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.

Scan 4

“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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