Keiler Roberts’ Miseryland and Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”

At the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo earlier this month, Jake Austen, moderator of a panel featuring Zak Sally and Mickey Zacchilli, admitted that he likes superhero movies best when the characters are sitting around doing nothing. More talking and less fighting. In another panel, artist Lale Westvind admitted her affection for the X-Men, especially when they hang out, or, better yet, take a break from battling Sentinels and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and head to the beach.

Austen and Westvind both echo what Otto Binder said years ago about Captain Marvel’s popularity. The character often outsold Superman, Binder implied, because the hero and his alter ego Billy Batson knew know to take a break: “The Big Red Cheese was human to the core, whereas, in my opinion most of the other super-characters, from Mr. Big (blue suit) down, were alien, almost austere, infallible, haughty—doing a machine-like job of nabbing crooks and crushing evil, without once taking off a moment to lounge around and relax” (Binder qtd. in Steranko 14). When I was a kid reading superhero comics, I skipped the fight scenes but loved when, say, the X-Men would go to the mall or to the arcade. I especially enjoyed comics where I got to see the spaces in which the characters lived—the Fantastic Four and the Baxter Building, the Avengers and their mansion, Captain America and his apartment (which he sometimes shared with The Falcon). I still enjoy comics in which I find myself, with the characters I’m getting to know, in a specific place—on a street or in a living room or sitting on a front stoop.

X-Men

The cover of The Uncanny X-Men No. 180 (April 1984) by John Romita, Jr., and Dan Green. Image from the Grand Comics Database.

I remember reading The Uncanny X-Men No. 180, “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?,” and fixating on the interior spaces of Professor Xavier’s mansion, so vast and mysterious, both a school and a home, filled with strange characters in brightly colored costumes. I can’t recall much else about the issue, written by Chris Claremont with art by John Romita, Jr., Dan Green, and Bob Wiacek, but I can still see the doors, windows, and the hallways of the mansion. I’m afraid to read this story again because I know it won’t match my memory of it. But the comic’s architectural space remains as vivid as my first grade classroom, or my family’s kitchen table, where I often did my homework (I’m writing this blog post at what should be my kitchen table, but what has, for the last few years, served as my desk).

Miseryland

Keiler Roberts’ new book Miseryland, with its cover image of two women and a dog walking past a beautiful, turn-of-the-century mansion, evokes the same feelings in me: I think I recognize the building, that I’ve seen it or one like it on the shore of Lake Michigan, but then I realize it doesn’t matter. The drawing, with its three figures in motion, invites me to visit the other spaces Roberts imagines in the book, which collects stories from issues 9-15 of her series Powdered Milk. Miseryland has a lot to recommend it—its humor, steady and cumulative in its effect; the careful and often stunning panel compositions, which reveal Roberts’ training as a painter; her use of sudden, telling pauses which remind me of the long, hypnotic breaks in a Harold Pinter play (in my first day of an undergrad British drama class with Peter Saccio, he and one of the other students acted out one of those pauses, as we read Pinter’s Old Times. It didn’t take long for other students to start chuckling, but as the seconds ticked by, amusement gave way to stillness. When it was over, Saccio grinned and went back to his lecture). There’s so much to enjoy in Miseryland, and there’s even more to write about, but I keep coming back to those spaces, like the ones I first encountered in the X-Men and Avengers comics I read when I was a kid.

As I edit my Captain Marvel book, and as we pack and get ready to move to a new place in a few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about these different spaces, like the ones in Miseryland, or like the first two panels on this page from The Avengers No. 218 (April 1982). Here, in a story by J. M. De Matteis with layouts by Don Perlin, I catch a glimpse of the foyer of Avengers Mansion:

Avengers

The first panel is an image of a little boy ringing a doorbell. Simple enough, but look more closely at the details: the paving stones, the lamps, a horned lintel that crowns the doorway. The two shrubs, the bricks, the stoop: each tiny image invites readers to, as Scott McCloud writes in Chapter 3 of Understanding Comics, “mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (McCloud 43). As Jarvis opens the door, the little boy and I see what appears to be a mirror, maybe a couple of paintings, a plant, a table. It’s a clever opening: the reader enters narrative space with the story’s protagonist, and, on the next page, both meet The Wasp, one of the heroes featured on the cover.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (in an English translation by Maria Jolas), explores what he calls “topoanalysis,” that “systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives” (30). In order to do so, he focuses his analysis on the house, especially the home we remember most vividly from childhood. Bachelard argues that the memory of that first house shapes us and determines how we function in the other spaces we call home: “In short,” he writes,

the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word “habit” is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house. (36)

Bachelard also stresses the role that daydreaming plays in the attachment we often form with this place of origin: “The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home,” he writes, “it is also an embodiment of dreams” (37). This page from The Avengers still appeals to me because, like a memory of home, it is both strange and ordinary: why did the artists, for example, spend all that time inking the blades of grass that border the stone path leading to the front door? Why the two shrubs? On his day off, does Captain America tend to the garden, trim the hedges, sweep the paving stones? I’d like to think he does. That would make a good story, too.

In The Avengers, these details establish setting, but they don’t shape the narrative as it progresses from scene to scene. In Miseryland, however, the house is the narrative. Stairways, railings, mirrors, doors, dressers, desks, pillows, hairdryers, lamps, and windows, each one carefully rendered, possess vitality, solidity, and meaning. Roberts’ second panel on page 136 celebrates these interior spaces. To borrow a phrase from architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, this panel displays “a world totally fabricated by man,” not the “Manhattanism” of his book Delirious New York, but something closer to the secret rooms and passages Bachelard describes in his book. Roberts transforms time (or memory), as Bachelard might have argued, into space: “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for” (Bachelard 30).

Miseryland 2

The second panel on page 136, like so many of Roberts’s single images, is an example of this compression. What was once “time” is now space, an image reproduced on the page of the book I am holding in my hands. But this single panel contains its own story: Keiler’s mom does her make-up, her eye magnified by the mirror. The eye looks back at me, the reader; it could just as well be my own. I’ve become part of the scene, until I look away from the mirror and see another one, framed by the lights of the bathroom, then a doorway, one that leads to a hallway and maybe to another door.

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“What is it?” Xia, Keiler’s daughter, asks. She answers her own question: “a necklace.” Keiler sits on the bed, the necklace in her lap. Two rooms, a hallway, a series of doors, mirrors, and the light of the lamps. The black panel border is a window on this miniature world, like one of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute in Chicago.*

Another interior, on page 119: Keiler sits at a kitchen counter where she writes in her journal. Her father slices a banana into a bowl of cereal. A spoon, a jug of milk, and a banana peel rest on the counter beside the bowl. Behind her dad, another window looking out on a snow-covered evergreen, a bare tree, and a fence (Keiler’s journal tells us that it’s December 24th):

Miseryland 1

The zig-zag line of the countertop leads my eye from the lower, right-hand corner of the first panel to Keiler, the narrator, and on to the left and to the window. Like the cover of the book, this panel, which at first appears still, is filled with motion, as each marker of home announces itself, like the objects in the long, static kitchen scene in Orson Welles’s version of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (another story about a house and the family who lives in it). Follow the countertop until you reach the sink and the handle of a dishwasher behind Keiler’s dad. Stare out the window, that double panel-within-a-panel, or look again at the kitchen floor, which gives her dad the firm footing necessary for banana slicing. When bananas aren’t enough, we learn in the next panel, there’s always “fruit cocktail.” Keiler sits in her study reading her old journals, which include accounts of her dad’s breakfast habits. According to Bachelard, “An entire past comes to dwell in a new house” (27).

Miseryland has me thinking that maybe I should go back and look at that old issue of The Uncanny X-Men. I sold it with a box of other comics over a decade ago, when I moved from Baton Rouge to Chicago. If I can find a copy, and if I read it again, will I remember why it appealed to me so much in the first place?  When I think of that comic book, I remember the landing where, when I was a kid, my family stored our vacuum cleaner. I kept my box of comics there, too, so that I’d have easy access to them on my way upstairs, to my room, or on my way back downstairs. When I think of the X-Men, I remember that narrow flight of stairs, stained a deep reddish brown and covered in orange carpet. I was afraid to climb those stairs in the dark. “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear,” Bachelard writes (39).

The house I remember is still there. I wonder if the landing and the stairs are, too?

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.

Binder, Otto qtd. in Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics 2. Reading, PA: Supergraphics, 1972. Print.

De Matteis, J. M. (writer), Don Perlin (layouts), Joe Rosen (l), Christie Scheele (c), “Born Again (and Again and Again . . .)” in The Avengers Vol. 1, No. 218 (April 1982). Marvel Comics. Print.

Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.

Roberts, Keiler. Miseryland. Evanston: Published by Keiler Roberts, 2015. Print.

Thanks to Kate Keleman and Jenny Meakins for recommending Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, and to Neil Brideau for tracking down more info on Koolhaas’s “cartoon theorem.” I also had Allison’s blog post in mind as I wrote this.

* For more about graphic narratives and architecture, see Koldo Lus Arana’s essay “Comics and Architecture, Comics in Architecture.” In Rem Koolhaas’s discussion of A. B. Walker’s cartoon of a futuristic skyscraper first published in Life in 1909, the architect describes a “fractured” way of living: “Incidents on the floors are so brutally disjointed that they cannot conceivably be part of a single scenario. The disconnectedness of the aerial plots seemingly conflicts with the fact that, together, they add up to a single building” (Koolhaas 85). In his essay, Arana considers Koolhaas’s theorem in relation to a page of comics, in which individual panels are distinct but work together to create meaning. In some of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley pages, for example, a single image is subdivided into discreet panels. As a result, Arana argues, “Each panel became, then, an individual timespace, both a fraction of a story and of the whole space, that retained its individuality and at the same time made part of the greater unity of the whole house/story.” For more on Koolhaas’s theorem, see also David Holowka’s blog ArchiTakes.

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A Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) 2015 Preview!

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Ivan Brunetti’s art for this year’s CAKE. 

As I look forward to the 4th annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) this weekend, I’m reading letters from Otto Binder, the great Captain Marvel and Superman writer who got his start, as Bill Schelly explains in the biography Words of Wonder, with articles for the Schurz High Weekly. If you read my report on CAKE 2013, you’ll know I do this every year, as CAKE gets me thinking about Chicago’s place in the history of comics and comic book fandom in the United States.

Born in Michigan in 1911, Binder grew up in the Portage Park neighborhood and graduated from Schurz, on the corner of Milwaukee and Addison, in 1929 (see Schelly 23-24 and 31). In an interview last year, I asked Harlan Ellison to consider Binder’s achievements in comic books and in the science fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, where the pulp writer published short stories written in collaboration with his brother Earl under the pen name Eando Binder (look closely and you’ll see it: E and O, or, Earl and Otto Binder). “[Eando] Binder was always a great, iconic, early tech days science fiction name,” Ellison explained, “along with Ed Earl Repp and Stanton A. Coblentz and all the rest of the names that are now graveyard dust, just as mine will be. I don’t think Otto Binder was one of the great writers of all time. I don’t think Victor Hugo is lying ‘neath the turf beetling his brow over Otto Binder. But for commercial fiction, and particularly for comic books, he was top of the line.”

Binder was significant not only as a comic book writer, but also as a key figure in early comic book fandom in the United States in the 1960s (or “the second wave of organized comic fandom” in the U. S., as Bart Beaty calls it in his 2012 book Comics Versus Art; see page 154). In a 1964 letter to Jerry Bails, Binder imagines what fandom might look like in the future (see Binder’s letter in Schelly, p. 168). Always the science fiction dreamer, Binder offers Bails a few suggestions on how to expand this already thriving community: “Have you comics fans,” he asks,

whether “pure” or science-fictionally dichotic, thought of your own annual “Comi-cons” similar to their very successful and colorful “SciFi-cons”? At the rate the comics crowd outnumbers the always-small SF audience, such gatherings ought to hit at least 10 times as much, namely 10,000! And where are the “Oscars”/ “Hugos” / “Emmies” awarded to top comics talent each year? (Reserve the Anti-Award for the Comics Code censors who are the people society can do most without).

Binder was no doubt also thinking about his past when he made these suggestions. He’d been involved in the Chicago science fiction fan community of the 1930s, notably through his friendship with writer, editor, and Edgar Rice Burroughs-imitator Otis Adelbert Kline (Schelly 42). I have Binder in mind as I think about the various communities, past and present, who play played a role in developing CAKE. I also imagine what new communities might take shape as writers and artists and fans meet each other at the Center on Halsted this weekend.

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Binder’s What We Really Know About Flying Saucers (1967). He dedicated the book to his late daughter, Mary. 

I’ll admit that my obsession with what Walter Benjamin might have described as the “affinities” between past and the present is at work in some of the programming we’ll have this weekend. I’ve had the good fortune over the last year to collaborate with Ben Bertin, Amara Leipzig, and Max Morris on this slate of panels, which will range from a conversation with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, moderated by Caitlin McGurk from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State, to an Eyeworks Animation Festival and a session on comic books and New Wave science fiction.

Ytasha Womack, comic book writer and Afrofuturist scholar, for example, will lead her panelists, Eleanor Davis, Lale Westvind, and Tom Kaczynski, in a conversation about what, in one of our CAKE programming meetings, we’ve called “the spiritual resonance” between comics and science fiction, not only in the work of these three creators but also in reference to the writing of Octavia Butler, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin. So, we’re not so much talking about rockets and space monsters and time travel as we’re thinking about science fiction as a philosophy, a practice, a mode of being (or not being). Ytasha explains it all much better in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. There’s another parallel here with “The Golden Age(s) of Comics” panel moderated by Gene Kannenberg, Jr.: doesn’t all speculative fiction long for utopian spaces? Maybe that’s what science fiction is really about, then: that desire for another reality, even if it exists only in the imagination.

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An Ace paperback reprint of one of Kline’s novels from the 1930s. Cover by Frank Frazetta. 

Here’s a secret, too: the Golden Age panel, with Jillian Tamaki and Dash Shaw and Sam Sharpe, is, in a sense, about speculative fiction, but this time we’re looking at the past, about the nostalgic narratives that have shaped our present. It’s all there in the comics themselves: in Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer, or in Shaw’s New School, or in Sharpe’s Viewotron No. 2. Gene’s panel, then, won’t be about Captain Marvel or the Justice Society of America or your collection of Famous First Editions. We’re imagining a different Golden Age here, not the one in which characters like Superman and Batman first appeared, but the era in which we now find ourselves. Gene, Jillian, Dash, and Sam might also get closer to explaining the role that nostalgia plays in so many comic book and graphic narratives. Consider, for example, what Alan Moore once said of his work on Marvelman/Miracleman, as he described “that warm glow of nostalgia which is probably the single biggest factor keeping us interested in this medium, whatever amount of intellectual satisfaction we manage to glean on the side” (Moore 31).

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Mickey Z.’s Rav, 1st Collection (Youth in Decline, 2014). 

If you’re interested in exploring a new universe—and not the one Marvel introduced in the 1980s, though I’ve been known to pick up issues of Star Brand and DP7 in the quarter bin at Chicago Comics—you might want to check out Jake Austen’s conversation with Zak Sally and Mickey Zacchilli on Saturday afternoon, as the three talk about music, comics, and self-publishing. Sally and Zacchilli are both forward-thinking cartoonists, producing work that blurs the lines between zines, minicomics, and more traditional comic books narratives. In re-reading Jack Kirby’s The Demon just a few months ago, I had fun looking for visual parallels between Zacchilli’s Rav and those apocalyptic, two-page spreads where Etrigan hovers over Gotham City in pursuit of Witch Boy.

On Sunday, writer and artist Amy Peltz will explore other landscapes with Derf Backderf, Keiler Roberts, and Sarah Becan, as they talk about what we’ve called “The Honest Truth,” the transformation of the raw material of everyday life into comics. That autobiographical impulse in contemporary U. S. comics can also be traced, at least in part, here to Chicago, in Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Richard “Grass” Green’s Un-Fold Funnies and, more recently, in Jessica Abel’s early work.

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One of Richard “Grass” Green’s cityscapes on page 24 of Xal-Kor the Human Cat #1 (New Media Publishing, August 1980). 

On Sunday afternoon, Amara Leipzig and I will be hosting a panel/workshop called The Regionalism Experiment featuring Ben Passmore, Leigh Luna, Isabella Rotman, Anuj Shrestha, and Mickey Zacchilli. You’ll notice that C. C. Beck, who trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1920s as his future artistic collaborator Otto Binder was finishing at Schurz, appears several times in our panel descriptions. I guess you could say he hovers like a ghost over the proceedings, but without his 1983 conversation with Will Eisner we’d have no shape to our workshop, which will ask the artists to place themselves in a landscape: what does that autobiographical landscape look like, and how did they get there? In the interview, Eisner urged Beck to talk more openly about Minnesota and Chicago and New York, the three fixed points in the map of the Captain Marvel co-creator’s early years: “The reason I’m questioning you is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably,” Eisner said (Eisner 18). Amara and I would like to know if that assertion is true, and, if it is, we’d like to see how these points of “origin”—the real ones, or the ones found only in the imagination—have shaped their work.

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The first narrative page from the ashcan edition of what became Whiz Comics No. 2 in 1940 (from The Shazam Archives Volume 1, DC Comics, page 11) and an excerpt from Mickey Z.’s Rav (Youth in Decline, 2014). 

I don’t know if Beck had Chicago in mind when he drew this page for Fawcett over 75 years ago, and I don’t know if Mickey Z. was thinking about an IHop in Providence, Rhode Island when she sketched this portrait of Juice from Rav, but I see both drawings as existing within the same space. Look closer and you might find that one resonates with the other: a mysterious stranger, a sudden revelation, a moment of doubt. Maybe I’m looking for some kind of comic book singularity here, a unified field theory, in which all comic books exist within the same temporal space. Or maybe I just read way too many superhero team-up comics when I was a kid. I especially loved the ones where the Golden Age Superman would return, gray-haired, and throw down with a younger version of himself. It was like a history lesson and time travel all in one for only 60 cents.

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One of my favorite comics: the George Perez (p), Mike DeCarlo (i) and Anthony Tollin (c) cover for Justice League of America No. 197 (December 1981). Image from the Grand Comics Database (since I can’t find my copy). 

If this is all sounding too abstract, don’t worry—it’s going to be a lot of fun, and it will all start with some kick-off events on Thursday and Friday, including The Ladydrawers Comics Collective and Femicomix Finland team up at Women & Children First in Andersonville on Thursday night. On Friday the 5th at 7, see John Porcellino, Eleanor Davis, and Keiler Roberts in conversation with Hillary Chute at Quimby’s.

If you’ve been to CAKE over the last few years, come back and visit. If you’ve never been, make sure you’re at the Center on Halsted this weekend. Go to a workshop or a panel. Meet some new friends. Come by and say hello.

For more on the weekend’s events, visit the CAKE website: http://www.cakechicago.com/

Quimby’s also has a great list of all the CAKE-related events coming up: http://www.quimbys.com/blog/comics/cake-announcements/

CakeAppCard 2

Isabella Rotman’s Mike Watt-like, flannel-wearing CAKE mascot. Is this Charles Cake?!

Works Cited

Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.

Eisner, Will. “Shop Talk: C. C. Beck.” Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine No. 41 (June 1983). 18-23, 42-43. Print.

Moore, Alan. “M*****man: Full Story and Pics.” Miracleman #2 (Oct. 1985). Eclipse Comics: 15, 31. Print.

Schelly, Bill. Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder. Seattle: Hamster Press, 2003. Print.

p.s. I’ll have copies of my band’s new album if you’d like one. Pet Theories will be playing the CAKE after party at The Observatory on Saturday the 6th. I’ll also have some copies of Allison’s new zine, Satan Is My Father, which features essays on two of my favorite but lost Connecticut bands of the 1980s and 1990s. And speaking of collaborations made possible by CAKE, here is Amara Leipzig’s artwork for our album cover:

 PetTheories_frontcover_colored_72dpi