Caesarism, Crowds, and Populism

finasteride

When I was doing my MA, I stumbled into taking part in a local production of Julius Caesar. I had a tiny part—literally, about two lines, plus some shouting during the crowd scenes—but because the director had the idea that the Roman mob should double as a sort of chorus and witness, I spent about eighty percent of the play draped around the apron of the thrust stage with the rest of the non-principal cast.

The run was an interminable four weeks; at the time I did not appreciate just how exploitative that is for an amateur show, where the theatre company makes money but none of the actors do. For me it was a lark, and the fact that I managed to get decent grades in all my classes that term still amazes me somewhat. But it did grind on after a time, and to this day I still have most of the text of the play embedded in my unconscious.

One line in particular: the play started with a large mound of people pulsating and chanting “Caesar!” in murmurs as the house lights came slowly up. The actor playing Cassius then boomed “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!” and the people in the heap peeled away in slow, stylized fashion, revealing Caesar, Antony, and the other principals.

Every night I heard that line, and every night it tugged at something in my subconscious, until it suddenly struck me: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” scans almost exactly the same as Darth Vader’s line to Princess Leia, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor!” And from that point on, I have never heard either line without thinking of the other.

JULIUS_CAESAR_PJ

I’ve been thinking about that production lately, in part because I had the privilege yesterday of organizing and directing a play reading for my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman’s “48 Months of Finasteride.” Andrew, whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is truly astonishing, decided that he wanted to publicly read a play for every month of the Trump presidency—selecting politically themed plays dealing in some capacity with fascism or tyranny, political buffoonery, or really anything that could be used to reflect upon the current clusterfuck inhabiting the White House. Months forty-eight and forty-seven featured Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner, respectively. I suggested that he do the version of Julius Caesar first performed under the direction of Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles, who starred as Brutus as well as directing, made the play explicitly about Nazi Germany—the lighting evoked that of the Nuremberg Rallies, the actors dressed in Gestapo-esque outfits, and pamphlets advertising the play read “JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!”

Andrew liked the idea, and suggested I direct it. Which I did, and, thanks to a lovely cast of readers, last night it received an enthusiastic response.

cast

Our lovely cast. Back row: Fionn Shea (Cinna, Cobbler), Olivia Heaney (Flavius, Calphurnia, Publius), Zaren Healey White (Marullus, Portia, Decius, Cinna the Poet); front row: Dean Doyle (Carpenter, Lucius, Casca, Artimedorus, Soothsayer, Ligarius), Luke Ashworth (Julius Caesar), Your Truly (Brutus), Jennifer Lokash (Cassius), Ruth Lawrence (Mark Antony)

I’m always amused and gratified by the little serendipities of life, which seem to appear all the time in my teaching and research—it doesn’t really matter how dissimilar the classes I’m teaching in a given term are, I can be reliably guaranteed to find points of connection in my lectures that are surprising and enlightening (to me, at least). Given that I’ve been expanding research I’ve been doing, on zombie narratives on one hand and militaristic SF on the other, into theories of crowds and mobs (militaristic SF shares a tendency with popular narratives of elite soldiery to depict the enemy as an undifferentiated mass), sitting down to work with Orson Welles’ vision for Julius Caesar was fascinating.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays have long been fecund ground for pointed political stagings, which is entirely unsurprising considering their preoccupation with individual versus collective power, divine right versus egalitarianism, the Great Man versus the mob (and of course, the persistence of ancient Rome in the political memory of the West—no less acute for Shakespeare than it is for us today). At the heart of these plays, especially Coriolanus and Julius Caesar is the spectre of populism and its discontents: Julius Caesar has functioned since its first performance as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the mob, depicting the Roman masses as fickle, dumb, violent, and easily led. Indeed, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is almost risible at times. One of my favourite moments is almost Monty Python-esque in how quickly the mob’s attitude turns. Emerging enraged at the assassination of Caesar, they listen to Brutus’ impassioned argument that it was better Caesar was dead than Rome crown him king, and thus sacrifice their native freedoms; so taken is the mob with his words, so happy are they that Brutus saved them from making Caesar king, that they then cry out that Brutus should be crowned.

BRUTUS: With this
I depart—that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.

ALL: Live, Brutus! live, live!

First Citizen: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

Second Citizen: Give him a statue with his ancestors.

Third Citizen: Let him be Caesar.

Fourth Citizen: Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.

As they say today: <facepalm>.

Such a scene does resonate, however, whether we’re Shakespearean groundlings or 21st-century social media users, for a simple reason helpfully distilled by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his landmark study Culture and Society (1958): “The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know … To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” This basic fact, to my mind, is the contradiction at the heart of both mass culture and populism: we partake but cannot conceive of ourselves as part of the mass, something played for comic effect in The Life of Brian when Brian leads his followers in an affirming chant of “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!”, only to have a small voice pipe up, “I’m not.” As much as I hate explaining a good joke, it’s funny because it’s an unthinkable sentiment, even as it undercuts its own claim of non-individualism by being a lone voice of dissent in a chorus of groupthink.

My own research in this area has been about the critical mass of zombie films, television, and fiction in the past fifteen years—teasing out a sense of the relationship of the undead hordes to our ambivalent relationship to mass culture. In the past two years it has taken on an added resonance with the resurgence of “populism” as a political force. Re-reading Julius Caesar—and this is what I mean by serendipity—touched a nerve, as the ravening crowd, riled to bloodlust by Antony’s oration, sets upon hapless Cinna the Poet and tears him to pieces. To be certain, this is the dystopian view of populism, but then one’s view of populism is entirely based on where one stands. If you’re on the left, Trumpian populism is pernicious, a melding of unreconstructed racism and white resentment, framed in nostalgia for an America that never really existed, whereas the Bernie Sanders version was an organic grass-roots revolt against systemic injustice and a broken political system. And if you’re an Establishment elite, both groups are the Roman mob—your political leaning only changes whether Antony or Brutus is the hero.

Welles as Brutus

Orson Welles as Brutus.

What I loved about sitting down with Welles’ script was seeing how carefully he’d orchestrated the crowd scenes. And I mean “orchestrate” quite literally—he made them much more complex than the original Shakespearean text, arranging the lines on the page in a way that indicated when people should talk over one another or speak in succession. Considering how exacting a director Welles was, I have little doubt he tortured his cast until the scene played symphonically.

Where Shakespeare identifies the crowd-shouters as “First Citizen” and so on, Welles instead just assigned specific lines to specific cast members. This allowed for a more precise allocation of speaking roles, but in reviewing the script, it also individuates the mob—Welles’ Roman masses have more personality, and come across not as a chorus but a series of individual voices. This dramaturgical change is interesting, considering that the overt object of the play’s critique is the terrifying rise of Nazism in Germany. As a friend of mine once drily observed, Nazis make the best villains—for the simple reason that you don’t ever have to explain why they’re villains. But Welles has another object in his sights: not an always-already malleable mass of “gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit” (to again quote Raymond Williams), primed to give in to their basest hatreds at the slightest provocation, but a heterogeneous group of thinking people convinced to throw over their own freedoms by a talented demagogue.

Most tellingly, Welles completely dispenses with the crowd’s sudden eagerness to crown Brutus—they are swayed by his arguments, but understand them enough to not seek a substitute king. Antony’s funeral oration thus becomes that much more masterful, as he leads his initially skeptical audience through four stages of his speech: sarcastic rhetoric (“And Brutus is an honorable man”), pathos (showing them Caesar’s wounds, and pointing out where each conspirator stabbed him), and then to the crowd’s own material self-interests (revealing that Caesar had left every Roman seventy-five drachmas in his will), and then finally riling them up to rage (“there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue / in every wound of Caesar, that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!”).

Also telling is Welles’ stage direction: when Antony reaches the climax of his speech, there is no mad yell from the throng as they charge off to wreak havoc. Rather, the script says “Silence. The lights dim as the mob turns slowly upstage and moves to exit with an increasing tempo and crescendo of footsteps.” Such an exit is not about collective rage but chilling unity of purpose—the suggestion being that this is not a fire that will burn itself out, but a movement. This cold implacability—so different from the more typical raging mobs of Caesar productions—surfaces again immediately in the notorious Cinna the Poet scene. Typically, the hapless Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing a name with one of Caesar’s murderers, is set upon by the mob and torn apart. Welles’ thugs, however, emerge quietly from the darkness and behave in a specifically Gestapo manner.

In some ways, it is clear that Welles’ Caesar was a pre-war production—it allows for a differentiation amongst the rank and file that would become unthinkable in years after the war when Nazis became synonymous with unthinking evil. But it is for this reason that this production is such a valuable document today, as it offers an unusually nuanced depiction of populism. If the masses, as Raymond Williams says, are always other people, it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how we become part of the masses.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shakespeare, Trump

A Blog Post In Lieu of Other Blog Posts That Should Have Been

Revenge of the Genres

junot_wao_coverThe past two weeks have been an unforgivable lapse on my part, particularly so because I neglected to post on the text that was the original inspiration for this course: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That I didn’t manage to get anything up on this beautiful novel—which I count as one of the best of the past twenty years—is rather embarrassing. It wasn’t for lack of anything to say: I have copious notes on magical realism, the way in which the novel uses genre(s) to allegorize intersectional identities, and finally I had planned a post about allusion, in which I would have talked about Oscar Wao and Stranger Things.

Alas. A stultifying combination of busyness and post-election rage has made writing anything more than angry notes in my journal rather difficult. It’s that time of the term, when finishing one stack of grading only clears the desk to provide a clear view of the next stack of grading. It doesn’t help that I have a cat for whom stacks of paper are apparently a more attractive bed than, y’know, her bed:

catesby-grading

When I set myself the task of regularly blogging about this course’s texts, I knew there was a fair-to-likely chance I’d fall down on the job at some point, or that this experiment would simply peter out well before the end of the term. I’m actually halfway impressed that I’ve posted as regularly as I have.

I do want to continue with this, however, even after the class ends in two weeks time. I’ve enjoyed this process too much, and have too much in the hopper that hasn’t made it to the page to simply end these posts with the course. The class itself has been a great experience: my students are amazing, and have been quite tolerant of my lengthy digressions and extemporaneous musings. As sometimes happens with this kind of class, I feel as though I’m only now getting a handle on the scope of the topic … so I will definitely be continuing to use this blog as a space in which to think out loud, and hopefully produce some raw material for some scholarly articles.

It helps than next term I’ll be teaching our second-year course on SF/F. Twelve weeks to do science fiction AND fantasy? Yeah, the reading list is pushing the envelope a little:

H.P. Lovecraft, selected stories
China Miéville, selected stories
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’m thinking I will continue this blog experiment with this class—there will be, after all, more than a little overlap in subject matter.

engl2811

So … apologies for the missing Oscar Wao posts, which I still intend to write; a little bit like closing the barn door as far as my class is concerned, but I’d hate for the stuff in my head to go to waste. In the meantime, look for some posts on Hamilton to go up soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

Well, That was Just Super

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.

electoral-map

For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.

Well. That would have been nice.

I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.

I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.

For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.

That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.

The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.

It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).

This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).

Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.

Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.

But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:

[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.

Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”

“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.

But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.

As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.

Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, wingnuttery

Fun Home, Part Two

Hello everyone, and welcome back for the second part of my conversation with my friend and colleague Andrew Loman, whose knowledge of comics and graphic novels (as both this post and the last one amply demonstrate) is considerably greater than my own. Last time we talked comics more generally; this time we get into the weeds with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Perhaps we can start with something I teased in my introductory Fun Home post: Bechdel introduces her story by specifically citing James Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is just the first of many allusions she makes to canonical literary works in whose mold she specifically crafts her own memoir. Proust also makes a number of appearances as a model. But in some ways, Bechdel is far from alone in creating a graphic memoir—MAUS falls into the same realm, as do Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and a number of other texts (arguably, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half qualifies, and our own Kate Beaton is currently at work on the story of her time working in the Alberta tar sands). And then you have the work of people like Joe Sacco, who produces historical-journalistic accounts like Palestine. To my inexperienced eye, it seems that graphic narrative has a decided inclination toward autobiography or otherwise documentary formats. Am I just imagining this? And if not, why do you think the graphic narrative has proved so amenable to this kind of storytelling?

 

Andrew: You’re not just imagining this: graphic memoir is a popular genre, both in America and in France (Satrapi’s Persepolis and David B.’s Epileptic being the best-known French contributions, both published by the great publisher L’Association). Depending on how flexible you are with your genre classifications, you might even say that graphic memoir antedates the superhero: in 1931, seven years before Clark Kent first took his pants off and jumped out his window, Henry Yoshitaka Kimanga self-published a book called The Four Immigrants Manga. It dramatizes his life and the lives of fellow Japanese immigrants in early twentieth-century San Francisco. It’s a fascinating book and it suggests that for whatever reason, comics have been a congenial medium for life-writing for longer than even many of its own practitioners know.

spiegelman-hellplanet

But most graphic memoir is of far more recent vintage, emerging as a distinct field of comics in the 1970s. That’s when Spiegelman wrote Prisoner on the Hell Planet – the harrowing account of his mother’s death that he later incorporated into MAUS. Spiegelman has said that he was emboldened to write something so painful and honest upon reading Justin Green’s Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary, which is – how do you summarize Binky Brown? – which is about the psychic travails of a young ardently Catholic boy of a visionary bent. In the first pages, when he’s a small boy, he hears blades of grass talking to him; at the height of the book, he’s hallucinating that a magic ray is emanating from his penis and hitting all the statues of the Virgin Mary in its path. The memoir is alarming and blasphemous and tragic and funny and a bit of a beautiful mess: where Fun Home is tautly constructed and formally elegant, Binky Brown is raw and shambolic. But it had a profound influence on graphic memoir, if only because without Binky Brown, there’d be no MAUS.

As to why the genre of memoir has had such success in comic – who knows? Champions of the form will surely make the argument that there’s something peculiar to the combination of images and words that makes comics an especially suitable form for life-writing. (Here, for example, is Hillary Chute, an eminent American comics critic: “The stories to which women’s graphic narrative is today dedicated are often traumatic: the cross-discursive form of comics is apt for expressing that difficult register….”) I’m allergic to that class of argument, which always sounds to me less like an attempt to explore the quiddity of the form and more like special pleading by comics devotees, but to give the claim its due, there is something about a drawn image that immediately emphasizes the idiosyncrasy of the artist and hence the life. I can’t think of many graphic memoirs where the images are in the vein of old Classics Illustrated comics – inert and bereft of style. (Now, of course, I’m imagining a parodic graphic memoir in exactly that lifeless non-style, an account of a conventional white middle-class American life in mid-century Muncie. R. Sikoryak should write it.)

But as I say, I’m skeptical about that argument. A more convincing one would begin with the economics of writing comics. Relative to other mass media, comics are cheap to make. And that inexpensiveness is of course liberating: it permits artists to explore far more idiosyncratic material. I love Hollywood, but even small-budget films are too expensive to risk exploring the kind of subjects that are common currency in graphic memoir – not if the filmmakers are aiming for the multiplex, at least. Debbie Drechsler’s Daddy’s Girl is a harrowing memoir of child abuse that no one would ever greenlight. It’s conceivable that some Bowdlerized, banalized version of Fun Home will make it to the screen someday, but that will only be possible because the book and the musical have been such successes. Think of the other literary form with a significant confessional tradition: poetry.

But above all, life-writing is a dominant genre in comics because life-writing in the book industry as a whole is a dominant genre. James Frey disguised his work as a memoir because no one was interested in it as a novel. I remember reading an essay in Bookforum by the curmudgeonly Walter Benn Michaels after the 2008 collapse. He was full of hope that the crisis in capitalism would lead to a crisis in the memoir industry: he saw a link between memoir and individualism, and hoped for a reorientation towards less narcissistic literary forms. No such turn is on the horizon, but don’t feel bad for Michaels: he enjoys his splenomegaly. And I think he’s right in drawing the connection. On the first page of Binky Brown, Justin Green makes this combative confession to his readers:

I officially left Catholicism on Halloween, 1968. … I daresay many of you aspiring revolutionaries will conclude that instead of focusing on topics which would lend themselves to social issues, I have zeroed in on the petty conflict in my crotch! My justification for undertaking this task is that many others are slaves to their neuroses. Maybe if they read about one neurotic’s dilemma in easy-to-understand comic-book format these tormented folks will no longer see themselves as mere food-tubes living in isolation. If all we neurotics were tied together we would entwine the globe many times over in a vast chain of common sufferingPlease don’t think I’m an asshole, Amen.

binky

Christopher: “Narcissistic literary forms.” I like that, if for no other reason than that I wonder if there’s any act of literary (or artistic) creation that doesn’t require at least a small measure of narcissism, enough self-regard to assume that one’s voice is worth hearing.

Michaels does get my hackles up a little, however, because however much hubristic self-regard we might read into Joyce or Proust, or for that matter someone like Norman Mailer or Karl Ove Knausgård, the flip side of that memoiristic coin are those people articulating experiences from the margins: the long history of slave narratives from Fredrick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs, for example, accounts that deploy the tacitly ascribed truth-value of confession and revelation in the service of communicating the realities of lives otherwise invisible or ignored.

While I wouldn’t necessarily situate Fun Home in a comparable tradition (though as a queer woman, she does write from a culturally marginal position), Bechdel is very canny in the way she situates her memoir in a canonical context with her allusions to Joyce and Proust, but also ironizes her relationship to such texts. One minor detail I’ve found interesting about her illustrations is the way she replicates text on the page: at various points, we see images of passages from a variety of books, from dictionary entries to the novels she or her father read, rendered carefully but not exactly—she does not simply paste in photographic or photocopied reproductions, but scrupulously draws the fonts and formatting (and does the same with handwritten notes and letters).

proust-lilacs

Again, perhaps this is a minor point, but it seems to me an interesting choice: in conventional documentary forms and memoirs, archival photographs and texts perform a significant semantic role, providing a touchstone to something “authentic” or “real” (and while sparing in his use of such elements, Spiegelman does use them in MAUS). Bechdel’s mimetic reproduction of text self-reflexively references her chosen medium of graphic narrative: drawing Proust’s words gives them a visual tactility we rarely ascribe to printed text. The intrusion of such text as image rather than narration turns it into a visual object, which then in turn highlights the medium in which Bechdel works, which is itself a repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.

What do you think? Am I completely off base here?

 

Andrew: You’re so far off-base you may be Paul Ryan.

No, you’re not: you’re squarely astride the base.

Let me say first, apropos of MAUS, that the three photographs Spiegelman uses are themselves complicated in all sorts of interesting ways. I think it may be the critic Thomas Docherty who first noted the ironies of the third photo in the book, a portrait of Vladek Spiegelman in camp uniform. One might assume that it was taken while he was an internee in Auschwitz. In fact, it was taken after he had left the camp, in a “photo place,” as he calls it, which had a uniform that people could pose in for souvenir pictures. It’s a photo that might well mislead those naïfs who still imagine that photos point to authenticity and the real, but instead calls attention to its implication in an emergent (and bizarre) culture of remembrance.

In Fun Home, the mediation is a striking feature, and it’s more thoroughgoing than you may realize. Bechdel’s method is to take photographs of herself for every human figure she draws: it’s a way, she argues, of capturing the idiosyncrasies of gesture with a subtlety and specificity that she couldn’t achieve if she were relying only on her imagination. In other words, the mediation you’re noting in her drawings of Proust’s words and elsewhere extends to the whole book, which is altogether a strange palimpsest.

I might, however, quibble with your assertion that Fun Home offers a “repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.” I’m not sure who would still accept that notion of the written word: surely it’s been tottering at least since the moment that movies turned from a cinema of varieties into a predominantly narrative form, if it ever had much solidity outside the circles of its champions. It doesn’t seem to me to be a battle that Bechdel needs to fight, nor do I see much sign that she feels such a need. If she’s engaged in any kind of struggle or negotiation through her emphasis on the iconicity of the printed word, I think it might be with her father Bruce, who taught English literature when he wasn’t running the family funeral home and whom she identifies, at various moments, with Camus, Fitzgerald, and Proust. She’s crafting a Kunstfigur of this man, who is so strongly identified in her memory with the written word, and maybe that informs her process of graphic mediation. But evidently “repudiation” isn’t the right word to describe her relationship with her father. In a two-page comics essay she published in Granta, Bechdel discusses the photo of her father that she used as the basis for the title page of Chapter One. She struggled, she says, “with the technical challenge of rendering the tonality and blurry motion [of the photo] using only line,” before admitting that “my drawing is as crude a schema of the color photo as perhaps the photo is of the raw, unspooling life it purports to capture.” Perhaps the point of her mediation is to insist on the inevitable crudeness of her schemas – the clumsiness of even this miraculously subtle work to capture the quiddity of her dad’s life.

fun-home-photo

Christopher: Granted, “repudiation” is probably too strong a word for what’s going on—say instead that it troubles or critiques a canonical understanding. I realize it’s perhaps a little disingenuous to discount authorial intent with a memoir—what genre is more about authorial intent?—but I also think it’s valid to see the ways in which a text offers a critique independent of the idiosyncratic and personal dimension informing its production. If this were a fictional narrative, it would be a pretty straight line between her father’s forbidding, aloof, and indeed authoritarian tendencies, and his symbolic connection to these texts that have played a comparable role in the normative discourses of literary study. That Fun Home is a memoir doesn’t necessarily change that fact: I think your reading of Bechdel’s agon with her father as the site and source of her graphic mediation is pretty spot on, but I also don’t think that discounts or obviates a broader reading in which we can see this work as a representative point of resistance to the canonical tradition … whether or not the written word still holds the same status I seemed to be claiming for it.

On that point, I should note that when I brought this up in class last week, I was surprised to find that the balance of my students could not tell me what “the canon” was. As I told them, I didn’t know whether to be dispirited or heartened—dispirited because they’d progressed to the fourth year of their English degrees without having gleaned an understanding of what, for decades, constituted the core of literary study in English; or heartened because it signalled that we’re now past the pro- and anti- canon arguments that pervaded literary study for so long. On reflection, I’ve decided that I’m heartened: whatever other problems bedevil academe in general and the liberal arts in particular these days, I like where we’ve arrived, where we’re (starting to) question long-held assumptions about what makes a given text worthy of scholarly and pedagogical attention.

After you take apart my argument above, I’m curious as to your thoughts on the way Bechdel spatializes the narrative. I may not know much about comics on the theoretical front, but even I can see that comics art is about compartmentalizing: literally framing each image in sequence, except for when we get more elaborate double-page spills and the like. The titular “fun home” of course references the funeral home Bruce Bechdel operates, but it’s hard not to see the title also as an ironic reference to the gloomy, gothic house in which much of the story unfolds, a structure (like all the literary allusions) indelibly associated with him. Again, this is an element Alison Bechdel draws from her life, but which here functions symbolically—the compartmentalization of the lives within the home, which also connotes the metaphor of the “closet”—as well as allusively, bringing to mind the long tradition of novels, from nineteenth-century Irish fiction, to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, in which the old and often crumbling manor house is itself a character in the story.

I don’t have a question here, I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.

funhome-brothers

Andrew: A discussion about the literary canon isn’t quite the same as one about the written word as the apogee of narrative art, though, is it? Those are different topics, despite having points where they overlap. The kinds of judgement that a would-be canon-builder has to make are different from those of a given narrative form’s champions. The aspiring canon-builder says: “Within this range of forms that we admit as literature, these are the best works.” The champion of the written word says: “This narrative form is superior to that one – and all those others, too.” I took you to be saying that Fun Home attacks the second creature, which I think is such a demoralized and thoroughly confuted shadow of a thing that Bechdel would hardly need to bother with it.

But let me talk about Fun Home as a “point of resistance to the canonical tradition.” It is and it isn’t, which I’ll start to argue by focusing on a related tradition that Bechdel portrays in Fun Home – literary interpretation. When I first read those parts of the work that are set in college, and specifically those portraits of male professors holding forth about interpretation, I felt modestly uncomfortable. Bechdel’s satire on the Jungian literary critic and his genital reading of Heart of Darkness is devastatingly funny, but it cuts to the quick, since I’ve elaborated my fair share of harebrained interpretations to bemused students: “You think the Headless Horseman is Irving’s figure for a man without capital? Isn’t that just a bad pun?” But even as she makes quick work of these dopes, she makes interpretation a key part of her book. What is Fun Home, after all, but an interpretive project, an attempt to solve the mystery of her father’s life and death, using the texts of her own memories and the family archive? It’s a work of interpretation, in other words, that also happens to satirize interpretation. I think it has a similar ambivalence about literature. There’s no question that there’s a connection between her father and the canonic works that he loves and that he teaches, often bullyingly, to his bored and captive students. But at the same time, there are very few comics that are as literary as Fun Home. As you note, the book is crafting itself in the mold of all the literary “classics” it cites. I’ve just distributed the topics for the final essay in my comics course, and one of my questions invites students to pick just one of the references to other books in Fun Home and explore how the cited book works intertextually to illuminate or enrich Fun Home itself. If you find an instance where Helen Bechdel is reading the part of Mommy in Albee’s The American Dream (and you will), then consider how that play’s meditations on national fantasy intersect with similar meditations in Bechdel’s memoir. It’s a perverse essay topic in that by design it invites students to distort the text, a single allusion among hundreds becoming, at least in that thought piece, the key to the memoir. But it’s making a point that I hope won’t be lost on my students, which is that Fun Home is richly implicated – in the sense of being entwined or entangled – in literature. Again, that’s part and parcel of its treatment of her literary father. You’re right to note that he’s forbidding and aloof and has authoritarian tendencies. He’s a terrible husband and often a terrible father. But he’s also intelligent, stylish, seductive, and dryly funny; and he’s vulnerable, and tormented, and desperate; he’s an artist but also an abuser of young men; “in short a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obsessive litigant and yet an essentially private person who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized – in short a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper, that’s that bit done.” (It wouldn’t be a real conversation between us without someone quoting Stoppard’s Travesties.) Insofar as Bruce stands for the Canonical Tradition, the complex relationship that Alison has with him extends to literature itself. To read the attitude towards Modernist literature as resistance alone doesn’t do the complexities of that attitude justice.

Two last notes on this front. First, the authors identified with Bruce Bechdel are all men. When Alison, in college, starts exploring a Lesbian intellectual tradition, she almost immediately borrows Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from the library, and we later see, among the books strewn on the bed that she shares with Joan, Adrienne Rich’s Dreams of a Common Language. Even if I don’t agree that the memoir is antagonistic to literary tradition, it’s certainly interrogating that tradition, or inviting us to understand it as a particular, contingent body of works, or to think in terms of literary traditions in the plural. Secondly, as the critic Michael Moon noted in one of the early works of Fun Home scholarship, many of those male authors that Bechdel quotes in Fun Home were gay. Proust is Moon’s key example, but I mentioned Albee, above, and Helen acts in a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and Henry James figures in a sly literary allusion, too (the short piece in Granta offers a more thoroughgoing reading of the Bechdels alongside James). I mention Moon’s insight to emphasize, first, how judicious Bechdel is in her choice of allusion and secondly, to destabilize once again the notion of a literary tradition as an uncomplicatedly “normative discourse.”

But to carry on. You’re of course right to understand the home of the memoir’s title not only in relation to the Bechdel Funeral Home but also the Gothic revival house that Bruce restores so carefully. It’s in a long line of crumbling manors in American literature, from the House of Usher and the House of the Seven Gables to the Bates Motel – and a cousin, of course, to the crumbling manor houses of other Gothic traditions. In keeping with the allusions to Icarus and Daedalus that pervade the memoir, the labyrinth is a key figure, too: Bechdel writes that “[her father’s] shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs.” And lurking somewhere inside, the minotaur who is also the labyrinth’s inventor. The home is, as you suggest, a metaphor for the closet.

As to how Bechdel spatializes the narrative: the page you include above is a great example of how she finds apt visual metaphors for a given moment in her narrative. The isolation of the Bechdels within their respective bubbles is itself a canny way to figure their absorption in separate pursuits. But placing the viewer outside the house, privileged with a kind of X-Ray vision that nevertheless only reveals the Bechdels’ silhouettes, is another means of emphasizing alienation, in this case of the reader from the five obsessives inside the fun home. That flirtation with the voyeur (if that’s the right way to put it) suggests to me a representational tradition I’m familiar with as a student of early American urban literature. It’s a tradition that’s embodied in what the historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz calls “the fascinating character of Asmodeus, a fictional devil with origins in the Apocrypha, who had been refashioned in the nineteenth century as a devil-dandy who could reveal urban secrets by taking off roofs of houses to reveal the vices of those dwelling within.” The appetite to see these domestic secrets is itself a function of what Franco Moretti has characterized as the “great novelty of urban life, [which] does not consist in having thrown the people into the street, but in having raked them up and shut them into offices and homes.” And into small-town fun homes, too.

But I prefer another example of Bechdel’s use of the comics page – one with some affinities to this one. Bechdel divides the last page of the third chapter into two panels roughly equal in size. The first of these shows Alison and Bruce in profile, sitting alongside one another in Bruce’s library. The two of them are companionably silent, Bruce reading a book about Zelda Fitzgerald and Alison sitting at his desk writing a check that he’s promised to sign. In the caption, the narrator Bechdel is imagining that her father killed himself in “deranged tribute” to Fitzgerald, who was, like Bruce, 44 when he died. But, she reflects, if that were true, then it would mean that his death had nothing to do with her. “And I’m reluctant,” she says, “to let go of that last, tenuous bond.” The second panel, the last one of the chapter, shows them still sitting alongside one another, still in the library, each of them at ease. But now we the viewers are outside, looking in through two windows; Alison is visible through one window, and Bruce is visible through the other. The curtains are a funereal black, and even though the static medium of the comics page means that they’re frozen in place, their appearance at the end of the chapter suggests a closing, after the fashion of a stage play. Alison and Bruce are still in the room together, but the new perspective on them now emphasizes the tenuousness of their bond. The first of the two panels immerses us in Bechdel’s memory of domestic happiness; the second reluctantly retreats from that memory. It’s a beautifully subtle dramatization of mourning that Bechdel articulates primarily through the image.

funhome-library

Christopher: As much as I would love to keep going with this, I’m overdue for posting it, so that will have to be the last word … which is only appropriate, given that it is an eloquent and incisive final word, and far subtler than my own evolving understanding of Fun Home. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Andrew. Perhaps we’ll have to do this again when we talk Hamilton in a little more than two weeks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

A Wee Bit of Comics Context

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re moving on to Fun Home by Alison Bechdel this week, which is the text on this course I’m most trepidatious about teaching—mainly because, as I’ve said before, I’m not much of a comic book / graphic narrative person. Of all the various species of nerdiness I enthusiastically embraced when I was young, comic books were not in my wheelhouse … I think, in part, because I was a very fast reader. I loved to read, and could tear through a medium-sized novel in a day or two. Comic books were a matter of mere minutes, so when the time came to spend my allowance, it made far more economic sense to buy a chunky fantasy novel by Terry Brooks or Anne McCaffery.

That being said, I seem to be having a mid-life comic book renaissance, having read Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (on the most excellent Nikki Stafford’s recommendation), the new Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as re-reading all the Sandman comics while we did American Gods in class. And of course I’ve read such staples as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, but this still leaves me far from being a competent commentator on comics.

Enter my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman, who not only embraced the comic book dimension of nerdiness in his youth, but has parlayed that love into scholarly production: he has published articles on Spiegelman’s MAUS, has taught classes on comics and graphic novels here at Memorial, and since his first sabbatical two years ago has been plugging away at a massive project annotating Watchmen. And most recently he presented a paper at “Mixing Visual Media in Comics,” a conference on graphic narrative held here at Memorial just a week ago that featured some of the biggest luminaries in comics and graphic narrative scholarship in the world.

We’re going to have two discussions, the first of which will deal with comics, or “graphic narratives” as a field of academic study more broadly; the second will look at Fun Home more specifically.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Let’s begin with the question of comic books as a field of scholarship, something that once upon a time, like film studies, would have been considered unthinkable as a viable area of academic inquiry. But now there are numerous English departments that feature classes on comics, many scholarly books and articles have been written on the subject, and our colleague Nancy Pedri can get a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant to host a conference devoted to it—and, indeed, feature respected scholars who have built their careers publishing and teaching on the subject. How would you characterize the emergence of comics as a scholarly pursuit?

tintinAndrew: That’s a complicated question. The first important point to make, I think, is that while North American comics studies have only emerged in the past fifteen years, comics studies in France emerged considerably sooner. The first work of criticism I ever bought was Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ Les Metamorphoses de Tintin; the second was Benoit Peeters’ Les Bijous ravis. These studies of Hergé’s Tintin albums were published in France in the early 1980s. So while Comics Studies was until recently unthinkable in the Anglo-American context, it has been thinkable in the European context for decades.

In the Anglo-American context, Comics Studies is still new, and it hasn’t yet established a firm toehold in the academy. Part of this belated emergence has to do with the disdain for mass culture that was part and parcel of the Anglo-American academy, which saw mass cultural forms, including comics, as Kitsch. I know you’re familiar with that prejudice from your interest in TV and genre studies: Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno cast long shadows. Part of it has to do with histories of censorship in comics: I’m thinking specifically of the Comics Code Authority, which came into place in the McCarthy era, which was modeled on the Hollywood Production Code, and which imposed various restrictions on mass-market comics, largely confining them to a child readership at a time when Children’s Literature itself flew under the scholarly radar. (The emergence of Children’s Literature studies is a related disciplinary tale.) And the largest part of it has to do with the slow emergence of the kind of the literary comic of which MAUS and Fun Home are exemplars.

maus
MAUS
was a breakthrough work for what would become Comics Studies, in two respects. First, its success emboldened publishers to take risks on other “weighty” comics, so that MAUS’s publisher, Pantheon Books, later published Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Marjane Satrapi, and David B., and gradually there accumulated a critical mass of the kinds of comic that people mean when they use the not-very-useful term “graphic novel.” Secondly, because of MAUS’s seriousness of purpose, literary critics could appreciate it in a way that they couldn’t appreciate a work like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. In its way, Watchmen is just as formally daring as MAUS; in some ways, because Spiegelman mostly kept his formal experiments at bay while writing MAUS, Watchmen is even more daring (there’s nothing in MAUS equal to Watchmen’s chiastic Chapter V). But Watchmen was still a superhero comic published by a mass-market publisher – that is, still caught in the grates of the mass-culture gutters. (I remember showing Watchmen to my Shakespeare professor at the University of Calgary. “It’s very violent,” he said, before returning to his lectures on King Lear and Titus Andronicus.)

comedian-in-the-watchmen-comic
The thematic seriousness of MAUS was its passport to the academy: it was often the first comic ever taught in university literature departments, because English professors could both appreciate it themselves and also represent it as a legitimate work to skeptical colleagues. Geoffrey Hartman wrote about it! And it made those other colleagues receptive to the argument that there might be other works that were as interesting and challenging, even a whole field worthy of scholarly inquiry. By the time I came to Memorial, I encountered only nominal resistance when I proposed a course on comics – only from the usual departmental mastodons, and even then only in the “this isn’t what I understand as literature, but go with God” attitude of the already-resigned.

I should add that comics scholars in Canada tend to be relatively young: we’re generally mid-career, which means we came of age as readers in the 1980s and later. MAUS and Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been part of our cultural landscape. It isn’t surprising that as we displace an older generation of critics, we remodel the institution so that it reflects our own sensibilities. But we have no reason to be smug about that: you’ll remember, I’m sure, how our department reacted when someone proposed hiring a specialist in Gaming Studies. “The idea!” we all said, dust rising from our clothes as we shuddered.

Christopher: Right, I’d forgotten about that. Though for the record, I’m not opposed to the idea of hiring a Gaming Studies person, I just want us to hire the half-dozen other positions on the departmental wish list before we get there. Though now that we’ve absorbed Communication Studies, perhaps that IS something we should consider …

Okay, there’s a lot there in what you said that I want to unpack, but just a quick question first: in my introductory blurb, I made a point of saying “comics” and was careful to mark out “graphic narrative” just like that, in scare quotes, because I want in our classes on Fun Home to trouble that distinction; to my inexperienced eye, it sometimes seems that there’s a tacit (or not so tacit) hierarchy of texts in which “graphic novels” are designated as serious or literary, and “comics” play a role comparable to genre fiction in literary study (and your lovely history of comics scholarship seems to bear this out). Is this still a thing? Are these distinctions points of dispute?

Andrew: Your eye may be inexperienced but it’s keen. “Graphic novel” is a term associated with the comics artist Will Eisner, who started using it to describe his work in the late 1970s. But the term owes its present currency not to him but to publishers and booksellers, who liked the distinction it implied from the vulgar comic book. Hey adults! Graphic novels! It would draw in the status-conscious readers that booksellers coveted – and power to them, because without those readers and the market they helped create I probably wouldn’t be teaching comics.

joe-sacco2From a critical perspective, though, the term is troubling. It associates comics with a single literary form – the novel – with its own complex history and its own contract with readers. Among the terms of that contract is the (typical) expectation that the novel is a work of fiction. (I know that that adjective “typical” does a lot of work, but that’s my point: why saddle comics with all the sub-sub-clauses of the novel’s particular contract?) Is MAUS a novel? No, though in some respects it’s novelistic: it’s a work of dramatized testimony. Fun Home isn’t a novel, either, but rather a memoir; Joe Sacco’s Palestine isn’t a novel but rather a work of comics journalism. It’s true that “comics” isn’t a perfect term, either, insofar as it implies that we should respond to MAUS with laughter. A term that gained currency in the past few years, “graphic narrative,” is only marginally less bad than “graphic novel.” Finding the right word for this strange form is tough work, and maybe the only thing to do is to use different terms situationally and always ironically. But “comics” has one key virtue: it isn’t pretentious.

Christopher: Amen. This all reminds me of the New Yorker ad for season five of The Wire (which I noted in an early post for this series), which is basically an interview with Tony Kushner on why he thinks The Wire is great art—basically, giving permission to the intelligentsia and literati to watch television without guilt.

We’ll talk about the distinctions between “graphic novels,” “graphic narratives,” and “comics” in class, but I think in general I’ll stick with “comics,” however inaccurate the term might be at times.

Something I’m curious about: many of the “literary” comic writers/artists, like Spiegelman and Bechdel, emerged from a bohemian underground of “alternative” comics; again, not something I’m overly familiar with, but from what I gather, Spiegelman cut his teeth writing comics that were the equivalent of garage rock or poetry chapbooks, and Bechdel made her name with the lovely but (at the time) necessarily niche comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. By contrast, as you point out, such luminaries as Alan Moore (or for that matter, Neil Gaiman) came up through the more popular, superhero-laden imprints, and thus took longer to gain academic recognition—in part because of their ostensibly unserious subject matter, but also because of their popular appeal. Does this kind of—what? I guess since we’re talking comics, I can say “origin story”—does this still obtain? (I guess in some ways I’m asking you to make a Frankfurt/Birmingham argument here. Sorry).

kushner-wire-ad

Andrew: I plead guilty to having first become aware of The Wire thanks to that very ad. But no one understands how much I love Tony Kushner. At least twice a month, I make pilgrimages to the Stephen Barclay Agency website to see if his profile mentions any new upcoming work. I’m still waiting for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures to see print; I cling to the hope that he’ll write the Phenomenology-of-Money cycle that he mentioned fifteen years ago; and I’ll be first in line if he and Spielberg ever make the Eugene O’Neill biopic he conjured up somewhere – maybe in his notes to the National Theatre’s 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I brought his comments on Sir Thomas Browne to the comics conference just in case someone asked why I thought Alan Moore might have read “The Garden of Cyrus.” (No one asked.) I love him. So I’m guilty – but I hope I get a reduced sentence.

You’re right that Spiegelman and Bechdel both come from alternative scenes, and that Moore and Gaiman’s path, lined as it is with capes and cowls, has set the terms of their institutional recognition. But Moore left DC years ago, and he went on to write many, many works that neither conform to recognizable genres nor would be well-received in the mass market (try pitching From Hell or Lost Girls to a media empire). Even so he still doesn’t have the critical stature of Spiegelman or Bechdel of Chris Ware. One suspects other factors at play. His work is seriously uneven (though Spiegelman’s is, too). He’s too weird for the generally middle-class critics who’ve made it through the polishing machine of graduate school and the job market (he worships a snake puppet!). And unlike, Spiegelman and Bechdel and Ware, who are all writer/artists, he relies on collaborators (as does Gaiman). That last one may be the most important: in spite of the collaborative example of film and theatre, cultural criticism remains most comfortable with single authors (witness the auteur theory in Film Studies, or the status of the showrunner in prestige TV).

I’d guess that critics’ preference for the alternative comics creator will persist as long as the high art/low art binary does. To me it seems robust. Bart Beaty recently wrote a critical study of Archie Comics in a spirit of rebellion against the canon-builders who’d only choose “respectable” artists while scorning the “litter auteurs” (if I may). An honourable project – but I think there are institutional and cultural forces working against him.

But ask me again tomorrow and I might tell a different story. The elevation of comics’ reputation has given rise to wonders: The New York Review of Books reviewing a Batman comic; Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther. We may yet wake up in a world where Nicole Eisenman is drawing Wonder Woman, and where Archie Comics are understood to be just as significant and sophisticated, on their own terms, as MAUS is, on its.

Christopher: I was going to save mention of the Ta-Nehisi black-pantherCoates Black Panther until later in this discussion, but since you brought it up, there’s no time like the present. When I first conceived of this course, I knew I’d want to include a comics component (in spite of my ignorance of the field). At the time when I was first jotting down the notes that would evolve into “Revenge of the Genres,” I was avidly reading Coates’ blog and his account of what it was like to write a comic book when this was something he’d never done. I was also, at that point, reading his heartbreaking and deeply affecting essay Between the World and Me, his cri de coeur about being a black man in America.

His Black Panther was in very close contention with Fun Home as the representative graphic text for this course.

I won’t ask you what you think of Coates’ take on Black Panther (that, presumably, will be an informal conversation over beer); I will, however, ask you what your thoughts are that a person who is arguably the leading African-American public intellectual of our historical moment (Toni Morrison has compared him to James Baldwin) has taken authorship over one of the very few black superheroes we have?

Andrew: It’s astonishing. I hope Suzan-Lori Parks or Tarell Alvin McCraney or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gets an invitation next (I’m naming playwrights because I think they’d make the transition to comics more easily than would an essayist). I had an intimation that Coates might try his hand at comics a year or so ago when the New York Times asked him what he was reading. He mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks, which was the sort of book I would expect him to read; and then he mentioned Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Avengers, which was not. That’s when I first learned that he’s part of the nerd collective; I gather some wise person at Marvel figured that out sooner. It still gives me vertigo when I see his name on the covers of Marvel comics. Time will tell if his run is just a fluke convergence of personal inclination and corporate canniness (Disney jealously eyeing Coates’ cultural capital): that kind of literary tourism happens semi-regularly (“Why not dash off a comic or two, Ms. Atwood?”). But of course I’d love to see him alternate between essays and comics over the long term – especially as he becomes more dexterous as a comics writer.

But apropos of his take on Black Panther – why wait for beer? – I’ve read the first two issues and found them pretty forbidding. Coates has inherited the continuity and characters from earlier writers, and he begins in medias res, during some sort of Wakandan civil unrest. I’m sure it all makes sense to Marvel habitués, but I’m afraid I come to Black Panther knowing nothing about the character – so I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it so far. But I want desperately to believe. I’ve rarely been moved by any paragraph as much as by this one, from Between the World and Me:

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

Someone who can write like that is worth trying and trying again. I’ll be buying the trade paperback.

Christopher: That actually sets up both a great final question to end this discussion, and a useful segue into Fun Home. Which is to say: given its place on the literary fringes, do you think comics studies offers a more fruitful space for previously marginalized voices to make themselves heard than “literary” fiction?

Andrew: Not comics studies, but maybe comics – maybe. The received wisdom is that because American comics have been perennially a despised form, marginalized voices have made themselves heard there. The great example is the superhero, created by young writers who were overwhelmingly Jewish American. But if that received wisdom is true, then as comics come increasingly into the literary spotlight, they’ll become less, not more hospitable to marginalized voices: the legitimation of the form will be bad for its diversity. But the story is no doubt more complicated than the received wisdom would allow. Those inventors of the superhero were overwhelmingly men, for instance, while “literary” authors of the 1930s included many women. Where gender is concerned, “literary” fiction today is still substantially more diverse than comics. And the legitimation of comics seems to have made them more rather than less hospitable to gender diversity. Alison Bechdel is a trailblazer not only because she’s a Lesbian cartoonist but also because she’s a woman: in 2004, two years before she published Fun Home, The New York Times profiled five comics artists – Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Seth, and Chester Brown – and as you can see from that list, there was not a woman among them (there were of course women writing comics, including Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, but they didn’t have the stature or visibility of those five men). Fantagraphics – a major publisher of comics with pretensions to art – was still largely a boy’s club. Glance at the comics section in a bookstore now (sorry, the “graphic novels” section), and you’ll see a number of women represented there – the brilliant Eleanor Davis, Leela Corman, Rutu Modan, Jillian Tamaki, Sarah Glidden, and many more.

But literary fiction is itself at the fringes of culture, so maybe we’re making the wrong comparison. Compared to Hollywood, comics are a festival of difference, and present a grand opportunity to those true artists, no matter their gender, ethnicity, or class, who are prepared to live hard-scrabble lives in draughty roach-choked apartments, struggling to make ends meet while they craft heartfelt works of subtlety and beauty that will finally come to press when they’re in their late 40s.

spiegleman_111213_820px

Christopher: And on that ringing endorsement of the comics-writing lifestyle, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thanks so much for talking with me about this, and for bringing your encyclopedic knowledge to bear on a topic for which I am but a neophyte.

And thanks everyone for reading. Stay tuned for the next installment: Andrew will be back to talk in more depth and detail about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fun Home Part One: Just a Little Introduction

I’m starting to feel this blogging for this course getting a little away from me, at least based on the queue of entries I meant to write (and still mean to write) versus where we are in the course. Not unpredictable, considering the busyness of this term, but I’m going to try and get back on top of things. I have a second post on Station Eleven, looking at how it treats the theme of nostalgia, in the hopper; I’m still working on a final Zone One post, now very overdue; to say nothing of the one or two contextualizing posts I’d meant to put up at the start of the term.

Hopefully, all that will come. But at the present moment, it’s time to move on to our next text, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. For reasons that will become apparent when I put up my second (already-written) post, this one will be brief.

Revenge of the Genres

FunHomeWhy Fun Home?

When I started sketching this course out in my mind, I knew I’d want to do at least one unit involving comics and/or graphic narrative, not least because in the last decade or so, it is a form that has emerged from the margins of literary study to be taken seriously academically, as well as making inroads into mainstream reading from its previous enclaves of nerd and bohemian ghettoes. Comics, and its more respectable cousin graphic novels, tend to doubly be genre: genre in terms of form as visual story, and genre in terms of the stories they tend to tell, most notably mask-and-cape superhero sagas.

My problem going into choosing a representative text was that this is an area I am manifestly unfamiliar with—I have never been a reader of either comics or graphic novels. I’ve read some of the usual suspects: Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and as mentioned previously, I have read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in its entirety. All of these were worthy candidates; I also strongly considered, sight unseen, the current run of Marvel’s Black Panther, authored by the brilliant African-American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While mulling all this over, I also considered Fun Home—which, though I had not yet read it, was a necessary candidate simply by dint of reputation. With a few days left before I had to make my book orders, I purchased a copy, bought a coffee at the bookstore’s Starbucks, and sat down to read.

By page six, I had made up my mind—Fun Home it was.

Why? Well, even sight unseen, it was a strong contender: not just because people whose opinions I respect rave about it, but also because I wanted to have an eye to gender and racial representation in the course readings, and in the mental game of Tetris that is the fitting together of representative texts on a course, I was keenly aware that I was lacking where women were concerned. (And even including Bechdel, I didn’t do great—2/6 for the course).

But more importantly, the story opens with an extended allusion to Icarus and Dedaelus by way of Bechdel depicting her young self playing a game of “airplane” with her otherwise unaffectionate father. fun-home-icarus-01

fun-home-icarus-02The opening chapter is titled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” an allusion to the final line of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Out of the gate, Bechdel at once identifies her graphic memoir with an august canon, and ironically signals this identification as transgression. It is a beautifully audacious beginning that reflects back upon the traditional strictures of literary canon, highlighting the fact that not only is this memoir a comic book, it is also written by a queer woman.

funhome-stage

There will be a lot more to talk about in future posts. Stay tuned for my special guest.

Leave a comment

Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

Station Eleven, Part One: “Because Survival is Insufficient”

Sooooo, a bit of a lag there between posts. Apologies, especially to my students—the term is getting really busy between grading and the fact that the vast majority of administrative stuff we want to get done in terms of new courses and calendar changes has to happen before the middle of this week … so I’ve been a bit distracted.

Which means that I’m putting up my first Station Eleven post after we’ve already started the novel in class. Also, I’m not done talking about Zone One—I’ve been pecking away at a final post comparing Whitehead’s novel to Max Brooks’ World War Z, and the instructive contrasts between them. I was going to get that up soon after this one, but I think it will probably be a better idea to get my second Station Eleven post up first. As Liz Lemon would say: blerg.

But without further ado …

Revenge of the Genres

StationElevenWhy Station Eleven?

Neil Gaiman is a genre writer with literary acclaim, and Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist who wrote a genre novel, and both work nicely as examples of how we might trouble our preconceptions of the categories of both literature and genre (and “literature” as a genre). Station Eleven does something different, however—for that matter, it does a bunch of things differently. The novel is vaguely generic, insofar as it follows in the mold of Stephen King’s The Stand, in which the vast majority of human beings are killed off by a particularly virulent strain of influenza. Mercifully, the dead in this case stay dead. But the apocalypse itself, while obviously functioning as a crucial narrative fulcrum, ultimately proves to be a MacGuffin: while in many such narratives the site and source of the mass deaths is crucial to the story and allegorizes some fear or anxiety (natural disaster, alien invasion, weaponized biological agent, zombies), the “Georgian Flu” of Station Eleven is an ancillary detail. It could just as well have been any other means of mass extinction for all the attention it gets paid. Those of us who obsess over nerdy detail will be frustrated: was it a natural mutation of the flu, or was it weaponized? Are the survivors immune, or did they just manage to stay clear of infection? If it’s the latter, isn’t there the danger of the virus returning to finish the job?

Mandel is not concerned with such details: the central theme of the novel is not the mass extinction of most of humanity, but rather the ways in which people adapt and change, and what remains important in the aftermath. Much of the post-flu story follows a traveling band of actors and musicians called The Traveling Symphony, who trek from settlement to settlement and perform music and plays. Their main dramatic stock in trade is Shakespeare: “They’d performed more modern plays in the first few years,” we’re told, “but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.” One of the members of the troupe explains this preference, suggesting that “people want what was best about the world,” a theme that Mandel develops in more complex ways over the course of the novel.

I must reluctantly admit that this line makes me think of that terrible Christian Bale / Matthew McConaughey movie Reign of Fire, a post-apocalyptic story in which the purveyors of the apocalypse are dragons accidentally released from internment underground. And no, Station Eleven doesn’t make me think of that premise, but a moment early in the film when Christian Bale’s character stages a crude theatrical version of Star Wars for the benefit of the children in the fortified enclave he presides over. His audience is enthralled. Though everything else about the film is more or less execrable, and this particular scene is played for laughs, it did make me wonder: what stories will persist in the event of a cataclysm few people survive? What elements of pre-apocalyptic culture will cling to humanity as a basis for future stories, legends, and mythologies?

The idea that Star Wars might be repeated in non-cinematic form is not exactly beyond the pale, considering its own self-conscious basis in myth and romance (George Lucas, besides stealing much of the plot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai film The Hidden Fortress, also wrote his screenplay with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces at his elbow); it’s not unlikely that stories that don’t speak to specific historical moments would be more appealing than those requiring knowledge of historical or cultural contexts. Shakespeare’s plays have endured not just because of their poetry, but because they have proved endlessly adaptable, as anyone who has seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 19th-century Italy, or a Richard III set in post-WWI England.

I have to say, as a lover of Shakespeare and someone who has directed a couple of his plays and acted in a few more, Mandel’s vision is comforting. The idea that people would revert (if that is the right verb) to the classics comprises a generous perspective on humanity, and a seductive one at that: who among us who feels guilty whenever we binge on Netflix rather than picking up a new novel, or when that novel we pick up isn’t something “literary,” hasn’t blamed (at least in part) the busyness of life and its myriad distractions? Sure, we’d get around to reading Ulysses or War and Peace, or reacquainting ourselves with Shakespeare, but who has the mental energy at the end of the day? By the same token, do we not blame social media and the internet for the fact that our younger generations lack the literacy and attention span for such great works?

(Not for nothing, but right now I’m lamenting the fact that I didn’t get my third zombie post written in time, as it deals in part with such tedium and mundanities of daily life).

As extrapolative SF, Station Eleven’s suggestion that we would find solace in Shakespeare is, at the least, a wee bit problematic—there is an element there of wishful thinking, but that might also be because we’re more accustomed to more cynical post-apocalyptic stories in which music and literature are the least of the survivors’ concerns, except as rare wistful moments of nostalgia when someone sings a sad song around the campfire moments before the zombies attack. But Station Eleven makes “culture” in this capacity its primary concern: the lead vehicle in the Traveling Symphony’s caravan (made up of pickup trucks “pulled by teams of horses on wheels of steel and wood”) bears the defiant motto “Because survival is insufficient”—a utopian declaration that being human means more than just getting by, it requires spiritual and intellectual nourishment as well. This, as we learn, underlies the Traveling Symphony’s mandate.

To return to the question of “why Station Eleven?”: if your nerd alarm is clanging, that’s likely because the assertion that “survival is insufficient” is a direct allusion to Star Trek: Voyager, a fact the novel acknowledges unabashedly. The line is spoken by former Borg Seven of Nine, expressing her realization that, as she re-learns how to be human, her need for an imaginative life is as necessary as the basic necessities of life.

There are a few points worth teasing out here, not the least of which is the way in which Mandel performs a cute little bit of prestidigitation, holding up Shakespeare as a cipher for enduring culture while sneaking in Star Trek and comic books. The novel’s title refers to a pair of comic books in the possession of one of the characters, from a series called Dr. Eleven:

Dr. Eleven is a physicist. He lives on a space station, but it’s a highly advanced space station that was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon … Kirsten’s taken care of the comics as best she can but they’re dog-eared now, worn soft at the edges. The first issue falls open to a two-page spread. Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon. He holds his fedora in his hand. A small white animal stands by his side. (Several of the older Symphony members have confirmed that this animal is a dog, but it isn’t like any dog Kirsten’s ever seen. Its name is Luli. It looks like a cross between a fox and a cloud.) A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.

One of the great pleasures of Station Eleven is the way Mandel deftly weaves the stories of a disparate but substantial ensemble of characters together, moving forward and backward in time as we go such that we gradually see how each of the characters are narratively connected. The Dr. Eleven comics function both as a thematic bit of connective tissue, but also as a concrete object anchoring the post-apocalyptic lives of the survivors (Kirsten especially) in memories of the perished world.

The comics also function metafictionally: Dr. Eleven’s story is one of flight and exile from an earth conquered and enslaved by hostile aliens, dystopic SF functioning as a central motif in a novel about a post-apocalyptic world, a novel that itself resists easy generic classification. Though Station Eleven received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Emily St. John Mandel demurs from the label of science fiction, in part because she does not want to disappoint people who pick it up expecting doctrinaire SF and finding that, aside from the near-extinction of humanity, there is a dearth of anything else resembling SF tropes.

Mandel’s previous three novels were also written, in her words, as “literary fiction,” but as she says, “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction with a crime in it, it turns out you’ve written a crime novel.” Perhaps ironically, part of the reason she shifted gears with Station Eleven was because she did not want to get pigeonholed as a writer of crime thrillers.

I don’t doubt that Mandel is sincere when she professes bemusement over people’s characterization of Station Eleven as SF; dystopias and visions of apocalypse have increasingly become a staple amongst such “literary” novelists as Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), and Margaret Atwood (pretty much everything she’s written in the past decade or so), and even when an author like Atwood enthusiastically embraces the science-fiction classification, booksellers seem reluctant to shelve their novels alongside Isaac Asimov—and indeed, you won’t find Station Eleven there either. But for our purposes, Station Eleven is an instructive text less for the question of how it is classified than for its juxtaposition of “high” culture and “low” in its thought experiment on what art will sustain us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching