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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2019

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A rat sitting on the author’s cartoon shoulder calls Passing for Human a “neurological-coming-of-age story.” The rat, an embodiment of Finck’s debilitating doubts and self-criticisms, is of course wrong. Though her life is inevitably experienced through what she only indirectly identifies as Aspergers, Finck’s tale is a multi-generational creation myth, literally biblical in scope and tone.  Her focus is often much more on her parents and how their struggles eventually formed the foundations of her own.  And while events seem real, their telling is also magically real, combining mater-of-fact facts with literalized metaphors that assume the role of on-going characters in a personal fairy tale.

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The two rats nibbling at her shoulders appear multiple times, even compelling Finck to ball up and throw away her first two attempts at “Chapter 1,” resulting in a new title page, epigraph, and first chapter appearing anew on page 63, and then again on page 107. Though the rats eventually vanish (a sign of hope for Finch’s mental state), the do-over book structure continues for a grand total of five distinct chapter ones but no chapter twos or threes or fours. Since each new chapter one is presented as a necessary corrective for the failures of the previous attempt, it seems Finck finally gets it right—or at least her silenced rats finally think so.

While the rat conversations are easily understood at Finck wrestling with her insecurities, particularly her internal editor, other unreal characters are more ambiguous. She introduces her mother’s “living shadow,” one who “can move, and talk, and think on its own,” early in the first first chapter. Rather than providing rat-like commentary, the shadow takes a central plot role, supporting or departing or returning at key points in her mother’s life. At various times the shadow seems to represent her creativity or her soul or her confidence or her ambition or her guardian-angel-like instincts or even an emotional crutch holding her back.  Other times it’s a full-fledged character who can let her down or whom she can reject or pine for.

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We meet Finck’s shadow too, another unreally real character with the same ambiguous qualities as the mother’s. It even narrates the final chapter one, in a reversed world of white lines and letters on black pages. No surprise, the two shadows know each other and together fill-in missing details from the previous chapters, explaining where they went and why during periods when Finck and her mother lived shadow-less.

If this doesn’t sound like your standard memoir, it’s not. Finck infuses her storytelling with so much genre-bending invention, it’s not clear whether Passing as Human is a graphic memoir at all. It begins with a prominent, hand-written disclaimer: “some names (including mine) have been changed. Some facts have been tampered with. All characters, especially my parents, are seen through my eyes, when I was younger.” Sure enough, Liana is called “Leola” in the text, an easy enough substitution—but to what end? The switch disguises no one, not even in the rudimentary Roman à clef sense where a reader need only decode a set of names to unlock the references.

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Finck also labels a central boyfriend “Mr. Neutral”—unless we’re to understand that those letters are literally printed on his t-shirt as they appear to be?  Either way, it’s not a name, it’s commentary, and no cause for a disclaimer. But I wonder whether Finck’s concern is in the “graphic” rather than “memoir” half of her genre label. Is a misleadingly inaccurate drawing of a someone still a factual depiction of that person? Is getting something wrong the same as fictionalizing it? Finck’s character (it’s unclear whether this is Liana or Leola or what the difference might be) admits as she draws Mr. Neutral: “I didn’t get the nose right, or the hair—and then I thought maybe I can pretend I was just trying to draw an abstract shape … I can’t decide when lines are the right lines—and whatever I was drawing becomes a scribble.”

Lynda Barry paved this path almost two decades ago when she playfully coined the term “autobiofictionalography” to describe her own almost-memoirs. Also, like Barry, Finck longs to “draw the way I did as a kid,” which is perhaps why her style is so aggressively rough, with figures defined by only the barest, black lines, faces and anatomy evoked more than fully sketched. Even when she draws shadows, either as characters or as actual darkness, she highlights the haphazard patterns of her penwork. Even in her black and white world, nothing is simply and solidly black.

The artwork is also a comic in the cartoonish sense of simplified and exaggerated illustrations warping and arranging autobiographical material freely. But where Barry’s equally dominant words seem factual, Finck’s divisions are less clear. Yes, the visual content is inevitably warping, is inevitably from a point of view in both a literal and psychological sense. But the fantastical elements aren’t limited to the visuals. And what exactly does it mean to “tamper” with a fact?

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James Frey was labeled a fake when details in his 2006 memoir were revealed to have been altered. It turns out he wrote A Million Little Pieces as autobiographical fiction, but when he couldn’t get it published, he presented it as memoir instead. Finck is doing nothing of the sort. Or so I overwhelmingly assume—though there’s no key here for decoding which facts are facts and which are tampered facts. Did her mother impulsively quit her job at an architectural firm to marry Finck’s father and move to the country to design and build that surreal, half-circle of Finck’s childhood home? What if anything in there has been tampered with? Happily in this case, Oprah Winfrey’s initial defense of Frey (she later withdrew it) still stands: “The emotional truth is there.”

I also suspect that the decision to label Passing as Human as a “graphic memoir” rather than a “graphic novel” (an already ambiguous term since it sometimes is understood to include nonfiction) was a marketing one. If Finck were working with a prestigious but smaller, comics-focused press such as Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, or Pantheon, I wonder if the words “graphic memoir” would be on the cover. Since comics are still suspect in some literary circles, Random House may be playing it safe by evoking the comics subgenre with the highest literary credibility.

But whether “memoir” or “novel,” Passing for Human is foremost “graphic” in its artful use of the comics form. “The most important part of a story,” writes Finck, “is the blank space. You look at it and see what you want to see. Most storytellers don’t know this. They are dazzled by words.” Finck dazzles with her minimalist lines, which include the simple grids of her panels and gutters. And her plot is an artist’s plot, a kind of vision quest or mystery: “A drawer doesn’t draw because she loves to draw. She doesn’t draw because she draws well. She draws because once she lost something. And by drawing—she will find it again.”

I can’t say whether Liana or Leola Finck finds that ever-lost something-or-other through the fictional sketches of their mostly-true memoir. But I can say it’s a privilege and a pleasure to sit on her shoulder and watch.

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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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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:



















I began publishing comics reviews at 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 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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