November 30th was the publication date of my new book, if that’s the right term to describe something so many years in the making, which is titled False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism. Spanning US literature and culture from middle of the 19th century to the present—with significant stops in the work of Herman Melville, Susan Warner, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Chris Ware—I examine the uses of failure at different historical locations. What all of the writers I study share is a desire to explore failure as a measure of literary success, a sense that failure isn’t something to be merely overcome or passed through, but a condition that constitutes the creative act itself. This sense of failure, I argue, stands in for two signal modernist preoccupations that can never be fully realized: the desire to divorce the literary from popular culture and the desire to establish an authentic and self-generative newness. While these fascinations with and transvaluations of failure are constants throughout the authors I study, their uses for this rhetoric vary widely: from a negotiation of popularity and prestige in the American Renaissance, to an account of demographic change at the turn of the century, to a register of the failures of Reconstruction in the first half of the 20th century, to the literary aspirations recorded in contemporary graphic narrative. And while it cuts against the grain of the deprecatory, even self-lacerating rhetoric frequently employed by the authors in the study, I’m very proud of how it turned out.
I’m talking about the book and giving an informal reading at mighty Labyrinth Books here in Princeton this Thursday, the 4th of December, at 6:00. The title of the book refers to an essay written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his late memoiristic phase titled “One Hundred False Starts,” which is an account of his failures to write, the writing of which constitutes the essay itself. I’ll be speaking about my own false start to the book, an idea I’d flirted with early on in the writing that analyzes the final rap battle in Eminem’s film “8 Mile” and why I decided to opt for Fitzgerald instead. If you’re in town, please join us, and if you’re the type who’s inclined to ask your institutional or local public library to buy a book, steer them in the direction of False Starts. Or, if you want to share some failure with family and friends for the holidays…
In other news, I’ve been returning to the conference circuit to continue thinking my way through my current book in progress on the intersections of late-19th– and early-20th-century comics and literary and art historical modernism. I’m presenting twice at the annual MLA conference in Vancouver in January: first on the comics of R. F. Outcault as accounts of immigration and assimilation and then as a respondent on a roundtable devoted to the work of comics journalist Joe Sacco. The latter is an outgrowth of the first book—The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World, organized and edited by the irrepressible Daniel Worden—in my new edited series with the University Press of Mississippi: Critical Approaches to Comics Artists. The book is already available for preorder, if only through a certain retail giant. I’m delighted to share that the third volume in the series, The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life, edited by Jared Gardner, is now under contract, and that a fourth, organized by Eisner-nominated Jane Tolmie, is soliciting abstracts. I’ll also be taking part in a roundtable with other academic editors in comics studies at next year’s PCA/ACA titled “Meet the Press(es): Series Editors Chart the Future of Comics Studies.” I’m excited to hear some big ideas for the future of comics scholarship, and to share some of my own.
I also had the opportunity to moderate a panel at New York Comic Con, which was my first, overwhelming experience at a mainstream comics convention. I was there (along with 151,000 of my closest friends) at the kind invitation of Amy Chu, who is a writer and entrepreneur in comics (both self-published and through major houses like Vertigo ad DC), and is currently auditing my course on American comics at Princeton (follow the link to see some of the comics my students have been composing throughout the semester). She brought together some major, fascinating figures in the field, including Scott Snyder, Becky Cloonan, Marguerite Bennett, Fred van Lente, and Ryan Dunlavey. We talked about the creative process and the advice they would give to aspiring creators, who I suspect were legion among our audience. I was struck by how resonant their answers were to the ways in which I conceive of the work of authorship in conventional literary study: writing is a seeming singular pursuit that is crucially supported through collaboration and editing; creation is constituted by revision and no work emerges fully formed; great ideas are as often purloined and transformed as they are generated sui generis; self-doubt is ubiquitous and is overcome through a mixture of willful disregard and tireless iteration. As familiar as these narratives were to me as a literary scholar, audiences in amusement-park-style rope lines—there was even a bit of a dash when they opened the doors for the best seats in a 400-person conference room—aren’t something I’m used to at the MLA.
Finally, it feels as though there’s an emerging critical mass around comics studies here at Princeton. I blogged about Alison Bechdel’s visit last year and we have a visiting scholar from Harvard coming next week to talk about Bechdel’s work as well. I’ve been approached by two graduate students in the French department, Charlotte Werbe and Marie Sanquer, to help organize a one-day conference in the spring, “Frames: Jewish Culture and the Comic Book,” scheduled for April 10th, 2015 and including visits by Rutu Modan and Miriam Katin (their CFP is here). Princeton just brought two powerful thinkers about graphic narrative to campus this year—Kinohi Nishikawa in the English and African-American Studies departments and Alfred Bendixen in English—both of whom I had a chance to speak with when the department invited Nick Sousanis, author of Unflattening, the first dissertation written in comics form, forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015. Andrew Hamilton, a fellow in the Humanities here both works on pre-Columbian art (an interesting precursor/parallel to serial images) and has authored his own graphic narrative. Things are beginning to take shape and I’m excited to see where these energies, when organized, will lead once my time here at Princeton ends.
In what must no doubt be the remaining 3 seconds of my 15 minutes, I was interviewed by the venerable comics reporter and reviewer Chris Mautner about the series I’m editing for the University Press of Mississippi: Critical Approaches to Comics Artists. Our inaugural volume, The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World (the cover image is very much a work in progress) will hit bookshelves in the summer of 2015. I couldn’t be happier with the results: a multidisciplinary, intellectually rigorous, and eminently readable collection of essays edited by Daniel Worden. It will be followed by two volumes that are both in the process of completion: The Comics of Hergé and The Comics of Charles Schulz, edited by Joe Sutliff Sanders and Jared Garner respectively. We’re planning ten volumes in five years in what I hope will be an invaluable and lively addition to any comics studies bookshelf. To get a taste for what these volumes will look like, here’s the table of contents and contributors’ bios from The Comics of Joe Sacco. If you’re sitting on an idea for the next great addition to this series, drop me a line at criticalcomics_at_gmail.com. And get on the horn with your institutional or local public library and ask them to keep an eye out for the series. Now, to put the finishing touches on my “American Comics” syllabus for the fall…
I fake live-tweeted (redacted notes after the fact, I can’t listen, view slides, and type simultaneously… my brain is too small) Alison Bechdel’s excellent, and heroic, visit to Princeton one day after taking place in a protest concert organized at the College of Charleston. I’ll pretend these numbered bullet points make my scattered thoughts here appear Benjaminian, rather than simply reflecting the attenuated syntax imposed by 140 characters (I’ve edited slightly to avoid particularly awkward abbreviations).
Since I refuse to shut up today, I will now not-live-tweet @AlisonBechdel‘s talk @Princeton. Feel free to continue to ignore me #twitter.
1. Occasion: Meredith Miller lecture series, founded by parents of murdered alumna who was a righteous feminist. Brother spoke movingly…
2. about the pace of change for women at Princeton. Important history for all undergrads to be reminded of. First women here class of 1973(!) [sic].
3. Bechdel opens w eponymous test, expresses ambivalence: stolen from friend + V. Woolf. Cites @TheOnion as progress.
4. All Bechdel’s work, from Dykes to Watch out For forward, “attempt to create female characters that are full human subjects.”
5. Comics for AB “a non-threatening vector” for artistic expression, putatively free from critical attention/censure. Shades of Spiegelman here.
6. Charles Addams her first influence. Shared sense of houses filled with secrets, dissociation of words and images in comics.
6n. The role of single-panel cartoons in histories/theories of comic continues to go understudied. Brunetti’s work helps here.
7. Bechdel on the rise of comics scholarship: “I guess that’s a good thing.” Better than “not entirely awful,” I suppose. I’ll take it.
8. Had hoped for a broader audience for DTWOF, yet stopped the strip in part because she “no longer needed to see myself”; increased LGBT visibility.
9. Fun Home both a departure from DTWOF and a “way to carry on the same mission.” There’s an essay to be written about this as well.
10. FH a memoir about dad’s sexuality before Stonewall; Are You My Mother? a memoir about mom’s gender role before women’s movement.
10n.Tales of belatedness particularly well suited to comics medium + queer rhetorics. Worth thinking about re: sustained growth of LGBT comics.
11. With parents wanting her to be both writer and artist, cartooning was the only available creative form of rebellion, a “ring tone only heard by teens.”
12. Comics, according to Bechdel, both arrest the gap between signifier/signified in writing and the unreliability of images by bringing them together.
12n. I think this is demonstrably false, both in AB’s comics and in comics more generally.
12n2. Comics’ honesty comes in their acknowledgment/exploitation of these gaps, “honest” in a radically transformed sense of the word.
12n3. I think AB’s work is a profound study of these fault lines. I argued as much here. #eisnernominated
12n4. Every interview she’s given since I published this has contravened my claims; AB much more rigid about latitude for memoir’s truths.
12n5. It IS her truth, after all, not mine.
13. Insistent that Fun Home and Are You My Mother? matter most because they are “true stories about real people.”
14. Does short readings of both memoirs, cutting out text boxes from panels and reading them aloud. First time I’ve seen this technique.
14. [sic] I subjectively miss being able to read and see simultaneously, but this new technique defamiliarizes the text in interesting ways, centers Bechdel’s voice, allows for speed of presentation.
15. Great process stuff, posing for photographic studies, use of technology, especially two forms of color/shade in AYMM? (computer then watercolor)
16. Yet another reminder of both the time intensivity of comics production and my own lack of skill at anything resembling craft, art.
17. FH a book about reading (yes!), AYMM? a book about relationships. Not sure this binary is worth placing on the two memoirs too firmly.
18n1. I paraphrase. Also: down in front.
19. A (to second half): I “don’t want to defend myself to conservative politicians.” I’m a cartoonist. I want to do my work.
20. Q: What’s next? A: Another memoir/cultural history of fitness trends(!). Intimations of this in AB blogging on Jack LaLanne.
20n. Also, potentially in relation to work like this. If so, I’m very excited to read & teach this.
21. Q: Response to musical? A: Offered film option, anxious a bad film lives forever. A bad musical, she reasoned, disappears unremembered.
22. Q: What relationship do you see between strip and book-length work? A: No money in, dying medium of newspapers. Books make $, offer real hope of financial security.
23. Q: How address the gaps in LGBT representations in popular culture? A: Can’t hold forth about such representations. Turns the question around.
24. Student(?) responds nobly, Bechdel concedes we [lesbians, LGBT folk] have to “tell our stories in ways that feel compelling to us.”
24n. Bechdel’s ambivalence about LGBT visibility in mainstream media, own potential (often evaded) role as LGBT spokesperson one of the most interesting dynamics in her work, in my opinion.
24n2. Ann Cvetkovich in this vein extremely persuasive on AB’s resistance to “homonormativity.”
And, it’s Princeton, so Jorie Graham pulls into town this afternoon…
I’m trying to turn off my inner copyeditor, who dies hard, to try and write more here and elsewhere outside of the academic default mode that tends to take over once my fingers hit the keys. Most of this writing has been happening on Twitter, which I’ve added to this page even if after 1000 tweets I still don’t entirely understand well how it’s structured. It strikes me as a perfect platform for literary and critical experimentation–the theme of my seminar this semester, the 140-character limit serving as a creative constraint akin to those employed by many of the artists we’re studying–so I’m trying to tweet more, more creatively, and to record some of the things I’m doing in the seminar here on the blog.
Here’s an early attempt at some linked tweets, cf. folks on my feed who do this right like Teju Cole and Jeet Heer, or a project like Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. (Apparently, TweetDeck would make this look prettier, but I can’t be bothered yet, much less figure how to embed TweetDeck into WordPress… what’s the deal exactly with all of these doubly capitalized portmanteau tech words?)
2. Which got me to thinking, the indigent and homeless are everywhere in @Pharrell’s ambitious, infectious 24hr video for #happy
3. They’re barely registered throughout @Pharrell’s video, but they’re visible in the margins as #happy dancers wend through the streets of LA.
4. It’s a fantasy to think that @Pharrell’s convenience store clerk or worker folding linens is always #happy, about to burst into song.
5. Music videos like @Pharrell’s #happy, of course, trade in fantasy, smilingly disarm whatever critique might be aimed in their direction.
7. Also, my 18-month-old busted out some new moves when it was being blasted on a car stereo outside daycare, defying cultural critique.
8. Because I know many of you were letting the ideological dimensions of @Pharrell’s #happy trouble you on a Sat. night. You’re welcome Twitter
Side note: Pharrell seems like a pretty thoughtful guy, despite his unwillingness to respond to any of this foolishness…
I’m also trying to more regularly blog what I’m doing in seminar, as one of many pedagogical experiments I’m testing out while on leave. In the first week I tried to concentrate on developing academic community from the outset, replacing the usual go-around-the-table-and-say-your-name drill with something more creative and memorable. I had students introduce themselves to a neighbor they didn’t know for 5 minutes then asked them to write a limerick about that person to present back to the class. This gave me an opportunity to also talk about why we have limericks in the first place, and how generative devices (here, metered and rhymed poetry with certain generic expectations… helpfully one with a genealogy in experimental literature) can impel creativity, aid memory, etc. Students then posted these to the class website (alongside self-designed memes they created to describe themselves), which will serve as a record of a series of these creative exercises I’m assigning throughout the semester.
I’d done the limericks icebreaker before in an earlier, more historically minded, less visually focused version of this seminar, and this group really did a great job with these. The memes are funny, some of the limericks are quite good (although, notably, not in the least ribald… unlike the example I provided in class), and I had their (admittedly, only nine) names down by the second class. I think I’m putting this into heavy rotation in future classes, perhaps with changes based upon the course material. Not that all of the experiments will be as successful… I’m doing something wrong if I don’t fail a great deal this semester. I’ll take the wins where I can get them, though.
I just concluded the third and final week of teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick to my early American literature seminar, the first time I’ve taught the novel in my career. Teaching a book like Moby-Dick is dangerous, because it both threatens to whelm a syllabus with its scope and bulk (following these three weeks, I can easily imagine a semester- or year-long course on the novel), and it demands of students a kind of sustained attention that feels particularly difficult to muster in the age of distraction. I wrote about this earlier, I’m not immune to these forces either, and I’m disinclined toward kids-these-days, technophobic arguments. But when I asked my students in an aside at the beginning of one of our discussions whether there were any analogues in their own intellectual lives to the kind of encyclopedic intellectual work of the novel, they could only read it as a figure for other literary or literary critical enterprises like the seminar itself. And of course the novel is exemplarily metafictional. But I find myself wishing my students had experiences akin to Ishmael’s, to dive deeper than they are accustomed, in the English classroom of course, but outside of it as well. Such forms of concentrated attention feel as though they’re becoming vanishingly rare in my own intellectual life, even in leave semesters with only one class where you’re devoting three weeks to a single novel. Perhaps this isn’t achievable for most, as even some of what one would expect are the most invested readers in Melville admit to frustration, incapacity, and futility when countenancing the white whale.
I don’t know if everyone in the class made it through the book. I doubt it. I am convinced, however, that a solid majority emerged intact on the other side. One or two may even carry the novel with them after the semester has ended, what is probably the best measure of whether I should teach it again in the context of a similar survey (I will). There will be a take-home exam at semester’s end to reward those who have read. I briefly considered reading quizzes along the way to test whether or not my hunches were correct, and I get how these can be valuable pedagogical tools, but education at the college level has always felt to me like it should be an elective process. And the lesson—one of the lessons—the novel teaches about the thoroughness, investment, and whimsy of impassioned intellection seems anathema to the very idea of a pop quiz.
Unless someone developed a truly Melvillean pop quiz. So without further ado… scholars, feel free to adapt this to your own ends.
Moby-Dick pop quiz™:
1) In what respects does a late consumptive usher to a grammar school resemble a sub-sub-librarian? How do they differ?
2) Who aint a slave? Tell me that.
3) Delight is it to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self?
4) True or False: You cannot hide the soul.
5) And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
Extra credit: What like a bullet can undeceive?
For a brief moment I thought about handing this out on the last day of class discussion, but I chickened out, fearing that the joke might seem cruel (or, simply illegible). Maybe next time.
PS—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.
It’s been a turbulent past few months, with a tenure decision, a completed manuscript, and the beginning of a new two-year gig as Visiting Associate Professor of English at Princeton. So I’m haunting the old haunts, writing in the same corner of the Scribner Reading Room where I wrote large chunks of the original dissertation, and holding office hours again in the gray cinder block demesne of McCosh Hall (affectionately termed “the garden level”).
History repeats itself. I’m teaching early American literature again for the first time in five years, and the texts seem as vital now (at least to me) as they did when I read many of them in for the first time in Jay Fliegelman’s undergraduate course at Stanford, the one that made me want to become an English major in the first place. I’m in the last editing stages of my book—False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press—a long-gestating revision of my dissertation, where I argue that literary modernism, in part, is constituted by the repeated impossibility of authentic newness. (Side note: Michael North, who is indispensable for my argument, seems to be taking this transhistorical question on directly in his just-released Novelty: A History of the New, which I hope to review in College Literature.) And I’m once again in that exciting, vertiginous place of dreaming up a new book, this time on the intersections of comics and literary and artistic modernism. Things seem both to swell with possibility and threaten to drown you in the vastness of what you don’t know, a feeling that’s especially keen this time around as I find myself trying to teach myself to be an art historian. (A second side note: a piece I did for the Los Angeles Review of Books on cartoonist Ivan Brunetti was recently published, check it out before it is subsumed into the digital past, which is to say anything more than a week old.) I’m gathering books with abandon and looking for recommendations everywhere I can get them. Research for this next project began in earnest this week, and I’ll try to post exciting finds here on the blog, but blog neglect, alas, is another historical pattern I may be doomed to repeat.
Sadly, we’ve also lost another amazing woman in the Ball family, my grandmother Gene passed away earlier this month. It’s been an outsized couple of years of loss for the women in my family. They all will be missed.
My mother, Patricia Bullock, passed away at the age of 65, after having lived with brain cancer for close to six years. She did so with courage, grace, and dignity, a testament to the love and care of her husband Tom. She was the kindest, most self-effacing person I’ve ever met. The type of cancer she had usually afflicts people in their 20s and 30s—the surgery ward at Shands Hospital where she was treated was filled with graduate students, young parents, newlyweds—and she was characteristically more concerned about them than she was with her own health. “If I had been sick when you were 4 or 5 years old,” she told me, “it would have been a tragedy. This is just sad, that’s all.”
This unwavering kindness was mortifying when I was a kid. Mom would introduce herself to strangers, hold conversations with people you simply weren’t supposed to chat with. Toll booth collectors. Crossing guards. Not pleasantries, mind you, long and in-depth conversations. Invariably, we would be the last ones to leave the parent-teacher conferences and school functions of my childhood, because Mom would be there chatting with my teachers. Or the coach. Or the headmaster. The sullen teenager in me wanted to melt into the ground. She would regale me with tales of just how kind people were to her in New York City and, of all places, New Jersey, as if the constitutional rudeness of the state was imperceptible, or simply embarrassed by her resolute kindness. On one trip, we never made it out of the lobby of the Philadelphia Museum of Art because she had struck up a conversation with an on-duty museum guard in front of the first canvas she stopped to admire. They exchanged letters with one another for years.
Once I was mature enough to see it, this is what I learned to love most about my mother: her ability to see the humanity in anyone and to bring out the best in everyone. It was her instinct as a physical therapist, first in the halls of the VA tending to the Vietnam veterans, then in her own practice, and then working primarily with the elderly, trying every day to straighten what was bent and broken. As my grandmother, Helen Bickerstaff, aged and became more frail, she took on the added responsibilities of a daughter and a caretaker. This was hard and demanding work, both physically and mentally, and she undertook it with unfailing cheer, warmth, and heart. Gainesville is filled with the people she helped to heal; it was her calling, and even after her diagnosis and her first craniotomy, she still talked about going back to work part-time because it was therapy for her as well as for her patients.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Mom was a pushover. She ran a strict home. Soda and sugared cereals were never an option. When I was old enough to drive, in order to earn the privilege I had to sign a contract that ran to several pages. I was once grounded for a week for telling her I was going to play tennis at the Westside courts when I went to the Woodside courts instead. She told me that if I ever wanted to ride a motorcycle, she would first give me a personal tour of the accident victims at the VA ward to dissuade me. It worked. Right before I left for college, in a seeming lapse of her authority, she allowed me to visit an out-of-town friend who was then in college. I forgot to call home to tell her that I had safely arrived, one of the conditions of my newfound freedom. Several hours after arriving, I was surprised to hear a knock on my friend’s dormroom door. It was a private investigator my mother had hired to locate me—I swear he had on a blazer and a fedora, this can’t be my own fantastical reconstruction of the scene. He was her last recourse to finding me in an era before cellphones. The only thing he said to me, delivered with impeccable timing before turning on his heels, was: “Call your mother.”
Having been a parent now for nine months, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be a single mother, to move back home, and to remake a life for herself and for me. My memories of her are of course from this time, and I never once sensed that this was ever a burden to her, though at times it must have been. One of the things I will miss most is the ability to understand her more fully now, to know what these years meant to her. And as happy as my memories are of this time, it was her past eight years with Tom that were her happiest. Traveling, dancing, and being completely in love. These were the things the cancer couldn’t touch. We are all grateful for the time we’ve had and the memories we’ve kept between us.
She will be remembered by the husband she adored, the friends she made, the patients she made whole, the dance partners she embraced, the family she leaves behind, the strangers she showered with kindness, and the son she loved.
After a week that featured the stomach flu and a leaking hot water heater, welcome news of two publications arrives. The first is a tribute to Spain Rodriguez, underground cartoonist, unapologetic leftist agitator, fly in the ointment, gleeful thumb in the eye of politeness, speaker of truth to power. Add Artforum to the list of publications in which I feel underqualified to have my work appear. Writing remembrances is tough work—without being dishonest, I wanted to write the way Spain might have wanted to be remembered—and I hope this piece approaches that goal.
The second is a translation of my essay “Chris Ware’s Failures” from The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. I was approached by the gracious Santiago García to be a part of a volume titled Supercómic. Mutaciones de la novela gráfica contemporánea from Errata Naturae Press. My Spanish was confined to a few well-meaning elementary-school lessons, but it seems as if alongside Eddie Campbell (!) and Emmanuel Guibert (!), that I’m the only one being translated. I’m not quite sure what I did to deserve the honor, but “Los fracasos de Chris Ware” does have a certain ring to it. The book will be released in April, if there are any Spanish speaking readers of the blog…
… and, in news of our incredibly small, globalized world, there’s at least one: Alberto García Marcos. After I posted my lament that I’d failed to record my interview with Chris Ware at last year’s SPX, Alberto kindly emailed me that he was the translator of the only recording I was able to find: a Spanish translation on his blog. Not only did he generously allow me to share the recording he made 2012-09-16 – Bethesda – Chris Ware (I can’t listen to my recorded voice, it’s too mortifying), but he let me know that he is also appearing in the same volume as this translation (his interview with Guibert concludes Supercómic). I’m not sure which is more surprising: the coincidental nature of all this, or the unstinting generosity of comics scholars.
Okay, back to the failure book. Any guy who can make Chris Ware make this face has got to be able to talk with some authority about the authority of failure.
The internet lies. Well, at least my blog does, because it’s looked like I’ve been on sabbatical since time immemorial, napping under a tree (see the post below, and recent foolishness from Forbes et al., and the predictable backlash), when I’ve actually been working my butt off this past fall. With the failure book fully drafted, on my editor’s desk, and awaiting readers’ reports (one in, one on the way…) I turned my attention back to comics somewhat this semester. They’ve become a more prominent part of my pedagogy over the years, making appearances on all of my syllabi for the first time this semester, and in the spring I’ll teach my 101-level “Graphic Narratives” course for the third time. 2012 was also an amazing year for comics, highlighted by the publication of both Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama and Chris Ware’s decade-in-the-making Building Stories.
I’d hoped to publish a review of the Bechdel volume, but my plans fell through. I feel guilty enough that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt generously sent me a review copy months before its release to write a mini version of what I’d hoped to say: basically it’s brilliant and you should run out and buy a copy right now. Are You My Mother? is both a companion piece to her breakthrough Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and a thornier, more inward turning, more complicated book than its predecessor (and for those familiar with Fun Home, that’s really saying something). That HMH would print an initial run of Are You My Mother? in the six digits speaks to what I believe is a rapidly expanding market for comics with the depth, texture, and rich challenges of literary fiction (Building Stories sits atop the bestselling graphic fiction list; Bechdel has been on it for 30 weeks!).
If Fun Home was a dual portrait of her father’s being in the closet and her own coming out, Are You My Mother? is simultaneously an account of her mother’s ambivalence toward abandoning an artistic career for the work of raising a family and Bechdel’s own psychological portrait as relayed through various relationships with therapists and her own readings in psychoanalysis. What such a clunky summary fails to capture, however, is the visual-verbal richness of the completed project and the ways in which this narrative nonetheless manages to propel itself on the sheer energy of Bechdel’s intellect and keen self-observation. My argument about Fun Home, following Richard Meyer’s, was that Bechdel was participating in a tradition of queer visual artists for whom the cultural condemnation of homosexuality, in Meyer’s words, “compels indirection and ‘ingenious disguise’ on the part of the writer. Censorship produces as well as prohibits writing; it consigns the writer not to silence but to the strategic use of suggestion and metaphor, of submerged meanings and encoded messages […] a dialectical concept of censorship [that] functions not simply to erase but also to enable representation; it generates limits but also reactions to those limits; it imposes silence even as it provokes responses to that silence.” (Outlaw Representation, 15). So for Fun Home, I argue, the ways in which Bechdel both reveals and disguises the facts of her father’s case, the ways in which her moments of graphic confession are also simultaneously moments of literary allusion, the ways in which her romantic narratives are interrupted by others, all extend this dialectic of “ingenious disguise” in ways we might not suspect taking hold in the early 21st century. I previewed this argument here, and it is forthcoming in a volume titled Drawing From Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art.
In interviews, Bechdel has been blowing my thesis out of the water, speaking with increased impatience about memoirists who play fast and loose with the facts. I think her own work is the best retort to this “facts are facts” take on the ethical imperatives of the memoirist—I’m inclined to see the contract between memoirist and reader as much more fluid than she’s recently averred. I’m a long way from being able to claim anything thoroughgoing about Are You My Mother?, however, other than to say that the interposition of the family narrative in the later memoir into her own romantic histories continues the patterns of interruption in Fun Home. In one amazing page, Bechdel places her mother’s timeline and her therapists’ timelines above her lovers, not an accidental hierarchy in my reading: I could imagine a fascinating essay starting at this moment.
I’d have to read a shelf full of books before I felt comfortable even bringing Are You My Mother? to a seminar room—I chickened out for “Experimental Fictions” this past fall; it certainly applies—much less writing about it, but it’s a challenge I look forward to working myself up for in the coming years. In the meantime, buy a copy.
The biggest release of 2012 to my mind was Chris Ware’s latest masterpiece, Building Stories—a graphic novel that takes the form of fourteen unique comics, ranging from three-fold inserts, to hardbound books, to a full newspaper broadsheet. One of my big regrets with the timing of the publication of The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking was not being able to account for this completed work in our volume. We made up for this, in part, by putting together a series of critical “updates” published as a series for The Comics Journal. I’m tremendously proud of these—12 of our original 15 contributors submitted an essay—and I’m not certain that anything like this has been done, either in comics criticism or more conventional academic writing. You can read the entire run of essays here and here, and my contribution is here (mild spoiler alert, for those who haven’t read Building Stories). With the profusion of smart aggregate sites for the writing of academics and public intellectuals, like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I’ll be doing a long-form piece on the career of Ivan Brunetti in the coming months), I’m hopeful that opportunities to do this kind of writing that reaches a wider readership will only increase in the coming years.
I also took the plunge, a few weeks after Phil Nel did the same, of teaching Building Stories in the context of my “Experimental Fictions” class. The course ran from Edgar Allan Poe to present, beginning with Ware’s 2005 ACME Novelty Report and a class trip to the Small Press Expo where I had the distinct pleasure, courtesy of the boundless energies of Bill Kartalopoulos, of interviewing Ware in person. (Due to AV blunders, many of my own doing, I didn’t get audio or video of this, although the whole thing was translated into Spanish, which I can’t read. In unrelated news, my chapter from TCCW is also being translated into Spanish as part of an anthology. I also won’t be able to read that. The closest I found to a recap of what happened is here.). Ware has the ability to speak in whole paragraphs in ways that my brain can’t fully process in the moment, but the audience didn’t revolt, so I think the event was largely a success.
After tracking through some landmark works of experimental fiction, many of which were influences on Building Stories itself, the Experimental Fictions class returned to our big boxes o’ Chris Ware at semester’s end, devoting two weeks to our discussions. Since I eschew lectures at Dickinson, and given the sheer scope of the work being discussed, the very idea of coverage went right out the window. Our classes were most successful when we focused narrowly—the first day we limited discussion to the collection’s “Golden Book,” which was first published in the New York Times Magazine in 2006, and on the final day of discussion, we talked about his “supplement” to the box, an awe-inspiring cut-out model of the apartment building that features centrally in the narrative. When we tried to range across topics, we seemed to struggle more explicitly, all the while hitting on many of the incipient themes that were developed at greater length in the TCJ pieces written by our contributors. Even after having read the entire text several times in preparation for the interview and these subsequent classes, I’m left straining for a way to sum up the aesthetic and artistic achievements of the whole. I’d put it up there with the most ambitious encyclopedic texts I’ve read: Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Whitehead’s John Henry Days. Were I to reteach it, it would probably be in this context (how about those five books for a syllabus, with Building Stories’ explicit focus on women’s lives something of a rebuke to this very male-centered trajectory?), or perhaps in a Faulkner-Nabokov-Ware syllabus, where I could give over five full weeks to three texts by each author. All that said, teaching this was still one of my highlights of these first years at Dickinson, with the class sitting in a circle on the floor so we could rummage through our scattered texts unimpeded. I get paid to do this stuff.
In a final bit of comics news—apropos of my impulse to want to delve deeper into both of these titles, to shore up all of the things I know I don’t know in order to read these comics responsibly—I’ve taken on the position of series editor for the launch of a new series on the model of The Comics of Chris Ware. The series title is “Critical Approaches to Comics Artists” and it will be published by the University Press of Mississippi, helping to foster edited collections of essays on major figures in graphic narrative. I’m particularly wedded to the idea of multidisciplinary, academically rigorous yet approachably written works, bringing together the criticism of established and emerging scholars (especially as this generation of comics critics and theorists simmering away in grad school will no doubt completely re-envision how we read comics in the coming years). So look for The Comics of Art Spiegelman or The Comics of Charles Schulz or The Comics of Alison Bechdel coming to your favorite independently owned, neighborhood bookstore in the years to come. Right now, we’re planning on releasing ten titles in the next five years…
I should get back to work.
Well, the summer’s over, and with it the end of sabbatical and the horizon for all of the things one hopes to accomplish with the wonderful (and, even at the world’s elite institutions, increasingly rare) gift of time and intellectual space. Here’s the round-up:
The failure book—“False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism”—is on my editor’s desk at Northwestern University Press and in front of outside readers as I type (holds breath, waits nervously). I’ve been rifling back through the manuscript to buff the chrome of it to a high polish, with the able assistance of Dana research fellow Colin Tripp, in the hopes that it can start the journey to press soon (we were featured, matching shirts and all, here). As much work as The Comics of Chris Ware was, I had the invaluable interlocutor of a co-editor; this was lonelier, more gnawing work toward the end, but I made the May 15 deadline I set for myself. Hopefully my claims about failure will be argumentative, not performative. The readers’ reports will tell…
I co-authored a piece on graduate pedagogy with my former mentor (and current life-and-career model) William Gleason and a colleague at Purdue, Nancy Peterson, for publication in a special issue of Pedagogy on the topic of “Graduate Students.” At its core, the essay is a call for real-world solutions to the drought conditions in the job market that don’t cut off the production of Ph.D. graduates at the same time. We suggest a rigorous professionalization process that simultaneously trains grads for academic careers while remaining aware of how those skills might be transferable to contiguous careers both within and outside the academy (administration, non-profits, education, digital humanities). How great would it be to have more English PhDs in our government offices, our NGOs, our foundations, and our secondary schools? Far and away the best parts of this process were the long discussions I had both with Bill and Nancy, as well as a number of current and recently graduated PhD students about the state of the profession. It made me hopeful for the profession, even amidst the blood bath taking place in the corridors of MLA hotels every year. Pending review, the special issue is scheduled for a 2013 release, more details forthcoming…
I went on a conference paper binge to start priming the pump for the next book, which will be about comics at the intersections of literary and artistic modernism. I presented on George Herriman for an MSA seminar on seriality, R. F. Outcault for a seminar on graphic narrative and disaster at ACLA (shepherded by my partner-in-crime with TCCW, Martha Kuhlman), and the “novels in woodcuts” of Lynd Ward. I organized this last panel, on the subject of modernism and postmodernism through the lens of graphic narrative, with friends and colleagues whose work I admire: Bill Solomon, Lee Konstantinou, and Benj Widiss. All conferences should be as simultaneously convivial and intellectually charged.
I also started work as Reviews Editor at the journal College Literature, where I’m hoping to do some interesting things with the form. In addition to more conventional reviews and review essays, I’ve commissioned a review of a new book series and of a conference in the hopes of making the form more pertinent to the needs of teacher-scholars. While some of my editing hand is visible in what’s just been released, it will start to feel like my baby come 2013. If you have a book to review, or are itching to write a review yourself, holler at me.
In the good news department: The Comics of Chris Ware also received a rave review in The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (subscription required). The punchline: “It is extremely gratifying to come across a consistently high standard of discourse in a single volume, and equally gratifying to report that for an American comics studies publication there is a refreshing lack of inhibition in engaging with cultural theory. Alongside Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari, there are serious engagements with Umberto Eco, Paul Virilio, Gerard Genette, and Phillipe Lejeune. This bodes well for the future of anglophone comics studies. As well as setting a high bar for future collections, this anthology stands as a welcome riposte to the stultifying influence of Comics Journal-style anti-intellectualism.” Especially appreciated was the review’s acknowledgment of the value of a multidisciplinary, theoretically rigorous approach to our subject.
And, in the big news department: Mira Hanae Nakamura Ball roared into the world on July 19th, coming in at almost 9 pounds. Raise the roof.