Page 45 Review by Stephen
Three things you should know about Joe Decie: he's extremely decisive, fiercely practical, and always learns his lesson.
Glastonbury Festival 2003, 6:00am in the rain:
"I never want to go camping again."
Cornwall 2012, 6:00am after a sleepless night of nocturnal, outdoor ablutions:
"I never want to go camping again."
Back home in Hove, they've decided to go camping again.
This time it will be the entire Decie household - Joe, Steph and their young son, Sam - but they're going to do it differently because not enough water has gone under the bridge for Steph. Too much of it went over the tarpaulin sheets. No, this time they are going to go "glamping": glamorous camping sequestered in the woods, with real beds in a wooden shack with a wooden shed adjacent for those necessary nocturnal ablutions. It may or may not have a lock.
"Oh it is... It costs more than a hotel."
"Ah well maybe we should have a think."
"I've booked it."
Right, so it's Steph who's decisive.
Sam, meanwhile, has inherited his Dad's DNA when it comes to preparation and practicality. Charged with packing his own town-bound suitcase for a stint in the countryside, top of the list is sticks. Lots of sticks. In the countryside, you will need sticks.
It's time to come clean: Joe Decie is the most impractical man alive. You'll discover this later when he's building a fire, but they've got to get there first and you should see him navigating. Not for Joe, the dictatorial directions of an AA Route Planner. Oh, he'll print it out, but when lost in its precision at a critical juncture, why not resort to the hard-science roll of D-20 die? It's better than asking the locals: that would be publicly admitting private incompetence.
But never say Joe doesn't come fully prepared with precisely the right equipment: he's brought along graph paper and a very specific edition of a D&D rule book called 'Lost In The Countryside'. They'll be there by next Tuesday, latest.
Welcome to the uniquely mischievous, autobiographical world of Joe Decie, creator of previous Page 45 best-sellers POCKET FULL OF COFFEE, I BLAME GRANDMA, THE LISTENING AGENT, THERE'S NO BATH IN THIS BATHROOM and most recently DOGS DISCO which was packed so full of joyous sleights of hand that we made it Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month. When I heralded that last one as "the return of the pint-sized prankster", Joe immediately fired back to his followers on Twitter, "I'm really quite tall, you know".
He'd fit comfortably into your pocket.
Verisimilitude is Joe Decie's forte.
His pen and ink-wash passion is for portraits which are so instantly recognisable from panel to panel as such individual, living, breathing human beings that you are conned into what becomes a joyfully shared connivance that everything you see on the page actually occurs.
Normally I wouldn't dream of pulling back the proverbial curtain like this, for so often what is seen cannot be unseen and what is learned cannot be unlearned. But Decie's ever so wicked stream of seemingly limitless conjuring tricks is so seamless, so involving, that however many times I have been fooled before by the first three panels of a four-panel, confessional, family-orientated gag strip, I still accept every word of what he writes in the next one as absolute truth, because there is so much of it in there.
Who knew that Coney Island was so close to Kendal?
I promise, however, that you will still read this ridiculous, extended family dysfunction as straight-up fact, then smile in hilarious hindsight, so here is another thing: I've met Joe Decie on several occasions and it still all seems just as plausible. He is a buffoon, a mischievous imp with constantly twinkling eyes. It doesn't hurt, however, that he hits every single nail of behavioural observation on its universally recognisable head. From The Dance of the Wasp Attack to treating reality like it's the virtual reality of a console game and the side effects of social media.
My closest comparison would be Eddie Campbell's equally impractical ALEC. Make what you will of the fact that I've previously declared that particular book the greatest body of work in comics.
Just as when Eddie Campbell begins a family in ALEC, his kids start providing so much of the material, so attention-span-lacking Sam's obsession with sticks and Star Wars and his wonderfully wonky worldview - jettisoned liberally and seemingly apropos nothing - are mined for maximum mirth.
"Do you believe in the olden days?" is a gem in its own right.
But the confident follow-up that "In the '80s they used spears" tells you everything you need to know about a youngster's sense of scale. Anyway, it's time for bed.
"Daddy doesn't like Jango Fett but I do."
"Sam, you need to start thinking about things other than Star Wars."
"There's more to life than Star Wars."
"Yes. So tomorrow I will play Star Wars and make a blaster out of..."
"There are other things you can enjoy."
On the following page Steph brings a bottle of wine outside to Joe: "That boy. He's a one."
Joe: "I know. Jango Fett! Honestly."
As a result of the discipline involved in previously producing so many one-page punchline comics - often preceded by multiple other winks and parenthetical asides - COLLECTING STICKS has more comedy beats than almost any other graphic novel in existence. I'm not even sure about the "almost" but John Allison's work, much of which was similarly created for daily, on-line dissemination in page-sized bites, is probably the closest contender. In addition, this longer form allows Decie to vary the beats and reprise jokes throughout, and he's littered this book with cumulative comedy like his penchant for cluttering up any and every spare space with foraged bits and bobs (the more broken the better) and his constant, incurable worrying:
"You should give it a try. Stop reading this for a bit, and have a go, have a worry."
Four pages of lunch-orientated 'live action' later:
"Oh, how was your worrying? Did you manage to make a mountain out of a mole hill? Amazing, eh?"
This conversational commentary - either on his own funny foibles or directly engaging the reader - forms a secondary, parallel narrative dancing about outside of the panels, never once tripping over or intruding too far. It's like a DVD extra, except that those audio commentaries eclipse the dialogue, interrupting your ability to hear what is said and so follow the thread, whereas here they are in complementary harmony in the wonderful world of comics.
Oh yes, it's all part of the rich and intricate language unique to this medium of comics, and although others might garble their words or jabber on way too long, Joe Decie is effortlessly fluent.
Everything here is so well judged, from when to let a line linger on its own merits to the balance of light and dark on a twin set of pages. And they are all exquisitely beautiful pages which will compel you if not to go glamping then to at least seek out your nearest beach, stream or woodland in order to follow its trails and forage for vintage goods like discarded candy-bar wrappers which might make you a mint in the future on e-bay.
As my book of the year - yes, my book of the year - this is going to take some beating.