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.
This is an excerpt from A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by Genevieve Hudson, part of the …AFTERWORDS series from Fiction Advocate.
Before Alison Bechdel became an award-winning cartoonist, she was a tomboyish girl in a small Pennsylvania town with parents who had once hoped to be artists but had settled instead for jobs as high school English teachers. Her father also worked a part-time undertaker, running the family funeral business. Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home (think funeral home, think carnival) is described as a “family tragicomic” on the front cover, but there is more tragedy than comedy at play. The memoir is an excavation of Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence as she comes out as a lesbian only to be told that her father is secretly gay. Just months after Bechdel reveals her orientation to her family, her father Bruce commits suicide—or rather, he is hit by a Sunbeam Bread truck in an incident that Bechdel believes he architected. Fun Home tells the tale of two different kinds of queer lives—the liberated, lesbian daughter and the closeted, bisexual father—as they orbit each other in the same domestic universe and become confronted with the secret they share. She is coming out; he is made to face, by his daughter’s coming out, an identity he’s kept sealed off from the world.
One of the things that draws me to Fun Home is its obsession with secrets. It is about the secrets we tell and the secrets we keep. From the outside, the Bechdels might have seemed regular enough—maybe a tad gothic, given their gig as funeral home directors— but Fun Home shows us that nothing in their family was as it seemed. Bruce’s violent outbursts, his dalliances with male high school students, and his bisexuality are hidden beneath a performance of domesticity that he acts out with theatrical precision until the day he dies.
In the first chapter, aptly titled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” Bechdel uses descriptions of the family’s restored Gothic Revival house and its flamboyant, Victorian decor as a metaphor for her father’s love of illusion. Bruce spent years toiling over the family home, using the renovations as a kind of artistic expression: getting the drapes just right, installing porch supports, ensuring every inch appeared just the way he wanted. She tells us renovations were his “passion,” “in every sense of the word.” He was a stickler for presentation. Panels portray him shirtless, perched on a ladder, securing gables to the house’s exterior or about to affix reams of floral wallpaper to Bechdel’s room. It was the staging, the veneer of flawlessness, that Bruce pursued. He was an “alchemist of appearance,” more consumed with how things seemed than how things might actually be. The Bechdel family home was literally a house of mirrors. In one panel, Bechdel draws an elderly woman, who is lost upstairs, touching a mirror placed against a wall that projects a false image of an ascending staircase: “Gracious,” says the woman. “I almost walked right into this.”
At her father’s funeral, Bechdel wonders: “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” This question rings out across the pages of the memoir. The truth, according to Bechdel, is not just that her father committed suicide but that his death is somehow connected to his hidden bisexuality. Or perhaps, even more tragically, his death is somehow connected to her coming out as a lesbian. As a memoirist, Bechdel’s job is to tell the truth about herself, and her father’s suicide and sexuality are intrinsically bound up in her own story. To read Fun Home is to see Bechdel wrestle with the question of the truth—how well her father hid his, and what it means for her tell to tell her own.
At her father’s funeral, Bechdel imagines herself yelling at a man who tries to comfort her by telling her that God works in “mysterious ways.” She daydreams that she shouts: “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one second more.” But this response is just a fantasy. Bechdel doesn’t actually have it in her to say that—yet. It will take years before she tells her father’s story, before she can reveal who he really was and who she became in light of him. The bond between her father’s death and her life, his lie and her truth, is a tenuous one, but Bechdel is eager to tighten the knot that holds them together.
Through Fun Home, Bechdel becomes the architect of these overlapping stories. She draws back the curtain on her father’s secrets. As I read the book, I was struck by the way her illustrations, with their graphic cues and visual descriptions, deepen her storytelling powers. She controls her father’s expressions, his gestures, his speech. She chooses, panel by panel, how to literally frame their lives.
When the reader first meets Bechdel’s character in Fun Home, she is indistinguishable from a boy. We see her young, maybe six or seven. Her hair is cropped short, mussed and tussled. This is her default mode. When she’s not being put in dresses by her parents, the young Bechdel chooses slacks and striped shirts for her lanky frame. She is already in awe of boyish aesthetics, and as she gets older she becomes taken with men’s fashion magazines.
Bruce expects his daughter to act like a conventional girl. She is failing. He tries to get her to dress in frilly outfits and embrace a femininity that she doesn’t have and doesn’t want. Fun Home shows Bruce wondering after her absent barrettes and then exploding in anger as he tries to wrestle one back into his daughter’s scraggly hair. When she refuses to wear his pearls, Bruce asks her, cruelly, if she is afraid to be beautiful. Bechdel retrospectively muses at the irony: that while she was “attempting to compensate for something unmanly in him,” he was trying “to express something feminine” about himself through her. Bechdel wanted “muscles and tweed” just as Bruce wanted “velvet and pearls.”
Bechdel shows us the many ways that she and her father are reversal of each other. She is, as Bechdel says, “Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete.” But they have one critical thing in common: their “shared reference for masculine beauty.”
In an article about mourning and melancholia in Fun Home, the scholar Rachel Dean-Ruzicka points to a scene where Bruce and Bechdel are clearly gripped by the same projection of masculinity. Young Bechdel is kicking back, admiring a magazine spread where a male model is shown lying on his side. Bechdel is struck by the picture and calls her father over to look. She tells him he should get a vest like the one the man is wearing.
“Nice,” he says. “I should.”
The same masculinity, the same “object,” compels both Bechdel and Bruce, but it compels them in vastly different ways. Bechdel desires the smart vest that makes the man look so suave; her father desires the man himself with his hard abs that the vest is opened to reveal.
Bechdel comes out to her parents in a letter she writes while attending Oberlin College. Although she has not acted on her lesbian hypothesis, Bechdel is convinced she is queer and feels compelled to share this with her parents. She licks the seal on the envelope, deposits it in the mail, and returns to her treasure trove of lesbian literature to read and wait for their response. Soon she receives a charged letter from her mother, who is anything but pleased.
“Your father has had affairs with other men,” her mother tells Bechdel later on the phone. This is the first time Bechdel has heard anything about her father’s bisexuality. In this series of panels, Bechdel’s character is first shown sitting on the floor with the phone pressed to her ear. Her eyes are wide with shock. She moves into what looks like a fetal position. In the corner of one panel, Bechdel has drawn the book Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, filling in the small queer details that had begun to infuse her life. Her mother’s disclosure sheds some light on why it might have been difficult, perhaps even painful, for her to hear that her daughter was a lesbian. Her mother’s relationship with Bruce, the other queer person in her life, had been associated with secrets, lies, and even cruelty. It was not a good precedent for what a queer life could be. When Bechdel asks her mother why her father isn’t the one telling her this stunning information, her mother responds: “Your father tell the truth? Please!”
And with that, the spotlight turns from Bechdel and angles back to her parents. Bechdel is trying to tell her family her own story, her own truth, but suddenly she becomes a “footnote in her parent’s failed marriage.” Her father’s lie overshadows her truth, while simultaneously linking her coming out and his dark secret together. Bechdel does not have much time to process the new information—months after this phone conversation, her father dies. Bechdel is tragically freed from his expectations about what a queer life should look like.
“And in a way, you could say that my father’s end was my beginning,” writes Bechdel. “Or more precisely that the end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.”
As she contrasts her burgeoning lesbian life to that of her closeted father, Bechdel is aware of the different historical contexts that shaped their respective realities. She wonders what it would have been like if she had come of age in another time. After her post-college move to New York, Bechdel writes that she “became fascinated with lesbian pulp fiction from the fifties—the bar raids and illegal cross dressing.” On the subway she reads a book written about dykes in the ’50s and how they could be subjected to body searches by the police to confirm that they were wearing at least three articles of women’s clothing.
In another scene, Bechdel draws her parents, younger, childless, during a stint in New York in the ’50s, and imagines her father glimpses a butch lesbian on the street as he holds open a door for his wife. The woman she imagines her father seeing is dressed as a man: short combed-back hair, tailored button down, slacks, lit cigarette. Her father is peering into his sister life, the life he could have chosen, but didn’t. Bechdel writes: “would I have had the guts to be one of those Eisenhower-era butches?.” The undertone is clear: though she isn’t sure if she would have had the courage to live an openly gay life at that time, she knows her father didn’t.
There was a world of difference between being out in the 1980s and being out in the 1950s. Stonewall, in 1969, was a tipping point. It signaled the beginning of a consolidated, organized, and visible political movement for gay rights in America. Bechdel and her father were born on opposite sides of this landmark event. Bruce was born in 1936, when having a consensual sexual relationship with someone of the same sex was illegal. In fact, many states considered it a felony. Medical professionals viewed homosexuality as an illness. Gay people could be subjected to “treatments” that included lobotomies, shock therapy, and sometimes even castration. If you were queer, you were deemed sick by the society you lived in. In order to avoid these consequences, people with queer inclinations protected themselves in a variety of ways. Bruce, like many other queer men and women of his generation, chose to repress–or hide—his identity. He kept his desire a secret.
After his daughter came out, Bruce wrote her a letter that gave her a glimpse into his life as a questioning, queer boy in rural America before Stonewall. Or at least the closest thing to a glimpse he was capable of giving.
Taking sides is heroic, and I am not a hero. What is really worth it? … There’ve been a few times I think I might have preferred to take a stand. But I never really considered it when I was young…Let’s face it things do look different then. At forty-three I find it hard to see advantages even if I had done so when I was young … I’ll admit that I have been somewhat envious of the “new” freedom (?) that appears on campuses today. In the fifties, it was not even considered an option.
According to Bruce, being out during his adolescence required a heroism he did not have. It would have taken courage to live an openly gay life in spite of the legal and physical threats that were common to queer people during that time. There was virtually no literature or music or film that articulated the queer experience or served as a form of representation, which must have felt even more isolating. In his letter, Bruce acknowledged the difference in the time periods by admitting he was “envious” of the “new freedom” on college campuses. But he was unwilling, or unable, to use the label gay or bisexual to talk about his desire. He didn’t even explain what it was that he is envious of.
Bechdel was born in 1960. By the time she came out, in college in the early ’80s, gay rights protests had spread throughout the country. She entered into an established lesbian subculture at Oberlin College and in New York City. There was a vibrant, yet still underground, lesbian feminist revolution taking place on the margins of America. While lesbianism was being celebrated on the fringe in communities of like-minded people, queer people were still reviled, ridiculed, and ostracized by the greater society. But in those edges, things were happening.
When she portrays her new lesbian life in Fun Home, she allows this subculture to animate the background. In the bedroom of her first lover, she draws lesbian relics of the time: a “lesbian terrorist” t-shirt is pinned to the wall next to a “keep your God off my body” sign.
“The notion that my sordid personal life had some sort of larger import was strange but seductive,” Bechdel writes above a panel where her character is at a party, sipping something from a cup, overhearing one girl say to another: “Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice.” There was the feeling of something underway. JEB’s photography book of lesbian portraits had recently been published. There were queer writers to read and Michigan Womyn’s Festivals to attend. It was the time of the original The Future Is Female Shirt, lesbian separatism, women’s rights. The personal had become political. Queer people had begun documenting their stories and building up a library of their experiences, because it seemed important to create images of people like them. Gay and lesbian people were refusing to stay hidden, asserting themselves into the cultural consciousness. In 1983, only a few years after she came out, Bechdel began drawing her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip, which documented the daily lives of lesbians and ran for 25 years. Perhaps this visibility and solidarity are what Bruce spoke to when he said he was envious.
But when Bechdel daydreams about what kind of life her father would have lived if he had decided to come out in his youth, another theme from the ’80s emerges—the AIDS epidemic. In a contemplative scene, when Bechdel is fresh out of college and living in the city, she unlocks her bike next to a poster for an AIDS fundraiser. She rides out to the New York Harbor, which was, as a newspaper article she includes in one panel suggests, ground zero of the world AIDS epidemic. As she stares out into the water, Bechdel considers, almost wistfully, how some lives are considered expendable. If her father had chosen to live as an open gay man, would she have lost him anyway? In her imaginings, either her father’s body is destroyed by the virus, or she ceases to exist in the first place. After all, if Bruce had come out in his youth, Bechdel might never have been born.
“I do feel like in many ways, my life, my professional career has been a reaction to my father’s life—his life of secrecy,” Bechdel tells Terry Gross during an interview on Fresh Air. “I’ve been all about being out and open about being a lesbian since I came out in 1980,” says Bechdel. “It’s been my career.”
Bechdel’s artistic expression centers on exposure, confession, and documentation, just as her father’s renovations where all about artifice and obfuscation. Her lived experience is the material for her work, just as her father’s artfulness obscured the realities of his life. In a public conversation with Bechdel, the writer and biographer Judith Thurman asks if the raw and explicit scenes Bechdel culls from her life are a kind of writerly “strategy.” Bechdel responds: “I want you to trust me. And how can you trust me if I’m not showing you everything?” In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all. She draws herself rocking against a desk chair at sixteen until she gives herself an orgasm, stuffing wads of toilet paper into her underwear so she doesn’t have to tell her mother she started her period, and in bed naked and having sex with her girlfriend. Bechdel reveals herself to her readership in blindingly intimate detail, as if to say: you can trust me, I’m baring it all. Her father, on the other hand, is shown covering the skin on his cheeks with a bronzing stick and dashing upstairs to change a tie after Bechdel pokes fun at it. Although her acts of exhibitionism are diametrically opposed to her father’s life of hiddenness and shame, the two modes appear fundamentally connected.
Bruce becomes a kind of a cautionary tale about what can happen if you stay hidden, or perhaps of the tragic effects of growing up gay during a certain moment in American culture. Bechdel, with her celebrated creative career, is example of what can happen if you speak your truth, or perhaps what can happen when you come out in an age of increased visibility. Throughout Fun Home, Bechdel demonstrates the complexity of her connection to Bruce, as if to show that their relationship transcends truth and secret, the hidden and the revealed, the living and the dead.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
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.
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.
“If you can get some brilliant artists to make a musical about your childhood, I highly recommend it. It’s very cathartic.” Recent MacArthur fellow Alison Bechdel’s hugely successful graphic memoir, Fun Home, has been adapted into a Broadway musical, and now she’s written a coda to the book that looks at what the musical has meant to her and what it could have meant to her parents. Pair with our interview with Bechdel here.
Like many recent English undergraduates, I first encountered Alison Bechdel’s work in the classroom. Her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was assigned reading in an American lit course I took my sophomore year, and after a semester spent dutifully paging through William Dean Howells and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Bechdel’s beautifully drawn memoir about her childhood living with a closeted gay father, her own coming out at 19, and her attempts to make sense of years of family mystery impressed me deeply.
Even so, it wasn’t until a year later, when Bechdel’s second memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, was released and immediately appeared all over campus, that I realized just how popular and successful her work was. Never mind that my copy of Fun Home was emblazoned with its numerous awards: “Time Magazine’s #1 Book of the Year,” the front cover says, and “National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist.” The back tells a similar story, listing 23 publications and websites that listed Fun Home as a “Best Book of the Year.” And then there’s Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 until 2008, introduced the famous “Bechdel Test” for measuring films’ portrayals of female characters, and received numerous awards of its own.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when the MacArthur Foundation announced Bechdel would be the recipient of one of their “genius” grants excitement and congratulations poured from Twitter and literary sites across the Internet. I spoke with Bechdel over the phone in November, shortly after her MacArthur award was announced. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
The Millions: So, first of all, congratulations on the MacArthur news! Is it starting to feel any more real?
Alison Bechdel: Not really. I keep waiting for it to feel sort of normal or real but, no, I feel like I’m in a sort of suspended state of denial.
TM: How did you first learn about the award? You were abroad, is that correct?
AB: Yeah, I was in Italy for 6 weeks at this really amazing artist’s residency.
TM: What were you working on while you were there?
AB: I was basically just doing whatever I felt like, I was treating it as a sort of a creative rehab after getting really burnt out. So I just allowed myself to draw whatever I wanted, and it turned into this project of drawing life-sized figures doing yoga. But it was more about the process than the drawings, which was fun. Because you know, I’m always having to produce stuff and so this was a project where I wasn’t thinking so much about producing anything but just the experience of drawing. It was kind of fun to sort of draw with my whole body, because I was drawing something exactly the same size as I was, standing on the floor like I was.
TM: Yeah, I can see how that scale difference would be liberating. I don’t know exactly how you draw the panels for your books, but in the books themselves they’re very small.
AB: They’re very small, very tiny.
TM: As I was first reading about this years MacArthur awards, I learned you’re also working on a new book about the link between the body and creativity, though I guess I don’t know if that’s a good way to sum it up.
AB: That’s about as good a way as any, I haven’t quite been able to sum it up myself yet. I like that.
TM: Yeah, it’s always difficult to look at a work in progress and say what it’s about. And so I was just thinking vaguely about these large forms and the subject of your work in progress and then looking back at your drawings in Fun Home and Are You My Mother and while there’s a definite continuity between those books, there’s also a bit of an artistic shift. Are You My Mother seems more nuanced — there are more perspective angles, different levels of shading. Do you see that kind of evolution in drawing continuing into your next project?
AB: I feel like my drawing has changed a lot over the past 10 or 15 years. Well, it’s always changing, really — I’m always trying to draw better. It’s gotten more and more realistic. In cartooning there’s this spectrum from very cartoony images to more naturalistic, realistic drawings and my drawings have moved more and more towards the more naturalistic end of the spectrum because of using digital photography for reference shots and because of Google image search, which enables me to quickly access images of everything in the universe. So, I feel like those technological changes have really affected my drawings a lot and it’s fun, it’s exciting to have access to those things and to be able to make naturalistic drawings fairly easily. It’s become very easy to do when you have these resources. But I find that it also makes me kind of more controlled; there’s a stiffness to that kind of work that I would like to undo. I don’t know how to do it. I think part of the process of the book is going to be…I should just shut up about that book until I’ve done it. I mean, the more I talk about it the more I box myself in.
TM: Like, “oh, I said it would be like that, now I have to write the book I described?”
AB: Yeah. I’m very reluctant. I’ve just gotten to the point in my life where I don’t want to do anything except exactly what I want to do. And even myself describing a project, it then becomes something I have to do. But I’ll just say one thing, which is that I want to go back to drawing more spontaneously, and with less preparatory work for every drawing.
TM: Which is something that is really present in Are You My Mother, where there are panels depicting you taking the reference photos for the panels that you’re drawing, creating this interesting artistic loop.
AB: Well, I don’t know about interesting, but it’s definitely a loop. It’s a very self-reflexive work.
TM: And that seems like such a vulnerable thing to do, to put yourself in your book as someone who has this uncompleted project that you don’t exactly know how you’re going to finish, or how it’s going to end.
AB: It was very much like standing out across a tight rope and just hoping that I made it to the other side. And that book, Are You My Mother, changed a lot half way through, and I’m trying to work that in with my tightrope metaphor like, what did I do? Jump off the tightrope? Did I fall off the tightrope, move to a different tight rope? I’m not sure. But you know, there’s a point in writing anything where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so I guess any book, whether it’s fiction or memoir, has that exploration and depth.
TM: So Fun Home is about a lot of things, but one of them is the constant redecoration and reformation of this house, which is drawn beautifully and in incredible detail. What was it like to try to revisit that house and essentially recreate the house that your father spent his life redecorating and restoring?
AB: It was uncomfortable. I felt like it was almost a kind of penance. I spent my childhood like trapped in this place, dusting all these fucking knickknacks, and here I was as an adult, recreating it, drawing it, in a way that was much more tedious than dusting it ever was. And you know, I didn’t think of this at the time, it was only after I finished the book and heard people start to discuss it that I saw the way that my creation of the book was very parallel to my father’s creation of this house. It was a very obsessive creative enterprise, very focused on detail and losing track of other aspects of life. Making a graphic novel is a very absorbing task and a lot of other parts of my life were really put on the back burner during the time that I was working on it, very similar to the way that my dad would neglect relationships, and to an extent I did too. But I feel like in an odd way Fun Home was a kind of collaboration with my father, just because I happened to have all these photographs that he had a taken of the house, that he had staged and then had a photographer friend shoot, so I had all these great images that I could just draw from.
TM: Something that I see a lot through Fun Home is this attempt to tell a true story about your life and looking back and seeing where maybe the story you’ve been told or have told before wasn’t exactly right and then exploring those moments and different ways of telling. You have your childhood diaries and you look back on them and say, actually those aren’t accurate, those aren’t telling the full story of what was going on in my life at that time, and you consider the distance between the story your father’s letters to your mother tell and the lived reality of their relationship, so that Fun Home becomes this attempt to rediscover your own past and your own history. What was that like, to go through your childhood diaries, to go through your childhood drawings, to go through your parents’ letters, and try to pick out that narrative? Did that come naturally, or was that kind of a labored process?
AB: That’s actually what I would probably be doing were I just totally left to my own devices. If i didn’t have to earn a living, if I didn’t have to do anything, I would probably be sitting around and pouring over the various documents of my life, the photographs and diaries and letters. And there’s obviously something I’m looking for, there’s probably something that I was missing. In my family there was very much this sense that something was happening that I didn’t understand. There was always this mystery.
I remember when my dad started putting some photo albums together. I was maybe eight or nine, and he decided he was going to put our family photos in this album, and I was spellbound by this process of selecting images and labeling them, putting them in a certain order on the page, grouping them in a certain way. It was like making sense out of this chaotic pile of images. There was something very formative for me in that process, I was just really excited by it. And I feel like in a way that’s just what my work is, it’s just these albums that I’m arranging and then rearranging, in hopes of finding something out. But I probably wouldn’t have that drive if there hadn’t been this central mystery or secret or conundrum at the core of my life, my childhood, my family. And part of it is also my own record-keeping, my own diary. I not only write down the stuff that happens in my life, but I do often still go back and reread it with great curiosity about what I was thinking or doing at an earlier moment in my life, still looking for some kind of answer to…I don’t know, “who am I?” I mean, that’s ridiculous, but I am lacking some kind of structure of the self that I’m hoping to replace with all this self-narration that I’m doing.
TM: I do the same thing, I keep all these journals — my family’s like “this is out of control, there’s paper everywhere” — but I can’t imagine turning mine into a book, or literally sharing pages from the diaries. Again, that’s this very vulnerable choice. Similar, I think, though perhaps not very similar, to your depictions of the therapy in Are You My Mother, which is something that I don’t see a lot of people writing about right now.
AB: Well, there’s very good reason for that, probably. It’s not a very — it doesn’t lend itself to drama, let’s just say.
TM: Yeah, therapy does tend to be so discursive, and a little repetitive, not in a bad way but not necessarily in a particularly spellbinding way, either. What was it like to go back through those years of therapy and try to shape them into a story, into an arc?
AB: Well, in my earliest years of therapy I did take a lot of notes. I was just so curious about everything that was happening and the process that I would just write down everything I could remember from the session and these odd pivotal moments where the therapist would say something that brought other things into focus. I stopped that at some point — I simply didn’t have the time to continue documenting like that, but I do have these carefully documented sessions.
What was it like? Sometimes it was just nauseating, I just felt like oh my god, I’m steeping in this stew of my own juices. Sometimes it just go to be unbearable. But mostly I’m endlessly fascinated by myself and my past and by what has happened to me and how I’ve changed, and I wanted to show that. So when I first started to write these therapy scenes they were very long, just two people in a room talking, talking, talking, nothing’s moving, nothing’s changing, the movement is all internal, and so eventually I realized that I had to really, really compress things. It was a problem. I started watching that series In Treatment on HBO, and it’s funny because it’s basically just therapy sessions. The main character is a therapist, and you see him with all his different patients, and nothing really happens, it’s just two people there talking. And that gave me a little more encouragement, like “no, something important really is happening here.” So, I don’t know. I’m not satisfied with how I did that. It was a challenge and I gave it a try.
TM: I think it was, again, something that I haven’t seen very many people try to do, and so when I think about therapy and literary depictions of therapy Are You My Mother is the book that comes to mind. And to me it felt incredibly accurate about what that experience is like and how difficult it can be to communicate with other people the revelations that can come from those conversations.
AB: Yeah, yeah.
TM: So, with this MacArthur grant, have you seen, or I guess it may again be too early, but have you seen a larger awareness, a growing audience for your work or for your books? From Dykes to Watch Out For to Fun Home to Are You My Mother, are you seeing a change in who is reading these books? I know that Fun Home was just explosive when it came out…
AB: Yeah, I think there’s been a big change in who is reading my work, and it’s very strange.
TM: How does that, or does it, affect the work that you’re doing?
AB: Well, it has a good effect. I’ve always just wanted to write about myself — I think I’m just a memoirist and an autobiographer at heart — but I couldn’t really do that when I was starting out because I’m a very unusual person. I’m a lesbian, and I couldn’t just start writing about my lesbian life in 1981 and have anyone read it or take it seriously. Not that I was thinking about that, although in a way I did start writing about my life, I started the comic strip. But that was like a distraction, almost, like “don’t look at me, look at this story that I’m telling you about this little community of lesbians, this little comic strip.” It was like a football player that runs in front of you, what do you call those guys? A blocker — the comic strip was kind of blocking me and creating this space for me behind it to live my life and to be who I was, and eventually the comic strip actually made it possible. I mean, the comic strip existed in this very political context, it was part of the whole lesbian gay liberation movement, it was very much engaged with that and influenced by it. And that movement’s accomplishment was for people to just be able to be regular people. And so finally in 2006 when Fun Home came out, it was something people could handle, to read a very unusual story about a lesbian and her gay dad. Somehow that was finally able to fly in a way that it wouldn’t have 20 years earlier. So, I feel like I created this space for me to tell stories about my own self.
TM: I first came across Fun Home in a college course on American literature, and reading through it, even at that time, I was like “you know, she doesn’t seem to like literary criticism very much.” I guess that’s what I’m thinking about when I ask about changing audiences, because this is suddenly being taught on college campuses, and your work is being given to students as an influential work of American literature. And as I was reading Fun Home for the first time, I can remember being very amused by your having to read James Joyce and having to apply all of this kind of crazy literary theory to his work. How does it feel to have your works being taught in exactly that way?
AB: It’s very, it’s very bizarre. It’s funny, I’m actually spending a lot of time this week at the University of Vermont going to classes where students are reading my book and it feels really quite ridiculous because in a way Fun Home is about resistance to literature as a topic of study, as something that gets analyzed and broken down and now my stories are getting analyzed and scrutinized in this very funny way by these students, by these poor unsuspecting kids. But I honestly, I feel a little ambivalent about it. I mean, obviously it’s great, it’s wonderful to have your book taught in college courses, and it has created this amazing new audience. I mean, young people are very excited about my work which is an amazing gift, as someone who for many years only had this very small subculture audience of people very like me, so now it’s wild when these young kids, young men, are excited about Fun Home. It’s just really unusual to me. But it’s great.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
“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.
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
On a two-page spread in her graphic memoir Marbles, Ellen Forney copies a partial list of artists and writers with “probable manic-depressive illness or major depression,” from Francesco Bassano to Anders Zorn, Antonin Artaud to Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen to Emile Zola. There are plenty of people afflicted with mental illness who also happen to lack any artistic inclinations, but still, given such lists, one wonders: Is there a relationship between mental illness and genius? Peter Kramer fought that romanticism in his 2005 book Against Depression. “Like tuberculosis in its day, depression is a form of vulnerability that even contains a measure of erotic appeal,” he wrote in an accompanying essay in The New York Times Magazine, but the evidence that depression led to higher powers of perception, he claimed, was weak.
Still, Forney’s own battle with manic depression was shadowed by this concern. She had come to Seattle when she was in her early 20s hoping to make it as a freelance comic artist. She wanted to be brilliant, filled with heat, and thought that her clinical diagnosis of Bipolar 1 admitted her to “Club Van Gogh.” And she feared the neutering effect of medication. (It reminds you a little of Lisa Simpson’s ambitions to become a jazz musician. “I’ll avoid the horrors of drug abuse, but I do plan to have several torrid love affairs, and I may or may not die young. I haven’t decided.”) Forney’s highs could be wonderful, but also destructive, and her depths were terrible. Her chronicle of her fight is personable and unpretentious. She has her own insights into her battle, but her voice is not battle-weary.
We met for an interview in Seattle on May 31. She had recently returned from a trip to Sarajevo sponsored by the U.S. embassy where she discussed Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which she illustrated, with Bosnian high school students. That book won a National Book Award. Marbles has been nominated for an Eisner.
The Millions: There’s a whole set of books, that are well-written and accessible, that a psychiatrist knows to give people to read. I imagine Marbles may become one of those books. What do you think Marbles as a graphic memoir can do that, for example, Darkness Visible can’t do?
Ellen Forney: I think that comics and the arts of painting and music offer a certain emotional quality, an emotional communication that a text doesn’t have. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. I’m saying it’s different. When the story is about mood or a set of moods, [then] having a picture, having a drawing style, having a visual representation of that…explains what [these different moods] feel like in a way that text just can’t. I also think that comics in general, for the most part, are approachable in a way that text isn’t.
TM: I always think of comics as a form of handwriting. When you get a letter that is handwritten, you have an idea of the body of the person who wrote that letter. Some of my favorite comics are a bit naïve, a bit rough, and appear unpolished even if they are carefully done. I think your comics appeal to that sensibility.
EF: It’s where my style naturally lands. The analogy that I make a lot when I look at someone’s very polished work [like] Dan Clowes or Charles Burns is a food analogy. Their work is like sushi. It’s so perfect, or if it is imperfect, it’s in a very perfect way. Whereas in my work, and I think we share that preference, is like lumpy oatmeal cookies that somebody baked. They have a very different appeal. It has an approachability. It has a different kind of emotional appeal. There’s a sense of conviction that’s different.
But I want to add one thing about handwriting. Without belaboring the point, I think it’s a travesty that so many cartoonists are turning to making a font out of their letters for exactly this reason. That feeling of a handwritten letter…Excuse me, I can’t remember how you put it.
TM: That you can imagine the body behind the hand doing the drawing.
EF: Right. And a sense of time in a way. When you see somebody’s handwriting, you know that there’s a span of time. There’s always that sense of feeling cheated when you compare all of the “a”s and they’re all the same. There’s something superficial about it. The letters don’t come together. I just feel that [handwriting] is far superior as far as storytelling [is concerned], as a method of communication in particular.
TM: When you are bipolar it’s very hard when you are in your depressive states to access the emotions of the high states and it’s also hard when you are in your high states to channel the emotions of your down states. I’m in a meditation group. One of the exercises we try to do is to access our unhappy emotions in order to see what they do to our bodies. And it’s very hard to do that on cue. And I imagine when you were composing your book it was very difficult to access these different states.
EF: I had a lot of material from that time specifically to draw from to jog my memory. I had years of journals. I don’t know how I would have done this without journals. The drawings I did in my journals I did when I was depressed. [I was also] talking with friends and people in my family about what I was like, which was extremely difficult, and just remembering, letting myself and making myself go there. It was really really difficult. It was a very thorough exposition of things that were anywhere from cringe worthy — a lot of the manic stuff was “ooh cringe” — to some extremely painful depressive stuff. And once you got there, you remember a lot more and it was really emotionally intense.
TM: When you were immersing yourself in those depressive states, were you afraid of accessing some memory that would trigger something in you that would return you to a place you couldn’t get back from?
EF: This is funny. Most people don’t ask me about this. [They’ll ask,] “Was it therapeutic for you?”
I felt like I was grounded. But I was extremely challenged. My psychiatrist was very much in touch with me, making sure I was staying steady. It was immersion therapy. I set up a tripod and posed for every panel. I was drawing myself crying and lying. I was so grateful towards the end that I wouldn’t have to keep setting [that up anymore]. I got a chair that looked like my psychiatrist’s chair. I realized I would have to be drawing that over and over. So I posed like my mother. I posed like my psychiatrist. And really, literally embodying these other characters, me and people who were around me, thoroughly immersing myself in that world and that time.
TM: I think Alison Bechdel used the same strategy when she made Fun Home.
EF: Yeah, she did. I think a lot of cartoonists use that. I think a lot of people think we draw out of our heads. And they think we’re not so good if we don’t draw out of our heads.
TM: This memoir is set at the time when you were writing I Was Seven in ’75 [a biographical strip about her childhood]. Do you see the symptoms of your bipolar disorder in the way I Was Seven in ’75 looks now?
EF: It was odd. I remember being manic and walking over to a table of people and asking them about what crossed pinkies meant for them. Does it mean if you say the same words at the same time or does it mean that you’re holding hands in a shy way? I was doing these spontaneous interviews.
TM: And you think that was a kind of mania.
EF: Not entirely. That’s in my personality even now. But I can remember there being an excitement and a heat behind it.
Some parts of the strip are really wordy — a lot of my work is really wordy — but it’s wordy in a way that I can recognize as being part of being revved. And I remember another point where I just did a lot of really literal drawings when I first got really depressed. At the end of a story about my dog there was just a drawing of me holding my dog. I think I even traced it from a photo. And I just couldn’t get very far thinking when I was in the depths. Yeah, in my first months when I was really depressed, that’s all I could really do. How I did that, I don’t actually know. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get this silly comic together.
TM: When you get diagnosed with a disorder of any sort you fear that your personality can be reduced to a few lines in a handbook. And nobody likes that. We all think of ourselves as being more idiosyncratic and interesting. Do you fear that some of your political beliefs, some of your sexual energy as evidenced in your book Lust [a collection of illustrated erotic personal ads she did for The Stranger], some of your personality can be reduced to this mental disorder?
EF: One of my fears for years in telling people that I was bipolar or coming out [as bipolar] when Marbles came out was that people that I knew or people I would meet would second-guess everything that I did, wondering if it was because I was bipolar. For myself, it’s impossible to distinguish between these different aspects. I know the things that I do that could be considered manic-y, or in the case of Lust, hyper-sexual by some. But I think [those things are] all a healthy part of me, my personality.
At the same time, I think that a lot of people will think of a mental disorder as being something other than themselves. Well, let’s see, not even mental disorders, but say, for example, someone was drunk. “That wasn’t me, that was the liquor talking or that was any sort of substance talking or that was the depressed me.” I think that it’s understandable [to say that]. But we also have to acknowledge that that’s part of us. That person who acted out when you were drunk…That was you. I don’t want to give anyone advice on their own identity, but I think it’s an important thing to think about.
That person who won the marathon. You’re not like that all the time. The person who fell off the curb. Well, of course you’re not like that all the time. But that was you and that was you.
TM: There’s a note of fear at the end of your book, that you’re managing what you have and you’re hoping that it stays managed, but you don’t know where it’s going to go. Do you feel if you were to relapse you would be responsible for writing a sequel?
EF: I wouldn’t have to tell any stories that I don’t want to tell. I didn’t feel that I had any responsibility to tell anything.
I mean I would do a [a story about a] relapse if it were a good story. I don’t know if that would be that interesting a story. I don’t know if that would be that interesting a sequel.
I’m looking forward to moving on.
Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
All images excerpted from MARBLES by Ellen Forney. Copyright (c) 2012 by Ellen Forney. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Elif Batuman’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and n+1. She recently completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford, and is the recipient of a 2007 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation award. You can learn more about Elif by visiting her blog or her website.I spent the first 9 months of 2007 finishing a dissertation in comparative literature, which really cut into my reading. By the end of the dissertation, you’re not really reading anymore, just re-reading and watching TV (or at least this was my experience). The notable exception for me was the Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which I read for the first time in February. I was amazed to discover that, as a young man, Ignatius dreamed of imitating Amadís of Gaul – the same knight errant later imitated by Don Quijote. Ignatius’s conversion then takes the form of switching exemplars, from Amadis to Jesus. What a rich and well-executed premise!While researching the dissertation, I also came across an enormously entertaining diet book: What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer, by Don Colbert. Colbert instructs the modern-day reader how to eat like Christ, basing his advice now on textual evidence (“I believe that fish and bread were two of the main foods in His diet”), now on historical data (“In the time of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Jordan river were major sources of fish”), and sometimes on what appears to be intuition (“Jesus very likely consumed extra virgin olive oil on a daily basis”). A companion volume, The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook, includes recipes ranging from “frozen banana salad” and “Asian coleslaw,” to “milk and honey bread” and “matzoh balls with olive sauce.”From my 2007 extracurricular reading, the stand-outs are, for surprisingness, Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives, and, for enjoyableness, two “graphic novels”: Alison Bechdel’s exciting and formally inventive memoir, Fun Home (“fun” is short for “funeral”), and Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds (a missing-person/love-story hybrid – one of my favorite genres – set in modern day Israel).More from A Year in Reading 2007