Miniseries Meanderings: Punk Rock Jesus and Spaceman

Over the last few weeks I have been writing on a variety of comic-book miniseries that have recently wrapped up. Now I want to comment on a couple of miniseries that ended a little while back, but ones that I’ve just recently finished up. They are both Vertigo titles, Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus and Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Spaceman. In the past I’ve had nothing but wonderful things to say about these creators — in particular, Murphy in his illustration with Joe the Barbarian and Azzarello and Risso in their seminal work, 100 Bullets — and my current take on their latest efforts is no exception. Regarding Punk Rock Jesus, let me begin by saying that had this miniseries ended a couple of months earlier, and had I read it then, it would have probably been on my “Top 10 of 2012” list that we discussed on The Comics Alternative back in December. This comic had a fascinating and timely premise, the narrative was executed well throughout, the momentum of the series never flagged, and the art was (of course) phenomenal. It’s the perfect example of what we’ve come to expect from PunkRockJesusVertigo, and what we get most of the time: a sophisticated and mature story that pushes the boundaries of comics narrative. The book follows two primary figures. Chris, the “Jesus Clone,” born of Gwen Fairling through her participation in the J2 Project — a reality show coordinating the impregnation and birth, and later broadcasting the day-to-day life, of a boy cloned from the DNA supposedly found in the Shroud of Turin — and Thomas McKael, an man from Belfast whose parents were killed when he was just a young boy during the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Both lives are shaped largely by corrupt belief systems: Chris’s by the cynical attempt to cash in on evangelical millennialism, and Thomas’s by the bloody crossroads of religion and politics. And with these two trajectories, Murphy constructs a scathing indictment of contemporary religious culture. He’s not attacking religious belief, as you may find in the comedy of Bill Maher, but the systems surrounding those beliefs. The J2 Project, overseen by media conman Rick Slate (an unsettling figure who would be right at home on Fox News), plays on the religiously sensitive gullibilities of the (primarily American) public that is only too eager to buy into the faith-based huskterism that Slate is feeding them. Equally disturbing is the New American Christians, a band of evangelical ideologues who come awfully close to the boundaries of terrorism. They are almost the American version of the IRA that has largely shaped, and nearly destroyed, the life of Thomas. While the New American Christians do not engage in the outright violence that took place in Northern Ireland, one can see how its tactics and philosophies could easily lead to such an outcome. Money, power, and ideological purity are the driving forces behind this miniseries, and caught up in the middle is Chris Fairling, his naive mother Gwen, and the quietly manipulative Dr. Sarah Epstein.  In fact, Epstein is arguably the most developed character in Punk Rock Jesus.  She is obviously the more “anchored” representative of science in this religious maelstrom, but her hands are not without dirt. Throughout the narrative we see her make moral compromises with a view on the long game. As a result, she stands in stark contrast to the hard-line fanatics of both money (Rick Slate) and faith (the New American Christians) and challenges us to put ourselves into her shoes. The “Jesus Clone” Chris, although the center of the story, doesn’t come across as dynamic as Epstein, nor does he have as much depth. We sympathize with him, and rightly so, given the environment he grows up and the abuses he undergoes. But Chris reacts as I would expect him to, playing up his part in the “second coming” as a youth and then embracing punk rebellion when everything turns sour. He’s interesting and conflicted, but he doesn’t underscore the moral dilemma that we find in Dr. Epstein. My one reservation about Punk Rock Jesus comes in the closing panels of the miniseries. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that it involves Rick Slate and his comeuppance. It’s a little too neat. Still, all in all, this was an incredible miniseries, and the new collected volume is a nice edition, containing a few sketches and unpublished illustrations.

A different kind of miniseries, and a longer one, is Azzarello and Risso’s Spaceman.  This comic has the same dark, gritty tone that’s the creators’ hallmark, the kind found in Jonny DoubleBatman: Knight of Vengeance, and of course the team’s pièce de résistance, 100 Bullets. The smoky atmosphere, the sexy lips and cleavage, the shadowy panels, the violent action, and the brightly lit eyes and teeth illuminating the dark (part of Risso’s style) are all there. This is the story of Orson, one of the Neanderthal- or ape-looking humans genetically engineered specifically for exploration on Mars — thus, his nickname “Spaceman” — and who is now a forgotten, down and out, and even persecuted relic from the past. His friends are various kids, Spacemanscruffy and street smart, and he inadvertently gets caught up in a kidnapping scheme involving a famous media and reality TV couple with a large adopted brood. (Think Brad and Angelina crossed with Jon & Kate Plus 8…as repulsive as that might sound.) He takes the kidnapped girl, Tara, under his care and looks out for her in a way she hasn’t experienced before. Filling out this noir narrative — and it very much fits into the noir mold — is a couple of no-nonsense detectives on the case of the kidnapping, a series of seamy  figures out to make a fast buck on the media frenzy surrounding the kidnapping, and an unscrupulous mobster bankrolling the chaos. Woven throughout the nine-issue miniseries are flashbacks to Orson’s Mars expedition, where he undergoes the trials of passage with his “brothers,” the other spacemen bred for this very purpose. Indeed, one of the central figures in that expedition, Carter, becomes the catalyst in Orson’s current ordeals. This is a great narrative and a perfect example, along with Punk Rock Jesus, of the kind of comics Vertigo does best. In fact, Spaceman is like Murphy’s miniseries in many ways. Both revolve around innocent figures who undergo persecution brought about through lies and manipulations, and both texts are an indictment of current media — especially reality TV — culture. Murphy’s targets are more apparent, and his writing more polemical, whereas Azzarello’s futuristic tale relies more on action and sensationalism to propel the story. But both are thought provoking and complex narratives and are well worth reading. I haven’t yet seen the hardbound deluxe edition which came out back in November, and I wonder what kind of new material it might have. The book collects not only the nine issues of the miniseries, but the prologue that originally appeared in Strange Adventures, one of Vertigo’s recent series of anthologies, back in July 2011. When I originally read the piece in Strange Adventures, I assumed that the upcoming series would be a sic-fi narrative. But although much of the story bears the conventional markings of science fiction, it’s much more noir — Azzarello’s forte — than anything. In that sense, it’s right up my alley.

One final word. Both Spaceman and Punk Rock Jesus are shining examples of what Vertigo can do and how much we need its titles. With the recent departure of Karen Berger as Vergito’s Executive Editor and Senior Vice President, along with the wrap up or cancelations of certain Vertigo titles, there were speculations, including those Andy and I voiced on The Comics Alternative, that the imprint might be in trouble. However, given the several new titles announced over the past three months — including The Wake, Astro City100 Bullets: Brother LonoCollider, and Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril (despite the fact that most of these are revisits to older property) — I feel more hopeful.

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Miniseries Meanderings: Lot 13 and Ragemoor

More thoughts on some of the miniseries that have (relatively) recently wrapped up, and two of them that seem a very likely pair: Steve Niles and Glenn Fabry’s Lot 13 (DC Comics) and Jan Strnad and Richard Corben’s Ragemoor (Dark Horse). Both are horror stories, both delve into the supernatural, both are focused on physical location as sources of terror, and both are created by some of the best that horror and fantasy comics have to offer.  Unfortunately, both don’t quite live up to their full potentials.  For examples, I had high hopes for Lot 13, written by Niles, one of the most notable creators in horror comics today.  His track record on such titles as 3o Days of NightCriminal Macabre, and Simon Dark would suggest that he would be the perfect writer for this miniseries.  (And I’m trying my best to give him the benefit of the doubt by ignoring his work on Suicide Girls from a couple of years ago.)  Plus, the title is completely illustrated by Glenn Fabry, who has done some incredible cover art on PreacherHellblazer, and Transmetropolitan.  I absolutely love his work.  So with two such gifted creators, I thought that Lot 13 would be a success.  But while the five-issue miniseries had its high points — and many of those are due to Fabry’s art — the narrative as a whole was unfulfilling. And curiously enough, I have very similar feelings regarding Strnad and Corben’s Ragemoor.

Lot 13 taps into a popular horror genre convention, so common that it’s almost too predictable in its execution.  A group of individuals, in this case a family, finds itself at a site with a sordid and unsettled history, and the supernatural reverberations of that history come back to haunt the new occupants.  The Nelson family is all packed up and ready to move into their new house, but they discover that the purchase of the new home won’t be finalized for four more days.  They’ve already moved everything out of the old place, have their moving van stuffed to the gills, and now have no place to go.  (From the beginning, the premise is a bit unlikely.  Would these serious homebuyers really have mixed up or been unaware of the actual closing date?)  They have to find a place to stay in the interim, and they end up discovering an unlikely and dated hotel.  Unbeknownst to them, the dwelling is located on the site of historical atrocities, one dating back to the seventeen century (a mother and her children are murdered by the father, who himself is tried before court for the act of committing the ungodly act of suicide after killing Lot13his family…tried while dead?)  and another to the 1920s, when a young woman is gang raped and then commits suicide as a way out of her shame.  And there are apparently other evil acts that take place around this location, I assume, since throughout the series we see an entire cast of tortured and mutilated souls in addition to the aforementioned family and young woman.  We’re never really privy to other stories of  violence.  From what I can gather, their committing suicide has robbed them of their eternal rest, and they need the souls of the unsuspecting Nelson family to get out of their tormented state.  So the Nelson family undergoes what families normally undergo when the inhabit a haunted locale: fighting through a series of terrifying and otherworldly experiences in the hopes that they’ll  break free of the place’s haunted grip.  But as one of the murdered figures tells the Nelsons midway through the miniseries, “Evil stays where evil dies.”  And as you might expect, the Nelsons are forever trapped in this haunted space — which we learn in the series’ closing pages is referred to as “Lot 13” — and there’s no Spielbergian happy ending as we have in Poltergeist.  There are some interesting scenes in this miniseries and some gruesome scenarios that drive the plot — again, it’s the art of Fabry that really shines through here, with his highly detailed renderings of supernatural activity and psychic chaos — but taken as a whole, the story is a little thin.  Part of the reason is its predictable nature.  I would have liked to have seen Steve Niles take this popular horror convention and do something different with it.  Insert a little time manipulation, have history feed back on itself, problematize the family dynamics, show how the “evil” we assign to the past actually pales when compared to acts taken in the present.  As the story is actually presented, Niles takes a well-traveled narrative route — one that is engaging at times — but doesn’t deviate from the set course in any innovative or interesting ways.  As such, the miniseries has the feel of a missed opportunity.

I got a similar feeling from Strnad and Corben’s Ragemoor.  First let me say that I am a gigantic fan of Richard Corben’s work.  He’s done a lot of non-horror comics, such as his collaborations with Brian Azzarello on Startling Stories: Banner/The Hulk and Cage, but the fantastic and weird is really where you’ll find some of Corben’s best work.  His art for CreepyEerie, and Vampirella is truly outstanding, and in my book there is no one who adapts the work of Edgar Allen Poe better than Corben, something I’ve written on previously.  (In fact, given his recent adaptations of Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” and “Fall of the House of Usher” for Dark Horse, I wouldn’t be surprised if Corben has another collection of Poe adaptations planned.)  And while I’m not really familiar with the writing of Jan Strnad, I know that he’s collaborated with Corben before, so I had high hopes for this four-issue miniseries.  The story started well enough: a castle linked to a family name, inherited reluctantly by the younger generation, with an ambiguous macabre grasp Ragemooron its occupants, possessing a sordid and ill-define history, and containing dark secrets that suggests that the manor has a life of its own.  There are also the suspect relations within the family, complete with deception, lust, jealousy, and of course hints of incest.  Reading the first issue, I couldn’t help but think of how Poe-esque — or Poe-tic — this story was, how Strnad was setting this up as another kind of “Usher” narrative.  Maybe that was my problem in reading this miniseries, trying to find in it a contemporary expression of Poe.  That’s setting a high bar, indeed.  But beginning in the second issue, I felt that the story was losing its way, that it was getting a little too wacky, with its ape-skeleton population and the caterpillar- or maggot-looking creatures.  Then there is the psychedelic potion that Herbert’s servant, Brodrick, concocts to understand the underlying truth of Ragemoor.  And then things get really freaky in the final issue, where we see Herbert’s love interest and supposed cousin, Anoria, being used as a breeding ground for “Ragemoor’s army” of maggoty things.  She looks like a tick engorged on blood and just about to pop.  None of these strange turns undermine the story in and of themselves, but taken together they present a tale that reads more like a series of scattered horrific events than they do a coherent and compelling narrative.  When I finished the miniseries, I couldn’t help but think that Ragemoor was like an uneasy coupling of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft…interestingly enough, two horror writers whose work Corben is adept at translating.  I love the work of Poe and I love the work of Lovecraft, but in mashing up the styles of these two authors, Strnad and Corben lessen the effect of both.  Ragemoor isn’t a bad narrative, but it ultimately comes across as fractured.  That being said, the miniseries’ strong suit is Corben’s art…much in the way that Fabry’s illustrations are a saving grace, or the closest thing to it, of Lot 13.  The stories of these two titles may not hold up well under close scrutiny, but the art of both is distinctive and wonderful to look at.

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Alien Thoughts

Lately I’ve been writing about a number of recent miniseries that I’ve been reading, titles that have been wrapping up over the past few weeks, and commenting on the comics as I’ve completed them.  I’ll continue to do this — lots more I’ve finished up, including Punk Rock JesusLot 13RagemoorThe Adventures of August WindThe HollowsSpaceman, and Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity  — but I want to take a break from that for a moment and write about another series that I’ve just finished: Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly’s Saucer Country.  This isn’t a miniseries, but it’s a title that ended much quicker than expected (more on that later).  This was one of four new Vertigo series that were first released in early spring of 2012.  Of these four titles — FairestThe New Deadwardians, and Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child — Saucer Country was one that I felt most strongly about.  The New Deadwardians was enjoyable, but that was a SaucerCountry2limited series, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of I. N. J. Culbard’s art (although Abnett’s story was great).  Dominique Laveau was fragmented and lacked cohesion (at least in the first few issues), and I dropped that title after around issue #4.  I had the highest hopes for Fairest, but I felt that turned out to be a mixed bag.  It didn’t really follow through on its promise of being strictly about the “fairest” of the Fables crew, at least not in the initial story arc, although the stories and art are both good enough for me to continue to come back to the title.  With Saucer Country, I thought I had found a cleaver take on current politics and sci-fi, and a timely narrative at that.  It was written by Paul Cornell of Doctor Who fame, and the series had much going for it in ways that make me love stories about the Doctor.  It was first released during 2012 Presidential campaign, and it was all about a Latina New Mexican governor, Arcadia Alvarado, running for the presidency.  Given Mitt the Twit Romney’s comments about self deportation, Cornell’s timing was perfect.  On top of that, the book included a “problem” with aliens, in this case the little green men variety, and so the potential for metaphors was heavy in this book.  But even outside of the contemporary political arena, this was a pretty damned good story.  Cornell did a fine job in setting up a number of different characters, intriguing conflicts, and potential plot twists, and as early as issue #3 he had already introduced us to enough mysteries to propel his narrative into a foreseeable and fascinating future.  But then the ax prematurely came down from DC, just as it had earlier with Dominique Laveau, and Cornell and Kelly had to wrap everything up quickly.  By the final issue, which just came out this month, they tied up their story the best they could, although a number of loose threads were still left dangling.  I don’t blame them for this, in that they might have done the best with the hand they were dealt.  Cornell wrote about the cancelation on his blog earlier this year, and there he mentioned that he hopes that this won’t be the end of Saucer Country…whatever that might mean.  And earlier this month, Rick Johnson at Bleeding Cool blogged that Cornell’s recent tweets suggest that this resurrection may already be in the works, that he and KellySaucerCountrycould bring the title back with another publisher.  It would be nice if this were the case, but I can’t help but wonder if timing just isn’t on Cornell’s side.  As I mentioned, one of the strong points of the series was its timeliness, the fact that it came to us just as the presidential race was starting to heat up.  (We had already lived through the clown show of a Republican primary season, and perhaps it was no accident that Governor Alvardo’s primary race was handled and disposed of very quickly in the series.)  I felt that a lot, although not all, of the title’s energy derived from its temporal milieu, and without that context, the series might not have had the same impact.  I don’t mean to sell Cornell’s story short here.  In and of itself it was an engaging and well-thought-out narrative, and there was a lot of promise in the plot lines that Cornell began sketching.  But the fact that it came out when it did made all the difference, especially when you look at the book through the lens of metaphorical significance.  Without the 2012 campaign season, and without the fumbling about of candidates trying to make sense and political hay out of immigration reform, Saucer Country was just another are-aliens-among-us? kind of story.  And there’s nothing wrong with those kind of stories…it’s just that this title was poised to be something a little more.  So if Cornell and Kelly do bring Saucer Country back in some form, and I wish them all the luck in doing so, I don’t see how it could be the same book they had originally conceived.  And that may be okay.  I’m just sorry to have missed out on the rich unfolding of the title through Vertigo, and how the creators, not having to make the best of a canceled situation, might have followed or translated our real-life political drama in the pages of their comic book.  After all, the Republican Party’s current forlorn wanderings following the 2012 elections have everything to do with the Latino/a vote, immigration reform, right-wing organizations trying to hijack the conservative agenda, and a redefinition of what we mean by “alien.”  And all of that was packed into Saucer Country.  

On the topic of right-wing causes and conspiracy theories, I am particularly disappointed by the (I guess necessary) abandonment of the Saucer Country story line involving the therapist Dr. Glass, Milton the Limbaughish talk-show host, and the shady Major Stan Abramowitz.  In fact, the intentions of this triumvirate are shady as a whole, and Cornell did an effective job at teasing out what these guys might hold in store for Alvarado and the rest of her campaign staff.  The main storyline of Alvarado’s run for the presidency and the mystery behind her perceived abduction, along with the subplots of her former husband Michael’s blackouts (not necessarily generated by his alcoholism), the hallucinations of Prof. Joshua Kidd, and the dark background surrounding Alvarado’s right-hand man Fausto — how appropriate a name is that when you’re writing about power? — were given added mystery by the plottings of the three conspiracy right-wingers.  There was a lot of potential there, and not only as it related to the current political climate, and I was sorry that Cornell had to quickly tie up this part of the series.  And it definitely felt rushed.  Abramowitz, an ex-military man, turns out to be an ambiguous figure behind Kidd’s “hallucinations” (although the role he played was never completely or satisfactorily explained).  And Milton and Glass are just chucked out of the story entirely.  I would have also have liked to find out more about Fausto and what he might have meant for Alvarado campaign.  Was he her dark side, her ill-defined past, her ethically questionable bargain?  The only way we could find out is if Cornell and Kelly actually do take Saucer Country to another publisher.  Even then the series would have lost its original impetus, and perhaps the creator’s original intentions.  And if Cornell is able to bring back the scenarios he created, would it really have the same impact now that we know that the “first season,” as this has been called, has played itself out?  I have no idea if Cornell and Kelly will bring this series back.  But I do know that there was a lot there to work with in Saucer Country, and that I’m very sorry that it had to end the way it did.

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Miniseries Meanderings: Colder and Ex Sanguine

A couple of other miniseries I’ve recently completed — and that wrapped up not long ago — are Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra’s Colder and Tim Seeley and Josh Emmons’s Ex Sanguine.  Not only do both titles share common ground through their publisher, Dark Horse Comics, but they are also good to pair together in terms of their content and genre engagements.  Both are horror narratives, both revolve around undead or non-mortal figures, both concern serial killers of some sort, both play on vampirific themes, and both take place in liminal spaces between worlds.  What made these two miniseries so enjoyable, outside of the story and the art, is their refusal to play into current popular horror trends, such as zombie narratives.  (Okay, okay.  Perhaps Ex Sanguine could be accused of jumping on the almost equally hot vampire bandwagon, but the questions that Seeley poses are more sophisticated than those found in current teen bloodsucking angst.)  They do their own things, and they are largely successful in their executions.

Although the story is set in current times, Tobin and Ferreyra’s Colder begins mid-twentieth century in a Massachusetts mental asylum. They will briefly return to the 1940s at various points in the series, but the creators do a pretty good job at balancing the past with the present, the antiquated with the modern, and distinguishing clearly between those times…with one exception.  The protagonist, Declan Thomas, sports an unkept and grungy look, à la 2012, even when represented in 1941.  This kind of visual anachronism is slightly annoying — Why did the Colderartist overlook this? Was Ferreya trying to say that Declan is a man out of time? — but it’s a relatively minor point and doesn’t mar the overall comic.  The Declan that we see throughout the series, the Declan of our own times (and who has miraculously not aged since the 1940s), is introduced as an invalid and semi-comatose man under the personal care of Reece Talbot, a nurse who has taken him into her home.  She lives a predictable and boring life, but she decided to become Declan’s guardian so as to give him a stable environment to quietly live out — or rather, to sit out in an insentient way — what’s become of his existence.  And what confounds Reece is that Declan’s body temperature is significantly colder than it should be, thus, the title of the miniseries.  As you might expect, Declan comes out of his cold, withdrawn state — you could say that he warms up to Reece — and it’s the developing relationship between the two that provides the narrative thrust of the story.  That, and the deadly antics of Nimble Jack, a weird otherworldly figure who we see in the opening pages of the first issue and the reason for Declan’s cold, comatose state.  Nimble Jack feeds on the souls, or the mental energies, of the psychologically unbalanced…which is why the miniseries opens in an asylum.  His hunger, as it is described, is insatiable, so in this way, Nimble Jack becomes a truly frightening monster.  He senses in Declan a special mental power, one that teeters on the edges of insanity but at the same time is able to cure other psychological cases of their delusions.  But as Declan uses his abilities to help others, he physically becomes colder.  From the time he first meets him in 1941, Nimble Jack plays with Declan and teases him, cat-and-mouse style, so as to further unhinge him mentally, thereby tenderizing or making succulent his “dinner.”  We begin to get a sense of this in the first issue.  The remaining four issues in the miniseries are basically Declan’s attempts to escape from Nimble Jack’s grasp, Reece’s unwitting fall into Jack’s control, Jack’s increasingly bizarre antics within the unstable space between reason and insanity, and Declan’s efforts to save both Reece and himself from Nimble Jack’s “hunger.”

The series is fast-paced and filled with mind-bending images.  Juan Ferreya’s art is wonderful, expressive and at times truly disturbing.  The cover image of issue #1 really says it all.  And I’m particularly struck by the character of Nimble Jack, both the way he is fleshed out and the manner in which Ferreya draws him.  He really comes across as a nightmarish figure.  His nonchalance and playfulness make him more horrific than if he had been written as a more tradition, or predictable, monster.  And again, Ferreya’s visual representations underscore the psychological macabre at work here.  I would guess that Dark Horse plans on collecting these issues as a trade, but I haven’t seen any solicits or plans for this yet.  When they do, then it’s a book I’d recommend.  And of course, the original five issues are out there floating around.

The other miniseries, Ex Sanguine, is interesting by comparison, and engaging in its own right.  This is one of Tim Seeley’s newer horror titles, the other being Revival.  Both of these recent comics — one a five-issue miniseries and the other an ongoing — are like a one-two punch of creative energy, coming after a title that Seeley is much better known for, Hack/Slash, and a series that just recently came to an end.  By Seeley’s own admission, the formula of Hack/Slash is similar to its probable audience, uncomplicated and more visceral, a combination of the undead and T&A (Cassie Hack is often shown scantily clothed and in suggestive poses).  When Andy and I interviewed Tim on The Comics Alternative last fall, he suggested as much.  At that time Revival had just begun, and Ex Sanguine hadn’t yet seen its first issue.  Now that we see more of what Seeley has been up to in addition to, and now after, Hack/Slash, I can truly say that I’m excited for what he has in store for the future.  The ongoing title, what he bills as “rural noir,” is fascinating, and it’s one of those comics that I continue to get on a monthly basis.  It’s a sophisticated narrative that has many moving parts, and it’s certainly not formulaic.  The same can be said for Ex Sanguine.  While the miniseries may tap into recent popular ExSanguineinterest in vampire stories — e.g., TwilightTrue Blood, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter — it resists falling into any predictable patterns.  The protagonist, Saul Adams — a name suggestive of firsts, but ironically given to a character with eternal life, and thus displays the jaded attitudes of a “last man” — is a vampire who is bored with undead existence.  The more “blood sucking” or monster-like figure, at least at first, is Ashley, an emotionally unstable killer who admits to Saul,

Ever since I was young, there’s been something in me trying to get out.  A creature that fills me for just a few amazing moments before abandoning me again. … I ride it.  Use it to get what I want.  To get to the truth.  There’s just a lot of emotion when the monster brushes the surface, you know?  Sometimes I leak.

This “truth” that she wants to get at is just that: the honesty of daily living, of seeing people as they actually are.  We find out that her family life growing up was filled with deceptions and fabrications, so she’s on a mission to fight the kind of lies that screwed up her childhood.  That’s why she’s attracted to Saul as he actually is, a blood-drinking eternal.  Their relationship becomes seductive and sexual — this is a vampiric relationship, after all, and here as in Hack/Slash, Seeley’s women are provocatively drawn, and cleavage, underwear, and BDSM imagery isn’t unusual.  And the vampiric trope is given an even further twist through the presence of Quinn, a female detective (and another example of eye candy) who, we come to find out later in the miniseries, believes in vampires and claims to have been the victim of one in the past.  Without giving anything away, the people in this narrative who you think might be the monsters aren’t the real monsters in this series, and normality turns out to be more of a breading ground for terror than otherwise.  Indeed, the success of this miniseries rests on Seeley and Emmons’s confounding of expectations.  I’d go even further and call Ex Sanguine a twisted and dark morality tale.  Ashley’s insistence on truthfulness, albeit couched in a blood and obsession, becomes a quest that we’re invited to sympathize with.   The same goes for Saul, whose undead state comes across more as an affliction than a source of horror.  Ex Sanguine is a different, more sophisticated vampire narrative, and it’s just another example (along with Revival) of his growth as a writer.  Let’s hope that Tim Seeley continues to push the boundaries of the horror and supernatural genres, surprising us with more than just slashers and bloody bats.

Some of my next miniseries meanderings will include Lot 13RagemoorThe Hollows, Spaceman, Multiple Warheads, and The Adventures of Augusta Wind.

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Miniseries Meanderings: Comeback and Change

To continue with what I’ve been calling my miniseries meanderings, I’ll look next at two titles from Image Comics that have recently concluded, Ed Brisson and Michael Walsh’s Comeback and Ales Kot and Morgan Jeske’s Change.  Both of these are mind-bending comics, challenging out conceptions of time and linearity, but in very different ways.  While Comeback takes a more traditional approach to time-travel narrative, at least within the realm of speculative fiction, Change uses time as a disruptive device to undermine the reading process.  Both miniseries have their strengths and weaknesses, and within the narrative contexts they establish for themselves — at least the contexts that I am assuming they set for their comics’ success — they more or less accomplish what they apparently set out to do.  I’m reminded here one of my favorite lines from Henry James’s essay, “The Art of Fiction,” where the novelist writes , “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”  In the case of Brisson and Walsh’s comic, that donnée is the premise of time traveling for profit.  This isn’t just a sci-fi story where scientists discover how to go backwards into the past or forwards into the future, and then discover the consequences of Comebackdisrupting the timeline.  Instead, Comeback assumes the real possibility of time travel, and then given that fact, how some would use that technology to make big bucks. Of course, this business — an illegal one, we come to find out — is built upon desperation and gullibility of others, people who have recently lost loved ones and will pay anything to get them back.  Reconnect, the name of this company providing time-traveling services, preys upon family members who have lost someone, and then goes back in time to remove or “undeath” that individual from the situation that ended their lives. Over time Reconnect begins to leave a trail of revised medical reports, disappearing evidence, and mysteriously missing recently deceased bodies that the FBI can’t help but notice.  At the same time, one of Reconnect’s agents, Seth, begins to question his involvement in this illicit business, and his misgivings are brought to a head when he learns that time-traveling is slowly killing him and that the clients they are supposedly serving are actually evidence that the business has to “make disappear.”  Seth’s partner, Mark, is caught in the middle, unaware that his partner is informing to the FBI or that the company is making its profits on the graves of its clients.  This scenario in and of itself is intriguing, and for the most part Brisson and Walsh are able to play it out successfully over the five-issue run.  Seeing the paradoxical reality of a character confronting his own future, or past, self is engaging, as is the erasure of revelations and discoveries once the past is altered.  Indeed, this idea of erasure come to the fore in what I think is the highlight of the series, issue #4.  As a past timeline is altered, the reality of the “present” comes apart…literally.  Michael Walsh does a great job of visually representing this disintegration by having the edges of his panels peel or flake off, and then showing that breakdown eating its way into the depths of the image itself.   This is intelligent visual storytelling, and it’s reminiscent of the kind of metafictional play you find in the works of Grant Morrison (in particular, Animal ManThe Filth, and Doom Patrol).  However, I can’t help but feel that the last issue of this miniseries is a bit of a letdown, that Brisson ends more with a yawn than a bang.  Compared to what we see in issue #4, the final installment is rather tame and expected…and sentimental, as well.  The resolutions are okay, but they don’t pack the narrative punch that they could have, or that they promise or set up in the earlier issues.  When Andy and I reviewed this comic back in the fall, it was part of our episode of recent #1s from Image Comics.  Comeback was actually one of those #1s that we really liked and had high expectations for.  And although I liked this miniseries well enough, it didn’t end as memorably as I would have liked.  Still, an interesting time-travel story.

An Image title that Andy and I didn’t review for The Comics Alternative, not in episode 14 or otherwise, is Kot and Jeske’s Change.  And maybe it’s good that we didn’t, because I’m not sure exactly how we would have discussed this comic in a way that our audience could really grasp.  And in all honesty, I’m not sure I understand Change enough to even write about it clearly.  I feel that I need to go back and reread this four-issue miniseries again…but during my initial reading I went back to reread multiple parts that I felt just weren’t registering.  In other words, I’m not sure what the hell was going on in this comic, and if you ask me to recap the events in a coherent manner, I’d be at a Changeloss.  This is what I was referring to earlier when I wrote that this title challenges not only our concept of linearity, but the very act of reading…at least passive reading.  Change is certainly not one of those comics that you can quickly read through and digest its content.  It begs you to go back and reread sections that you thought might have made some kind of sense originally, but then given later contexts appear less clear in retrospect.  This is a very fragmented narrative, and intentionally so.  There appear to be three main characters: W-2, a successful rapper who wants to get into the movie business; Sonia, a screenwriter who is also a car thief and has some sort of surgical implant that can help disguise her identity; and a cosmonaut who is adrift and returning (was he ever here?) to earth.  And that’s the part of the comic that seems to make sense.  From there, it just gets even more fragmented, confusing, and frustrating…and least confusing and frustrating if you’re expecting a straight understandable story.  Much of this comic is surrealist or dreamlike, and I would also say that it’s impressionistic in places.  The impact of this title is in the emotional impressions it leaves — vignettes and scenarios that might linger in the mind — more than in the story it tells.  In fact, regarding story, I went back to look at the solicits Image had on each of the four issues, and this is what I found:

Issue #1: “A foul-mouthed struggling screenwriter who moonlights as a car thief. An obscenely wealthy rapper completely disconnected from the real world. A dying cosmonaut on his way back to Earth.  Los Angeles is being toyed with by destructive forces that repeatedly find the city through time and swallow it whole, and those three are the only people able to save it – if they survive the fanatics who live in the hills, National Security Agency agents, and the horrors that lurk in the Pacific Ocean.”

Issue #2: “Have you ever lost someone? What if the city you lived in your entire life, the city you loved with all of your soul, the city you were inextricably connected to – what if that city was about to die, and you were the only one who could possibly keep it alive?  Sonia and W-2 will do all it takes – but the horrors tear through the walls of reality to get at them. Dreams are crushed. New facts appear. Old alliances fall apart.”

Issue #3: “Did you ever wake up to find / A day that broke up your mind? The astronaut is falling. Someone is dead. Someone is dying. Someone needs saving. NOW.”

Issue #4: “Everything drowns. Some patients can’t be saved.  What if the hardest thing you ever had to do was to look yourself in the eyes? This is where it ends.”

In going back through these solicits, especially now that I can read one immediately after the other — and remember, solicits from publishers are supposed to sell the story by boiling it down to its main, and most exciting, components — I’m at a loss as to what the hell this miniseries is about.  Even after having read the comics, I’m still unsure what happened in this title.  But my reaction is based on the assumption that the story is what matters most, especially one that adheres to traditional linear progression.  If this comic’s donnée is an almost self-reflexive emphasis on the breakdown of traditional narrative, then this comic just might accomplish what it set out to do.  After all, the title says it all.  The constance and coherence that we might be looking for is actually an ongoing fluidity lacking much, if any, stability.  Yet while part of me wants to appreciate what Kot is doing in Change, another part of me — a more cynical and jaded reader — wonders if this comic is more self indulgent (perhaps masturbatory)  than otherwise.  A part of me feels that there might be something in this comic if I just take the time to carefully go through and look for it, and another part is highly suspicious, wondering how much I’m being duped.  Or at least wondering how much I’m creating my own fictions of narrative viability in reading this miniseries.  Overall, Change appears to be an interesting experiment, but it’s one that I’m not entirely convinced comes off well.

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Miniseries Meanderings: Reset and Resident Alien

It’s been awhile since I last posted anything in Words Generally Only Spoil Things, but it’s been a very busy month for me, much of it revolving around the recent events surrounding Philip Roth’s 80th birthday.  For obvious reasons, I’ve been using the opportunity to reread a variety of Roth novels that I hadn’t picked up in a while — among those were The Facts, DeceptionEveryman, and much of the novelist’s uncollected early fiction — but I’ve also been keeping up with many of the comics titles I’ve been meaning to read.  There have been the many comics that Andy and I have been, and will be, discussing on The Comics Alternative, of course, but I’ve also taken it as my mission to get through many of the miniseries that have come out recently, shorter series that I’ve had in hand and had been meaning to read.  So over the next several days, I’ll be writing about a number of these miniseries, titles that span a variety of genres and styles.

Perhaps I should begin by looking at a couple of older miniseries that wrapped up in 2012, titles that I’ve been wanting to write on for some time.  Both of these are Dark Horse works, Peter Bagge’s Reset and Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s Resident Alien.  First, Reset.  I’m a big fan of Peter Bagge’s work, and I have enjoyed Hate for years.  Buddy Bradley is one of my favorite characters from 1990s alternative comics.  And even though, now, Bagge only comes out with the Hate Annual, he’s nonetheless active with other projects, Bagge2writing a number a miniseries (later collected in trades) as well as original graphic novels, such as Bat BoyOther LivesYeah! (with Gilbert Hernandez), and most recently Apocalypse Nerd (which I blogged about last year).  His most recent, Reset, brings him once again into the realm of technology and the problems or challenges it can create.  He did this in 2010 with Other Lives, a Vertigo book, which took as its narrative springboard a virtual reality world much like Second Life and how such a program affected people’s relationships in unsuspected ways. In Reset, Bagge does something similar.  This time, the premise involves a washed up actor/comedian and a shady government agency.  The protagonist, Guy Krause, is a comedian whose career is going nowhere, and he meets a recently graduated psychology doctorate, Angela Minor, who asks him to be a part of a virtual reality experiment that her backers are funding.  They have created a program based on his life — eerily having researched his past — and want him to see how he would react if he could go back in time and do things differently.  They provide him with a reset button, so that when he virtually goes back into his past and changes something he’s unsure of, he can start over and just go back to the beginning of the scenario…and they pick up his life on the day of his high school graduation, when he missed an opportunity to get to know an adolescent heart throb.  Guy is insecure and self-defeating, and he can’t keep from hitting the reset button whenever he thinks something might be amiss.  Unbeknownst to him, the backers of this “science” are actually members of a shadowy government agency, interested in learning how individuals can handle the stress of their past, especially when given the opportunity to change the course of their lives.  All of this is the perfect terrain for Bagge, whose libertarian views rub up against government intrusion…and in the case of Reset, that intrusion is a scary mixture of authoritarianism and psychological manipulation.  Along the way, Guy comes to terms with some of the uncomfortable moments and relationships from his past, and Angela learns that a cushy association with the powers that be can come at a high price.  In fact, both characters have to come to terms with the notion of “selling out,” Angela to a dehumanizing government bureaucracy and Guy to the pop culture, tabloid-laden reality into which his life has devolved.  His final decision in the comic — one he makes after finally confronting his ex-wife about her role in their breakup — is to accept a gig on a reality show called “Washed-Up Island,” one where celebrity has-beens interact in ways reminiscent of Gilligan’s Island…although this program will be broadcast on the Fishing Channel.  His life certainly doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, but at least he defines it on his own terms, and without the interference of forces beyond his control.  So I guess in many ways, Reset is an existential story.  It’s also a very funny one.  Its absurd and at times over-the-top tone is underscored by Bagge’s “ugly art,” a cartoonish style of exaggerated forms and actions.  This four-issue miniseries was just recently been collected into a hardcover volume, and it’s a good jumping on point for Peter Bagge’s body of work.

A very different kind of miniseries is Hogan and Parkhouse’s Resident Alien.  This comic got its start in the pages of Dark Horse Presents (second series) in issues #4, #5, and #6.  Those brief installments set up the premise of the series, and they were later collected in Resident Alien #0.  (Indeed, when you open issue #1, there is a clear notice that you should read issue #0 Resident Alienfirst.)  Three issues follow this setup, and those four texts have just now been collected in Resident Alien, Volume 1: Welcome to Earth! Unlike Reset, however, this comic was created to develop into a longer series, and we can see the beginnings of the next narrative arc, “Suicide Blonde” in Dark Horse Presents #18, #19, and #20.  But the initial comics are engaging and have me interested, wanting to come back for more.  On the surface it’s not a very original story, but Hogan handles the premise adeptly. It’s the narrative of an alien who crashed to earth near an American small town three years previous to the action, and who has since that time used his powers to masquerade as Harry Vanderspeigle, a semiretired doctor who keeps to himself.  While he waits for his kind to come rescue him, he attempts to blend in, but at a distance from the earth population.  Because the locals know him as a physician, he is asked to temporarily take the place of Patience’s (the name of the small town) long-serving GP, who has recently been murdered.  As you might expect, the alien Harry becomes involved in the mystery, acting not only the part of the town doctor, but also of a detective trying to figure out the murder mystery. Harry’s status as an outsider — really, the ultimate outsider, being from another planet — gives him a privileged position as an observer, and we basically see things unfold through his focalization.  What’s more, at least by the end of this first installment of the title, we see Harry being drawn out of his meticulously crafted cocoon and beginning to find comfort in the earth life he has reluctantly adopted.  This is a pretty good set up to the series, and it’s enhanced by Parkhouse’s art, which I enjoyed more than I did in The Milkman Murders.  While this first narrative arc didn’t reach any profound depths, the series has the potential to explore deeper issues, and I’m curious to see where Hogan takes this.

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Racially Entitling Bloomberg Businessweek

The cover illustration of the most recent issue of Bloomsberg Businessweek:

Bloomberg Buisness

Did anyone at the magazine pause to consider the inadvertent (?) ethnoracial implications of this illustration for a cover story on housing and financing? Did anyone notice that, of the four characters in this image, three are from minority communities (the woman in the upper right appears to be Latina) and the fourth is definitely not a white Anglo male?  Or that the African American dude, the most prominent and freakish looking in this illustration, is gleefully grabbing handfuls of free money that he obviously doesn’t have to work for?  And does the illustrator, or any editor at Bloomsberg Businessweek, have any familial links to Justice Antonin Scalia?

Ah…yet another illustrative — literally! — example of the curious crossroads of comics/cartooning and ethnic representation!

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Southern Comfort

According to Scott McCloud, comics utilize space in the same way that film relies on time: it is an essential and defining means through which to present a sequential narrative.  The context of the comics page, the arrangement of its panels and the composition within frames, is what generates meaning and drives the story forward.  It is therefore only appropriate that Brannon Costello and Qiana J. Whitted present in their edited collection, Comics and the U.S. South, a study of comics through the lens of geographic and cultural space.  Focusing on comics that represent the American South and its many facets, whether or not created by southerners themselves, the twelve contributors to this volume make the argument that the South is not primarily an oral culture, as popular belief would have it, but also a largely visual one as well.

As Costello and Whitted make clear in their introduction to the collection, while the South figures largely in the history of the medium — most notably in daily comic strips — there has been a dearth of scholarship on this subject within comics studies.  The various essays in Comics and the U.S. South, therefore, are particularly poised to fill this critical gap, not only by reveling how comics can bring new perspectives to southern studies in general, but also by demonstrating “how engaging key question in Comics and US Southsouthern studies can contribute to comic studies” as well, “opening up alternate ways of reading new and familiar texts.”  This mutually beneficial framework — how comics studies enlightens thematic or genre studies, and vice versa — is the book’s greatest strength, an as such, is a text with far reaching implications outside of comics studies.  In this way that Comics and the U.S. South stands alongside other recent analyses that figure comics thematically or culturally, e.g., in light of ethnic, racial, gender, and class concerns.  Indeed, what makes Costello and Whitted’s collection so significant is that it is the first study of its kind to read comics as an expression of American regionalism.

The twelve essays here presented are divided into four sections: “The South in the National Imagination,” “Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance,” “The Horrors of the South,” and “Revisualizing Stories, Rereading Images.”  The first is a series of close readings of comics that deemphasize any traditional notions of Southern exceptionality and instead illustrate — literally — how southernness imprints national identity.  Leading off the collection, appropriately enough, is M. Thomas Inge, who perhaps more than any other scholar has brought a discerning reading to both comics and figurations of the South.  His contribution concerns two of the twentieth century’s most enduring daily strips, Li’l Abner (1934-1977) and Snuffy Smith (based on a character first appearing in Barney Google in 1934), and how their representations of Appalachian culture largely defined the South in the popular imagination.  Brian Cremins makes a similar move, reading Walt Kelly’s popular Pogo not only as a comic heavily invested in southern identity, but one that attempts to reframe the region as a locus for racial reconciliation.   In his reading of Mark Gruenwald’s run on Captain America during the 1980s, Brannon Costello shows how this popular superhero became a way of narrating anxieties surrounding the South’s mixed history of tradition and progress.  Similarly, Christopher Whitby reads one of the South’s most notable political cartoonists, Doug Marlette, as a gauge for the tensions underlying the rise of Sun Belt culture of the 1970s and 1980s.

Next is a series of essays exploring creators who illustrate race as a defining feature of southern history.   In her study of Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (2008), Conseula Francis argues that the graphic novel is able to make visible a language of violence and desperation left wanting in the original 1831 account and, in doing so, helps to distinguish Thomas Ruffin Gray’s problematic Confessions from other slave narratives from the nineteenth century.   Tim Caron provides an insightful reading of Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (2008), a narrative of racial passing that uses the visual medium of comics as a critique on “coloring” in the South.  Rounding out this section is an analysis of Howard Cruse’s seminal coming-out graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby (1995).  Here, Gary Richards highlights Cruse’s linking of racial and gay discrimination while at the same time problematizing the artist’s, at times, sentimentalizing of African American culture during the Civil Rights period.

One of the most interesting sections of the collection, “The Horrors of the South,” comprises three essay that take as their focus mainstream horror comics.  Working from the conventions of zombification, and focusing primarily on the Louisiana bayou, Qiana Whitted discusses Alan Moore’s work on DC Comic’s Swamp Thing (1984-1987) and Jeremy Love’s Bayou (2009) as postmodern sociocultural commentaries on racial oppression.  This is followed by close readings of two other popular series, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (1994-present) and Garth Ennis’s Preacher (1995-2000).  In the former, Joseph Michael Sommers applies a Bakhtinian reading to witchcraft and its links to Appalachian lore, while Nicolas Labarre in his contribution looks at how Ennis uses metafictional techniques to emphasize a southern “way of seeing the world” and critique the way the South has been represented in the popular media.

It is worth pausing here to highlight one of Comics and the U.S. South’s greatest assets: its willingness to engage with “alternative” comics — a problematic way of describing the kinds of “literary” graphic narratives typically favored by college instructors — without marginalizing mainstream and popular titles.  We see this not only in its contributors’ handling of top-selling horror comics, but also in discussions on superhero titles, such as Captain America, and well-known strips like Pogo and Li’l Abner.  (Newspaper dailies are sorely underrepresented in current comics studies scholarship.)  In other words, Costello and Whitted ensure a more democratic approach to their subject matter, pulling from a wide variety of comics that underscores and complements the multifaceted nature of southern culture.

The collection ends with two essays that explore the intersections of oral and visual culture.  Alison Mandaville discusses not the translation of text-based literature into comics form, but how one prose writer, Randall Kenan, adapts comics conventions to reimagine our understandings of southern community.  And Anthony Dyer Hoefer looks at Josh Neufeld’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, A.D.:After the Deluge (2010), as a text heavily influenced by multi-media representations.  As the author points out, Neufeld’s comic centers on multiple modes of representation (e.g., textual, audial, video, and graphic) as a means to challenging official discourse, in this particular case, the news surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its devastating impact on New Orleans.

Comics and the U.S. South is a welcome addition to the growing body of comics scholarship.  The work draws its strength from a list of contributors with diverse interests, and who discuss an assortment of comics, but who all share a fascination of the South and the way it has been historically represented.  What is more, the book’s engagement with regional studies, as well as its emphasis on multimodal expressions of southern culture, makes it a far-reaching text appealing to readers in a variety of academic fields.  Yet it is highly readable and free of the crippling critical jargon that could limit its appeal.  While Costello and Whitted may have provided a collection primarily targeted at scholarly readers, Comics and the U.S. South is a text that fanboys and fangirls will find engaging as well.

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Building Stories – A Close Reading

This past week my co-host, Andy Kunka, and I discussed Chris Ware’s Building Stories on The Comics Alternative podcast, and it was a very productive conversation.  We covered a lot of ground, but given the voluminous and complex nature of this project (you really wouldn’t call it a “book”), we were only able to scratch the surface of the text…or should I say, the many texts that compose Building Stories.  To that end, I wanted to follow up with some additional observations that supplement those we discussed on that podcast episode.  What follows isn’t a thesis on Building Stories, that is, it doesn’t argue a particular point or focus on Ware’s work in a specific and argumentative manner.  It does, however, highlight and analyze a number of issues raised by the text and tries to draw connections among its various components.

One thing we did discuss, though, was the way in which the larger narrative, or narratives, were laid out and corresponded chronologically.  In preparing for that discussion, and based on the notes I took while reading (and rereading) the “book,” I created a rough timeline for Building Stories.  It’s primarily based on the story of the unnamed woman (artist figure, florist, mother), since her life takes up the vast majority of Building Stories.  You can click below for a copy of the document:

Microsoft Word - Building Stories Timeline.docx

The legend at the bottom of the timeline designates which of the 14 parts are being referred to, and some of the brief descriptions are self-explanatory (such as the “Little Golden Book,” “The Daily Bee,” and the “Bradford Book”). Other texts might need an explanation. The “Graphic Novel” is the one hardbound work in the collection, and the one that looks like a more traditional graphic novel. The “Long Strip Booklet” is the long multi-paged strip-like booklet that is wordless. The “‘God’ Tabloid” is one of the largest pieces in the collection and has the word “God” on the very front (and also throughout) of this newspaper-like section. The “Large One-Sheet” has faces (the unnamed woman and an abstract red one) on either side. The “Large Foldout” is as big as the “‘God’ Tabloid” but it is not multi-paged and has a large image of the infant Lucy on the inside. The “Couples Book” and the “Landlady Book” are about the size of trade comic paperback and each concerns those specific residents in the building. The “‘Game’ Board” is the large foldout part that reminds you of a game board. The “‘Disconnect’ Book” is the same size as both the “Couples” and “Landlady” books, and it has the word “Disconnect” on the front top. Finally, both the “Snow Strip” and the “Lucy Strip” are the smallest in the box (before being unfolded) and are defined by the prominence of their visuals (i.e., snow and images of Lucy).

Here are a number of things we didn’t have time to discuss in depth on the podcast concerning Building Stories.  I’m listing them here in brief, with some points organized by the particular text in which they appear:

  • The title Building Stories can have multiple meanings.  If we read the first word of the title as a reference to a physical object, then this “book” is about the apartment building and the various lives that inhabit it.  We get this in the “Little Golden Book” where the building itself becomes a storyteller, revealing to us some Little Golden Bookof the lives that take place within its walls.  If we read “building” as a gerund, then the title can refer to a collection of narratives where people develop and in the process define themselves.  We can see this in the various 14 texts where the different characters — the unnamed woman, the married couple, the landlady, and even Branford the Bee — grow and evolve over time, “building” or putting together or amending their identities as they go along.  A third way of interpreting the title is reading “building” as a present participle.  If we take this word as a verbal, then the title suggests an act of creation, that the “book” all about how we go about building (or putting together) stories.  This definitely makes sense, since Ware gives us 14 individual parts to manipulate, and as readers it is up to us to put them all together and make a narrative (or narratives) out of them.  And how we choose to put them together, and what parts we pick up first, largely determines the shape of the stories that we build.
  • Throughout much of the “book,” there are a variety of editorial comments that appear at the bottom of a page.  These are usually brief explanations or clarifications that are associated with an asterisk somewhere on the same page and are followed by ” – ed.”  (You can find examples of these on page 4 of the “‘God’ Tabloid” and the second page of the “‘Disconnect’ Book.”)  Obviously these are the artist’s comments, but what’s so curious is that they’re signed as “editor” and not “artist,” “Ware,” or any similar designation.  We know that Ware determines the organization, layout, and content of this massive project, but why make these comments as “editor”?  In comics when we see such extradiegetic statements they are usually made not by the writer or artist, but the actual editor that oversees the title.  (A great example of this are the many editor’s comments you find in Marvel Comics, usually catching the reader up on a previous issue or action that has taken place in another title but is pertinent to the current narrative.)  In Building Stories Ware is serving as a one-man-show, writer, artist, and editor, all rolled into one.  It would make more sense for him to make those extradiegetic comments under his own name, so why use “editor”?  I think that part of this may be a distancing maneuver.  By making his comments under the title of “editor,” the resulting voice comes across as detached, completely outside of the creation of the narrative, analytical and “in the know.”  It also suggests someone who has a larger grasp of what’s going on, an individual who can put the various pieces of this vast narrative together.  In other words, someone who is building stories. So making these comments is a way of clarifying the action or putting the various facts into place. How different is that from what we, as readers, are doing when we confront Building Stories?  Aren’t we also trying to make sense of the action, placing the various texts into some kind of ordered whole?  In other words, aren’t we performing the same act as an editor would?  In light of that, maybe Ware assuming an identity as “editor” is not as distancing as I had originally proposed.   Or to take this further, perhaps “editor” is just another character he has created in Building Stories, a figure (albeit aloof and abstract) who functions as a narrating presence and another voice that Ware (the living author) has created and is manipulating.
  • The “Little Golden Book”
    • This is the main text in Building Stories where the “building” of the title is overtly literal.  Here, and unlike what you will find in most of the rest of the text, the physical building is personified and actually given a voice.  This helps to provide a wider context to the various life stories that unfold — that of the unnamed girl, the married couple, and the older landlady — just as the building literally houses these characters.  If the “Little Golden Book” is one of the first texts, or the very first text, that you read in Building Stories, then it gives you a broader sense of what the project might actually be about.  By contrast, if you read another one of the books first, such as one of the smaller or shorter texts that focus exclusively on the unnamed woman’s life, then you’d probably begin your reading with a more narrowed sense of what or who this “book” is about.
    • This is also the earliest occasion, chronologically speaking, where we see Phil, who will eventually become the woman’s husband, and it’s also where we see Stephanie, who (along with Phil) becomes a central figure later in the unnamed woman’s narrative.
    • There are different tones of narrative in the “Little Golden Book,” depending on whose story you are reading.  The building’s tale is more immediate, while at the same time historic.  But the story of the unnamed woman, is in many ways told in a diary-like manner, as if in reading her narrative we are privy to the Little Golden Book Coverrecord that she keeps of her life events.  And we know that she keeps a diary or a journal because 1) we see this by her bedside when she first wakes up from her erotic dream early in the “3  a.m.” part of the book, and 2) we see it later toward the very end of the book where she is sitting on the couch and reflecting on the day.  And this image of her sitting on the couch writing in her diary is the exact same picture (in larger form) that we see on the very front of the “Little Golden Book” portion.  This gives the contents of the “Little Golden Book” the feel of a dairy, as if the very book we hold in our hands is, in many ways, the woman’s own journal.  This approaches a metafictional move, albeit more visual in nature.  A more overt example of metafiction occurs later in the “‘Disconnect’ Book.”
    • In making the outward appearance of the “Little Golden Book” so familiar to much of his audience — especially those who grew up reading Little Golden Books such as The Poky Little Puppy and The Little Red Hen — Ware is establishing a more personable or even empathic tone with his readers.  This could also suggest a particular form of reading, that one way of approaching Building Stories (or at least parts of it) is through a kind of innocence, a similar youthful and inquisitive frame of mind as we had when we first learned to read.  Indeed, if this is the very first work of Chris Ware’s that someone picks up, then he/she will definitely have to come to Building Stories as a “youth” and learn how to read him.  And, of course, Ware is also making an overt intertextual link with the packaging of this text.
  • The “Graphic Novel”
    • Narratively speaking, this is the  most developed, or at least the most graphic novel-like, portion of Building Stories.  This makes sense in that it derives from the Acme Novelty Library, Number 18 published in 2007.  Indeed, even the packaging of this part of Building Stories harkens back to the earlier volume, in that the primary color of the cover (a dull teal) is the same as ANL 18 and the spinal fabric, while not exactly the same texture, is nonetheless the same general tan color.  (ANL 18 also has its title on the cover, which the “Graphic Novel” does not, but this is due to the need to market the earlier work as a standalone volume.)  The books are also the same proportion, although ANL 18 is smaller.  The contents of the two texts appears to be exactly the same — even down to the comics that appear in the inside front and inside back covers of both books — with these exceptions:
      • ANL 18 include frontmatter on pages 5 and 6, which the “Graphic Novel” portion of Building Stories obviously does not.  As a result, the two-page spread from the early part of the “Graphic Novel” where the woman does her laundry is broken up in ANL 18.
      • In the very middle of the “Graphic Novel,” Ware inserts a two-page spread that doesn’t appear anywhere in ANL 18.  This is an account of the woman attending her writing class.  This new section functions in at least two ways.  First, it enhances the unnamed protagonist’s character, which is a conflicting combination of the need for self-improvement and the tendency to self-doubt.  Second, this addition includes a small section with Stephanie, the woman’s friend who ends up killing herself elsewhere in Building Stories.  In fact, during this brief exchange between the protagonist and her friend over lunch, Stephanie briefly mentions suicide, saying “Pills and alcohol or a shotgun. Trust me…It’s the only way.  I’ve researched it.” This event anticipates what we see transpire in the “‘God’ Book.”
      • Graphic Novel SnowIn the “Graphic Novel” there is a slight change in one of the panels from the earlier ANL 18.  Toward the end of both books, when the woman is recounting her time with Lance and how she became pregnant after unprotected sex at her parents’ house one Christmas, there is a single panel with the protagonist standing alone on the side of a street, waiting for a bus and with her back turned toward us.  In the original ANL 18, it is snowing in the panel, but in the “Graphic Novel” the snow is absent.  I’m not entirely sure why Ware removed the falling snow in the later work.  Perhaps this is to enhance a sense of temporal continuity between that panel and the first one on the following page, where we see the bus arrive to pick up the woman.  The subsequent “bus arrival” panel in both books shows no snow falling, so maybe Ware thought that in ANL 18, the appearance of snow in one panel followed by the absence of snow in the following panel was too suggestive of disconnected sequences, of passing time.
    • More than any other text in Building Stories, with the possible exception of the “Snow Strip,” this text emphasizes tedium and pointlessness in the young woman’s daily life.  In these instances, time is elongated.
    • At the same time, Ware compresses narrative time elsewhere in the book.  For example, the pages with the apartment building (not quite halfway in), its landlady, and the previous occupants condense the flow of time through the use of a single physical space.  The same happens when the woman visits her parents’ house (after her room has been turned into a study for her mother), and we see the protagonist at different stages of her life sleeping in different place in her room.  Again, a singular physical space is used to demonstrate growth and the passage of time.
    • As he did in ANL 18, Ware uses three consecutive two-page spreads to juxtapose the daily routines of the protagonist’s life with physical displays of the woman’s body, similar to the anatomical overlays she finds in the “A” volume of the encyclopedia.  What’s significant about these images is at least twofold.  Each of the anatomical images — the woman fully clothed, the woman completely naked, and the woman’s stripped of skin and muscle — occupies the same space of its page as the others, much like an overlay in an encyclopedia.  This visual arrangement not only emphasizes the connections between what the woman sees in the encyclopedia and how we read her, but it also suggests a “stripping away.”  We pull back the layers of the protagonist’s life in order to understand her better.  Just as the woman “strips away” parts of her own existence, constantly looking into her past to try to make sense of what she’s become, we as readers are “stripping away” the layers of identity in our attempts to understand her and her complexities.  These overlaid images also underscore something found in many other parts of Building Stories: an emphasis on the physicality of the text we hold in our hands.
    • Graphic NovelWare uses anatomy again as a gauge of identity toward the very end of the book.  On the last page (right before the inner back cover comic) in a strip beginning with “A Feeling,” we see the woman in an act of contemplation (a common occurrence in Building Stories) and using the physicalness of her surroundings, especially of her body, in an existential manner.  The continuity of her body from one panel to another is grotesquely presented, with, for example, a closeup of her right arm aligned with her right shoulder (presented in smaller proportions) in the panel immediately preceding it or a closeup of her right foot doing the same in subsequent panels.  (And even her foot appears to be overgrown, falling off the bed and dwarfing her cat and bedroom furniture.)  If you remove the gutter space between these panels, the woman’s body appears freakish, as if her arm or her foot are abnormally enlarged.  This play on the visuals of her body is analogous to the way the woman views herself: misshapen, unattractive, and even grotesque.
  • The “Long Strip Booklet”
    • This is the only text in Building Stories that is completely wordless, at least in terms of speech, thought bubbles, and sound effects.  As such, there is a somber, almost dream-like tone to this booklet.  This, of course, is underscored by the pages that open and close the text, where the woman is lying in bed either asleep or trying to fall asleep.
    • Time is big theme in this booklet, just as it is in most of the other texts.  Here, though, Ware’s handling of time is much more ambiguous and fluid, a little different from the way he handles the passage of time in “The Graphic Novel,” where he manipulates space and paneling to either draw out or condense time.  Not only are the various scenes in this work episodic, glimpses of time from the woman’s life that suggest growth, but the pages at the beginning and end underscore a feeling of temporal dislocation.  In these sections the woman is sleeping, and we see her in these passages at different stages of her life.  This is especially prominent at the very end, where the various sequences of the woman at different moments in her life are like her dreaming state, drifting back and forth through time without any clear linear progression.
    • The text is mostly about the woman’s relationship with her daughter, and it is roughly symmetrically structured.  The booklet opens and closes with scenes of the woman in bed, and these sections are almost the same length.  (The part at the end is three pages longer than the opening.)  What’s more, and in contrast to the time jumping that takes place in the final pages of this book, the entire sequence laid out in this booklet is someone like “a day in the life.”  It opens with the woman sleeping in bed, moves on to her waking up, progresses into the daily activities she performs (mostly with her daughter), moves onto Long Strip Bookletdinner and nighttime, has her getting in bed, and then going to sleep.  Even though the action in this booklet actually spans a number of years, the way it is presented brings to mind a 24-hour period.  This suggests that the life she lives at this point is passing quickly — again, an emphasis on time — where one day blurs into another, and that having a child in her life brings a feeling of chronological compression.   Another kind of symmetry can be found in the middle of the booklet.  When you open the text to the very center, with the staple exposed, you see that this is the point in their relationship where the daughter goes off to school.  (Literally, the mother drops Lucy off at school.)  In all the panels on this two-page spread, the woman is always alone in the comic frame.  After this point in the booklet, the daughter is shown either separate from her mother or growing more distant from her, at least for the most part.  (Right before the final sleep scenes, we see mother and daughter together in activities preparing for bed.)
    • The long strip of the grocery store produce that comes after the middle of the booklet is graphically reminiscent of the row of produce near the beginning of the “Graphic Novel,” thereby visually linking these different moments in the protagonist’s life.
  • “The Daily Bee”
    • The predicament of Branford the Bee is thematically similar to that of the unnamed woman, in that both are filled with self-doubt and see themselves as marginal figures.  Also, their lives appear both tedious and short, Branford’s ongoing search for sugar/pollen ending by a man’s shoe and the woman’s seeming to slip by through daily (at times mindless) routines.
  • The “‘God’ Tabloid”
    •  The actions taking place in this text are more contained than they are in other parts of Building Stories showcasing the woman.  This is a text focused on the woman’s married life, taking place after Lucy goes off to school.  (And we know this because the opening pages of this section is of the woman jogging with an empty stroller, an action we see her performing after the very middle of the “Long Strip Booklet.”)
    • The word “God” recurs throughout this text and connects the various scenes of the book.  This constant invocation of “God” could also be linked to the text’s overriding theme, death.  This is the part of Building Stories where both Stephanie and Miss Kitty die.  The woman feels responsible for both deaths, in some way.
    • Also linked to the theme of death and the reiteration of “God” is the emphasis on exercise we see in the first half of the text.  We see her in the opening pages running with her child’s carrier — one, we should note, that is now empty and void of life.  It is as if the woman, now middle aged, is trying to stave off the deterioration of the body.  This emphasis on the physical body can be directly linked to what we saw earlier in the “Graphic Novel” and the mock overlays.  It’s also no accident in the first part of the work that the woman, while jogging, discovers her old friend Cary outside of a church.
    • This text, much like the “Long Strip Booklet,” is roughly symmetrical regarding time.  It begins in the morning, when the woman wakes up and first goes jogging, and ends after the sun goes down.  In fact, the large panel on the very first page is basically the same scenic frame as the large panel on the very last page, the only difference is that the latter is masked in darkness.  Again, this can be linked to the “death” theme in this text: the end of the day is suggestive of death.  And it is also in the last half of this work that both Stephanie and Miss Kitty die.  In addition, the two halves of the “‘God’ Tabloid” are adjoined by the large image of Lucy, that sits right in the middle of the center spread.  If this is a text largely concerned with death, then you could see this large image of Lucy as that part of “life” (or that thing worth living for) linking both the beginning and the end.
    • Large FoldoutThere are several occasions in this text (and elsewhere in Building Stories) where we have detailed closeups of the woman.  In these instances, we see her drawn in a more detailed or realistic manner, less iconic/abstract or “cartoony” than Ware usually draws her.  A question to consider, then, is what kind of effect these closeups have.  Is it more distancing — and here I’m thinking of Scott McCloud’s argument in Understanding Comics that we are more apt to empathize with iconic characters than we are with realistically drawn ones — or might we be brought closer to the woman by seeing her as a “real” person?
    • Physically speaking, the “‘God’ Tabloid” is perhaps the most difficult text to read in Building Stories.  It’s not easy to hold, and depending on where and how you read it, it’s easier to digest when laid flat on a table or counter.  Given that many, if not all, of the components of Building Stories emphasize or draw our attention to the physicalness of the text we hold in our hands, it’s no accident that this part can be uncomfortable to read, making us painfully aware (perhaps literally) that we are reading a printed object.
  • The “Branford Book”
    • This is in large part a reprint of the section of Branford that appeared at the end of Acme Novelty Library, Number 17.  Almost half of the “Branford Book” — up to, and including, the page right before the middle that begins with the word “Pollen” — is a exact duplicate of what we find in ANL 17.  The last half of the book, from the center spread on, is new text that expands upon Branford’s life and brings us to the circumstances (albeit a little ambiguous) surrounding his death.
  • The “Large One-Sheet”
    • The events in this text take place after the end of the “‘God’ Book,” and we can assume that because there is no Miss Kitty.
    • On both sides of the one-sheet there is an image of a face that lies in the very middle.  On one side is a closeup of the woman’s face, and on the other side is a  very abstracted red face of her high school boyfriend, Steve.  These face images on each side of the one-sheet exactly overlay each other, meaning that they Large One-Sheettake up the same exact space on their perspective sides.  As such, they bring to mind the anatomical overlays in the “Graphic Novel.”  Ware performs a similar visual trick with the bracketing oval-shaped panels in the “Lucy Strip.”
    • The centered image of the woman’s face on one side of the one-sheet is another instance of a detailed closeup, again raising the question of our distance from or intimacy with the protagonist.
    • One of the themes in this brief text is self-image and growing up.  Instances of the mother growing up and how she sees herself are juxtaposed with images of her current life with Lucy and Phil.  Depending on how you read this section, it either ends with Lucy wearing a dress and saying “I am the most beautiful girl in the world!” or the mother (drawn in detail) looking at her laptop computer screen remembering her prom night…both instances of self-definition and/or self-reflection.
  • The “Large Foldout”
    • Much like the similarly sized “‘God’ Tabloid,” this text is largely centered around the theme of death.  The primary action here surrounds the death of the protagonist’s father, an event that is referenced on the fourth page of the “‘God’ Tabloid.”
    • Also as we find in the “‘God” Tabloid,” as well as in the “Large One-Sheet,” we see detailed and more realistic images of the woman that contrast sharply with the iconic visuals found in the “Graphic Novel” and the “Little Golden Book.”  With this text, we can see a pattern forming in terms of the way that the woman is drawn or represented: as she gets older, she is more apt to be drawn in this detailed manner.  So as she ages, are we encouraged to see her more intimately, or to find ourselves more distant from her?
    • Similar to the “‘God’ Tabloid,” the image of a young Lucy sits at the very center of this text.  This is the second instance of a part of Building Stories that is primarily focused on death having, in its middle, an image of “life” in the form of Lucy.
    • As in the “Graphic Novel” and the “Long Strip Booklet,” much of this narrative is episodic.  In parts, the woman recalls what it was like growing up, juxtaposing those images with references to the young Lucy.
  • The “Landlady’s Book”
    • Landlady's BookThis is another instance of symmetry in the Building Stories narratives.  The text is framed, i.e., opens and closes, by moments that could be happening on the same day — or if not on the same day, then similar moments at the same time in the landlady’s life — and in the middle are episodes from the landlady’s growth from childhood to old age.   Not only are the moments in the first and last pages occurring at the same time, but the mise en page is the same.  In other words, the paneling layout of the first and final pages of this text are exactly the same.
    • The flow of the panels on pages 4-5, 12-13, and 14-15 (the page spreads where the layout looks “busy”), is a little ambiguous.  The effect is one that, in places, the reader isn’t sure in what order to move through the panels.  This kind of paneling dilemma results in part from Ware’s visual style, which at times challenges the way we are taught to read comics.  This deemphasizing of linearity is similar, in many ways, to the flow of memory, where thoughts of one moment in a person’s life seamlessly connect with other moments that occurred before of after that moment.  So you can move through a comics page in ways similar to the way you move through interconnected memories.
    • The tabs that appear on the landlady at different stages in her life obvious allude to the paper dolls that she recalls playing with as a child.  Visually they function as connectors to the various life moments that the landlady recalls in the book.  Thematically, they suggest a search for identity, or changes in the ways that the landlady viewed herself — and currently, looking back at her life, the ways she views her various selves — growing up.  This is quite similar to the unnamed woman’s evolving sense of self, and in this way, it helps to explain why the protagonist feels a kinship with her landlady, at lease at some moments in Building Stories.
  • The “Couple’s Book”
    • About half of this text is a reprint of “Touch Sensitive,” a digital comic available through iTunes and the McSweeney’s app.  The somewhat animated digital comic begins with the action that takes place on page 10 of the “Couple’s Book,” the page where the wife is putting on her clothes and thinking about how she and her husband aren’t as intimate as they used to be. The digital comic ends with the futuristic scene from the penultimate page of the “Couple’s Book.”  So over half of the “Couples” text is new material, much of which seems to pick up where the couple’s interactions leave off in the “Graphic Novel” (although the story in the opening pages of this book do not seem to pick up immediately, temporally speaking, where they left off in the “Graphic Novel).
    • This text is similar to the “Landlady’s Book” in that one of its themes is the way that time and circumstances change the ways we view ourselves.  Both the wife and the husband in this part see their lives as dramatically changed since marriage, and they ruminate on how that change isn’t for the better.  This change is also the source of self-doubt which, again, brings us back to the various texts where the unnamed woman is unhappy and feels inadequate. So to some readers, who might feel that the material surrounding the unnamed woman greatly outweigh that of the other figures in Building Stories — i.e., the landlady, the couple, and Branford the Bee — and think that these narratives about the other characters are therefore tangential, or even unnecessary, the thematic and tonal links among all of these stories can help create a larger and more coherent storyworld.
    • Couple's BookWith the exception of the “‘Disconnect’ Book,” the “Couple’s Book” is the one text where there is an abrupt, and even disrupting, shift forward in time.  Here, the emotional “residue” left on the “area’s consciousness” (the reaction of the wife seeing her coworker on the train) is picked up as a “memory fragment” 150 years in the future.  The woman in the iconic sci-fi space suit says as she picks up this fragment, “People really did think they were just single particles back then,” suggesting the interconnectedness not only of individual lives “back then” (basically, in our contemporary times) but of lived experiences regardless of time.  In this way, the futuristic woman’s comments underscore a larger meta-theme of Building Stories, the interconnectedness of the various 14 texts that is much like the similar lives that all of its characters seem to share.
    • This, then, raises the question: Might we read the entirety of Building Stories as a series of “memory fragments”?  At times, that’s the way the various narratives seem to be constructed.
  • The “‘Disconnect’ Book
    • Part of this text originally appeared in the “Money” issue of The New Yorker from 11 October 2010.  The cover of that issue of The New Yorker is the full-page panel that appears on page 5 of the “‘Disconnect’ Book,” and the following two-page spread (pages 6 and 7) were actually a fold-out section connected to the front cover of that issue of The New Yorker.
    • In this text we find the only overt mentioning of Branford the Bee that appears outside of “The Daily Bee” and the “Branford Book.”  (We see Branford in the “Game Board,” but his actions are shown, not told.)  This occurs four pages from the end, where Lucy is sharing with her mother a drawing she is doing of Branford and a flower garden.  The mother makes the comment, “Pretty soon our flowers will start coming up…and then maybe we’ll get to see the real Branford Bee in our own garden.”  However, lest readers begin to think that the story of Branford the Bee (as contained in “The Daily Bee” and the “Branford Book”) is nothing more than Lucy’s own creation — and thus, the two Branford Bee texts serving as a kind of metafictional narrative — we find out in the “Game Board” text that the actions of the Branford Bee parts take place around the year 2000, about the same time as the events in the “Little Golden Book” (or at least during a time when the unnamed woman lived in the apartment building with the couple and the landlady).
    • This is also the part of Building Stories when the protagonist finally discovers the whereabouts of Lance, the older boyfriend who got her pregnant.  The woman’s (at times) obsession over Lance serves as a driving force throughout much of Building Stories, and if we read the “‘Disconnect’ Book” as one of the final texts of the collection, then this narrative event functions as a denouement to this unresolved part of the protagonist’s life.  Of course, if a reader picks up the “‘Disconnect’ Book” as one of the first they see in Building Stories, then the power of this concluding moment is much less intense.
    • The scenes that make up the last parts of this text, where the woman finally finds and meets up with Lance — and these sections, two two-page spreads, are punctuated by the image of birth control dispensers (the last one empty) in the center of the spreads — are immediately preceded by the second full-page panel in the “‘Disconnect’ Book”: that of the woman standing completely naked before Phil, also completely naked and spread out on the bed.  The juxtaposition of this strangely awkward (and definitely not intimate or romantic) sexual moment sets the stage for recalling the past sexual act (the unprotected sex) that seems to haunt the unnamed woman throughout must of Building Stories.
    • Note that, visually speaking, the two full-page panels in this text — the “money” scene on page 5 and the aforementioned “awkward sex” scene on page 15 — are quite similar.  In both, the two main figures in the scene are off center and take up more of the left side of the page than the right.  Also in both, the rooms they are in are angled in the same direction (and what looks like the same degree) going up from bottom left to top right.  And if you look at the pages together, both even seem to have a prominent third figure.  In the “money” scene that third figure is obviously Lucy cutting up paper to make her own money.  But in the “awkward sex” scene, the image of the lit lamp is positioned in about the same place on the page as Lucy is in the “money” scene (and visually just as prominent).  What do we make of these striking similarities?  That money and sex are two things that people obsess over, long for, and feel threatened by?  That they are both things that bring two people together while at the same time ironically driving them apart?
    • The protagonist mentioning or talking with her au pair in the last part of the “‘Disconnect’ Book” harkens back to the “Graphic Novel,” a narrative where the unnamed woman was herself a nanny.  This is just another of those interconnecting references that appear throughout Building Stories.
    • There are three parts in this text where the story on the page begins with a wide single panel with a portrait of the woman next to the first word (in large letters) of the comic: “Disconnect,” “Repetition,” and “Browsing.”  Might there be some kind of progressing in this sequence?
    • The very last page of this text, with the word “Browsing” in the top panel, stands out as one of the most significant parts of Building Stories.  It’s notable because it’s one of two places in Ware’s project where there is such a wide leap forward in narrative time (the other being the 150-year flashforward appearing toward the end of the “Couple’s Book”).  But more significantly, it’s important because of its metafictional implications.  The first half of the page is the woman narrating (through thought bubbles in the various panels) a dream she had where she is browsing through a book store.  What she recalls is worth quoting at length:

I was browsing…but not on the Internet, in one of those big chain book stores that don’t exist anymore…and this book…caught my eye…so I picked it up and, to my amazement, it was my book…someone had published my book!  Wow…And it had everything in it…my diaries, the stories fro my writing classes, even stuff I didn’t know I’d written…everything I’d forgotten, abandoned or thrown out was there…Everything…And you know, it wasn’t so bad.  In fact, it was kind of good…interesting…all of the illustrations (and there were a lot of them — there seemed to be more and more the more I looked) were so precise and clean it was like an architect had drawn them…they were so colorful and intricate…That’s weird…I can’t draw like this…And it wasn’t — I dunno — it wan’t really a book either…it was in…pieces, like, books falling apart out of a carton, maybe…but it was…beautiful…it made sense..

If this is not a metafictional moment, I don’t know what is.  What we have here, in essence, is a description of the “book” that we are holding in our hands, Building Stories and its various pieces.  The book that isn’t a book, the many pieces falling out of the carton, the various and diverse items that make up the contents, lots and lots of illustrations…this is the box of Building Stories and its various textual components.  The “beautiful” art that is clean, precise, intricate, and architecturally sound is none other than the work of Chris Ware.  If we take the cover of the “Little Golden Book” as any indication, that in Disconnect Bookmany ways the unnamed woman is a writer figure in Building Stories, then this last page of the “‘Disconnect’ Book” is the summation of what we have come to suspect: this “book” is the woman’s own project.  (Remember, she went to art school and she also took writing classes.)  However, Chris Ware isn’t about to make this an easy way to read his book — indeed, Ware doesn’t seem to make any aspects of his art that “easy” — for in the last half of that page, a grown Lucy affectionately laughs at her mother’s account and tells her that this was nothing more than a dream, that the architect connection (Phil) is so obvious, and that the mother has instead devoted the last part of her life to her own business (although we don’t know what that business actually is).  So the woman isn’t the artist figure of the book, but instead it’s Lucy…the one who drew Branford the Bee is about to go off to art school.  And yet, Ware still complicates things.  In the very last frame of that page, a younger protagonist is on the floor, pouring over this “book” that she’s found in her dream, and thinking to herself (and/or telling Lucy), “I just never thought I had it in me, that’s all, you know? *snf*…I never thought I actually had it in me….”  So is she or isn’t she the creator of the “book”?  There’s no easy answer here, nor does there need to be one.  It’s much like the panel layout in much of Ware’s work.  What do we turn to next?  In what ways do we follow the story in this comic?  How do we interpret what Ware is trying to say?  If we read the “‘Disconnect’ Book” as one of the last pieces in Building Stories, then perhaps this “Browsing” page can function as a kind of resolution or even a key to the broader narrative.

  • The “Snow Strip”

    • What is most striking about this long strip, when you unfold it, is that it doesn’t matter which side you read first.  The action on the “back” side flows from what happens at the end of the “front,” now matter which side you are referring to.  In this way, the “Snow Strip” is like an endless comic, where you can turn it over and again and again and the story appears to continue.  If you could twist this long unfolded strip once and join the two ends together, then it would read something like a Möbius strip.  This is just another way that Ware is playing around with time in Building Stories, similar to his manipulations in other parts.
    • The action here seems to take place after Lance leaves her and she has an abortion.  This makes sense, given the fact that the strip can be read in a repetitive and seemingly never-ending way, similar to the pointlessness, tedium, and unending pain the woman feels in her own life at this point.
  • The “Lucy Strip”
    • Much like the “Long Strip Booklet” and the “Graphic Novel,” this work is episodic in nature.  However, this text concerns Lucy, not so much her mother.
    • And as with the “‘God’ Tabloid” and the “Long Strip Booklet,” this book is symmetrical.  At either end of the long foldout strip, like brackets, are panels that are in the same oval shape.  At the same time, the oval-shaped panels at each end is reflected, or overlaid, with a similar shaped panel on its opposite side.  Lucy StripEven more notable, the oval-shaped image at each end of the long strip is the inverse or mirror image of the oval-shaped panel on the other side of the paper. For example, on the left side of the fold-out strip we see the mother’s face off to the side looking into a doorway as Lucy is playing, and on the other end of that same side there is a side view of Lucy’s face as she is looking down.  If you flip over this strip, you see on the left a side view of Lucy’s head looking down (and which looks like the opposite side of Lucy’s head positioned exactly the same on the other side of the paper). And on the right side we have an oval panel with the side of the woman’s face as she looks in a mirror (which looks a lot like a doorway) as she’s toweling off Lucy…and the placement of the woman’s face looking at the mirror is positioned exactly over the side of her face on the opposite side of the paper as she’s looking through the doorway at Lucy playing.  Much like the overlays that appear in the “Graphic Novel,” this instance of corresponding positioning emphasizes the physicalness of Building Stories.
  • The “Game Board”
    • The narrative (if that’s what we can call it) in this text takes place around the same time as, and even before, the action in the “Little Golden Book.”  It is only text in Building Stories where we have all of the main characters (including Branford Bee) together in some way.
    • On the one hand, the events in this text serve as a key to what happens in other places in Building Stories.  For example, in the right-most section we see the unnamed woman in the laundry room, noticing a bee trapped inside, and lifting the window to let the bee out.  This helps to explain much of what goes on in the “Branford Book.”  We also see that it’s the married man’s soda that causes the spill that attracts Branford, and the man’s shoe that ends up killing him.  At the same time, this text doesn’t really function as a “game board’ where all of the pieces can be placed and played in a way that makes sense.  It’s not really a key to reading the entire “book.”
    • There is a progression to the events in this “Game Board” as it unfolds…literally.  We can read each of the four quarters of this text as a movement through time.  This is made clear by the change of season in each quarter, although it’s a little out of cycle.  In the first section, we seem to be in winter in that the trees’ branches are bare.  The second section appears to be the summer, since the trees are full and green.  The next quarter section is autumn, and we can tell by the trees’ turning leaves.  In the final segment it’s spring, with a lighter, younger green just appearing in the trees.
    • Each of the four segments also seem to focus on one of the major figures in Building Stories.  The unnamed woman is the subject of the first quarter, the married couple the primary focus of the second, the old landlady the center of the third section, and Branford the Bee the main subject of the last segment.  This is yet another way in which Ware brings his disparate parts together into some kind of whole.
  • The Box
    • Most readers have only referenced to the 14 different texts as the components to Building Stories, that the “book” is actually those things that go into the box.  But what if we read the box as an additional text of Building Stories?  How might that add to, or change, our reading of the 14 single books?  Obviously the book is the ultimate frame of the larger narrative, combining and containing every part.  But might we also read the box cover, with its jumbled and differently sized images, as a clue to the “book”?  And if we use the arrangement of the 14 different text listed on the back of the box as any indication of a reading order — as I did — then how might that determine our interpretation of Building Stories?

Again, I have not provided here a comprehensive or monological way of reading Building Stories.  However, I have emphasized several themes that seem to run throughout its various 14 individual texts, giving it some kind of coherency.  I have also tried to highlight those images, those sequences, and those arrangements that bind together the very different and highly fragmented parts that make up the collection.  In other words, I have taken a close look at its various pieces in the hopes that my observations can help readers build stories.

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Comic Projections

Stanford University Press has a new series, Post•45.  This is line of books (according to their website) that is devoted to popular and avant-garde U.S. culture after the Second World War, and I’ve recent finished one of the inaugural volumes in the series, Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling.  One of the greatest strengths of this book is its juxtapositioning of comics with film and its argument that not only has the history of one greatly informed the development of other — and this relationship was not a one-way street, as the author points out — but also that both art forms share common parentage. This last part may not sound completely original, but Gardner’s handling of this relationship is different from earlier comparisons of early film and comics.  In fact, the first two chapters of the book, arguably its critical high point, explore the links between these film and comics.  They not only focus on the dynamic relationship between the two emerging media, but, perhaps more significantly, underscore the interactive nature of early twentieth-century comics. What largely gave rise to the popularity of such strips Projectionsas Happy Hooligan, Mutt and Jeff, and The Gumps, was what Gardner calls the “transmedia conversation” among daily newspapers, early cinema, and an increasingly savvy advertising industry.  Readers became enmeshed in the comic strips because they pervaded multiple facets of their own daily lives, binding the audience in such a way that it felt impelled, and was certainly urged by creators and publishers, to participate (through letter writing, newspaper buying, and movie attendance) in the ongoing narratives.  As Gardner points out, long before the “Letters Page” of contemporary comic books, fans were encouraged to comment on what they read, and in the process, help shape the very product of their consumption.

This emphasis on an participatory fan base, heavily invested in the various manifestations of popular culture, finds its way into Gardner’s subsequent discussions of comics in America as they evolved from individual strips into pamphlet or magazine form.  For example, he highlights the science fiction fandom roots of the superhero genre as it took off in the years immediately preceding World War II, the cult of the “fan-addict” surrounding William Gaines’s EC Comics in the 1950s, and Marvel Comics’ efforts at nurturing a hip “insider” reader identity through a shared philosophy and an expanded narrative universe.  Gardner also grounds his analyses in those phenomena that have by and large determined the trajectory of American comics, such as the reactive efforts of censors and critics in the 1950s (including Fredric Wertham) and the resulting Comics Code Authority, as well as the counteractive art generated by the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s.  In part, Projections is a historically conscious work that follows the contours of the medium, at least from an American perspective, from its turn-of-the-century roots to its current manifestations in new media technologies.

However, the final sections of the book rely less on chronological developments and more on close textual readings.  And the result is mixed.  Looking at works from the 1960s and 1970s, Gardner begins with a discussion of Marvel Comics and its revolutionary impact on comics readership, but then quickly moves into an analysis of autobiographical comics and its “legitimizing” of comics or the graphic novel as a literary form.  In fact, Gardner devotes significantly more pages to the “autobiographix” (Diana Schutz’s phrase) of creators such as Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Justin Green, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdel than he does to the significance of mainstream comics, superhero or otherwise, during this same period.  The result feels imbalanced.  While I certainly wouldn’t question the import of autobiography and memoir in the comics medium, especially as it’s evolved into the comics we see today, it is nonetheless unfortunate that Gardner would spend more time focusing on texts that already receive a lot of attention in academia (Gardner’s primary audience) — how many syllabi already include Maus and Fun Home? — than he does on mainstream comics.  (Perhaps it is telling that the two blurbs on the back of the book come from scholars specializing in what could loosely be termed “alternative comics.”)  This is especially curious given the book’s earlier emphasis on popular entertainment and “transmedia conversations.”  What is more, Gardner’s emphasis here seems to be part of a larger trend in contemporary comics scholarship: the reluctance, or inability, of those in literary studies to make sense of and appreciate mainstream, and especially superhero, comics.  In fact, the most serious and insightful treatment of superhero narratives have come not from English professors, but from those in history (Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001]), political science (Matthew J. Costello’s Secret Identity Crisis [Continuum, 2009]), American studies (Matthew J. Pustz’s Comic Book Culture [University Press of Mississippi, 1999]), philosophy (Harry Brod’s Superman Is Jewish? [Free Press, 2012]), communications (Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith’s The Power of Comics [Continuum, 2009]), popular culture studies (Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans [University Press of Mississippi, 2001]), journalism and general media studies (Peter Coogan’s Superhero [MonkeyBrain Books, 2006] and Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow [Basic Books, 2004]), and from the creators themselves (Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent [Continuum, 2007]).

Gardner is on more original grounds in his final chapter where he devotes critical space to three significant contemporary practitioners, Chris Ware, Kim Deitch, and Ben Katchor, the latter two having received relatively little attention outside of professional comics journalism (e.g., The Comics Journal).  His treatment of these creators is framed by the theme of archiving, how they turn back to the popular culture — comics as well as music, film, television, and advertisements — that preceded them and incorporate that history into the narratives they construct.  In this way, for Gardner, the phenomenon of “collecting” is not restricted to fanboys (and girls) completing their own comic book collections, but includes also the efforts of artists who catalog, arrange, and make sense of the media fragments that influenced their work.  This implied self-media-awareness is an appropriate ending point for Gardner, who wraps up Projections with a brief discussion of recent comics-related films, the promise of social media, and the cultural impact of the computer screen (be it on desktops, smartphones, or tablets).  This, coming after his foray onto the well-trodden grounds of autobiographic comics, is an effective way to end his analysis, bringing Gardner back to his book’s greatest strength: an awareness of the comic page as a space for reader choice and interaction.  As he concludes, “Comics, in the end, is defined less by its formal properties … than by an invitation to the reader to project herself into the narrative and to project the narrative beyond the page.”  Demonstrating this characteristic with both a broad knowledge of popular media and a keen historical awareness, Jared Gardner’s Projections provides yet another building block to the growing body of comics studies scholarship.

 

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