Art Chronicle: Graphic Novels

Art Spiegelman. In the Shadow of No Towers. Pantheon. September 2004.

Joe Sacco. The Fixer. Drawn and Quarterly. December 2003.

Osamu Tezuka. Buddha. Vertical. 2003– present.

Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. Pantheon. August 2004.

Chris Ware. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. (Paperback New Edition.) Jonathan Cape. May 2004.

Has the comic book grown up? A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.” So neurotic they’re even appearing on English-department syllabi. But their graphic nature has been scrupulously overlooked. Drawing, strangely on the outs in art schools, is suddenly making a comeback in literature, where they know their Kafka and Classics Illustrated, but maybe not Daumier or Saul Steinberg.

It was somehow no surprise that Art Spiegelman’s black-on-black image of the Twin Towers was on the cover of the New Yorker in September of 2001. Everyone can still remember that first week after 9/11, and I remember wondering what the dominant New York magazine, with its tradition of cheeky illustrated covers, would do. Shut down for the week? And I remember thinking, “Thank God for Art Spiegelman,” when I saw the simple image. It was, I think, the best a magazine cover could do at that point.

The same image is on the front of Spiegelman’s new book, In the Shadow of No Towers. It is three years later, and he has given us a kind of diary-gazette, printed approximately newspaper-size on cardstock the thickness of those indestructible pages in storybooks for toddlers. The book is a narrative collage, combining Spiegelman’s first-hand experience of 9/11 with his musings on the events that followed. We get drawings in the grisaille style of Maus; a recurrent pixellated image of the glowing frame of one of the towers; reworkings of vintage comics which combine drawn black lines with the dot matrix of newspaper printing; sections that are painted in a full palette with a brush; and large images that mix hysterical pink hallucinations with the hairy details of everyday life. The result is uneven.

If people have read only one graphic novel, it was Speigelman’s earlier book Maus. Since small animals gave a human scale to the Holocaust, small details communicated enormous suffering. Glances over spectacles, raised pinkie fingers, and slouches were drawn with a peculiar line—efficient and slightly wormy—that denoted humility but also precision. The essential thing for Spiegelman was that he’d gotten the conceit right, and a whole range of metaphor followed. Nothing stayed random or promiscuous. Spiegelman could draw a mouse-man getting off a treadmill, and you would think first of an old man minding his health, then a hamster wheel, then slave labor. The images revealed themselves over time, resulting in a kind of frankness without melodrama, and an unparalleled richness that practically invented a new genre.

Without a central conceit, the new book can’t pull it off. Or, really, you sense that Spiegelman only learned what that key conceit should have been quite late, when he was too exhausted to use it. His discovery was that the only way to survive this turn-of-the-century nightmare was to see it through the original comics of the last turn-of-the-century. The frontispiece to the book is a newspaper from September 11, 1901, showing articles on the capture of Emma Goldman and scapegoating of anarchists after McKinley’s assassination. And probably the best piece of Spiegelman’s original cartooning in the new book is his “Tower Twins”—poor kids, with the burning World Trade Center jutting out of their heads!—who appear in a pastiche of Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids, the original newspaper comic strip. The twins’ Uncle Sam uses crude oil to put out the flames (vaporizing them), and chokes them with gas as he attacks a hornet’s nest (pissing off the hornets). When he DDTs a cockroach named Saddam (“Nix, unk! Wrong bug!”), the hornets attack—so their uncle gleefully hides in a Red State bunker and leaves the twins to suffer (“Sting again dose Noo York smart aleckers!”).

The rationale somewhere in here is that if you could only recover the long waves of American history, 1901 and 2001 would be the same. It’s a form of cyclical time—rather than end-time or Armageddon—that furnishes Spiegelman’s only comfort. In each phase, the same redeeming impulse of satire should save America from bigots and evangelists, and comics are its best repository. But Spiegelman, instead of putting in the hard labor and misery to do those comics himself (it took him thirteen years to do Maus), devotes the second half of this very thin book to reproductions of early-last century cartoons that seem reminiscent of September 11 and the Iraq War. It’s really not enough. When, on the back cover, you see a tumbling crowd of cartoon characters in silhouette, kicked by an Osama Goat—recalling the falling bodies of the Towers—with only a self-portrait of Spiegelman in color, you wish he’d had the spirit to color the rest. It seems he gave up on a chance to repopulate the world with the one form of hope he’d discovered.

Osamu Tezuka gets called the godfather of Japanese manga comics. Manga is, in itself, at least one of the godparents of the current graphic-novel form. Though Tezuka died in 1989, his epic series about the life of Buddha is just now coming out in English, with four 400-page volumes released thus far, and four more to go. The promotional material calls it “the Graphic Novel event of the year,” which is an odd understatement, since Tezuka—who had studied to be a doctor—finished this, as his magnum opus, in 1987, and the series will take several years just to translate and print.

From the first pages of the series, we get a sense of Tezuka’s incredible range and light touch. He opens it with a vision of the religious and social structure of India, literally swooping down from the Himalayas, with drawings of rain and then drought, following the wind through sets of sculptures illustrating the caste system, and finally whooshing down to an old man collapsing in the mountains, which is where our story starts: with the spiritual and material poverty in an India of 3,500 years ago. The cast is extravagant: forlorn spiritual masters, shit-talking, rug-thieving street urchins, chubby military thugs, kidnapped topless mothers, and noseless spiritual swindlers. And we haven’t even met Siddhartha.

The trademarks of the manga style are all here: big eyes, swift, angular action shots, and spare, irreverent dialogue. So is the annoying manga shorthand: bad characters are hairy, all breasts are perfectly full, magic kids fly through the air with glimmering eyes, and dumb people have bad teeth. You see the narrative value in this kind of caricature: we know quickly that the Brahmin is not to be trusted, the mother, adored.

Instead of unfolding characterization, you get strong choreography. Tezuka is especially sensitive to the shape of each panel. We are given intricate and grand two-page views of the Himalayas, an overwhelming swarm of angry locusts, and the moody sky the day Siddhartha was born. Some pages are drawn in shards, without words, and others happen on a leisurely comics grid. In action scenes, his tight bundles of lines slice through trapezoid and triangle frames, so we feel each chase and tackle, each leap, each punch. When you finally land on a square image, then you can rest and reflect. The sweep of the larger book is similar; each chapter and subplot seems to know its place within the chronicle. Vast, intimate, and consummately aware of its own movements, Tezuka’s highly stylized action epic turns out to be a surprisingly perfect vehicle for the story of the Buddha.

Joe Sacco’s The Fixer, like his earlier books Palestine and Safe Area: Gorazde, uses an unlikely combination of journalism and comic book to break through the limits of both forms. As you’d hope from a journalist, his drawing style is dependable and meticulous. He uses sober, straight marks that accumulate into furrowed brows, muddy craters, and, eventually, destroyed cities and whole despairing populations.

He rarely resorts to the visual hyperbole that could tempt you in a war zone. In fact, his best drawings, the ones that could enter the history of the craft, present a nonevent. He pauses to give us panoramas where an entire city intersection is presented in painstaking detail—people carrying groceries over puddles, huddling in huge lines in shabby coats, waiting, scrounging, surviving. These drawings set the scene for the stories that follow, pushing the main characters into believable relief thanks to real geography.

Seen in contrast to photojournalism and print or television news, these drawings present something truly remarkable—convincing images of normal people not fixed at a “perfect moment,” or lost in the glimpses of a network news broadcast, but really suffering the effects of history, read off of a concrete place and time.

Photojournalism always fails at giving us the human “backdrop.” Paradoxically, because the photo so easily provides so much information, we are free to overlook most of it. Any photo of a crowd, for example, drifts into immaterial repetition. It blurs and fades off. The fact that Joe Sacco, someone particular, did these drawings, with all of the deviations from perspective that come from a particular person’s attention, care, and hard work, provides us with a more tangible panorama. The newspaper—with its photos, statistics and neutral tone briefly informing us about faraway suffering—suddenly starts to look like distancing gossip. Joe Sacco’s books, with every wire, whisker, and pothole made of careful descriptive marks, start to look like what we really need from journalism.

In the middle of the second volume of Marjane Satrapi’s “comic-strip memoir” of her Iranian childhood, there is a story about how, as an art student under a fundamentalist regime, she was forced to draw from a model who was draped from head to toe in black fabric. She observes that she did the best she could and got good at drawing drapes. It is a charming story, and it gives us the biographical origin of one strength of Satrapi’s seemingly simple style: she knows how to make a black shape reveal a lot. She can repeat the veil shape to show the crushing uniformity of Iranian law, or she can vary the lengths and shape of each veil to express the different personalities of her companions at school. The result is a precision that doesn’t draw attention to itself, a visual language that is in this regard similar to her sparing use of words, and the best imaginable outcome of a training in fundamentalist art schools.

Her experience as an expatriate, detailed in volume two, seems to have sharpened her eye for cultural detail. Using the same seemingly spare language of black shapes and a slightly thick drawing line, Satrapi manages to evoke the same subtleties in the boredom of European hippie-style parties as she had in the rebellion through makeup of her Iranian girlfriends. Hair and eyes, though drawn with few details, are incredibly expressive. You marvel at the end of the book that you can vividly remember the faces not only of Marjane and her family but of several dour mullahs, the platonic boyfriend of a friend’s mother in Germany, each of many Austrian punks, braided hippie girls, landladies, nuns, awkward gay boyfriends, and so on.

This kind of light touch and simple means are incredibly hard to pull off, but the rewards here are clear: it gives us responsibility for completing the images, which adds to their memorability. Events like torture are drawn in a way that leaves them to our imagination without letting us off the hook of imagining their real effects—it makes them bearable at first, and by the end of the book, you find they’ve taken up residence, and creep around. The result is an unusual kind of intimacy with the book, and a willingness to imagine horrible things without lapsing into a pornography of pain and suffering. Could there be a better strategy for memoir?

Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, available now in a paperback new edition, is a book that is as specific, superlative, and boastful as its title. Ware announces, on the newly designed front cover, that the book contains 3,072 drawings. I can’t count that high, so I notice something else: the initial numerical boast is itself a kind of drawing, a putting of the whole work on the cover-without reducing it to a microdot, like CIA spies used to use. That would be a neat trick, one of many. Ware makes it clear from the very start that he is both self-consciously part of a literary program (the front jacket is proud of the 47,339-word count, and the self-cataloguing will continue) and participating in a newish genre on its own terms (the back cover has a little comic about the risks and royalties of graphic noveldom). Nobody counted the marks, but Ware has placed them all with extreme care and efficiency. This is a book that displays the structural knowledge of an architect, a cinematographer’s sense of visual order, and a playwright’s ear for dialogue. Barn slats, bulging nuts, cornices, and lonely birds are all drawn with economy and cool wit. Each out-of-place hair on Corrigan’s head has been placed there by a knowing hand. Corrigan’s face is drawn with incredibly dependable concision. This is a book that knows about history, about storytelling; and it even knows about our sensibilities and expectations. It tells us so. The visual program of the whole thing is both incredibly premeditated and incredibly accomplished.

The sections of the book that include cutouts of the architecture show us that Ware has imagined the buildings, and, one is invited to deduce, the story, from every possible angle. In fact, there is much careful and inventive storyboarding, with various labyrinths and grids to guide, divert, and limit the tale. A daydream of Corrigan’s reduces bigger squares and spirals into smaller ones before the hallucination pops. One overhead view deftly divides different patches of land and draws each as if it were a different point in history. Each page, even when conventionally gridded, is tightly arranged, and it is always clear that Ware has diligently studied his craft, from Japanese manga comics to antique American newspapers. The peachy orange, dull mustard, and bluegray range of the palette is something of an homage to the limits that color printing used to impose on the Sunday comics, but in Ware’s hands it moves out of Andy Capp’s living room. We get green shadows on flesh and the pink blush of sunset on the skyline. None of it is really nostalgic, though. Ware doesn’t see the past through rose-colored glasses. It’s more of a threadbare thrift-store T-shirt he’s looking through.

At a certain point in The Smartest Kid On Earth, too tired to read more depressing words, let alone count them (Jimmy is a nonperson, whom the universe has decided will have a hard time of it), we notice for ourselves what Ware half-warned us: his book is long and dense. Because of its size, this requires that the drawings be small.

But there’s something else: Corrigan is also small within most of the frames. There is a lot of zooming out in the style, but very little zooming in—unusual for the comic or the graphic novel. Objects themselves, though colored, mostly lack texture. Birds have wings, but no feathers. Light-blue pants could be jeans, but we don’t know—are they denim? If Jimmy Corrigan’s world is never tangible, is it merely stylized? Or is conveying pure distance and alienation the most important thing? The best Corrigan can do is to fantasize being huge, and floating over the city—getting the distance from which we insistently view him. After the fantasy scene is over, his female companion beats him up.

In fact, he’s always getting put down or kicked, but the violence is really conveyed by how he’s drawn. The conundrum is an old one, but with Ware you feel you’re dealing with something different than in Coetzee, Nabokov, the literary torturers and enchanters. Is Ware a witness to misery—with a vague promise of autobiography, or at least personal suffering, as his excuse to kick the kid Corrigan around—or the grand manipulator of a gratuitously cruel tale? Why tell such a long story from such a distance?

When Jimmy Corrigan first appeared, in 2000, you thought: OK, the guy has enormous talent. Now he needs to draw a grown-up book. Since then, he’s put out a collection of his earlier work, Quimby the Mouse, and edited a remarkable anthology of comics for McSweeney’s. He’s released episodes from Building, a diagrammatic account of the lives in an apartment building, and promises Rusty Brown, a “novel in progress” with themes, characters, and strategies very similar to those in Jimmy Corrigan. All of this work is marked by diligence, ambition, and remove. Neurotic misery is the abiding theme, and the retro-deadpan drawing style is elaborated but not changed.

But Ware really does seem to be quietly expanding his emotional range. Having begun with the pared-down homage to Mickey that is Quimby Mouse, he got to the way misery prevents growth in Jimmy Corrigan. Building has Ware addressing actual sex acts, trying to draw the anatomy of disappointment, and saying almost sociologically how it is that Americans live (in blank hallways, with prosthetic limbs, through textbooks, apparently). Rusty promises to be as intricate and miserable as Jimmy, but maybe less lonely. Looking at Ware’s earliest work, solitary robots tripping on their crutches, we see how far he’s come. He invented a complex and often accurate language of fleshless diagrams, and he seems to be inviting more and more of the world of human beings to appear in it.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More from Issue 2

More by this Author