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

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Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

It’s a delight to plunge into the depths of a graphic novel that so thoroughly delights in its own comics-ness. Tumult by collaborators John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy is on its surface a noir romp of a story with guns and killers and a leading lady who is several leading ladies—a victim of multiple personality disorder and government experiments who is both antagonist and heroine. But that surface also leads into a deep end of visual surprises infused with a surreal energy unseen except in some of the most obscure corners of Golden Age comics.

Artist Michael Kennedy’s style is hard to pin. The gritty noir context emphasizes the starkness of his lines and shapes in a way that evokes Michael Gaydos’s Jessica Jones or David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. And though his edges are sharp, there’s an internal inexactness to the oversized images that produces the tension of a camera set a degree out of focus. Kennedy also likes to center and isolate his subjects with deliberately anti-climatic framing—only to then zoom-in for abrupt and too-close close-ups of a mouth or an eye. Key moments sometimes go undrawn, throwing what should be a central event into unexpected ambiguity. Other times his frames inappropriately crop out heads, or he angles a sequence of panels from behind a speaking character, offering repeating black hair instead of shifting facial expressions. Except his faces often don’t shift but reproduce identical renderings with evolving backgrounds, emphasizing the drawn artifice of the page and its blocky layouts.

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Each stylistic detail is fascinating, but the accumulative weirdness goes way deeper. The world of Tumult seems to be filtered through some obscure and obscuring process that throws its reality into uncertainty. As a viewer, you’re never quite sure where you’re standing—let alone whether its solid ground. The effect is ideal for the subject matter: a woman whose identity changes page to page with no clear, controlling center. Though the narrator is her observer, the fabric of the drawn world reflects her internal tumult. She is an incomplete weave of contradictory memories and blackouts, captured in Kennedy’s off-angles and odd cuts and other roaming peculiarities.

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But the weirdness goes even deeper still. Yes, there’s a conspiracy plot and government scientists and even a transcendent spiritual hallucination, but those multiple personalities are also meta-types from early 20th century comics. When they chat with each other, we’re dropped into a literally tarnished, benday dot-colored world of newspaper comic strips. Even the narrator’s world, the baseline reality of the novel, has more to do with the 1930s than the 2010s or the 1990s action film references that litter the dialogue.

Kennedy’s biggest and most unexpected influence seems to be Fletcher Hanks, AKA Barclay Flagg, a profoundly obscure comics creator who, for his less-than-two-year Golden Age career, produced the unlikely likes of Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Rightly forgotten for decades, Hanks re-premiered in the ground-breaking anthology Raw in the 1980s where his incomprehensible incompetence was reinterpreted and embraced for its accidental surrealist effects. Editor Greg Sadowski writes in his Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Superheroes 1936-1941: “Hanks’ singular, obsessive—and at times unintentionally hilarious—approach found a fortuitous opening in comics’ formative period; his work would have been unthinkable only a year or two later.”

To be clear, in terms of skill and intent Kennedy’s artwork is the opposite of Hanks’. Kennedy is making carefully crafted choices for dizzying effects. He’s just selecting those effects from the idiosyncratic chaos of Hanks’ naively drawn pages. There’s also the possibility—since Tumult’s PR and surrounding matter never mention Hanks—that I’ve projected influence where there’s only coincidental (albeit unnerving) resemblance. Regardless, Tumult is artistically ingenious.

Image result for John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy tumult

Instead of Hanks, the back-cover blurb evokes Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith—a legendary film director and a noir novelist best known for her Ripley series about a psychopathic anti-hero. While both references are apt, they point away from the novel’s most interesting qualities because they point away from the comics form. Tumult is not simply a narrative that happens to have been developed graphically and so might still translate into film or prose. It is so fundamentally a comic that talking about its plot and characters without their visual grounding literally and metaphorically misses the picture.

This isn’t the case with many graphic novels. Some comics stories work the comics form like storyboards of documentary-like events set in a fictional world. The artist gives a certain stylistic spin to the content, but if the comic were to change artists mid-story—a norm of so many mainstream series—the story isn’t fundamentally affected. But Tumult without Kennedy’s defining style would not be Tumult.

Taken as just a narrative—presumably the narrative that Dunning wrote in script form and handed to Kennedy to illustrate—Tumult is a perfectly good retro-thriller. While unsympathetically dickish, its primary narrator Adam is no talented Mr. Ripley or hard-boiled avenger policing a moral wasteland. He’s just a second-rate film director sabotaging his life because he doesn’t have what it takes to be a main character. So when the femme fatale finally enters on page 46, she’s not only his life line but the story’s too.

Though Adam longs to be her noir savior, he recedes into the plot’s margins as Morgan and her multiples rightfully claim center stage and the dramatic action. It turns out Adam literally is just a supporting character. That’s an intriguing meta-fact, but neither the character nor the story seems aware of it, dropping the elaborate first act into retroactive limbo. If Adam’s actions, including his motivated point-of-view on Morgan, don’t unlock some key plot or personality element, then what’s the pay-off for our having watched him cheat with a teenager to dump his girlfriend of ten years and then squander his single shot at a major movie deal because he’s too busy binge drinking? Not only he but his entire character arc recedes, and so then Morgan’s story might have been observed from just about anyone’s perspective, not just this particular nobody’s.

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But the artfulness of Tumult isn’t Kennedy’s alone. Dunning’s Adam offers more than one killer description (“Like a spaghetti western set, I looked okay from a distance”), and I presume it’s Dunning’s script that mapped any of a range of visual motifs that Kennedy executed. I especially admire the fantasized close-ups of the teenager’s foot stepping on Adam’s fingers as they grip a cliff edge. The initiating sequence runs parallel to but is unexplained by Adam’s panic-driven narration, leaving the viewer to decode the visual metaphor and how, even though the event never actually happened, it kinda did.

I could go on, but these visual pleasures are best experienced first-hand. Tumult is also this dynamic duo’s first adventure together. I will be startled if it’s their last.

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

[Also, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

Mon 10/8/2018

Hi Chris

I’m Michael Kennedy, the artist on Tumult, a graphic novel you recently reviewed for the Pop Matters website. I’m writing with positive thoughts about your analysis of the book and my work in particular as you touched on a couple of things that haven’t been noticed by other reviewers! And when I read your author profile as a scholar of comics and literature I was no longer surprised.

Firstly I appreciate the comments on the panel choices, only one other scholar has asked me about the choice to ‘zoom’ in on certain things, the script did contain a few visual directions like that and it then became a stronger part of the adaption into art. For me I’m a big fan of heightened emotion and melodrama, although a large fear I had was storyboard comparisons. I feel as though it comes from instinct and a level of primivitism in storytelling that I’m fond of.

That leads to the Fletcher Hanks influence which there was an fair amount of, however the true influence comes from horror comics of the 1950s (of the non E.C variety, found in “four colour fear” a Fantagraphics collected book) so I was indeed setting out to make a comic.

This all stems from John’s script again, as the Ben day cymk type scenes were in the script, with the hotel sequences deriving from strips like “little lulu” and the graveyard scene derived from Frank King and some of his more experimentally drawn strips in “Gasoline Alley.”

Anyways I really just wanted to reach out and show my appreciation for your article. I imagine John feels the same way.

All the best

Michael Kennedy



Hi Michael,

What a pleasure to get your note. And, frankly, I’m relieved that I didn’t completely invent the Fletcher Hanks influence! I know some EC, but not Four Color Fear–but I still sense that 50s horror vibe generally. And I probably should have tracked down the specifics on Little Lulu and Gasoline Alley. It really is a remarkable book you and John made, that great balance of accessible but still idiosyncratically weird. Are you working on anything new right now?


I’m glad you enjoyed me reaching out, I think the little lulu and frank king refs were only subliminal influences but a Easter egg for some nonetheless. We’re currently working on some pitches for the American mainstream, monthly comics, African science fiction, some alien abductions, (all top secret obviously haha).

Well, good luck with those pitches and projects; I’m looking forward to your future work!

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Last year I posted a sequence of five posts exploring how comics visualize plot. The first harmonized Freytag’s plot pyramid, Todorov’ equilibrium circle, and Cohn’s panel types; the second used that combined structure to define closure through implied plot content; and the third and fourth tested it on abstract comics.

I’ve since been in conversation with Neil Cohn (who has to be the most generous email correspondent ever), working out differences between his visual narrative grammar and my proposed structure. In short, mine (balance, disruption, imbalance, climax, new balance) exists in a comics viewer’s mind, while his panel types (Orienter, Establisher, Initial, Prolongation, Peak, Release) exist on paper (which then of course is experienced in the viewer’s mind too). That means there’s no such thing as, for example, an invisible or undrawn Initial, but there is a mental experience of a parallel disruption in a viewer’s understanding of the partially drawn, partially implied plot event. Or at least that’s my hypothesis. To make my claims worthwhile, they need some theoretical grounding.

Another way to put it, narrative panel types are event structure manifested. Cohn’s Initial-Peak-Release (typically) aligns with his mentor Ray Jackendoff’s event structure Preparation-Head-Coda. But while Cohn is looking literally at panels, “events” (as Jeffrey Zacks and Barbara Tversky explain) “are in the minds of the beholders.” Each is “a segment of time at a given location that is conceived by an observer to have a beginning and an end.” Since my aim is to explain closure through a theory of undrawn comics content, Cohn’s grammar panels aren’t useful because they apply only to drawn content.

I thought Jackendoff would be useful, but I found that his Prep-Head-Coda structure didn’t always align with my own event structure. For him an “event” consists of “a Head (the main action), with an optional Preparation (things that have to be done before the Head can be begun) and an optional Coda (things that are done to restore the status quo ante).” That’s similar to Todorov’s three phrase equilibrium-equilibrium-equilibrium plot structure (and Todorov’s fourth step is an “attempt of restore equilibrium”), but Jackendoff’s example didn’t line up.

He subdivides “making coffee” into twenty units, including “put water in the machine.” He explains:

“The Head consists of actually pouring water into the machine from the pot. But in order to do this, one must first measure water into the pot–the Preparation–which in turn is organized into Preparation plus Head, and each of these has further organization. And once one has poured the water into the machine, one must replace the empty pot in the machine–the Coda.”

So it seems “Head” sometimes refers to the culmination of a “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s Peak) and sometimes it is the “main action” (which parallels Cohn’s entire visual narrative grammar).

So now I’m going back a couple more decades to a series of experiments and papers by Darren Newtson in the 70s. Newtson divides actions into “a series of cognitively discrete units” by identifying unit boundaries he terms “breakpoints,” which are boundaries between larger, multi-unit sections and are also units themselves. Breakpoints are key because they serve as “points of definition” for an overall action, where “each breakpoint is a point of reference, or comparison, from both the preceding and following breakpoints” creating an experience of “continuity … between successive action units.” He even divides a video into still frames that he calls “an almost comic-strip summary of ongoing action sequences.”

His approach harmonizes with Cohn’s narrative grammar (because he’s using manifested images) and plot structure (because he’s also talking about unseen and so implicit behavior inferred from manifested images).  This also suggests why Cohn’s Peaks are so significant because “action units are defined by a type of information uniquely available at breakpoints.” This is true primarily because “breakpoints are selected [and here I would say “created” in the case of comics] on the basis of a meaningful change having occurred relative to the preceding breakpoint.”

Newtson also reveals something about Todorov. Todorov identifies five plot points, but only three broad units: equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. They are separated by a disruption and (altering his language a little) a restoration. That’s an event structure (and so not necessarily manifested as comics panels), but in Cohn’s narrative grammar they correspond with Initial and Peak. Viewing them as breakpoints reveals how much less important other panel types are because they are one of many available “nonbreakpoints” (Newtson’s term) within the equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium spans. That accounts for why Cohn can divide the first phase into Orienter and Establisher, with multiple Prolongations in the middle phase, and (presumably) multiple Release panels in the third. Only Initials and Peaks then are unique and defining.

Looking again at my own system, I’ve already literalized the two breakpoints by drawing them as actual breaks in the preceding line angles:I now want to revise out “climax” (which for Freytag has a different meaning anyway) and use “restoration” instead–though that’s not quite the right term either, because it implies a return (Todorov’s circle) to the the original state, which is wrong. Similarly for Newtson, the second breakpoint is the same as the first, so they’re both disruptions (points of defining change) of a preceding status quo. But that doesn’t quite fit his own analysis that “Behavior is composed of coherent units with beginnings and endings.” A beginning and ending requires two breakpoints, a first and second relative to each other, making each distinct.

Notice how this analysis matches McCloud’s original closure example for an action-to-action panel transition:

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These are the two action-defining breakpoints of a larger implied plot structure that could include multiple other panels. The same is true of McCloud’s original moment-to-moment example:

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Though here there’s some ambiguity. Both images could be understood as what I term “balance,” the first establishing a status quo (eyes open), and the second the new status quo (eyes closed). If the action is “She closed her eyes,” the first image is necessary to contrast the action-defining change in the second. Technically, the disruption would be implied (her eyes began to close), making the second either a restoration (if we understand this to be the exact moment that they fully shut) or a balance (if this is one of several moments in which here eyes remained closed). The second image could also revise the first into a disruption if it is understood retroactively to mean: “Her eyes were beginning to close” (even if visually imperceptible). We could similarly debate which panel types from Cohn’s visual grammar best fit, but it’s the underlying (and so undrawn) event structure that allows viewers to relate them at all.

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McCloud’s original subject-to-subject example is interesting too. The first image alone implies an entire event: “She won the race.” The second image could be understood to take place at the same moment, and so a second manifestation of the same breakpoint. But the learned logic of panel progression implies a movement forward in time too, so the second image becomes a restoration in which the holder of the stopwatch is no longer timing the winning racer. If so the overall action is: “She recorded the racer’s time,” making the first image a disruption (of the status quo of the stopwatch clicking away), followed by the time-keeper responding by moving her thumb until it achieves it’s action-defining position in the second image. If so, both images are separate breakpoints.

So while an infinite number of images could be drawn between breakpoints (because of the Zeno effect), those possible images are constrained by event structure. That means closure is event structure. The only undrawn story content that readers experience through the juxtaposition of two or more images is the minimal content required by a reader’s mental construction of the partially drawn event. While anything could have occurred in the ambiguous lapse of time between any of the above paired images, we understand the images as breakpoints that define a discrete event. Any story content that is not part of that discrete event is not implied and so did not happen–at least not via closure. An artist can always reveal later that something previously unimplied did happen, retconning content that reveals an earlier lie of omission.

Zacks and Tversky discuss this generally as “schema theory”:

“recognizing an event as an instance of a category consists of matching it to a schema stored in memory. Understanding what is going on consists of matching features of the perceptual world to variables in the schema. In ongoing perception, missing information is filled in by references to the patterns of intercorrelation captured by the schema, leading to a fluid interplay of bottom-up and top-down processing.”

Bottom-up means from the eyes to the brain and so applies to the actual images of a comic, and top-down means from long-term memory which is where event structure lives. I’m still vacillating about my own terminology–is my system “plot structure” or “event structure”?–but I think that covers the basics. If I’m right, we have a method for constraining closure and so understanding McCloud’s “invisible art.” I’m tentatively calling it:

Event closure.


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Image result for Julie Delporte This Woman’s Work

Reading the English translation of Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work makes me wish I could read it again in its original French—not for any imagined flaw in its translators’ fluid prose, but the opposite: I can’t imagine this intensely personal memoir existing in any different form.

No translation is simple. Every language has not only its own sounds, but no two words share exactly the same set of connotations either, even when their dictionary definitions appear identical. Sometimes differences are overt, as when Delporte declares: “the grammar I was taught still hurts,” she must add an explanation in an asterisked note at the bottom of the page: “In French, the masculine takes precedence.” It would be a fitting subtitle for her memoir.

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Graphic works add another level of complexity to language because a choice of font—something readers of prose-only novels hardly register—is a visual element embedded into each page. Translating the effects of graphic design is even more complicated when the words aren’t contained by talk balloons and caption boxes of conventional comics. Delporte’s words are all unframed. Her script winds around and between and sometimes overtop her drawings in similarly penciled lines, dissolving the differences between handwriting and drawing style, diary and sketchbook. Few comics are composed of more thoroughly integrated image-texts.

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Whether composing letters or images, all of Delporte’s lines are evocative lines, each color carefully chosen. When she depicts herself having sex with a lover in an attempt to become pregnant, her drawn self exists only in blue pencil and he all in orange, their lines almost but not quite touching. When she lists the promises she wishes he had said to her afterwards, most expectant mothers would probably like to hear the three she scripts in blue: I’ll take care of her, change the diapers, nurse her. But Delporte pencils the most important unsaid assurance in orange: “You’ll be able to draw.”

Delporte is a female artist documenting her private and professional search for her own place in a male-dominated field and world. The search is life-long and takes her in a non-linear path around Europe and North America and deep into her own past. She fills her story with personal reproductions of works by female artists, each linked to critical moments in her own life. When she imagines having to raise a child on her own, she sketches a Mary Cassatt painting of a mother holding a child, giving the image a double meaning since it both represents her possible self and the artistic lineage she is constructing.Related imageDelporte travels to Finland to write about Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, cartoon trolls who are “happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled.” That description is Tove’s, but for Delporte it encapsulates the role of women. She claims she’d “give almost anything to be like” the Moomins, but her memoir is her struggle to escape that past—including the darkest moments of her childhood. She received her “first lesson in sex” by a slightly older cousin, but when she later dreams about the trauma, it’s not the event but how the adults in her family never responded, never spoke about it.  Now she looks at her family tree and wonders: “which of these women were raped?”

That central trauma permeates but does not define Delporte’s work. The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories. When she grows frustrated with writing and drawing, she turns to ceramics for something more tangible. The pages of her memoir have a similarly tangible aesthetic. The ghostly edges of transparent tape seem to hold the scissors-cut images in place. Some words are written on strips of paper, their near-whiteness almost but not quite matching the white of the book’s actual paper. Several pages are reproductions of her sketchbooks, their bent corners creating a book-within-a-book illusion.

Some of her images are precisely finished, while other seem gestural and preliminary, a face left blank within the frame of a head. That incompleteness is essential to the larger project, as when she describes herself “struggling to draw” her own vagina because she “lived so long without an image of one.” She sketches the character Rey from Star Wars for the same reason, delighted to see “a self-sufficient woman, on the screen.” When she was growing up, she only had Wynona Ryder playing Jo in Little Women, a character who marries an older, more accomplished man—the plot closure Delporte now rejects.

She also varies her layout style, creating a cramped intensity for pages relating her physical travels, but rendering certain memories and dreams more sparsely.  Her hand-written script grows in size too, with only a few words filling an entire page, often juxtaposed against a single image on the facing page. The switching styles give the memoir a visual rhythm, while also accenting the literally larger-than-real-life content. Delporte dreams of magically appearing babies, and strange bristles growing from her legs, and stabbing a polar bear in the heart to save her own life—each a bright fragment in the not-yet-complete puzzle of her search.

It’s fitting that this French memoir ends with a dream sequence situated around an untranslated term. A community of female poets live in a “béguinage,” a building complex for religious lay women who don’t take the vows of nuns. Though Delporte earlier glossed the male-dominance of French grammar for English-only readers such as myself, here she appropriately leaves us to find a dictionary ourselves. But this utopian vision, where women work together making art and raising children who venture out into the world when ready, ends on a far more ambiguous note—a page seemingly torn from Delporte’s sketchbook diary as she draws herself in bed while her lover sleeps downstairs because they’re just fought. She writes: “I’m scared to death I’m pregnant.”

That poignantly open-ended conclusion seems the best closure possible for a memoirist still struggling to make her life work.

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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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[Inspired by Rodin and Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note in the new Shenandoah.]

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Sales of Charles Forsman’s 2013 End of the Fxxxing World spiked last year with the Netflix release of the eight-episode British adaptation.  Originally serialized in French, Max de Radiguès’s Moose premiered in the U.S. in 2014, followed last year by Bastard. Where Forsman draws two teen runaways, Radiguès focuses on a bullied teen and then a mother and young son running from the law. Their collaboration, Hobo Mom, takes those elements and scrambles them into the tale of an absent mother returning to her estranged husband and daughter. In terms of both subject matter and style, it’s difficult to imagine two comics artists better suited to work together.

I’m curious how the authors evolved their story content and the idiosyncratic back and forth of conceiving characters and developing situation and plot, because the finished pages erase that dimension of their collaboration. If the two worked from a script, no hint of it remains. But I was surprised at how seamlessly the pages also merge and so disguise the artistic process. While collaboration is standard in comics, scripter-artist combinations are more typical, and when two artists collaborate, one is often the penciler and so the primary visual storyteller laying out pages and panel content for an inker to finish. (An exceptional exception is the 1988 Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown mini-series, where painters Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams divided not only pages but areas of panels, inserting their distinctively drawn primary characters into the other artist’s visual environment.)

Opening Hobo Mom, I expected a similar distinction, with the marks of each artist clearly defined at the page and pen levels. The graphic novel instead presents artwork so unified it seems to have been created by a single author. The success of the merged style is due in part to the artists’ already similar tendencies. Both work in black and white, with simple, clean lines and virtually no cross-hatching. Their settings are minimal and their figures largely naturalistically proportioned, and while facial features obey cartoonish conventions of exaggeration, the degree is relatively slight. But it’s those distortions that identify each artist: the wide, round jawline of Forsman’s father, the small, triangle nose of Radiguès’s mother. Appropriately, the features of the daughter are more difficult to differentiate, as if the two artists, like their stand-in parents, have merged at the DNA-level of the line.

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Layouts are equally merged, with a range of constantly varying rectangles, sometimes gridded in 3×2 or 4×2, other times in uniform rows of shifting panel counts, often with sizing accents on images enlarged by merging panels within an implied grid. Because the frames and internal figures share the same line quality, with the sparse whiteness of a background identical to the white of the margins and gutters, the shifting layouts not only shape the story content but take on a visual significance of their own. The authors occasionally add blocks of black, usually in night scenes or to distinguish objects, plus the slight color effect of hazy pink Benday dots to define shadows. But rather than adding richness to the images, the minimal techniques emphasize the starkness of the artwork.

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The artists also treat pages as the primary units of composition, ending scenes on final page panels and giving the overall book a visual rhythm synchronized to page turns and the gutter of the book spine. When, for instance, the daughter spends two pages feeding her pet rabbit, the scene ends on an enlarged panel revealing that she has climbed inside the enclosure, the angled grid of the fencing evoking the gridded frames of the layout in a way that indirectly suggests why the mother left in the first place. The facing page expands that visual suggestion with a full-page image of a train in an open landscape. A later scene change employs a similar leap, with a 3×2 page of the parents arguing over whether the mother can stay followed by a full-page of the family seated at dinner. After two two-page spreads of night-darkened interior panels culminating in a one-panel sex scene, the page turn marks a scene leap to the next day, with the mother and daughter outside in a white-dominated landscape.

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While there are no formal chapters, a visual motif of a pull-page panel with a single inset further punctuates the novel, producing an additional rhythm that culminates in a mother-daughter pairing near the climax. While the novel is largely dialogue-driven with no narrating text, later page sequences switch to a purely visual approach that expands the emotional tension through images of silently content mother-daughter interactions in natural landscapes and the brooding father alone in his truck with visions of his wife. The most ambitious page in the novel pairs a close-up of his face with a contextless nude of the mother. Because the face consists of two black circles for eyes and a continuous squiggle of a line to form nose and mustache, the close-up pushes style into nearly pure abstraction—intensified by the naturalistic shape of the more distant nude and its hair-obscured face. For a moment I forgot I was reading a novel and not poring over a concept-rich graphic design (which I guess I was).

While the novel is successful both in its minimalistic visual approach and its realistic treatment of the emotional dynamics of an estranged but well-intentioned family, I still question the premise of its high-concept title. Since the word “hobo” evokes Depression-era homeless men hopping rides on agricultural trains, I assumed this contemporary story would use it only metaphorically, the phrase “hobo mom” evoking the title character’s inability to remain in the rabbit cage of traditional motherhood. But, in fact, no, the mother’s opening scene is literally set on a train, in one of those inexplicably empty cars with a sliding side door ubiquitous in film lore. She also faces a would-be rapist who tears open her shirt to expose her cartoon breasts before she manages to shove him out into a dust heap beside the rails. The burly rapist is apparently a “hobo” too, imported from the same bin of clichés, making any metaphorical or thematic reading of the word and its reflection on the mother’s character difficult.

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Here I suspect Radiguès, who lives in Brussels, may be the primary hand at work, since the Depression-era tropes are reminiscent of westerns written by European authors who preserve their own pseudo-version of U.S. historical fiction in an even more distorted form. But who knows? Perhaps Forsman, who lives in Massachusetts, has a thing for trains and hobos.

Happily, this one too-literal scene only briefly mars an otherwise warmly intelligent drama as the returned mother tries to make amends and reintegrate into a lifestyle that continues to grate against her wandering impulses. Since her husband is a locksmith who drives a truck adorned with the wordless logo of an antique key, and the daughter plays on a swing made from a tire tied to a tree branch, readers can probably sense the plot trajectory of those metaphors, but the pleasure is in the author’s dual execution.

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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 is a sincere question asked recently by a fellow member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society. Usually I’m surrounded by family and friends who take the answer for granted, but RCDS is a group of Democrats and Republicans trying to build understanding across the partisan divide. Which means I have to give the question more serious thought than I would normally. That’s a good thing. Having to explain myself to someone who doesn’t already agree with me is an even better thing. So this is my sincere attempt at a thoughtful response.

  1. I didn’t like Trump before I didn’t like Trump.

Before he was a politician, I knew Donald Trump only as one of those self-fulfilling celebrities famous for being famous. I never watched an episode of The Apprentice, but everyone knew the one-man promotional brand playing himself on TV. I categorized him in my head with Hulk Hogan. Saying I didn’t like him is misleading. He was no more real or relevant to me than Paris Hilton or a Kardashian. Except his caricature was even less savory. A serial adulterer marrying absurdly younger trophy wives while flaunting his comic wealth. None of this has anything to do with politics.  It never occurred to me to wonder what political party he might belong to because political parties involve groups of people banding together to pursue common goals. The goal of Trump was exclusively Trump. This was before 2014—before I knew he was running for office. At first I didn’t believe it, not really. It had to be another gimmick product, Trump Wine, Trump University, Trump for President, one more way to expand his business brand, pump up his ratings with more outrageous showmanship. It didn’t occur to me that he could win a primary let alone a nomination. It didn’t occur to me that someone, anyone, could view him as anything but a pop cultural personification of ostentatious greed, because I sincerely understood him to be that and only that.

  1. Trump says things that aren’t true.

Some people call that lying. Others say he’s only using exaggerations—or just savvy business practice. Whatever you call it, Donald Trump knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are not true. He also knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are true. The accuracy of his statements is irrelevant. He says whatever is most useful to him. His 1987 memoir ghost-writer called it “truthful hyperbole,” a way of playing “to people’s fantasies,” “a very effective form of promotion.” Admittedly, an indifference to truth sounds useful in a cutthroat business environment, and as long as Trump remained in that environment, his exaggerations, lies, and hyperboles were no concern to me. Then he became a politician, a profession known for its own brand of mistruths. But Trump is different. Look at all the presidential nominees of my adult life: Mondale, Reagan, Dukakis, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Bush, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, Clinton—all of them were constrained within a similar range of allowable spin. I’m not arguing any are better, more honest people. If they could have gotten away with Trump’s level of mistruth, they probably would have. But his go unpunished. Maybe it’s his business savvy, his ability to sell anything, but its application to U.S. politics deeply disturbs me. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. If Donald Trump had run as a Democrat, he would be the same democracy-gaming salesman appealing to a slightly different set of voters with a slightly different set of self-promotional hyperboles.

  1. Trump says things that offend me.

I’m not going to say Donald Trump is a racist. Conservatives tend to define that term as a necessarily conscious belief, that only a white person who actively believes he is superior to non-whites can commit racist acts. I don’t know if that describes Trump or not. I suspect when he refers to Central Americans as rapists, murders, etc., he is not expressing deeply held personal convictions but politically useful hyperboles of the kind discussed above. That doesn’t make it any less offensive to me. I also don’t know if he ever committed sexual assault, but I know he bragged that he did. Some defended his words as “locker room talk,” that it’s normal and therefore okay for men in the privacy of other men while unaware of being recorded to brag about assaulting women. I never have, and I have never heard any male friend or acquaintance of mine brag about assault either. Maybe I’m the wrong kind of man. Maybe Trump is no different from all our other white male presidents, saying out loud what the rest privately thought and privately committed. If so, then they all offend me equally. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. No one who brags about sexual assault and expresses offensive stereotypes about ethnic groups should be electable, and I’m offended that Donald Trump got elected anyway.

  1. Trump thrives on the political divide.

It never even occurred to me that he would keep using Twitter after the election. It never occurred to me that he would continue to attack and mock his political opponents at literally a daily rate. Maybe I’m just old. I remember when George Bush’s campaign rhetoric went into panic mode a week before the 1992 election. He said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.” He nicknamed Gore “Ozone Man” because “we’ll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American.” Those sound like presidential tweets now, and during a Trump presidency, it’s always a week before the election. I’m not suggesting Trump created the political divide. Exactly the opposite. He got elected because the divide was already so extreme, and he is the perfect salesman to thrive in that political marketplace. And even this isn’t about political parties. I want a president—preferably a progressive one—who tries to bridge differences, not focus exclusively on his base by stoking their outrage in an endless get-out-the-vote campaign.

  1. I don’t like his politics.

Now, finally, this is about political parties. I’m a Democrat. Democratic candidates more often reflect a larger number of my political preferences than Republican candidates. That’s an absurd understatement. I have never seen a Republican candidate that came even close—though McCain during the 2000 primaries did make me sit down and really look at his plank-by-plank platform. I long for that.  Still, if Romney had been elected in 2012, or McCain in 2008, or Dole in 1996, I wouldn’t have responded to their presidencies in any way like I’ve responded to Donald Trump’s. When Bush was reelected in 2004 and elected in 2000, and when his father was elected in 1988, and Reagan in 1984, I had voted against them but accepted the outcomes with disappointment and only disappointment. November 2016 was nothing like that. I felt personally betrayed. I felt that the norms of decency had either been overturned or revealed to have never existed. Even when Clinton’s polls dropped three points after the release of the Comey letter in the last days of October, it still never seriously occurred to me that Donald Trump—a man who to me represented misogyny, bigotry, narcissism, and greed—could be elected. Clearly, I was wrong. But I maintain that it is not possible for anyone to have voted for Donald Trump if they understand Donald Trump to be the person I understand him to be.

And maybe I’m wrong about that too.  Maybe my impressions of him from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s unfairly biased and blinded me to his real character on the campaign trail. Maybe I have an idealized, antiquated notion of proper politics and my disappointment isn’t against Trump’s divisive style but the political arena that makes it effective. Maybe most or all white men who rise to power are at least latently prejudiced and abusive, and Trump has merely revealed that fact. Maybe it’s okay to use mistruths when it’s for a cause you and your followers deeply believe in. It’s also possible that my dislike for Donald Trump is really motivated by political preference, and that if a Democrat with the same traits had risen to power I would have accepted his shortcomings and supported his agenda. I hope not. But I fear it is possible. It’s also one of the things I most dislike about Donald Trump. He’s motivated a lot of good people to embrace a lot of very bad things.

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Sometimes I think I’m reading Michael DeForge the wrong way. His Instagram strip Leaving Richard’s Valley is out as a book collection from Drawn & Quarterly, but I’m catching up on Brat released last fall from Koyama Press. It’s a story of an aging celebrity, a former juvenile delinquent still renown for acts of vandalism appreciated by her now middle-aged followers as art installations. But I’m not sure “story” is the best word to describe the graphic narrative. Or rather it’s one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what’s most interesting about DeForge’s art.

At one level, Brat is simply a cartoon—albeit an extreme one. While all cartoonists simplify and distort natural proportions, few stray quite so far from recognizable anatomy. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters have impossibly large and round heads, an effect further exaggerated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park cast. The character Brat’s head is large and round too—at least five times larger than the tiny circle of her torso, with pipe-cleaner-like limbs extending almost tenfold.  If any other male artist drew his female protagonist in a nude shower scene on the second page of a comic, I would worry, but there’s not even the most remote element of eroticism here. While still somehow registering as “human,” the level of abstraction breaks even the most expansive norms of cartooning.

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That abstraction applies to the rest of the story world too. While DeForge is capable of drawing geometric depth, complete with multiple planes and vanishing points, he prefers flat surfaces that evoke while also rejecting the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sometimes he combines the approaches for discordant effects. As Brat spray-paints the cascading walls of a building complex, the street beyond features solid red vehicles above a grid of sidewalks squares. Not only is the 90 degree angle entirely flattened, the cars look like stenciled cut-outs reduced to their absolute minimal shapes. Any further reduction and they would cease to represent anything at all.

While dimension-deforming environments are another norm of cartoon worlds, few wander this far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it. When I say I’m reading Brat the wrong way, it’s because I’m spending too much time actually reading. DeForge’s layouts are traditional grids, most often 3×2 with a range of full-page and other variants to give the reading paths some visual rhythm. Most panels also feature a cluster of words, usually in a talk balloons as characters converse or Brat’s monologues break the fourth wall. Both acts—following a sequence of images and decoding written words—are considered “reading” when it comes to comics, often with an emphasis on the literal, word-focused sense. That’s also usually where “story” happens. And DeForge supplies plenty of that—Brat torches a police car, Brat reads her fan mail, Brat shits on the floor—but there are other kinds of stories on these pages too.

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As I wandered deeper into the story-world narrative about the narcissistic crises of a still-profitable has-been depressed by her nostalgia-driven fanbase, I found myself more interested in the surface qualities of the images themselves—how the identical black dots of Brat’s eyes and nose shift within the panel frames, or how an x-shape of a cat wraps itself around the column of Brat’s nominal leg, or how two figures move through a landscape of … are those clusters supposed to be stars or tumbleweeds or just random shapes? When the young Brat narrates in a flashback, her body’s tiny shapes occupy only a fraction of panels that alter color with each iteration. The colored squares do not represent the actual colors of walls or anything else in the story world. They’re just squares of color arranged on the surface of the pages. Even their sequence breaks down since there’s no narrative logic to which color appears when in the story and so where on the page. The effect is closer to one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe grids than to visual storytelling. It’s just abstraction.

And what would happen if there weren’t any words? The back of Brat’s head—two yellow swaths above a black semicircle–is visually undecodable out of context. Many of these panels would lose all representational meaning. DeForge is of course fully aware and manipulating these effects, and some of the book’s strongest episodic sequences take full advantage of them. “Tantrum,” for instance, begins with Brat crying and swearing as her body warps into even more impossible proportions, deeper distortions of her already cartoonish distortions. In “Hi Mom,” the figure of Brat’s crying father bends and merges with her mother until the two are a single yellow pyramid. “Immodest” features Brat’s drunken form devolving into squiggly shapes and then retracting into single lines before shrinking into literally nothing. While the images do nominally represent events in the story world—she’s depressed, she’s drunk—the “story” is about the shifting relationships of shapes on the page.

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There’s plenty more of the conventional kind of stories too–a fling with an interviewer, the corruption of an intern, a kidnapping, various more meltdowns—but while each is entertaining, the bigger conceptual picture and its baseline pseudo-reality of extreme abstraction is the novel’s main strength. Because comics are traditionally understood as literature rather than art, and so are “read” rather than viewed, it’s possible to appreciate Brat as just a fun riff on a comically and nihilistically self-involved performance artist-criminal twirling through a sequence of chaotic plotlines. But that requires looking not at but through the images, attending less to their actual qualities, and understanding them primarily as symbols and so almost as words that represent events in some other far-off place and not as arrangements of ink on the physical pages in your hands.

While DeForge offers both kinds of stories, Brat is at its playful best when viewed rather than merely read.

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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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