Special Feature: ‘Filmish: A Graphic History of Film’

Lovers of cinema are in for a treat this month, with the launch of Edward Ross’ Filmish: A Graphic History of Film, a cinematic history told through the comic book medium. Filmish offers a fairly familiar and broad narrative of European and Hollywood cinema, though its deep love for film shines through. Moreover, the graphic medium lends it countless little moments peppered with depth, humour and wry observation. Rather than structure his narrative chronologically, Ross organises via seven major themes, working his way through the viewer’s eye and the body, through to power, ideology and technology.

This approach allows him to move fluidly through cinema’s timeline, jumping from Citizen Kane (1941), to Rashomon (1950), to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) in a matter of only two or three panels. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Filmish is Ross’ own illustrations, beautifully rendered in a monochromatic style that captures the essence of the films he discusses, while never breaking the heightened, Will Eisner-inflected graphic sensibilities that makes the book such an effortless joy to read. Typically, Ross provides ‘voiceover’ commentary, using illustrated film scenes to make his points for him. Frequently inserting himself into the frame emphasises the personal in Ross ‘journey through film’.

If Filmish could be criticised at all, it is that readers with even a cursory knowledge of film history will be largely familiar with Ross’ narrative, and while he does interrogate some of cinema’s more problematic areas – one section on Native American audiences mocking John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964) is a hoot – the tale is invariably told from a white, male, Western perspective. Moreover, the book’s breezy and concise nature mean that swathes of cinematic history are left on the cutting room floor. Animation, for example, is completely absent save for one obligatory mention of Disney’s questionable politics. None of this is inherently damaging, of course: Filmish is a subjective journey as opposed to a dispassionate study. It is a warm, accessible and lovingly personal history of cinema, littered with subtle juxtaposition, contrast and insight. Most importantly, however, it is a must read for lovers both of film and of comics.

Christopher Machell