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

Tag Archives: Kristen Radtke

I’ve admired Rose Metal Press for awhile now.

After my spouse (poet Lesley Wheeler) handed me Mar Romasco Moore’s Ghostographs after it was published in 2018, I ordered Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar’s Monster Portraits, before picking up a copy of Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson’s I Take Back the Sponge Cake from the Rose Metal Press display table at the AWP conference in Portland.

All are hybrid works of sequential images and words – what I call comics.

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury 2021), it was the first textbook to unite writing and image-making in a way that did not rely on traditional comics conventions but instead challenged writer-artists to create the kind of works that Rose Metal Press might publish. Now, happily, it’s joined by the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage. Rather than a traditional textbook, the guide amasses twenty-eight comics creators, each presenting a discrete exercise with opening commentary and a related excerpt of their own work. The results are invaluable.

Most guides for aspiring comics creators divide the field in two. Writers might read O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics or Bendis’ Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels. Artists might study Lee and Buscema’s How to Draw the Marvel Way or Hart’s Simplified Anatomy for the Comic Book Artist. Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, McCloud’s Making Comics, and Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures present more holistic approaches, but they do so while conforming to conventional understandings of the form and so don’t encourage creators to explore beyond traditional panels, frames, gutters, and cartooning and into the wider and less defined art of image-texts. Barry’s excellent Making Comics overcomes creative obstacles for students who think they aren’t trained enough to make art, but the approach does not challenge creators to develop beyond culturally learned iconic imagery and comics layouts.

Co-editors Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart’s Field Guide stands out as the most usefully eclectic approach, one ideal for such a wide-ranging form. I’m also honored to be included in Ervick’s introduction:

“Chris Gavaler argues that comics as a form should ‘no longer [be] defined in opposition to fine art.’ He critiques what he sees as McCloud’s ultimate emphasis on the question of ‘Will readers get the message?’—which, according to Gavaler, misguidedly prioritizes clarity over art. With an aim of raising comics to the level of an artform, Gavaler ultimately defines comics ‘as widely and inclusively as possible: the art of juxtaposed images.’”

Ervick and Hart take a widely inclusive view too. Rather than redefining comics, they adopt the similarly broad but newer (and so less historically encumbered) term “graphic literature,” subdividing it into the three categories named on their cover and given stipulated definitions in the introduction: graphic narratives, poetry comics, and literary collage. While comics scholarship has exhausted itself in the pursuit of consensus definitions, those disagreements are happily irrelevant here, since the focus is on creative production, not scholarly analysis.

Ervick’s scholarship is still of interest though. Her history includes both conventional comics (what I would call works in the comics medium) and a range of image-texts and sequenced images. While others have included (and debated) works that long pre-date the coining of the term “comics” in the 1890s, Ervick goes beyond ancient scrolls and illuminated manuscripts to place more recent works in revealing relationship. While I’m familiar with Tom Phillips’ A Humument (a classic of erasure poetry and visual collage), I have never seen it discussed in the context of 1960s Silver Age comics, and Basquiat’s eight-painting sequence The Comic Book is similarly enriched by its 1978 comics context.

The history achieves the guide’s goal of “erasing the boundaries and focusing instead on the connections.” The editors’ arrangement of contributions does too. While the contents are organized by craft, a later “alternate” table of contents reminds readers how reductively unhelpful rigid divisions (graphic narratives, comics journalism, graphic memoir, abstract comics, etc.) would be. Reading through the selections instead emphasizes unexpected juxtapositions, with illuminating leaps between, say, cartoons published in magazines and newspapers and artwork curated for the Whitney Museum of American Art. The effect is not only eclectic; it’s democratic.

Though I’m tempted to imagine different orders and clusters, that’s sort of the point. What matters is the contributors and every reader’s ability to wander freely between them. When I became comics editor of Shenandoah magazine in 2018, Mita Mahato was the first comics creator I solicited – so I’m personally pleased to see her included here. Trinidad Escobar is a Shenandoah alum too, and Kristen Radtke appears in the anthology section of Creating Comics as well. I would have included Bianca Stone – probably the author most associated with the term “poetry comics” – but her publisher never responded. I shared an MFA panel with Mira Jacob just before her graphic memoir came out in 2020, but I’m most pleased to see Deborah Miranda featured in the Rose Metal Field Guide.

Deborah taught creative writing and Native American literature in my English department for over two decades, before retiring and moving back to the west coast last year. She is dearly missed. Her inclusion is striking because she’s not a comics creator. Her Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir is a mixed-genre collection of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose, with a few pages of image-text art. The editors classify those works as poetry comics (or comics poetry — the alternate table of contents includes both terms), demonstrating how vast graphic literature is and how difficult-to-categorize many of its examples are.

Deborah begins with a cultural object (a blood quantum chart that she colors with a “totally fake ‘Indian’ design”). It’s impossible to give all the contributors the descriptions they deserve, but you might glean a sense of the diverse range of approaches by their starting points.

Begin with:

  • a connect-the-dots puzzle (Parsons).
  • a work of art, music, or literature and as many different kinds of mark-making tools as you have (Potter).
  • rough paper, a soft pencil, a steel pen (Hart).
  • a short phrase in a nearby book and images that you have in your living space (Lee).
  • a page from an old book you have never read before (Sutin).
  • a poem (Stone)
  • a bin of old photographs and an abandoned draft of writing (Bendorf).
  • reference images — family photos, vintage postcards, film footage – to explore place (Bui).
  • fodder (clothing catalogs, maps, old receipts, grocery store fliers) and an experience of loss (Mahato).
  • a photograph of someone or something important to you (Sikelianos).
  • an emotion to visualize through concrete imagery (Haldeman).
  • a bedrock question to explore (Donahue).
  • a news story that interests you (Neufeld).
  • a news article that resonates with you (Knight).
  • dinner conversation between a romantic couple after one saw the other leaving a hotel earlier in the day (Jacob).
  • a favorite character from a story or film and a troubling idea they might dream about (Roberts).
  • a cartoon version of yourself (De La Cruz).
  • a fantastical version of yourself (Andersen).
  • a memory to bring to life in a one-page comic (Peña).  
  • something that happened to you that you don’t fully understand (Radtke)
  • four evenly drawn panels on a sheet of graph paper and a place or a route that you feel strongly about (Rothman)
  • a person, a place, a conversation, and twelve panels drawn across two pages (Koch).
  • a six-panel page and a character with a hidden object to be revealed in the next full-page image (Escobar)
  • a story to draw in two different formats (Fujimoto).
  • a story to draw multiple times in different formal arrangements (Galloway).
  • a one-page scene to draw in different styles (Madden).
  • marks drawn in sync with your exhales (Brialey).

Best of all are the two to five pages of artwork by each creator, most in full color. I suspect most reader will begin by flipping through them all for a dizzying range of visual inspiration. Or at least that’s how I began.

Leigh Ann and I are teaching our Creating Comics course again in May, so now I’m rethinking how to incorporate the Field Guide. Any comics-making course should include it.

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Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This explores the literal and figurative ruins of loss and mourning in a graphic narrative poised on the nonfiction boundary between memoir and essay. After the long-anticipated death of a beloved uncle, Radtke looks outward at the remains of abandoned towns and ancient cities as she inwardly copes with the same inherited heart condition that killed her uncle. The premise is artful in a way more typical of fiction, since Radtke’s attention to her literal heart parallels her emotional life as her mourning isolates her from meaningful relationships. Yet after depicting her break up with her boyfriend in an early chapter, Radtke abandons that personal plot for nonfiction reportage of historical locations and events, an approach that undercuts the expected coming-of-age closure.

The turn away from memoir, while still an indirect portrait of her emotional state, is narratively peculiar. When graphic novelist Anya Ulinich reviewed Imagine Wanting Only This for The New York Times, she felt “a lack of personal stake, of narrative tension” when the work “thins out into a travelogue” in chapter four. But that’s arguably the point. Radtke’s travels in Asia illustrate her escape from the personal. After leaving her boyfriend in the previous chapter for the “distractions” of brief sexual relationships with graduate school men she identifies only by their cigarette brands, she responds to her ambiguous heart diagnosis and disturbing autopsy dreams by organizing a desperate travel itinerary with her “best friend,” a character seemingly invented for the trip which contrasts Radtke’s previous European travels with her now ex-boyfriend. The chapter’s dwindling personal stakes and tensions are the inevitable product of her impossible goal: “to see as many countries as possible and be away from home for as long as possible. It felt like I had to see everything, as if it was the only way my life would count or matter.” Of course it fails. She is trying to flee herself.

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Radtke next deepens her flight from the personal with another subtle formal shift. Where chapter four reduces the opening chapters’ intimate plot with the outward-focus of a traveler’s journal, chapter five steps further away by exploring incidents in the remote past. Radtke’s narration turns from travel guide to history guide. Her accounts of obscure sightings of the Virgin Mary, the explosive burning of a Wisconsin town in 1871, the WWII bombing of Dresden, and the invention of napalm are only sparsely punctuated with interactions with other living characters and memories of her uncle.

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Chapter six then opens with Radtke again in flight, now leaving “Marlboro Reds” in bed as she plans her next trip, this time to the yet-more-remote regions of Iceland on a nominal quest to research a yet-more-obscure topic, “a pseudo-travel documentary told in letters.” In addition to providing Radtke her title, the film and the peculiarity of its genre echoes the peculiarities of her own. Though she longs to describe her latest travel experience with “someone I loved,” her trip culminates anti-climatically with a thinly attended conference panel presentation in which the words in her speech bubbles literally devolve into scribbles.

Next she’s researching an abandoned mining town, one she glimpsed years earlier while still with her not-quite-forgotten boyfriend. Of course traveling to interview one of its former residents provides no comfort, personally or narratively. Radtke’s briefly details how “Sometimes I met very polite boys with very neat hair who asked me to take walks with them along the river.” Her explanation is revealing in the nearness of its inaccuracy: “It’s not that I didn’t want to stand in a field and watch the air get dark around us as the sun moved across and beneath the Ohio River. It’s that I didn’t want there to be an Ohio River.” Radtke’s subsequent litany of the river’s faults cannot obscure her not-quite-articulated death-wish as its unacknowledged influence continues to push her into greater isolation. It’s that she didn’t want there to be a Kristen Radtke.

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In the final sequence, Radtke lives alone in New York, imagining it empty and flooded as she evokes a universal but visually absent “we,” drawing together the intentionally disparate threads of her not-quite-a-memoir memoir. Though the anti-climax is appropriate, her plot and portrait remain incomplete, as if she has reached the end of her book but not its narrative. There’s also ambiguity in whether her faulty narrator—a troubled young women incapable of recognizing her downward spiral and its cause let alone cure—is a brilliantly crafted construction of the author or an accidentally revealing self-portrait.

Though her final sequence does not communicate the self-knowledge implied by the work overall, I choose to read Radtke as fully aware of the qualities of her drawn character—and therefore her actual character. The choice is justified by her skill in the comics form. Imagine Wanting Only This is no illustrated memoir, but a graphic narrative inseparable from its visual telling. Page after page exploit the nuanced relationships between text and image and the subtly disrupting closure effects of sequence. In terms of style, Radtke’s computer-generated lines are always precise, and when not overtly photo-based, evocative of photographic content reduced to minimal detail. Her backgrounds and interior shapes are typically solid shapes with no crosshatching, and she surrounds her limited graytones with wide white margins. The overall effect is a stark realism well-suited to her topic of death, both past and anticipated.

But Radtke’s topic is also herself, both narratively and visually, and so as the chapters follow her travels and reveries, her self-portraits people almost every page. As a result, her nearly constant visual presence contrasts her character’s expanding emotional remoteness. Also, aside from childhood flashbacks, her drawn representations do not change or evolve, creating a constancy that parallels her plot’s anti-climax. If the work is, as one of her back cover blurbers claims, a bildungsroman, it is one that reverses the coming-of-age genre’s most defining trait: personal growth.

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The abundance of self-portraits also makes her author photo on the back flap oddly unsettling because it both clearly resembles and yet subtly contradicts the character in her artwork. The effect isn’t due to a lack of artistic skill, but highlights the nature of drawing in general. Radtke’s style inherently alters what it depicts, including and perhaps most especially her most central subject, herself. This is true of any graphic memoirist, but Allison Bechdel’s mildly cartoonish self-portraits in Fun Home and Julie Doucet self-parodically cartoonish self-portraits in My New York Diary emphasize differences between the drawn world and the actual. Radtke’s computerized naturalism instead travels the borders of the unreal valley’s not-quite-ness, a fitting stylistic location for her not-quite narrative.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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