Nothing Much Happens to Mr. Mamoulian

« Somebody said that drawing a page of comics ought to be as easy as writing a letter to a friend. So I did just that. I took a bit of paper and drew in ink whatever came into my head. I tried to surprise myself. If I made a mistake it would just have to stay there. » — Brian Bolland

Brian Bolland‘s habitual style is easy to recognize, and co-admin RG and I are both fond of it. But there was a time when the normally meticulous Bolland decided to do something different, something much more sketchy and spontaneous. The result was the vaguely Armenian-sounding Mr. Mamoulian, who doesn’t look much like one of Brian Bolland’s ankle-biters (unless one is the proud owner of a perceptive eye)… until he encounters some pretty women, which are a dead giveaway.

Mr. Mamoulian, a pervy sort of ‘older’ (40-ish?) guy prone to bouts of nihilism and crippled by self-doubt, engages in the sort of things listless people do, when they are not quite sure how to occupy their time*: sit on park benches while others are at work, shuffle stuff around their apartment from point A to point B (and back again), enjoy a cuppa, and stare at the ceiling after waking up in the middle of the night. He is obsessed with feminine beauty, but uneasy with the ramifications of being obsessed with it. Rattled by the passage of time, irked by life’s idiosyncrasies, trapped in and by his body, he’s nevertheless a silly and rather comforting presence as we follow him on one of his aimless traipses around the rainy countryside, witness one of his exchanges with his imaginary naked lady friend (Bubbles Bourbasch), or coo at his surprisingly congenial friendship with punkette Evelin Shit-Face.

* These days, of course, one just stares into a cellphone/binge-watches a show on whatever streaming service, which is prompted by the same impulse, but it somewhat less romantic.

The proverbial beautiful English weather.
The early days of the fragile friendship between Mamoulian and Evie (who, for all her punky pretensions, is a rather well-mannered, thoughtful young woman).
Mamoulian is silent – does he condone Mr. Carstairs’ patter? Disapprove of it? Probably a bit of both. In the end, it’s his behaviour that matters – Evie is a person to him. As for Mr. Carstairs, he’s a spot-on portrayal of a first-class hypocrite.
Here Mamoulian’s reflections are reminiscent of the philosophical musings of Marc Hempel’s Genital Ben.

Mr. Mamoulian is arguably a peephole right into Bolland’s id, but it’s not at all an uncomfortable experience (unlike, say, peeking into the mind of Chester Brown, who creeps me out in a big way), even when the strip goes creepily dreamlike, or addresses uncomfortable topics (for some, the couple of bondage-related pages – not included here to avoid ruffling feathers – would be it; apparently ‘Bolland is noted by some for his use of bondage imagery‘, though I honestly think that’s a bit of an overstatement). In the end, Mamoulian’s character is casually tapping into many sources of frustration and confusion that rattle around most human heads. He is relatable.

Bolland calls Mr. Mamoulian ‘not very good’, but I obviously disagree with this assessment, as you’ve probably noticed by now. I love the sketchiness of the art, its surreal energy. The strip is, by turns, hilarious, depressing and always very, very British (and not just because of the continuous tea-drinking). I believe we can all relate to Mamoulian’s struggles with being alive, and the notions of freedom and art. We also get tantalizing glimpses of punk and metal scene through Evie and Steve’s interludes.

Mr. Mamoulian’s first encounter with Bubbles (off screen), who is later to visit him at night as her imaginary nude self. Interestingly, it seems to be her name, not her looks, that stuns his imagination.
One of American Suzy’s many conceptual experiments.

In terms of style, both in terms of art and storytelling, I suppose this strip fits comfortably into a set of British semi-autobiographical strips from the mid to late 80s – Eddie Cambpell’s Alec and Glenn Dakin’s Abraham Rat, for example, both of them also gloriously funny and contemplative and excellent. As a matter of fact, Mr. Mamoulian was first published in Paul Gravett‘s Escape Magazine* (read a lovely article about it here**), home of Cambell and Dakin’s strips as well…

* Mr. Mamoulian first appeared in Escape no. 11 (1987).

** To quote from the aforementioned article, Glenn Dakin in The Comics Journal no. 238, October 2001, explained that Escape “provided a focal point for people. People would meet up and discuss their dreams and ideas and get together as friends or have arguments and fall out and sometimes even if somebody annoys you or if somebody didn’t seem to have respect for your work, that would be enough to fill you with enough anger to go out there and try to prove them wrong.” Recently, John Bagnall told me, “To some readers at the time, Escape Artists were sometimes generalized as the school of strips “where nothing happened”, but their approaches were actually much more disparate. As for the social scene, there was a loose sense of unity when we would meet up in London, though naturally not everyone got on well or were even huge fans of certain people’s work.

~ ds

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