Transcendental Style in Comics
Notes on Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant
Renée Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc (about 20:22 into the film)
I’ll tell you a secret: the Captain Marvel book I’m writing began as a riff on Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. Schrader’s book is a study of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Th. Dreyer, directors whose work is usually described as austere or hypnotic . I thought I’d write a book about comics and mysticism—chapters on Will Eisner, Edie Fake, John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch. But I also had an outline for a chapter on Captain Marvel, and the split between Billy Batson and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. I decided to shelve the mysticism idea and focus on Billy Batson. Working on the project over the last two years, I’ve read boxes of letters, DC vs. Fawcett trial transcripts, and various interviews and first-person accounts. But as I pieced together these stories from the Golden Age of comics, I began to lose sight of the metaphysical concerns that had inspired me to write in the first place. I felt disconnected—not only from those I’m writing about, but from my own memories and consciousness. I lost touch with whatever spirit animates my practice as a writer. After reading this passage from Walter Benjamin, I decided to address these paradoxes more directly:
A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour—and that day is Judgment Day. (Benjamin 254)
Suddenly I longed for the certainty of my Catholic school years. Is there some sort of shadow narrative that sits behind or beneath the one I am telling? How do I make sense, for example, of the sudden, tragic death of Otto Binder’s daughter in the late 1960s? Is that a detail I should include in the book? I can barely make sense of my own life. Why would I try to find a pattern in someone else’s, especially a someone like Binder who died when I was just a year old in 1974?
So, to answer these questions, I took notes in my Benjamin Marianne Hirsch books, but I also read some comics. And the comic books I’ve enjoyed most this summer are the ones that ask these questions, too. In June I picked up a stack of minicomics at this year’s CAKE! (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo). The two I’ll talk about here, Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant, both seem to be articulating a kind of transcendence. In the introduction to his book, Paul Schrader defines his terms:
Transcendental style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism. To the transcendental artist rationalism is only one of many approaches to life, not an imperative. (Schrader 10-11)
I like Schrader’s last line the best: the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn’t work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn’t differentiate between the “major and minor,” but sees all of history’s actors—from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens—as playing roles of equal weight and significance.
In his 1973 collection of Dreyer’s essays and notes on film, scholar Donald Skoller reminds readers that Dreyer himself was a curious mixture of the sublime and the practical: “It is important to begin to qualify the popular impression of Dreyer as a mystic with the very canny, down-to-earth ways in which he went about representing the events giving rise to this reputation” (Skoller 47). For example, in the essay that follows Skoller’s introduction, Dreyer describes his process while working on La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the 1928 silent film starring Renée Falconetti. Dreyer’s film has inspired a range of visionary, experiemental works, from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s stunning novel Dictee to performance pieces by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Dreyer devotes long sequences to close-ups of Falconetti’s face as she, in the role of Joan of Arc, faces her accusers.
“In order to give the truth,” Dreyer explains, “I dispensed with ‘beautification.’ My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs.” One of Dreyer’s other actors in the film is playwright and theorist Antonin Artaud, who plays the role of Jean Massieu. In his notes on the film, Dreyer also explains the role of his cinematographer: “Rudolf Mate, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism” (Dreyer 50). As Skoller points out, however, this “mysticism” only becomes possible through Dreyer’s “down-to-earth” sensibility. The austerity of the film is the result of an indirect pursuit of the mystical or of the transcendent. The irrational will only speak with the voice of reason. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, very little is said because Falconetti and her fellow cast members exist in blank, white spaces where few words are necessary.
The cover of Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash, 2014
On the second page of her new minicomic Palm Ash, which made its debut at CAKE, Julia Gfrörer works with silence and, by the end of the story, shares with the reader other moments of “realized mysticism.” The story, as Gfrörer explains on her Etsy page, concerns itself with “martyrdom, both interpersonal and religious,” and takes place “during the Diocletianic Persecution” of the fourth century. On this second page, Simeon, a Christian, sits in what appears to be the center of the Colosseum. In the first panel of this nine-panel grid, he sweats, and, to his left, we see a word balloon that reads “rrrr”:
Page 2 of Palm Ash: Simeon, the lions, and Dia
Gfrörer’s intricate style, which will be familiar to readers of her recent Fantagraphics book Black is the Color, expresses Simeon’s fear and distress. The blank space behind him articulates what a word balloon would only conceal: although his mind might be as clear and as pure as that expanse of green, Simeon cannot ignore the slow, steady growl of the lion that dominates the right corner of the next panel. Simeon’s face resembles Falconetti’s: death is certain, but, with faith, isn’t redemption possible? Maybe. But the title of the book implies that we can expect some kind of sacrifice (Gfrörer has also been collecting images of martyrdom on this Tumblr page).
Then, in the third panel, a miracle: the lion pauses. Another stands frozen in place. If the blank space of the last two panels suggested Simeon’s intense concentration—his unspoken prayers—the dirt of the Colosseum in this third panel tells us that Simeon, like the lions, is now back on earth. While his eventual martyrdom is certain, it will not happen today. Like the purring lions—who, in the next three panels, fall asleep—it, too, can wait.
At the end of the page, Gfrörer introduces her protagonist, Dia, who watches this miracle from behind a set of bars. We meet Dia and we find ourselves back on page one. Gfrörer compresses the action of the story’s first fifteen panels and leaves us with the final three panels of page 2. We now see Simeon and the lions from Dia’s perspective: first, she looks with terror and concern at what she is about to witness. Next, her left hand now gripping the edge of the window, she braces herself for Simeon’s violent death. Then, perhaps as the lions fall asleep, she covers her mouth and begins to cry.
Notice, however, that Dia’s world is far more claustrophobic than Simeon’s. As the story progresses, we learn more about the forces that have confined her and her son Maioricus. Like Dreyer, Gförer’s linework resists the “beautification” that might render the story precious or melodramatic. Her characters sweat, cry, and bleed, but they also smile and laugh as they move in silence and wonder.
I’ll stop before I give too many clues to the rest of the story, but let me add one more thing about the story’s title. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten until my senior year of high school, and one of the mysteries I could never unravel was the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I guess I understood some of it—“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”—but where had those ashes come from? Had they burned last year’s palms in the rectory? In a furnace in the basement of the church? Of our school? Although I often complained about 4:15 mass on Saturdays, I loved the smell of the church on Palm Sunday, and the cool, delicate feel of the palm branches between my fingertips.
The cover of Jessie Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant
Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant is an 11-page minicomic, full-color and sewn together with thread. Zabarsky also writes food comics, including the collection Never Full, which I also picked up at CAKE. In addition to her comics work, Zabarsky makes stuffed animals and charm necklaces. Just as Gförer works with silence, Zabarsky works with scale: she creates miniature jars filled with clay strawberries and asparagus. When she signed my copy of Ghost Giant, she used a technical pen to draw a miniature rabbit and flowers. I’ve written before at Pencil, Panel, Page about tiny, evocative images embedded in comic book panels, but Zabarsky’s miniatures, like Gfrörer’s silences, also have a spiritual dimension, one reflected in the series of single panels that make up this minicomic.
The subtitle of Zabarsky’s book is (I live in a valley now). She might be telling the story of a ghost, or of a mountain, or of a young man or woman. All of those readings are possible. Zabarsky lays the story out like a picture book, with words on the left-hand pages and images on the right. Each of the five illustrations employs a different palette, from the light green of the first page through orange and blue. The colors suggest a cycle, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring again. We also pass from the sunrise on the cover to sunset on the last page where the mountain–or the ghost, or both–comes to rest, at least for now, until autumn arrives. Unlike Gfrörer, Zabarsky does not include any panel grids. Rather, the one-page gaps between her illustrations suggest the slow passage of time that, like the purring of Simeon’s lions, is both puzzling and miraculous. Both Simeon and the Ghost Giant are waiting for something, maybe the Judgment Day Benjamin describes, when everything that was forgotten will suddenly be remembered.
The Ghost as she appears on page 5 of Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant
My notes on these two comics are reminders for me of the questions I’ve had since I first read James Sturm’s The Revival, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s I Want Everything to be Okay, all of which depict various states of “realized mysticism.” If it’s possible to identify a transcendental style in the mise-en-scène of certain films, can we also find it in the pages of the comic books that we love? That is, is there a “transcendental style in comics,” and, if so, what does it look like and what does it seek to express?
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (Trans. Harry Zohn). New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Print. 253-264.
Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Realized Mysticism” in Donald Skoller (Ed.), Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print. 47-50.
Gfrörer, Julia. Palm Ash. Thuban Press, 2014. Print.
Schrader, Paul. Trancendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1972. Print.
Skoller, Donald (Ed.). Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print.
Zabarsky, Jessi. Ghost Giant. Hugbox (no date). Print.
Thanks to Julia Gfrörer and Jessi Zabarsky for help with scans and also for answering a few questions via email.