Our Politics, Ourselves: The Millions Interviews James Sturm


Americans, young and old, of every race and gender, saw their lives upended in 2016. I’m referring to the at least 800,000 marriages that ended in divorce that year. Many of these divorces were amicable, and in time, everyone involved was better off for them. Others left behind emotional carnage from which no one involved—husbands, wives, and children—would ever recover. The election of a fascist to the most powerful position in the world was the least of these newly broken families’ problems.

But no one can ever completely ignore their political moment. James Sturm’s Off Season, set against the 2016 election, is a portrait of a middle-aged man—presented like all the book’s characters as an anthropomorphized dog—who sees his world shattered when his wife leaves him, forcing him to face his inadequacies as a lover, a father, and a contributor to the great U.S. economy. It’s not so much an American tragedy as it is an elegy for the myth of the Great American Male.

Off Season originally appeared in serial form in Slate. Drawn and Quarterly has released an expanded version of the story as a graphic novel. Sturm answered questions by email about his oeuvre, as well as the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where he sits as director.

The Millions: You’ve written and drawn books set in the past: Market Day, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, and Unstable Molecules. How do your strategies differ when you write and draw a story set in the contemporary moment?

James Sturm: With historical fiction there is more of an element of excavation to the undertaking. Switching gears to contemporary fiction, I enjoyed being more attentive to the current moment and my immediate environment, especially because the story was set in a place similar to where I live. There were times while writing Off Season that it felt like I was working on a documentary.

TM: What do you mean by documentary? Do you see similarities between the methods you employ in Off Season and those employed by non-fiction comics creators?

JS: After working on the book a year, my characters felt real to me. With characters set in another era you have a sense of the history they are moving through. When I decided to set this book during the election season, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had to let things unfold and record my character’s response.

TM: You began your career making books about non-Jewish themes, but you are best known for exploring Jewish culture. Referring to the books mentioned in the previous question, you have studied life in the “old country,” as well as Jewish-American life in the Midwest in the 1920s and in New York in the late 1950s. Why did you write a book about life during the 2016 election about non-Jews?

JS: I chose certain times and places for my stories that I thought would lend themselves to the themes I wanted to explore. I never saw the themes in those stories as being uniquely Jewish.

I started Off Season to help me process a rough stretch in my own life and I was working on the book a year before the 2016 election. There was no political dimension to it but as real-world events unfolded, given who my characters were, it would have been too great of an omission not to include the election.

TM: If you pay attention to politics—and not everyone does—it invariably becomes personal. Sometimes an angry disagreement about a major event simply illuminates what long lay underneath a troubled relationship. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of not wanting to associate with someone whose values are so repugnant you can’t stomach their company. I think Off Season explores this ambiguity.

JS: I’m glad to hear you say that. This is certainly something the book gets into. Our politics are often a projection of our deepest selves and this is also why it is rare that anyone’s political allegiances change even after they are given factual evidence to the contrary.

TM: You employ very few tricks in your composition of Off Season. The panels are the same size. The movements of the characters are expressed with relative subtlety. LSD plays a role in the narrative, but you don’t indulge any stereotypes of what “being on a trip” might look or feel like. Why the restraint?

JS: Off Season’s narrator, Mark, is all about restraint—he’s trying to hold it all together. I tried to make storytelling choices that seemed appropriate to the character. I trust the material and strived to present it without artifice or pretense. Regarding LSD, it’s such an intensely personal experience that for me trying to depict it literally would only cheapen it. I much prefer to create the space that the reader can fill in.

TM: Your sense of landscape in Off Season feels claustrophobic. I don’t want to live in this Vermont. Is this a function of your protagonist’s consciousness or a function of your city boy’s sense of your current home?

JS: I don’t think I ever state the book takes place in Vermont. It could also be New Hampshire or even Maine. But your question is well taken. I find New England winters incredibly beautiful. After the fall colors go away, what’s left is something bare and primal. They possess this haunting feel that I tried to capture. I love living in Vermont, winter and all.

TM: Why dogs?

JS: I’ve often drawn these type of dog/humans as a way to get me going in my sketchbook, it invites a certain playfulness. My intention was to turn everyone into a human but at some point during the project, the dog heads seemed to make sense. Maybe it was the idea that the even the strangest things can quickly become normal. Or this idea of doggedness as the essential quality that’s needed if we have any hope to cross the divides that separate us.

TM: Have there been any works of fiction—graphic novels, prose novels, or films—made in the last couple of years that have also overlapped with your work? Are there any that resonate with you in particular?

JS: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro really resonated with me. This older couple, following the death of King Arthur, take this mythic journey and their love is tested. It’s a meditation on trauma and memory and casts quite the spell. Though not recent, one of my all-time favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. That too shows an estranged couple trying to find their way back to each other.

TM: As the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you potentially have a lot of influence on the future of comics art. If you decide that your students read and study Jules Feiffer’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Feiffer’s work may end up serving as the model for future cartoonists. There has long been a complaint that MFA fiction programs are designed to produce a very specific idea of fiction.  

JS: This is an issue that the entire CCS faculty engages with. What comics should emerging cartoonists be familiar with? Works like Krazy Kat, Fun Home, Maus, Love and Rockets, and One! Hundred! Demons! seem canonical. That said, each generation should challenge the previous generation’s canon. You see that happening now with artists like R. Crumb for example. This conversation is essential to keeping the medium vibrant.

A central part of the school’s historical survey class are students sharing their formative influences and what they are currently reading so a broader reading list is put forth from the ground up. The history of comics has traditionally been viewed from a patriarchal, industry-driven lens. That needs to change, and CCS is working to that end.

TM: A canon is never truly static. Are there any neglected comics creators you would want in a comics canon? Are there any that need to be kicked out? Which canonical artists do your students dislike the most?

JS: I’m much more interested in recognizing neglected cartoonists than trying to establish canons. There are so many truly amazing cartoonists who haven’t been given their due. I’d also like to see a broadening of our definition of cartoonists. I’d like to see Native American Ledgerbook artists, who began making graphic novels at least as far back as the 1860s, be recognized. Or Charlotte Salomon, who created a painted autobiographical graphic novel in the early 1940s that’s a masterpiece.

An Attack on the American Experiment: On Gay Clubs and Orlando

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From the time I was 18 until I was 25, I spent around 200 evenings in gay bars or clubs, mostly in New York, but also in D.C., Bulgaria, Latvia, Vietnam, Croatia, Poland, London, Spain, Italy, Germany. My years in New York, when I was in college, from 1999 to 2003, were the most important. Unless the place played ‘80s pop or Eminem — GLAAD be damned, everyone liked Eminem — I didn’t much enjoy the music, which was loud and emotionless. I didn’t like dancing. I went to talk to people and learn their stories, make friends, take someone home, go to someone’s place. I kissed a guy for the first time when I was 19. We were on the dance floor. He bent back in a near 90-degree angle from his waist, placed his hand on the back of my neck, led me so that my feet nearly lifted from the floor, and brought my head to his so that our lips and then tongues touched. As he brought us back up, he ground his thigh into my crotch and I kissed his bare shaven chest. He asked me if I was out. I told him I wasn’t. I asked him what he did. He said he was a ballet dancer. And then he walked off the dance floor. I saw him from about 15 feet away, pointing at me and laughing with his friends. I should have been humiliated. But I was euphoric.

Have the conversations changed? Not bisexual, gay. Well, 80 percent into guys, 20 percent into girls. My friends know. Family’s cool with it, I guess. Nineteen. Twenty next month. Getting old. By myself. Friend said he might come out but I don’t think he will. Alone in a dorm. Alone in an apartment. Roommate, but he doesn’t care. With my parents on Long Island. I’m a student. In law school. I’m just making rent. Oh, I don’t know my type. Young, good-looking. Someone who looks like me…How’s that?

I had a lot of firsts in gay clubs, many of them at Kurfew, a party for the twink crowd in a section of the long-gone Tunnel, a huge warehouse club in the west end of Chelsea. But there was also G, a meat grinder, XL, which was clean and well-lit, and Splash, which had an expensive cover. I would read on the subway from 116th Street all the way down to 28th, 23rd, or 14th, and then on the return trip, even at 4 a.m. in the morning when I was feeling nauseous. I didn’t read all that carefully in that state, and I could only glean certain images and vague meanings from the words as I processed them. Michael Bloomberg hadn’t come in yet. When I woke up in my dorm on Saturday or Sunday mornings, my clothes were perfumed with tobacco. The mixture of cigarettes and sweat still conjures up memories of my sexual awakening.

I met people I would not have met otherwise. The cute high-school dropout from Queens who came out when he was 16 and whose parents welcomed his older boyfriend. The 21-year-old from Turkey who said he had written a major bestseller back home about his “gay ordinary life.” The male model who did most of his work in Japan and got drunk the first time he went out on the runway. The cut Israeli soldiers who had just finished their service and were on their one-year world tour. The tall, skinny Australian who said he had a bit part in Zoolander, but whom I couldn’t find when I saw the movie and whose name didn’t appear in the credits. They all had stories about coming out and losing their virginities in their parents’ beds, their cars, or school bathrooms. They wanted to be fashion designers, firemen, or accountants. I met young lawyers, web designers, airport workers, and actors. There were no real brushes with fame, although people brought fame up a lot: I met Dianne Wiest’s neighbor, and I knew someone who knew the Whiffenpoof Kevin Spacey tried to pick up. I had a late night date with a short 19-year-old who claimed to have gotten into Yale, and was just trying to raise the funds to attend. He was good-looking enough to have spent the previous few months couch-surfing through Manhattan. I met Republicans who hated abortion and thought the Democratic Party disrespected Christians, racists who didn’t want to be around “gaysians,” and pseudo-liberals who liked Rudy Giuliani’s policy on the homeless. Some didn’t consider homophobia a personal problem. Others nursed anger towards those who loved them the most but had also hurt them to the point of near suicide. I met people who took care of their autistic siblings or who just wanted to talk about the birthday present they had bought their nephew. Some claimed to be straight acting, or only liked guys who acted straight, or hated the very concept of “straight-acting,” declaring it a tool of the patriarchy. Some only dated/slept with those under 25, others only with people over 50. I met guys into thick necks or red hair. I met celibates. An older man once paid for my cover and then shyly walked away. He was either hitting on me half-assedly or offering goodwill to a young man who reminded him of himself. A few had HIV, but didn’t talk about it. One friend discovered, at his mother’s house, that he had crabs in his pubic hair. My closest clubbing friend from those years was a Cornell dropout who lived in Chelsea. We knew each other for one year without learning each other’s last names and then slept together, at which point the friendship died. I plugged his old AOL screen name into Google a couple of years ago and got his email address. He was single, happy, living in California. I can’t remember the first names of most of the rest. I guess they either got married, got divorced, had kids, remained single, entered a serious relationship but just didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, never had a serious relationship and never would, or died.

I remember reading Youth, J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir during my senior year, on my way back from a club. In one scene, the protagonist has an unsatisfying encounter with another man. Homosexuality, for him, “seems a puny activity compared with sex with a woman: quick, absent-minded, devoid of dread but also devoid of allure. There seems to be nothing at stake: nothing to lose but nothing to win either. A game for people afraid of the big league; a game for losers.” And then there was Edmund White’s essay “The Joys of Gay Life,” which was written in 1977, three years before I was born: “[T]here are advantages to being gay and…one of these advantages is that we are introspective about such basic things as love, sex and friendship. The exigencies of our lives, the fact that we become gay in a way that other people do not become straight, make us all reflective.” They were both correct.

Most of us were better people outside those clubs than inside them. I was at a party at Limelight on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend in 2001. I was making new friends when a skinny mid-20-something with bad facial hair came up and asked if this was a gay club. He was supposed to meet his girlfriend there and he didn’t know if he had come to the wrong place. He was excited to talk to people and told us that we were really cool and asked to get our numbers. “Sure. We need more straight friends. It’s always fun to have straight friends at places like this. We need more totally straight friends, you know, totally totally straight friends to come to Limelight on Sunday nights. Straight guys, yes. Tell us more about yourself. Tell us more about your girlfriend.” The weak shall always be bullied.

I found and still find no comfort in the sloganeering of the gay rights movement. I never liked the rainbow flag, a terrible symbol for a group of people who dressed well and created many new forms of cool. I never identified as gay as much as miserable. I didn’t care for allies or PFLAG; campus groups were sterile. I wasn’t part of any “community;” we were a tribe, one with unclear moral codes. Still, I learned a few lessons from those years. Sex should be kind. Relationships should make those in them happier, or at least less unhappy. Let everyone make the best cases for themselves. Only a priest can love everyone, and since priests can be awful, try to be a little less ambitious and just avoid hurting too many people. I spent many boring hours in gay clubs, but I liked them because they were unsafe. You don’t learn anything in safe spaces.

I don’t believe in “hate crimes.” I don’t think self-loathing homophobia or the rhetoric of ISIS alone explains why someone would want to walk into a club and destroy so many young lives. Some call this a hate crime because they have suffered the antipathies of others throughout their lives and they see this shooting as the logical endpoint of that dislike. Others call it a hate crime because they need to explain the berserk.

But I’ll contradict myself. Whatever the intentions of the shooter, this will never feel like anything other than an attack on gay people. The gay club occupies a territory that is always under negotiation and the shooting was an attack on the American experiment. When the police went in to collect the bodies, they had to drown out the incessant noise of cell phone rings. Loved ones were calling, desperate to know that everything was okay. I’m sure at least a few of the victims had difficult relationships with the people making those phone calls. And I’m sure the victims loved them just as much as we loved our own imperfect parents, siblings, cousins, and comrades, all outside in the larger territory everyone must negotiate.

A truncated version of this essay appeared on the author’s blog.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

What Is Dangerous and What Is Just New: On 25 Years of Drawn & Quarterly


My generation of comics fans had a reading list. In grade school, we dug Chris Claremont’s S&M take on the X-Men and reprints of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. When we were 12, we picked up Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which dealt with the things 12 year olds think of as adult, like fascism, the military industrial complex, and the Holocaust. In either our senior year of high school or freshman year of college, a friend turned us on to Neil Gaiman, Adrian Tomine’s short stories, and, because it’s fun to see Betty Boop actually have sex, reprints of the Tijuana Bibles. A teaching assistant in a public policy class assigned Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which came with a foreword from Edward Said. There were a few other milestones that brought our interests into the literary mainstream, like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s September 11 New Yorker cover, Fun Home, as well as two novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We had always kept copies of Eightball next to our issues of Granta. Now the rest of the world does the same.

The roster of Drawn and Quarterly — Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware — represents at least a quarter of this high-art, high-literary comics renaissance in the Anglophone world. This summer, the Montreal-based independent comics publisher released a 776-page anthology in celebration of its silver anniversary, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. It’s a fun book, filled with old and new work by the house’s artists and appreciation essays from scholars, fellow travelers, and novelists.

Credit: Daniel Clowes/Drawn and Quarterly

A publisher’s anthology of its own work will be a hagiography. That’s okay. There are other places for brutal criticism of comics. The mainstream press is learning to develop a more discerning eye towards the form, to not declare every new graphic novel by a semi-famous artist a groundbreaking innovation. The Internet has many take-down podcasts. D&Q’s anthology reads like a high school yearbook, complete with scrapbook-level photographs. The personal essays describe career changes that are more interesting to their authors than to their readers. With that said, the book also provides an important service. The initial phase of the comics renaissance is over, and the publication of this anthology offers an opportunity for understanding what defined D&Q, what we readers were looking for in comics throughout the past 25 years, and what we are looking for now.

Credit: James Sturm/Drawn and Quarterly

Chris Oliveros, the founding editor of D&Q, was smart, industrious, and he had an excellent eye for talent, but there were others before him. Fantagraphics had been around for awhile when Oliveros started his project and it published The Comics Journal, an exuberant and angry forum for comics journalism and criticism. Fantagraphics’s premiere artists, Los Bros. Hernandez, were Latino children of the punk scene. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly edited RAW. Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb edited Weirdo. Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse had homes in the niche gay press. There were places for ferocious comics creators who told stories other people weren’t telling, but those spaces were limited. D&Q was a welcome addition to the comics world.

D&Q began in April 1990 as a black-and-white comics anthology. It fit the standard newsstand magazine size at 8.5″ x 11″. It was 32 pages long. It had a glossy cover. In its first issue, Oliveros, who was then in his early-20s, called for higher standards for the comics medium and lamented the “private boys’ club” that characterized the comics industry. The manifesto set a tone for what the company eventually became.

The magazine’s sales were based on the “direct market,” comic-book specialty stores which would buy the magazine on a non-returnable basis. It was the most economically viable option at the time, but it also limited the magazine’s reach. Soon after the first issue of the anthology, Oliveros started publishing single-artist comic books. In a few years, the original anthology magazine went to color and D&Q found inroads into Virgin Megastores (which have disappeared from North America), Tower Records (which are all now gone), and pre-monopoly Amazon. Oliveros started compiling serialized stories in quality paperbacks and hardcovers and published stand-alone graphic novels. Storeowners didn’t quite know what to do with these comics, how to sell them to the people who read literary novels. Peggy Burns, a publicist at DC Comics, came to D&Q in 2003 and in 2005 she negotiated a distribution deal with FSG. The people who published Jonathan Franzen also worked with Adrian Tomine, which was as it should be.

The essays here claim D&Q treats its creators well. D&Q allows its artists to do what they want to do, letting some of them design their books in meticulous detail, determining paper type, size, and printer quality. They are book-makers at heart. D&Q’s artists are good to their fans. They get to know them at conventions and spend a long time inscribing their books with cartoons during signings. The audience who reads this anthology has probably also read the major popular comics histories of the last few years and it knows that a comics publisher that allows creators space for their genius, doesn’t force them to hire a lawyer, and doesn’t populate its staff with misogynists is a special publisher.

No one agrees why D&Q was so good. The testimonials contradict each other.

Jason Lutes, the author of Berlin and Jar of Fools: “They were the kind of comics I was hungry for — taking a cue from the precedent set by Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, but stepping out from under the influence of the American underground, which had overshadowed so much of ‘alternative comics’ up to that point.”

TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on his introduction to D&Q: “From then on I only wanted to read and make ‘underground’ comics, watch and make ‘underground’ films, listen to ‘underground’ music, and basically soak up anything that seemed even a little bit subversive.”

Anders Nilsen describes the publisher’s “quiet, understated commitment to quality work.”

It’s not always clear who is on the inside and who is on the outside, what is dangerous and what is just new. Those contradictions define D&Q.

Let’s start with Kate Beaton, who uses the comic-strip format and her naïve style to take down the myths of Western high culture. In her appreciation essay, Margaret Atwood writes, “Let she who has never drawn arms and a moustache on a picture of the Venus de Milo in her Latin book cast the first rubber eraser.” In one of Beaton’s parodies of The Great Gatsby, our hero complains that the green light gives him seizures. Beaton’s work isn’t that subversive. A hip teacher would hand that strip to her students. She would smile when her students told her the strip is better than the corresponding passage in the book. Atwood goes on, “Of course, in order to burlesque a work of literature or an historic event, you have to know it and, in some sense, love it — or at least understand its inner workings.”

Credit: Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly

In the early ’90s, Adrian Tomine was a prodigy scribbling away at his grim mini-comics and taking notes from Oliveros by mail. His work has grown more somber and mature through the years and now he is a master of narrative in different permutations of the comics form. Françoise Mouly describes the “handsome, stripped-down aesthetics” of his New Yorker covers, which “form a paean to the poignancy of daily life in the big city.” The moments he captures in these covers are pregnant with ambiguity, and he “finds the humanity of a small town within the big one.” His stories depict human beings who struggle with their own mediocrity. Tomine’s work is even-keeled. The lines are careful. The page layouts and panel organization don’t invite any confusion. He has a gentle, classical style and he can bring you just to the edge of tears.

Credit: Adrian Tomine/Drawn and Quarterly

Jonathan Lethem describes Chester Brown as a “citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul, as much as Dostoevsky’s underground man. At the same time, he’s also a citizen of a nation of one: Chesterbrownton, or Chesterbrownsylvania, a desolate but charged region he seems to have no choice but to inhabit.” Brown’s subjects veer between the respectable and the borderline subversive. His best-known book Louis Riel is now a staple of Canadian public schools. Paying for It is a memoir of his life as a john. The anthology includes “The Zombie Who Liked the Arts,” a tale from 2007 about a zombie’s infatuation with a human female. These are stories about lonely men, a would-be revolutionary who fights madness, and lovers who dislike their own bodies. Brown’s connection to the underground may be less tenuous, but unlike the folks at RAW and Weirdo, unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky for that matter, he doesn’t hide his polish.

Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly

Are these books threatening? In his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield noted that the appeal of the comix underground in the 1970s required the medium of the traditional comic book itself, and the ironies that involved using a medium associated with the “jejune” to discuss illicit, “adult” topics. “[T]he package was inherently at odds with the sort of material the artists wanted to handle, and this gave the comix books their unique edge.” I don’t know if the packaging still matters in the same way, if the placement of Tomine’s mature, sad stories within the firm pages of a graphic novel causes such a disjuncture.

Credit: Julie Doucet/Drawn and Quarterly

My special edition of Julie Doucet’s exploration of sexual insanity Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! comes complete with a lithograph of a nude belly dancer on the frontispiece and a rave review from ArtForum on the jacket cover. Sean Rogers describes Doucet’s “beguiling forays into an untrammeled imagination, rich with fantastic displays of menstrual flow, severed unmentionable body parts, and inanimate objects forced into service for pleasure.” Doucet is one of D&Q’s more anarchic writers and it may be true that this finely crafted hardbound edition cannot contain her sexuality. But I don’t know if it’s any more scandalous to read Leaves of Grass or Portnoy’s Complaint in a Library of America edition.

The packaging of these books matters for other reasons. Eleanor Davis, the author of How to Be Happy, explains why:
Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.

Drawn and Quarterly publishes extraordinary comics. And because they are an extraordinary company they know to make extraordinary books for these comics to live in.
It’s not irony that makes the fine hardcover editions of Beaton, Tomine, Brown and Doucet so good, it’s the craftsmanship that marries the content comfortably with the medium, a craftsmanship that understands that a small, standard, novel-size hardcover is appropriate for the spare intimate melancholy of Brown’s I Never Liked You, and that a large, flat, Tintin-like edition is appropriate for the grim fantasy of Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray. The various forms of packaging in D&Q’s catalogue simply offers an added texture to each of their creators’ distinct voices.

After 25 years, the D&Q artists’ formalist methods, their wry sense of humor, their careful delineation of human emotions, their firm grasp of the comic book/graphic novel as a medium have become not just familiar to comics readers but also the standard for quality comics. Their content, for the most part, is not shocking, and even the subversive voices are much less threatening now than they were before. Brown’s discussion of prostitution is no more provocative than Dan Savage’s. Doucet’s frank discussion of female sexuality was more shocking in the early ’90s than it will ever be again. These artists were never revolutionaries. They were never reactionaries either. They are Burkean liberals of the comics form.

For all its self-congratulation, the anthology does have a sense of humor about itself, the comics industry, and comics celebrity. The book contains a new story from Jillian Tamaki about a D&Q intern who finds fame and fortune after Oliveros fires her for writing a blog post critical of the company. It includes a handwritten note from Spiegelman to Oliveros declining the editor’s request. “I’m a big fan of Julie’s work and I can probably be bullied into giving a quote but would appreciate being left off the hook only because I’ve had to write so many damn blurbs recently. I dunno.” The book begins with a short strip by Chester Brown, “A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels,” which depicts Oliveros’s advance from youth to middle-age. In the final panel, Oliveros stands alone on a cold, quiet Montreal street.

Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly

Oliveros is retiring this year. Peggy Burns, the publicist who moved to D&Q from DC Comics, will now head the company. This anthology stands as a monument to Oliveros and what he accomplished. He discovered extraordinary talent, he widened the audience for non-superhero comics, he created a minor Canadian institution, and he published forgotten comics that would otherwise have been left to the archives. (D&Q has a secondary role as an NYRB Classics of comics, publishing reprints of vintage American comics creators like John Stanley and translations of classic foreign artists and writers like the Finnish author Tove Jansson.) With those accomplishments behind him, the message of Brown’s strip is ambiguous, but I take it to be this: The comics industry doesn’t really change anything. Most of the world is indifferent to your work just as most of the world is indifferent to poetry. This art form of comics will not bring you any closer to enlightenment and it will not bring you any great happiness. It won’t bring you any misery either. Comics makers and comics readers will grow older and come a little bit closer to death, the same way they would if they followed another vocation or indulged in another pastime.

Some of D&Q’s comics may have educated a few minds, but most of the publisher’s craftsmen embrace their own irrelevance. When I was young, I read Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns because they were about mass death, because they were strange, because they treated violence in a way that I thought was real. I still have them on my shelf and thumb through them now and again, but their appeal has changed. Watchmen, I realize now, is a comedy. The Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny too. Maus is as much about the horrors of the present as it is about the horrors of the past. I read Beaton, Brown, Tomine, and the rest because, in every well-placed line, in every well-told joke, they remind me that monotony has its own pleasures and comics don’t have to be important.

Some Kind of Tribe: The Millions Interviews Daniel Clowes

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In a 1992 interview with The Comics Journal, Daniel Clowes talked about the kinds of comics he wanted to draw when he was a teenager.
I remember at the time thinking what a bold concept it would be to just do comics about real people and real life, and that was a real crazy idea at that time. I remember thinking EC was the closest thing to that. Like the Shock SuspenStories, ‘cause it had stories just about people wearing suits, you know; they weren’t in costumes.
“Suits not costumes” is a low bar for realism, but it laid the basis for Clowes’s own form of grotesquerie. At the time of the interview, Clowes was three years into writing Eightball. The comic serialized his graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and Ghost World and was interspersed with short pieces exercising various registers of tragicomedy. He drew a cruel portrait of Dan Pussey, the pathetic creator of superhero comics. He was far gentler with Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, the grim teenage comic geniuses at the center of Ghost World. I don’t think there has been a fictional character with a better name than Needledick the Bug-Fucker, nor a character who revealed so many multitudes within a single page.

Fantagraphics has just released a handsome two-volume edition of the first 18 issues of Eightball, published between 1989 and 1997. (Later issues were re-released as single-edition graphic novels, David Boring, Ice Haven and The Death-Ray.) We met on April 18 at 9lb Hammer, a bar in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, around the corner from Fantagraphics Books where he was due for a signing. The following is a pared-down version of a 30-minute conversation.

The Millions: It’s clear that Dan Pussey was definitely not someone who read Eightball, but Enid from Ghost World could have [even if she didn’t]. I’m not sure if that distinction is so clear 25 years later.

Daniel Clowes: Probably not, no. Actually I think she and Dan Pussey have merged into one person, the modern reader of comics.

TM: The modern reader of comics has a stack of Spider-Man comics and a stack of Eightball.

DC: There doesn’t seem to be any discernment between types of comics. People who like comics like all comics.

TM: I really enjoy the Dan Pussey comics. But they make me so uncomfortable, because they are filled with so much meanness.

DC: I was so angry. When I first started I was trying to work in this non-existent world of comics that I wanted there to be and didn’t actually exist, which was some version of underground comics. And there were magazines like Raw and Weirdo that were kind of post-underground, [but] there wasn’t that much of that. You couldn’t go into a comic-book store and have this range of stuff the way you can now. And I was stuck in this world that I didn’t feel I belonged to. And then I felt like I was being belittled whenever I went to a comic convention or something. “Oh you do those kinds of comics.” It was sort of like what we did was unofficial. You had to do real comics. You had to do superheroes for big publishers and stuff like that.

TM: So you were angry at mainstream comics culture.

DC: And I was angry…As a young man I could have been Dan Pussey very easily. That was how I got into comics. I was into Marvel Comics like everybody else then. It’s that kind of thing where you move beyond that and then you have an antagonism towards your earlier self. It’s usually expressed in an antagonism towards what you liked at that age.

TM: Have you read Dash Shaw’s series Cosplayers?

DC: I read the first one, not the second one. It’s good.

TM: I like them because he sympathizes with these abject figures, the current generation of Dan Pusseys.

DC: At the time, I saw myself as socially inferior to Dan Pussey. I was fighting the power at the time, and now I look back and it’s completely the opposite. It seems like I’m making fun of this sad outsider who has absolutely no social bearing in society. At the time, it didn’t feel that way at all. It felt like these are the guys who are keeping me from existing in this world I want to exist in.

TM: Why do you think the comics cultures of Marvel and Fantagraphics merged in terms of their readers?

DC: I couldn’t tell you. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t see any correlation between all the different types of comics. The aesthetic gulf between the kind of stuff I’m interested in and the kind of stuff that is mainstream is so vast that I can’t wrap my head around it. To me, it’s like if you were into two completely different types of music, like if you were into Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs and Mozart.

TM: Which is possible.

DC: It’s totally possible, but the fact that that’s not an isolated weirdo, that it’s everybody…I find very strange.

TM: Well, so much of comics are really about bodies. Superhero comics are about these idealized bodies and the comics that you do are so much about the deformities of bodies.

DC: I would say the reality of bodies.

TM: It’s possible to switch between those interests.

DC: I suppose so, but that’s reading it on a level that is so beyond aesthetic discernment where it’s all about the underlying content of it. I find there’s no qualitative judgment at all.

TM: Your work doesn’t offer any nobility to outsider-ness, no heroism.

DC: No, not heroism. I admire those who are stuck on the outside and have to grapple with that and are really unable to conquer that in themselves. They have some quality that doesn’t enable them to make the leap to the social norm. And I’m interested in characters like that. Heroism, I don’t think so.

TM: You are interested in the idea of a character who is given a condition he has to deal with and chooses to keep existing rather than commit suicide.

DC: Yeah, I find that admirable. I think that’s endlessly dramatic. To me, that’s the most entertaining character, someone who is fighting with himself, who endlessly regenerates the story. A character like Wilson I did a few years ago. I can sit down and think of anything at all. A saltshaker. How would Wilson respond to a saltshaker? And I know in my head I can write a strip in 15 minutes of what he would think: “The salt shaker is the worst designed thing I’ve ever seen.” He’s a perfect example of a character who is unable to be what he wants to be and is unable to cure himself. And I find that endlessly entertaining.

TM: Thanks to the Internet, the notion of freakishness is very different now than it was when you were writing Eightball.

DC: Totally.

TM: Needledick the Bug-Fucker can now go into a chatroom and find people from all over the world who are into the same thing he’s into.

DC: That’s true. I always think to myself, [what would have happened] if I had chatrooms and the Internet when I was 15? Instead of having no way to communicate with anybody, having all this pent-up emotion inside me that I tried to get out by drawing comics, spen[ding] every day of my adolescence really trying to hone that craft so that I could somehow talk to the world…I wonder if instead I would have just gone on some message board and said, “I’m so sad. You too?”

TM: If you could have Googled “I like to fuck small insects” and got back all that information from everyone who did want to fuck small insects, could you imagine writing that story?

DC: No. No. I loved the idea of the world back then. If you had some kind of bizarre fetish like that, it was so hard to meet people who had that same thing. I had a friend, a guy who ran Feral House. He would always find these newsletters about these weird fetishes. These guys were typing up these newsletters and sending them to the three other people they met through this fetish magazine. That’s your whole world, waiting for the new package by guys who are into being stepped on by a woman in high heels. Now you can find everyone in the world who is into that within 15 minutes. I loved that underground.

TM: And that reflects the way Eightball circulated. I read Eightball because of two friends. I’m probably in the last generation of people who would have read it because of word of mouth and not because I looked it up on the Internet. The letters page in Eightball really reflects that fact.

DC: It was absolutely that. That was why I felt the duty to take the letters page seriously. When people wrote to me, I wrote back to every single person back then, because I felt it was my responsibility to be the steward of this little world. And I felt that everyone writing to me and reading me had something in common. They were part of some kind of tribe. And I would send [my readers other] people’s addresses. “You should look this guy up.” The minute I got email I stopped responding to anybody. It just felt like you don’t need me anymore. Eliminate the middleman.

TM: Are there any particular letters that gave you pause?

DC: It’s funny because I saved every single letter I ever got, unless it was some one-sentence, “send me a free comic.” I had file boxes filled with letters. I was doing this monograph a few years ago. And I thought, let’s look through these letters and see if there’s anything interesting. I couldn’t believe it. I just remember nice heartfelt letters. Some of them were 20, 30 pages long, from people writing back numerous times. They put in the kind of effort and energy nobody would do now, [because then] they [had] nobody else to talk to. And I always felt I had to write back with something substantial. It was an amazing outpouring, because I was just this anonymous guy on a certain level, who they felt, “He understands me.”

TM: Did anything from those letters end up in your comics outside the letters page?

DC: Not in specific ways that I remember, but the tone of them absolutely. I felt like I wrote characters based on the voice of some of those letters. I felt like I really knew what somebody talking straight from his id at you felt like.

TM: You once described Eightball as a one-man Mad.

DC: That was the goal, to have a one-man variety magazine.

TM: So you were working with a lot of different voices. How was that different from what was going on at the time?

DC: Robert Crumb was always drawing in an underground comic style. He was always drawing like Robert Crumb. He experimented with different styles, but anyone could spot him a mile away. I was trying to bring in different tones and looks. I wanted some of it to look film-noirish and black-and-white stuff. And some of it was old, 1920s cartoons. I wanted it to be much more over the map. I wanted to see how far you could go with this material and still have all of it make sense.

TM: You didn’t want anyone to be able to identify you.

DC: At the time I wanted to have this completely anonymous style. I wanted it to look like if you had a computer printout of comics where it was totally uninflected with any kind of stylistic stuff unless I wanted it to look in a certain stylistic way. So Velvet Glove was almost photographic in the way I imagined it and now I look back and it looks so intensely stylized. But I think that’s what you’re hoping for in a style, not something you are pitching or trying to make happen.

TM: Why did you want it to be so anonymous?

DC: I wanted to draw the world as I was seeing it in my head. I didn’t want it to be, “Oh, I can draw this kind of thing in this way.” I wanted it to be diagrams of what it looked like in my brain, to filter all that out.

TM: Is that still how you approach your work?

DC: No, it’s much more intuitive. I don’t have to struggle as much, so I feel like I can get into it much more deeply. Back then, I felt like I was just trying to get the basics right, really learning what I was doing. Now I feel like I can do everything without erasing and redoing it.

TM: Maybe it’s because you did the poster for Happiness, but I always thought you had more in common with Todd Solondz than you did with Terry Zwigoff, even though you did two movies with Zwigoff [Ghost World and Art School Confidential].

DC: It’s true. I always wanted to do a movie poster. I always liked the Mad guys who used to do movie posters. I would have done any movie poster. I don’t care about the movie. It could have been an Adam Sandler movie. And I was a huge fan of Welcome to the Dollhouse and to be asked to do his second film…[Solondz] and I have talked and we have a very similar goal. At least my early comics were like [his movies.]

TM: Dan Pussey could easily have found his way into Happiness.

DC: That was the first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman. And he was the Dan Pussey I’d been waiting for my whole life. [Happiness] was an ensemble piece, so no one was supposed to be the star on the poster and I said, no, that doesn’t work. I wanted to make Philip Seymour Hoffman the star of the movie. So I made him the focus of the movie and then he was referred to as the star of that movie, which he wasn’t. I always felt like he owed me.

TM: Philip Seymour Hoffman looks like a Dan Clowes character.

DC: When he died, I was crushed because I was 100 percent sure that he would one day play one of my characters. It just felt like one of those paths that had to happen and I just couldn’t take it.

TM: I would like to ask you a couple more questions and if you can’t answer them it’s fine. But Shia LaBeouf…

DC: Oh, I’m allowed to talk about that. I did not sign any non-disclosure agreements. [Shia LaBeouf plagiarized Clowes’s 2007 strip Justin M. Damiano for his short film HowardCantour.com.]

TM: One of the things that interested me in that plagiarism case is not just that he plagiarized your dialogue but that he plagiarized your shots.

DC: Quite a bit of it, it seems. It was close.

TM: The question of plagiarizing shots from one medium to another is a legitimate question, but it still looks like a gray area.

DC: Absolutely. But it was such an egregious case of plagiarism that I didn’t have to get into those nuances. The shots weren’t even so relevant, after the story, basically every line of dialogue and the characters [were plagiarized]. He didn’t even claim that he didn’t use the story.

TM: His behavior came across as so fucked up. Did you think of using him as a character in your work?

DC: No, he’s too specific. I don’t have any interest in getting into any of that at all. But the experience from my end was a very interesting experience and I could definitely see that making it’s way into something.

TM: What made it so interesting?

DC: Just to be a part of such an absurd little thing. I was just getting 10 phone messages from CNN and TMZ a day. People were like, “Could you get to the studio by 4 am?” Everybody was assuming I wanted to be a part of that. And I didn’t want to be a part of that. And I didn’t want to know his name or to have this inflicted on me. [It] was so not funny to me. But if it had been any of my friends I thought it would have been one of the funniest things in the world, to watch one of my fellow artists squirm. I just didn’t want it to be me.

Readers without Responsibility: The Millions Interviews Scott McCloud

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The comics theorist Scott McCloud has a status no one in the comics community should have. At the MLA Conference in Vancouver last January, I attended a comics studies panel at which the respondent chastised academics who cite McCloud and only McCloud, ignoring the 22 years of scholarship that followed the publication of his book Understanding Comics. McCloud compares himself to Sigmund Freud. He may be wrong about everything, he says, but he was the first in his field — or almost the first — and everyone still has to grapple with his ideas.

Whatever his status, McCloud is really a professional amateur, a journeyman who’s spent most of his career pursuing a series of intriguing small projects. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he wrote and drew Zot!, an independent black-and-white superhero series. He maintains a website, where, pivoting off of ideas from his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, he develops “inventions” that rethink the comics form for the digital age. In 2006, he wrote the instructional book Making Comics. Last month, First Second published his first graphic novel, The Sculptor, which one approaches with the curiosity one once approached the first novels of Lionel Trilling or James Wood. It is the ambitious first attempt by an important critic to write and draw if not the Great American Graphic Novel, then at least a good American graphic novel.

The Sculptor tells the story of a 26-year-old man trying to make it as an artist in New York. He strikes a Faustian bargain with Death that allows him to sculpt any matter his hands touch into the visions he carries in his mind’s eye. In return, he will die in 200 days. He has no immediate family left, and only a few friends he will be leaving behind. After agreeing to the deal, he falls in love with a woman.

I talked to McCloud in Seattle on February 12. We met at a café in the U-District a couple hours before his appearance at the University Bookstore. The following is a pared-down transcript of a one-hour conversation.

The Millions: After reading the [Understanding Comics] trilogy and looking at all the experiments you’ve been doing online, it surprised me to discover that The Sculptor is, formally-speaking, a very conservative book.

Scott McCloud: I agree. I’d describe it the same way.

TM: You’re not playing any tricks. There’s no Chris Ware Building Stories attempt along the lines of “let’s see all the games I can play with this idea called the book.” These are the tried-and-true techniques of graphic-novel storytelling. Why was it so conservative?

SM: Well after trying to make visible all of these various techniques, I wanted, as much as possible, to bury them, to conceal them. I am something of a formalist and one of the formalist tricks that we like to check off as we’re going down the list of things we can do is to impersonate our opposite number. To become a more intuitive pure storyteller and not necessarily call attention to formal artifacts that previously we were hoping to call attention to.

At the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily backwards looking. I was trying to move towards a sort of comic that I wasn’t seeing being done. I would say that in the past decades, there weren’t that many comics like this one, in terms of the way it incorporates reader participation, [which is] something I see in manga but rarely see in American comics. The use of lettering and coloring choices [are] geared towards mapping out the intention and consciousness of the protagonist. I haven’t seen that done much, but I was employing [these concepts] all in the interest of the story. So they lurked quietly in the background and they helped buttress the story.

TM: The question of reader participation is a tricky one. I can read a prose novel and forget that I’m reading words on a page, but it’s impossible for me to read a comic and remain unaware of the fact that I’m reading a comic. That awareness leads to reader participation.

SM: I agree with you to an extent about there being a fundamental reader participation component to comics and that achieving that transparency in comics is a lot harder than it is in novels. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And I think younger readers achieve it much more often than we do as adults. And I wanted to see if I could get that across. It wasn’t easy, but I think I achieved it and I am getting a lot of feedback from people who do have that sensation of being lost, and getting caught up in the story and just seeing the characters as human beings.

In comics, if you open with a street scene, people are going to see drawings of a street scene. And every time they move from one artist to the next those drawings are going to be different. And each change of style just becomes a reiteration of the fact that those are just lines on paper. And I don’t think that’s the case with film and I don’t think that’s the case with prose because…they both relate a world in a relatively seamless way. In the one case [it’s] from the verisimilitude that comes from straight photography. In the other case, [it’s] with the verisimilitude that comes from the consistent texture of our imagination.

Comics puts up a lot of barriers. I think one way to get around those barriers is consistency of approach and length. This is a very long book, so people have time to adjust to my style. It’s not just a little 22-page packet. [Hopefully in my case], by paying close attention to the rhythms of real people in conversation and things like facial expressions and body language, [I] managed to bring a little life into the characters so they pop from the page more than in things I’ve done in the past.

TM: Your characters are good-looking. This isn’t Daniel Clowes.

SM: No, they come from a more attractive, heroic tradition, partially because I don’t have the skill to pull off something less generic.

TM: Are there any other reasons for that?

SM: I’m drawn as a viewer to that, and as a romance I think it would have been entirely possible to tell a story like this while creating characters that were physically unappealing, but I’m just not that good. And so this fell into that general familiar realm of a romance in which both characters are on some level attractive. It’s not a barrier I was prepared to cross when I was trying to cross so many others. Certainly, the business of learning to write and of learning to draw was going to keep me busy from beginning to end. Trying to do something more subtle or more unconventional with the character design just wasn’t within my skill set.

TM: Zot!, by your own admission is filled with many mistakes. It’s not slick.

SM: No, not at all. It was my very first book.

TM: You were learning. The movements aren’t right. You don’t always know where your eye is supposed to go based on the composition of the page. I won’t continue on, because that’s just mean. I have to say for myself that part of what drew me to reading comics or what drew me back to comics when I was 19, wasn’t so much about looking for masterpieces. It was about enjoying the mistakes, enjoying comics as a form of handwriting, enjoying the lack of slickness. I often feel that what we call great comics have a problem, because the better and more slick you make them the more you lose something. This medium makes these mistakes look aesthetically pleasurable in a way that they’re not in a prose novel.

SM: I’ve long been aware of that way of looking at comics and sometimes I share that perspective. But then there are other artists who are prominent exceptions to that. It’s not my primary passion to look for that. It’s not what I hope for in comics. It’s something I accept as something that can make comics warmer and more appealing. But it’s not a prerequisite for things I love in comics. And I do enjoy comics that are much more finely tuned.

I think that Jim Woodring, for example, very rarely has a line out of place. His craftsmanship is absolutely impeccable. I don’t wish that his line was more unsteady or that his pen would run out of ink halfway through. I’m glad that those lines are complete because I think it enhances the work. Likewise, I think Chris Ware’s control is one of the elements of his work that I value.

Nevertheless, when I was working on The Sculptor, even though it was done digitally, I went through great pains to make sure that the line that I used was, if anything, somewhat uneven. [I designed] my brushes in photoshop [with] a pretty grotty line. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s very knobby and imprecise. But that’s simply because I thought it gave it a warmth that I liked rather than that clean vector line.

TM: You made a point in Understanding Comics about how time equals space in comics. These full-page panels at the end of The Sculptor are meant to represent the elongation of a moment. [Note: We are not showing you these pages in order to avoid spoilers.] It’s the comics equivalent of slow-motion. As a reader, I feel it’s my responsibility to read these pages very slowly.

SM: Actually, could I just say that as an artist and writer I don’t feel that it’s the reader’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of me as the storyteller to give the reader cues that would encourage them to quite naturally read at a slower pace.

TM: Yes, but it’s very easy to flip through this and not feel the duration of time.

SM: My hope as a storyteller is that I embedded enough density of detail, enough narrative density that the eye would begin to slow as well. That I put enough speed bumps [in] the growing complexity of those pages, that people would more naturally slow down. I can’t control that, but it’s my intention to give the eye more incentive to move more slowly through those pages, to slow down time. I don’t think the reader has any responsibility at all. The reader, technically, doesn’t have any responsibility to read from left to right. But it’s usually to the mutual benefit of reader and artist to do it that way.

TM: So you don’t believe the reader should be doing work?

SM: No, I just don’t believe in the idea of responsibility. The reader should encounter the work in whatever way the reader thinks is beneficial to themselves. And 99 times out of 100 that means reading the work in the expected way.

TM: How do you handle the differing experiences various readers will have based on the various paces with which they will approach these pages?

SM: Well, there’s an ideal duration and I’m trying to pitch the delivery in such a way that to the best of my abilities most readers will experience it as I intended. I just accept that it’s not mine to control. I can only encourage it.

TM: In a review I wrote of Best American Comics 2014 [which McCloud guest-edited], I noted that great comics, unlike great fiction, are allowed to be sentimental. I think The Sculptor is a case in point. It is a very sentimental book.

SM: I think so. I think that’s fair.

TM: Is sentimentality something you’ve run away from or is it something you’ve actively embraced?

SM: Neither. I’ve just come to recognize it. I’ve been aware of it for some time. It was pointed out to me early enough. I’ve tried to reign it in when I felt it was toxic. In this particular story, I tried to maintain a balance to the benefit of the story. I’ll leave it to others to gauge whether I’ve managed to achieve that balance. I’ve never been sentimental as a deliberate aesthetic choice. It’s more just a natural outgrowth of my own personality. My protagonist in the book is described at one point in the book as having an “irony deficiency.” This is a phrase I copped from Leonard Bernstein’s kids who described their dad that way. I always thought that was pretty funny and also pretty on the mark. And when [I heard] it I realized it was probably true of me too. And so I’ve tried to gain a wider aspect of that part of myself. And to try to be more on guard for the ways that can trip up my work.

In this particular story, I tried to earn whatever emotional effect it might have on people through a number of avenues that I felt at least would cut that sentimentality with something else. But I was looking for a strong emotional effect. It’s what I felt when approaching these themes. I had strong emotional associations with them. So I wanted to convey that, but I wanted to earn those emotions, not just try to go straight from A to B, which I think is one of the downsides, one of the toxic effects of excess sentimentality. Quickly, cheaply conjuring strong emotions, especially sadness. But there’s no way I’m going to completely change my stripes overnight. I’m not going to stop being a sentimental person, no matter how I approach the work. All I can do is just try to be more self-aware in that respect. And I do think that the book is far more self-aware than say my early stuff like Zot!, where I think I was too eager to go from A to B, A to Z in that emotional journey.

TM: What are the talents that you don’t have that you would most like to have?

SM: Simplicity. Eloquence. An automatic drawing instinct that would allow me to invent life naturally in improvisation, rather than having to refer to models, which was a necessary evil in this book. I needed to get a lot of life reference, to get across these gestures. I still feel strongly that the very simple rendering approach can be effective. It just wasn’t appropriate for this particular story, so I was stuck in a more realistic mode of drawing than I might have necessarily chosen. You know I tried some early experiments where this was rendered in a much more simple style and it just wouldn’t have worked, partially because of the sensuality that was involved in parts of the story and partly because it was very much concerned with people as things and that’s better conveyed by a more representational style.

Mostly though, in terms of what I want to improve, it’s not so much that I want to improve it as that I want to expand. There are other things I want to do. I want to explore color. I want to explore much more radical styles. I still have a very, very long wish list in terms of digital comics that I would like to embark on. So yeah, I just want to run to all four corners of the globe, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.

TM: In Reinventing Comics in 2000, you noted that we have yet to get the War and Peace of comics. What for you is the closest we’ve come?

SM: I think for me my favorite graphic novel right now is Market Day by James Sturm. I wouldn’t compare it to War and Peace. I think that’s silly. Actually, I think using War and Peace as a comparison point was silly, but I was younger. I don’t know. There’s a lot we’re still waiting for. But we’re beginning to build that shelf of reliable, strong, perennial works that can give us some comfort that this form does have this potential that we’ve talked about. I pick Market Day because it is one of a very small number of works in comics that I consider bulletproof. I think it’s a bulletproof book. And that’s something I’d like to see more of.

TM:What do you mean by bulletproof?

SM: There’s not a line out of place. There are no excess artifacts to the book. It’s the visual equivalent of the perfectly crafted sentence. I think if it was just all words then E.B. White would be proud of the way he omitted everything needless [if he had written it]. And I think the story is very moving. What it says to me is sufficiently inscrutable that it rewards repeat readings. I like that book a lot.

TM: Do you feel the graphic novel is overrated? At least within the medium. Do you think we grant it a certain prestige that unfairly places it above other forms the comic may take?

SM: I think some graphic novels are overrated. But it goes project by project. I don’t think Jim Woodring is overrated.

I think some people treat us with kid gloves. You know there’s an arbitrariness to critical perception. I think a lot of what you’re asking has to do with the arbitrariness of critical communities’ approach to graphic novels. We have a long critical bias against comics as a form. And I think as that bias has melted away, I certainly think some are willing to give us a pass and be much gentler with some of our flaws.

TM: I’m sorry, Scott, but I don’t think you’ve heard me right.

SM: Oh, I’m sorry. Let’s do it over.

TM: Okay. Do [you think] we honor the graphic novel above webcomics or comic-book serial storytelling in a way we shouldn’t? For a very long time we all considered television beneath movies, but now we consider it the place where really innovative work is being done. Is a similar thing going on in comics?

SM: No, actually I don’t. And the reason is that I think right now the most impressive work that’s been done in the last 20 years is in graphic novels. In my favorite work, the most complex, the most ambitious, and the most gratifying work to me as a reader has been in that realm. There’s some great work in webcomics, but it’s scattered. I think there’s some great work in rethinking serial comics. But I think there’s a reason why the best and the brightest in comics are moving towards lengthier works.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to think there’s something inherently better about the format. There’s not. It was just a mountain a lot of very good climbers wanted to tackle. And that’s still true. I know some people hate the term “graphic novel,” because some people still use it [to signify] an art form. It’s not. It’s a format. But there’s an implicit challenge in the words “graphic novel.” I think a lot of cartoonists see in their mind’s eye when they hear it something they think is worth making but that very rarely comes into existence. And so it makes sense that they would like to give it a try themselves.

Emancipation from Irony: On ‘The Best American Comics 2014’

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“Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years.

The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there.

Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, — the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos — is famous for improving the debate. In the early ’90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down.

The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.

What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria:
Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check.
He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.)

“Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics.

“High Road to the Shmuck Seat” by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality.

“Drama” (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

“Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge.

Hip Hop Family Tree” (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms.

McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness.

In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven.

Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels?

The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest…

The comic book emancipates adults from irony.

John Waters’s America

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“A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’”  A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it.  A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song.  In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic.

Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised.

Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera.  And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history.  Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!”   

In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy.

His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest.  The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn.

His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies.  His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot.  People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people.

Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition.

John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”.  Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume.

The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance.

He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia.

In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos.  Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses.

It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.

The Survivor: On Magneto, Mutants, and the Holocaust

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The story of every mutant, up to a certain point and with some exceptions, is the same. For the first 12 years or so of his life he identifies as a human being. During his pubescence he manifests powers that make him more interesting than his peers. He can turn his body into iron, control weather patterns, walk through walls, read minds, or fly. He’s still technically a member of the human race. He can still mate with humans and reproduce. Yet he is also something apart, a homo superior. Some mutants can hide their identity. Others — those who develop blue skin or amphibious features, phenotypes that sometimes appear at birth — are not able to pass.

Homo sapiens see in the mutant all that they fear in themselves. Some see in the mutant a possible slave or a creature that must be annihilated. The mutant withstands waves of oppression. One year is more brutal than another. Through it all, he learns to hate himself, then to humble himself before others and sometimes to hurt himself. Some mutants find their way to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, located in Westchester County outside New York, where they learn to respect the culture of the human race, even though it seeks to either destroy or control their very being. They master their powers and transform their bodies into novel instruments.

Other mutants find themselves in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants — later simply known as the Brotherhood – where they adhere to an ideology of mutant separatism. Faced with the threat of homo sapiens supremacy and even outright genocide, they become terrorists, though, as the cliché goes, you could just as easily call them freedom fighters.

Every persecuted minority protects itself with the same litany. They hurt us. They hate us. But we have powers — our own music, religion, humor, language — they can’t take away from us. If we honor our beautiful bodies, the names the majority gives us have no power to kill us. On this score, the mutants in the X-Men and the mutants in the Brotherhood agree.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men in 1963, and during their run the X-Men, like the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, were Mad Men-WASPy. In 1975 Len Wein introduced a new roster that would reflect something closer to the mess of human society. The writer Chris Claremont took over the title and continued the trend throughout his very long run. Colossus, née Piotr Rasputin, is Russian. Storm, née Ororo Munroe, is Kenyan. Rogue, née Anna Marie, is from the South. Wolverine is Canadian. More minorities kept showing up in the X-Men through the years and in the early 1990s Northstar of the Canadian team Alpha Flight came out, in an issue written by Scott Lobdell. But they are all mutants first. The ethnic, social, sexual, gender, political, or religious markers are secondary identities the larger society imposed upon them before they established their mutanthood. There are good reasons for these markers. They signal the sources for the comics’ metaphors and draw distinctions between those who humiliate and those who are humiliated.

For a long time the ethnic background of Magneto, the master of magnetism, the head of the Brotherhood and the X-Men’s arch-nemesis, was unknown. Then in 1981 Claremont invented his backstory. Magneto was a Holocaust survivor. At first, the comics hinted he was a Romani. Some years later, after a bit of narrative wavering, it was established that Magneto was a Jew.

The moral universe of the X-Men was always complicated, but Claremont upset the Manichean balance of the superhero world. The rosters of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood have changed and continue to change dramatically. Members of the X-Men have left to join the Brotherhood. Members of the Brotherhood have left to join the X-Men. Some have left to form their own third or fourth groups. Everyone has a different take on what it means to be a mutant in a non-mutant world. Sometimes they work with the U.S. government and sometimes against it. Sometimes they work in groups indifferent to the functioning of homo sapiens politics. And no one is ever entirely a child of either Martin or Malcolm. When I first got into the X-Men in the 1980s, Magneto had taken off his metal helmet and had joined the X-Men. Within a few years, he had returned to his life as a separatist.

The moral balance always tips in favor of the X-Men, but an intelligent reader never really knows which side he wants to join. The members of the X-Men are better-looking. They live in a dream mansion. They are comrades. Yet there are always problems within their ranks, jealousies, difficult romances. In the movies, Patrick Stewart plays Xavier with a Picard-ian paternalism, but in the comics he’s a strange man — Lee and Kirby looked to Yul Brynner for Xavier’s exoticism — constantly living within his own and others’ heads. His students suspect the telepath of controlling their minds. The good professor demands of them a strict adherence to an ideology only he seems to fully understand and, against all their instincts, he asks them to be what liberal humans want them to be, the mutant equivalents of “respectable Negros.” “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent,” Orwell said of Gandhi.

Magneto, blue-eyed and silver-haired, is a more charismatic figure, a man who tells you exactly what you want to believe about yourself. “You’re a god among insects,” Ian Mckellen’s Magneto tells a young protégé in X-Men 2. He meets homo sapien supremacy with mutant supremacy. The X-Men have their freaks, the Beast and Nightcrawler, but the Brotherhood is an uglier group, closer to the way the rest of us actually look. Magneto makes deals with supervilllains and he constantly hatches plots of mass murder, but always with one aim in mind, the survival of mutantkind.

Charles Xavier maintains a steady faith in the world into which he is born. In The Uncanny X-Men #141 (January 1981), Xavier sits in a senate hearing alongside his fellow pro-mutant activist Moira MacTaggert as they listen to Senator Kelly debate the possibility of mutant registration. MacTaggert makes the right call. “Registration of mutants today, gas chambers tomorrow.” Xavier answers, “[Kelly is] scared. We must teach him that his fear is unfounded.” Charles Xavier’s optimism is rooted in his powers. He can read the minds of all humans and can see, somewhere beneath the riot of their synapses, something that bends towards decency. He is a mutant Mencius.

Still, one wonders what Xavier hears when he listens to other people’s thoughts. Does he believe Kelly is incapable of creating camps because he is essentially a good man or because, when he senses the senator’s darker thoughts, he can’t believe them and simply ignores them? Magneto serves as Xavier’s counterbalance. Though the comics cast him as something close to but not entirely a supervillain, he’s not always wrong. He is unable to read the thoughts of human beings, but he knows a Nazi when he sees one.

It wasn’t until 2008, in Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s Magneto: Testament, that Marvel fully described Magneto’s childhood. Magneto, née Max Eisenhardt, grew up in 1930s Germany, the son of a Jewish watchmaker. In an attempt to impress a young Romani girl named Magda he enters and wins a javelin competition using his powers over metal against a group of Aryan youth. Tensions rise and the family escapes to Poland. Eventually Max finds himself in Auschwitz, staring across the fence at Magda, who is interned in the Gypsy section of the camp.

The book answers the most pressing question about Magneto’s life: How could a young man with god-like powers over metal not kill every single Nazi in Auschwitz and liberate his fellow inmates? To answer the question, Pak’s story pointed to the machinery of the camp, the divide-and-conquer strategy that the Nazis employed against their inmates. He also points to the fear that any uprising would have led to the deaths of more Jews. Throughout the book, his fellow inmates warn Max that for every Nazi he kills thousands of Jews and Romanis would die in retaliation. The Max Eisenhardt in Pak and Di Giandomenico’s book is a sweet, loving boy, a young romantic. And he maintains a gentility all the way to the end of his tenure as a sonderkommando who shoves old men and young boys together in ovens because they burn more quickly.

That sweet boy dies within a few years after the book’s conclusion and is replaced by a cynical man bent on survival by any means necessary.  His attempts at revenge change from one crisis to the next, but they always lean towards some form of violence. Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies depict the extent he’s willing to go to protect his own kind.

At the end of X-Men, Xavier’s team foils Magneto’s plot to transform all the world’s humans into mutants. Magneto’s process is deadly, an unfortunate fact the X-Men know and he doesn’t. If he had succeeded he would have committed, albeit inadvertently, mass murder one thousand times greater than Hitler’s.

At the end of X-Men 2, the X-Men and Magneto foil a plot by a rogue fanatic who attempts to use Cerebro, a machine Xavier and Magneto co-invented, to kill every mutant on earth. Magneto then attempts to use Cerebro to murder, this time with clear intention, every human on the planet. He does not succeed.

The Holocaust victim, in our popular imagination, is a man of goodwill. He is the figure who tells you never to accept bigotry, that life is worth living, that violence is evil and that survival is a blessing. He is Elie Wiesel standing up for the victims of Darfur and the Khmer Rouge and teaching the lessons of his life story to Oprah Winfrey’s audience. He is a Jew laying a stone on Oskar Schindler’s grave in living color. He is Roberto Benigni clown-marching to the gas chambers, comforting his son. She is Anne Frank believing in the essential goodness of humankind even when faced with all evidence to the contrary.

These stories all carry the sheen of political correctness and they all ignore the mess of post-1945 politics. Wiesel may have called for Israel to take in refugees from Darfur, but he’s also one of the more prominent apologists for the Israeli right wing. It’s amazing how many monuments quote Frank without acknowledging her famous line’s horrible irony. The stone-laying scene at the end of Schindler’s List is a happy summation to the world’s greatest tragedy, but on some level — the level at which we are watching actual survivors honor the man responsible for their survival — we can accept it. Benigni’s march, however, is a lie. There were stories of teachers and grandmothers who comforted children marked for death, but Benigni’s martyred clown is incapable of tears. He’s an insult to the many millions who went to the chambers without idiot smiles on their faces.

These myths ignore the suicides among survivors, the depressive rage among children of survivors. Far more people read these myths than open The Immortal Bartfuss or Kaddish for a Child Not Born. Our attachment to these myths form the basis of an indictment. No one believes in Auschwitz because no one wants to believe in Auschwitz.

The many storytellers who have handled Magneto have then, in their own way, and through accident and emendation, achieved something remarkable. They have given mainstream popular culture a Holocaust survivor who understands exactly what was murdered in Auschwitz and who refuses to accept any sentimental definitions of survival.

By turning a Jewish Holocaust survivor into a mass murderer, these writers and artists ignore some terrible implications. The myths in Marvel Comics, half-formed and always more outlined than fully examined, lend themselves to an open reading on the part of fans. How do you read Magneto in a world in which the Holocaust is cited by cheap commentators in every human conflict?

You can read Magneto as the fantasy of every post-1945 anti-Semite. He is the Jew who will exert his powers to the absolute degree necessary and then even further, in order to gain his rightful pound of flesh. He is the Jew who screams “Auschwitz” whenever you question the bombings in Lebanon or Gaza, the Jew who will murder and burn his way to safety, ignoring all the children he may incinerate on the way.

You can read Magneto as the nightmare of every post-1945 Jewish humanist. He is the Jew who lost the soulful liberalism of the Yiddishkeit, and who has allowed the Holocaust to turn him into everything he despises. He is the Jew who will bomb Gaza and say, with some credibility, that it is for defense while privately acknowledging a pleasure in revenge. He is the Jew who has allowed the Holocaust to instill in him a debilitating paranoia, an inability to love or trust anyone who is not a Jew, as well as an inability to love or trust most of his fellow Jews.

The two caricatures have a lot in common.

There are other readings as well. Magneto is a wailing child demanding a return of his family and his culture, who now dresses up in metal armor to protect him from the anger of the world as well as his own. He’s a boy who saw God gassed alive and sees no difference anymore between writing “God” and writing “G-d”. He’s also something that none of the writers or artists who have handled him and none of the X-Men readers can know, something only the devil can name.

I’m a fan of the X-Men, but I also believe that superhero comics and superhero movies have no business standing anywhere near the gates of Auschwitz, and the X-Men movies and comics have done nothing to correct this claim. Chris Claremont was and is a miserable writer. His monotonous, somber narration can’t differentiate between Magneto’s experiences during World War II and a fight scrimmage at Xavier’s school. Di Giandomenico’s painterly strokes make his Auschwitz Jews a little too beautiful and his book too easy to look at. Bryan Singer’s depiction of the gates of Auschwitz at the beginning of X-Men is no more menacing than the criminal lairs in The Usual Suspects, a movie he made five years prior. A superhero movie, which treats the threat of apocalypse as an opportunity for adventure, has an unsolvable problem when faced with an actual historical case of mass death. It should avoid this problem.

Still the X-Men movies and comics do something that the more respectable Holocaust movies of mass culture don’t do. At the end of Schindler’s List, the black-and-white of the distant Holocaust past turns to color as the elderly Schindler Jews emerge to plant stones on their savior’s grave. The scene provides closure and catharsis. Spielberg concentrates his camera only on the Jews who live happily forward all the way to the end of the 20th century and buries the Holocaust safely in the past where it can’t hurt anyone after 1945.

Magneto stands as a rebuke to that burial and as a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening. They tell you these things even if their action narratives, their melodrama, their wit, and their fascination with lithe bodies don’t allow you to feel them. The writers and artists behind the X-Men don’t believe in Auschwitz, not only because they don’t wish to believe in Auschwitz, but also because they can’t believe the very things they are telling themselves.

A Beautiful Man: On Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man

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Peter Parker was born in 1945 and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, under the care of his uncle and aunt. Ben Parker was a gentle man. May was a doting but naïve caregiver. Peter was a prodigy and Ben and May Parker encouraged his scientific aspirations. It was a happy home, but at school Peter was the target of low-key verbal bullying and though an outside observer would have considered the taunts mild, they amounted to a form of abuse that haunted him well into his adulthood.

In the early 1960s, several young men and women in the New York City area gained superhuman powers thanks to a series of nuclear experiments held in violation of rudimentary safety codes. That was Peter’s story. He was at a certain place at a certain time and a radioactive spider bit his hand. Within 24 hours, his body underwent a metamorphosis. He was now faster, stronger, and more agile than most members of the human race and possessed a sixth sense which warned him of danger. He sewed a red-and-blue suit which showed off his new thin-muscled body, a body he was proud of and for which he had done nothing to deserve.

He entered and won a wrestling contest. He was a great success, but he was too young to appreciate his good luck. In a moment of self-absorption, he failed to stop a thief. By coincidence that criminal would later kill Ben Parker, and upon discovering the consequences of his selfishness, the teenager decided he would use his powers to help others. He invented webbing fluid, a potent but non-lethal weapon which allowed him to swing across the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan and trap opponents in viscous nets. He became Spider-Man, an amazing addition to the New York skyline. A hyphen separated the two parts of his name.

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in December 1962. In his debut, he was friendless, miserable, and smarter than everyone in every room he ever walked into. Ditko, a former horror comics artist, had learned to draw humans at their most vulnerable and grotesque and his Peter Parker was an attenuated figure, handsome but not too good-looking, a little damaged. In the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man Parker proved to be a very good superhero, but he wasn’t slick and that was part of his charm. “Isn’t there just a little of Peter Parker in all of us?” That’s the final line of The Amazing Spider-Man #27, from August 1965. In that issue, he loses his uniform and had to make do with a cheap version he picked up in a costume shop. Spider-Man lost his mask in fights. He also lost fights. He fought common colds while in the middle of fights. The superhero who could be you.

Peter Parker was Spider-Man for many reasons and not all of them could be named. He suffered an oppressive guilt for the death of his Uncle Ben, but guilt wasn’t enough for him to do what he did; Parker doesn’t even mention his uncle for three years following the origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15. The truth is that Peter Parker enjoyed being more powerful, better than his peers who made fun of him and better than the criminals he fought. His social circle knew nothing about his abilities, and he took an arrogant pride in his secret identity. He was a sadist, within limits. He never killed anyone, but he enjoyed humiliating and hurting his opponents, taunting them with one-liners — he was a Woody Allen fan but he lacked Woody Allen’s talent — and he rarely softened a punch even when fighting those he could crush with two fingers. He started fights with Johnny Storm, the good-looking member of the Fantastic Four and the subject of Parker’s envy and admiration. He was a narcissist.

He was also Spider-Man because he needed money. He sold photographs of his fights with criminal misfits and ugly men to J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of Now! and The Daily Bugle, who wrote editorials prejudicing the general public against the young superhero. Peter’s freelancing helped his Aunt May survive her widowhood and earned him spending cash. But in the end, he was profiting off of violence, on fights that he sometimes started. He was also a dishonest journalist. After he failed to photograph a battle with Sandman, he restaged it using large piles of sand.

Yet he was, at heart, a good man and he suffered for his goodness. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 he flirts with the idea of crime in order to help his Aunt May save their house, but he eventually takes pride in his basic decency. He privately acknowledged the good in even his worst bully, Flash Thompson. He was devoted to his aunt. He continued his work as a vigilante even while facing a public that hated him. He honored that role no matter how much it disrupted his personal life.

He grew older, his posture improved, and he found himself in a series of relationships with beautiful women who noticed his charm and his blue eyes. But he was an incompetent and absent lover, more loyal to his secret identity than he was to his women, though he did save their lives on numerous occasions. In the context of the time, he was strangely under-eager to take advantage of the sexual revolution. His life as a superhero could be exhilarating, but it brought him only so much joy. He was a loner. He was also a lonely man.

Thanks to the open-ended, half-planned nature of comic-book serial storytelling, Lee and Ditko could discover new facets of Peter Parker’s psychology in small ways from one month to the next, allowing the man to contradict and amend himself to the point where his heroism was as strange as the anti-heroism of Walter White, his pop-cultural antithesis. John Romita took over for Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #39 in August 1966 and completed Parker’s transformation into a romance-comics heartthrob, discovering the depression inherent in the young man’s doleful charm. So no, it’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought.

Spider-Man and Peter Parker were inventions of New York, not the New York of our world, but a New York, despite all Lee and Ditko’s use of proper landmark names, that was as foreign as Metropolis or Gotham City. When Marvel Comics introduced a new Spider-Man in its Ultimate Universe a few years ago, one who had a black father and a Latino mother, the decision only highlighted one of the weirder elements of the world Lee and Ditko created 50 years before. Parker was a working-class teenager growing up in 1960s Queens and yet his social circle — Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds — did not include anyone with an obvious white-ethnic marker, an Irish, Italian, or Jewish name. The interior of Parker’s high school was based on the one Ditko attended in Johnstown, Penn. When Parker graduated high school he entered Empire State University, an amalgam of Columbia and City College, which again, oddly, had strikingly few non-white-ethnics. He mostly fought petty hoods who spoke like ’40s B-movie gangsters. Parker’s world was lily-white until issue #51 (August 1967), when Robbie Robertson, a black man, takes a city editor position at The Daily Bugle, and drug-free until issues #96 through #98 (May-July 1971), when Harry Osborn faces the consequences of his acid trips. And as much as he fancied himself an outsider, he was very much at home in his version of the city.

This New York provided a template against which Peter Parker, with all his self-doubts and all his angst, could invent himself. The superhero genre had existed for at least three decades before he showed up, and part of Parker wondered if he was a kind of Don Quixote, dressing up and playing out a fantasy for a world that did not need his heroism. But this particular New York did need him. The presence of supervillains, of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, always prepared to kill thousands, suggested that this shadow New York was under constant threat of annihilation. In our world, Peter Parker would be a true madman. (Actually in our world, the U.S. government would have captured and held him in a terrible facility and re-engineered him into a super soldier. It also would have figured out a way to turn his webbing fluid into either a torture or lethal weapon on a massive scale. Imagine a giant thick substance designed to cover entire cities and suffocate all of its inhabitants.) But Parker challenged his homogenous version of New York and made it more interesting. In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick — Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype — a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself.

This is why he is loved. This is why you want to be him. And this is why he is not the superhero who could be you.

The problem with Spider-Man is the same problem with all popular comics heroes. Eventually, after several hundred issues, he hit a moment of stasis in which he stopped evolving, stopped discovering the strange hidden facets of his personality.

Still, writers and artists attempted and sometimes succeeded in putting their signatures on Parker. In July 1973, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and Romita killed off Gwen Stacy in the middle of a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. There is a consensus among fans that she died from whiplash from the web Parker shoots to save her, thus providing a space for a new form of a guilt for Parker to explore. I was 10 when I got into reading my older brother’s collection from the late ’80s. That Spider-Man was still interesting. He was a college dropout, fighting to make rent, seriously wondering how he wasted his intellectual talents in the interest of crime fighting. But within a few years, after he married Mary Jane Watson, he ceased to be credible. In the early ’90s, Todd McFarlane’s artwork exaggerated Spider-Man’s contortionism, while his writing accentuated his sadism and diminished his wit, transforming one of the great geek heroes into a dumb jock. By the 2000s, the storylines within the regular Marvel continuity had achieved a level of absurdity that demanded retconning. In one limited series set in the future, Parker’s radioactive semen kills Mary Jane. Marvel writers in their attempts to be gritty, had become the equivalent of literary novelists who reach for Holocaust references as substitutes for gravitas. Their fascination with ultra-violence obscured the essence of Spider-Man.

Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which launched in September 2000, started everything over again, and attempted to return the hero to his roots. In Bendis and Bagley’s version, Parker was a millennial and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May were aging hippies. And Parker looked to John Hughes movies for inspirations for his one-liners. “It’s almost Shakespearean in the sense that the theme of it, the morality of it, all of it holds true,” Bendis told me in an interview that appeared in Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimatum. “And you can change the setting, you could put it all on a space station and the story of Peter Parker getting bit by a spider would resonate all these ideas. So once I came to terms with that, that I’m adapting a work by Shakespeare, it became very freeing.”

Bendis and Bagley did capture Peter Parker’s morality. Their stories were cleanly plotted, Bendis’s writing was slick, and Bagley’s pen, and later that of Stuart Immonen who replaced him in the 111th issue (September 2007), looked more to Romita’s romance than Ditko’s horror ethos for inspiration. And yet that slickness and Peter’s unquestionable decency formed the title’s main flaw. Bendis’s Parker was a little too charismatic. The characters in the Ultimate Universe loved him more than any of the comic’s readers could. I liked the comic myself, but a true Spidey agoniste would have preferred the Peter Parker of the Ditko and Romita years.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a throwback to the Ditko and Romita years. All three of his movies, even the much maligned Spider-Man 3, have fine moments, though they spend far more time studying Peter Parker’s guilt than the other more disturbing aspects of his personality. Raimi’s horror-movie pathos turned Spider-Man’s villains into tragic figures. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, in his final moments, rediscovers a moral clarity and sacrifices himself in order to undo his evil plans. Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman attempts to grasp his dead wife’s wedding ring even as his fingers dissipate into tiny molecules. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is sweet, naïve and gentle, and a fine presence, but he exists to counterbalance the weight of evil and age more than to exert his awesome self.

Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man movies, themselves modeled on the Bendis/Bagley and the Bendis/Immonen runs, is the most physically interesting one we’ve seen on screen. He’s discovered the line between Parker’s teenage awkwardness and Spider-Man’s athleticism, Parker’s brooding charm and Spider-Man’s power, and beneath it all there lies his constant melancholy. He’s a young-adult hero with a riot of conflicting rages that recall those suffered by Lee and Ditko’s Parker. Working with a by-the-numbers screenplay, Garfield reimagines a beautiful man, a flesh-and-blood being, that otherwise would have been nothing more than a symbol, or, considering the nature of Sony and Disney/Marvel’s competing interests, a trademark.

The Peter Parker of the regular Marvel Universe has no real fears in any of his battles, which he always manages to survive. He’s barely aged 10 years in the 52 since he first appeared. Immortality has erased the stakes of his existence. He has no reason to evolve. These are the kinds of story-telling decisions, made in the interest of the profit motive, that can rob a character of his soul.

The best thing about the Peter Parker of the Ultimate Universe is his mortality. He dies at the age of 16 in Ultimate Spider-Man #160 (August 2011) saving his aunt, his friends, and his neighbors from the Green Goblin. Unless something happened in between the panels that Bendis did not mention, he dies a virgin. And he does not come back. Death makes his sweetness and his goodness tragic and beautiful. It makes Peter Parker human, and, in at least one particular way, a superhero who could be you.

I don’t imagine the Spider-Man Lee and Ditko created in 1962 dying in any major battle, but I do imagine an alternate reality for him, one that diverges from the Marvel storyline sometime in the early ’70s, when Parker is still in college. He realizes at that point that he’s gone about as far as he could go as Spider-Man, which was always a fun but immature project. He learns to dislike violence and prefers helping people in more peaceful ways. He spends more time in costume at children’s hospitals, and eventually starts showing up out of costume. More superheroes have shown up in New York, and most of them, he’s now humble enough to realize, are better at crime fighting. He goes for one last night-swing, comes home to his apartment, folds up his costume and places it in a box at the back corner of his closet.

He starts dating more and notices that he has fewer inhibitions. After breaking up once with Mary Jane Watson, he starts dating a handsome man he meets in a chemistry lab. It goes on for a few months, he discovers a form of affection he didn’t realize he was capable of, but he returns happily to Mary Jane.

He graduates college. He forgoes a hard career in science after he discovers an allergy to corporate structures and a love of teaching. He teaches in one of New York’s magnet programs while at home he tinkers with his brilliant inventions, creating all sorts of wonders far more interesting than web fluid. He decides to keep his work to himself.

He marries Mary Jane and they have children. They enter into a routine by the time they hit their 40s. On Friday nights, they go up to the rooftop of their Park Slope home. Mary Jane lights up a joint. He performs some mild acrobatics. Then they go back downstairs.

The kids graduate high school. They graduate college. They get married and give him grandchildren.

And then Peter Parker, the most beautiful man New York has ever known, dies.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

You Can’t Avert Your Eyes: The Millions Interviews Teju Cole


Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman.

Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture.

Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs.

I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.

The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented.

Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee.

TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello.

TC: There are also long disquisitions in the more recent books like Diary of a Bad Year. Summertime has long essayistic NYRB-type stretches.

[On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why?

And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree?

TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism.

TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing.

TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust.

TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly.

[Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you.

TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel?

TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional…Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object.

So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object.

I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it.

TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing.

TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious?

TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing.

TC: Interesting. Why?

TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created.

TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives.

TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture.

TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well.

TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street.

TC: Right. Right.

TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it…

TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff.

TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book.

TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious.

TM: You did not intend it to be that way.

TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore.

[Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back.

TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so.

TC: There’s a way in which Open City…is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together.

What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]…just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing…But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.”

TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me.

TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move.

TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel.

TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book.

TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous.

TC: And that exactly is the point.

TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello.

TC: Which, by the way, was panned.

TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good.

TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling.

Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.”

I’m sorry to make you stand.

[On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense.

[Takes a picture with his smartphone.]

To me it’s an interesting image.

This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried.

[We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.]

TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things…it’s jarring.

TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos.

[Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but…I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction.

TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching.

TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that.

TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book.

TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S.

TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable.

TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings.

TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book.

TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book.

TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive.

TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures.

TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive.

TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way.

TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this.

TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath.

[He finally fixes his camera.]

Can we stroll up there before we lose the light?

[We head back upstairs.]

TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why?

TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York.

Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews.

TM: Do you love Lagos?

TC: No.

TM: Do you love New York?

TC: Yes.

TM: I sensed that in both books.

TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there.

[Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable.

TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility?

TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last.

Image Credit: Wikipedia