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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

 

Somehow I never officially announced that my new book was published this month. It’s my second book from Iowa and my first with co-author Nathaniel Goldberg (our second is under review right now at another press). The early reviews at Good Reads and Amazon look strong (4.33 and 4.6, respectively, I mean, you know, if you care about that sort thing). And last week Bleeding Cool posted our op-ed about Stan Lee and Bill Maher, which was then highlighted at the philosophy website Daily Nous, hitting that tiny sliver of potential readers who like both superhero comics and philosophy:

 

Big-Boy Philosophy

Bill Maher, an American talk show host, insulted comic book legend Stan Lee and the Internet was outraged.

Now that the furor has died down, it’s become apparent that Maher didn’t actually insult Lee. He insulted his fans—the millions who, according to Maher, Lee inspired “to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.”

Maher didn’t insult Lee’s comics either, which Maher read as a kid. Nevertheless, he explained, “the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” He was right about that assumption. Maher was born in 1956. When he was reading them in the late 60s—a peak moments for Stan Lee and Marvel—comics were still targeted at twelve-year-olds. It wasn’t till the 90s that the average reader tipped past twenty.

Maher was thirty-six in 1992 when Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer. He said nothing about that. Neither did he insult the Booker prize committee after Nick Drnso’s graphic novel Sabrina received a nomination earlier this year. In fact, Maher wasn’t objecting to comics generally but to the subgenre of superhero comics specifically that Lee helped popularize. Nor is he alone. Alan Moore, the most critically acclaimed author of the genre, called most superhero stories “unhealthy escapism” and a “cultural catastrophe,” even though his Watchmen made Time magazine’s 100 all-time best novels list.

Maher saved his most pungent punch, however, not for the casual comic book reader but for academic authors writing about comics. He was annoyed at professors “using our smarts on stupid stuff.” Maher laments that “twenty years or so ago, something happened—adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And because America has over 4,500 colleges—which means we need more professors than we have smart people—some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer.”

Maher invented that title, but it’s not implausible—maybe not for a dissertation, but certainly for an article. Neither of the authors of this essay wrote doctorates on superhero comics, but we have co-authored academic essays with titles that Maher could have cited instead: “Dr. Doom’s Philosophy of Time,” “Economy of the Comic Book Author’s Soul,” ”Loving Lassos: Wonder Woman, Kink, and Care.” Worse, we even have a new book from a university press devoted entirely to explaining superhero comics and philosophy. There we ask perhaps the stupidest question of all: Was Stan Lee a philosopher?

For starters, other than etymologically as love of wisdom, “philosophy” is famously difficult to define. It’s a priori system building for some, conceptual analysis for others, or foundational to other disciplines (perhaps) because it’s the most general discipline, having been the Ur discipline, for others still. Whatever else it is, though, philosophy often trades in thought experiments.

Like empirical experiments, thought experiments involve testing a hypothesis in a controlled environment. In the case of philosophy, the environment involves holding other things constant while thinking internal thoughts rather than tinkering with external objects. Thought experiments introduce situations where a few key details are changed from how they ordinarily are to test particular philosophical views. What if an evil genius is tricking you into believing that the world around you is real when it isn’t? What if on an alternate Earth everything is identical but for one almost undetectable detail? What if trying to travel to the past transported you to a different universe instead?

Any of these fantastical plots could have been the premise of one of Lee’s superhero comic book. He sometimes gave artists at Marvel little more to work with. Except none of those thought experiments comes from comics. They’re all written by highly regarded academic philosophers: René Descartes (1641), Hilary Putnam (1973), David Lewis (1976).

The list of potential “What If?”s seems endless. What if someone from the future returned to his childhood and told his past self about the future? What if someone’s body slowly transformed from flesh into rock, but no one around to notice? What if a god were stripped of his memories and forced to live as a crippled human? Except these scenarios don’t come from academic philosophy. They’re all from superhero comics—The Defenders (1975). The Fantastic Four (1961), The Mighty Thor (1968)—and Lee had a hand in them all.

Admittedly, comics don’t explicitly treat their scenarios as thought experiments, and Lee certainly didn’t set out to experiment in thought in any meaningful way. Further, just as we’d expect, actual analysis is done better by academic philosophy than by comic books. Nevertheless academic philosophers can come up short. As Ross P. Cameron, himself a philosopher, explains, “a typical fiction tends to be much longer than your typical thought experiment and hence can present you with a more detailed scenario.” Likewise, Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz (philosophers too) argue that, though both typical philosophical thought experiments and fiction rely on similar cognitive mechanisms, fiction “allows for a richer exploration of philosophical positions than is possible through ordinary philosophical thought experiments.” The exploration is richer not only because it’s more developed, but also because readers of fiction are immersed in a way that readers of philosophy usually aren’t. Smedt and Cruz continue: “Regardless of whether they are outlandish or realistic, philosophical thought experiments lack features that speculative fiction typically has, including vivid, seemingly irrelevant details that help to transport the reader and encourage low-level, concrete thinking.”

These philosophers contrast typical thought experiments with the longer scenarios in novels, but their points apply even better to comics. Novels employ words to express ideas, while comics employ both words and images, and so reading a comic operates on an additional cognitive level. It can be both more immersive and more challenging due to its multi-media form. And Lee was so central to so many comic books over his long career that he had a hand in myriad thought experiments. So, yes, Stan Lee was a philosopher of sorts.

Of course, Maher could complain that philosophy involves “using our smarts on stupid stuff.” He wouldn’t be the first to do so. The liberal arts, and humanities particularly, have been called worse. The Athenians accused Socrates of corrupting the youth, and while Stan Lee’s Spider-Man or Fantastic Four comics are nowhere near as penetrating or erudite as Plato’s Socratic dialogues, comics have been accused of corrupting the youth too. Eventually, Socrates’ youthful students grew up. One of them was Plato. According to Maher, “adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff” in the form of comics. Fortunately, Socrates’ youthful students didn’t give up philosophy either.

 

My review of Aimee de Jongh’s new graphic memoir, TAXI!!, went up at PopMatters.com earlier this week, and de Jongh tweeted back: “Whoa. This is such a beautifully written review. I don’t think I’ve seen a better analysis of my book, or my work in general, ever. Thank you, PopMatters!” She’s having a busy year. I’ve never written two reviews of the same artist within six months before.

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I’m always grateful when European comics creators make their way across the Atlantic, so many thanks to the UK press Self Made Hero for delivering Blossoms in Autumn, a collaboration between the Brussels-born writer Zidrou and the Netherlands artist Aimee de Jongh. Even more rarely, their graphic novel features two retirement-aged protagonists, overcoming loss and loneliness to achieve their literally rejuvenating romance.

While it’s not news to me that old people like sex too, the best thing about Blossoms in Autumn is the sex scene. I say this despite usually cringing during movie sex scenes, annoyed by close-up body-double nudity and general story-halting gratuitousness. Most have nothing to do with plot tension or character development or anything but the titillation of what is apparently assumed to be a straight male audience. Often it seems even the director has hired a body double since the sex acts are shot and edited in a style out of sync with the norms of the rest of the film—slow-motion pans of landscape-like close-ups cascading in and out of overlapping dissolves. Oddly, it’s similar qualities that I appreciate in Aimee de Jongh’s double two-page spreads.

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After a word-less, twelve-panel sequence in which her protagonists, Ulysses and Mediterranea (more on those names later), toss a bouquet of flowers and then themselves onto a bed, Jongh changes style radically. Instead of rows of rectangular, full-color panels neatly divided by unbroken white gutters, her unframed images spill across the pages in a cascade of shifting angles, bodies fading or cropped by the overlap of images, the wrinkled bedsheets merging multiple points-of-view into gutters of webbed lines. Instead of a painterly palette of realistic colors, Jongh suddenly limits herself to gray and white pencils and shape-filling overlays of soft browns. Where her line qualities previously vanished into story-world content, the lovers are now self-consciously drawn figures, composed of gestural lines with the shaded depth of artfully incomplete crosshatching. Eventually even the background of the bed vanishes, and the images float as freely as figures in an artist’s sketchbook. The effect is heightened by the book designer’s use of the same images for title page backgrounds, except intensified by enlarging and cropping, giving the thickened lines an even bolder and blunter energy.

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While the sex scene, both in its norm-breaking style changes and in its double placement, is the thematic center of the graphic novel, Jongh includes little nudity, focusing instead on the incremental removal of clothing and the characters’ interlocking body shapes. Mediterranea’s slip remains on throughout. This is not paradoxical prudishness. Earlier, Jongh depicts Mediterranea’s body in intentionally brutal and panel-dissecting detail as the character examines her own sagging wrinkles in her full-length bathroom mirror (with a great, unspoken reference to the Snow White phrase, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”).

Though the gaze within the story is her own, and the artistic hand outside the story is female too, I still felt a primarily male presence controlling the two-page spread. An earlier scene features Ulysses also nude in his own bathroom, but the moment is expressed in a single panel, with the character’s gaze inward and no mirror present. Though Ulysses is fifty-nine, only three years younger than his love interest, his own aging body does not concern him or the larger story.

Mediterranea, however, is defined by her body, aging or otherwise. When the two characters first meet in a doctor’s waiting room, it takes her only six speech balloons to announce: “I used to be a model.” When they have lunch, she elaborates: “I mainly worked in lingerie, or nude. I had a pretty nice body when I was young.” She was featured on the cover of the French magazine Lui, which, according to Google, translates Him, and so the title is a reference to its readership not its subject matter.

Jongh provides several thumbnail sketches of Mediterranea’s cover issue and so tiny glimpses of her once pretty nice body. While the image suits the softporn norms it’s meant to evoke, the effect is peculiar because the lithe figure does not resemble the contemporary woman at all. In fact, the figure doesn’t resemble anyone within the novel’s story world. While the character has aged, her current sags and wrinkles do not account for the differences. It’s as if the two sets of images represent different species. With this one exception, Jongh draws her naturalistic characters on the edge of cartoon. Their feet and heads are just a little too large, their bodies a little too compressed. While not hobbits exactly, they have more in common with that stout wholesome race than they do with the alien species represented by Lui. Within the visual context of the novel, Mediterranea’s transformation is less about her current age and more about the warped and warping norms of erotic photography.

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Four decades later, she still keeps a box of Lui copies because her proud father “emptied all the magazine stands and bookstores in the area to give them to all of his friends” until “he saw the pictures inside.” Ulysses is startled at first, but only because he grinningly admits: “When I was a kid, I’d swipe them from my dad! Given half a chance, I’d even jerk off to them.” This elicits a charmed grin from Mediterranea. When he purchases a copy of her cover issue from a used book store and offers it to her as a present, she asks if he masturbated to it, and though he does not answer, the two share a raucous laugh.

I have little difficulty accepting that Ulysses is a realistic portrayal of a fiftysomething French man—Zidrou after all is a fifty-six-year-old French man. And perhaps some French readers would interpret his behavior as charming. Ulysses calls Mediterranea “delectable,” likening her to the delicious cheese she sells in her shop, and later plants “Aged Mimolette” cheese flags in her hair before planting a kiss on her lips after declaring her name “an invitation to a voyage.” The sex scene would have followed, except his kiss apparently so inflamed her blood, it reverses menopause and reignites menstruation.

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While I could question Zidrou’s grasp of female biology, his understanding of female experience is more concerning. Prior to meeting Mediterranea, Ulysses’ unhappy widower routines include stopping at a neighborhood apartment to pay a woman 100 euros for sex. He thinks how the unnamed woman “could be my daughter” but, because of her “sweet, kind smile,” he feels she treats him “as if she were my mother.” Freudian ramifications aside, I appreciate a non-judgmental view of a sex worker, which includes a family portrait of her with her husband and two children, but then the narrating Ulysses waxes poetic about his own condom: “Who could ever express the infinite sadness of a used condom?” The image of the naked woman kneeling at his crotch unintentionally answers that rhetorical question. Worse, any believability the character may have had is lost when near the end of the novel Ulysses arrives at her apartment to break the apparently bittersweet news to her that he’s met someone and won’t be needing her services any longer. She has to turn her back to him to hide the emotion on her face—because we are to understand this married mother of two gains deep emotional comfort from giving old men blow jobs for cash.

The age and power differences in Ulysses and his partner’s professional relationship also echo the relationship between the two authors. If this graphic novel followed the creative process of most two-author comics, the project originated with Zidrou, who penned a complete script before handing it to the thirty-one-year-old Jongh to illustrate. If so, the characters’ questionable charms and implausibilities trace back to Zidrou. He is the lui, the him, controlling the narrative and its unfortunate notions of gender. So while there is much to admire in Blossoms in Autumn, I am looking forward to only one of its authors’ future books.

And that book has just arrived:

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

 

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Architecture is an apt subject for comics, the way a page’s layout can resemble a grid of windows or a blueprint of flowing rooms. That visual parallel, however, is not what fuels Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi’s architecture-driven graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade, a dystopic rendering of post-Soviet Armenia through the clouded eyes of a well-meaning but destructively naïve city planner.

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Instead of traditional layouts of rectangular panels and uniform gutters, Kebbi renders a violently chaotic world consisting entirely of colored pencil lines, all charged with gestural energy in overlapping and often literally scribbled shapes. Where traditional commercial comics feature a penciled draft that is later inked for clarify and then colored in discrete forms, Kebbi combines the three production stages into a single visual structure that is intentionally at war with itself. His final pages often include and even highlight what appear to be the light lines of his initial sketches, with some sections left untouched. Other areas of the same pages are drawn over multiple times, often in multiple shades of pencil, producing a thickness at odds with the sparseness of adjacent and sometimes even intersecting images. Because no shape has authority over any other, figures seem transparent, the lines of streets and buildings visible through the unfilled sections of their bodies—even when other sections of the same body are carefully crosshatched.

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Kebbi’s drawing style is at war with itself too. While obviously skilled in naturalistic norms of perspective and figure drawing, he is just as prone to toss those norms aside to create the impression a child crayoning. Even individual figures are stylistically contradictory, with a face and head precisely sketched but the rest of a body truncated into cartoonish proportions. The cartoon norm of blurgits—the drawing of multiple limbs to suggest one limb in motion—is oddly static here, as if Kebbi had sketched several limb positions and then couldn’t decide which to finalize. The combined product is a world teetering on carefully crafted incoherence—which is well suited to Viken Berberian’s script.

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The first one hundred pages feature the young architect Professor Frunz leading his graduate students through the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a country land-locked between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, but, as part of the former Soviet Union, still highly influenced by Russia. As Frunz discusses the city’s architecture, both current and the vast plans he and his architect father are in the process of implementing, wrecking balls swing around them. The balls are literal—prompting one of the students to shout “Duck!” to her professor, while a man reading a newspaper on a stool is struck and dies in a puddle of his own blood—but also cartoonishly and satirically surreal. As the professor continues his tour, he drags homeless people clinging to his ankles.

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This is not the actual city of Yerevan, but its reflection in Berberian and Kebbi’s political funhouse mirror. Frunz, the novel’s main character, is not its hero but the main object of its derision. The former homes of the homeless were bulldozed to make way for the father and son’s grand revisioning of the historic city—which means destroying the Soviet-era farmer’s market to build a solar-paneled supermarket, amid all of the new high-rises, even though, as one student points out, Yerevan is a seismic zone. If all goes on schedule (which it won’t), the homeless will be homeless for only five years. Meanwhile, they’ve each been compensated with a three-legged Alvar Aalto stool (which, according to Berberian’s architecturally-focused endnotes, is an actual thing).

Berberian provides his young professor a complex backstory, told in vacillating sections during his strolling lecture. The time divisions—like most other divisions in the graphic novel—are often hazy, but Kebbi wisely renders the past mostly in gridded layouts, as we follow Frunz through his Parisian childhood (his first word is “sea mint,” which his architecture-obsessed mother mistakes for “cement,” tragically shaping his later obsession), his Parisian university years (he and his girlfriend emotionlessly part ways after he drops out to work with his father), and his visit to Moscow (where Pussy Riot makes a memorable ten-page cameo as they storm a historic church, with one of the women screaming, “Fuck this. I should have studied architecture instead,” as she is handcuffed and kicked by police).

One of the novel’s running jokes is the absurdly large-breasted graduate student wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “Less Is More” (which, I was surprised to learn from the endnotes, originated as an architectural concept in the late 40s). By the end of the lecture tour, she is inspired to cross out “Less,” revising the phrase to reflect the Frunz parody-philosophy of “More is More.” The visual joke gets old though, since the woman and, more importantly, her cartoonish breasts appear more than thirty times in the first one hundred pages. Given the radical instability of Kebbi’s cartoon reality, did her breasts really have to be one of the few consistencies?

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Though she and the other graduate students vanish after page 105, Berberian and Kebbi still have more than another two hundred pages in store for Frunz. After also abandoning their alternating flashback structure, they introduce a homeless antagonist, the same one previously glimpsed grasping at Frunz’s legs, only now he has his own lines of dialog (rendered as free-floating words on the open page, the balloonless style Kebbi uses for all of his dialog). Plenty more chaos follows, with rebels and military clashes and many many more wrecking balls.

I doubt it’s giving much away to reveal that young Frunz eventually learns the errors of his way—because, even if he didn’t, that parodic lesson is the DNA of the novel. It also means that the transformation isn’t especially relevant or convincing since his character is so intentionally two-dimensional, a cardboard placard for his authors’ political commentary. Still, the hints of a deeper character do filter through Kebbi’s scribbles and Berberbian’s absurdist dialog—enough that I was glad when Frunz escapes the chaos of Yerevan he helped to create and returns to Paris. Sadly, this is no longer the Paris of our own world—not because of Kebbi’s chaotic artistic style, but because Notre Dame remains intact and unburnt, a coincidental but haunting fact for a graphic novel about the destruction of historic architecture.

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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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Some things you can’t unsee. They become afterimages, a kind of mental scar marring your visual memory. They haunt you. The sixth page of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness is currently haunting me: a child’s corpse lying on a forest floor. I’m a parent and so especially susceptible to the horror of the image, but it’s more than that. Poe misogynistically claims there’s no subject more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but since his wife was thirteen when he married her, “girl” would be the more accurate term. The girl of Beautiful Darkness looks about ten. Her hair is splayed around her head, and although her eyes are closed and her body could be relaxed in sleep, she is unquestionably dead. Over the course of the next few dozen pages, her body rots to bones.

Despite the mysteries and plot questions evoked by the opening image—Who is she? How did she die? Is there a killer? When will someone find out?—the novel ignores them all. Aurora (we learn her name from the notebook strewn beside her) is not the focus of the novel—or at least not this version of her. The authors focus instead on another Aurora, a lovely cartoon creature who lives in a fairy tale world of tea parties and princes. Or she did until the borderless panels of her first page darken into rigid gutters as a surging Blob-like goo forces her and her cartoon companions to flee the child’s dead body and emerge into the most horrifying world of them all: our own.

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It’s rare to find such a horrifically eloquent concept executed so perfectly. Beautiful Darkness was originally published in France in 2014 as Jolies Ténèbres. Though Fabien Vehlmann receives solo writing credit on the cover, the title page credits Marie Pommepuy for original idea and co-story, translated in the Drawn & Quarterly edition by Helse Dascher. Kerascoët is the lone artist, and the juxtaposition of his two styles is the novel’s most pervasive and powerful technique. The characters vary in proportions, but all fit the exaggerated and simplified norms of cartooning, specifically children’s books cartooning. The setting, however, including the vegetation and the animals and the hill-like shapes of the corpse they fled from, is naturalistic with finely defined contours and painterly depth. The visual contradiction defines the graphic novel’s core: these things do not belong together.

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The pairing produces horrors. How will these innocent fairy tale folk survive in a real-world wilderness? They won’t. It turns out there are a lot of ways to kill a cartoon: cat, bird, bee, toad, ants, poison ivy, kite, puddle, starvation. The first death is most startling, but the gruesome effect never lessens in part because the death of a cartoon violates the logic of cartooning itself. How many times has Wile E. Coyote fallen to his would-be death only to have his flattened but endlessly malleable body rejuvenated for the next scene? The absurd proportions of most cartoons would make the function of internal organs impossible.  And yet when one of Kerascoët’s cartoon characters attempts to be fed like a baby bird, the force of the mother bird’s beak down his throat widens and buckles his neck in standard cartoon fashion—but then his face is blood-soaked as he staggers away apparently to die of internal wounds.

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Though each death vignette is effective, the horror of Beautiful Darkness is more than the picking off of cast members as expendable as any in a Friday the 13th film. They are literally their worst enemies. It turns out methods for murdering cartoons include abandonment, cannibalism, and live burial.  But that’s not the disturbing part. While the apparent existence of naturalistic organs inside cartoon bodies is discordantly upsetting, the psychological ramifications echo deeper. It’s one thing to find the flow of maggots across your feet ticklish. It’s another to yank off the legs of a ladybug for fun.

“Things are not as they appear” is the ur-plot of most stories, but it is especially true of horror: the corpse under Poe’ floorboards, the fangs retracted behind a vampire’s smile. Horror always waits just beneath a pleasant surface. It’s the difference between transformation and revelation. Did hunger make the giant baby doll eat one of her tiny friends or was the giant baby doll always capable of that crime? Worse, another friend protests before quickly returning to playing, the devoured friend apparently never a friend at all. The pleasant surface of these cartoons cover a moral abyss devoid of empathy and self-reflection. They are the novel’s only monsters.

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And we’ve still not hit bottom, because the true plot question is whether Aurora, the kindest and most dutiful of all them all, will succumb—not to death but to the darkness revealed by the collision of her cartoon world against a naturalistic one. It’s no spoiler to say the nature of her character remains radically ambiguous. When she helps the others to build shelters out of the dead Aurora’s notebook, someone reads the name and asks, “Who’s Aurora?” Aurora answers, “I am.” At first I thought she was lying, maybe to prevent anyone feeling qualms about stealing (this is well before the first murder), but the answer seems much more complex.

Is the cartoon Aurora some kind of manifestation of the human Aurora? Is that why she cries at the sight of a fly hatched from her corpse? Was she and the others released by her death? Do all daydreams take physical forms when we die? Or is this a kind of afterlife? Has this cultural stereotype of childhood innocence died and gone to hell? This cauldron of questions are stirred most violently in a midpoint two-page spread in which the human Aurora wakes in sunlight, sits up from the forest floor, and wanders off—only for her motionless corpse to return after the page turn and the monstrous cartoon child who has burrowed into the cave of her skull to gasp awake, relieved that it was only a “nightmare.”

If you’re used to the blood splatter of slasher films or the simplistically evil monsters of supernatural thrillers, be warned: Beautiful Darkness covers an abyss of horrors far far deeper.

 

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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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