Non-fiction in sequential art might be seen to have a harder job of finding an audience than traditional fiction comic books. With the exception of (auto)biographic works, they are few and far between in the mainstream. With this in mind, Edward Ross gives us Filmish – A Graphic Journey Through Film, which is essentially a history of film told in black and white sequential art. But more than just a linear telling of the history, what Ross presents the reader with might be described as an scholarly treatise on the major themes and developments in one of the most powerful and culturally significant artistic mediums there is.
In Filmish, cartoonist Edward Ross takes us on an exhilarating ride through the history of cinema, using comics to uncover the magic and mechanics behind our favourite movies.
Exploring everything from censorship to set design, Ross spotlights the films and film-makers that embody this provocative and inventive medium, from the pioneers of early cinema to the innovators shaping the movies of today, from A Trip to the Moon to Inception and beyond.
Many people who pick up a comic book will be familiar with the history of film, from the Lumiere brothers and George Méliès, through to Lord of the Rings and the Matrix, via Hitchcock and Goddard, amongst many others. Ross doesn’t therefore need to give us a by-the-numbers history. While all the classics are mentioned, Star Wars, Alien, Bladerunner for the science fiction fans for example, they are rarely the focus. Ross’s book contains 7 chapters examining how film has developed by theme. We have, for example, The Eye – how we see the world through cinema; The Body – how our perceptions of both male and females look reflected through film; Time – how we as audiences perceive time and how film-makers play with time and perception. Other chapters are Sets and Architecture, Voice and Language, Power and Ideology, and Technology and Technophobia.
Each chapter is constructed as you’d expect in any authoritative non-fiction text. There is the introduction to the theme, examples from history to back up the arguments, quotes and citations from other works (some scholarly), and a conclusion and summary within the last few pages. There are endnotes and a bibliography. This is a comic book to be taken seriously.
All the favourite films are mentioned. I suspect this is partially because Ross is clearly a huge fan of genre films and to market the book to comic book fans. But also because they illustrate the points he makes. However he also picks less obvious films on occasion if they instruct where required. Of course, Being John Malkovich and The Fly are featured in the section about physical appearance and diversity, and of course, Metropolis and Bladerunner are used as classic examples in the chapter of architecture. And while the chapter on The Voice features The Great Dictator it also features Pontypool, a little seen film where a zombie-like infection is transmitted by language. I was delighted to see Carpenter’s The Live featured in the chapter on ideology. Ross has a diverse and deep understanding of film history and culture and this is reflected within the pages of Filmish.
Ross himself is a graduate of film school, but has made his living as a comic book artist, writer and illustrator. He is known for producing science-based comics, and there have been single issues of Filmish released since 2009. There is a narrator drawn throughout the book and I assume that’s a likeness of Ross. It reads like a narrated documentary. The art is black and white, mostly line-drawn and owes a nod to Charles Burns in style. The panels contain scenes from all the films discussed, and more (noted in the end-notes). Ross has drawn the scenes faithfully – witness the detail on Inception or the characterfulness of The Jungle Book. However, and this may be deliberate, the actors are all slightly off. You recognise them all instantly (some obvious such as Guy Pierce in Memento) or not so much (Joaquin Phoenix in Her) but their likenesses aren’t quite perfect.
Filmish isn’t anything ground-breaking in terms of its comic book art or scholarly conclusions, but it is an enjoyable recap of some of the major themes in film history as told by an obvious and learned fan of both mediums. It is a great graphic text to have in the collection. Published by SelfMadeHero, any film enthusiast or comic book fan would do well to give it their time.
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson