Yesterday I gave one of the keynote addresses at our annual Faculty Retreat at Harper College. This year, the Retreat Committee decided to devote the day to the topic of visual literacy, and they were kind enough to ask me to give a talk and to facilitate some of the afternoon discussion sessions. I’ve included Part 1 of my lecture here in honor of my blog’s one-year anniversary, and in honor of my grandmother’s 101st birthday–March 1, 1913. Some of Part 1 is based on a section of Brass City, my zine from last summer.
In Part 2 of the talk, I offered a short history of American comics, and in Part 3 I discussed John Porcellino’s “Comix Dream” from King-Cat Comics and Stories No. 73. John provided copies of that issue for all of my colleagues. I took great pleasure in watching everyone read his work. At the end of the lecture, I discussed the issue of teaching comics to visually impaired students. I shared my experience of working with a blind student two years ago in the course on comic books and literature that Dr. Rich Johnson and I taught at Harper. I’ll include those sections of my talk here on the blog over the next two weeks.
My presentation went well yesterday despite a technical glitch. When I got to the photograph of my grandmother included in the Power Point, the laptop crashed. She stared back at us from the white screen. After several minutes, one of my colleagues rebooted the machine. My grandmother always had a sense of humor and mischief. I hope she enjoyed the lecture.
I’ve also included a copy of the lesson that accompanied my speech. After the morning session, many of the other Harper faculty shared with me their memories of buying comic at the local drugstore or newsstand. They also drew some wonderful comic strips.
Here is Part 1 of my lecture. I hope it doesn’t cause your computer to crash as you read it.
“A Procession of Walking Meditators”: Comic Books and Visual Literacy (Part 1; Presented at the Harper College Faculty Retreat, February 28, 2014, at Chandler’s in Schaumburg, IL)
American comic books are notable for their obsession with nostalgia, especially for lost worlds, missing parents, vanished cities, and broken families. For example, Superman is an orphan from Krypton; Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker lives with regret over the loss of his Uncle Ben. Bruce Wayne, of course, vows to avenge his murdered parents and transforms himself into Batman. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the celebrated graphic novel about his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz, is ultimately a story about the tragic loss of Spiegelman’s mother and brother.
We’ll talk about a definition of comics a little later. First, I’d like to read a quotation that has shaped my thinking about visual literacy and about comics. Marianne Hirsch has written extensively on family photography, and representations of the Holocaust. In the first chapter of her recent book The Generation of Postmemory, she analyzes Art Spiegelman’s comics and W.G. Sebald’s novels. Sebald’s novels and essays are filled with photographs that are an essential and distinctive element of his narrative practice. For Hirsch, “surviving images from the past” including family photographs “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).
So, according to Hirsch and her studies of comics and family photography, visual literacy requires that we translate from one language to another—from pictures to words and words to pictures.
Before we talk more about comics, let’s spend a few minutes, then, thinking about what Hirsch calls these “surviving images from the past” and the role they play in visual literacy. Most superheroes have an origin story. What is your secret origin as a student and as an educator?
I’d like to begin by asking you to remember your first day of school.
When I say the first day, I mean the very first day when, as a child, you entered a classroom. I’m not interested, however, at least at the moment, in your narrative of that day. Rather, I’d like you to recall an image from those first few moments as you made the transition from home to school. What do you remember?
As I considered Hirsch’s definition of visual literacy as an act of translation, I performed this memory experiment at home. When I think about my first day of kindergarten in the fall of 1978 (my mom didn’t want me to go to nursery school, and my sister was later a nursery school drop out), I remember the gunmetal blue color of our front porch. I lived in Oakville, Connecticut from 1973 until just before my senior year of high school in the summer of 1990, when my family moved to the house they’ve now lived in for almost 25 years. My mother, father, my sister, my grandmother, and I lived across the street from my great grandmother, who was born in Lithuania on April 8, 1890. My great aunt and uncle lived with her, too. In the summer, I sat on the porch with the grandmother. She read romance novels and I read comic books.
Sitting in a rocking chair painted the same gunmetal blue color as the porch itself, my grandmother would often shout across the street to my Aunt Annie, who answered in English or in Lithuanian. (I don’t remember much Lithuanian, by the way, other than a nursery rhyme, a couple of insults, and a few dirty words.) That porch was a gathering place just as significant as our kitchen or our living room. In fact, it was probably more significant, because, for my grandmother, it was stage, a place to see and to be seen. In summer, she told stories, or listened to my Aunt tell stories, or called out, “Take a picture!” to passing motorists who made the mistake of staring too long. So when it was time for me to step on the bus for the first time, I was afraid, startled, a little confused. Would I be allowed to come back home? I was about to cross a border, a boundary from here to there. I had no idea what I would discover on the other side of that border. I began to suspect, I think, that I would never return, not completely.
For me, school and comics and family are inextricably linked. So when I ask myself the question I just asked you—think of and share with me an image of the first day of school—I immediately think of that blue porch. Although I have not been able to find a photograph of my first day of school, I have several other photographs of the house on Bamford Avenue. I’d like to share four of those with you now.
Taken together, despite the huge gaps of time and space between each one, I read these photographs as a four-panel comic strip:
Here is the first:
This is a photograph of Anthony Budris, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family. Like my great-grandmother, he was born in Lithuania in the late 19th century and immigrated to the United States a century ago. He is sitting on the front stoop of the house on Bamford Avenue, sometime in the early 1940s. The photograph does not have a date, but, as my sister Alison pointed out to me, we know this must be the early 1940s because of Service Flag in the window just behind him. The sign with the star reminded visitors that this house included family members now serving in the war effort overseas.
In the second photograph, my grandmother, Patricia Budris Stango, poses for the camera just a few steps down from where my great grandfather sits in the first image:
Was this photograph taken on the same day? She cradles two dogs. Behind her you can see a blue spruce tree. It’s much smaller here that it was in the 1970s and in the 1980s, when it was so tall it shaded my room on the second floor of the house. Both trees are gone, but the porch itself, now painted red by the home’s current owner, is still there.
In the third panel my great-grandmother, who died just short of her 91st birthday in March of 1981, when I was 7 years old, holds two kittens. It is August of 1949. One of the cats is black. The other is an orange tabby. You’ll begin to notice a pattern now. Each photo is taken from roughly the same angle. In all four, the photo was taken on a bright, clear day:
Twenty-five years later, I am wearing a blue shirt. I am sitting with my Aunt Annie’s dog Spooky. I am two or three years old:
I am not far from where my great grandfather sat in the early 1940s, nor am I far from my grandmother and her two dogs or my great grandmother and the kittens. All that separates us is time. As I place these four images together, and as I tell you these stories, I have what cartoonist Will Eisner called sequential art, storytelling with words and pictures—comic strips, comic books, graphic novels. I have taken these four family photographs and, through research, imagination, and analysis, I have begun to write a narrative. But what story am I telling?
According to Susan Sontag, whose work on photography has had an enormous impact on the research of other scholars writing on comics including Marianne Hirsch and Hillary Chute, this is the story of a family as only a series of photographs bound together in an album can tell it. A family album, even a digital one, might be read as a kind of novel. Sontag explains,
Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family—and, often, is all that remains of it. (Sontag 8-9)
The front stoop as a stage, a place where we could see and be seen, a place to perform for the camera: first my great grandfather, smoking his pipe, watching his grandson, whose face you will see if you look carefully behind the potted white viburnum. Then my grandmother, as sly and stoic as she was when I knew her, years later.
Of the four of us starring in these photographs—or, I should say, of the ten of us, including my cousin, the three dogs, and the two kittens—of the ten of us who sat on this stoop and posed for these pictures, I am the only one alive to tell this story, to look for what’s missing in the spaces between the images. As Sontag reminds us, these four photographs, now archived on my computer, are “all that remains” of these moments in time, and of this family, my family. I wonder, as I shape this narrative, if we somehow recognize each other, sense a presence, as we sit patiently—or, in my case, not so patiently—and wait for our pictures to be taken.
Anyway, when I try to remember my first day of school, I see that front stoop, and when I recall that front stoop, I think of family photographs and comic books.
Several of the most influential comics and graphic novels of the last twenty years—books that you might use in your classrooms—are also about time, and family, and memory, and nostalgia. Cartooning—storytelling with words and pictures—is, I think, the art of nostalgia, one that requires a very special form of visual literacy. According to Svetlana Boym,
Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. (Boym xiii)
Comic books test our memories and our visual acuity. Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, for example, tells the story of his parents Vladek and Anja, who survived Auschwitz. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a memoir about the mysteries of her father and of her childhood. Raymond Briggs’s Ethel and Ernest is a history of his parents, their love affair, their struggles in London during the Blitz, their old age and their passing. Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix is a journey inside, an adventure in consciousness, a transgender odyssey. Fake’s hero, on a desperate search for his lost lover and for his memory, blurs the distinction between past and present, male and female, comics and fine art. Lastly, Congressman John Lewis’s March, created in collaboration with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, and published last year by Top Shelf, is a record of his youth, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each one of these narratives, all of which I recommend to you and to your students, is about nostalgia—not just the desire to recover the past, but to understand how memories of what is now distant from us have shaped our present.
Here is the lesson I designed to follow my lecture. Feel free to use this in one of your classes. If you do, let me know how it goes.
In the space provided, write about an image you remember from your first day of school. When I say your first day, I mean the very first day—the moment you left home to go to school. Don’t tell a story. Describe an image that stays with you from that first day:
Now, draw the image you wrote about in Part 1. Do not worry about the technical perfection of your drawing. Drawing is another form of writing or storytelling:
Now you’ll combine the words and the pictures from the front of this sheet of paper into a narrative of your memory of your first day of school. Use the Peanuts strip as a template. Limit yourself to four panels only. As Scott McCloud suggests, also consider what happens in the blank spaces between the panels. Draw your four panels in the space provided below:
Read a colleague’s comic strip. Then, ask your colleague the following questions:
1. In writing about your memory, and then in drawing it, did you notice any discrepancies? What happened when you combined the words and the pictures in your comic strip?
2. What action is taking place between the panels (to borrow an idea from Scott McCloud)? What has been left out in the blank spaces between the panels?
3. How much of what you remember about that first day of school has been shaped by your subsequent experiences as a student and as a teacher? What is the relationship between past and present in your comic strip? Who were you then, and who are you now?
Part 5: Recommended Readings
If you like the following books, remember that we have many, many more in the Harper College Library. These are a few places to start:
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner Books, 2007. Like Art Spiegelman, Bechdel looks for clues about her father’s mysterious past. How has that past shaped her?
Jay Hosler, Clan Apis. Active Synapse, 2000. The life and adventures of a honey bee named Nyuki, written and drawn by a Professor of Biology from Juniata College.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book 1. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2013. Representative John Lewis’s autobiography and his memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. A new classic.
Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador: 1977. Print.
In the Afterword to Samuel R. Delany and Mia Wolff’s graphic novel Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, which was reissued in 2013 by Fantagraphics, Wolff describes the skepticism she encountered when she began working on the collaboration: “At one point I showed Bread & Wine (without the pictures) to my then-editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He said he didn’t understand the point of making it into a comic” (47). In her conversations with Delany, she explained that, for her, the collaboration “was like making a movie of a Henry James novel—putting in what the text left out, either because words couldn’t do it or because the tenor of the writing precluded it” (47). At the University of Chicago on Friday, January 31, 2014, Delany briefly discussed Bread & Wine during the question and answer session that followed a lecture on his practice as a writer and as a teacher.
The 2013 Fantagraphics edition of Bread & Wine.
The lecture was part of Delany’s role as Critical Inquiry’s Visiting Scholar for Winter 2014. As the speaker who introduced Delany reminded us, the University of Chicago-based journal Critical Inquiry has invited scholars and theorists including Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, and Slavoj Žižek to serve as Distinguished Visiting Professor. In January, Delany taught a course titled “The Mirror and the Maze: Scenes and Sentences in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Moore/Campbell’s From Hell.” The UChicago Arts page describes Delany’s talk, the second of two lectures free and open to the public, as his “reflections on the complexities of writing, particularly as they relate to” his thoughts on Flaubert’s novel and Moore and Campbell’s graphic novel. I’d seen Mr. Delany earlier in the week in attendance at Art Spiegelman’s performance of WORDLESS! at the University Of Chicago’s Logan Center. I wondered how Delany might connect Flaubert’s work with Alan Moore, but his public lecture was far more intimate, illuminating, and moving than its title might suggest.
Delany is no stranger to comics. In addition to his collaboration with Mia Wolff, he has written scripts for DC’s Wonder Woman (see issue No. 202, dated September-October 1972, and No. 203, dated November-December 1972), which featured appearances by Fritz Leiber’s sword-and-sorcery characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. He also collaborated with Howard Chaykin on the science fiction graphic novel Empire (1978). His essay on Scott McCloud and on comics as an object of academic study, “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism,” first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction in the mid-1990s, appears in his collection Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (Wesleyan UP, 2000). This essay continues to play a profound role in comics scholarship, notably in Qiana Whitted’s work. Her new essay “ ‘And the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics’: Comics, Visual Metonymy, and the Spectacle of Blackness,” published this winter in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, begins to lay the framework for a theory of comics scholarship informed by African American literary theory. In a 2013 interview included in the Fantagraphics edition of Bread & Wine, Delany admits, “The fact is, writing comics isn’t very hard. But there are always people who do it better than others, and there are people who do it worse” (54).
In his lecture, Delany did not mention Gustave Flaubert, or Alan Moore, or Eddie Campbell. He did not, for example, ask us to consider Moore’s collaboration with Campbell despite the fact that, in the 2013 Bread & Wine interview, he describes the vital working relationship between a comic book writer and a cartoonist. After describing some of the basics of writing comic book scripts, Delany concludes, “Finally, you have to know your artist—I’ve known commercial comic book artists who can do wonderfully realistic work who, nevertheless, cannot draw poor people in old clothes or rags who look in any way believable to save themselves” (54). Although Delany did not address any of these issues in his talk, he need not have, because comics, like prose writing, is another means of human expression—another series of marks, the art and discipline of storytelling. At the beginning of the lecture, Delany asked us to imagine him sitting at his desk in New York City as he prepared the notes for his talk. He then asked us to think of him not as a scholar—he described himself a few times as “only provisionally” as a scholar or academic—but as a writer, an artist. Rather than offering us close readings of Flaubert or Alan Moore, he invited us to lean in, to listen closer, to consider—to borrow a word he and one of the audience members discussed during the question and answer session—“contingencies,” alternatives. Most of all, he talked about compassion, community, and love.
Delany spoke about his memory of an elegant dinner he once shared in Paris with his traveling companions and with a group of Senegalese expatriates. Almost fifty years later, Delany said, he could still remember the white tablecloth “billowing like a sail” as their host, a man who claimed he was an African prince, opened his modest apartment to them. Later in the evening, Delany said, one of his friends, startled, asked, They were gay? Delany reminded us that this trip to Paris took place a few years before Stonewall.
During the question and answer session, after Delany described his writing as a means of thinking, a member of the audience praised him for his candor. How had he developed such honesty in his writing, notably in autobiographical works like Bread & Wine and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue? This candor, Delany explained, has nothing to do, at least directly, with his science fiction. Rather, it has everything to do, he said, with AIDS. He set out, he explained, to dismantle the “murder machine,” the shame and silence that obscures any discourse having to do with sexuality in all its complex forms. Another audience member asked, Do you believe that you now have the freedom to write with fewer codes, fewer silences? Can you be more open in your fiction, too, than you might have been early in your career, especially regarding homosexuality? There are still codes, Delany answered, just different ones. Writing, he argued, is never entirely free of those codes, those messages waiting to be deciphered by the community for whom they are intended. But silences? As Delany made clear, he has no time now (if he ever did) for any silences, omissions, obfuscations.
I mentioned earlier that Delany’s talk was mostly about love. In that way, then, it was about comics. Consider, for example, Ben Saunders’s Do the Gods Wear Capes? Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), his elegant mediation on comic books, faith, and the mystery of the spirit. In the introduction to his book, Saunders admits that “what might turn out to be the biggest surprise for those readers who think of the superhero genre as predominantly about the pleasures of violent fantasy (in the unlikely event that any such readers have picked up this book), the real subject of all these essays turns out to be love” (Saunders 14). While Delany’s Wonder Woman stories, perhaps, are more a homage to Fritz Leiber, Bread & Wine—like Raymond Briggs’s Ethel & Ernest (1998) and Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix—is one of the most profound meditations in comics form on the nature of love.
Briggs begins the story of his parents with a moment Delany would no doubt appreciate, a scene of urban “contact” in which Ethel, at work as a domestic, waves to Ernest from a window. He speeds past on his bicycle and answers her by tipping his brown cap:
In Issue 4 of Gaylord Phoenix, the lost lover returns and promises our hero, “I can help you”:
During their first night together, Delany and his partner Dennis Rickett watch a public television documentary “on the formation of the Universe with spiraling, flaring images of planets, comets, and stars.” Mia Wolff draws the two men in bed. Constellations surround them as Delany invites Dennis to join him in Amherst, Massachusetts:
Each of these examples suggests that love is recognition, not Dante’s La Vita Nuova (or even Depeche Mode’s “New Life”) but a life already lived or a spirit already familiar. The examples from Briggs, Fake, and Delany tell the story of lovers who already know each other even if, like Ethel and Ernest, they have never met. Gaylord Phoenix already possesses what he needs: his memories are not entirely lost because, as the lover reminds him a few pages later, “ALL MEMORIE / WILL RETURN.” In these intimate moments, spinning galaxies, tails of comets, and distant, blazing stars all begin to look like the streets of Amherst and the curve of the Connecticut River as it makes its way through the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.
Or, as Dennis Rickett says after he and Delany and Delany’s daughter Iva and their friend John watch another documentary, this time about penguins, “That was almost as good as the creation of the universe…” In these closing pages of Bread & Wine, Dennis could just as well be talking about love itself.
The program from WORDLESS! at the University of Chicago, Saturday, January 25, 2014.
He studied MAD, he said, the way some people study the Talmud. That’s Art Spiegelman, early in his his lecture/slide-show/performance piece WORDLESS!, a collaboration with composer Phillip Johnston. Spiegelman and Johnston’s sextext brought WORDLESS!, first commissioned by the Sydney Opera House, to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 3 pm and again at 8 pm. We saw the 3 pm show.
Most of the performance was given over to a series of images from woodcut novelists including Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, both of whom, Spiegelman pointed out, have been “grandfathered” into the history of the graphic novel. Ward’s Gods’ Man, first published in 1929, was a major influence on Spiegelman and on his fellow New Yorker and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner.
With a compelling score as accompaniment, Spiegelman and Johnston transformed Gods’ Man into a series of moving pictures—not a film, not a work of animation, but pictures, one after the other, presented to us in what Hillary Chute, in her program notes, describes as “a performance that mixes media in real time in order to question what it is to look, to read, and to listen.” After other examples of wordless, early-to-mid-twentieth century narratives, including narratives from A.B. Frost, H.M. Bateman, Otto Nückel, Milt Gross, Si Lewen, and Wilhelm Busch, Spiegelman concluded the performance with his own “Shaping Thought!”, a work that was also silent, except, of course, for the music, the speech balloons filled with geometrical shapes, and the audience’s laughter and delight. In the opening sentence of her notes, Chute writes, “Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston call their collaborative live performance WORDLESS! ‘intellectual vaudeville.’” It was also a theater of memory, at least for the first half, as Spiegelman recalled the cheap, scandalous, often coverless comics his father brought home for him in the 1950s.
As moving as the music and the images were in the second half of the performance, I was most captivated by Spiegelman’s memories of the EC Comics of his childhood. Seeing Vladek and Anja Spiegelman again in this new narrative context, outside the confines of Maus, was tremendously moving. It was like seeing old friends, or opening an old but secret box of photographs. There are new stories here: Art and his mom at the grocery store, Art begging her to buy him a paperback MAD collection, Vladek–like one of the parents in a Charlie Brown cartoon–standing over his son and telling him, Well, I can get you cheaper comics. Don’t waste your allowance. You’ll see. And Vladek comes home with all the comics Fredric Wertham warned America about in Seduction of the Innocent.
Spiegelman illustrates each of these moments with panels drawn in a colorful, relaxed, playful style. Slowly, as an audience, we understand—we are seeing Art’s childhood, but this time, not in black and white, but in color, and Spiegelman himself is telling us the story, reading his father’s word balloons in the same voice we hear in Maus. But, again, these memories, paired with EC covers by artists including Johnny Craig and Basil Wolverton, are in color. There are no masks here, no mice, no cats, no dogs, no frogs, no pigs. Just a kid, his mom and dad, and some comics, a Ballantine paperback in a spinner rack in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. I’d like more of those stories.
My copy of The MAD Reader–not the one Spiegelman would have read as a kid, but the 24th printing from March, 1970.
But how did this autobiographical narrative make its way to the woodcut novels promised in the program booklet? Wordless comics, and visual narratives that feature only one image on each page, Thierry Groensteen argues in his new book Comics and Narration (in French, Bande dessinée et narration: Système de la bande dessinée 2, now available in a wonderful English translation by Ann Miller), make certain demands on our memories. It’s no surprise, then, that Spiegelman should begin his lecture by offering us stories–words and pictures–from his past. In a discussion of the art of Masereel, Ward, and Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, Groensteen writes,
In works of this type, there are never more than two images visible to the reader at any one time, split across two pages—one on the left-hand and on one the right-hand page (although sometimes only the latter is used). The space within which iconic solidarity comes into play is less that of the page—a flat surface immediately accessible at a glance—than that of the book, a foliated space that must be discovered progressively. The dialogue among the images depends on the persistence of the memory of pages already turned. (Groensteen 35)
Here Groensteen describes how the single-page images of, for example, Masereel’s Passionate Journey (from 1919, titled Mein Studenbuch in German) provide readers an escape from the typical grid of the comic book page. But he also suggests that a wordless novel like Passionate Journey or Gods’ Man asks us, above all, to remember an image now one or two or three or more pages in the past. These narratives, then, do not offer us the comfort of a page of panels that, for example, allows us to see the past, present, and future simultaneously. A woodcut novel reminds us instead about our own passage through time and space as we leave a trail of images in our wake.
My 1988 Penguin Books edition of Passionate Journey.
At one moment, late in Saturday’s 3 pm performance, Spiegelman experienced some technical difficulties with his computer, which refused to show one of the stills from his presentation. We saw a blank screen, a menu on the left-hand side. Spiegelman walked offstage, perhaps to fix the problem, but his mic was still working. “I don’t know what happened,” we heard him say (at least, that’s what I recall him saying); “I didn’t even touch it.” It was a human moment that added a touch of chaos to the afternoon. We would share this too, I thought, as an audience–we’ll also remember the glitch. Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany was there, too, just a few rows from the front of the stage (Delany is visiting professor this term at the University of Chicago).
Then Spiegelman was back and he continued the lecture. It was a mistake. A brief fuck-up. That’s okay. It’s a memory now, too, and maybe as an audience we all needed that moment, that mistake, to collect ourselves, to laugh, to wait patiently for the show to start again. And, anyway, the musicians didn’t stop playing, and Spiegelman didn’t stop speaking, even if the computer gave up, just for a few seconds.
Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.
A writer I interviewed two weeks ago for my Billy Batson project told me a long, sad story about science fiction writer Alfred Bester. A couple of days later I visited William Fiedler at the Gallery Bookstore, one of the last science fiction/pulp bookstores here in Chicago. The Gallery is easy to find. Just take the Red or the Brown line to Belmont and, once you’re off the train, walk to the Lake. You’ll see it, on your right.
Fiedler had two copies of Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, which won the Hugo. I bought the cheaper of the two, a $35 copy of the 2nd printing–without the dust jacket (I would have paid closer to $500 for the one with the jacket). First serialized by H.L. Gold in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952 and published by Chicago-based Shasta a year later, the novel is a futuristic murder mystery about a high-powered, vengeful gambler and the telepathic cop who’s out to get him. The story begins with the following paragraph, Bester’s space-age revision, I think, of the Book of Ecclesiastes:
In the endless universe there is nothing new, nothing different. What may appear exceptional to the minute mind of man may be inevitable to the infinite Eye of God. This strange second in life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, encounter…all may be reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already.
My writing students–and sometimes my colleagues–will ask, “Is this original? How do I express my own thoughts? How will I know?” But this passage, like its ancient Biblical equivalent, seems to suggest that, all long, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. But, then again, “all may be reproduced”–may be, but not with any certainty.
Also, much later in the book, as Lincoln Powell, the psychic cop, pursues Ben Reich, the gambler, across an asteroid made to resemble a jungle resort, Bester writes, “The hippos hit the barrier first in a blind, blundering rush.” A “herd of hippos,” that is, as we learn just one paragraph earlier, along with “swambats and the crocodiles” and, later, “the wapiti, the zebra, the gnu…heavy, pounding herds.”
Lincoln Powell, it turns out, can also talk with space animals when he’s tracking a villain.
So, although you don’t need me to tell you so, read The Demolished Man, and then go back to the Gallery and read Charles Saunders, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber. Ecclesiastes, space hippos, telepaths, elephants. It’s all there, including several pages of what looks like concrete poetry. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years.
The R. Crumb cover for Harvey Pekar’s More American Splendor (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1987)
At the close of her essay “Secret Labor,” published in Poetry magazine last summer, Hillary Chute provides several examples of the intersections between comics and poetry. She includes, for example, Art Spiegelman’s illustrated version of Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, Eric Drooker’s work with Allen Ginsberg, and Monica Youn’s Ignatz. Regarding Youn’s book of poems, Chute writes, “I, for one, want to see more of that: poetry about comics.” In the months since Chute published her essay, we’ve seen responses from Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic and, more indirectly, from Michael Chaney at Dartmouth, whose next Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference will address, in part, these connections between poetic practice and the world of comics and comic art. One of the Calls for Papers for the 2014 Dartmouth Conference asks, “Can Comics Be Poetry?”
For Chicago poet Tony Trigilio, whose new collection, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, has just been published by BlazeVOX Books, comics and poetry are narrative forms that call attention to space and to absence. In a 2004 interview, The Spoon River Poetry Review asked Trigilio about the strong narrative pulse of his work. Noting the “very story-oriented, narrative, representational, and almost, at times, fictive” nature of his poetry, the Spoon River editor asked, “How is it that you’ve come to write this way? What influences led you here?” Early in his response, Trigilio describes an inspiration that might have come as a surprise to the journal’s readers:
My narrative influences don’t come exclusively from poetry. 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.
As I read this interview, I began to think of these “gaps in ‘sense’” and how they might shape a reading of one of Trigilio’s poems, “Soldier, 1942,” from his 2006 collection The Lama’s English Lessons, and Pekar’s “Miracle Rabbis, a Doctor Gesundheit Story,” drawn by Robert Crumb and included in the 1987 collection More American Splendor. Just as “Soldier, 1942” might be read as a comic—that is, as a series of words and pictures—“Miracle Rabbis” might be read as a poem. In reading the two together, I’d like to extend the potentially rich dialogue between comics and poetry Chute began in her essay. But in order to talk about the Trigilio’s poem and Pekar’s comic, I’ll have to begin with a brief digression about history and photography. “Soldier, 1942,” after all, is partly an ekphrastic poem, as the speaker describes a World War II photograph of his father.
The link between comics and photography, of course, is a complex subject, one Marianne Hirsch began exploring in her discussion of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in her influential 1997 study Family Frames. More recently, Michael A. Johnson at Pencil, Panel, Page asked the question, “Why do artists use photographs in drawn comics?” Hirsch offers a few possible answers to this question when, as she studies Spiegelman’s inclusion of photographs of his mother, father, and brother in Maus, she writes, “In moving us from documentary photographs—perhaps the most referential representational medium—to cartoon drawings of mice and cats, Spiegelman lays bare the levels of mediation that underlie all visual representational forms” (Hirsch 25).
While Spiegelman includes photographs in his text—as Hirsch points out, most notably and startlingly the image of his mother in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”—Trigilio’s speaker describes a photograph of his father. The photograph, itself, however, functions like a panel from a comic book, complete with commentary written like a text box on the back of the image. In a “boot camp headshot” the speaker’s father sent home at the start of the war, the young solder has written a note to his mother and father:
Back of the photo, he writes:
“Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.”
Me, too, black-and-white patina, splinters,
I study his image as it crumbles
in my hands, like damp wood flaking from
the backyard tool shed we tore down
when I was 12.
This photograph, like a poem, is filled with those “gaps in ‘sense,’” even for the subject himself: “Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.” A few lines later, the speaker offers a possible reading of the photograph, but, as outsiders, we cannot share in this moment of illumination. “I can almost see the roiled anatomy of Yalta,” the speaker begins,
foretold in the sediment of this photograph,
in my father’s eyes flush-brown
with maps and legends like he’s asking the camera
what he’ll see when he’s shipped away.
But I’ll return again to the note on the back of the photograph: “…this is supposed to be me.” The young soldier doesn’t recognize himself, not quite. Should we, as readers, or like his son, complete that thought? …this is supposed to be me. But that’s not me. That’s someone else.
And what does the son see in this photograph? A few lines earlier, he describes his father’s “humble bluster, ready to take down Japan, / our ontology: this is supposed to be me.” Spiegelman tells us the same story in Maus: this is supposed to be me. This is supposed to be my father. This is supposed to be my mother. This is what I know. This is what I’ve been told. This is what I think I remember. That’s a kind of comic book—not just words and pictures, but a series of possibilities, each one a little farther away from its point of origin. At some time and place in 1942, the snapshot tells us, the speaker’s father sat down for a photograph. Then, fifty or sixty years later, the poet transformed that image into a series of words—a translation, or those “levels of mediation” Hirsch describes in her chapter on Maus.
And “Miracle Rabbis”? Another series of mistakes, of stolen or missing identities. First, Doctor Gesundheit tells Harvey a joke. In the fifth panel of the first page, the doctor, having finished his story in the fourth panel, asks, “Haw haw you get it??” He looks eagerly at Harvey, who stands with a file in one hand. There is a shadow on the wall behind him. Like the doctor, we wait for Harvey’s reply, but, in the next panel, a patient interrupts the two men: “Ah beg y’pordon doctor, but are you the doctor that saved m’ lahf about a year ago?”
The first page of “Miracle Rabbis” by Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb from More American Splendor
On the next page, Doctor Gesundheit denies that he saved the man’s life. As he does so, Crumb adds a series of details to the image. While, on the first page, we inhabit the same abstract space as the Doctor and Harvey, we are now standing with the three men in the hallway of a hospital. In the first panel of the second page, we see a door, a window, another doorway, a table, a cup, a stack of towels:
The second and final page of “Miracle Rabbis”
The patient has reminded us and the Doctor and Harvey of our bodies, of our movement in space. But the patient, for all his effort, can’t find the doctor he’s looking for, unless Gesundheit and Harvey are joking with him. The fifth panel on this second page echoes the fifth panel on the first page: there is a pause; once again, we wait for a punch line. As the Doctor and Harvey stare at him, the patient walks away, and Crumb includes sketches of the ceiling, other doorways, windows, mail slots, door handles. And, in the final panel of the story, as a nurse enters the frame, Doctor Gesundheit tells another joke: “Zo, anyvay, here’s anuzzer story—” The two men walk the hallway together, and, as readers, we look ahead to the story on the next page.
The patient in Pekar’s story might have asked his differently: I know you. I think. This is supposed to be you. But those “gaps” are at work here, too, just as they are when we look at any photograph, or read any poem, or study the words and pictures on a comic book page.
A few days ago I asked Tony to remember his favorite comic books from childhood. What comics in the 1970s played a role in shaping his consciousness as a writer and as a poet?
His answer was simple and direct: Man-Bat. Specifically, the little-known, short-lived Man-Bat series DC Comics published in 1975 and early 1976.
Not Batman. Man-Bat.
The Jim Aparo cover for DC Comics’ Man-Bat No. 2 Feb.-Mar. 1976
Tony and I will talk a little more about the poetics of Man-Bat in my next post.
Meanwhile, happy new year!
My dad loves the following essay. It comes from his first-year college writing textbook, Writing Prose, edited by Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, both of whom were English professors at the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury campus. The essay itself is an excerpt from Frank Norris’s The Responsibilities of the Novelist.
These turn-of-the-century American literary manifestos make for interesting reading. I’m partial to Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols and William Dean Howells’ Criticism and Fiction. My dad spoke so often about this essay that I thought it would be required reading when I got to college. It wasn’t, but maybe it should have been. I’ll always think of it as the story of the spoon, but in their textbook Kane and Peters call it “Simplicity in Art.” As I transcribed it, I realized I’d forgotten about the example Norris provides in its conclusion, and then decided it would make a perfect blog post for the holidays.
“Simplicity in Art”
by Frank Norris
From Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters (Eds), Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes (Second Edition), 1964 (p. 36; excerpted from Norris’s The Responsibilities of the Novelist, 1903).
Once upon a time I had occasion to buy so uninteresting a thing as a silver soup-ladle. The salesman at the silversmith’s was obliging and for my inspection brought forth quite an array of ladles. But my purse was flaccid, anemic, and I must pick and choose with all the discrimination in the world. I wanted to make a brave showing with my gift–to get a great deal for my money. I went through a world of soup-ladles–ladles with gilded bowls, with embossed handles, with chased arabesques, but there were none to my taste. “Or perhaps,” said the salesman, “you would care to look at something like this,” and he brought out a ladle that was as plain and as unadorned as the unclouded sky–and about as beautiful. Of all the others this was the most to my liking. But the price! ah, that anemic purse; and I must put it from me! It was nearly double the cost of any of the rest. And when I asked why, the salesman said:
“You see, in this highly ornamental ware the flaws of the material don’t show, and you can cover up a blow-hole or the like by wreaths and beading. But this plain ware has got to be the very best. Every defect is apparent.”
And there, if you please, is a conclusive comment upon the whole business–a final basis of comparison of all things whether commercial or artistic; the bare dignity of the unadorned that may stand before the world all unashamed, panoplied rather than clothed in consciousness of perfection. We of this latter day, we painters and poets and writers–artists–must labour with all the wits of us, all the strength of us, and with all that we have of ingenuity and perseverance to attain simplicity. But it has not always been so–At the very earliest, men–forgotten, ordinary men–were born with an easy, unblurred vision that to-day we would hail as marvelous genius. Suppose, for instance, the New Testament was all unwritten and one of us were called upon to tell the world that Christ was born, to tell of how we had seen Him, that this was the Messiah. How the adjectives would marshall upon the page, how the exclamatory phrases would cry out, how we would elaborate and elaborate, and how our rhetoric would flare and brazen till–so we should imagine–the ear would ring and the very eye would be dazzled; and even then we would believe that our words were so few and feeble. It is beyond words, we should vociferate. So it would be. That is very true–words of ours. Can you not see how we should dramatize it? We would make a point of the transcendent stillness of the hour, of the deep blue of the Judean midnight, of the liplapping of Galilee, the murmur of Jordan, the peacefulness of sleeping Jerusalem. Then the stars, the descent of the angel, the shepherds–all the accessories. And our narrative would be as commensurate with the subject as the flippant smartness of a “bright” reporter in the Sistine chapel. We should be striving to cover up our innate incompetence, our impotence to do justice to the mighty theme by elaborateness of design and arabesque intricacy of rhetoric.
But on the other hand–listen:
“Then the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
I’d like to thank Tom Spurgeon for including me in this year’s Holiday Interview series at The Comics Reporter. I’ve been reading Tom’s work for years, but I finally got a chance to meet him last month at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State. He served as moderator for the Walt Kelly panel where Kerry Soper, Steve Thompson, and I got to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the cartoonist’s birth in 1913. The panel, like the Festival, was a lot of fun.
Here is a link: Comics Reporter Holiday Interview #04
I’m thrilled and honored to be part of this year’s interviews, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Also be sure to read the ones Tom posted earlier this week!
And since I talk so much about Mr. Tawny in this interview, I think I’ll include this panel 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).