East from Remembrance
On Rolling Stock by Oliver East
“I’m not walking away from anything”
Before beginning I feel obliged to insert a few disclaimers: as you hopefully know, Rolling Stock was published on Comics Workbook, where this post also appears. I’m also friendly with Oliver on a personal level, though we’ve never met. Those facts both make me hesitant to write about this comic at any length, but I think it is a good comic and one worth examining. I hadn’t seen much writing about it, so I decided to write something myself.
As you may know if you’ve read his other work, all of East’s comics follow a very simple formal constraint: he walks somewhere, taking notes but no sketches or photos, and then makes a comic about it. Rolling Stock, as best I can tell, is split between a walk (or multiple walks?) in the UK and a walk along the shores of Lake Ontario in conjunction with East’s trip to Toronto for TCAF 2013. I’m not sure how it connects to an earlier work also called Rolling Stock, which features some pages reminiscent of the Comics Workbook run.
“You are your movement”
You don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the comic, of course, and in fact you could read a good chunk of Rolling Stock pages without guessing that it simply tells the story of a man on a walk. Still, knowing that on one level the comic follows a very straightforward narrative helps anchor the many pages of Rolling Stock that are almost completely abstract. In the context of that knowledge, or even in the context of the more detailed, representational landscape images that appear on some pages, panels of flat color read clearly as sky, ground, grass…things that East sees along his path.
The implied progression of East’s walk, i.e. his literal forward movement, is in other words the engine that silently drives the comic. But there are other progressions here as well. Colors move in and out of the comic in a way that sometimes feels narratively appropriate (muddy browns in the UK and rich blues near Lake Ontorio, for instance) and other times just seems like East happened to have a particular marker or watercolor at hand that week. It’s effective in either case, though.
Still, there are pages here that don’t work, where the drawing is a little weaker or where I just can’t quite figure out what’s going on. East’s figure drawing is sometimes less assured than his watercolor landscapes, and the two styles sometimes don’t fit together particularly well. But one pleasure of a serialized comic is tracking the cartoonist’s improvement from one page to the next — another kind of progression. Indeed, in later installments like 127, 131, and 133, East comes upon a way of depicting figures that is more in line with his overall aesthetic. But those successes are a direct product of East’s failures, in that Rolling Stock is firmly committed to experimentation. That diversity is likely driven in part by necessity, since at least some portions of Rolling Stock were produced at a rate of a page per day. But the experimentation often pays off, such as with the unexpected and visually impressive use of paper warped by water as an aspect of page design.
“As you walk you become a line”
East’s pages are a catalogue of places, of moments, of remembered fragments. I suspect that the abstraction in his work, which is particularly prevalent in Rolling Stock , is due to his reliance on memory as much as it is a formal interest in abstraction or minimalism (though the latter is certainly present as well). “No recognisable record allowed…This is more the bird I remember rather than the bird,” he tells us, alongside the rough outline of something that might or might not be distinguishable as a bird without the text.
“Every fence post a panel, projecting my prejudices through double pane”
Fences are a striking visual motif that East has used in previous comics and they return in Rolling Stock to great effect. The fence post, or more accurately the space from one post to another, is a panel, or a metaphor for time fragmented, for segmentation, for comics. A fence is Oliver East’s gaze, the filter through which he passes the sights and sounds of his walks and turns them into comics. There’s lots of ways you can read it, but if nothing else pages like this one are compelling as single images, and they take on additional weight in the context of that first page. As multiple images of fences accumulate over the course of the work, even a few rectangles hanging in the air on the last panel of Rolling Stock 8 read as a fence. I really like that panel, by the way. I find the white space very compelling.
“Don’t know where I’m going, but I don’t want to go home.”
The fence posts are perhaps the most prominent instance of another characteristic of Rolling Stock, where single lines of text or a few images in one page are recalled dozens of installments later, a compelling slow build of themes and motifs that becomes clear only when reading the comic from beginning to end. This contrasts nicely with East’s stated intention that each page of Rolling Stock stand on its own – a fitting goal for a comic serialized on Tumblr.
The pages do work on an individual level, though. Take Rolling Stock 173, a later installment that I particularly enjoy. If you’re scrolling through your dashboard, maybe it’s just a nice illustration, with the color and relative density of the two panels offset by the white space that takes up the majority of the page. It’s also interesting on a formal level, with the angling of the panels and the space between them implying both depth and the passage of time, the latter also hinted at by the footprints in the foreground. Or are we just seeing those fence posts again?
“Wanderlust…s’potent stuff, man”
All of these paragraph headings, if it wasn’t already clear, are quotes from Rolling Stock. East’s prose is another real strength of the work, restrained, considered, and deceptively simple in a way that matches the minimalism of his art. Many of his best lines, just like many of his best drawings, address in some way the act of walking.
“A finish line would make things easier”
Rolling Stock doesn’t really conclude. It just stops. The 200th strip is a good one, but neither it nor the several strips prior feel distinct from what has come before in any real way. East has injected narrative into his work more forcefully in other cases, most notably in Swear Down, and that book does work to tie things together more neatly — though of course it’s only the first installment of a planned series.
But here, things are a little more simple. The walk is over, and Oliver East goes home.
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