Between The Boxes

Published in Bejeezus magazine, issue 10, Spring 2008:

Between the Boxes

by Jonathan Hawpe

Who is more alone than Charlie Brown in that final panel of aPeanuts comic strip? Lying on his back after Lucy has yanked the football away from his foot yet again; good ‘ole Chuck has been betrayed, left with nothing but a thought bubble full of depressed musings and a tangle of “dizzy lines” spiraling away from his big, bald head. He is supremely, existentially, ALONE, his state cemented by the four walls of ink surrounding him. Comics are exceptionally good at depicting this far pole of the human condition, as well as its opposite: community and connectedness.

The ultimate interdependence of people has rarely been displayed more vividly than in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, where the history of the costumed superheroes of the world (metaphorically speaking, everyone’s history) is laid out in a towering construction of visual and written motifs so intricate that one may read it twenty times and still not catch it all. Moore is a genius at writing specifically for the strengths of his chosen medium and Watchmen is his Citizen Kane. It weaves together various forms (news reportage, comic strip, autobiography, a psychotic’s diary) and themes (history, politics, romance, war) into an almost ridiculously detailed, yet extremely tight, ultra-coherent epic that completely reconfigured and transcended the superhero genre.

The transfiguration of another comics genre (the large, old- style Sunday newspaper strip) was the jumping off point for the Picasso of the art form: Chris Ware. Very possibly the most desperately isolated creatures ever brought to fictional life are the characters in Ware’s Acme Novelty Library comics. Take Rocket Sam for example: embedded in the stunningly depicted scenery of the planet he’s crash-landed upon, he labors endlessly to build robots to keep him company. When two of his android creations strike up a romance, the spaceman’s efforts are cruelly mooted by his own jealous rage and the resulting robocide he commits. As designed by Ware, Sam and his creations are barely more than details among the countless filigrees, fronds and shafts of moonlight that populate his superbly constructed and exquisitely colored backgrounds. Everything receives equal attention from his pen nib, the tragedy of his character’s plight brutally amplified by the lack of visual focus visited upon them.

In Ware’s comics people are very often all by themselves. In his world two is probably a crowd. Now consider the kind of overpopulated web of human drama that’s been employed to great effect in movies like Crash, Babel, Magnolia andNashville. A very similar storytelling device is used by Gilbert Hernandez in Love and Rockets X, his panoramic graphic novel of life in multicultural Los Angeles. Hernandez actually throws an even wider net than those films do, and goes far deeper into his characters’ history and psychology. The lives of politicians, punk rockers, junkies and TV stars intertwine as he pushes the storytelling power of comics to the limit, juggling an incredible number of storylines yet managing to keep his plot and thematic connections crystal clear. The finale of the book is a sequence of sixty odd panels that are all separate scenes, wrapping up the various story threads, one after another, each with a single image. It’s a truly symphonic sequence and it could only occur inside the panels of a comic book, where (unlike in film) the text can be slowly pored over and instantly revisited, allowing for maximum detail and complexity.

The ability to illustrate experience abstractly is another strength of comics as a medium. One of the finest examples of this is French artist David B.’s book, Epileptic. It’s basically a memoir of growing up with a severely epileptic brother. Here’s what makes it so special: crack open any page and you’re likely to see swirling black and white drawings of monsters, spirits, mandalas, clashing armies, talking animals, and people bent, stretched or otherwise wildly stylized. Now read the text on that same page and you’ll find a straightforward, brutally honest recounting of a family’s struggle to deal with a crippling disease. The visuals almost always depict the interior, psychological experience of the volcanically imaginative young David, while the writing gives us the exterior, communal experience he is a part of. This dual narrative is so seamlessly integrated most readers won’t even think about it until they put the book down, but it capitalizes on comics’ ability to juxtapose words and images spectacularly well.

The plastic interplay between the pictures on the page of a comic and the reader’s lingering eye allows for effects totally unique to the medium. One might think that the wide-open descriptive powers of prose or seemingly limitless CGI visuals in movies couldn’t possibly be trumped by a mere collection of ink drawings sprinkled with a few words. But consider something like the sequence from Rebecca Dart’s Rabbithead excerpted in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006: it starts off as a single panel and branches like tournament brackets as it flows across the pages, adding more and more panels vertically as the story complicates, characters and events cross-pollinating madly. It’s like a mixture of Pogo and a mechanical schematic. Eventually the action plays out in different ways and the layers of comic strips drop off, contracting by degrees back to a single panel at the end. The comic depicts the flow of life, from origin to end, action to accident, in a way that is very hard to imagine in any other form.

In Rabbithead Dart takes the omniscient viewpoint, her characters’ scurrying probed from the outside in. If one is searching for something more like a snapshot from the inner mind, look no further than the work of Jim Woodring. One of the most brilliantly effective depictions of existential fear ever created happens to be his comic series about a Goofy-like manimal named Frank. The Frank Book is a complete collection of the overwhelmingly primal, surreal, hilarious, and horrifying adventures of this cute little guy. Woodring’s artwork is totally smooth, controlled, and often strikingly beautiful in its combination of simple shapes, candy colors, ornate patterns and undulating black and white lines. The world of Frank is almost purely visual (probably 98% word-free) and filled with strange creatures, obscure devices, and mystical events that suggest a Salvador Dali painting invaded by Loony Tunes characters. It’s easy to look at and mostly provokes laughter on first reading, but given the chance to slowly sink in and be decoded by the reader’s subconscious Woodring’s work becomes very unsettling and undeniably makes one ponder the deep, queasy questions of existence.

The flip side of Jim Woodring’s style is that of Craig Thompson, another master comics craftsman who works with cartoony animals, at least in his debut graphic novella, Goodbye Chunky Rice. In it Thompson tells a bittersweet tale of companionship and separation using a mouse, a turtle, and a bunch of gorgeously curvy drawings that spring off the page with energy. Clouds puff, waves roll, and leaves tumble. The prettiness of the drawings combined with the simplicity of the dialogue might seem a tad saccharine to some, but it’s a very rigorous simplicity and a very truthful sweetness, which is none too common. Thompson pushed these artistic ideas much further in his next book, a whopping 600-page autobiographical graphic novel dealing with family, identity, first love and loss called Blankets. The drawings in it are incredibly beautiful and its story, although more complex than Chunky Rice, has a similarly lovely, simple, honest core. A great example of Thompson’s ability to visualize the poetry and hilarity of human intimacy is the scene in Blankets where Craig and his little brother get into a literal pissing match. As a distillation of the adolescent sibling experience, it’s near perfect.

If comics can illuminate our loneliness and explicate our connections so well, just like other great literature, then why aren’t comics Great Literature? The simple answer is: well, they are, or should be. One of the most interesting features of comics “grammar” is that the reader is forced to fill in the action between one panel, or box, and the next. This can be a millisecond of story time, a million years, or anywhere in between. The process of connecting the two pieces in the mind’s eye is what brings a comic to life. A philosopher might say that life is what happens inside our heads. We are all essentially alone. A different philosopher might say that life is what happens during an endless string of transient moments in time created by an all-encompassing, ever-changing pattern of particles making up black holes, ham sandwiches, your left pinky toe and everything else. We are all one with the universe. A comic artist would say that life is what happens between the boxes.

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