Dartmouth Professor Examines How Comics Are Read
Valley News Staff Writer
Many languages have phrases for understanding that have to do with standing on firm ground. Correspondingly, misunderstandings, epiphanies, and surprises are just as often metaphorized as losing one’s footing, slipping, being knocked down or over with heels above heads.
The following journals on this list regularly include short stories that will blow you down, over, and otherwise upend your corpora as well as your emotional, psychic, and ideological equipage, which must have surely been shifted around in flight and thus must be carefully re-opened… so much turbulence of this kind will have shifted up the tenses but good.
So read on brave writers, and in the unlikely event of a water landing remember that your words are also equipped with wings–inverted, they are lungs; turn again, gills!
And speaking of things neither fish nor fowl, the title for this post chooses the word “story” deliberately and so do the scrupulous editors at these magazines. Sure, they may advertise stuff about liking experimental work, but if you don’t have something to submit that easily resembles a story, I wouldn’t bet my horse on an acceptance. Then again, who knows? Stranger things have happened. It’s fiction, after all.
And anyone who has ever had a book published by a university press may know the special anxieties I faced, but this press and my editor were phenomenal. Thanks especially to Vijay Shah and his team at University Press of Mississippi for this amazing cover image.
And without further ado, the table of contents…
Read my analyses of graphic novels and comics in my latest book Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel.
If the coda, interests you, check out a video of it here: “Where? Reflections on Richard McGuire’s Here and the Spatial Ontology of Comics.” Keynote address for the International Comic Arts Forum, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia SC. April 14, 2016.
In the tenth chapter of his Narrative of the Life (1845) Frederick Douglass rages against the hypocrisy of Christians slaveholders in a rant he identifies as a digression:
My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s–all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing.
The meta-commentary of the last sentence punctuates the tone of the preceding and implicitly begs forgiveness for “again digressing” from the reader as though digression were a repeat offense. But neither the term “digress” nor its variants appear “again” in Narrative. The earlier offense has gone without comment—although Douglass mentions a more venial adjustment of rhetorical course earlier in the chapter when he pauses to include the phrase—“But to return to Mr. Freeland, and to my experience” (79).
The phrase implies another subtle rhetorical apology—this time for relaying potentially superfluous testimonials about pious Mr. Hopkins, who always found a way “to justify the use of the lash” (79). Like the paradoxical singularity of Douglass’s admission of “again digressing,” this instance is one of the only in Douglass’s Narrative to evince retrophobic dilation (“But to return”)
In closing, I want to return to the curious wording Douglass uses in his Chapter Ten, where he mentions “again digressing” for it is in relation to this predicament that we ask one of the most important questions for anyone studying digression. What exactly is Douglass digressing from in this moment? A digression can only be defined as such in the face of an established unity. What is that unity in Douglass’s case?
Douglass provides us with a miniature narrative of conflict encountered and straightforwardly resolved at the beginning of Chapter Ten when he tells of a time he got his oxen caught in a thicket:
There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me. My cart was upset and shattered, my oxen were entangled among the young trees, and there was none to help me. After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.
The anecdote does more than create immediacy or heighten tension: it nutshells the narrative ideal—the kernel of conflict—from which the rest of the chapter digresses.
Douglass will eventually get his “cart righted,” but not without trying every possible means to extricate himself from the thicket he find himself in with Covey (the influence of white relations, Sandy’s superstitious root, etc.).
We should not forget that this is also the chapter in which Douglass famously stirs readers to expect an “epochal” change in his protagonist, thus fomenting the readerly anticipation required for digression to be regarded as such:
“The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (65-6).
If we expect an image, something to see, we are soon disappointed. Nothing so immediately apprehensible or so straightforward follows. Rather, a circuitous story of rising tension follows, punctuated, one assumes for purposes of rhetorical effect, by faux admissions to excesses, which are themselves intensifiers of anticipation.
Nothing about Douglass’s self-identified moments of “digressing” in the tenth chapter, in other words, digress at all. They build towards a larger narrative that still bears metaphorical resemblance with the ideal story of the oxen cart caught and released from the woods. Douglass’s digressions are not subtractive but additive. They build story rather than delay or disrupt it.
And by “pictures” of course I mean old movies. The very title demonstrates my theme. It even may be said to perform it.
Here are some examples of interesting old sayings from interesting old films.
You’re going home, Timmy!
Nothing doing, Uncle Bob. I ain’t ever going home again.
You’ll find this honker of saying used with abundance and abandon in such classics as
the old noggin
The stooges are good for casting attention to the old dome, the good old nut, melon, gourd, attic, skull, mug, the egg, or noodle….but my favorite is:
There Goes the Groom (1937)
After Burgess Meredith’s character pretends amnesia, even when all the staff at the sanitarium re-enact his favorite game of football, he lies out cold on a hospital bed. A friend leans in and says this to him:
How’s the old sourdough?
thrown in the hoosegow!
My favorite deployment of this expostulation, the well-to-do criminal’s handy euphemism, comes from Mickey Rooney’s character Andy Hardy from Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942). He’s talking to his sister Marian about Jeff, who might be able to help Andy transport his car, but who’s about to be sentenced by their dad, the Judge.
Andy: What’s your big grief?
Marian: Well, Jeff thinks Dad’s going to give him 30 days in jail for drunk driving.
Andy: Thirty days in jail! Well how can Jeff drive my car back from New York if he’s stuck in the hoosegow?
There’s the usual, I oughtta…Say, what’s the big idea? but what about…
This is from Shirley Temple’s Rebecca of SunnyBrook Farm from 1938. An angry dad manager of a young performer gets surly with a guy who runs a radio network and makes the following threat:
If it wasn’t for setting a bad example for Florabelle, I’d pin your ears back.
If at the end of this foray you have little to show for your efforts with old lingo, at the very least you might have the makings of a distracting found poem:
in the hoosegow
I oughtta say what’s the big idea
Well, you get da picture.
As an introductory poster session on the types of reading lessons that comics make possible, let us turn to a patently non-autobiographical example, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009), a graphic narrative driven by the same question that animates Reading Lessons in Seeing: how does the way one sees the world affect the world that one sees? And, tangential to that palindrome, how is it possible to transmit interiority visually, or symbolically, in the presence of conflicting and contradictory points of view? The answer, as we shall see, lies in the text’s formalistic tutorials in seeing.
The main character, Asterios, is a twin obsessed with duality who, as we learn, has videotaped portions of his life to artificially replicate his doubling. If that were not enough to convince even the most inattentive reader of Mazzucchelli’s pedagogical agenda, there are further depths to the character and story—postmodern, mythological, and self-consciously literary depths—and it is the reader’s burden as well as her prerogative (with all implications of play and desire intended) to plumb them. Within just a few pages, the graphic novel offers us a plunger: Asterios’ monograph, Modernism with a Human Face, a tome so heavy the winged cherubs lofting it up to the clouds are visibly wincing and sweating under its heft.
An overlapping triptych beneath the book on the same page positions the viewer among the sleepy generations of Asterios’s students. The only speech visible from the most contemporary version of our soporifically dry pontificator invites us to apply the dualities between the Apollonian and the Dionysian tendencies in Asterios’s lecture and book to the graphic novel through which Mazzucchelli mediates them: “Thus, we see the Apollonian—as opposed to the Dionysian—tendencies expressed via…”
And so much hangs in the balance of those ellipses, much more than merely the effect of our drifting beyond a dull talk that drones on in its own empaneled past time. On a formal level, that page is like the students’ flagging attention: it wants desperately to be turned. But there is still plumbing for us to do in the gutters of those ellipses clogging up forward momentum.
A moment like this takes on inflated pedagogical meaning after repeated exposure. In it, we are cautioned about the philosophical underpinnings of our seeing. Verbal evidence for the ostensible dominance of one visual aesthetic over its supposed counterpart gets lost in the ellipses—“tendencies expressed via…” Just how and where the Apollonian supersedes the Dionysian eludes explanation, so long as we search for clarity in the alphabetic. Weary perhaps of not finding it there, we might turn the page in order to escape sleepy identification with Asterios’s students, but we would miss a more intriguing plot that develops.
In this moment of reading and seeing instruction, the lecturing text plays a favorite trump card of the comics. Our assumed reliance upon printed language fails us, deliberately so. For it is not in words but in pictures, and better yet, in their frequently antagonistic resonance, where we must go for semiotic plenitude, the whole picture. Although such thinking has become nearly formulaic for understanding the word-image relations in comics, the thinking that these relations do goes unexamined. We seem to lack a language for talking about this metalayer of comics thinking.
Asterios Polyp, on the other hand, has no difficulty articulating the ineffable, exhibiting a veritable fluency for abstraction, paradox, and the palpable significance of omission. In the final pages of the graphic novel, having lost his vehicle as well as one eye, the protagonist perseveres in his Odyssey through a snowstorm that brings him straight to Hannah, his estranged beloved. Whereas earlier panels of the couple stress their dichotomy, these highlight their resolution even at the atmospheric or stylistic level of color. Gone are the stiff cyan pencil lines that compose Asterios and his unyielding sense of the cold geometry of the world. Gone are the crimson hues that sketch Hannah’s emotionality, her warm uncertainty. In their place is a chromatic plenitude of brown, green, and orange. These richer colors tell a story, a journey from primary separation to tertiary wholeness. The same story imbues the narrative with its heavy-handed references to Platonic ideals in Hana’s sculpture or in the subplot of Asterios’s twin Ignazio.
With one eye overlarge and blank, Asterios embodies the sudden liberation from a binocular view of the world to a monocular one. Instead of eliminating depth, this change announces his release from a crippling philosophical orientation towards duality as a psycho-cognitive fixation. Thus ridded of his physiognomic capacity for a parallax view, Asterios seems able to achieve with Hana the very human depth that binocularity was supposed to afford.
Only here, at the end, can Asterios come to her, like Noguchi the dead cat that Hana eulogizes for going to her while it was dying “like he was trying to comfort me” (emphasis in the original). These final intimacies are heightened by Mazzucchelli’s composition of the entangling tails of their speech bubbles (formerly another instantaneously recognizable difference between them). With their hands nearly touching on the couch, the two enjoy the tranquility of a self-conscious ending. Indeed, the graphic novel is so anxious about the end that it includes a scene of their two faces, speaking the words “rest in peace” in a conjoined speech balloon that is doubly framed: it is rectangular (as are all of Asterios’s balloons) as well as circular (as are all of Hana’s). But while the framing of the balloon fuses the two distinct styles, the lettering of “rest in peace” is in an altogether new style, a tertium quid of script not seen before in the text.
All omens presage the doom that comes after a few more pages and a series of three exterior shots of the cabin in the woods, pictured further away with each iteration. In the first of the three panels, we know by virtue of balloon shape and font style that Hana says “This is nice” followed by Asterios’s rectangular reply of “What’s that noise?” One more page turn reveals a two-page spread of a fiery meteor on a crash course for our couple’s serene cabin.
That two-page spread conveys one ending of Asterios Polyp. It is an apocalypse that has been heralded by the symbolic crater found in the middle of the book, which is both a literal and symbolic aporia, calling attention to all the other gaps in the text. One earlier breach that this one re-calls punctuates Asterios’s encounter with Spotty Drizzle, or Steven, at the diner, in which the doomsday prognosticator informs the group of an asteroid “A few years ago, one about the size of a house [that] whipped past us – just sixty thousand miles from Earth – and nobody saw it till the day before!” And to ensure that readers will not miss this cue of instruction, Mazzucchelli brings us in close on the oracle’s perspiring face as he warns: “Somebody’s gotta be prepared. Somebody’s gotta be on the lookout.” As readers of this narrative, we ought to be that somebody; we must become lookouts and cautious watchers of the stars.
For more, see the rest of my introduction–Reading Lessons in Seeing
emphasis on singularity and time, giving the impression that March will take as its titular concern the experience of one exceptional man who made history, marching against its grain so to speak. And yet, even as Lewis is proposed by this effect
This essay was originally published in a more expanded form in…
“On the Nature of the Boundary in Comics Memoir: TheCase of March.” In Comics an der Grenze: Sub/Versionen von Form und Inhalt, eds. Matthias Harbeck, Linda-Rabea Heyden, and Marie Schröer. Berlin: Bachmann, 2016. 31-40.