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).
From Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Vol. I by Hayao Miyazaki. VIZ Media English language edition.
From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper story, posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. The murders initially arise as a means to cover up an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more. The murders are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.
One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder.
From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel. Gull goes backwards (William Blake sees him in a vision and turns that vision into Ghost of Flea) and Gull goes forwards: he sees London at the end of the twentieth century, and receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect.
From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism.
Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure.
From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.
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.
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 love love love Hilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson (Flying Eye/Nobrow, 2016). My kids love it too. It’s the richest, funniest, and most heartwarming Hilda book to date.
Pearson manages to stuff The Stone Forest with miniature epics and minor gags, which he hangs on the central story of Hilda and her mother in an otherworldly (literally), uh, stone forest, where they encounter trolls and other dangers (including existential despair).