Thursday, July 20, 2023

Graphic Novels of Thomas Ott- Beauty and Elegance of Scratchboard

The chronological sequence in which I reached Thomas Ott is interesting. I never knew of his works before. It all started with the book Sherlock Holmes and the Legend of the Great Oak by Linda Stratman, a Holmes pastiche that is part of the series The Early Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. For experiencing more such works, I selected the graphic novel A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman and Rafael Albuquerque, which was inspired by A Study in Scarlet. After that, I was interested in a story that featured Holmes and Dracula. I wasn't able to find one such book, though I stumbled on Breccia's take on Dracula, which was a textless graphic novel with only sketches. I was so impressed by that one that I decided to hunt for more graphic novels that are devoid of text. That search took me to Thomas Ott.

Now that the links to some earlier posts are very subtly inserted into the text to lure unsuspecting visitors, let us cut to the chase and talk about the books. Thomas Ott is a Swiss illustrator who uses a scratchboard sketching style for comic books. It is a very complex method and doesn't have any margin for error. I think the use of scratchboard gives Ott's works a haunting look. The black and white colours and intricate detailing are effective in conveying an element of mystery and intrigue. As there are no text boxes to describe the events or conversations, the expression of the characters and the ambience of the frames carry the weight.

I read four graphic novels by Thomas Ott. The first one is Cinema Panopticum, which contains five short stories that are interconnected. A fascinated little girl, with only five coins with her, visits a carnival. She finds an unmanned, empty booth named Cinema Panopticum, in which there are five screens that show small movies for one coin each. She starts playing each one of them using the coins she has with her. The stories are very atmospheric and haunting. Heavy, dark humour and macabre frames add to the brilliance. 

The second book is titled Dead End. There are two noir stories in this collection. In the first story, titles The Millionaires, a tense man falls into a cliff in a car accident and dies. His suitcase containing an insane amount of money changes many hands in a cycle of death that is pushed by greed and ends in a full circle. In the second story, a hitman follows a magician and finds himself in big trouble. Both stories take their characters to dead ends quite literally.

The third book is a very short one titled The Forest. It has only less than 30 pages of art work, but it is the best of all the books, artistically and thematically. It has a boy who sneaks out during his grandfather's funeral and heads into a forest that is filled with horrific images. The book has a very spiritual theme to it, and the artwork complements it with its hallucinating sketches.

The fourth one is called The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8. It shows a convict sentenced to death leaving a series of numbers on a small piece of paper while dying. A prison guard finds it and takes it home. His life changes after that when he encounters these sequences everywhere, and they lead him to his doom. This one also has a theme similar to Dead End because of its cyclic nature and inevitable doom.

All four graphic novels use a similar style of narration but differ in their themes. The Forest stands out for the deeply metaphysical quality that it depicts. Cinema Panopticum is a bokeh of stories that contains macabre humour and unexpected twists. Dead End has a heavy influence of noir, which makes us ready for any shift in narrative. The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 is more contemplative in its style and the most depressing of the four. Any of these books can be read in a matter of minutes. After all, there are no descriptions of conversations, and we feel eager to know what is ahead. But once completed, we cannot help but return once again to look at each sketch and appreciate the aesthetics and detailing.

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