The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics is a little book I had been looking forward to buy for a long time. I had postponed it because there is so much in the field of comics I want that buying a book which is in that grey area between I-don’t-really-need-this and what-a-beautiful-thing-to-have seemed a luxury. I had also been put off by the Jonathan Ross blurb on the cover, which gave hints about who the publishers thought the target audience for this book could be… (I suppose people who would value Jonathan Ross’s literary criticism are not precisely “comic-book lovers” or even “perverts”, but desperate last-hour Christmas shoppers). I finally found it last month at the Comics Exchange in Notting Hill for a pittance so I just couldn’t say no. And man, is this a beautiful book. Peter Stanbury is a master of digital imaging as proven with his other work with Paul Gravett, Great British Comics, but in this one the connection between comic art, illustration and graphic and editorial design come together in a seamless mix.
The book is a sample of truly fantastic, sometimes truly strange comics that won’t be that strange to you if you are a true comics fan with an awareness of their history. The book offers brief synopses of the stories told by the comics listed, next to one big “splash” picture and an inset of a smaller panel of the actual books. It feels like a cheeky “look-what-I-have-in-my-collection-that-you-don’t”, a quick glimpse into the incredibly diverse universe of comics, for years off the radar of the aesthetic police that usually censors other art forms like film and prose fiction, in spite of Comic Codes and the like (or sometimes precisely because of those codes). What needs to be remembered is that even though some of the comics included may have been tongue-in-cheek when they came out, often the irony and, er, the strangeness was lost to their original creators and readers (as in the case of some of the Mexican comics included). One way of seeing this book is like a menu containing photos and descriptions of dishes that have to be tried to be truly judged. In other words, this book makes you hungry for books.
The problem and the asset of books like this one is that they can work like double-edged swords; they can either interest readers to find out more about the medium of comics or just make them confirm hypotheses that they are fun stuff at best and disgusting trash at best. Some of the comics included by Gravett and Stanbury are true lost jewels of experimental comic storytelling (Shane Simmons’s Longshot comics for example). It makes one crave for proper digitisation of these publications, at the moment mostly available to private collectors who happened to be at the right moment at the right time. This book can be seen as a small sample of the “darker” side of the comics medium, one that could make a case for the urgent need of understanding comics as expression of specific (sub) cultures at specific times, places and contexts.
A future (digital or tangible) library of comics should not focus only on the “highest” end of the comics spectrum (award-winning graphic novels dealing with mature or serious topics for example) but on the complete phenomenon, even that of comics we might find aesthetically, morally or politically scandalous. Highly recommended.