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Malcy Duff:

Playing With The Rubble

Not uncommon in Japan in modern manga, the three dots of an ellipsis are used inside an otherwise blank thought balloon to convey a person’s innermost, inexpressible thinking process. In I Trimmed A Tree So A Lorry Could Pass (Good Press, April 2015), Malcy Duff takes the dots from balloons above his character who is brushing his teeth, then standing on his lawn, and enlarges them so they occupy a whole page. These three dots almost symbolise the Edinburgh-based artist’s own associative approach to stretching, deforming, even breaking the medium’s visual storytelling. “Narrative is a very dangerous thing”, comments Duff. “So it is gravely important we continually blow it to smithereens and play with rubble.”

Since 1997 Duff has been detonating comics into unexpected shapes, eager to let each reader join the dots together in their own fashion. In Duff’s practice, he sees “The first stage is that ‘pop’ of the initial idea, with all its energies and possibilities. The second stage is to translate that idea as close to the ‘pop’ as possible. The third, and most important, is leaving enough room for interpretation so the reader can create ideas themselves. This is the only way a comic can have any life. Make babies.”

Some of that life gets sparked by Duff’s penchant for optical and perspectival puzzles, perhaps inspired by “something I see which I would like to see drawn, and haven’t seen drawn before.” His nine-page webcomic for, Will I Ever Travel as Far as a Guitar String When It’s Played? (2008), opens with black geometric shapes on what may be an audio monitor, the volume rising on the left and one black square perhaps denoting a note, hovering before it bursts and collapses (above). Later, Duff freezes our view onto a receding path, as a figure vanishes behind a wall. Duff makes us anticipate for 23 panels, until someone appears in the distance and rapidly paces past us. This man rings a doorbell and enters a room with two silhouetted figures visible through a window, their three forms finally coalescing into a slightly imperfect black square.

Duff sees such repetitions and variations as making his comics almost musical. “It’s how a piece of music floats around a room, without an obvious logic. It taps into feeling and emotion, which I think can be closer to a truth than constructing panels into a finished Rubik’s Cube.” Another of Duff’s hats is one half with Ali Robertson of the band Usurper (above, performance at Colour Out Of Space Festival 2013 with Dora Doll). Duff is experimenting with comics as filmed readings on the DVD Snowcone (2014) (still, below), or live on stage in Beetle Drive (2013) mixing drawing, sound and performance. Since 2003, he has tried making the object element, the physicality, more key to the reading of each comic in Rrobots, an ongoing series since 2003, from one issue composed of 27 individually drawn badges to another whose cover rubs off on your hand.

There’s no avoiding a certain grotesquerie to his figures and animals, but these are not mocking but make us empathise about how bodies are vulnerable meat, their skin taut, hairs astray, bones fragile, their frailty indicated by Duff’s quivering motion lines. So his 2008 booklet A 52 Second Silence For Topsy (interior spread, below) serves as a graphic memorial to the Coney Island amusement park’s elderly elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison, its demise deforming across 52 illustrations, one per second.

Doubters complain that the specificities of comics delimit the reader’s imagination; as his new comic ‘I Forgot Santa Claus Was So Small’ for ArtReview (below) confirms, in Duff’s hands comics become overripe with suggestive ellipsis…

‘I Forgot Santa Was So Small’ for ArtReview Magazine
Click images to enlarge.

Web Exclusive:
Malcy Duff was generously forthcoming in answering my queries about him and his work for my ArtReview introduction. Here is our longer discussion…

Paul Gravett:
So was there a point when you did become a cartoonist?  Or we you “born that way”, as Crumb once put it?

Malcy Duff:
1982. My gran had a bleeding nose. I drew her with a bleeding nose. 

I imagine you resist being labelled as a cartoonist or artist or musician, you want to work in whatever media you choose?

Labels should be stretched so far that they eventually ping back in your face.  People can make up their own minds what I do.  I am a cartoonist.

Comics are rarely as elusive and allusive as yours, inviting paused contemplation, or bafflement, rather than speed reading in search of an easy punchline or twist. It makes me question why should comics be so linear, A to Z, understood and then over. What attracts you to this medium and what are its obstacles and challenges in your view? 

The visual narrative possibilities. Narrative fascinates me, and the scope in comics to destroy a traditional narrative is massive. That appeals to me. Narrative is a very dangerous thing, and so it is gravely important we continually blow it to smithereens and play with the rubble. I also feel there is some kind of truth in comics between creator and reader that connects the two like a fingernail to a finger. Why? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I think you may be this country’s most intriguing surrealist who uses comics and is stretching and twisting the medium into unexpected shapes. How much do you plan and script and lay out your comics in advance, and how much is improvised, or happy accidents?

I do plan my comix, but I am always keen to leave them open to other things happening along the way. Maybe a line might go off in a direction I hadn’t planned, and instead of removing it I will follow it and see where it takes me.

The pleasure of your comics is that you surprise, puzzle and unsettle, firing the imagination and interpretation of your reader, who has to be actively engaging in each work.

There are three stages of a comic’s life which I try to always respect. The first is that pop of the initial idea, how it appears to me with all its energies and possibilities. The second is to then to translate that idea as close to the pop as possible. That is the difficult stage. The third, and most important, is now allowing the reader to be the creator: leaving enough room for interpretation in the work for the reader to create ideas themselves. This is the only way a comic can have any life. Make babies.

Which comics did you grow up reading? Were British - nay Scottish- kids comics by Watkins, Law, Baxendale and Reid  favourites and influences? And who else in art, poetry or elsewhere? 

I wanted to be Oor Wullie so badly that I made my mum buy me a pale. It was a plastic one. I never felt that comfortable sitting on it. Comics: Toxic, Peter Bagge. Music: Trumans Water. Writer: Richard Brautigan.

I detect a crumb of Crumb as well, including a close eye for the earthy, grotesque (panel above from ‘Pew’, a 63-page online comic for The Wire magazine). When and what did you first read of his and what effect did it have on you?

I can’t remember when I first saw Crumb’s work, but when I did it was his style which I was most into. His pen work… I loved so much then, and I still love it now. I think the thing that connects me the most to him is that he’s a drawer. He draws and draws, and he draws blood. It is painful to draw sometimes. His pens go down meated alleys not caring too much for their safety, and that I admire.

How did you find your way to making and self-publishing comics as part of your creative expression?

A family holiday in the New Forest, biros and eccles-cake farts. Pete Ashton and Bugpowder were a huge encouragement, of the biros not the farts.

Do you feel your work is as much or more connected to artists’ books or poetry or print-making - or contemporary art, moreso say than comics? 

Not at all. In fact, I have never thought about them like that. It has been readers and journalists who have said these things to me. I am always making comix. It’s been interpretations of my work that have meant they have been put in artist book sections, or called poetry, and I have absolutely no problem with that at all. I think it is good to confuse these definitions, as it could destroy artistic descriptions, which would be wonderful. A world without pigeonholes, just lots of pigeons.

Did you go to art school and if so how did it stifle or nurture your interest in comics and comics-making?

I studied an illustration Higher National Diploma. I was told not to make comics and was made to paint a large polar bear instead. I actually quite liked the polar bear, but there was an argument about its nose. It was all very confusing. 

What do you enjoy about optical illusions and tricks, and disorientating viewpoints - by others and in your own comics? 

I like what I would call an old magic, something which requires a viewer’s imagination to coax the rabbit from the hat. It’s all made by people and their dreams, it’s very immediate and approachable.  t suggests something without telling you what to think, like black fog spots inbetween panels. The viewpoints in my comix tend to just come naturally from what I find interesting to look at.  Most of the time I wouldn’t give it any more thought than that. I don’t want it to be contrived, just something I see which I would like to see drawn, and something I haven’t seen drawn before.

You’ve said, “I’ve often thought one way people could read my comix is as if they are music.” How have you combined them? Isn’t there a question of comics having no specific duration, as the reader is in control of the time spent reading, whereas music usually lasts a fixed amount of time?   

You could argue that music does reverberate on after you’ve stopped listening, but a comic is infinite, sitting on your finite lap and flapping at your dead ears. I suppose it’s a mood thing. I like to create a mood using pacing and repeated images, and I suppose sometimes that could be seen as more like music, how a piece of music floats around a room, without an obvious logic. It taps into feeling and emotion, which I think can be closer to a truth than constructing panels into a finished Rubik’s Cube.

How do your live performances of comics work exactly - are they readings/performances/slideshows? What changes when you make comics especially to be performed?

Beetle Drive is my most recent live comic, and it involves drawings, sound, performance, and comix presented on a stage. I don’t want to say too much, you’ll have to come and see it.

Yes, I will! You’ve also experimented with video comics in Snowcone - can you tell me about this please? What plans do you have to try more of these?

Using editing in film is very much like using pages and panels in a comic.  Snowcone was a comic which had to be made this way – that’s how it came to me. When more work appears like this, I will happily plan more.

What did you learn from teaching comics workshops, including at the National Gallery I noticed? People say, “Never work with children or animals!” - how did the kids aged 7-10 respond to your workshops?

I’ve been teaching comics and drawing now for about 9 years, and I’ve worked with many different age groups in a variety of settings. I find it very inspiring to being around creative people, especially people who you might not have met otherwise. All groups and situations are different from one to the next, which keeps it interesting.  I’ve been doing a comic book exercise called The Dog Walking Technique (above), which I designed in 2009, and this has worked really well with ages from 6 to 80. It uses experimental drawing techniques and similarity to create a comic book double page spread. I am very keen to work with animals in the future.

Please tell me about your new gallery show and what you’re showing?

Good Press in Glasgow will be publishing two new comix back to back in April.  These are The Stagnant Water Inside A Bath Duck (spread, above), and I Trimmed A Tree So A Lorry Could Pass. They will also be exhibiting original artwork from both publications, and hosting an evening of readings from the comix.

I remember you turning up to the first Comica Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 2003 with the first issue of your project Rrobots. Can you tell me more about this ongoing series?

Each issue of Rrobots I treated as a ‘pure’ experiment, using new techniques and approaches in my work, without thinking about an outcome. The Rrobots were trained in appreciating mistakes. It was, and still is, a very important part of my work, and how it has developed over the years. The hope was that with each issue I would find techniques and approaches that I could use further down the line, while creating comix which were new and full of possibility. Again narrative was a big thing in these publications, but I was also thinking more about the comic as a physical object. Previous to these comix I had used objects interspersed with comix to relate to their specific story, however I felt that a lot of these attempts were more decorative than anything else. With Rrobots the object element was more key to the reading of the comic. The first issue in 2003 was a silver A4 comic book stapled through the middle, side, top, bottom, so the reader was invited to either peer inside and get a small glimpse, or take a chance and rip the pages apart, reading torn pages and looking at sliced characters. Rrobots IV was 27 individually drawn badges, Rrobots II had a cover that rubbed off on your hand. I would like very much one day to compile these comics into a book.   

Me too. So any comment you’d like to add?

It is important to see mistakes in art. It tells you that someone made this. And you could make it too.


Posted: March 21, 2015

The opening Article and new Comic first appeared in ArtReview Magazine.
Photograph of Malcy Duff by and courtesy of
Joe Gordon


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1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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A 52 Second
Silence For Topsy

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How To Make A Puppet

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Don’t Name Your Hands ‘Hands’