“Notes for a War Story,” a first person narrative by Gipi, is set in a nebulous country where villages exist one day and disappear the next. Three young men band together to survive on the margins of the country, doing petty crime. But it’s an odd man out story. The boys have only vague notions of what the war is about. The frictions within their trio mirror those in the country at large. The brutality and violence inherent in the state where social law suddenly fails is drawn close up. What is politically correct is what gets you through a day and a night, a falling spiral that soon shortens days and nights to hours then minutes in a manipulated clock, and peace is an expedient agreement easily broken. The drawings, green, often olive drab wash panels, convey bleak settings and desperate tones. The dialog is quick, the story clear, the narrator Giuliano’s reflective notes the distinctive difference between an existential hope and a despairing nihilism. But what gives Guiliano this capacity to reflect the others lack remains ambiguous, while lawlessness explains only part of the free-for-all atmosphere that characterizes war. Each faction quickly establishes and evolves its own laws to satisfy its needs and wants. When values and desires change, one finds oneself outside the law. Rules, both formal and informal, are created and broken in every part of society: the family, church, village, corporation, military, language and literature. Published by First Second in 2004, and translated to English from Italian in 2007 by Spectrum. Afterward by Alexis Siegel, 2006. A 125 page, sturdy paperback with fold in cover flaps. Here is a 2008 Interview with Gipi at Words without Borders.
Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007) takes place in Israel. There’s been a bombing, and there is a missing person. The themes are familiar and familial. A son is estranged from his father, angry. A kind of detective story evolves, with hints of noir, as Koby engages to find out what’s happened to his father in the aftermath of the bombing. Along the way, Koby discovers love, another theme, mostly unrequited, unresolved, while the characters confront the antagonist of ambiguous relationships. “Exit Wounds” is a comic book told in four chapters of color panel drawings. The details of the drawings act like descriptive prose in a conventional novel. The drawings are realistic but also suggestive. The sequence where Koby and Numi go body surfing is a good example of the lovely and patient interludes that give the novel its grace and gifts. Interview with Rutu Modan at BBC 4, and another at Words without Borders.
Comic book characters are often unreal, fantastic, hyperbolic distortions of people. But the exaggeration may work like an X-ray, revealing the inner monster, or showing some virtual reality, or uncovering a facsimile of truth or beauty. The cartoon form exaggerates features, of a landscape, an idea, a face, enabling the author to make fun of some relatively small tic by accenting it, drawing it out of proportion. But out of proportion to what? The feature could be a pothole in the street, the idea of chivalry, or a haircut.
Speaking of haircuts, I got one last week. I went to a place I’d never been before, over in the Hawthorne district, a small, stand-alone, two-chair shop. I get my hair cut only about twice a year. Not because I’m losing my hair. My hair still grows like, well –
My hairdresser whispered Dante to her partner as I left the shop.
It’s not the first time I’ve thought of my hair as a forest or jungle, wondering if the curly mess didn’t suggest an objective correlative for the syntax mess within. In any case, one is easily lost there. And it’s a hard thing to cut, let alone speak of – continuing in the hyperbolic realm of the comic book.
After my haircut, I continued to wander, and I found a copy of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” in a thrift store over on Division. One of my sisters recommended the book a couple of years ago. I glanced through it and saw this:
“’Who cut your hair like this?’ asked the hairdresser indignantly once I had, with a Dantean effort, entrusted to her the mission of transforming my head of hair into a domesticated work of art.”
The girl handling the thrift store exchanges said nothing about my hair, but she did complement my selection of “Hedgehog,” in agreement with my sister.
As I left the thrift store, hedgehog in hand, a car screamed to a stop in the middle of the street, its driver, a damsel in freaked-out distress, teetering on the edge of a pothole the size of the Chicxulub crater. I chivalrously placed my hedgehog over the pothole, and Beatrice drove safely on, a beatific look of driving peace on her face. “Nice haircut,” she said, as she drove by.
I’m on page 60 of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” the chapter beginning “Homespun Cowls.”
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” 2006, by Muriel Barbery, translated from French, “L’Élégance du hérisson,” by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 2008, 325 pages.
Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy” (2014) made the Times graphic book bestseller list this Spring. “Over Easy” is another portrayal of a young woman working to define herself in a confusion of shifting cultural mores. Pond’s story is set in Oakland, around the same time as the first parts of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” There are more similarities than the time frame, but in “Over Easy,” the risks are different, the scale closer-in. Pond’s theme is the counter-culture revolution. Bit of a pun there, for the stage is the “Imperial Café,” where Madge, like Marji of “Persepolis” an art school dropout, works her way up from dishwasher to waitress. In Madge’s view, the flower children have wilted, and we know what comes next, wintery thorns and fed-up punks and stones and drunks. The tone is set in comic book humor, in turns bawdy and raunchy, tough and touching. There’s less history, a smaller stage, than we find in “Persepolis,” but like Satrapi, Pond is a wit aiming at cultural targets.
I wrote about Marjane Satrapi and graphic writing in a post last week over at The Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha’s blog. Rakha is a journalist and novelist. The Kenyon Review featured an interview with him in their “The KR Conversations” in June 2012. Regular readers of the Toads may note a bit more clarity and less ambiguity in style in my piece on Satrapi, not to mention shorter paragraphs, thanks to some nimble editing, but the dry sentence that skews and curls like the branches of a twisted cedar cypress remains my aim. That is the kind of sentence you don’t often find in graphic writing, though, where brevity of breath is necessary to allow the drawings to speak. Readers expect writers to conform to conventions encased in the style of a recognizable venue. Menu changes at the cafe can be disruptive. But graphic books challenge the experience and definition of literature.
“Over Easy” contains a few sentences that function like concrete poems, a coffee cup twirl, for example – you have to turn the book around in circles to read the sentence, a dizzying effect. And a sentence clothed, literally, in a dress. And another that wafts and waltzes across Oakland. The book is drawn in one color, the pale green of the 50’s and 60’s grammar school classroom. But the pacifying, school purpose green is thwarted by the counter-culture themes. Yet the tone is natural and realistic, in spite of the drug-hazed setting. There’s not much of a plot, unless you consider moving from the café to the bar for an after work beer a plot development. The book succeeds on its characterization and illustrations, and on the strength of the observations and reflections of the main character, Madge. Those reflections are limited though to her immediate environment. There’s not much engagement of life beyond the boundaries of the café. The war is over, and now this. But the close details of life within the café, the walks and bus rides to and from, in which we get a feel for life in Oakland, amid observant comments and informing dialog more than make up for the day-to-day storyboard episodic plot.
The realism and close-in detail of the drawings suggests an affinity with Edward Hopper, a link given the reader by several references in “Over Easy” to Hopper’s work. Hopper was not a cartoonist, but maybe he was, Madge seems to be saying, because the cartoon draws us into an atmosphere of assumptions and signifiers, the effect also of Hopper’s work. The idea of the signifier as a key to understanding Pond’s technique is also made explicit:
“It’s a busy weekend morning, and it’s very crowded. The crowd that piles up waiting for tables is a cavalcade of hipsters. And if you know anything about hipsters, you know that their signifiers tell you everything.”
Hopper’s paintings are significant in one aspect by their focus on the ordinary, the working class, the underclass, and how a crowded urban landscape can hurriedly empty out at night, leaving the focus on the light from a streetlamp or a neon light on a lone person or two, maybe sitting in a café or a bar or a small motel room, or standing on a corner waiting for a late night bus. This can be realism or nostalgia, naturalism or pastiche, and writing about it can lead to complex characters or caricature. Certainly parts of “Over Easy” are exaggerated, usually for comic effect. In places, the satire devolves to farce, particularly with the themes of drugs and sex, where no one seems to burn out and even free love can still be discounted to a quickie in the bathroom off the kitchen counter at the Imperial.
Lazlo, Madge’s boss, has four children, the oldest a 14 year old daughter, but children or old people don’t figure prominently in the book. Each character is well drawn, in illustration and dialog. The strips flow. Madge seems somewhat conservative compared to her peers, thus her attitude reaches toward a kind of desired normalcy based on reactions to her environment. She doesn’t like hippies. She makes fun of Patty Hearst, whose problems surely resulted, Madge thinks, from her choice to be an art history major at Berkeley. There are foil characters, each waitress highlighting another, the cooks playing off one another. Lazlo knows Latin, is “over-educated,” and the book ends with a sudden idea for a poetry reading at the café. The poetry surprises everyone in one way or another. It’s hard to hide behind a poem. Something gets revealed. The book ends in a poetic vision, where poetry is a kind of felt atmosphere that suggests longing and quiet in a particular light.
“Over Easy” is a kind of comedy of manners, or a satire on the comedy of manners. One might assume, given the setting, no manners, but the counter-culture creates its own rules of respectability and values. Besides, Madge says:
“I need approval. I need respect. I want it to be clear: I’m not just a waitress.”
She is an artist, but she wants recognition in some established venue.
How should a story be told? Madge’s observations are keen, the interior of a bar, for example, “lit only by the juke box.” In another example, the Hopper like details convey tone and atmosphere and signify or trigger assumptions as Madge describes her rented, old house (which in today’s gentrified markets she couldn’t afford to rent):
“In these old houses, you will find, on old paint-flaked windowsills…tiny bronze hands, dried rosebuds, crystals, dead butterflies, heart-shaped rocks…old medicine bottles….”
Gentrification removes those items from the house and replaces them with a real Edward Hopper hanging from a refinished wall. Where does Madge get the idea that to be a waitress is to be “just a waitress?” Like Marji’s predicament in “Persepolis,” there are parents still at work in the background of one’s influences. Is the graphic book the recognition Madge was looking for as a waitress? Is the graphic novel gentrifying into literature?
“Over Easy,” by Mimi Pond. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, April 2014. 271 pages in a sturdy hardcover edition, thick paper, sewn and bound.