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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: February 2019

If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in art, Matthew Thurber has some terrible news for you. His Art Comic is an intentionally sophomoric send-up of the New York art scene, satirizing both the establishment of internationally revered figures and the lowly newcomers clambering to replace them.

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Thurber splatters his art references thickly and without gloss: Chris Burden, Bucky Fuller, Thomas Kinkade, Jeff Koon (his sculpture “Balloon Dog” makes a cover cameo), Sol LeWitt, James Rosenquist, Brothers Quay (my personal favorite), and, most foregrounded, Matthew Barney—who I assumed was an invention until I googled and discovered that Thurber’s cartoon rendering of the artist is surprisingly spot-on.

Thurber’s approach to narrative is the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. A very brief copyright note explains that Art Comic began as a series of individual pamphlets, though it’s not clear when they started or for how long they continued. The novel’s opening pages are set in 1999, and while there’s a slow evolution into the early 2000s, there are also unexplained but clearly sub-titled leaps to 2014 that feature Ivan-turned-Ivanhoe, a quixotic collector on a knightly mission to destroy contemporary art in revenge for his parents’ death at the hands of a collapsing Koon sculpture. He receives a much-needed flashback, as does the nefarious art professor, whose sepia-toned backstory includes less-needed bar fights and sex in public bathrooms. But is the professor’s present Ivanhoe’s present or the present of the class he’s teaching, or was teaching back in, wait, what year is it again, and why is David Bowie still alive?

Happily, none of this is confusing—because, since the art world is absurd, why shouldn’t time be too? Even Thurber’s chapter divisions seem capricious, since scene leaps between page turns are often more demanding. My favorite three-page sequence segues from a vampire bat flying out of the art professor’s window (having just paid him for suppressing the next generation of aspiring artists) to an art student jumping from a funicular to avoid applying to grad school (don’t worry, his story picks up even more abruptly in art heaven eighteen pages later—though where the hell did that funicular come from?) to Ivanhoe’s squire Walter recapping his knight’s origin story, which, oh yeah, that was interrupted ten pages earlier by a floppy-eared Matthew Barney tapdancing himself into a bottomless pit. No, wait, that’s actually Cupcake dressed as Barney in a screening of his final project.

The novel coheres mostly around a cast of art students: the Barney-obsessed Cupcake, the commercially driven Boris, the beret-wearing and black-identity-questioning Tiffany. Others, like the Jewish-identity-questioning Dorothy, vanish after the final art class critique, and the cast graduates and finds sublets (if actual Manhattan apartment dwellers could sublet the spaces under their bed, I’m sure they would) and dubiously art-related jobs.

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Boris and Cupcake’s dream of appearing on Drunk TV (a riff on Drunk History, I assume, though I googled just in case) peters out, but other, more obscure plotlines replace it: the three little pigs surveilling New York in a brick submarine; a pair of art delivery handlers transporting fornicating (and fully anatomically human-looking) robots to an exhibit. We later learn that Ivanhoe’s friend from another planet made them. Meanwhile, Tiffany seeks divine inspiration, resulting in Jesus Christ beaming down to cause various art-related chaos—not the only appearance of God in the novel. Tiffany is also chased from another critique session by possibly literal demons and rescued by a serial killer with a sailboat and marooned at sea and adopted by pirates where she stays until they turn out to be zombie pirates. If it sounds like I’m giving away too many spoilers—I’m not. These are just a few highlights of Thurber’s plot splatter.

Cupcake does land a gallery assistant job with none other than his idol Matthew Barney. The gig unfortunately involves being chased by a wild dog—not to mention an anthropomorphic zebra (or is it a horse?) writing a muckraking expose on the abusive film-maker. Barney has also been working on a comic—perhaps the comic we’re currently reading? If so, it’s got to be better than the collection of “Pissclown” paintings Tiffany inspects in an upscale gallery. Though maybe not much better?

Thurber’s own style is intentionally rough, a fitting approach for his broad-stroke humor that mocks, for example, concerns about cultural appropriation with an art project titled “Pigoda.” It doesn’t necessarily look like Thurber drew and colored the novel with his teeth—a strategy Tiffany tries after her class rebukes her “illustrational approach”: “Maybe if I paint something poorly, my peers will respect me for once”—but precision, line variation, three-dimensionality, these aren’t on Thurber’s list of artistic concerns.

Nor should they be. Art Comic lampoons the art world by wallowing in its shallowest waters. On the planet UXOBI, we learn from Ivanhoe’s alien friend: “fecal matter is the only artistic medium that has ever existed.” Thurber, stranded here on Earth, makes do with paper and ink.

 

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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That’s E. M. Forster’s 1927 example about the difference between plot and story. Story, according to Forster, is just events in sequence (“Then king died and then the queen died”), but plot requires causation (“of grief”) to connect those events. His point is good, though his terminology is out of date, since I think plot and story are synonymous here, and “events in sequence” doesn’t really have a term.

The example also intrigues me because of its application to comics theory. Comics are juxtaposed images. That juxtaposition alone is often conventionally enough to signify “and then,” the left-to-right movement between panels triggering temporal closure, the inference that the story content of the second image occurs after the story content of the first:

The causality, the “of grief,” is a kind of inference too, what I’ve elsewhere termed causal closure: some drawn element in the second image is understood to be the result of some undrawn action that took place during the “and then” moment of the gutter. That’s not quite the same causality that Forster had in mind, but it’s related. I suspect his “of grief” is already implied by my image content, and so still an example of causal closure:

This illustration of narrative theory is part of a larger comics story (though not necessarily plot?) I’ve been working on this semester. Now that Microsoft Paint has been discontinued and so is officially obsolete and not just horrifyingly out-of-date, I keep thinking I’ll force myself to upgrade to something more 21st century. Instead I find myself digging in deeper, finding more idiosyncratic ways to use ancient tech to my creative advantage. Creativity apparently loves limitations, so making comics in Word Paint is like playing tennis with many many many nets.

If you’re curious, here’s my process for the two-panel Forster comic. I bought a pen-shaped stylus over Christmas, but I find myself forgetting to use it, so this is all mouse-drawn, either free-hand or using the straight-line function by clicking start and end points. I also started with a photo for a visual reference:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I began publishing comics reviews at PopMatters.com in spring 2017, roughly two per month for the last two years. I wait a few weeks and then post a variation of each here. This began right after my pre-tenure leave, when I spent a semester off writing comics scholarship. The leave came with some research money designed to cover travel expenses to libraries and whatnot, but I spent my funds bringing books to me. I doubled my library of graphic novels.

This was essential for two reasons: I had too many superhero comics, and I had too many comics by men. For the most part, those two categories are one category. So if I sit writing about, say, closure inferences or the narrative implications of the naturalistic mode, and wheel myself over to my bookcase and pluck at random, my scholarly examples were going to favor men, probably overwhelmingly so. And while Maus and Watchmen are wonderful, does comics scholarship really need more analysis of them?

So I loaded my shelves with women. I wanted to literally stack the odds so that when I start grabbing books and flipping pages searching for examples of, say, parallel word-picture relationships or unreliable image-narration, chances are better that the author is going to be female. I took the same approach to writing reviews. When I get a new list of available books, I skim for women’s names first. When I’ve worked through those, I turn to the men.

The results so far: 27 reviews of works by women, 19 by men.

A more radical approach would be women only, but this seems like a reasonable middle ground. I don’t want to miss great comics, regardless of who is creating them, but I want to chip away at my male-dominated field too. I’m also discovering amazing authors I might have otherwise overlooked because they were unfamiliar to me. Aminder Dhaliwal is high on that list. She also imagines a world far more extreme than my little gender-skewed library:

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It turns out that a world without men won’t be completely different from a world with them. There will still be: ingrown nipple hair, flatulence, vomiting, crushes, nudity, unrequited love, deer sex, doctors, stool samples, traveling art shows, periods, pregnancy, gossip, artificial legs, mixed messages, break-ups, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Oprah worship, monogamy, anxiety issues, and bananas. There will also be a few new things, like mayoral elections with only one, self-deprecating candidate, and, unless you live in the capital, your village flag will likely feature a Beyoncé body part.

But a world with no men will involve some loss too. There will be no more: shirts that button on the wrong side, dildo factories, Starbucks, race wars, Twinkies, “motorized chariots,” malls, and tooth whiteners. Also, still no Blockbusters. Oh, and feminism—since feminism as defined as gender equality between men and women will go extinct with the last man. Even better, when you look at a sky filled with dozens of explicitly phallic-shaped clouds, you’ll only see the one that looks like a fish. And though art by male artists won’t disappear, when you look at a painting that used to foster “unrealistic standards” for feminine beauty, you’ll only notice the unrealistic heaps of fruit.

If this post-apocalyptic future doesn’t sound so bad, you need to get a copy of Dhaliwal’s Woman World. The graphic novel is an expanded compilation of the Instigram series she began after the 2017 Women’s March. Dhaliwal told thewebcomicwhisperer.com last year:

“The march was so refreshing, exciting and supportive. Everyone (not just women) had a great time, I loved it. Soon after a couple different friends, and friends of friends posted their signs, t-shirts and banners from the march on social media, and we all watched an instant backlash from certain types of people online. The idea for Woman World came fairly soon after, I never wanted it to be preachy or forcing any sort of message. Just a cute, tongue-in-cheek feminist comic.”

Dhaliwal’s self-description is as on target as the book itself. I rarely laugh out loud at comics, but Dhaliwal approaches her fantastical premise at unexpected angles, revealing humor in the collapse of some old assumptions—and the continuation of others. The page of cloud penises is funny, but also surprisingly though-provoking: If you don’t see penises all the time, then you don’t see penises all the time. That’s a smart insight for any reader, even one who, like me, has a penis. As Dhaliwal says, everyone (not just women) should have a great time.

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Of course Woman World is a fantasy. While the notion of a genetic disorder that causes all female births is less far-fetched than many post-apocalyptic premises, a village peopled entirely by reliably caring friends and family is. The worst trait in the town of Beyonce’s Thighs is over self-involvement when struggling through a difficult romance. So in the female future there is no crime, just the occasional foible. Dhaliwal isn’t pretending this is a realistic portrayal of humanity—or even one half of humanity. Woman World isn’t a treatise advocating patriarchy. It’s just a humane comedy.

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I also admire the comic as a comic. Dhaliwal’s cartooning is effectively sparse, capturing ten women with just a few, instantly defining pen strokes. Ulaana, the lone grandmother and chronicler of the old world, requires six extra: one under each eye, two on each side of her mouth. Yes, Ina’s and Gaia’s round heads are identical except for the curves of their hair—but that provides one of the book’s meta jokes. Dhaliwal also occasionally breaks her own norms—when, for instance, she renders Lara striking her “the face” pose in full, three-dimension-evoking color.

The majority of the book is black on white comic strips, divided into discrete panels, usually variations of a 3×2 grid across two pages each—presumably taken directly from the Instigram run. But in terms of visual storytelling, I most admire the color, open-panel material that I assume Dhaliwal added for the print edition. The novel opens with twenty-three pages of world-building exposition—an approach I find disastrous in most science fiction, whether on paper or on screen. But Dhaliwal provides much more than a how-did-we-get-here intro for her comics strips. The opening sequence is the most visually dynamic of the book, incorporating full-page bleeds, embedded images, and word designs that playfully intersect with the story world. I do wonder though if the novel’s first character really had to be the male scientist who discovers the birth trend.

Dhaliwal includes eight similar pages at the end of the novel, providing a much-appreciated farewell for her charming cast of characters. Six pages of old world statuary in increasing, full-color collapse punctuate the chapters too. While the images are excellent, I do wish Dhaliwal had expanded the approach since they feel buried in the two-hundred-some pages of black and white strips. While there’s plenty of room for a sequel (the ending reference to a battle with giant arachnids is a great, tongue-in-cheek teaser), I suspect this will be our only visit to this not-so-dystopic future. I recommend you not miss it.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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