I take music to be the naming of the naming of life. This is, beyond any liturgical or theological specificity, a sacramental motion.
–George Steiner, Real Presences 217
I received my copy of Zak Sally’s Recidivist IV in early December with a note that reads, “Enjoy this thing.” At first I read the note as challenge, since just a couple of weeks earlier I’d also read Sally’s blog post, in which he anticipates questions readers might have about the book—or the thing:
wait—i don’t know if this is a comic, or a zine, or a book, or what. what is this thing?
and that’s that.
In his thoughtful and detailed review at The Comics Journal, Joe McCulloch spends a lot of time on the CD that accompanies Recidivist IV (even as I write about it I am hesitant to call it a comic or a zine, though it’s both of those things and, as Sally suggests, neither of them). Is this some kind of book-and-record set? Is the CD a soundtrack to the four stories included? McCulloch even suggests that the music on the CD might be understood “as a character in the story.” I like this reading, even though I’m not sure that I agree with it. McCulloch also points out that the music might be “semi-diegetic, which is to say that maybe it can be heard inside Recidivist, and maybe not, but the appearance of the CD itself recurs within the comic as an icon of gnawing, ambient worry.”
The cover of my copy of Sally’s Recidivist IV.
I guess at this point I’ll stop calling Recidivist IV a thing and use the word that works best for me. It’s a comic book, with words and pictures, light and color. I need to find a new language to describe what I’m seeing. I think that’s part of the challenge of the book, and part of the fun. I’m especially interested in the book’s second-to-last page, silver and red with just a hint of blue ink. A field of color. A barrier. A pulse. This is the page where the book ends for me, even though Sally follows it with two other pages. But I want to linger on this one, while I consider what I’m hearing as I read it (see it?):
The final page of the final story in Recidivist IV. Sally follows it with another page and a final image on the inside back cover.
In his revised version of a 1980 interview with The Comics Journal, Samuel R. Delany, in a conversation with Denny O’Neil and Gary Groth, emphasizes what we see on a comic book page—not what we read. “You know,” he tells Gary Groth, “I distrust people who ‘read’ comics—in the same way I distrust people who go to ‘see’ an opera” (91). Later, he elaborates on this point. “The look of the comics page . . .” he begins. I want to quote this passage at length because my understanding of Recidivist IV hinges on Delany’s ideas regarding comics and “committed silence”:
The intense and committed silence with which one looks at a comic—or even the cursory silence with which ones looks through a comic . . . that range of silences is terribly important. That silence is what allies comics with the novel, with painting, with sculpture, with philosophy, with pornography, and with historiography. That silence is what separates comics from theater, opera, television, concerts, and film. The noisy genres, entertaining as they are, as they fill up the space of looking with sound—words, music, the noise of crashing cars, the susurrus of breath that halts, suddenly, in anticipation of mayhem or violence—do so at the price of suppressing a certain inner dialogue, a certain internal critique, a space of concentration and criticism, which, I might add, our society desperately needs. (Delany 92)
Sally includes no words in the book’s final story. This is what happens: a man wakes up. He wakes up his child, too. Their house is in ruins. They leave and they see something. I won’t say what that something is. Eventually, they walk away, leaving the house behind them. Sally doesn’t include any word balloons, text boxes, or sound effects. Unlike the rest of the book, which is filled with language, this final story is silent (unless I also listen to the CD as I look at these pages). I’m listening to the CD now as I write this and I’m wondering what sort of “inner dialogue” or “internal critique” Delany might find on this page:
The first page of the book’s final story.
I think this final story–and the book as a whole–is an expression of reverence. But, wait—is Delany suggesting that in the silent spaces inside and between panels we must look for evidence of spirit? When I’m reading an old issue of Devil Dinosaur, am I in a spiritual state? Maybe (I mean, it depends on which issue we’re talking about). Blank spaces sometimes suggest information that an artist is unable or unwilling to share. Maybe Recidivist IV is a spiritual document—a thing obsessed with the transcendent. I don’t know if this is what Sally intended. Probably not. But it’s possible, and it’s the reading that I’ve returned to again and again when I began taking notes for this post.
In the final chapter of his 1989 book Real Presences, critic George Steiner speculates on the relationship between art, silence, and the transcendent. He makes his intentions clear in his first sentence: “There is language, there is art,” Steiner argues, “because there is ‘the other.’” Even an artist or writer who destroys a work of art after its completion—Steiner uses the example of Gogol and a section of Dead Souls—does so, he suggests, “under pressure of the other’s intrusion. It is because the claims of the other’s presence reach so deeply into the final precincts of aloneness that a creator may, in circumstance of extremity, seek to guard for himself or for willed oblivion what are, ineluctably, acts of communication and trials of encounter” (Steiner 137). This willful silence, then, is a response to the idea of an audience, the reader or listener who will sit in judgment. Steiner wonders if art is always a response to the Other—a ghost, a being, a god, even. Another thing, I guess.
In the final pages of his essay, Steiner asks a question: “Does this mean that all adult poiesis, that everything we recognize as being of compelling stature in literature, art, music is of a religious inspiration or reference?” (Steiner 216). His answer? Yes: “As a matter of history, of pragmatic inventory, the answer is almost unequivocal.” After brief references to Homer and Kafka, Steiner turns his attention to music. He continues: “It is in and through music that we are most immediately in the presence of the logically, of the verbally inexpressible but wholly palpable energy in being that communicates to our senses and to our reflection what little we can grasp of the naked wonder of life” (217). Suddenly, as I listen, the blank space of this final page is filled with light and sound: the thing comes alive, as Sally’s music communicates what he—and his characters—cannot:
But look again: Sally fills the page with color, the red, the silver, and the blue. Is this a destination for the two characters? Or is this an answer to another question on Sally’s blog? According the blog post I mentioned earlier, a choice lies at the heart of the narrative:
you get to a point where you are faced with the reality of quitting or doubling down. guess which one this is.
I can’t speak for him. I can only say that, when I finished Recidivist IV, I began to think of other comics narratives that also, to paraphrase the line from Steiner that opens this post, are engaged with problems of “the naming of the naming of life” (217)—that is, with issues of the spirit. In March, I’ll be talking with scholars who are part of a comics and religious studies working group at Bryn Mawr, so I’ve been thinking about graphic narratives obsessed with the metaphysical. I’m not talking about Jack Chick’s tracts, or about Crumb’s Genesis, but about comics aware of the fact that, as poet Elise Cowen said, “God is hidden / and not in picture postcards” (Cowen 29). I’m thinking, for example, of Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary or his lesser-known but just as fascinating Show + Tell Comics (1973); James Sturm’s The Revival; Hanneriina Moisseinen’s Isä (2013); and my CAKE colleague Amara Leipzig’s The Ruins. Each of these, I think, inhabits the same territory as Recidivist IV. Each one explores what Steiner describes as realities “outside immanent and purely secular reach” (216), truths accessible only through writing, drawing, music. The comics I just mentioned are all deeply skeptical of–even resistant to–the idea of absolute truth, which is restrictive, dangerous, and ultimately destructive.
The act of writing about Recidivist IV will demand a new critical language. I haven’t found it yet, but, like the characters in the book, I’d like to keep searching for it. I want to imagine what that language might say, and how it might sound. And I guess that’s a way of saying, yes, I enjoyed this thing, with its crooked staples and delicate, smudged, hand-folded pages. I doubt that I fully understand it. But that doesn’t matter. I think I’ll go and read it again.
Cowen, Elise. Poems and Fragments. Ed. Tony Trigilio. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2014. Print.
Delany, Samuel R. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, and Some Comics. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1994. Print.
Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.
God is hidden
and not in picture postcards.
–Elise Cowen, “Teacher—your body my Kabbalah”
As I was coming up with my list of favorite comics from 2014 I tried to find a theme to link them all together and I think I discovered it late last night when I was learning a new song and one of my fuzz pedals—probably the old Ross distortion or the Real Cool Fuzz—started picking up radio stations. I’ve never had this happen with an amp or pedal made in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s only the old ones that dial up strange voices. I was trying to figure out what notes to add to a bland C# major chord and, in the silence, I heard a faint voice say, “And whosoever worships the image of the Beast shall be saved!” His voice was Southern, but not quite. I’ve lived in the Midwest for almost ten years, and in that time I’ve learned that Indiana and Missouri can sound just as southern as Alabama and Louisiana. At least to my New England ears. So at 2 am on December 30th I’d managed to call up the ghost of an AM radio broadcast with nothing more than a Stratocaster and a couple of relics of 20th century solid state technology. He kept talking about the Beast, but at no point did he tell me to run away from it. I think he wanted me to run towards it.
I’m pretty sure it was the old Ross pedal that called up the Beast and the Green Light. But It could have been the one with the cat on it, too.
I sent a text to my bandmates. But I didn’t admit that I was a little freaked out. When I went to bed an hour later, I thought I saw a green light in the window of the building across the alley. It was probably just the reflections of a couple of headlights on Irving Park headed towards the Lake. I stopped looking out the window. I was afraid something might look back.
Anyway, I mention the AM radio voice of the Beast because a few of my favorite comics of 2014 have an eerie quality to them. They’re not horror comics. Also, I a few of them are not from 2014, so this isn’t a “best of” list. These are the ones I enjoyed the most. I kept them in a stack on my desk all year so that I’d remember to write about them in December. I hope you read them, too, and I highly recommend that if you play guitar, you do so only in daylight, when the Beast and his DJ are less likely to contact you.
The cover of Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash.
I wrote about Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash last summer. It’s the story of a Christian martyr named Simeon and a woman named Dia. In the middle of the story, he promises her, “We’ll meet again in the world to come, Dia.” After seeing Justin Green and Carol Tyler at the International Comic Arts Forum at Ohio State in November, I finally read Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, and I it’s the perfect companion to Palm Ash. Both stories gave me nightmares, vivid ones. I know Binky Brown is a classic of American autobiographical comics, a template for Maus and for many of the books that followed Spiegelman’s narrative, but I want to learn more about Green’s use of the Tarot. This is the page from Binky Brown that made me shudder when I first read it, especially that last panel:
I took as many notes as I could during Green and Tyler’s conversation with Corey Creekmur at ICAF, but this is the line I typed quickly so that I wouldn’t forget: “No matter how flaming your youth, you eventually become a conservator of your culture,” Green explained. Palm Ash and Binky Brown both triggered memories of my Catholic school days. I didn’t welcome those memories at first—especially the night terrors they brought with them—but, like that 2 am broadcast, I expect both stories are trying to tell me something I’m not quite ready to hear.
Earlier in the year I read Elisha Lim’s 100 Crushes and Eric Kostiuk Williams’ Hungry Bottom Comics to prepare for our Magikomix panel at CAKE 2014. I’d read some of Elisha’s comics in Annie Murphy’s Gay Genius anthology, but I’d never read Eric’s work. Both quickly made it on my list of favorites. I know I like a book if I start buying copies for friends and acquaintances. This year, I also bought several copies of Carol Swain’s Gast, which is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in the last several years. In 2015 I’d like to write more about 100 Crushes. I have a few ideas about the relationship between Elisha’s portraits and Gertrude Stein’s ideas on “Portaits and Repetition” from Lectures in America. When I read the lovely images in 100 Crushes, I think of this passage, in which Stein explains her challenging prose pieces such as “Picasso” and “Matisse”:
When you come to feel the whole of anyone from the beginning to the ending, all the kind of repeating there is in them, the different ways at different times repeating comes out of them, all the kinds of things and mixtures in each one, anyone can see them by looking hard at any one living near them that a history of every one must be a long one. (Stein 139)
Eric uses these repetitions in Hungry Bottom Comics, too, in pages filled with ecstatic images of, for example, Jean Genet bursting from a birthday cake, or holy Beyoncé offering visions to one of her pupils.
One of Lim’s portraits from 100 Crushes.
I’ve also been taking notes on two other comics I’d like to write about soon, Zak Sally’s Recidivist IV and Hanneriina Moisseinen’s Setit ja partituurit—Häpeällisiä tarinoita (Sets and Scores—Shameful Stories, published by Huuda Huuda in 2010). I read Sally’s new comic as a book and record set in the same style as Steve Krakow’s Speed Guru of Acid Mothers Temple vs. Plastic Crimewave, his tribute to the Power Records sets of the 1970s and early 1980s, since Recidivist also comes with a CD.
Like Sally and Krakow, Moisseinen is a cartoonist and a musician. I had the opportunity to hear her perform at ICAF after a showing of Selma Vilhunen’s documentary Song. Following the showing and the performance, I asked Hanneriina how a kantele is tuned. I should have written down what she said. When I got back to Chicago, I tried to tune my Yamaha to the intervals I was hearing during the film.
I realize my list of favorites is also a record of the comics I didn’t have a chance to write about in detail this past year. There are a few more: Isabella Rotman’s The Mermaid, Julia Von De Bur’s Life in Bodies of Water, John Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite, Marnie Galloway’s In the Sounds and Seas, Vol. II, and Kira Mardikes’s anothology Clorofilia, a Magazine of Plant Related Comics.
I also discovered a stack of Richard “Grass” Green’s Un-Fold Funnies, a series of minicomics I talked about at ICAF. And Guy Colwell’s Inner City Romance Comix #2, from 1972, is an amazing document. I read it just before I learned that Fantagraphics would be issuing a collected edition of the series in 2015. I’ll look forward to it.
If I had to pick one book of words and pictures that I’d like to take with me into 2015, it’s W. G. Sebald’s essay collection A Place in the Country, which finally appeared in an English translation by Jo Catling. Is it a comic book? No, but, like Sebald’s other novels and nonfiction, it would not exist and cannot be read without the paintings and images embedded in the text. This is a passage from the essay about painted Jan Peter Tripp that closes the book:
Remembrance, after all, is in the end nothing other than a quotation. And the quotation interpolated into a text or an image forces us, as Eco writes, to revisit what we know of other texts and images, and reconsider our knowledge of the world. That, in turn, requires time. (Sebald 180)
Sebald’s A Place in the Country, featuring a Gottfried Keller painting on the cover.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you in a few hours in 2015.
The back cover of The Curse of the Werewolf (Power Records, 1974)
November is only a few days old and it’s already been a busy month! Here are a couple of updates:
You can read my essay “How to Read The Curse of the Werewolf“ at The Los Angeles Review of Books. Thanks to Anne Elizabeth Moore for her encouragement and her fabulous edits on this article. While you’re at LARB, also read the other Halloween essays, including Anne’s review of the IDW collection Still in the Dark, Tim Hanley’s piece on Afterlife with Archie, and Melissa Mendes’s cartoon essay on Beautiful Darkness–one of the creepiest comics I’ve read in a long, long time (I mean Beautiful Darkness is creepy, not Melissa’s cartoon). It’s creepier then The Curse of the Werewolf but maybe not as creepy as Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony.
Also, thanks to Allison Felus for her photos from last weeks’ “Like Comics Without Panels” Q&A here at Harper with John Porcellino, Marnie Galloway, and Edie Fake. Allison also managed to record some audio from the event, so after ICAF is over in a couple of weeks I’m hoping to transcribe the conversation.
And speaking of ICAF–if you’re in Columbus, Ohio from November 12 to the 15 come to the Billy Ireland for the International Comic Arts Forum. On Friday the 14th, I’ll be presenting a paper on Richard “Grass” Green, one of my favorite cartoonists.
And here are a couple of other comics events here in Chicago in the next couple of weeks:
You can see more of Marnie’s work along with selections from several other amazing Chicago cartoonists at “Superheroines,” running at Werkspace through Sunday the 9th. Marnie and a few of the other artists will be at Werkspace this Friday the 7th to talk more about their work.
And the Embodiment show at the University of Chicago featuring Edie and several other artists will be running for a few more weeks, too. Go see it!
More soon! Happy November.
I wrote this short essay on Lou Reed for an online magazine that now appears to be defunct. I figured I’d post this on the one-year anniversary of Reed’s death (October 27, 2013). One of the first songs I learned to play on guitar was “Dirty Blvd.” from New York. I’ve been trying to write about Reed’s death for the last year or so but I’ve been trying to write about my friends and their cat for almost fifteen years. This is the best I could do.
My friend Tony sent me a text on Sunday, October 27 at 12:44 pm. I’m looking at it now on my phone: “Oh, god. Lou Reed…” I’m also looking at a picture of Reed I have here on my desk. It’s dated November 27, 2000. Another friend took the picture somewhere in New York that fall. Kelly asked Reed if it would be ok, and he said yes, but he told her to do it quick. Looking at the photo now, I wonder where he and Kelly are standing. There are two potted plants behind him, a doorway, a black wrought-iron chair. He is wearing a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt, and glasses. He is not smiling and, from a certain angle, he looks more like David Johansen from the New York Dolls than the Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer or Berlin or New York.
Since Reed’s death I’ve wanted to write something about him, but I’ve hesitated, since the last thing the world needs is another story or essay about Lou Reed from a fan who never knew him. My Lou Reed story is not remarkable: I discovered the New York album when I was a high school student in the late 1980s, then slowly made my way back to the Velvet Underground. The first time we played “European Son” in the car my dad thought something was wrong with his brakes. “I like the other one better,” he said. “Which one? New York?” “That one,” he said. My dad, a judge, once made the Hartford Courant for quoting a line from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs in one of his decisions. He and I also traded texts about Lou Reed. I think he responded to the news by listening to his favorite track, “Nobody But You,” from Songs for Drella, Reed and John Cale’s 1990 tribute to Andy Warhol.
Reed’s death conjured other memories for me of New York in the 1990s, my dream of New York when I was in my twenties in graduate school in Connecticut and visiting my friends who’d moved to the city after graduation. I see this picture of Lou Reed and, instead of thinking about high school and the time I tried to learn “Heroin” on a plastic guitar plugged into my parents’ stereo system, I remember my friend Kelly’s cat, the one we buried in northern Manhattan, on a slope of Inwood Hill Park, in the summer of 2000.
I saw Kelly and her husband only two or three times after the burial, so I think of that funeral procession as one of the last times the three of us, college friends, spent time together on a bright, clear, warm summer afternoon. I suppose we were friends because they filled a role for me, characters from a Lou Reed song, two avant-garde theater kids living in a tiny apartment on St. Mark’s Place. If it had been the 1960s, we could have walked across the street and seen the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom.
Their apartment always smelled sweet, like Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. I’d never seen a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s until I started visiting them on weekends on St. Mark’s. The old paper labels always washed away as I tried to read the microscopic text. Even now, Dr. Bronner’s always reminds me of the shower in their apartment, the black and white checkerboard tile, the mirror. I guess Reed was also a fan of Dr. Bronner’s, if we believe the first-person narrator from “Wild Child,” who talks with his filmmaker friend Chuck, the guy “in his Genghis Khan suit / and his wizard’s hat,” about the “kids on the coast /and different kinds of organic soap” and even about “the way suicides don’t leave notes.” I don’t know which experimental filmmaker Reed is singing about—I can imagine both Harry Smith and Jack Smith under that “wizard’s hat”—but I found another reference to Reed’s affection for Dr. Bronner’s in Robert Milliken’s biography of Lillian Roxon.
Roxon gives Reed credit for revealing to her “the ecstasies of Dr. Bronner’s nine-in-one Supermild Pure Castile Soap, not to mention chia seeds, ginseng, bio-strath and other legal ups.” I’ve always heard the refrain of “Wild Child” as “Then we spoke of the rain / Always back to the rain,” but Reed is actually singing about someone named Lorraine. Always back to Lorraine. I can’t hear it any different even now that I know better. I picture a room with Reed and Lillian Roxon and flaming creature Jack Smith all in glitter and outside there’s a hint of clouds.
It’s cruel to say I loved Kelly and her husband because I wanted to live the life I imagined being lived in a Lou Reed song, like “Wild Child” or “Open House” from Songs for Drella. I think what I wanted most was their courage: I wanted to be something other than an occasional visitor from rural Connecticut, that kid on the train, the one who mailed them cassette tapes of loops and 4-track noise for their plays and performances. Mostly, I wanted to prove my loyalty, so, when Kelly called and told me their cat had died, I parked my car at Union Station in New Haven and got a ticket for the Metro-North line to Grand Central.
On the train to New York I worried a little. Actually, I worried a lot, a habit of mine. Didn’t we need some kind of permit? To bury the cat? What if we got caught? Would an Inwood Park Ranger jail us? Did they have Park Rangers in Manhattan? I’ll end up in the Tombs, I thought, like a character from an early Harlan Ellison juvenile delinquent novel. Web of the City. “People do it all the time,” Kelly assured me. We’d be fine. In a few days I’d be on the Metro-North train back to New Haven, I’d be home.
The cat’s name was Kokot. “It means dick in Slovak,” Kelly’s husband explained. I don’t know if that’s true. He was beautiful, sleek and black, with green eyes and a slow, deliberate, predatory walk. In the afternoon he’d chatter at the birds. His coat of fur looked silver in the white light of the window. He was lazy, mostly, and didn’t want anyway to pet him, not too much. Once he’d had enough he’d swat you, then walk away.
I wondered what kind of song Lou Reed might write about this cat, who had a habit of humping the arms of Kelly’s guests. Once, the week Kelly got married, the cat mounted the tweed-covered arm of Jim, her undergraduate advisor and mentor, who laughed delightedly. After several minutes, Jim’s face grew wary, then concerned, but when he gently stroked the cat, cooing and urging it to go away, Kokot thrust his hips more vigorously. The cat hissed, looked distant and amused, then crawled under the couch.
When the cat was gone, I must admit, I don’t know if I missed him. I can’t say that I disliked him, but I found something cold and alien in him. I was certain then and I am certain now that he didn’t care for me one way or another. Maybe I felt offended that Kokot never saw fit to include me in these obscene rituals. He must have smelled my cat Ben on my clothes and wanted nothing to do with either of us.
When I got back to Connecticut, a few days after the burial, I drew a sketch of my friends from memory. I’d sat across from them on the subway ride to the park. Kelly sat slumped on her husband’s shoulder. He looked at me and smiled. She looked wounded and lost. I felt it would be indecent to take a photo of them as they mourned their cat, but I remembered them so vividly that I felt compelled to sketch them, huddled close, like two kids waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. After we’d arrived at Inwood, we quickly found a spot for the body, then dug a small hole at the base of a small hill of granite. “We picked this spot for him last week,” Kelly said. They’d been hunting locations. It took several minutes for us to dig a hole big enough for the body. As we finished, I felt light-headed, just as my mother always describes it, not so much sick-to-my stomach as ethereal, outside my head, floating. I felt sad for the cat, for my friends, for the hole we’d dug for him. Suddenly I didn’t want to leave him there alone. I had nothing to say. I had no guide to follow. The digging wasn’t anything like a Lou Reed song.
Maybe I resented the cat for dying. I don’t think I resented his death then, in that moment when we covered his grave with leaves and dirt and stones. But it might have been the clairvoyant part of me that knew I would never see my two friends again, at least not in the same way I saw and admired them when I was in my twenties. I knew I wouldn’t be back again, and I probably blamed the cat, because, after he died, my friend and her husband crumbled a little, as the New York they’d built for themselves in the 1990s began to show its cracks. I saw them just two more times, once in the summer of 2001 and again in June of 2002.
I don’t have any photos of the cat, but I have this photo of a man I never met. I saw him live only once, in the summer of 2003 at the Calvin Theater in Northampton. Antony Hegarty was on backing vocals and Fernando Saunders was on bass. Reed opened the show with “Smalltown,” another track from Songs for Drella. Now, here in Chicago in 2014, at my desk, I stare at Reed and he stares back. I keep this picture in my copy of Summer Knowledge, Delmore Schwartz’s selected poems, on page 25, “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave”: “Strangeness grew in the motionless air. The loose / Film grayed. Shaking wagons, hooves’ waterfalls, / Sounded far off, increasing, louder and nearer.” I must have used the photo as a bookmark. Maybe I thought Reed would feel more comfortable spending time with his undergraduate mentor from Syracuse, the ghost of the poet who haunts him in “My House,” the opening track from The Blue Mask, the first in a series of what some critics considered Lou’s 1980s comeback albums.
What I love most about this photo is the look on Lou Reed’s face. He’s not angry, or annoyed, or in a hurry, even though he told Kelly to take it quick. He’s not cool, either. He’s free of expression, and therefore free of time and of history and of any obligation. In asking Lou Reed if she could take his picture, Kelly was thinking not of him, but of me, a huge fan, living what she must have imagined was a kind of exile in the wilds of Storrs, Connecticut. She wanted nothing from Lou Reed and, of course, he owed nothing to her, but the two of them shared this brief moment, one framed by the potted plants and the mysterious doorway and the lights. It’s the record of a gesture of kindness and friendship. I feel sad when I look at it and remember that I didn’t love Kelly’s cat as much as she did but couldn’t bring myself to admit that truth to her at the moment we buried him.
The cover of the program for our gallery show this month at Harper.
I’m writing this at 9 am on a Monday morning, October 13, and I’ve just walked back from our gallery space here at Harper College, where I’m an Associate Professor of English. Late last year I started talking with Jason Peot, one of my Studio Art colleagues, about putting together a show featuring a small group of Chicago cartoonists. Jason liked the idea, and asked what I had in mind. I gave him a list of names and a few books. After a year of planning and preparation, we opened the show this morning. It’s called “‘Like Comics Without Panels’: The Visionary Cartooning of John Porcellino, Marnie Galloway, and Edie Fake.” I got to play the role of co-curator with Jason. Playing this part forced me to come to terms with my undergrad experiences in my Studio Art classes, which I took for a year and a half in the early 1990s during my first and second years of college.
When I got to college, I wanted to do three things: draw pictures, write stories, and play guitar. I arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire in late September of 1991 with an acoustic guitar, my box of drawing supplies, a drawing table, and a bag of cassettes. I was obsessed with Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, their final album released in 1987. I had an acoustic guitar my mom had bought me at T.C.’s Pawn and Gun in Waterbury in December of 1990. It was an Applause (my buddies all called it the Applesauce guitar), Ovation’s less-expensive student model, with a curved, plastic back and nice low action. Before I got the Applause, I learned to play a few chords on a red-sparkle toy guitar covered in Mickey Mouse stickers. In the fall of my senior year of high school, I drilled a hole in that guitar for a microphone and used my stereo as an amplifier. I discovered feedback about the same time I discovered Hüsker Dü. “Are they in a garage or are they just spending a lot of money to sound like they’re in a garage?” a friend asked me (when I mentioned I was listening to the band again to work on this post, she said, “When will this obsession end?”). I liked them mostly for their stories, the ones promised by the subtitle of that final album.
Hüsker Dü’s 1987 album Warehouse: Songs and Stories
I mention Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton because every time I read something new by John Porcellino, an issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories or even his masterful new book The Hospital Suite, I’m reminded of a scene in Perfect Example, his coming-of age story (its title comes from a Bob Mould song on Hüsker Dü’s 1985 album New Day Rising), where the young John P. imagines what college might be like:
From John Porcellino’s Perfect Example (Drawn & Quarterly edition, 2005)
That was pretty much me at 17 when I started college, only I didn’t have a skateboard (my mom was afraid I’d fall off and bust my head). Just as I was sure when I got to Chicago that everyone would be listening to The Sea and Cake (we don’t), I was certain that most of the kids would have copies of Warehouse or Zen Arcade. They didn’t. I wrote term papers about the band and quoted their lyrics in my papers—essays about Franz Kafka and Guy de Maupassant and Thomas Mann. I liked other bands, too. I once compared the linework on a Greek vase to Tom Verlaine’s guitar work, and my art history professor gently warned me, “Don’t use an obscure reference to explain an even more obscure reference, Brian.”
In Dan Stafford’s revealing new documentary Root Hog or Die, Porcellino explains his affection for the Minneapolis band. He first read about their 1984 double-album in a Chicago Reader article. I had another moment of recognition when as I watched this part of the film. Porcellino explains,
R.E.M. was great, but for me when I heard Zen Arcade, that was the thing that was like—not only is it this weird music that’s really appealing, but honestly, as an adolescent or whatever, I was just like, this music is about me. These songs are about my own life. (Get a copy of Root Hog or Die and fast forward about 18 minutes for more about the band.)
I’d listen to my Hüsker Dü tapes in my dorm room while working on projects for my basic design and drawing classes. Each of the songs on Warehouse tells a short story, from the high-school nostalgia of Mould’s “These Important Years” to Hart’s “You Can Live at Home,” which ends the record with waves of feedback and static. As Jason and I finished framing the pieces for the show, I guess I should have expected I’d listen to Warehouse again as I tried to pick up where I’d left off in 1993. But now I’m getting ahead of where I should be in this story.
By my second year of college, my art classes weren’t going too well. I was still obsessed with comics, so all of my projects looked like poor imitations of my favorite cartoonists: one week Frank Miller, the next week Moebius (or Frank Miller trying to draw like Moebius). Finally, one of my professors took me aside and said, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t see any potential in what you’re doing. Maybe you should transfer to a state school and study illustration.” For my last few projects, I tried my best to imitate some of the new artists I’d been exposed to: I liked Robert Rauschenberg a lot, so I went to dumpster in the parking lot of the one grocery store in town and brought a stack of cardboard boxes back to my dorm room. I drew an ink portrait of a friend (the same one who liked The Smiths better than she liked Hüsker Dü) and then covered it in layers of paint. When the paint had dried, I stapled the pieces of wood and cardboard together. I thought it looked like a Rauschenberg. It didn’t. But I sold it at an art show for $5. I learned later that another friend had bought it for her apartment. In my junior year, I surrendered. No more art classes for me. I decided on an English major instead. I also rented a cassette 4-track and decided I’d learn to write songs. I missed my art classes, but I wasn’t the most rebellious kid, so I believed what my professor had told me. Anyway, I’d started playing bass in a couple of campus bands and made a few more friends. I wondered what it’d be like to put my own band together. Playing music was fun, and, since it wasn’t my major, there was no one to tell me what to do. My 4-track compositions weren’t that good either, but I had more fun trying to imitate the songs on Warehouse than I’d had trying to imitate Moebius, or Frank Miller, or Robert Rauschenberg.
I’ve always been a little haunted by my decision to give up drawing in favor of music and writing. It was an abrupt end to a very long relationship. My box of art supplies, which still sits on a bookshelf not far from my desk, is like a box of old photographs of friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I could take a few art classes to get back to what I loved twenty years ago, but last year I decided instead to put together a show. I think that’s the musician side of me at work. Let’s call a couple of other bands and book a gig somewhere. Who’s free? Do we know a third band for the bill? Last fall, over twenty years since I dropped the painting class that would have qualified me for a minor in Studio Art, I started talking with Jason about my idea for the show. No superheroes. A few Chicago cartoonists. I’ll teach their books in one of my courses. We’ll invite them to campus.
Two pages from In the Sounds and Seas, printed on large sheets of fabric (please note: hammer not included in final version of the show.)
Jason has an MFA in sculpture from Northern Illinois and recently has done installation work at the University of Illinois at Urbana and for the Chicago Public Library. He works a lot with light. Take a look at the samples on his website and you’ll see that a lot of his work is implied—phantoms of shape and color suggested by the play of light across a surface. I thought he’d like the subtlety of King-Cat Comics and Stories, Edie Fake’s humor, Marnie Galloway’s atmospheric, complex designs. As Jason and I worked on the show, I started to feel like I was putting a band together, my own comics supergroup: Edie, John, and Marnie.
The second volume of In the Sounds and Seas
I often joke that I like comics, but I love music—listening to it, playing it, writing it. I love being in a band. Since I couldn’t read until I was well into first grade, sounds and pictures are my first language. Although my parents don’t play any instruments—except maybe my mom, who knows a little piano—they remain passionate about their music. My mom loves Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer, Smokey Robinson. As a kid, we’d listen to the Woodstock soundtrack album, Tapestry, Crosby, Stills & Nash. She’d hear “When Doves Cry” and say, “That sounds like ‘Purple Haze.’ I like that one.” My dad listened to country music, especially Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and gravelly-voiced singer songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Later, he introduced me to Bob Dylan so, as thanks, I told him about Lou Reed’s New York and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (which I think he likes a lot more than I do).
On one wall of our show, you’ll see Edie’s original illustrations for Wallace Stevens’s poem “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” from the “Illustrated Wallace Stevens” roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian website, July 26, 2011. This series of drawings was also published as a zine in 2011.
In a Los Angeles Times review of Warehouse, writer Chris Willman describes the band’s final album as “a letter from an old friend in your hometown, full of experiences and insights you thought only you went through or felt anymore, spoken in a way that only those who grew up with similar sets of friends (or similar sets of hard-rock record collections) can share.” Later Willman argues that “this letter from home is almost in a sort of secret code,” but Warehouse, like Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite, is direct, intimate, and often devastating. When I finished The Hospital Suite a few weeks ago, I remembered the liner notes that accompany Warehouse, a short prose piece about what it looked and felt like to tour the United States in the 1980s. The final lines of those notes, unsigned but presumably written by one of the band members (I’m guessing Bob Mould, given some of the phrasing, but maybe Grant Hart, whose recent album The Argument is a captivating rock and roll version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost), might be the narration for a John Porcellino story about Hoffman Estates, or Denver, or South Beloit. “When you travel frequently, you find a lot of images,” read the notes for Warehouse. The essay concludes with one of those pictures from the road:
Example? Winter always comes too soon. This year was the worst I can remember, except when I was five years old. Pushed open the front door, got lost in the snow.
I hope people get lost when they come to see the show, as they wander into the gallery and discover one of Marnie’s whales staring down at them from large fabric banners, or as they study the intricate black-ball-point-on-paper of Edie’s drawing “Stay Dead,” a prelude for what would become the Memory Palaces series.
If you come to the show, you’ll see several original pages from Marnie’s In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, which she published under her Monkey-Rope Press imprint in 2012. Just a few weeks ago, she released In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II, which continues what she promises will be a three-issue series. You’ll also see original pages from King-Cat Comics and Stories No. 73, Edie’s original drawings for the Wallace Stevens roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian a few years ago, and all sorts of other process sketches, zines, and other lovely works of art. My students are reading In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, and just finished taking notes on the Sarah Boxer interview with John at The Comics Journal. And we’ll have John, Marnie, and Edie on campus for a visit and an informal Q&A on October 30.
If you can’t make it out to Palatine, write to me and I’ll send you the program for the show, which features selections from each artist and a short essay. And don’t worry about postage. If you have a zine or minicomic, let’s do a trade. A four-track tape would be even better.
Another photo from the gallery: selections from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I and Edie Fake’s “Stay Dead” (2007)
Marnie Galloway responds to emails with the same precision and love of detail on display in the pages of her comics. After she’d answered a few of my questions, she included a warning: “I’ve attached for you a novel in response to your five prompts!” I think you’ll find her answers—which cover topics ranging from symbolic logic to her love of Nabokov and Herman Melville—just as fascinating as her comics, which combine an experimental narrative sensibility with complex drawings and innovative panel layouts.
Since publishing the first volume of In the Sounds and Seas through her own Monkey-Rope Press in 2012, Galloway has released several other minicomics, including Mare Cognitum—an account of Ranger 7’s encounter with the moon in the summer of 1964—and Medusa. Just last week at SPX, she debuted the next installment of In the Sounds and Seas. The second of what Galloway promises will be a three-volume series tells the story, as she explains on her website, of “three ship-builders” who “turn sailors as they head out in search of the Singers,” the three beings we meet in the first few pages of Volume I.
The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II (Monkey-Rope Press, 2014)
Galloway begins Volume 1 of her otherwise wordless narrative with a passage from Alexander Pope’s 1726 translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Minerva (Athena) pleads with Jove to assist Ulysses as the warrior struggles to find his way home:
Must he, whose altars on the Phrygian shore
With frequent rites, and pure, avow’d thy power,
Be doom’d the worst of human ills to ptove,
Unbless’d, abandon’d to the wrath of Jove?
It’s possible, then, to read In the Sounds and Seas as a response to Homer’s epic, much like Derek Walcott’s Omeros, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or—to go back even further in time—Sappho’s fragmented lyrics. Like these three other writers, Galloway responds to Homer with both humor and reverence. When I asked her about her debt to Herman Melville, another of her literary influences, she explained, “I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter.” Her pages are richly textured, filled with repeated images that suggest the sweeping power of the ocean itself. When the three women sing the world into being in the opening pages of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we are swept along by a tide of rabbits, fish, and birds—earth, sea, and air, all meticulously rendered in black and white.
In “Secret Labor,” her recent article for Poetry Magazine, Hillary Chute argued that poetry and comics share many similarities: “The rich relationships between word and image in which spatial arrangement is significant, and which characterizes contemporary comics, had precursors in all sorts of poetic experiments.” When I read the dense imagery of In the Sound and Seas, I am reminded of the visionary poetics of Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., whose early poems inspired other Imagists of her generation including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Consider, for example, the final stanza of H.D.’s “Sea Poppies.” Like H.D.’s poems, Galloway’s comics are filled with images that imply a kind of prophecy. The effect is uncanny. What at first appears familiar suddenly gives way to swirling imagery both ghostly and strange. In H.D.’s poem, flowers bloom near the ocean, but the ocean itself undergoes a sudden and startling change, not unlike the Singers in Galloway’s narrative:
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?
On this page from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1, we see the same mingling of earth, sea, air, and fire:
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1
This fall the Chicago-based cartoonist will be in residency at Ragdale, where she will devote her time to new work. Pages from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume 1 will also be part of “Like Comics Without Panels,” a three-artist gallery show I am co-curating with my colleague Jason Peot. The show features work from John Porcellino and Edie Fake, two other innovative cartoonists with Chicago connections and visionary tendencies. Galloway also continues to work as an organizer for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, which is now heading into its fourth year.
I’d like to thank Marnie for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail. In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II is now available. For more information on how to get a copy, visit her website or ask your local comics shop to order you a copy.
BC: Can you talk briefly about your background in symbolic logic and how it has inspired your work as a cartoonist? What effect does your training in philosophy have on your storytelling?
MG: Sure! So my undergraduate degree was in logic, which is the study of the structure, patterns and rules behind rhetoric/any formal system. I was very good at math and logic puzzles growing up, so I took the Logic 100 class my first semester at Smith to take care of my writing intensive requirement. After the first day of the first class, I was hooked. The next semester I signed up for all the logic classes I could, plus related classes in the math department (like set theory) and I spun all my philosophy classes to build on my interests in paradox and inconsistency. By the end of my second year my narrow focus had sped me along towards completing the requirements of a philosophy degree, so I declared that major and spent the next two years diving deeper into narrower veins of logic and exploring other academic interests with relative leisure. I published two papers in undergraduate philosophy journals, and I also worked for three years as a teaching assistant for the Logic 100 class, grading homework and leading tutoring/discussion sections.
All of this is a long time ago now, and I’ve had a lot of different kinds of lives since I was a sturdy-hearted logician. It is tempting to try to look back and lay a coherent story on top of a lost and searching young adulthood, but the truth isn’t that tidy and everything was happening at the same, confusing time. While I was studying logic and totally confident I was going into academia, I was also obsessively drawing, keeping illustrated journals and taking printmaking classes, and trying to not fall apart during some intense crises that nearly broke me during that time.
I’m not sure if I’d point the causal arrow from logic and philosophy towards an influence on my comics practice, but I do think that there is a common core that inspires both: a curiosity about the hidden structure behind things, and an easy love of hyper-focusing and diving deep into a project. The books and comics that have always been the most compelling to me have been ones that play with or undermine or explode the rules for how to tell a story. Pale Fire by Nabokov, for instance—a perfectly contained puzzle of a book. Keeping within a rigid structure (in that case, the form of an academic compilation of poetry with introduction and elaborate footnotes) gives so much room for play and misdirection. I think it’s fun to think about narrative structure like a puzzle, like carefully set up things one wouldn’t pay attention to at the beginning that meaningfully pay out at the very end. I don’t know if my books succeed in that effort, but it’s something I think about as I’m working on a story.
The three singers from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
BC: The name of your press comes from “The Monkey-Rope,” the title of Chapter LXII of Melville’s Moby-Dick. You mention Nabokov, so I’m curious to learn more about the other literary influences on your work. How do narratives like Moby-Dick or The Odyssey, for example, inform In the Sound and Seas?
MG: I definitely grew up (and in many ways remain) more a literature-nerd than a comics-nerd, not from a place of judgment against comics but from relative lack of exposure as a kid. I read “Calvin and Hobbes” collections and Mad magazine like the best of them, but I found my escape in novels. Moby-Dick is maybe an obvious choice, but it’s one of my favorite books—no one tells you how funny it is! I was surprised by how playful Melville’s writing is, not just with jokes but (again) with form, changing up narrative style sometimes every chapter. Plus, of course, the language can be so utterly beautiful and moving. I had just finished reading it when I needed to name my press; “The Monkey-Rope” chapter is about how hopelessly interconnected and interdependent we are in our lives, which I thought would be a meaningful, funny nod as I started my little printing business and really wanted customers.
The Odyssey is another obvious literary tip-of-the-hat as I’m working on a book involving a long ocean journey + search for meaning, but I particularly chose the translation by Alexander Pope for my introductory quotes (and from which I pulled the title of the series). He played fast and loose with the translation, favoring beautiful rhyming couplets over any attempt to be true to the original language. It’s a critically panned disaster of a translation. I thought that was a hilariously self-confident approach to interpreting a classic (and as a satirist, maybe he did too); I also thought it was the most appropriate selection as a framing introduction, since I was doing a pale version of a similar project. Culture is remix, language is a servant to meaning, and none of it is sacred.
Like in Moby-Dick and The Odyssey, the ocean as a space for storytelling will always be interesting to me, as do any spaces (literal and emotional) that are so massive that they make all our mightiest efforts at putting order to the world humbled and insignificant. That kind of scale is an easy emotional cue for hybridized feelings of powerlessness and awe; consuming, obsessive projects are the internalized versions of that same feeling for me, making a project so big it consumes the self. In that vein, Anne Carson is an author who is recently a huge inspiration. She uses similar elements of culture that I’m interested in—the dailiness of mythology and literature and landscape—but with seeming effortlessness she imbues her words with humanity and grace and heartbreak. I read her words over and over.
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have rarely been as deeply moved by a comic as I have been by a novel, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why that is. Not always, of course, but often. Maybe because of the time compression in comics? Maybe just because it’s a much younger medium, so there haven’t been centuries of artists telling stories in comics like they have with image-starved books? There are comics that I deeply love and give as gifts to everyone in my life, comics that I return to over and over; comics that are elegant and beautiful, or disturbing and heartbreaking, or raucously hilarious, but I’ve never been punched in the gut and destroyed for months like I have by literature. Like: a few years ago I read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and couldn’t read anything but light nonfiction for two years, because I was still dealing with an almost existential fallout after having read that book. I read a review of 2666 that said that it felt like a book that shouldn’t be, a book that should only be a work of impossible imaginary fiction in a Borges short story, but look—it exists! Someday I want to make a comic that does that, something that feels impossible. Miles to go and plenty of failures to work through before then, I reckon.
BC: You mentioned that there are some comics you “return to over and over.” Can you talk about a few of the cartoonists you look to for inspiration?
MG: Oh yeah, of course! The first minicomic I bought, before I knew I was going to be making comics, was Beast Mother by Eleanor Davis and she has consistently remained a glowing beacon in my pantheon of favorite artists. She finds the emotional core of a story more eloquently than any other artist I have read; she can illustrate a piece for the NYT about the home mortgage crisis and find the poetry and heart in it. I think that is a huge shortcoming of my work right now, and I look to her for guidance. Anders Nilsen is another hero. Big Questions is one of my all-time favorite books (I do love a dense symbolist tome), and his recent nonfiction comics, especially Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, cut me to the core. Jon McNaught’s quiet, meditative printmakerly comics are hugely instructive for me as I think about time and pacing. Aidan Koch & Sam Alden’s graphite comics capture ephemeral moments and movements that jump to the exact emotionally resonant moment needed for their stories, sparse narrative elegance with no filler. I also admire a loose, gestural line—I am just horrible at that. Lilli Carré is the most masterful short-story artist I have read; I have yet to read a single piece of hers that I don’t wish I had written, and then read over and over to try to figure out how she accomplished what she did. And then there’s Chris Ware, of course, but I reckon that goes without saying. He continues to innovate and push what books—not just comics—can be. I’d also put early 20th C narrative woodcut artists Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel in my list of comic artist influences, and also William Blake—he obsessively self-published his hand-printed illustrated books of poetry. If he were alive today, he’d be the king of the alt comics scene.
From Galloway’s Medusa (2013)
BC: You’re also one of the organizers for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE!). Does your work as an organizer also influence your practice as an artist?
MG: Absolutely—every time we get to jurying season, reviewing the mountains of applications for CAKE, I feel half-inspired and half-crushed by the need to step up my game! There are so many talented artists making work in comics today, and with a huge diversity of style and content and inquiry. It feels like the wild west: there is a thrilling urgency to the work being done in comics right now. It also can feel like everyone has been doing this longer than me, and has the privilege of a longer & richer familiarity with the medium. Imposter syndrome can bubble up for sure.
It is equally true that my experience as an artist influences my work as an organizer. I feel a huge debt of gratitude that these festivals exist, that this community of artists has overall been so welcoming, that I want to do everything I can to keep that feeling going. I was floating for many years, knowing I wanted to make visual narratives but not realizing that comics was a medium in which my work could find a home. I felt so out of place in the art worlds I first tried to participate in—first in fine-press artist books, then printmaking—so finally finding comics felt like “OH, of course. There you are.” The first season I tabled my books was in 2012, after having printed the minicomic version of “In the Sounds and Seas: Volume I” that winter; I sold a few copies to friends and family, but ended up sitting on the remaining 120 copies or so in my living room. I was so distraught! I believed in the project, but didn’t know what to do with it. That year, after an encouraging email from Jeffrey Brown (whose young son is in the same class with my old letterpress studio boss’s daughter), I tabled at Chicago Zine Fest and then SPACE and CAKE in short order, and it was all over for me. I’m in for keeps.
I have gotten so much support, friendship and inspiration when I was coming in as a bright-eyed outsider, I feel like the least I can do is offer that same support back. It is really important to me as an organizer and also when I table at shows to be supportive of emerging artists, to find anyone who looks a little lost and introduce myself. I’m particularly proud to have been part of the organizing team at CAKE as we founded the Cupcake Award, a microgrant + mentorship award for emerging comic artists, and I hope we can keep finding ways to better serve early-career artists.
From In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I
BC: Recently I read an old interview in which Will Eisner and C.C. Beck talked about Beck’s experiences at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s. “The reason I’m questioning you about that is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably,” Eisner explained (from Will Eisner’s Shop Talk, page 55). I think Eisner hoped Beck would define some sort of Midwestern cartooning sensibility. Do you think Eisner was right? You’re originally from Texas and then studied in New England and now live in Chicago. Do all of those locations play a role in your work?
MG: This is a great question that is also tricky to answer for oneself! Maybe there are tell-tale signs in my style that are easy to read from the outside that show hints of a geographic footprint, but I’m too close to see them. I am absolutely sure that the questions I’m interested in asking are shaped by my background as a nomadic low-income southern white woman who went to a half-radical-queer/half-pearls-and-cardigans elite women’s college and then settled down in Chicago, always feeling like the outsider. How could it not have an effect, right? But I think the comment Eisner made to Beck assumes a level of engagement with the local art world that I didn’t necessarily have, and also one that many artists don’t necessarily have as they develop their style. I grew up in a rotating sequence of apartment complexes in the exurbs outside mid-sized cities in the south—Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas primarily. We didn’t go to museums or galleries or art openings, if there even were any available nearby; my mom and I would make regular pilgrimages to Barnes and Noble and we watched a lot of TV, but that’s about the extent of our engagement with contemporary culture. In college I went to museums for the first time, college museums in the Pioneer Valley and an awe-inspiring trip to the Met when I went to NYC for an anti-war protest in 2002, but most of my time was spent reclusively studying. And again, I didn’t really stumble upon the comics community in Chicago until embarrassingly recently, after I started making what I now know to call comics. I’ve been hustling to catch up and find my place in the scene before anyone notices I don’t quite belong.
I agree with Eisner that there are regional styles, and more obviously styles that emerge from schools. I think a lot of people assume that the internet is grinding away at regional culture, that because (say) Tumblr is a place where any young comic artist can share their work and grow a community and following, the specifics of their geography become less important. I don’t think that’s the case at all! Even within Chicago, I can consistently guess which local young comic artists trained at SAIC versus Columbia College. Jurying for CAKE is like rapid-fire flashcards for regional aesthetics: the Minneapolis (MCAD) look is wildly different from Brooklyn/NYC applicants, which couldn’t be more distinct from Center for Cartoon Studies kids, and so on.
The richest vein of the Chicago alternative comics scene comes pretty directly from the weirdo/underground comics of the 1960s, and the Imagists & the Hairy Who; Jim Nutt has guided the hand of a generation of comic artists in the city. It’s not the only kind of work being made, of course, but I have noticed that the punk/underground comics legacy seems to lead to a pretty broad mistrust of slickness and digital illustration in Chicago comics. I don’t think I have a particularly Chicago-comics-heritage style in my work, but I think I was able to find my footing as quickly as I did here from a similar tongue-in-cheek distrust of institutions, a kindred feeling of aggressive outsiderness.
The cover of In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I (2012)
Carol Swain’s new graphic novel Gast (Fantagraphics, 2014)
After finishing Carol Swain’s Gast a few days ago, I found myself returning to Thierry Groensteen’s discussion of densité from Chapter 3 of Bande dessinée et narration (see pages 44 and 45 of the original French edition and page 44 of Comics and Narration, Ann Miller’s English translation). Gast, like Elisha Lim’s 100 Crushes (which I hope to write about soon), is a comic I’ve been enthusiastically recommending to friends. Swain tells the story of a young girl name Helen who, with the help of two dogs, a sheep, and a few birds, searches for clues about her neighbor Emrys and his sudden death.
I want to say very little about Helen and the small Welsh village where she and her family live. The mystery of Emrys’s life and death should reveal itself to the reader in the same slow, deliberate fashion that Helen comes to understand it. I’ll focus my attention instead on some of Swain’s page designs so as not to give away too much of the story. In Gast, the “density” of Swain’s compositions suggest the distance between Helen and Emyrs, a character who haunts the narrative. Like the protagonist of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Helen has the impossible task of piecing together the fragments left behind by a man reluctant to tell his story. Swain conveys Helen’s joy and confusion in a series of regular, nine-panel grids. These repetitions convey the density, I think, of Helen’s curiosity and of Emrys’s loneliness. At times, in fact, it is not clear where one begins and the other ends—an important point to consider, especially for the reader, who, like Helen, is left to decide why Emrys took his own life.
In order to apply Groensteen’s idea of densité to Gast I am thinking phenomenologically. Doing so opens up a number of theoretical possibilities, especially if the densité Groensteen describes can be read as synonymous, for example, with the density philosopher George Yancy examines in his recent book Look, a White! First, let me quote from Ann Miller’s English translation of Bande dessinée et narration before I consider density in relation to Yancy’s discussion of race: “A further consideration for the critical appreciation of page layout needs to be introduced,” Groensteen explains.
This is density, alluded to above. By this I mean the variability in the number of panels that make up the page. It is obvious that a page composed of five panels will appear less dense (as potential reading matter) than a page that has three times as many. (Groensteen 44)
What role does density serve, then, for both the artist and for the reader? Later in the chapter, Groensteen argues that, in Chris Ware’s comics, these dense and complex page designs have an expressive purpose: “Symmetry, in particular,” Groensteen argues, “is used by Ware to heighten the legibility of the binary oppositions that structure the spatio-temporal development of the story, such as interior/exterior, past/present, or day/night. But when two large images mirror each other on facing pages,” Groensteen adds, “this can also signify other oppositions or correspondences” (49-50). The “binary oppositions” Groensteen discusses here are also present in Gast: male/female, old/young, urban/rural, animal/human. The use of words and pictures to convey meaning in comics also implies the phenomenological density of consciousness itself: the sudden awareness of the self in relation to the other.
In Chapter 1 of Look, a White!, Yancy argues that what he describes as “the lived density of race” (17) demands new forms of expression. Although he is writing here about philosophy, I am interested in how we might apply his ideas to the comics we create, read, and study:
To communicate an experience that is difficult to express, the very medium itself may need to change. On this score, perhaps philosophers need to write poetry or make films. When it comes to a deeper, thicker philosophical engagement with issues of race, the medium has to change to something dynamically expressive, something that forces the reader/listener to feel what is being communicated, to empathize with greater ability, to imagine with greater fullness and power. (Yancy 30)
Notice that in his second sentence Yancy refers to poetry and film, two forms with close ties to comics (see, for example, Hillary Chute’s recent essay from Poetry Magazine). How might a page filled with words and pictures, for example, enable “the reader/listener to feel” with greater intensity? For Yancy, of course, this affective experience must accompany or inspire real change. Feeling something is one thing. Acting on a feeling of identification requires radical selflessness and love.
Page 127 of Gast
For Helen, the gradual shift from theory—her curiosity about Emrys’s life and death—to praxis takes shape on page 127, where she finds one of her neighbor’s books. In the first panel, we see a copy of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. The book is fragile. In the second panel, she tears the illustrated cover from its binding. “This book belongs to Emrys Bowen,” reads a note written on the back of the cover. In the fourth panel, she tucks that slip of paper beneath her arm, and holds the book in her hand in panel #5. She runs her fingers across the pages. Bits of paper fall like leaves.
Like Gatsby’s worn edition of Hopalong Cassidy in the final pages of Fitzgerald’s novel, Emrys’s copy of Riders of the Purple Sage reveals, perhaps, the dream image he cherished of himself. But, then again, no—as Helen tosses the book aside in the next panel, she implies that Emrys refused to play the role of the rugged cowboy. She conceals the torn cover in her bag.
Swain implies that, as readers, we would be wise to be suspicious of allusions. This sudden reference to another text cannot convey the full complexity of Emrys’s consciousness. As I read Gast, I thought of another writer who spent his career recording the silences of rural spaces. Most of the late John McGahern’s novels are set in Country Leitrim in northwest Ireland, not far from Yeats’s home of Sligo. In the introduction to his 1974 novel The Leavetaking, McGahern, who revised the novel in 1984, discusses the challenges of writing both self and other. “The Leavetaking was written as a love story,” McGahern explains,
its two parts deliberately different in style. It was an attempt to reflect the purity of feeling with which all the remembered “I” comes to us, the banal and the precious alike; and yet how that more than “I”—the beloved, the “otherest,” the most trusted moments of that life—stumbles continually away from us as poor reportage, and to see if these disparates could in any way be made true to one another. (McGahern 5)
Like Yancy, McGahern suggests other terms we might use to describe the density of experience expressed on page 127 of Gast: where do the “I” and “the ‘otherest’” meet?
As I study the last three panels on page 127, I find myself wishing I could retrieve Emrys’s copy of Riders of the Purple Sage. What if we missed something? What if the book contains the key to understanding Emrys? But the grid prevents me from turning back. I must follow Helen as she walks to Emrys’s house, just as I must follow McGahern’s narrator as he moves from rural Ireland to Dublin to London and back again (as I try to disentangle the real from the imagined in McGahern’s autobiographical fiction, most of which takes place in the same region of Ireland where my paternal grandmother, Mary Anne Bohan, was born in 1910).
Both McGahern and Swain tell their stories with clarity and compassion. Swain’s use of the grid, I think, is a reminder of the inevitable barriers between the subject and the object being observed. These barriers, like the borders that separate one panel from the next, suggest that densité is both an aesthetic choice and a phenomenological imperative: the storyteller and the reader must take into account what McGahern calls “the banal and the precious alike” in order to make less terrifying the space between the “I” and “the ‘otherest.'”
Can we read Groensteen’s densité, then, as a synonym for the density that Yancy describes? Can you think of other page designs that seek to express the phenomenology of the self? Do comics provide a means of eliminating the distance between the two?
Groensteen, Thierry. Bande dessinée et narration: Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.
McGahern, John. The Leavetaking. London: Faber and Faber, 1984. Print.
Swain, Carol. Gast. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2014. Print.
Yancy, George. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. Print.
This post will be part of the Comics and Narration roundtable at Pencil, Panel, Page. Thanks to Qiana and Adrielle for inviting me! Thanks also to my dad’s cousin Oliver Gilhooley of Mohill, Co. Leitrim, for taking us to the John McGahern Library at Lough Rynn Castle in the summer of 2012. Oliver, a great storyteller himself, also gave us a suggested reading list of McGahern’s fiction.
The McGahern Library at Lough Rynn. Photo courtesy of Allison Felus.