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.