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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Image result for julie doucet the complete

I don’t speak French and have never even visited Quebec, so my googled translation of plotte as “vagina” and “slut” likely misses some cultural connotations. Julie Doucet’s longer and better explanation includes a map and diagram and appears in one of the first issues of her ground-breaking 90s comic Dirty Plotte—or rather her bandes dessinées, literally “drawn strips,” the French term and tradition Doucet was responding to.

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I have never read Doucet in her original format, but my bookshelf includes My Most Secret Desire (2006) and My New York Diary (2013), two reprint collections of roughly 100 pages each. Happily, her original publisher Drawn & Quarterly released a complete collection, Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet, a massive anthology spanning over 600 pages. It amasses not only all twelve, twentysomething-page issues of the original 1990-1998 series, including full-color front and back covers, but also roughly two hundred pages of additional work produced during the same period. The combination is a startling body of work that further deepens Doucet’s place in the comics cannon.

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Dirty Plotte began as a late 80s series of two-page mini-comics, which, if we believe the cover price, Doucet sold for only a quarter. Most of them appear within the pages of the expanded series, one of the first publications launched by Drawn & Quarterly—with, according to the second issue, the grant support of the Canadian government’s ministry of cultural affairs. That fact is a stark contrast to the roughly simultaneous controversy in the U.S. over the National Endowment of the Art’s funding of Piss Christ (1987), with conservative Republicans attempting to eliminate the NEA entirely in 1990. I can only imagine how they would have responded to Doucet’s comic about eating the decapitated and butchered body of Christ on her dining room table or the one about a serial killer murdering a child (a young Doucet?) in a park and feeding the corpse to his trusty dog.

I know Doucet primarily as a memoirist whose diary-like subjects are the recent events of her waking life as well as the surreal happenings of her sleeping subconscious. Both paint a vivid and now expanded self-portrait. The dream Doucet eats a butter-oozing croissant protruding from a man’s briefs; watches her comics role model Chester Brown swim with killer sharks; is stabbed in the eye with a drug-filled syringe; receives the gift of a cut-off penis from a friend (it may or may not grow back); masturbates with homemade cookies in a spaceship; wanders lost in the underground tunnels of New York; has sex with her mirror self; and witnesses a prostitute strip off her clothes and then her skin to reveal a dog who strips down further to a snake before giving a blowjob.

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Though many of her other stories are equally surreal, Doucet is careful to distinguish dream content, citing a “true dream” or a “story based on a long time dream” or dating both the dream and the comic separately (“Dreamt July 1995 – drawn January 1996”). The distance of even a few months makes the work memoir not diary, but the effect is still diary-like as Doucet documents the disturbed and disturbing events of her subconscious life. She also nods at early 20th century comics pioneer Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland strips, each of which ends with the child protagonist waking in bed—a pose the cartoon Doucet often repeats.

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Her conscious world, however, isn’t clearly divided from her dream life. Many of the dreams begin ambiguously, implying real-world events that then devolve uncomfortably. Her non-dreamt content is infused with many dream-like qualities too. After declaring, “I’m in my bed! It was only a dream …,” the cartoon Doucet is surrounded by the objects of her apartment literally muttering murderous threats. Her own cats can not only talk, but lead their own anthropomorphic adventures continued across multiple issues. Other stories begin realistically and then turn not to dreams but fantastical comedy—as when she visits an old friend to find that he has a dog so big that your voice will echo if you shout down its penis. Still others are dream-like wish-fulfilments, as when she murders her annoying roommate or imagines multiple installments of “If I Was a Man” (it turns out a penis can make a lovely flower vase).

Doucet’s creative id, whether awake or asleep, knows few boundaries—or rather seeks out boundaries to challenge. I’m not sure whether I’m more uncomfortable looking at Doucet’s self-portraits covered in self-mutilating razor wounds or when she more graphically mutilates a male volunteer’s body. She is also “dirty” in both senses, depicting herself as a nose-picking slob living in surreal squalor and as an insatiable masturbator craving elephant trunk. Like her contemporary, Fiona Smyth, there is a fair amount of “joyous sucking” in these pages—but Doucet’s sexual universe is overall much darker. While the dreams and waking fantasies disturb, it’s her less surreal, less sensationalistic memoirs that most upset.

The first installment of what she would later collect as “My New York Diary” begins in Dirty Plotte No. 7. The ten pages, the longest sequence yet, recounts her seventeen-year-old self foolishly falling in with a group of men who variously coerce her into kissing and eventually having sex. It’s not presented as a rape scene, but the cartoon Julie’s “Oh, well” thought bubble is hardly joyous even if she does leave the apartment pleased with her sudden adulthood. As one of Doucet readers writes generally of the series: “Julie, it’s really not very funny, is it?”

Yet Doucet’s visual style is comical. These are cartoons in the exaggerated sense, impossible anatomy  that evokes the human proportions it warps. The heads of Doucet figures are roughly 1/5th their height, so roughly double the size of human heads. They pose and move in clunky, almost Peanuts-esque shapes. The artistic choice often reduces the level of discomfort in each scene. A more naturalistically drawn seventeen-year-old Doucet pinned on a mattress under a gray-bearded man sounds like an image more horribly at home in a Phoebe Gloeckner collection. Doucet instead allows her reader and perhaps herself off the hook by refiguring her dreams and memories into unrealistic realities.

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The collection is divided into two, oddly distinct books, each with its own title page and numbering.  The first is the complete Dirty Plotte series. But rather than interspersing Doucet’s non-Plotte material between issues, the editors rewind to the late 80s and begin the timeline over with literally “Everything Else.” Everything includes almost a dozen short essays about and interviews with Doucet by an array of comics aficionados: Dan Nadel, Diane Noomin, Chris Oliveros, Adrian Tomine, Jami Attenberg, J.C. Menu, Andrew Dagilis, John Porcellino, Geneviève Castrée, Laura Park, Martine Delvaux, and Christian Gasser. All but the last were published during Doucet’s comics career, which Gasser’s interview looks back over from the vantage of 2017.

To be clear, the “Complete” in the collection’s title refers only to Dirty Plotte and similar work she produced at roughly the same time. So it does not include her 365 Days: A Diary (2008) or Carpet Sweeper Tales (2016), works that break from her 90s style and content—though not necessarily the comics form, despite claims that Doucet left comics entirely after 1999. It does, however, include the forty-one-page episodes of “The Madam Paul Affair,” her first major work after ending Dirty Plotte.

Wandering back through the 90s again, it’s often unclear why certain material was included in Dirty Plotte and other wasn’t. There are more dreams (pregnancy), new cat adventures (now in a Western setting), and “If I Was a Man” installments, and works like “Heavy Flow” and “Janet and the Tampons” feel like long-lost sisters. But some of the gutter shapes are more playful—several waves and squiggles stand out—and an occasional page like “The Kiss,” an apparent homage to Klimt, do seem wonderfully out-of-place. Perhaps if Doucet had felt freer to experiment in these ways she might not have left comics at all?

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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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Comics studies—one of the few fields of study that can’t agree on what it’s studying–suffers from a decades-long disagreement over the definition of “comics.” I’m hoping to discuss that disagreement in my next book. Happily, explaining the disagreement isn’t a book-length project. I think I can do it in one paragraph here:

Setting aside supplementary terms such as “graphic novel” and “graphic narrative” coined to replace without helping to define “comics,” the ur-term has at least four overlapping yet competing meanings:

comics the form (any sequence of images);

comics the conventions (a subset of image sequences that use panels, gutters, talk balloons, etc.);

comics the cartoon (a set of image style conventions that simplify and exaggerate forms but not necessarily in sequences); and

comics the publishing history (which prevents the anachronistic application of the term to art created before the 1890s and also to any image or image sequence not understood to be a comic by the artist or curator).

Various comics scholars champion the various definitions, though usually without acknowledging that more than one is in play or that apparent disagreements are the result of talking past each other, since a “comic” is not a “comic” is not a “comic.” Thus Gary Larson’s one-panel The Far Side poses an unsolvable riddle for comics the form, while posing no challenge at all to comics the cartoon or comics the publishing history.

I could map the origins of the confusion (Punch magazine, 1843), but I’d rather map the concepts first. It’s a Venn diagram:Or actually two:Layered on top of each other:That creates 13 distinct zones, each with its own meaning. Since that’s visually complex, I’m adding gradations:The white sections have no areas of overlap, the light gray sections have two, the dark gray three, and the black center four:Now drop in the four corresponding definitions:

Every possible “comic” falls somewhere on the diagram. The least controversial land in the middle, which is the source of the confusion.Probably all would agree that a Krazy Kat comic strip is a “comic,” but each of us might have different reasons for making that conclusion, some of which we might share and some we might not. I, for instance, favor “comics the form” and so would classify Krazy Kat a comic because it is a sequence of juxtaposed images, regardless of its other characteristics. But it is also a comic in the other three senses. If someone else favors, for instance, “comics the publishing history,” then our apparent agreement about Krazy Kat masks a deeper disagreement. Or rather an unacknowledged misunderstanding, since my “comic” and your “comic” are secretly homonyms. We’re literally using different words.

Krazy Kat also fulfills “comics the conventions” and “comics the cartoon,” which massively overlap, since cartooning is one of many conventions, making it sufficient but not necessary to fulfill “comics the conventions.” That might mean that “comics the cartoon” is contained entirely within the area of “comics the conventions,” which the above diagram doesn’t demonstrate because a) I don’t know how to draw that and b) it might not be true.

Picasso’s late period includes a range of line art that satisfies the definition of cartoons but that very few would classify as cartoons. Image result for picasso line drawings

So is a cartoon that is not called a cartoon a cartoon in the “comics the conventions” sense? Or is the problem that Picasso doesn’t fall under “comics the publishing history”? I’m not sure.

Other examples will fall into other areas to reveal other previous ambiguities. Matisse’s book Jazz combines form and cartoon, but not conventions and publishing history.

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Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is a comic in terms of form and conventions (panels, grid, color separation), but not cartoon and publishing history.

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The Far Side, mentioned above, lands in the bottom “3,” combining conventions, publishing history, and cartoon, but not form since each is a single panel.

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As I continue to refine this definitional approach, I’ll need to number (and perhaps name?) each of the 13 areas and provide examples for each.  But I hope this provides the groundwork for defining the definitions of comics.

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Keiler Roberts lives in a deadpan universe ruled by a bipolar God. Her graphic memoir Chlorine Gardens is a fractured chronicle of self-deprecatingly hilarious yet harrowingly moving vignettes from the edge of her private yet oh-so-familiar abyss. Really, she has it pretty good: a comfortable life in a suburban home filled with loving family members and ample art supplies. Also, her grandfather just died and she’s been diagnosed with MS. But rather than best-of-times worst-of-times rants, Roberts’ humor is perpetually even-keel—a line as endearingly flat as the never-quite-smiling, never-quite-frowning mouths she draws on her and family’s faces.

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Given her anti-sentimental tone, Roberts’ drawing style is appropriately sparse: thin, black contour lines give her world realistic proportions, but without crosshatched shadows and depth. All shapes are empty shapes. The universe is not only colorless; it rejects gradations too. But her always simplified renderings are never cartoonishly exaggerated either. Though any photographic source material feels distantly filtered, its underlying realistic integrity remains. This is our world—just less so.

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Roberts matches the visual flatness of her panel content with similarly flat layouts of mostly 3×2 and 2×2 grids, punctuated by occasional full-page images. Each panel is framed by the same thin black lines that shape the images, gently challenging the conventional illusion that the white of the page background visible in the gutters is any different from the white of the story-world spaces inside the frames. In both cases, there just isn’t a lot holding everything together.

And yet her world, her family, Roberts herself—they do hold together, in part from the warmly ironic wit she threads through each scene. As a parent who kept a journal of the most endearing and inappropriate things my children said growing up, I know the pitfalls Roberts avoids as she chronicles her home life with an early school-aged daughter. In other hands, the six-year-old Xia—even as she’s echoing her mother’s “shit” and “goddamned” expletives—would be too cute, just a variation of parental bragging.

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Instead, moments with Xia, like Roberts’ self-portrayal generally, is grounded by the graphic memoir’s overarching tone of struggle. Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy? The memoir opens with Roberts telling Xia her birth story, yet by the end of the sequence she is clearly stating things not meant for her daughter’s ears. “I think,” Roberts’ drawn self later tells her viewers, “I started making comics so I could stop fearing the loss of my irreplaceable things.”

“Things” are central. Roberts lists some of her favorites and least favorites—including Coltrane’s jazz cover of “My Favorite Things.” Her favorite glass appears in a wallpaper pattern beside a vodka bottle on the inside of the cover. It appears again on the inside of the back cover, except beside a carton of milk. Somewhere between, she mentions that she’s stopped drinking and that “I never use my favorite glass anymore because I’m afraid I’ll break it.” She later lists first symptoms of MS, jokingly calling each her favorite thing too. “Nothing,” she explains, “exists without meaning and sentimental value,” and so “every object blooms with associated memories and feelings.” And as though to prove it, she ends the memoir with her mother lamenting that she has only “four of those wonderful frozen cheeseburgers from Costco left. They stopped carrying them.” The comment would seem aggressively mundane, and though Roberts’ character responds with only a simple “I’m sorry,” ten pages earlier she drew her dying father eating one of those cheeseburgers, calling it the moment she felt the loss of him.

Much of Roberts’ skill is in her understated use of the comics form—which is based on gaps and absences and so kinds of loss too. Roberts often leaves out key, dramatic moments. One panel caption explains that her beloved dog “bit some people,” and in the next she’s driving him “to the vet to put him to sleep.” She avoids not only the biting incident but the immediate drama of its aftermath when the victim presumably contacted authorities who agreed that the dog had to be put down. Instead, Roberts draws her “perfect” pet in the front seat, under the caption: “He sat up calmly.” In the next panel, she is alone in an examination room, with her hand on the blanket-covered dog. The panel reads: “Scott was in New York.” The understated fact echoes with a blur of emotion—all unverifiable by her expressionless face.

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That kind of image and word juxtaposition is another of Roberts’ comics skills, the way she plays the two modes against each other for subtle contradictions. When she states that “Scott sometimes watches football,” she draws her husband swinging their daughter around the living room as they shout “Touchdown!”—it’s unclear whether the TV is even on. When she’s explaining the nostalgia-like loss she feels in all objects, “It’s a wanting that can’t be satisfied,” she draws an angled eBay image of a “Barbie mixed lot from the 80’s” on the phone held in her hand. The mundaneness undercuts the spiritual depth of her words, as though her internal artist is gently mocking her internal writer.

The effects are subtle, but subtle is as good as it gets in Roberts’ universe. She posits a bipolar God to explain how “inconsistently great and terrible his creations are,” and then counters that volatility with her own deadpan consistency—though with just enough hint of a Mona Lisa smile to betray the love and joy struggling under the starkly drawn surface of all things.

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

[Also, despite my inability to defeat wordpress’ obscure and dysfunctional auto-formatting, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

From: Keiler Roberts
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 3:52:00 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Dear Chris,
I saw your review of my book on PopMatters. I wanted to thank you for writing it! Clearly, you put a lot of time into reading the book and writing about it, and I really appreciate it. As you know, most cartoonists are not in it for the money. Attention like this really means a lot to me, and keeps me working when I’m feeling unmotivated. I hope you don’t mind that I’m contacting you at this email. I had a difficult time finding any info on the PopMatters site for contacting anyone.
There was one thing in the review that wasn’t correct, and I was wondering if you possibly could fix it? It was my grandfather who died, not my father. He was 98 and while I miss him very much, it was a sad event, but not devastating. My dad is alive and well and I’m not superstitious, but there’s something creepy about reading about his loss.  Please don’t think this was the only reason I wanted to contact you. I do really appreciate the review and I want to share it with everyone! I wish I were better at articulating my thoughts regarding what I read, but I guess that’s why it’s so satisfying for me to read reviews. Someone else can put into words the reaction I had – or help me see what I missed.
Thank you so much!

From: Gavaler, Chris <>
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 12:54 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Keiler, I’m so sorry for that terrible error in my review! I’ll contact my editor right away and make the correction.

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 4:05:20 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you so much!
My favorite line of yours is “Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy?” That is absolutely it. I think I can stop therapy now that I finally understand! Really, your writing is so beautiful. You understood things that most people won’t.
Sincere thanks,

From: Gavaler, Chris <>

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 2:13 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Keiler, you’re so kind. And I’m so pleased that my interpretation of your work resonates accurately with you.  It may help that I come from a deadpan family myself.  I’m exploring the comics form myself now and you are a great model.  You handle complex, subtle material will such skill.

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, October 1, 2018 11:29:39 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you!
On Feb 18, 2019, at 7:23 AM, Gavaler, Chris <> wrote:
Hi Keiler,
I tend to wait a couple months before reposting my PopMatters reviews at my own site. In addition to correcting that terrible error you pointed out, I was wondering if I could include our correspondence below. If you would rather it remain private, I understand completely. Just wanted to check.

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 9:11 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris <>
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Hi Chris,
Please feel free to share anything you want! Thank you again for writing the review. Coincidentally, I spent all morning journaling about “things” and was thinking about how you picked up on that theme in my book. Marie Kondo has everyone reconsidering their belongings now but I wonder how much of it will become a real reflection on what different objects do to us, and how much will be people trying to follow her advice and missing something in translation.

From: Gavaler, Chris <>

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 10:05 AM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: RE: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
I just watched the Netflix trailer. I predict Kondo and your journaling will lead to another cool chapter for your next book—which I look forward to reading!

: )

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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.


he played Rubik’s Cube in the backseat

as his father drove

them to his sister’s


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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