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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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Depends on your definition of “gay.” The word didn’t have anything to do with sexuality during Whitman’s lifetime. It’s meaning may be anachronistic too. Not that 19th-century men weren’t having sex with each other, but they likely weren’t categorizing themselves along a gay-straight dichotomy.  “Bi” would have been alien for the same reason.

But whatever your preferred word and definition, the most famous American male poet appears to have had some highly non-platonic feelings for other men, as expressed in his twelve-section long poem “Live Oak, with Moss.” Whitman writes in the opening section:

“the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love … my life-long lover.”

If you think “love” and “lover” might have non-sexual meanings, the third poem is clarifying:

“my heart beat happier … for he I love was returned and sleeping by my side.”

If “sleeping” still isn’t overt enough, consider how he describes two men departing on a pier:

“The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kissed him—while the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.”

So, yeah, Walt was totally gay.

This should matter to poetry fans for a range reasons—not least the new edition of Live Oak, With Moss published by Abrams this spring. This should matter to comics fans for the same reason, since artist Brian Selznick receives equal billing as Whitman’s co-author. Their same-sex collaboration should delight both fanbases.

Whitman started “Live Oak, with Moss” in 1856, not long after self-publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass. He finished it in 1859 by handwriting the twelve sections into a handmade notebook—which is included in the Abrams edition in the form of eighteen, meticulously reassembled color photographs. It’s clear from a glance at Whitman’s ragged script and penciled cross-outs that the notebook was still a work-in-progress. When the individual poems appeared in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, they were revised, divided, and redistributed into a larger sequence.

Live Oak, with Moss not only restores the original poem “cluster” (Whitman’s preferred term) but significantly adds to it. Selznick’s art consists of fifty-six two-page spreads. Forty-eight precede the poem (which fill only fourteen pages), with a coda of eight. In terms of page count, Selznick is by far the primary author. While fans of Selznick’s children’s book collaborations The Invention of Hugo Caret and Wonderstruck should recognize his style, the images may surprise. Eight of them are intensely intimate, colored-pencil close-ups of ambiguously cropped nude bodies in sexual contact. They are not pornographic. Selznick draws no genitalia. He draws no faces either. The most distinguishable features are fingers and brightly red nipples. The dark folds and sloping expanses of meticulously cross-hatched skin are landscape-like, bordering on abstraction.

If you worry that the great American bard is being resurrected in an anachronistically sexualized context, look at the first edition of his Leaves of Grass. I mean literally look at it: Whitman’s unattributed portrait appears as the frontispiece. It’s not just that his pose is cocksure (fist on hip, hat at a jaunty angle), but his actual cock is prominent. Whitman had the artist add more detail to the crotch.

According to Karen Karbiener, whose thirty-page afterword provides much appreciated biographical context, Whitman modeled “Live Oak, With Moss” after Shakespeare, who he considered a “handsome and well-shaped man.” He was especially taken by the sonnets and their subject matter of a “beautiful young man so passionately treated” and “ancient Greek friendship.” He was sure Shakespeare had been in love with the Earl of Southampton. Karbiener is sure Whitman was a patron of New York’s Pfaff’s beer cellar, “what may have been America’s first gay bar.”

Selznick’s art includes six adapted photographs of mid-century New York streets and buildings, with black and white male nudes collaged in their windows. Whitman’s flame-filled silhouette stands apart in page corners, until the urban background transforms to black and then a star-speckled sky. Whitman and a period nude move from their opposite corners, enlarging into sprinting poses before meeting at the page fold and erupting nova-like.

But is Live Oak, With Moss a comic?

Depends on your definition of “comic.” Whitman died in 1892, roughly the year the word began to refer to cartoon images in new newspaper sections and humor magazines. By the end of that decade, comics included panels, gutters, talk balloons, and other conventions associated with the form, but entirely missing from Selznick’s art. So if you’re expecting a caricatural version of Whitman declaiming his poetry in expressive fonts and word containers divided into a sequence of panels that illustrate their content like movie storyboards—this is not that. Selznick isn’t adapting Whitman into a visual narrative. He doesn’t even incorporate Whitman’s words into is art. The two modes, language and image, never combine, never even appear on facing pages. They are distant lovers, as divided as Whitman and Selznick are as collaborators.

Still, there’s a reason Abrams named its imprint “ComicArts.” Selznick responds to Whitman’s numbered but non-narratively ordered cluster by developing its verbal imagery into tightly sequenced and linked visual progressions. It opens with an incremental movement toward and then into an oak, revealing a world of dueling flame and water beneath and beyond its bark. Other images, such as the concluding pages of pure red and white configurations that resolve into impossibly red branches on an impossibly white background, would be at home in the anthology Abstract Comics. Another sequence uses its white space to depict snow mounting page-by-page inside a rustic cabin, until the snow banks become the absolute whiteness of the page itself, and so the backdrop for the black ink of Whitman’s words. The entire sequence ends with the same black and white rendering of an oak in full foliage that opens the book. All these wordless images meditate on Whitman’s poetry, suggesting the internal explorations and struggles layered in the poet’s expansive language.

So, yeah, Live Oak, With Moss is totally a comic. One of my favorites I’ve read this year.

 

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

 

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That thirteen-page sequence is from Adam Nemett‘s novel We Can Save Us All. Except that it’s not. All though We Can Save Us All is a superhero novel, it’s not a graphic novel. There are no pictures. I had the pleasure of inviting Adam for a campus visit last year, and the students in my advanced creative writing class quizzed him about the writing process, publishing, and his novel–which is about a superhero cosplay club of college super-geniuses who save the world for their senior project (drugs are involved). I’d like to continue that conversation, but specifically about these graphic pages of his non-graphic novel.

Chris: How did these pages come about, and how do they relate to the novel?

Adam: These pages were created way back in 2009-10, when I was first developing the idea that the self-made superheroes in the book help create their own legend by distributing comic books depicting idealized versions of their exploits. These pages were created by an illustrator named Orpheus Collar (yes, his given name; when he was about 13 years old he realized he had one of those names that meant he couldn’t just be an insurance salesman or something. With a name like Orpheus, he had to be really really good at something. So he became an incredibly talented artist and exactly the kind of mortal superhero I was writing about: http://www.orpheusartist.com).

I met Orpheus when he was an undergrad at Maryland Institute College of Art, where my father has taught painting for about 50 years. Orpheus and I first collaborated on a pitch packet for a separate graphic novel idea called SHADES, and it looked pretty awesome but we ultimately got shot down by some pretty impressive folks at places like Vertigo, Dark Horse, etc., but hey, we went down swinging.

Around the same time I’d finished a rough first draft of the novel that became WE CAN SAVE US ALL. In this iteration, the novel shifted style/formats intermittently–some chapters were written as campus newspaper articles, as police reports, as epic poems, etc. (I’d been reading too much Watchmen at the time) and I thought a comic script would make obvious sense. But ultimately, the script was just a blueprint for sequential artwork, and I thought it could be interesting and innovative to actually see the script illustrated and include a sketched-out version of it in the manuscript.

It stuck around for a while, but ultimately when the book was about to go out on submission, my agent felt that it broke the flow of the narrative and had the potential to confuse or turn off publishers/readers who are suddenly being asked to shift to this unfamiliar format. The content of this scene also needed to change, and rather than trying to produce a new batch of illustrations, the decision was made to render the scene in prose and just keep things moving. But I still like the comic and how it mixes form and content.

Side note: I remember reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and wishing that I could actually see the comic that her characters keep describing. Maybe publishers just don’t have much of a stomach for hybrid novels that mix genres/forms like this. Not yet, anyway.

Chris: When Mandel visited W&L, I asked her if she ever considered making a separate graphic novel. She said it almost happened, and that Craig Thompson (of Blankets fame) was interested. But then she got too focused on other projects to write the script. And maybe that’s for the best? Things can dramatically transform when they change mediums. When I read the above section of your novel, and the novel in general, it was ambiguous to me whether or to what extent these characters were heroic. Here the visual version is much less ambiguous: these are the bad guys. Did it trouble you to lose the effect of the faulty narration?

Adam: That’s a great question, and yes, absolutely, I think that was a key reason why my agent recommended cutting this visual section. My goal was to pace the book in such a way that readers are essentially wooed and inspired by Mathias (“here’s a guy who might have the answers!”) and, like David, ultimately have a hard time resisting the urge to follow him. I still read the book and feel, especially in the early stages, that the USV and its young leaders ARE good guys doing what they feel is right, responding in a compelling, theatrical and valid way to the global and local challenges they face. I don’t think I ever advised Orpheus, the illustrator, to render these characters as either good or bad guys, but the vibe is undoubtedly sinister and I think that essentially tipped my hand way before I wanted readers to definitively feel one way or another.

In general, I think that’s why you don’t see many instances in literary fiction of visually representing fictional characters. A good written description of a character should form a soft-edged image in the reader’s mind. When you watch a film, especially, but even in a graphic novel, the casting and visual rendering of a character can’t help but influence the reader/viewer, a subtle narrative version of “leading the witness.” When we see Brad Pitt playing a certain character, we bring the baggage of who he played in other movies, who he is in real life, how much money he was probably paid for this movie, the notion that he’s probably going to be a good guy, that he’s not going to die in the middle of the movie, etc. When we read characters in literary fiction, we shouldn’t have any of that baggage. Characters should be strangers until we get to know them and see how they think and act, which allows readers to form completely fresh opinions of the character at the outset and in every scene that follows.

Chris: Do you think writing graphic novels could be in your future?

Adam: Despite everything I just said about not wanting artwork to sway the opinions of fiction readers, I get really excited about the potential of the graphic novel–as its own medium and as a kind of precursor to film/tv–and I’d love to try my hand at it someday. I’d be open to writing completely new stories or relaunching classic superhero characters with new storyarcs, and I still harbor thoughts of working on an adaptation of We Can Save Us All into a full-length graphic novel. As with other adaptations of literary fiction, classic and contemporary, it’s an interesting way of broadening the audience–maybe bringing more literary fiction fans to the graphic format and vice versa–and given all the superhero themes in my book it’s probably an easier leap to make than The Handmaid’s Tale or Kindred or Jane Eyre (all have been adapted into comic form).

I really like the process of writing comic scripts, where you’re essentially speaking to a one-person audience (the illustrator) so you have free reign to describe each page and panel in a way that’s very customized to that reader (“in this panel we’ve got a low-angle shot of something like that skyscraper pic I emailed you, but more purple”) and where you can provide more or less detail depending on how the illustrator likes to work (give me more direction vs. don’t micromanage me). If I’m honest, the endgame sometimes feels like film/TV–that’s how so many of us receive our stories and probably the way to reach the most individual people these days–and the graphic format is obviously a great stand-in or interim step, basically storyboards for a screen adaptation. There’s so much that can be done in the graphic novel, but I’ve watched We Can Save Us All play out in my head so many times, with music and choreography and the kinds of elements that are difficult to place on the page, and it would be a thrill to see someone adapt it into a series and take it in compelling new directions that I never considered.

 

 

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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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