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July 29, 2014 / bcremins

Charles Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” and Single Panel Cartoons

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The cover of Johnson’s 1970 collection Black Humor.

Early in Chapter Two of Comics and Narration, theorist Thierry Groensteen extends some of the questions he first posed in The System of Comics, also available in an English translation from the UP of Mississippi. “Can an isolated image narrate?” he asks. “Can it, on its own, tell a story?” (Groensteen 21). I’d like to consider this question in relation to “It’s life as I see it” from Charles Johnson’s 1970 collection Black Humor. Groensteen borrows some ideas from film theory in order to explore the narrative potential of single, static images: “Some film theorists,” he points out,

most notably André Guadreault, have asserted that an intrinsic narrativity is associated with movement, because it implies a transformation of the elements represented. Obviously, the same cannot be said of the still image. Given that its narrative potential is not intrinsic, it can only arise, where it does arise, out of certain internal relationships between objects, motifs, and characters represented. (Groensteen 21-22; English translation by Ann Miller)

With Groensteen in mind, I’d like to consider the “internal relationships” of the “objects, motifs, and characters” in this single-page cartoon, in which an African American artist explains his work to an older, white visitor. As I took notes on Johnson’s work, I thought again about Qiana Whitted’s “What is an African American Comic?” from earlier this year on Pencil, Panel, Page. I am thinking about how theories from African American literary theory and philosophy might inform our readings of comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels. But I also have larger questions in mind—what secrets will Johnson’s cartoon reveal when also read as part of the tradition of American literary discourse? What affinities might we discover, for example, if we juxtapose Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” with Phillis Wheatley’s poem about the work of artist Scipio Moorhead, for example?

Of course, by writing about Johnson’s cartoon, I’m cheating a little. Is this really a single-page comic? It might be read as a work containing at least three panels—the image itself, as well as the artist’s two paintings: the one hanging on the wall and the other work-in-progress on his easel. So I should revise what I asked earlier: how do we read a single panel or page like this one that includes other, smaller images embedded within a larger frame? Here is “It’s life as I see it” from Black Humor:

 Johnson 1

Johnson, as Tim Kreider points out in his 2010 TCJ essay on the artist, is best known as one of the most influential and visionary American novelists and of the last thirty years. Middle Passage, which won the National Book Award in 1990, is now a perennial text in 20th century American and African American literature courses—I’ll be teaching it again in one of my classes this fall—and Dreamer, his 1998 novel about Dr. Martin Luther King’s experiences in Chicago in 1966, is, like Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, one of the most complex and evocative historical novels of the last two decades.

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Jill Krementz’s 1974 publicity photo of Johnson for the writer’s first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (Viking).

Writing about Johnson’s early work as a cartoonist, Kreider writes, is like trying “to give a magnanimous little career boost to a struggling unknown cartoonist named Wolfe or Fellini.” But as his introduction to Fredrik Strömberg’s 2003 book Black Images in the Comics makes clear, Charles Johnson has a deep affection for comic books and comic art. In the conclusion to his essay, Johnson includes a discussion of the kinds of comics he would like to read:

I long—as an American, a cartoonist, and a writer—for a day when my countrymen will accept and broadly support stories about black characters that are complex, original (not sepia clones of white characters like “Friday Foster” or “Powerman”), risk-taking, free of stereotypes, and not about race or victimization. Stories in which a character who just happens to be black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we—all of us—invest our dreams, imaginings and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do—just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters ranging from Blondie to Charlie Brown, from Superman to Dilbert, from Popeye to Beetle Bailey. (Johnson 17)

Johnson’s argument here raises interesting questions about the page from his 1970 book. As readers, with whom do we identify? With the artist who shows his work or with the man who stares at the black canvas? Do we immediately identify with one or the other based on our race? What role does gender play? Do we identify with neither but find ourselves observing what Groensteen calls the “internal relationships” between these two men and the objects that surround them? I think an answer to these questions might lie in the juxtaposition of the artist’s two canvases. One is abstract. The other, the one on the easel, is the more realistic of the two, although it is less figurative than the one hanging on the wall. “It’s life as I see it,” the artist explains.

I find myself working in collaboration with Johnson as I read this page. First of all, where are we? This appears to be the artist’s studio. Is this a studio visit by a curator? By a patron? Why is the middle-aged, balding man so startled? Was he expecting something else? The artist’s other work appears more conventional—a variation on Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism. Now the artist is a minimalist. Then again, I don’t know if the painting on the easel is finished. Maybe it’s still in progress. The painter, after all, is holding a palette and brush and he is wearing a white smock.

The questions raised by Johnson’s cartoon are also present in Charles W. Mills’ “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,” the essay that opens his 1998 book Blackness Visible. In the essay, Mills describes the obstacles he faced as he designed a course on African-American philosophy. First, for example, he “had to work out what African-American philosophy really was, how it related to mainstream (Western? European/Euro-American? Dead White Guys’?) philosophy—where it challenged and contradicted it, where it supplemented it, and where it was in a theoretical space of its own” (Mills 1). Mills turned to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a guiding text. As he reflected on the experiences of Ellison’s narrator, Mills began to formulate a conceptual basis for his course:

African-American philosophy is thus inherently, definitionally oppositional, the philosophy produced by property that does not remain silent but insists on speaking and contesting its status. So it will be a sum that is metaphysical not in the Cartesian sense but in the sense of challenging social ontology; not the consequent of a proof but the beginning of an affirmation of one’s self-worth, one’s reality as a person, and one’s militant insistence that others recognize it also. (Mills 9)

In Johnson’s cartoon, the artist asserts his subjectivity. The painting, like the cartoon’s caption, is a simple statement of fact: life as he sees it. The painting breaks the silence that Mills refers to in this passage. The humor in this cartoon—the disconnect between what the man in the suit expects to see and what he finds on on the easel before him—is part of Johnson’s narrative, I think: a cartoon is a work of popular art that challenges our notions of fine art, just as the painter’s canvas challenges the observer’s narcissistic complacency.

This new painting, then, is like a course in African American philosophy, one that makes certain demands on the curriculum as it articulates “a (partially) internal critique of the dominant culture by those who accept many of the culture’s principles but are excluded by them. In large measure,” Mills continues, “this critique has involved telling white people things that they do not know and do not want to know, the main one being that this alternative (nonideal) universe is the actual one and that the local reality in which whites are at home is only a nonrepresentative part of the larger whole” (Mills 5-6). The subject of Johnson’s narrative is the dissonance between what the observer believes and what the artist knows to be true.

As I look at the cartoon, I also wonder if I might trace its origin to one of the earliest collaborations of words and pictures in American literature, that of Phillis Wheatley and artist Scipio Moorhead.

Wheatley’s poem about Moorhead’s work appears in her 1773 book Poems on Various Subjects, a text that includes an engraving based on Moorhead’s portrait of the poet (you can read more about Wheatley and Moorhead here and here). “To S.M. A Young Painter, On Seeing His Works” opens with a question as the speaker studies one of Moorhead’s paintings:

To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,

And thought in living characters to paint,

When first they pencil did those beauties give,

And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,

How did those prospects give my soul delight,

A new creation rushing on my sight?

An important difference between Johnson’s cartoon painter and Moorhead, however, is that Moorhead’s work, with the exception of his portrait of Wheatley, has not survived. As we read this poem, we must imagine his drawing, the evidence of his “lab’ring bosom’s deep intent” which has brought life to these “characters” and “beauties.” After a detailed description of her response to Moorhead’s work, Wheatly concludes the poem with a plea:

Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night

Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

But while night and shadow might obscure Moorehead’s drawing, it remains vivid and startling in her memory. When I first saw Johnson’s cartoon, I immediately thought of Wheatley’s poem (and of Adrielle Mitchell’s early Pencil, Panel, Page essay on comic scholarship and ekphrasis). At the end of the poem, as night falls, the speaker can no longer see Moorhead’s painting, so she does the next best thing: she writes it from memory and, therefore, gives her friend the lasting fame that Shakespeare’s speaker promises to his subject in the Sonnets. The poem, like Johnson’s panel, is filled with light and meaning that some observers, like the old man in the suit, might fail or refuse to see.

Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” is an interesting test case for Groensteen’s theories, not only because it is a single image that narrates, but also because it is part of a collection of other cartoons. At the end of Chapter Two of Comics and Narration, Groensteen discusses Frans Masereel’s woodcut novels and Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage (see Groensteen 35). These examples, of course, are not collections of single-page cartoons, but Groensteen’s suggestion on how we read and respond to these texts might shed light on how we read a collections like Black Humor. “In works of this type,” Groensteen explains, in which “there are never more than two images visible to the reader at any one time, split across two pages,” the reader’s imagination and memory play a crucial role: “The dialogue among the images depends on the persistence of the memory of the pages already turned” (Groensteen 35).

The next page in Johnson’s book, for example, shares affinities with “It’s life as I see it.” An older white gentleman and his wife listen to a Beethoven recital. The pianist, his hands perched dramatically over the keyboard, is about to begin. A gray-haired old man in the audience whispers, “Psst, he’s a mulatto…pass it on.”

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The cartoon that appears on the page opposite “It’s life as I see it” in Johnson’s Black Humor.

By placing these two cartoons together, Johnson, according to Greonsteen’s theory, is also challenging the reader—how does our reading of one page shape our understanding and recollection of the images on the pages that preceded it? Both of these cartoons invite us to consider two African American artists–a painter and a musician–and the white audience members who observe them.

But how do you read “It’s life as I see it”? Is it a single-panel cartoon , and, if so, what can it tell us about “the persistence of memory,” as Groensteen describes it?


Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.

Johnson, Charles R. Black Humor. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1970. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Foreword” in Fredrik Strömberg, Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003. 5-18. Print.

Kreider, Tim. “Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson.” The Comics Journal. January 18, 2010. 9:00 am. Web.

Mills, Charles W. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.

Wheatley, Phillis. “To S.M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works.” Poetry Foundation. Web.

July 23, 2014 / bcremins

Transcendental Style in Comics

Notes on Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant    

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Renée Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc (about 20:22 into the film)

I’ll tell you a secret: the Captain Marvel book I’m writing began as a riff on Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. Schrader’s book is a study of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Th. Dreyer, directors whose work is usually described as austere or hypnotic . I thought I’d write a book about comics and mysticism—chapters on Will Eisner, Edie Fake, John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch. But I also had an outline for a chapter on Captain Marvel, and the split between Billy Batson and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. I decided to shelve the mysticism idea and focus on Billy Batson. Working on the project over the last two years, I’ve read boxes of letters, DC vs. Fawcett trial transcripts, and various interviews and first-person accounts. But as I pieced together these stories from the Golden Age of comics, I began to lose sight of the metaphysical concerns that had inspired me to write in the first place. I felt disconnected—not only from those I’m writing about, but from my own memories and consciousness. I lost touch with whatever spirit animates my practice as a writer. After reading this passage from Walter Benjamin, I decided to address these paradoxes more directly:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour—and that day is Judgment Day. (Benjamin 254)

Suddenly I longed for the certainty of my Catholic school years. Is there some sort of shadow narrative that sits behind or beneath the one I am telling? How do I make sense, for example, of the sudden, tragic death of Otto Binder’s daughter in the late 1960s? Is that a detail I should include in the book? I can barely make sense of my own life. Why would I try to find a pattern in someone else’s, especially a someone like Binder who died when I was just a year old in 1974?

So, to answer these questions, I took notes in my Benjamin Marianne Hirsch books, but I also read some comics. And the comic books I’ve enjoyed most this summer are the ones that ask these questions, too. In June I picked up a stack of minicomics at this year’s CAKE! (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo). The two I’ll talk about here, Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant, both seem to be articulating a kind of transcendence. In the introduction to his book, Paul Schrader defines his terms:

Transcendental style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism. To the transcendental artist rationalism is only one of many approaches to life, not an imperative. (Schrader 10-11)

I like Schrader’s last line the best: the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn’t work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn’t differentiate between the “major and minor,” but sees all of history’s actors—from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens—as playing roles of equal weight and significance.

In his 1973 collection of Dreyer’s essays and notes on film, scholar Donald Skoller reminds readers that Dreyer himself was a curious mixture of the sublime and the practical: “It is important to begin to qualify the popular impression of Dreyer as a mystic with the very canny, down-to-earth ways in which he went about representing the events giving rise to this reputation” (Skoller 47). For example, in the essay that follows Skoller’s introduction, Dreyer describes his process while working on La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the 1928 silent film starring Renée Falconetti. Dreyer’s film has inspired a range of visionary, experiemental works, from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s stunning novel Dictee to performance pieces by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Dreyer devotes long sequences to close-ups of Falconetti’s face as she, in the role of Joan of Arc, faces her accusers.

“In order to give the truth,” Dreyer explains, “I dispensed with ‘beautification.’ My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs.” One of Dreyer’s other actors in the film is playwright and theorist Antonin Artaud, who plays the role of Jean Massieu. In his notes on the film, Dreyer also explains the role of his cinematographer: “Rudolf Mate, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism” (Dreyer 50). As Skoller points out, however, this “mysticism” only becomes possible through Dreyer’s “down-to-earth” sensibility. The austerity of the film is the result of an indirect pursuit of the mystical or of the transcendent. The irrational will only speak with the voice of reason. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, very little is said because Falconetti and her fellow cast members exist in blank, white spaces where few words are necessary.

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The cover of Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash, 2014

On the second page of her new minicomic Palm Ash, which made its debut at CAKE, Julia Gfrörer works with silence and, by the end of the story, shares with the reader other moments of “realized mysticism.” The story, as Gfrörer explains on her Etsy page, concerns itself with “martyrdom, both interpersonal and religious,” and takes place “during the Diocletianic Persecution” of the fourth century. On this second page, Simeon, a Christian, sits in what appears to be the center of the Colosseum. In the first panel of this nine-panel grid, he sweats, and, to his left, we see a word balloon that reads “rrrr”:

 Page 2

Page 2 of Palm Ash: Simeon, the lions, and Dia

Gfrörer’s intricate style, which will be familiar to readers of her recent Fantagraphics book Black is the Color, expresses Simeon’s fear and distress. The blank space behind him articulates what a word balloon would only conceal: although his mind might be as clear and as pure as that expanse of green, Simeon cannot ignore the slow, steady growl of the lion that dominates the right corner of the next panel. Simeon’s face resembles Falconetti’s: death is certain, but, with faith, isn’t redemption possible? Maybe. But the title of the book implies that we can expect some kind of sacrifice (Gfrörer has also been collecting images of martyrdom on this Tumblr page).

Then, in the third panel, a miracle: the lion pauses. Another stands frozen in place. If the blank space of the last two panels suggested Simeon’s intense concentration—his unspoken prayers—the dirt of the Colosseum in this third panel tells us that Simeon, like the lions, is now back on earth. While his eventual martyrdom is certain, it will not happen today. Like the purring lions—who, in the next three panels, fall asleep—it, too, can wait.

At the end of the page, Gfrörer introduces her protagonist, Dia, who watches this miracle from behind a set of bars. We meet Dia and we find ourselves back on page one. Gfrörer compresses the action of the story’s first fifteen panels and leaves us with the final three panels of page 2. We now see Simeon and the lions from Dia’s perspective: first, she looks with terror and concern at what she is about to witness. Next, her left hand now gripping the edge of the window, she braces herself for Simeon’s violent death. Then, perhaps as the lions fall asleep, she covers her mouth and begins to cry.

Notice, however, that Dia’s world is far more claustrophobic than Simeon’s. As the story progresses, we learn more about the forces that have confined her and her son Maioricus. Like Dreyer, Gförer’s linework resists the “beautification” that might render the story precious or melodramatic. Her characters sweat, cry, and bleed, but they also smile and laugh as they move in silence and wonder.

I’ll stop before I give too many clues to the rest of the story, but let me add one more thing about the story’s title. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten until my senior year of high school, and one of the mysteries I could never unravel was the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I guess I understood some of it—“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”—but where had those ashes come from? Had they burned last year’s palms in the rectory? In a furnace in the basement of the church? Of our school? Although I often complained about 4:15 mass on Saturdays, I loved the smell of the church on Palm Sunday, and the cool, delicate feel of the palm branches between my fingertips.

 Scan 2

The cover of Jessie Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant

Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant is an 11-page minicomic, full-color and sewn together with thread. Zabarsky also writes food comics, including the collection Never Full, which I also picked up at CAKE. In addition to her comics work, Zabarsky makes stuffed animals and charm necklaces. Just as Gförer works with silence, Zabarsky works with scale: she creates miniature jars filled with clay strawberries and asparagus. When she signed my copy of Ghost Giant, she used a technical pen to draw a miniature rabbit and flowers. I’ve written before at Pencil, Panel, Page about tiny, evocative images embedded in comic book panels, but Zabarsky’s miniatures, like Gfrörer’s silences, also have a spiritual dimension, one reflected in the series of single panels that make up this minicomic.

The subtitle of Zabarsky’s book is (I live in a valley now). She might be telling the story of a ghost, or of a mountain, or of a young man or woman. All of those readings are possible. Zabarsky lays the story out like a picture book, with words on the left-hand pages and images on the right. Each of the five illustrations employs a different palette, from the light green of the first page through orange and blue. The colors suggest a cycle, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring again. We also pass from the sunrise on the cover to sunset on the last page where the mountain–or the ghost, or both–comes to rest, at least for now, until autumn arrives. Unlike Gfrörer, Zabarsky does not include any panel grids. Rather, the one-page gaps between her illustrations suggest the slow passage of time that, like the purring of Simeon’s lions, is both puzzling and miraculous. Both Simeon and the Ghost Giant are waiting for something, maybe the Judgment Day Benjamin describes, when everything that was forgotten will suddenly be remembered.


The Ghost as she appears on page 5 of Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant

My notes on these two comics are reminders for me of the questions I’ve had since I first read James Sturm’s The Revival, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s I Want Everything to be Okay, all of which depict various states of “realized mysticism.” If it’s possible to identify a transcendental style in the mise-en-scène of certain films, can we also find it in the pages of the comic books that we love? That is, is there a “transcendental style in comics,” and, if so, what does it look like and what does it seek to express?

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read Palm Ash and Ghost Giant.



Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (Trans. Harry Zohn). New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Print. 253-264.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Realized Mysticism” in Donald Skoller (Ed.), Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print. 47-50.

Gfrörer, Julia. Palm Ash. Thuban Press, 2014. Print.

Schrader, Paul. Trancendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1972. Print.

Skoller, Donald (Ed.). Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print.

Zabarsky, Jessi. Ghost Giant. Hugbox (no date). Print.

Thanks to Julia Gfrörer and Jessi Zabarsky for help with scans and also for answering a few questions via email.

June 22, 2014 / bcremins

Reel Gone, Part 2: “Information, Please!”

This morning over at The Hooded Utilitarian, Noah re-posted an essay of mine about the end of the Comics Buyer’s Guide. When I was editing that post last winter, not long before the final issue appeared, I tried to find the letters I’d written to CBG in the 1980s. At some point my mom cleaned out my old desk and left behind nothing but a few short stories and evaluations from my college creative writing classes. My copies of CBG are long gone.  I finished the essay anyway but it felt incomplete.

Last summer I was at the amazing MSU comics archive doing research on Otto Binder and C.C. Beck and found a copy of CBG with Beck’s obituary, written by editor Maggie Thompson. The article appeared in #839, dated December 15, 1989:

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From page 1 of the Comics Buyer’s Guide #839, December 15, 1989.

As I skimmed the rest of the issue, I also found one of my letters, published in the paper’s “Information, Please” column. In December of 1989 I was a junior at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. My third-year Spanish teacher–who, I remember, was obsessed with Billy Joel’s Storm Front album–had just assigned us a research project. I think she suggested I write a paper on comic books written in Spanish. I talk a little about the project in my letter, which appears just a few pages after Beck’s obituary:

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From pages 16 and 18 of CBG #839.

Editors Don and Maggie Thompson included a response in italics following my plea for help. Within a few weeks, I’d received a letter with suggestions from M. Thomas Inge, one of the pioneers of comics scholarship. I’d also received a package of comics, including Spanish-language editions of Spider-Man and Lee Falk’s The Phantom, along with some copies of Condorito, from Hector Rambla, a comics fan and collector from New York City. Hec and I became penpals. Almost twenty-five years later, my first essay on Walt Kelly and Pogo appeared just after Tom Inge’s article on Lil’ Abner in Comics and the U.S. South. When I received my copy of the book, I suddenly remembered his act of kindness and generosity.

I wish I’d kept Professor Inge’s letter, too. I wanted to thank him when I saw him at OSU last November, but I was too shy. Inge’s letter was a revelation for me: a real college professor writing about comics. It was like meeting Shazam at the end of that mysterious subway tunnel.

I don’t remember how I did on the project for my Spanish class. I think it was ok, but the paper must have been better than my classroom presentation. My pronunciation was terrible.

And I never got around to writing to the Hernandez Brothers, even though, as the wordy, 15-year old me remarks at the end of the letter, “A project on Love and Rockets could prove very interesting.” I’m sure it would! If I could send a letter back to my 15-year-old-self, the way Allie Brosh does in Hyperbole and a Half, I’d include a copy of Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature with it.

I won’t say too much about how uncanny it was to find my letter again, as I worked on a new research project, one on C.C. Beck. I don’t know if I always believe in magic, but I do believe in what Walter Benjamin called “secret affinities,” which I guess is probably the same thing.

Maybe someday I’ll have time to go through the CBG archive at MSU and I’ll find a few other letters from the past. I know there’s one or two more in there. I wonder what they’ll say?

And, just for the record, it’s Oakville, Connecticut, not Oaksville. But Inge’s letter, and that envelope of comics from Hec, arrived just the same.

June 20, 2014 / bcremins

Tony Trigilio on Comics, Memory, & the Poetics of Man-Bat!

Earlier this year I wrote a short post about comics and poetry. Last summer I read Hillary Chute’s “Secret Labor,” her intriguing essay on the relationship between these two art forms. After I read her essay, I got to thinking about a Stone River Poetry interview with Chicago poet and Columbia College professor Tony Trigilio.

Tony, it turns out, loves comics. Not only does he love comics, but they’ve shaped his thinking about poetry and his poetic practice.

And he really, really loves Man-Bat.


That’s Steve Ditko drawing Man-Bat, with inks by Al Milgrom, from Man-Bat No. 1, Dec.-Jan. 1975/1976

More on that in a second.

“My narrative influences don’t come exclusively from poetry,” Tony explains. “I’m thinking of the way stories are constructed visually and verbally, and with gaps in ‘sense’ we expect from poetry, in Harvey Pekar’s comics, which I’ve been lovingly obsessed with since the late 1980s.”

“Gaps in ‘sense'”: that phrase gets to the heart of what I’m trying to do in my Captain Marvel research. That is, I’m interested not in what the comics reveal, but in what they conceal, in what they deliberately or otherwise leave out. I’m interested in the silences between the panels, even when those panels include drawings of talking tigers and conqueror worms.

Fig. 21 Mr. Tawny

Mr. Tawny, the star of my book, from Otto Binder and C.C. Beck’s “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Personality Peril!” from Captain Marvel Adventures#115 (December, 1950; also reprinted in Shazam! Limited Collectors’ Edition #1, Summer 1973).

I wanted to ask Tony a few more questions about the relationship between comics, consumer culture, and poetics. His new collection from Blazevox, The Complete Dark Shadows (of my Childhood), Book 1, is a memory experiment. What would happen, he asks, if I write a sentence for each episode of the campy Gothic soap opera? But, as David Trinidad explains in last week’s blog post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, The Complete Dark Shadows “is a departure for Trigilio, in that his ‘primal’ relationship to the subject matter teases out some very private (and very moving) admissions.” I wonder if that’s what we find in those spaces—confessions, dreams, secrets.

As much as I love Pekar, I wanted to know more about Tony’s childhood obsession with Neal Adams and Frank Robbins’ Man-Bat, a Detective Comics/Batman second-stringer from the 1970s. What started as a joke has turned into a selection of poems and essays on the character. Last week, we finished Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat, a zine that I’ll have on sale at Quimby’s next week. To celebrate the release of the zine, I’m including an excerpt from the email interview I conducted with Tony late last year.

I started with a simple question: Why Man-Bat? Why comics?

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Man-Bat again, this time in a panel by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, originally from Detective Comics No. 400 (June 1970) and reprinted in the Power Records/Peter Pan book-and-record set Robin Meets Man-Bat from 1976.

As I read Tony’s interview again, I face my ambivalent feelings about comics and their ability to trigger memory and nostalgia. Although comics have always brought me a great deal of joy—new friends, stories, and adventures—I also understand them as markers of loss or absence. Let me revise that. I read comics as a kid because they shielded me from ghosts and restless spirits. When I talk about those ghosts I am not speaking in metaphor. My mom lost her father when she was 12, and his death was the secret wound at the heart of the narrative that was my family. Reading comics granted me a kind of permission to investigate, to catalogue, and to speak.

I think I’m attracted to Billy Batson’s story because it’s the story of a secret. To discover who he is, he follows the shadow man through the tunnel to the throne of the ancient wizard. It’s an old story. It’s The Odyssey. It’s Macbeth. It’s Lost Horizon. It’s Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix.

Like Edie says in his interview with Megan Milks, “You have to open the wound! Get your history back!” But I am hesitant to open the wound. I think reading comics for me was (is) a substitute for the act of mourning. Those “gaps in ‘sense’” can be deliberate obfuscations, or simple errors, or careless omissions.


Robin Meets Man-Bat, Power Records, 1976. Cover by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

But Man-Bat is not about the sad. He’s about madness, furry ears, and torn pants. He never leaves the lab without a belt. He possesses bat-like sonar and elegant leather wings. He lives in Chicago. He has his own Lego action figure.

So here’s the interview that inspired the zine.

I can promise this: for all my talk about sadness and mourning and silence and absence and, you know, blah-blah-blah, Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat is a lot of fun. If you’d like a copy, just write to me and I’ll send you one.


An Interview with Tony Trigilio

from the zine Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat

conducted over e-mail and edited by Brian Cremins on 12/31/13; copyedited by Allison Felus

BC: So, do you remember why you bought the comics in the first place and how you felt when you read the cancellation notice in Man-Bat #2?

TT: I was a huge fan of the Man-Bat character from the early stories—drawn by Neal Adams—in Detective Comics, Brave and the Bold, and, I think, in Batman itself. I couldn’t get enough of Man-Bat: he was a superhero, yes, but also a kind of mutant-freak, and I felt an attraction/repulsion with him that I felt with no other superhero. I mean, Spiderman was part spider—and spiders are of course grotesque—but I knew deep down that he was really the aw-shucks wisecracking Peter Parker with his best girl Mary Jane and his sweet Aunt May. But Man-Bat was another thing entirely for me. He couldn’t help but interrupt his own sentences with “Skree!” which meant to me that he had much less control over his superpowers than, say, Spiderman, who could turn on and turn off his spider powers at will (with the exception of when his spider sense was tingling). This lack of control made it seem like he was more of a hybrid species than any other superhero—and this made me feel sorry for him at the same time that I was repulsed that he was, really, a giant bat.

What’s more (still on the subject of why I bought Man-Bat comics in the first place), I was enthralled by his complicated relationship with Batman. I loved what Neal Adams did to Batman, reviving the goth-noir aspects of the character, and followed Detective Comics and Batman religiously. (I subscribed to both comics because we had no great comics shop in Erie, PA, at the time, and I didn’t want to risk missing an issue.) After Neal Adams (and without Robin), Batman was a character I identified with—and I lived for those elaborately rendered panels when The Batman’s cape would flow in exaggerated billows off the panel and into the margins of the page. So I loved Batman, and I thought the Man-Bat character was brilliant. The stories got complicated for me, though, because Batman would sometimes be supportive of Man-Bat, yet just as often was patronizing toward him—as if, somehow, Batman thought he really should be the true bat instead of Man-Bat. When Man-Bat got his own comic, I was ecstatic that finally he was throwing off the paternalist yoke of The Batman (of course, at age 10, when Man-Bat #1 came out, I didn’t use phrases like “paternalistic yoke”). I have to say, though, that the Man-Bat logo suspiciously resembled an inversion of the Batman logo, so it seemed like DC wasn’t ready to let Man-Bat be his own person . . . or be his own bat. Man-Bat was the real thing—the real bat—and Batman was only a metaphor for a Bat. So Man-Bat felt authentic to me in ways that Batman did not.

I felt crushed when the comic was canceled—and after only two issues, no less! I remember reading the announcement on the letters page of Man-Bat #2. The letters page comes up early in the story. It’s just seven pages into an 18-page story. I’d barely picked up any narrative momentum for issue #2, and then suddenly I discover that the entire comic has been canceled because of low sales. I couldn’t believe it. Even at age 10, it was clear to me that you couldn’t really determine how good sales would be based on just one issue. DC never gave it a chance. It seemed to me that DC was saying it had no interest in developing this mutant-freak character and his Bride-of-Frankenstein wife—even though the potential for complexity of these characters was, for me, endless. What’s worse, in those two issues Man-Bat never shook off the paternalist Batman. Batman is a vital element of the plot of issue #1; and issue #2 features one of my favorite Batman villains, The Ten-Eyed Man (a character who has optic nerves in his fingertips; I can’t tell you how many times I’d look down at my fingertips and try to imagine how a person could see with them). Even when The Batman doesn’t appear in issue #2, one of his villains does—which makes The Batman linger like a ghost in nearly every panel.

Scan 1

The excerpt from Theodore Roethke’s “The Bat” that introduces Man-Bat No. 2, the final issue, from Feb.-Mar. 1976. Art by Pablo Marcus and Ricardo Villamonte.

BC: Also, do you think a comic such as this has had an impact on your work as a poet or as a scholar?

TT: I have no doubt that it did. Man-Bat was one of my first comics obsessions—I mean, I truly missed him when he was gone, and when, as a kid, I’d look at issue #2, I’d get angry that DC killed the title before it had a chance to grow. Much of my work is part of an effort to turn my fixations, obsessions, and eccentricities into a poetics, and figures like Man-Bat were among the first to show me that when I fixate on a particular piece of textual and/or visual art, I get a deep emotional, intellectual, and bodily charge out of it. It was like Man-Bat gave me permission to trust my obsessions—since Man-Bat was one of the first obsessions that brought me deep pleasure. Also, Man-Bat was so weird, as a human-bat hybrid, that it felt like regular everyday language couldn’t adequately represent who he was (which is probably why issue #2 begins with the Roethke epigraph). You need something like poetic language to render what is so beyond-language and beyond-representation as a hybrid man/bat. He was almost like a religious figure in this respect: like, how can you describe things like a man/bat or things like Ezekiel’s chariot in everyday language. Man-Bat was one of the first literary characters to teach me the limits of language, I guess—though I never had the vocabulary to say these sorts of things when I was 10 (but I felt them, in whatever way you feel these things at 10).

Man-Bat also, in a weird way, helped teach me about the joys and limitations of metaphor. He was clearly linked to Batman, but Batman was only a metaphor for what Man-Bat really was. The fear that criminals felt when they saw Batman was that he resembled a Bat—he suggested that he was a bat, even though he wasn’t really a bat. Man-Bat, however, was a human-sized bat. When criminals saw him, they lost their marbles because they were seeing a real (not metaphoric) bat. I loved how Man-Bat constantly would say to villains, “You want to know if I’m wearing a mask—right?” They do want to know. And when they find out he’s a real bat, and he’s not wearing a metaphor of a bat-mask, their whole world turns upside down.

Also, one more thing about scholarship. I bought Man-Bat #1 with the thought that, too, this would become a collector’s item. I thought the title would take off—because I assumed everyone loved Man-Bat like I did. I was never a serious comics collector as a kid, but I was as serious as I could be. Collecting comics, and at times getting furious when a title like Man-Bat was canceled, helped stoke the archivist’s zeal that I developed as an undergraduate and that led nicely to the work I do as a scholar. Paying attention the various titles, and continuity among titles, energized the part of my brain that later would pay close attention to, say, why poets of the Modernist era write so differently than Postmodern poets, and why audiences for Modernist poets helped create audiences for Postmodern poets, and so on.

Scan 6

From the zine: David McCarty draws Man-Bat. Notice the frayed pants and the belt buckle.

May 20, 2014 / bcremins

“Imaginary Buildings”: Notes on Memory Palaces, Bryn Mawr, The Secret History of Chicago Zines, and CAKE!

Saturday night at Quimby’s, Edie Fake talked about the “imaginary buildings” that inform his new book Memory Palaces, published this month by Secret Acres. The book collects the drawings from Fake’s show at the Thomas Robertello Gallery in 2013. Fake presented a slide show of photographs of the Chicago buildings that inspired this series of drawings, a few of which are images of doorways created as tributes for lost friends. Those images, he explained, he created so that they would “vibrate at the same frequency” as his memories of those friends. Chicago’s buildings, the ones with mysterious wreaths, colorful tile work, and faded advertisements from long abandoned retail establishments, possess stories, he said, that modern buildings and spaces don’t (yet) possess.

memorypalaces-250x250 2

Edie Fake’s Memory Palaces (scan from the Secret Acres website)

What I find most striking about the cover of Memory Palaces is the level of detail. I can see each line, the delicacy of each letter and each figure. I wonder if this is what it must feel like to read a manuscript and to  discover centuries of stories written one over the other, generations of storytellers adding and subtracting words and images.

I’ve been thinking of these imaginary, communal spaces over the last few weeks because of two other adventures I had in April, my visit to Shiamin Kwa’s class at Bryn Mawr followed just a week later by Jake Austen and James Porter’s The Secret History of Chicago Zines event at Powell’s Books. I’d like to write a few notes on my time with Shiamin’s students, who, as part of their final projects for her Introduction to East Asian Studies course, created a series of zines illustrating the poems of their choice. You can see their comics for yourself on the class’s Tumblr page. Read each one slowly, then read them together, and I think what you’ll discover is a sensation like the one I sensed at Edie’s lecture: that disorienting feeling of a community taking shape. It’s like falling in love, I think, a mix of expectation, certainty, recklessness and wonder.

What I find moving about each one of the projects I’ve seen so far is the sense of shared commitment and vision. In completing these projects, the students faced a unique challenge: they are learning two distinct forms of discourse. First, they are reading often centuries-old poems, and entering into a dialogue with those authors. In doing so, even those who worked alone, of course, had to find a means to collaborate: what pictures would they imagine to accompany these words? Each one also had to think about the way in which words and pictures interact as visual narratives.

Scan 5

Leverage: The Zine, edited by Chrystine Tran and Krystal Caban

Chrystine Tran, one of Shiamin’s students, whose comic “Selling Wilted Peonies” is the first one you’ll see on the class’s Tumblr page, has also edited a zine called Leverage, which collects the work of several other Bryn Mawr writers and artists. The zine is a collection of stories, of comics, of collages. In their introduction, Tran and her co-editor Krystal Caban explain that Leverage “was born out of a collective frustration over the lack of safe spaces where students of color could voice their concerns and present their work. Exhausted by the constant misrepresentation and invalidation of our identities, we believed we deserved an intersectional space where all aspects of our identities were acknowledged and respected.” You can read more about Leverage and order a copy at the zine’s Tumblr page.

I spent an afternoon in early April talking with Shiamin’s students and a few of her colleagues about contemporary Chicago artists and zine-makers including Edie Fake, Marnie Galloway, and Julia Von De Bur. One of the questions we discussed was the shared vision of the comics being created here in Chicago—do they share a sense of space, of location? If there is a Chicago aesthetic, what does it look like? One of Shiamin’s colleagues asked a question that broadened our conversation: What is the relationship between real gathering spaces—an artist collective, a bookstore like Quimby’s, an event like Zine Fest or next month’s CAKE Expo (more on that in a second)—and the virtual world of social media, Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr? How have these artists, she asked, navigated from one space to the next? I can only answer that question for me, I think, and not for any of the artists whose work we were sharing: I don’t know if these communities are possible without first imagining what they will look like, and we can only imagine those spaces by first sitting next to each other in the kind of communal space documented in the pages of Memory Palaces.

Scan 6

The Secret History of Chicago Zines, courtesy of Jake Austen and James Porter

The Secret History of Zines event at Powell’s on Halsted on Saturday, April 19, asked us to consider Chicago’s long and rich history of zine and minicomics makers. During a short introduction and slide show from Jake Austen, who’s been publishing the underground music and comics zine Roctober since the early 1990s, he and James Porter included everyone from Moses to Martin Luther, Ben Franklin, and Tom Paine as early zine-makers, figures who had something to say and found a way to speak it and to write it down. Best of all, they found a way to self-publish it, from stone tablets to Paine’s pamphlets and broadsides. It was an inspiring evening, with a truly diverse crowd of artists, writers, and performers. Austen made a point of emphasizing the significance of blues, R&B, and punk zines and their impact on the development of underground fan networks. The panelists, including Chris Ware, Karen Heeringa, and Daniel Fromberg, discussed the links between music and self-publishing. Fromberg, a teenage musician and zinemaker, explained that he began writing music reviews after he’d stopped reading so many comic books and, as he put it, picked up some “real books”—you know, the ones without pictures.

If you or anyone you know will be in Chicago in two weeks, on Saturday, May 31 and Sunday, June 1, be sure to stop by the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) taking place at the Center on Halsted. Like Jake’s Secret History of Chicago Zines, it promises to be an inspiring weekend, with artists from all around the world. And it’s a free event, so bring yourself and bring anyone else you know who loves comics and minicomics and zines, books with and without pictures.

Scan 7

Elisha Lim’s fantastic new collection 100 Crushes

I’m thrilled and honored to be moderating a panel this year at CAKE. I’m a little nervous, too, but I’ll be ok. I mean, what’s better than spending an hour on a Saturday afternoon in Chicago talking art and comics and community with Edie Fake, Elisha Lim, and Eric Kostiuk Williams? I’m off from school for the summer, so I’d rather not give you homework, but you really ought to read Edie’s Gaylord Phoenix, and Elisha’s 100 Crushes, and Eric’s Hungry Bottom Comics as soon as you can get yourself to a comic shop or to Etsy or wherever you buy your comics. Or, better, yet, why not plan to be at CAKE and buy the books directly from these fabulous artists?

Scan 8

Eric Kostiuk Williams’ Hungry Bottom Comics No. 1

Here’s the description for our panel. I’d like to thank Max Morris and the other CAKE organizers who helped edit this blurb and who came up with the phrase magikomix. I like the sound of it. You can also read about all of the other amazing events on the CAKE website. Since we might talk a little about magic, I guess you could visit our panel on the astral plane, but I guarantee you that it will be way more fun and enlightening in person. Hope to see you there.

Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE!)

Saturday, May 31st

3:00 – 4:00pm

Magikomix, Queer Comics & Visionary Cartooning

with Edie Fake, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Elisha Lim
Moderated by Brian Cremins

This panel is sponsored by Quimby’s Bookstore

Comics and magic have had a long, complex relationship, from Eclipse publisher cat yronwode’s eclectic writings on everything from Will Eisner to love potions and Alan Moore’s worship of the ancient snake god Glycon. In this panel, artists Elisha Lim, Eric Kostiuk Williams, and Speical Guest Edie Fake will read short selections from their work and then discuss their innovations with narrative form. How have magic and the Magical shaped their sensibilities? Elisha Lim—cartoonist, filmmaker, Queer People of Color activist—describes their new Koyama Press collection 100 Crushes as “an excerpt of the most magical undertaking of my life,” one that began when a fortune teller advised them to “go back to doing what you loved as a child.” Edie Fake’s Ignatz Award-winning 2010 graphic novel Gaylord Phoenix is the adventure of a bird man who searches for his true self in an 8-bit universe of flaming creatures who often resemble Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot card lovelies. And in his ongoing autobiographical series Hungry Bottom Comics, Eric Kostiuk Williams conjures with stories of Goldilocks charming the Three Bears, Jean Genet crooning Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake,” and a young apprentice making a pilgrimage to Beyoncé’s House of Deréon. These visionary cartoonists explore the line between the real and the imagined as they celebrate Queer history and community from Chicago and Singapore to Toronto and Berlin. Writer and comics scholar Brian Cremins will moderate the discussion.

March 26, 2014 / bcremins

Notes on the Chicago Zine Fest, March 14-15, 2014

Zine photo

“Remembrance, after all, is in the end nothing other than a quotation.”

–W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (180)

“It is possible to feel alive, heart beat to heart beat alive. this is what I believe. this is my truth. write.”

–Cindy Crabb, “i believe” from The Encyclopedia of Doris (19)

Two weeks ago I attended the Chicago Zine Fest at Columbia College. This was the first year I had a chance to attend the full exhibition on the second day of the Fest. I also enjoyed the opening Q&A hosted by Liz Mason on Friday, March 14, which included short readings and conversation with Tomas Moniz, Alex Wrekk, and Cindy Crabb. This opening session, titled “In It for the Long Haul: A Discussion on Longevity in Zines,” Mason joked, might instead be called “getting old” in the zine-making world. Following Mason’s questions, the audience had an opportunity to talk with Moniz, Wrekk, and Crabb about everything from the question of a zine canon—Is there one? Should there be? And, if there is, who and what would be in it?—to the connections between blogs (like the one you’re reading) and hand-made zines and minicomics.

Zine Fest 14

Marnie Galloway did the poster and program artwork for this year’s Zine Fest.

What I found most fascinating about the Q&A was Crabb’s answer to a question about why she continues to write and self-publish her long-running zine Doris. Does she write in order to build community? Yes and no. Crabb suggested that in her most recent work she is most fascinated by the interior, by the imagination. In the introduction to the new issue of Doris, Crabb elaborates on the subject of the imagination and utopianism when she asks,

How do we imagine and build a world that we want to live in, despite all the messages coming at us that it is not worth the fight, even our imaginations are under attack by constant stimulation overload and media approved messages. Where can we find that moment of silence or connection or boredom that gives us the pathway to somewhere for our imaginations to go, where we can feel, smell, taste, see, hear, want, desire some true kind of new better world.

I wrote earlier that Crabb asks a series of questions, but, as you can see, although the sentences are phrased as questions, they end with periods. Crabb is not asking us where we find this “new better world”; rather, she assures us that it does exist, solid and real, at least here, on the page, if nowhere else. Maybe a “better world” would be one filled with Crabb’s miniature horses, which, smiling, she described several times over the course of the Q&A. That might be a place “worth the fight,” a landscape filled with dwarf goats and tiny horses. (I’d like to publicly thank my friend Brannon Costello for introducing me to the idea of the dwarf goat whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to live and to be happy and fantastic.)

1. Cindy Crabb’s Doris and W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country

Just a few days after Crabb’s reading and Q&A at Zine Fest I began reading Jo Catling’s translation of W.G. Sebald’s essay collection A Place in the Country, in which he honors a few of the writers who, he says, shaped his life and his career: “This unwavering affection for [Johann Peter] Hebel, [Gottfried] Keller, and [Robert] Walser was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late” (3).  If I, like Sebald, were setting out on a long journey and had to select a few books for my trip, I would carry copies of Doris with me:

Doris scan

The new issue of Doris (#31)

When I first heard Cindy Crabb read “Samantha Dorsett” from Doris #28 at the 2011 Zine Fest, I felt suddenly weightless. I find it odd that I’m now describing such a broken-hearted essay as an ethereal, ghostly thing, but, at a point in my life where I sensed the possibility of collapse, Crabb’s writing, clear and precise, seemed to offer and invite hope. When I think of Cindy Crabb and her work, I imagine her in much the same way that Sebald imagines Robert Walser, as a figure always walking, always in motion: “I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see [Walser] standing somewhere a little apart,” Sebald writes, “the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings” (159).

For me, however, Crabb is like Virgil, that phantom who leads Dante underground. Crabb’s writing invites and compels us to walk with her, to explore what we might otherwise ignore or reject out of fear or sadness or frustration. On every page of Doris, Cindy Crabb writes and draws that “desire” for something other—something “better”—into the world. I can’t think of a better definition of a modern epic, one Virgil would find familiar and true.

2. Marnie Galloway’s Mare Cognitum

I came home from the Fest with a bag filled with other zines and minicomics, including a fantastic selection from Corinne Mucha, John Porcellino, Carrie Colpitts, Isabella Rotman, and Jake Austen (you can hear a few of Jake’s interviews with folks at the Zine fest here, including Lil’ Ratso’s conversation with Edie Fake; John Porcellino also has a report on Zine Fest on his blog).

I got the second issue of Edie Fake’s Lil’ Buddies Magazine, this one “entirely devoted,” as Edie writes in the introduction, “to the most ubiquitous species of Lil’ Buddy: the anthropomorphic tooth.” Like the first issue, “Number Tooth” includes photographs of found images of cartoon teeth from storefronts and advertisements: giant molars with eyes and arms and smiling mouths. If you haven’t been reading Lil’ Buddies, you should. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for those phantom little buddies who, like the ghost of Robert Walser, unexpectedly but delightfully cross your path. Take a picture of one, and Edie might use it for a future issue

Lil' Buddies

Two of my favorites minicomics from the Fest are Marnie Galloway’s Mare Cognitum and J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act. I’ve written about Galloway’s work before in a short review of the first book of In the Sound and Seas (Volume 2 should be out later this year). I picked up copies of two other Galloway minis, Medusa and Library, both of which I enjoyed. But I keep returning to Mare Cognitum, the 15-page story of NASA’s Ranger 7, a spacecraft that, as Galloway reminds us, for “the first time in human history,” provided us with “close images of the lunar surface.” Less than twenty minutes after it sent those images back to earth, Galloway adds, Ranger 7 “crashed on a large basaltic plain in a large crater, called Mare Cognitum, the sea that has become known.”


Like Galloway’s other comics, Mare Cognitum, I think, is a story about adventure and about myth. Ranger 7 is the hero of the book, the machine that ventures into space and, for a few minutes, sends back images of a desolate, alien landscape—one that is all the more strange because, like Freud’s definition of the uncanny, it is familiar to us. The moon, Ranger 7 tells us, is nothing more or less than a giant rock floating in space.

When I finished Mare Cognitum, I read it again, and I began to think of it as a story about storytelling itself, or about myth. The closer we get to what we want to know, or what we think we want to know, the closer we get to silence. In Galloway’s vision of the moon, there are no aliens, no life at all, just the slow drift of the probe and its camera, a whirring, mechanical Polyphemus whose one eye sees what we cannot see until its contact with the moon’s desolation blinds it.

But I also laughed when I read those closing pages, as the humming of the machine ceases and the camera, along with the rest of the probe, meets the surface of the moon. Like all good myths, Mare Cognitum is an example of speculative fiction—what happened? What’s up there? How did we come to know what we know about a thing we otherwise know nothing about?

Waiting for the Irving Park bus early on Sunday morning I saw the moon in an otherwise clear blue sky and I thought about Ranger 7 and its clumsy and sad but quietly heroic landing. I wonder if, in those final moments, it tried to send one last image back to earth or if, even now, it dreams of what it might have accomplished if its circuits had been turned into something other than a space probe, maybe a Ford Mustang or a Fender Champ or a transistor radio. Maybe when it dreams it hears The Beach Boys, who had a hit with “I Get Around” just a few weeks before Ranger 7 collided with the moon on July 31, 1964.

3. J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act 

JD Lee

Dreaming of other lives and other possibilities is one of the central themes in J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act. Lee was tabling with Julia Von de Bur, whose minicomic Life in Bodies of Water I’ll be including in a class at Bryn Mawr next month. I’ll write more about Life in Bodies of Water in April. For now, I’d like to write up a few notes on Lee’s Vanishing Act, a comic that reminded me of Will Eisner’s The Dreamer.

The book’s main character, Ruthie Rosenblum, works for Uncle Davie’s Comics-By-Number Production Studio. On the train to work, where she will meet a figure from her past, she reflects that “when you spend so much time pretending to be someone else / it feels good to disappear.” Lee’s use of color—a palette of pale yellows, orange, gray, and black—gives the comic a warm, autumnal glow, but this is not a story of easy nostalgia. In the panel where Ruthie tells us that “sometimes it feels good to disappear,” we see her enter a room filled with desks and drawing tables. Maybe like her colleague Reggie, the anonymity of this comic book production shop suits her because it offers her a means of concealing herself.

I also read Vanishing Act as a romance comic, or at least as a minicomic gesturing towards the romance comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Maybe Uncle Davie’s shop produces all sorts of comics, from superheroes and funny animals to war, horror, and true crime stories—anything, really, other than what is real and true. I don’t know if Lee is going to continue with Ruthie’s adventures, but I’d like to read more, to discover what she and her friend Reggie are creating. I want to know what becomes of her love for Naomi, the childhood friend now married to one of Uncle Davie’s clients.

On the back of the comic, Lee includes the title again and a reminder that this is “an Uncle Davie’s Comics-by-Number Tale.” Is this story, then, one of Ruthie’s “comics-by-number”? Is she just filling in these blanks or are we readers expected to fill them in with her? I look forward to reading more comics from Lee’s rich imagination and from Uncle Davie’s shop, and I hope that Ruthie appears again in another adventure. But if she chooses to disappear, like Ranger 7, I’d like one last glimpse before the inevitable final panels filled with darkness and silence.

Raining Quills

One of Steve Willis’s jam minicomics from the early 1990s. I did the cover but didn’t tell my mom that I’d based the drawing on an old childhood photo of her.

In the 1980s, I began exchanging zines through the Comics Buyer’s Guide’s small press column. I also ran ads in the classifieds section of CBG where I asked other zine and minicomics creators to share their zines with me. I had a long correspondence with two friends from San Antonio, Texas, who sent me copies of their zines, their APA (Amateur Press Association) publications, and, sometimes, records and tapes. Those exchanges form the basis of a community of people who otherwise would never have met. In looking for a common thread that connects Doris, Mare Cognitum, and Vanishing Act, I find myself returning to Sebald’s discussion of Rousseau in one of the essays in A Place in the Country. Rousseau, Sebald suggests, also wanted to disappear through the medium of his writing:

“The moment of utmost clarity of landscape,” writes Jean Starobinski, who has studied the theme of transparency in Rousseau, “is at one and the same time the moment at which individual existence dissolves at its limits and is dreamily transformed into thin air.” To become totally transparent was, according to Starobinski, the greatest ambition of the inventor of modern autobiography. (61-62)

These statements seem to contradict themselves, resolving only as a paradox—how does one become “totally transparent” when one is writing about the self? When one is also writing about the world outside the self? Is there a space where those two, the interior and the exterior, can meet?

But maybe that is the dream of the writer, the artist, the zine maker—to create something that has a life of its own, an object that can venture out, like Ranger 7, into the void and send back pictures of what it finds there.



Sebald, W.G. A Place in the Country. Trans. Jo Catling. New York: Random House, 2013.

Crabb, Cindy. The Encyclopedia of Doris. Athens, Ohio: Doris Press, 2011.

March 16, 2014 / bcremins

“A State of Perpetual Preparedness for Being Dazzled”: A Conversation with Shiamin Kwa about Kevin Huizenga’s Bryn Mawr Visit

On Thursday, February 27, cartoonist Kevin Huizenga visited Bryn Mawr to present “In Plain Sight: Reading Pictures,” a presentation followed by a conversation with Dr. Shiamin Kwa. Kwa, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Bryn Mawr, invited Huizenga to campus for the lecture and also for a visit to her Introduction to Chinese Literature course.


The poster from Huizenga’s Bryn Mawr lecture and Q&A (For more information, please visit the Bryn Mawr website.)

Dr. Kwa received her BA in English Literature from Dartmouth College and her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard. Her first book, Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, is a collaboration with Wilt L. Idema, published in 2010 by Hackett Publishing. In 2013, she published her first monograph, Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon (Harvard University Asia Center), and she has also written about the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, and Italian opera. She is now at work on a literary history of the play The Orphan of Zhao, which brings together nearly all of her interests, and a biography of Genevieve Wimsatt (which, Shiamin adds, does not!).

Strange Eventful Histories features a cover by cartoonist Tom Gauld and reveals Kwa’s affection for comics and comic art. Shiamin and I first met as undergraduates at Dartmouth in the early 1990s, where, as I mention in our conversation, she introduced me to Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections. In the following conversation, I ask her about her fascination with Kevin Huizenga’s work, her interest in comics, and her thoughts on the act of translation and its relationship to the art of words and pictures.

What inspires her academic work? “I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled,” she explains.

We began this email conversation on March 5, 2014 and completed our edits to it on Sunday, March 16.

BC: Before we talk about Kevin’s visit, I’m going to ask a very standard question: When did you first become interested in comics? 

SK: I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I have great memories of my grandfather taking me out with him to get his newspaper. I would always get some treats: one of the treats was always a comic book. This was Malaysia, so I would mostly get Dandy or Beano, or sometimes an Archie comic. Otherwise my childhood in comics was Lat, MAD, and Classics Illustrated.

[Shiamin added a follow-up to this answer in another email conversation from March 7.]

I just want to (briefly) return to No. 1.

The question about when did you become interested in comics bothers me, because I do sense that there is sometimes a weird distinction being made about liking comics—like it’s a kind of secret handshake that is indexed by memories of carrying a certain colored bag on Wednesday afternoons. I definitely do not think of it that way, and so I answered your question in the way I would answer the question “When did you become interested in food?” or “When did you become interested in music?” which is to say, “How did you become interested in this as a topic for intellectual or scholarly inquiry?” The genre itself is not obscure or should not inspire wonder that a college professor would be interested in it, right?


Another way to answer the question would be to say: I just like stuff that is good. To me, that is the first order of business. I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled. Criticism is a way to express how that lambent experience has been accomplished.

BC: That’s true. I think my question reveals my own obsession with comics and nostalgia. Because they are so often associated with childhood memories for some readers, comics sometimes serve as a catalyst for interesting discussions of what’s been lost or ignored. I think you can tell I’m really asking more about your story than the story of your relationship with comics. Maybe I should be more direct in my questions!

I want to be cautious here, however. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym does offer a kind of warning on the first page of the book: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy” (xiii). I’m beginning to think that, in the act of criticism, we begin with a statement, I remember, but we must quickly ask, Why do I remember? Or, What do I want to know about what I think I remember?  

I know there’s not much of a question there, so I should ask this, since I know you’ve mentioned it to me before: What drew you to MAD? I ask this because the first comics you shared with me when we were undergrads were Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections, which owe an enormous debt to MAD and the underground comix MAD inspired.

SK: No, I think you are right on about this (and it is hard to be a dodgy interlocutor when the interview is being given by someone who has known me since I was 17—ah, our salad days), and we have spoken about this before. My enduring interest in questions of language, identity and performance have a lot, maybe everything, to do with how I grew up.

Why MAD? First, it is that they were around—I was a voracious reader, so I read whatever was to hand, which ran the gamut from old copies of Reader’s Digest, to all of the many Enid Blyton series, to the Penguin classics at the library to books that my mother picked up at the airport when she was coming back to Malaysia from the U.S. (I cannot say I would want my eight-year-old to read The Bluest Eye, though that is in fact one of my sharpest reading memories!).

What drew me to them were those [Al Jaffee] fold-in back covers. I recognized the tone of the magazines, but the cultural references were not my own. I lived in Brookline, MA, for a year in 5th-6th grade, and then moved back to Malaysia again. Then came back and lived with an aunt in Delaware in 7th grade. The rest of my family emigrated to the U.S. when I was in the 8th grade, and we all moved together to Florida.

I guess you could say that the leitmotifs of my childhood and adolescence were  1) trying to catch up on an “American childhood” that I missed, and 2) trying (unsuccessfully, may I add) to fit in. Actually, I guess you could say that I was unsuccessful with the catching up, too, as there isn’t a generic American childhood, and certainly not one that can be accomplished through watching TV reruns and reading lots of Judy Blume, but I certainly tried. So I guess now you’ve forced me to tell you “a story” although I’m not sure that I’ve told you “my story.” You would probably be better at telling that than I would.

BC: I’m curious about the distinction you make between “a story,” the one you just told, and “my story,” which would be impossible for anyone to tell. The artistic, critical, and popular success of books like Maus, Fun Home, and March suggest that comics might be at their best as a form when they set out to explore the tension between “a story” and “my story.”

SK: Well, I think there are the stories that we privately nurture, and then there are the self-conscious and performative stories that we share publicly. Because you and I have known each other for so long, I can’t quite tell the difference in this case! But yes, this also brings up another aspect of why comics are so appealing to me, which is the way that they feel so much more ready to contribute to a sense of affective resonance. There is a real thingness about comics, as there is—to me—with going to the opera or other similar live performances. I love to read, of course, but books and poems are marvels of the mind. I love going to the opera, or the symphony, or to watch dance, but for the most part I am watching interpreters of someone else’s mind. Comics are especially marvelous to me because of how they express both mental agility, and bodily control. I am over-awed by this combination of a deeply intelligent mind using a deeply intelligent hand to create this work. It’s astonishing, actually.

BC: I’m glad you talked about your interest in opera and in performance, because I was going to ask you about the intersection between music and comics. When I read Groening’s comics today, for example, I always hear The Smiths. Most of the comics I’d read up to our first year of college were very serious, as was most of the music I listened to, but your affection for Life in Hell and Morrissey’s lyrics gave me a hint (at 17!) that a sense of humor and mischief was also really vital and necessary.

I’m trying to find a way to bring this all back to MAD, but I don’t know what Morrissey thinks about Al Jaffee’s fold-ins, so maybe I should get back to Kevin!

What first drew you to his work?

SK: The incredible sense of control of his work, and I mean that on every level. I think that this is an artist who thinks seriously about form, and whose works reward you for reading carefully. I think the reason that I found his work so attractive was that I am basically an old-fashioned formalist close reader, and I get very excited about the relationship of a work’s structure and its content.

I also get excited about how different modes of narrative work together, which is why Kevin’s work is so compelling to me; he employs a full range of these different vectors of meaning, and makes them work together. There is always a payoff in his stories, and the beauty is that they are not always what you might expect.

Actually, this is a question that Kevin asked me, too, and the short answer is that I have no idea. I thought I had first encountered his work in one of those “Best of” anthologies, which inevitably triggers an Amazon binge, I’m afraid. But since those binges are so frequent (ask Robert [Shiamin's husband]), it would be impossible for me to tell you anything other than that I ordered Curses on Amazon in January 2011. That means that I was living in Texas at the time, and reading a lot of comics, in general. I do remember reading his contribution in No Brow’s “The Double,” Issue 6, which has a Tom Gauld cover.


Gauld’s cover for Strange Eventful Histories. Read more about the book at the Harvard UP website.

I am going to ramble a bit here about Tom’s book cover for Strange Eventful Histories, so you may want to edit this out, but the reason I wanted Tom to do my book cover, in addition to the obvious fact that he is genius, has to do with this obsession I have with windows and mirrors. I love this trope of catching a glimpse of your reflection and not knowing it is yourself (this happens to me ALL THE TIME on department store escalators, or in mirrors in restaurants), and of appraising that familiar-looking stranger; and I also love its obverse, which is looking at something that is other and seeing oneself. I think the latter is basically a description of reading: immersing yourself in someone else’s self, and feeling that it is your own self, or recognizing a stranger as yourself.

The book I wrote was about a set of plays written in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in which each play tests out questions about the persistence of a “self.” I told Tom about the book in general, and sent him the chapter about a reincarnation play, in which an old monk is reborn as a courtesan, but doesn’t remember who he was/is. In any case, I see this in Kevin’s work, too; the defamiliarization of the familiar, and always, always, observing. I hope that Kevin will do the illustration for my next book cover. Ahem.

BC: That defamiliarization is an element that I read as a hallmark of American comics, the disassociation in the DNA of characters like Superman. But narratives like Maus, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s diary comics, for example, all explore the sensation of disassociation, a state that seems to find its perfect expression in a form that is itself about the interaction of what is read or seen and what is invisible—the blank spaces between the panels that Scott McCloud talks about in his discussion of “closure.” Do you read this sort of defamiliarization as a kind of alienation effect, something related to Brecht’s idea of Verfremdungseffekt? A means of creating distance so that the reader (or audience) has space for reflection?

SK: I think about it in this way: our world is about distinctions, and the sorting through of distinctions. Comics are just more honest about it. The spaces in between don’t necessarily have to be sites for reflection or meaning searching, just as pauses in conversation do not have to become heavily freighted with the same. But sometimes they do, and sometimes they are. I like to think of the spaces as having equal weight, but not a preponderance of the weight, either; that is, at its best the two are working together to create meaning.

BC: Is there a particular story of Kevin’s that stands out for you?

Well, they are all so different. If you are asking for a recommendation, I would have to say…read everything! He is currently finishing the fifth Ganges and Fantagraphics will collect all of them in one volume. I am really looking forward to this. The Ganges series is so formally innovative and profound, but also just very funny.

BC: How did your students and your colleagues respond to his presentation? What issues did you and Kevin address in your Q&A? 

SK: Everyone loved him, and it was a standing room only crowd of students and faculty—I don’t know, I don’t really want to put into words what I perceived other people to feel, but I think I can say with confidence that everyone was really inspired by his remarkable combination of deep intelligence and sincerity. The Q&A ranged from students asking very specific questions about why he chose to depict things a certain way to my asking him about whether he walks a lot.

BC: What did he say about his walking habits?

SK: Haha. That he walks a lot.

BC: How do comics and graphic novels figure into your work as a scholar and as a teacher?

SK: Sometimes I think that I am all over the place in my interests, but when I am trying to be generous with myself, I think that my interest in comics as a scholarly topic has to do with my interests in semiotics and narratology in general. It’s basically a way of testing out ideas about how we read signs, and reading comics is about reading signs.

In terms of teaching, I am incredibly lucky to work at a college that is committed to supporting interdisciplinary programs and events. The Mellon Creative Residencies Program funds events such as these for the faculty and students in the Tri-College Consortium (Haverford and Swarthmore are the other two colleges), and I applied for a grant to invite Kevin out to Bryn Mawr to give a reading and also to visit my Introduction to Chinese Literature class. I cannot say enough about how wonderful this Creative Residency has been, because the truth is that as much as I learned from Kevin’s class visit and his lecture/Q&A, the best part of the residency for me was the series of conversations that we had while waiting for a train to The Barnes Foundation or stapling handouts for the students in my office before class.

I should also add that he is an incredibly nice, sincere person and so unbelievably modest. There were many times, however, when he would say things like “it’s so simple it’s not worth saying” or “it’s the easy thing to do” where I mentally (and sometimes, out loud) appended “…if you are a genius” to the sentence!

About the Intro. to Chinese Literature class: this is the class that you will be visiting in April, Brian, so you already know about this project. Basically, I am asking my students to make a visual adaptation of a Tang dynasty poem, which may be a comic book, illustration, even a Lego stop-motion movie! Kevin shared an adaptation of a poem that he had recently done for a book commemorating WWI.

This was all inspired by my feeling that comics as a medium can share a lot with poetry, especially Kevin’s work: visual economy, playing with perspective, playing with notions of time, attention to and respect for form.

BC: I also should mention that when I visit we’ll be talking with your students about comics and memory and, more specifically, about Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic Life in Bodies of Water. And speaking of your class, I’ve been meaning to ask you about how your work as a translator relates to studies of words and pictures.

 Von De Bur

Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic, Life in Bodies of Water

In her essay on Art Spiegelman and W.G. Sebald in the first chapter of The Generation of Postmemory (Columbia UP, 2012), Marianne Hirsch argues that the kind of “visual literacy” required by narratives like Maus and Austerlitz involves an act of translation. The photographs in Sebald’s novel, she writes, seem to “require a particular kind of visual literacy, one that can decode the foreign language that they speak, for in Sebald’s formulations, they don’t just utter ‘small sighs of despair,’ but they do so in French, ‘gémissements de désepoir’” (52).

Do you have any thoughts on reading—especially reading narratives with words and pictures—as an act of translation?

SK: First of all, I want to thank you in advance for coming to speak to my class. They are so lucky! Don’t let them sweet talk you into sharing embarrassing stories about me—besides, there are too many!

Your question reminds me of the Philip Larkin interview in The Paris Review: 

Robert Phillips: In one early interview you stated that you were not interested in any period but the present, or in any poetry but that written in English. Did you mean that quite literally? Has your view changed?

Philip Larkin: It has not. I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude: Byron and Poe and so on. The Russians liking Burns. But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or afenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God! A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him.

I love Philip Larkin, and obviously I don’t totally agree with him—or I hope he’s wrong—considering what I do, but I think there is a certain degree to which all acts of reading are acts of translation. Actually, all transactions are acts of translation. That is true for reading different languages, texts from different time periods, and, indeed, for reading other people. Who is this person, and what is s/he trying to tell me? How do I understand this with respect to what I already know?

BC: What comic or graphic novel are you reading right now that you’re excited to share with other readers? 

SK: Reading? Who has time to read? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! If pre-orders count I just ordered Jiro Taniguchi’s Furari. I recently re-read Lynda Barry’s Freddie Stories, and I am currently reading Dakota McFadzean’s Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in on.


Huizenga’s The Wild Kingdom (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010)

Thanks again to Shiamin for talking with me about her class and about Kevin’s visit. This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of short conversations with colleagues and friends about comic books and comic art.

My goal is also to provide readers with an archive of observations on recent lectures, conferences, and exhibits about comics, especially from the point-of-view of teachers, scholars, and writers sponsoring those events. The 17-year-olds that Shiamin mentions in this conversation, I think, with their copies of Miracleman and Life in Hell and Swamp Thing, would be pleased to know that reading comics continues to promise these baffling, often dazzling moments of possibility.


Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostlagia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.


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