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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: May 2020

Did I mention that I co-wrote a graphic novel about a pandemic?

My collaborator, Carolyn Capps, and I finished it in November, as the very first CV-19 cases were occurring in China. Our pandemic has a supernatural edge, so the coincidence feels disturbingly non-coincidental. In our defense, we’d been working on the book for five years. The inspiration was Ebola and the epidemic that devastated West Africa through 2015. We originally planned our story to take place there, but then moved it to Charlottesville, Virginia. Last I checked Albemarle county has had nineteen hospitalized CV-19 cases, including nine deaths. Our graphic novel depicts something significantly worse.

Still, it’s more than a little weird to look at the images of our patient zero (who I played in the photo shoots Carolyn later used as source material for her drawings) emanating swirls of infection as he wanders Charlottesville’s not-yet-empty streets. Unlike with CV-19, our version of the Charlottesville hospital did get swamped with patients, including the doctor leading the response (played by Carolyn in those same photo shoots). The images of the walking mall returning to post-pandemic business hasn’t quite happened yet, but at least we are in phase one of reopening. Our fictional virus didn’t need a vaccine, just the recognition of the God-like entity accidentally inflicting it on us. It was just trying to say a cosmic hello.

Our main character is a recluse who only leaves her home to shop when her kitchen is empty. Unfortunately we all can relate to that now too. A literary agent in London has taken an interest in the project and is planning to show it to some UK publishers. Of course London is still largely in lockdown, so that wheel is moving very very slowly too.

The novel has gone through several massive mutations, but here are some early and very rough two-page spreads from a draft we mocked-up before incorporating words. I shot them on my phone to get an idea of how the pages paired. They’re not in order, but they give you a little sense of the parallel pandemic that’s been in my head for several years now:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not the cover to Lesley Wheeler’s new novel Unbecoming:

Except it kinda is. I mean that is the John Audubon illustration of an American Cross-Fox from his 1851 The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America that Lesley researched and selected for her cover art. The font is the same too — or it almost is. The proportions and placement of Lesley’s name are a little off from the actual cover, and the fox isn’t framed inside the title letters there either.

The actual book’s design is by Aqueduct Press’s Kathryn Wilham, and it’s a lot more legible, especially when viewed online as a thumbnail, which is how book covers tend to be viewed these days. The above design is my own arty tinkering, done while Lesley was revising the final draft. It’s such an exciting book, I wanted to be part of it.

Of course I was already part of it. For me reading Unbecoming is like gazing into a funhouse mirror. The parts are familiar, but their placement and proportions are off. The novel is most definitely not autobiographical, and yet it does take place in a small southern town that isn’t entirely unlike Lexington, VA. The main characters work at a liberal arts college that isn’t entirely unlike W&L University. The narrator’s English department isn’t entirely unlike our English department — though that’s probably true of any small liberal arts English department?

The narrator really really isn’t Lesley, but she is a new department chair — a position Lesley suffered through a few years ago. She also has a daughter and son, similar ages as our son and daughter those same few years ago. Her husband is also struggling to establish his own foothold in academia, same as me before switching from adjunct to tenure-stream not so long ago. His name is Sylvio, which is nothing like Chris, and he’s in psychology, which is nothing like creative writing, let alone comics studies. Lesley sends him off to teach for a year out of state, a fate I’ve somehow avoided, despite the improbability of our both securing tenure in the same department. Supernatural forces may well have been involved.

Oh, that’s another difference. Lesley’s narrator has superpowers. Like Lesley, she’s a magical thinker — only with more definitive results. Though I don’t discount the possibility, I’m not aware of my wife ever stopping a careening car with her mind. It’s such a smart, superhero-reversing premise. Instead of her mutant abilities blossoming with puberty, the narrator’s erupt with menopause.

Or perimenopause, since I recall the first scene of the first draft opened with a menstrual blood bath. Those opening pages evolved the most during her multiple revisions. I miss the bathroom scene–because why shouldn’t that kind of blood be front and center in a supernatural thriller?–but it’s probably best that she blotted it down to a couple far less horror-soaked sentences now buried several pages in.

The whole novel is haunted that way for me. Not just by our own parallel universe, but by all of the shifting scenes and sentences I read as she revised, fine-tuned, re-revised, and revised again, and again. I tell my creative writing students that revising is writing, that a first draft is just manufacturing clay so you have something to work with. I think Lesley’s first draft took six weeks — same as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Jack Kerouac claimed that On the Road only took three and that he didn’t revise a word. He was lying. It took ten years and six drafts.

The old title was The Changeling Professor, which I liked plenty, but the new title is even better. It has it’s own haunting real-world origin story, which is not mine to tell. I’ll just say it’s the best repurposing of a gratuitous insult I’ve ever witnessed.

I also have to admit that my funhouse vertigo is fair comeuppance, since I subjected Lesley to the same for years. When I started writing short stories nearly twenty years ago, my first batch featured a married couple with a similar resemblance/non-resemblance to us. I strung them through about ten stories, thought I was done with them, but then discovered another ten — all disturbingly focused on the wife’s adultery and subsequent pregnancy. Sorry about that, Les. And thank you thank you thank you for not making Sylvio cheat while away in the Carolinas.

After almost getting that novel-in-stories published, I switched to another parallel universe set in yet another small college town within easy driving range of DC. Lesley hasn’t named the college in Unbecoming, so I’ve decided it’s the same as in my long-time but still current novel-in-progress, The Patron Saint of Superheroes. Maybe it will become our not-so-private Yoknapatawpha county.

Meanwhile, check out Lesley’s starred review at Publishers Weekly The last sentence is the best: “Readers will be taken with this powerful and deeply satisfying tale.” That’s not magical thinking. That’s just plain true.

This, by the way, is the cover of Lesley Wheeler’s new novel Unbecoming:

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A description of an image is an unexecuted idea, and visual art produced primarily from the verbal descriptions of ideas is comparatively limited. Even the most visually adept, artistically attentive scripter cannot describe in words what an artist discovers and achieves through the drawing process.

Why does "Watchmen" use the 9-panel grid? - Literature Stack Exchange

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the most acclaimed graphic novel of the 20th century, is an illustrated script drawn in the semi-naturalistic style of the superhero art codified by Marvel and DC during the 1970s. The additional color art of John Higgins, while innovative for the mainstream genre and time period, is so limited by the production necessities of color separation boards that most viewers outside of comics would probably consider it unaesthetic. A black and white Watchmen might be a superior work of art.

DAVE GIBBONS - WATCHMEN Nº9 PAGE 20 (THE DARKNESS OF MERE BEING ...

Watchmen drawn in a less derivative style would likely be superior too (unless you argue that Gibbons’ largely standardized style produces visual commentary on the genre that parallels the story’s deconstruction of superhero norms). But in literary terms—which is the way in which the novel has been read and appreciated—all rendered versions would be equal. Watchmen, in other words, is a great novel, but as a work of visual art, it is unremarkable.

The Nearness of You” Is Comics At Their Best – And It's Free Right ...

Comics writer Kurt Busiek rightfully considers his story “The Nearness of You” possibly “the best piece I’ve ever written,” and while in literary terms it deserves praise as “the best to appear in [Busiek’s series] Astro City” (Gertler 2002: 106), it is visually less effective because of penciller Brent Anderson’s necessary adherence to Busiek’s script. The comic’s opening page captions are striking for their use of non-visual sensations and out-of-scene details:

“She has a low, throaty laugh, and a capped tooth from a bicycle accident when she was eight years old.

“Her shampoo makes her hair smell likes apples and wildflowers.”

But Busiek’s visual description “THE BACKGROUND IS MISTY, INDISTINCT” is an idea not an image and it prompts Anderson toward the literal indistinctness of a white background and a visually generic swirl of mist. Busiek describes “MIKE” as only “A YOUNG MAN IN HIS LATE TWENTIES,” a name and age range that Anderson adorns with short, non-descript hair and a generic tuxedo.

When Busiek describes him later wearing “BOXERS AND A T-SHIRT,” Anderson draws a white t-shirt and boxers with no pattern or other distinguishing characteristics. Busiek labels Mike’s BEDROOM but offers no details, and so Anderson gives it rectangular furniture that suggests Platonic ideals more than physical objects with individual histories of manufacturing and use by specific people in specific circumstances. The scripted MIKE is “GLUM,” an idea translated into the same pose twice, his head slumped into his open palm as he stares down. Busiek’s visual descriptions also produce redundant images, as when the captioned words “and then she’s gone” accompany an image of Mike suddenly alone as his arms sweep the dissipating swirl of mist, an accurate rendering of the scripted instructions: “SUDDENLY, SHE’S GONE, AND HE’S PANICKY, GRASPING AT NOTHING” (109).

The Nearness of You | Warwick Johnson

Anderson in short draws what he’s told to draw, making additions to the extent required to form the impression of physical reality. That reality, however, reproduces the visual vagueness of written language. It is derived from ideas rather than things. This is why Ivan Brunetti warns that when “form and content diverge, only a specter remains, and nothing solid can be built,” and so images must “organically evolve” rather than be “imposed by an external force” (2011: 6).

Compare “The Nearness of You” to a similar moment from David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp.

Like MIKE, the main character, Asterios, sits in his underwear on the edge of a bed while staring off, haunted by the memory of a lost lover. Asterios is rendered more cartoonishly than MIKE—no human skull could ever produce a head of that shape—yet the odd specificity of his pose, the way he’s examining a blister on the sole of his upturned foot that he’s holding in both hands, creates a more grounded reality. The furnishing—the pineapple-shaped bedposts, the zigzag-patterned comforter, the claw-footed dresser, the ornate base of the lamp set inexplicably on the floor, let alone all of the individual candles and decorations—these all create a sense of a specific reality, even though Mazzucchelli renders each in minimal detail.

A prose writer works in prose, literally thinks on paper, producing specific words in an order that she revises, subtracting old worlds, substituting in new words, adding new sentences, repeatedly, until arriving at a finished product: the set of final words in the final order. Through that process, she discovers, tests, throws out, adds, and refines thousands of details about her characters and the world they inhabit and the events they experience. The story still may be conceptual—it happens in her and her readers’ heads—but those concepts are shaped by and evolved through specific words. It all happens on paper.

Comics should happen on paper too. But the paper of comics is not the kind that rolls into a typewriter. A comics script is not a necessary stage in the process of writing a comic. It’s often a creative detour, a side road that adds miles to the speedometer but through the wrong terrain. Instead of a script, Ivan Brunetti recommends writing “a text summary” but only to “get them out of your system,” since your “story will begin to change the second you put pencil to paper,” a point Chris Ware further stresses:

“letting stories grow at their own momentum was a more natural and sympathetic way of working than carpentering them out of ideas and plans. And the images suggested the stories, not the other way around. I believe that allowing one’s drawings to suggest the direction of a story is comics’ single greatest formal advantage.” (Brunetti 2011: 66)

The continuing development of the comics form requires further steps in such visual writing, allowing image to not only guide story but to determine it.

Busiek is the author of “The Nearness of You” and Anderson is, to quote Brian Michael Bendis, his “art monkey”—which does not describe Anderson’s skill, only his industry’s creative process. Its emphasis on visual storytelling over visual aesthetics also means that, as Pascal Lefévre observes, “a lot of artists use stereotypical icons (like the Statue of Liberty for New York or the pyramids for Egypt) because such famous buildings or monuments can be easily recognized” (2009: 357).

Could Busiek’s script be rendered as a non-stereotypical work of art? Anderson would need to explore and articulate his own visual dialect, one that did not rely so fully on the customs of superhero comics art specifically and icons generally—something the commercial publishing needs of Astro City likely prohibited. He would also have to leave the role of assistant to become a co-writer by developing a visual universe rich with his own imaginings. Where did Mike buy that tux? Was it a rental? Was it his first choice? His fifth? Did he splurge? Did he go for a cheaper one and regret it later—or does he prefer off-brands? Are the shoulders a little too tight, the pant legs a little too long? How old are those boxers anyway? How did he rip the bottom seam of the t-shirt? Or is that crease from the package he pulled it out of yesterday? Was that dent in the bottom bookcase shelf there when he bought it second-hand at Goodwill or did he do that himself while following the Ikea assembly directions?

Those answers could come in part form real-world props—an actual bookcase and an actual tuxedo, ones the artist positions by hand, though a composite of internet images might suffice if the Google search unearths more than catalogues and advertisements. Generic images produce generic worlds. While readers and scripters might visualize surprisingly little, a comics artist must visualize a universe as palpable and specific as her own world and then render it in expressive lines as equally rich. That richness will emerge not from ideas, but from physical marks on a physical page.

When I first read this graphic novel in January, the notion of a woman self-confined in her apartment as she battles depression was novel. Four months later it’s an international norm. Gg’s portrayal of isolation suddenly speaks to millions of us. Her battle is against a different invisible enemy, but the dark specter of her depression looks a lot like our monstrous fears of CV-19. I’ve never seen a story altered so drastically and so quickly by context before.

Constantly: GG: 9781927668726: Amazon.com: Books

 

Gg is a master of the graphic short story. Stop by her website and you’ll see most of her works fall under fifty pages. (The 2017 graphic novel I’m Not Here is the happy exception.) They also all feature a young, Asian-looking protagonist who I find hard not to identify with gg herself—though who knows? The enigmatically brief bio included on the back flap of I’m Not Here, “gg lives and works in a small prairie city in Canada,” is replaced by a blank space in Constantly.

Because I assume the author has never been held prisoner in a desert asylum or worked a corporate job in a dystopian future or battled a monster made from her own cut-off hair, I think of her as a graphic novelist rather than a graphic memoirist. Still, her portrayal of a second-generation immigrant struggling to simultaneously love and escape her dysfunctional parents gave I’m Not Here a thoroughly realistic grounding—even though the mother’s arm seems to be held on by tape, and it was never entirely clear whether the protagonist dreamed she stole another woman’s life or if she somehow became her own doppelganger.

Constantly could continue that story, with gg’s avatar suffering the isolation of the same but now prison-like apartment. She literally can’t get out. All of the story’s forty-eight pages take place in the stark interiors of her new home and the even starker interior of her depression. Where I’m Not Here found its force in ambiguity and the maybe-fantastical, Constantly is comparatively straightforward in its portrayal of the protagonist’s sometimes literal battle with her own psyche. That struggle is made physical with the visual metaphor of black, half-translucent hands spinning her in her sleep, tugging her to the floor, shoving her from a doorway.

INDIE VIEW: 'Constantly' is a visual poem about the struggle you ...

Those dark forearms could belong to the hair monster gg’s earlier protagonist fought to the death in her 2015 A Mysterious Process. Though the battle apparently continues, much has changed in those four years. gg’s style has evolved into an ever-sharper array of texture-less shapes that somehow evoke photographic realism despite teetering toward total abstraction. It took me several blinks to decode the close-up jumble of upside-down limbs on the cover, an image that extends into the opening pages as the protagonist floats in the half-dark of dreams before tumbling awake on her mattress.

gg's 'Constantly' Knows Where the Monsters Go - PopMatters

Like her protagonist’s world, gg’s palette is strikingly limited: the dusty gradations of a sometimes almost imperceptible pink, and an equally thin gray that at times thickens to purplish black. The white at the gutter edge often penetrates panels to dominate images. Each page is a balance of shape and color, holding the eye long past the point of narrative necessity. gg’s style is further evidence that the comics form is not foremost literature but visual art, requiring readers to become viewers willing to pause and flip backwards and pause again, worrying less about the grammar of visual storytelling and more about the haunting connotations of images.

Layouts vary between full-page panels and sets of three equally divided full-widths. That visual rhythm creates a kind of narrative logic too, with each three-step process (trying to stand up from a yoga mat, trying to make food in a blender, trying to turn the doorknob to leave) followed by the failed and enlarged consequence (her collapsed body, a puddle across floor tiles, her slumped head before the still-closed door). Most appear as self-enclosed two-page spreads, creating tiny micro-plots floating within the large arc of the novella.

Unlike most of gg’s other works, Constantly is silent, further emphasizing the protagonist’s isolation. There’s literally no other person in her world to talk to. The novella isn’t wordless though. gg spaces a memo pad list throughout the pages, each new entry continuing the repeated phrase “I don’t want …” Things she doesn’t want include: to eat, sleep, live, die, laugh, cry, leave, be forgotten, be different, be normal.

Most poignantly, she also writes that she doesn’t want “a body.” This is ironic since Constantly is a study of the protagonist’s (and presumably the author’s) body. There’s no nudity, but the form-fitting clothes and underwear highlight rather than obscure, creating a double intimacy when coupled with the emotionally charged subject matter. The novella keeps the viewer at the protagonist’s round shoulder, peering into her sealed-in life. Though gg’s drawing are never sexualized, they do evoke pleasure in the human (and specifically female) form, creating a paradoxical even disturbing beauty through a portrayal of mental suffering.

The visual motifs of a clock (dark fingers keep pushing the mechanical hands backwards) and a set of cell-like window blinds (that quietly echo the horizontal lines of the memo pad) add to the feeling of enclosure—though not claustrophobia. Despite the story’s psychic darkness, gg’s pages are oddly light, as if inching slowly toward the intangible. Other than the almost-black comforter threatening to swallow her in her sleep, the protagonist’s world and body are in greater danger of fading into an opposite kind of nothingness. Those black hands might be the only things keeping her on the page. In the end I’m not so certain who was writing on the memo pad or who tore it up. “Who are you? What do you want?” are exactly the questions someone needs to be asking.

But Constantly offers no easy answers and certainly no plot-closing solutions to depression. The older gg apparently no longer believes monsters can be battled to the death. They move in with you. Escaping the struggles of an old home means facing the struggles of a new home. Struggle is the constant.

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

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I’ve been leaning harder into the absurdity of making digital art with the “deprecated” software MS Paint. Lately that’s meant taking family photographs and unphotographing them: incrementally distorting each through an idiosyncratic set of processes until I arrive at something radically different from the original photo. The image above began its existence as this photograph:

 

That’s my daughter, and I’m pretty sure she’s sitting in the hallway outside the gift shop of the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh. Though I’m not sure which trip this would have been. It used to happen fairly regularly while my pre-Alzheimer’s mother was still alive and living in her Pittsburgh condo.

Converting the image involved a gob ton of incremental effects, before I arrived at something I thought was both the end point and, alas, artistically mediocre:

But then I returned to the file with a fresh set of ideas (including merging it with gray scale fragments made in Illustrator, my first minor venture outside Paint):

And though I again thought the image was done (and I think less mediocre), I eventually went back in for one more round. The image at the top is the same only cropped into a square again and flipped because I liked the direction of the hair:

This experiment opened the door to a dozen more, all based on my family members (and selfies too). I posted a sequence of Cameron in March, but here’s another of Madeleine, beginning with this disaster:

I think the CV-19 context was overwhelming my sensibilities, so I started over and eventually finished with a very different final image:

Both images began as this photograph:

The disastrous path diverged here:

And the corrective take-two instead turned here:

Which I think reveals something about abstraction and the acceptable bounds of aesthetic distortion. Micro-level distortion (think Seurat’s pointillist spray of dots or Van Gogh’s butterknife-like brushstrokes) is fine, but macro-level (here the larger facial proportions) is trickier. Also not all macro-level proportions are created equal. The final second version is plenty distorted at both levels, but while the forehead and jaw are impossibly square, the central eyes-nose-mouth keep relatively close to the source image. The disastrous first version loses sense of those most crucial features.

In addition to the questions of what kind and how much distortion is too much, how little is too little is key too. Here’s an unpainting of my spouse distorted at (mostly) micro-level only:

The effect is not unlike “soft focus.” If you squint or step a few feet away from the screen, it looks like the original photograph.

What’s not clear is how much macro-level facial distortion an image can hold before it crosses the aesthetic divide. Here’s another adaptation of the same source image:

Maybe I have weird taste, but I prefer the second.

 

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