In the opening scene of Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s new documentary Cartoon College, aspiring cartoonist Ryland Ianelli lays out the reality that, despite all the progress the medium has made as an art form worthy of respect, comic books are still outré: “It’s gotten easier to talk to people who are open to the idea of comics being worthwhile—but at the point you say, Yes I’m going to school for comics, they’re completely ready to dismiss you.”
Cartoonists have always been outsiders—even in art schools, a traditional gathering spot for outsiders—and it’s this feeling of alienation and displacement that undergirds the emotional platform of Cartoon College. The film is not just about the Center for Cartoon Studies (CSS), a highly-selective two year MFA program founded in 2005 in White River Junction, Vermont, or the cadre of master cartoonists who inspired the school, and, in some cases teach there. For plenty of comix nerds (like me), it’s enough to see masters like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware talk about the art, medium, and business of cartooning. But this documentary offers more. Cartoon College succeeds because it tells the genuinely moving and engaging story of its students, self-described outcasts who find a sense of community and even family in the program.
Melrod and Wray take us into the extreme demands of the CSS program. In the first year (“boot camp”), students practice fundamentals—drawing, theory, writing, history. In the second year, the students produce a thesis—a finished work of some kind—to determine if they pass the program and receive an MFA. All this work is to ensure that students “will be ready to face the uncertainty of a career in one of the most labor-intensive, drudgery inducing art forms,” as the film puts it.
The faculty (all distinguished cartoonists, including Stephen Bissette, James Sturm, and Alec Longstreth, who are featured prominently in the film) repeatedly remind students and audience alike that most of cartooning is labor-intensive drudgery: it’s not really that fun, it requires lots of discipline, and most people can’t cut it. The CSS, like most art schools, employs a workshop technique to help students grow, get feedback—and also, implicitly, as a means of maintaining quality control. Workshop scenes and other critiques are often some of the most painful moments in the film, as they highlight the very personal stakes for the aspiring cartoonists, who quite literally put their lives into their work.
Melrod and Wray wisely compose their narrative around just a few of these students, while giving us enough scenes with others to flesh out the film. Blair Sterrett gives the film a definitive arc. He’s clearly a troubled, struggling artist, trying to channel his former experiences as a Mormon missionary into a thesis, but as the deadline approaches, it’s clear his book’s unfinished. Sterrett’s scenes (particularly an early critique) are very moving, and—a bit of a spoiler—there’s a triumphant feeling when he returns to the CSS to finish his MFA.
We find another arc in Jen Vaughn, who has too many jobs and too many ideas. Of all the student artists, she seems the most open to the camera, and her self-assured posture by turns belies a greater vulnerability and depth. In one illuminating scene at the MoCCA Fest, Vaughn tries to pique a muted festival goer’s interest in her project Menstruation Station; when he walks away without seeming to say anything we catch a glimpse of weariness bordering on desperation.
There’s also Al Wesolowsky, who at 61 is the oldest student. An archaeologist at Boston University, Wesolowsky tries his hand at the CSS program despite his self-admitted limitations as a draftsman. In some ways he’s the soul of the film. At one point he delivers a brief monologue wherein he describes the loneliness he feels at having no family, but the pleasure he’s found in a makeshift family at CSS.
Loneliness and alienation are perhaps the bedrock themes of comix and cartooning, as anyone who’s read Spiegelman or Ware or Burns—or really any of the master cartoonists interviewed in Cartoon College—can attest. Spiegelman is the first professional to pop up in the film, after the filmmakers have already introduced us to the students, and one of the first comments he makes is that comix allows cartoonists to come into contact with “a bunch of other outcasts.” This sentiment is repeated again and again, by students, teachers, and masters alike; we learn that Ryland Ianelli was voted Prom Queen by the cruel students of his high school; student Casey Bohn tells us that everyone in his small town thought he was “gay or British”; Lynda Barry puts it plain: “Childhood seemed to me like it lasted too long.”
Of all the master cartoonists on screen, I was most captivated by Chris Ware, who comes across as reflective, cerebral, and even philosophical. He points out that cartoonists are always “sifting through generations”,” handing down tropes, skills, ideas. Ware, chronicler of loneliness, perhaps makes the strongest case for cartoonists-as-community.
The idea that the students need to foster a community is reinforced by Bissette, who tells the that they must share contacts, share ideas, and be colleagues. Bissette and the other CSS instructors repeatedly emphasize the publishing dimension of cartooning, paying special attention to the idea that these cartoonists can self-publish. Cartoon College is larded with shots of students hand-crafting their art, and Bissette likens what they are doing to Warhol and his Factory. He also points out that this new generation’s desire is not to draw Spider-Man or Batman but their own creations.
An energetic scene at the MoCCA Fest shows this cottage industry at work, as artists buy and trade for each other’s work. But the instructors and pros are very clear—or try to be clear—about the economic realities most cartoonists will face. Ware and Burns point out that commercial illustration is a necessity to feed their other projects. Juxtaposed with these moments, our students describe their dreams of a comfortable retirement and book deals, a moment undercut by Lynda Barry gleefully pointing out that she makes most of her moeny selling “shit on E-bay.”
It might have been tempting for Melrod and Wray to cram all the footage they had of famous cartoonists like Barry, Françoise Mouly, Scott McCloud, and others into Cartoon College, but to the filmmakers’ credit they use the masters sparingly. Art Spiegelman tells us at one point that “We think in bursts of language, not in long Jamesian sentences…the number of words that might be able to fit in a speech balloon are the core of a linguistic thought.” The insight is intended for cartooning, but the filmmakers apply it to their medium, letting the camera do much of the work for them, offering only the most essential moments (like when Charles Burns completes a sketch and the student audience breaks into applause). Cartoon College is at its best when it shows us the difficult experiences of the students intercut with commentary by the seasoned, successful professionals, who understand precisely the pain these people are undergoing.
Before I started watching Cartoon College, I wondered who it was for. My interest in Spiegelman, Ware, Burns, et al. was enough to prod my interest (and the soundtrack featuring Archers of Loaf, Portastatic, and Tortoise didn’t hurt)—but would the film appeal to, uh, non-geeks? Ultimately, I think the documentary is about the drive toward art and self-expression, and the ways that communities and relationships can form around this drive. Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.
Website and trailer:
Got a sweet bundle from Roman Muradov a few weeks ago: Yellow Zine #3 plus some other comix, including a take on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night. Love the Joyce bookmark.
The comix themselves are funny, weird, and strangely heartfelt (why “strangely” — I suppose because there’s this weird cerebral/linguistic bent to them + literary allusion — these aren’t sad boy emo comics — but emotion and feeling comes through in Roman’s clean, expressive style).
Check out Roman’s site for more. I’m hoping for a graphic novel one day…
“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent). Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:
But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.
Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself: “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”
Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.
Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:
This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:
The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:
And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):
Continuing reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories; also, continuing the ad hoc naming of its “chapters”: let’s call this one the Big Four Paneled Board Book.
It’s big. Shown here in relation to a local brew (clearly the best way to illustrate scale):
It’s difficult to describe how each chapter enriches the story of Building Stories. There’s something Borgesian about Ware’s novel—not in the sense that it’s something that Borges would have written—what I mean to suggest is it’s like something out of a Borges story—winding, maze-like, self-referential, but not solipsistic. Building Stories doesn’t come with a set of instructions, so the reader has to interact with it in a random way. What’s really thrilling and emotionally impactful is the way that each piece deepens the story and develops each character a little bit more.
In the forked path I’ve been following, Lonely Girl (this is the building’s name for her; we might also call her the Would-be Writer, The Diarist, or, perhaps, The Amputee) emerges as the central character, and she gets the lead story in the Big Four Panel Board book. She’s looking for a companion, so she places an ad:
This tiny little square says so much: Ware wastes no space. Lonely Girl’s personal ad is in some ways a metonymy of Building Stories (and Ware’s oeuvre all together): it combines ironic, self-aware humor with a stark and devastating sense of loneliness.
Lonely Girl shows up as a character in the lives of her downstairs neighbors, the Sour Couple. The soda-swilling boyfriend wonders how she might have lost her leg. In some ways he serves as audience surrogate here—I doubt we’ll get the full story. (The boyfriend also entertains other fantasies about Lonely Girl’s body).
Of course, the Lonely Landlady also gets her panel. We see more of her stunted life, her mother (and the building itself) a proverbial albatross around her neck. Ware uses the size and scope of the Big Book to optimum advantage; he knows that the book is so big (and his panels so small) that the reader simultaneously sees everything and comprehends nothing. Ware employs lines that crisscross from section to section, often running through narrative elements we’ve yet to engage, or sometimes tracing over what we’ve already seen. The effect is not disorienting, though—rather, Ware uses the visual space to show the ways in which his characters and narratives cross, abut, or fail to connect.
The Big Book’s theme is in fact about cross-pollination, about the ways that different strands intersect, conmingle, blend (or fail to). It’s appropriate then when our old friend Branford the bee arrives:
More to come.
In X’ed Out, Charles Burns created a rich and strangely layered world focusing on Doug, a confused and injured young man. In his parents’ suburban basement, Doug parcels out the last of his late father’s painkillers, slipping from haunted memories of his relationship with Sarah into fevered nightmares of abject horror and then into a wholly other world, a realm that recalls William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this alien world, Doug takes on the features of Nitnit (an inversion of Tintin), the alter-ego he adopts when performing spoken word cut-ups as the opening act for local punk rock bands. What made X’ed Out so compelling (apart from Burns’s thick, precise illustration, of course), was the sense that this Interzone was a reality equal to Doug’s own “real world” — that it was somehow more real than Doug’s dreams.
The Hive (part two of the proposed trilogy) deepens the richness and complexity of the world Burns has imagined. The title refers to a location in Interzone. Doug (or Nitnit) has found employment in The Hive as a kind of mail clerk or janitor. His primary role though is secret librarian, catering to the reading needs of the breeders of The Hive. One breeder seems to be a version of Doug’s ex-girlfriend; the other is a double of Sarah, who asks Doug/Nitnit to bring her romance comics—which he does—only he skips a few issues. These missing issues stand in for the information Doug (and Burns) withholds from the reader, the missing fragments that have been x’ed out.
Burns uses romance comics as a framing or organizing device, a motif linking the disparate worlds of his narrative. In the “real world” — which is to say the world of Doug’s memory — we learn that he buys a stack of old romance comics for Sarah on their first date.
Throughout the narrative, Burns plays his characters against the extreme, often hysterical dramas of 1950s and ’60s romance comics; his strong lines and heavy inks readily recall the early works of Simon and Kirby, but more precise and careful—something closer to Roy Lichtenstein, only more sincere, more emotional.
In The Hive, we learn more about Doug’s troubled relationship with Sarah, who has problems out the proverbial yingyang (not the least of which is a violent psychopathic ex-boyfriend).
Burns weaves the story of Sarah and Doug’s relationship into the fallout of Doug’s father’s death—a death Doug was completely shuttered to, we realize. Doug’s drug-dreams dramatize the missing pieces of these narratives, and the Interzone set-pieces propel the mystery aspects of the narrative forward, as Doug’s alter-ego plumbs the detritus of his psychic fallout. Through the metatextual motif of reading-comic-books-as-detective-works, Burns explores themes of trauma, abjection, and distance. Images of pigs and cats, freaks and punks, portals and holes litter The Hive.
Burns has always been a perfectionist of dark lines and strange visions, and his last full graphic novel Black Hole was a triumph of atmosphere and mood. With the first two entries of his trilogy, however, Burns has showed a significant maturation in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. I often thought parts of Black Hole seemed forced or rushed (no doubt because Burns faced daunting production troubles during the decade he worked on the novel—including his original publisher Kitchen Sink folding). With X’ed Out and now The Hive we can see a more patient artist, working out an emotionally complex and compelling story in rich, symbolic layers.
I reread X’ed Out and then read The Hive in one greedy sitting; then I went through The Hive again, more slowly, more attendant to its details and nuances. We had to wait two years between X’ed Out and The Hive—and it was worth the two year wait. So if we must wait another two years—or more—for the final entry, Sugar Skull, so be it.
September 23rd, 2000 is one of the longer pieces in Chris Ware’s box set, Building Stories. Part of the joy and frustration of Building Stories is its free form—the possibility of reading one piece before another, of getting one tale or perspective before another. I started with Branford, which seems in retrospective a fairly neutral opening—it introduces many of the themes that develop in Building Stories but none of the major characters. I then read I just met, which introduces a couple suffering a sour relationship.
September introduces (to me, anyway), two major “new” (again, “new” to me; these characters appear central in other books and pamphlets of the collection and obliquely in others): The “lonely girl,” a would-be artist sporting a prosthetic leg, and the “old lady,” landlord of the building. Most of September takes the form of lonely girl’s diary entries.
I noted two characters (again, new to me), but the building itself also gets a voice and prominent role in September; its thoughts and memories frame the narrative:
September frames the repetitions, the loops, the patterns that undoubtedly will resurface throughout Building Stories. We get access to the characters dreams, which seem to overlap and echo each other—and then repeat in real life, albeit in other forms. The landlady, recalling her youth, seems to echo the loneliness and despair of the lonely girl, as well as the pain of the woman in the sour relationship. We see that the building has in fact been a kind of prison for her, preventing her from forming real relationships:
Other echoes are more subtle—a close up of a bee, for instance, either foreshadows or calls back to (or both, of course) Branford, the Best Bee in the World.
We can see the Branford episode again, here in the tiny detail of a soda can, a major setting for that episode. I was more fascinated by the newspaper though, particularly the colorful squares of a comics section, a reference Ware’s medium and perhaps a visual suggestion of Building Stories itself. The detail is tiny, but meaningful:
I imagine that there were other references, call backs, and echoes in September that I won’t get until later.
The story—well, it’s beautiful, a perfect short story, self-contained but thematically resonant with the larger project. The ending is so damn sweet and perfect that it brought a little tear to my eye. And yet: Was that the ending? Of course not. The sense of rhetorical resolution—that is to say the so-called happy ending—will almost surely be punctured, deflated, or otherwise complicated by one of the next texts I read. More to come.
For some reason—some reason founded on no reason at all but rather superstitious suspicion—I didn’t believe Charles Burns would follow up X’ed Out, the first chapter of a proposed trilogy. I suppose X’ed Out had unresolved cult classic written all over it (written metaphorically, of course).
X’ed Out was one of my favorite books of 2010. From my review:
In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.
So, of course I was stoked when Burns’s sequel The Hive showed up a few weeks ago—in fact, the only thing that got in the way of me reading it immediately was that it showed up in a package along with Chris Ware’s Building Stories (this is, without question, the best package I’ve received in six years of doing the blog).
Anyway, I’ll be revisiting X’ed Out and then reviewing The Hive in the next week or so. For now, a few pics. Two from the interior above. And our hero Doug, in his alter-ego/costume Nitnit (inverse Tintin):
I dig this panel in particular: A take on Roy Lichtenstein via Raymond Pettibon via the romance comics those pop artists were riffing on:
Continuing kinda sorta where we left off—
Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:
I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?
The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:
He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.
The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!
The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.
We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.
Just as in Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.
Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.