David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: comics (page 4 of 4)

“Here”, Richard McGuire

Which isn’t to say that formalist experimentation can’t occasionally produce absolute total genius. Richard McGuire‘s earliest fame came as bassist for early 80’s minimalist funk band Liquid Liquid, authors of “Cavern” (or “White Lines,” more or less), and who apparently just played a reunion show. But he also fell in with Art Spiegelman and the RAW anthology crowd and drew comics. And one of those, “Here,” from RAW 2.1, is a concentrated masterpiece.

“Here” is six pages long, drawn in a clean, neutral, almost nostalgic style. Its main construct is that each panel portrays the exact same location and space at different, marked times, non-linearly. The space mostly a corner of a living room, of a house built in 1902. A family moves in, a child is born, he grows up and continues to live in the house, he leaves and another family moves in, the house burns down. McGuire subdivides each panel into multiple time periods, so that the bottom left quarter of the corner can portray 1948, and the rest portray 2032, with an inset in the middle from 1968.

The device is so overwhelming that McGuire keeps the story as neutral as the artwork. Some of the juxtapositions make simple points (kid in 1955 says “Who’s a chicken!”; rest of panel shows chickens in a pen in 1870) and get out of the way; others seem to be assembled through pure intuition. Perhaps McGuire sought a neutral tone to mirror the implacability of the passage of time, which, unsurprisingly, weighs heavily here. But that pathos still dwarfed by the pure elegance of the structure itself; the impact is sublimely aesthetic above all else. The achievement of “Here” beneath that is to take material that normally could only be treated in highly subjective fashion and decontextualize it without producing alienation. (The base material is so traditional, down to the retro-futuristic fashions in the 2020’s.) It’s a strange, unsettling effect, numbing but not unpleasant.

McGuire was rumored to be expanding “Here” to book length. I’m not sure how it could be done, since the six pages succeed through rejecting traditional notions of “depth.” But the thing is seminal and deserves to be reprinted.

Oulipo Tangent: John Sladek

I was always surprised that there wasn’t more overlap between the Oulipo and science fiction, since both fields were among the most ready to dispose of character and meaning in search of advances in their respective fields. Calvino had Cosmicomics and T-Zero, but those are more fantasies than anything resembling generic exercises. There have been a few sf authors over the years who have tried Oulipo experiments, and probably more recently that I don’t know about: the latest I know of is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which also happens to be one of the more successful hypertexts out there. I believe it succeeds on its own terms, but it does come off as a bit of an exercise, a left-brained excursion in assembling fragments that’s closer to computer programming than to writing a novel–which is not a criticism. It is also, of course, not science fiction. Why Ryman chose ordinary reality for his experiment is not for me to answer, but perhaps, as with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth, it’s more coherent to maintain the physical rules of common reality if you’re going to play havoc with the metaphysics of coincidence, symbolism, and structure.

(There is an old EC Comics story, I think from Weird Science, in which a man mows his double down with his car shortly before finding a time machine, and, well, you know the rest, but the best part of the story is the appendix, in which the entire loop is graphically represented and explained for teenagers who hadn’t yet read “By His Bootstraps.” This type of structure, in its simplest form in this story, requires as much contrivance as some of the Oulipo techniques, and may offer a similar form of getting-out-of-a-jam.)

I suspected that 253 was inspired by Thomas Disch’s 334, a fix-up collection of linked stories laid out in appropriately Perecesque fashion. But Disch seems to be toying with the device with less than full passion; it’s his friend, the late John Sladek, who always read as the most influenced by the Oulipo metaphysics. (If you aren’t convinced, Sladek references Mathews and people like Robert Coover and John Barth in this nice interview.)

Nearly all of Sladek’s books are set up like Rube Goldberg machines with the strings in plain sight, as he maneuvers all his pieces into place for a final conflagration. Sometimes, as with his massive 800-page Roderick, about a robot Candide, he lets the chain of events go slack to focus more on episodes of straight satire (which is always there to the degree that it’s not being steamrolled by the plot). Other times, as with The Muller-Fokker Effect, whose protagonist disappears very early on after his mind is transferred onto computer, the overwhelming drive is action, action, action towards that blowout at the end. Consequently, he doesn’t have time to develop most characters beyond caricatured monsters–corrupt professors, foolish hicks, parochial megalomaniacs–which happen to be exactly what the stories require.

The exception is Bugs. Whether it’s because of a slightly less complicated plot or a focus on one particular character, Bugs feels more rooted in several specific places and their corresponding emotions, the most striking being the dreary gray computer company. It’s working on nutty cybernetics, but in the spaces between plot points there’s a melancholy that seems more identifiable with a technical writing job in Minnesota (Sladek’s other profession) than anything else he wrote.

Fred Jones is an English writer who, possessed of little character except for literate decency, gets caught up in the usual antics, but Jones is sympathetic enough that Sladek sticks by him even more than he did with Roderick. There are scenes that don’t figure at all in the plot, as when he applies to a newspaper to write book reviews (“I’m Fred, and literate” is how he introduces himself) and is led into a backroom teeming with shelves of undifferentiated rack-sized fantasy books. “See, about ten years ago somebody made the mistake of reviewing one of these and the word got out. I mean, Christ, they print fifty of these fuckers a month!” says the editor, then the shelves collapse and bury him.

The robot soon goes berserk after Fred has it read Frankenstein and the pace picks up, but there is still a similarity between Sladek’s games of satire and the Oulipo’s reductionistic approach to character. It’s more noticeable in Bugs than it is in Sladek’s other work, or even, for example, The Day of the Locust, because the setting is intensely realistic and very contemporary. Fred remains the only real everyman character Sladek used, and his placement in the book amidst architected madness suggests an attempted escape from the specifics of his personality through a sort of super-detailed cartography of plot. Other characters get completely sucked into the machinery, but Fred remains psychologically present, and his own experiences, though carefully contrived, are more bitter.

The conclusion? That the structural, mathematical antics used by the Oulipo-ians are inspired by the same spirit that drives Sladek’s Rube Goldberg plot machines: it’s not an inherently avoidant technique, but it is one that moves away from what characters like Fred are supposed to represent. Bugs doesn’t resolve that tension, but neither does it fall apart.

(That same architectonic spirit is also what makes chapter 10 of Ulysses a diversion rather than a sequential component of the book. To me, the book holds unexplored answers to all these dilemmas.)

Sladek suggests in the article above that he was going to go further in his never-finished project Maps, where the novelistic structures would extend, Oulipo-style, into the metaphysics of the novel. It sounds like it might have been too fanciful and too arid for Sladek to manage, because his application of structure did not encourage perfect structure as much as it did satire.

Barks’s Successors

When I was a kid, and I mean a cheerful, oblivious 8-year-old who was gobbling down Donald Duck comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between Carl Barks’s artwork and the rash of those inferior artists who succeeded and co-existed with him. I knew that his writing was better, though Gold Key/Whitman’s endless reprinting of his painful “Riches, Riches Everywhere!” story occasionally put that into question. But out of a sheer lack of visual acuity, I couldn’t see why it was that his drawing was so much more skilled, so much more well-proportioned, so much more careful. There actually was one difference that allowed me to identify Barks, once I figured it out: Barks was the only artist to use pie-cut eyes for all of his characters. Quality of artwork? Mystery to me. I hear these days that Tony Strobl wasn’t such a bad artist compared to those who followed, but at the time I couldn’t even tell.

Then the wave of fans who’d been Barks fans came around, with Another Rainbow and Gladstone doing their best to reprint the choice stuff and find new work of a higher grade, instead of picking randomly and often rather badly. Daan Jippes, William Van Horn, and Don Rosa were the big names. They used pie-cut eyes. They were committed to recreating Barks’s particular vision of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, the nephews, and all the other incidental characters. Since by that point I’d exhausted the collected works of Barks, I gobbled down the new work, which seemed as good as Barks’s stuff. And I liked Rosa the most, because he seemed to buy into the greater mythology of it all; he was the most obsessed with past references, with dense storylines, with establishing new characters in the old continuum. The willingness to work with huge amounts of archival material as gospel and yet go no further (any sort of rewriting, much less “deconstruction”, was strictly verboten) may be summed up best by this Q&A of a Disney animator:

Q: Who’s your favorite Disney character?
A: Love Dewey, hate Huey.

Now I look back and I see it as a breed of fandom much like those in science fiction and mystery circles. Rosa got too caught up in writing sequels to old Barks stories and eventually got lost in his “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” project, which is so focused on cramming in offhand references from every Barks story ever written that the characters end up as bizarro-world versions of themselves, carrying out actions without a context. I didn’t care for it at the time and next to “The Son of the Sun” and “Cash Flow,” which are solid, entertaining yarns, “Life and Times” gets bogged down in hero worship and the self-imposed majesty of the project. It is not quite a story; it is closer to Harry Blamires’s Bloomsday Book.

Rosa is unapologetic. In The Comics Journal #183, he said:

Strangely enough people ask, “Aren’t you excited about creating your own characters?” And I say, “No, I want to use Barks’ characters!” That’s the thrill, not creating my own. It’s taking one of his characters and doing something else with it that I love. Because Barks used so many of them only once I can actually use these characters a second time!

I don’t think the basis of fandom is simply one of arrested adolescence; the scenes that you see on the internet, at conventions, and in specialist bookstores are a parallel culture to the more traditional literati, with completely different mores and notions of status. But the urge to so completely inhabit a world delineated by an idolized master creates a ghetto for such work pretty quickly. (Again, there are Joyce “scholars”, and there are Joyce “obsessives.”) There is a similar stigma that surrounds Gustav Janouch’s dubious Conversations with Kafka, which, nonetheless, contains quotes that “If Kafka hadn’t said, you really wish he had.”

I’m not going to pass judgment on Rosa’s approach, but I will say that for a while he succeeded. When I first read the early stories, they might as well have been new Barks stories as far as I was concerned. Maybe this speaks to a lack of discrimination in my prepubescent years; it doesn’t matter, since the new stories weren’t intended for an eye that would be first drawn to Rosa’s more crowded and worked-over art rather than the basics of plot and character. They were aimed at someone who would read them as though they were additions to the master’s oeuvre.

Newer posts »

© 2023 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑