Review by Frank Plowright
From the mid-1990s Belle and Sebastian delighted with a pure form of pop accompanied by intelligent lyrics supremely capable of raising a smile or a nod of appreciation as a particularly smart couplet manifested. It brought them a literate and passionate following, at whom Put the Book Back on the Shelf is squarely aimed. 24 creative teams each take a pre-2002 track and provide their interpretation as a comic strip, interestingly almost all avoiding The Boy With the Arab Strap’s content. Only Bruno D’Angelo ventures there, managing to spell the song title wrongly in the process. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the most popular selection, with six songs interpreted.
The combination of Belle and Sebastian’s lyrical sensitivity and their observations of fractured and unfulfilled lives with what at the time were a group of talented creators primarily working on small press titles should be golden, but it’s not. It rarely transcends interesting, with self-indulgence frequent from creators attempting to decode the lyrics, some seeming to have jumped on board never having heard the band. Of course, there’s no way of knowing which creators are fans and which not, but the suspicion is that Christopher Butcher is. He takes the tormented young woman of ‘Expectations’ and covers her diary entries for a six year period. It’s sympathetically drawn by Kalman Andrasofszky, and colourist Ramon Perez goes the extra mile by restricting the shades to those used by the band on their album covers. Jamie Rich and Marc Ellerby’s take on ‘Marx and Engels’ is simple, but pleasing, and Mark Ricketts and Leanne Buckey’s tale around ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ is a gem. The successful interpretations aren’t confined to extrapolations. Andi Watson’s tidy retro cartooning, Matthew Armstrong’s storybook illustration and Tom Hart’s eccentricity just accompany the lyrics.
Too many contributions, though, are dull or unsuitable, with Mark Smith and Paul Maybury achieving the combination by taking the uncertainty of ‘We Rule the School’ and adding a ninja to the party. ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ has evocative imagery squandered by the usually admirable David Lasky, and all too often nice art isn’t enough. Kako’s racing car realism for ‘Dog on Wheels’ works with the title alone prompting a fantastic spread, but the idea needed no more.
Some creators have raised their profile considerably since Put the Book Back on the Shelf, Rick Remender for one, and he and John Heebink’s depiction of selfish and inconsiderate band members is viable. Artistically Chris Samnee is already streets ahead of most other contributors, although Ande Parks’ take on ‘If She Wants Me’ is an odd one, switching the letter writer to a father in the navy. Strangely, Lasky’s preceding strip would fit the lyrics better. At least the book closes with a real gem, Steven Griffin (sample art) pouring out the frustrations of a one way love.
Laurenn McCubbin is responsible for the nice cover and the well considered design work, but hers is another strip that ends in frustration and disappointment. An unintended feature of Put the Book Back on the Shelf is that anyone unfamiliar with Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue will be given the false impression theirs is a form of artful misery. Very few strips convey the uplifting joy of the band in full flight, and that alone instantly marks the collection as not as good as it might have been, although it was popular enough for a second edition.