Graphic: Neil Gaiman & Kevin Smith

August ’10 has shaped up as easily the best month of the past 12 or so and, indeed, the next few too. This weekend marked the inaugural launch of the Graphic festival at the Sydney Opera House, which aimed to celebrate “comic books, illustration, animation, music, multimedia and other new ways of telling stories [that] have not only changed the face of our popular culture, they now define it.”

I can’t even describe in words – or interpretive dance (believe me, I tried; it was awkward and confusing) – how terribly excited I was knowing that I’d be going to a show featuring Neil Gaiman one night, and Kevin Smith the next. Needless to say, my expectations were high. I’ve spoken before of my adoration for Gaiman, his wonderful way with words, with rhythm and story, so when I say his show ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ far surpassed my expectations, you should have some inkling of just how fantastic it really was.

The show comprised basically of Gaiman reading aloud a new short story for the first and only time in public, accompanied by the spectacular FourPlay String Quartet, and illustrations from the great Eddie Campbell. It’s something that hasn’t really been done before – an interactive reading experience with soundtrack and visual accompaniment, a kind of theatrical, live film that harked back to the origins of story, to wide-eyed listening around campfires as your elders spellbound you in imagination, except the campfire in this case was the Sydney Opera House and it was being done on a ridiculously ambitious scale.

An ambitious scale that paid dividends as 2000 people sat silent, stunned.

From FourPlay’s opening notes, I knew something special was about to happen. It was a surreal experience in some ways; whoever heard of 2000 adults sitting down to listen to one man tell a story? Sure, there are similarities with audiences sitting down to watch theatre, or cinema, or musicals even, but these are the usual suspects – collaborative, immersive experiences that really take care of everything for you; they assault you with the images, with the story, with the sound, and there’s nothing left for you to do but take it in. Here, Gaiman had to become the story; it was his voice alone which carried us on the journey.

It was quite beautiful. FourPlay were sensational, haunting, and moving, without ever taking the spotlight away from the soft-spoken words, the gradual building of story and Campbell’s artwork worked well as occasional insights into setting and character, little landmarks that rooted you even further into the tale. Gaiman, for the record, has a truly lovely voice and an impeccable sense of rhythm and timing; there was never an awkward pause, an uncomfortable mouthful of words, an off-pace sequence, or sentence – it was a glorious fable, and you couldn’t help but be carried away with it. Now, I’m not going to say it was amazingly original, or featured unique revelations into the human condition, or that I didn’t pick the ending well before the story came to a close but I will say that it didn’t need to be and it didn’t try to be any of those things.

Like most of Gaiman’s work, it oozes familiarity and nostalgia, it hints at stories you already know, experiences you’ve always wanted, without ever being cheap or imitative and always with a very distinctive flair all its own. The joy is in the simplicity of the story, in the familiar, the new and the strange – like meeting an old friend in a place you didn’t expect, and had not known of. It was enough, in the end, to make me regret the lack of such events in the world and indeed, the lack of oral storytelling in general. Ultimately, it’s a unique experience and in a lot of ways, I think, the penultimate reading experience – the original experience.

That being said, I can’t say that it translates into audio-book love – because the music and the images and the man himself, there directly in front of me, all kept me sharply focused and I had nothing else to distract me – the same cannot be said for audiobooks; whether I listen to them on my computer, while browsing the net, or on the train, inevitably I lose focus and drift…losing my place. Thankfully, that was not the case on Saturday night, however. When all’s said and done, of course, I do now intend to pay more attention to audio books, certainly in the case of Neil himself.

In any case, I attended this event with a friend, who approached it the opposite to me, in that he thought it would be cool to see Gaiman, but really wanted to see Kevin Smith, instead of the other way around. So, in a mutual exchange of awesome, I saw Kevin Smith the next night. Now, he’d briefly appeared the night before to introduce the winner of a short animation contest and in just those few minutes, managed to increase my excitement about his show by about 10 million percent. Ribald, quick, and hilarious, he easily dominated the short exchanges with officiating guests and managed to work the crowd over with ease.

So, my previous non-existent expectations about his show rocketed up and even here, I was not disappointed. The thing that impressed me most about the show – or more accurately, the man – was the honesty. It was brutal. And funny as fuck. This part Q&A, part comedic routine, mostly life story, was all over the place, it never stayed still, always deviated again and again until even Kevin was confused. But again, the great thing was that there was no sense of barrier, no sense that the man in front of me was a persona, an act, or someone at all concerned with how he is perceived – it was quite shocking and really insightful in a lot of unexpected ways.

Something Kevin spoke a fair bit about, which I’ve never heard any filmmaker or actor speak about so candidly before, was not just the money he made (and lost) but also the quality of the films and how aware he was of them in an objective way. That he was able to say “Yeah, that was kind of shit” was really cool. He was honest about what he does, why he did it, and where he wants to go to such an extent that it’s hard not to be impressed, hard not to respect him for that. He was hilarious, outrageous, gracious and at times quietly reflective, even downright sombre, but always entertaining.

All in all, as a weekend, it pretty much kicked my ass with awesome.

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