“Remembrance, after all, is in the end nothing other than a quotation.”
–W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (180)
“It is possible to feel alive, heart beat to heart beat alive. this is what I believe. this is my truth. write.”
–Cindy Crabb, “i believe” from The Encyclopedia of Doris (19)
Two weeks ago I attended the Chicago Zine Fest at Columbia College. This was the first year I had a chance to attend the full exhibition on the second day of the Fest. I also enjoyed the opening Q&A hosted by Liz Mason on Friday, March 14, which included short readings and conversation with Tomas Moniz, Alex Wrekk, and Cindy Crabb. This opening session, titled “In It for the Long Haul: A Discussion on Longevity in Zines,” Mason joked, might instead be called “getting old” in the zine-making world. Following Mason’s questions, the audience had an opportunity to talk with Moniz, Wrekk, and Crabb about everything from the question of a zine canon—Is there one? Should there be? And, if there is, who and what would be in it?—to the connections between blogs (like the one you’re reading) and hand-made zines and minicomics.
Marnie Galloway did the poster and program artwork for this year’s Zine Fest.
What I found most fascinating about the Q&A was Crabb’s answer to a question about why she continues to write and self-publish her long-running zine Doris. Does she write in order to build community? Yes and no. Crabb suggested that in her most recent work she is most fascinated by the interior, by the imagination. In the introduction to the new issue of Doris, Crabb elaborates on the subject of the imagination and utopianism when she asks,
How do we imagine and build a world that we want to live in, despite all the messages coming at us that it is not worth the fight, even our imaginations are under attack by constant stimulation overload and media approved messages. Where can we find that moment of silence or connection or boredom that gives us the pathway to somewhere for our imaginations to go, where we can feel, smell, taste, see, hear, want, desire some true kind of new better world.
I wrote earlier that Crabb asks a series of questions, but, as you can see, although the sentences are phrased as questions, they end with periods. Crabb is not asking us where we find this “new better world”; rather, she assures us that it does exist, solid and real, at least here, on the page, if nowhere else. Maybe a “better world” would be one filled with Crabb’s miniature horses, which, smiling, she described several times over the course of the Q&A. That might be a place “worth the fight,” a landscape filled with dwarf goats and tiny horses. (I’d like to publicly thank my friend Brannon Costello for introducing me to the idea of the dwarf goat whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to live and to be happy and fantastic.)
1. Cindy Crabb’s Doris and W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country
Just a few days after Crabb’s reading and Q&A at Zine Fest I began reading Jo Catling’s translation of W.G. Sebald’s essay collection A Place in the Country, in which he honors a few of the writers who, he says, shaped his life and his career: “This unwavering affection for [Johann Peter] Hebel, [Gottfried] Keller, and [Robert] Walser was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late” (3). If I, like Sebald, were setting out on a long journey and had to select a few books for my trip, I would carry copies of Doris with me:
The new issue of Doris (#31)
When I first heard Cindy Crabb read “Samantha Dorsett” from Doris #28 at the 2011 Zine Fest, I felt suddenly weightless. I find it odd that I’m now describing such a broken-hearted essay as an ethereal, ghostly thing, but, at a point in my life where I sensed the possibility of collapse, Crabb’s writing, clear and precise, seemed to offer and invite hope. When I think of Cindy Crabb and her work, I imagine her in much the same way that Sebald imagines Robert Walser, as a figure always walking, always in motion: “I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see [Walser] standing somewhere a little apart,” Sebald writes, “the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings” (159).
For me, however, Crabb is like Virgil, that phantom who leads Dante underground. Crabb’s writing invites and compels us to walk with her, to explore what we might otherwise ignore or reject out of fear or sadness or frustration. On every page of Doris, Cindy Crabb writes and draws that “desire” for something other—something “better”—into the world. I can’t think of a better definition of a modern epic, one Virgil would find familiar and true.
2. Marnie Galloway’s Mare Cognitum
I came home from the Fest with a bag filled with other zines and minicomics, including a fantastic selection from Corinne Mucha, John Porcellino, Carrie Colpitts, Isabella Rotman, and Jake Austen (you can hear a few of Jake’s interviews with folks at the Zine fest here, including Lil’ Ratso’s conversation with Edie Fake; John Porcellino also has a report on Zine Fest on his blog).
I got the second issue of Edie Fake’s Lil’ Buddies Magazine, this one “entirely devoted,” as Edie writes in the introduction, “to the most ubiquitous species of Lil’ Buddy: the anthropomorphic tooth.” Like the first issue, “Number Tooth” includes photographs of found images of cartoon teeth from storefronts and advertisements: giant molars with eyes and arms and smiling mouths. If you haven’t been reading Lil’ Buddies, you should. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for those phantom little buddies who, like the ghost of Robert Walser, unexpectedly but delightfully cross your path. Take a picture of one, and Edie might use it for a future issue.
Two of my favorites minicomics from the Fest are Marnie Galloway’s Mare Cognitum and J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act. I’ve written about Galloway’s work before in a short review of the first book of In the Sound and Seas (Volume 2 should be out later this year). I picked up copies of two other Galloway minis, Medusa and Library, both of which I enjoyed. But I keep returning to Mare Cognitum, the 15-page story of NASA’s Ranger 7, a spacecraft that, as Galloway reminds us, for “the first time in human history,” provided us with “close images of the lunar surface.” Less than twenty minutes after it sent those images back to earth, Galloway adds, Ranger 7 “crashed on a large basaltic plain in a large crater, called Mare Cognitum, the sea that has become known.”
Like Galloway’s other comics, Mare Cognitum, I think, is a story about adventure and about myth. Ranger 7 is the hero of the book, the machine that ventures into space and, for a few minutes, sends back images of a desolate, alien landscape—one that is all the more strange because, like Freud’s definition of the uncanny, it is familiar to us. The moon, Ranger 7 tells us, is nothing more or less than a giant rock floating in space.
When I finished Mare Cognitum, I read it again, and I began to think of it as a story about storytelling itself, or about myth. The closer we get to what we want to know, or what we think we want to know, the closer we get to silence. In Galloway’s vision of the moon, there are no aliens, no life at all, just the slow drift of the probe and its camera, a whirring, mechanical Polyphemus whose one eye sees what we cannot see until its contact with the moon’s desolation blinds it.
But I also laughed when I read those closing pages, as the humming of the machine ceases and the camera, along with the rest of the probe, meets the surface of the moon. Like all good myths, Mare Cognitum is an example of speculative fiction—what happened? What’s up there? How did we come to know what we know about a thing we otherwise know nothing about?
Waiting for the Irving Park bus early on Sunday morning I saw the moon in an otherwise clear blue sky and I thought about Ranger 7 and its clumsy and sad but quietly heroic landing. I wonder if, in those final moments, it tried to send one last image back to earth or if, even now, it dreams of what it might have accomplished if its circuits had been turned into something other than a space probe, maybe a Ford Mustang or a Fender Champ or a transistor radio. Maybe when it dreams it hears The Beach Boys, who had a hit with “I Get Around” just a few weeks before Ranger 7 collided with the moon on July 31, 1964.
3. J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act
Dreaming of other lives and other possibilities is one of the central themes in J.D. Lee’s Vanishing Act. Lee was tabling with Julia Von de Bur, whose minicomic Life in Bodies of Water I’ll be including in a class at Bryn Mawr next month. I’ll write more about Life in Bodies of Water in April. For now, I’d like to write up a few notes on Lee’s Vanishing Act, a comic that reminded me of Will Eisner’s The Dreamer.
The book’s main character, Ruthie Rosenblum, works for Uncle Davie’s Comics-By-Number Production Studio. On the train to work, where she will meet a figure from her past, she reflects that “when you spend so much time pretending to be someone else / it feels good to disappear.” Lee’s use of color—a palette of pale yellows, orange, gray, and black—gives the comic a warm, autumnal glow, but this is not a story of easy nostalgia. In the panel where Ruthie tells us that “sometimes it feels good to disappear,” we see her enter a room filled with desks and drawing tables. Maybe like her colleague Reggie, the anonymity of this comic book production shop suits her because it offers her a means of concealing herself.
I also read Vanishing Act as a romance comic, or at least as a minicomic gesturing towards the romance comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Maybe Uncle Davie’s shop produces all sorts of comics, from superheroes and funny animals to war, horror, and true crime stories—anything, really, other than what is real and true. I don’t know if Lee is going to continue with Ruthie’s adventures, but I’d like to read more, to discover what she and her friend Reggie are creating. I want to know what becomes of her love for Naomi, the childhood friend now married to one of Uncle Davie’s clients.
On the back of the comic, Lee includes the title again and a reminder that this is “an Uncle Davie’s Comics-by-Number Tale.” Is this story, then, one of Ruthie’s “comics-by-number”? Is she just filling in these blanks or are we readers expected to fill them in with her? I look forward to reading more comics from Lee’s rich imagination and from Uncle Davie’s shop, and I hope that Ruthie appears again in another adventure. But if she chooses to disappear, like Ranger 7, I’d like one last glimpse before the inevitable final panels filled with darkness and silence.
One of Steve Willis’s jam minicomics from the early 1990s. I did the cover but didn’t tell my mom that I’d based the drawing on an old childhood photo of her.
In the 1980s, I began exchanging zines through the Comics Buyer’s Guide’s small press column. I also ran ads in the classifieds section of CBG where I asked other zine and minicomics creators to share their zines with me. I had a long correspondence with two friends from San Antonio, Texas, who sent me copies of their zines, their APA (Amateur Press Association) publications, and, sometimes, records and tapes. Those exchanges form the basis of a community of people who otherwise would never have met. In looking for a common thread that connects Doris, Mare Cognitum, and Vanishing Act, I find myself returning to Sebald’s discussion of Rousseau in one of the essays in A Place in the Country. Rousseau, Sebald suggests, also wanted to disappear through the medium of his writing:
“The moment of utmost clarity of landscape,” writes Jean Starobinski, who has studied the theme of transparency in Rousseau, “is at one and the same time the moment at which individual existence dissolves at its limits and is dreamily transformed into thin air.” To become totally transparent was, according to Starobinski, the greatest ambition of the inventor of modern autobiography. (61-62)
These statements seem to contradict themselves, resolving only as a paradox—how does one become “totally transparent” when one is writing about the self? When one is also writing about the world outside the self? Is there a space where those two, the interior and the exterior, can meet?
But maybe that is the dream of the writer, the artist, the zine maker—to create something that has a life of its own, an object that can venture out, like Ranger 7, into the void and send back pictures of what it finds there.
Sebald, W.G. A Place in the Country. Trans. Jo Catling. New York: Random House, 2013.
Crabb, Cindy. The Encyclopedia of Doris. Athens, Ohio: Doris Press, 2011.
On Thursday, February 27, cartoonist Kevin Huizenga visited Bryn Mawr to present “In Plain Sight: Reading Pictures,” a presentation followed by a conversation with Dr. Shiamin Kwa. Kwa, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Bryn Mawr, invited Huizenga to campus for the lecture and also for a visit to her Introduction to Chinese Literature course.
The poster from Huizenga’s Bryn Mawr lecture and Q&A (For more information, please visit the Bryn Mawr website.)
Dr. Kwa received her BA in English Literature from Dartmouth College and her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard. Her first book, Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, is a collaboration with Wilt L. Idema, published in 2010 by Hackett Publishing. In 2013, she published her first monograph, Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon (Harvard University Asia Center), and she has also written about the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, and Italian opera. She is now at work on a literary history of the play The Orphan of Zhao, which brings together nearly all of her interests, and a biography of Genevieve Wimsatt (which, Shiamin adds, does not!).
Strange Eventful Histories features a cover by cartoonist Tom Gauld and reveals Kwa’s affection for comics and comic art. Shiamin and I first met as undergraduates at Dartmouth in the early 1990s, where, as I mention in our conversation, she introduced me to Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections. In the following conversation, I ask her about her fascination with Kevin Huizenga’s work, her interest in comics, and her thoughts on the act of translation and its relationship to the art of words and pictures.
What inspires her academic work? “I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled,” she explains.
We began this email conversation on March 5, 2014 and completed our edits to it on Sunday, March 16.
BC: Before we talk about Kevin’s visit, I’m going to ask a very standard question: When did you first become interested in comics?
SK: I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I have great memories of my grandfather taking me out with him to get his newspaper. I would always get some treats: one of the treats was always a comic book. This was Malaysia, so I would mostly get Dandy or Beano, or sometimes an Archie comic. Otherwise my childhood in comics was Lat, MAD, and Classics Illustrated.
[Shiamin added a follow-up to this answer in another email conversation from March 7.]
I just want to (briefly) return to No. 1.
The question about when did you become interested in comics bothers me, because I do sense that there is sometimes a weird distinction being made about liking comics—like it’s a kind of secret handshake that is indexed by memories of carrying a certain colored bag on Wednesday afternoons. I definitely do not think of it that way, and so I answered your question in the way I would answer the question “When did you become interested in food?” or “When did you become interested in music?” which is to say, “How did you become interested in this as a topic for intellectual or scholarly inquiry?” The genre itself is not obscure or should not inspire wonder that a college professor would be interested in it, right?
Another way to answer the question would be to say: I just like stuff that is good. To me, that is the first order of business. I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled. Criticism is a way to express how that lambent experience has been accomplished.
BC: That’s true. I think my question reveals my own obsession with comics and nostalgia. Because they are so often associated with childhood memories for some readers, comics sometimes serve as a catalyst for interesting discussions of what’s been lost or ignored. I think you can tell I’m really asking more about your story than the story of your relationship with comics. Maybe I should be more direct in my questions!
I want to be cautious here, however. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym does offer a kind of warning on the first page of the book: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy” (xiii). I’m beginning to think that, in the act of criticism, we begin with a statement, I remember, but we must quickly ask, Why do I remember? Or, What do I want to know about what I think I remember?
I know there’s not much of a question there, so I should ask this, since I know you’ve mentioned it to me before: What drew you to MAD? I ask this because the first comics you shared with me when we were undergrads were Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections, which owe an enormous debt to MAD and the underground comix MAD inspired.
SK: No, I think you are right on about this (and it is hard to be a dodgy interlocutor when the interview is being given by someone who has known me since I was 17—ah, our salad days), and we have spoken about this before. My enduring interest in questions of language, identity and performance have a lot, maybe everything, to do with how I grew up.
Why MAD? First, it is that they were around—I was a voracious reader, so I read whatever was to hand, which ran the gamut from old copies of Reader’s Digest, to all of the many Enid Blyton series, to the Penguin classics at the library to books that my mother picked up at the airport when she was coming back to Malaysia from the U.S. (I cannot say I would want my eight-year-old to read The Bluest Eye, though that is in fact one of my sharpest reading memories!).
What drew me to them were those [Al Jaffee] fold-in back covers. I recognized the tone of the magazines, but the cultural references were not my own. I lived in Brookline, MA, for a year in 5th-6th grade, and then moved back to Malaysia again. Then came back and lived with an aunt in Delaware in 7th grade. The rest of my family emigrated to the U.S. when I was in the 8th grade, and we all moved together to Florida.
I guess you could say that the leitmotifs of my childhood and adolescence were 1) trying to catch up on an “American childhood” that I missed, and 2) trying (unsuccessfully, may I add) to fit in. Actually, I guess you could say that I was unsuccessful with the catching up, too, as there isn’t a generic American childhood, and certainly not one that can be accomplished through watching TV reruns and reading lots of Judy Blume, but I certainly tried. So I guess now you’ve forced me to tell you “a story” although I’m not sure that I’ve told you “my story.” You would probably be better at telling that than I would.
BC: I’m curious about the distinction you make between “a story,” the one you just told, and “my story,” which would be impossible for anyone to tell. The artistic, critical, and popular success of books like Maus, Fun Home, and March suggest that comics might be at their best as a form when they set out to explore the tension between “a story” and “my story.”
SK: Well, I think there are the stories that we privately nurture, and then there are the self-conscious and performative stories that we share publicly. Because you and I have known each other for so long, I can’t quite tell the difference in this case! But yes, this also brings up another aspect of why comics are so appealing to me, which is the way that they feel so much more ready to contribute to a sense of affective resonance. There is a real thingness about comics, as there is—to me—with going to the opera or other similar live performances. I love to read, of course, but books and poems are marvels of the mind. I love going to the opera, or the symphony, or to watch dance, but for the most part I am watching interpreters of someone else’s mind. Comics are especially marvelous to me because of how they express both mental agility, and bodily control. I am over-awed by this combination of a deeply intelligent mind using a deeply intelligent hand to create this work. It’s astonishing, actually.
BC: I’m glad you talked about your interest in opera and in performance, because I was going to ask you about the intersection between music and comics. When I read Groening’s comics today, for example, I always hear The Smiths. Most of the comics I’d read up to our first year of college were very serious, as was most of the music I listened to, but your affection for Life in Hell and Morrissey’s lyrics gave me a hint (at 17!) that a sense of humor and mischief was also really vital and necessary.
I’m trying to find a way to bring this all back to MAD, but I don’t know what Morrissey thinks about Al Jaffee’s fold-ins, so maybe I should get back to Kevin!
What first drew you to his work?
SK: The incredible sense of control of his work, and I mean that on every level. I think that this is an artist who thinks seriously about form, and whose works reward you for reading carefully. I think the reason that I found his work so attractive was that I am basically an old-fashioned formalist close reader, and I get very excited about the relationship of a work’s structure and its content.
I also get excited about how different modes of narrative work together, which is why Kevin’s work is so compelling to me; he employs a full range of these different vectors of meaning, and makes them work together. There is always a payoff in his stories, and the beauty is that they are not always what you might expect.
Actually, this is a question that Kevin asked me, too, and the short answer is that I have no idea. I thought I had first encountered his work in one of those “Best of” anthologies, which inevitably triggers an Amazon binge, I’m afraid. But since those binges are so frequent (ask Robert [Shiamin's husband]), it would be impossible for me to tell you anything other than that I ordered Curses on Amazon in January 2011. That means that I was living in Texas at the time, and reading a lot of comics, in general. I do remember reading his contribution in No Brow’s “The Double,” Issue 6, which has a Tom Gauld cover.
Gauld’s cover for Strange Eventful Histories. Read more about the book at the Harvard UP website.
I am going to ramble a bit here about Tom’s book cover for Strange Eventful Histories, so you may want to edit this out, but the reason I wanted Tom to do my book cover, in addition to the obvious fact that he is genius, has to do with this obsession I have with windows and mirrors. I love this trope of catching a glimpse of your reflection and not knowing it is yourself (this happens to me ALL THE TIME on department store escalators, or in mirrors in restaurants), and of appraising that familiar-looking stranger; and I also love its obverse, which is looking at something that is other and seeing oneself. I think the latter is basically a description of reading: immersing yourself in someone else’s self, and feeling that it is your own self, or recognizing a stranger as yourself.
The book I wrote was about a set of plays written in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in which each play tests out questions about the persistence of a “self.” I told Tom about the book in general, and sent him the chapter about a reincarnation play, in which an old monk is reborn as a courtesan, but doesn’t remember who he was/is. In any case, I see this in Kevin’s work, too; the defamiliarization of the familiar, and always, always, observing. I hope that Kevin will do the illustration for my next book cover. Ahem.
BC: That defamiliarization is an element that I read as a hallmark of American comics, the disassociation in the DNA of characters like Superman. But narratives like Maus, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s diary comics, for example, all explore the sensation of disassociation, a state that seems to find its perfect expression in a form that is itself about the interaction of what is read or seen and what is invisible—the blank spaces between the panels that Scott McCloud talks about in his discussion of “closure.” Do you read this sort of defamiliarization as a kind of alienation effect, something related to Brecht’s idea of Verfremdungseffekt? A means of creating distance so that the reader (or audience) has space for reflection?
SK: I think about it in this way: our world is about distinctions, and the sorting through of distinctions. Comics are just more honest about it. The spaces in between don’t necessarily have to be sites for reflection or meaning searching, just as pauses in conversation do not have to become heavily freighted with the same. But sometimes they do, and sometimes they are. I like to think of the spaces as having equal weight, but not a preponderance of the weight, either; that is, at its best the two are working together to create meaning.
BC: Is there a particular story of Kevin’s that stands out for you?
Well, they are all so different. If you are asking for a recommendation, I would have to say…read everything! He is currently finishing the fifth Ganges and Fantagraphics will collect all of them in one volume. I am really looking forward to this. The Ganges series is so formally innovative and profound, but also just very funny.
BC: How did your students and your colleagues respond to his presentation? What issues did you and Kevin address in your Q&A?
SK: Everyone loved him, and it was a standing room only crowd of students and faculty—I don’t know, I don’t really want to put into words what I perceived other people to feel, but I think I can say with confidence that everyone was really inspired by his remarkable combination of deep intelligence and sincerity. The Q&A ranged from students asking very specific questions about why he chose to depict things a certain way to my asking him about whether he walks a lot.
BC: What did he say about his walking habits?
SK: Haha. That he walks a lot.
BC: How do comics and graphic novels figure into your work as a scholar and as a teacher?
SK: Sometimes I think that I am all over the place in my interests, but when I am trying to be generous with myself, I think that my interest in comics as a scholarly topic has to do with my interests in semiotics and narratology in general. It’s basically a way of testing out ideas about how we read signs, and reading comics is about reading signs.
In terms of teaching, I am incredibly lucky to work at a college that is committed to supporting interdisciplinary programs and events. The Mellon Creative Residencies Program funds events such as these for the faculty and students in the Tri-College Consortium (Haverford and Swarthmore are the other two colleges), and I applied for a grant to invite Kevin out to Bryn Mawr to give a reading and also to visit my Introduction to Chinese Literature class. I cannot say enough about how wonderful this Creative Residency has been, because the truth is that as much as I learned from Kevin’s class visit and his lecture/Q&A, the best part of the residency for me was the series of conversations that we had while waiting for a train to The Barnes Foundation or stapling handouts for the students in my office before class.
I should also add that he is an incredibly nice, sincere person and so unbelievably modest. There were many times, however, when he would say things like “it’s so simple it’s not worth saying” or “it’s the easy thing to do” where I mentally (and sometimes, out loud) appended “…if you are a genius” to the sentence!
About the Intro. to Chinese Literature class: this is the class that you will be visiting in April, Brian, so you already know about this project. Basically, I am asking my students to make a visual adaptation of a Tang dynasty poem, which may be a comic book, illustration, even a Lego stop-motion movie! Kevin shared an adaptation of a poem that he had recently done for a book commemorating WWI.
This was all inspired by my feeling that comics as a medium can share a lot with poetry, especially Kevin’s work: visual economy, playing with perspective, playing with notions of time, attention to and respect for form.
BC: I also should mention that when I visit we’ll be talking with your students about comics and memory and, more specifically, about Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic Life in Bodies of Water. And speaking of your class, I’ve been meaning to ask you about how your work as a translator relates to studies of words and pictures.
Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic, Life in Bodies of Water
In her essay on Art Spiegelman and W.G. Sebald in the first chapter of The Generation of Postmemory (Columbia UP, 2012), Marianne Hirsch argues that the kind of “visual literacy” required by narratives like Maus and Austerlitz involves an act of translation. The photographs in Sebald’s novel, she writes, seem to “require a particular kind of visual literacy, one that can decode the foreign language that they speak, for in Sebald’s formulations, they don’t just utter ‘small sighs of despair,’ but they do so in French, ‘gémissements de désepoir’” (52).
Do you have any thoughts on reading—especially reading narratives with words and pictures—as an act of translation?
SK: First of all, I want to thank you in advance for coming to speak to my class. They are so lucky! Don’t let them sweet talk you into sharing embarrassing stories about me—besides, there are too many!
Your question reminds me of the Philip Larkin interview in The Paris Review:
Robert Phillips: In one early interview you stated that you were not interested in any period but the present, or in any poetry but that written in English. Did you mean that quite literally? Has your view changed?
Philip Larkin: It has not. I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude: Byron and Poe and so on. The Russians liking Burns. But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or afenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God! A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him.
I love Philip Larkin, and obviously I don’t totally agree with him—or I hope he’s wrong—considering what I do, but I think there is a certain degree to which all acts of reading are acts of translation. Actually, all transactions are acts of translation. That is true for reading different languages, texts from different time periods, and, indeed, for reading other people. Who is this person, and what is s/he trying to tell me? How do I understand this with respect to what I already know?
BC: What comic or graphic novel are you reading right now that you’re excited to share with other readers?
SK: Reading? Who has time to read? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! If pre-orders count I just ordered Jiro Taniguchi’s Furari. I recently re-read Lynda Barry’s Freddie Stories, and I am currently reading Dakota McFadzean’s Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in on.
Huizenga’s The Wild Kingdom (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010)
Thanks again to Shiamin for talking with me about her class and about Kevin’s visit. This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of short conversations with colleagues and friends about comic books and comic art.
My goal is also to provide readers with an archive of observations on recent lectures, conferences, and exhibits about comics, especially from the point-of-view of teachers, scholars, and writers sponsoring those events. The 17-year-olds that Shiamin mentions in this conversation, I think, with their copies of Miracleman and Life in Hell and Swamp Thing, would be pleased to know that reading comics continues to promise these baffling, often dazzling moments of possibility.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostlagia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.
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!