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

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Which comes first?

Traditionally comics begin with a story idea that a writer develops into a screenplay-like script before handing it off to an artist to sketch into a layout in whatever style that artist prefers. The first page of my current comic-in-process includes the following text:

“He couldn’t believe he lost to a girl. Afterwards he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat as his dad drove them to his sister’s recital.”

A script would include image content too, usually divided into a specific number of panels. But this isn’t how my creative process began. I started by experimenting with a technique. More specifically, I started with a cartoonish self-portrait from a photograph taken of me at Lexington’s MLK parade in January.

Since I refuse to enter the 21st century and abandon the now literally obsolete (it was discontinued last year) Microsoft Paint, I was looking for ways to create color shapes by first mouse-sketching lines, filling the areas they enclose, and then digitally removing the lines:

I wasn’t aiming at any particular style, so the results were pretty garish–until I figured out that once the black lines were gone, I could convert the colors to black:

The red was another experiment, sort of a Matisse-esque cut-out placed digitally “under” the image. I converted the first two images to the same style:

I was working on other, unrelated images too: With the technique down, I could then create new images in the same, now intentional style:

Though related by style, the image content was still random. But since each was roughly rectangular, I began arranging them in a 3×2 page layout:The gap required a sixth, and this time I decided on a specific subject matter, a figure playing chess:

Placing the new panel in the missing position in the bottom row produced this juxtaposition:

And that’s when “story” happened. Staring at the two panels, these words came to me:

I was sitting in a school cafeteria during one of my son’s chess tournaments (which he later won), so the influence is obvious enough, but the exact content, how the two figures in the two images became characters interacting with each other in a shared setting with specific outcomes, was a result of the connotative qualities of the images and their accidental placement next to each other. More words happened:

I placed the two story-initiating panels at the top of the page and rearranged the others beneath them:

The effect is odd in part because off the amount of implied and so undrawn story-world content, including the car connecting panels three and four, and the auditorium connecting five and six. That last row plays with time, since the words are synced to the continuing moment in the car, while the images leap forward to the performance that, according to the words, is still in the future. The chess-playing son acquires a face and perhaps the hint of a smile, suggesting that he will recover from his disappointment by (or simply while) enjoying the dance. Because there’s now an implied family unit, one of the parents is absent–a fact left open and so to be explored on future pages. Since the dancers appear female (is the one in the background the sister?), I feel a thematic connection to the “girl” of panel two in addition to the undrawn mother, further complicating the gender situation. Oh, and dad seems pretty oblivious in row two, staring off into the left margin as he drives unaware of his son’s literally inward focus–but then they’re physically connected in the last row, suggesting another positive shift in the ending. Of course all of this is connotative and so debatable. No script would include these kinds of interpretive nuances, and probably no artist could execute them based on idea-driven descriptions.

The effect is also odd because, I realized afterwards, comics rarely subdivide sentences into multiple image-texts. We’re used to reading complete sentences of narration or dialogue placed within single panels. This layout instead divides two sentences between six panels, creating line-break effects similar to free verse:

He couldn’t believe

he lost

to a girl.

Afterwards

he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat

as his father drove

them to his sister’s

recital.

The rows also create three image-text phrases:

He couldn’t believe he lost to a girl.

Afterwards he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat as his father drove

them to his sister’s recital.

I’m intrigued by comics that disrupt page orientation norms by either placing the book spine along a shorter left edge or at the top so pages turn like a calendar. So I experimented with two phrases of three panels each:

Which for whatever reason, I didn’t love. But I did like the how the arbitrarily large font of “afterwards” suggested a story title, and so “Afterwards” became the title of the story:

I’m cheating a little here because the flower behind the title comes from a story element that developed on a later page, though here it doesn’t have any contextual meaning except that I thought it looked cool:

I also didn’t love the solid blocks of red, so I experimented with superimposing textures. I started by making a rectangular “scratched” pattern:

That matched the rectangular panels and layout, and so it felt redundant. So I developed a swirl pattern instead. While adding a sense of physical motion, it also has connotative power, linking the images in new ways and further suggesting emotional content. Here’s the (current) final draft:

The larger story spans ten pages, all initiated by the story content suggested by page one. “Afterwards” may also become a chapter in a larger story. If so, the resulting graphic novel will have begun not with a story idea or even a set of images, but an image style evolved from an idiosyncratic image-making technique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in art, Matthew Thurber has some terrible news for you. His Art Comic is an intentionally sophomoric send-up of the New York art scene, satirizing both the establishment of internationally revered figures and the lowly newcomers clambering to replace them.

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Thurber splatters his art references thickly and without gloss: Chris Burden, Bucky Fuller, Thomas Kinkade, Jeff Koon (his sculpture “Balloon Dog” makes a cover cameo), Sol LeWitt, James Rosenquist, Brothers Quay (my personal favorite), and, most foregrounded, Matthew Barney—who I assumed was an invention until I googled and discovered that Thurber’s cartoon rendering of the artist is surprisingly spot-on.

Thurber’s approach to narrative is the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. A very brief copyright note explains that Art Comic began as a series of individual pamphlets, though it’s not clear when they started or for how long they continued. The novel’s opening pages are set in 1999, and while there’s a slow evolution into the early 2000s, there are also unexplained but clearly sub-titled leaps to 2014 that feature Ivan-turned-Ivanhoe, a quixotic collector on a knightly mission to destroy contemporary art in revenge for his parents’ death at the hands of a collapsing Koon sculpture. He receives a much-needed flashback, as does the nefarious art professor, whose sepia-toned backstory includes less-needed bar fights and sex in public bathrooms. But is the professor’s present Ivanhoe’s present or the present of the class he’s teaching, or was teaching back in, wait, what year is it again, and why is David Bowie still alive?

Happily, none of this is confusing—because, since the art world is absurd, why shouldn’t time be too? Even Thurber’s chapter divisions seem capricious, since scene leaps between page turns are often more demanding. My favorite three-page sequence segues from a vampire bat flying out of the art professor’s window (having just paid him for suppressing the next generation of aspiring artists) to an art student jumping from a funicular to avoid applying to grad school (don’t worry, his story picks up even more abruptly in art heaven eighteen pages later—though where the hell did that funicular come from?) to Ivanhoe’s squire Walter recapping his knight’s origin story, which, oh yeah, that was interrupted ten pages earlier by a floppy-eared Matthew Barney tapdancing himself into a bottomless pit. No, wait, that’s actually Cupcake dressed as Barney in a screening of his final project.

The novel coheres mostly around a cast of art students: the Barney-obsessed Cupcake, the commercially driven Boris, the beret-wearing and black-identity-questioning Tiffany. Others, like the Jewish-identity-questioning Dorothy, vanish after the final art class critique, and the cast graduates and finds sublets (if actual Manhattan apartment dwellers could sublet the spaces under their bed, I’m sure they would) and dubiously art-related jobs.

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Boris and Cupcake’s dream of appearing on Drunk TV (a riff on Drunk History, I assume, though I googled just in case) peters out, but other, more obscure plotlines replace it: the three little pigs surveilling New York in a brick submarine; a pair of art delivery handlers transporting fornicating (and fully anatomically human-looking) robots to an exhibit. We later learn that Ivanhoe’s friend from another planet made them. Meanwhile, Tiffany seeks divine inspiration, resulting in Jesus Christ beaming down to cause various art-related chaos—not the only appearance of God in the novel. Tiffany is also chased from another critique session by possibly literal demons and rescued by a serial killer with a sailboat and marooned at sea and adopted by pirates where she stays until they turn out to be zombie pirates. If it sounds like I’m giving away too many spoilers—I’m not. These are just a few highlights of Thurber’s plot splatter.

Cupcake does land a gallery assistant job with none other than his idol Matthew Barney. The gig unfortunately involves being chased by a wild dog—not to mention an anthropomorphic zebra (or is it a horse?) writing a muckraking expose on the abusive film-maker. Barney has also been working on a comic—perhaps the comic we’re currently reading? If so, it’s got to be better than the collection of “Pissclown” paintings Tiffany inspects in an upscale gallery. Though maybe not much better?

Thurber’s own style is intentionally rough, a fitting approach for his broad-stroke humor that mocks, for example, concerns about cultural appropriation with an art project titled “Pigoda.” It doesn’t necessarily look like Thurber drew and colored the novel with his teeth—a strategy Tiffany tries after her class rebukes her “illustrational approach”: “Maybe if I paint something poorly, my peers will respect me for once”—but precision, line variation, three-dimensionality, these aren’t on Thurber’s list of artistic concerns.

Nor should they be. Art Comic lampoons the art world by wallowing in its shallowest waters. On the planet UXOBI, we learn from Ivanhoe’s alien friend: “fecal matter is the only artistic medium that has ever existed.” Thurber, stranded here on Earth, makes do with paper and ink.

 

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

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That’s E. M. Forster’s 1927 example about the difference between plot and story. Story, according to Forster, is just events in sequence (“Then king died and then the queen died”), but plot requires causation (“of grief”) to connect those events. His point is good, though his terminology is out of date, since I think plot and story are synonymous here, and “events in sequence” doesn’t really have a term.

The example also intrigues me because of its application to comics theory. Comics are juxtaposed images. That juxtaposition alone is often conventionally enough to signify “and then,” the left-to-right movement between panels triggering temporal closure, the inference that the story content of the second image occurs after the story content of the first:

The causality, the “of grief,” is a kind of inference too, what I’ve elsewhere termed causal closure: some drawn element in the second image is understood to be the result of some undrawn action that took place during the “and then” moment of the gutter. That’s not quite the same causality that Forster had in mind, but it’s related. I suspect his “of grief” is already implied by my image content, and so still an example of causal closure:

This illustration of narrative theory is part of a larger comics story (though not necessarily plot?) I’ve been working on this semester. Now that Microsoft Paint has been discontinued and so is officially obsolete and not just horrifyingly out-of-date, I keep thinking I’ll force myself to upgrade to something more 21st century. Instead I find myself digging in deeper, finding more idiosyncratic ways to use ancient tech to my creative advantage. Creativity apparently loves limitations, so making comics in Word Paint is like playing tennis with many many many nets.

If you’re curious, here’s my process for the two-panel Forster comic. I bought a pen-shaped stylus over Christmas, but I find myself forgetting to use it, so this is all mouse-drawn, either free-hand or using the straight-line function by clicking start and end points. I also started with a photo for a visual reference:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I began publishing comics reviews at PopMatters.com in spring 2017, roughly two per month for the last two years. I wait a few weeks and then post a variation of each here. This began right after my pre-tenure leave, when I spent a semester off writing comics scholarship. The leave came with some research money designed to cover travel expenses to libraries and whatnot, but I spent my funds bringing books to me. I doubled my library of graphic novels.

This was essential for two reasons: I had too many superhero comics, and I had too many comics by men. For the most part, those two categories are one category. So if I sit writing about, say, closure inferences or the narrative implications of the naturalistic mode, and wheel myself over to my bookcase and pluck at random, my scholarly examples were going to favor men, probably overwhelmingly so. And while Maus and Watchmen are wonderful, does comics scholarship really need more analysis of them?

So I loaded my shelves with women. I wanted to literally stack the odds so that when I start grabbing books and flipping pages searching for examples of, say, parallel word-picture relationships or unreliable image-narration, chances are better that the author is going to be female. I took the same approach to writing reviews. When I get a new list of available books, I skim for women’s names first. When I’ve worked through those, I turn to the men.

The results so far: 27 reviews of works by women, 19 by men.

A more radical approach would be women only, but this seems like a reasonable middle ground. I don’t want to miss great comics, regardless of who is creating them, but I want to chip away at my male-dominated field too. I’m also discovering amazing authors I might have otherwise overlooked because they were unfamiliar to me. Aminder Dhaliwal is high on that list. She also imagines a world far more extreme than my little gender-skewed library:

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It turns out that a world without men won’t be completely different from a world with them. There will still be: ingrown nipple hair, flatulence, vomiting, crushes, nudity, unrequited love, deer sex, doctors, stool samples, traveling art shows, periods, pregnancy, gossip, artificial legs, mixed messages, break-ups, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Oprah worship, monogamy, anxiety issues, and bananas. There will also be a few new things, like mayoral elections with only one, self-deprecating candidate, and, unless you live in the capital, your village flag will likely feature a Beyoncé body part.

But a world with no men will involve some loss too. There will be no more: shirts that button on the wrong side, dildo factories, Starbucks, race wars, Twinkies, “motorized chariots,” malls, and tooth whiteners. Also, still no Blockbusters. Oh, and feminism—since feminism as defined as gender equality between men and women will go extinct with the last man. Even better, when you look at a sky filled with dozens of explicitly phallic-shaped clouds, you’ll only see the one that looks like a fish. And though art by male artists won’t disappear, when you look at a painting that used to foster “unrealistic standards” for feminine beauty, you’ll only notice the unrealistic heaps of fruit.

If this post-apocalyptic future doesn’t sound so bad, you need to get a copy of Dhaliwal’s Woman World. The graphic novel is an expanded compilation of the Instigram series she began after the 2017 Women’s March. Dhaliwal told thewebcomicwhisperer.com last year:

“The march was so refreshing, exciting and supportive. Everyone (not just women) had a great time, I loved it. Soon after a couple different friends, and friends of friends posted their signs, t-shirts and banners from the march on social media, and we all watched an instant backlash from certain types of people online. The idea for Woman World came fairly soon after, I never wanted it to be preachy or forcing any sort of message. Just a cute, tongue-in-cheek feminist comic.”

Dhaliwal’s self-description is as on target as the book itself. I rarely laugh out loud at comics, but Dhaliwal approaches her fantastical premise at unexpected angles, revealing humor in the collapse of some old assumptions—and the continuation of others. The page of cloud penises is funny, but also surprisingly though-provoking: If you don’t see penises all the time, then you don’t see penises all the time. That’s a smart insight for any reader, even one who, like me, has a penis. As Dhaliwal says, everyone (not just women) should have a great time.

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Of course Woman World is a fantasy. While the notion of a genetic disorder that causes all female births is less far-fetched than many post-apocalyptic premises, a village peopled entirely by reliably caring friends and family is. The worst trait in the town of Beyonce’s Thighs is over self-involvement when struggling through a difficult romance. So in the female future there is no crime, just the occasional foible. Dhaliwal isn’t pretending this is a realistic portrayal of humanity—or even one half of humanity. Woman World isn’t a treatise advocating patriarchy. It’s just a humane comedy.

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I also admire the comic as a comic. Dhaliwal’s cartooning is effectively sparse, capturing ten women with just a few, instantly defining pen strokes. Ulaana, the lone grandmother and chronicler of the old world, requires six extra: one under each eye, two on each side of her mouth. Yes, Ina’s and Gaia’s round heads are identical except for the curves of their hair—but that provides one of the book’s meta jokes. Dhaliwal also occasionally breaks her own norms—when, for instance, she renders Lara striking her “the face” pose in full, three-dimension-evoking color.

The majority of the book is black on white comic strips, divided into discrete panels, usually variations of a 3×2 grid across two pages each—presumably taken directly from the Instigram run. But in terms of visual storytelling, I most admire the color, open-panel material that I assume Dhaliwal added for the print edition. The novel opens with twenty-three pages of world-building exposition—an approach I find disastrous in most science fiction, whether on paper or on screen. But Dhaliwal provides much more than a how-did-we-get-here intro for her comics strips. The opening sequence is the most visually dynamic of the book, incorporating full-page bleeds, embedded images, and word designs that playfully intersect with the story world. I do wonder though if the novel’s first character really had to be the male scientist who discovers the birth trend.

Dhaliwal includes eight similar pages at the end of the novel, providing a much-appreciated farewell for her charming cast of characters. Six pages of old world statuary in increasing, full-color collapse punctuate the chapters too. While the images are excellent, I do wish Dhaliwal had expanded the approach since they feel buried in the two-hundred-some pages of black and white strips. While there’s plenty of room for a sequel (the ending reference to a battle with giant arachnids is a great, tongue-in-cheek teaser), I suspect this will be our only visit to this not-so-dystopic future. I recommend you not miss it.

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

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I subtitle my advanced fiction writing course “Literary Genre,” which is a pairing of words most of my students haven’t seen before. Traditionally, so-called “literary fiction” and the array of genres that fall into the massive bin labeled “genre fiction” are understood to exist at opposite ends of some poorly defined spectrum. The confusion is complex, since”literary fiction” means both narrative realism (which IS a genre) and also “good fiction,” which has nothing to do with genres and so potentially applies to them all. It doesn’t help that a majority of genre fiction is formulaic and so really not literary in the second sense. Of course tons of narrative realism isn’t very good either.

So “literary genre fiction” is good fiction that uses tropes from traditional genres. Since a formulaic use of a trope tends to be predictable and plot- rather than character-driven, the trick is finding a way to evoke the qualities of a genre without simply repeating. Expectations must be thwarted. Something new has to grow out of that old terrain.

Take westerns, a uniquely U.S. genre that has mostly (though not entirely) fallen out of fashion. To write a literary western requires some repetition: can something be a western and not be set in the western U.S.? Horses and guns might be requisites too. But, like most genre, westerns have a slew of conventions that encode gender norms–redemptively violent men saving not-strong-enough women–that I hope any contemporary writer would avoid like a snake bite.

My fiction-writing class is prose-only, so I didn’t put Lisa Hanawalt’s graphic novel Coyote Doggirl on the syllabus. But since it’s an ideal example of literary genre, maybe I should have. It features a wild west as familiar as tumbleweeds yet newly invigorated by a comics artist’s feminist eye. Hanawalt roams the border lands between cartoon and naturalism, nostalgia and invention, ribald slapstick and social commentary, all while satisfying each of their disparate and often contradictory genre norms.

Coyote Doggirl by Lisa Hanawalt: New

In the tradition of anthropomorphic animals—Buggs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, Garfield—Hanawalt’s main character is essentially a human with a dog’s head. In this canine universe, everyone is dog-headed.  She has fingers and toes, wears long pants and a “crop halter top” (which she designed herself!), and has ears that stick straight up above her snout of a face.

But though Doggirl is a cartoon character in a cartoon world, Hanawalt infuses that world with a surprising level of visual realism. If it’s never bothered you that an anthropomorphic mouse named Mickey has a semi-anthropomorphic pet dog named Pluto, then Doggirl’s pony “Red” will bother you even less. Unlike his owner, Red is thoroughly realistic. Hanawalt renders him with loving precision. While Doggirl is almost entirely devoid of anatomy-defining, internal lines, Hanawalt gives Red and other horses just enough to suggest fully realized bodies–ones that include skeletons and musculature that the dog people lack. The shadow that Red casts on the cover is evidence alone that she is drawing from real-world references—corroborated by her one sentence bio “Lisa Hanawalt lives and rides in Los Angeles” and the nine names in her list of “Some favorite horses Lisa has known.”

Doggirl’s setting is more realistic than her too. While Hanawalt’s style creates a minimalistic impression, pausing on an image allows the eye to travel over a surprising range of details—most of it in the rendering of desert and mountain plants. This world is further deepened by Hanawalt’s colors, which highlight the quirks of her brushes, giving watercolor texture to otherwise flat plains and barren skies. The openness of the western setting is also reflected in the formal choice of her unframed panels, usually three or four per page. The physical format of the book is small, about seven and a half by six inches, but the dimensions are offset by the expansive layout and bright color palette.

Hanawalt occasionally uses single-line frames too, but she avoids formal gutters except to differentiate a flashback sequence which she colors darker too. The stylistic choices are apt as Doggirl narrates escaping an attempted rape and the justified mutilation of her attacker. The event is the core of the novel’s nominal plot, driving the main character from episode to comic episode as her attacker’s brother and his two thugs pursue her for revenge.

It may sound like a typical western set-up, but in Hanawalt’s capable hands it also encompasses genre parody and gender critique. Doggirl’s minimalistic form is a welcome counterpoint to a genre that traditionally exploits female bodies both visually and narratively. When a plot point suggests an occasion for nudity, Hanawalt draws Doggirl either only partially or from behind—and then without a teasing array of crosshatched shadows that indirectly suggest the undrawn contours of exposed breasts.

But Doggirl isn’t sexually neutral either. An opening page tilted “Coyote’s Wish List” includes a “pleasure saddle” drawn with an impressive array of dildo attachments. It’s one of Hanawalt’s many tossed-off gags. Though she can be unabashedly crude, the overall tone of the novel is oddly subtle—as when the arrow-wounded Doggirl collapses, mumbling “There’s dirt in my ear.” The bird pecking at her blood puddle adds a macabre secondary punchline. While humor is the novel’s most immediate appeal, Hanawalt uses it often to complex effect, as when she draws Doggirl’s would-be rapist’s leg as if it’s been meticulously sliced by deli machine. I laughed, even internally applauded, but not without discomfort.

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Doggirl is her own hero, saving herself not just from her attacker but eventually from her pursuers too. While Hanawalt is happy to include a bit of gun and knife action, ultimately Doggirl saves the day by talking herself out of trouble and more than one genre cliché. Thugs are not your typical thugs in this doggy universe. Hanawalt’s Indians are even more complex—neither savages nor noble innocents, but an odd collection of individuals happy to give aid, but only after causing pointless harm.

Coyote Doggirl is proof that even a genre as seemingly played-out as the western can reveal a rich landscape if the right hands are holding the reins.

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

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I never compile a list of the year’s best comics because I know there’s so many more comics out there that I’m not reading. Of the twenty or so new works I review each year, I favor my top three publishers: Koyama, Drawn & Quarterly, and Fantagraphics (not necessarily in that order), with happy surprises from other fantastic publishers I’m only starting to get to know (Self Made Hero, First Second, Seven Stories). Since my knowledge of new, non-English works is limited to translations, I feel especially lucky to have come across Anneli Furmark last year.

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Because graphic novels combine story, pictures, and words, it’s rare for one to excel in all three. Anneli Furmark’s Red Winter is that exception.  Though one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists in Sweden, Furmark is a newcomer to most English speakers. While I hope Drawn & Quarterly will translate and publish many more of her works in coming years, Red Winter is a remarkable introduction to this artist-writer.

It’s also an intimate window into a complexly compelling period of Swedish cultural and political history. Though Drawn & Quarterly’s back cover blurb provides the basics—“Passion and politics unfold against the darkness of winter in 1970s Sweden”—Furmark is far less direct, preferring to drop her readers into not just a historical moment but the minutia of her cast’s interlocking lives. Translator Hanna Stromberg kindly glosses the most obscure references (the APK is a Marxist-Lennist party not to be confused with the Maoist SKP or Sweden’s largest Communist party, the UPK). Though I suspect most U.S. readers will, like me, have never heard of “Bohman and his cronies” or their so-called Moderate Party—which, happily, is not a problem since Furmark provides just enough context clues in her dialogue to ground the situations. And rather than penning in clunky dates in caption boxes, she let’s the music do the talking—as when the teen son blasts Deep Purple’s 1972 “Highway Star” from his bedroom stereo.

Furmark divides her novel into nine chapters, ranging from eleven to thirty-six pages, each titled after a character: Siv, the main character who is having an affair with Ulrik, a sincere but inept member of the APK as it tries to gain influence in local unions; Marita, Siv’s pre-teen daughter who reads her mother’s diary when not playing in puddles outside; Peter, Marita’s older and adolescently angsty brother; and last and least Borje, Siv’s well-intentioned but clueless husband who works at the mill where Siv is trying to recruit. There are more—Marita’s best friend, Ulrik’s best friend, Peter’s car load of terrible friends, and of course the tale’s only antagonist, the self-important local APK leader Peter who ultimately ruins Ulrik and Siv’s future in a fit of political paranoia. But while they may sound like a lot in summary, the movement between and through scenes is seamless and the tracking of characters effortless as Furmark immerses her readers in the vibrant milieu.

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The complexities of her interwoven plots are offset by a deceptively simple visual style. Her characters are cartoonish in the simplified sense, their faces rendered with a minimum number of pen strokes. But their world is darkly patterned and crosshatched, and Furmark layers watercolors over her line art for unexpected effects, often violating divisions between foreground and background, so the color of a character’s face or body envelopes them into surrounding walls or street scenes. Furmark also draws unusually thick, black frames around each of her panels. Combined with the rigid gutters of her always rectangular layout, the visual style reinforces the sense of isolation plaguing each character.

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While many graphic novelists combine art and storytelling for excellent effect, the language of graphic novels can be comparatively lacking. But Furmark—at least as translated by Stromberg—wields her typewriter as carefully as her brushes.  The novel opens with a kind of prose poem—though really Siv’s meandering stream-of-consciousness as she muses about secretly meeting Ulrik. A few chapters later after she’s snuck out of Ulrik’s commune, Siv reflects on her own passing thoughts, calling them “almost a poem.” The self-consciousness is a right fit for her character, someone longing for romance and escape, but never able to achieve either.

Furmark also gives glances of Siv’s diary and, when discovered by the snooping Peter, Ulrik’s, imbuing the passages with distinct verbal qualities linked not just to the characters but to their specific letter-like reveries.  The contrasts are further heightened by an excerpt from a published book of poetry and the song lyrics Marita sings to herself. Furmark also achieves subtleties in her dialogue, as when Borje complains to Siv about all of the competing Communist parties, “we should stick together … instead of splintering up all the time,” while unaware that his wife is about to leave him. Like Furmark’s inks and watercolors, her word palette is equally striking despite its surface casualness.

Much of the novel’s work is accomplished between chapters, with key scenes and ultimately the story’s saddest outcomes occurring off-page, requiring readers to imagine what is only glancingly referenced while Marita and her best friend wander outside in their rainboots. It’s an especially apt approach for a graphic novel since the comics form is largely defined by the content implied between each of its juxtaposed images. So again, Furmark demonstrates the excellence of her art. Red Winter is a window into not only Sweden of the 1970s, but to an alternate comics tradition defined by subtle craft and storytelling.

I look forward to more of Furmark’s translations.

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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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