Art by Dave Cooper. From Bizarro World, DC Comics, 2005.
Cerebus #85, April 1986 (Aardvark Vanaheim), by Dave Sim and Gerhard. This was the first Cerebus back issue I bought (in like ’91 or ’92). It’s near the beginning of Church & State II (which is to say, in the middle of Church & State, which is to say, in the middle of the best parts of Cerebus). The issue introduces Sim’s parodies of Mick and Keith (um, Mick n’ Keef); Prince Mick shares codeine-laced whiskey with Cerebus. Vomiting, hallucination, and friendship ensue.
Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.
There’s more of course.
In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:
Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).
But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?
Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).
The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders.
The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805). Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.
Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.
These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).
It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.
So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).
Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).
Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:
Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).
But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).
Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):
The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness.
And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.
Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).
But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).
That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.
Pages from David Mazzuchelli’s novel Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, 2009).
I reviewed the novel in October of 2009. Here is that review in full:
Let’s get a few things straight from the get-go: David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece, an unequivocal advancement of its medium, and an unqualified joy to read. It’s also not only one of the best books we’ve read this year, but also this decade. While such breathless enthusiasm might seem suspect, even a cursory look over Asterios Polyp will reveal that Mazzucchelli has produced a fully-realized work, one that fundamentally reimagines what a graphic novel is, and how it might be read.
Asterios Polyp is a boorish, solipsistic “paper architect” and tenured professor (none of his designs have ever actually been built) whose life goes to shambles after his sensitive wife Hana leaves him. The novel opens with a lightning strike that literally destroys everything that Asterios owns. He grabs three key items–his father’s old lighter, a magnetically-powered watch he bought as a child, and a Swiss Army knife he found on the beach–and hits the road, heading into the great, normal Midwest, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic (in a lovely scene, Asterios the autodidact, after accepting his new job, heads to the library to learn auto repair in an hour). Asterios’s kindly boss Stiff and his hippie wife Ursula take in the poor soul/arrogant prick. As the plot unfolds, Mazzucchelli contrasts Asterios’s past, full of faculty cocktail parties, affairs with grad students, and highbrow conversations, with his incremental rebirth into a more concrete world. “Be not simply good; be good for something,” said Henry David Thoreau–a lesson that Asterios slowly learns as he finally applies his skill and genius to real-world applications, like building a tree house for the couple’s son and creating a solar-powered Cadillac. Asterios’s emergence as a fully-realized human being contrasts sharply with hist past. Although he clearly loved his wife Hana, he was unable to appreciate her as anything other than a prop in relation to himself–how she complimented him, added to him, reflected on him. The flashback scenes with Hana are keenly realistic and loaded with genuine pathos. They are the heart of the novel. Continue reading “Sunday Comics”
Panels this week from Fletcher Hanks (from I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, Fantagraphics Books, 2007).
I might occasionally talk shit about my old man (what boy doesn’t?) but he always picked me up an issue of MAD.
I’m not sure when these wonderfully weird Basil Wolverton drawings were originally done/published, but they come from the Fall 1990 “Super Special” of weirdness. Note that the “Vote for Nixon” button on the cover illustration is likely an update to the “Vote for Landon” button below (Alf Landon lost in a landslide to FDR in 1936). The other internal/meta-textual differences are obvious too.
I love Basil Wolverton.
Just got home after three days evacuated from Hurricane Matthew. No power at the house, so no scanner to do Sunday Comics this week—I’ve resorted to the iPhone. Couldn’t resist Storm for this week.
From the cover of The Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1, No. 201, January, 1986. The writer is Chris Claremont with pencils by Rick Leonardi. Whilce Portacio’s inking is the star here.
Three pages from Will Eisner’s “Izzy the Cockroach and the Meaning of Life,” part of A Life Force, collected in Eisner’s The Contract with God Trilogy, Norton, 2006.
Richie Pope’s Fatherson showed up in today’s mail—it’s issue #13 of Youth in Decline’s monograph series Frontier. It’s so, so good—I’ve gone through it a few times now, and its immediate vibrancy and apparently simplicity slips into richer and richer territory each time.
It reminded me at first of a book my wife brought back to me years ago from San Francisco—a kids book called The Daddy Book by Todd Parr (she took our son when he was like, what—six months old?—left me with our daughter, alone, when she was like, what—twoish? Everything was fine and dandy cotton candy). And then, simultaneously, Fatherson reminded me of Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father—particularly the “Manual for Sons” section.
And Fatherson reminded me of other stuff too, but mostly I loved it because of the stuff it didn’t remind me of. Highly recommended.
I recently re-read all of Jeff Smith’s massive comic Bone—this time to my son, and this time in the Scholastic color reprints. (I read Bone in full with my daughter years ago through the unwieldy 1,300 page single-volume single edition; I read bits and pieces of it earlier in the late nineties, when Dave Sim (of Cerebus fame/infamy) was an early champion of Smith’s cartooning charms).
Anyway, we enjoyed the read, and the fourth book, The Dragonslayer, seemed particularly timely.
In this volume, Phoncible P. Bone—aka Phoney Bone—manipulates the fears of the populace of Barrelhaven. A natural conman, Phoney instructs the townspeople to build a wall to keep “dragons” out. Only sensible Lucius Down (and Phoney’s cousins, who know he’s a scammer) realize that Phoney is driven by egomania and greed.
Perhaps the most infuriating moment in the story comes when Phoney—a gifted pitchman—cloaks his greed in the language of ethics and morality.
Of course Phoney doesn’t win in the end. And Bone is just a comic; it’s not real life. It’s not like a xenophobic conman could really take sway over the zeitgeist.
Why here? 1 Why should the rainbow edges 2 of what is almost on him be rippling most intense here in this amply coded room? say why should walking in here be almost the same as entering the Forbidden 3 itself—here are the same long rooms, rooms of old paralysis and evil distillery, of condensations and residues you are afraid to smell from forgotten corruptions, rooms full of upright gray-feathered statues with wings spread, indistinct faces in dust 4 —rooms full of dust that will cloud the shapes of inhabitants around the corners or deeper inside, that will settle on their black formal lapels, that will soften to sugar the white faces, white shirt fronts, gems and gowns, white hands that move too quickly to be seen 5 … what game do They deal 6 ? What passes are these, so blurred, so old and perfect? “Fuck you,” whispers Slothrop 7. It’s the only spell 8 he knows, and a pretty good all-purpose one at that. His whisper is baffled by the thousands of tiny rococo surfaces. Maybe he’ll sneak in tonight—no not at night—but sometime, with a bucket and brush, paint FUCK YOU 9 in a balloon 10 coming out the mouth of one of those little pink shepherdesses there 11… .
He steps back out, backward out the door, as if half, his ventral half, were being struck in kingly radiance: retreating from yet facing the Presence feared and wanted. 12
Okay—this seems like a fair question. Let’s not be glib.
The question is Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop’s, via Pynchon’s oft-present free indirect style.
The where is the hotel room of Our Man in the French Riviera. Slothrop is on “furlough” (not really, they—They—have his ass hard at work) at the Hermann Goering Casino.
Poor Tyrone returns to his hotel room after a picaresque run (and wardrobe shift: tacky/sexy Hawaiian shirt to purple toga to English army uniform) to find that “everything in this room is really being used for something. Different. Meaning things to Them it has never meant to us. Two orders of being…”
Two orders of being: I could riff all day (night?) on this, but I suppose we can boil it down to GR’s binary theme. (Or, for fun, because it’s Our Boy Slothrop—Visible/Invisible (“paranoia” is the gradation between that binary).
2 The fourth appearance of the word “rainbow” in GR (barring the title, colophon, etc.). Another gradation, the rainbow, between binaries. An arc, a rise, a fall.
Double rainbow. Blind-sighted: False binary. Gradations:
Cf. Genesis 9:11-16 (King James Version):
11 And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:
15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
Cf. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, Steven Weisenburger:
3 …the Taboo? The Abject? Another description of Gravity’s Rainbow…? Or do we just feel the meaning here? (Yes).
4 The imagery here—desiccation and paralysis, a taxidermist’s row in an old dusty museum—evokes the death|life binary.
5 The Elect (vs Preterite Slothrop). Our Dude TS has his own issues vis a vis whiteness (revisit his adventures down the toilet back during a night in Roxbury).
6 Recall we are in the Casino Hermann Goering. Recall GR’s themes of chance and fate, probability and statistics, zeroes and ones. Recall They.
7 This seems to me like another thesis statement of Pynchon’s in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Actually, fuck that hedging: A fuck you to the They is Gravity’s Rainbow’s mission statement.
8 Gravity’s Rainbow is full of witches, and maybe Slothrop is a lazy novice.
9 Cf. Ch. 25 of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye:
It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.
11 A fascinating image, I think. Leave the rococo knickknack of the pink shepherdess alone a moment (perhaps it suggests erotic enticement to you, pervert preterite?) and attend to just how and where Slothrop intends to append this “FUCK YOU” sign—in a comic book speech bubble. The intertextual (do I mean metatextual—it’s hard to keep up) possibilities here bubble and boil. It’s as if Slothrop would rewrite his room (“Two orders of being”) as a comic book.
A page or two later, we find Our Guy Slothrop reading an issue of Plastic Man.
12 Note here the halving of Slothrop, the text that cuts him—ventral. He’s in and out, facing a Presence but already half Absent. Is Our Savior Tyrone the one radiating the “kingly radiance” — or is he being radiated by it?—Or am I making too much of light?