“Hey, I’m no Jackson Pollock!”

Colville Comics
by David Collier
(Art Gallery of Ontario, 2014)
Review by BK Munn
This is a beautiful short comic book prepared by David Collier in conjunction with a big exhibit of work by the iconic Canadian painter Alex Colville (1920-2013) at the AGO that ran last year. The AGO, largely under the influence of the newly-installed Canadian art curator Andrew Hunter, has been very proactive in its approach to cartooning, recently purchasing and/or exhibiting work by Chester Brown, Seth, Nina Bunjevac, Art Spiegelman, and now David Collier. In seven concise pages here, Collier skillfully shows why he has become the quirky dean of fact-based Canadiana in comics form. Part quickie biography, part critical exegesis, Colville Comics covers the highlights of Colville’s career while providing a few fresh insights into the artist’s work based on an examination of his early life, including, notably, his stint as a “war artist” and witness to The Holocaust, epic events which Collier lays alongside the details of Colville’s long daily commute to his art college teaching gig in the 1940s and 50s. Collier also touches on Colville’s critical reception and even takes a few panels to walk us through his own interactions with the painter’s life and work.
Comics provides an ideal means for one visual artist to interact with and comment on another artist’s work. Sometimes this is done unconsciously through the osmosis-like development of a style based on influence. Sometimes artists out-and-out steal or plagiarize. Others are forced by economic circumstances to mimic or work in a “house” style as ghosts or work-for-hire. In Colville Comics we have an example of a commissioned work that serves as merchandise for a large publicly-funded institution’s presentation of another artists work that nevertheless stands as a distinct work of art on its own merits. Collier comes at Colville’s work as an equal, using his chosen format of autobiographical comics to think through Colville in his own signature style. Although not quite the household name that Colville eventually became (not by a long shot!), Collier occupies a comparable space in the comics world where he is something of an outsider whose work might almost be described by the uninitiated in the same terms the Globe and Mail’s art critic John Bentley Mays infamously used for Colville: a “naive, primitive folk artist,” equal parts underground cartoonist and autodidact historian. Collier’s approach here is quite sophisticated and manages to seamlessly reference aspects of his subject’s work in a number of his panels, recontextualizing the work and making it fresh. It’s also quite wonderful and fitting to see Collier’s work in colour here, a deluxe treatment for an artist whose hatched linework is more familiar to us from the black-and-white environs of occasional newspaper features and obscure comics anthologies.