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.