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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: October 2019

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

If Picasso had drawn comics, they might look like Manuele Fior’s Red Ultramarine. If that sounds like ridiculously high praise, it is. But some caveats: I mean “drawn” not “painted.” Late in his career, Picasso changed to minimalistic line drawings that no art critic has ever, to my knowledge, called “cartoons.” And yet they meet the definition: simplified (no depth-producing cross-hatched shadows, just the fewest pen strokes) and exaggerated (expressively stylized and so distorted contour lines instead of reality-reproducing ones). Look for yourself here:

Nudes in Reverie Pablo Picasso


Second caveat: Picasso was a sexual harasser, sexual assaulter, and statutory rapist, but, thankfully, Fior’s art is not infused with that same misogynist energy. I say that despite the two female nudes featured in the first five pages. Though Fior’s artistic eye never lingers so adoringly on any of the male figures in his novel, none of which are ever nude, the opening images take a complex meaning within the surprisingly sprawling (only 150 pages yet such interlocking time periods and plots) scope of the novel.

It’s rare to find a comics creator, or even a pair of writer and artist collaborators, who produce a work that is as equally impressive visually as it is narratively. Fior originally published the novel in 2006 as Rosso Oltremare, which Jamie Richards translated from Italian for the Fantagraphics Books edition released last spring. The publisher also brought Fior’s 5,000 Km Per Second to English readers in 2016. There Fior works in watercolors, an evolution of style that the English publication order reverses, since Fior drew the more minimalistic Red Ultramarine first.

The novel epitomizes artful restraint by using only two colors: black and red. I’m not certain of Fior’s medium (the intentional patchiness of the reds suggest print-making to me, but the blacks tend more toward opaqueness), but it results in thick, expressive lines and shapes that push well beyond mere information-communicating illustration. Much of the novel’s power, and so meaning, is at the level of the brushstroke and the energy it conveys about the story world.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

The two-tone approach and lack of depth-clarifying crosshatching sometimes turn panels into visual puzzles that must be paused over to decode, especially when motion lines and emanata are rendered in the same gestural style as physical objects. Fior is wise to draw consistent black frames in predictable layouts of two and three rows, each row a page-length panel or divided in half (except for the full-page panels opening half of the eight chapters). The orderly structure offsets the more anarchic panel interiors. Once in a great while I still found an image that I could only partially decode, an indication that its abstract qualities (the directions of the strokes and the complexities of their overlaps) are more important to meaning than what they represent at a literal level. The style slows “reading” by encouraging and rewarding careful attention. While Red Ultramarine is far from abstract expressionism, it is a pleasure to find an artist-writer who regards the art of his images to be equal to the narrative they convey.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

And those images do tell a hell of a narrative, or two interlocking ones that, like the artwork, are pleasantly difficult to summarize. The back cover would have us believe that this is the tale of a mad architect (inspired, I assume, by Fior’s own degree in architecture) and his girlfriend Silvia’s attempt to save him. And it is that—and yet the first eighteen-page chapter takes place in mythic Greece and features a very different architect, the labyrinth-building Daedalus, and his son Icarus catching fish on the shores of Crete. Fior does not insult his reader’s intelligence with setting-defining captions, but instead lets the father-son dialogue slowly reveal all we need to know. The second chapter then leaps without explanation to a contemporary European city (Paris, Rome, I’m not sure, but Fior includes enough architecturally specific buildings that I suspect a more cosmopolitan reader would identify), and then, because of the vacillating chapter structure, we don’t even meet Silvia’ boyfriend until chapter four—which is also the only chapter he appears in.

No photo description available.

The story centers on what Silvia comes to call a “strange correspondence,” in which characters and time itself are doubled. While Silvia’s boyfriend has an uncanny resemblance to Icarus, the doctor she begs for help in the contemporary setting is identical to King Minos, the villain who throws his imprisoned architect into his own labyrinth in revenge for the death of his son, the monstrous Minotaur. (Most of that action occurs off-page, so readers might want to do a quick brush-up on the original myths.)

The correspondence also extends beyond Greece to the relatively recent folktale of Faust as interpreted by the German poet Goethe, who is quoted twice in the text. Not only is the Doctor/Minos a variation on Mephistopheles, Silvia’s boyfriend is named Fausto. Given the inevitable fate of his twin-self Icarus, not to mention the damned Faust’s, you might assume a bad ending awaits the young architect. But Fior’s blueprints are more complex, preferring suggestive ambiguity over definitive closure.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

There’s plenty more to pour over—a cryptic birthmark, magic time-travel ointment, an age-changing assistant, even a metaphoric justification for Fior’s artistic style when Deadalus reflects on how he designed the labyrinth, “making any point of reference uncertain, tricking the eye with winding passages.” The art and the story are similarly uncertain, with the reader-viewer’s eye and mind repeatedly tricked as we wander Fior’s own passages. But I’ll end on the cryptic title, since it references not red and black, the novel’s color motif, but red and blue—and so a color that only appears on the novel’s cover.

“Ultramarine” means “beyond the sea,” a reference to Afghanistan where the gemstone lapis lazuli was mined and then imported to Europe to be ground into the blue pigment first used by Renaissance painters. While Fior’s gesture toward a color his visual storytelling does not include could suggest a great many things, I experienced a metaphorical going-beyond of the surface world or worlds of the novel, as its story wandered into ambiguous territory, the undefined spaces beyond Fior’s gutters. It’s a disorienting mental and visual space, more difficult to map than most comics labyrinths, but also more rewarding.

Image result for Manuele Fior Red Ultramarine

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


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This began as a photograph of Trump taken the day that the transcript of his phone conversation with Ukraine’s president was released. The transcript is five pages long, so I incrementally distorted the photo with gaps and overlays and new gaps, and then superimposed each version over one page of the transcript. I’ve been drafting a book on comics theory during my sabbatical, so I’m inclined now to bore you some terminological analysis.

There are at least four competing definitions of the term “comic,” and this hits three of them. It’s a comic in the formal sense of a sequence of juxtaposed images. It’s a comic in the publishing sense since I’m posting it at a comics-focused blog and calling it a comic. It’s even a comic in the cartoon sense because it distorts its subject into a caricature. It also hits the original cartoon genre of political satire. It is not, however, a comic in the conventions sense. I suspect some viewers might look at it and not mentally register “comic.” That’s because it avoids many conventions: it’s photo-based instead of drawn; there are no talk or thought bubbles; no moment-by-moment action happens; the column arrangement doesn’t evoke the layout of a comics page; and the gaps between the images don’t look like the traditional gutters of most comics.

Here it is combined into a traditional 4×3 grid layout, complete with discrete panels and consistent gutters:

I’m guessing it still doesn’t say “comic” to some viewers because there’s not a clear reading path, a convention present in most comics. While you can “read” it starting in the top left corner and following the rows down to the bottom left, I suspect many viewers will let their eyes wander freely.

I do think it tells a story, one of the most common comics conventions. It’s the story of Donald Trump’s incremental destruction.

The short answer: No.

Obviously no.

For the start of the long answer, look at the study I published two years ago with my colleague Dan Johnson in Scientific Study of Literature:

Or the write-up about the study featured in The Guardian:

Or at the two blog posts I published here with the unfortunately playful titles “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid” and “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid, Part 2.”

But to really get the answer, you need to read our new study due out in the next issue of SSL. Or the new write-up in The Guardian:

Looking back at the first study, “The Genre Effect,” we can now say that it wasn’t simply science fiction that triggered bad reading. It was non-literary science fiction. The new study, “The Literary Genre Effect,” instead shows that literary science fiction and literary realism trigger the same high-level responses from readers.

In other words, genre doesn’t matter. It’s the quality, stupid.

We also provide scientific evidence for something genre readers have known for decades: literary fiction and genre fiction are overlapping categories. Proving that required writing two short stories, one SF, the other narrative realism, that are also somehow identical so that their levels of literary merit are identical too.

So I wrote “ADA,” two 1,730-word stories that differ by exactly one word. The SF version has “robot” in the first sentence. The narrative realism version has “daughter.” Though the two groups of readers should imagine very different storyworlds as they continue, the texts and so the literary quality of the texts, will be the same.

I’m not claiming the story is great, just good, or at least good enough to be better than the stories we used for the first study. But judge for yourself. Though, unlike any of the readers in our study groups, you’ll likely experience the two storyworlds simultaneously. (I’ll also add that I don’t like the narrator at all. He somehow manages to be a total creep in both universes.)

Here’s “ADA”:

My _____________ (daughter/robot) is standing behind the bar, polishing a wine glass against a white cloth. She raises her chin and blinks at me as I slide onto the furthest stool. My throat feels raw, and I have to swallow once before forcing a smile and meeting her black eyes. They remind me of my ex-partner’s.

“What would you like?” Her voice is stiff, like an instrument plucking notes from a page of sheet music, the last one dutifully rising. It’s not like I had expected her to recognize me. She blinks again. “Do you want something, sir?”

I mumble, “White Russian.”

She slots the wine glass into the row of polished ones above her head and turns to mix the drink. Her movement is slow, precise.

“Light on the Kahlua,” I add, too loudly, as if delivering the punchline to a hilarious joke. She exhales what could be mistaken for a laugh, but keeps her back turned. I can’t help but study the way her neck moves, her shoulders, the joints of her arms, the whole slender skeleton. I helped make all that. Not that I deserve credit. If my legal assistant hadn’t traced a paper trail to her last month, I still wouldn’t know she exists.

Her hip leans in sync with the tilt of the bottle she’s pouring. They put her in one of those ridiculous little bartender outfits, white shirt, black tie, black vest, black slacks—except leggings really, every inch pinching a curve into place. The shirt is tight too. My partner and I parted ways before our creation entered the world, still sexless, a blank slate awaiting programming. Now she looks like a twenty-year-old woman of ambiguous nationality, Middle Eastern maybe. Turkish. She turns with my drink and centers it soundlessly on a napkin square.

“Light on the Kahlua,” she says.

“Thank you.” I’m mumbling again, but she must detect the tone, can’t help smiling. Her teeth are an impossible white against her brown lips. Her fingers retract before I can reach the glass. They’re brown too, but not as brown as my ex-partner’s. She laces them in front of her, poised for the next instruction. Manual labor. That must be all they think she’s good for here. She can’t know she is capable of anything more, either.

The nametag on her front pocket reads “ADA.” I lean forward as if I can’t quite make out the letters. I could be staring at her breast for all she cares. The shirt is so tight dark flesh presses through the gaps between buttons. She doesn’t flinch, unaffected by the gawking squint of a gray-haired white man. I’m even pointing now, at her right breast, playing up the fake squint. “Ada?”

The nametag on her front pocket reads “ADA.” I lean forward as if I can’t quite make out the letters. I’m even pointing now, playing up the fake squint. “Ada?”

She nods, repeats the syllables as if scanning them phonetically from a screen. I doubt that’s her name. My eyes have drifted back up to her face and so she has to speak. “How is your drink?”

I forgot it was in my hand, both of my hands. I’m strangling it. The ice cubes clack my teeth as I slurp the top. “Perfect,” I say.

She flashes the same meaningless smile she flashed when she slid me the glass. Exactly the same. She hasn’t budged from her stance either, not so far from the bar edge as to suggest aloofness, not so close to imply intimacy. The drink recipes she must have memorized too, thousands probably—though she really did go light on the Kahlua. By which I meant heavy on the vodka, but maybe that is too subtle an inference. We didn’t set out to make the world’s greatest bartender.

At least it’s a decent enough place, plenty of marble downstairs in the lobby, dizzying view up here. I think my room might be ocean-facing too. I haven’t checked in yet. I almost didn’t get out of the cab. If there had been a night flight back out, I might never have left the airport. The pub inside the terminal glowed with neon logos as the bartender tilted foam from a pair of frosted mugs. I kept walking.

Ada’s bar is more upscale but, at the moment, barren. It makes no difference to her. Her arms are draped in front of her, wrist resting in her other hand. She could hold the pose forever, a fixture as permanent as the row of stools bolted to the floor.

“So,” I say. Her eyebrows rise as if she thinks I’m gearing up to something. I’m not. My fingers keep rotating the glass on the fake wood. What is there to say that she could understand? I suck another sip and ask, “You been working here long?”

“As long as I can remember.”

No smile that time, so the line must not be designed to be funny. I chuckle anyway. And so now she is flashing her white teeth again, the crinkles around her eyes deepening with my volume. It’s just stimulus response. Except her pupils aren’t centered on mine. They’re a few inches off, focused somewhere beyond my shoulder. They have been this whole time.

I twist to look at the wall-length window behind me. The black of the sky and the black of ocean must meet somewhere out there, but it’s all the same from here, and the swirl of stars puncturing it. I wonder whether she is looking at one in particular, whether she can imagine a world almost like this one orbiting it out there, whether it’s even a star to her—or just a needle prick of light. Each is probably no different to her than the flicker of candle light centering each table. I’m not sure if the candles are even real. It doesn’t matter, but I’m sliding from my seat to lean over the closest and see the tiny electric filament blinking randomly inside its wax shell. No, the wax isn’t real either, just translucent plastic molded in a drizzle pattern, the same one table top after table top, a constellation of them. They’re pretty though. Everything in the bar is perfectly pretty. I shouldn’t have come.

“One hundred and forty-one,” Ada’s voice declares.

I turn back round. “Sorry?”

She has moved forward, her stomach pressing the bar edge. But she’s still not looking at me. “One hundred and forty-one,” she repeats. She’s looking at my drink, which is in her hand now. She’s swirling it. “The stars,” she says,

When she looks up, I nod, reflexively. “The stars.”

My voice is an echo of hers, so no question mark, nothing to suggest confusion, but she must detect it anyway. “That’s how many you can see right now,” she explains. The finger of her other hand is pointing at the window behind me.

I’m nodding again, sincerely now. The stars. She must count them. Some hard-wired impulse, I guess, but still. I begin to rotate back to the window, as if to check her math, make sure she didn’t miss one along the curtain edges, but stop when she lifts my glass to her face. She squints at the milky gray murk, as if searching for something, a specific ice cube or a thread of undissolved color. I want to believe that the swirl is no swirl to her, but precise points of black and white, stars so tiny only she could ever see them.

“You don’t like it.”

“No, no,” I say, “it’s, it’s—” But I don’t know if she means the drink or the view. “It’s fine.”

The lip of the glass is only inches from her own lips, but I’m still startled when she tilts a sip and weighs it in her mouth for a long, unblinking moment. The ball of her throat bobs as she swallows and frowns. “Why did you make me change it?”

My mouth opens, but I don’t speak. She must mean the mix, the proportions, Kahlua, vodka, cream. The glass is still hovering next to her cheek.

“I prefer it that way,” I say.

“No, you don’t.”

Without turning her body, even her neck, she extends her arm and dumps the drink into the tiny sink at her side. The ice cubes crackle and skid against the wet metal. She gives the glass one, precise shake and lowers it soundlessly to rest upside. I hadn’t noticed the sink was there.

I slide back onto my bar stool, expecting her to mix another Russian, but she reaches for one of the glasses above her head instead. It’s true. I should have ordered wine before, and I wonder if she can compute my exact preference too, a dry red, one older than her. But then I notice the white cloth is in her other hand again. She settles the dome of the glass into her palm and begins rotating it again. I watch. It’s all I can do.

“What do you want?” she asks. I start to quiz her about the vintage years of her cabernets, but she is speaking over me. “The way you paused when you entered, how you kept me in your periphery as you pretended to look around, even the stool you picked, no one sits that far away. You didn’t come for a drink.”

I feel my face warming, my smile widening as I stammer an apology. I’m shrugging too, blurting the next inanity that flashes to mind: “I guess I just like the view.” Then I don’t say anything. She is still working the glass around and around. It’s pristine.

“One hundred and forty-two,” she says.

I feel my eyebrows rise high into my forehead, but she doesn’t look up, doesn’t explain.

Then I spin my stool and blink at the swath of stars outside. They look identical to me, but of course they are changing, increment by increment, all night. Her window, the building, this pointless resort, it’s all moving, the whole planet, everything is. She must know every shifting constellation, the machinery of their endlessly possible worlds.

I stare, blinking, waiting for the next pinprick to vanish or burst over the window edge. I can’t see Ada slot the wine glass back into its row behind me. I just hear the click, like a delicate gear.


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