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Gilbert Hernandez, Venus Tells It Like It Is! Luba in America 167 (excerpt). 2001 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

Charles Hatfield


The University Press of Mississippi is a member of the Association of American University Presses.

Copyright 2005 by University Press of Mississippi

All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America

First edition 2005

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hatfield, Charles, 1965
Alternative comics : an emerging literature / Charles Hatfield. 1st ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-57806-718-9 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN 1-57806-719-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Underground comic books, strips, etc.United StatesHistory and criticism. I. Title.
PN6725.H39 2005
741.5'0973dc22 2004025709

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available


Acknowledgments vii

Introduction ix
Alternative Comics as an Emerging Literature

1 Comix, Comic Shops, and the Rise of 3

Alternative Comics, Post 1968

2 An Art of Tensions 32
The Otherness of Comics Reading

3 A Broader Canvas: Gilbert Hernandezs Heartbreak Soup 68

4 I made that whole thing up! 108

The Problem of Authenticity in Autobiographical Comics

5 Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Autobiographical Comics 128

Two Case Studies

6 Whither the Graphic Novel? 152

Notes 164

Works Cited 169

Index 177
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Who can do this sort of thing alone? Not I. Thanks are due to many.
For permission to include passages from my article, Heartbreak Soup:
The Interdependence of Theme and Form (Inks 4:2, May 1997), the Ohio
State University Press. For shepherding that article in the first place, Inks edi-
tor Lucy Shelton Caswell.
For the use of copyrighted material, the many artists and other rights-
holders represented herein.
Special thanks to the following, without whom my vague aspirations and
tentative arguments could not have become a book:
For guiding my first draft, my advisors at the University of Connecticut:
Tom Roberts, Jean Marsden, and Tom Recchio. For information and images:
Robert Beerbohm, Ccile Danehy, Gary Groth, John Morrow, Mark Nevins,
Nhu-Hoa Nguyen, Nick Nguyen, Eric Reynolds, Michael Rhode, Patrick
Rosenkranz, Randall Scott, R. Sikoryak, Tim Stroup, Brian Tucker, and the
Comics Scholars Discussion List ( For the corre-
spondence, Gilbert Hernandez. For patience and counsel, Seetha Srinivasan
and Walter Biggins. For design, Pete Halverson.
For mentorship and friendship, Joseph (Rusty) Witek. For help of all sorts
and friendship in all weathers, my fellow traveler Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
For inspiration and conversation, my brother Scott. For unstinting moral
and material support, my parents Ella and Jerry and my parents-in-law Ann
and Bob.
For the spark, Jack Kirby.
Finally, and above all, to my own dear family: Michele, Coleman, and
Nicholas. Norp!

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This book is about comics. Specifically, it is about the growth, over the past thirty-
odd years, of the American-style comic book and its loosely named offshoot, the
graphic novel. In the English-reading world, the graphic novel in particular has
become comics passport to recognition as a form of literature. Through this book
I aim to cast light on both the necessary preconditions for and certain key exam-
ples of this newly recognized literature, while unashamedly holding up as
a backdrop the forms populist, industrial, and frankly mercenary origins. In all,
this book offers an entryor rather several points of entry, including the socio-
historical and the aestheticinto that most fertile and bewildering sector of comic
book culture, alternative comics.
Alternative comics trace their origins to the underground comix move-
ment of the 1960s and 1970s, which, jolted to life by the larger social
upheavals of the era, departed from the familiar, anodyne conventions of the
commercial comics mainstream and provided the initial impetus, the spark of
possibility, for a new model of comics creation. The countercultural comix
movementscurrilous, wild and liberating, innovative, radical, and yet in some
ways narrowly circumscribedgave rise to the idea of comics as an acutely
personal means of artistic exploration and self-expression. The aesthetic and
economic example of the underground (as related in this books scene-setting
first chapter) spurred the development of what eventually became a highly
specialized commercial venue for comics: the comic book specialty shop, as it
blossomed in the seventies and eighties. Within this specialized environment,
the collision of underground distribution with mainstream comic book pub-
lishing resulted in the growth of a hermetic yet economically advantageous
market, one that catered to mainstream comic book fans but sustained, at its
margins, the fevered sense of artistic possibility ignited by comix.


Alternative comics, responding to that spirit, personal and at times boldly political themes. Whats
sprang up within the specialty market during the more, alternative comics invited a new formalism, that
1970s, and more vitally and self-consciously from the is, an intensive reexamining of the formal tensions
early 1980s onward, with the advent of iconoclastic inherent in comics (which are the focus of chapter 2).
magazines such as Raw (198091) and Weirdo Indeed among the best of alternative comics are
(198193), both rooted in underground comix, and many that have expanded the formal possibilities of
Love & Rockets (1981), deeply indebted to both comic art: out of a struggle with the conventions of
underground and mainstream comics. These publi- serial publication, they have created breathtaking
cations participated in a burgeoning movement of experiments in narrative structure and density. One
so-called independent comics, but stood out even such experiment, Gilbert Hernandezs recently col-
within that context because of the animating influ- lected Central American epic Heartbreak Soup, is the
ence of the undergrounds, which inspired them to flout subject of chapter 3. Unfolding on a vast social and
the traditional comic books overwhelming emphasis temporal canvas, Heartbreak Soup tested the limits
on comforting formula fiction. Even as the growing of comics form in order to broaden the artistic hori-
sophistication of mainstream genre comics led to revi- zons and question the political responsibilities of
sions of familiar formulasleading, for instance, to comic books.
a boom in darkly revisionist superheroes in the late Alternative comics, in addition, have enlarged the
eightiesalternative comics skirted those shopworn comic books thematic repertoire by urging the explo-
genres. They were the boot up the backside of comic ration of genres heretofore neglected in comics, such
books, pushing and kicking against the calcified limi- as autobiography, reportage, and historical fiction.
tations of the medium. Autobiography, especially, has been central to alter-
Though driven by the example of underground native comicswhether in picaresque shaggy-dog
comix, many alternative comics cultivated a more con- stories or in disarmingly, sometimes harrowingly,
sidered approach to the art form, less dependent on frank uprootings of the psycheand this has raised
the outrageous gouging of taboos (though that con- knotty questions about truth and fictiveness, realism
tinued too, of course) and more open to the possibility and fantasy, and the relationship between author and
of extended and ambitious narratives. Alternative audience. These topics are essayed in chapters 4
comic creators of various pedigreesfrom venera- and 5, which turn on the question of artistic self-
ble comic book pioneer Will Eisner (19172005), to representation, arguing that self-reflexive and mock-
underground veteran Art Spiegelman, to underground autobiographical devices paradoxically serve to
latecomer Harvey Pekar, to such newcomers as Gilbert reinforce autobiographys claims to truth. Chapter 5
and Jaime Hernandezraised the intoxicating possibil- further argues that self-reflexive autobiographical
ity that comics might be viewed not only as a crack- comics, far from devolving into navel-gazing passiv-
ling, vital repository of supercharged Pop Art but also, ity, can become, indeed have become, a means for
and crucially, as a literary form. radical cultural argument.
From this reenvisioning of comics has sprung a vital In sum, this book shows how alternative comics
if underappreciated literary movementand it is to have breached the limits of the traditional comic
this movement that the following book is devoted. book on every level, including packaging, publica-
Crucial to this new movement were the rejection of tion, narrative form and thematic content. In the
mainstream formulas; the exploration of (to comics) process they have spawned the vital yet often misun-
new genres, as well as the revival, at times ironic derstood genre of the graphic novel, whose origins
recasting, of genres long neglected; a diversification are addressed in chapter 1 (and whose constraints are
of graphic style; a budding internationalism, as car- addressed, finally, in chapter 6). This genre, again,
toonists learned from other cultures and other tradi- has become a passport to new recognition; indeed
tions; and, especially, the exploration of searchingly the graphic novel has been repeatedly invoked as a


radically new form, even the harbinger of a new curricula and pedagogically minded cartoonists. For
visual literacy. Such claims, of course, mislead: example, the National Association of Comics Art Edu-
graphic novels are neither post-literary nor without cators, founded by James Sturm in 2002, advocates
precedent. They are comics, thus examples of a ven- the development of comics programs in educational
erable tradition. Yet the graphic novel genre is of institutions; it represents a summing up of recent gains
recent coinage, and its commercial upsurge even and a hopeful next step after Eisner and McCloud.
more recent; moreover, its recognition has invigor- (Much to the enrichment of the field, NACAE has
ated the critical discourse about comics. At last encouraged the exchange of teaching materials
comics are being recognized as a literary and artistic between studio art and non-studio instructors, for
form deserving of sustained attention. example, teachers of literature and media studies.)
The recent influx of artistically ambitious graphic In short, comics are clearly in the process of being
novels has led to salutary changes in the critical envi- repositioned within our culture. This is not because
ronmenta trend borne out in rigorous academic all comics are changing (such is never the case) but
study as well as greater attention from reviewers. For because some comics have stimulated profound
telling academic evidence of this trend, consider, for changes in the ways the form is received and under-
example, two articles in the Chronicle of Higher stood. At the forefront of this development are alterna-
Education that appeared, bookend-like, to bracket tive comics. In particular, Art Spiegelmans two-volume
my final round of work on this volume: The first, by family memoir Maus, recipient of a special Pulitzer in
cartoonist and art instructor James Sturm, appeared 1992, constituted a signal moment in the emergence
in the April 25, 2002, issue and urged art schools and of book-length comics from obscuritya major inter-
art departments to take up the teaching of comics as vention in the history of the form and its attendant
a discipline. The second, by historian Paul Buhle, criticism. Spiegelmans achievement, unprecedented
appeared in the May 16, 2003, issue and noted, in English-language comics, served to ratify comic art
albeit in an underresearched way, the recent growth as a literary form; the reception of Maus suddenly
of comics study as an academic field. (Unfortunately, made serious comics culturally legible, recognizable,
Buhle failed to mention the rise of academic confer- in a way they had not been before. Yet Spiegelmans
ences and publications devoted to comics study, the success only crystallized a larger trend of which he had
interdisciplinary nature of the field, or its mushroom- been a part: the development of a new breed of car-
ing diversityfull acknowledgment of which would toonists and comics writers, for whom comics were
have drawn a drastically different picture of the field.) first and above all an acutely personal means of literary
This recent growth in comics study is reflected in, expression. This revolution in reception and practice,
and has been much affected by, the increasing self- solidified by Maus, is what is meant by alternative
awareness of practitioners, which has resulted in such comicsand it has publicly redefined the potential of
seminal works of autocriticism as Will Eisners text- the art form.
book Comics & Sequential Art (1985) and Scott
McClouds much-debated theoretical comic Under-
standing Comics (1993). Both of these books, but THE DEVILS OF STATUS AND DISTINCTION
especially McCloud, have had a strong impact on
artistic practice and academic research (see, for exam- Some will nonetheless scoff at the labeling of comics
ple, Witek, Inks, and Beaty, Critical Focusand this as literatureand among the scoffers will be some
book, frankly, for McClouds work sparked my own, practitioners. Alternative comics, coming as they do
or at least rerouted it). These watershed studies have out of a marginalized subculture, uneasily straddle
changed the way the field talks about itself and have two different attitudes about comic art: one, that the
given rise to a new, or newly self-conscious, breed of form is at its best an underground art, teasing and
comics formalism, as well as a wave of sequential art outraging bourgeois society from a gutter-level


position of economic hopelessness and (paradoxically) attacking a peculiar consensus of leftist reformers and
unchecked artistic freedom; two, that the form needs rightist censors who had in common but one thing:
and deserves cultural legitimatization as a means of a hatred and dread of the lowbrow comic book.
artistic expression. (That would include academic Fiedlers defense of comic books proved prescient, in
legitimization.) Alternative comics waver between that it effectively prophesied the odd meeting of low-
these two positionsbetween the punk and the cura- brow form and highbrow attitude that was to occur in
tor, so to speak. the underground comix of the 1960s, and especially
Both of these attitudes have their attendant dan- in the alternative comics of the 1980s and after.
gers. The former, at its worst, reeks of willed naivet Though the subculture of alternative comics is low-
or reverse snobbery. The latter, at its worst, reeks of brow and shabby in origin, it tends to be highbrow
status anxiety and an over-earnest bidding for gentri- both in its material obsessions and in its self-conscious
fication. Either position may be blinding, but together rejection of bourgeois norms.
these contrary attitudes form the inescapable setting Because critical discussions of comic art in America
for any discussion of comic books as literatureso in remain stubbornly connected to such ideas about
what follows we will not be able to ignore them class, both the prosecution and the defense have
entirely. The contemporary comic book field, espe- always leaned heavily on the notion of comics as an
cially in its alternative wing, embodies a curious mix of under-art or paraliterature, one that (to invoke Art
values, a blend of countercultural iconoclasm, rapa- Spiegelmans oft-quoted phrase) flies below critical
cious consumerism, and learned connoisseurship. It is radar. Fiedler understood the inevitability of this in
a highly specialized if thinly populated consumer cul- 1955, and the problem persists. For this reason, those
ture, one that holds tightly to a romanticized position who seek to study comics as a literary form often find
of marginality and yet courts wider recognition. Its themselves pulled between two impulses, neither of
best authors have to navigate this swamp of conflict- which yields a wholly satisfactory outcome.
ing values (both without and within). Scholars must On the one hand, status anxiety may drive scholars
do the same. to import traditional literary standards to comics with-
Suffice to say that this book cannot resolve the out respect for the comics unique origins and nature.
lowbrow/highbrow conflict, nor does it seek to. As an example (one I can cite with impunity), my own
Respectability, of course, can be stiflingsome car- earliest writings on the subject favored nuts n bolts
toonists think sobut marginality can likewise be suf- formalism, almost New Critical in character, as a self-
focating. Ambivalence on this score is hard to avoid, conscious corrective to sweeping content analysis. I
for, ever since the earliest published attacks on comic wanted formal rigor to displace sociological maxims
books (that would be 1940), critical discussions of the about popular culture; I wanted readers to appreci-
medium have always been implicitly tied to beliefs ate the complexities of the art form. To get to that
about class. This tendency finally became explicit in promised land, though, I felt obliged to bypass some
1955 with Leslie Fiedlers bravura essay, The Middle of the more distracting elements of the comic book
Against Both Ends, in part an ironic defense of the landscape, including its industrial origins and its fervid
medium: Fiedler famously claimed that comic books, emphasis on certain market genres (cue some remark
as a lowbrow form, attracted the same sort of middle- about superheroes here). Such an approach allows
brow scorn as did avant-garde or highbrow art; that one to appreciate the layered complexities and ironies
both kinds of attack were grounded in the middle- of the most challenging comics but falsifies the comics
brows fear of difference (428). In so saying, of reading experience in two ways: one, it soft-pedals
course, he was joining a midcentury discussion of the essential role of popular genre comics in establish-
taste framed by such critics as Clement Greenberg ing both a public taste and the scholars own passion
and Dwight MacDonald, known for their Olympian for the form; and two, it does not allow one to recog-
disdain of the middlebrow. He was, more specifically, nize the seminal achievements of popular comics


creators from the past. (It ought to be as easy for crit- comics. Though many are wretched, and the subcul-
ics to appreciate the work of a commercial cartoonist ture from which they spring is admittedly an ideologi-
like Carl Barks or Jack Kirby as it is for them to admire cal rats nest, alternative comics have also been the
the work of a filmmaker like Griffith or Ford.) Thus seedbed of much that is vital and transforming in the
status anxiety can doubly handicap the critics work. comics field. I think readers of contemporary literature
On the other hand, scholars may argue from an should be specially introduced to them.
iconoclasts position, and point out, with a nod of the
head toward Pierre Bourdieu, that taste differentials
are based not on inherent qualities in art so much as THE VIRTUES OF UNFIXABILITY
on the exercise of political power by privileged classes.
By this argument, it makes no sense, and indeed Both socially and aesthetically, comics are likely to
would be bitterly ironic, to erect a comics canon, an remain an unresolved, unstable, and challenging form.
authoritative consensus that would reproduce, within This is what makes them interesting. Indeed, for the
the comics field, the same operations of exclusion and general reader, the collateral benefits of comics study
domination that have for so long been brought to may be found in this very instability: if comic art is
bear against the field as a whole. This iconoclast argu- some kind of bastard, to recruit a popular metaphor,
ment questions the needfulness of making hierarchi- then maybe bastardy is just the thingour culture has
cal distinctions among comics (indeed, why even it in for aesthetic purity anyway. In our age of new and
single out alternative comics as such?), and argues hybrid media, interartistic collaboration is king. Popular
for a more open, less canon-obsessed view of the culture and high art alike are saturated with text/
field. Such a position is tempting, as it allows one to image combinations; we are encircled by imagetexts (a
keep all of the field in focus, sans status anxiety, and phrase I lift from W. J. T. Mitchell). What better form
to discuss the ceaseless interchange between popular than comics to tune up our sensibilities and alert us to
genre works and more critically favored ones. That the possibilities of such texts? Among the popular tra-
interchange is crucial: doubtless our sense of literary ditions, none mix text and image more persistently, or
history would be richer had past scholars not lost sight diversely, than comics; they make an ideal laboratory
of it, that is, had they not neglected the popular tradi- for the sustained study of text/image relations. In
tions which stoked the development of what would my own teaching I have learned that bringing comics
later become canonical literary works (Northanger into contact with other hybrid forms (for example, pic-
Abbey, anyone?). Why should we repeat the same ture books, illustrated novels, artists books, concrete
critical exclusions, the same mistakes, with comics? poems) enriches my and my students understanding
Yet the iconoclast position, grounded though it is of text/image relations in general.
in a necessary Marxist critique of taste, cannot explain Comics are challenging (and highly teachable)
the bracing experience of reading and rereading because they offer a form of reading that resists
excellent work in the comics formwork that not coherence, a form at once seductively visual and
only engages us emotionally and intellectually with its radically fragmented. Comic art is a mixed form, and
vision of life but also tutors us in the possibilities of the reading comics a tension-filled experience (as I
form and makes us hunger to read more good work in posit in chapter 2). Recent criticism both within and
that form. Simply put, a critical stance that posits no without the academy has recognized that comics
meaningful distinctions among comics cannot do jus- solicit the readers participation in a unique way;
tice to the art form. Nor can it explain its recent reju- through their very plurality of means, they advert to
venation. That is why the following study, while that incompleteness or indeterminancy, which, as
acknowledging the history of the comic book as a Wolfgang Iser has argued, urges readers to take up
lowbrow or no-brow medium (and referencing comics the constitutive act of interpretation (The Act of
of all kinds), finds its center of gravity in alternative Reading 16670). The fractured surface of the


comics page, with its patchwork of different images, hybrid texts. Indeed comics have the potential to
shapes, and symbols, presents the reader with a sur- illuminate the entire field of word/image relation-
feit of interpretive options, creating an experience ships. If, as W. J. T. Mitchell argues in Picture Theory
that is always decentered, unstable, and unfixable. (5), all media are mixed, and all representations
As Robert P. Fletcher observes, this fragmentation heterogeneous, then comics may serve as a way
urges readers to take a critical role, for comic art of honing our critical sensibilities to approach the
calls attention to its fictionality by displaying its material and visual dimensions even of more tradi-
narrative seams (381). The readers responsibility tional texts. Through the exploration of comics we
for negotiating meaning can never be forgotten, for can work on assembling a much-needed vocabulary
the breakdown of comics into discrete visual quanta for the study of hybrid texts old and new, a vocabu-
continually foregrounds the readers involvement. lary that will help us better understand the visual
The very discontinuity of the page urges readers to elements of literature as well as the possibilities of
do the work of inference, to negotiate over and over interartistic collaboration. Comic art, after all, repre-
the passage from submissive reading to active inter- sents a vast experimenting with word/image combi-
preting. In the words of McClouds Understanding nations, a thus far neglected inheritance that may
Comics, Every act committed to paper by the make it possible for us to reapproach whole bodies
comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accom- of marginalized work from the past (as well as the
plice. An equal partner in crime known as the burgeoning possibilities of an increasingly on-line
reader (68, his emphasis). future).
The comics form is infinitely plastic: there is no
single recipe for reconciling the various elements of
the comics page. Granted, readers are guided by WHAT (NOT) TO EXPECT
expectations born of habit, and artists by rules
born of long usage, but the makeup of the page While establishing a cultural milieu for alternative
need not follow any set pattern. In the reading of comics, this study views comic art primarily as a liter-
a page there is always the possibility that differ- ary form. This is not the only productive way comics
ent protocols may be invoked, different elements can be viewed, but it is an important and thus far
stressed. Perhaps that is why, within the larger field neglected way. Granted, comics are an unusual kind
of word/image study, comics are a wandering vari- of literature and should not be carelessly subsumed
able, and can be approached from so many perspec- into prevailing models (a caveat raised in chapter
tives. The restless, polysemiotic character of the form 6). Whats more, comics study encourages eclecti-
allows for the continual rewriting of its grammar; cism, for comics urge the dissolution of professional
each succeeding page need not function in precisely boundaries and the mingling of theories and meth-
the same manner as its predecessor. The relationship ods drawn from various fields. In this sense they
between the various elements of comics (images, are antidisciplinary. Yet embarking on comics study
words, symbols) resists easy formulation. The critical requires, no less than other fields, a provisional com-
reading of comics therefore involves a tug-of-war mitment to some discipline, some particular way of
between conflicting impulses: on the one hand, the seeing. (Otherwise, how can one get started?) In
nigh-on irresistible urge to codify the workings of what follows, then, I have stressed the literary, while
the form; on the other, a continual delight in the happily stretching out toward other fields and modes
forms ability to frustrate any airtight analytical of inquiry. At the core of this book is an interest in
scheme. comics as a narrative form, in the broadest sense: fic-
The inherent plurality of comic art makes it apt tion, recollection, reportage, exposition. These are
for critical study, as it promises to shed light on not the only things to look for in comicsnarrative
verbal-visual dynamics in many different kinds of drive is not the only, nor always the best, criterion


for evaluating a comicbut I continue to be drawn open for reassessment, as many of the limiting
to comics that tell stories. assumptions behind previous scholarship have at last
I am, however, not drawn to arguments based on been overturned (no longer do we assume that
presumptions about the essence, proper scope, or comics are American in origin, that they are just over
limitations of comic art. (Such arguments are rou- one hundred years old, or that they are reducible to
tinely flouted by alternative comics.) And, emphati- a handful of popular genres). In fact this is an exhila-
cally, I am not interested in problems of definition or rating moment for comics study, for, aesthetically,
origin, issues that have consumed much energy critically, and economically, things have changed and
among comics scholars. Regarding the origin of are changing so fast that it is hard to keep up. I take
modern comics, suffice to say that several competing this as an encouraging sign. When I began drafting
narratives of comics history, some clearly shaped by this book, prospects for the continued popular
cultural nationalism, are now in place (readers are growth of comics were unpromising: the U.S. comic
urged to consult Diereck and Lefvre, as well as the book market was in retreat, and the graphic novel
essential David Kunzle). Regarding definition, I con- had yet to make a strong mark on the mainstream
sider the question a detourthe outlines of the field publishing industry. Since then, the landscape has
are by now agreed upon, despite continued wran- changed: the graphic novel has carved out a healthy
gling over fine points. What definitions I propose in niche in the book trade, so that even this skeptic has
this book are either purely local, meaning tactical, or finally dropped the habit of bracketing the term in
else based on histories of practice rather than quotation marks (when in Rome . . .). In a space of
abstract formal criteria (as in chapter 1s discussion just a few years, market trends and patterns of
of the comic book). Though chapter 2 offers a tool- reception have undergone terrific shifts, and alterna-
box of notions for the aesthetic analysis of comics, it tive comics in particularthrough acclaimed work
does not presume to be definitive; rather, it consists by such creators as Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar,
of an unfinished series of questions about what Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Lynda Barry,
comics can do and how they can do it. In short, I do Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Chris
not propose a new, overarching definition of comic Warehave leapt into the spotlight.
artthough I hope I have treated certain familiar At the moment, comic art in North America hap-
questions more comprehensively than readers have pily suffers from a fever of promise, commercially
seen before. and artistically, so much so that a larger critical audi-
Finally, this study is but a progress report from ence is at last waking up to its possibilities. Readers
one who is working as fast as he can to keep abreast are therefore urged to use what follows as a spring-
of a rapidly accelerating field. Comic art is now wide board for their own explorations.

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POST 1968

Comics have most often come in small packages: broadsheets, panels, strips,
pamphlets. Yet recent emphasis on the graphic novel suggests that the forms
further artistic growth, or at least recognition, depends on the vitality of
longer stories that exceed these small packages. Critical attention has turned
to longer works that cannot fit within the narrow straits of the strip and other
miniature formats. Notwithstanding the many brilliant uses of the newspaper
strip as a ritualistic genreone thinks of George Herriman, Charles Schulz,
and a pantheon of othersthe current renascence and critical reassessment
of comics stems mainly from book-length works. Many of these works, not
coincidentally, are alternative comics, determined to push back the thematic
horizons of the formand to avoid the colorful yet diversionary byways of
familiar market genres such as the superhero.
Critical study of these alternative comics and graphic novels begs certain
historical questions: What conditions have allowed for the creation of such
extended, formula-defying comics? What cultural and commercial circum-
stances have enabled the growth of alternative comics and the recognition
of comics as a distinct literature? If, as Lee Erickson argues in The Economy
of Literary Form, the evolution of a genre reveals an economy of readers
demands and authors productions (3), then what economy accounts for
the innovations seen in recent comics? The following chapter tries to answer
these questions by placing the development of alternative comicsas literary
form and as reading culturewithin the history of American comics publishing,
and in particular the history of that most puzzling of artifacts, the comic book.


I offer here a new take on the comic book and its 1980s, a third way of packaging comics has gained
reading culture. While some recent studies describe ground in American print culture: the graphic novel,
the world of contemporary comic book readers in which in industry parlance means any book-length
detail, most notably Matthew Pustzs participant- comics narrative or compendium of such narratives
observer study Comic Book Culture (1999), none (excepting volumes reprinting newspaper strips, which
satisfactorily explains how this culture, in particular its comprise a long-lived yet critically invisible genre of
alternative subculture, has reshaped comics as a their own). Each of these three packages, the news-
literary form. This is because none has acknowledged paper page, the comic book, and the graphic novel,
the current fields contested origins in 1960s-era coun- has its own horizons in terms of content, audience,
terculture or the way those origins still inform and and cultural cachet.
enliven the field. None has succeeded in explaining As Samuel R. Delany has observed of comics in
why this seemingly narrow and specialized field con- general, these formats are social objects (in the sense
tinues to generate such explosive work or why the established by sociologist Lucien Goldmann), and as
field should be of interest to the general reader. such are defined more by common usage than by a
By reexamining the history of the comic book as priori formal criteria (Delany 239). As social objects,
commodity and as literary form, and specifically by they come to us encrusted with connotationsor
demonstrating the importance of countercultural or rather we come to them with associations and habits
underground comic books within that history, I of thought inculcated through repeated use. If we are
hope to answer these questions. Thus we will estab- to see comic art more clearly, we have to distinguish
lish a cultural and economic milieu for alternative between these connotatively charged objects and the
comics (and for the remainder of this study). art form itself. To this end, it helps to distinguish
broadly between short-form comics and long-form
comics. Each of these categories, the short form and
FORMAT VERSUS ART FORM the long form, may come in a variety of packages,
though each has traditionally been associated with
Let us begin by taking a step back, so that we can one medium, or package, in particular.
gain a sense of overview, or topsight: The short form, through the medium of daily and
The history of comic art has been bound up in the weekly newspapers, remains the type of comic most
histories of certain packages or publishing formats. In familiar to general readers in the United States. Under
the United States, the most dominant of these pack- short form we may also group panels and strips in
ages have been the newspaper comics page and the magazines, as well as a smattering of short features
comic book. The former consists of a miscellany of within comic books. Yet the kernel of the short form
features and genres, most bound by the rigid con- remains the newspaper strip, which, despite the recent
straints of the daily strip or the Sunday; it appears plunge in newspaper reading, remains an entrenched
within the larger miscellany of the newspaper, and part of American culture. Strips are small, formally
comics produced for it are seen as secondary features rigid and ephemeral, though the more popular ones
at best. The so-called comic book, on the other hand, are routinely gathered into best-selling books. While
is a small, self-contained magazine or pamphlet they have recovered a degree of formal playfulness in
(roughly half-tabloid in size). In the early days of the recent years, thanks to the interventions of popular
industry, this magazine incorporated a miscellany of artists such as Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), strips
features, both narrative and non-narrative; more remain an editorially conservative medium, bound by
recently, though, it has come to concentrate on a sin- inflexible formatting constraints. Artists and historians
gle character or group of characters and, more often have written lovingly of the full pages that strip car-
than not, a single story (typically between eighteen toonists once enjoyed, and have lamented the grad-
and twenty-four pages in length). Since the late ual crowding of the medium into its present cramped


conditions, but the fact is that the age of the large- In the years after Maus, an initial fit of commercial
format newspaper strip passed decades ago. Though enthusiasm for the graphic novel gave way to at best
some artists have adapted well to the smaller format, flickering interest, as it became clear that Spiegelmans
strips continue to be cramped by unyielding editorial project was sui generis and did not necessarily herald
policies. The ability of such strips to insinuate them- an explosion of comparable books. Only recently
selves into daily routine has been at once their great- (especially since 2000) have graphic novels of similar
est asset and greatest obstacle to continued growth: density and ambition begun to reach bookstores more
to remake a newspaper comics page is to disrupt the regularly. Despite this, the term graphic novel has
habits of many readers. This fact apparently looms so become common parlancea curious thing, as few of
large in the minds of editors that the newspaper page the volumes so christened aspire to be anything like
tends to remain within its predictable bounds, with lit- novels in terms of structure, breadth, or coherence.
tle change, year after year. Thus comics in the short Indeed a graphic novel can be almost anything: a
form are, by and large, severely hobbled in terms of novel, a collection of interrelated or thematically simi-
graphic and thematic potential. lar stories, a memoir, a travelogue or journal, a history,
Comics in the long form, though in some ways a series of vignettes or lyrical observations, an episode
freer, are hemmed in by other factors. Most spring from a longer workyou name it. Perhaps this very
from the comic book industry, which in essence plasticity helps explain the currency of the term. What
depends on the hobby of comic book collecting rather might have seemed at first to denote a distinct genre
than appeals to a mass audience. From this enclave of has instead become an all-purpose tag for a vague
specialized consumer ritual, some long-form comics new class of social object (one that, unlike the comic
have emerged to make claims on critical attention as book, need not be grounded in the exact specifica-
graphic novels (a convenient if often inaccurate tions of a given physical format).
label). But the serialized graphic novel, as practiced Format is important. As Pascal Lefvre has
both by publishers within the so-called mainstream of remarked, format influences the total concept of [a]
the hobby and by those on its alternative fringe, has comic, not only the style, but also the content; fur-
until recently made little impact on the book trade. thermore, different formats stimulate different man-
The most notable critical success among graphic nov- ners of consuming (Published 98). What we think
els, Art Spiegelmans Pulitzer-winning Maus, appeared about comic art is circumscribed by what we think
not in serial comic books per se, but in Spiegelman about, and the ways we consume, the dominant for-
and Franoise Moulys oversized art zine Raw (the mats of strip, comic book, and graphic novel. In fact,
seminal journal for the comics avant-garde, 1980 91). the cultural connotations of format, if accepted
Though Raw depended to an extent on the sup- uncritically, can obscure or mystify the development
port of comic book fans, its unusual origins, format, of the art form itself. Terms like comic book and
and attitude pushed it to the margins of the hobby graphic novel are, strictly speaking, inaccurate;
(see Spiegelman and Mouly, Interview, Read, and worse yet, they may encourage expectations, positive
Interview with Cavalieri et al.). Maus, then, unlike or negative, that are not borne out by the material
most volumes christened graphic novels, did not itself. The phrase graphic novel, for instance, seems
have immediate roots in the periodical comic book. to imply a breadth and cohesion to which few graphic
Long-form narratives that have been born out of the novels aspire, let alone achieve. The label, taken for
traditional monthly comic book have fared notably granted within the narrow straits of the comic book
less well over the long termat least until very recently. hobby, threatens confusion as the graphic novel bids
(Of late, graphic novels have become a growth area for acceptance within the wider field of literature and
for bookstores, a phenomenon spurred in part by the criticism. (Ironically, the novelonce a disreputable,
new popularity of translated manga, that is, Japanese bastard thing, radical in its formal instabilityis here
comics.) being invoked as the very byword of literary merit and


respectability.) Conversely, the term comic book, the narrowest sense) has been the most influential of
fraught with pejorative connotations, seems to under- those objects in terms of shaping critical opinion. In
sell the extraordinary work that has been done, and is fact the comic book has so monopolized the critical
currently being done, in the long form. Yet to reject conception of comic art that it must be dealt with at
such terms completely is to run afoul of common length. Periodical in origin, typically populist in nature,
usage and to risk obscuring the subject behind neolo- and often characterized by the most mercenary of
gisms that are clumsy, counterintuitive, and ahis- aims, the comic book is well-established as the domi-
torical. (I have therefore grudgingly retained these nant identity of anglophone comics in the long form,
familiar phrases but try to use them in specific and his- and has also been the target of some of the most sus-
torically contextualized wayshence my positing of tained and intense critical savaging of any cultural
short-form and long-form as larger, more inclusive product in American history. Vilified, often misread, ill-
categories.) understood, the comic book in its heyday inspired a
Though this study makes occasional reference to tremendous degree of cultural anxietya kind of panic
newspaper strips, its center of gravity is comics in the also seen in, say, early twentieth-century film censor-
long form, specifically extended stories and novels ship or recent discussions of the Internet, but unique
as opposed to the anecdotal, repetitive, or episodic in its intensity and effectiveness. More than any other
structures of the short form. Since the field of alterna- American medium, the comic book has been obscured
tive comics (notwithstanding alternative newspaper by the terms of its own success. To understand the
cartoonists such as Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, or recent move toward critical acceptance of comics as a
Carol Lay) tends to be associated with sporadic comic literary form, we need to reexamine the development
books and graphic novels, we will concentrate on the of this much-despised comic book as social object
genres of the self-contained story, the novel, and the and market commodity.
memoir, rather than the open-ended daily or even Granted, this development ought to be crystal-
monthly serial. This is to say that, for the duration of clear by now. Numerous fan histories have traced the
this study, we will privilege the kinds of comics for evolution of comic books, and, while quite a few have
which the phrase graphic novel was originally unfortunately slipped out of print, many remain avail-
coined. At the same time, though, readers should able even to the casual browser. (For the most casual,
stay mindful of the restrictions and possibilities inher- many fan-authored websites give capsule histories of
ent in serial comic book publicationissues that have the medium, of varied dependability and usefulness.)
complicated the aesthetic growth of the art form, For a model of fan history that excels within its limits,
and that will necessarily turn up, again and again, in I would recommend Ron Goularts detailed coffee
the chapters ahead. Indeed one cannot begin to dis- table book, Great American Comic Books (2001); for
cuss alternative comics, nor the recent recognition of a historical overview with academic cachet, Bradford
comics as a literature, without first dealing with what Wrights Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of
the comic book is, how it has been distributed, Youth Culture in America (2001). But neither of these
exhibited, and received, and how the entrenchment books does quite the job I want to do here. Each is
of the comic book hobby has affected the aesthetic authoritative and valuable in its own way, yet each
horizons of the form. is structured by certain blind spots or exclusions:
Goularts work is an example par excellence of nostal-
gic reclamation, and as such privileges mainstream
UNDERGROUND COMIX AND WHAT THEY DID market genres; Wrights is a social history based on a
TO THE COMIC BOOK self-styled fun-house mirror version of reflection
theory, and by its own admission considers comic
If the history of comics is necessarily a history of books as a cultural representation, not as an art form
objects, then in the United States the comic book (in (xvii). (That there might be a productive dialogue


or reconciliation between these two approaches is During the underground period, the comic-book-
apparently beside the point; Wright has a different as-social-object suffered a sea change. Comix, it is
agenda.) Thus these two books embody dominant said, established the idea of comics as a form for adults
trends, and nagging lapses, in comics scholarship. (not just children), but this statement needs further
Both books are most persuasive when dealing with qualification. If we look carefully at that era, what we
comic books prior to 1960, but neither is literary- find is something more specific: underground comix
historical, that is, neither links its historical interests to trumpeted the arrival of not simply comics for adults
the development of literary form. Robert C. Harveys but comic books for adults. Whats more, these comic
The Art of the Comic Book (1996) offers a more books were most often for adults only (as the labels
inclusive aesthetic history, but, rich as it is, its coverage on so many comix covers baldly proclaimed). Under-
of recent trends is fitful, its take on alternative comics ground comix did not single-handedly make comics
narrow. As a complement to these and other notable reading safe for adultsafter all, newspaper strips
studies, the following account focuses specially on a had long had an adult audiencebut they did make
neglected aspect of comic book history (the under- comic books an adult commodity. Something about
ground comics movement), argues for its centrality, the act of purchasing an exclusively adult comic as an
and, finally, makes a case for the continuing influence independent commodity (a book or magazine), as
of the underground in todays alternative comics press. opposed to purchasing comics in the context of a
This account also seeks to demystify the commercial newspaper, made these illicit publications novel and
mechanism (direct sales) by which underground alluring. It was through the underground comix that
and mainstream comics gradually mingled, cross- comic books per se became an adult medium, and the
pollinated, and gave birth to a new reading culture. self-contained nature of these books, so unlike the
Let us begin, then, not at the beginning, but at a comics in even underground newspapers, made
climax of sorts: the late 1960s to early 1970s, the the medium an ideal platform for kinds of expression
era of underground comix (so-called). This era has at that were outrageously personal and self-regarding,
last been fittingly chronicled by Patrick Rosenkranzs even by the standards of the radical press from which
Rebel Visions (2002), a long-gestating and stunningly comix emerged.
detailed history (which readers are urged to seek out). The singular genius of the underground comic
Rosenkranz, however, focuses minutely on the biog- books was the way they transformed an object that
raphies of key artists in the movement and only mini- was jejune and mechanical in origin into a radically
mally on the way underground comix subsequently new kind of expressive object, a vehicle for the most
redefined the entire field. Though Rosenkranz makes personal and unguarded of revelations. While prior
a case for the movements legacy, and others have comic books had featured some work that, in hind-
also gestured in this direction, little work has been sight, appears quite personal and idiosyncratic, under-
done to substantiate claims for the undergrounds lit- ground comix conveyed an unprecedented sense of
erary and artistic influence. Academically, the under- intimacy, rivaling the scandalizing disclosures of con-
ground has been a period under near-erasure, with fessional poetry but shot through with fantasy, bur-
the exception of a very few studies such as Joseph lesque, and self-satire. (Eventually the underground
Witeks Comic Books as History (1988). (Happily, would give birth to a type of autobiographical comics
though, this is finally starting to change: for example, comparable to literary confessionalism at its most
the 2002 University of Florida Conference on Comics nakedly personal, and this type would become central
and Graphic Novels focused on the underground.) In to alternative comics, as we shall see in chapter 4.)
what follows, then, I will make specific claims about Thus the underground worked an alchemical change
the influence of the underground movement, arguing on what was basically an infelicitous medium, making
that comix above all were the catalyst for a radically this familiar class of object into the carrier of a new
new understanding of the art form. kind of meaning. In short, underground comix ironized


the comic book medium itself: the package was inher- publish something like that (qtd. in Estren 52).
ently at odds with the sort of material the artists Similarly, artist Victor Moscoso felt that Zaps comic
wanted to handle, and this tension gave the comix book format opened the door, enough so that he
books their unique edge. accepted Crumbs invitation to join Zap with issue
It is difficult to date the exact origins of underground No. 2: The form was perfect. A comic book, that
comix, since they emerged from various sources (ama- size (Rosenkranz 85). Though comix were crucially
teur zines, college humor magazines, underground nurtured by a network of radical newspapers, such as
newspapers, and psychedelic rock poster art) before the East Village Other and the Berkeley Barb, and
coalescing into a distinct movement in the late six- early on gave rise to short-lived tabloids like Yellow
ties. It is not difficult, however, to pinpoint the birth Dog (in its first incarnation, 196869) and Gothic
of the underground comic book as a recognizable Blimp Works (1969), it was Crumbs subversive
class of object; that distinction belongs to R. Crumbs appropriation of the comic book that proved to be the
Zap Comix No. 1, printed and sold in early 1968 decisive break with the past. As Bill Griffith remarked,
(Rosenkranz 6972; Harvey, Comic Book 19395). Crumb reinvented the comic book. Took it over just
Granted, a number of odd-sized booklets later recog- as other people of his generation took over music
nized as comix had been produced before Zap in (Rosenkranz 71). Zap became the catalyst for a whole
small (often very small) print runs, including pieces new field of comix publishing because Crumb took
by artists who would go on to greater fame.1 But it back the comic book and redefined what it could do.
was not until Crumbs innovation that the idea of cre- The reassessment of comics as a means of self-
ating a sustainable underground comic book series expression, then, began with the undergrounds
took hold. Crumb would go on to create an anthol- usurpation of that commonplace object, the comic
ogy version of Zap featuring other artists, beginning book. Again, by comic book I mean something quite
with Zap No. 2 in mid-1968, and the series became particular: not just any publication consisting mostly
the standard-bearer of the underground (Rosenkranz of comics, but specifically the standard-format comics
8788, 123). magazine as developed for the U.S. newsstand mar-
Historian Robert C. Harvey has described Crumbs ket in the early 1930s and formularized by the early
move to the comic book format as mere happen- 1940s. This comic book was obviously misnamed:
stance; yet others have testified to the significance of not a book but a periodical, a cheap magazine printed
seeing Crumbs work published in precisely this form. on raunchy paper, descended from the foundering
Clay Geerdes, quoted by Harvey himself, declared, It pulp magazines of the day and a cousin of the
was the book [that is, Zap] that turned on all those ephemeral strips found in newspapers. The under-
light bulbs and taught people they did not have to ground comix artists of the late sixties seized this
submit to the East Coast comic book monopoly. . . . medium, hitherto associated with anonymous, indus-
Zap taught them they could do their own (Comic trialized entertainment, and transformed it into a
Book 210). Likewise, Les Danielss Comix: A History of vehicle for self-expression in a highly romanticized
Comic Books in America (published in 1971) credits and radical way.
Crumb with making the independent underground It may be objected that I have defined the comic
comic book a viable form, a development that would book too narrowly, and, admittedly, it is tempting to
still have been recent at the time of Danielss writing apply the term to any stand-alone publication consist-
(169). Jay Lynch, cocreator of the seminal Chicago- ing of comic art (as some present-day authorities do).
based comix book Bijou Funnies, recalled that the Yet the curious achievement of underground comix
development of Bijou was spurred by Zap, which becomes much clearer when we acknowledge the
Lynch and his collaborator Skip Williamson admired terms historical specificity. The label comic book, so
because it was a stand-alone publication (Rosenkranz rich with associations, belongs above all to a peculiar
119). The two figured Crumb really had balls to package born in Depression-era America, the offspring


of industrial publicity and entrepreneurial zeal. Histo- mechanical approach to creation from the outset
rian Ian Gordons Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, not as rationalized and routine as a Ford factory, but
18901945 reminds us that the earliest examples of still artistically numbing. This was the shop or studio
this kind of comic book (as opposed to previous system of comics production, nearly an assembly-line
attempts to package comics in other formats) were affair, in which pages frequently changed hands and
promotional giveaways for industries otherwise unas- artists routinely finished each others work. Various
sociated with entertainment or art: oil companies, shoe shopssuch as Harry A Cheslers, the Eisner/Iger
manufacturers, and so on. Other historians have noted studio, and Funnies Incorporated, all famed in fan
this practice, bemusedly, as a preface to the real loresprang up to package complete comic book sto-
business of making comic books, but Gordon wisely ries inexpensively for publishers looking to maximize
points out that these premium comics had a long profits (see, for example, Harvey, Shop System;
reach: they were read by thousands, perhaps even Goulart, Sweatshops; Eisner, Art and Commerce
hundreds of thousands, and were apparently quite 812). The issue at stake was how to create new comic
popular (130). Such promotional magazines primed book material in a format (and at a cost) established
the pump, indeed established the conditions, for the when the comic book was still primarily a promotional
sale of comics as self-contained commodities, inde- giveaway stuffed with newspaper reprints.
pendent of newspapers and general interest maga- Even the unique physical dimensions of the comic
zines. Thus the comic book was overwhelmingly a book were the result of cost cutting. Comic books
commercial proposition from the outset, and only later were originally half-tabloid-size; their dimensions
developed into a distinct artistic medium. Indeed, the came from folding a tabloid newspaper page in half
years 1934 to 1945, from an aesthetic viewpoint, are to create roughly 8-by-10-inch pages. (The equiva-
about nothing so much as discovering that this low- lent of sixteen tab-sized sheets could be laid out to
rent format, originally adopted for purely mercenary create a pulpy 64-page booklet.) Comic books in this
reasons, could be used to create comics that looked formatfirst as promotional giveaways, then as mar-
and read very differently from their newspaper strip ket commoditieswere created by the Eastern Color
predecessors. This was a slow and inadvertent realiza- Printing Company, a Connecticut-based printer, to
tion, hampered by the industrys fixation on minimal wring more profits from occasionally idle presses.
investment and maximum short-term profit. Only (For accounts of the comic books origins, see, for
later would this format, generated by entrepreneur- example, Gordon, Comic Strips 12931; Goulart,
ial scurrying around the fringes of large and imper- Great 1215; Waugh 33740.)
sonal industrial processes, become a fertile medium Cost-saving initiatives led to the flourishing studio
for self-expression. Thats what the underground system of the late 1930s, as well as to the practice
accomplished. (later standard) of publishers hiring staffs to produce or
In hindsight, the peculiar format of American comic touch up comic books in-house. These economic con-
books seems a historic anomaly rather than a logical ditions, inimical to reflection or revision, cemented the
end developmentwhich makes its reinvention and perception of the comic book as a shoddy, ephemeral
reification by the comix underground even more diversion, a form of anonymous, relatively diluted, and
ironic. Early comic books, consisting mainly of reprinted industrialized pabulum. Production schedules necessi-
strips bought from newspaper syndicates, were tated the interchangeability of artists and the reliance
cranked out at great speed and minimal cost for a on already-inbred story formulas. Positively, it might
hungry audience of mostly juvenile readers; subse- be argued that the shop system allowed energetic
quent efforts to satisfy demand with new material, young amateurs to bootstrap themselves to a level of
native to the comic book, had to compete with these journeyman craftsmanship fairly quickly, and of course
formative, shoestring productions (Harvey, Comic the shops did become seedbeds for some extraordi-
Book 2425). Thus the industry favored a highly nary talents. Yet the breakneck periodical scheduling


and crass production values of most comic books from It is this imaginative ferocity that Michael Chabon
this era did much to tar the nascent medium with a captures in his Pulitzered novel on comic book history,
reputation for amateurism, cynicism, and greed. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000),
This was the so-called Golden Age of fan lore. whose artist-hero, Joe Kavalier, imbues his comics with
Indeed it yielded some golden work, much of it either such passion, desperation, and skill. And it is this wild-
on the fringes of or entirely outside the shop system ness that is so often celebrated in the glowing, some-
per se: for example, Will Eisners Spirit, Jack Coles times apocryphal lore of fandom, rich with accounts of
Plastic Man, and the best of Joe Simon and Jack adolescent camaraderie and deadline-driven zeal:
Kirbys studio (whose output was wildly inconsistent); artists pulling all-nighters to crank out superhero tales;
Carl Barkss Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge et al., artists passing pages from hand to hand; artists jock-
John Stanleys Little Lulu, and, in the early fifties, eying for space in studios and apartments, or even
work by Harvey Kurtzman (Two-Fisted Tales, Front- drawing in bathtubs. (In this sense, the underground
line Combat, Mad) and the rest of the E.C (Enter- cartoonists of the 1960s were merely carrying on a tra-
taining Comics) stable. Work of great vitality (as well dition of freewheeling bohemianism.) Such stories are
as eccentricity, even flat-out weirdness) graced the hard to resist, stuffed as they are with color and life,
burgeoning medium from the early forties onward, but they risk romanticizing what was at bottom a
some of it in the various Superman-inspired cos- bluntly commercial and exploitative business, one that,
tume comics, some of it in humor and funny ani- with rare exceptions, produced work of flickering qual-
mal titles, and some of it, as the forties waned, in ity and slight ambitioneager, perhaps, but fitful and
the more controversial genres of crime, romance, and prone to burnout, despite its occasional incandescent
eventually horror comics. bursts. In spite of the mediums considerable (millions-
Work of wretched quality was much more com- selling) popularity in the Golden Age, it did little to
mon, though in hindsight it too can be interesting. As nurture or encourage its practitioners.
Art Spiegelman has remarked, this was a Golden Age In sum, the early growth of long-form comics in the
of comic books as termite arta notion lifted from United States was dictated by the emergence of a con-
Manny Farber, whose seminal film criticism celebrated veniently exploitable medium, a product that proved
work produced where the spotlight of culture is cheap and accessible: the comic book as developed in
nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be the early to mid-thirties. This format proved successful
ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, creating where previous efforts had failed: first as a premium
hell-for-leather art that eat[s] its own boundaries, for other industries; then as an independent commod-
and . . . leaves nothing in its path other than signs of ity nonetheless dependent on the syndicated news-
eager, industrious unkempt activity (Farber, qtd. in paper strip industry; then, finally, as a commodity
Spiegelman and Kidd 8). Such a cultural borderland defined by its own original narrative material. The term
can serve as a safe zone for play, a site where, as comic book belongs specifically to this object, one
Roger Sabin puts it, nobody is looking, [so that] it is that, by demonstrating the possibilities of comics in the
possible to experiment and flex creative muscles long form, eventually opened the way for other pack-
(Comics, Comix 9). In this embryonic period of fren- ages that also contained long-form stories (for exam-
zied, market-driven play, observes Spiegelman, comic ple, larger magazines, albums, and graphic novels). Yet
books opened a direct gateway into the unrestrained it would take the singular intervention of the comix
dream life of their creators (Spiegelman and Kidd 8). underground to awaken this great potential. In the
Thus even the most abject stuff from the period may meantime, this seemingly inauspicious medium defined
hold some retrospective fascinationand the best the field of book-length comics in the United States for
work, that in which orneriness and playfulness are decades.
abetted by skill, evokes vivid, dreamlike worlds that, Perhaps it still does, to a degree. But things have
once explored, are impossible to forget. gotten more complicated, for the comic book, despite


its familiarity, has long since retreated from mass to books of yore (at a time when comic books were
niche medium. Since the early fifties, the mediums declining from a mass medium to an acquired taste).
commercial peak, the comic book has faded to the The chief culprit in this was cartoonist Crumb:
margins of popular culture, from which it only occa- though his Zap Comix cannot truly be said to be the
sionally sallies forth to trumpet some minor innova- first entry in the comix underground, it was the
tion or unexpected outrage. It is not easy to explain first underground title by a lone cartoonist to be
why comic books have been eclipsed this waysuch published in what was recognizably the traditional
happenings tend to evade explanationbut research comic book format. Thus Crumb demonstrated that
suggests that several events coincided to hobble the it was possible (though not easy) for one cartoonist
growth of the industry at its moment of greatest to take complete control of a package whose very
commercial promise. These events included drastic dimensions were designed with impersonal assembly-
realignments in American magazine distribution in the line production in mind. Crumb usurped what was
mid-fifties; increasing competition from television and then the most common vehicle for long-form comics,
other media; and, most notoriously, the tarring of the newsstand-style comic book, and turned it into a
comic books during the censorious public campaigns deceptively friendly-looking container for stories that
of the late 1940s and early 1950s.2 Many comic book could hardly be carried on mainstream newsstands,
publishers acceded to criticism by publicly censoring due to their iconoclastic, sometimes scabrous, and
themselves, that is, by adopting the onerous Comics indeed radical content.
Code in 1954, a surrender that effectively affirmed In retrospect, this usurpation of the comic book
the general perception of the medium as juvenile pap;3 seems perfect for Crumbs larger project in the late
then, throughout the latter 1950s and the 1960s, as if sixties, which was in effect to reclaim bygone images
fearful of losing their juvenile readers, publishers resis- from American popular culturefrom comics and
ted changing the format or cover prices of their publi- animated cartooning in particularand invest them
cations, opting instead to decrease the amount of with new, subversive meanings. Crumbs work from
story and to boost advertising content. Prices remained this period, while original in many respects, owes
static for an extended period, with few exceptions. (In much to earlier comics and cartoons, particularly in
1961, Dell, a hugely successful publisher, hiked its cover its preference for rubbery, polymorphous characters
price from ten to fifteen cents, and the result proved (often anthropomorphized animals) and a broad,
disastrous [Irving 26].) This price-fixing appears to exaggerated style. In Crumb one can spot the influ-
have eaten away at profits, thus making the comic ence of not only various newspaper cartoonists but
book an increasingly unrewarding venture for retailers also such comic book creators as funny animal master
and distributors, and further tipping the industry into Carl Barks and grotesque humorist Basil Wolverton
declinea long fall eased in the 1960s by the ironic, (Powerhouse Pepper and so forth). Crumbs charac-
Marvel-led revival of the superhero genre and a nos- ters, compounded of these influences, waver dis-
talgic appreciation cultivated partly by Pop Art (see turbingly between toothsome cuteness and parodic
Sullivan; Varnedoe and Gopnik 21326). grotesqueness. The artists originality lay in his use of
In any case, it was this format, so widely associ- such figures to express a vision at once self-regarding,
ated with faceless industrial entertainment, which almost solipsistic, yet socially aware, satirical, even
underground cartoonists usurped and redefined in politically astute. These figures, warped by a giddy
the late 1960s. Comix transformed the medium into desperation confessedly triggered by the artists use
a vehicle for a febrile romanticism in tune with the of psychedelic drugs, had become part of his per-
radical sensibilities of the Vietnam-era countercul- sonal language, his way of expressing his haunted,
ture. The central irony of that most ironic of pack- questioning, radically skeptical view of American life
ages, the underground comix book, was the way it and culture. Crumb colonized these received images
mimicked the very format of the corporatized comic (including virulent racist and sexist stereotypes against


which he would push repeatedly and to which his comic book readers as juvenile is stressed just as often
work would often succumb) and made them ripe for as it is flouted: traditional, kid-friendly fillers, such as
adult treatment. short gag strips and activity pages, are common in
Crumbs efforts were inherently ironic, in a manner both Zap No. 1 and No. 0, as are references to us
not unlike that of the Pop artists before him. Indeed kids. Most revealing is a mock editorial on the back of
this is his signal contribution to American comics: the No. 0 that depicts an irate mother shredding her sons
ironizing of the comic book medium itself. With Zap comic books, a spoof both of the mediums reputation
Crumb achieved something that had eluded Pop Art: as cheap trash and of the guilty pleasure that adults
he ironically usurped not only the content of comics derive from indulging in it (fig. 2).
(that is, the characters and situations he had imbibed Aside from mocking the comic book format itself,
from childhood onward) but also the format (the peri- Crumbs early stories spoof hippie claims to enlight-
odical comic book), achieving a union of form and enment and capitalist bromides in equal measure;
content that Pop Art, ensconced within the fine art they brim with capricious takeoffs of magazine
world, could not. Crumbs Zap represented a reflexive, advertising and knowing swipes at American con-
comic-book commentary on comic books unlike any- sumerism. One vignette in Zap No. 1, for instance,
thing since the early days of Mad magazine (in its refers to Kool Kustomers, pokes fun at Oscar
original comic book incarnation, 195255). More- Meyer, and claims to shrink hemorhoids [sic]. A
over, Zap was free of Mads bottom-line commercial story in Zap No. 0 introduces Crumbs guru/con man
ambitions.4 character, Mr. Natural, with this slogan: Kids! Be
Crumb and many of his fellow comix artistssuch sure to eat only Mr. Natural brand foods, and listen
as Lynch, Williamson, and Kim Deitchwere eclectic to him on WZAP Radio! No. 0 also contains the
and drew inspiration from animation and especially satiric story City of the Future, a bit of mock-
newspaper strips in addition to vintage comic books. utopian hype that perfectly undercuts the rhetoric of
Indeed newspaper strips were crucial to enlarging their American progressivism (Better worlds are being
sense of comics beyond the generic confines of the built!) while dreaming up more and more disturb-
comic book medium. Yet it was in comic book format ing uses of technology. Such satiric thrusts, influ-
that they advanced a pungent critique of American enced by the gleeful cynicism of Mad and college
consumerism, turning the kitschy elements of the humor magazines, were distilled by Crumb into a
medium in on itself. Mock comic-book-style advertise- perfect comic book package, one that kept spiraling
ments and parodic paratexts (logotypes, banners, indi- in on itself in vertiginous recursions, always aware of
cia, and of course the hated Comics Code seal of its comic book status. To say that Zap was a cynical
approval) run rampant through the comix books; their package would be a bald understatement.
insistent use invites readers to reconsider the relation- Crumbs contemporaries were quick to seize on
ships between text and reader implied in more con- such self-mocking elements, offering parodic takes
ventional comic books. For instance, Zap No. 1 bears a on comic book conventions as well as barbed satires
mock Code seal on its cover, as well as a banner just of the consumerist mentality. Often the comic book
beneath the logo that parodies the ingratiating hype parodies were deliberately freighted with broader
of comic book publishers: Zap Comics are Squinky social concerns, turning spoof into a vehicle for cul-
Comics!! (fig. 1). Its back cover is a comics-style adver- tural argument. For instance, the cover to Wimmens
tisement extolling the wonders of turning on, Comix No. 1 (1972), by editor Patricia Moodian, dis-
replete with before and after photos of frustrated torts a clichd scenario from romance comic books: a
bourgeois hang-ups who have shed their inhibitions jilted woman looks enviously at a glamorous couple
through the wonders of getting stoned. (A similar full- in a clinch, contrasting their picture-perfect features
page ad in the follow-up Zap No. 0 [sic] provides step- with her own comically exaggerated ugliness (fig. 3).
by-step instructions for smoking a joint.) The idea of Wimmens Comix, created by an all-female collective

Figure 1. R. Crumb, Zap Comix No. 1 (front cover). 2004 R. Crumb. Used with permission.
Figure 2. R. Crumb, Zap Comix No. 0 (back cover). R. Crumb. Used with permission.

Figure 3. Patricia Moodian, Wimmens Comix No. 1 (front cover). Patricia Moodian-Pink. Used with permission.


in response to the masculine ethos of the comix comic book publishing establishment, which was
scene, often deployed romance comic book tropes hobbled by its rigid Code of self-censorship, a reac-
for subversive ends (as in, for instance, No. 1s story tionary editorial culture, and debilitating economic
A Teenage Abortion, by Lora Fountain, which practices. In so doing, comix opened the door to
uses a first-person narrative style typical of romance comic books that would be wholly owned by their
comics). Similarly charged parodic gestures distin- creators; that could be kept in print over the long
guish the series Young Lust (launched in 1971 by Bill term (in theory and sometimes in practice), like
Griffith and Jay Kinney), which billed itself as the books rather than magazines; and that could con-
underground romance comic: art styles and para- tinue earning money for their creators in the form of
textual elements from mainstream romance are care- royalties (unlike the mainstream comic books of
fully parodied in stories about sexual threesomes, the time, most of which were produced by artists
rock n roll groupies, hippies, and GIs. Young Lusts working for a flat, per-page rate). Though few if any
attention to detail was impressive: its cover elements underground cartoonists could make a secure living
and ersatz advertisements showed a keen eye for solely from their profession, and royalties were spo-
ludicrous minutiae (fig. 4). Many other comix books, radic at best, comix did pave the way for a radical
from Denis Kitchens Moms Homemade Comics to reassessment of the relationships among publishers,
Dan ONeills Comics & Stories (a nod to the classic creators, and intellectual properties, a reassessment
Walt Disneys Comics & Stories), likewise played that was to affect even mainstream comics in later
with such detailsfamiliar but usually neglected years. Comix were the first movement of what came
aspects of the comic book reading experience. to be known among fans as creator-owned comic
Going beyond Mad and its imitators, the comix booksand creator ownership was prerequisite to
books at their most interesting transformed this the rise of alternative comics (see Creators Rights;
received stuff into the rudiments of a highly personal Wiater and Bissette xvxviii).
language, one which might at any minute burst into Second, despite their adherence to the traditional
startling lyric flights or retreat into obscurity and format, comix books broke with standard periodical
abstraction. Thus they were akin to the puckish thiev- publishing: they were produced sporadically, with
ings and reworkings of Pop Art. Yet, instead of seiz- relatively few series and a large number of one-offs.
ing images from comic books and introducing them As a corollary to creator ownership, comix were
into art galleries, Crumb and his followers took such dominated not by series titles but by the names and
images, tore them loose from their traditional narra- reputations of their creators. Though there were a
tive moorings, and then injected them back into what few long-lived series, mostly anthologies such as
appeared to be standard comic booksthereby inter- Zap, Bijou, Yellow Dog, and Slow Death, these were
vening in an entirely different economy, one open to mostly published irregularly and were exceptions to
the grass-roots capitalism of the counterculture. the general rule. (Even the prolific Crumb gravitated
While the comic books produced by Crumb and his toward one-shots, such as Homegrown Funnies,
fellow underground artists could not be offered for Peoples Comix, and XYZ.)
sale in the mainstream newsstand market, they did Third, comix introduced an alternative ethos that
become mainstays of an alternative economy cen- valued the productions of the lone cartoonist over
tered around the boutiques (or head shops) of the collaborative or assembly-line work. In essence, comix
so-called hippie movement. made comic books safe for auteur theory: they estab-
Spurred by Crumbs seminal achievement, under- lished a poetic ethos of individual expression. By poetic
ground comix books shaped the growth of long- I mean, not the literal sense, nor the vernacular sense
form comics in four crucial ways. of beautiful or elevated, but the idea that cartoonists
First, they demonstrated that it was possible to pro- were expected to express themselves singly, just as a
duce booklets of comics from outside the dominant poet is typically presumed to speak with a lone voice.

Figure 4. Bill Griffith, Young Lust No. 1 (front cover). 1970 Bill Griffith. Used with permission.


This tendency was not absolute, as there were some practices and narrative clichs of mainstream
collaborative comix (for instance, the Zap jams, in comic books. In time this resistance would make
which the artists challenged each other with impro- itself felt even at the level of packaging. Though the
visatory riffs). Such group efforts, however, were vehicle of choice was at first the familiar comic book,
exceptions. Today the privileging of self-expression in readers have since grown accustomed to seeing
alternative comic books is a very strong tendency long-form comics in a greater variety of packages.
the rule rather than the exceptionand alternative The liberatory potential of underground comix
comics publishers favor the comic book as a solo was most clearly realized by Spiegelmans Maus, per-
vehicle for the individual cartoonist. These comic haps the urtext of alternative comics. A personal, not
books are so much a product of the underground to say poetic, tale, derived from oral history and lived
ethos, and so resistant to the mainstream model of experience, Maus invokes a familiar genre (funny
production, that even their indicia and sporadic letter animals) to broach very difficult, politically super-
columns are often written in the artists own distinc- charged material, and was produced outside the
tive hand. boundaries of conventional comic book publishing.
Finally, many of the comix books were awash in Spiegelmans ironic use of animals to figure human
irony, based on the appropriation of popular (or once- beings (one of the most controversial elements in
popular) characters, styles, genres, and tropes for rad- Maus) departs from R. Crumbs ironized funny ani-
ically personal and sometimes politically subversive mal figures such as Fritz the Cat; indeed, the germ of
ends. Not only Crumb but also many other under- Maus was a three-page story titled Maus that
ground cartoonists made themselves at home among Spiegelman produced in 1973 for an animal-themed
shopworn ideas inherited from comics and cartoons underground comic book called Funny Aminals [sic].
past, using and redefining certain character types (for In fact Maus represents the entry of the underground
example, funny animals, such as in comix by Lynch, into the mainstream book trade, an achievement
Deitch, and Bobby London) or genres (for example, owed in part to the example of Crumb and other
horror comics, as in Skull, or superheroes, as in Gilbert comix artists.
Sheltons Wonder Warthog and Spains Trash- The history of long-form comics in English, then,
man). They pirated the past with subversive glee: owes much to the intervention of comix. In the form-
Deitchs Waldo the Cat was an alcoholics hallucina- ative Zap period, comix constituted a genuinely roman-
tion; Lynchs Nard and Pat were a human and cat tic, highly individualistic movement that sought to
pair in which the cat was more hip, socially adept, liberate the comic book as a vehicle for personal
and sexually active than his human companion; and expression, while yet wallowing in the mediums rep-
Spains Trashman was an urban guerrilla fighting for utation for lurid, rough-hewn, populist entertainment
the insurgent 6th International, a Marxist revolu- (its termite origins). Like the Beats, to whom many
tionary group. comix artists looked for inspiration, the pioneers of
Taken together, the four above-listed factors comix were self-styled hipsters and iconoclasts who
would, paradoxically, serve to free long-form comics both rejected and built on prior traditions; they too
from complete dependence on the standard comic harbored subversive, in some cases revolutionary,
book package. These factorssporadic publication, political ideas and were to a degree associated with a
the emphasis on the author rather than established radically democratic realignment of politics. As early
commercial properties, the development of an alter- nineteenth-century romanticism was informed by rev-
native economy, and the corrosive reexamination of olution (as utopian promise, bitter disappointment,
familiar tropeseventually coalesced into the alter- and/or looming political threat), so the comix move-
native comics movement of the 1980s and 1990s, ment was sparked by the political energy of the late
born within comics fandom but defined by its insis- sixties counterculture, and reflected its demands for
tent, even strident, opposition to the normative peace and political reform. The comix underground


was spurred by a sense of possibility that was at least was the way it at once paid homage to the comic
partly political in nature, and, like prior romantic book as quintessential American kitsch and laid the
movements, it looked forward to revolutionary groundwork for alternative approaches to comic art,
realignments in the social order with a mix of over- approaches that would one day threaten the main-
weening optimism and fearful ambivalence (the latter stream comic book with creative obsolescence. Central
perhaps best seen in Crumbs uneasy blend of to this achievement was the way comix artists, spurred
utopian and reactionary sentiment). by Crumb, engaged the comic book medium itself as
The comix movement eventually fell victim to a vehicle for cultural subversion. Yet in this lies a
crushing political disappointments. In 1973 the United deeper irony, for the medium appears to have sub-
States Supreme Court deferred the question of verted their radical impulses in turn. The shift among
obscenity to local community standards (Miller underground cartoonists toward comic books (as
v. California), a reversion that threatened national opposed to the college magazines and radical papers
circulation of the often controversial comix. Mean- in which they first gained notice) paralleled the shift
while, the rise of antidrug (or more accurately anti- in mainstream comics history away from newspaper
paraphernalia) laws began to squeeze the so-called strips, toward comics magazines as independent
head shops out of existence, thus crippling under- commodities. Arguably, then, comix books urged the
ground distribution. These suppressive moves, in the underground away from engagement in the radical
context of political disaffection and the general ener- press, thus in larger political issues, and toward a
vation of the counterculture, proved devastating to more reflexive involvement with comix as such.
comix (see Rosenkranz 215, 21920; Estren 230; This is evident not only in the ubiquitous parodic ges-
Sabin, Adult 174). tures of the comix books, including their very pack-
In this uncertain climate, the field became increas- aging, but also in the brief, meteoric growth in comix
ingly fractious, as participants fought for diminishing as an entertainment industry in the early seventies.
resources. Even as publishers wavered, reeling from Though explicitly political work continued to appear
the possibilities of legal repression, a mushroom in comix well after this periodindeed, some of
growth of creators and titles had already filled their the most explicitly political comix came after 1973
catalogs. A glut of new comix, many of them criti- by the mid-seventies the comix had taken on
cized as imitative and poorly produced, flooded the more and more characteristics of their detested main-
market (Beerbohm, Origins 120; Goodrick and stream counterparts. Despite its radical potential, by
Donahue 9; Rosenkranz 22223). Boom turned to 1975 the comix revolution ended up looking less
bust: by the mid-1970s the movement had suc- political than stylistic in natureand rather parochial
cumbed to a sense of depletion at once economic at that.
and cultural. Paper costs soared while business In short the movement, once stretched, proved
dropped sharply (Sabin, Adult 174; Estren 8). At the flaccid. As comix became entrenched, they lost their
same time, in the words of Art Spiegelman, what impetus and collective focus both politically and, even-
had seemed like a revolution simply deflated into a tually, aesthetically. Indeed the underground yielded a
lifestyle (Spiegelman and Mouly, Read 6). Comix great many retrograde and poorly crafted publications,
succumbed to their own clichssex, drugs and some hateful, others merely impenetrable. This cultural
hedonism, sapped of political willand withered, borderland, which had served as breeding ground for
retreating to the margins of the culture. both radical and reactionary impulses, finally became a
This too is hard to understand, as documentation prison. The commodification of underground comic
remains scant (though Rosenkranzs Rebel Visions books diverted the energies of the movement into a
has helped). A partial explanation might be found narrow cul-de-sac, from which its reflexive cynicism
within the very terms of the undergrounds success. offered no escape. As the underground developed
In hindsight, the movements signal achievement an insular comic book industry of its own, the


movements empowering but double-edged embrace where American-style comic books had never taken
of amateurism combined with rapid and rapacious hold (see Gravett, Euro-Comics). After years in
economic growth to create a flood of wretched mate- eclipse, the underground ethos would reemerge in a
rial. By the mid-1970s many comix creators seemed different context, again bracketed by comic book fan-
ambivalent about that growth at best, and some dom but post-punk in outlook and responsive to new
began to redirect their satiric energy at comix them- concerns. A reinvigorating, recombinant approach to
selves, seeing in the new market a reflection of the comic art, international in character but inspired by
hated mainstream comic book industry (Estren the American underground, came to the fore in the
25056; Rosenkranz 22122).5 To achieve escape eighties, labeled alternative or the new comics
velocity, some tried other kinds of publicationsulti- but clearly indebted to the comix of yesteryear.
mately, this is where such seminal magazines as With the advent of the new comics (a phrase
Arcade, Raw and Weirdo came fromwhile some much bandied about in the late 1980s), the tradi-
faded to obscurity, weighted down by the new clichs. tional relationship between comics content and
Many comix remained volatile and subversive: publishing format became unhinged, allowing for
witness for example the feminist commentary in the experimental use of various packages. Today,
Wimmens Comix, or the ecologically themed horror even as the traditional comic book struggles for sur-
of Slow Death. Yet their topical thrust was often vival at the behest of an ever-attenuating fandom,
blunted, or if not blunted then turned inward, by a the graphic novel, in its many shapes, has become the
preoccupation with their chosen medium. In that sense critical byword of the new comics. Yet, though the
comix were truly products, and reflections, of comic comic book per se no longer has a monopoly on
book fandom, though superficially remote from fan- the long form, it still exerts a powerful, not-to-be-
doms celebratory, nostalgic ethos. Ultimately what underestimated tug on the imaginations of creators
was most political about them, most effective, was and fansand, as we are about to see, the passions
simply the freedom with which they approached the of mainstream comic book collectors have played
comics form. At their best they combined reflexive their own crucial role in legitimizing the graphic
playfulness with an acute social vision, showing how novel and establishing a critical beachhead for alter-
much comics could do in the right hands; at their worst native comics.
they were self-absorbed and self-defeating, as if pre-
figuring the countercultures retrenchmentits decline
from revolution to mere lifestyle. By the late 1970s THE DIRECT MARKET AND THE CONSOLIDATION
comix had come to symbolize the fecklessness and OF FANDOM
anomie of the fading counterculture, as effectively as
they had symbolized its energy and political agency While inspired, indeed catalyzed, by the creative
just a few years earlier. Today the books are simply arti- freedom of the undergrounds, alternative comics also
facts, collectible symbols of yet another lost era that owe much to subsequent practical changes in the dis-
consumers can nostalgically long for, its political and tribution and exhibition of comic books as products
cultural traumas safely blurred. changes in which the underground played a vital but
But from the promise of underground comix not exclusive role. Most of todays long-form comics
stemmed the alternative comic book and graphic are products of a specific, highly ritualized, and
novel of the eighties and nineties, a vision of long- essentially commercial scene known as the direct
form comics that allowed unprecedented aesthetic market comic book shopa scene at once rooted in
freedom and diversity, as well as a new sense of pur- the underground and insulated from its animating
pose. Even as the undergrounds per se retrenched, political and cultural concerns. The transformation
their influence spread, informing new kinds of comics of contemporary comics can be traced directly to
in the United States and, ironically, abroad, even this commercial environment, and because that


environment has by turns both encouraged and The current market thus represents a paradox. It
stunted the art form, it requires careful analysis. This has roots both in the comix counterculture of the late
is not simply a case of underground iconoclasts invig- sixties (in particular its distribution network, which
orating the art form, then fans smothering it; nor is it prior to 1973 constituted a thriving alternative econ-
simply a case of the lowly comic book being sup- omy) and in the nostalgic interests of a minority of
planted by more reputable forms. Rather, the influ- dedicated comic book collectors, particularly super-
ence of the market is a matter of encouraging and hero collectors, who began to correspond and barter
debilitating influences shrink-wrapped together. with each other during the late fifties, and more visi-
Todays direct market represents a specialized bly from 1965 onwards (see Schelly 2021, 8997).
hobby, a subculture that has grown from grassroots This market, which now places such emphasis on the
anarchy (the private and inchoate discourse of iso- promotion of new mainstream comic books, origi-
lated fan conclaves) to a highly codified, in some nally grew out of two overlapping yet distinct fields,
sense disciplined and commodified practicein short, both considered marginal by mainstream publishers:
an organized fandom. This fandom revolves around a hobbyists network concerned with bartering old
comic shops, trade magazines, collectors price comic books and the underground distribution meth-
guides, large- and small-scale conventions, and, now ods established by comix. From this historic confla-
overwhelmingly, the rapid-fire discourses of the tion, a loose network of retailers developed in the
Internet. Instrumental in the rise of this fandom were late sixties and early seventies, some of whom began
such institutions as used bookstores, small-circulation to carry new mainstream comic books alongside
amateur zines (fanzines), amateur press alliances underground publications. Many of these retail out-
(APAs), conventions, mail-order businesses, and lets were firmly rooted in the counterculture.
letterhacking (that is, writing letters for publica- Despite overviews by scholars such as Roger Sabin
tion in comic books and corresponding with other (for example, Adult Comics) and Bradford Wright
such writers, or letterhacks). Born out of science fic- (Comic Book Nation), this crucial transitional period
tion fandom in the days of the hectographed and remains thinly documented. Because no book has yet
mimeographed fanzine, comic book fandom rose to emerged to provide a comprehensive, critical history
prominenceto self-consciousness, anywaywith of the direct market, it remains difficult to show pre-
the advent of comics-specific fanzines and price cisely how much underground and mainstream comic
guides in the early mid-sixties, followed shortly by books overlapped in these early shops.7 Yet it is
the establishment of specialized conventions in known that many comic shops did grow out of
1964.6 This fandom, increasingly aware of its buying head shops, and as such routinely brought vintage
power and creative influence, exerted significant pull comic books and new comix together within the same
on the content of superhero comic books from the space. The Bay Areas Comics & Comix, by all
early sixties onwards, a pull that major publishers appearances the first comic book retail chain in the
Marvel and DC belatedly acknowledged in the late United States, made this commixing explicit in its very
sixties and early seventies by hiring fans to critical name and purchased entire lots of mainstream comic
editorial positions. By the early eighties, the acceler- books from local newsstand distributors so that
ating decline of newsstand sales led these publishers they could be racked alongside underground publica-
to rely increasingly on the then newly emergent fan tions (Schelly 155; Beerbohm, Origins 125). Such
(that is, direct) market to stave off disaster (see, for underground-friendly shops were, arguably, the root
example, news coverage in The Comics Journal, of the direct market. Also, the antiestablishment ethos
circa 198081). This situation led, albeit gradually, to of comix appears to have influenced fanzines and the
an overwhelming emphasis on organized fandom as discourse of fandom in general. Comix challenged the
the comic books core audienceand on the cos- dominantly conservative tone of early fanzines, and in
tumed superhero as its core genre. their wake the amateur strips and critical commentary


in some prominent zines showed a marked shift away predominantly American phenomenon, it has had
from a hitherto overwhelming emphasis on the super- much influence in other English-reading countries
hero (Schelly 115, 13032). (Retrenchment would (most notably Canada and Great Britain). This mar-
come later, with the co-optation of the direct market ket, because of its narrow demographics, strong
by superhero publishers.) In addition, the rhetoric of sense of tradition, and efficient means of distribu-
fandom began to reflect, however tentatively, under- tion, has nurtured the growth of fan-friendly prod-
ground cartoonists attitudes toward intellectual prop- ucts such as the graphic novel and the limited or
erty and creative freedom, even as comic book mini-series, both significant departures in long-form
professionals began participating in fan publica- comics narrative. It has also led to the unhinging of
tions (Schelly 13739). traditional work-for-hire arrangements between cre-
By the early mid-seventies, entrepreneurs, first ators and publishers, and to stormy disputes over
among them New York comics convention organizer intellectual property (or creators rights), as the
Phil Seuling, had formalized these arrangements by economic and ideological lessons of the under-
going directly to major publishers DC and Marvel ground have rippled through fandom. The result is a
and buying non-returnable comics at deep discounts. cultural scene, international in scope but American in
(The late Seuling, whose impact is a matter of record, focus, in which iconophilia and iconoclasm, reaction
has become a part of fan lore.) With this arrange- and radicalism, clash and mingle. This is the sustain-
ment in place by 1975, a hobby hitherto centered on ing yet problematic context for alternative comics.
the trade of collectible old comics began to take in an This direct market, its terms codified by the early
increasing influx of new product. Yet the balance of eighties, offers publishers the advantages of low entry
trade in the shops continued to favor old comic costs and a high degree of predictability. It functions
books, the new output of the major publishers being in essence as a subscription system, one in which the
fairly small and the underground having withered. subscriber is not the individual consumer but rather
This continued until the early eighties, at which point the comic shop, which will in turn offer the product to
the major publishers, as noted, began to concentrate consumers. (For brief accounts of how this market
on this all-important fan market. The growing works, see Sabin, Adult 6569, and McAllister,
emphasis on fandom, among not only mainstream Cultural Argument 6566.) To be more precise, the
publishers but also upstart publishers adapted specif- direct market offers publishers leverage in two crucial
ically to the new conditions, led to the growth of spe- ways: First, orders are solicited from retailers in
cialty shops so that by the early nineties there were advance of publication so that the size of print runs
thousands of such shops in existence, as opposed to can be adjusted according to anticipated demand.
perhaps two dozen twenty years earlier (hard figures This helps avoid the wasteful and costly overprinting
are tough to find, but see, for example, Beerbohm, that typifies magazine publishing. It is in this sense
Origins 119; Sabin, Comics, Comix 157; Comic that comic book publishing works by subscription:
Book Crisis). Though crucially indebted to, indeed advance ordering underwrites the costs of printing,
rooted in, the underground era, this burgeoning mar- making the work possible in the first place. (Such sub-
ket was a far cry from the fervidly romantic counter- scription arrangements, of course, have also played a
culture of the early comix. crucial role in the development of popular prose fic-
Today the direct market is decidedly post- tion, providing a practical, material foundation for the
underground in outlook. It consists of an interna- ascendancy of the novel.) Second, unlike regular news-
tional network of stores specializing in American stand sales, direct market orders are non-returnable.
comic books, including both mainstream and alter- Whereas most magazine sales are handled on a de
native titles but especially beholden to large-scale facto consignment basis, with unsold leftovers being
mainstream publishers. This network suffers from a returned to publishers or destroyed (to the vendors
high rate of attrition and so is in constant flux. A credit), direct market comic books are owned outright


by vendors and, with few exceptions, cannot be advantages for publishers encourage the production
returned. This is why, in the eyes of publishers, it is of a surfeit of new product. The result is an excess of
shop owners rather than readers who are the ultimate comic books each month, shrilly marketed, of which
customer: the publishers concerns end with the most retailers can order only a small sample. The
retailers order. This has the effect of softening the effects of this asymmetry have been most keenly felt
economic risk for publishers to a significant degree, in the wake of the euphoric comic-book speculation
for, without having to absorb the cost of returns, pub- of the early 1990s, an economic binge that ended in
lishers are in a better position to experiment with new the closing of thousands of shops and, eventually,
product. It is retailers who have to bear the brunt of the drastic consolidation of the markets distribution
unsold, unsuccessful comics. system (see The Comics Journals coverage of the
Obviously, there is a fundamental asymmetry at industry 199497, especially State of the Industry/
work here, in that retailers are exposed to risk while State of the Art Form and Comic Book Crisis). In
publishers are relatively insulated from it. This arrange- a climate such as this, retailers are intensely aware of
ment, with minimal cost and maximal predictability the risks they face.
for publishers, has encouraged the rise of small, Nonetheless the direct market has stoked the
alternative presses and even scores of self-publishing development of long-form comics. Recent innova-
comics creators, some of whom are regarded as tions in the long form, most notably the establish-
important figures within the industry (in comic books, ment of the graphic novel as a viable package, stem
self-publishing is not a sign of dilettantism). To a con- from the relative prosperity of the market in the
siderable degree, this growth in the alternative press 1980s, when direct-sales comic shops seemed a
has effectively unlocked the comic books artistic hotbed of entrepreneurship and the alternative press
potential. On the retailers side, advantages to this thrived. Mainstream comics had adopted under-
system include a relatively loyal and extremely ground distribution methods, and alternative comics
knowledgeable clientele, as well as substantial finan- basked in the increased exposure. This commercial
cial incentives (for example, volume discounts and high season excited a new enthusiasm for pushing
plentiful in-store advertising). These advantages back the artistic horizons of the form. Once again
stoked the rapid growth of the comics retail network aesthetic developments were spurred by commercial
in the eighties, as the industry, spurred by collector developments (as had been the case during the
investment in popular titles, seemed to grow from mediums first flush of popularity, almost half a
strength to strength. century before).
Yet disadvantages to retailers are significant, in
particular the financial drain caused by investment in
poor-selling comics. Unlike vendors in the newsstand SHOPS AS TEXTS
market, comic shop retailers have to keep everything
that doesnt sell, which means that unsold comics not To understand clearly this relationship between com-
only fail to earn back their initial cost but also con- mercial and artistic growth, a historical analogy may
sume physical space and person-hours when they help: consider the crucial, sustaining relationship that
pass into inventory. The occasional appreciation of developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
collectible comic books (caused by manufactured Britain and America between popular fiction and the
scarcity in the back-issue trade) only partly compen- commercial circulating libraries. Like comic shops,
sates for the fact that most unsold inventory does these so-called libraries had a pronounced impact
not grow significantly in value and simply eats up on the history of a literary form, in that they nur-
room, time, and money. This situation, only belatedly tured the growth of fiction-by-parts, a trend that
recognized as a major disadvantage, tends to dis- eventually hardened into the institution of the
courage risk-taking by retailers, even as the economic Victorian three-part (or three-decker) novel. From


the early-to-mid-eighteenth century through the late (for example, sorting by publisher, or simply alpha-
nineteenth, the growth of such circulating libraries, betically by series). Thus they differ from bookshops
with their subscription arrangements, made long-form or libraries in their layout. However, consumers aware-
prose narrative affordable to middle-class readers, with ness of intertextuality is nonetheless stimulated by their
of course significant structural and aesthetic conse- total immersion in the shop environment, and, more
quences for the works in question. Literary historians important, by the periodical nature of most comic
have tended to gauze over the crucial importance of books, which keeps buyers coming back for more at
these commercial lending libraries; indeed, criticism regular intervals. The breakdown of comic book nar-
has assumed the inevitability and desirability of the rative into brief, relatively frequent installments
move away from commercial subscription, toward (along with the concomitant emphasis on the hoard-
the primacy of the Novel as a freestanding and aes- ing of successive issues) provides a strong material
thetically self-sufficient, even monumental, form of basis for the fans heightened sense of intertextuality.
expression. Yet the fact of the libraries tremendous In contrast to the circulating libraries, which (like
influence, on form and audience, and indeed on pop- video stores today) stressed renting rather than
ular literacy, remains, a facet of print culture deserv- buying, comic shops are about getting and keeping;
ing further study.8 In the field of comic books, the rise possession is key. As Roger Sabin observes, buying
of the direct market has had a comparable, if scaled for investment is endemic to the direct market,
down, effect. and indeed often defines the relationship between
Like the commercial lending library, the comic the industry and fandom (Adult 67). This crucial dif-
book shop has in effect informed and disciplined its ference reflects fan cultures commodification of
clientele. As Edward Jacobs has observed of lending experiencea material practice admittedly remote
libraries in the late eighteenth century, so too direct from the ethos of the library.
market comic shops have given readers an unprece- Despite this core difference, circulating libraries and
dented material basis for recognizing intertextual rela- comic shops also invite comparison on the matter of
tionships, and for identifying generic conventions advertising and publicity. Jacobs observes that the con-
(616). Jacobs links this emphasis on intertextuality ventions of the Gothic romance, so popular within the
with the physical layout of the shops (libraries) them- circulating libraries, were used to promote the libraries
selves, in which thematically similar books were themselves: their publicity ironically deployed diver-
grouped together, a practice that urged readers to see sion, misdirection, and mystery to stimulate the inter-
books as variations on particular genres rather than as est of seasoned readers in the genre. In this way the
singular expressions. Indeed, Jacobs argues that the narrative properties of the Gothic reinforced, or, in
physical ordering of the circulating libraries consti- Jacobss apt phrase, discursively co-operated with,
tuted an institutional foregrounding of the generi- the physical strategies by which the libraries would iso-
cism of all texts (61718). In other words, these late and exhibit the genre (61718). In comparable
libraries established a mutually reinforcing relationship fashion, comic book publishers in the 1980s developed
between the organization of a commercial space and print advertising and in-shop promotional gimmicks
the content of the work exhibited in that space. In a (often partly paid for by retailers) that emphasized dis-
sense this space/content relationship serves to disci- tinctive graphic elements from the comics themselves,
pline the consumer, making her or him a more sophis- and, like the comics, depended on the effects of perio-
ticated reader and fan. dicity: the maintenance of suspense, the gradual
Things are slightly different in comic shops, where unveiling of the new, and the resultant accretion of
the emphasis on genericism and intertextuality is meaning. At its most forceful, this advertising was
less dependent on precise physical sorting by genre. aggressively intertextual, complementing the prom-
Although many shops do rack comic books according ised comic books with posters, flyers, badges, toys,
to genre, others do not, preferring other methods and even other comic books, thus creating a diverting,


ever-changing retail environmentone in which the circulating libraries to other entrepreneurs (Erickson
experience of reading and the experience of buying 138). Thus he was involved in all phases of the trade.9
were effectively blurred. In short, the shop environ- Such multifaceted entrepreneurial endeavors have
ment itself functioned as an elaborate paratext to the influenced the distribution, exhibition, and cultural
comic books; consumer rituals defined the margins, influence of popular fiction and comic books alike.
sometimes even the core content, of the reading Admittedly, the circulating library analogy fails
experience. insofar as it cannot account for comic book fandoms
Like the circulating libraries, comic shops narrowed emphasis on collecting. The libraries were designed to
the gap between audience and authors, establishing a make books accessible to a wider public at a time
space through which readers and prospective creators when book costs were relatively high and buying
might have more direct access to the publishing books outright was therefore thought to be the pre-
industry. This was crucial for the development of serve of the wealthy. In contrast, the direct market was
small-press and alternative comics. The direct market, designed to appeal, with pinpoint accuracy, to a
because of its low startup costs and relatively small (or smaller, more committed audience that could be
predictable) economic risks, fostered the idea that expected to spend a disproportionate share of its
fans might create their own comics, not simply at an income on comic books. So, whereas the circulating
amateur level, as in the early fanzines, but on a more libraries represented an opening out of popular print
or less level playing field with established profession- culture, the direct market represented in some sense a
als. Direct distribution meant dramatically increased narrowing in: specialized hobby shops tend to be less
access for self-publishing entrepreneurs, and the responsive to demands for economy and accessibility.
effacing of the once-rigid distinction between ama- While circulating libraries fostered a new kind of popu-
teur and pro. Indeed the number and variety of self- lar narrativeits kernel the Gothic romancecomic
published comic book projectssome extraordinarily shops seem inordinately dedicated to the nostalgic
well crafted, others dismalhas made that distinction preservation of the old and outworn. (Of course there
rather porous (a phenomenon encouraged by the is another, perhaps related, difference to consider:
continual involvement of fans at all levels of the whereas the circulating libraries were consistently con-
industry). demned as encouragements to feminine frivolity, con-
Other distinctions too are rather arbitrary. As in the temporary comic book shops are generally said to be
circulating libraries, specialized distribution to comic grossly, overwhelmingly, male.) Yet the direct market,
shops has enabled distributors and retailers to delve in spite of its debilitating emphasis on preservation and
sporadically into the business of publishing. A number collection, gave birth to a new sense of aesthetic possi-
of early direct market entrepreneurs (for example, bility, spurred by the example of the undergrounds.
Bud Plant) and companies (for example, Pacific Just as the Victorian three-decker novel sprang from
Comics, Capital Comics) involved themselves in all the lending libraries, the much-discussed graphic
phases of the industry, and some entrepreneurs con- novel owed its very life to this new market.
tinue to combine publishing, distributing, and retailing
interests (though usually separated by corporate
firewalls). In similar fashion, circulating library propri- THE EVOLUTION OF DIRECT MARKET
etors often went into publishing books themselves COMIC BOOKS
and evidently sought to recruit new, inexpensive tal-
ent (often female, very often anonymous) from Many of the alternative comics studied herein were
among their patrons. To take the best-known exam- born of the direct market during its 1980s heyday,
ple, William Lane, founder of the Minerva Library, also when rising retail sales encouraged creative growth
created his own publishing house, the Minerva Press, and, to a degree, diversification. While comic books
in addition to wholesaling complete, preexisting in this period continued to be driven mainly by


established genres such as the superhero (indeed Eclipse, Pacific, Capital, and, in Canada, Andromeda
superhero publishers sought to strengthen their grip Publications and Vortex Comics. Some of these pub-
on the market), the burgeoning alternative scene, lishing companies, not surprisingly, grew out of suc-
rooted in the underground, urged the development of cessful retail and distribution businesses (for
comic books that either sidestepped genre formulas example, Pacific and Capital).
or twisted them in novel ways. Gradually the ten- Notable publications from this second wave of
sion between mainstream and underground aesthe- ground-level comics (the late seventies to early eight-
tics made itself felt in the conversations of fans: for ies) included Sabre, a self-contained album by Don
some, the terms independent and alternative, McGregor and Paul Gulacy (Eclipse, 1978); Elfquest, a
though seemingly near-synonymous, came to repre- serialized fantasy epic by Wendy and Richard Pini
sent opposing aesthetic tendencies. Today the cate- (self-published under the WaRP Graphics imprint,
gory independent comics may include, often does 1978); Capt. Victory and the Galactic Rangers, a tra-
include, formula fiction inspired by the so-called ditional four-color series by mainstream veteran Jack
mainstream, including much heroic fantasy; while Kirby (Pacific, 1981); and, in Canada, at least two
alternative more often denotes satirical, political, titles: the SF anthology Andromeda (Andromeda Pub-
and autobiographical elements inherited from under- lications, 197779) and, in 1978, Dave Sims series
ground comix. Yet, because the direct market con- Cerebus (self-published under the Aardvark-Vanaheim
tinues to blend the two, drawing any hard distinction imprint). Most of these comics were inexpensively
between them is difficult (notwithstanding the fierce produced in black and white, and all offered variants
position-taking of some fans). on traditional genres: science fiction, adventure, sword
The development in the 1980s of both independ- and sorcery, superheroics. These were the comic books
ent and alternative positions owed much to the that confirmed the efficacy of direct-only publishing
support of a growing fandom. The alternative comix of and paved the way for the next host of independent
the eighties, despite their disdain for the mainstream publications.
and their invocation of the underground as fore- Among the third wave were such seminal takeoffs
bears, were also indebted to a spate of fan-oriented, of genre as Howard Chaykins satirical SF series
ground-level comic books of the mid-seventies, so American Flagg! (First Comics, 198389) and Dean
called because they attempted to reconcile under- Motter et al.s retro-futuristic Mister X (original series:
ground and mainstream attitudes. Such ground-level Vortex, 198488). (Motters Mister X collaborators
comics, though rooted in shopworn fantasy genres, originally included the Hernandez brothers of Love &
testified to the influence of the undergrounds and Rockets fame, to be discussed in chapter 3.) These
represented a first, tentative turning toward more books, more graphically elaborate than their predeces-
personal and innovative approaches. Among these sors, were among many influenced by the newsstand
quixotic publications were fantasy-adventure comics success of Heavy Metal, the slick magazine of adult
like Jack Katzs The First Kingdom (published by illustrated fantasy launched in 1977. Heavy Metal
Comics & Comix/Bud Plant, 197486) and Star*Reach was adapted under license from the groundbreaking
(published by Mike Friedrichs Star*Reach Produc- French series Mtal Hurlant (197587), itself inspired
tions, 197479). Such projects, marked by their use by the free-spiritedness of the American under-
of mainstream comic book talent, appealed to main- grounds and known for extravagant, visionary artwork
stream readers while boasting an underground ration- (Gravett, Euro-Comics 83; Sabin, Adult Comics
ale and modus operandi. As they negotiated the new 7172). On a smaller scale, comic books like Flagg!
and as yet uncertain territory of the direct market, and Mister X aimed for a similar graphic panache.
they in turn inspired comics that took the direct mar- They boasted dazzling design conceits incorporating
ket for granted, published by new companies specially architecture, fashion, and typography and were awash
created for its unique conditionscompanies like in eye-catching technique, expressive color, and


improved production values in general. More impor- Bell) Canadas greatest achievement in comic art
tant, they moved toward adult themes (again like (Canuck Comics 40). In the process Sim became the
Heavy Metal), more so than even the most eccentric ipso facto spokesman of a self-publishers move-
mainstream comics of the day, and confirmed that ment and of the direct market more generally.
familiar market genres could be put to the service of Cerebus, a longtime staple of direct-only comic
satirical and thought-provoking stories. These direct- books, stands as a signal example of the mediums
only comic books thus fulfilled the promise of the ear- creative growth under direct market conditions. Long
liest ground-level efforts. Some offered a breadth promoted as a 300-issue limited series designed to
and complexity unprecedented in serialized comics, span a quarter century of its creators life (the final
even as they sought solutions for the creative and eco- issue appeared in Spring 2004), Cerebus cleaved
nomic problems caused by dependence on a serial strictly to the traditional comic book format and a
readership. monthly schedule, yet amassed one phonebook-sized
Dave Sims self-published series Cerebus compilation after another. These phonebooks, with
(19782004) serves as an especially clear example of their extended plots and satirical themes, demonstrate
genre material blossoming in unexpected directions; that genre comic books can become vehicles for
it also demonstrates clearly the possibilities and extended cultural argument and that, given an ongo-
problems engendered by the direct market. Indeed ing project like Cerebus, talented artists can success-
Cerebus is the ur-example of independent comics, fully publish and republish their own work over the
informed by the undergrounds uncompromising long term. As such, these volumes represent one of
stance on intellectual ownership yet disciplined by the seminal examples of independent comics within
the publishing practices of the commercial main- the direct market (a market that Sim has assiduously
stream. Launched in 1978 (dated Dec. 1977/Jan. studied and promoted). Yet the curious achievement
1978), Cerebus began as a slavish homage to/spoof of Cerebus represents not only the potential but also
of sword and sorcery fantasy, as popularized by the limitations inherent within comic shop culture.
Marvels adaptation of Robert E. Howards pulp hero Because of Sims indebtedness to that culture, his ener-
Conan; in fact Sim swiped some images directly from getic riffing on topics familiar only to hobbyists, and
the early issues of Marvels Conan the Barbarian his inattention to editing at the compiling stage, his
(drawn by Barry Smith). Yet within a few years books are at best problematic examples of the graphic
Sim transformed Cerebus into a roving, uncategoriz- novel.
able and at times controversial vehicle for his ever- To be fair, the strongest satirical episodes in
expanding interests in literature, religion, politics, Cerebus (for example, the political maneuverings in
and gender. As its visual canvas grew ever richer the novel High Society) draw enlightening analogies
(thanks in part to the arrival of Sims artistic collabo- between the seemingly parochial concerns of comic
rator/background artist, the single-named Gerhard), book fans and broader sociopolitical conflicts. Yet it
Cerebus evolved fitfully into a protean mix of epic is hard to imagine the uninitiated reader chuckling
fantasy, psychological drama, genre parody, and with glee over, for example, the dated broadsides
polemical treatise. The series grew to the point that against Marvel Comics that complicate the plot of
it could embrace almost anything: electoral politics, Sims Church and State, or the continual teasing of
apocalyptic visions, fictionalized lives of Oscar Wilde the monthly audience that interrupts and indeed
and Ernest Hemingway, the dreamlife of its title arrests the narrative of Sims Reads. By the authors
character (a very human aardvark), and Sims own admission, the Cerebus series was as much
increasingly antifeminist and politically conservative about a process as about an end product (Interview
fulminations on the contemporary scene. Whatever 1026), and its roots in serial publication complicated,
it was, Cerebus was smart and ambitious, enough so at times undermined, its efforts toward novel-like
that many came to regard it as (in the words of John coherence.


Cerebus thus represents an ambitious yet uneasy testimonial to its own process, revealing Sims atti-
compromise between serial and novelistic aesthetics. tude toward the grueling demands, and personal
Though the series unruly accumulative quality rewards, of periodic self-publishing. (To this reader
accounts for much of its appeal, the critical reputation the series became increasingly oppressive in its later
of Cerebus rests on its breakdown into discrete, novel- years, as its content became more nakedly autobio-
length stories, and, finally, on its claims to wholeness: graphical.) In short, Cerebus was, and remains, a
for years Sim marketed the series by counting down product of the direct market, and its greatest appeal
toward its promised end, issue 300, and recent cover- is to comic book fans.
age of its ending has emphasized the complete and Like Cerebus, most of the works discussed in the
rounded-off nature of Sims achievement. In fact Sim following chapters sprang from serial publication, and
promoted Cerebus via a two-pronged attack: the pro- in some cases they too began as novel twists on famil-
motion of the monthly as a limited, hence collectible, iar genre material. Gilbert Hernandez, studied in
series of objects; and the promotion of the collected chapter 3, developed his complex Heartbreak Soup
bookshelf editions as finished novels (despite the series from 1983 onwards through the periodic issues
absence of substantial revision in these winding, often of Love & Rockets (which, though magazine-sized,
self-indulgent volumes). This dual emphasis accom- was still supported by a loyal comic book audience).
modated the habits of comic book hobbyists while His early stories in Love & Rockets, and even on occa-
aiming toward a single, monumental saga. The tension sion his later work, show the formative influence of
thus created is evident in such stories as the two-vol- genre comics, often filtered through a satiric sensibil-
ume Church and State (198388), which finds Sim ity: superheroes and monsters battle; voluptuous
switching restively from acute satire to broad farce, women and well-muscled men pose and cavort; flying
from deliberate plotting to abrupt parodic episodes saucers and rockets sometimes buzz overhead. Yet, as
that invoke superheroes and other comic book clichs. Hernandezs work grew more confident, such ele-
Though promoted as a single epic tale, Cerebus ments were relegated to the background, and in time
reveled in being a comic book series, and indeed is Heartbreak Soup, a quintessential example of alter-
most remarkable as an artifact of monthly publica- native comics, would generate a cycle of magic-realist
tion. Its accumulated issues stand as the de facto short stories and novels that stand as some of the
journal of an industry veteran, known for his engage- most provocative work in contemporary literature.
ment with industry-wide economic concerns, his Crucial to this growth was Hernandezs invocation of
advocacy of independently owned and created work, underground comix, vintage newspaper strips, and
and, increasingly, his broadsides against feminism, other points of reference, including film, canonical art,
Marxism, and other political targets. Sims essays, and, increasingly, his own heritage and social position
speeches and notes, published in Cerebus alongside as a Latinoall this in contrast to the mainstream
the main narrative, constitute a vital part of his ethos comic book aesthetic invoked by Cerebus.
as a comics professional. (In fannish conversation, Like Sim, Hernandez started within generic bounds
Dave Sim is seldom simply a comic book author; that he then tested. Unlike Sim, he gravitated toward
he represents either a standard-bearer for artistic an alternative aesthetic born of underground comix
freedom, or a venomous crank, or both.) In fact Sims in contrast to the mainstream approach of Cerebus,
attachment to the direct market, and to the relative which favored an indefinitely sustained, strictly peri-
freedom it offers the small press, became the concep- odical structure and an emphasis on comic book in-
tual bedrock of Cerebus, so much so that at certain joking (and, graphically, a classically illustrative style,
points the series devolved into a roman clef about notwithstanding Sims penchant for caricature). Of
the comic book industry. Sims commitment to a tra- course we should not exaggerate these differences:
ditional format and schedule was such an overriding both of these artists belong to the same relatively
concern that Cerebus often became a highly fraught small industry, and in fact Hernandez has recently


done much work in mainstream comics (far different book publishing industry, as formerly newsstand-
from his fully personal work). More to the point, both dependent publishers redirected their product to
owed their early opportunities for growth to the direct appeal more specifically to the direct market audi-
market. Unlike Sim, however, artists like Hernandez ence. That audience was increasingly self-conscious,
have pursued sporadic rather than monthly publica- relatively affluent, and eager for belated recognition
tiona testament to the influence of the under- of the comic book as art, a hunger that made the
groundsand are allied with publishers who have upscale format of the graphic novel doubly attractive.
sought wider distribution outside the hobby. For all that the graphic novel provided a new plat-
Sims work has been the more amenable to the form for alternative comics, it also became a kind of
hobbys traditional emphases on strict periodicity and wish-fulfilling totem for mainstream comics.
continuity: arguably, the monthly Cerebus succeeded Critics have lamented the vagueness of the term.
in being a comic book in ways that Love & Rockets Writing in 1988, Robert Fiore objected to graphic
has not. Yet Cerebus is also more insular: though its novel as a kind of semantic sleight-of-hand, designed
stands as a pioneering example of extended comic to confer unearned status on comics that differ little
book narrative, and thus represents the flowering of from the standard output of mainstream comic book
the medium under the aegis of direct sales, the terms publishers (Groth and Fiore 5). Indeed, the term
of its success have thus far made it resistant to a wider quickly became a way of simply designating a format,
critical appreciation. The ever-shifting and at times any format, with more heft than a standard comic
digressive nature of Sims work suggests that there is book (Harvey, Comic Book 116). Marvel Comics and
something left behind when a strictly periodical series DC Comics, the leading publishers of traditional
is reformatted as a graphic novel. That some- adventure fare, adopted the term to denote albums
thing, perhaps, is the comic books investment in of unusual length (forty-eight pages or more),
being a comic book, and the vitality of the series qua though those books typically offered a reading expe-
series. This is a tension faced by most of the long-form rience that fell well short of the novel, or even
comics to be studied in the following chapters (includ- the literary short story, in terms of length and com-
ing Hernandezs). plexity. Granted, some early superhero graphic
novels offered thematic elements that seldom
made it into monthly comic books in such explicit
WHENCE CAME THE GRAPHIC NOVEL? form, but these books were relatively brief and con-
tinued to work in the hyperbolic idiom of the genre.
The above discussion raises a tough question: given They were scarcely novels in any sense that some-
the difficulty of serializing novels in comic book form, one approaching them from outside the comics
how did the idea of the graphic novel catch on? industry might recognize. Given the haphazard use
This admittedly problematic term was popularized of the term (even Eisners seminal Contract was in
in the late 1970s by veteran cartoonist Will Eisner in fact a collection of short stories), Fiores objection
an effort to attract a new audience to his book- would seem reasonable. By now, however, the idea
length projects, beginning with A Contract with God of the graphic novel has such force that we ignore
(1978).10 The term originally promised a way of pro- the term at our peril (again, the currency of the term
moting serious comics to the general book trade and makes it irresistible).
a general readership: Eisners aim was to break into When did the idea of the graphic novel move
bookstores, not comic shops. Yet, ironically, Eisners beyond comic shops and into the book trade? That
term would eventually serve to legitimize a new, intervention came not with Eisners pioneering efforts
costlier way of selling comics to the initiated direct but with the arrival in the late 1980s of several truly
market fan. By the mid-eighties, the phrase graphic novel-length volumes that had originally been serial-
novel had become common currency in the comic ized: specifically, the first volume of Spiegelmans


Maus (1986); Frank Millers darkly satiric superhero specialized conditions. While the label graphic novel is
adventure The Dark Knight Returns, starring vigilante by now used routinely in the less specialized (and less
hero Batman (also 1986); and Alan Moore and Dave forgiving) book trade, it was the comic book shop that
Gibbonss magisterial deconstruction of the super- gave the genre its economic spark. The direct market,
hero, Watchmen (1987). All three of these had because of its low-risk terms, prompted the develop-
depended to some extent on serialization among ment of increasingly ambitious comics narratives
comic book fans to underwrite their production; all (albeit still mostly within the constraints of serial form).
had been parceled out in periodic form prior to col- Though the late 1990s saw a creative retrenchment,
lection and republication as volumes for the book in response to economic crises within the industry,
trade. Yet Maus, first serialized in Raw, was the odd for a time the comic book market offered conditions
one out: the one least dependent on the direct mar- encouraging to the creation of innovative workand,
ket for its survival, and least reducible to comic book in chastened and diminished form, it continues to do
genres (though it invoked the anthropomorphic so, even as its most progressive publishers bid for
funny animal tradition to alarming effect). In con- attention in the larger book trade. The changes
trast, the comic book-derived Dark Knight and enabled by the direct market have so altered the
Watchmen were smash hits within the direct market, perception of comics that the form has at last won
teasing loyal superhero readers with each new install- commercial and critical attention as an emerging lit-
ment and each new revisionist spin on the familiar erature. Alternative comic books and graphic novels
genre. Together these three volumesreally not very are at the core of this development.
much alikeestablished a beachhead for graphic
novels in the book trade and indeed expectations of
success that for years went spectacularly unfulfilled ALTERNATIVE COMICS ON THE CURRENT SCENE
(see Sabin, Adult 11015, 24548; DeHaven,
Comics). In the wake of the graphic novel, todays direct mar-
Since then graphic novel has become not only a ket presents a bewildering clash of perspectives. On
term of convenience within comic book fandom but the one hand, major corporate publishers continue to
also a label increasingly used by booksellers to exploit established properties through aggressively
bracket a dizzying range of disparate comics: from marketed, upscale comic books (for example, the
compilations of popular superhero comic book sto- number of new Batman- or Spider-Man-related items
ries, to translated volumes of Japanese manga, to the in a given month can be overwhelming). On the
rare original graphic novel designed for a non-fan other, alternative publishers and creators continue to
audience. Such works tend to be lumped together invoke the iconoclastic spirit and methods of under-
indiscriminately. Given the preponderance of super- ground comix, though they depend on the health of
hero and fantasy stories in comic books, the Graphic mainstream comics to keep the market afloat. These
Novel section in bookstores often ends up next to alternative comics-makers are caught in a bind: even
Science Fiction, Horror, or other presumably related as they struggle to cross over from comic shops to the
genre sections, though many comics (for example, larger possibilities of the book trade, they owe their
Spiegelmans) look wildly out of place in such con- continued livelihood to the direct market, which offers
texts. But the format has at least gained a secure reassurances in terms of economic predictability and
foothold within the book trade: graphic novels, low risk. Because alternative comics de-emphasize
despite the relative thinning of the comic book mar- heroic fantasy (the markets bedrock genre), they are
ket, have at last become a recognizable commodity unfortunately marginalized even within the marginal
within bookstores. field of comic book fandom. By that fields peculiar
Nonetheless the genre is an offspring of the comic standards, their core readership is considered highly
book industry and owes its life to the direct markets specialized. The position of alternative comics is


therefore fragilethough they continue to serve (since 2000 a period of readjustment and consolida-
mainstream comics both practically, as a seedbed for tion seems to have set in). Most encouraging, how-
new talent, and rhetorically, even ideologically, as an ever, is that graphic novels are now pouring out of the
abiding and convenient Other. direct market and into general bookstores, thanks to a
The clash of perspectives within the direct market revival of interest among book publishers (as well as
has been pronounced since the aggressive entry of recent partnerships between direct market companies
Marvel and DC into direct-only publishing in the early and major book publishing/distributing houses). This
1980s. This clash has encouraged the persistent use of influx of comics into bookstores offers some publish-
those admittedly imprecise and loaded terms, main- ers and creators a real, if risky, alternative to depend-
stream and alternative, to distinguish between the ence on fandom.
various types of comics vying for fans attention. Today much of the creative promise of American
While the origins of these terms are contestable, their comic art rests in the undercapitalized and therefore
continued relevance testifies to the fields unruliness: fragile microcosm of alternative comics. In fact, the
insular as it is, this market is crowded with different creative heart of contemporary English-language
kinds of comics. Though mainstream superhero comics comics can be found in the genres of the alternative
are the economic lifeblood for most direct market comic book and graphic novel: heirs to the under-
shops, alternative comics persist in challenging this ground, born of the direct markets unique subculture
state of affairshence the continuing reinforcement, and yet anxious to reach a wider, less insular audi-
the reification, of these contrasting terms. The chal- ence. Such alternative comics have most forcefully
lenge of alternative comics extends not only to style demonstrated the complexity and potential of the art
and thematic content but also, increasingly, to format, form; along the way, they have forged the strongest
packaging, and frequencya testament to the influ- connections with avant-garde and art comics world-
ence of the underground. wide. From alternative comics has come a dramatic
Comic shops may have reached a ceiling on their influx of work that challenges both the formal and
growth, not only because the direct market system cultural boundaries of comic art. While we should not
poses disadvantages to retailers but also perhaps make the mistake of simply dismissing strips or comic
because comic book fandom is a generational phe- books based in mainstream market genresthey
nomenon suffering from a lack of turnover. Certainly, have been and remain crucial to the growth of the art,
faith in the commercial and artistic potential of comic as the above history attestsit is alternative comics
books was hobbled in the late nineties by a traumatic that have most compellingly extended, revitalized,
decline from the boom years, pre-1993. Happily, and indeed redefined the form. Such alternative work
though, optimism is in the air as of this writing, for the will be this books main focus, as we study productive
direct market has pulled well back from the brink tensions, and recent innovations, within comics.



Of course we can now reach multitudes of children and semi-illiterate adults

with images rather than with cultivated language. But should we? Any
degradation of language is a potential threat to civilization.
Fredric Wertham, Comics in Education

Ive been writing all along and Ive been doing it with pictures.
Jack Kirby, Interview with Ben Schwartz

To posit comics as a literary formand alternative comics in particular as a

wellspring of notable literary workmay seem question-begging, given the
traditional critical view of comics as a subliterary and juvenile diversion that
anticipates or preempts the experience of real reading. Despite the recent
groundswell in multidisciplinary word/image studies, this damaging view of
comics is still alive and kicking in some quarters, where classist concerns about
the cultural provenance of comics are reinforced by assumptions about essen-
tial differences between communication by text and communication by
images. When doubts persist about the terms of readerly engagement with
comics, and whether those terms are radically at odds with the teaching of tra-
ditional textual literacy, claims about the forms literary potential are bound to
stir skepticism and resistance. Such doubts of course cannot be overborne by
assertion, nor even by sheer weight of examplenot everyone can be per-
suadedbut in the interest of clearing the air, it is worth asking, What kind of
experience is reading comics? And to what extent does that experience resem-
ble or diverge from the experience of reading traditional written text? How, if


at all, might that experience affect the acquisition of invocation of intimacy and writing is no mere after-
print awareness and literacy? thought: though he seems unconcerned about the
These questions, though often unstated or taken materiality of comics (that is, their physical construc-
as already answered, have bedeviled professional tion as printed objects), McCloud clearly is concerned
research since at least the 1940s and need to be about their readability. Therefore he privileges their
addressed if we are to appreciate comics as a literary static naturemore precisely, the way they exploit the
form. They are not the sort of questions one conven- juxtaposition of still images. These are images that
tionally asks about visual art, but they are crucial to stay, unlike the successive moments in a film or video
ask here, for they bear directly on the claimmy as it is being viewed. In that sense the images in comics
bedrock claimthat comic art is a form of writing. read more like printed words or characters. A similar
This claim has increasingly found support among emphasis informs other recent formalist studies (e.g.,
critics, as a reaction against the comparison of comics Harveys Art of the Comic Book, Eisners Graphic
to cinema and other mechanically paced, hence com- Storytelling), which, along with McCloud, suggest a
paratively passive, forms of visual communication. general critique of cinema as an explanatory template
Comics, in recent criticism, are not mere visual displays for comics.
that encourage inert spectatorship but rather texts that Yet it is by no means clear that comics are univer-
require a readers active engagement and collaboration sally regarded as a reading experience. Indeed, the
in making meaning. Hence Will Eisners critique of recent insistence on comics-as-reading seems designed
comics that too slavishly imitate the rapid pacing and to counter a long-lived tradition of professional writing
narrative fragmentation of cinema (Graphic Story- that links comics with illiteracy and the abdication of
telling 7073) and Scott McClouds insistence that the reading as a civilized (and civilizing) skill. This anti-
reader is always the authors active accomplice in comics tradition, or school, clearly gives vent to
constructing the meaning of a comics text (68). From assumptions and anxieties about literacy acquisition
invoking cinema as an upscale, hence flattering, anal- among the very young (concerns shared with much
ogy, comics scholars have decisively shifted toward popular and professional writing about childrens liter-
recognizing the specificity of comics as a form, one dis- ature). In fact anxiety over comics as an influence on
tinguished from cinema by its own signifying codes reading, or as competition for real reading, domi-
and practices. nates the earliest professional writing about the form.
Comics theory, then, has tardily arrived at a crucial The first wave of American academic research about
stage, that of dismantling the once-useful cinema/ comics, from the 1940s to the mid-1950s, focused
comics analogy.1 The idea of comics as active reading persistently on reading skills, reading habits and literacy
has gained ground in critical conversation, and dis- acquisition (McAllister, Research 611; Nyberg 811;
placed the once-attractive comparison to film. This see also Lent, Comic Strips, and Zorbaugh). This critical
shift is politically loaded, of course, underplaying the wave resulted from the sudden popularity, indeed
complexity of audience participation in cinema (how ubiquity, of comic books as juvenile entertainment,
do viewers read a film, anyway?) so as to stress the from the late thirties onward (though newspaper strips
difference of comicsa strategy consistent with raised similar alarms in the popular press decades
what Bart Beaty has called the search for comics beforesee, for example, Lent, Pulp Demons 910;
exceptionalism (Exceptionalism 67). Crucial to Gordon, Comic Strips 41 42).
this search is the (re)invocation of the written text as Mirroring popular concerns, the first wave of comic
a more appropriate point of comparison. book research stressed the challenge comics posed to
Hence McClouds grand summation in Under- school curricula and to traditional notions of literature
standing Comics: the form offers range and versatility (both as reading matter and as a sacrosanct cultural
with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus patrimony). The field was shared by clinicians, sociolo-
the intimacy of the written word (212). McClouds gists, and educators, but it was the latter, especially


librarians and English teachers, who dominated the dis- pejorative: the pictures are held to be a detriment
cussion. Common among their writings were: concerns because they encourage a lazy or passive approach
about the damage (optical as well as psychological) to reading. This position assumes that the verbal
supposedly wrought by comics; invidious distinctions aspects of the hybrid text are of no consequence to the
between the entrenched newspaper strip genre and the (presumably semi-literate) readers, who concentrate
then less familiar, and certainly less reputable, comic wholly on the pictures.
book; assumptions about the otherness of comics vis- This argument is distilled in Fredric Werthams
-vis true art and culture (which were assumed to be famed Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which,
nutritive and socially unifying); and specific sugges- besides asserting a causal connection between comics
tions of books that could serve as substitutes for, or consumption and delinquency, also devotes a chapter
alternatives to, comic book reading. to the impact of comics on reading skill. Wertham
Because comic books were overwhelmingly associ- concludes that comics discourage or obstruct reading
ated with children, these first attempts to theorize readiness, that they cause or exacerbate reading dis-
about comics reading were inevitably urgent and orders, and that most habitual comics readers are
instrumental in nature. Disinterest was impossible: not reading at all but rather engaging in a lazier
academic and popular commentators alike (some activity which he christens picture reading, mean-
served in both capacities) were spurred by the general ing gazing at the successive pictures of the comic
controversy surrounding the medium. Popular and book with a minimal reading of printed letters (126,
academic conversations about comic books necessar- 139). In Werthams view, the ease of comics-gazing
ily overlapped and reinforced each other, and some of seduces children into mere picture reading, drawing
the most concerned partiesteachers and clinicians, them away from the more valuable activity of decod-
for instancewere positioned so that they had no ing written text. Wertham would later coin the phrase
choice but to respond to arguments from all sides. linear dyslexia to describe the inability to sustain
Thus the early academic writings about comics were proper reading of whole lines . . . and of whole
transparently political, part of a continuum of political pages that he believed followed inevitably from such
activity that included professional symposia, public extensive picture reading. He would also attack
testimony, newspaper op-ed writing, mass book comics visual/verbal nature by explicitly connecting
burnings, and the drafting of new laws. Because they written literacy with cultural inheritance, thusly: [I]t
were occasional in nature, most of these writings have took thousands of years to develop from communica-
dated badly. Yet, remote as they are, they represent tion by images to the abstract reading and writing
the first kindling of academic interest in comic art. process which is one of the foundations of civiliza-
They should not be dismissed offhandedly, for they tion. . . . Any degradation of language is a potential
had lasting effects, both on the political treatment of threat . . . (Comics and Education 1920).
the comic book medium and on the academic attitude This view, so forcefully articulated by Wertham,
toward comics as a form of writing and reading. still colors discussion of comics in the literary sphere,
A full survey of this literature lies beyond our scope where, as Adam Gopnik has pointed out, comics con-
(therefore readers are referred to Amy Nybergs Seal of tinue to be regarded as an atavistic, indeed primitive
Approval and John Lent et al.s Pulp Demons for help- and preliterate, form, despite evidence to the contrary
ful overviews). Suffice to say that most academic stud- (Comics and Catastrophe 2930). Cartoonists
ies from this period neglect to consider the appeal of penchant for using nonstandard or distorted vocabu-
the comics form per se, and conceive of it as, at best, a lary, phrasing, and spellinga habit that depends on
neutral or valueless carrier of themes and ideas better the power of pictures to gloss and clarifyhas often
expressed in traditional books. While some writings of been adduced as evidence of this preliterate quality,
the period do acknowledge the hybrid, visual/verbal though it arguably reveals quite the opposite: a
makeup of comics, this acknowledgment is usually sophisticated attitude toward language as a sign of


character and context. Although Wertham derided comic art and share a common argument: the famil-
the faulty spelling and peculiar neologisms of iarity, accessibility and, in some cases, easy vocabulary
comics, as well as their reliance on words that are not of comics make them ideal tools for teaching reading,
words at all, that is, onomatopoeia (Seduction 144), provided that teachers focus the students attention
prior arguments had already established that word on the words, not the pictures (Thomas 258).
distortion in comics can be a source of meaning, and Comics are held to have a high motivational value
pleasure, for adult and child readers alike (see Hill (161), and articles extolling comics often invoke the
525). Indeed, the playful argot of such comics as popularity of the form, in some cases buttressing this
George Herrimans Krazy Kat and Elzie Segars Popeye claim with sales figures for comic books. Yet recogni-
marks a Modernist preoccupation with the fluid tion of the unique properties of comics is scant. These
exchange between poetic and everyday speechno studies tend to ignore the distinctive graphic qualities
less so, one is tempted to say, than Finnegans Wake. of the comics page in favor of an emphasis on verbal
Concern over such degradation of language con- readability alone, and recommend classroom activ-
tinues to obstruct the critical reception of comics, even ities that focus on the isolation of key words or
though, properly speaking, this anarchic approach to the analysis of prose, without attention to the visual
words should be seen as a creative asset rather than a context.2
liability. (As a student of mine once remarked, I love Thomass book confirmed a change in the prevail-
the way the pictures make the dialogue so free.) ing attitude toward comics reading. This change can
Academic critics of comics throughout the forties be traced to various overdetermined, indeed politically
and fifties tended to ignore or to condemn the forms fraught, trends in American intellectual life, among
visual/verbal nature, viewing the radical fragmentation them: shifts in academic attitudes toward mass cul-
of the page and the nonstandard use of language as ture, the displacement of media effects research from
obstructive rather than enabling. Yet by the early sev- comics to television, and the entrenchment of holistic
enties the overall emphasis of the professional litera- or whole language approaches to reading peda-
ture had begun to shift, from censure to guarded gogy. These trends conspired to quell anxieties about
endorsement of comics as an aid to literacy. Indeed the comics, and indeed to encourage the use of comics
seventies saw a groundswell of interest in comics as and other hybrid texts in reading instruction. Yet, still,
instructional tools, a development summed up in 1983 the distinctiveness of comic artits peculiar means of
with the appearance of a book titled Cartoons and soliciting reader involvement and suggesting mean-
Comics in the Classroom, edited by James L. Thomas. ingseldom came up for discussion. There remained
This book, subtitled A Reference for Teachers and an underlying consistency between the censorious
Librarians, compiles thirty-two articles written by aca- writings of the forties and fifties and the guarded
demics, school administrators, classroom teachers, and enthusiasm of the seventies and eighties. This consis-
librarians between 1971 and 1981, articles culled from tency emerges repeatedly in certain rhetorical conces-
journals and magazines aimed primarily at educators sions: comics are designated as strictly utilitarian and
(for example, Elementary English, School Library are still regarded as distinctly other than great litera-
Journal, and Reading Improvement). Thomass compi- ture. Yes, they are a time-honored part of American
lation urges the use of comics and instructional car- culture, and possibly an aid to reading, but as texts
toons, while inadvertently testifying to the cultural they are too impure, or too aesthetically fragile, to
anxieties still surrounding the form: several articles defend except on grounds of usefulness. Scholarship
refer approvingly to the comic industrys self-censoring continued to resist comics and, more broadly, the com-
Code, and the full text of the Code is given as an mixing of image and text, except as a stopgap for the
appendix. reluctant reader.
Articles of the sort collected in Cartoons and Comics In sum, the professional literature reveals two
in the Classroom register a tentative enthusiasm for schools of thought about comics reading, both


founded on pragmatic concerns: either comics are empirical study (for example, eye movement, work-
effective aids to literacy, because they are easy; or ing memory, or graphophonic competence). My aim
comics are poor aids, perhaps even obstacles, to liter- is not to set forth an empirical model of comics read-
acy, because they are easy. Comics, in short, are ing but rather to establish the complexity of the form
either useful as stepping-stones or worse than useless. by broadly discussing the kinds of mixed messages it
What both schools neglect is the specificity of the sends even to the most experienced of readers. This
comics reading experience. Though comics may assist discussion will serve as a prospectus for the collective
the acquisition of print literacy, they are by no means task of theorizing reader response in comics in a
interchangeable with conventional reading; on this more general way.
score the critics of comics as an instructional medium Such theorizing, I will argue, must grapple with
have a point. Yet these detractors err in assuming that four tensions that are fundamental to the art form:
the form impedes literacy acquisition because of its between codes of signification; between the single
simplicity. Rather, we should say that comics are of image and the image-in-series; between narrative
only particular and limited use as reading aids because sequence and page surface; and, more broadly,
of their complexity. between reading-as-experience and the text as mate-
Comics raise many questions about reading and its rial object. To demonstrate these tensions, I will draw
effects, yet the persistent claims for the forms simplic- on a range of examples, including alternative and
ity and transparency make it impossible to address mainstream, childrens and adults, and European and
these questions productively. Criticism, whether for- American comics.
malist or sociocultural in emphasis, will remain at an
impasse as long as comics are seen this waythat is,
as long as they are rhetorically constructed as easy. 1. CODE VS. CODE (WORD VS. IMAGE)
In fact comics can be a complex means of communica-
tion and are always characterized by a plurality of mes- Definitions of comics commonly (though not univer-
sages. They are heterogeneous in form, involving the sally) depend on the co-presence and interplay of
co-presence and interaction of various codes. To the image and written text. Some critics regard this inter-
already daunting (and controversial) issue of reading, play as a clash of opposites: the images transparency
then, we must add several new complexities, if we are versus the written texts complexity. McCloud, for
to understand what happens when we read comics. instance, though his own definition deemphasizes
From a readers viewpoint, comics would seem to words, insists on this contrast: he speaks of pictures
be radically fragmented and unstable. I submit that as received information, in contrast to words, whose
this is their great strength: comic art is composed of meanings must be perceived (49). Such a distinction
several kinds of tension, in which various ways of posits a struggle between passive and active experi-
readingvarious interpretive options and potentiali- ence, that is, between inert spectatorship and com-
tiesmust be played against each other. If this is so, mitted reading. By this argument, comics depend on
then comics readers must call upon different reading a dialectic between what is easily understood and
strategies, or interpretive schema, than they would what is less easily understood; pictures are open,
use in their reading of conventional written text. easy, and solicitous, while words are coded, abstract,
The balance of this chapter will engage the fun- and remote.
damental tensions within comics, with emphasis on Yet in comics word and image approach each other:
the kinds of judgment (or suspension of judgment) words can be visually inflected, reading as pictures,
they demand of readers. I shall concentrate on ques- while pictures can become as abstract and sym-
tions of reader response, in the sense of participation bolic as words. In brief, the written text can function
and interpretation, rather than those underlying like images, and images like written text. Comics,
questions of reading process that properly belong to like other hybrid texts, collapse the word/image


dichotomy: visible language has the potential to be narratives throughout, never quite reconciling one to
quite elaborate in appearance, forcing recognition of the other (figs. 5 and 6). In fact I Guess [a.k.a.
pictorial and material qualities that can be freighted Thrilling Adventure Stories] seems to tell two dif-
with meaning (as in, for example, concrete poetry); ferent tales. Its visuals pay homage to traditional
conversely, images can be simplified and codified to superhero stories, in a slickly parodic style inspired by
function as a language (see Kannenberg, Graphic the 1930s and 1940s work of such artists as Joe
Text and especially Chris Ware). McCloud himself Shuster (Superman) and C. C. Beck (Captain Marvel);
notes this, arguing for comic art in which word and its written text, on the other hand, consists of an
image tend toward each other (4749, 14751). This ostensibly autobiographical reminiscence, in which
recognition renders McClouds larger argument inco- a narrator recalls unsettling childhood experiences.
herent, as it belies his earlier distinction between per- Ware never subordinates one tale to the other, but
ceived and received information. The distinction does instead juxtaposes word and image in suggestive
not hold in any case, for, as Perry Nodelman points out counterpoint. The iconography of the superhero
with regard to picture books, All visual images, even genre informs and deepens the autobiographical
the most apparently representational ones, . . . require narrative, while the autobiography invests the clichs
a knowledge of learned competencies and cultural of the superhero with a peculiar resonance, inviting the
assumptions before they can be rightly understood reader to reconsider the genres psychological appeal.
(17). Though the image is, as W. J. T. Mitchell says, Thus the interplay of the two suggests a third, more
the sign that pretends not to be a sign (Iconology comprehensive meaning that the reader must con-
43), it remains a sign nonetheless, as bound up with struct through inference. As Gene Kannenberg Jr.
habit and convention as any text (64). Pictures are argues, in a cogent and useful reading of Ware,
not simply to be received; they must be decoded. this third field of interpretation captures the emo-
Still, responding to comics often depends on recog- tional conflict within the narrator himself, effectively
nizing word and image as two different types of sign, reproduc[ing] a psychological state upon the page
whose implications can be played against each other (Ware 18586).
to gloss, to illustrate, to contradict or complicate or Wares pictorial narrative, involving a conflict
ironize the other. While the word/image dichotomy between a costumed superman and a mad scientist,
may be false or oversimple, learned assumptions parodies early superhero comics with some care, distill-
about these different codeswritten and pictorial ing many of the graphic and thematic hallmarks of the
still exert a strong centripetal pull on the reading genre in its commercial heyday (its Golden Age, in fan
experience. We continue to distinguish between the parlance). Yet his coolly postmodern graphics exagger-
function of words and the function of images, despite ate the cartoon simplicity of Shuster and Beck; he flat-
the fact that comics continually work to destabilize this tens the genres fervid romanticism into rigid poses,
very distinction. This tension between codes is funda- embalming it. His meticulous rendering, lacking the
mental to the art form. roughhewn spontaneity of early comic books, pushes
the visuals immediately into parody. Arch and over-
A CASE STUDY: WARES I GUESS determined, the drawings defer to, yet remain crucially
different from, a long line of predecessors. Hence they
If words can be drawn, and images written, then the provide a ripe and suggestive context for the words.
tension between words and images can become In sharp contrast to the pictures, the written nar-
quite complex. For example, in I Guess (Raw 2:3, ration of I Guess explores a childs relationships
1991, reprinted in Ware, Quimby), alternative car- with three different males: his grandfather, his best
toonist Chris Ware experiments with a radically friend, and his stepfather. The first-person narrator,
disjunctive form of verbal/visual interplay: a six- rambling from one recollection to the next, speaks in a
page story that sustains parallel verbal and pictorial sort of blank parataxis, as if unable to draw conclusions


from his own stories. His words, in their very blank- bewildering moments play with an ambiguity funda-
ness and simplicity, evoke the naivet of childhood mental to comics: the verbal text (as Eisner reminds us)
just as deliberately as do Wares superhero visuals reads as an image, yet typically remains distinct from
and capture the confusion of a child grappling with the narrative reality evoked by the drawings (Comics &
such perplexing issues as racial and sexual identity. Sequential Art 10; see also Abbott 156). Though the
For example: he asked me if I felt weird that we appearance of the text can inflect our reading, we
were the only boys at the party. I said no, and then I assume that the printed words as such are not part of
asked him if he felt weird that we were the only the fictional world we are experiencing. Rather, they
white kids at the party. He said no, and then he asked represent or cue sounds within that world, or in
me why I said that. I really didnt know and all of a some cases provide a gloss on that world, what might
sudden I felt gross so I rolled over and pretended to be called a nondiegetic amplification or commentary.
go to sleep (78). Like the pictures, the words are Yet Ware destabilizes this convention by bringing
essentially ironic: the narrator raises troubling ques- fragments of the written text into the depicted world
tions but in a naive, unreflective way, thus cueing the of the story (that is, into the diegesis). To the extent
reader to look further than the narrator himself can. that this technique undercuts the verisimilitude of that
Wares deployment of words in I Guess is radi- world, it forces the reader to question actively the
cally disorienting, for, in defiance of convention, he conventions of comic art. In stories that honor those
weaves the written narrative freely, unpredictably, conventions, printed sound effects and narration
through the pictorial, creating what Kannenberg calls remain distinct from street signs, billboards and other
a mutually reflective patterning of verbal and visual objects bearing written messages within the diegesis;
themes (183). Narration appears within the drawings, Ware, however, erases the distinction, thus disorient-
not only in caption blocks, word balloons and thought ing the reader and encouraging critical awareness of
balloons, but also in the guise of decorative titles, those conventions. (Such conventions are the very
labels, sound effects, and even as parts of the diege- things that make it possible for readers to construct
sis, that is, as signs within the superheros world itself. meaning from comic arts plurality of codes.)
Ware practices a curious sort of enjambment: visual The storys intermixing of words and images
breaks in the text (between captions, balloons, and so enriches the first-person narrative, hinting at levels of
forth) do not match syntactic or logical breaks in the oedipal conflict and psychological confusion unac-
narration. For instance, a sentence or clause may knowledged in the words alone. At the same time,
begin in a caption and continue in a dialogue balloon. this verbal/visual tension compels the reader to con-
Nor do changes in the relative size, shape, or bold- sider critically the psychological undercurrents of the
ness of the lettering always correspond to dramatic superhero genre, as suggested by certain recurrent
emphases in the narrated text. At times the visual character types and narrative tropes: the mad scien-
emphasis seems comically inappropriate, as when, in tist, the imperiled woman, the heros dual identity,
the opening splash panel (fig. 5), the equivocal the womans rescue, the heros gesture of mercy, the
phrase I GUESS forms a bold masthead in giant let- villains convenient self-destruction. By mapping a
ters, even as it starts a sentence that is completed in confused, childlike narration onto these generic ele-
the caption underneath. Scraps of narration also ments, Ware casts new light on the genres structure
appear as sound effects, as in the storys climax, and appeal.
where the highly fraught word when appears as an Admittedly, I Guess represents a radical ques-
explosion: I liked things better / WHEN / it was just tioning of the way comics work; few comics test the
my mom and me, anyway (fig. 6). limits of the form so rigorously. Yet, by destabilizing
More radical still is Wares incorporation of the writ- the conventions of visual/verbal interplay, Wares
ten narrative within the diegesis itself, in the form of six-page effort throws those conventions into relief,
banners, signs, and other word-bearing objects. Such and encourages us to read even conventional comics


Figure 5. Chris Ware, I Guess.

Raw Vol. 2, No. 3, page 76.
1990 Chris Ware. Used with

more attentively. Dismantling genre as well as form, Wares narrative strategy assumes a sophisticated
Wares experiment demonstrates the potential of reader, one who recognizes highly fraught parodic
comics to create challenging, multilayered texts: his gestures as such, and whose confusion can be turned
simple, broadly representational drawings contribute to advantage. In sum, I Guess illustrates the interac-
to, rather than mitigate, the suggestive complexity of tive nature of comics reading and the possibility of
the narrative, while the blank, naive narratorial voice generating meaning through the manipulation of ten-
both amplifies and undercuts the appeal of the draw- sions inherent in the reading experience.
ings. Moreover, the constant tension between the two
forces us to take heed of the role the reader must play PICTOGRAPHIC LANGUAGE: CODE VS. CODE
in constructing meaning. For it is only at the level of the
readers intervention that Wares words and images Yet the tension between picturing and writing
can conjoin to suggest a meaning that subsumes both. can exceed even what Wares story offers. In fact


Figure 6. Ware, I Guess.

81 (excerpt).
1990 Chris Ware.
Used with permission.

comics can exploit this tension without incorporating (ironic, as these symbols allow the cartoonists work
words per se, as the growing body of mute or itself to cross national and cultural borders).3
pantomime (that is, wordless) comics attests (see Such visual dialogue may be drawn in a different
Groensteen, La bande dessine muette). Such style than the pictures used to establish the diegesis:
comics often rely on diagrammatic symbols, such as typically, they are less particular, or more generic.
panels, speed or vector lines, and ideograms, to gloss Alternately, they may be of the very same style, just
or reinforce whats going on in the pictures (see, for enclosed within balloons like regular dialogue. In
example, Fischer and Beron). Nor does the writ- Franois Avril and Philipe Petit-Roulets Soirs de Paris,
ten text within balloons or captions have to consist for example, the story 63 Rue de la Grange aux
of words in a conventional sense. Indeed, in comics Belles (fig. 8) uses elaborate pictograms to capture
dialogue icons may take the place of words: the use the conversations taking place at a cocktail party. The
of pictograms within balloons is a rich tradition, partygoers dialogue balloons contain a range of pic-
recently explored by such cartoonists as Hendrik tures: from simple icons, as when a man asks a woman
Dorgathen and Eric Cartier. For example, Cartiers to dance; to cartoons in the same style as that used to
Flip in Paradise and Mekong King, told in miniature depict the speakers (as when a would-be Romeo uses
album format, use pictograms to suggest elaborate a series of balloons to itemize a womans attractive
dialogues between the hapless picaro, Flip, and the features: her eyes, breasts, legs, and so on); to detailed
inhabitants of the various lands he visits. swipes of images by such artists as Gaugain and
In Flip in Paradise, for instance, as the hero hag- Matisse, which indicate the topics of conversation
gles over the price of a joint, his dialogue devolves among a group of cultured wallflowers. Such examples
into a cluster of visual non sequitursas if Flip is suggest that visual/verbal tension is not necessarily
already beginning to succumb to the effects of dope even a matter of playing words against pictures; it may
(fig. 7). At first the pictograms in the balloons sug- be a matter of playing symbols against other symbols.
gest bargaining, with ever-decreasing amounts of Such visual/verbal tension results from the juxta-
money, but as the balloons crowd together the dia- position of symbols that function diegetically and
logues logic becomes harder and harder to grasp. symbols that function non-diegeticallythat is, the
Later in the same book a drunken Flip will teach a mingling of symbols that show and symbols that
parrot some new wordsall about killing and cook- tell. More precisely, we may say that symbols that
ing the birdas shown in a tte--tte in which man show are symbols that purport to depict, in a literal
and bird spout the same pictograms. Cartier makes way, figures and objects in the imagined world of the
ingenious use of such visual symbols to dramatize comic, while symbols that tell are those that offer a
Flips struggles to communicate in strange lands kind of diacritical commentary on the images or (to


Figure 7. Eric Cartier, Flip in Paradise (n. pag.). Eric Cartier. Used with permission.

use another rough metaphor) a soundtrack for the dubbed (borrowing from gestalt psychology) clo-
images. In most comics, the symbols that show are sure by McCloud, in keeping with the reader-
representational drawings while the symbols that tell response emphasis of his Understanding Comics.
are words, balloons, and a few familiar icons. (These In fact breakdown and closure are complemen-
icons are nonalphabetic symbols of a sort that many tary terms, both describing the relationship between
word processors now make available to writers: sequence and series: the authors task is to evoke
arrows, dotted lines, lightbulbs, stars, and so forth.) an imagined sequence by creating a visual series (a
But the potential exists for comics creators to push this breakdown), whereas the readers task is to translate
tension much further, even to incorporate representa- the given series into a narrative sequence by achiev-
tional drawings as dialogue (as in Cartier, and Avril ing closure. Again, the readers role is crucial, and
and Petit-Roulet) and to blur the difference between requires the invocation of learned competencies; the
alphabetic symbols and pictures. At its broadest relationships between pictures are a matter of con-
level, then, what we call visual/verbal tension may vention, not inherent connectedness.
be characterized as the clash and collaboration of dif- At times this process of connecting, or closure,
ferent codes of signification, whether or not written seems straightforward and unproblematic, as when
words are used. Again, the deployment of such strong visual repetition and/or verbal cueing make
devices assumes a knowing reader. the connections between images immediate, or at
least fairly obvious. For instance, Julie Doucets self-
2. SINGLE IMAGE VS. IMAGE-IN-SERIES referential vignette The Artist uses successive
panels to capture the methodical, step-by-step provo-
Most definitions of comics stress the representation cation of a striptease (fig. 9). This striptease implicates
of time, that is, of temporal sequence, through mul- the spectator in an unnerving way, for the artist ends
tiple images in series. The process of dividing a nar- by spilling her guts with a knife. The deliberate, incre-
rative into such imagesa process that necessarily mental advances of the sequence, from one panel
entails omitting as well as includingcan be called to the next, establish a rhythm and an expectation,
( la Robert C. Harvey) breakdown, a word derived and eventually this rhythm makes the unthinkable
from breakdowns, a term of art that refers to the thinkable: the artist mutilates and literally opens her-
rough drawings made in the process of planning out self before our eyes in calm, measured steps. This vio-
a comics story (Art of the Funnies 1415). The lent, self-destructive climax, accomplished through
reverse process, that of reading through such images methodical breakdown, ultimately exceeds and beg-
and inferring connections between them, has been gars all expectations. (The technique reappears in


Figure 8. Franois Avril

(drawings) & Philipe Petit-
Roulet (scenario), 63 Rue
de la Grange aux Belles
(selected panels). Soirs de
Paris (n. pag.). Les
Humanodes Associs. Used
by permission of Francois
Avril and Philipe Petit-Roulet.

other early Doucet stories, such as Heavy Flow frames the entire day from Esthers point of view,
and A Blow Job, with their gradual yet shocking sticking close to the minutiae of her clockwork rou-
transformations.) tine. The repeated use of close-ups throughout the
At other times, closure may require more active sequence reinforces the repetitive yet discontinuous
effort on the part of the reader, as demonstrated nature of her work.
repeatedly in Jason Lutess novel Jar of Fools. A quar- After showing the interior of the caf, Lutes
ter of the way into the novel, a two-page sequence builds the rest of the sequence around Esthers
(3637) depicts a days work for Esther ODea, who query, Can I help you?a phrase she mechani-
serves customers at a coffee bar called the Saturn cally repeats throughout the day. One customer
Caf (fig. 10). In just twenty-four panels Lutes man- responds to this with a suggestive sneer and a verbal
ages to evoke the tedium and sheer drudgery of come-on, In more ways than one, sweetheart, an
seven hours on the job, showing both minute details overture which Esther repays with stony silence even
and Esthers overall attitude toward her work. The as she imagines belting the man with a left hook
breakdown of the action is characterized by several (36). That she imagines this, but does not do it, is
bold choices: for instance, Lutes challenges the rea- something the reader must figure out for herself:
der by beginning from the inside out, with a close-up Lutes suggests this both by the unvarying rhythm of
of Esther preparing a double espresso, rather than the sequence and by the subtle variation in panel
from the outside in, with an establishing shot of the bordering around the imagined punch (the latter a
caf itself (here being introduced to readers for the technique used previously by Lutes to set off dreams
first time). We see a larger image of the caf interior and memoriesby this point the reader presumably
only after Esther hands the espresso to a customer, knows the code). Yet the moment comes as a shock
and a shot of the exterior (specifying the location) nonetheless, due in part to the repeated use of a
only in the middle of the sequence. Thus Lutes single, unvarying imageEsthers taciturn faceto


Figure 9. Julie Doucet, The Artist. Lve Ta Jambe Mon Poisson Est Mort! (n. pag.). Julie Doucet. Used with permission.

pace the sequence. We see her land a blow, yet interpolations of dream and fantasy into mundane
nothing about her or around her changes to match reality, and so onand take an active part in con-
this unexpected outburst. The reader must negotiate structing a flow of events from discontinuous images.
the larger context of Lutess narrative to make this At times achieving closure can be quite difficult, as
key distinction. when images seem radically disjointed and verbal
On the next page, as the hours crawl forward, cues are scant. For example, Art Spiegelmans word-
Lutes repeats the image of a clockalong with less drawn over two weeks while on the phone
Esthers Can I help you?to suggest the slow, (from Raw No. 1, rpt. in Spiegelman and Mouly,
frustrating passage of time. Verbal and visual repeti- Read Yourself Raw) presents a series of disconnected
tion (the clock, the coffee cups, Esthers face, Can I panels with recurrent character types and situations
help you?) succeed in quickly evoking a sense of but no narrative per se. Generic conventionsnods
boredom and restivenessno mean feat. The to film noir, for instanceare repeatedly invoked but
repeated close-up of the clock face, with changing without a linear rationale; motific repetition suggests
times, finally gives way to the sight of Esther watch- at best a vague connection between otherwise dis-
ing the clock from an oblique angle, as her spoken junct panels. Certain characters and symbols are
Can I help you? becomes an unspoken Can I kill repeated: geometric symbols, for instance, which
you? (37). This is the moment when her shift ends, serve as pictographic dialogue, as decorative effects,
finally, and she can leave the caf. In just a few pan- and, in a droll reversal, even as characters. But the
els, then, Lutes compresses a days work into a mon- sought-for unity of the piece, finally, rests on the
tage of numbing, repetitive activity and emotional readers recognition of the authors formal playful-
frustration. To follow this sequence, the reader must ness rather than on any coherent narrative. It takes
be mindful of Lutess previously established habits much knowledge and careful attention to read
as a storytellerhis approach to panel bordering, his Spiegelmans series as a sequence.


Figure 10. Jason Lutes, Jar of Fools 3637. Jason Lutes. Used with permission.

The tension between single image and image- serves to structure an otherwise nonlinear barrage of
in-series is bound up with other formal issues, and non sequiturs, visual gags, and stylistic swipes.
therefore hard to codify. McClouds Understanding To some extent, then, the process of transition-
Comics remains the strongest theoretical treatment ing, or closure, depends not only on the interplay
(in English, that is) of comics sequencing; yet between successive images but also on the interplay
McCloud, perhaps because he does not consider of different codes of signification: the verbal as well
visual/verbal interplay crucial to the form, neglects as the visual. In other words, how readers attempt to
just how much the interaction of image and word can resolve one tension may depend on how they resolve
inform, indeed enable, the reading of sequences. another. Verbal/visual interplay often muddies the
Verbal cues do help to bridge the gaps within a pristine categories of transition that McCloud tries
sequence, as seen in common transitional captions to establish in Understanding Comics (moment to
such as Later . . . or Meanwhile . . . (devices moment, action to action, scene to scene, and so on).
that have fallen from favor as readers become more Words can smooth over transitions and unobtru-
versed in reading comics, just as title cards, fades, sively establish a dramatic continuity that belies the
irises, and other such transitional devices fell from discontinuity of the images. Two contrasting exam-
favor in cinema). In fact verbal continuity can impose ples from Harvey Pekars American Splendor, both
structure on even the most radically disjointed series. scripted by Pekar and illustrated by R. Crumb, illus-
Witness, for instance, Spiegelmans oft-reprinted trate this point:
Ace Hole, Midget Detective, in which the heros In The Harvey Pekar Name Story (1977), the
nonstop narration (a spoof of hard-boiled fiction) visuals pace and punctuate a verbal monologue, and


the successive images are near-identical, so much so In contrast, Pekar and Crumbs Hypothetical
that a reader who held the book at arms length and Quandary (1984) merges words and pictures more
squinted would be hard-pressed to see any variation dynamically, and asks more of the reader in her
(fig. 11). (Lutes uses a similar strategy in the above quest for closure (fig. 12). This story is inward-
example from Jar of Fools, but Pekar and Crumb use looking and nakedly autobiographical, focusing on
fewer variations and push the repetition much far- thought rather than talk. Rendered in a bolder,
ther.) The story concerns the relationship between brushed style, Quandary finds Harvey carrying on
name and identity, and the near-sameness of the a dialogue with himself as he drives, then walks, to a
drawings both reinforces and subverts the speakers bakery to buy bread: How would he react to success
preoccupation with self-definition. Here a man named and fame? Would it blunt his writing by robbing him
Harvey Pekar (not to be confused with the author) of his working mans outlook on life? Would it
addresses the reader in forty-eight equal-sized panels dilute his personal vision? This hypothetical dilemma
over four pages. His concern? His namewhich, (not entirely hypothetical, for Pekar has had brushes
though unusual, turns out not to be unique, as he dis- with fame, especially in the wake of the American
covers by looking through the phone book, where he Splendor film in 2003) occupies Harvey through his
finds not one but two other Harvey Pekar listings. entire trip to the bakery; indeed, except for a single
The deaths of these two other Pekars (Harvey Sr. and panel in which he buys the bread, all of Harveys
Harvey Jr., father and son) restore the narrators sense words occur in thought balloons, and the dark,
of uniqueness, until a third Harvey Pekar appears in lushly textured images position him within a fully
the directory, prompting the age-old question, realized world rather than vis--vis the reader in a
Whats in a name? On a more personal level, the full-on monologue. (For a thoughtful discussion of
narrator is left asking himself, and us, Who is Harvey this story in a different context, see Witek, Comic
Pekar?a question he can answer only with silence, Books as History 14849.)
in the final, wordless panel. Propelled as much by Pekars text as by the
Like Doucets The Artist, The Harvey Pekar subtle authority of Crumbs pictures, Hypothetical
Name Story relies on minute changes from panel to Quandary moves Harvey (and the reader) over a
panel to convey a carefully timed sequence. Yet great distance, telescoping his Sunday morning expe-
Pekar and Crumb take an even more deliberate dition into three pages. Like the above example from
approach, calling for a constant subject and point of Lutess Jar of Fools, this story relies on words as well
view with only the minutest changes in gesture and as common visual cues for its pacing. Driving, walk-
nuance. Pekars breakdowns invoke the rhythms of ing, buying bread, walking againall of these happen
verbal storytelling or stand-up comedy, with occa- while Harveys internal dialogue carries on without
sional silent panels for pause and emphasis; the rela- interruption, until the last two panels find him savor-
tionship between the speaker and the reader is ing the breads fresh smell, his quandary forgotten.
everything, as the former confronts the latter in a The continuity of the verbal text disguises the discon-
frustrated attempt at self-affirmation. This attempt is tinuity of the visual: Pekars ongoing words, exploring
fraught with irony: the consistent, even monotonous, all the twists and turns of Harveys thinking, elide the
point of view in every panel supplies the very appear- gaps in the visual sequence, making this stylized evo-
ance of stability that the narrator craves, but the serial cation of his world seem naturalistic and unforced.
repetition of his likeness (subtly varied by Crumb) Whereas The Harvey Pekar Name Story weds the
erodes our sense of his uniqueness. Both the storys authors text to deliberately repetitive breakdowns and
rhythm and its themes depend on the unvarying a single, static composition, Hypothetical Quandary
visuals, which force us to confront this Harvey uses text to carry the reader from one locale to the
Pekar in all his (thwarted) individuality even as they next without ever losing continuity of thought. These
help us concentrate on the spoken text. contrasting examples point up the possibility that

Figure 11. Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, The Harvey Pekar Name Story. Bob and Harvs Comics 4. Harvey Pekar. Used with permission.

Figure 12. Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, Hypothetical Quandary. Bob and Harvs Comics 80. Harvey Pekar. Used with permission.


breakdown may depend on mixing the verbal and the between the concept of breaking down a story
visual. Thus the two tensions named so far, code vs. into constituent images and the concept of laying
code and single image vs. image-in-series, interact out those images together on an unbroken surface.
to create a yet more complex tension, soliciting the This tension lies at the heart of comics designand
readers active efforts at resolution. poses yet another challenge to the reader.
This tension can be illustrated through two con-
trasting examples from Waiting, a series of single-
3. SEQUENCE VS. SURFACE page alternative comic book stories scripted by Linda
Perkins and drawn by Dean Haspiel. The first in the
In most cases, the successive images in a comic are series (from Keyhole No. 1, June 1996) uses a con-
laid out contiguously on a larger surface or surfaces ventional design conceit, often called the nine-panel
(that is, a page or pages). Each surface organizes the grid by comics readers, to suggest the repetitive,
images into a constellation of discrete units, or pan- unvarying nature of a waitresss work (fig. 13). The
els. A single image within such a cluster typically strictly gridlike (3-by-3) configuration of the page
functions in two ways at once: as a moment in an imparts a constant, unyielding rhythm to the piece, one
imagined sequence of events, and as a graphic ele- well suited to the patterns of repetition shown in the
ment in an atemporal design. Some comics creators compositions. Of all the panels, only the middle one in
consciously play with this design aspect, commonly each tier shows significant variation, as it depicts the
called page layout, while others remain more con- face of yet another customer asking the same question
scious of the individual image-as-moment. Most long- (a question already answered in the menu). Panel four,
form comics maintain a tug-of-war between these showing the waitress outside (presumably outside the
different functions, encouraging a near-simultaneous restaurant), implies seasonal variation through the use
apprehension of the single image as both moment- of snow, though, curiously, the waitresss outfit has
in-sequence and design element. The page (or not changed to suit the weather. The drastic elision of
planche, as French scholars have it, a term denoting intervening time, and the static repetition of visual
the total design unit rather than the physical page on motifsof exact images, in factemphasizes the
which it is printed) functions both as sequence and numbing sameness of the waitresss work routine (not
as object, to be seen and read in both linear and unlike the mood of the caf scene in Jar of Fools). This
nonlinear, holistic fashion. routine is enlivened only by the comic grotesquerie of
This tension has been described in various ways. the customers. Here a rigid layout reinforces the air of
For instance, French scholar Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, tedium, frustration, and stasis (that is, of waiting, in
in a seminal essay, proposed the terms linear and two senses) conveyed in the repeated compositions.
tabular to denote the sequential and nonsequen- If the first Waiting story conveys a sense of the
tial functions respectively (Du linare au tabulaire; tedium and repetition involved in waiting tables, the
see also Peeters 3940). Tabular perhaps conjures third (from Keyhole No. 3, January 1997) conveys a
the traditional Western comics layout of a boxlike or hectic, almost frantic impression of the hard work
gridlike enclosure, rather like a mathematical table, involved. Its more inventive and complicated layout
within which each panel acts as a discrete cell; poten- reinforces the busyness and overwhelming sense of
tially, though, it applies to any comics page, even one customer demand called for in the scenario: here the
that abandons such rectilinear design. More generally, waitress is working very hard indeed, responding
we can say that the single image functions as both gamely to the simultaneous requests and comments
a point on an imagined timelinea self-contained of a large dining party (fig. 14). Perkins and Haspiel
moment substituting for the moment before it, and exploit the tension between page (planche) and
anticipating the moment to comeand an element of panel to emphasize the stressful, even frenzied, qual-
global page design. In other words, there is a tension ity of the dinner from the waitresss point of view.

Figure 13. Linda Perkins and Dean Haspiel, Waiting. Keyhole No. 1. Dean Haspiel and Linda Perkins. Used with permission.

Figure 14. Linda Perkins and Dean Haspiel, Waiting. Keyhole No. 3. Dean Haspiel and Linda Perkins. Used with permission.


The first three panels are page-wide oblongs, rhythm, reminiscent of the gridlike regularity in the
crowded with detail, which convey the entire dinner first Waiting story. Whereas the top three panels
in synoptic fashion. Common questions and banal convey the almost desperate efficiency of the wait-
observations appear in tail-less word balloons, as if resss efforts, and show her earning what by rights
hovering over the party: Where is the bathroom?, ought to be a generous tip, the last three show her
This would be the perfect place to bring Mom, and comeuppance, as masculine spite holds her responsi-
so on. A mans request for a wine glass in the first ble, by proxy, for another womans failure to please.
panel leads to his cry for assistance in the second: It is largely through the ingenious layout of the page
Hey!!! I spilled my drink! (The waitress, intent on that Perkins and Haspiel underscore the unfairness
taking another customers order, responds by hand- of the mans response.
ing him a towel, without even turning to look.) In The page divides into two design unitsthe three
the third panel, the waitress balances several steam- horizontal panels and the three verticalsto contrast
ing coffee cups on her arm while the customers look the waitresss efforts with her scant reward. In the
on in the background, barely visible over the cups. A top three panels, the temporal sequence is confused,
full-figure image of the embattled waitress overlaps even collapsed, by the full figure of the waitress, an
these three panels, linking them, her six arms spread overlapping design element that functions tabularly
Kali-like (roughly speaking) to imply her haste and to stress the frantic nature of her activity. The
efficiency. Each hand holds a common tool: a menu, overlapping of images suggests the overwhelming
a peppermill, and so on. This full shot of the waitress demands of her work. In the bottom three, the uni-
not only provides an irreverent bit of visual parody form, unbroken panels, shorn of any elaborate
but also serves to unite these horizontal panels in a design elements, establish a rhythm that leads to the
single graphic conceit without arresting the sequence strips bitter punch line.
of events depicted. Whats more, we are able to see Uniting these two design units, the final image of
the events from multiple perspectives at once, for the the mans face stares at the reader as if seen from
first panel appears to show the dinner party from the waitresss point of view, a visual echo of the
the waitresss viewpoint, while the second and third storys first panel (in which the man turns to get her
depict the waitress herself, in medium and close-up attention). Moreover, the final close-up of the man
shots respectively. Her overlapping figure in these contrasts with the close-up of the waitress directly
three panels frustrates any sense of linearity, allow- above: she looks left, intent on her work, while he
ing for an impossible and provocative at-onceness. seems to be moving right, as if to leave; her face, an
The last three panels on the page, forming the unblemished white, contrasts with his darker, more
bottom tier, are stunted verticals of equal size, much detailed features. Yet the two are linked by a strong
smaller than the images above. They depict a briefer vertical down the right-hand side of the page: in a tab-
sequence of events: a final exchange between the ular reading, the last cell relates directly to the cell
waitress and the man paying the bill. In reply to the above it, while in a linear reading it supplies the
skimpy tip (just $5 for a bill of $295), the waitress climax for the entire six-panel story. Linearly, the
asks the man, Was there something wrong with the incident progresses from dinner, through dessert,
service? His response is simple and unequivocal, to the final payoff, while, tabularly, the figures of the
though seemingly irrelevant: Yes. My wife burned waitress and the man vie for position on the page.
my toast this morning. His grotesque, comically The Kali-like waitress clearly dominates the surface,
exaggerated features contrast with the idealized yet the man moves from right to center to right again,
close-up of the waitress immediately above, lending in an attempt to (re)assert his dominance. The layout
a spiteful certainty to his accusation. Here there are no of the entire page stresses the complete figure of the
outsized images to violate or overlap the bordered waitress, on the upper left, and the opposed close-ups
panels; only three simple images in a deliberate of waitress and man, on the lower right. The fact that


each panel functions both as a discrete part and words introduce[s] time by representing that which
within the larger context of the layout generates the can only exist in timesound (95). But this effect
tension that makes this vignette so effective. also depends to some extent on the composition
From a readers point of view, then, there is always of each drawing: in this case, Haspiel draws many
the potential to choose: between seeing the single diners in the horizontal panels, in order to evoke
image as a moment in sequence and seeing it in more the confusion of a large gathering. Words, images,
holistic fashion, as a design element that contributes graphic designall conjoin to create a three-panel
to the overall balance (or in some cases the meaning- sequence that covers an extended period of time. In
ful imbalance) of the layout. The latter way of seeing fact the composition of an image and the use of
privileges the dimensions of the total page/planche/ words within it can create a radical synchronism by
surface, yet still invokes the meaning of the overall which the single image represents a lengthy interval
narrative sequence to explain why the page might be (see McCloud 9597; Abbott 16265). In other
formatted as it is. Broadly, we may say that comics words, time elapses not only between the panels but
exploit format as a signifier in itself; more specifically, also within them. While images in series (break-
that comics involve a tension between the experience downs) may convey the passage of time through
of reading in sequence and the format or shape of explicit inter-panel transitions, time is also conveyed
the object being read. In other words, the art of within the confines of the single panel, thanks to
comics entails a tense relationship between perceived composition and verbal/visual tension.
time and perceived space. Here we have two contrasting approaches to
what McCloud (108) calls the systematic decompo-
RE: TIMING, OR, SERIALITY VS. SYNCHRONISM sition of moving images in a static medium: on the
one hand, seriality, that is, breakdown, in which a
As the above discussion reveals, the representation sequence is represented through a series of contigu-
of time in comics can vary considerably: from precise ous panels; on the other, synchronism, in which a
breakdowns that depict a sequence of events in single panel represents a sequence of events occur-
minute detail to single drawings that conflate a ring at different times. While seriality may encour-
whole series of events in one panel. In our second age a facile comparison between comics and cinematic
Waiting example, for instance, the horizontal pan- montage, synchronism demonstrates the limits of the
els, sprinkled with disembodied word balloons, repre- comparison, offering images that can make sense
sent a kind of synchronism, a distillation of time in only within a static medium. Examples of synchro-
which the implied duration of the sequence is rather nism in comics include the diagrammatic motion
ambiguous, enough so as to cover an entire meal. In lines and other types of ideographic shorthand that
contrast, the vertical panels at the bottom of the denote movement, and the use of multiple, some-
page are precisely timed to depict a brief sequence times overlapping images of a single subject within a
succinctly and unambiguously. Thus a single page given panel (McCloud 11012).
can move from a vague evocation of passing time One example of multiple images in a single panel
to a precise, incremental depiction of single incident would be the common take, in which a characters
(in this case a momentary exchange of dialogue: sudden reactiontypically, one of surprise or alarm
brief, clipped, even brusque). Such changes in rhythm is shown through the partial overlapping of different
occur so often in comics as to be almost invisible. facial expressions. A more elaborate technique is
In the case of Waiting this effect is, again, what McCloud calls the polyptych, in which sev-
partly the result of an ingenious layout. It is also eral distinct images of a single figure (or set of fig-
partly the result of the unconventional use of float- ures) are laid over a single continuous background
ing balloons to convey snippets of banal, dinner- (fig. 15). That background may be (as in McClouds
table conversation. As McCloud observes, the use of example) explicitly divided into smaller units by


Figure 15. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics 115 (excerpt). 2004 Scott McCloud. Used with permission.

panel borders, which serve to reinforce the break- must, read this image or set of images in more than
down of the larger image into successive moments one way. This demand calls attention to the ways
of time. In cartoonists parlance, such divided comics negotiate time and space, which is why
polyptychs are called split panels. They dramati- polyptychs tend to be used when time or space
cally exploit the tension between linear and tabular become the thematic concerns of narrative itself.
readings of the image by creating a series of panels Polyptychs are powerful tools for timing, or, alter-
that also acts as a single unitwhat Eisner calls a nately, for suggesting a characters timeless immer-
metapanel (Comics & Sequential Art 63). Such sion in a rich, diverting space.
split panels are often used to emphasize precise Bill Watterson demonstrates the potential of the
sequencing or deliberate rhythms. In contrast, an synchronistic panel in a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday
undivided polyptych (that is, a single, undivided page (reprinted in Weirdos from Another Planet!,
frame that represents an extended span of time 1990) that succeeds in evoking both speed and envi-
synchronistically) tends to stress haste, intensity, near- ronment (fig. 16). This single-panel outing depicts the
simultaneityor, oddly enough, the opposite: stillness title characters in a typically frenetic yet contemplative
and inertia. mood, as they race along in their wagon to make the
Whether divided or not, the polyptych blurs most of the last days of summer. Watterson suggests
comics equation of time with space. It invokes the their haste by directing the eye across the continuous
tensions established above, single image vs. image- background, as Calvin and Hobbes careen over hill and
in-series and sequence vs. surface, to generate ten- dale, describing an arc that brings them closer to the
sion of another order: between serial and sychronic reader, then takes them further away. Both the word
readings of a single panel. This is what I would call balloons and the tree trunks in the foreground (which
a second-degree tension (one that presupposes the serve as de facto panel borders) parse this scene into
readers awareness of the other basic tensions). successive moments, introducing the time element, yet
Exploiting this second-degree tension assumes a the unbroken background blurs our sense of time,
sophisticated reader, because it requires that reader conveying at once the characters deep immersion in
both to choose and to defer choosing: I can, indeed this scene of natural beauty and the headlong urgency


Figure 16. Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes. Weirdos from Another Planet! 89. Calvin and Hobbes 1988 Watterson. Reprinted with
permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.

of their ride (a trope familiar from previous Calvin classicism of adventure strip illustrators such as Alex
strips). Synchronism allows Watterson to linger on the Raymond (Flash Gordon), Kirbys cartooning recalls
vividness of the scene, while honoring the restless, Futurism in its decomposition of movement and
energetic nature of his characters. For the boy and his Cubism in its simultaneous depiction of different
tiger, nature is an arena of frantic activityone in points of view. Though Kirbys crowded spreads
which lingering is usually done at full speed. The seem to capture discrete and explosive moments of
extraordinary thing about this page is the way it con- action, in fact they represent extended spans of time
jures up both the impatience of childhood and the in synoptic fashion.
timeless, still quality of the childs surroundings. Take, for instance, the scene-setting image of
Synchronism can take other, less obvious forms, warfare (fig. 17) found at the beginning of Kirbys
such as in the characteristic splash pages or New Gods No. 9 (July 1972, reprinted 1998). Figures
spreads by the celebrated comic book artist Jack loom in the extreme foreground and middle distance;
Kirby, known for his attempts to render motion in figures dot the deep background as well. Motion
static form: multiplane compositions, slashing diago- lines give lingering physical presence to temporal
nals, drastic foreshortening and extreme distortion phenomena, such as the squirting of acid and the
of the human figure. This style, regarded as cine- leaping of bodies, while the posing of every figure
matic by many (apparently including Kirby himself) suggests a vast surge toward the right-hand margin.
in fact represents a distinctly uncinematic way of Figures affront the viewer in drastic close-up and
evoking movement in static form, a way much more recede into the background along sharp diagonals,
suggestive than literal. Though influenced by the while the reading order of the word balloons guides


Figure 17. Jack Kirby (inked by Mike Royer), The Bug. Jack Kirbys New Gods 19899. 1972 DC Comics. Used with permission.
All rights reserved.

the eye from left to right, top to bottom. Tension what appears to be (the story equivocates, forcing the
between word and image contributes to our sense of reader to suspend judgment) a drug-addled sexual
elapsed time: one balloon notes that the attackers, imbroglio between Mary, her occasional lover Face,
the so-called bugs, have disabled the first line of and a glamorous woman named Roxanne (fig. 18).
defense, while the next balloon promises to open a Fleeners trademark cubismo style, a dizzying blend
breach in the wall that surrounds the enemy. The of Picasso and her own sharp-edged technique, offers
leader of the charge, Forager, stands on the far right, a radically disorienting minefield of interpretive choices
his words urging movement, his hand beckoning the for the reader, as figures blend in a sexually suggestive
bugs toward the margin: Forward! Forward! Keep synchrony. Is this a dream, as Marys sleepy expres-
going! Overall, the characters exhibit a peculiar angu- sion on the top left implies? Provoking and humorous
larity that shades toward geometric abstraction yet imageryin particular, Marys startled reaction to the
suggests fierce activity (swarming) and directionality (clitoral? phallic?) guitar-playing figure that emerges,
(forward!). Through composition and verbal/visual erect, from a vaginasuggests her sexual encounter
interplay, Kirby captures successive moments simulta- with Roxanne, an encounter which belies her own
neously; this is not a snapshot but a tableau. homophobic anxieties (shown earlier in the story
Such synchronic images need not be confined to when Mary worries about playing a musical gig in a
the hyperbolic vocabulary of adventure comics. They lesbian bar). The overlapping images imply an entire
can depict more mundane types of activity as well. For sequence of activities that Mary cannot remember
instance, the climactic full-page image from Mary upon waking the next morning. Like Kirby, Fleener
Fleeners autobiographical Rock Bottom depicts uses a single composition to suggest successive stages


Figure 18. Mary Fleener, Rock Bottom. Life of

the Party 46. Mary Fleener. Used with

of action. (That two such different cartoonists, divided lightning-fast, as long intervals of torpor are punctu-
thematically, ideologically, and historically, both exploit ated by sudden fits of frantic, violent activity. At
the ambiguity of timing suggests that this is an area times Kurtzmans split panels emphasize the painful
ripe for study.) slowness of war and the numbing sameness of the
In contrast to the temporally ambiguous pages of action, which threaten to make the participants indis-
Kirby, Fleener, and Watterson, the split panel tends to tinct and, in fact, interchangeable; at other times, his
stress strong rhythms and the systematic analysis split panels provide a precise, almost stroboscopic,
of movement. For example, in the war comics of breakdown of rapid movement. Often these split
cartoonist-editor Harvey Kurtzman (published by panels are true polyptychs, showing a single figure
EC in the early 1950s), split panels serve to capture moving against a continuous background; at other
the broken rhythms of warfare, alternately slow and times, they are a means of parsing simultaneous


Figure 19. Harvey Kurtzman, John Severin, and Will Elder, Campaign, page 5 (excerpt). Two-Fisted Tales, Vol. 3. William M. Gaines, Agent,
Inc. Used with permission.

actions into successive frameseffectively turning the advantage in Richmondis voiced by more than
one moment, one panel, into a sequence of two or one man, but the faces and personalities of the men
more. Though the split panels function depends on are indistinct. Though the breakdown of the image
context, in every case it presents the reader with an into three successive panels punctuates the soldiers
ambiguity: should it be read as simultaneous or as speech and reinforces the numbing rhythms of the
successive, as a moment or moments? march, it does not single out the speakers. This indif-
Consider, for instance, the Civil War story Cam- ference to individuality serves the storys larger argu-
paign (originally from Two-Fisted Tales No. 31, Jan./ ment, which stresses the confusion, grinding tedium,
Feb. 1953) drawn by John Severin and Will Elder over facelessness, and futility of war. In the end, the name-
Kurtzmans breakdowns. Here much of the action less sergeant, called simply Sarge, will succumb to
depends on waiting for things to happen: Kurtzman fever (ironically, not to wounds suffered in battle) and
focuses on the peninsular campaign of 1862, as will be replaced by one of the recent recruits, called
Federal troops advance on Richmond, Virginia, but the simply Boy. This replacement assumes not only the
action, so eagerly anticipated by the new recruits, sergeants rank but also his demeanor, even his
mostly involves digging in, waiting, and marching. In appearance. The split panel in mid-story, implying the
mid-tale, a split panel (fig. 19) shows the Federals monotony and impersonality of war, anticipates this
marching through Seven Pines toward Richmond, their final irony, reinforcing the ideological thrust of
advance punctuated by the sounds of cannon fire in this characteristic Kurtzman story: warfare is meaning-
the woods: KLAK KLIKITY CRASH (5). The weary sol- less and numbing. This split panel, unlike the examples
diers, bent with the weight of their packs and rifles, are above, is clearly divided into discrete blocks, but, like
divided into three panels but on closer examination them, depends on a sense of temporal ambiguity.
comprise a single composition, in which the individual A similar device appears, but to opposite effect,
figures are hardly distinguishable from each other. at the beginning of Enemy Contact! (Two-Fisted
Are these three different sets of soldiers, or three Tales No. 22, July/Aug. 1951), illustrated by Jack
successive images of the same soldiers? The soldiers Davisone of many Korean War tales penned by
complaintthat their delay in Yorktown has cost them Kurtzman while that war was still being fought. This


tale, which concerns an attempt, in the midst of grenade which has just taken Big Feets life. The split
battle, to save the life of a soldier with acute appen- panel allows Kurtzman to zero in on each important
dicitis, begins with brutal images of death, as three element in his story (Lee, Big Feet, and the trap),
American soldiers are mowed down in quick succes- while placing Big Feet (the victim of Kurtzmans
sion by an enemy machine gun (fig. 20). The tragic irony) in dead center. The American soldiers,
opening splash panel shows a soldier against a stone on whose advance the entire plot depends,
wall, falling, contorted with pain, the POK POK POK of approach cautiously in the background.
the machine gun driving holes into the wall behind Time-wise, Kurtzmans Air Burst may be said to
him. The four panels beneath, taken together, form represent the opposite of the approach shown in,
a single image, tracing the line of machine gun fire for instance, Fleeners Rock Bottom. While Fleener
as it sweeps across the wall, felling two more soldiers overlaps images in a single synchronistic panel, creat-
and almost claiming another. The breakdown of the ing a dizzying and suggestive simultaneity, Kurtzman
moment into four shorter intervalsmerest fractions uses three discrete panels to direct the reading of a sin-
of a second, one imaginesisolates each victim, gle, highly charged moment. In Rock Bottom, as in
stressing the wantonness of the attack. These are our Watterson and Kirby examples, timing is vague
events; these are individual deaths. Yet, while the but evocativeopenwhile in Air Burst the tim-
panel borders parse the event into microseconds, the ing is overdetermined, precisely controlled, almost
weaving of the sound effects over the images in an metronomic. From these examples, we can see that
unbroken line (POK POK KRAK) turns this rapid-fire the image-series alone does not determine timing in
breakdown into a single, shocking tableau. (The comics, for it is possible to have a series of panels in
next page will show us this same wall, in a single, which no time seems to pass, as well as a single panel
oblong panel, with three corpses in front of it.) into which moments, hours, even days, are com-
Kurtzmans control of reading rhythm is methodi- pressed. There is no single prescription for how the
cal, and radical. He went as far as using the split tensions of image/series or sequence/surface are to be
panel to stretch out the reading of single moment in resolved; rather, there is always an underlying tension
time (the antithesis of the synchronic approach seen between different possible ways of reading, between
above in Kirby and Fleener). He would break a serial and synchronistic timing. Understanding comics
moment down to suggest the way the eye might conventions only heightens that tension. The reader
(almost instantaneously) sweep over it and take it must invoke what she knows of comics, including
inthat is, read it. For instance, in the Korean image/series and sequence/surface, to entertain and
War story Air Burst (Frontline Combat No. 4, ultimately to reconcile different understandings of time.
Jan./Feb. 1952), a final split panel stresses the storys
ultimate irony (fig. 21). The Chinese soldier Big
Feet is killed by a booby trap set by his own com- 4. TEXT AS EXPERIENCE VS. TEXT AS OBJECT
panion, Lee, whose body Big Feet carries toward
the American line in the hope of surrendering. The At a higher level of generalization, the tension
split panel depicts the moment after, as American sequence vs. surface is but one example of a larger
troops on the advance (for whom the trap was relationship between (a) experience over time and
intended) discover the scene. Directing our eye (b) the dimensions of comics as material objects. The
across the page, the three subpanels are keyed to latter aspect, comics materiality, includes not only
Kurtzmans captions, above; his emphatic prose the design or layout of the page but also the physical
isolates each part of the picture for our perusal. In makeup of the text, including its size, shape, bind-
order: the long-dead body of Lee sprawls on the ing, paper, and printing. Like traditional books, but
path; Big Feet lies dead next to him, a tripwire tan- perhaps more obviously, long-form comics can exploit
gled around his foot; and the wire connects to the both design and material qualities to communicate

Figure 20. Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, Enemy Contact, page 1. Two-Fisted Tales, Vol. 1. William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. Used with


Figure 21. Harvey

Kurtzman, Air Burst,
page 6 (excerpt).
Frontline Combat,
Vol. 1. William M.
Gaines, Agent, Inc.
Used with permission.

or underscore the meaning(s) available in the text. Gravett, Herg). These cartoonists often treat its
Indeed, many comics make it impossible to distin- associations ironically, as if to question Hergs ideal
guish between text per se and secondary aspects union of style and subject (among many others:
such as design and the physical package, because Swarte, Ever Meulen, Daniel Torres, the late Yves
they continually invoke said aspects to influence the Chaland, and, in perhaps less obvious but still signifi-
readers participation in meaning-making. cant ways, Jacques Tardi, Vittorio Giardino, and the
Material considerations influence not only the United States Jason Lutes). In the work of such car-
total design and packaging of a publication but also toonists as Swarte and Torres, the Clear Line carries
matters of style and technique. The delineation of an obvious ideological as well as stylistic burden:
images, for instance, is always affected by the mate- their comics not only parody racist stereotypes redo-
riality of the text, for, as Eisner observes, comic art is lent of Tintins late-colonial ethos but also reveal
necessarily rendered in response to the method of a fascination with blurring the distinction between
its reproduction (Comics & Sequential Art 153). In organic and inorganic form, a tendency perfectly
fact style in comics is often profoundly influenced by realized in Swartes cool, ironic work for both chil-
technological and economic means, and many car- dren and adults (see Heller).
toonists develop highly self-conscious relationships Often the Clear Line seems to deny the material-
with those means, relationships that, from a readers ity of the comics page, relying on precise linework
point of view, can become fraught with significance. and flat colors to create pristine and detailed settings
For instance, the European Klare Lijn or Ligne Claire into which simply drawn characters are inserted.
(Clear Line) tradition of cartooning, popularized in Though the settings are often much more complex
the much-loved Tintin series by Belgian master than the characters, the two are equated through an
Herg, privileges smooth, continuous linework, sim- unerring evenness of line: like the characters, the
plified contours and bright, solid colors, while avoid- settings tend to be without shadow, except in the
ing frayed lines, exploded forms, and expressionistic most diagrammatic sense, and also relatively tex-
rendering. A style of drawing linked with the flat tureless. The resultant tendency toward flatness pro-
color of Tintin and similar series, the Klare Lijn (so duces what McCloud calls a democracy of form,
labeled by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte) is in which each shape has the same clarity and value,
marked by its traditional association with childrens conferring the same authority on cartoon figures as
comics, yet has grown to embrace or at least influ- it does on meticulous scenic detail (190). This ten-
ence a whole school of alternative cartoonists who dency can of course be undercut, as in Swartes strip
work for adults as well as, or instead of, children (see Torn Together (Samen gescheurd in Dutch),


which spoofs the democracy of forms and calls work depends in part on his use of rough, energetic
attention to the materiality of the page (fig. 22). marks to reconfigure characters lifted from television
Beginning with a panel whose upper left corner has cartooning and childrens comics, characters usually
deliberately been torn off, Torn Together goes on rendered with a slick consistency befitting industrial-
to depict a contretemps in which one man tears off ized cel animation. The approach recalls R. Crumbs
the lapels of anothers jacket, then tears off his ear, anxious reinvention of cartoon icons in the late
to which the other responds by tearing out the first 1960s (see chapter 1), but with an even greater
mans right arm.4 (The dripping blood looks particu- emphasis on pure mark-making rather than figura-
larly incongruous in the Klare Lijn.) The second man tion. (The dark texturing also recalls other under-
proceeds to stuff the disembodied arm and ear into ground pioneers such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb and
a vase to create a decoration, which he waters like a Rory Hayes, as well as Panters British contemporary
plant. This is an especially clear example of Swartes Savage Pencil.)
interest in the confusion of living and unliving form: Many alternative comic artists, both in the United
the flat coloring and pristine linework create an States and abroad, have followed in Panters wake,
Herg-like scenario that ironically equates the tear- drawing on the ironic tension between simplified
ing of paper with the tearing of peoples bodies. The cartoon vocabulary and roughhewn graphic tech-
style is inextricably part of, and prerequisite to, the nique. (Such disparate artists as David Sandlin,
storys meaning. Jonathon Rosen, Julie Doucet, and Lloyd Dangle all
In contrast to the Clear Line are more expressionis- qualify, as do such Europeans as M. S. Bastian of
tic styles that revel in the texture of the page, insisting Switzerland and Max Andersson of Denmark.) This
on the materiality of the print medium. Gary Panter, tension often serves to express a violent and absur-
for instance, hailed as the Father of Punk Comics, dist worldview colored by apocalyptic anxieties, as in
has pioneered a raw, ratty-line approach at odds much of Panters own work (see McKenna; Panter,
with the pristine illusionism of the clear line Interview with John Kelly). In general, the post-
(Callahan 10, 93; Spiegelman and Mouly, Read 8). Panter ratty-line (or ugly art or comix brut)
Panter himself views his work in terms of marks school subverts the cultural and ideological reassur-
rather than lines, a distinction that privileges expres- ances proffered by the Clear Line, and as such repre-
siveness over clarity or precision (Groth and Fiore sents a visual argument about the implications of
23132). In contrast to the school of Herg, which style. This argument foregrounds the active role of
epitomizes the use of line as a means of definition and the reader in constructing meaning.
verisimilitude, Panters mark-making emphasizes tex- Beyond the bald ironies of punk, many other
ture as a means of immediate, visceral expression recent comics invoke the materiality of print by using
(fig. 23). He privileges the raw gestural qualities of a suggestive styles based on tone and texture, just as
drawing, as a record of physical activity, over its the ligne claire is based on the precise delineation of
iconic or referential function. Panters worknotably form. Such styles (especially evident in the European
his occasional series Jimbo, which follows a punk avant-garde, with its objet dart approach) tend to
everyman through various bizarre and fragmented explore the relationship between figure and ground.
episodes (for example, Cola Madness, Jimbo in For instance, French artist Yvan Alagb (fig. 24) often
Purgatory)boasts a disorienting variety of graphic approaches figuration in a sparse, open, almost ges-
techniques, as well as an oblique and disjointed tural way, despite a finely nuanced realism of expres-
approach to language. The result is a ragged cartoon sion; his pages pose indistinct or half-completed
surrealism, often narrative in only the loosest sense, figures against blank, undifferentiated backgrounds,
fusing the iconography of comics and animation exploring the tension between positive and negative
with a painterly, fine-arts sensibility and the aggres- space. Simply put, Alagbs characters seem con-
sive energy of punk. Indeed the humor of Panters stantly on the verge of dissolving into the page itself.

Figure 22. Joost Swarte, Torn Together. Raw No. 7, page 2 (inside front cover). Joost Swarte. Used with permission.


Figure 23. Gary Panter, Jimbo is

Running Sore. Read Yourself
Raw 53 (excerpt). Gary Panter.
Used with permission.

His work thus reveals a profound faith in the readers narrative significance. Ditto those artists known for
capacity for visual closure, as it calls on our ability to their painterly manipulation of texture, such as Frances
complete a process of figuration only begun by the Jean-Claude Gtting (who creates dense, dark imagery
artist. In such works as Ngres Jaunes (1995) Alagb with a lithograph-like grain); Italys Stefano Ricci (who
turns this daring graphic technique to cultural argu- sculpts thick, almost palpable tones by alternating
ment, thematizing the blackness and whiteness of drawing, erasing, and painting on fragile paper); the
ink and paper as signs of ethnic and cultural differ- United States Debbie Drechsler (who balances contour
ence (see Beaty, AMOK; Pollman). and texture through the mesmerizing buildup of deli-
While Alagbs work relies on traditional grid- cate lines); and Switzerlands Thomas Ott (whose grim,
like paneling to enclose and delimit its open spaces, often horrific fables are carved out of scratchboard,
German artist Anna Sommer (Remue-Mnage/Damen white on blacka perfect union of technique and sub-
Dramen) allows series of images to spill freely across ject). All of these artists are characterized by a keen
the undivided expanse of the page (fig. 25). She too grasp not only of comics as a narrative form but also of
displays great confidence in the readers ability to con- the relationship between narrative content and physi-
struct meaning from fragments. Her fluid approach to cal medium, that is, between the experience of reading
sequence vs. surface mirrors her thematic interest in and the material object. Calling attention to that rela-
openness and surprise, in particular her exploration (as tionship, these creators highlight the distance between
here) of the mutability of gender. This method goes text and reader, and foreground the readers creative
beyond questions of layout to the interrogation of the intervention in meaning-making. Their works bear out
physical page as surface and ground. Indeed, artists like Pascal Lefvres dictum that the materiality of a comic
Alagb and Sommer call for a materialist criticism, one is essential. . . . The form of a drawing draws attention
in which print-specific qualities such as drawing tech- to the object represented in a way that deviates from
nique, tone, and surface can be interrogated for their ordinary perception (Recovering Sensuality 142).


Figure 24. Yvan Alagb, Etoile dOrient.

Le Cheval sans Tte, Vol. 5: Nous sommes
les Maures 38. Yvan Alagb. Used with

The above examples may seem exotic to conveys a key moment in the courtship between
American readersbut one need not look far afield his father Vladek and his mother Anja by drawing
to find invocations of the page-as-object. In Art a photograph of Anja into, and onto, the page
Spiegelmans celebrated Maus, for instance, the (1:17). Anjas photo dominates the page, suggest-
page repeatedly refers to itself, as objects overlap ing both the factualness of Spiegelmans account
the panels, creating at once an illusion of volume and Anjas growing importance in Vladeks reminis-
and a sense of intimacy (as if these found objects cence (see chapter 5, fig. 56). This ironic appeal to
have been mounted in a diary or scrapbook). Maps, the books status as a physical object is complex and
tickets, photographsthese commonplace items heavily fraught, as we shall see later on. Suffice to
appear to have been laid on top of the page, as if say here that the readers awareness is called to the
to ratify the books documentary nature as a family materiality of the book itself (albeit through an illu-
auto/biography. Early on, for example, Spiegelman sion), in such a way as to inflect her understanding


Figure 25. Anna Sommer, La femme du

chasseur. Remue Mnage (n. pag.). Anna
Sommer. Used with permission.

of the narrative. This gambit is characteristic of CONCLUSION: TOWARD THE HABIT OF

Spiegelman, an artist for whom print is a privileged QUESTIONING
point of reference. (Maus, notwithstanding its sub-
sequent reformatting for an archival CD-ROM, is Comics are complex objects. In light of the above dis-
first and foremost a book.) Such self-reflexive com- cussion, the experience of reading them would seem
mentary is in fact quite common in comics: beyond to call for negotiation among various possible mean-
questions of texture and volume, the materiality of ings. Despite the codification of techniques designed
texts is often highlighted through embedded visual to ease this negotiationfor example, the use of
references to books, other comics, and picture-mak- overdetermined transitions (Meanwhile . . . ), rigid
ing in generalthings and activities inevitably gridlines, and various pictographic conventions
fraught with special significance for cartoonists and there is no one right way to read the comics page,
their readers. nor any stable, Platonic conception of that page.


There is simply no consistent formula for resolving of form enables her to become the kind of audience
the tensions intrinsic to the experience. In fact aware- the author envisions. As comics readers have
ness of these tensions, an awareness expected of the become more experienced, comics have traced an
prepared or sophisticated reader, may multiply the arc of development similar to other cultural forms,
number of choices available to the reader and can such as the novel and cinema: away from presenta-
result in an even more intensive questioning of the tional devices designed to ease audience adjustment
page (as the above discussion of timing, for instance, and toward a more confident and thorough explo-
makes clear). The foregoing analysis, then, cannot ration of the forms peculiar tensions, potentialities,
tell us How to Read Comics; it can only suggest cer- and limits.
tain heretofore neglected aspects of the experience. This is not to say that todays comics are uniformly
Some may yet object that the form needs no more sophisticated than the comics of yesteryear.
instruction manual, no how to book to get between Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a more
readers and their pleasure. Admittedly, there is much thoroughgoing exploration of the comics page than the
in comics that seems intuitive, much that seems Sundays in George Herrimans Krazy Kat (191644),
naively pleasurable; the forms reliance on pictures can which playfully poke at every convention without
make it (or certain aspects of it) immediately accessi- ever compromising the strips blend of wry lyricism
ble, even to many readers who have not mastered and thematic depth. Likewise, in the work of the
all the disciplines that formal literacy demands. I have forms pioneersfor example, in Rodolphe Tpffers
seen evidence of this among the children in my own epochal series of comics albums (c. 182746)we find
life. Yet, as the above discussion shows, the form continual, and ever-surprising, experimentation. But
uses diverse means to solicit and guide reader partici- the interrogation of comics form has recently become
pation and always involves choosing among different more widespread, intensive, and self-conscious. This
optionsdifferent strategies of interpretation, dif- is true even in the tightly controlled precincts of
ferent ways of understanding. There may be much American newspaper strips, where, for example, Bill
more going on than mere picture reading: comic Wattersons use of breakdown to juxtapose reality
art is characterized by plurality, instability, and tension, and fantasy (in Calvin and Hobbes) has led to com-
so much so that no single formula for interpreting the parable moves in many other strips. Yet it is especially
page can reliably unlock every comic. Far from being true of alternative comics and graphic novels in the
too simple to warrant analysis, comic art is complex wake of Spiegelmans Maus. In the alternative comics
enough to frustrate any attempt at an airtight analyti- avant-garde, we find radical reexaminations of form
cal scheme. from such respected cartoonists as Chris Ware, whose
In fact comic art is growing more complex all the ACME Novelty Library brings a post-Spiegelman rigor
time. The form is in flux, becoming more self-conscious to the manipulation of design and color, and Frances
in its explorations as creators increasingly recognize Marc-Antoine Mathieu (Julius Corentin Acquefacques,
the knowledge and sophistication of readers. Ploys prisonnier des rves), who has experimented, dizzy-
once deemed necessary to relieve formal tensions and ingly, with the design and material packaging of
to settle ambiguities (overdetermined transitions, comics-as-books (see Beaty, Compelling Experimen-
word/image redundancy, predictable layouts, and so tation). All of these works point to a growing
forth) have become less common, as authors have awareness of the audience as experienced, knowl-
come to expect readers who are experienced, play- edgeable, and eager to recognize its own role in
ful, and tolerant of discontinuity. This vision of a making meaning.
knowing readership has changed the art form, for an We cannot acknowledge the scope and sophisti-
authors imagining of her audience profoundly influ- cation of that role as long as we insist on the ease
ences her sense of form and her willingness to take and simplicity of comics. The notion of ease, so often
chances, just as, conversely, the readers awareness mobilized in criticism (even appreciative criticism) of


the form, overlooks the complexity and complicity aware of both? How are the boundaries, or margins,
involved in reading comics, reducing this interactive of the page used? How are the successive images
process to the passive registration of a few highly- delimited and juxtaposed?
charged impressions. This is why criticism in English, What relationship does this page create between
until very recently, has been unable to distinguish time and space? Am I ever in doubt about that
between skimming comics and reading comics, with relationship?
the result that critical discussion of the form has How does the design of this publication reinforce or
been generally impoverished and, at times, irrespon- work against its content? Does reading this text feel
sible. My hope is that the above discussion, though like witnessing a story, or handling an object, or both?
it stops short of trying to construct a universal critical
scheme, will inspire readers to ask probing questions Such questions, while perhaps impressionistic, pro-
of the comics they read, questions such as: vide lenses through which we can more fully appre-
ciate, and more pointedly critique, the comics text.
What can I glean from the different codes (images, In fact addressing such questions is a must, not
words, symbols) invoked here? What can I learn only for the discussion of comics as literature but also
from their interaction? How do words and images for sociological and ideological analyses of comics as
relate to or approach each other? artifacts of mass culture. For it is the readers effort
Does the appearance of the written text seem to to resolve such questions that positions her vis--vis
influence or inflect my reading of it, and if so, how? the text, indeed that defines her as the reader,
Does there seem to be one unified message here, calling on her to assume a particular role. If reading
reinforced by the overlapping of codes, or instead a is an act of reimagining oneself in response to the
conflict and contradiction between messages? demands of a text, then we need to consider how
How am I to understand this sequence of images, comics present their demands, that is, how they
based on what I have to do to connect one image to reach out to their readers and urge them to fulfill
the next? What is included, and what excluded, certain tasks. Comics demand a different order of lit-
from the sequence? How do words and symbols eracy: they are never transparent, but beckon their
assist, or complicate, my efforts to read this sequence readers in specific, often complex ways, by generating
as such? tension among their formal elements. Recognition of
How does the layout of this page or surfacethe this complex relationship is prerequisite to grappling
relative size, shape, and positioning of its images with the literary, sociohistorical and ideological
inflect my understanding of the narrative? When I aspects of the formand such a recognition lies
look at this page, am I conscious of its overall design, behind and indeed motivates the remainder of this
or of the way I move from one design element to the study, as we turn our attention to groundbreaking
next? Are there moments at which it helps to be examples of alternative comics.



Between its launch in 1981 and its fissioning into separate projects in 1996,
the anthology Love & Rockets broke new ground for comics in terms of both
content and form. Created by brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and (occasionally)
Mario Hernandez,1 Love & Rockets fused underground and mainstream tra-
ditions, in the process reaching new audiences for whom such distinctions
were moot. Though it at first built on such shopworn genres as superheroics
and romance, Love & Rockets transcended these conventions, revitalizing
long-form comics with new themes, new types of characters, and fresh
approaches to narrative technique. In so doing, it became the quintessential
alternative comic, indeed gained the status of a brandso much so that, in
2001, after a five-year hiatus, the Hernandez brothers yielded to reader
demand and once again brought their work together under the Love &
Rockets banner. (Volume 2 of the series continues as of this writing.)
The thematic and formal innovations of Love & Rockets were of a piece:
what the series had to say and how it went about saying it were knotted
together. This interrelation of theme and form stands out most clearly in
Gilberts cycle of stories about the fictional Central American village of
Palomar, a series most often referred to as Heartbreak Soup. Over its thirteen
years (198396), Heartbreak Soup yielded a wealth of stories and achieved a
novelistic breadth and complexity to which few comics aspire. (Of course it
did not do so alone: Jaimes Locas series, the other half of Love & Rockets,
is gutsy, complex, and heart-rendingly beautifulalso beyond our present
scope, alas.) The Palomar tales demonstrated, bountifully, the art forms
potential to evoke complex settings and charactersand to address thorny
sociopolitical issues. Indeed Heartbreak Soup, at its height, seems nothing


less than a profound meditation on the social on distinctive and complex female characters. These
responsibility and political efficacy of comics. characters, as they matured, mixed caricature, low-
Happily, readers can now discover the whole of key realism, and a refreshingly inclusive sense of
Palomar in one monumental volume, titled simply beauty. As such, they broke with the fetishism of
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories (published in both mainstream adventure comics, with their fever-
2003). This single, definitive volume is the best way ish celebration of the disciplined, superheroic body,
to dive into Gilbert Hernandezs work. Yet the col- and most underground comix, with their scabrous,
lected Palomar in effect denies its own origins, for it at times misogynistic sexual satire. The brothers the-
hides the way serialization both enabled and con- matic innovationsthe punk milieu, their eagerness
strained Hernandezs creative process. The growth to explore their Latino roots, and their regard for
and eventual contraction of Heartbreak Soup, the womeninspired fierce loyalty among their readers.
series, epitomize the challenges faced by long-form For many, alternative comics began with Love &
comics. Though Hernandez successfully exploited Rockets.
serial publication to give his stories a broader canvas, Letters from fans in early issues of L&R (198386)
and in the process developed radical new ways of testify to this loyalty. For example, in issue No. 12
evoking space and time in comics, serialization also (July 1985) a self-styled hard-core punk applauds
curbed and directed his work, forcing him to con- the book for portraying punks as human beings
front, in the novel Poison River and subsequent with gen-yoo-wine personalities rather than the
efforts, the limits of periodical publishing. The story switchblade-wielding Nazi vermin we [are] in the
of Heartbreak Soup, in short, is the richest, also one mainstream publications. Similarly, a correspondent
of the most complex and problematic, examples of in No. 14 (Nov. 1985) praises Jaimes depiction of
alternative comics in the long form. the hard-core scene, which, he says, contributes to
the books almost realistic view of young people,
in contrast to the aseptic, Hardy boys-type of
BREAKING NEW GROUND characterization found in most comic books. In No.
13 (Sept. 1985), one reader lauds the multicultural
Love & Rockets announced its difference from the cast of Love & Rockets, calling the book the first
outset: in magazine (roughly 8.5-by-11-inch) rather real All-American comic, in which the viewers find
than comic book form, it introduced themes and themselves totally immersed in the lives of different
characters hitherto unknown in American comics. racial groups (a point echoed years later by The
Specifically, Jaime and Gilbert evoked Southern Nations Patrick Markee, who, in a rave review, rec-
Californias punk rock scene, capturing its rough-and- ognized the world of L&R as the kind of new
tumble nature while applying its DIY (do-it-yourself) American place that is almost never identified on our
aesthetic to their own work. (Rock n roll remains a cultural road map [2526]). In No. 18 (Sept. 1986),
constant reference point throughout L&R.) At the a woman from El Salvador writes, I am extremely
same time, Los Bros Hernandez (as they became proud of the way youre representing our idiosyn-
known) pushed back the horizons of U.S. comics by crasy to the rest of the world. . . . You are vindicating
portraying Mexican-American culture with sensitiv- our culture and introducing it better than any fine
ity and candor, thus bringing to comics a new sense artist.
of (multi)cultural diversity, vitality, and tension. Regarding gender, in No. 13 a female reader
Social and political life in Californias barrios, and in praises Los Bros positive treatment of women, say-
the provincial villages of Latin America, became their ing, I absolutely love the strength of the females
abiding concerns, indeed the wellsprings of most of youve created. . . . Its about time some comic-
their work. In addition, Los Bros defied the long- book women were strong and human at the same
standing masculine bias of comic books by focusing time. In No. 14, likewise, a woman writes of female


characters who, at last, arent portrayed as meek story elements: characters, locales, and events past
mouses who hold their men in God-like regard . . . or and present. Such radical breakdowns demand
radical men-haters. Such letters, often from people greater inferential effort from readers. Like the
writing to a comic for the first time, pepper the excerpt from Lutess Jar of Fools studied in chapter 2
early issues of Love & Rockets, as do accolades for Los (fig. 10), Gilbert and Jaime freely manipulate time,
Bros portrayals of real life and real people. These space, and point of view, collapsing hours or even
letters reveal a faithful core readership, one that rec- years into abrupt transitions, splicing together reality
ognized itself in the brothers new brand of comics.2 and fantasy, and discerning patterns in widely sepa-
Yet this loyalty was sorely tested by the brothers rated events. Relying on the cohesiveness of the
innovative approach to long-form narrative. As it total page (and the familiarity of L&R as a series) to
evolved, Love & Rockets demanded much of its guide and reassure their readers, Los Bros pushed
audience, as its storylines were often serialized over the tension between single image and image-in-
many issues, creating long, sometimes novel-length, series to the extreme, transitioning from one ele-
narratives of unprecedented depth and scope. In ment to the next without warning.
fact the stories grew in length and complexity This technique, what Joseph Witek (1996) has
throughout the eighties, climaxing between 1990 termed (after McCloud) uncued closure, pits
and 1993 as Love & Rockets ran no less than three image, image-series, and page surface against each
serialized graphic novels at oncea period Gilbert other. Trusting the wholeness of page and of story to
has described in hindsight as crazy (Gaiman, clear up abrupt, nonlinear transitions, Los Bros prac-
Interview 96). Such extended stories added new lay- tice the kind of breakdown demonstrated in, for
ers of meaning and complication to the brothers example, Spiegelmans avant-garde drawn over
respective series: Jaimes open-ended Locas, based two weeks while on the phone, but with more tra-
on the lives of several young women in Hoppers ditional narrative aims. This technique opens up new
(a barrio modeled on the brothers own hometown potentialities in terms of shifting viewpoint, narrative
of Oxnard, California); and Gilberts Heartbreak recursion, symbolic juxtaposition, and, above all, the
Soup, based in Palomar but including various other readers active engagement in interpretation. Los
locales in Latin America and California. These vast, Bros did not adopt this habit simply to exhibit their
densely populated cycles, built up over the fifty issues skill, but to pack as much hard content into their
of Love & Rockets, represent long-form comics at work as possible: over the course of Love & Rockets
their most ambitious. their use of uncued breakdowns responded to, and
This ambition was a matter, not simply of scale, grew more and more audacious with, the growing
but also of formal daring. If Love & Rockets, with its complexity of their stories. The thematic thrust of
cultural scope and novelistic ambitions, extended the their work encouraged, even demanded, such for-
thematic reach of American comics, it also, necessar- mal sophisticationagain, the form and content of
ily, reexamined the formal tensions that constitute Love & Rockets are inseparable.
comics as such. In particular, Love & Rockets explored This is especially true of Gilberts Heartbreak
the tension between the single image and the Soup, which emphasizes, first, the town of Palomar
image-in-series, taking a bold approach to break- as a complex social arena or space; and second, the
down that enabled Los Bros to work on a wider scale psychological development of a single family
with extraordinary freedom and economy. While in (Palomars resident matriarch Luba and her domestic
some respects both Gilbert and Jaime cleave to tradi- lineage) over a span of decades. Palomars teeming
tional storytelling strategiesfor instance, both emotional landscape, then, allows Gilbert to explore
favor the rectilinear or grid layout followed by most the possibilities of comics as both a spatial and a
Western comicsthey nonetheless take a drastic temporal art. These seemingly opposite emphases,
approach to narrative elision, leaping freely between on space and time, demand much from both creator


and reader; yet Heartbreak Soup, for all its formal interplay go hand in hand: insofar as Heartbreak
gymnastics, maintains a strong narrative momentum Soup is about desire and disappointment (as its title
and, always, a visceral urgency. Gilberts synoptic suggests), it argues that such feelings are gregarious.
understanding of space and time, once shared by The social whirl of Palomar arises from, and sparks,
the reader, allows a tremendous depth of characteri- individual passions. Indeed, individual depth and
zation and feeling with a minimum of exposition. social breadth, held in balance, account for much of
Narratively, Heartbreak Soup demands a complex the series appeal. No other series in contemporary
evocation of place and history; formally, it cuts to American comics features a cast as rich, or as com-
the heart of a paradox essential to comics: that time, plexly interrelated, and few focus so resolutely on
in a literal sense, is space (again, see chapter 2). the complications of life among family, friends, and
In fact the history of Heartbreak Soup shows two community. The beauty of Heartbreak Soup (as of
overlapping arcs of development. First, Hernandez brother Jaimes Locas series, but to an even greater
achieves a thorough understanding of the myriad degree) lies not simply in its colorful individual char-
social relationships within Palomara movement acters but also in the depth and unpredictability of
that climaxes with the novel Human Diastrophism their interaction.
(created 198789), an interrogation of individual Given this emphasis on social life, Heartbreak
and social responsibilities within a densely populated Soup presented a formal challenge, namely, how to
space. Second, Hernandez moves toward an in- focus on subtle, often unspoken emotions and rela-
depth awareness of historical time and the individ- tionships without sacrificing the energy of social
uals place in it, an arc that climaxes with the novel interaction or freighting the page heavily with expo-
Poison River (198993), a sprawling look at the sition. This is not to insist that exposition has no
intertwining of the personal and the political over a place in comics, or that all comics should move
span of many years. While Heartbreak Soup is by no quickly; in fact Hernandez has sometimes resorted to
means the mere sum of these developments, these extensive narration (for example, For the Love of
two focispace and timereveal both Hernandezs Carmen). But in general Heartbreak Soup depicts
deep understanding of comics form and his determi- life lived on the run and catches its characters in
nation to use the form for the sake of provocative medias res; readers are expected to pick up insights
cultural argument. on the fly, as they eavesdrop for a moment here, a
moment there. Life in Palomar, after all, is not rumi-
native; the stories demand brisk movement as well
FORMAL HABITS AND WHY THEY MATTER as emotional clarity. These demands had a salutary
effect on Hernandez as a cartoonist, for, impelled by
Heartbreak Soup is about a place and the people the complexity of Palomar, he synthesized a novel
who inhabit it. As such, it focuses on the develop- approach to comics storytelling, drawing on the raw
ment of the community as well as the individual, in materials of comic books, comic strips, folklore, liter-
contrast to the agonistic individualism that has tradi- ature, and film. Spurred byand in turn spurring
tionally dominated comic book fantasy. Whereas brother Jaimes efforts, Gilbert developed a distinctive
most comic books favor lone protagonists who have repertoire of techniques suited to the kind of stories
been clearly set apart from society, Gilberts stories he wanted to tell.
acknowledge, even depend upon, the energy and Building up such a repertoire, I submit, is what
variousness of communal interaction. More specifi- comic artists do to harness the tensions inherent in
cally, they emphasize the always complex relation- the form and turn them to advantage. The experi-
ship between personal anxieties and desires and the enced cartoonist continually develops, or seeks to
constraints, opportunities, and frictions of social life. develop, distinctive ways to organize this inherently
For Gilbert, individual psychology and communal unstable form; in other words, each artist strives


toward his or her own formal habits, or protocols. In fact Gilberts style, though superficially plain, is
Such protocols are ways of seeking fitness: habitual complex insofar as it reconciles naturalism with cari-
means of balancing the disparate elements of comics, catural abstraction. He employs a sliding scale of
so as to insure the harmony and mutual reinforce- realism, drawing some characters (for example, chil-
ment of form and content. dren) broadly and wildly, but others (for example,
Faced with the challenge of evoking a complex prominent adult characters) in a more restrained,
social world, Hernandez developed distinctive proto- naturalistic way. Such inconsistency is of course
cols in three areas: one, his approach to drawing native to the art of cartooning, but Gilbert goes fur-
characters, which, while often broadly stylized, ther, at times drawing even his most realistic charac-
nonetheless captures subtle nuances of expression ters with cartoony abandon, especially when they
and body language; two, his panel compositions, are in the grip of strong feelings like fear or rage (a
which often position characters visually within a technique common in Japanese manga but less so in
dynamic social context; and three, his interpanel American comics).
transitions, often abrupt and uncued, which, again, However, it is the second and third points,
allow him to cover long distances (spatially and tem- Hernandezs compositions and interpanel transitions,
porally) without sacrificing either energy or coher- that most demand study. Here film theory provides
ence. While none of these strategies is unique to an apt language for analysisnotwithstanding the
Hernandez, his combination of them is radical, a problems presented by importing the argot of one
quirky and original response to the narrative prob- discipline to another. Recent studies of comics (as
lems he has set out to solve. noted in chapter 2) have resisted the comparison to
The first of these three areas, his approach to film, so as to underline the specificity of the art form;
drawing characters, concerns both style, that is, the yet, as Robert C. Harvey has argued, the language
degree of abstractness, and technique in the strict of film can be a useful, albeit limited, tool for dis-
sense, that is, the finesse of the rendering (see cussing the arrangement of elements within a
Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art 151, 157). These comics panel (Art of the Funnies 17). Indeed the
qualities are notoriously difficult to write about, the intuitive use of film terms has been a hallmark of
more so when faced by styles as polymorphous as much comics criticism. This comics/cinema analogy,
those of the Hernandez brothers. Los Bros distinc- admittedly inexact, has a special urgency in the case
tive ways of drawing, at once naturalistic and of Hernandez, because he has often cited film as a
broadly comic, were synthesized from a wide range major, perhaps the major, influence on his methods
of graphic influences, most notably, the rough-hewn (see Fiore, Groth, and Powers 8788, and Groths
fabulism of classic Marvel artists Steve Ditko and preface to Hernandez, Chelos Burden). Though
Jack Kirby; the coy sex appeal of Archie comics, careful to point out that he is not a frustrated
under artists Harry Lucey and Dan DeCarlo; the filmmaker, Hernandez ranks his artistic influences
understated humor of Charles Schulz and Hank as films, other comics and then novels . . . , in that
Ketcham; and the ironic, angst-filled cartooning of order (Hernandez to the author, 22 Mar. 2000).
R. Crumb. (Such eclecticism has since become one of The inevitability of the comics/cinema compari-
the hallmarks of alternative comics.) Jaime, for his son, and its insufficiency, raises a larger point.
part, is known as a master of stark, chiaroscuro tech- Cartoonists, as they work their way toward their
nique, and has achieved a startling degree of real- own distinctive protocols, draw inspiration from (at
ism; Gilbert, on the other hand, has developed a times consciously invoke) other objects, media, and
wilder, more expressionistic approach, strongly influ- art forms, such as film. For instance, Spiegelmans
enced by the comic distortions of such artists as Maus (as remarked in chapter 2) invokes the materi-
Ditko, Crumb, and Mads Harvey Kurtzman (Fiore, ality of found objects in order to stress the diaristic
Groth, and Powers 98105; Knowles 51). nature of his story: images of tickets, notebook


pages, and other printed artifacts are superimposed captures intimate exchanges, whether fierce, gentle,
over Spiegelmans characters, as if he were assem- humorous, or erotic. In particular, what I call the vis-
bling a family album or scrapbook. Spiegelman is -vis shot (that is, a close-up of two facing charac-
one of many comic artists for whom layout, typogra- ters in profile) stresses the mutuality of the exchange
phy, and the physical design of books are important by giving equal emphasis to both parties.
signifiers in themselvesartists for whom print and Foreground framing reinforces this sense of inti-
paper are privileged reference points, and the ten- macy and serves the added purpose of strengthen-
sion between experience and object is paramount. In ing our sense of continuity during exchanges that
contrast, Gilbert Hernandez (with rare exceptions) extend over several panels. In each panel, the fram-
downplays the idea of the object itself and indeed ing of one figure by another (or part of another) in
draws much of his inspiration from the language of the near foreground reminds us of the physical rela-
movies. Despite his immersion in comics, his proto- tionship between the characters and implies a larger
cols have been shaped by the signifying practices space or world outside the panels (for example,
of film. figs. 27, 28). This protocol evokes the shot/reverse
Indeed, as William Anthony Nericcio observes, shot convention of classical film editing, though
Hernandez repeatedly uses and comments on the without its restrictive emphasis on a single, consis-
dynamics of cinema (Artif[r]acture 95). His work tent axis of movement (the so-called 180 rule).
recalls traditional narrative cinema in specific ways, Clearly, this is post-cinematic cartooning: the loom-
mimicking the movie cameras capacity for natural- ing figures in the foreground affront the picture
ism, intimacy, and movement. The artist himself, plane in the same way that foregrounded figures
while distinguishing between film and comics, may affront a cameras lens. Instead of ordering his
acknowledges his reliance on movies as the best fictive world around the readers omniscient eye,
visual reference as far as capturing a scene (Her- Hernandez thrusts readers into the midst of intimate
nandez to author), an admission that sheds light on exchanges, as if we were eavesdropping. In such
his habits of panel composition. In fact Hernandezs exchanges, he frequently uses silhouetting, filling
panels favor certain filmic devices, which he uses to the outline of the foreground character with black
pose characters in close relation both to the reader to simplify the composition and direct the readers
and to each other: extreme close-ups, close two- eye to the main figure. Like the close two-shot,
shots, foreground framing, and deep focus, that is, such foreground framing insists on the relationship,
extreme depth of field. These protocols insure that at once spatial and emotional, between the char-
the relationships among characters (and between acters, and lends variety to what could otherwise
each character and the whole of Palomar) are estab- become repetitive, numbing sequences full of talking
lished and upheld with absolute clarity. heads.
Individual close-ups and two-shots enable Likewise, Hernandezs depth of field emphasizes
Hernandez to capture his characters most intense the complexity of the larger social milieu of Palomar.
emotions, whether openly displayed or barely con- In deep focusI am using the photographic term
cealed behind carefully composed faades. The indi- metaphorically, of courseinteractions can take
vidual close-up allows such recurrent devices as place across wide distances; the space between
direct asides to the reader (used sparingly early on, foreground and background characters can establish
later abandoned) and blank, silent panels revealing the complexity of a setting, or underscore the emo-
lone characters in unguarded moments of reaction tions of an interchange (for example, characters shout-
or contemplation. In a strip whose principals are usu- ing angrily across a distance, or keeping their distance
ally shown in motion, such still moments serve as from each other). In fact Heartbreak Soup is filled
dramatic punctuation, offering revealing snapshots with such deep images, panels in which elements
of individual character. Similarly, the two-shot on different planes are unobtrusively combined,


sometimes to score a specific narrative point, often enable Hernandez to keep track of the overlapping
simply to evoke the variety and unpredictability of relationships within his ever-expanding repertory
Palomar as a place (for example, fig. 26). This habit- company of characters.
ual use of deep focus helps to create not only a spa-
tial but also a social context. If Palomar does come to
life as a place, as a thoroughly imagined and imagi- BUILDING UP PALOMAR
nable world, it is partly because Hernandezs multi-
plane compositions provide a perfect graphic setting Heartbreak Soups emphasis on these relationships is
for his interest in community. evident from the very first story in the cycle, Sopa
In short, Hernandezs panel compositions reflect de Gran Pena (Love & Rockets No. 34, 1983;
his themes. Yet, in addition, his focus on community Palomar 1357).3 While Sopa hinges on a tragic
influences the way he breaks down stories into pan- love triangle between Manuel, Soledad, and Pipo,
els, that is, the way he handles the tensions between it also introduces the mysterious baadora (bath-
image and image-series and between sequence and giver) Luba, and highlights the friendship between
page surface. An analogy to cinema may again the guys, a group of adolescent boys composed
prove useful, but in this case it is the failure of the of Vicente, Satch, Israel, Jesus, and the newcomer
analogy that helps: while breakdown is roughly Heraclio. The adult lives of these men, covered in
comparable to cinematic editing or montage, it dif- such later tales as The Laughing Sun, will account
fers insofar as the page gathers multiple images into for much of Heartbreak Soups continuity; in Sopa,
a single surface, a static unit of meaning through however, the relationships that bind the five together
which the reader can move at will. As Heartbreak are as yet tentative and only part of a larger web of
Soup progresses, Hernandez capitalizes more and social connections. This larger context includes many
more on this static, readable quality, relying on the relationships (for example, Carmen and Pipo, Luba
integrity of the overall page to clarify drastic cut- and Chelo) that will figure more prominently in the
ting or ellipsis. Though powerfully influenced by stories ahead.
cinema, he trumps traditional narrative film by The complexity of such interlocking relationships
favoring abrupt, unsignaled cuts and interpolations becomes clear in the story Ecce Homo (Love &
between images. On screen, such jarring cuts (though Rockets No. 10, 1984; Palomar 14560). Ecce
increasingly common) are still most often used for Homo takes place at a town picnic or similar gather-
the sake of visceral shock; they conjure sudden, dis- ing and shows Hernandezs secure grasp of Palomar
orienting flashbacks or visions, momentarily jeopard- as a community. Here Borro, the ex-sheriff of
izing clarity and coherence. Yet such transitions Palomar, reappears, virtually reinvented since his early
make perfect sense in the printed medium of the appearance in Sopa; here Tonantzin Villaseor, only
comics page, for print, as McCloud points out, allows briefly glimpsed before, is reintroduced and deep-
before and after to remain ever-visible, ever-present, ened, her promiscuity and desperate need for self-
elements (104). The static nature of comics permits a affirmation revealed. The relationship between Pipo
self-paced reading, slow or fast according to the and her abusive husband Gato (an ironic reversal of
readers desires, even recursive if need be, which his unrequited longings in Sopa) brings added
allows Hernandez to make sudden cuts between tension and complexity. The coterie of male friends
panels without sacrificing the continuity or the easy, established in Sopa remains more or less intact,
unassuming naturalism of his stories. This technique, apart from Jesus (now a convict), but their rela-
Witeks uncued closure, responds to and becomes tionships have grown and changed, and Heraclios
bolder with the growing complexity of Hernandezs role has become more central. Ecce Homo is a
story cycle. Combined with the compositional strate- pageant of Palomars citizenry, driven not by any
gies described above, such abrupt breakdowns particular plot or crisis but rather by the various


Figure 26. Gilbert Hernandez, selected pages from Ecce Homo. Palomar 151, 154. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

relationships that Hernandez wants to establish, do a number of non-Love and Rockets charac-
re-establish, or underline. As such, the story exploits tersfor example, Frida Kahlo, R. Crumb, Gilbert
Hernandezs arsenal of narrative techniques to the Hernandez and his wife, Carol Kovinick-Hernandez,
fullest (fig. 26). and several skeletons inspired by Jose Guadalupe
Reading Ecce Homo, one has the feeling of Posada.) Thus, as we wander through the Palomar
roving through a large party, encountering and later scene, eavesdropping on its featured players, we
re-encountering various characters whose ties to also glimpse other visitors to this fictive world, fanci-
each other are just beginning to come to light. ful visitors who remind us that we too are merely
Blending the many elements of Heartbreak Soups peeking into something larger and more complex. At
continuity into an organic whole, Ecce solidifies once we are swept into the life of Palomar, yet
our sense of the towns collective identity. The story reminded of our visitor status.
allows us to stroll through the scene, taking in Ecce Homo tells much that we must know if
relationships that connect the various characters to we are to understand the relationships and issues at
each other. Indeed, Ecce contains playful elements stake in later stories. Here for the first time Lubas
that suggest that Hernandez is not only taking roll eldest daughter, Maricela, emerges as a distinct
but taking stock of all that has happened in Love and character, and we learn, albeit indirectly, that Luba
Rockets thus far. Besides the casts of Heartbreak abuses her. Here we witness Tonantzin falling prey
Soup and other Gilbert stories, various characters to male flattery and in effect prostituting herself to
drawn by brothers Jaime and Mario make cameos. shore up her uncertain sense of self-worth. Here too
(In fact most of Jaimes major characters appear, as we see Borros crude advances on Luba and his


willingness to strike out violently when his desires reality, memory, and vision, as when, for example,
are thwarted. Beneath the apparent frivolity of the Guadalupes fond memories of her mother give way
cameos and the drunken good humor of characters to a more frightening vision of Luba, which in turn
like Heraclio are undercurrents of tensiondark gives way to the reality of Tonantzin shaking the
and disturbing elements that will emerge most fully bleary, vomiting child (281). Again, Hernandezs
in later tales. (As in Posada, so here: light and dark- handling of form responds to the dramatic demands
ness, vitality and death, not only coexist but join of his narrative. As the scattered members of his cast
hands.) converge on the same moment of confrontation
Ecce Homo represents a stretch for Hernandez (fig. 27), his breakdowns grow more ambitious, the
the cartoonist, as it packs an entire town into sixteen transitions more abrupt, leaping unexpectedly from
pages. Here his compositional and breakdown tech- (in McCloudian terms) subject to subject and action
niques are in constant practice, choreographing the to action. The breakdown of action and the design
interplay between at least two dozen established of the entire page reinforce each other: narrow pan-
characters (again, see fig. 26). The approach is cine- els crowd together, creating a staccato rhythm,
matic, yes, but also succinct, graphically playful, and, which climaxes with discovery, violence, deliverance,
as ever, wonderfully cartoony. Two-shots, foreground and relief.
framing, silhouetting, shot/reverse shot exchanges, The final page of Duck Feet (fig. 28), a quiet
and deep-focus compositions depict the complex dnouement after a frantic tale, is as radical a move
social workings of Palomar, with its mingled friend- as anything that has come before. An even grid of
ships, loves, lusts, antagonisms, and misunderstand- nine wordless panels, each one showing a different
ings. Throughout Ecce, Hernandez maintains subject, suggests the apparent calm that has settled
continuity of action, yet achieves a startling graphic over Palomar in the wake of the epidemic, and tells
repleteness and variety, as well as subtle emotional us what has become of all of the featured characters
nuancesall the while positioning foreground and in the story. Disconnected as the images are, they
background details to suggest an impinging social reveal what we need to know about each character
context. and the town as a whole. In the first panel, for
If Ecce Homo romps through Hernandezs imag- instance, we see the outside of Lubas house, where,
inary world, then the two-part story Duck Feet we know, Luba and Guadalupe are convalescing,
(Love & Rockets Nos. 1718, 1986; Palomar 25986) while in the second and third panels we see the rest
shakes this world to its foundations. Struck by an of her family at work. Panels four and seven, one
epidemic brought on by the wrath of a disgruntled right above the other, show the sisters, Tonantzin
bruja (witch), the Palomar of Duck Feet reveals a and Diana, respectively: Tonantzin has been
heretofore unknown potential for violence: Sheriff changed most by recent events, and seems lost in
Chelo inadvertently kills the fugitive Roberto, and thought, unconcerned with the masculine brawl
the headstrong Tonantzin, acting as Chelos deputy, going on (no doubt for her favor) behind her; Diana,
is later assaulted by Robertos gun-wielding cousin below, seems to be running to escape from thinking.
Geraldo. Meanwhile, Luba remains stuck in the bot- In the penultimate panel we see Geraldo, confined
tom of a hole, despite her daughter Guadalupes to prison, his bandaged arm a reminder of the tales
anxious efforts to free her. As the epidemic sweeps violence, while the last panel shows the retreat of
the town, many characters are physically trans- the mysterious bruja, ending the story on a question
formed, their features grotesquely mottled, even dis- mark. Here transitioning from image to image (that
torted, by the symptoms of the disease. Several scenes is, resolving the tension between single image and
take on a frankly nightmarish quality, as Guadalupe image-series) requires divining a pattern from a
stumbles through the streets, retching and halluci- string of apparent non sequiturs, silent and open to
nating. Hernandezs breakdowns seamlessly blend interpretation.

Figure 27. The climax of Duck Feet. Palomar 283. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.


Figure 28. The dnouement of

Duck Feet. Palomar 286.
2004 Gilbert Hernandez.
Used with permission.

THE COMMUNITY IN CRISIS: HUMAN core periodical readership. Sharp, unsentimental, and
DIASTROPHISM complex, Human Diastrophism represents a mile-
stone in Hernandezs depiction of Palomar as social
Thematically and formally, the novel-length Human space and a pivotal moment of self-reflexive exami-
Diastrophism (Love & Rockets Nos. 2126, 198788; nation, as he interrogates the social and political effec-
Palomar 320424) trumps Duck Feet by placing tiveness of comic art. The novel stands as one of the
the town in the grips of an even greater crisis. This signal examples of alternative comics from the 1980s.
genuine graphic novel, subsequently revised and Diastrophism echoes Sopa de Gran Pena in
collected in the book Blood of Palomar (1989), many ways, recalling or reworking some of its basic
tested the serial magazine form of Love & Rockets themes and motifs. However, unlike the bucolic set-
as never before, summing up and extending Heart- ting of Sopa, the Palomar of Diastrophism seethes
break Soup with few expository concessions to its with anxiety, its fragile community jeopardized by


violence, political terror, and disintegrating relation- Riri, with whom she has been pursuing a clandestine
ships. Here Hernandez creates his most complex net- lesbian affair. Luba, oblivious to all but her own need
work of interactions, pushing his techniques to the for affirmation, remains aloof to Palomars social
utmost to capture the way individual behavior affects crisis, unaware of the very complexities on which
the social dynamic. Indeed the crux of Diastrophism is Hernandezs narrative technique insists.
the question of personal responsibility for the social Meanwhile, Tonantzin worries her family and
good, yet ironically much of its dramatic tension stems friends with prophetic talk of an impending holo-
from characters who remain unaware of, or unmoved caust. Set off by the paranoiac writings of the convict
by, the needs of the community as a whole. Geraldo (the very man who assaulted her in Duck
Broadly speaking, Diastrophism depicts traumatic Feet), Tonantzin sees Palomar as a fragile pawn
changes that overtake Palomar and its citizens, in a struggle between global superpowers, and her
changes triggered by the intrusion of the outside mind is filled with images of the apocalypse. Despite
world into the previously cloistered village. The most the well-meaning interference of friends and family,
obvious public crisis in the novel is the search for a Tonantzin adopts the traditional garb of her Indian
serial murderer at large in the town, whose random ancestors in a vain effort to make a political state-
attacks strike up a panic in Palomars intimate popu- ment (352). Inadvertently, she too provides the
lation. As the search for the killer gathers steam, and townspeople with much-needed distraction, a bitter
the panic escalates, a horde of mischievous monkeys irony given her lone commitment to meaningful
appears out of nowhere and sweeps the town like an social action.
epidemic, attacking people and vandalizing houses. Tonantzins sudden politicization underlines her
As omens of the encroaching modern world, the long-established naivet. Named for the Aztec
monkeys symbolize the townspeoples fears, yet also mother goddess, Tonantzin (Revered Mother) is
provide a cathartic outlet for, and welcome distrac- nonetheless an object of gossip and ridicule in the
tion from, those fears. Hence the townspeople set town. She bears the onus of a scandalous past, includ-
about killing and cremating them in earnest. The ing, ironically enough, a series of abortions resulting
resulting mayhem, at once risibly comic and brutally from her prodigal sexuality. As vendor of the local
graphic, underscores the novels prevailing tone of dietary staple, fried babosas (slugs), Tonantzin pro-
violence and hysteria. vides for her people much like her mythic namesake;
Within this climate of terror, many of Palomars yet, as established in Ecce Homo and later stories
individual citizens undergo diastrophic (roughly, such as An American in Palomar and Duck Feet,
earth-shaking) changes in their own lives. Most her character has a tragic dimension. Ill-educated and
notably, Luba (by now familiar as a single mother of lacking both confidence and purpose, she is credu-
four and the proprietor of the local bathhouse) pur- lous, rash, and easily manipulated. Diastrophism
sues her own fleeting youth in the person of Khamo, finds her seeking a new purpose in life but at the
an old lover and the father of two of her children. behest of Geraldo, a millenarian religious zealot. The
Khamo has returned to town unexpectedly as a very inadequacy of Tonantzins would-be political
worker in an archaeological digironically, the same statement makes it almost unbearably poignant.
dig that has brought the killer to town (though, In contrast to Tonantzin, Humberto (a new char-
unlike Khamo, the killer is a returning Palomar acter) rejects direct social action, seeking instead to
native). Lubas family, already strained by her neg- take part in the life of the town obliquely, through
lect, begins to unravel as her affair with Khamo the medium of his art. An aspiring young artist,
revives, then falters, shattering her confidence and Humberto struggles to educate himself, and indeed
driving her into a series of aimless sexual encounters. redefine himself, by mastering the craft of drawing.
In particular, Lubas daughter Maricela, driven by her He becomes a vehicle for Hernandezs own searching
mothers violent abuse, plots to leave Palomar with self-examination. Thus, as Nericcio has argued, the


novel becomes partly a Bildungsroman of a strug- While eavesdropping with his drawing tablet in
gling neophyte artistGoethes Wilhelm Meister hand, he witnesses the killer Tomasos attempted
re-imagined pen in hand south of the border murder of the young woman Chancla (fig. 29).
(99100). Thanks to the patronage of Heraclio, Haunted by images of the stabbing, Humberto does
Palomars resident teacher, Humberto is suddenly not come forward to testify as to what he has seen,
immersed in the work of his artistic forebears (Van but instead withdraws into a world of his own, in
Gogh, Picasso, Munch, Modigliani, and others), a which he compulsively replays the event over and
dunking that proves at once inspiring and intimidat- over by drawing it. In one panel, we see him lying
ing. I had no idea they had gone this far . . . that naked, arms spread as if he is being crucified; the
you could go this far, he muses. What have I been light from a window above casts a shadowy cross
doing? (336). Thus immersed, Humberto must over his body, as he lies on what appear to be pages
grapple with a particularly acute case of the anxiety from his drawing tablet (fig. 30). Zooming in for a
of influence. Galvanized and frightened, he now close-up, Hernandez emphasizes Humbertos eyes,
sees everything through the lens of his art. which are now sunken, shadowed, and staring, as if
It is Humberto and Luba, both emotionally iso- fixed on a single object. From here on, Humbertos
lated characters, who serve as focal points for Her- eyes, often shaded or distorted, will be his most promi-
nandezs exploration of social responsibility. Neither nent characteristic. A later panel, thrust between
seems aware of the ripples of consequence spread- two scenes without explanation, underscores this,
ing from his/her actions. Luba struggles to salvage showing Humberto retching into a toilet, his sunken,
her confidence after losing her hold on Khamo, bloodshot eyes revealing a nausea as much psycho-
heedless of the towns disintegration. Just so, logical as physical (357). Still later pages emphasize
Humberto tries desperately to improve his art and to the likeness between Humbertos eyes and the
define its social place and value, regardless of the eyes of the monkeys terrorizing the town (368, 375).
chaos erupting around him. As Luba puts herself and Thus the artists eyes, his means of observing the
her family at risk through her random sexual liaisons world, also become the outward sign of his trauma.
(including one with the killer), so Humberto puts Humberto is scarred by his own attempt to play the
himself and others at risk through his single-minded role of dispassionate observer.
dedication to his art. From this point on, Humberto creates disturbed
and violent images that suggest a struggle to assimi-
late the events in Palomar into his art. Now town
MY WORK SPEAKS FOR ITSELF characters such as Luba and Tonantzin are even
more wildly distorted than usual in his drawings
Humbertos desire to improve is prompted not only (367); now he sketches the killer with an angelic
by the well-meaning patronage of Heraclio but also halo, or a beatific smile (364, 398). As he grapples
by his desperate need to learn how to draw for with the anxiety of influence, fanned by knowledge
realthat is, to improve his craftbefore he of his artistic forebears, Humberto also grapples with
breaks the rules. This need is impressed on him by the violence that threatens to tear his world apart.
his occasional companion Augustin, who insists that This double confrontation unleashes a flood of
Humbertos work is fast and sloppy and fake frightening imagery from his pencil.
(344). Spurred by Augustins criticisms, Humberto Hernandez incorporates Humbertos images into
resolves that he must learn to draw realistically, from his own, many of them homages to such famed
life, before he can do stuff as good and wild as artists as Picasso and Munch (for example, 343,
them real artists (346). Unfortunately, Humbertos 367). At the same time, Hernandez himself swipes
quest to draw for real exposes him to a third liberally from these artists (for example, 396). These
influence, one that forever alters his life and his art. homages conflate Hernandez and Humberto, author


Figure 29. Human Diastrophism. Palomar 347 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

and character. For example, a Picassoesque, Cubist and probes the issue of the artists social liability.
rendering of Luba on the cover of Love & Rockets Indeed, if Human Diastrophism were to have an epi-
No. 21 (also the back cover of the collected Blood of graph, it might well be Susan Sontags dictum, The
Palomar) serves as both an introduction to Hernandezs person who intervenes cannot record; the person
opus and a suggestive sample of Humbertos work, who is recording cannot intervene (On Photography
underlining the ambitions of both (fig. 31). These intel- 12). This potent aphorism, culled from Sontags water-
ligent swipes suggest a complex relationship between, shed critique of photos and photo-making, implicitly
in T. S. Eliots Modernist formulation, tradition and the calls into question the efficacy of all artistic media.
individual talent, while the narrative itself probes the Sontag redefines the camera, not as a window open
social consequences of that relationship (consequences to the world but as a screen that can shield its user
so often neglected in Modernist orthodoxy). from direct contact with, and responsibility for, the
Through Humberto, Hernandez reasserts those world. More broadly, her argument challenges us to
consequences. More precisely, he questions the think about the responsibilities of artists to the world
power of art to intervene in social and political crises, they strive to document.


Figure 30. Human Diastrophism.

Palomar 351 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert
Hernandez. Used with permission.

This question of arts political accountability stems personal responsibility for the townspeople, the
from the inevitable conflict between activism and unknowing subjects of his art (362). By this point he
aestheticism: Can an artist give plastic form to politi- has completely withdrawn from social contact.
cal concerns, without aestheticizing and thus neu- His withdrawal has a dire effect on himself and
tralizing those concerns? Can art usefully intervene the community. Though Humberto alone possesses
in social crises? With characteristic audacity, Hernan- the secret of the killers identity, he cannot or at least
dez delivers this challenge via the unexpected does not divulge it, choosing instead to paper the
vehicle of the comics magazine, a mass-produced, town with drawings of the killer, in hopes that his
collectible artifact. More explicitly than his previous work will testify for him. Obsessed with becoming a
stories, Diastrophism examines the social responsi- great artist, Humberto cannot intervene directly in
bilities of all artists (implicitly including comic artists) the public crisis but tries to influence events through
and presages a growing self-consciousness in his his drawings alone, guided by his belief that great
work. Thus the novel takes a pivotal position in art reveals the deepest truths (390). When con-
that work. fronted with his drawings, he refuses to explicitly
Humberto himself is self-conscious to a fault. His identify the culprit, claiming, My work speaks for
art becomes his worldand it is an ugly world itself (386). Unfortunately, his refusal to testify ver-
indeed, as we see when Luba, stood up by Khamo, bally allows Tomaso to go free, and to kill others;
ducks into Humbertos house to escape from the thus his art proves not enough to stem the chaos
drizzling rain. When Luba remarks that his art is and social collapse taking place around him.
ugly as hell, Humberto replies curtly, How else Ultimately, Humberto becomes a pariah, cast out of
do you expect someone to draw hell. Goaded by Hernandezs carefully constructed society for his
her intrusion, he claims not to care about anyone, refusal to act. Through Humberto, then, Hernandez
thus rejecting any form of human connection, any attacks the artists traditional presumptive role as a


Figure 31. Front cover, Love &

Rockets No. 21. 2004 Gilbert
Hernandez. Used with permission.

marginal or elevated social observer, and questions Humbertos potential to turn necessity to advantage
the social efficacy of art itself. and once again challenge his community through
This question grows even more urgent as the novel his art, this time freed of any social constraints
reaches its end (reader be warned: a big spoiler or expectations. The proposed mural (implicitly, a
follows). On the final page, Humberto and Augustin graphic narrative, like comics) not only reminds us of
meet again, and once again the talk is about art Humbertos sketches of the killer but also recalls,
(fig. 32). Humberto, despised and forlorn, despairs first, the revolutionary political muralismo of such
of drawing ever again, but Augustin, unpretentious Mexican artists as Siqueiros and Rivera, both of
as ever, urges him to help paint a mural that, as whom are mentioned early in the novel (325), and
Augustin puts it, will kick everybodys ass (424). second, the comic book form itself, which has tradi-
Symbolically, the prospect of the mural suggests tionally been unburdened by high expectations. By

Figure 32. The final page of Human Diastrophism. Palomar 424. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.


suggesting such a public and narrative form, Cathys position as spectator is our own. Shocked
Augustin holds out the possibility that art can still by televised images of real-life violence, she doesnt
rock the world, can still challenge and change the know how to respond. Revealingly, she likens this
status quo. Humberto is intrigued by his friends girl to monks burning themselves in some of
offer, but their conversation is suddenly interrupted Howards photographs (an allusion, presumably, to
by a snowstorm of white ash that falls from the Malcolm Brownes photos of a Vietnamese bonze
heavens, blanketing the town. This ash, prophesied burning himself in protest against the Diem regime in
earlier in the novel, symbolizes an act of sacrifice June 1963a defining example of the relationship
that tries to go beyond talk or arta sacrifice that between photojournalist and subject). Cathy then
has already happened, though Humberto and tries to distance herself from the event, wondering if
Augustin know nothing about it. the girl was crazy to do something so extreme.
In reply, Howard suggests that she may simply have
been someone deeply hurt from seeing the world
TALK OR ART OR PROPAGANDA JUST ISNT around them go to shit, but confesses that, in this
ENOUGH girls case, he wouldnt know (423). (Though he
should know, in this girls case.) Then he argues that,
It is the now-politicized Tonantzin who offers up this based on what he has seen with his own eyes, there
sacrifice, in witness to an unspecified cause. Three are times when talk or art or propaganda just isnt
pages before the novels end, Tonantzin is glimpsed enough, when love motivates people to make such
beneath a tree that the townspeople call Pintors sacrifices for the sake of change. His words have the
Tree, under which ghosts are believed to gather (as air of sincerity, and his simple statement, thats just
shown as far back as Sopa de Gran Pena). Yet she the way I feel, seems sympathetic.
has already left Palomar with Lubas erstwhile lover, Yet, in the final panel of the novels penultimate
Khamo. The reader, thus alerted, begins to suspect page, Howard Miller slips effortlessly from these
that something has happened to Tonantzin out there feelings to the question that has really been occupy-
in the larger world (421). Yet Hernandez, in a telling ing his thoughts: the success of a new photographic
comment on our media-dependence, reveals her effect that he has been trying out. In other words,
actual fate only indirectly, through a television screen Art is still his immediate concern. He asks Cathys
as seen by American eyes. The transition is sudden, opinion but receives no immediate reply. Cathy is
unexpected: disturbed by what she has just seen, as her faraway
Somewhere north of the border, photojournalist expression suggests, whereas Howard is inured to it
Howard Miller steps from his darkroom (fig. 33). His all and able to segue easily from appalling tragedy to
girlfriend, Cathy, watching TV news, recounts with questions of technique. Thus Howards dialogue in
horror the self-immolation of this girl involved in the preceding panels rings false, his concern as
this protest in front of some embassy somewhere insubstantial and inconstant as a fleeting TV image.
(422). Pointing to the screen, Cathy retells the Far from connecting him with the tragedy of what
event, her voiceover commentary serving as sound- Cathy has witnessed (and what he himself, presum-
track for a series of panels that reveal the girls ably, has witnessed time and again), Howards
sacrifice. Code versus code, image versus word camerahis window on the worldhas shielded
Cathys uncomprehending monologue accompanies him from feeling.
successive images of Tonantzins burning (we see This brutal coda resonates with Humbertos ear-
Khamo trying to save her). Miller, ugly-American lier abdication of responsibility and gives the novel a
protagonist of the earlier story, An American in shattering thematic punch. Hernandez implies that,
Palomar, has no idea that this girl is a girl he once while art may open up new worlds to our appreciation,
wooed and exploited: Tonantzin. it can also insulate us from tragedy by aestheticizing

Figure 33. The climax of Human Diastrophism. Palomar 423. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.


it, turning it into a series of images and objects for formal rhythms become more intense, its break-
our consumption. This is precisely the dilemma out- downs bolder and more elaborate, in response to the
lined by Sontag, when she refers to taking photo- towns mounting hysteria. In the novels last third,
graphs as a way of refusing as well as certifying having established the overlapping relationships
experience (9); it is precisely the problem dramatized among the characters, Hernandez shifts gears rap-
by Humbertos art. Can images, removed from expe- idly, jumping from one relationship or plotline to the
rience, wake us up to what is happening in the next. As in Ecce Homo and Duck Feet, again,
world, or do they merely inoculate us, deadening the community of Palomar takes on a life of its own,
our sensibilities and numbing our empathy? growing ever more frenzied and complex.
The last page of the book, again, suggests the Early in the novel, Hernandez uses fluid and
revolutionary potential of art, but threatens to unsurprising transitions from panel to panel and sub-
smother that hope under a blizzard of ash, a sym- ject to subject, in order to show the essential con-
bolic reminder of Tonantzins seemingly futile sacri- nectedness of all the goings-on in Palomar. Economy
fice (424). As the clouded sky fills with flecks of ash, and restraint are the bywords here, as Hernandez
the word FIN, superimposed over the last panel, minimizes the tension between single image and
gives the novel an apocalyptic finalityno less dev- image-series. For instance, in a three-page sequence
astating for the knowledge that, yes, okay, there will early in the novel (32426), Hernandez quietly rein-
be future Palomar stories. (In fact some of my stu- troduces a number of significant characters, estab-
dents, unfamiliar with the larger arc of Heartbreak lishes several relationships and plotlines that will
Soup, have interpreted this apocalypse quite literally propel the story, and underlines some of the essen-
as the end of the world.) The ending reeks of despair. tial themes that will give it its peculiar resonance. He
Despite this, Human Diastrophism leaves room to does all this without once making a sudden shift
hope for an ambitious, socially responsive comic art, from scene to scene; rather, he follows several char-
one that can indeed kick everybodys ass. In fact, acters through the streets of Palomar, easing the
Diastrophism seems to have energized Hernandez, reader from one encounter to the next by changing
daring him to push even harder: having violated the depth and perspective and by repositioning key
sheltered world of Palomar this way, he pressed on characters vis--vis each other. This sequence is
without flinching. After a brief respite from long- remarkably smooth, knit together by exchanges of
form work,4 his next novels, Poison River and Love angle that mimic the shot/reverse shot continuity of
and Rockets X, continued to explore the political tur- traditional cinema, as well as shifts from foreground
moil and social unease confronted in Diastrophism. to background figures, variations in distance (long,
Thus Hernandez challenged his fellow comic artists medium, and close-up shots), and even spoken cues
to seek greater cultural and political relevance. from off-panel characters. Transitions are subtly rein-
forced by such devices as foreground framing and
silhouetting (for detailed discussion, see Hatfield).
ACCELERATING FORMAL RHYTHMS In contrast, key sequences later in the novel shift
from subject to subject with daring abruptness,
If Human Diastrophism is, in the end, a meditation reflecting the towns growing panic and the storys
on the power or impotence of art as a social instru- surging momentum. In particular, an extraordinary
ment, it is also, not coincidentally, a rigorous test sequence two-thirds into the novel (38385)
of comic arts ability to depict complex social ratchets up the tension between single image and
interactionnot to mention a bravura exercise of image-series to the extreme, capturing the growing
Hernandezs narrative skills. In fact its very form frenzy of activity in the town. Starting with an aerial
insists on the social connectedness that Humberto view of Palomar, labeled ground zero, Hernandez
tries to deny. Thus, as the novel progresses, its moves the reader rapidly through a fragmented


three-page sequence that pushes several plotlines to that weds formal complexity to thematic ambition.
the breaking point (Hatfield). This frenetic passage (Collected in 1994, it remains notorious among fans
effectively translates Hernandezs fascination with as his most tangled and difficult work.) Set outside
film into print; indeed the novels accelerating rhythms Palomar, the novel covers not only a wide geograph-
call to mind the struggle, in classical film theory, ical area but also a span of at least nineteen years in
between the aesthetics of the fluid shot (mis-en-scene, the life of Luba, from infancy to young womanhood.
la Bazin) and the aesthetics of montage (editing, la Thus it trumps Hernandezs bold use of time
Eisenstein). Such sequences, not simply grandstanding throughout Heartbreak Soup, intensifying his use of
displays of technique, respond to Hernandezs abiding abrupt shifts and narrative fragmentation, but now
interest in the complexity and simultaneity of commu- with a new focus. Here Hernandez concentrates less
nal life, whether in peace or in crisis. Their formal inge- on the life of a community, more on the complex
nuity serves his overarching themes. interweaving of past and present circumstances
Conversely, Hernandezs thematic interests reflect, (familial, cultural, and political) in a single life. Time is
and evidently were shaped by, his mastery of comics Poison Rivers chief variable, and conveying its pas-
form: Gradually the stories in Heartbreak Soup sage becomes the supreme test of Hernandezs skill.
responded to his growing fluency in the form, as By this time, Luba has clearly emerged as
notions of time, memory, and repetition became Heartbreak Soups most complexly developed female
thematically central. In short, the influence of con- character, thus the central character in Hernandezs
tent and form proved reciprocal. As the above- woman-centered universe. Whereas Human Dias-
mentioned techniques enabled characters to interact trophism captures a crucial moment in Lubas public
on a vast scale, without sacrificing the vivid singularity transformation from disreputable baadora to mayor,
of each, they prompted ever larger and more complex Poison River fills in the harrowing story of her early
narrative structures, culminating in the demand- life and thus compels the cartoonist to shuttle back
ing multigenerational epic Poison River (Love & and forth through history. In this case, Hernandezs
Rockets Nos. 2940, 198993) and subsequent sto- aim seems not so much a broad social canvas as a
ries, where non-chronological inserts and indeed psychological depth-sounding. River is Lubas story.
non-linear sequences are common. Poison River, not Or is it? In fact, the novel does not really force a
coincidentally, exceeded the limits of Palomar, giving choice between breadth and depth; it does not insist
Hernandez a much wider geographical and cultural on an either/or. Poison River, for all its emphasis on
stage on which to play out his increasingly baroque Luba, takes place in a minutely detailed political
narrative gambits. (Therefore it does not appear in environment, one that continually impinges on
the single-volume Palomar.) Rivers scope and com- Lubas life. This looming sense of context prevents
plexity, as we shall see, enabled him to extend the Hernandez (and his readers) from focusing too nar-
searching self-criticism begun in Diastrophism and rowly on Lubas psyche. Indeed Poison River refuses
to sharpen his satiric political vision. Unfortunately to settle on Luba exclusively and often pushes her to
its complexity also undermined its success as a serial, the periphery of the action. Her psychological
forcing Hernandez into a period of artistic and com- growth occurs in a tense, crowded milieu, geograph-
mercial crisis. ically vast, shaped by both petty personal concerns
and the huge, transpersonal forces of history. Both
Luba and her world are in flux. Moreover,
POISON RIVER : ITS A MANS MANS MANS Hernandez uses radical shifts in time to insist on the
WORLD intermingling of the personal and political.
In this sense Poison River marks the climax of a
Poison River represents the apogee of Hernandezs developmental arc that starts much earlier, for
art to date, a dense, aggressive, and disturbing novel Hernandezs fluid sense of time began as far back as


the second Heartbreak Soup story, Act of Contrition key character (for example, Lubas cousin Ofelia; her
(Love & Rockets Nos. 57, 1984; Palomar 71103). father, Eduardo; her father-in-law, Fermin) at several
Chronologically, Act takes place years after the first different points in his/her life: in childhood, adoles-
tale, Sopa de Gran Pena, and the vague span of cence, middle age, and various points in between.
time between them includes Lubas move from a van Luba herself is spotlighted twice, first as the youthful
to a more permanent home, her establishment of Lubita, a diminutive nickname given by her hus-
Palomars one and only cinema, and the births of three band (chapter 6), and later as the older Luba
of her daughters (whose fathers remain a mystery until (chapter 17). This fluid sense of time affects the
much later). Act also introduces telling details about entire narrative: sudden shifts in time occur fre-
Lubas past, such as her habit of nightclubbing during quently, and, two-thirds of the way in, an abrupt,
her teensan allusion to Lubas jaunts with her friends sixteen-page flashback (not signaled as such) cru-
Lucy and Pepa, as later recounted in Poison River. cially replays some of the earlier events in the novel
(Indeed, a picture of the three women in Act antici- from a new perspective.
pates precisely a panel from River drawn some seven Poison River, in short, is a tanglejust as Lubas
to eight years later.) By opening such gaps between life is confused, complicated, and dangerous. To
stories, Hernandez was able to sketch in the history of explain why, Hernandez ultimately focuses on the
his characters gradually through interpolated flash- enigma of her mothers identity. Lubas mother
backs, a technique that became central to his work. Maria, seen in Poison River for the first time, turns
Starting with Act, he moved with growing confi- out to be a beautiful ciphera voluptuous feminine
dence between the present and the past, tracing trophy who, strangely, becomes the key to two gen-
what in hindsight seems a clear progress: from the erations of intrigue involving a cadre of Latin gang-
overdetermined transitions in The Reticent Heart sters. Young Luba, who has never known her
(Love & Rockets No. 12, 1985; Palomar 16575), a mother, unwittingly becomes linked to the gangsters
tale that bluntly labels its flashback as such, to the fluid by marrying one of Marias former lovers, the gang-
mingling of memory, dream, and reality in Holidays in ster/musician Peter Rio (whose surname, of course,
the Sun (Love & Rockets No. 15, 1986; Palomar means river). Thus Luba is burdened by her
21528). In the course of these few stories, Hernandez mothers past liaisons. Just so, all the novels charac-
learned to manipulate time with greater elegance and ters are connected by a chain of circumstances, a rio
freedom, and developed the habit of interpolating venono (poison river) of consequences.
memories and visions sans verbal cues. By Poison Poison River is notable not only for its nonlinear
River he had achieved a narrative economy in which structure but also for its overall tone. The novel is
past and present interpenetrate to a startling degree. harsh, often brutal, and in some ways hardly seems a
If Heartbreak Soup is marked by Hernandezs part of Heartbreak Soup. Though focused on Luba,
ability to age his characters believablyto capture it takes place outside Palomar and builds a vast net-
them at different times in their livesthen River rep- work of new, carefully shaded but generally corrupt
resents his most complex achievement along these characters, centered on Peter Rio. Peter is at the
lines. Here he fills in Lubas life prior to settling in heart of a whirlwind of criminal and political activity,
Palomar, beginning in infancy, and at last brings her which spans two generations and affects the lives of
(and her daughter Maricela and cousin Ofelia) to the Maria and Luba in complex ways. His world is shock-
outskirts of Palomar, just prior to the events of ingly different from the matriarchal retreat of
Sopa de Gran Pena. Whats more, every featured Palomar, for Poison River surveys the political land-
player in Poison River emerges as a complex charac- scape of postcolonial Latin America in general, offer-
ter with his/her own past and individual strengths ing a dauntingly complex critique of the intersections
and weaknesses. In the revised, collected edition of between crime, political counterinsurgency, sex, and
the novel, the title page of each chapter shows one sexism. A harrowing story, River echoes the real-life


tales of conspiracy, terrorism, and drug trafficking Salas. Luba, fearful of discovery by Peter, only takes
that by now infect our view of Latin Americas rela- the needle between her toes, but nonetheless
tionship to the United States (tales in which the becomes a regular user. In fact her drug-using
United States is very much implicated, as Hernandez episodes with Lucy and Pepa erupt in a kind of bac-
reminds us). chanalian excess, as the women cavort through
Though ostensibly Lubas biography, Poison River Peters home in the nude, their bodies painted with
takes place in a mans world, in which women are to words and symbols, Pepa brandishing the needle like
be protected and excluded from the vicissitudes of a dagger (90). Thus they enliven their everyday lives
business. Luba herself, as in Duck Feet and as prisoners of a domestic ideal that forces them into
Human Diastrophism, remains largely unaware of dependence and ignorance. Terrified that Peter will
whats going on. Paternalistic chauvinism runs ram- discover her drug use, Luba abandons the needle for
pant through the novel, with Lubas husband, Peter, a time and begins boozing heavily, but then shoots
determined to shield her in every way from knowl- up again late in her pregnancy; indeed a botched
edge of (and the consequences of) his business injection precipitates her labor, and later we are told
affairs. Women are at once idealized and held in con- that Lubas child has died of heart failure, presum-
tempt by the men who dominate the novels sociopo- ably because of her drug abuse (139). Thus the fruits
litical world. At one point, for instance, the gangster of Peters business poison even his house, his wife,
Javier curtly dismisses the idea of a woman having and his child, a symbolic demolition of the wall he
input into the affairs of business, as if her say could has tried to build between business and home.
ever matter, to which his partner replies, Right. If The subversive effects of business on home
we ever let a woman have any say in business, were and family go even further: According to an old
all through (14041). Such sentiments are the foun- business transaction (rather like the conditions
dation of Poison Rivers androcentric world. imposed in many fairy tales), Peter must yield up his
Peter maintains that political and commercial firstborn son to a black market trade in children run
affairs are no concern of Lubas. For example, in ref- by gangsters at the Jardin de Paz, that is, Garden of
erence to the abortion and birth control contro- Peace, a burlesque club. (The babies are supplied by
versy, of which Luba has suddenly learned by a doctor and nurse who use their black market gains
watching television, Peter remarks that such mat- to finance the expansion of their hospital.) Even
ters should never even be discussed in front of before his death, Lubas newborn son is whisked
someone as young as you, much less in the house, away, so that Luba is never allowed to see him but
Luba. Indeed Peter rejects the very idea of having simply told that he has died. Peter, caught in this
TV in his home, though Luba refuses to part with it tangle because he once bought a child from the
(91). His emphasis on the house as a place of refuge black market for his then-mistress, the transsex-
is symptomatic: for Peter, home is an idealized ual Isobel, is compromised by the business even
sphere, to be kept apart from the complications and before meeting Luba (and further compromised by
ever-looming violence of the business. The house, the belly dancers at the Jardin, who appeal to his
with Luba in it, should be entirely insulated from the sexual fetish and keep him firmly in the pocket of the
outside world. Yet this cannot be, for the violent black marketers). Even Peters most private affairs
repercussions of the business seep even into the and passions are caught up in a logic of calculation,
domestic sphere, undermining the very home life exchange, and payoff: the cold language of the
that Peter holds sacred. Specifically, Luba and her business deal. As the chief of the gangsters tells him,
friends Lucy and Pepa, housewives all, begin com- one day we will consummate this transaction
bating the isolation and boredom of their lives by (134). Though Peter fails to see it, the business
shooting up with a drug (heroin, presumably) sup- completely undermines his idealized conception of
plied by gangsters who run drugs for Peters boss, the home.


Ultimately, Poison River argues that the busi- These political tensions are deadly. Leftists are
ness can never be bracketed off from the emotional targeted for extermination by the self-styled patriots
foundations of our lives; both professional and who inhabit the gangsters circle, most notably by
domestic spheres are united in a chain of complicity Garza. A complex but wholly unpleasant character,
and consequence. Just as the novels drug traffic is Garza sanctions murder, yet takes pains to distin-
tangled in sexual politics, law enforcement, and the guish himself from the criminal element of Com-
political struggle between revolutionary and coun- munists and Communist sympathizers (89). To him,
terrevolutionary factions, so this confluence of forces political loyalty and commerce are of a piece. Pursuing
poisons even the private lives of Hernandezs charac- and destroying the leftist oppressors of freedom,
ters. This is revealed in a shockingly offhand way late Garza maintains, is not a matter of personal feel-
in the novel, when a scrap of dialogue implies that ings, even when his own unacknowledged feelings
the terrorist attack that left Lubas cousin Ofelia with (greed, jealousy, bitterness) may be prompting his
a damaged spine, and left Ofelias friends Gina and actions. Rather, [i]t is politics. It is business (86).
Ruben dead, was anonymously engineered by the A pillar of the community, Garza is used to being
rightist gangster Garza and the club owner Salas addressed in terms that reaffirm his social superiority.
the elderboth linked to Lubas husband, Peter, Yes, Seor Garza is repeated, mantra-like, through-
through the business (120). This same attack out much of the novel, almost always spoken by
forces Ofelia; her mother, Hilda; and Luba (then a unseen lackeys whose very anonymity reinforces
small child) to flee the town of Isleta, and Ofelia to Garzas sense of power. In Garza the equation of
take refuge in a distant part of the country. Thus it economic interest and counterrevolutionary politics
also sets in motion the chain of events that will lead is most obvious; for him, doing business means
Luba to Peter and her life with him. Everything is thwarting the Communist threat, and withdrawing
connected in Poison River, though not one single from the business (as, for instance, the ironically
character realizes this: to movers and shakers like named Seor Paz tries to do) means allying one-
Garza, Salas, and Peter, the identities of such victims self with subversives. Economic bustle and moral
as Gina, Ruben, and Ofelia are beneath notice. righteousness are inseparable in Garzas world; it just
Poison River, then, differs from prior Heartbreak so happens that much of his economic strength
Soup stories in that it engages more directly with stems from criminal activity. Thus the gangster world
the sociopolitical realities and myths of modern-day of Garza, Salas, Peter Rio, and company becomes a
Latin America. It seems more embedded in the trau- nexus for political counterinsurgency. In this world
mas of history than the tales that take place in the suspicion of leftist ties is the deepest shame and
Palomars frankly synthetic locale. Whereas the early greatest threat.
Heartbreak Soup tales refer only obliquely to the Here Hernandez taps into the history of Latin
political struggles going on in the outside world, America in the Cold War era, for behind the novels
Poison River extends the aggressive cultural critique equation of organized crime, big business, and coun-
of Human Diastrophism, placing Lubas life firmly terrevolution lies a host of U.S.-sponsored debacles
within the context of the Cold War and examining in Latin American history, the muddy legacy of the
the profound repercussions of that war within Latin Monroe and Truman doctrines. U.S.-engineered
American culture. The terrors of revolutionary and incursions, interventions, and coups (Cold War skir-
counterrevolutionary violence lie like a shadow across mishes, from a USAcentric viewpoint) have become
the novel and at times take center stage. Rivers part of the warp and woof of Latin American history:
landscape is fraught with echoes of military and Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua. In this
ideological conflicts, which, though they rise to milieu the influence of both the United States and
the surface only occasionally, inform the entire the Soviet Union looms large, as shown early on
narrative. when Ofelia, Gina, and Ruben attend a Communist


meeting with little Luba in tow (32). Here Eisen- find Luba were initially prompted by his love for
hower is burned in effigy, and festive partygoers Maria, so Blass offer to spend the rest of his life
paint Lubas face with a hammer and sickle. As they searching for Armando Jose stems from his desire
return from the meeting, Ofelia and company are to be with Peter and take care of him.
stopped and questioned by an anti-Communist These searches are but one aspect of the sundered
group led by Gomez, a local man whom Ruben has family relations that shape the novel. When Blas asks
known, it seems, all his life (3233). Thus their com- Luba what she and Peter have in common, she quips,
munity is fearfully split by Cold War politics. Both our parents left us when we were little. We
both like dancing. More? (65). Beneath Lubas flip-
pancy lies a shred of truth, though the facts are more
BOTH OUR PARENTS LEFT US WHEN complicated than this: As Luba soon discovers,
WE WERE LITTLE Peters father has not walked out of his life entirely; in
fact Fermin Rio soon returns and takes up residence
To grasp such political issues and personalize them in his sons house, where he keeps an eye on Luba
requires an overarching sense of history. It is and secretly intercedes in Peters affairs. Fermin did
Hernandezs deft manipulation of history, of time, not actually abandon his son when he was little
that generates the bitter ironies of Poison River, as but twice has fallen out with Peter over women: first
the novels plot comprises a decades-long pattern of Maria, later the transsexual Isobel, both of whom the
reflections, echoes, and repetitions. In fact this pat- jealous Fermin beat savagely. Peter, to whom beating
tern can only be grasped by reading across the gen- women is anathema, provokes his father by calling
erations, as we witness the repeated corruption or up the memory of his own mother, whom Fermin
poisoning of familial and sexual relationships (the apparently abused in like fashion: Only a punch or
very relationships that give the whole of Heartbreak two . . . its nothing, eh, Papa? Like it was nothing to
Soup its raison dtre). In particular, the severing of Mama, either, was it Papa? Nothing (126). (Peters
parent-child bonds takes on central importance, as mothers fate remains unknown.)
Marias abandonment of Luba sparks not one but This sore point between Peter and Fermin under-
ultimately two searches for familial closure. First lies Peters tender yet paternalistic regard for women
comes the quest for Luba herself, prompted by in general, and Luba in particular. His aversion to
Peters relationship with Maria and pursued by the hurting women is so strong that at one point he
enigmatic Seor Pito for some twelve years; second, viciously beats a club patron for throwing a glass at
Blas and Peters search for Peter and Lubas lost one of his dancers, all the while lecturing him thus:
son, Armando Jose. This second search will, as Blas You never ever ever strike a woman! (74). This
says, take the rest of our lives, as indeed Pitos attitude also prompts Peter to protect Luba by
quest for Luba lasts the rest of his (151). threatening others with violence: [I]f there is one
Before books end, the reader knows that tiny cut on my wifes body that wasnt there before;
Armando Jose has died of heart failure (an event one bruise, just one tear from her eyes . . . (88).
confirmed twice over) and that Blas knows this too. Behind this ferocity are Peters memories of his
Thus Blas and Peters quest becomes an ironic, dead- mother, memories that kindle a rage inspired by his
end counterpart to Pitos successful quest for Luba. father but now redirected.
In each case, the whereabouts of an abandoned The novels father/son conflict deepens its cri-
child are at issue, and in each case love motivates the tique of masculine power. Both Fermin and Peter
quest. In Blass case, it is his love for Peter that represent aspects of patriarchy: Fermin, violent and
prompts him to carry on this charade, for, as the controlling, is sharply unsentimental about women;
gangster Moises puts it, Blas did what he did just to Peter, affectionate and also controlling, is senti-
win Peter for himself (154). As Peters efforts to mental and protective. Fermin views male/female


relations fatalistically, as he discloses to Peter late in seems to regard it as a nuisance, yet refuses to let
the novel: The constant battle between the left and anyone else handle it. Urged on by friends, Luba
right is the least of the worlds worries, eh, son? Its tries to have it opened but cannot. When the book is
the war of the sexes thats always been lifes true finally opened (by police officers during their ques-
headache. Heh hehbut whats life without a wor- tioning of Luba), it discloses photos of Maria and
thy struggle, eh? Without a strong woman to fight other memorabiliasuch as the bloodied earrings
with from time to time. Your mothershe wasnt worn by Gina on the night of her murder, placed
much of a fighter . . . You were luckier with your lit- there by Ofelia. Junk, Luba declares, All of it.
tle fire brand Lubita (149). Peter, now disabled by a Yet she playfully attempts to mimic the glamour
stroke, can only sit by passively, muttering his lovers poses assumed by Maria in the photographs (95).
names, as his father holds forth. Fermin goes on to Dreaming of her mother, she sees her husband suck-
reveal that it was he who killed the transsexual ling at Marias breast in an eerie, Frida Kahlo-like
Isobel, whom he describes as the biggest mistake image: Peters head is adult, but his body small and
of the lot and neither a man nor a woman. childlike. Then she wakes to find Peter poring
Indeed, Isobels transgender identity threatens the through the keepsakes from the book. Luba, dis-
male/female binary that props up Poison Rivers traught, only wants to get rid of these reminders of
entire world, and Peters love for Isobel likewise the unknown past, and Peter, not disclosing his prior
threatens his position therein. Fermin recognizes knowledge of Maria, accedes to Lubas wishes. He
this: Isobel was an anomaly, a mistake who could consigns the box and its contents to the fire, to be
only be a source of pain and confusion to normal burned out of Lubas life, and his, forever (96). (A
men like us . . . (149). She had to be removed. flashback later reveals that Peter has opened the box
Peter feels differently: his love for Isobel represents before, unbeknownst to Luba, just prior to their
a rebellion against his fathers values and, more wedding.)
broadly, an unconscious resistance to the prevailing For Luba the question of her mothers identity
misogyny of the novels world. This resistance cli- and whereabouts is only painful: No more talk
maxes in violence, as Peter, slurring out Isobels about my mother! She left me! Shes dead!
name, finally rises from his stupor and rams the end Dead! (137). Yet Maria does not disappear so
of his cane down his fathers throat, killing him (a easily. Indeed, after Lubas so-called miscarriage a
gruesome but poetically apt climax). vision of Maria appears, dreamlike, over the hospital
In a sense, then, Lubas flippant remark is correct: bed that Luba and Peter share. She tells Luba that
Peter has been abandoned by his father, insofar as her supposedly stillborn son, Armando Jose, is alive
he has been both brutalized and alienated by (information that is later to be contradicted). The
Fermins violence. And of course she herself has image of Maria appears again, briefly, heirloom box
been abandoned by her mother, Maria, a loss she in hand, as Luba is carried away from Peters home
can never really come to grips with but that (and the life of a gangsters wife) by Fermin and the
nonetheless shapes her character. The signs appear mysterious Gorgo. The memory of her mothers
early on: as a little child Luba begins to think of her absence lies deep within Luba, prompting her to dis-
cousin Ofelia as Mama Ofelia, for Ofelia takes the trust all such relationships. As she says to her infant
place of Lubas absent mother (29). Just so, Luba daughter, Maricela, prophetically, at novels end,
herself later assumes the place of Ofelia, and even Ahh . . . Youll leave me one day, Maricela . . . just
her name, for her blind, bedridden aunt Hilda (43). like all the others . . . (187). For Luba loss is the
Lubas loss is ironically reinforced by her posses- way of life, and her past simply that: long gone, an
sion of Marias only heirloom, a hollow book filled inaccessible mystery.
with keepsakes, which she cannot open. Given this Poison River, then, is a tale of relationships dis-
book on the day of her wedding to Peter, Luba later rupted or denied, as well as relationships sought or


resumed (for example, when the adult Luba redis- control her. (Though already thrown out of the
covers her cousin Ofelia after years apart). house by Peter, Fermin tries to bring Luba back to
Hernandezs vast temporal canvas allows for the the nest.) Alienated from her father-in-law, Luba
exploration of such relationships over a spread of becomes more and more unfeeling toward her dis-
many years, an exploration that generates telling abled husband, of whom she says, Im not sure hes
echoes and ironies. Both Luba and Peter are got any brains left working in his head (140).
wounded by life, and hardened; both are haunted Deprived of both a lover (police captain Joselito
by lost or sundered relationships with their own par- Ortiz, strangled by Fermin) and a son (Armando
ents; and, finally, both are caught in a world in which Joselito, dead), she begins to shut herself up in
business (the business of ownership, control, and drunkenness, and waltzes carelessly through the
use) short-circuits or corrupts intimate relationships. affairs of Peters gangster associates with an increas-
Peter, for his part, treats Luba kindly, yet does ingly sardonic air: You boys get back to whatever
business ruthlessly. His life is built around an exag- bullshit you were up to . . . (141).
gerated split between cozy domesticity and the Once cloistered by the paternalism of Peter
harsh realities of business, which, by his own admis- (whom she calls Daddy), Luba survives after his
sion, is an eventual dead end. In a sense, he is stroke by cultivating her own ignorance and block-
quite knowing about what the business entails: ing out the business of the world. Yet she learns to
Either you die or worse; somebody you love (75). get her way during her subsequent travels by invok-
Still he insists, The world just takes getting used to, ing her husbands power and status (155). Unaware
baby . . . then you can use it (61). Indeed his ambi- of the causes or extent of whats happening around
tion is to use it: Peter Rio is a name to remember, her, Luba remains blinkered in her vision to the very
Luba. [. . .] A name with the potential to dry the end, focusing exclusively on herself, her family, and
Pacific, to flood the Sahara . . . (53). His talent, he a series of short-term sexual partners. Thus she pre-
says, is management (60), yet his coolly entrepre- serves the naivet of her adolescent years with Peter.
neurial exterior is belied by the tenderness of his While her cousin Ofelia knows what is happening
emotions: toward Maria, toward Isobel, toward around herthe country is in a state of civil war by
Luba. The business transaction that finally breaks novels end, though Ofelia shields Luba from know-
Peterthe surrender of his son to the black marke- ing itLubas lens on the world remains micro-
teers, which precipitates his strokestems from the scopic. For example, she doesnt realize that the
uneasy overlap of his business and his private life, stench hovering over a certain spot comes from a
notwithstanding his vain attempts to keep the two pile of rotting corpses just out of her sight (164).
entirely separate. The loss of Armando Jose, the cli- Thus Peters protectiveness leads to Lubas lifelong
max of a series of events stemming from his tense habit of willful myopia; like Peter, she fails to recog-
relationship with his father and his love for Isobel, nize that her affairs and the affairs of the world are
brings his reign as a gangster boss to a messy, intertwined (an intertwining already argued by
protracted end. In a sense, then, Poison River is Hernandez in Human Diastrophism, and powerfully
Peter Rios tragedy: though often callous and conde- reinforced here).
scending, and bristling with compensatory machismo, Despite Lubas willed ignorance, political violence
Peter emerges as a fully humanized character, more brackets Poison River. The fate of Ofelias Communist
vulnerable than his status would seem to suggest. colleagues (at the beginning of the novel) and the
Luba, for her part, becomes increasingly coarse, looming war between military and rebels (at
unfeeling, and alcohol-sotted after Peters stroke, as the end) suggest a microcosm of Latin American his-
the emotional pillars of her life come tumbling tory during the Cold War. Luba remains oblivious to
down. While she persists in drinking and nightclub- this history, living it but looking through it without
bing, Papa Fermin, as she calls him, seeks to ever understanding itwithout understanding, that


is, the political forces that have disrupted and com- Marias involvement with the gangster Garza and
plicated her life. Meanwhile, political ideology, crim- with the father-and-son musical team of Fermin and
inal activity, and sexual desires overlap and reinforce Peter Rio (the Rios become part of Garzas gangster
each other. Repeatedly, characters like Garza and circle). Maria, having abandoned Luba and Lubas
Salas argue political positions that mask their per- father, Eduardo, has become Garzas mistress but
sonal investments and motives; repeatedly, politics soon enters into an affair with Fermin; while Peter,
mixes haphazardly with personal vendettas, sexual his affair with Garzas wife, Ramona, cooling, falls in
amours, and familial conflict. Political principle gives love with Maria and begins making love to her too.
a respectable face to personal animus and informs Caught between these three menGarza, Fermin,
the various personal and business developments and PeterMaria inspires each to a different extreme.
in Peters circle. Political conflict shapes Lubas life The jealous Garza, who tends to express himself
from infancy (the Salas-sponsored attack on Gina, with guns, shoots his pistols off wildly and quarrels
Ruben, and Ofelia) to adulthood (the war-prompted bitterly with his wife. The equally jealous Fermin,
departure of her lover Antonino, father of Maricela). suspecting that there is yet another for Maria
She, however, remains clueless. The ironies of Lubas besides Garza, vents his unfocused rage by beating
life, and specifically how that life has been shaped by her. Fermins son Peter, swept away by love for
the abstract yet very real forces of ideology, are Maria, hires Senor Pito and his son Gorgo to track
made plain by Hernandezs manipulation of history down Luba (a move that will lead to his own meet-
on a vast scale; yet Luba never confronts them. ing with, and marriage to, Luba some twelve years
hence). Maria herself, a vain, promiscuous moll who
magnetizes men with her beauty, represents a vision
TIME (AND AGAIN) of voluptuous feminine charm so ripe as to border
on self-parody; indeed, the stereotypic extremity of
Again, it is Hernandezs fluid sense of time that gives her character brings out, and holds up for ridicule,
Poison River such political and emotional heft. His the masculine possessiveness of the three lovers.
graphic negotiation of Lubas history (sometimes The end result is a tangled weave of dysfunc-
back and forth across years in a single page) gives tional relationships, a web that allows Hernandez a
the novel a scope beyond the narrowly personal, great deal of play with time as he leaps from one
because sifting through her life exposes meaningful relationship to another. The pace is unrelenting: as
social patterns: political and sexual ideology, com- the flashback unfolds, these affairs overlap and
merce, crime, corruption. Yet River remains intimate; develop with startling speed, and the tension
the novel observes these patterns as they shape indi- between single image and image-in-series is severe.
vidual lives. Hernandez understands that time, in On one page, for example, we see Marias relation-
comics, is a function of space, the visual space of the ships with all three men, summarily evoked (fig. 34).
page, and this enables him to personalize ideological Fermin admires her body and speaks nonchalantly
and social issues, through the twinned images of about her affair with that crook Garza; Peter
absentee mother (Maria) and lost daughter (Luba). begins his affair with her, and even confesses love to
Both women are comic epitomes of feminine pul- her; and Garza dreams of Maria bearing him children
chritude within a profoundly male and (not coinci- to carry on his war against the oppressors of free-
dentally for Hernandez) profoundly corrupt culture. dom, that is, leftists (124). In fact all three relation-
Their relationships to men, and to each other, are ships are quickly conveyed in the middle tier of this
matters of time. single page, as three successive panels show us, first,
This radical sense of time reaches its height dur- Peters tense, sweaty reaction to Fermin and Marias
ing an extended flashback sequence, two-thirds into bantering; second, Maria and Peter in bed, Peter
the novel, which quickly replays the history of aflush with love and intemperately confessing it (in

Figure 34. Poison River 124. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.


contrast to his fathers blas attitude); and third, A hand reaching for Maria in panel two leads easily
Maria and Garza, as the latter dreams of fathering to Fermins dialogue in panel three, though the two
children by her. The page is a marvel of compression; panels depict two different incidents (as signaled
the narrative barrels ahead without pause. Marias by Marias change of clothes). A similar confusion
ambiguous whisper, Children . . ?, leads us into occurs between panels four and five: again, a hand
the next tier of panels, and a new scene, as she runs reaches for Maria, leading to Garzas placatory
from Peter, distraught over (presumably) her aban- speech in the next panel, but again Marias appear-
donment of Luba. In a crucial twist, Peter offers to ance changes between the two images. By thus blur-
locate Marias daughter. ring our sense of time, Hernandez suggests a pattern
What is notable here is not Marias character per se, of repeated behavior. The dialogue and actions sug-
but the way her seeming absence of character, gest a seamless sequence, yet the shifting costumes
her stereotypic perfection and consequent empti- and rotating male characters point out the passage
ness, make her the perfect magnet for the desires of of a great deal of time.
the three men, each of whom longs for affirmation This page depicts separate incidents from Marias
from Maria but of course cannot trust her. That life, yet verbal echoes suggest that these incidents all
Maria embodies a stereotype of feminine affectation follow logically from a pattern of dysfunctional rela-
and charm is precisely the point: though she remains tions with men. In panel two, the ticket seller tells
inconstant, unpredictable, and thoroughly amoral, Maria that her bus will take her to Chilo to catch a
her continual costume changes and affected good train; in panel four Maria attempts to purchase a
looks make her a perfect vehicle for the mens ticket to Chilo for the same purpose. In each case
desires. (The front cover of Love & Rockets No. 45 someone off-panel calls her name and reaches out
[July 1994] finds Maria competing in the Miss for her. In panels three and five, lovers try to keep
Luminosa contest for 1948, in which every contest- Maria by promising marriage, and in both she
ant has an identical beauty mark on her right cheek!) responds, All right. . . . On the bottom tier of the
Marias story becomes the mens story, a story in page (panels seven through nine), Fermin, Garza
which all of the relationships follow a predictably and Peter share the same fate, loss of Maria, and all
dysfunctional pattern. The men change, and her three call out for her in vain. Each man appears dif-
costume changes, but the overall pattern stays ferent, yet each calls for her in a questioning tone,
the same. revealing his surprise and aloneness as she finally
Nowhere is this more evident than in a one-page, escapes from him. These last three panels suggest
nine-panel sequence (new to the collected edition) a gradual loss of hope, as Marias lovers seem to
in which Maria attempts to end her relationships lose the power to speak: we go from Fermins
with the three men by running away (128). As she Maria . . ? to Garzas Mar . . ? to, finally, Peters
tries, repeatedly, to leave by bus, she is stopped by hopeless, inarticulate M . . ? The interplay of word
men who want to marry her, take care of her, and and image links these separate instances within a
make her stay (fig. 35). The same scene repeats consistent behavioral pattern and provides a sense
itself, with variations, several times. Maria wears of direction to what would otherwise be a radically
different clothes in each of the first six panels, and disjointed sequence. Though time leaps forward
in the odd-numbered panels (one, three, and five) with dizzying speed, via uncued scenic transitions,
talks to Peter, Fermin, and Garza respectively. Thus repetitions in both dialogue and composition ease
we know that this sequence covers a significant span the image/series tension and allow us to see these
of time, and a number of discrete incidents, in her drastic shifts as part of a predictable, indeed inevitable,
life. Yet the movement between these panels is process.
deceptively easy: the flow of dialogue and action Such whiplash transitions occur throughout
implies continuous movement within a single scene. Poison River but most tellingly when Luba finally

Figure 35. Poison River 128. 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.


Figure 36. Poison River 143 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

escapes from the gangland life. Wandering drunk- on, Lubas life will be spent on the rununtil she dis-
enly from a gangster meeting in Peters home covers Palomar at novels end.
(Peters stroke has rendered him helpless), Luba
drifts through the hedges outside, where she encoun-
ters a young man from the meeting and begins to JUNK AND INFORMATION: POISON RIVER
have sex with him. She is rescued, however, by AS METACOMIC
her homicidal father-in-law, Fermin, who strangles
the man (fig. 36). Luba glimpses the murder, As Poison River leapfrogs through time, it insists on
prompting a flashback to a key incident earlier in the the overlap between personal and political history,
novel: the terrorist attack in which her cousin Ofelia examining, like Human Diastrophism, the inter-
was raped, beaten, and left for dead by counterrev- change of private and public life. It also extends the
olutionary thugs (3941). This traumatic memory implied self-criticism of Diastrophism by commenting
harks back to Lubas early childhood, and Luba her- acidly on mass culture and its impact (a concern seen
self, as a small girl, is shown witnessing the rape. The early on in Heartbreak Soup with the introduction of
adult Luba then collapses, muttering, as if overcome Lubas movie theater).5 Films figure prominently in
by the memory, and on the following page images Poison River, as cousin Ofelia brings young Luba to
from her past interrupt the flow of action: first the movies and, later, as Fermin gets Luba a TV set,
Maria, holding the hollow book that has become on which she watches movies against Peters wishes.
Lubas inheritance; then a lucid Peter, who says, I For Peter, movies are the stuff of cheap fantasy and
love you, Lubita (144). These disjointed break- beneath contempt: the lowest and silliest form of
downs not only reflect Lubas drink-induced stupor telling stories (91). For Luba, in contrast, movies
but also signal the dark passage from this part of her are an education of sorts, offering heretofore-
life to her subsequent life without Peter. From here unseen visions of such stuff as, ironically, Gangsters


and murder and men cheating on their wives (all just look at the pictures (28). Luba heartily enjoys
topics appropriate for Peter and his circle). Fermins the Pedro comic books; indeed, she seems to love
gift of the TV puts Luba back in touch with the them, whereas she shrinks in fright from the pro-
movies she experienced as a child, movies she gressive art (Frida Kahlo) to which Ofelia tries to
apparently no longer consciously remembers. introduce her. In fact Ofelia takes some heat from
Luba refuses to part with the television despite her leftist friends for feeding Lubas mind this way.
Peters claim that it will rot your brain (91). As in the real-life anti-comics movements of the
Besides movies, the TV offers news, which offends 1950s, so in Hernandezs tale: criticism of Pedro
Peter even more deeplynews that brings to Luba comics stems from the left as well as the right.
such controversial issues as birth control and abor- Ofelias Communist friend Gina, for instance, roundly
tion. Such stuff, he argues, consists merely of criticizes Ofelia for teaching Luba to read with this
[s]implistic and biased views on politics and any junk, which she condemns as racist: Pedros the
sensational aspects of human suffering that might good little black boy whos happy to be poor and
titillate (91). Of course, such news also directly uneducated; and they draw him like a monkey!
challenges Peters cloistral attitude toward home and (30). Ginas remarks echo many real-life studies of
hearth (note that Fermin, less idealistic and more comic books and childrens literature, in which the
cynical than his son, is the agent of this challenge). ideological implications of familiar iconsBabar,
Lubas confrontation with the news of the world, fil- Curious George, Barks/Disneys Uncle Scrooge, and
tered through TV, recalls the television-mediated cli- so forthhave been laid bare (see, for example,
max of Human Diastrophism: human suffering Dorfman and Mattelarts seminal How to Read
indeed. Though Fermins efforts to bring her the Donald Duck, and Dorfmans subsequent The
information of the world run counter to Peters Empires New Clothes). Indeed, the character Ruben
chivalric paternalism, Luba remains mesmerized by notes that there have been attempts by educators
the TV and wont let it go. and the like to have Pedro comics banned, a
But the most prevalent form of pop culture on reminder of the realities of Hernandezs chosen field:
display in Poison River, and the one for which Peter comics have been attacked by not only conservative
reserves his deepest contempt, is funnybooks but also progressive political figures (notably,
that is, ironically enough, comics (fig. 37). In the per- Wertham, whose condemnation of the comic book
son of the blackface comic-book character Pedro industry made him an inadvertent bedfellow of
Pacotilla (glimpsed back in Diastrophism), comics rightist censors).
represent an affront to Peters civilized self-image. Ruben also remarks that, thanks to the merchan-
This insult is so degrading that Peter takes pains to dising of Pedro, the little shit will probably outlive
differentiate between his own name (the English us all (30). Unnoticed by the adults, the child Luba
Peter, or, as Luba learns it, Pee-ter) and Pedro. replies, Indubitably!, a comment on the durability
Everybody whos been degraded with the name of Hernandezs medium as well as subtle testimony
Pedro, he argues, ought to sue or something . . . to the vocabulary Luba has picked up through her
(53). Pedro, of course, is everywhere: a thick-lipped, comics reading. Of course, her remark also turns out
black-skinned, Sambo-like icon beaming from not to be true in a literal sense, for both Gina and Ruben
only comics but also advertisements, billboards, and are soon slain by counterrevolutionary thugs; yet
lighted signs. In one telling moment, Peter criticizes Pedro lives on in sign and poster, neon and print.
his mistress Isobel for letting her daughter play with Indeed Pedros smiling countenance recurs again
a Pedro doll (135). and again, ever unresponsive to circumstance, as
Ironically, little Luba receives much of her early many of Poison Rivers characters die off. Most
education from Pedro comics. Ofelia and Luba read notably, Pedro appears, without explanation, imme-
Pedro together, Ofelia prompting Luba to read, not diately after the gangland massacre that kills off


Figure 37. Poison River

108 (excerpt). 2004
Gilbert Hernandez.
Used with permission.

Garza, young Salas, and numerous henchmen (fig. young Lubas passport to literacy, he can also be a
37). As they die in a welter of blood, bullets flying, mocking symbol of Peter Rios economic ambitions.
Pedro Pacotilla outlives them all, his face a perfect Indeed, by the time Garza and Salas go down in a
icon of comic imperturbability (108). hail of bullets, Pedro has become their silent
In fact Pedro is something of an icon for the spokesman. He is also an ironic emblem of hope,
business in which Peter and his circle are so obses- appearing one last time as Blas and the disabled
sively engaged. The image of Pedro shows up over Peter head north, toward the United States, suppos-
and over in the city, in lights and on billboards, a sig- edly to search for the lost child, Armando Jose. The
nifier of blissed-out consumerism. First, when Lubas smiling image of Pedro puts the lie to Blass promise
father, Eduardo, carries her through the city streets, to look for the dead child. As the two ride off into
begging for their survival, Pedros smiling cartoon the sunset (so to speak) in a taxicab, Blas sees a
face mocks Eduardos poverty and desperation (18). bright future ahead: Aw, its going to be good,
Later, Pedro turns up again, on billboards, when Peter; I promise. Itll be so good . . . (151). The
Peter and his fellow musicians are talking amongst cartoon image of Pedro, ever grinning, looks down
themselves about business (52); later still, the image from several billboards sans commentbut the image
of Pedro serves as a backdrop for Peters first face- speaks volumes.
to-face meeting with young Salas, as they discuss a Thus Poison River tips its hand, drawing even
drug deal (62). Representative for a soft drink comic art itself, as a fund of stereotypic, politically
(Robo Cola), Pedro appears in the background charged imagery, into Hernandezs larger political and
again and again, an ever-present reminder of com- cultural argument. Like Human Diastrophism before
merce, indeed of business at its most aggressive. itand indeed like Spiegelmans Maus and many
Like many popular cartoon characters, Pedro is other alternative comicsRiver becomes a metatext,
polysemic: he can mean many things. If he can be an interrogation of its own medium; it too insists on


the political implications of comics. Everything in (Gilbert Hernandez to the author, 22 Mar. 2000).
River is up for grabs. Just as, in previous tales, Lubas Each issue of the magazine brought an allotment of
movie theater and Howard Millers self-interested pages, but unlike Human Diastrophism, River dis-
photojournalism serve to comment on mass culture pensed with even token attempts to acclimate those
and mass media, so too Pedro, in Poison River, opens readers who entered in medias res.6 As the graphic
a self-reflexive dimension, a space for auto-critique. novel grew in breadth and complexity, the serial per
The novels final pages are self-reflexive in a differ- se faltered. Poison River became the supreme test of
ent sense, for they strive to contain Rivers alarming readers loyalty, during a period when both Gilbert
story by bringing us full circle, back to the sheltered and Jaime Hernandez (then working on his own
village of Palomar, but now for the first time. Luba, eight-part novel, Wig Wam Bam) pushed their audi-
Ofelia, and Maricela stand outside Palomar, looking ences endurance.
down at it, while the young Palomarans Jesus, Satch, The experience, apparently, proved exhausting to
and Toco look on. In short, we are at the very thresh- both Gilbert and his readers. Looking at this period
old of the first Heartbreak Soup story, Sopa de Gran in hindsight, Hernandez would complain that he had
Pena. For the seasoned reader, this recursion is reas- almost cut [his] head off doing Poison River, yet
suring, yet also a bit odd: after Poison River, how can had received little response beyond, Oh, that was
Palomar ever be the same? To read these last pages is hard to read (Gaiman, Interview 95). As a serial,
to experience both the shock of recognition and a River alienated even some of Love & Rockets core
bewildering sense of displacement. This is Palomar, audience: the tide of enthusiasm that had greeted
yes, but how did all of that backstory get in here? the magazine years before retreated, and, according
to Hernandez, our star began to dim (Knowles
54). In other words, fan mail stopped coming and
THE DEATH AND THE REBIRTH OF LOVE & sales dropped (Hernandez to the author). Thus Love
ROCKETS & Rockets risked losing its status as the standard-
bearer for alternative comics. Later the artist would
Indeed Poison River may have crammed in too much. admit that he himself found River a trying experi-
The story was a daunting experiment, a graphic novel ence: I would sit at the board and bust my head
in the truest sense, serialized over some four years in open, trying to finish this stuff, and then Id trash the
twelve installments. Whats more, it unfolded at the page and start over (Knowles 54). Post-Poison
same time as another graphic novel by Hernandez, a River issues would therefore be promoted with a
teeming chronicle of life in multicultural Los Angeles promise to return to shorter, less involved stories.
titled simply Love & Rockets (later collected as The collected graphic novel version of Poison River,
Love & Rockets X). Love and Rockets, conceived as released well after the storys serialization (1994),
a break from the density of Poison River (Knowles incorporated some forty-six pages of new material,
54), nonetheless grew into a psychologically complex including not only suggestive title pages (as noted
and bitingly topical story in its own right (though above), but also many pages of interpolated narra-
beyond our compass here). In short, Hernandez was tive designed to deepen, explicate, and smooth over
then producing two different stories, each at a heady its tortuous story. (Changes in the collected River
pace. Under this pressure, Poison River, which began range from minor graphic refinements, such as light-
as a series of carefully structured chapters, soon ening the color of Marias eyes, to major structural
devolved into smaller, less shaped, and less cohesive revisions, such as expanding the crucial flashback of
installments, making no concessions to Love & chapters 1113 by two pages.)
Rockets serial readership. The artist would later After Poison River, and the structurally simpler but
recall feeling thoroughly absorbed by River and thematically challenging Love & Rockets X, Hernandez
fit[ting] the chapters in L&R as space allowed returns to Palomar in a new mood, downplaying


politics so as to iron out and extend the Heartbreak aspects in the arc of Love & Rockets 4150 frustrate
Soup storyline. This period, still complicated but now such a reading. Specifically, Hernandez introduced
more episodic, seems rather hermetic and self- elements that suggest a narrowing of interest to his
involved; the stories bespeak consolidation if not own private cosmos: he began to elaborate further,
retreat. Hernandez, by his own admission, backed and inject new material into, the history of Lubas
off from any profundity, and a door once opened family and even absorbed prior non-Heartbreak
now began to close (Huestis 68). The artist would Soup material into Lubas life. Ironically, this inward-
later reflect: I had two political stories in me, HD spiraling approach came even as he considered shift-
[that is, Human Diastrophism] and PR [Poison ing toward completely different types of stories
River], and thats it. Unless I came upon something (Huestis 68). In seeking to avoid the vast, by-now
political that I wouldve liked expressed, I preferred cumbersome workings of his own fictional history,
to keep away, as not to repeat myself or half-ass any Hernandez only tied it into a tighter, more intractable
truth about other peoples misery (Hernandez to the knotin part because he was driven by the impend-
author). This candid self-assessment shows a brusque ing end of Love & Rockets and a need to bring out
honesty, as well as a desire not to sit still creatively. It numerous story elements that he had backed up
also shows an awareness of diminished scope. for years (Huestis 68). Depending on ones view-
After the trial by River, there was still the popula- point, leaving Palomar was either about cutting the
tion of Palomar to deal with. The final stories in Gordian knot of continuity or carrying Hernandezs
Heartbreak Soup (issues 4150 of Love & Rockets) interest in Luba to its logical extreme. From the artists
aim for complete closure, showing the aging of perspective, it was simply about not ruining it, a
Palomar under Lubas mayorship. Many longtime remark that suggests Palomar could not easily accom-
characters, including Lubas daughters Maricela, modate the increasing complexity of Luba and her
Guadalupe, and Doralis, emigrate to Southern family tree (Hernandez to the author).
California. Other children come, and other relation- With hindsight, the result of all this seems to have
ships, including Lubas reuniting with the now-dis- been further complication, but without the vaulting
figured Khamo (terribly burned in his attempt to thematic complexity seen in Poison River. Lubas
save Tonantzin at the end of Diastrophism). family becomes increasingly connected to her hith-
Humanly rich though they are, these last tales, such erto unrevealed half-sisters, Petra and Fritzi, two
as Farewell, My Palomar and Luba Conquers the characters imported from Hernandezs previously
World, move toward a foreordained conclusion: unconnected erotic humor series, Birdland (199092),
Lubas decision to leave Palomar behind forever. a would-be lark published under Fantagraphics
Plot-wise, this move is justified by the arrival of Eros imprint (undertaken as yet another escape
would-be killers connected to Lubas past, an intru- valve for the pressures of Poison River). As Lubas
sion presaged by the reappearance of her onetime daughters migrate to California, Petra and Fritzi, two
protector Gorgo, from Poison River (now a very old exaggerated icons of femininity much like their
man). With these reminders of Lubas past suddenly mother, Maria, travel to Palomar to be reunited with
intruding on her life, the sanctuary of Palomar no their half-sister. While the flight of Lubas daughters
longer seems inviolable, and, with the fiftieth and to California opened the possibility of pungent com-
final issue of the original Love & Rockets, Luba mentary about Latino/a life in the United States,
departs Hernandezs fabled village for good. Hernandez focused equally on the unexpected busi-
This farewell to Palomar might seem to have ness of grafting the carefree Birdland to Lubas more
been designed to open up Hernandezs work once complex history. (At the time this effort seemed
again to broader sociopolitical issues; after all, from quixotic, to say the least, but since then he has used
here Lubas story will shift to the Los Angeles first these characters to create some of the most fully
depicted in Love & Rockets X. However, other realized erotic fiction in comics.)


Gilberts sketchbook work from this period testi- older but still obsessed, secretly making statues of
fies to his growing fascination with Maria, Luba, and Palomars citizenry and sinking them in the nearby
their progeny (see L&R Sketchbook 2 [1992]). lake (a point hinted at issues before). Beneath the
Marias own storied life, and sexual couplings, pro- waters of the lake lies a fabulous recreation of Her-
vide the backstory for an increasingly baroque world nandezs cast, standing on the bottom, hidden from
based on this single family. The result is a series of sight (fig. 38). One day this stream will be gone
tales that continue to blend past and present, but and the statues will be exposed, says Humberto.
without Poison Rivers sociopolitical sweep. Some of Reaching ever upward toward Godthe sunlike
these storiesnotably, A Trick of the Unconscious eternal flowers and I will be forgiven my sins . . .
and The Gorgo Wheelalso blend the naturalistic (517). The implications are bleak: from the possibility
and the fantastic, as Hernandez unexpectedly rein- of a revolutionary art, questioned but still hinted at
jects elements of genre fantasy into his world. This by Augustins mural at the end of Diastrophism,
turn to fantasy climaxes not with a Palomar story but Humberto has moved to a underwater (under-
with two curious experiments: Satyricon (Love & ground?) art, one he can do only as long as he remains
Rockets No. 46, 1994), a Gilbert story about Jaimes hidden. Hernandez now envisions an art enabled by
early science-fiction characters; and My Love its very obscurity. Like Hernandez, Humberto himself
Book (No. 49, 1995), a mocking interrogation of has created a composite portrait of Palomarbut
the autobiographical comics genre (to which we has sent it to the bottom of the pool, a standing relic
shall return in our next chapter). In these fascinating reminiscent of the famed Terra Cotta army of Qin
one-off tales (both reprinted in Hernandez Satyricon, Shihuangdi or the mummified victims of Vesuvius.
1997) Gilberts self-referential gambits take on an It is hard not to see a despairing trend here, a fic-
increasingly sardonic, self-mocking, and pessimistic air. tionalized response to the pressures and disappoint-
With the final Heartbreak Soup tale, Chelos ment caused by the tentative reception of Poison
Burden (Love & Rockets No. 50, 1996; Palomar River. In the wake of that immensely complicated
499522), Hernandez attempts to bring the series and ambitious novel, Heartbreak Soup seems to
full circle. In the process, he achieves several stun- swallow its own tail, leading to the dissolution of
ning narrative coups. For one, he blithely unites his Love & Rockets itself at Gilberts suggestion, and
own universe with elements of brother Jaimes Locas the abandonment of his trademark series (Huestis
world (through the appearance of one of Jaimes 68). The sendoff in Chelos Burden is grand, full
signature characters). He also rekindles a number of with remembrances and resonances for the seasoned
issues previously established, yet long ignored, reader, but the dnouement nonetheless seems
including Sheriff Chelos infertility and the impact of fated.
photojournalist Howard Millers visit on the town. (In Chelos Burden, though, does succeed in
a wonderfully ironic scene, Lubas daughter Maricela imposing an overall shape on Heartbreak Soup, a
and her son Jaime discover Millers book of Palomar logic that is not merely cumulative but symmetrical.
photos in a California library.) Yet the most telling The rounding off of the series, including Humbertos
element of this final story, and the most troubling, is sudden, heavily freighted reappearance, allowed
the reappearance of the artist Humberto, neglected Hernandez to leave Love & Rockets on a high note
since Human Diastrophism, who has found a way and to move on. It cleared the way for an attempted
around his promise never to make art again. It is renegotiation of his position within the comics field.
here that Hernandezs self-reflexive examination of This was no easy task: to turn ones back on a success-
his art comes to a head. ful brand like Love & Rockets is to take an enormous
Ostracized for his failure to act in Diastrophism, professional risk, though one that, potentially, opens
Humberto is a figure virtually erased from the subse- spaces for new, innovative work. Indeed, from 1996
quent continuity, until this final chapter finds him, onward Hernandez was extraordinarily disciplined


Figure 38. Humbertos fugitive

art, from Chelos Burden.
Palomar 517 (excerpt).
2004 Gilbert Hernandez.
Used with permission.

and prolific, offering up a dizzying variety of projects of his early, pre-Palomar stories, such as BEM and
(until the much-hyped return of L&R in 2001). Music for Monsters (197983). Yet Girl Crazy lacks
Immediately after Love & Rockets, Hernandez the provocative ironies of its predecessors; despite the
launched into a six-issue series of disconnected and artists irrepressible sense of play, the series comes off
surreal stories, New Love (199697), which included as a frothy indulgence of comic book clichs. Like
one explicitly Palomar-related serial, Letters from Birdland, Hernandezs droll foray into erotica, Girl
Venus. (Venus is Lubas niece, and lives in Cali- Crazy has a whiz-bang, insouciant quality.
fornia.) Much of New Love eventually found its way These cathartic ventures behind him, Hernandez
into a book, suggestively titled Fear of Comics then returned to his best-known creation, in a new
(2000), which short-circuits expectations and defies series titled simply Luba (19982005). This post-
easy summary. Mockingly playing on comic book Palomar series was set in the United States and
formulas, and occasionally spilling over into free- promoted with a promise to make the material
wheeling graphic experiments, this work is fitful, accessible to new readers. The marketing of this
sometimes disturbing, but always playful and ener- series, with nominal focus on a single character, and
getic. At the same time, Hernandez created the its packaging as a comic book in standard format, as
good girl (a fan euphemism for sex- and pinup-ori- opposed to Love & Rockets magazine size, marked
ented) adventure series Girl Crazy for another pub- a seeming surrender to the reigning logic of comic
lisher, Dark Horse Comics, known chiefly for heroic book collectordom. In contrast, numerous alterna-
fantasy. Frivolous and well-crafted, Girl Crazy (1997) tive cartoonists have recently abandoned the comic
represents another funky genre outing, another seem- book per se in favor of different packages (the
ing escape from the pressure of Hernandezs ambi- comic book being by no means the only vehicle for
tions. Its quaint science fiction landscape, female an artist of Hernandezs reputation). Yet his embrace
superheroes, and weird critters recall the fractured SF of the comic book was inspired not only by


pragmatic considerations but also by a growing New Love and Measles, a fan whose unselfcon-
skepticism toward avant-garde or (in his phrase) art scious engagement with comic books, like the young
school comics, which he has criticized for over- Lubas in Poison River, harks back to the mediums
assertive packaging and a cold, abstract approach heyday as mass entertainment, before the funneling
(Hernandez to the author, 22 Mar. 2000). By con- in of fan culture. Hernandezs recent projects find
trast, Luba and subsequent projects ally Hernandez him engaging the comic-book-as-social-object as
with a more traditional comic book aesthetic and, never before, exploiting it with a wary nostalgia.
notwithstanding the formal rigors of his work, an This is so despite the artists suspicion that comic
approach to storytelling that privileges economy and book serials may never qualify as Art: I feel art
accessibility. comics, as in novels, shouldnt have characters that
Hernandez has also achieved the kind of break- continue after the piece (Hernandez to the author,
neck prolificacy associated with mainstream comic 22 Mar. 2000). Here he sells himself short: while this
book artists. In the late nineties he went through an suspicion reflects long-lived aesthetic norms in liter-
invigorating burst of productivity, for, alongside ary criticism (note the invocation of the novel as
Luba, he produced several other comic books: point of comparison), it diminishes the achievement
Measles (19982001), an eight-issue anthology for of Heartbreak Soup, in which the use of continuing
younger readers, edited by Hernandez with contri- characters, and the tension between serial and nov-
butions from others; Lubas Comics and Stories (five elistic aims, yielded some of Hernandezs strongest,
issues to date, 2000), an omnibus spinoff of Luba most provocative work. The economic and creative
focusing on secondary characters; Goody Good tension between series and novel arguably accounts
Comics (2000), a one-shot potpourri la New Love; not only for Love & Rockets depth of setting and
and, as illustrator, nine issues of cartoonist/writer character but also for its aggressive formal innova-
Peter Bagges humor comic, Yeah!, published by tion: In order to build sustained, novel-length stories
mainstream giant DC (19992000). More recently, from within a comics magazine, Los Bros Hernandez
Hernandez has sortied into mainstream genre work, pushed the tension between single image and
doing a blas SF/crime thriller for DC titled Grip (five image-in-series to the extreme, so as to leap through
issues, 20012002) and even a run as scriptwriter on time, interpolate new material in the past, and tell
the Batman spinoff Birds of Prey, another take on and retell stories recursively. As confusing as this
female superheroes (20022003). (This mainstream method could be to the uninitiated or occasional
work strikes me as detached and juiceless, as if his reader, it developed out of the periodical mode, and
ironic distancing from genre makes it hard for him to the meaningful gaps in reading offered by that
take the work straight.) mode.
Coming after Hernandezs struggles to write nov- Yet Hernandezs response to periodical form and
els in serial form, this emphasis on periodical comic the commodity nature of comics remains ambiva-
books is unexpected, and the sheer size of his output lent. While his recent comments on the comic book
almost daunting. Yet this change was, perhaps, a mainstream have targeted the narrowness of the
grab at freedom. If Hernandez wanted to be sprung industry and the exclusivity of collectors (see, for
from the tight contours of Love & Rockets, he made example, Destroy All Fanboys), his own work
his bid for independence through sheer, driving after Love & Rockets has been acutely aware of the
effort, using the traditional comic book as his ticket comic book as such and has craftily capitalized on
out. Notwithstanding the crisis of the latter-day the format. The six issues of New Love, for example,
L&R, this recent explosion of work testifies to a balanced an ongoing serial with experimental short
renewed faith in the infinite artistic possibilities of features, the former anchoring the comic book and
the comic book medium (New Love No. 6). Those the latter exploiting it. While the serial aimed for a
telling words belong to Lubas niece, Venus, star of larger coherence, the individual comic book issues


reveled in their particularity. This artistic tug-of-war, work since 1996 continues to involve Luba and her
endemic to periodical fiction, is central to Hernan- family, and a good chunk of this has been collected
dezs work, and indeed to alternative comics. in his recent book, Luba in America (2001).
Gilbert Hernandezs work continues to waver Luba in America, with its startling riffs on
between upkeep of his established characters and Latino/a culture, media celebrity and (as ever) poly-
more radical experiments. Once again he is linked to morphous sexuality, picks up where Gilberts Letters
Love & Rockets, for early in 2001 Gilbert and his from Venus left off. Yet in a sense it is the grand-
brothers Jaime and Mario Hernandez revived L&R as child of Poison River and Love and Rockets X, ravel-
a triannual comic-book-sized series. This highly pro- ing out Lubas (Marias) family line from the former
moted relaunch, apparently driven partly by financial and exploring the Los Angeles set up in the latter.
need, enjoyed heavy media coverage and recap- Again Luba is only the nominal focus: the story cov-
tured many fans, despite the fact that Gilbert and ers many characters and spins out in short, giddy
Jaime had been prolifically writing and drawing their flights, tighter and punchier than Gilberts novels of
own respective comic books from 1996 onward. The yore. Lubas character is continually enriched by the
Love & Rockets title, Gilbert conceded, was the unfolding story, but she is only one among the
perfect showcase for their efforts (Elder 4), and he many. The work, scrappily American, is in love with
declared that Volume II would be their second diversity and brims with decadent pleasures.
wind (Arnold 64). Outside of L&R, though, Gilbert Hernandezs latest projects warrant their own
remains prolific and unpredictable; he continues to considered treatment, beyond our scope here.
work on his own Luba series (and its spinoffs), and Suffice to say that he remains restless and prolific
also does occasional mainstream work for hire. and that he has reinvented himself more than once
Perhaps as a result, his contributions to Love & since the end of the first Love & Rockets in 1996.
Rockets Vol. 2 have thus far been all over the map. Behind his current work stands the monumental
While Jaime has continued focusing on his signature Palomar, or, in its original form, Heartbreak Soup, an
character Maggie, Gilbert has skipped around, re- extravagantly rich series that represents a bench-
exploring beloved secondary characters, detailing mark for long-form comicsas well as a sobering
the life of Lubas half-sister Fritz, illustrating his example of the limits posed by serial publication. The
brother Marios meandering thriller Me for the reshaping and tightening of its core stories, Human
Unknown, and offering brief installments of Julios Diastrophism and Poison River, as revised for their
Day, a series in a rural, Palomar-like setting yet book editions, suggest the enormity of the challenge
unconnected to any previous work. Julio, which has Hernandez faced when turning this series into a gen-
been billed as the life story of one man from birth to uine saga. Moreover, the fitful growth of that saga
death, promises to be what Heartbreak Soup is not: shows how developments in narrative form (for
a single tale, with characters that [do not] continue example, the treatment of time) may be urged on by
after the piece; as such it may be Gilberts bid to the needs of the commercial medium. Finally and
create an artistically autonomous novel. Gilbert has above all, what makes these questions worth pon-
described it as a way of get[ting] rid of the excess dering is the excellence and urgency of the work
of Palomar, focusing on a single tale, and restrain- itself: a wayward masterwork, thirteen years in the
ing himself (Adams, Return Flight 26). Thus far, making, that exploits the inherent tensions of comic
however, relatively little of Julio has appeared in art in the service of a brilliant literary imagination
print. In the meantime, Gilberts most impressive and probing social vision.




About four-fifths into the comics memoir Our Cancer Year, lymphoma victim
Harvey Pekar hauls himself out of bed, slowly, groggilyhis mind addled by
a psychoactive painkiller, his body numbed to near-paralytic heaviness as
a result, apparently, of chemotherapy. Narcotized and reduced to merely
rocking through patterns, Harvey continues to slip in and out of conscious-
ness even after he stands. In fact he slips in and out of self-consciousness
as well, for his mind keeps turning over that most basic of questions, Who
am I?
At the bottom of the page in question (fig. 39), Harvey rises with a word-
less groan, head sagging. His image is dark, formed of heavy contour lines
and brusque, energetic cross-hatching; his surroundings are white and detail-
less, the panel that holds him borderless, exploded. The page itself, its surface
broken into six panels, is organized and dominated by large patches of empty
white space. In this open space, Harvey appears free, adrift, and very much in
danger of losing himself.
Turning the page, recto to verso, we face a much different surface (fig. 40),
more fragmented yet also more claustrophobic. Images of varying size crowd
together, some bordered, some not; some are defined by thin hatching,
others by blobs of inky black. Across the top, two panels of dense brushwork
show Harveys face in extreme close-up, a shadow against a shadowy back-
ground. Dry brushstrokes pick out his featureshalf-conscious in the first
image, then alert in the second, as a title suddenly pops into his mind:
American Splendor.
Harveys eyes widen, staring directly at us as the distinctive logotype
American Splendor appears in a thought balloon over his head. American


Figure 39. Joyce Brabner, Harvey Pekar, and Frank Stack, Our Cancer Year (n. pag.). Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar. Used with permission.

Splendor seems to be part of the answer to his ques- and art that autobiography can achieve. Harvey is the
tion, Who am I?but only that, a part. In the main character in the magazine/comic book series
next tier of panels, he in effect reiterates the ques- American Splendor, and Pekar its scripter and guid-
tion: seeing himself in a bathroom mirror, he turns to ing hand; though not interchangeable, the two are
his wife Joyce (that is, Joyce Brabner) and asks, Am one. Through its sporadic serialization (since 1976),
I some guy who writes about himself in a comic American Splendor has offered readers a chance to
book called American Splendor? . . . Or I am just a grow with both Harvey-the-persona and Pekar-the-
character in that book? Uncertain of who he is, author, always with the tantalizing possibility that
Harvey stands naked, bereft and puzzled, isolated one might be collapsed into the otheror perhaps
within a round frame that focuses everything on the not. Pekar has succeeded in mythologizing himself,
question of his identity. Is he author and character, or transforming Harvey into a property that belongs
just character? to him (or he to it?) but which nonetheless exceeds
Harvey, obviously, is far gone. His body has him. By turns gregarious and recessive, openhearted
betrayed his mind, and his mind, reduced to zero, now and suspicious, sensitive and coarse, the working-
has to struggle to recover the fundamentals of his class hero of American Splendor emerges as a com-
identity, in both personal and vocational terms. In plex, provoking character who just happens to bear
short, Harvey must recover his sense of who he is. an unmistakable likeness to his creator.1
Even as this alarming sequence (co-written by Brabner Pekars achievement is to have established a new
and Pekar, and drawn by Frank Stack) reveals the mode in comics: the quotidian autobiographical series,
psychological and neuropathic fallout of cancer ther- focused on the events and textures of everyday exis-
apy, it turns on a broader, more abstract issue: how tence. Joseph Witeks groundbreaking study Comic
we fashion our very selves through the stories we Books as History (1989) aptly describes this mode
tell. Who is Harveycreator, creation, or both? as one of consciously literary yet aggressively hum-
This is a question that readers of Pekars auto- drum realism (128). For Pekar, such realism is a
biographical comics have faced for the better part of matter of paying attention: his distinctive approach
thirty years, for Pekar, more than any other comics depends on keen-eyed (and -eared) observation of
author, has demonstrated the interpenetration of life anything and everything around him. His gift for


Figure 40. Our Cancer Year (n. pag.). Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar. Used with permission.

such observation is consistent with his voracious of this writing, of more than thirty magazine and
appetite for knowledge; indeed, for Pekar autobiog- comic book issues and some six book-length compi-
raphy is a means of autodidacticism, as his comics lations of stories from same (discounting the collab-
represent a struggle for an understanding both emo- orative Our Cancer Year).
tional and intellectual. American Splendor is a sus- In the course of assembling this body of work,
tained inquiry into the underpinnings of daily life, Pekar has inspired a school of serialized comics auto-
including the vicissitudes of economic competition; biography, including a slew of alternative comic book
the social obstacles posed by class, occupation, gender, titles released between the latter 1980s and the mid-
and ethnicity; and the cultural nuances of everyday 1990s: Colin Uptons Big Thing, Ed Brubakers Lowlife,
speech. The series observes all of these phenomena Dennis Eichhorns Real Stuff, the latter issues of
from a defiantly personal, working-class perspective, Chester Browns Yummy Fur, the early issues of Seths
offering an accretive autobiography that is at once Palookaville, Joe Matts Peepshow, Mary Fleeners
diverse, unpredictable, and organically unified. This Slutburger, Julie Doucets Dirty Plotte, Joe Chiapettas
autobiography is impressive in scope, comprised, as Silly Daddy, and others. These titles have yielded a


number of notable book collections, such as Browns underground period, brought a radical appreciation
The Playboy (1992) and I Never Liked You (1994), for the mundane.
Doucets My Most Secret Desire (1995), Fleeners Life What has become of the comic book hero since
of the Party (1996), Brubakers A Complete Lowlife then? As noted in chapter 1, current descriptions
(1997), and Matts The Poor Bastard (1997). As these of the comic book industry assume a split between,
titles suggestnote how so many of them are more on the one hand, a dominant fannish emphasis on
confrontational than the quietly ironic American superpowered heroes, and, on the other, an alterna-
Splendorthis new school of autobiographical comics tive, post-underground outlook, from which larger-
has tended to stress the abject, the seedy, the anti- than-life heroism has been evacuated in favor of
heroic, and the just plain nasty. If the method of this heady satire or in-your-face realism. This characteri-
school has been documentary, the dominant narrative zation is of course overdetermined and somewhat
modes have been tragedy, farce, and picaresque. reductive, reflecting decades of conflict within the
In the wake of Pekar, these scarifying confessional industry itself (an industry still cramped by its repu-
comics have in fact reinvented the comic book hero. tation for self-censorship and cupidity). Todays alter-
Now, heroism in comic books has never been sim- native comic books frequently attack this industry,
ple. The heroic fantasies of early American comic reveling in their disavowal or cynical reappraisal of
books were often shot through with inoculative doses the mediums troubled history. Indeed, rejection of the
of ironygrace notes of self-mockery that compro- corporatist mainstream gives the post-underground,
mised their assertive bluster. Indeed, such saving irony alternative scene everything: its raison dtre, its core
defines the founding examples of that arch-genre of readership, and its problematic, marginal, and self-
comic books, the superhero, in which power must be marginalizing identity. It is here, on the activist end
closeted or checked for the sake of preserving the of comic book culture, that autobiographical comics
status quo. Yet it took the scabrous revelations of have flourished, overturning the corporate comics
underground comix to radicalize this sense of irony, hero in favor of the particularized and unglamorous
transforming amused suggestiveness into full-out common man or woman.
polemic. Savage irony typified the undergrounds: as If alternative cartoonists acknowledge any sort of
we have already seen, comix took the shopworn heroism, it consists in a collective effort to assert the
industrial icons of yesteryear and invested them with versatility of comics as a means of expression, apart
a new, anarchic, almost self-denunciatory energy. from the diversionary trappings of the escapist gen-
This new mode demanded new heroes. res so entrenched in the American industry and fan-
Underground comix admitted a new psychologi- dom. As Witek remarks, this effort represents an
cal realism and, concomitantly, a potential for radical implicit rejection of the death grip that fantasy has
cultural intervention. Whereas comic books before long held on the art form (History 153). Part of this
had but nibbled, the undergrounds sunk their teeth project, Witek reminds us, is the promotion of
into the very hands that fed them, venting a long comics that refuse fiction altogether, favoring history,
pent-up energy that exploded the narrowly con- reportage, the essay, and the memoir. Thus nonfic-
ceived boundaries of the medium. The newly coined tion comics have come into their own, and, in Pekars
comix (as described in chapter 1) offered not only wake, autobiography has emerged as the nonfiction
new economic terms and a new, more individualistic comics most familiar and accessible guise (rivaled
model of production but also the necessary inspira- only recently by graphic journalism la Joe Sacco).
tion for these in a new level of adult and achingly In short, underground comix and their alternative
personal content, both fantastic and, as time went descendants have established a new type of graphic
on, naturalistic. From this brief, fecund period came confessional, a defiantly working-class strain of auto-
the impetus for an exclusively adult species of graphic biography. Confronted by these new, highly personal
narrative, to which Pekar, arriving at the end of the comics, the venerable cartoonist and teacher Burne


Hogarth (whose own work embodies a fervid established a set of narrative conventions that con-
Romanticism) once called them a remarkable fulmi- tinue to shape alternative comics.
nation of the inner light of people who have never In sum, this post-Pekar school of autobiography,
had a voice (Young, Comic Art 52). Even as he like the current comic book field as a whole, is a par-
chided autobiographical cartoonists for the bleak- adox: a collision of mainstream commercial habits and
ness of their work, Hogarth recognized that work as countercultural sensibility. Even as serial autobiogra-
an historic noveltyand an extraordinary achieve- phy accommodates fandoms emphasis on characters
ment. The example of such cartoonists, coupled with and creators as heroes, it challenges the presumptive
increasing access among part-timers and amateurs hold of fantasy on that market (the kernel of such fan-
to affordable means of reproduction (for example, tasy being the superhero). To a field fed on the adven-
photocopying, in the diffuse but vital field of mini- tures of glamorous bermenschen, autobiography
comics), has turned autobiography into a mode of provides a salutary alternative with its schlemiels and
central importance for alternative comics in North sufferers, hangdogs and gadflies. Yet its episodic, often
America, and, increasingly, around the world (see, picaresque (Pekaresque?) nature still caters to the
for example, Groensteen, Les petites cases). Indeed, outworn tradition of periodical comic book publishing
this problem child of the undergrounds, as the (notwithstanding the success of Pekars book-length
Comics Journals Frank Young once called it, has compilations in the mainstream press). Thus autobi-
become the defining mode of comics self-styled ography has become a distinct, indeed crucial, genre
counterculture (Peeping Joe 37). in todays comic booksdespite the troublesome fact
Yet, paradoxically, such first-person comics can that comics, with their hybrid, visual-verbal nature,
also appeal to the confirmed habits of mainstream pose an immediate and obvious challenge to the
comic book fans and the industry that woos them. idea of nonfiction.
While autobiographical comics represent, in Ray They can hardly be said to be true in any
Zones phrase, a necessary byroad on the way straightforward sense. Theres the rub. But therein
to maturity (Fleener 9), they also accommodate lies much of their fascination.
fandoms preset habits of consumption, insofar as
autobiographical comic book series are well adapted
to the markets emphasis on continuing characters, IDEOLOGY, ACCURACY, INTIMACY
ongoing stories, and periodical publication. In this
case, the autobiographers cartoon persona supplies As a genre, autobiography is of course difficult to
continuity, while the use of real life as inspiration define and well nigh impossible to delimit. Protean in
insures a bottomless fund of raw material. Indeed, a form, it applies the narrative techniques of fiction to
number of creators have sustained fairly long autobi- stories implicitly certified as true, insofar as they
ographical series (such as those listed above), series defer to a level of experience outside the bounds
containing both novel-length stories in piecemeal of text. The tacit rules of the genre demand fidelity
form and shorter stories well suited to comic book or to such experience, yet storytelling demands license;
magazine format. Telling tales about yourself is a gig narrative needs shaping. Thus autobiography inevitably
that can go on forever, or at least for a very long mingles the factual and the fictive (even among the
time. No wonder, then, that during the eighties such most scrupulous of practitioners). This blurring of
comics became, in the words of a bemused Art boundaries presents a conundrum that criticism has
Spiegelman, a real growth industry (Symptoms been able only to turn over and over, never to
4). This industry has since downsizedas well resolve: what has storytelling to do with the facts? In
see, autobiographical comics soon came under attack the words of Timothy Dow Adams, autobiography
as the latest clich, and few of the above-named is a paradox, a therapeutic fiction-making, rooted
projects are still ongoingbut by now the genre has in what really happened; and judged both by the


standards of truth and falsity and by the standards of (Groth and Fiore 215). As Witek has suggested,
success as an artistic creation (Telling Lies 3). Pekars work resists this culture through the asser-
If academic criticism has fretted over this paradox, tion of individuality (History 149). In this light, the
autobiographers in comics have often barreled ahead personal is indeed political; as cartoonist Justin Green
without confronting it as such. Though some have rec- implies in his seminal Binky Brown Meets the Holy
ognized that the genre isnt about literal but rather Virgin Mary (1972), social issues and individual
about emotional truths, many have taken as gospel neuroses are irrevocably linked (Green 10). (We
Pekars dictum that persuasiveness resides in literal will return to Binky in our next chapter.) Ray Zone
accuracy, in minute fidelity to mundane events as cements this connection between personal and polit-
they happen. The more accurate, according to ical in his introduction to the work of Mary Fleener:
Pekar, the more readers can identify with them the explicit foreground subject of autobiography
(Potential 84). The goal is absolute honesty, (that is, the autobiographer him or herself) stands in
and in particular the disclosure of, to paraphrase the a dialectic tension with the implicit background
cartoonist Seth, things that the regular media object of culture (Zone 11). Thus autobiography
ignore (Seth, Brown, and Matt 52).2 in comics, as in prose, often zeroes in on the contact
If autobiographical comics can be considered a surface between cultural environment and individual
movement, then its manifesto would seem to be identity. Indeed, therein lies much of its impetus, and
Pekars vision of a literature that pushes people into value, as Witek observes of Pekars work (History
their lives rather than helping people escape from 14952 passim).
them (Groth and Fiore 215). Since 1976 Pekar has What makes such implicitly political content pos-
realized this vision in American Splendor as well as sible is Pekars ideal of conformity to the facts of
Our Cancer Year (1994), his collaborative memoir ones experience. Of course, as soon as we say this
with his wife Joyce Brabner and illustrator Frank Stack. we are in trouble, for Pekars ethic of accuracy runs
The former examines Harveys social and occupa- counter to the epistemological skepticism of our age.
tional world in painstaking detail, highlighting the How can one be faithful to objective truth when
quiet, epiphanous moments that give life flavor and such truth seems inaccessible or even impossible?
resonance (and, increasingly, offering Harveys biog- How in fact can we speak (as above) of a level of
raphical studies of other people). The latter conflates experience outside the bounds of text, when con-
the personal and the political, detailing both Harveys temporary theory teaches us that to apprehend real-
battle against lymphoma and Joyce and Harveys ity is to textualize it from the get-go? Therein lies
anxious engagement with global politics during the the impetus for a current of skepticism in both auto-
Persian Gulf War. American Splendor mixes dour biography theory and, increasingly, autobiographical
naturalism with Pekars self-conscious, first-person comics. The balance of this chapter will examine the
narration, which betrays the rhythmic influence of ways in which comics struggle to absorb and capital-
standup comedy and his own experience as a street- ize on this skeptical or self-critical tendency.
corner performer (Groth and Fiore 216, 223). Our Paul Jay sums up the skeptical position thusly:
Cancer Year, on the other hand, abandons Pekars the attempt to differentiate between autobiogra-
narrational shtick, combining documentary accuracy phy and fictional autobiography is finally pointless
with Stacks expressionistic rendering to capture the (Being in the Text 16). This view is widely shared
rigors of cancer treatment. Both projects show a among literary critics; many have argued that auto-
keen eye for the minutiae of day-to-day existence. biography is no more privileged or truthful than
Such projects have an ideological subtextspeci- fiction-making (regarding this argument, see, for
fically, a democratic onesince they celebrate the example, Adams, Telling Lies; Eakin; and Zinsser).
endurance and everyday heroism of the so-called Indeed by now it would seem that, as Adams puts
average person in the face of corporatist culture it, the presence of fiction within autobiography is


[regarded as] no more problematic than the pres- exaggeration, distortion, and omission. Such ten-
ence of nonfiction within the novel (Light Writing dencies become doubly obvious in the cartoon world
xi). The issue remains a live one for the as-yet little- of comics, in which the intimacy of an articulated
studied genre of autobiographical comics, in which first-person narrative may mix with the alienating
ideologically fraught claims to truth collide with an graphic excess of caricature. One may fairly ask how
anxious distrust of referentiality (a distrust aggra- a cartoonist can use these disparate tools without
vated by the inevitable backlash against autobiogra- seeming to falsify his or her experience. If autobiog-
phy as a market genre). Yet, ironically, the disavowal raphy promiscuously blends fact and fiction, memory
of objective truth may serve to shore up the genres and artifice, how can comics creators uphold Pekars
claims to veracity; indeed, grappling with such skep- ethic of authenticity? How can they achieve the
ticism would seem prerequisite to recognizing and effect of truthfulness?
fully exploiting the genres potential for truth-telling.
Only by exploring such doubts can the emotional
honesty of autobiography be recovered. THE CARTOON SELF
Salvaging the genres claims to truth means res-
cuing its potential for radical cultural argumentand In comics, such questions inevitably have to do with
there is something radical about the intimacy of appearances, in particular the graphic likeness of the
graphic self-representation. Autobiographical comics autobiographical protagonist and its relation to the
since the late seventies, inspired by Pekars mundane artists own sense of self. If autobiography has much
observations as well as the grotesque confessions of to do with the way ones self-image rubs up against
cartoonists such as Dori Seda and Justin Green, have the coarse facts of the outer world, then comics make
decisively stressed what Pekar himself calls unpleas- this contact immediate, and graphic. We see how
ant facts (Groth and Fiore 216). These facts include the cartoonist envisions him or herself; the inward
the kinds of psychosexual and scatological details vision takes on an outward form. This graphic self-
that tend to escape even the most adventurous representation literalizes a process already implicit
mainstream fiction. Cartoonists such as Aline in prose autobiography, for, as Stephen Shapiro has
Kominsky-Crumb (Love that Bunch!) and Joe Matt argued, the genre consists less in faithfulness to out-
(Peepshow), to take two well-known examples, have ward appearances, more in the encounter between
staked out the very frontiers of self-exposure, spot- successive self-images and the world, a world that
lighting their own manias and fears with a frankness repeatedly distorts or misrecognizes those self-images
and insistence that amount to a compulsive howl (Shapiro 426). If autobiography is a kind of rhetori-
of despair. Whereas Pekar himself (as Witek has cal performance in which one, as Shapiro says, tries
observed) has retreated from such harrowing inti- to persuade the world to view ones self through
macy, in favor of focusing more intently on his intel- ones own eyes, then autobiographical comics make
lectual and social milieu (History 127), many this seeing happen on a quite literal level, by envi-
autobiographical comics of the eighties and nineties sioning the cartoonist as a cartoon. This is the auto-
privilege the most minute and shocking details of biographical comics most potent means of persuasion:
their authors lives. It is this intimacy that authenti- the self-caricature.
cates their social observations and arguments. Prerequisite to such caricature, it would seem, is a
Still the question persists, how true can these form of alienation or estrangement, through which
self-centered reflections be? How accurate? At some the cartoonistautobiographer regards himself as
point the appearance of bracing honesty runs the other, as a distinct character to be seen as well as
risk of hardening into a self-serving, repetitive shtick. heard. Yet, as Paul Jay has suggested, such a process
Despite the implied claim to truth that anchors the of becoming an object, indeed a parody of oneself,
genre, the autobiographers craft necessarily includes may enable a subject to choose, and thus control,


identity (Posing 210). Objectification of the self, or her. Thus the cartoonist projects and objectifies his
through visual representation, may actually enable or her inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense
the autobiographer to articulate and uphold his or of intimacy and a critical distance.
her own sense of identity. It is the graphic exploitation of this duality that
Jay arrives at this conclusion through the study of distinguishes autobiography in comics from most
photography. Writing on the relationship between autobiography in prose. Unlike first-person narration,
photos, visual memory and self-representation, he which works from the inside out, describing events
asserts that a photographic portrait, while seeming as experienced by the teller, cartooning ostensibly
to force its subject into a posed and thus inauthentic works from the outside in, presenting events from
guise, may actually open up opportunities for com- an (imagined) position of objectivity, or at least dis-
mentary and resistance, insofar as the objective image tance.3 William Lowell Randall, in The Stories We
may be reappropriated, internalized, and subjectified Are, makes just such a distinction between events
(20910). Knowledge of how one looks, or can look, (things that happen) and our experience of events
may be enabling for the individual subject, inasmuch (the way we regard things that happen). By his argu-
as such knowledge allows him or her to grapple with ment, events are outside us, while experience is
and transform that look. Indeed, as Linda Haverty inside. Going furtherinto territory oddly apropos
Rugg observes of writer Christa Wolf, it becomes of comicsRandall distinguishes between the stories
necessary to imagine the self as photo-object [fr. we may tell about ourselves, expression, and the
German Fotoobjekt] in order to begin the process of stories others may construct about us, based on out-
self-knowledge (Picturing Ourselves 21415). ward impression (5457). In brief, expression works
Such self-objectification necessarily precedes or from the inside out, while impression works from the
informs autobiography, for the genre represents outside in. Yet, complicating Randall, we might say
nothing less than (in Ruggs phrase) an exertion of that to tell a story of yourself in comics is to seek
control over self-image (4). Like the subversive self- expression through outward impressions, because
mockery of those subalterns who reappropriate hate- comics tend to present rather than narrateor, at
ful epithets for their own ends, a cartoonist may times, alternately present and narrate. Comic arts
actually find him or herself through a broad, car- presentational (as opposed to discursive) mode
toony, in some sense stereotypic self-depiction. Such appears to problematize, or at least add a new wrin-
visualization can play a vital role in the understand- kle to, the ex/impression dichotomy.
ing and affirmation of individual identity; paradoxi- Cartooning does work from the outside in, using
cally, playing with ones image can be a way of culturally significant stereotypes (for example, in style,
asserting the irreducibility of the self as agent. facial features, and posture) to convey impressions
The cartoon self-image, then, seems to offer a of people that are seemingly spontaneous yet deeply
unique way for the artist to recognize and external- coded (that is, ideologically motivated). As many
ize his or her subjectivity. In this light, comics auto- cartoonists and critics have observed, stereotypes
biography may not be alienating so much as radically are the raw material of cartooning, hence of comics;
enabling. As Susan Stanford Friedman has argued of even relatively realistic comic art draws on represen-
womens autobiography, the form may allow the artist tational and cultural codes that depend on typing
to break free from historically imposed image[s] (see Tpffer 1517; Eisner, Comics 101 and Story-
and to fashion an alternative self (Benstock 83). telling 17; Ware in Juno 3940). Yet, as Art
Yet, at the same time, the placement of this self- Spiegelman has argued, sustained comics narrative
image among other figures within a visual narrative has the power to individualize the stereotype, dis-
confers an illusion of objectivity. Seeing the protago- mantling it in whole or in part (Drawing 1718).
nist or narrator, in the context of other characters Thus characterization is not limited to blunt types,
and objects evoked in the drawings, objectifies him even though it may exploit them. Our own sense of


identity may develop through a similar process, as we of expressionistic effects. Again, outside-in and
choose, explore, and discard successive stereotypic inside-out blur together.
selves that act as rough approximations of the Comics, then, despite their speciously outside-in
hoped-for inner self we but vaguely apprehend.4 approach, can evoke an authors internal self-concept,
To be sure, the use of such images may impose lim- insofar as the act of self-portraiture encourages a sim-
itations on the autobiographer. Elizabeth Bruss has plified, exaggerated depiction of known or desired
argued, regarding autobiography in film, that visual attributes. In brief, the outward guise reflects inward
self-portrayal drives a wedge between the expres- attitudes: objectification enables self-understanding
sive and descriptive functions of autobiography, and self-transformation. Indeed, it may be that all
whereas language conflates the two. First-person nar- self-recognition depends on such a dialectic between
rative, says Bruss, allows the I as subject of expres- inward recognition and outward semblance. McClouds
sion and I as object of description to blur together: Understanding Comics lends popular support to this
In speaking I merges easily, almost inextricably, with view, arguing that we continually intuit our sense of
another I whose character and adventures I can claim our own appearance in broadly iconic (McCloud
as my own (3067). In contrast, visual representation means cartoony) terms. By his argument, the face we
divides expression from description, posing an envision, the face we put on, is a mental cartoon of a
impassable barrier between observer and observed. face, an abstract construct that guides our sense of
In film, then, the autobiographical subject cannot help what we say with our looks (34).
but break down into a person seeing and a person This claim is of course debatable (are our facial
seen. Cinema, she concludes, dismantles self-con- expressions guided mainly by internalized cartoons?).
sciousness, which she regards as an effect of language More troublingly, McCloud overextends the argu-
(317). Yet it seems clear that visual self-depiction is ment into a nave model of reader response: because
not wholly void of expressive potential, even in the self-recognition involves a degree of simplification,
supposedly neutral and pitiless medium of photogra- he claims that highly simplified, cartoony images
phy, for, as photographer Dana Asbury has said of invite reader involvement. In other words, cartoons
photographic self-portraits, the manipulated likeness become loci for identification through their very
includes not just information but emotional inter- simplicity (42). In this McCloud follows the notion of
pretation as well (Photographing the Interior). the beholders share as put forth by E. H. Gombrich:
The photographer can work introspectively, though We tend to project life and expression onto the
in an external, seemingly unself-conscious medium. arrested image and supplement from our own expe-
This applies even more obviously to drawn self- rience what is not actually present (17). Like
portraits, in which emotional interpretation often McCloud, Gombrich describes the face as a mask,
exceeds and even sabotages literal description. one built out of crude distinctions that we gener-
The huge expressive potential of self-portraiture is ally take in before we notice the face as such (13).
argued by, for example, Joan Kinneir in The Artist by Yet McCloud errs in, one, assuming the universality
Himself, an anthology of self-portrait drawings: of these culturally coded distinctions or attributes
[Self-portraiture] gives us access to an intimate sit- (36); and two, arguing that the reader identifies with
uation in which we see the artist at close quarters or is sucked into the cartoon image in some
from a privileged position in the place of the artist him- absolute sense (42). The claim for universality is
self and through his own eyes (15). The impossibility undone by McClouds own observations about
(barring mirrors) of this happening in a literal sense the differences between the graphic symbols used
both observing and being observedadds to the in different cultures, specifically differences between
fascination of self-portraiture as a genre. Cartooning, expressive conventions in western comics and Japanese
shorn of the referential literalness expected in photo- manga (131). More to the point, the argument for
graphy, freely partakes of this paradox with a variety identification runs afoul of the visual nature of


comics, for, as Bruss reminds us, visual narrative abstract his own character, in the form of simplified
tends to dismantle the first-person point of view, diagrams and nuanced dialogue. Such self-knowledge
dividing the person seeing from the person seen is primarily verbal. (Note, though, that the dominant
(307). The logical principles or signifying practices of examples of comics autobiography after Pekar have
comics, no less than film, militate against a thor- been by cartoonists working alone, achieving a
oughgoing identification of observer and observed. degree of control, and at times a solipsistic self-
While a limited claim might be made for reader regard, which would seem to be denied to Pekars
empathy, positing complete identification stretches collaborative approach.)
the case beyond credulity (regarding the vexed issue In sum the cartoon self enacts a dialectic tension
of identification, see Barker, Comics; Frome). between impression and expression, outer and inner,
Yet, though the connection between reader and extrinsic and intrinsic approaches to self-portrayal.
cartoon may not be as absolute as McCloud claims, While the written text in a comic may confide in
there does seem to be an intimate connection between the reader much like unaccompanied, first-person
cartoonist and cartoona claim that depends nei- prose, the graphic presence of the image at once
ther on universality nor on absolute psychological distances and inflects the autobiographers voice.
identification. The crux of the matter is the way the Whereas first-person prose invites complicity,
cartoonist chooses among expressive conventions to cartooning invites scrutiny. Hence the curious
create a cartoon likeness (more accurately, sign) detachment, the semblance of objectivity, which
that conforms to his/her inward sense of self. As critic Frank Young observes in such post-Pekar car-
Perry Nodelman observes (apropos of picture book toonists as Chester Brown and Joe Matt (Peeping
illustration), such a highly simplified portrait consti- Joe 38). Its a fiction of honesty. Yet what hap-
tutes not a literal likeness so much as an inventory of pens when this external self-image, this visual per-
abstract attributes: a horizontal line can stand in for sona, becomes unfixed? What if it warps or mutates,
a mouth, a vertical for a nose, two dots for eyes, and and thus betrays the artists shaping hand?
so on (28). These attributes are understood, not as
resemblances, but as symbols, rather like words; ver-
bal recognition of features precedes the cartoon THE SELF AS SUCCESSIVE SELVES
encoding of same. Visual self-portrayal thus enacts
a self-understanding that is at least partly verbal in Cartoonist Dan Clowes dives into this very possibility
nature. Though seemingly objective, the outward in his four-page rant, Just Another Day (from his
image in fact mirrors an internalized, abstract Eightball No. 5, 1993, reprinted in Twentieth Century
self-concepta self-consciousness prerequisite to Eightball), a reductio ad absurdum of quotidian
personal narrative. autobiographical comics. In this satire, Clowes, then
If this is so, then Harvey Pekars creative process known for caustic, cynical essays in comics form,
precisely mirrors this transition from verbal under- manipulates his own persona to expose the impossi-
standing to visual expression. Pekar scripts his comics bility of telling the truth in comics, while ridiculing the
through rough, stick-figure breakdowns and verbal excesses of disclosure seen in Pekar, Kominsky-Crumb,
notes, which he then passes on to various illustrators and others. Reinventing his visual image from panel
to complete. As Witek points out, the artists must to panel, Clowes reveals Dan Clowes himself to
translate these verbal and symbolic inventories into be as plastic and imaginary as any other comics char-
complete pictures, adding in the process new visual acter. As the story nears its end (fig. 41), Clowes
information that complicates Pekars persona (History leaps from one stereotypic self-image to another,
137). Perhaps it is no accident that Pekar, a writer while torn, discarded pages representing the other
rather than artist, pioneered the autobiographical versions of himself pile up on the floor, ultimately
comics series, for as a writer he had to know how to obscuring his features in a morass of crumpled


Figure 41. Dan Clowes, Just Another Day. Twentieth Century Eightball 47 (excerpt). Daniel Clowes. Used with permission.

paper. The point, finally, is obvious: what passes for falsehood, one by one. On the first page, we find a
frankness in comics must be a matter of both subjec- bleary-eyed Clowes doing his morning wake-up rou-
tive vision and graphic artifice, a shotgun wedding of tine before a bathroom mirror. Graphic license is at
the untrustworthy and the unreal. a minimum here, so that the Clowes character
From the outset, Clowes trades on known facts appears evenly proportioned and realistic (that is,
about himself and his work. Since so many of his true to the conventions of comic book realism). The
comics rely on thinly fictionalized personae, Clowes second page, however, reveals the scam, as Clowes
starts Just Another Day with a panel, a title card so stand-in is abruptly recontextualized within a very
to speak, that explicitly identifies him, the genuine different milieuthat of a Hollywood movie set, in
Daniel G. Clowes, as both creator and protagonist which Clowes, the so-called real Clowes this time,
(fig. 42). Yet right away something seems oddly off acts as director as well as cartoonist (fig. 43). Clowes-
about this credit line, for the name Daniel G. Clowes the-director pauses in his drawing to talk to the
bears the symbol for a registered trademark, as readers, offering an explicit version of the rationale
if Clowes himself is but a marketable property, a that, tacitly, lies behind autobiographical comics: If
character to be variously drawn and exploited, ad I show the minutae [sic] of my daily life truthfully, no
infinitum. Throughout the story arrows point to the matter how embarrassing or painful, maybe youll
Real Clowes, or the Real Real Clowes, even as the respond to that truth and realize that we perhaps
possibility of a real Clowes recedes infinitely, van- share the same unspoken human traits and you and
ishing behind a succession of disparate caricatures: I will have a beautiful artist/reader experience. Dig?
the average joe, the big-shot wheeler-dealer, the (45). Thus Clowes distills and mocks Pekars ethic of
sensitive artiste, and so on. The storys closing cap- fidelity to mundane truths. This smug explanation
tion, which reads etc., etc., suggests both that these reduces the implicit aims of autobiography to a numb-
permutations could go on forever and that Clowes ing banality. By making the intent explicit, Clowes
finds the very prospect of confessional comics absurd. short-circuits it.
Just Another Day warrants a closer look because As his story shifts into cool satire, Clowes begins
of the brilliant way in which it peels back layers of to reshape, graphically, his very self, resorting to blunt


Figure 42. Clowes, Just Another Day. 44 (excerpt). Daniel Clowes. Used with permission.

caricature. For instance, the head of the so-called about yourself. . . . Its almost impossible to be objec-
real Clowes, unlike his stand-ins, seems grotesquely tive. The difficulty lies, he suggests, in the artists
out of proportion to the rest of his body, while his own ever-changing self-image, and the possibility
toothy smile and slitted eyes advertise his insincerity. that even full disclosure will be received as mere
The sequence that follows (in which the stand-in rhetorical posturing: [I]f you are willing to embarrass
Clowes sniffs his dirty socks, echoing the grotty yourself you have to make sure its not just to show
intimacy of such cartoonists as Kominsky-Crumb what a cool, honest guy you are . . . (47). Even
and Joe Matt) restores the graphic realism of the complete honesty, Clowes implies, serves some
first page, but now in brackets, for we know that the self-inflating purpose.
entire sequence is a put-on. Broad caricature returns Just Another Day, though extraordinarily smart,
as the director Clowes unpacks this scene, debunk- is not unprecedented; in fact it seizes on an idea put
ing the always implied claim that such embarrassing forth rather offhandedly some twenty-one years
details are representative rather than just plain weird: before, by comix pioneer R. Crumb, in his two-page
I made that whole thing up! he gloats. Ive never strip The Many Faces of R. Crumb (XYZ Comics,
done anything like that in my life!! The reader who 1972, reprinted in Complete Crumb, vol. 9). Many
identifies with such scenes, he sneers, must be a Faces (fig. 44) presents almost twenty distinct per-
fucking sicko!! (46). By this time the so-called real sonae within its twenty panels. Crumbs strip boasts
Clowes has become a familiar Clowesian type: the no narrative or discursive continuity like Clowess but
swollen epitome of smarmy self-satisfaction. instead rattles off a list of discrete and seemingly
What follows is a strangled mea culpa for the incompatible personalities: the long-suffering patient
storys overlapping falsehoods, as Clowes shifts from artist-saint, for instance, or the sentimental slob,
cell-phone-wielding big shot to hand-wringing or the youth culture member in good standing.
artiste, and thence to diverse other stereotypes. Billed simply as an inside look at the complex
Staring into the mirror at one point, in an echo of the personality of the artist, Many Faces offers no
storys opening, the Clowes character drives home rationale apart from its central question, implied until
the crucial point that its weird trying to do comics the very end, Who is this Crumb? Yet, anticipating


Figure 43. Clowes, Just Another Day. 45 (excerpt). Daniel Clowes. Used with permission.

Clowes, Crumb places the very act of creation at the that the drawings serve Crumbs desires for acquisi-
heart of the strip; the strip asserts its own construct- tion and mastery. As so often in Crumb, confession
edness. As throughout XYZ Comics, and indeed much tips over immediately into lampoon, palliating the
of Crumbs work from this period, the primacy of bitter truth, but the point has been made: both
drawing as a subject serves to connect what would Crumbs elastic sense of self and his treatment of
otherwise be a freewheeling series of non sequiturs. others are shaped by his feelings and desires. Thus
Indeed, drawing is foremost in Crumbs mind. these two apparently anomalous panels at the top
The first panel shows Crumb masturbating to one of of the story prepare for the parade of images to fol-
his own so-called sick cartoons, while a caption low. The real subject of what follows, after all, is not
tells us that he is hard at work in [his] studio. Thus so much the truth about Crumb himself as his abil-
an intimacy between artist and art is established: ity, through drawing, to impose an arbitrary vision on
Crumb takes sexual pleasure in his own handiwork. the world and on himself. The drawings may be con-
From the outset, then, the real and the drawn are fused with the real, but Crumb reminds us that they
purposefully confused. Crumb asserts both the almost are neither true nor sufficient in themselves.
palpable reality of his drawings and their artificiality. Throughout the remaining eighteen panels Crumb
This giddy image of masturbation leads logically assumes various guises, many of which, such as artist-
into the next panel, which reveals that the cartoonist saint, booshwah businessman, and media superstar,
gets what he wants by drawing a picture of the testify to his ambivalence about passing from private
desired object. Here the drawing equates a woman self to public personality. (This ambivalence saturates
with a Lincoln Continental and a stack of old 78 rpm XYZ Comics as well as the contemporaneous Peoples
records, while the cartoon Crumb leers in anticipa- Comix.) The very random, non-narrative quality of
tiona moment of crassness bracing in its candor this series also testifies to the plasticity of the artists
yet typical of Crumbs work. The vision of Crumb self-image, in a way that Clowess more argumenta-
himself has changed from one panel to the next; more tive approach cannot: if none of these images is
important, the second panel acknowledges Crumbs adequate to unlock the real Crumb, then all are
solipsism, both through its candid dehumanization nonetheless part of the way he sees himself. As Crumb
of the woman and through the texts recognition says in the end, again prefiguring Clowes, It all

Figure 44. R. Crumb, The Many Faces of R. Crumb, first page. The Complete Crumb Comics, Vol. 9, page 21. 2004 R. Crumb.
Used with permission.

Figure 45. Gilbert Hernandez, My Love Book. Hernandez Satyricon (selected panels). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

depends on the mood Im in!! It is the drawing that revelations about Hernandezs adolescence and
gives these momentary, untrustworthy impressions family life are wrapped in the clichs of superheroics,
the weight of truth. science fiction, and funny animals.
This aggressive unpacking of the cartoonists per- Throughout this scattershot collection, certain ideas
sona anticipates the problems of authenticity later repeat themselves. Maternal discipline, for instance, is
encountered by the post-Pekar generation. In response a recurrent theme: harshly punished by mother, both
to that generation, a similar antagonism marks Gilbert the cute lil pig of the strip Pig and the superhero
Hernandezs bizarre parody of the genre, titled My of the story Bully talk to God in prayer. (God, of
Love Book (from the achingly self-conscious penul- course, takes the mothers side.) Hernandezs Hispanic
timate issue of the original Love & Rockets, 1995, background and the racism he presumably endured
reprinted in Hernandez Satyricon). If Crumb revels in because of it come up in Bully as well as the gag strip
the plasticity of his persona, and Clowes uses multiple The Artist. Bedwetting is a motif in both Bully and
selves to attack autobiographys claims to truth, then the cruel And So It Was, which suggests guilty mem-
Love Book goes further still. Prompted by a con- ories of his fathers death. Adolescent sexual desire
fessed impatience with the autobiographical comics informs both Loser in Love and Valentine, the
genre (Young, Comic Art 55), Hernandez teases latter a remembrance of Gilberts courtship with his
the reader with a disjointed series of confessional wife, Carol, mockingly certified by the Carol Seal of
vignettes, between which his visual personae shift so Veracity. Such thematic repetition lends a sense of
radically that we can confirm their common identity unity to an otherwise random assortment of tales.
only through the repetition of certain motifs in dia- Like our Crumb and Clowes examples, My Love
logue and action. Over its fourteen pages, Love Book is arch and self-reflexive. Among other things,
Book offers not only a bewildering array of formats the story serves as a sidelong commentary on
(three-page stories, single-pagers, and brief strips) but the impending end of Love & Rockets, which had
also a string of bizarre Gilbert-inspired protagonists: served Gilbert and his brother Jaime as a personal
a young superhero-as-bedwetter; an Edward Munch- anthology for some thirteen years (see chapter 3).
esque critter; even an anthropomorphic pig (fig. 45). As a departure from Gilberts usual work, Love Book
As the artists own image metamorphoses, generic flirts with the readers prior knowledge, beginning
conventions are yanked out of joint: seeming with a two-page teaser in which Gilbert and Jaime


Figure 46. Hernandez, My Love Book. 57 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

assume the role of heroes in a ham-fisted commentary embroidered, of Hernandezs personae: a flaccid,
on their own careers (fig. 46). Facing the moment pudgy self-portrait in sharp contrast to the heroic
of truthimplicitly, the end of Love & Rockets ideal at the storys start (fig. 48). (This antiheroic
the two artists declare that this will be, not an end, self-image, incidentally, has reappeared in Gilberts
but a grand new beginning, from which there can subsequent work.) Haunted by his principal characters,
be no turning back! (57). Thus Love Book as well as the then-recent death of the much-loved
points to itself in a manner similar to Crumb and cartoonist Jack Kirby, this Gilbert looks back at his
Clowes; the primacy of the artist is ironically asserted career in comics, musing, It wasnt such a bad gig,
at the outset. was it? (67). Gazing at several slogans, taped to his
On the following page (fig. 47) Gilbert prepares studio wall like so many Post-It notes, Gilbert says
what he calls an effigy to act in the story of his with bitter humor, Heh . . . Cant believe I ever
life. In an echo of James Whales film Frankenstein wrote this shit . . . Wonder if I ever really believed
(Universal, 1931), Gilberts roly-poly assistant Nixon it? These bumper sticker-like messages again desta-
replaces the effigys normal penis with an abnor- bilize the artists persona, since they seem at odds
mal one. Thus the effigy, wound in a false skin and with the portrait of Hernandez that emerges through
sporting a shriveled member, is already a Franken- other stories and even in Love Book itself. Thus even
steinian mishap, a patchwork man of dubious authen- this final, low-key persona is awash in ambiguity. Its
ticity. Leaning over his drawing board, the artist orders fictionality is finally underscored by the impossible, sui-
his assistant, Get meI mean it into position, a cidal climax, as, in a self-conscious echo of Nirvanas
moment of confusion that suggests the impossibility Kurt Cobain, Gilbert shoots himself in the mouth.5
of an authentic autobiographical comic. This effigy The storys last panel manages to be at once risi-
prepares us for the various personae that inhabit the ble and disturbing, the bloody suicide commenting
following pages. acidly on the pending conclusion of Love & Rockets.
My Love Book ends with brutal pessimism, with The fatal image also adverts to, again, the limits of
what at first seems the most straightforward, or least autobiography. With this bitter irony, Love Book


Figure 47. Hernandez, My Love Book. 58 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

muddies its own implicit assertion of truth. Who is of experience to the hindsight of exposition, the rig-
this Gilbert? The assertive hero of the opening, sure ors and temptations of storytellingwhat George
of a grand destiny? Or the pathetic, crapped-out Gusdorf calls the original sin . . . of logical coherence
caricature of wasted talent shown at the end? Perhaps, and rationalization (Gusdorf 41).6 Yet by flaunting
as Crumb asserts, it all depends on the artists mood. the falseness of their personae, Crumb, Clowes, and
In the last analysis, what are the above stories Hernandez reconfirm the power of comics to convey
after? What do they reveal? If autobiographical comix something like the truth. Artifice and candor go hand
take as their starting point a polemical assertion of in hand. This fundamental irony comes into sharper
truth over fantasy, then these comics serve to reassert focus if, following Timothy Dow Adams, we invoke
the fantastic, distorting power of the artists craft Merle Browns distinction between the fictive and
and vision. They carry us to the vanishing point where the fictitious: a story may be fictive yet truthful,
imagination and claims to truth collide. Yet these insofar as it implies as part of itself the art of its
pieces still demand and play on the readers trust; making; in contrast, a story (autobiographical or
they still purport to tell truths. Crumb, Clowes, and otherwise) that does not acknowledge its own mak-
Hernandez, finally, do not disallow autobiography as ing is merely fictitious (Brown 62; Adams, Telling
such, but ironically reaffirm its power by demanding Lies 11). The fictive, then, problematizes itself, while
recognition of its implicit assumptions. Ultimately, the the merely fictitious strives for transparency.
implied compact between author and readerwhat By Browns criterion, these three stories are fictive
Philippe Lejeune famously called the autobiographi- but not fictitious, for they acknowledge their own
cal pactis upheld even as it is abused (see Lejeune construction too frankly. While these tales revel in
330 for discussion of autobiography as a contrac- artifice, in the end they present the artists own tech-
tual genre). niques to us with such self-critical candor that implied
claims to truth, though now bracketed, still inform
our reading. These tales bear out Paul John Eakins
FICTIVE BUT NOT FICTITIOUS observation that [a]utobiographers themselves con-
stitute a principal source of doubt about the validity
In a sense, the above stories assert truthfulness of [their] art (276); yet this doubt, this radical self-
through falsity. Comics, like any form of narrative, questioning, reinforces rather than corrodes the seem-
can falsify circumstances by subjecting the vagaries ing veracity of autobiography, for the texts admissions


Figure 48. Hernandez, My Love Book. 67 (excerpt). 2004 Gilbert Hernandez. Used with permission.

of artifice defer the question of trustworthiness to a and making demands on his/her sophistication.
new level, that of the very act of creation. Here is Through deconstructive playfulness, these pieces
where the truth of the autobiography resides, for effectively underscore Gunns observation that the
this truth, as Janet Varner Gunn has said, lies not in authorship of autobiography is tacitly plural (143).
the facts of the story itself, but in the relational After all, autobiography, as Gunn notes, is a per-
space between the story and its reader (143). These formance, a gamea social act that calls for a plu-
cartoonists exploit that metaphoric space, inviting ral, not singular, reflexivity (140). Clowes, Crumb,
readers into complicity. and Hernandez invite us to play this game: our input
If autobiographical comics offer a specious objec- is solicited, and our skepticism flattered, by their
tivity, then Crumb, Clowes, and Hernandez take pains refusal to be simply honestthat is, fictitious.
to subvert it. Yet paradoxically this subversion cements We might call this strategy, then, authentication
the pact, the generic understanding, between read- through artifice, or more simply ironic authentication:
ers and author, for these comics attempt to avoid the implicit reinforcement of truth claims through
falsification by acknowledging the readers presence their explicit rejection. In brief, ironic authentication


makes a show of honesty by denying the very possi- with his failed attempts to assert his individuality in
bility of being honest. The strategy reaches its zenith the face of multiple selves. A Marriage Album, a
of playful aggression in the above three tales, which, collaborative tale in which Pekar and his wife, Joyce
paradoxically, glorify the self through a form of self- Brabner (with illustrator Val Mayerick) recall the cir-
abnegationthat is, through the very denial of an cumstances of their marriage, takes an opposite tack:
irreducible, unified identity, one that cannot be falsi- it shows different and conflicting pictures of Harvey,
fied through artistic representation. In each case the culled from past American Splendor stories, to sug-
self-assertion of the author rests on the plasticity of gest how Joyces image of him was influenced by his
his self-image, on his awareness of the slipperiness comics prior to their first face-to-face meeting (fig. 49).
of individual identity. The core identity of each is This highly fraught moment, as Witek suggests in
precisely what cannot be represented, and it is this Comic Books as History, calls attention not only to
very lack that, ironically, prompts the project of self- the diverse styles of Pekars collaborators but also to
representation. the various fictionalizing personae Pekar [has]
If this constitutive absence underlies autobiogra- adopt[ed], hence to the inherently fictive nature of
phy in general, it becomes especially clear in the form his autobiographical work (139). As in Our Cancer
of comics, where a series of discrete images, each one Year, so here: art filters into life, alerting us to our
substituting for the one before it, represents sequence own participation in the authors self-construction.
and continuity. The syntax of comicsspecifically, its In conclusion, despite the seeming navet of
reliance on visual substitution to suggest continu- autobiographical comics in general, such ironic
ityputs the lie to the notion of an unchanging, authentication informs many of the keystone works
undivided self, for in the breakdowns of comics we in the genre. Moments of self-referential play can be
see the self (in action over a span of time) repre- found, for instance, in such seminal examples as
sented by multiple selves. The tension between sin- Greens Binky Brown (to which we turn in our next
gle image and image-in-series disrupts (in the words chapter) and Kominsky-Crumbs early Bunch sto-
of Linda Haverty Rugg) the singularity of the auto- ries. Though Crumb, Clowes, and Hernandez take
biographical pact by pointing to a plurality of selves this strategy to a skeptical and disorienting extreme,
(13). The representation of time through space, and such self-reflexive gestures are to some degree essen-
the fragmentation of space into contiguous images, tial to the genre. Granted, some cartoonists gleefully
argue for the changeability of the individual selfthe blur the distinction between auteur and cartoon
possibility that our identities may be more change- persona: take for example Crumb and Kominsky-
able, or less stable, than we care to imagine. The Crumb in Dirty Laundry and Self-Loathing Comics
three stories above flirt with this unsettling possibil- (husband-and-wife collaborations in which each car-
ity, and testify to anxiety about it, yet each attempts toonist draws him/herself), or the remarkably indis-
to celebrate, through ironic refraction, the auteur creet Joe Matt (whose Peepshow often serves as a
behind the curtain, the cartoonist whose craft makes passive-aggressive intervention in his own real-life
these multiple representations possible. relationships). Ironic authentication, however, calls
Once established, the idea of ironic authentication attention to this very distinction, life vs. art, and thus
sheds light on the representational strategies behind answers the justified skepticism of readers. In short,
autobiographical comics in general. Indeed this self- this strategy continually renegotiates the compact
reflexive dimension can be seen even in comics by between author and audience, certifying the genres
Harvey Pekar. For instance, The Harvey Pekar Name truth claims through unabashed falseness.
Story, as shown in chapter 2, puts paid to the notion It may be that ironic authentication simply exag-
of a singular self, through its ironic use of a grid filled gerates the irony inherent in trying to tell ones own
with near-identical Pekars (refer back to fig. 11). story through the hybrid visual-verbal means of
The frustration of the narrator has everything to do comics. Comic art, after all, is a potentially complex


Figure 49. Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Val Mayerick, A Marriage Album. More American Splendor (n. pag.). Harvey Pekar. Used with

narrative instrument, offering forms of visual-verbal which enables the author to represent simultane-
synergy in which confused and even conflicting points ously various aspects or readings of him or herself.
of view can be entertained all at once. The interaction Ironic authentication points up this complexity, both
of word and picturethat basic tension between challenging and yet affirming autobiographys regard
codesallows for ongoing intertextual or metatextual for truth. The above examples represent a salutary
commentary, a possibility that threatens the very loss of innocencethe recognition that, for auto-
idea of a unified self. Complex, multivalent mean- biographers, truth must be a matter of craft as
ings, irreducible to a single message, are possible in well as honesty.
comics precisely because of this visual-verbal tension,




Regarding autobiographical comics, hindsight reveals an ironic, self-reflexive

impulse at work in many of the genres urtexts. The ironies may not always
be as bald, or as cynical, as in the key instances from our previous chapter,
but nonetheless they are crucial, often contributing to a sense of distance
between the nave self depicted in the autobiography and the older, more
sophisticated self responsible for the depiction. This distancing is critical in
two senses, that is, both analytical and all-important. As Louis Renza long
ago observed, the autobiographer experiences his signified past self as at
once the same as his present self . . . and yet strangely, uniquely, as other to
it (317). The worldview of the autobiographical subject, often a confused
young naf, contrasts with the more mature and comprehensive, or simply
more jaded, view of the author. In comics, this sense of otherness may be
enacted by the tension between representational codes: the abstract or dis-
cursive (the Word) versus the concrete or visual (the Picture). Such verbal-
visual tension opens up a space of opportunity, one in which pictorial
metaphors can multiply promiscuously, offering a surreal or wildly subjective
vision to counterbalance the truth claims that certify the text as autobio-
graphical. Thus bizarre, unrealistic, and expressionistic images may coexist
with a scrupulously factual account of ones life. The resultant ironies confer
an authenticity that is emotional rather than literal: that of the present talking
to the past.
But why does the authenticity of autobiographical comics matter, any-
way? To be frank, the very idea of authenticity (or its pejorative flipside,


inauthenticity) carries a moralistic and metaphysical the horizons of Laschs larger critique, Gordon would
charge that should rouse our skepticism. As our pre- seem to score a palpable hit (the historical near-
vious chapter reveals, talking about authenticity in coincidence of Laschs book and Pekars American
nonfiction comics is dicey at bestthe sort of thing Splendor perhaps helps).
that invites anxious throat-clearing and the fretful Indeed Lasch, in his attack on New Journalism
overuse of quotation marks. Yet, as before noted, and the self-help and confessional literature of the
the ethic of authenticity (there I go again) stands seventies, seems to anticipate some commonplace
in polemical contrast to the fantasy genres that criticisms of autobiographical comics. He criticizes
have for so long dominated the comics mainstream. the confessional mode for presenting personal
Invoking authenticity means taking a standthis experience without reflection, in undigested form,
is one of the fundamental appeals of alternative and also for appealing to salacious curiosity rather
comicsand autobiographical comics that strive than the search for deep understanding. Perhaps
after authenticity have the potential for radical cul- most damning, Lasch faults such writing for failing
tural argument. Again, there is a democratic subtext to achieve the detachment indispensable to art
to the genre and at its best an awareness of the link- (17). His criticism extends to specific elements, or
ing, indeed inextricable knotting, of the personal tics, of style, such as self-parodymore specifi-
and the political. Simply put, the idea of authenticity cally, that perfunctory [and] self-deprecatory strain
offers an escape from escapism (in the narrowest, of humor that disarms criticism by offering writers a
most retrograde sense). convenient way out, a means of disclaiming respon-
Some will argue, indeed some have argued, oth- sibility and ingratiating themselves to the skepti-
erwise. For instance, cultural historian Ian Gordon, cal reader (1819). This charge seems born out by,
reviewing Joseph Witeks Comic Books as History, for example, the aforementioned Many Faces of
balks at Witeks appraisal of Harvey Pekar. Gordon R. Crumb, in which disquieting self-revelation eases
suggests that Pekars work, far from linking the per- immediately into self-deprecating overstatement
sonal and the political, remains banal [and] narcis- (see chapter 4). As Lasch sees it, this type of work,
sistic, and charges Pekar with an inability to far from being honest, is fundamentally evasive,
conceive of human relations except as they apply to as it waives the right to be taken seriously and
himself ( But Seriously, Folks . . . 345). For seems determined merely to attract undeserved atten-
Gordon, Pekars self-regarding comics, and the tion or sympathy (2021).
reception of same, are symptoms of a culture of Such charges are hard to answer, not least because
narcissism. This accusation alludes, of course, to they blur together aesthetic and moralistic judg-
Christopher Laschs famed The Culture of Narcissism ments under the warrant of psychoanalysis, with its
(1978), an Olympian analysis undergirded by Freud authoritative, clinical vocabulary. Laschs study is
and distinguished by a broad and penetrating cri- sweeping; his argument extends from the clinical lit-
tique of various media and cultural forms. By now erature regarding narcissism (Freud, Kernberg, Klein
Laschs indictment has a familiar ring to it: the post- et al.) to an omnivorous critique of various cultural
sixties retreat into privatism, as opposed to political forms and institutions, and, ultimately, to an attack
action; the rise of a therapeutic sensibility that on post-industrial capitalism, which, he argues,
centers everything on the self; the relentless trum- elicits and reinforces narcissistic traits in everyone
peting of personal gratification, at the expense of (232). In this light, the upwelling of new forms of
enduring social relations; the neglect of historical personal narrative (in comics and in literature more
continuityindeed the whole depressing parade of generally) appears merely a symptom of collapse, or
the so-called Me Generation, of which Lasch pro- retreat, into a pathological me-first-ism that logically
vided the most magisterial and perhaps most radical fulfills rather than resists the cultural crisis of late
critique. By positioning his reading of Pekar within capitalism.


This far-ranging analysis has implications for what storytelling device, a means for getting at, and shap-
we now habitually call postmodern culture, espe- ing, the stories of other peoples lives.
cially as Lasch touches on such topics as historical Joseph Witek long ago observed this tendency in
amnesia, the ubiquity of advertising, and the idea of Pekars work (Comic Books 14243, 14953). In the
consumption as an alternative to protest or rebel- years since Witeks study, Pekar (perhaps partly
lion (73). In the latter we should include the mar- because of the influence of his wife, writer Joyce
keting and consumption of rebellion itself, as an Brabner) has become even more interested in using
idea, a stance, even a style. Indeed advertising his life experience as a way of bringing others to light.
now routinely exhorts us to think differently and The intersubjective, indeed collaborative, potential of
offers, as incentive, images of culture heroes who Pekar comes to the fore in many of his projects. Take,
became such by virtue of their supposed individual- for instance, the shared memoir Our Cancer Year,
ism. From this viewpoint, autobiographys assertion with Brabner and illustrator Frank Stack, in which the
of individuality (established in our last chapter) interplay between Pekars and Brabners viewpoints
could be construed not as a principled resistance to parallels the interweaving of personal and political
corporate culture but rather as a form of surrender. crises (as described in the previous chapter); the one-
Individualists, rebels, and hipsters, in particular the shot comic book American Splendour [sic]:
heroes of the sixties anticommercial countercul- Transatlantic Comics (1998), based on British artist
ture, are the pillars of todays commercial hype. Indeed, Colin Warnefords personal account of living with
as Thomas Frank points out in The Conquest of Cool Aspergers Syndrome, and illustrated mostly by
(1997), the counterculture has become an enduring Warneford himself from Pekars script; and the recent
commercial myth, and hip a ubiquitous commercial Unsung Hero (2003), a retelling of the Vietnam expe-
style, indeed the vernacular of the [1990s] much- riences of African-American war veteran Robert
hyped economic revolution (32). By this light, resist- McNeill, drawn by David Collier from Pekars script,
ing a too-obvious commercialization, as indeed Pekars and evidently based on McNeills own oral testimony.
American Splendor and many other autobiographical These long-form projects only enlarge on a ten-
comics do, is but another form of commercial come- dency apparent in Pekars work from early on, for, as
on. Everybody wants to be an individual, everybody often as Pekar has made himself and his struggles
wants to fight the power. What makes autobio- the center of attention, he has also turned his observ-
graphical comics so special in this regard? ing eye on others and solicited their stories. The
Such a view apparently underlies Gordons indict- near-constant presence of Pekar himself, as inter-
ment of Pekar, a writer for whom, he says, other locutor and recorder, serves not as a mere salve to
peoples experiences only achieve importance as the authors ego but rather as an authenticating
they relate to [himself] (345). Lost in this criticism, device (rather like the foregrounding of the writers
however, are two considerations. First, autobiogra- experience in the New Journalism). At times this
phy, with its focus on the everyday, has the potential interchange results in a complex tracing of connec-
to shed light on issues of real political and cultural tions between the authors personal activity and his
heft; as Lasch says, social questions inevitably pres- gathering of other peoples tales. This technique,
ent themselves also as personal ones (26). Second, modeled by Pekar, has since shaped many autobio-
autobiography is not always and inevitably a genre graphical and journalistic comics, such as, for exam-
for the self-absorbed, or the strutting individualist. ple, the eccentric historical comics of David Collier
On the contrary, much autobiography derives its (Just the Facts, Portraits from Life) and the emotion-
interest from its enactment of dialogical and inter- ally wrenching reportage of Joe Sacco (Palestine,
subjective relationshipsin short, from its social acu- Safe Area Gorazde)both sometime Pekar collabo-
ity. Autobiographical comics in particular often treat rators. In the best of such comics, autobiographical
the authors visible persona as an interlocutor and self-reflexivity serves to pry open larger political and


cultural issues; ironic authentication, as defined in Virgin Mary (1972). Binky, published by the pio-
our last chapter, enables the careful and complex neering underground comix company Last Gasp
handling of a larger social/historical focus. Eco-Funnies (of Berkeley, California), is recognized
In chapter 4 we established ironic authentication as a precursor to Pekar; indeed it is often cited as the
as a tempting strategy in nonfiction comics, a means wellspring of autobiographical comics. Estrens History
of graphically asserting truthfulness through the of Underground Comics, for example, argues for
admission of artifice. Thus defined, ironic authenti- Binkys wide influence and praises its unparalleled
cation gives authors a way of anticipating, answer- mix of social commentary, social satire, and social
ing, and taking advantage of their own (and their realism (28991). Rosenkranzs Rebel Visions (quot-
readers) skepticism. By way of conclusion I sug- ing Green) alludes to the passionate reader response
gested that this kind of irony only exaggerates the the book engendered (189); more concretely, The
ironies always potentially present in comics, due to Comics Journals Bob Levin observes that Binky sold
the forms fundamental tension between verbal and some 50,000 copies, an extraordinary figure for comix
visual codes. This tension enables the graphic enact- (101). Most famously, Binky inspired the seminal
ment, on the picture plane, of the critical estrange- first-person comics of Crumb, Kominsky-Crumb, and
ment or distancing between the autobiographer and many others (Spiegelman, Symptoms 4).
his/her past self (as depicted in the work). Such Greens groundbreaking work warrants a close
irony may confer emotional truths while confound- look because it at once anticipates, and stands in
ing any literal sense of authenticity. Broadly speak- sharp contrast to, the insistently mundane and more
ing, ironic authentication makes the autobiographical or less realistically rendered comics of the Pekar
comic reenact or speak to its own making. school. (Binky foreshadows, for example, Gilbert
This kind of irony, then, allows for not only vari- Hernandezs protean, wildly shifting approach to
ous playful metacomicscomics about making comics autobiography, seen in our previous chapter.) More
about making comics, ad infinitum, as in our previous important, Binky is an extraordinary achievement in
examples from Crumb, Clowes, and Hernandezbut its own right: a fantastic, bleakly humorous mix of
also comics about subjects that are almost impossi- informed anti-Catholic polemic and self-scourging
bly hard to handle, where questions of truth and confessional. Over its forty pages, Green uncorks his
artifice are fraught with special urgency, both psy- psyche, examining in harrowing detail the collision
chologically and politically. The balance of this chap- of Catholic doctrine and his own neurotic, guilt-driven
ter will examine two autobiographical comics of the personality (since diagnosed as a case of Obsessive-
utmost urgency, to show how self-reflexivity can Compulsive Disorder, though no such explanation
enable both psychological intimacy and bold social was available to Green at the time of Binkys cre-
argument. I hope what follows will also suggest why ation [Green 8]). The book depicts the mutual rein-
autobiography, of all things, became central to alter- forcement of religious dogma and psychological
native comicsand indeed became comic arts most obsession, a cruel synergy that all but consumes its
traveled route to growth, enrichment, and recogni- titular hero. Binky, a profoundly restless character, is
tion as a form of literature. tormented by self-doubt, thus devoted to constant
checking, double-checking, and triple-checking to
make sure no sins are committed (or at least none
JUSTIN GREEN: HONESTY THROUGH left unatoned). The book, in keeping with this psy-
METAPHORICAL OVERKILL chological profile, is a work of obsessive genius.
Greens particular obsession, as detailed in Binky,
The first of our examples, perhaps the ur-example of involves imaginary rays of carnal lust emanating from
confessional literature in comics, is Justin Greens his penis, his limbs, and even material objects, rays
one-shot comic book Binky Brown Meets the Holy that he must prevent from striking representations,


Figure 50. Justin Green, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Binky Brown Sampler 42 (excerpt). Justin Green. Used with permission.

whether visual or verbal, of the Holy Virgin Mary (and pattern on the classroom floor, and shows one of
the Catholic Church more generally). These rays Binkys teachers, a severe nun, ordering her charges
threaten to converge on the Virgin in much the same to line up [their] desks with the tiles! The panel
way that, in classical perspective, invisible lines con- before this shows a nun beating Binky with a metal
nect parallel objects to a common vanishing pointa architects ruler (18). Later, as the comic explains
resemblance that Green, an almost neurotically metic- Binkys obsession for straightening things, the draw-
ulous craftsman, duly acknowledges. Indeed, the ings parody his obsession, turning the character and
exact form of Greens compulsion seems to match his environment into flat, angular shapes in contrast
perfectly his vocation as artist: his cartoon alter ego, to the freehand energy of Greens usual figures (fig.
Binky Brown, visualizes a world of gridlike precision, in 50). Binky himself, walking past a chair that offends
which invisible vectors of sin crisscross the landscape. his sense of order, becomes a parody of Supermans
This, obviously, is an artists conceit. once-popular character Bizarro (a square-headed,
Binkys obsession requires positioning himself crystalline version of Superman who lived on a cube-
within the discipline of classical perspectivea curi- shaped world and spoke in a fractured, childlike
ously rectilinear worldview for one consumed by dialect). In Bizarro-speak, Binky says, Uh-ohchair
guilt and fear. Green at once underscores and resists make trouble! He then straightens the offending
this linearity, for graphically his artwork enacts a furniture so that all is well (42).
struggle between geometric severity and organic On the facing page, an assortment of penile
fluidity. For instance, as he describes his Catholic objects (weathercock, badminton racket, soda bottle,
schools insistence on order, uniformity, rigidity, and and so on) appears in a baffling, non-perspectival
obedience, Green draws a precise square-tiled splash panel that takes up two-thirds of the page,

Figure 51. Green, Binky Brown. 43. Justin Green. Used with permission.

each object projecting its pecker ray (fig. 51). These hangs upside down with a pen in his mouth, draw-
tumescent shapes, veined and fleshy, recall the ing a comics page (10). His ink bottle is labeled
curvy, LSD-influenced abstractions of such under- Dads blood; a phonograph beside him plays a
ground comix artists as Victor Moscoso, and their warped record of Ave Maria. He draws by candle-
resistance to conventional perspective belies Binkys light, while cherubim hover overhead, with plunger,
efforts (and the Churchs) to mold the unwieldy toilet paper, and toilet bowl brush in their hands.
living world into a safe mechanical scheme (43). Just Positioned between the artists legs is a long, sickle-
beneath, a round or bulls-eye panel contains an like blade, perched dangerously close to his groin.
explanation of Binkys perspectival obsession, replete Here Green, in a confession to [his] readers,
with a diagram of projection rays and vanishing admits that Binky represents an effort to, as he says,
point. At the bottom of the page, Binky, shown purge myself of the compulsive neurosis which I
struggling with a giant toothpaste tube to prevent its have served since I officially left Catholicism on
ray from striking you-know-who, again appears in Halloween, 1958. Begging indulgence for focusing
an oddly angular rendering, as if his body was made on the petty conflict in [his] crotch, the cartoonist
of sheared quartz. suggests that portraying his neurosis in easy-to-
Such self-reflexive playfulness characterizes Binky understand comic-book format may help others
right up to the end, as Green nods repeatedly to the similarly afflicted, and thus constitutes an act of
very act of drawing. The creation of Binky itself is intervention in a social issue: If we neurotics
drawn into the story, as a sign of Greens despera- were tied together we would entwine the globe many
tion, a purging of his guilt, and a way of humorously times over in a vast chain of common suffering
underscoring his critique of Catholicism. For example, (10, emphasis in original). The very balloon that
the penultimate panel finds Binky, having spurned contains his words appears bloated and venous,
Catholicism and recognized his obsession as such, wrapped in thorns and held to the wall by an enor-
eyeing a stack of overdue library books: First Cat- mous nail, a Christological allusion that suggests
echism, Perspective, and Fun with a Pencil (fig. 52). both the depth of Greens impiety and the despera-
The titles of these three books testify to the overlap tion of his cause. From the outset, then, the pen
in Brown/Greens psyche between artistic vision and becomes both an affront to Catholicism and an
religious neurosis, as they recall the heros indoctri- active substitute for or sublimation of an endan-
nation into the Church, his grasp of classical art, and gered sexuality, the mobile alternative to a penis
his dedication to drawing. In the background, a held motionless, hostage, by a symbolic threat of
cartoon by R. Crumb hints at a different source of castration. A reference in the indicia below to the
inspiration: metonymically, Crumb (also a lapsed Catholic Guilds comic book series Treasure Chest
Catholic) stands in for the underground comix (194672) cements the link between Green and the
movement, then in its heyday, which liberated Green Catholic tradition, even as it announces the adults-
artistically, inspiring him to set forth his personal only nature of this comic (Youngsters Prohibited,
story in comics form. as the front cover proclaims).
Obviously, the pencil in the third books title, This illustration is the first of many extravagant
Fun with a Pencil, can substitute metaphorically for visual metaphors employed by Green to illustrate
the feared penis, the original source of the rays that and intensify his autobiographical polemic. These
have so monopolized Binkys imagination. Green metaphors, as Joseph Witek suggests, give Binky a
knowingly employs this metaphoric likeness between surreal, wildly comic quality that sets it apart from
artists tool and penis, beginning with the fron- Pekars later, more naturalistic efforts (Comic Books
tispiece (inside front cover) to the comic book (fig. 128). Most notably, Green himself becomes a recur-
53). Here, in a full-page drawing, a caricature of rent metaphor: the image of the artist with pen in
Green appears: naked, hands and ankles bound, he mouth reappears three times in the tale itself. First,


within the page, the ink defacing the drawing even

as Binky, in the comic within the comic, struggles to
overcome his guilt complex. Barely comprehensible,
the cartoonist blurts between clenched teeth, Shek-ik!
Almesh fineshk!
This weird interpolation (almost finished?) sug-
gests that, for the cartoonist, the creation of Binky
itself has become an elaborate act of penance. It seems
that, despite Binkys climactic self-transformation,
Green remains entangled in the guilty compulsions
of former days, and the crafting of Binky itself repre-
sents yet another ritual purging of these feelings
(as the frontispiece suggests). Indeed, the final panel
undercuts Binkys victory over Catholic guilt, as it
reimagines the cartoonist as a (phallic) fish, lurching
down the sidewalk, pen in his mouth. As a cop
wearing the sign of the Cross follows, waving a fish-
net, the captioned text parodies accounts of evolu-
tion, with references to Binky creeping out of the
primeval morass of superstition, taking a desper-
ate leap such as those taken by our brave ances-
tors, the fish. This ambivalent, comically reductive
Figure 52. Green, Binky Brown. 50 (excerpt). Justin Green. Used
ending testifies to the tenacity of his neurosis and
with permission.
the impossibility of simply purging it through a vio-
lent catharsis (as Binky attempts to do at the climax,
Green uses this image to smooth over a transition by literal iconoclasm, that is, by smashing mass-
between his years in parochial school and his arrival produced Virgins with a hammer). The very process
at a 90% Jewish public school (29). More specifi- of creating Binky, then, becomes a crucial part of
cally, he deploys this self-caricature to redirect the Greens tale of obsession: and this is the vanishing
reader from a polemic on Catholic doctrine back to point where Green becomes Binky Brown, Binky
his life story per se. Second, the bound cartoonists becomes Justin Green.
likeness pops up as Green explains the impossibility Thus Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
of keeping pace with his daily prayer quota, that is itself a purgative ritual (comparable to Binkys
is, his laundry list of penances (44). As snowballing final confrontation with the mass-produced 39-cent
guilt transforms Binky into a literal snowball (or Madonnas). The pen, one phallic item not explicitly
Sisyphean boulder?), rolling downhill from Purgatory identified with the penis (though Fun with a Pencil
to Hell, the image from the frontispiece appears in a hints at this possibility), becomes a more potent
tiny inset panel, as if the cartoonist were speaking symbol than the hammer seen at storys end or the
directly to us. various other shaftlike instruments invoked through-
Finally, the storys last page recalls the frontispiece out (baseball bat, fire hose, and so on, all associ-
again (50). Here the second panel abruptly pulls us ated with the feared pecker rays). The comic,
out of the story itself, recontextualizing Binky (tri- which begins with young Binkys accidental shatter-
umphant in his rejection of guilt) as a mere drawing ing of a Madonna statue, becomes in the end the
on paper (fig. 54). We see the pen, gripped between supreme gesture of iconoclasm, hinted at by the
the artists teeth, blotting and scratching on the page back cover, which shows a lion, wearing a B for

Figure 53. Frontispiece to Binky Brown. Binky Brown Sampler 10. Justin Green. Used with permission.


Figure 54. Green, Binky Brown. 50 (excerpt).

Justin Green. Used with permission.

Binky, attacking the Virgin and revealing her to be To this endand here is what makes Binky
a devil in saints clothing (52). Brown such a bold and effective piece of work
Years later, Green would admit that, at the time Green deploys an array of extravagant visual
of Binky, he styled himself a warrior against the metaphors. Though he lovingly captures the cultural
Church (8). Notwithstanding his subsequent retreat landscape of his formative years in the fifties (for
from this uncompromising position, Binky shows the example, clothing, comics, and Cadillacs; furniture,
ferocity of his rejection quite clearly, as Binky decries TV, and rock n roll), Green also takes flight graphi-
that mean ol nasty, whining Catholic God who cally through a series of disorienting conceits that
demands all our love, all the time . . . an unattainable capture young Binkys psychic landscape with equal
ideal! (48). Yet Greens polemic admits of ambigu- precision. At first such conceits are confined to
ity: for instance, one priest, Father Innocenzi, young Binkys dreams and fantasies, but then they
appears liberal, lenient and understanding, and tells gradually assert themselves into his daily life through
Binky that God is merciful (34); likewise, Sister passages of Greens anti-Catholic argument (for
Virginia, one of the nuns at Binkys parochial school, example, parochial school students are brainwashed
is shown favorablyeven though Binky himself and turned into marionettes, replete with strings).
rejects her when she leaves the convent, calling her Eventually, elements of fantasy begin to intrude
an excommunicant and weakling (1819). The everywhere: Binkys Jewish father, for instance,
story, then, focuses less on the abuse of temporal appears as a horned devil, and a girl he idolizes liter-
power by the clergy and more on the inner world of ally stands on a pedestal. At one point, rejected by
the child, Binky; less on the bare facts of Greens this girl, Binky literally falls down in th dumps,
upbringing, more on the development of his tor- then extricates himself with pious reminders of Christs
tured self-image vis--vis the Church and especially suffering (fig. 55). In this sequence, the weight of
the Virgin. Church dogma appears as a monkey on Binkys back,


Figure 55. Green, Binky

Brown. 27 (excerpt). Justin
Green. Used with permission.

bearing a Cross of its own, while a Sinstoppers densely crosshatched backgrounds, some approach-
Guidebook (cribbed from the Crimestoppers Text- ing an engraving-like texture. Throughout, voluptuous
book in Chester Goulds Dick Tracy) counsels against curves battle with rigid, carefully ruled edges, as if
the sin of despair (2627). enacting the artists own struggle between icono-
These visual metaphors come more often as Binkys clasm and guilt. Those expecting a documentary
psychic world becomes more and more dominated by realism, to authenticate Greens polemic, will be per-
his guilty obsessions. Finally, this movement toward plexed by his anarchic visual imagination and over-
metaphor climaxes in the discovery of the pecker flowing technique.
rays, which turn every extremity of Binkys body While Green does not worry the problem of
into a penile projector (42). Over and over, hands authenticity per se, he uses myriad devices that put
and feet appear as huge penises. Consensus reality paid to the idea of an unproblematic objectivity:
vanishes for whole sequences as, for example, Binky visual symbolism, verbal and ideographic commen-
tries to plug the holes in his psychic dam (made tary, parody and ever-changing graphic design. Thus
literal in the drawings) or assumes the angular, Bizarro- Binky, inspiration for the autobiographical comix
like countenance described above. Most important are movement to follow, demonstrates how the persona
the changes in Binky himself, some subtle, some not: of the cartoonist is always inevitably in doubthow
he ages; his nose grows; his physique alternates a mocking visual self-reflexivity informs even the
between anemic stringiness and well-muscled beef- foundations of this genre. Indeed, radical subjectivity
cake (50). In addition, Green employs a huge arsenal is the focus of Binky, and Greens cartoon world is as
of layout strategies, graphic devices, and delineative aggressively imaginative as Binkys own inner world
variations: panels and panel borders change shape; is obsessive and guilt-wracked.
diagrammatic arrows, thought balloons, signs and Greens blending of scarifying psychological con-
mock-scholarly documentation run rampant; wide- tent and profuse visual metaphor has been an
open, white panels contrast with zipatone grays and important reference point for several generations of


cartoonists. In particular, he anticipated a school of example, cats against mice). Thus Spiegelman runs
visionary autobiography that has recently reappeared the risk of mystifying the historical bases of European
on the alternative comics scene with terrific force: anti-Semitism and German imperialism. Robert C.
Take for example French artist David B.s six-volume Harvey presses this point in The Art of the Comic
family memoir LAscension du Haut Mal (19962003, Book: Spiegelmans animal metaphor, he argues,
translated into English as Epileptic, 2005), with its plays directly into [Nazisms] racist vision (244).
long historical reach and beautiful, fierce, dreamlike The device, he maintains, threatens to erode [the
imagery; or, for a strikingly different example, Madison storys] moral underpinnings (243). Harveys criti-
Clells Cuckoo (2002), a rough-hewn, graphically cism underscores the risk inherent in the books
fragmented yet wholly persuasive account of living strategy: the predatory cats of Spiegelmans vision
with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Such work has may perhaps be seen as simply fulfilling their natural
helped widen the prevailing sense of what comics roles as predators; worse yet, the persecution and
can do, and it is the possibility of such work that extermination of the Jews may be written off as a
makes the autobiographical comics genre so urgent. simple consequence of their own natural, mouse-
like timidity.
Yet, paradoxically, Spiegelmans visual metaphor
MAUS AND WHAT CANNOT BE REPRESENTED succeeds by self-destructing and thus undercutting
such essentialist readings. The text takes pains to call
Yet arguably the most urgent and complex of auto- attention to the inadequacy of the metaphor, over
biographical comics, and certainly the best known and over, as if to expose Spiegelmans artifice for
among American readers, is Art Spiegelmans cele- what it is. The fallacy of representing cultural differ-
brated Maus (two volumes: 1 in 1986, 2 in 1991). In ences by outward traits (for example, Jewishness
Maus, ironic authentication appears at its knottiest through mouseness) is repeatedly thrust in the
and most politically fraught, as Spiegelman puts readers face as a problem. For instance, Polish Jews
claims to truth under the greatest pressure. Admit- repeatedly pass themselves off as gentiles by wear-
tedly inspired by the urgency of Binky Brown, Maus ing pig masks in the drawings, though in fact they
nonetheless avoids Greens relentlessly allegorical are not so much pretending to be something as pre-
and parodic iconolatry; it also skirts the corrosive tending not to be something. Spiegelman himself
cynicism we have seen in Crumb, Clowes, and appears as a mouse, as a man, and as a man in a
Hernandez. Despite this, Maus represents the ne plus mouse mask. Meanwhile real animals, such as
ultra of self-reflexive irony in comics. Spiegelmans horses, police dogs, and cellar-dwelling rats, exist
intergenerational memoir of the Jewish Holocaust side by side with the artists metaphorical ones.
and its psychological fallout serves not only as a his- Photos of human beings appear as well, further dis-
tory, a biography of the authors father (Vladek mantling the metaphor. Moreover, the words never
Spiegelman), and an autobiography but also as an once refer to Spiegelmans cast of characters as any-
extended essay on the pitfalls of trying to represent thing but human; thus the animal metaphor impacts
the unrepresentable. the visual but not the written text, an inconsistency
This self-critical aspect comes into focus through Spiegelman knowingly courted when creating the
the storys notorious gimmick, the representation of book (Groth and Fiore 191).
human beings through anthropomorphic animals: In this light, one could be forgiven for asking,
Jews as mice, German gentiles as cats, Polish gentiles Why bother to use the animal metaphor at all?
as pigs, and so on. This gimmick, as others have Indeed, some have roundly criticized Spiegelmans
remarked, toys with biological determinism by use of the device as glib and irresponsible. Hillel
metaphorically turning ethnic and nationalistic con- Halkin, reviewing Maus for Commentary in 1992,
flicts into natural predator/prey relationships (for argues, The Holocaust was a crime committed by


humans against humans, notas Nazi theory held to the storys understated drama)1 often revolve
by one biological species against another. . . . To around the failure of the animal metaphor. For
draw people as animals . . . is doubly dehumanizing, instance, at one point Vladek worries about his wife,
once by virtue of the symbolism and once by virtue Anja (Arts mother), whose more obviously Jewish
of graphic limitations (56). Halkins objections appearance may handicap their efforts to escape the
assume a literal reading of the characters animal Nazis. The drawings show both husband and wife in
faces, but in fact the animal metaphor is just that: a pig masks but only Anja sports a long, ropy, mouse-
metaphor, a sign rather than a literal representation. like tail (1:136). Later, in volume 2, the guilt-ridden
The animal-like depictions of people are not repre- Spiegelman appears at his drawing board, his
sentational in any conventional sense. As Adam mouselike face a mask held on by string, as he dis-
Gopnik puts it, Maus is in no way an animal cusses the critical reception of volume 1. Thus Spiegel-
fable. . . . The Jews are Jews who just happen to be man seeks immediacy through tortuous complexity.
depicted as mice (31). Mauss animal metaphor authenticates Spiegelmans
In fact Spiegelman deliberately exploits the account of the Holocaust by calling attention to its
graphic limitations of his style to force us to look own artificiality. The effect is of innocence lost, yet
beyond the device. His mouse-characters boast only reinvoked through the archest of ironies.
the most rudimentary vocabulary of facial expres- Spiegelman practices ironic authentication not
sions; their emotions are cartooned with a broad, only by short-circuiting the animal metaphor but
brusquely rendered but telling simplicity (for exam- also by continually juxtaposing past and present. As
ple, eyeballs empty white or solid black; brows many critics (for example, Witek, Joshua Brown,
straight or arched). One doesnt so much look at the Michael Staub) have observed, Maus points to the
characters faces as through them. Indeed, this is one circumstances of its own making, calling attention to
of Harveys objections to the device: the characters the way Spiegelmans relationships with his father
mouseness, he argues, does not contribute to the and mother urged on and influenced his work.
story (Comic Book 245). It appears, then, that Harveys Revealing ironies emerge as the book tries to bridge
critique of Maus rests on a paradox: Spiegelman flirts the generations: Maus shows the inescapable fall-
with a dangerous essentialism, yet, in the end, his out of Nazi genocide as a long shadow cast over
use of metaphor is not essentialist enough, literal survivors, survivors children, and the generations to
enough, to exploit the qualities of the animals invoked. come. The Spiegelman-protagonist, Art, relives aspects
What Harvey neglects is the very anti-essentialist of the Holocaust through his recollections, withhold-
nature of Spiegelmans project. ings, and nightmares, in particular through inter-
Mauss drawings succeed by indirection. By defa- views with his father Vladek, whose story Maus
miliarizing the already familiar details of the becomes. Thus Art recreates the Holocaust in the
Holocaust, Spiegelmans funny animal drawings present, not as the vague, implicit understanding he
reacquaint us with the horrors of genocide in the once had, but as a specific, vividly imagined series of
most offhand and intimate of ways. As Witek points events. These events, conjured from Arts collabora-
out, this technique enables Maus to avoid the tion with Vladek, help to rationalize the cultural dis-
overdetermination of meaningthe already told, placement of his parents as survivors, as well as his
prepackaged and numbing pietiesassociated with own personal anomie as a survivors son. To justify
the subject (Comic Books 1023). If the metaphor this therapeutic work, Spiegelman grounds the story
works, it works by unraveling itself in sheer horror. in the particulars of family life, repeatedly reminding
The value of Spiegelmans method lies in our recog- the reader that this is but one partial, inevitably dis-
nition of its inadequacy. torted account of the Holocaust, contingent on his
In Maus, moments of formalist play (characteristic tangled relationships and colored especially by his
of Spiegelmans early work, but here subordinated ambivalence toward his father.


This narrative strategy is dangerously self- aspect of Maus works to ratify the text as a historical
involved, and some readers have balked at it. For account. The storys focus on its own making goes
example, Harvey has faulted Maus for being prima- hand in hand with Spiegelmans scrupulousness as
rily about the blinding self-regard of a young artist, historian, reminding us that, in Joshua Browns
that is, Spiegelman himself: [W]hat Spiegelman terms, remembering and setting down such a story is
ultimately shows us . . . is not the relationship not a matter of recovering bald facts but a constitu-
between son and father but the relationship between tive process, . . . a construction of the past (95). If
artist and subject. . . . [Maus] is not so much about the pasta reality worse than my darkest dreams,
the experience of the Auschwitz survivor as it is as Art puts itcan never be quite recovered, but
about the obsessions of the artistic temperament only evoked, Spiegelman wants to make sure that
(Comic Book 243). Such critiques of Maus threaten we do not miss this distinction. Maus is an evoca-
to devolve into ad hominem attacks on the author, tion, not a full recovery, and its insistence on this
thusly: Spiegelman is a callow, ungrateful son who very fact implicitly reinforces its trustworthiness as
uses the bare-naked honesty of Maus both to den- an evocation. This is why past and present continu-
igrate his father and to aggrandize his own efforts as ally collide, must collide, with each other in the text.
an artist. (Such an argument runs through Harvey Throughout Maus, Spiegelman uses self-reflexive
Pekars critique of Maus, source of prolonged debate devices to achieve a historians authority. The texts
in The Comics Journal beginning in 1986.) self-referentiality, besides justifying Maus as auto/
To be sure, Spiegelman walks a fine line, daring to biography, also undergirds Spiegelmans sense of
expose both his occasional callousness as a son and history in an immediate, practical way. Arts desire
his almost paralyzing self-consciousness as an artist. for a historians intimate knowledge of particulars
Yet this self-referentiality is not simply a matter of a his grasping after details in his interviews with
self-involved artist kvetching about the difficulty of Vladekexplains not only the books diagrammatic
his work. As Joshua Brown suggests, this framing emphasis on objects, settings, and processes, but
of the Holocaust by Arts own troubles serves to also the insistently ironic self-awareness of the inter-
authenticate Maus as an act of historiography, for view scenes. The book is self-referential because it
it interrogates the very limits of memory and story- has to be, to explain and thus justify itself as a con-
telling (96). Though Maus may not be about any stitutive process. Rhetorically, Mauss emphasis on
one thing, it concerns, among other things, history what Art does not know (such as scenic details,
both as lived experience and as a conscious Jewish liturgical tradition, or how to choose among
undertaking. conflicting accounts) reinforces the image of Spiegel-
Mauss historical account, as James E. Young man as a painstaking researcher. By showing himself
argues, must include the circumstances of its own finding out about these things, he authenticates his
transmission, the present circumstances under which history all the more.
[it is] being remembered (678). Arts self-contem- Even doubts about Vladeks account become evi-
plation and Mauss self-reflexiveness stem from the dence of Spiegelmans scrupulousness. In one mem-
impossibility of knowing the past thoroughly and orable instance, Arts research and Vladeks own
objectively, and the resultant need to ground histori- story disagree: was there, or was there not, a camp
ography in a sense of personal context. The funda- orchestra playing as prisoners were marched through
mental unknowability of the Holocaust requires a the gates of Auschwitz? Vladek remembers none, but
history that, as Young puts it, makes events coherent Art insists that its very well documented (2:54).
but gestures toward the incoherence of experi- Oddly, the text does not show Art seeking corrobo-
ence (668). Thus Harvey misrepresents Maus when ration of this ironic detail until after the first of two
he claims that the work is a portrait of the artist panels depicting the orchestra in question. In the
above all else, for the self-involved, kunstlerroman second of these panels, after Vladek has disputed


Arts version, the composition remains the same, Auschwitz (Time Flies), in which the fine points of
except for a longer procession of prisoners, whose mass execution and burial are finally diagrammed in
marching rows obscure the orchestra almost entirely. horrific detail. Late in the chapter the recurrent
Thus, while Spiegelman upholds his own version of image of the crematorium chimney, which serves as
events, his use of visual detail implies an explanation a nerve-wracking leitmotif throughout (2:51, 2:55,
for Vladeks divergent view: there were simply too 2:58), thrusts upward through a panel border,
many bodies between Vladek and the orchestra for impinging on Vladek and Arts conversation in the
that detail to register. present (2:69). The chimney, the last image on the
Such collisions of past and present are a constant page in question, serves as a visual reinforcement of
in Maus, but take varied forms. For instance, early Vladeks climactic utterance, For this I was an eye-
onjust two pages into Vladeks reminiscenceArt witness; in fact the whole page has been leading to
interrupts his father, asking for clarification of a key this. Yet the chimney also reads non-linearly, for, as
point: Why is Vladek telling the story of his relation- Gene Kannenberg Jr. has pointed out, it penetrates
ship with a lover, Lucia, when Art had asked him to the panel above (Form 155). The smoke from
start with Mom, that is, with Vladeks courtship of Arts own cigarette seems to waft upward from the
Arts mother, Anja? This interruption, the first of cremo smokestack in an obscenely droll visual joke.
many in Maus, inspires a testy comeback from Indeed, throughout Time Flies, past and pres-
Vladek: All this was before I met Anjajust listen, ent interpenetrate in an obscenely literal way, as
yes? (1:14). As Maus progresses, these interrup- Spiegelmans anxiety about his own limitations as
tions in the flow of Vladeks story increasingly affect historian reaches fever pitch. In this sequence, as
the page layouts, as elements from the present liter- Maus delves into the details of life in Auschwitz,
ally overlap elements from the past. Spiegelman suffers a profoundly debilitating case of
Such overlapping is a habit of Spiegelmans: writers block, as if the thought of the Nazi camps
Vladeks tale is repeatedly interrupted, punctuated, has finally disabled him. Corpses pile at the foot of
and glossed in the process of its telling. Typically, his drawing table; corpses line the streets. Flies buzz
these overlaps show the present commenting on around the rot of the bodies, and a Nazi guard tower
the past: an inset panel may reveal Vladeks nar- looms outside the artists studio (2:4143). Art the
rating presence in a particular scene (for example, character becomes Mr. Spiegelman here, for at
1:74), or, often, Vladek and/or Art may stand in this point in the narrative we pull away from the
front of a panel, partially obscuring it (for example, remembrance of Vladek and Art, to a nearer present,
1:105, 1:115, or 2:26). In many cases Vladek and circa 1987, in which Spiegelman struggles to put his
Arts exchanges are unbound by panel borders and material in comics form. This Spiegelman is a man
seem to crowd Vladeks narrative. Less often, an ele- in a mouse mask, tied on with string. As in Clowes,
ment from the past obtrudes on the present, Crumb, and Hernandez, so in Spiegelman: his sense
violating panel borders and overlapping the image of identity is revealed as plastic, strategic, and merely
of Vladek and/or Art. These moments, at which the local. His masklike mouse face has become just
relationship between then and now is graphically that, a mask.
reversed, typically signify crucial events in Vladeks In this chapter, during an interview with his
tale. For example, during Vladek and Anjas analyst Pavel (also a survivor), Spiegelmans mouse-
courtship, she sends him a photograph of herself ness (or masked-ness) becomes radically ambiguous.
(fig. 56). This photo overlaps Vladeks image in both The close shot/reverse shot exchanges between
the present (sitting on an exercise bike, c. 1980) Spiegelman and Pavel sometimes betray the strings
and the past (Vladek framing the photo, c. 1936). tied around their heads, sometimes not (2:4446).
This graphic intrusion of the past on the present Are they men, or mouse-men? Furthermore, Spiegel-
takes its most disturbing form in volume 2s chapter, mans stature changes throughout this sequence, as


Figure 56. Maus 1:17 (detail). From Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman, copyright 1986 by Art Spiegelman. Used by
permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

he goes from adult to child to adult once again. By means, Spiegelman cannot adequately separate the
now his self-image is in jeopardy, his sense of pur- two. At the outset, a monologue piles up details about
pose and identity confused by his intimate aware- his own life and the lives of his parents and the
ness of history, which bears down on him like a atrocities of Auschwitz, all thrown together without
terrible weight. Yet by focusing his anxiety on the differentiation or understanding:
crafting of Maus, Spiegelman seems to find a way
out: the production of the text itself offers both a Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in
challenge and a comfort, a way of narrowing if not the spring of 1944 . . . I started working on this page
overcoming his radical sense of doubt. In short, at the very end of February 1987.
Spiegelmans struggle for historical accuracy is part
In May 1987 Franoise and I are expecting a
and parcel of his emotional struggle, as the work
baby . . . Between May 16, 1944, and May 24, 1944
both stokes and contains his anxiety. Thus the con-
over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in
versation between Spiegelman and Pavel inevitably
Auschwitz . . . (2:41)2
shifts from discussing his sense of emotional desola-
tion (mostly I feel like crying) to getting scenic Though graphic juxtapositions of past and present
details straight: how do you depict a tin shop in occur throughout Maus, this scene relies on a purely
Auschwitz (2:46)? Spiegelmans tortured present is verbal parataxis (literally, a placing side by side),
shaped not only by history but also by historiography. unaided by visual transitions. Spiegelmans mono-
In this chapter past and present dissolve into logue here seems arbitrary, indiscriminate, and strange,
each other. Faced with the enormity of what Auschwitz perhaps because it forces us to share, momentarily,


the perspective of the working artist, who constantly Such scenes throw into question the seeming
has to reconcile all of these happenings in his head. verisimilitude of Maus, while at the same time
The success of volume 1 of Maus (published some affirming its drive for truthfulness. Crucial to this
five years prior) only cripples Spiegelman further, strategy is the way Spiegelman calls attention to his
compounding his sense of guilt, as shown in a darkly various tools and sources of historical reference. For
comic sequence in which reporters and hucksters vie example, Arts use of a tape recorder becomes
for the cartoonists attention, offering to turn Maus fraught with meaning in the last chapter of Maus,
into either a cause clbre or a cross-media merchan- which begins with him listening to a recording of his
dising bonanza (2:42). father and musing, Yknow, Ive got over 20 hours
The frantic self-referentiality of this chapter, as of Vladeks story on tape now (2:120). Ironically,
Gene Kannenberg has persuasively argued, reflects what Vladek is telling on the tape at this moment is
Spiegelmans confused, even distraught, response to another scene previously recounted in the text: how
the critical and commercial reception of Maus vol- his and Anjas first son, Richieu, died. Richieu and his
ume 1 in 1986 (Form 15154). Auschwitz (Time cousins, we know, were poisoned by Anjas sister
Flies) shows just how painful Spiegelmans success Tosha to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis, as
became and betrays a desire to clear up (or attack) shown in volume 1 of Maus (1:109). Here Vladek
misconceptions about Mauss use of the animal (on tape) assumes Toshas part, and explains her
metaphor. The chapter testifies to a crisis born of fame, decision: No! I will not go in the gas chambers. And
a reading reinforced by Spiegelmans later comments my children will not go in the gas chambers. He then
about getting drawn into Mauss undertow and continues in his own voice, saying, So, Tosha took
resenting the resultant objectification of his self the poison not only to herself, but to our little . . .,
(Juno 1314). The dominant feeling here is not unlike a telling shift in emphasis that is cut off in mid-
the anxious self-mockery of Crumbs Many Faces, sentence by a phone call (2:121). This version of the
which is likewise a response to the alienation of self event differs subtly but significantly from the version
through celebrity (see our previous chapter). shown in volume 1, which stresses Toshas despera-
Yet the self-reflexive nature of Maus goes well tion through a series of panels that zoom in on her
beyond such obvious moments of crisis, for, as the face as she resolves herself to her plan (1:109). The
story progresses, Spiegelman increasingly alludes to earlier version, in contrast to Vladeks tape-recorded
decisions he made while actually crafting certain testimony, puts us squarely in Toshas position, and
moments in the text. Scenes previously recounted by thus further rationalizes her decision.
Vladek end up being revisited in the process of tex- This sequence uses the tape recorderironically,
tualization by Art; ironic authentication reminds us a documentarians toolas a prop to underline the
of the particular choices involved in the construction activity of Spiegelman as artificer, for the subtle dis-
of passages we have already read. For instance, one connect between the two versions of Richieus death
scene finds Art, Vladek, and Vladeks second wife, shows how deliberately Spiegelman has shaped
Mala, looking over a rough version of one of the ear- Vladeks story. The tape recorder thus performs a
lier episodes in Maus, recently sketch[ed] out by Art: kind of ironic authentication, destabilizing Mauss
claims to literal truth. At the same time, the scene
ART. And heres you, saying: Ach. When I think with the tape recorder reestablishes, beyond ques-
of them, it still makes me cry! tion, Spiegelmans debt to his father and his concern
VLADEK. Yes. Still it makes me cry! (1:133) for documentary evidence. Thus Mauss fidelity to
truth is reaffirmed, even as our sense of Spiegel-
The scene in question (in which some of Vladeks mans creative process is complicated.
friends are executed for black marketeering) appears This scene takes on added resonance because of
just two chapters before (1:84). its crucially timed reminder of Richieu, the unseen,


unknown brother with whom Art confesses to feel- is Spiegelmans professed preference for cartooning
ing a kind of sibling rivalry (2:15) and to whom as diagramming, as opposed to illustration (see his
Spiegelman partly dedicates Maus volume 2 (it is introduction to Breakdowns; Commix 69); this
also dedicated to his own daughter Nadja). Ironi- serves his desire to avoid a too-literal, sentimentaliz-
cally, Richieu is what Vladek, having grown weak ing treatment of the Holocaust. Such a treatment,
and delirious, calls Art in the books final scene. Thomas Doherty suggests, would threaten to play
Spiegelman highlights this irony by positioning the into Nazisms reactionary aesthetic, with its emphasis
retelling of Richieus death at the beginning of this on the hypnotic qualities of the literal, the specular,
final chapterthe chapter that brings Maus to a and the speciously realistic. Cartooning, Doherty
moving end with the image of Vladek and Anjas points out, defines itself against the aesthetics of
shared tombstone. This revealing use of the tape photographic reproduction or realist representation
recorder enables Spiegelman to reunite symbolically (74). A desire to avoid such literal-minded represen-
the four members of his sundered family (Vladek, tation seems to underlie much Holocaust narrative,
Anja, Richieu, and himself) within a single chapter. particularly visual narratives that favor indirection
Besides the tape recorder, photographs also per- over realistic depiction. Recall in this regard Alain
form ironic authentication in Maus. Specifically, they Resnaiss documentary Night and Fog (1955), which
challenge Spiegelmans use of the animal metaphor combines horrific archival images with suggestive
by offering precisely analogical images of real original footage of the now-abandoned camps,
human beings. Indeed, the presence of photographs accompanied by voice-over commentary that prob-
in Maus goes against the grain of Spiegelmans nar- lematizes the very idea of a Holocaust film. Alter-
rative technique, for photos, despite their constructed nately, Claude Lanzmanns Shoah (1985) avoids
nature, are generally assumed to offer a value- archival footage of the Nazi camps altogether, in
neutral, purely denotative vision of persons and favor of interviews with surviving captives and cap-
places.3 As such, they conflict with Spiegelmans car- tors. Even Steven Spielbergs Schindlers List (1993),
toonal renditions of character, which are crypto- the best-known Hollywoodization of Holocaust nar-
graphic rather than strictly representational. In fact rative, employs stark black-and-white cinemato-
Maus constitutes a visual argument between these graphy as a distancing and contextualizing device
two approaches: documentary photo-realism (privi- (Doherty 76). Spiegelman, suspicious of realistic
leged in Spiegelmans approach to setting and signifi- graphics in comics, quite consciously deployed car-
cant objects) and cartoonal symbolism (privileged in toonal simplification to avoid making the material
his treatment of character). The former, realism, banal.
leans heavily on photographic and diagrammatic ref- Yet the Holocaust narrator also has an ethical
erences to authenticate its claims, while the latter, imperative to represent details as accurately as possi-
symbolism, avoids photographic individuation, mak- ble. Fidelity to truth is essential to writing the Holo-
ing Spiegelmans cartoon characters into generic caust; anything less trivializes the matter. (Regarding
counters through which we infer the actual people fictionality versus authenticity in Holocaust narra-
involved. Though Spiegelman makes expert use of tive, see, for example, Horowitzs Voicing the Void,
verbal cues to distinguish one character from which makes particular reference to Maus.) Reliance
another, his graphic treatment of characters stresses on photographic reference is part of the drive for
their collective rather than individual identities. In historiographic authority that inevitably underlies
contrast, photo-realism seeks to ground representa- any serious depiction of the Nazi genocide. In Maus,
tion in the specifics of person and place. Spiegelman takes pains to show himself digging for
This visual argument helps explain Spiegelmans corroborative references, including not only diaristic
complex protocols of authentication. Behind these but also photo-reference. When he cannot find such
protocols lie two contradictory imperatives. The first references, the absence of documentation makes it


harder to visualize his storyas when, for instance, latter seems to slip into the past completely at the
he cannot find visual evidence of what a tin shop in end of volume II, as 2 calls Art Richieu. This photo
Auschwitz looked like (2:46). (The Maus CD-ROM, also points up the absurdity of Arts sibling rivalry
released in 1994, gives ample evidence of Spiegelmans with his ghost-brother: though Art imagines that
efforts to shore up his research photographically.) Richieu would have become a wealthy and successful
creep, as if to upbraid Art for his own failures (2:15),
in reality Art knows nothing about him. Richieu
THE FINAL PHOTOGRAPH: HISTORY has been reduced to nothing more than the static,
MEETS FANTASY unknowable figure (It) in an old photograph.
The third and final real photograph, a postwar
Besides much documentary material based at least in souvenir snapshot of Vladek in a new and clean
part on photographs, Maus incorporates numerous concentration camp uniform, comes but two pages
drawings of photos, as well as three actual photo- before the end of Maus (2:134). Here we finally see
graphs that directly challenge its animal metaphors. Vladek in human guise, and he appears shockingly
The presence of these photos in the text deserves real, in contrast to his minimalist mouse form
further discussion, because Spiegelmans invocation throughout the text (fig. 57). This neat and handsome
of photography represents ironic authentication at photo supports his earlier claim to have been a nice,
its most complex. By including both photos and handsome boy (1:13). The image is large, and tipped
simulated photos, Spiegelman plays the contradic- at a cockeyed angle on the page (a protocol of
tory drives for cartoonal symbolism and for photo- Spiegelmans: tipped panels are a formal intensifier
realism against each other. used throughout to stress key moments). It comes as
The first of the real photos, one of young Art the climax of a sequence in postwar Poland, in which
and his mother, Anja, creeps in as part of Spiegel- Anja waits anxiously for news of her husband. When
mans interpolated underground comix short story, she sees this souvenir, enclosed in a letter from
Prisoner on the Hell Planet (from 1972), which Vladek, Anja cries out, My GodVladek is really
comes back to haunt Art in volume 1 (100103). alive! (2:134). This photo presages their final reunion
Though small, and presented without explicit com- and is evidently an object of great symbolic heft in
ment, this photograph concretely testifies to a mother- the Spiegelman household. Anja kept this picture
son relationship that otherwise exists only in the always, says Vladek. I have it still now in my desk!
books past tense. Like the claustrophobic scratch- On hearing this, Art immediately goes to find this
board expressionism of Hell Planet itself, this image, saying, I need that photo in my book! The
photo undermines Spiegelmans predominant animal next panel shows him gazing at the snapshot.
metaphor. The second actual photo appears in the Incredible! he says, while his bedridden father
dedication to volume 2: Spiegelmans unknown continues his tale (2:135). Indeed, the intrusion of
brother, Richieu, poisoned at age five or six. Richieus the photo into Spiegelmans tale comes as an incred-
portrait prepares for Arts discussion of him some ten ible formal and emotional shock. Larger than previ-
pages later: I didnt think about him much when I ous photos, this snapshot makes unprecedented
was growing up. . . . He was mainly a large, blurry claims on the reader. Unlike the photo of Anja and
photograph hanging in my parents bedroom. . . . Art in Prisoner on the Hell Planet, it is not bracketed
The photo never threw tantrums or got in any kind by prior contextualization as part of a comic-within-
of trouble. . . . It was an ideal kid, and I was a pain in a-comic. Unlike the dedicatory photo of Richieu at
the ass. I couldnt compete (2:15). The positioning the beginning of volume 2, Vladeks portrait is incor-
of this photo, again, underscores the presence of porated into the narrative structure of the main
the past in the lives of Spiegelmans parents, both text. This photo brings a non-metaphorical Vladek
his mother, Anja, and his father, Vladek. Indeed, the into the context of metaphor, finally overturning


Figure 57. Spiegelman,

Maus 2:134 (detail).
From Maus II: And Here
My Troubles Began by
Art Spiegelman, copyright
1991 by Art Spiegelman.
Used by permission of
Pantheon Books, a division
of Random House, Inc.

Spiegelmans substitution of animal faces for human by agreeing to tutor a Polish kapo (supervisor).
ones. Beyond functioning as privileged testimony When telling of this accomplishment, Vladek takes
to Vladeks real existencea sign that someone, obvious pride in the way he was able to maintain a
somewhere, really posed for this photo, and may have clean appearance even in the camps: Always I was
really lived this storythe photo works ironically on a handsome . . . but with everything fitted, I looked
number of levels, and actually destabilizes rather than like a million! (2:33). The climactic photo of Vladek,
affirms Mauss documentary realism. two pages from the books end, repeats this proud
For one thing, we are told that this photo repre- self-assertion, yet overshadows the harsh realities
sents a carefully constructed evocation of the Nazi of life in the camps. The posed photo re-creates
camps. Its a souvenir, after all, paid for and posed the Vladek of the camps who supposedly looked
by Vladek. It presents a handsome, idealized image like a million, but within the more civilizedthus
of the camp prisoner, posed in front of a curtain incrediblecontext of a studio portrait. This is not a
whose vertical folds evoke studio portraiture at its documentary photo, then, but a message intended
most conventional (2:134). The mere fact that the for his beloved Anja, whom he wants to reassure. It
uniform is new, clean, and well-fitted belies the seem- is less a depiction of the reality of the camps than a
ing documentary value of the image, for Vladeks gift, to remind his wife that Vladek has survived and
own narrative, earlier, shows just how difficult it was remains the sturdy, handsome man she has known.
to get a clean, fitting uniform in the camps: In For another thing, this photograph purports to
Auschwitz, he has told us, prisoners suffered from ill- corroborate what is surely one of the most fanciful
fitting clothes and shoes, though he himself was at episodes in Maus: Vladeks version of what Anjas
last able to secure clothes that fit him like tailored life was like in postwar Sosnowiec, Poland, during


their enforced separation. In this sequence, Anja ball, reliving Anjas past and foreseeing her future.
consults not only the local Jewish organization but The crystal first shows the image of a child . . . a
also a Gypsy fortune-teller, for some news of her dead child (Richieus likeness appears in the globe,
husband (2:133). A six-panel scene in the Gypsys dressed in his trademark overalls), then reveals
wagon represents, presumably, Spiegelmans extrap- Vladek, in concentration camp uniform: Now I see
olation from his fathers extrapolation from a story a man . . . illness . . . Its your husband! Hes been
Anja once told. It purports to give Anjas point of very very ill . . . Hes cominghes coming home!
view, but we already know that Anjas point of view Youll get a sign that hes alive by the time the moon
is inadmissible, because her story has been lost. is full! (2:133). The Gypsy goes on to foretell Anjas
In effect, this imaginative scene denies that loss, a life in a faraway place, a new life including
loss around which, as Michael Rothberg points out, another little boy, while Anja looks on, rapt. On
Spiegelman has structured the entire narrative. Indeed, the following page, the letter arrives with Vladeks
Art desires no less than to occupy (in Rothbergs photothe signand Anja declares, Its just like
phrase) the impossible position of Anja, who is the Gypsy said (2:134). The photograph of Vladek
not so much a presence in Maus as an absence, a dominates the bottom half of the page, as if to lend
lost trace (676). Said loss spurs the conflict between authority to this fanciful episode.
Vladek and Art in volume 1, when father reveals to Accuracy is not the point here; in fact fantasy
son that he burnt Anjas records and personal effects plays a big part in these last few pages. The clichd
in a fit of grief after her suicide. This confession characterization of the Gypsy moth, for instance, fits
angers Art, who feels the loss of his mothers story as into a larger pattern of comically indulgent animal
a kind of artistic privation, at one point confessing, metaphors shown in the last chapter. We see, for
I wish I got Moms story while she was alive. She instance, Swedish reindeer in a Stockholm depart-
was more sensitive. . . . It would give the book some ment store (2:125), as well as tiger-striped mouse
balance (1:132). Anjas voice has been forever children born of a Gentile woman and Jewish man
silenced, so that Maus becomes Vladeks tale perforce. (2:131). Such literal-minded metaphors play with
Anja is usually represented from Vladeks point of the deterministic and stereotypic connotations of
view. Her life, as Sara Horowitz notes, cannot be told Spiegelmans technique, pushing it toward self-
except through the prisms of her husbands and her parody. Before this, we have occasionally seen ani-
sons memories (3). Yet even Vladek doesnt know mals representing other ethnicities or nationalities
the minute details of Anjas experience; by his own besides Jews, Germans, and Poles, yet such scenes
admission, he does not know where Anja went while are only vaguely suggestive, rather than specific,
he was in Dachau, late in the war. He only knows about the connection between animal metaphor and
that she made it back to Sosnowiec before him cultural identity. The last chapter, in contrast, depicts
(2:1034). So when Vladek purports to tell Anjas incidental characters in guises that specifically reflect
story, just a few pages before the end of the book, cultural clichs or jokes: Swedish reindeer, Gypsy
the impossibility of accuracy should be obvious. moths. These comical metaphors extend Spiegelmans
Anjas life in postwar Sosnowiec can only be a matter cat-and-mouse logic into the postwar period, but
of conjecture. also parody it: for the first time, Mauss animal fig-
In spite of Anjas essential muteness, the father- ures become jokey. Such overkill forces us, once again,
son collaboration here produces an imaginative to recognize Spiegelmans gimmick for what it is. The
episode involving her consultation with the Gypsy. real photo of Vladek that follows is the authors coup
Anja is shown as desolate, eyes downcast, shoulders de grace, his ultimate exit strategy, for it explodes the
slumped in misery. The Gypsy herself is (of course) a metaphors on which the entire text is built.
moth, with antennae, wings, and a kerchief tied This ultimate chapter revels in the collision of his-
around her head; she gazes into (of course) a crystal tory and imagination: ironic authentication turns


back on itself, in dizzying involutions. As Maus nears invokes and indeed attaches to his pages: for
its end, Vladek increasingly lives in the past, and his example, train tickets, diagrams, and maps. As noted
photographic self-portrait is but one way that he in chapter 2, the presence of these drawn objects,
idealizes his postwar activities. Through fantasy he mimicking found objects, reinforces the diaristic
directs his story toward his emotional reunion with immediacy of Maus as an artifact: the pages resem-
Anja in Sosnowiecthe books last page (2:136). ble a scrapbook or album, in which heirlooms and
Spiegelman directs the story this way as well, order- personal narratives are interleaved. The most telling
ing his fathers reminiscences non-chronologically, so of these heirlooms are the photographs, which are
as to focus everything at books end on Vladek and usually charged with great emotional significance
Anjas joyful reunion. When we finally see the couple as in, for instance, the aforementioned scene during
embrace, Vladek, now bedridden and apparently Vladek and Anjas courtship, when Vladek frames a
delirious, tells Art: More I dont need to tell you. portrait photo sent by Anja (fig. 56). The emotional
We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy impact of that simulated photo is such that it sel-
ever after. Drifting off to sleepin an ironic rever- dom occurs to readers to question the very oddness
sal of the conventional bedtime story scene, in of Spiegelmans technique (1:17). It is odd: the ren-
which child sleeps and parent tiptoes awayVladek dering of the photo carefully mimics the appear-
says, Im tired from talking, Richieu, and its enough ance of an old-fashioned photographic print, right
stories for now. . . . His unself-conscious drifting down to its scalloped border, yet what we see of
into the past reinforces our sense, slowly built through- Anja, as ever, is her mouseness. The photo as
out Maus, that nothing can be as real for Vladek as object, rendered with documentary realism, clashes
his formative experiences in the Holocaust. The pho- with the object of the photo: a person as a mouse.
tographic portrait drives this home, as does the For Spiegelmans characters, as in real life, photo-
tombstone at the foot of the last page, which names graphs testifythey serve as documents, memen-
both Vladek and Anja: the two are again reunited, tos, and declarations of feelingyet the inescapable
this time in death. animal metaphor belies their seeming authenticity.
For Art, this moment must come as a bittersweet Even more, the reproductions of actual photographs,
recognition, for he himself came after Vladeks and in particular the crucially positioned photo of
wartime experiences. Indeed his fathers final remarks Vladek, unravel Spiegelmans artifice.
effectively transform him into a living ghost of his The effect of the photo in Mauss last chapter
brother, Richieu. In some sense Art disappears from depends partly on the prominence of drawn photo-
the final moments of the narrative, while Vladek graphs in the previous chapter, which climaxes with
rewrites history as he would have it: We were both the opening of a box of family snapshots (2:11415).
very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after. This box, which Vladek has recovered from his
Vladeks photograph, two pages prior, presages this closet, includes photos saved long ago by Richieus
move as it both ratifies and falsifies his experience as Polish governess, as well as more recent snapshots
a survivor of Nazi genocide. In short, Maus moves that show the few surviving family members in the
away from verisimilitude even as Spiegelman brings postwar period. Taken together, these photos testify
the photograph forward to finally show his father. to the losses that both sides of Arts family have suf-
In the process, he achieves a kind of symbolic rap- fered, for almost everyone seen in these snapshots
prochement with Vladek, in effect collaborating with has died. As Vladek and Art discuss family history,
him to bring Anjas story to life. the photos overlap the panels of their conversation,
This final photograph must be read in context, for crowding Vladeks dialogue balloons; finally, the
it subverts, and is subverted by, Spiegelmans use of snapshots seem to spill from the box, down the
drawn photographs throughout Maus. Photos are page, piling one on top of the other and bleeding off
among the many paper objects that Spiegelman the bottom margin. They surround and hem in


Vladek and Art, who sit on a sofa talking about the complex, and more ironic, because Spiegelman
past (2:115). Here again Spiegelman shows extraor- acknowledges the deliberate, posed quality of the
dinary care with the rendering of these pictures as image, and positions it to comment subtly on his
objects. Varied borders (note that prewar photo- fathers version of events, as Vladek slowly slips into
graphs look distinctly different from postwar ones), an idealized past. The photo speaks not to the docu-
dated inscriptions, even a face cropped from one of mentary truth but to what we want to believe. It
the photosthese graphic elements reinforce the affirms Vladek as a hero, in spite of all we know. As
power of these snapshots as testimonials. Yet the Maus moves toward the predetermined reunion of
animal metaphor is constant, the books cartoon Vladek and Anja, we already know that their life after
shorthand dutifully preserved. the war will not be a happy ever after but rather a
This scene in the penultimate chapter reminds us confused and haunted one that leads to Anjas sui-
of the crucial importance of photos to Spiegelmans cide; we already know that the story cannot end
history but cannot prepare us for the shock of Vladeks anywhere but will continue to haunt Arts life. We
real, human countenance two pages from the end. know these things, but still Spiegelman privileges
The momentary defeat of metaphor in the last chapter Vladeks carefully groomed likeness, as if to support
boldly asserts the falseness of Spiegelmans drawn his fathers turn toward a triumphantly happy ending.
photos throughout the text. Mauss visual argu- In sum, this break with the books reigning
ment between documentary realism and cartooning, metaphor represents not an uncomplicated assertion
underscored by Spiegelmans reliance on drawn pho- of truth but an ironic tribute to his fathers powers
tos, at last comes to a head in this singular image, this of imagination. The photo is no more real than
naked violation of Spiegelmans artistic decorum Spiegelmans cartoons but seems to represent Vladek
(2:134). Yet, again, this photo in no way represents a as Vladek would have himself represented. Beyond
simple reality. Rather, it is a simulacrum of Vladeks either nave photo-realism or ironic symbolism,
own devising, a deliberate reappropriation of his Spiegelmans placement of this final snapshot both
experience as the Nazis prisoner. Moreover, Spiegel- affirms and subverts Vladeks role as a storyteller,
man has positioned it to corroborate a sequence allowing Vladeks ego-image (as knowing Fotoobjekt)
that, as noted, shades from documentary scrupu- to assert itself within his sons text. The photograph
lousness to fanciful supposition. The photo represents does not simply claim to speak the truth in the face
the triumphant reassertion of a fathers self-image of skepticism but rather cements the father-son col-
into his sons text, an image that breaks through the laboration, underscoring its profoundly intersubjec-
self-imposed discipline of Spiegelmans metaphor. If tive nature. Through Vladek and Arts collaboration,
the collaboration of Art and Vladek is, as Rick different versions of the truth have been negotiated
Iadonisi remarks, a struggle for control (53), then and different interpretations of reality reconciled.
at this moment Vladek seems ascendant, and Art
awed into silence.
Again, this climactic movement in Maus demon- CONCLUSION
strates ironic authentication at its most complex.
Rather than trumpet the fictiveness of his creation Maus demonstrates the potential, both artistic and
like Clowes, Crumb, and Hernandez in our previous sociopolitical, of autobiographical comics, and in
chapterSpiegelman appears to defer to the photo- effect has placed autobiography at the center of
graph as verifier, as an immediate, incontrovertible recent comics criticism. Maus also demonstrates,
testimony of the life recorded in his book. He does decisively, that truth in autobiography has to be
not insist on the ironies of his work here, but rather earned, not just taken for granted. This truth is a
seems to assert the truth, daring to break through matter not of verifiability but of trustworthiness, not so
his self-imposed limits. Yet the effect is all the more much a constant quality as the result of a continual


renegotiation between the artist, his materials, and powerfully demonstrate that the personal is indeed
his audience (and in this case, his father, as both political, and vice versa. Self-reflexivity becomes his
informant and collaborator). It is, in sum, a rhetorical means of achieving complicity with the audience,
matter. Ironic authentication, then, need not boil authenticating his vision of self and history, and
down to self-regarding playfulness or mere navel- speaking about an unspeakable reality worse than
gazing equivocation. On the contrary, it may represent my darkest dreams. To place himself within that
a passage through skepticism and anxiety anxiety history, Spiegelman has to unravel Maus and force
at times strong enough to threaten the singularity of us to take part in its making.
the self-image, as also seen in Clowes, Crumb, and Clearly, Maus sprang from internal necessity. The
Hernandeztoward a commitment to self-under- same can be said of Greens Binky Brown, R. Crumbs
standing and honest communication. Many Faces, and the best of autobiographical
In Maus, as in Binky Brown, the passage is dire. comics in general. Greens work, for instance, cri-
The claims of autobiographical comics are here put tiques what he viewed as an oppressive institution
to the severest test, under the greatest pressure, due and explores how that institution fueled his anxi-
to the ethical demands of both familial biography eties, while Crumbs, on the other hand, offers the
and Holocaust narrative. Like Justin Greens critique cartoonist a way of exerting control over his public
of Catholicism, Maus dares to treat larger sociopolit- self, as celebrity threatens to alienate him from his
ical issues through the lens of personal trauma, and own likeness. Such autobiographical work, born of
so demands the acutest sort of self-awareness. underground and alternative comics, reveals the art
Indeed, self-referentiality proves essential to ratify- forms potential for both frightful intimacy and
ing Spiegelmans comic as an act of cultural inter- provocative cultural argument. This is why the auto-
vention. By continually questioning the nave notion biographical genre matters, and why the anxious
of autobiography as truth-telling, Spiegelman can tension between artifice and authenticity remains a
recuperate the emotional claims of the genre and vital area for study.



This book has bid for the recognition of comics as a literary form, and in par-
ticular for the understanding of alternative comics as an innovative and
important field of comics production. We have sounded the origins of that
field, charting its development through the comix counterculture of the
1960s and the subsequent rise of a specialized comics market, one that
encouraged the newly recognized form of the graphic novel. We have consid-
ered the potential of comics as a mediumthat comic art is not a form necessar-
ily defined by simplicity or transparency but rather a potentially complex
narrative instrument, and potentially challenging reading experience. We have
seen that complexity play out in a major body of work, that of Gilbert
Hernandez, in the process discovering how that work testifies to a tense negoti-
ation between artist and marketplacea tug-of-war between artistic ambition
and commercial demand that ultimately affects both form and content.
Finally, we have seen how alternative comics introduced an explicitly autobi-
ographical mode that raised issues of self-representation and authenticity, com-
plicating the always complex matter of autobiographical writing and suggesting
the power of comics to imbricate the personal and the political. Major works
such as Greens Binky Brown and Spiegelmans Maus reveal this power and con-
stitute a significant departure, both from comics tradition and from the canons
of traditional literary autobiography. At every level, alternative comics both
appeal to and productively challenge our preconceptions about literature.
As of this writing, times are good for such alternative comics. In particular, the
graphic novel has become a lively, burgeoning genre. Though mainstream pub-
lishers interest in the genre has been fitful at best,1 it is now definitely on the
rise: graphic novels are surging into bookstores and libraries, and the book
industry has put out the welcome mat, making room for comics in the trade
press and at industry shows (for example, the Book Expo America 2003 included


a Graphic Novel Pavilion and much programming that title and why, until recently, I have found myself
focused on the genre). Since 2000 the genre has nervously bracketing the term graphic novel within
received a terrific boost from translated Japanese quotation marks (as above).2 As I do, I will return, one
manga, most notably lines published by TOKYOPOP and last time, to some of the economic/industrial issues
VIZ; at the same time, Pantheons graphic novel line that have bedeviled previous chapters and will try to
(building on the success of Spiegelmans Maus) has suggest something like an economics of the art form.
put alternative comics on the front burner. Another I think this is an important note to end on, as it has
encouraging sign has been the movement of comic implications for future study.
book companies toward the general book trade, in par-
ticular the signing of distribution deals between alter-
native comics publishers and major book publisher/ THE DEVIL OF SERIALIZATION
distributors (Fantagraphics with W. W. Norton in fall
2001, Drawn and Quarterly with Chronicle Books in By and large, graphic novels are created serially. The
fall 2002, then with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in summer longer works studied in the above cleave to this rule:
2004). The outlook for long-form comics is consider- the graphic novel usually appears as successive install-
ably healthier than in the past. ments, published periodically in anticipation of the
Indeed, as noted in chapter 1, the graphic novel completed work. As chapter 1 observes, this was the
has become a kind of totem, enjoying strong pres- case for the graphic novels that catapulted the genre
ence among publishers, booksellers, librarians, critics, to at least a tentative respectability in the late 1980s:
fansand scholars. Its time has come. Graphic nov- volume 1 of Spiegelmans Maus, originally serialized
els have sparked salutary changes, both creative and in Raw starting in 1980; Millers The Dark Knight
critical, in the comics field; without these changes, Returns, first published as four successive booklets in
one doubts that scholarly texts about comics would 1986; and Moore and Gibbonss Watchmen, pub-
enjoy the kind of attention they are now receiving. lished as twelve comic book episodes in 198687.
Yet there is much about comics, historically and aes- This was also the case for many other acclaimed
thetically, that may be lost in the drive to confer legit- graphic novels between 1987 and 2000, whether dis-
imacy on the graphic noveland there remain tributed to the mainstream book trade or confined to
economic complications, obstacles frankly, that may the direct market: volumes by Los Bros Hernandez,
hinder the forms further development. Again we Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Dan Clowes,
have to ask the sobering question of just how comics Chris Ware, Debbie Drechsler, Neil Gaiman, and many
get to market and what packages or formats they are others. These projects sprang in whole or in part from
forced to adopt, or are likely to adopta question periodicals. Some, like Drechslers Daddys Girl, work
broached in earlier chapters but demanding fuller through thematic repetition and variation, compiling
treatment. In short, we need to interrogate the idea short, distinct pieces to achieve a greater cumulative
of the graphic novel and carefully place it in its effect. Others, like Sims Cerebus, consist of hundreds
economic and generic context. of pages of unbroken continuity, collated from ongo-
In the preceding, we have noted the difficulties ing comic book series. Though there are exceptions to
that attend serial publication and the reformatting of this general rule (to which we will return momentar-
comic book stories as novels. We have also sug- ily), serialization remains the standard.
gested, indirectly, that too exclusive an emphasis on The serialization of graphic novels parallels the
the graphic novel can impoverish or obstruct practice of serializing long-form comics, or bandes
appreciation of the art form. Since I once toyed with dessines, or manga, or what-have-you, in other cul-
the idea of titling this study The Rise of the Graphic tures. The practice varies in popularity and importance
Novela wave of the hand at Ian WattI think I from country to country. On the European scene, the
should finish it by explaining why I felt I had to discard serial has become less important in recent years: the


history of francophone BD publishing, for instance, of parts: novels were typically divided up into vol-
has been one of gradual shifting away from a primary umes through the institution of the circulating
emphasis on periodicals to an emphasis on the self- library, spread out over months in literary magazines
contained album format (Europes nearest analogue to (for example, Dickens in Bentleys Miscellany or
the graphic novel). In this connection, witness the Household Words, Thackeray in Frasers Magazine),
discontinuation in 1998 of the respected French or issued as monthly pamphlets la Pickwick Papers
anthology (A Suivre), after twenty years of publication, (see Erickson 15862). Yet the fact of part-issue is
and the absence of other such anthologiesPilote, for often bracketed off or ignored in histories of this once
examplewhich once provided a steady supply of disreputable, now central, literary genre. Granted,
serialized work in anticipation of albums. There are scholars have begun to ask about the effects of serial-
exceptions, of course (particularly in the small press, ization on, say, Dickenss and Thackerays works, but
where avant-garde anthologies have performed an criticism still favors the monumental, collected novel
important role), but for the most part the francophone over the relatively tentative and fragmented experi-
market has retreated from periodicals. (Given Frances ence offered by part-issue. The widespread adoption
status as a magnet culture for continental comics, this of the term graphic novel would seem to reflect a sim-
shift has implications for all of western Europe.) ilar preference among authors and critics of comics,
In the Japanese manga market, by contrast, seriali- but, as noted before, unfortunately tends to hide the
zation in huge, cheaply printed weeklies and month- complexity and precariousness of comics publishing,
lies continues to be the favored route for long-form obscuring the long forms dependence on the serial.
narratives. Short installments in disposable magazines, Just as scholars have begun to study the effects of
which contain dozens of comics and scads of other serialization on the form and content of the English
editorial matter, pave the way for more durable vol- novel, so we should give attention to the ways seri-
umes of collected work, with popular series spawning alization inevitably shapes the long-form comic book
thousands of pages of continuity in book form. With or graphic novel. Besides the obvious advantages of
manga accounting for a huge percentage (one typi- financial support for the authora matter to which I
cally hears estimates of a fourth to a third) of all pub- will return belowI would tentatively suggest three
lishing in Japan, the staple anthologies would seem in kinds of effects that serialization can exert on the
little danger of disappearing, and the material they graphic novel when viewed as a complete text:
support is increasingly finding its way into the United (1) Serialization may influence the very structure
States and other countries (indeed manga are now of a graphic novel, as it encourages authors to build
flooding the U.S. market). In contrast to the BD tradi- discrete episodes, linked by thematic and motific
tion, in which the slender, hardcover album has repetition, rather than tightly structured, overarch-
become the standard, Japans manga market privi- ing plotlines. For example, Daddys Girl (1996), by
leges either frequent serial chapters or the much the aforementioned Debbie Drechsler, approaches
longer, often hundreds of pages long, book forman its harrowing subject, the tangled emotional and
economic arrangement facilitated by a rigid studio social consequences of sexual abuse, through a series
system of production. of roughly chronological episodes, all centering on
There is ample precedent for such thriving serial the isolation of the young protagonist, Lilly. Most of
publication in the history of literature. The practice these episodes were previously printed in magazines
of serializing long-form comics echoes the well- or newspapers, but they have been sequenced in book
established (though now unusual) practice of selling form by Drechsler for a devastating cumulative effect.
novels through part-issue: by library subscription, A prose analogue for this might be Sandra Cisneross
within magazines, or in successive pamphlets. In fact celebrated novel The House on Mango Street (1984),
the history of the English novel throughout the eigh- which consists of carefully sequenced stories, vignettes,
teenth and nineteenth centuries is predominantly one and prose poems that, taken together, convey a young


Latinas struggle to understand a life of poverty and superhero comics. To read a single volume that col-
alienation. In closing her book, Drechsler uses the lates several months worth of superhero continuity
miniature form of the comic stripa single-page between two covers is to be reminded of just how
vignettemuch as Cisneros uses lyrical prose poems discontinuous the experience of reading a monthly
throughout her text, to reinforce theme and mood. serial really is, for, typically, each successive chapter
A single page, punctuating the book, serves to includes much redundant exposition as well as brief,
sum up the awful loneliness that characterizes Lilly teasing glimpses of subplots still gestating. These sub-
throughout. plots may linger, fecklessly, for chapter after chapter,
Similarly, Will Eisners New York: The Big City without gaining momentum, then abruptly, arbitrarily,
(1986) assembles various vignettes from the (now leap to the fore. Thus even a very good adventure
defunct) Will Eisner Quarterly, imposing shape on serial of this type may read poorly in collected form.
them with thematic chapter headingsand through (2) On the other hand, the serial packaging of a
the overall packaging of the book as a collection of long-form comic lends certain structural and design
linked episodes set in a specific place. By traditional elements that can be used to reinforce the shape and
literary standards, The Big City is not a novel at all continuity of an overarching story. For example, in the
but something like a series of sketches; yet the aforementioned Watchmen, as originally serialized in
organizing of those sketches into book form gives twelve issues, packaging underscores the prevailing
the project, again, a cumulative effect greater than mood of paranoia and expectancy. On each succes-
the sum of its parts. Significantly, both Daddys Girl sive back cover, the slowly advancing minute hand of
and The Big City are composed of short pieces culled a clock, or watch, counts down toward midnight, and
from larger anthologies, in contrast to those graphic the series apocalyptic finale. Also, the front covers
novels that compile whole issues of comic books in depict not characters but extreme close-ups of signifi-
the traditional format. cant objects, anticipating the reappearance of the
Some graphic novels use episodic structure to build object in the first panel of each chapter, so that, for
longer narratives that ultimately become more focused instance, a bloodied smiley face button appears
and cohesive than expected. For example, Dan both on the front of the first issue and in the first
Clowess Ghost World (1997), originally serialized in panel of the story proper. These objects are associated
his series Eightball, quietly builds toward a moment with key characters and help to focus each successive
of crisis in the tense relationship between two friends, chapter around one such character.
Enid and Becky. Each successive episode depicts the Also, Moore and Gibbons cannily exploit the
anomie and cynicism of these two young women in a wait time between the penultimate and final chap-
different situation; taken together, the episodes push ters by ending issue No. 11 with a terrible disclosure:
toward that moment when Enid will have to choose that the megalomaniacal plot just described by the
either to go away to college or to remain in her storys villain (antihero, if you prefer) has already
ambiguous, unresolved relationship with Becky. Thus, been carried out, resulting in a catastrophic explosion
though Clowes seems at first to surrender to the in the heart of New York City. As the final page of
enervation of the two women, he also suggests the No. 11 wipes out various supporting players in a
limitations imposed by their persistently ironic and blinding white flash, we realize that the villain has
hopeless outlook. Deceptively low-affect, Ghost already succeeded; the dialogue shown in the pre-
World finally builds to a powerful conclusion that ceding pages does not anticipate his success but
suggests betrayal, self-defeat, and irrecoverable loss. crowns it. While the story has been cross-cutting
In contrast, more prosaic and less interesting between the villains lair and the streets of New York,
examples of this kind of repetitive and episodic time has not been unfolding linearly, for the New
structure may be found in most of the so-called Yorkers we have been watching are already dead; it is
graphic novels culled from the continuities of periodic too late for the heroes to do anything about it.


Figure 58. A highly-charged interchapter break: the last page of Watchmen No. 11, and the first page of No. 12. By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
1987 DC Comics. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

And then we are forced to wait a month (or more) for A similar moment occurs between the sixth and
the succeeding installment. When No. 12 begins, the seventh chapters of Peter Milligan and Duncan
opening pageswordless, full-page panoramas of Fegredos Enigma, originally serialized in eight issues
mass deathbreak away from the prevailing gridlike, by DCs Vertigo line in 1993. In this aggressive dis-
nine-panel layout of the rest of the story, at last mantling of the superhero genrelike Watchmen,
revealing the carnage wrought by the villains plot Enigma is a superhero tale indebted to alternative
(fig. 58). The synapse between issues No. 11 and comicsthe protagonist, Michael Smith, witnesses a
No. 12 is a cliffhanger in the classic sense, except that series of bizarre and horrific events precipitated by
it is built around a fait accompli, not a thing to be the coming of the Enigma: his favorite 1960s comic
prevented. What happens just before the synapse is book superhero, now come to life. These events con-
the very thing that the superheroes were supposed to spire to force Michael into confronting his own
stop, so that the cliffhanger consists of wondering homosexuality. The series crowning moment occurs
how the world will respond, not whether this horror when Michael consummates his relationship with the
can be avoided. (This is just one of many subversions Enigma in a sexual sensethat is, when he makes
of genre that Watchmen performs.) love to the icon of his childhood. Milligans script


Figure 59. Another heavily fraught break: the last page of Enigma No. 6, and the first of No. 7. By Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo.
1993 Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. Used with permission.

moves the reader to this emotion-fraught moment at drawing of the protagonist, Michael Smith (fig. 60).
the end of the sixth chapter, or issue, then picks up This reversal is in keeping with the storys shifting
the story at the beginning of the seventh after the emphasis, from the surreal and hyperviolent encounters
event, in a post-coital reverie that deliberately teases of the early chapters to Michaels quiet self-realization
the reader with the thought of what he has missed: in the latter half. Like Watchmens consistent cover
Actually you should have seen it. You really missed scheme, the shifting designs of Enigma provide an
something (fig. 59). opportunity to influence the readers take on the
Again, the packaging of the story as eight issues story in specific ways before the reader has even
reinforces its dramatic argument. Fegredos cover opened the package.
illustrations embed panels of line drawing within fully In short, packaging and seriality can underscore
painted images of the titular Enigma, commenting on plot and theme, though the breakneck scheduling of
the collision of two frames of referencewhich Im periodicals usually discourages the exploitation of
tempted to call reality and fantasywithin the this potential. Creators must be both very fast and
story itself. The cover to the last issue, however, possessed of a strong a priori grasp of structure to
inverts this design motif, and instead embeds a small make scheduling and packaging work to the advan-
painted panel of the Enigma within a larger line tage of narrative. At the same timeand here lies a


Figure 60. Symbolic packaging: Duncan Fegredos covers to Enigma No. 7 and No. 8. 1993 Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. Used with

paradoxpackaging and seriality are most effective entire story so far: now we are suddenly told that
artistically in books that do adhere to a strict periodic Vladek, whose recollections are the books foundation,
schedule, because the consistent intervals between has died long since. Thus we are forcibly reminded
chapters can become an anticipated part of the that what Spiegelman has depicted as the present
reading experience itself. Thus I have drawn the is already past, no less so than the memories of the
above two examples from series published by DC Holocaust that his father shares. This disclosure forces
Comics in traditional comic book form, series that the reader to reorient him or herself with respect to
adhered to a more or less monthly schedule. time, and with respect to Vladek, whose pending
Yet the serial relationship between chapters can death will now haunt the rest of the book. By reposi-
be manipulated in other, less strictly periodic comics tioning the reader at the beginning of this chapter
as well: witness the ironic triumph of Spiegelmans that is, by using this structural break to introduce
Maus volume 2, whose second chapter, Auschwitz an entirely new vantage, one from which Vladeks
(Time Flies), records the authors own struggle with death is known and unavoidableSpiegelman at
guilt, depression, and inertia over a period of some once undercuts and ratifies the strong sense of real-
three years (see chapter 5). Time Flies exploits the ism that characterizes all of Arts scenes with his
interchapter break, or pause, to recontextualize the father. As in Watchmen and Enigma, Spiegelman


uses the chapter as a discrete structural element to a time and offer something like novelistic develop-
enable a crucial change in perspective. This change ment of character and theme. Yet most of these series
serves Spiegelmans all-important strategy of ironic do not yield cohesive novels when collected in
authentication (as discussed previously). book form. Though it is now common to break down
The example of Maus leads to point (3), which ongoing series into successive, self-contained arcs,
ought to be an obvious one but is hidden by the very often by different authors or teams, mainstream
use of the term graphic novel. Authors whose work comic books still tend to be cumulative rather than
is serialized while still in progress can and do reply to organic in structure. Such series tend either to capital-
the public reception of their work, by commenting ize on the legendary status of some familiar property
(in direct or coded fashion) on readers reactions, or by (for example, Batman), or to nurse long-term subplots
altering the substance of their work in response to in an open-ended continuity, subplots that remain
reader feedback (as did Dickens on occasion). The unresolved at the end of each arc and are manifestly
point would seem obvious in the case of an ongoing designed to lure the reader back for another soap-
comic book series, in which the readers advice and opera-like installment. While such comics may exploit
feedback may be solicited quite openly, but also the creative and marketing advantages of self-
applies to personal, self-directed work that would contained arcs, they still accrete story material without
seem entirely aloof from reader response, such as the long-term structural aims of a Watchmen or
Maus. As noted in chapter 5, Time Flies represents, Enigma. Seldom will a long-running monthly serial
among other things, an elaborate, even tortuous, achieve the kind of closure aimed at in, for instance,
response to the fame Spiegelman garnered from the Neil Gaimans fantasy series Sandman (198996), in
first volume of Maus, published five years before. The which a series of short tales provided a deliberate,
critical reaction to his work gets drawn into the work drawn-out denouement after the titles climactic arc.
itself, in the form of a blackly comic scene in which By the same token, stories that are planned to
reporters and merchandisers vie for Spiegelmans work as collected volumes may frustrate the expecta-
attention, oblivious to the bodies of Nazi victims piled tions of serial readers, leading to a loss of readership,
up around him. Despite the fact that Maus was always and of economic supportwhich are the most pow-
intended to be read as a single work, coherent in form erful incentives for persisting in serialization in the first
and expression, we stand to lose something important place. As noted in chapter 3, Gilbert and Jaime
if we obscure the circumstances of its original publica- Hernandez alienated many of their readers in the lat-
tion in parts (see Kannenberg, Form 15154). ter half of the original Love & Rockets series by serial-
Serialization, then, can allow graphic novels to izing several graphic novels at once, including Gilberts
comment on the terms of their own reception, or oth- dauntingly complex Poison River. Though begun with
erwise to change in mid-stream in response to that distinct and well-structured chapters, Poison River
receptionand, again, serialization can undercut or eventually devolved into a series of unstructured
reinforce a graphic novels structural cohesion. Serial chunks, or allotments of pages, with no concessions
units (chapters or installments) can be used to impose to the periodical readership in terms of exposition or
structure on a novel, or, alternately, they can compro- noteseven as the gap between successive issues of
mise structure through digression, redundancy, and Love & Rockets stretched wider and wider. Readers
the attenuation of suspense. More broadly, I would balked at the difficulty of Rivers narrative arc, with its
argue that, though some novelists can turn serializa- nonlinear structure and uncued flashbacks, and the
tion to their advantage, what makes a good serial story became notorious for its byzantine complexity.
may not make a good novel, and, vice versa, what Throughout this difficult period, Gilbert
makes a good novel may make a poor serial. Hernandez himself continued to pour considerable
Many popular mainstream comic books, for energy into River, which he has described as a very
instance, sustain plotlines for months or even years at demanding, even consuming, stream-of-conscious


effort (Hernandez to the author, 22 Mar. 2000). Also, would seem to threaten the integrity of the work as a
as noted in chapter 3, he took on additional book- whole. Finally, he suspended the project in mid-story
length projects, very different in character, as a relief something Gilbert Hernandez was apparently urged to
from the pressures that River had created (hard as this do with Poison River as well, according to correspon-
may be to fathom). Along the way, Poison Rivers dence with this authorand launched into a conven-
coherence was compromised by this grueling process, tionally paced serial of more definite duration, the
compelling Hernandez to do additional work: again, historical Louis Riel (19992003).
the novels single-volume edition boasted some fifty Projects like Poison River and Underwater suggest
new pages of chapter headings and story material to the difficulties that face serialized graphic novels that
smooth out its knotty complexities. According to aspire toward unconventional structure (as in River) or
Hernandez, this part was easy; it was fitting the story pacing (as in Underwater). In such cases, the standard
into so few pages in the first place that was hard. In comic book or magazine-length installment may not
the aftermath of River, Gilbert and Jaime struggled to be an adequate unit for serialization, and as a result
keep pace with each other, so as to put Love & the serial reading experience is fragmented and unsat-
Rockets out on a more reliable schedule; this proved isfactory, unlike those graphic novels whose rhythms
difficult enough that the brothers, for a time, chose to are keyed to the traditional comic book installment,
discontinue the series in favor of individual publish- such as Watchmen. In short, projects like Poison River
ing projects. and Underwater anticipate the finished novel without
Acclaimed Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown providing whole, satisfying chapters along the way.
faced a similar problem with his surreal, slow-moving, Their ambitions make for frustrating serials, though
and now-suspended comic book series Underwater they are serialized nonetheless, mainly for economic
(199497), an atmospheric treatment of the growth reasons.
and development of a young girls mind from birth Such is arguably the case with Dave Sims bizarrely
onwards. With dialogue that mixed snippets of English autobiographical epic Cerebus (as described in chap-
with a weird invented language, evoking the childs ter 1). In Cerebus, tightly structured chapters (for
gradual acculturation into speech, Underwater offered example, the discrete chapters in the novel High
what many readers saw as a frustrating experience, Society, originally serialized in issues 26 through 50)
glacial in its rhythms and ungenerous to its periodic eventually gave way to roughly twenty-page allot-
readership (accustomed to the more tightly paced sto- ments divided without regard to the monthly series as
ries in Browns previous series, Yummy Fur). Reviewer such. These allotments would sometimes end, for
Robert Boyd summed up the dilemma posed by the instance, in mid-scene. Perhaps because of this
series: The whole narrative concept of Underwater change in approach, sales of the monthly Cerebus
seems to depend on reading it all in one go, but we get comic book dropped even as sales of the collected
it in little, unsatisfying bits. I understand acutely the Cerebus volumes rosea phenomenon also at work
need to amortize the costs of production, which serial- in other long-term comic book serials, and christened
ization accomplishes, but if youre going to serialize the Cerebus effect by Comics Journal columnist
something, each chapter should at least acknowledge Bart Beaty (Pickle 1). Yet Sims work presents an
the formeach chapter should be a semi-autonomous especially difficult case because its larger ambitions, as
story unit. . . . But Underwaters chapters read like they a series of graphic novels totaling three hundred
were cut randomly from a larger narrative (42). As if issues worth of story, would seem to be compromised
in response to readers complaints, Brown stepped up by the authors frequent topical jabs at the comic
the rate of his work, trying to get Underwater out on a book industry and other targets. Though these satiric
more regular schedule. He also moved away from his forays remain interesting artifacts of the series qua
habit of irregular layouts, back to a standard, rectilin- seriesrevealing as they do Sims awareness of his
ear, six-panel grid, a move that, as Boyd suggests, monthly readershipthey often serve to waylay or


reroute the main storyline. As argued in chapter 1, the a novel-length comic may be prohibitive, unless she/
resulting collections at times seem dated and unfo- he enjoys some means of support during that time.
cused. Yet, economically if not creatively, these col- Notwithstanding the above exceptions, serialization
lected volumes constituted as important a vehicle for seems essential to underwriting the production of
Sim as the comic book itself. works in the long form, because it pays authors as
A good serial, then, may not make a good novel, they go, and offers publishers the added advantage
despite its ambitions. Conversely, a good novel may of promoting the eventual novel through tantalizing
make a poor serial: take Poison River, say, or, for a installments (see Groth, Partisan Response 3). Bar-
more recent example, The Sands by Tom Hart, which ring serialization, a comics author with his or her eye
was partially serialized, then abruptly halted when the on the graphic novel typically needs some other kind
author (and his publisher, the now-defunct Black Eye of work to keep body and soul together, or some sort
Books) came to the conclusion that the story could of substantial advancesomething hard to come by
not be effectively parceled out in periodic installments in the undercapitalized world of alternative comics.
because of its pacing. The Sands as a series disap- Even an author who does receive an advance for a
peared, to be completed later as a single volume graphic novel, as in the case of Howard Cruse for his
(Beaty, Pickle 2). One result of this has been some 210-page Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), may find that
debate within the small press about the viability of the sheer craftwork required to complete the project
simultaneously publishing comic book series and plan- cannot be financed by that advance. Cruse faced a ter-
ning for their eventual compilation (a debate sparked rible dilemma when, by his own admission, the two-
by Beaty and played out in the pages of The Comics year project he had envisioned ended up requiring
Journal in 199899).3 four years to bring to press. Stuck Rubber Baby
But what of the possibilities for graphic novels that, was, and is, a dense and demanding project: a semi-
like most contemporary novels, are not serialized but autobiographical fiction about growing up gay in the
simply published in toto? A number of examples come midst of the Civil Rights movement, populated by
to mind from the book trade: for instance, Joyce dozens of distinct characters and covering many years.
Brabner, Harvey Pekar, and Frank Stacks Our Cancer Cruses advance (bear in mind that he was being pub-
Year, published by Four Walls, Eight Windows (1994); lished by Paradox, a division of DC Comics, and not by
Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchellis adaptation of an undercapitalized small publisher) was not enough
Paul Austers City of Glass, published by Avon as the to cover that extra time. This, according to Cruse,
first in an abortive series (1994, reprinted by Picador in engendered a personal budgetary crisis of unnerving
2004); Howard Cruses Stuck Rubber Baby, published proportions, as the author was forced to divert
by DCs Paradox Press (1995); or Raymond Briggss much-needed attention to fund-raising in the midst
Ethel & Ernest, first published by Britains Jonathan of his full-time drawing (Stuck acknowledgments,
Cape (1998). In addition to these, there are recent n. pag.). Cruse attacked this problem in ingenious
examples from the direct market that have crossed ways: he sought foundation grants with the help of
over into the book tradeall-new bookshelf volumes testimonials from fellow artists and, finally, ended up
from comics specialty publishers such as Fantagraphics selling original artwork for the book in advance of its
Books (for example, Jasons The Iron Wagon, 2003), being drawn, to individual sponsors whose support
Drawn and Quarterly (for example, Joe Saccos The enabled him to finish. Stuck Rubber Baby, a rich, com-
Fixer, 2003), and Top Shelf Productions (for example, plex storya novel in the traditional senserequired
Craig Thompsons Blankets, 2003). heroic effort both on and off the drawing board to
Despite recent gains, the prospects for such books bring to press (and this from one of the largest publish-
are discouraging, due to the financial constraints that ers to specialize in comics and graphic novels).
weigh on both authors and publishers. On the Cruses novel, inevitably compared to Spiegelmans
authors side, the amount of time required to produce Maus, was published in a climate of expectation


created by Mauss success (note that Spiegelman too novels. Future criticism needs to contextualize the
relied on a grant, in his case a Guggenheim Foundation graphic novel thoroughly, so as to understand more
fellowship, to underwrite the completion of his pro- clearly the achievements of a Gilbert Hernandez or
ject). Yet it took years for Stuck Rubber Baby to reach an Art Spiegelman. Critics should also be wary of
retail shelves, years in which Cruse had to divide his importing aesthetic standards that cannot appreciate
attention between actually crafting the work and seek- the varied forms that comics have explored, and will
ing funds to keep the process going. The climate of continue to explore.
expectation, post-Maus, was not enough to sustain a
project of Stuck Rubber Babys scope. Obviously, these
observations should not be taken as proof positive that CONCLUSION
comics are unsuited for the long form. Nor should we
fall into the trap of regarding every successful book- The hopeful yet at times misleading reception of the
length comic, whether serial in origin or not, as simply graphic novel offers an unusually clear example of
an unaccountable freak exception to some immutable, what may happen when a popular form, in all its
oppressive rule. To do so would be to confuse logistical repleteness and variety, is repositioned vis--vis liter-
hurdles with inherent formal limitations. Yet to forecast ary study. Indeed, as the foregoing discussion sug-
the future prospects of long-form comics, we need to gests, importing comics into prevailing canons of
be aware of the real economic and structural difficulties literary value, without regard to their special formal
that obstruct the creation of cohesive graphic novels. characteristics and the specialized circumstances of
Even now, despite the blooming interest in graphic their making, may mystify their origins and impover-
novels among mainstream publishers, serialization ish our appreciation of the medium. After all, every
remains the one economically proven means of getting satisfyingly self-contained graphic novel represents a
book-length comics into print. Serialization, however, triumph over logistics and circumstance; every serial-
brings with it an entirely new set of challenges ized graphic novel represents a negotiation between
indeed, a different aestheticwhich constrains, even short- and long-term aims. Not knowing thisthat
as it enables, the creation of longer works. is, not knowing about the serial publishing and mar-
In sum, to make a fetish of the graphic novel, keting of comicsplaces one at a disadvantage when
without reckoning on the serial nature of most evaluating graphic novels in terms of their novelistic
comics, is to neglect the crucial economic and generic structure and formal ambitions. In a nutshell, we need
contexts of this struggling literary form. Privileging to know where these works come from, and what
the graphic novel package also means ignoring the conditions enable and constrain their production. We
strengths of other long-form comics genres, such as also need to know what readerly habits and expecta-
the comic book and the short story (to say nothing tions shape their reception.
of short-form comics such as strips, which we have Such considerations threaten to throw a wrench
knowingly neglected here). Granted, the graphic novel into the critical recognition of alternative comics as lit-
has at last been embraced by the book market, and erature; yet that recognition is nonetheless deserved,
the term, though misleading from a literary stand- indeed overdue. The richness of contemporary alter-
point, is now commonplace enough that it needs no native comics warrants an expansive and searching
air quotes around it. Whats more, it represents a criticism, one that not only acknowledges the artistic
byroad to critical acceptance and a new maturity. Yet potentialities of comics but also turns an eye, reflex-
a too-exclusive embrace of the term graphic novel ively, on the very criteria by which we ascribe value to
risks eliding much of what is interesting in comics his- literary works in general. Despiteor perhaps because
tory, mystifying the economic relations on which the ofthe constraints of serial publication, alternative
art form depends, and cheating us of an appreciation cartoonists like Gilbert Hernandez have explored long-
for those great comics that do not look at all like form storytelling and dazzling variations on narrative


structure. Despite the cloistral limitations of comic book art, one capable of supporting ambitious, disarmingly
fandom, alternative cartoonists have overstepped original and questioning work. In defiance of decades
the limits of formula fiction, plunging into piercingly of stultifying convention, alternative comics have
frank self-examination and powerful sociopolitical expanded the possibilities of the form, reminding us of
argument. Increasingly, cartoonists are staking claim what a challenging, unpredictable, and tension-filled
to comics, especially long-form comics, as a literary experience reading comics can be.


1. Notable precursors to Zap emerged from college humor magazines. Frank Stacks The
Adventures of Jesus, published in 1964 in a photocopied edition of about fifty copies,
stemmed from Stacks work with Gilbert Shelton on the Texas Ranger, the magazine for the
University of Texas at Austin. Jack Jackson, a friend of Shelton and the Ranger crowd, credited
Stacks cartoons with inspiring his own comics booklet, God Nose, also produced in 1964
(Rosenkranz 1625; Harvey, Comic Book 211). Yet these formative publications were seen by
few at the time; claims for Stack and Jackson as the firsts reflect their later stature as much
as their historical priority. Ditto for Shelton, whose mock-superhero Wonder Wart-Hog
bowed during the same period and eventually earned a short-lived newsstand (not under-
ground) magazine in 1967, pre-Zap (Rosenkranz 90). (Shelton went on to create the
Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, comix hippies par excellence, who became staples of the
underground press.) Another precursor was the late Joel Beck, a cartoonist for the UC Berkeley
Pelican, whose booklets of the early sixties were later reissued by comix publisher The Print
Mint (Estren 49, 316; Rosenkranz 20, 5859). These proto-comix, however, were obscure,
and did not exploit the comic book format the way Zap did; hence claims for their primacy are
always couched in terms of predating Zap, a testament to Crumbs greater impact.
2. Regarding the mid-1950s shakeup in magazine (and therefore comic book) distribution,
discussion has been scarce, though Nybergs Seal of Approval does address the problem
(12526). The withdrawal of the once preeminent American News Company from distribution
in May 1957 appears to have had a great impact; so too did the damage done to smaller dis-
tributors, e.g., Leader News, by the public backlash against comic books. See Vadeboncoeur
48, Irving 2426, and contemporary news coverage of Americans cave-in (e.g., Freeman,
Selling Problem; American News to Sell Assets; Newsstand Giant). Regarding the
encroachment of television, see, e.g., Witty et al. (1963) for an essay that links the decline in
comics reading to the rise of television viewing.
3. The semi-autonomous Comics Code Authority, whose seal of approval emblazoned
the covers of most comic books from 1955 onwards, worked to insure publishers compli-
ance with the rigid Code adopted by the majority of comic book publishers in late 1954. As
originally adopted, the Codea strategic concession to public criticism and congressional
pressurenot only curbed the depiction of violence and sexual behavior but also forbade


explicit criticism of public figures and, in general, demanded Additional historical background on circulating libraries and
adherence to an authoritarian ideal (in which the law is never novel-publishing can be found in Blakey, The Minerva Press,
wrong and lawbreakers are never right). Targeted at such 17901820; Curwen, A History of Booksellers (1873, rpt.
comics as the infamous horror, suspense, and satire titles from 1968), pages 421432; and Griest, Mudies Circulating Library
trend-setting publisher E.C., the Code effectively snuffed the and the Victorian Novelthe latter two concerned especially
kind of antiauthoritarian comics later celebrated by the under- with Mudies, the most popular and powerful of the Victorian
ground. For the history and significance of the Code, see libraries. See also Watt 1999, Cross 1985, and, for a fascinating
Nybergs Seal of Approval. For a general treatment of comics cross-media comparison, Roehl and Varian, Circulating
censorship, including the global influence of the late-1950s Libraries and Video Rental Stores.
American crisis, see Lent, ed., Pulp Demons, and Leonard 9. Lanes success was notorious, and his impact on popular
Rifass review of same. literacy and leisure inspired severe social criticism. In Victorian
4. Mad (in both comic book and magazine format) has been England, the phrase Minerva Press had a pejorative potential
cited repeatedly as a major influence, both on underground rather like the phrase Harlequin Romance in our own time
comix and on American satire in general. Mad founder/editor (Blakey 1). Like Harlequins, Minerva novels were routinely con-
Harvey Kurtzman was the single figure from mainstream media demned as sensationalistic trash, yet faithfully read by many
most cited by the comix and a direct inspiration for such car- middle-class readers (Cross 174). Watt, in Contesting the
toonists as Crumb, Lynch, and Spiegelman. Regarding the Gothic, links the nineteenth-century condemnation of Minerva
Mad/comix connection, see Groth and Fiore 2438; Estren novels to pandemic cultural anxiety over the growth of an
3738; Rosenkranz 275; Bijou Funnies No. 8 (1973), an under- undisciplined reading public, whose promiscuous consump-
ground pastiche of Mad with a cover by Kurtzman himself; and tion (and production) of genre literature was implicitly linked
Spiegelmans comic-strip eulogy for Kurtzman (Genius). with a destabilizing form of modernityand explicitly gen-
5. The Cartoonists Co-Op Press, a short-lived publishing dered as female (8082). (The concern about popular literacy
collective formed in 1973 by Bill Griffith and other Bay Area revealed here anticipates the concern raised in the 1940s and
artists, circulated an advertisement in comics form (drawn by fifties by American comic books, only here it is feminine propri-
Willy Murphy) that satirized the comix publishing business for ety, not childhood innocence, that is under threat.)
making undergrounds almost as stupid and disgusting as . . . 10. Fan historian Richard Kyle has been credited with coin-
overground comics. This ad depicts underground publishing as ing, circa 196465, both graphic story and graphic novel.
an impersonal, corporate process presided over by a Mr. Bigg, In 1967, Bill Spicers fanzine Fantasy Illustrated, to which Kyle
whose comix factory spews out tons of sub-par publications yet contributed, became Graphic Story Magazine, and helped
cannot boast sales to match. The ad implicitly links questions legitimize these terms (see Schelly 130; Harvey, Novel
of quality, creative ownership, and, of course, sales (Estren 1045). George Metzgers Beyond Time and Again (1976),
25253). In 1973 Griffith had already inveighed against a rising which Kyle helped publish, may have been the first book-
tide of retrograde comix in an editorial in the San Francisco length comic billed as a graphic novel (Rosenkranz 75; Harvey,
Phoenix (A Sour Look). See also Rosenkranz 21718. Novel 106). However, Eisners A Contract with God, which
6. For historical background on fandom and direct sales, bore the term graphic novel on its cover, was the first widely
consult Sabin, Adult, chapter 5, and Schelly, The Golden Age recognized example of the genre and became the catalyst for
of Comic Fandom. See Schelly in particular for accounts of key general use of the term. Eisner apparently believed that he had
moments in fan history, circa 196465 (7197). (Schellys his- coined a new term, out of desperation to market his book.
tory is an invaluable fund of detail and anecdote.) For a study
of fandom today, see Pustz.
7. The greatest fund of detail on the history of the market 2. AN ART OF TENSIONS: THE OTHERNESS
can be found in the scattered writings of veteran dealer/ OF COMICS READING
collector Robert Beerbohm, e.g., Unstable Equilibria (1997) and
Secret Origins (2000). The most trenchant analyses of the 1. The cinema/comics analogy, intuitive and long-lived, can be
relationship between the market and comic book content are found in many of the seminal popular studies of the art form,
McAllisters Cultural Argument and Organizational Constraint often as part of a brief prcis of formal characteristics meant to
(1990) and Ownership Concentration (2001). accompany an otherwise historically oriented treatment (see,
8. Though many of the celebrated novels of the eighteenth e.g., Steranko 1:3; Perry 14; Horn 5657). Ironically, Eisner
and nineteenth centuries were three-deckers aimed at the circu- himself has often been cited as the master of cinematic tech-
lating libraries, still the libraries impact on literary form seems to nique in comics (see, e.g., Steranko 2:116). Eisner himself told
have been neglected. I have here relied on Jacobs, Anonymous Steranko that he came to regard comics as film on paper but
Signatures, and Erickson, The Economy of Literary Form. in later interviews and writings would claim theater and print as


his prime influences. In 1973 Eisner told John Benson that print made Love & Rockets a reality. The resultant comic book, the
has always been the most attractive [medium] to me. . . . self-published Love & Rockets No. 1, captured the attention of
Theres an intimacy in reading that to me transcends motion Fantagraphics Books, who offered to publish the series profes-
pictures (Art and Commerce 7). For a recent theoretical sionally. The Fantagraphics L&R began in 1982, and Gilbert
comparison of comics and film, see Christiansen. and Jaime Hernandez have continued their association with
2. One notable exception to this, Phyllis Hallenbecks 1976 Fantagraphics to the present. See Fiore, Groth, and Powers
article for the Journal of Learning Disabilities (reprinted in 7274; Cooke 3740.
Thomas 13641), focuses on the use of comics to teach left- 2. Los Bros have acknowledged both the diversity and the
to-right sequencing and visual discrimination to students with zeal of their fan following. In a collaborative Gilbert/Jaime strip
learning disabilities. Tellingly, this article focuses on a popula- from 1994, hyping Love & Rockets in a distributors catalog
tion for whom traditional remediation strategies have proved (reprinted in Hernandez Satyricon), Luba boasts of the series
ineffective and to whom standard expectations are assumed strong-willed independent women, while a character drawn
not to apply. Another noteworthy exception, not to be found by Jaime speaks of minorities shown in a respectful and even
in Thomas, is James W. Browns Comics in the Foreign inspiring light. In a more self-deprecating vein, the commemo-
Language Classroom: Pedagogical Perspectives, published in rative booklet Ten Years of Love & Rockets (1992) includes a strip
Foreign Language Annals in 1977. Brown defines comics as a by Jaime (also reprinted in Satyricon) that gently pokes fun at the
forme mixte, a polysemiotic genre consisting of many codes, readers strong responses to the book. Here Jaimes principal
and pays attention to such formal elements as layout, pictorial characters, Maggie and Hopey, mouth dialogue taken from fan
characterization, and ballooning of text. Brown is invoked as a letterse.g., I think I have a crush on Maggie and I never
helpful precedent in later articles by teachers (including some thought Id ever fall in love with a comic book character. Such
reprinted in Thomas). Significantly, Browns work comes from responses testify, not only to a faithful readership, but to authors
an international perspective, with a substantial debt to fran- who engaged that readership openly and intimately, aware that
cophone semiotics; in fact the conceptual foundation of the their joint creation had become a part of readers lives.
piece is French research from 1967 to 1976. Though Brown 3. For convenience, page citations throughout this chapter
does emphasize the transparency and ease of the form, his generally refer not to the Love & Rockets magazine but to the
essay exhibits little of the anxiety over comics that has so dis- collected, single-volume edition of Palomar (2003). The novel
figured the American critical tradition. Poison River is an exception: since it is not included in the col-
3. Circa 199398, Cartier participated in a European collec- lected Palomar, I cite its definitive separate edition (1994). In all
tive known as Stakhano, dedicated to producing wordless cases I have identified the original (magazine) publication dates
comics albums for an international audience (see Beaty, of the stories. On occasion I have also named smaller Love &
Stakhano). Regarding the international reach of mute Rockets compilations in which certain stories can be found.
comics, see what is almost certainly the worlds largest anthol- Fantagraphics has published a shelfs worth of such compila-
ogy of such comics, Comix 2000, a millennial project assem- tions, some twenty to date (19852003), which are known col-
bled in 1999 by the French comics collective LAssociation lectively as The Complete Love & Rockets or (sometimes)
(J.-C. Menu, ed.) This two-thousand-page anthology of pan- simply Love & Rockets Collections. In many cases, Los Bros
tomime comics, wildly inconsistent, includes contributions from substantially revised and expanded their stories for these com-
twenty-nine countries and more than three hundred creators. pilations, and it is such revised, definitive versions that are gath-
4. Torn Together originally appeared as the inside front ered in the single-volume Palomar. (No additional changes
cover of issue No. 7 of Spiegelman and Moulys Raw (1985). appear to have been made for the one-volume edition.)
This issue, subtitled The Torn-Again Graphix Magazine, had 4. During this so-called respite, Hernandezs exploration
deliberately hand-torn covers (taped inside each copy was a of high art traditions peaked in Frida (L&R No. 28, 1988,
corner torn from the cover, though not necessarily from the reprinted in Flies on the Ceiling), a short, surreal and intensely
cover of that particular copy). Subsequent reprintings of the suggestive pictorial biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo
strip have restored the torn-off upper left corner, which Swarte drawing on Hayden Herreras Frida (1991). With the editorial
has drawn to appear torn. guidance of Fantagraphics editor Kim Thompson (see Gaiman,
Interview 95), Hernandez here achieves a stunning visual/
verbal repartee, and reveals a contextual awareness of art and
3. A BROADER CANVAS: GILBERT politics that portends the complexities of Poison River.
HERNANDEZS HEARTBREAK SOUP 5. Nericcio points out that Hernandez captures and deftly
comments upon the dynamics of cinema, and shows that
1. Marios involvement with the original series was minimal these cinematic touches inform a larger critique of U.S. cultural
after issue No. 3 (1983), but it was his initial prodding that imperialism (95). Thus, Hernandezs movie references reveal


an overarching interest in the way image technologies 4. This discussion of selfhood assumes the unified, inner self
impact the culture of Palomar and of Latin America in general as a guiding concept or goal, notwithstanding poststructural-
(9495). Movies become part of, not only the technique, but isms realization that the self may be no more than the suc-
also the content of Hernandezs stories: note, for instance, that cessive guises we choose to adopt. I speak of the inner self
Palomars movie theater (run by Luba) displays posters for var- not as an objective presence but as a thing desired or article of
ious bygone American and European films, posters that play- faith. Indeed, it may be the very absence, or unlocatable qual-
fully suggest both the range of Hernandezs cinematic ity, of the self that makes us desire it so. For discussion of recent
inspirations and the cultural relationship between Palomar and theories of self and self-imaging, see Dowd.
the outside world. For more on Heartbreak Soups debt to 5. Hernandez would later reject this suicidal ending in a
film, see, e.g., Fiore et al. 8788. short, mock-heroic strip titled Destroy All Fanboys (Comics
6. The tables of contents for L&R No. 34 (December 1990) Journal No. 200, Dec. 1997). Though this later strips posturing
and No. 37 (February 1992) include short blurbs designed to borders on self-parody, its blustery rejection of self-pity
bring readers up to speed with Poison River, but, predictably, does suggest that Hernandez was attempting to resolve the
they are so brief and elliptical as to be useless to the uninitiated. professional crisis that had marked his late-period work on the
The story chapters themselves contain no expository captions, original Love & Rockets (see chapter 3).
title pages, or other cues to catch readers up. As Hernandez says 6. Of course, Gusdorfs original sin metaphor implies a
on the title page of the last chapter of Human Diastrophism fallen state, as if by setting our lives forth in autobiography we
(L&R No. 26, June 1988): For any new reader of this story; are lapsing from a state of Edenic innocence. It might be
forget it, its hopeless. . . . Even more so with Poison River! arguedindeed, has been argued, by such critics as Gunn
that composing ones autobiography is not a matter of falling
from innocence but rather one of (re)creating oneself through
4. I MADE THAT WHOLE THING UP!: THE performance. Gusdorfs metaphor assumes a prior, prelapsar-
PROBLEM OF AUTHENTICITY IN ian self, internal and inviolate, while Gunn assumes no such
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS thing, preferring instead to emphasize the selfs dependence
on social expression for its very existence. (Note Gunns insis-
1. The interaction between Pekars life and his art has been tence on the worldliness of autobiography, as opposed to
made only more complex by the notoriety of Shari Springer the Edenic purity assumed by Gusdorfs phrase.) For Gusdorf,
Berman and Robert Pulcinis film adaptation of American autobiography remains insufficient, a never-ending struggle
Splendor (released to acclaim in 2003). The film blends fiction- for an absolute knowledge of self (48), whereas Gunn sees
alized versions of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (played by autobiography as performance, not only sufficient in itself but
Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis respectively) with appearances necessary for our social being.
and commentary by their real-life counterparts; moreover, it
combines dramatic recreation, archival footage (of Pekars
famed appearances on the David Letterman Show) and 5. IRONY AND SELF-REFLEXIVITY IN
sequences of animation inspired by the American Splendor AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL COMICS: TWO CASE
comics. See Pulcini & Berman 2003. STUDIES
2. Interestingly, Seths own work has undermined Pekars
ethic of authenticity by blurring fact and fiction. His ostensibly 1. For examples of Spiegelmans formalist experimentation,
autobiographical novel Its a Good Life, If You Dont Weaken see Breakdowns (1977, now sadly out of print) and Read
(1996), about Seths obsessive inquiry into the life of a bygone Yourself Raw (1987). For comprehensive analysis of this work
magazine cartoonist from the 1940s, has been outed as a and its relationship to Maus, see Kannenberg, Form, Function,
fiction, despite the presence of such real-life supporting char- Fiction, chapter 3.
acters as Seths family and fellow cartoonist Chester Brown. 2. A footnote about the birth of Spiegelmans daughter Nadja
3. Of course, not all autobiographical comics show their (b. 13 May 1987) reveals just how long it took Spiegelman to
protagonists; some merely imply them through dialogue create the first few pages of Auschwitz (Time Flies) (2:43).
and/or captioned prose. For instance, Harvey Pekars Bat Whereas Spiegelman was typically able to complete a page of
(American Splendor No. 16, 1991), drawn by Joe Zabel and Maus in less than two weeks (Juno 12), this passage evidently
Gary Dumm, is seen through the protagonists eyes and does took much, much longer. Indeed, as Kannenberg has pointed
not reveal his complete likeness until the very endin a dis- out, this chapter apparently encapsulates some three years
turbing change of viewpoint. But my comments here pertain of work.
to the majority of autobiographical comics, which are con- 3. Belief in the strictly denotative, or referential, power of
cerned if not obsessed with depicting the self. photographic images persists despite widespread recognition of


their constructed and deeply coded nature. For more on this, Co., Doubleday) have launched but then abandoned graphic
see Ruggs discussion of such commentators as Roland Barthes novel lines.
and Alan Sekula in Picturing Ourselves (1213). Barthes dis- 2. As this book was entering final edits, I discovered,
criminates between denotative and connotative aspects of bemusedly, that another book has laid claim to the title The
photography; Sekula, likewise, separates the photographs Rise of the Graphic Novela cursory guidebook published by
informative from its affective powers. Such faith in the NBM in 2003 (Weiner).
photographs referentiality, as W. J. T. Mitchell has observed, 3. In Comics Journal 207 (Sept. 1998), Beatys Pickle,
lends photography a mystique of automatism and natural Poot, and the Cerebus Effect (12), which questions the pub-
necessity that makes it all the more difficult to approach pho- lishing practices of small publishers, is followed by Gary
tos critically (Iconology 6061). Decades of criticism notwith- Groths angry rejoinder, A Publishers Partisan Response
standing, the technology of photography encourages the (34). Groth, co-publisher of The Comics Journal as well as
common view of photographic images as neutral and slavishly Fantagraphics Books, emphasizes the economic necessity of
referential (though one suspects that the growth in digital serializing prior to book publication, even when republication
imaging technology will eventually make skeptics of us all). brings substantial alterations to the finished work (a practice
decried by Beaty). In Comics Journal 212 (May 1999), Rich
Kreiner follows up with Pay-as-You-Go-Pleasures: In Defense
6. WHITHER THE GRAPHIC NOVEL? of Serialized Comics, an essay extolling the aesthetic attrac-
tions of the serial form as such (13).

1. Since the first mainstream success for graphic novels circa

1986, several American publishers (Penguin, Avon, Marlowe &


Note: Small-press comic books are often kept in print via successive reprintings, and the collec-
tors market treats such publications as books rather than periodicals. When listing them here,
therefore, I have followed the conventions for books rather than serials (though where appli-
cable I have supplied the specific month of publication). Also, I have listed comics trade mag-
azines by issue number, not only date, because of their sometimes unpredictable scheduling.
I trust readers will understand that these unusual objects require an unusual approach.

Abbott, Lawrence L. Comic Art: Characteristics and Potentialities of a Narrative Medium.

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A Suivre (series), 154 Barry, Lynda, 6

Abbott, Lawrence L., 38, 52 Bastian, M. S., 61
academic study of comics, xi, xiv, 3335; anti-comics wave Bazin, Andr, 88
(1940s50s), 3335; interdisciplinary nature of, xi, xiv; Beat Generation, 18
politicization of, 34; shifts in, 35 Beaty, Bart, 33, 16061, 168n
Adams, Timothy Dow, 112, 124 Beck, C. C., 37
adults-only comics, 7 Beck, Joel, 164n
Alagb, Yvan, 61, 6263 Beerbohm, Robert, 165n
alternative comics: defined, ixxi; as a movement, x, 20, Bell, John, 27
3031, 111; in opposition to mainstream comics, 31, Benson, John, 166n
111 Beron, David A., 40
American News Company, 164n Bijou Funnies (series), 16, 165n
American Splendor (series). See Pekar, Harvey Black Eye Books, 161
Andersson, Max, 61 Bourdieu, Pierre, xiii
Andromeda Publications, 26 Boyd, Robert, 160
Arcade (series), 20 Brabner, Joyce, 109, 113, 130, 161, 167n
Archie comics, 72 breakdown, 41, 52, 70, 72
Asbury, Dana, 116 Briggs, Raymond, 161
Auster, Paul, 161 Brown, Chester, 11011, 117, 153, 160, 167n
autobiographical comics, x, 7, 10851 passim, 167n; Brown, James W., 166n
authenticity in, 11231, 138, 151; as cultural critique, Brown, Joshua, 14041
113, 130; fictive personae in, 11724, 126; fictiveness Brown, Merle, 124
vs. fictitiousness in, 12425; ironic authentication in, Browne, Malcolm, 85
12528, 131, 13951; political subtext of, 113, 129; Brubaker, Ed, 11011
realism in, 109, 111, 113; self-caricature in, 11417; Bruss, Elizabeth, 11617
self-reflexivity in, 11724, 13031; series, 10910, 112 Buhle, Paul, xi
Avril, Franois, 4042
canonicity in comics, xiii
B., David, 139 Capital Comics, 2526
Barks, Carl, xiii, 1011 Cartier, Eric, 4041, 166n


Cartoonists Co-Op Press, 165n Delany, Samuel R., 4

Cerebus (series). See Sim, Dave Dell (publisher), 11
Chabon, Michael, 10 Dickens, Charles, 154, 159
Chaland, Yves, 60 diegetic vs. nondiegetic text, 38
Chaykin, Howard, 26 Diereck, Charles, xv
Chiapetta, Joe, 110 direct market, ix, 7, 2031; advantages to small press, 2223,
cinema/comics analogy, 33, 72, 74, 165n 30; collecting in, 2425; compared to circulating libraries,
circulating libraries, 2325, 165n; compared to comic shops, 2325; consumers as authors, 25; decline (post 1993),
2325; Gothic romance in, 2425; influence on narrative 31; defined, 2021; direct sale of mainstream comics,
form, 2324; intertextuality in, 24 22; disadvantages to retailers, 23, 31; ground-level
Cisneros, Sandra, 15455 comics in, 2627; growth of, 22; intertextuality in, 24;
Clell, Madison, 139 retailers as publishers, 25; self-publishing in, 25, 2728;
closure (panel transitioning), 4145, 70, 74 as source of alternative comics, 23, 2526; as
Clowes, Dan, 11720, 122, 12526, 153, 155; Ghost World, subscription system, 22; trade terms, 2223;
155; Just Another Day, 11720, 122, 12526 underground roots of, 21
Cole, Jack, 10 direct sales. See direct market
Collier, David, 130 Ditko, Steve, 72
comic book, 331 passim, 106; commercial decline of, 11, 21; Doherty, Thomas, 145
defined, 8; dimensions of, 9; distribution crisis, 11, 164n; Dorfman, Ariel, 100
genres, 10; Golden Age of, 10; origins of, 89; price Dorgathen, Hendrik, 40
of, 11; as product premium, 9; public perception of, Doucet, Julie, 4143, 45, 61, 11011
911; as reprint of newspaper strips, 9; as social object, Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 153, 161
4, 67; as solo vehicle for cartoonists, 18; vs. television, Drechsler, Debbie, 63, 15355
11, 164n Dumm, Gary, 167n
comic book culture. See fandom (comic book)
comic book shops. See direct market Eakin, Paul John, 124
comic shops. See direct market Eastern Color Printing Company, 9
comic strips. See newspaper strips E.C. (Entertaining Comics), 10, 56, 165n
Comics & Comix (retail chain), 21, 26 Eclipse Comics, 26
Comics Code, 1112, 16, 35, 164n economy of comic art form, 3, 153
Comics Journal, The, 21, 23, 16061, 168n Eichhorn, Dennis, 110
concrete poetry, 37 Eisenstein, Sergei, 88
confessionalism (literary), 7 Eisner, Will, xxi, 910, 29, 33, 38, 53, 60, 72, 155, 165n
counterculture (1960s), 11, 1921, 130 Elder, Will, 57
creators rights, 16, 22 Eliot, T. S., 81
Crumb, R., 8, 1114, 16, 18, 4447, 61, 72, 75, 11922, Enigma (Milligan & Fegredo), 15658
12526, 129, 131, 144, 151, 165n; Dirty Laundry, 126; Erickson, Lee, 3
influences on, 11; The Many Faces of R. Crumb, Estren, Mark James, 131
11922, 129, 144, 151; reappropriation of the comic book,
1112; satiric method, 1112; Self-Loathing Comics, 126; fandom (comic book), xii, 2022, 31; fanzines, 2122;
stereotypes in, 1112; vis--vis Pop Art, 12; Zap Comix origins of, 21
(series), 8, 1114, 16, 164n. See also Pekar, Harvey Fantagraphics Books, 153, 161, 166n, 168n
Cruse, Howard, 16162 Farber, Manny, 10
Cubism, 5455, 81 Fegredo, Duncan. See Enigma
Fiedler, Leslie, xii
Dangle, Lloyd, 61 film vs. comics. See cinema/comics analogy
Daniels, Les, 8 Fiore, Robert, 29
Davis, Jack, 57, 59 Fischer, Herv, 40
DC Comics, 2122, 29, 31, 156, 158 Fleener, Mary, 5556, 58, 11011, 113
DeCarlo, Dan, 72 Fletcher, Robert P., xiv
defining comics, xv formal tensions in comics, x, 3667 passim, 70, 74, 76,
Deitch, Kim, 12, 18 9597, 106, 12628, 131; code vs. code (word vs.


image), 3641, 4448, 55, 12728, 131; experience vs. Hayes, Rory, 61
object, 36, 58, 6065; interaction of, 4448; sequence Heavy Metal (series), 2627
vs. surface, 36, 4859, 63, 74; single image vs. image-in- Herg (Georges Remi), 6061
series, 36, 4148, 70, 74, 76, 9597, 106, 126 Hernandez, Gilbert, x, 2829, 68107 passim, 12226, 131,
formalism in comics and comics study, xxii 152, 15960, 162, 16667n; Act of Contrition, 89;
formatting of comics. See packaging of comics art, ethical/political critique of, 8187; Birdland (series),
Fountain, Lora, 16 103, 105; breakdowns, 72, 74, 76, 87, 9597; Chelos
Frank, Thomas, 130 Burden, 104; cinematic influence on, 7173, 88, 167n;
Fresnault-Deruelle, Pierre, 48 comic book format, use of, 106; compositions, 7274,
Friedman, Susan Stanford, 115 76, 87; Destroy All Fanboys, 106, 167n; Duck Feet,
Friedrich, Mike, 26 7678; Ecce Homo, 7476; Fear of Comics, 105;
funny animal comics, 1011, 18, 30 Frida, 166n; Girl Crazy, 105; graphic style, 72;
Heartbreak Soup (series), x, 6892, 99, 1024, 1067;
Gaiman, Neil, 153, 159 Holidays in the Sun, 89; Human Diastrophism, 71,
Geerdes, Clay, 8 7888, 99, 1023, 107; Humberto (character), 7985,
Gerhard, 27 104; influences on, 28, 71; Julios Day (series), 107; Love
Giardino, Vittorio, 60 & Rockets X (book), 87, 102, 107; Luba (character), 70,
Gibbons, Dave. See Watchmen 74, 76, 7982, 8895, 99107; Luba (series), 1056;
Goldmann, Lucien, 4 Luba in America (book), 107; mainstream comic book
Gombrich, E. H., 116 work, 1067; Measles (series), 106; My Love Book,
Gopnik, Adam, 34 104, 12224; Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories
Gordon, Ian, 9, 12930 (book), 69, 166n; Peter Rio (character), 89101; political
Gothic Blimp Works (series), 8 content in, 91, 103; Poison River, 69, 71, 87104, 107,
Gtting, Jean-Claude, 63 15960, 166n; The Reticent Heart, 89; Satyricon,
Goulart, Ron, 6, 9 104; self-reflexivity in, 78, 8283, 99102, 104;
graphic novel, xxi, xv, 36, 22, 25, 2731, 106, 15262, serialization of his work, 6970, 88, 102, 106; sexism
168n; in bookstores, 5, 2931, 15253, 162; critical and machismo, critique of, 90, 9293; Sopa de Gran
reception of, 153; dependence on direct market, Pena, 74, 78, 89, 102; time, treatment of, 8889, 92,
25, 30; origins of term, 29, 165n; problematic nature of 9599; Tonantzin (character), 74, 76, 7980, 8587. See
the term, 5, 15354, 162; rise of, ix, 15253; also Love & Rockets (series)
serialization of, 56, 2730, 15362, 168n; serial vs. Hernandez, Jaime, x, 6872, 75, 102, 104, 122, 15960,
novelistic structure in, 2729, 106, 15962, 168n. See 166n; Locas (series), 68, 7071, 104; Wig Wam Bam,
also serials 102. See also Love & Rockets (series)
Green, Justin, 11314, 126, 13139, 151 Hernandez, Mario, 68, 75, 107, 166n
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, 113, 126, Herriman, George, 3, 35, 66
13138, 151; Catholicism satirized in, 13132, 13437; Hogarth, Burne, 11112
self-reflexivity in, 13435, 138; style and technique in, Horowitz, Sara, 145, 148
138; visual metaphors in, 13438 hybrid texts, xiiixiv, 3435
Griffith, Bill, 8, 1617, 165n
Groening, Matt, 6 Iadonisi, Rick, 150
Groensteen, Thierry, 40, 112 identification in comics, 11617
Groth, Gary, 168n image as text, 3637
ground-level comics. See direct market imagetexts, xiii
Gulacy, Paul, 26 independent comics, x, 2627
Gunn, Janet Varner, 125, 167n Iser, Wolfgang, xiii
Gusdorf, George, 124, 167n
Jackson, Jack, 164n
Halkin, Hillel, 13940 Jason (John Arne Stery), 161
Hallenbeck, Phyllis N., 166n Jay, Paul, 11314
Hart, Tom, 161
Harvey, Robert C., 79, 33, 41, 72, 13940 Kahlo, Frida, 75, 93
Haspiel, Dean, 4851 Kannenberg, Gene, Jr., 3738, 159, 167n


Karasik, Paul, 161 McCloud, Scott, xi, xiv, 33, 3637, 41, 44, 5253, 60, 70, 74,
Katz, Jack, 26 11617
Ketcham, Hank, 72 McGregor, Don, 26
Kinneir, Joan, 116 media effects research, 35
Kinney, Jay, 16 Mtal Hurlant (series), 26
Kirby, Jack, xiii, 10, 26, 32, 5456, 58, 72 Metzger, George, 165n
Kitchen, Denis, 16 Meulen, Ever, 60
Klare Lijn (Clear Line) tradition, 6061 Miller, Frank, 30, 153
Kominsky-Crumb, Aline, 61, 114, 117, 119, 126, 131 Milligan, Peter. See Enigma
Kovinick-Hernandez, Carol, 75, 122 Mitchell, W. J. T., xiiixiv, 37, 168n
Kreiner, Rich, 168n Moodian, Patricia, 12
Kunzle, David, xv Moore, Alan. See Watchmen
Kurtzman, Harvey, 10, 5660, 72, 165n Moscoso, Victor, 8, 134
Kyle, Richard, 165n Motter, Dean, 26
Mouly, Franoise, 5, 166n
Lane, William, 25, 165n Munch, Edvard, 80
Lanzmann, Claude, 145 muralismo, 83
Lasch, Christopher, 12930 Murphy, Willy, 165n
Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, 131
Lay, Carol, 6 National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACAE), xi
layout of comics page, 4852, 63 Nericcio, William Anthony, 73, 7980, 166n
leftist critique of comic books, 100 new comics, the, 20
Lefvre, Pascal, xv, 5, 63 newspaper strips, 34, 69, 12
Lejeune, Philippe, 124 Nodelman, Perry, 117
Lent, John, 34, 165n Nyberg, Amy Kiste, 34, 164n
Levin, Bob, 131
linear vs. tabular reading, 48, 51, 53 ONeill, Dan, 16
London, Bobby, 18 origin of comics, xv
long-form comics, 46, 18, 2223, 69, 107, 15355, Ott, Thomas, 63
Love & Rockets (series), x, 2829, 6870, 7475, 78, 1024, Pacific Comics, 2526
1067, 12223, 15960, 166n; cultural diversity in, 69; packaging of comics, 4, 18, 20, 31, 15558
decline in popularity of, 102; female characters in, 69; panel bordering, 4243
punk influence on, 69; reader response to, 69, 102, Panter, Gary, 61, 63
166n; uncued closure in, 70, 74; Volume 2 (relaunch) Pantheon Books, 153
of, 68, 107 pantomime comics. See wordless comics
lowbrow/highbrow conflict, xii Pekar, Harvey, x, 4447, 10814, 117, 126, 12930, 134, 141,
Lucey, Harry, 72 153, 161, 167n; American Splendor (series), 44, 10811,
Lutes, Jason, 4245, 60, 70 113, 126; American Splendour: Transatlantic Comics, 130;
Lynch, Jay, 8, 12, 18, 165n Bat, 167n; criticism of, 12930; The Harvey Pekar
Name Story, 4446, 126; Hypothetical Quandary, 45,
Mad (series), 10, 12, 16, 72, 165n 47; influence of, 11012; A Marriage Album, 126;
manga (Japanese comics), 5, 30, 72, 116, 15354 Our Cancer Year, 10810, 161; Unsung Hero, 130
Marvel Comics, 11, 2122, 27, 29, 31, 72 Perkins, Linda, 4851
materiality of comics, 58, 6064 Petit-Roulet, Philipe, 4042
Mathieu, Marc-Antoine, 66 Picasso, Pablo, 55, 8081
Matt, Joe, 11011, 114, 117, 119, 126 pictographic language, 4041
Mattelart, Armand, 100 Pilote (series), 154
Maus. See Spiegelman, Art Pini, Wendy and Richard, 26
Mayerick, Val, 126 Plant, Bud, 2526
Mazzucchelli, David, 161 polyptychs, 5253, 55
McAllister, Matthew P., 165n Pop Art, x, 1112, 16


Posada, Jose Guadalupe, 7576 Spain (Manuel Rodriguez), 18

Print Mint, The, 164n Spielberg, Steven, 145
protocols (comic artists), 7172 Spiegelman, Art, xxi, 5, 10, 1819, 2930, 4344, 6466,
punk comics, 61 70, 7273, 101, 112, 115, 13951, 153, 15859,
Pustz, Matthew, 4 16162, 16567n; drawn over two weeks while on the
phone, 43, 70
Randall, William Lowell, 115 Maus, xi, 5, 18, 30, 6466, 7273, 101, 13951, 153,
Raw (series), x, 5, 20, 30, 37, 43, 62, 166n 15859, 16162; animal metaphor in, 13940, 14550;
Raymond, Alex, 54 criticism of, 13940; documentary evidence in, 14446;
reading comics, xiiixiv, 3267 passim, 70, 116; as active fantasy in, 14749; as father/son collaboration, 14850;
experience, 39, 43, 61, 63, 6667; changes in attitude historiographic authority in, 14143, 145; impact of, xi;
toward, 35; as literacy aid, 35; misconstrued as easy ironic authentication in, 13951; as kunstlerroman, 141;
reading, 36, 6667; reader response, xiiixiv, 36, 41, 67, past/present relationship in, 14244; photographs as
70, 116; vs. film spectatorship, 33; vs. reading written devices in, 14550; as scrapbook, 64, 7273; self-
text, 3234 reflexivity in, 65, 13941, 144, 151; serialization of, 5,
Renza, Louis, 128 153, 15859; vs. photo-realism, 14546, 150
Resnais, Alain, 145 Stack, Frank, 109, 113, 130, 161, 164n
Ricci, Stefano, 63 Stanley, John, 10
Rifas, Leonard, 165n Star*Reach Productions, 26
romance comics, 12, 1517, 68 Staub, Michael, 140
Rosen, Jonathon, 61 Steranko, Jim, 165n
Rosenkranz, Patrick, 78, 19, 131 stereotypes in comics, 11516
Rothberg, Michael, 148 Sturm, James, xi
Rugg, Linda Haverty, 115, 126, 168n style vs. technique, 72
superhero comics, xii, 3, 1011, 18, 2122, 26, 2831, 37, 68
Sabin, Roger, 10, 21 Swarte, Joost, 6062, 166n
Sacco, Joe, 111, 130, 161
Sandlin, David, 61 Tardi, Jacques, 60
Savage Pencil (pseud.), 61 taste, xiii
Schelly, Bill, 165n termite art, 10
Schulz, Charles, 3, 72 text as image, 3637
Seda, Dori, 114 Thackeray, William Makepeace, 154
Segar, Elzie, 35 Thomas, James L., 35
serialization (serial publication). See serials Thompson, Craig, 161
serials, 6, 2729, 112, 15362; episodic structure of, 15458; Thompson, Kim, 166n
interval between chapters in, 15558; packaging of, timing in comics (serial vs. synchronic), 5259; split panels,
15558; reader influence on, 159 53, 55, 5759; synchronistic panels, 5355
Seth (Gregory Gallant), 110, 113, 167n Top Shelf Productions, 161
Seuling, Phil, 22 Tpffer, Rodolphe, 66
Severin, John, 57 Torres, Daniel, 60
Shapiro, Stephen, 114 Treasure Chest (series), 134
Shelton, Gilbert, 18, 164n
short-form comics, 46 underground comix, ix, 4, 68, 1020, 21, 26, 28, 3031,
Shuster, Joe, 37 111, 131, 134, 151, 16465n; collaborations in, 18; as
Sim, Dave, 2629, 153, 16061 comic books, 8, 1112, 16, 19; in comic shops, 21;
Simon, Joe, 10 decline of, 1920; distribution of, 19; economic
Skull (series), 18 dimensions of, 16; as individual expression, 16, 18;
Slow Death (series), 16, 20 obscenity law and, 19; origins of, 8, 164n; paratexts in,
Smith, Barry, 27 12, 16; parody in, 12; political impetus for, 1819; as Pop
Sommer, Anna, 63, 65 Art, 16; reappropriation of genre elements in, 18; satire of
Sontag, Susan, 81, 87 consumerism in, 12; self-satire in, 20, 165n; as source of
space/time relationship in comics, 5253, 7071 alternative comics, 20, 26; sporadic publication of, 16


underground newspapers, 78 whole-language pedagogy, 35

Understanding Comics. See McCloud, Scott Williamson, Skip, 8, 12
University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Wimmens Comix (series), 12, 1516, 20
Novels, 7 Witek, Joseph, 70, 109, 111, 11314, 117, 12930, 134
Upton, Colin, 110 Wolverton, Basil, 11
word distortions in comics, 3435
Vortex Comics, 26 wordless comics, 40
Wright, Bradford, 67, 21
war comics, 5658
Ware, Chris, 3740, 66, 153; I Guess, 3740 Yellow Dog (series), 8, 16
Warneford, Colin, 130 Young, Frank, 117
WaRP Graphics, 26 Young, James E., 141
Watchmen (Moore & Gibbons), 30, 153, 15556 Young Lust (series), 1617
Watterson, Bill, 4, 5354, 56, 58, 66
Weirdo (series), x, 20 Zabel, Joe, 167n
Wertham, Fredric, 32, 3435, 100; critique of picture Zap Comix (series). See Crumb, R.
reading, 34 Zone, Ray, 11213