“Trains are…Mint” Reinvents the Graphic Novel

For all those who dismiss autobiographical comics as trite, facile, samey, whatever the complaint — here’s the high concept of Trains are…Mint. The author, Oliver East, goes for walks from train station to train station near his home in Manchester, England. He sketches what he sees. The end. For anyone with a little more sophisticated understanding of what is possible within the artform of comics, East’s debut graphic novel is a modest, monumental achievement, a kind of British version of Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man.

The immediate appeal of East’s book is the watercolour and pen and ink artwork with which he depicts his environment. The simplicity of his line favourably recalls John Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics (as does his overall narrative tone, it should be mentioned), but every once in a while he astounds with a sharply observed brick wall or the perspective he conveys in his drawing of a fence, or a row of townhouses. His watercolour technique is subtle and lovely, with the same quiet brick-to-the-head revelatory power Frank Santoro brought to Storeyville.

Like Santoro, East experiments with the way his words interact with the images on his page. A frequent technique here is the conveyance of information through what at first appears to be a sign, or graffiti, or a poster on a wall. It’s an arresting stylistic choice, one that really forces attention to what East is doing, and what he is saying. There’s an almost inexplicable effect that arises from the way he utilizes this technique, something that makes an unnameable third element out of the cobination of words and pictures.

art by Oliver East from Trains are...Mint Click to enlarge image

Alan Moore believes his hometown of Northampton is the center of the universe, and his belief likely stems from the fact that A) He is a keen observer and B) He turns his observations on his own surroundings. Oliver East does the same thing in Trains are…Mint, delivering a microcosm of the graffiti and detritus that infuse these train stations and their environs, unpacking his observations into a universal map of the land we all make our way through every day of our lives. Trains are…Mint is the first release from UK publisher Blank Slate Books, which is run by a couple of the owners of the legendary Forbidden Planet chain of comic book stores. As you might expect with that pedigree, the book is a thing of beauty not only in what it contains but in how it is produced. It’s a compact, strikingly-well-reproduced hardcover that is a tactile joy to experience. And a perfect delivery system for Oliver East’s comics.

East’s style evokes Porcellino, as I mentioned above. It also recalls for me a little Kevin Huizenga here, a little Lynda Barry there, and a whole lot of Eddie Cambell Alec-sized whimsy and wonder. I have no idea if he actually is influenced by any of these folks, though — his style feels sui generis in large part, and Trains are…Mint feels fresh and new, a shot across the bow to anyone thinking whatever can be done in comics form already has been done. This is something new, something you can lose yourself in, something you’ll want more of.

Trains are…Mint is published by Blank Slate Books.

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