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Louder Than Words: exitmusic

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Kean Soo is a creative powerhouse. He’s the assistant editor of Flight, does the disarmingly charming Jellaby over at The Secret Friend Society (which holds slot number three on the Why The Hell Aren’t You Reading This? list), had previously done a journal comic, and contributed to volume 1 of You Ain’t No Dancer. But today we’re going to talk about exitmusic.

It’s a series of autobiographical stories, which is always dangerous ground; done wrong it comes off as lame, and done right you end up exposing parts of yourself to the world. Secondly, it’s set to music clips, which is also risky — a reader that disagrees with your musical interpretations or taste can come away with the wrong message from the work. It’s also tough to reprint it later. And yet, he’s managed to make both of these risks pay off.

Soo’s art is expressive, especially as he draws himself; the character design is simplified to the point that the reader can’t help but to identify. Two-arms-two-legs-one head-glasses could be that Kean guy, sure. It could also be me. Or you. Secondly, even if the musical choices didn’t perfectly fit the mood of each story, the art is strong enough to stand on its own (in fact, one of the stories is an excerpt of his Flight 2 contribution). But forget all that, because there’s something else here that’s most interesting about this work: silence.

That’s an odd thing to say about a series that’s using music as an integral part of the experience, but take a careful look at how few words show up in these stories. In the language of comics, silence is when the reader loses out on cues in the story and has to participate actively. Silence carries an emotional resonance beyond the most profound words (especially when the stories deal with loss and leaving). Check out the simple pleasures of drivin’ to LAX with your hand out the window, or the heartbreak of saying goodbye for the very last time.

Even with the soundtrack, it’s the dialogue that tells us how long a scene is supposed to play out; take that away, and the reader can get lost in the moment. The scene plays exactly as long as you think it needs to in order to convey that emotional payload direct into your brain. Not my brain, or anybody else’s: yours. This is storytelling that’s customized to you and you alone. The littlest details here (a fast-food sign, a dog to scratch behind the ears, a musical chord) invite you to reflect, relive moments of your own life, and shift into a non-causal experience of the story. It’s the sort of thing that professors of literature like to bullshit about when they read Proust, which is a ballsy trick for any classically-trained student of literature to attempt.

So how incredibly ballsy is it if you’re not a student of literature? Soo trained as an electrical engineer and has the Iron Ring to prove it. I’ve got a similar degree and ring, and if this didn’t predispose me to like him, there’s this: I went to nerd school. I immersed myself in the world of electrical engineering and engineers. Yeah, sure, everybody’s unique, hidden propensities, blah blah blah … engineers are not an artistically creative people, as a rule. Just trust me on this one. We compromise, improvise, design, test, and make things work in the most direct manner possible; little bits of silence and elegance were not part of the curriculum. That Soo is able to make this aspect such a central part of his art is more than refreshing — it’s astonishing. Now go revel in the silences.

You’re pretty good at this Gary! Massive respect to Kean.

Very interesting stuff, I’m definitely going to have to spend some time getting better acquainted with Kean’s work. Your mention of his use of music and silence, and the interaction between these elements and his artwork, reminds me of some work done by Kid Koala (Eric San of Montreal). He’s come at it from a different angle, being a professional musician / DJ signed to the NinjaTune label, but the elements you highlighted in Kean’s work are also explored in Kid Koala’s more recent efforts, the CD (with comic) “Some of My Best Friends Are DJs”, and particularily the book (and CD) “Nufonia Must Fall”. Unfortunately neither of these falls into the domain of “webcomics”, but both are defintely worth checking out.

[…] It has previous been that these pages have written about Kean Soo’s journal comic, exitmusic; there was a brief mention there of his current project, Jellaby. At that time Jellaby was on hiatus, but it’s been back for a couple weeks now. It’s high time we talked about it. Jellaby is giving Little Dee a run for its money as the most Calvin and Hobbes-esque webcomic; where Chris Baldwin tends to work with short storylines of a week or two interspersed with gag-a-day strips, Kean Soo has one big story in Jellaby: the story of a sweet feisty little girl and her monster. […]

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