Writer & Artist: Guy Colwell
Release Date: February 22, 2015
If you wrinkle your nose at dialogue like “Oh, baby, you got to cool out and think about what you doin’” then this collection of Guy Colwell’s Inner City Romance, originally published in five issues between 1972 and 1978, may not be for you. Colwell didn’t come out of a comics tradition, having been trained as a fine artist, and he’s very much feeling his way in these early works. Born in California, he attended the California College of Arts and Crafts for a couple of years before dropping out, then ended up at McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington for refusing the draft. His prison time shaped him in new ways, opening his eyes to injustice, racial inequality and more. When he got out and made his way to San Francisco, he encountered the burgeoning underground comics scene. The medium seemed like a good one to express his ideas, and the first issue of Inner City Romance springs from his personal experience.
The story of three men fresh out of prison, two African American and one white, focuses on the choices they make upon being reintroduced to society. Will James choose decadence (sex, drugs) or political action? Colwell’s dialogue is corny, and his pages embrace a strange mix of artistic styles. Some panels are heavily hatched. Others, nearby, feature simple black-and-white contour drawings. The influence of psychedelics (swooping shit, melting faces) is readily apparent, but there’s also a sweeping realism, as in one large panel that shows the city of San Francisco in the background from a hilltop perspective. Dialogue can dominate panels, or it can fade away and disappear, as in lengthy sections that feature enthusiastic sexual activity. Does the book aim at social change? Or is it more focused on titillation?
These incongruities grate against one another, and the situation doesn’t improve with the subsequent issues, which throw even more styles into the mix: tiny panels, scratchboard-style black-heavy scenes, deliberately-ugly illustrations, pages that reference art history, an entire issue that’s sort of a terrible rock opera. It is, frankly, kind of an awful mess, and although Colwell’s heart is in the right place as he attempts to create well-rounded characters and provoke our bleeding hearts, good intentions aren’t enough. That said, watching him try new things can be as interesting as it is annoying.
Ignoring the narratives and focusing on the visuals is probably the right tactic to enjoy Inner City Romance. And although the sex scenes are graphic and detract from the plot, they actually contain more subtlety and complexity than the political dialogues and diatribes. Bodies are bodies, after all, and we all have them. Colwell’s characters aren’t always conventionally beautiful. Some are fat or old or strung out, but the way they combine has an authenticity missing from the rest of the pages. Colwell’s large-scale color paintings are also reproduced extensively, both interspersed with the individual issues and in a section of their own at the end. Bearing a strong social realist influence (Thomas Hart Benton, but also a bit of Paul Cadmus), they’re worthy of some attention, too, perhaps because they show rather than tell.