Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Pen and Wink

A roundup of new comics titles

Matt Madden


As any medium matures, its practitioners inevitably start to question its inner workings. Comics have a history of self-reflexivity and metacommentary dating back at least to the panel border smashed like a wooden frame by Winsor McCay's Little Sammy Sneeze in 1905 and continuing over the years in venues as varied as Harvey Kurtzman's strip for children, Hey, Look!, and underground comics' flagship anthology, Zap Comix. Each of the five books considered here are likewise engaged with testing and prodding the raw material of comics, stretching it in startling new directions.

Art Spiegelman was arguably the first cartoonist to adopt the techniques and address the concerns of the larger culture: cubism, surrealism, formalist deconstruction, fragmentation. In 1978, before he began editing RAW, he published much of this early work, along with the initial instances of what would become Maus, in an oversize hardcover called Breakdowns. Long out-of-print, this essential volume is being reissued as Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (Pantheon, $28). The book comprises three parts: the proto-Maus material, a selection of comics illustrating Spiegelman's dreams, and the formal investigations. The bulk consists of this last group: "Zip-a-Tunes" features a character doing a cartwheel, only to have the halftone dots break free of the line drawing; "Day at the Circuits" creates a infinite and labyrinthine reading pattern; and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" uses static drawings and narration to fix the story in an unending loop. In "The Malpractice Suite," Spiegelman collages elements from a Rex Morgan, M.D. strip with his own thick-lined drawings. He shuffles and repeats the Rex panels and draws grotesque extensions of the figures outside their borders, creating a delirious nonnarrative tone poem that finds the uncanny and the absurd lurking around even the blandest strip.

In his lengthy new introduction, done as a full-color comic, Spiegelman reveals how his engagement with the medium is intricately bound up with his personal history. In this sense, the book's title (which, in comics- industry parlance, refers to rough drafts) underscores the link between these early formal explorations and psychic and historical trauma—a connection he would later fuse seamlessly in Maus.

Thirty years after Breakdowns, young cartoonists take for granted that the medium has tracts of unexplored territory. Dash Shaw seems to breathe a particularly rich mixture of comics air, and there is hardly a page in his massive book Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics, $30) that doesn't hum with invention. The story centers on the Loony family, summoned to their beachside home for the parents' announcement of their divorce after forty years. The oldest son is obsessed with solving the puzzle of his parents' split, while his two siblings remain indifferent, caught up in their own messy lives. The narrative is structured by contrasts (water/sand, indoor/outdoor, action/inaction) and repetitions (almost every character takes a shower or bath, and reflections and doubling appear throughout), drawing subtle connections between the alienated family members.

Shaw's tale is awash in storytelling decisions that are as unexpected for their ordinariness (a birthday party on the beach) as for their strangeness (a chair borne aloft by balloons lands on the Loonys' house, nearly killing the granddaughter, who is on the roof drinking). He treats language as a visual element, not only by writing sounds directly as words ("ocean sounds," "loud music") but also by diagrammatically linking objects, colors, and actions to the images they describe. In a panel that shows a pair of legs walking on the beach, an arrow connects the calves to the label "strain of calf muscles when climbing a dune." He likewise finds clever ways of transforming everyday occurrences, such as the lines made in a carpet by a vacuum cleaner, into fragmented yet intense memories.

In Skyscrapers of the Midwest (AdHouse, $20), Joshua W. Cotter tells a familial tale to different effect, using ad parodies, fake letters to the editor, and other metafictional tropes to comment on the coming-of-age of a chubby fifth-grade cat. The story itself is the stuff of first novels and After School Specials: The cat's grandmother dies, he becomes disenchanted with religion, he pines for a girl he can never have, he takes his frustrations out on his younger brother. Cotter's anthropomorphism achieves the same effect as Spiegelman's in Maus—distancing the reader from the characters, paradoxically underscoring their humanity—but what sets Cotter's tale apart is his deft orchestration of formal innovations to express the subjectivity of adolescence. Skyscrapers initially appears to be an anthology of unrelated stories—we read in quick succession tales about a playground revenge fantasy, an alien, a runaway teen robot, and a very boring skeleton—and the connection between these threads becomes clear only gradually. By refusing to separate reality from fantasy in stories about suicidal backpacks and Jesus being rescued from "Lufisur" by a T. rex, this funny and cruel book re-creates a child's dim understanding of death, God, and the mystifying lives of adults. Cotter is adept at mustering a host of styles and formats, then interlacing them to create a sophisticated story that truly merits that exasperatingly overused term, "graphic novel."

Eddie Campbell's metafictional romp, The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (First Second, $17), written in collaboration with Dan Best, isn't a graphic novel so much as an overstuffed trunk spilling over with whimsical adventures, factual morsels, and gags. Etienne Leotard is the fictional nephew of the historical Jules Leotard, the original Man on the Flying Trapeze. On Uncle Jules's death, Etienne is bequeathed a blank diary and fake mustache. Without a second thought, the young stable cleaner dons the mustache and opts to live out the life of his uncle. Campbell and Best's book spans the forty-two years between the Franco-Prussian War and the sinking of the Titanic, and its subject matter ranges widely from such arcane tidbits as a theory about the origin of Superman's costume to an argument over the difference between a liger and a "ti-lion."

Apparently, all of this madness can't be contained in the four-panel grid, so Campbell fills the margins with comments, pantomime, a cameo by the authors themselves, and an ill-fated human cannonball who periodically whizzes by. Nor is a typical page-to-page sequence sufficient for the restless authors, who insert "facsimiles" of circus posters, popular prints, and excerpts from Etienne's crudely yet charmingly illustrated diary.The book's momentum occasionally flags, as when Etienne's love interest disappears for a good while only to be abruptly eaten by piranhas shortly after her reappearance. However, the often-dizzying pleasure of following Etienne and his band of outsiders through the turn of the past century—and through a comic that is having a grand time simply being itself—is reward enough.

While Monsieur Leotard foregrounds its self-awareness, such playfulness can also be understated. In the '60s, when American underground cartoonists were broaching sex and violence, a small number of Japanese artists were urging the medium in a more poetic, impressionistic direction. Many of them gravitated to Garo, the legendary manga magazine, where Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly, $25) was first published. It tells the story of a would-be cartoonist and his girlfriend who scrape by working in animation, and this kind of everyday subject matter, though common in today's indie comics, was quite unheard-of in its time, even, it seems, among other Garo artists.

Hayashi's storytelling is elliptical in the extreme, employing an episodic structure, tightly cropped panels, and a sometimes-tenuous link between text and image. Some scenes are almost impossible to follow; others are as evocatively fractured as the contemporaneous films of Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard. Appropriated imagery and ironically deployed images of James Dean and Japanese tough-guy movie star Ken Takakura amplify the Pop-art feel. In one instance, an argument between the couple is counterpointed by a panel of Disney's Prince Charming embracing Cinderella.

Red Colored Elegy is frustrating, however, because of the author's uncertain attitude toward the male protagonist's callow solipsism. Perhaps the ambivalence is meant to be read as a Godardesque critique of youth culture, but too often the character's self-pity is merely dressed up with markers of cultural import (union meetings, changing societal mores). Regardless, the ambiguous storytelling permits numerous interpretations, and the book's formal experimentation and historical significance make it worth reading.

Comics owe much to the enduring appeal of memoir and nonfiction for their amazing growth in popularity in recent years. Maus, of course, was at the start of that wave. One hopes that the publication of so much formally adventurous work opens the door to more experimental books in the future.

A cartoonist and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, Matt Madden is the author, most recently, of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008), a comics textbook written with his wife, Jessica Abel.

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