modest sum. The miserly, the hostile, and the impecunious, however, can view the totality of the images, entirely free of charge as well.
TOQ Online, February 18, 2010