A few years ago I drew a couple of spontaneous, semi-tragic comics. One described events on the day my father died, and the other an afternoon in 1998 when my 98-year-old grandmother demanded that we visit the pet cemetery; she no longer wished to be buried on top of her husband in the family plot. I’d worked over this material before – writing is for me a form of chewing – but it felt both too charged and too ridiculous. The visual aspects of both stories overwhelmed my desire to describe them in words. And so, with my poor spatial sense and stick figure skills, I drew them. The form – the structure of the four boxes – opened three-dimensionally; my pen moved in a new way, described a wheelchair pushed by my then-three-year old daughter up a vertiginous hill into the pet cemetery. Choosing a few visual elements and severely limiting the narrative opened both stories up. Four panels, and suddenly, the stories made sense.
A few of the most intensely imagined novels I’ve read over the past decade (or two) have been, well, graphic: Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (The Holocaust) and In the Shadow of No Towers (9/11); Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Iranian Revolution of 1979), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (a young lesbian comes out more or less simultaneously with her father). Last Saturday night, Gene Luen Yang came to CIIS to talk about his trajectory from comics geek to author of American-Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.
The quality that allows comics to handle serious, even tragic subjects, Yang says, is “intimacy.” Comics remind me inexorably of the seductive spinning drugstore racks of my youth, filled with cheap newsprint stories whose cachet consisted almost entirely of my economic power to acquire and devour them. (One working definition of “intimacy” must certainly be early experience of greedy possession.)
But the comic is also – by the very limits of the frame – a withholding medium. Roland Barthes described engagement by the reader brought about by the author’s refusal to reveal the whole story as “writerly” fiction. The reader “reads” into the text – “enters” it in an erotic and (if you are lucky enough to have this sort of imagination) a literal sense. Spiegelman’s Jewish mice, or the simply rendered, repetitive masses of veiled women in Satrapi’s Persepolis, or the father in Fun Home, the funeral director with a fever for restoration, are all wittily, charmingly rendered – and serious as death. The device of the frame is also an invitation to the gaze.
I thought again of these frames last night, while watching the Iranian Director Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly intimate film, “10.” The film consists of ten scenes that take place entirely within a car, as a young-ish Iranian woman, a photographer, divorced, loosely veiled, drives around Tehran. Everything we know about the woman, the city and the social, religious and political culture she inhabits comes from her seemingly casual conversation within the “frame” of the car, as the woman talks with her son, her sister, and even picks up strangers, including an old woman, a young, spurned would-be bride, and a prostitute.
The narrative never enters the mind of the woman; there’s no internal monologue, no voice-over. Yet frame is, if not quite a “voice,” a definite point of view. The constraints of the film echo the cultural and gender constraints upon the woman. We see her up close, all revealing surface – perhaps more intimately than she can see herself. The constraint of the frame (and possibly even the constraint of making such a revealing film in an authoritarian theocratic country like Iran) becomes part of the power of the story. This is not a psychologically nuanced story “about” a divorced female photographer living in Iran; it is, arguably, a more difficult thing – a story about the relentless surface of the world.
In conversation with poet Brynn Saito, Gene Yang described how as a kid he was drawn to the “two-in-one” clash-of-titans adventures like “Thing” and “Rom.” He persevered in solitary authorship, becoming weirder and more singular, as writers often do. In the world of comics, however, “self-publishing” and mini-comics sold by hand at conventions are not signs of loser-ness, but of “awesomeness,” he said – they show that you can manage and navigate the real world as well as fantasy.
The Revenge of the Geeks has been lavishly rendered by David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s recent film, “The Social Network” (book by Ben Mezrich), which chronicles and snarkily champions the asbergersy genius of the Mark Zuckerbergs over the old-money noblesse-obligey veneer of the WASP ancien régime. Meanwhile, in another realm of geekdom, it was inspiring to hear two American-born artist-writers named Brynn and Gene discussing their respective Chinese and Korean-Japanese families’ career expectations (“any specialty of doctor is okay”) and ways in which comics, graphic novels and even traditional poetic forms can eloquently render complex experiences of class, ethnicity, gender, alienation, tragedy and yes, even comedy – to capture the heroic quotidian, and the primal struggles of mortals.