I wrote this short essay on Lou Reed for an online magazine that now appears to be defunct. I figured I’d post this on the one-year anniversary of Reed’s death (October 27, 2013). One of the first songs I learned to play on guitar was “Dirty Blvd.” from New York. I’ve been trying to write about Reed’s death for the last year or so but I’ve been trying to write about my friends and their cat for almost fifteen years. This is the best I could do.
My friend Tony sent me a text on Sunday, October 27 at 12:44 pm. I’m looking at it now on my phone: “Oh, god. Lou Reed…” I’m also looking at a picture of Reed I have here on my desk. It’s dated November 27, 2000. Another friend took the picture somewhere in New York that fall. Kelly asked Reed if it would be ok, and he said yes, but he told her to do it quick. Looking at the photo now, I wonder where he and Kelly are standing. There are two potted plants behind him, a doorway, a black wrought-iron chair. He is wearing a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt, and glasses. He is not smiling and, from a certain angle, he looks more like David Johansen from the New York Dolls than the Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer or Berlin or New York.
Since Reed’s death I’ve wanted to write something about him, but I’ve hesitated, since the last thing the world needs is another story or essay about Lou Reed from a fan who never knew him. My Lou Reed story is not remarkable: I discovered the New York album when I was a high school student in the late 1980s, then slowly made my way back to the Velvet Underground. The first time we played “European Son” in the car my dad thought something was wrong with his brakes. “I like the other one better,” he said. “Which one? New York?” “That one,” he said. My dad, a judge, once made the Hartford Courant for quoting a line from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs in one of his decisions. He and I also traded texts about Lou Reed. I think he responded to the news by listening to his favorite track, “Nobody But You,” from Songs for Drella, Reed and John Cale’s 1990 tribute to Andy Warhol.
Reed’s death conjured other memories for me of New York in the 1990s, my dream of New York when I was in my twenties in graduate school in Connecticut and visiting my friends who’d moved to the city after graduation. I see this picture of Lou Reed and, instead of thinking about high school and the time I tried to learn “Heroin” on a plastic guitar plugged into my parents’ stereo system, I remember my friend Kelly’s cat, the one we buried in northern Manhattan, on a slope of Inwood Hill Park, in the summer of 2000.
I saw Kelly and her husband only two or three times after the burial, so I think of that funeral procession as one of the last times the three of us, college friends, spent time together on a bright, clear, warm summer afternoon. I suppose we were friends because they filled a role for me, characters from a Lou Reed song, two avant-garde theater kids living in a tiny apartment on St. Mark’s Place. If it had been the 1960s, we could have walked across the street and seen the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom.
Their apartment always smelled sweet, like Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. I’d never seen a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s until I started visiting them on weekends on St. Mark’s. The old paper labels always washed away as I tried to read the microscopic text. Even now, Dr. Bronner’s always reminds me of the shower in their apartment, the black and white checkerboard tile, the mirror. I guess Reed was also a fan of Dr. Bronner’s, if we believe the first-person narrator from “Wild Child,” who talks with his filmmaker friend Chuck, the guy “in his Genghis Khan suit / and his wizard’s hat,” about the “kids on the coast /and different kinds of organic soap” and even about “the way suicides don’t leave notes.” I don’t know which experimental filmmaker Reed is singing about—I can imagine both Harry Smith and Jack Smith under that “wizard’s hat”—but I found another reference to Reed’s affection for Dr. Bronner’s in Robert Milliken’s biography of Lillian Roxon.
Roxon gives Reed credit for revealing to her “the ecstasies of Dr. Bronner’s nine-in-one Supermild Pure Castile Soap, not to mention chia seeds, ginseng, bio-strath and other legal ups.” I’ve always heard the refrain of “Wild Child” as “Then we spoke of the rain / Always back to the rain,” but Reed is actually singing about someone named Lorraine. Always back to Lorraine. I can’t hear it any different even now that I know better. I picture a room with Reed and Lillian Roxon and flaming creature Jack Smith all in glitter and outside there’s a hint of clouds.
It’s cruel to say I loved Kelly and her husband because I wanted to live the life I imagined being lived in a Lou Reed song, like “Wild Child” or “Open House” from Songs for Drella. I think what I wanted most was their courage: I wanted to be something other than an occasional visitor from rural Connecticut, that kid on the train, the one who mailed them cassette tapes of loops and 4-track noise for their plays and performances. Mostly, I wanted to prove my loyalty, so, when Kelly called and told me their cat had died, I parked my car at Union Station in New Haven and got a ticket for the Metro-North line to Grand Central.
On the train to New York I worried a little. Actually, I worried a lot, a habit of mine. Didn’t we need some kind of permit? To bury the cat? What if we got caught? Would an Inwood Park Ranger jail us? Did they have Park Rangers in Manhattan? I’ll end up in the Tombs, I thought, like a character from an early Harlan Ellison juvenile delinquent novel. Web of the City. “People do it all the time,” Kelly assured me. We’d be fine. In a few days I’d be on the Metro-North train back to New Haven, I’d be home.
The cat’s name was Kokot. “It means dick in Slovak,” Kelly’s husband explained. I don’t know if that’s true. He was beautiful, sleek and black, with green eyes and a slow, deliberate, predatory walk. In the afternoon he’d chatter at the birds. His coat of fur looked silver in the white light of the window. He was lazy, mostly, and didn’t want anyway to pet him, not too much. Once he’d had enough he’d swat you, then walk away.
I wondered what kind of song Lou Reed might write about this cat, who had a habit of humping the arms of Kelly’s guests. Once, the week Kelly got married, the cat mounted the tweed-covered arm of Jim, her undergraduate advisor and mentor, who laughed delightedly. After several minutes, Jim’s face grew wary, then concerned, but when he gently stroked the cat, cooing and urging it to go away, Kokot thrust his hips more vigorously. The cat hissed, looked distant and amused, then crawled under the couch.
When the cat was gone, I must admit, I don’t know if I missed him. I can’t say that I disliked him, but I found something cold and alien in him. I was certain then and I am certain now that he didn’t care for me one way or another. Maybe I felt offended that Kokot never saw fit to include me in these obscene rituals. He must have smelled my cat Ben on my clothes and wanted nothing to do with either of us.
When I got back to Connecticut, a few days after the burial, I drew a sketch of my friends from memory. I’d sat across from them on the subway ride to the park. Kelly sat slumped on her husband’s shoulder. He looked at me and smiled. She looked wounded and lost. I felt it would be indecent to take a photo of them as they mourned their cat, but I remembered them so vividly that I felt compelled to sketch them, huddled close, like two kids waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. After we’d arrived at Inwood, we quickly found a spot for the body, then dug a small hole at the base of a small hill of granite. “We picked this spot for him last week,” Kelly said. They’d been hunting locations. It took several minutes for us to dig a hole big enough for the body. As we finished, I felt light-headed, just as my mother always describes it, not so much sick-to-my stomach as ethereal, outside my head, floating. I felt sad for the cat, for my friends, for the hole we’d dug for him. Suddenly I didn’t want to leave him there alone. I had nothing to say. I had no guide to follow. The digging wasn’t anything like a Lou Reed song.
Maybe I resented the cat for dying. I don’t think I resented his death then, in that moment when we covered his grave with leaves and dirt and stones. But it might have been the clairvoyant part of me that knew I would never see my two friends again, at least not in the same way I saw and admired them when I was in my twenties. I knew I wouldn’t be back again, and I probably blamed the cat, because, after he died, my friend and her husband crumbled a little, as the New York they’d built for themselves in the 1990s began to show its cracks. I saw them just two more times, once in the summer of 2001 and again in June of 2002.
I don’t have any photos of the cat, but I have this photo of a man I never met. I saw him live only once, in the summer of 2003 at the Calvin Theater in Northampton. Antony Hegarty was on backing vocals and Fernando Saunders was on bass. Reed opened the show with “Smalltown,” another track from Songs for Drella. Now, here in Chicago in 2014, at my desk, I stare at Reed and he stares back. I keep this picture in my copy of Summer Knowledge, Delmore Schwartz’s selected poems, on page 25, “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave”: “Strangeness grew in the motionless air. The loose / Film grayed. Shaking wagons, hooves’ waterfalls, / Sounded far off, increasing, louder and nearer.” I must have used the photo as a bookmark. Maybe I thought Reed would feel more comfortable spending time with his undergraduate mentor from Syracuse, the ghost of the poet who haunts him in “My House,” the opening track from The Blue Mask, the first in a series of what some critics considered Lou’s 1980s comeback albums.
What I love most about this photo is the look on Lou Reed’s face. He’s not angry, or annoyed, or in a hurry, even though he told Kelly to take it quick. He’s not cool, either. He’s free of expression, and therefore free of time and of history and of any obligation. In asking Lou Reed if she could take his picture, Kelly was thinking not of him, but of me, a huge fan, living what she must have imagined was a kind of exile in the wilds of Storrs, Connecticut. She wanted nothing from Lou Reed and, of course, he owed nothing to her, but the two of them shared this brief moment, one framed by the potted plants and the mysterious doorway and the lights. It’s the record of a gesture of kindness and friendship. I feel sad when I look at it and remember that I didn’t love Kelly’s cat as much as she did but couldn’t bring myself to admit that truth to her at the moment we buried him.
The cover of the program for our gallery show this month at Harper.
I’m writing this at 9 am on a Monday morning, October 13, and I’ve just walked back from our gallery space here at Harper College, where I’m an Associate Professor of English. Late last year I started talking with Jason Peot, one of my Studio Art colleagues, about putting together a show featuring a small group of Chicago cartoonists. Jason liked the idea, and asked what I had in mind. I gave him a list of names and a few books. After a year of planning and preparation, we opened the show this morning. It’s called “‘Like Comics Without Panels’: The Visionary Cartooning of John Porcellino, Marnie Galloway, and Edie Fake.” I got to play the role of co-curator with Jason. Playing this part forced me to come to terms with my undergrad experiences in my Studio Art classes, which I took for a year and a half in the early 1990s during my first and second years of college.
When I got to college, I wanted to do three things: draw pictures, write stories, and play guitar. I arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire in late September of 1991 with an acoustic guitar, my box of drawing supplies, a drawing table, and a bag of cassettes. I was obsessed with Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, their final album released in 1987. I had an acoustic guitar my mom had bought me at T.C.’s Pawn and Gun in Waterbury in December of 1990. It was an Applause (my buddies all called it the Applesauce guitar), Ovation’s less-expensive student model, with a curved, plastic back and nice low action. Before I got the Applause, I learned to play a few chords on a red-sparkle toy guitar covered in Mickey Mouse stickers. In the fall of my senior year of high school, I drilled a hole in that guitar for a microphone and used my stereo as an amplifier. I discovered feedback about the same time I discovered Hüsker Dü. “Are they in a garage or are they just spending a lot of money to sound like they’re in a garage?” a friend asked me (when I mentioned I was listening to the band again to work on this post, she said, “When will this obsession end?”). I liked them mostly for their stories, the ones promised by the subtitle of that final album.
Hüsker Dü’s 1987 album Warehouse: Songs and Stories
I mention Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton because every time I read something new by John Porcellino, an issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories or even his masterful new book The Hospital Suite, I’m reminded of a scene in Perfect Example, his coming-of age story (its title comes from a Bob Mould song on Hüsker Dü’s 1985 album New Day Rising), where the young John P. imagines what college might be like:
From John Porcellino’s Perfect Example (Drawn & Quarterly edition, 2005)
That was pretty much me at 17 when I started college, only I didn’t have a skateboard (my mom was afraid I’d fall off and bust my head). Just as I was sure when I got to Chicago that everyone would be listening to The Sea and Cake (we don’t), I was certain that most of the kids would have copies of Warehouse or Zen Arcade. They didn’t. I wrote term papers about the band and quoted their lyrics in my papers—essays about Franz Kafka and Guy de Maupassant and Thomas Mann. I liked other bands, too. I once compared the linework on a Greek vase to Tom Verlaine’s guitar work, and my art history professor gently warned me, “Don’t use an obscure reference to explain an even more obscure reference, Brian.”
In Dan Stafford’s revealing new documentary Root Hog or Die, Porcellino explains his affection for the Minneapolis band. He first read about their 1984 double-album in a Chicago Reader article. I had another moment of recognition when as I watched this part of the film. Porcellino explains,
R.E.M. was great, but for me when I heard Zen Arcade, that was the thing that was like—not only is it this weird music that’s really appealing, but honestly, as an adolescent or whatever, I was just like, this music is about me. These songs are about my own life. (Get a copy of Root Hog or Die and fast forward about 18 minutes for more about the band.)
I’d listen to my Hüsker Dü tapes in my dorm room while working on projects for my basic design and drawing classes. Each of the songs on Warehouse tells a short story, from the high-school nostalgia of Mould’s “These Important Years” to Hart’s “You Can Live at Home,” which ends the record with waves of feedback and static. As Jason and I finished framing the pieces for the show, I guess I should have expected I’d listen to Warehouse again as I tried to pick up where I’d left off in 1993. But now I’m getting ahead of where I should be in this story.
By my second year of college, my art classes weren’t going too well. I was still obsessed with comics, so all of my projects looked like poor imitations of my favorite cartoonists: one week Frank Miller, the next week Moebius (or Frank Miller trying to draw like Moebius). Finally, one of my professors took me aside and said, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t see any potential in what you’re doing. Maybe you should transfer to a state school and study illustration.” For my last few projects, I tried my best to imitate some of the new artists I’d been exposed to: I liked Robert Rauschenberg a lot, so I went to dumpster in the parking lot of the one grocery store in town and brought a stack of cardboard boxes back to my dorm room. I drew an ink portrait of a friend (the same one who liked The Smiths better than she liked Hüsker Dü) and then covered it in layers of paint. When the paint had dried, I stapled the pieces of wood and cardboard together. I thought it looked like a Rauschenberg. It didn’t. But I sold it at an art show for $5. I learned later that another friend had bought it for her apartment. In my junior year, I surrendered. No more art classes for me. I decided on an English major instead. I also rented a cassette 4-track and decided I’d learn to write songs. I missed my art classes, but I wasn’t the most rebellious kid, so I believed what my professor had told me. Anyway, I’d started playing bass in a couple of campus bands and made a few more friends. I wondered what it’d be like to put my own band together. Playing music was fun, and, since it wasn’t my major, there was no one to tell me what to do. My 4-track compositions weren’t that good either, but I had more fun trying to imitate the songs on Warehouse than I’d had trying to imitate Moebius, or Frank Miller, or Robert Rauschenberg.
I’ve always been a little haunted by my decision to give up drawing in favor of music and writing. It was an abrupt end to a very long relationship. My box of art supplies, which still sits on a bookshelf not far from my desk, is like a box of old photographs of friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I could take a few art classes to get back to what I loved twenty years ago, but last year I decided instead to put together a show. I think that’s the musician side of me at work. Let’s call a couple of other bands and book a gig somewhere. Who’s free? Do we know a third band for the bill? Last fall, over twenty years since I dropped the painting class that would have qualified me for a minor in Studio Art, I started talking with Jason about my idea for the show. No superheroes. A few Chicago cartoonists. I’ll teach their books in one of my courses. We’ll invite them to campus.
Two pages from In the Sounds and Seas, printed on large sheets of fabric (please note: hammer not included in final version of the show.)
Jason has an MFA in sculpture from Northern Illinois and recently has done installation work at the University of Illinois at Urbana and for the Chicago Public Library. He works a lot with light. Take a look at the samples on his website and you’ll see that a lot of his work is implied—phantoms of shape and color suggested by the play of light across a surface. I thought he’d like the subtlety of King-Cat Comics and Stories, Edie Fake’s humor, Marnie Galloway’s atmospheric, complex designs. As Jason and I worked on the show, I started to feel like I was putting a band together, my own comics supergroup: Edie, John, and Marnie.
The second volume of In the Sounds and Seas
I often joke that I like comics, but I love music—listening to it, playing it, writing it. I love being in a band. Since I couldn’t read until I was well into first grade, sounds and pictures are my first language. Although my parents don’t play any instruments—except maybe my mom, who knows a little piano—they remain passionate about their music. My mom loves Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer, Smokey Robinson. As a kid, we’d listen to the Woodstock soundtrack album, Tapestry, Crosby, Stills & Nash. She’d hear “When Doves Cry” and say, “That sounds like ‘Purple Haze.’ I like that one.” My dad listened to country music, especially Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and gravelly-voiced singer songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Later, he introduced me to Bob Dylan so, as thanks, I told him about Lou Reed’s New York and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (which I think he likes a lot more than I do).
On one wall of our show, you’ll see Edie’s original illustrations for Wallace Stevens’s poem “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” from the “Illustrated Wallace Stevens” roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian website, July 26, 2011. This series of drawings was also published as a zine in 2011.
In a Los Angeles Times review of Warehouse, writer Chris Willman describes the band’s final album as “a letter from an old friend in your hometown, full of experiences and insights you thought only you went through or felt anymore, spoken in a way that only those who grew up with similar sets of friends (or similar sets of hard-rock record collections) can share.” Later Willman argues that “this letter from home is almost in a sort of secret code,” but Warehouse, like Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite, is direct, intimate, and often devastating. When I finished The Hospital Suite a few weeks ago, I remembered the liner notes that accompany Warehouse, a short prose piece about what it looked and felt like to tour the United States in the 1980s. The final lines of those notes, unsigned but presumably written by one of the band members (I’m guessing Bob Mould, given some of the phrasing, but maybe Grant Hart, whose recent album The Argument is a captivating rock and roll version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost), might be the narration for a John Porcellino story about Hoffman Estates, or Denver, or South Beloit. “When you travel frequently, you find a lot of images,” read the notes for Warehouse. The essay concludes with one of those pictures from the road:
Example? Winter always comes too soon. This year was the worst I can remember, except when I was five years old. Pushed open the front door, got lost in the snow.
I hope people get lost when they come to see the show, as they wander into the gallery and discover one of Marnie’s whales staring down at them from large fabric banners, or as they study the intricate black-ball-point-on-paper of Edie’s drawing “Stay Dead,” a prelude for what would become the Memory Palaces series.
If you come to the show, you’ll see several original pages from Marnie’s In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, which she published under her Monkey-Rope Press imprint in 2012. Just a few weeks ago, she released In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II, which continues what she promises will be a three-issue series. You’ll also see original pages from King-Cat Comics and Stories No. 73, Edie’s original drawings for the Wallace Stevens roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian a few years ago, and all sorts of other process sketches, zines, and other lovely works of art. My students are reading In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, and just finished taking notes on the Sarah Boxer interview with John at The Comics Journal. And we’ll have John, Marnie, and Edie on campus for a visit and an informal Q&A on October 30.
If you can’t make it out to Palatine, write to me and I’ll send you the program for the show, which features selections from each artist and a short essay. And don’t worry about postage. If you have a zine or minicomic, let’s do a trade. A four-track tape would be even better.
Another photo from the gallery: selections from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I and Edie Fake’s “Stay Dead” (2007)
Marnie Galloway responds to emails with the same precision and love of detail on display in the pages of her comics. After she’d answered a few of my questions, she included a warning: “I’ve attached for you a novel in response to your five prompts!” I think you’ll find her answers—which cover topics ranging from symbolic logic to her love of Nabokov and Herman Melville—just as fascinating as her comics, which combine an experimental narrative sensibility with complex drawings and innovative panel layouts.
Since publishing the first volume of In the Sounds and Seas through her own Monkey-Rope Press in 2012, Galloway has released several other minicomics, including Mare Cognitum—an account of Ranger 7’s encounter with the moon in the summer of 1964—and Medusa. Just last week at SPX, she debuted the next installment of In the Sounds and Seas. The second of what Galloway promises will be a three-volume series tells the story, as she explains on her website, of “three ship-builders” who “turn sailors as they head out in search of the Singers,” the three beings we meet in the first few pages of Volume I.
The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II (Monkey-Rope Press, 2014)
Galloway begins Volume 1 of her otherwise wordless narrative with a passage from Alexander Pope’s 1726 translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Minerva (Athena) pleads with Jove to assist Ulysses as the warrior struggles to find his way home:
Must he, whose altars on the Phrygian shore
With frequent rites, and pure, avow’d thy power,
Be doom’d the worst of human ills to ptove,
Unbless’d, abandon’d to the wrath of Jove?
It’s possible, then, to read In the Sounds and Seas as a response to Homer’s epic, much like Derek Walcott’s Omeros, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or—to go back even further in time—Sappho’s fragmented lyrics. Like these three other writers, Galloway responds to Homer with both humor and reverence. When I asked her about her debt to Herman Melville, another of her literary influences, she explained, “I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter.” Her pages are richly textured, filled with repeated images that suggest the sweeping power of the ocean itself. When the three women sing the world into being in the opening pages of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we are swept along by a tide of rabbits, fish, and birds—earth, sea, and air, all meticulously rendered in black and white.
In “Secret Labor,” her recent article for Poetry Magazine, Hillary Chute argued that poetry and comics share many similarities: “The rich relationships between word and image in which spatial arrangement is significant, and which characterizes contemporary comics, had precursors in all sorts of poetic experiments.” When I read the dense imagery of In the Sound and Seas, I am reminded of the visionary poetics of Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., whose early poems inspired other Imagists of her generation including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Consider, for example, the final stanza of H.D.’s “Sea Poppies.” Like H.D.’s poems, Galloway’s comics are filled with images that imply a kind of prophecy. The effect is uncanny. What at first appears familiar suddenly gives way to swirling imagery both ghostly and strange. In H.D.’s poem, flowers bloom near the ocean, but the ocean itself undergoes a sudden and startling change, not unlike the Singers in Galloway’s narrative:
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?
On this page from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we see the same mingling of earth, sea, air, and fire:
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1
This fall the Chicago-based cartoonist will be in residency at Ragdale, where she will devote her time to new work. Pages from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1 will also be part of “Like Comics Without Panels,” a three-artist gallery show I am co-curating with my colleague Jason Peot. The show features work from John Porcellino and Edie Fake, two other innovative cartoonists with Chicago connections and visionary tendencies. Galloway also continues to work as an organizer for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, which is now heading into its fourth year.
I’d like to thank Marnie for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail. In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II is now available. For more information on how to get a copy, visit her website or ask your local comics shop to order you a copy.
BC: Can you talk briefly about your background in symbolic logic and how it has inspired your work as a cartoonist? What effect does your training in philosophy have on your storytelling?
MG: Sure! So my undergraduate degree was in logic, which is the study of the structure, patterns and rules behind rhetoric/any formal system. I was very good at math and logic puzzles growing up, so I took the Logic 100 class my first semester at Smith to take care of my writing intensive requirement. After the first day of the first class, I was hooked. The next semester I signed up for all the logic classes I could, plus related classes in the math department (like set theory) and I spun all my philosophy classes to build on my interests in paradox and inconsistency. By the end of my second year my narrow focus had sped me along towards completing the requirements of a philosophy degree, so I declared that major and spent the next two years diving deeper into narrower veins of logic and exploring other academic interests with relative leisure. I published two papers in undergraduate philosophy journals, and I also worked for three years as a teaching assistant for the Logic 100 class, grading homework and leading tutoring/discussion sections.
All of this is a long time ago now, and I’ve had a lot of different kinds of lives since I was a sturdy-hearted logician. It is tempting to try to look back and lay a coherent story on top of a lost and searching young adulthood, but the truth isn’t that tidy and everything was happening at the same, confusing time. While I was studying logic and totally confident I was going into academia, I was also obsessively drawing, keeping illustrated journals and taking printmaking classes, and trying to not fall apart during some intense crises that nearly broke me during that time.
I’m not sure if I’d point the causal arrow from logic and philosophy towards an influence on my comics practice, but I do think that there is a common core that inspires both: a curiosity about the hidden structure behind things, and an easy love of hyper-focusing and diving deep into a project. The books and comics that have always been the most compelling to me have been ones that play with or undermine or explode the rules for how to tell a story. Pale Fire by Nabokov, for instance—a perfectly contained puzzle of a book. Keeping within a rigid structure (in that case, the form of an academic compilation of poetry with introduction and elaborate footnotes) gives so much room for play and misdirection. I think it’s fun to think about narrative structure like a puzzle, like carefully set up things one wouldn’t pay attention to at the beginning that meaningfully pay out at the very end. I don’t know if my books succeed in that effort, but it’s something I think about as I’m working on a story.
The three singers from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
BC: The name of your press comes from “The Monkey-Rope,” the title of Chapter LXII of Melville’s Moby-Dick. You mention Nabokov, so I’m curious to learn more about the other literary influences on your work. How do narratives like Moby-Dick or The Odyssey, for example, inform In the Sound and Seas?
MG: I definitely grew up (and in many ways remain) more a literature-nerd than a comics-nerd, not from a place of judgment against comics but from relative lack of exposure as a kid. I read “Calvin and Hobbes” collections and Mad magazine like the best of them, but I found my escape in novels. Moby-Dick is maybe an obvious choice, but it’s one of my favorite books—no one tells you how funny it is! I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter. Plus, of course, the language can be so utterly beautiful and moving. I had just finished reading it when I needed to name my press; “The Monkey-Rope” chapter is about how hopelessly interconnected and interdependent we are in our lives, which I thought would be a meaningful, funny nod as I started my little printing business and really wanted customers.
The Odyssey is another obvious literary tip-of-the-hat as I’m working on a book involving a long ocean journey + search for meaning, but I particularly chose the translation by Alexander Pope for my introductory quotes (and from which I pulled the title of the series). He played fast and loose with the translation, favoring beautiful rhyming couplets over any attempt to be true to the original language. It’s a critically panned disaster of a translation. I thought that was a hilariously self-confident approach to interpreting a classic (and as a satirist, maybe he did too); I also thought it was the most appropriate selection as a framing introduction, since I was doing a pale version of a similar project. Culture is remix, language is a servant to meaning, and none of it is sacred.
Like in Moby-Dick and The Odyssey, the ocean as a space for storytelling will always be interesting to me, as do any spaces (literal and emotional) that are so massive that they make all our mightiest efforts at putting order to the world humbled and insignificant. That kind of scale is an easy emotional cue for hybridized feelings of powerlessness and awe; consuming, obsessive projects are the internalized versions of that same feeling for me, making a project so big it consumes the self. In that vein, Anne Carson is an author who is recently a huge inspiration. She uses similar elements of culture that I’m interested in—the dailiness of mythology and literature and landscape—but with seeming effortlessness she imbues her words with humanity and grace and heartbreak. I read her words over and over.
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have rarely been as deeply moved by a comic as I have been by a novel, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why that is. Not always, of course, but often. Maybe because of the time compression in comics? Maybe just because it’s a much younger medium, so there haven’t been centuries of artists telling stories in comics like they have with image-starved books? There are comics that I deeply love and give as gifts to everyone in my life, comics that I return to over and over; comics that are elegant and beautiful, or disturbing and heartbreaking, or raucously hilarious, but I’ve never been punched in the gut and destroyed for months like I have by literature. Like: a few years ago I read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and couldn’t read anything but light nonfiction for two years, because I was still dealing with an almost existential fallout after having read that book. I read a review of 2666 that said that it felt like a book that shouldn’t be, a book that should only be a work of impossible imaginary fiction in a Borges short story, but look—it exists! Someday I want to make a comic that does that, something that feels impossible. Miles to go and plenty of failures to work through before then, I reckon.
BC: You mentioned that there are some comics you “return to over and over.” Can you talk about a few of the cartoonists you look to for inspiration?
MG: Oh yeah, of course! The first minicomic I bought, before I knew I was going to be making comics, was Beast Mother by Eleanor Davis and she has consistently remained a glowing beacon in my pantheon of favorite artists. She finds the emotional core of a story more eloquently than any other artist I have read; she can illustrate a piece for the NYT about the home mortgage crisis and find the poetry and heart in it. I think that is a huge shortcoming of my work right now, and I look to her for guidance. Anders Nilsen is another hero. Big Questions is one of my all-time favorite books (I do love a dense symbolist tome), and his recent nonfiction comics, especially Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, cut me to the core. Jon McNaught’s quiet, meditative printmakerly comics are hugely instructive for me as I think about time and pacing. Aidan Koch & Sam Alden’s graphite comics capture ephemeral moments and movements that jump to the exact emotionally resonant moment needed for their stories, sparse narrative elegance with no filler. I also admire a loose, gestural line—I am just horrible at that. Lilli Carré is the most masterful short-story artist I have read; I have yet to read a single piece of hers that I don’t wish I had written, and then read over and over to try to figure out how she accomplished what she did. And then there’s Chris Ware, of course, but I reckon that goes without saying. He continues to innovate and push what books—not just comics—can be. I’d also put early 20th C narrative woodcut artists Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel in my list of comic artist influences, and also William Blake—he obsessively self-published his hand-printed illustrated books of poetry. If he were alive today, he’d be the king of the alt comics scene.
From Galloway’s Medusa (2013)
BC: You’re also one of the organizers for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE!). Does your work as an organizer also influence your practice as an artist?
MG: Absolutely—every time we get to jurying season, reviewing the mountains of applications for CAKE, I feel half-inspired and half-crushed by the need to step up my game! There are so many talented artists making work in comics today, and with a huge diversity of style and content and inquiry. It feels like the wild west: there is a thrilling urgency to the work being done in comics right now. It also can feel like everyone has been doing this longer than me, and has the privilege of a longer & richer familiarity with the medium. Imposter syndrome can bubble up for sure.
It is equally true that my experience as an artist influences my work as an organizer. I feel a huge debt of gratitude that these festivals exist, that this community of artists has overall been so welcoming, that I want to do everything I can to keep that feeling going. I was floating for many years, knowing I wanted to make visual narratives but not realizing that comics was a medium in which my work could find a home. I felt so out of place in the art worlds I first tried to participate in—first in fine-press artist books, then printmaking—so finally finding comics felt like “OH, of course. There you are.” The first season I tabled my books was in 2012, after having printed the minicomic version of “In the Sounds and Seas: Volume I” that winter; I sold a few copies to friends and family, but ended up sitting on the remaining 120 copies or so in my living room. I was so distraught! I believed in the project, but didn’t know what to do with it. That year, after an encouraging email from Jeffrey Brown (whose young son is in the same class with my old letterpress studio boss’s daughter), I tabled at Chicago Zine Fest and then SPACE and CAKE in short order, and it was all over for me. I’m in for keeps.
I have gotten so much support, friendship and inspiration when I was coming in as a bright-eyed outsider, I feel like the least I can do is offer that same support back. It is really important to me as an organizer and also when I table at shows to be supportive of emerging artists, to find anyone who looks a little lost and introduce myself. I’m particularly proud to have been part of the organizing team at CAKE as we founded the Cupcake Award, a microgrant + mentorship award for emerging comic artists, and I hope we can keep finding ways to better serve early-career artists.
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
BC: Recently I read an old interview in which Will Eisner and C.C. Beck talked about Beck’s experiences at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s. “The reason I’m questioning you about that is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably,” Eisner explained (from Will Eisner’s Shop Talk, page 55). I think Eisner hoped Beck would define some sort of Midwestern cartooning sensibility. Do you think Eisner was right? You’re originally from Texas and then studied in New England and now live in Chicago. Do all of those locations play a role in your work?
MG: This is a great question that is also tricky to answer for oneself! Maybe there are tell-tale signs in my style that are easy to read from the outside that show hints of a geographic footprint, but I’m too close to see them. I am absolutely sure that the questions I’m interested in asking are shaped by my background as a nomadic low-income southern white woman who went to a half-radical-queer/half-pearls-and-cardigans elite women’s college and then settled down in Chicago, always feeling like the outsider. How could it not have an effect, right? But I think the comment Eisner made to Beck assumes a level of engagement with the local art world that I didn’t necessarily have, and also one that many artists don’t necessarily have as they develop their style. I grew up in a rotating sequence of apartment complexes in the exurbs outside mid-sized cities in the south—Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas primarily. We didn’t go to museums or galleries or art openings, if there even were any available nearby; my mom and I would make regular pilgrimages to Barnes and Noble and we watched a lot of TV, but that’s about the extent of our engagement with contemporary culture. In college I went to museums for the first time, college museums in the Pioneer Valley and an awe-inspiring trip to the Met when I went to NYC for an anti-war protest in 2002, but most of my time was spent reclusively studying. And again, I didn’t really stumble upon the comics community in Chicago until embarrassingly recently, after I started making what I now know to call comics. I’ve been hustling to catch up and find my place in the scene before anyone notices I don’t quite belong.
I agree with Eisner that there are regional styles, and more obviously styles that emerge from schools. I think a lot of people assume that the internet is grinding away at regional culture, that because (say) Tumblr is a place where any young comic artist can share their work and grow a community and following, the specifics of their geography become less important. I don’t think that’s the case at all! Even within Chicago, I can consistently guess which local young comic artists trained at SAIC versus Columbia College. Jurying for CAKE is like rapid-fire flashcards for regional aesthetics: the Minneapolis (MCAD) look is wildly different from Brooklyn/NYC applicants, which couldn’t be more distinct from Center for Cartoon Studies kids, and so on.
The richest vein of the Chicago alternative comics scene comes pretty directly from the weirdo/underground comics of the 1960s, and the Imagists & the Hairy Who; Jim Nutt has guided the hand of a generation of comic artists in the city. It’s not the only kind of work being made, of course, but I have noticed that the punk/underground comics legacy seems to lead to a pretty broad mistrust of slickness and digital illustration in Chicago comics. I don’t think I have a particularly Chicago-comics-heritage style in my work, but I think I was able to find my footing as quickly as I did here from a similar tongue-in-cheek distrust of institutions, a kindred feeling of aggressive outsiderness.
The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I (2012)
Carol Swain’s new graphic novel Gast (Fantagraphics, 2014)
After finishing Carol Swain’s Gast a few days ago, I found myself returning to Thierry Groensteen’s discussion of densité from Chapter 3 of Bande dessinée et narration (see pages 44 and 45 of the original French edition and page 44 of Comics and Narration, Ann Miller’s English translation). Gast, like Elisha Lim’s 100 Crushes (which I hope to write about soon), is a comic I’ve been enthusiastically recommending to friends. Swain tells the story of a young girl name Helen who, with the help of two dogs, a sheep, and a few birds, searches for clues about her neighbor Emrys and his sudden death.
I want to say very little about Helen and the small Welsh village where she and her family live. The mystery of Emrys’s life and death should reveal itself to the reader in the same slow, deliberate fashion that Helen comes to understand it. I’ll focus my attention instead on some of Swain’s page designs so as not to give away too much of the story. In Gast, the “density” of Swain’s compositions suggest the distance between Helen and Emyrs, a character who haunts the narrative. Like the protagonist of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Helen has the impossible task of piecing together the fragments left behind by a man reluctant to tell his story. Swain conveys Helen’s joy and confusion in a series of regular, nine-panel grids. These repetitions convey the density, I think, of Helen’s curiosity and of Emrys’s loneliness. At times, in fact, it is not clear where one begins and the other ends—an important point to consider, especially for the reader, who, like Helen, is left to decide why Emrys took his own life.
In order to apply Groensteen’s idea of densité to Gast I am thinking phenomenologically. Doing so opens up a number of theoretical possibilities, especially if the densité Groensteen describes can be read as synonymous, for example, with the density philosopher George Yancy examines in his recent book Look, a White! First, let me quote from Ann Miller’s English translation of Bande dessinée et narration before I consider density in relation to Yancy’s discussion of race: “A further consideration for the critical appreciation of page layout needs to be introduced,” Groensteen explains.
This is density, alluded to above. By this I mean the variability in the number of panels that make up the page. It is obvious that a page composed of five panels will appear less dense (as potential reading matter) than a page that has three times as many. (Groensteen 44)
What role does density serve, then, for both the artist and for the reader? Later in the chapter, Groensteen argues that, in Chris Ware’s comics, these dense and complex page designs have an expressive purpose: “Symmetry, in particular,” Groensteen argues, “is used by Ware to heighten the legibility of the binary oppositions that structure the spatio-temporal development of the story, such as interior/exterior, past/present, or day/night. But when two large images mirror each other on facing pages,” Groensteen adds, “this can also signify other oppositions or correspondences” (49-50). The “binary oppositions” Groensteen discusses here are also present in Gast: male/female, old/young, urban/rural, animal/human. The use of words and pictures to convey meaning in comics also implies the phenomenological density of consciousness itself: the sudden awareness of the self in relation to the other.
In Chapter 1 of Look, a White!, Yancy argues that what he describes as “the lived density of race” (17) demands new forms of expression. Although he is writing here about philosophy, I am interested in how we might apply his ideas to the comics we create, read, and study:
To communicate an experience that is difficult to express, the very medium itself may need to change. On this score, perhaps philosophers need to write poetry or make films. When it comes to a deeper, thicker philosophical engagement with issues of race, the medium has to change to something dynamically expressive, something that forces the reader/listener to feel what is being communicated, to empathize with greater ability, to imagine with greater fullness and power. (Yancy 30)
Notice that in his second sentence Yancy refers to poetry and film, two forms with close ties to comics (see, for example, Hillary Chute’s recent essay from Poetry Magazine). How might a page filled with words and pictures, for example, enable “the reader/listener to feel” with greater intensity? For Yancy, of course, this affective experience must accompany or inspire real change. Feeling something is one thing. Acting on a feeling of identification requires radical selflessness and love.
Page 127 of Gast
For Helen, the gradual shift from theory—her curiosity about Emrys’s life and death—to praxis takes shape on page 127, where she finds one of her neighbor’s books. In the first panel, we see a copy of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. The book is fragile. In the second panel, she tears the illustrated cover from its binding. “This book belongs to Emrys Bowen,” reads a note written on the back of the cover. In the fourth panel, she tucks that slip of paper beneath her arm, and holds the book in her hand in panel #5. She runs her fingers across the pages. Bits of paper fall like leaves.
Like Gatsby’s worn edition of Hopalong Cassidy in the final pages of Fitzgerald’s novel, Emrys’s copy of Riders of the Purple Sage reveals, perhaps, the dream image he cherished of himself. But, then again, no—as Helen tosses the book aside in the next panel, she implies that Emrys refused to play the role of the rugged cowboy. She conceals the torn cover in her bag.
Swain implies that, as readers, we would be wise to be suspicious of allusions. This sudden reference to another text cannot convey the full complexity of Emrys’s consciousness. As I read Gast, I thought of another writer who spent his career recording the silences of rural spaces. Most of the late John McGahern’s novels are set in Country Leitrim in northwest Ireland, not far from Yeats’s home of Sligo. In the introduction to his 1974 novel The Leavetaking, McGahern, who revised the novel in 1984, discusses the challenges of writing both self and other. “The Leavetaking was written as a love story,” McGahern explains,
its two parts deliberately different in style. It was an attempt to reflect the purity of feeling with which all the remembered “I” comes to us, the banal and the precious alike; and yet how that more than “I”—the beloved, the “otherest,” the most trusted moments of that life—stumbles continually away from us as poor reportage, and to see if these disparates could in any way be made true to one another. (McGahern 5)
Like Yancy, McGahern suggests other terms we might use to describe the density of experience expressed on page 127 of Gast: where do the “I” and “the ‘otherest’” meet?
As I study the last three panels on page 127, I find myself wishing I could retrieve Emrys’s copy of Riders of the Purple Sage. What if we missed something? What if the book contains the key to understanding Emrys? But the grid prevents me from turning back. I must follow Helen as she walks to Emrys’s house, just as I must follow McGahern’s narrator as he moves from rural Ireland to Dublin to London and back again (as I try to disentangle the real from the imagined in McGahern’s autobiographical fiction, most of which takes place in the same region of Ireland where my paternal grandmother, Mary Anne Bohan, was born in 1910).
Both McGahern and Swain tell their stories with clarity and compassion. Swain’s use of the grid, I think, is a reminder of the inevitable barriers between the subject and the object being observed. These barriers, like the borders that separate one panel from the next, suggest that densité is both an aesthetic choice and a phenomenological imperative: the storyteller and the reader must take into account what McGahern calls “the banal and the precious alike” in order to make less terrifying the space between the “I” and “the ‘otherest.'”
Can we read Groensteen’s densité, then, as a synonym for the density that Yancy describes? Can you think of other page designs that seek to express the phenomenology of the self? Do comics provide a means of eliminating the distance between the two?
Groensteen, Thierry. Bande dessinée et narration: Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.
McGahern, John. The Leavetaking. London: Faber and Faber, 1984. Print.
Swain, Carol. Gast. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2014. Print.
Yancy, George. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. Print.
This post will be part of the Comics and Narration roundtable at Pencil, Panel, Page. Thanks to Qiana and Adrielle for inviting me! Thanks also to my dad’s cousin Oliver Gilhooley of Mohill, Co. Leitrim, for taking us to the John McGahern Library at Lough Rynn Castle in the summer of 2012. Oliver, a great storyteller himself, also gave us a suggested reading list of McGahern’s fiction.
The McGahern Library at Lough Rynn. Photo courtesy of Allison Felus.
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, 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.
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.”
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.
Notes on Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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.