Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Literature, it turns out, is a genre. Like, say, narratives working within the horror genre, narratives working within the literary genre share themes, moods, character types, and other classifying structures readers expect to call, “literary.” So, modes of storytelling such as prose, poetry or comics, are just that: modes of storytelling. While nothing new, this proper distinction between form and genre is important as regards comics, where those readers who avoid reading comics often conflate the genres that comics are most famous for telling (superheroes, and children’s adventure stories) with the form by which they are told (sequential art). This is all to say that comics (or “comix”—spelled such so as to avoid associations with stand-up comedians, presumably)—this is all to say that comix are invading your literary journals.
Cousin Corinne’s Reminder is a new and excellent Brooklyn-based, biannual literary journal, edited by Zack Zook, which features a section titled, The Comix Block as curated by Dean Haspiel. A first thought upon encountering the stories found in The Comix Block is the notion of how well they fit the rest of the content in Reminder. And that idea of “fitting” is what reminds us that, oh yeah, literature is a genre of stories told and comix are a medium for telling stories. It’s refreshing and exciting to see comix included in this type of publication if only because that’s the way it should always have been. Publishers such as Fantagraphics and Top Shelf have built entire libraries on the notion of “comix as literature” so it’s nice to see the means of distributing new literature finally coming around to the idea, beyond the type of often obtuse, single-panel jokes found in The New Yorker.
The first story in The Comix Block is titled “Back On Nervous Street,” and is written by Jonathen Lethem and illustrated by Dean Haspiel. That Jonathan Lethem penned this story is important for a couple of different reasons, one as a matter of fact, the other on a more personal level. First, his name alone will cause many readers to officially read their first graphic fiction since flipping through the Sunday Comics section as a child. To non-comix readers, his name will lend authority to a form these readers probably haven’t properly considered as adults. Second, on a personal level, Lethem is a writer whose work, for me, first illustrated how Literature is another genre with its own conventions, as opposed to some monolithic, original, authorial foundation upon which lesser structures—genre fictions—are built. As a young man navigating my undergraduate studies, I devoured Lethem’s novels the week they were released, and with novels such as Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, and Girl In Landscape, I first noticed as a reader and writer how genre could be played with, and how “the literary” could emerge as forms within, say, “pulp fiction.” But I guess it’s not news to anyone who reads him that Lethem’s work is often described as “genre bending.”
So again, it’s fitting to me that The Comix Block kicks off with a Lethem-penned story; and it’s equally fitting that Haspiel illustrates, given his work in comix with autobiography and memoir—subgenres of literature perhaps not traditionally associated with the graphic storytelling form. What’s more, and perhaps most important, is that “Back On Nervous Street” is good! Lethem’s prose is always a pleasure to read, with nuanced descriptions and evocative imagery, while Haspiel’s sharp and eerie illustrations provide the appropriate mood and context for this story of a man walking along the same (sometimes dangerous) street he often traveled as a youth. Both the prose and art evoke a mixture of nostalgia and neurosis. “Back On Nervous Street” should provide an easy transition for readers who haven’t the knack for reading comix. The narrative given in caption boxes visually resembles the structures of poetry offered in this very publication, and just as you think you might be reading prose that is merely laid over illustrations, the prose snaps you out of it, referencing the illustration work, making readers slow down and contemplate the relationship between the two formal halves that are necessary to generate the language of most comix. For example, at one point Lethem’s narrator states, “He’s a sentinel in front of this Bodega. He’s got a mantra, “Good luck to the people on the planet,” while in the artwork a hooded figure leans against a storefront corner, a ghostly speech balloon emerging from his direction, dialogue omitted, the art now referring back to the prose we’ve just read.
The standout piece in The Comix Block is Michel Fiffe’s “Elegy,” and it’s also the longest. “Elegy” is about the death of an obsession—a girl, making out, a mysterious phone call—and it’s a marvelous short story that well illustrates the idea of comics as literature, and well utilizes tools unique to the comix story mode. The story is told by way of Diana hypothetically talking to a recently spotted, former one-night stand, Kim. The visual complexity of “Elegy” resonates well with the emotional and psychological complexities at play in the story, where Kim can assume fantastic shapes based on the perception of her in the moment by Diana. When relating what she told her friends about the relationship, Diana says, “Don’t worry. I just mentioned the hanging out and making out parts, not the other stuff,” Kim’s head twists in violent oranges and fiery reds, striking out towards readers like some tentacled monster. The angry colors composing this panel contrast strikingly with the placid, sad yellow of the previous panel wherein we see Diana telling her sob story to her friends. Fiffe’s choice of color palette is remarkable, avoiding realism for mood and tone. Fiffe even uses color as a design tactic, with yellow and orange shapes emerging as a unified background between disparate panels on any given page. Fiffe’s backgrounds make “Elegy” a great pleasure to read again, providing details to discover that then provide more scope and context to the story being narrated by the protagonist Diana. I think “Elegy” would be a standout story in any collection.
Like the rest of Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, The Comix Block is wordly and funny and whimsical. Tim Hall’s and Jennifer Hayden’s “From Barcelona With Love,” is a cute story about misunderstanding and communication in foreign countries with a humorous effect. Kat Robert’s “Baby, You The One…” recontextualizes homilies about love and destiny and soul mates as biological imperatives. Both of these stories are genuinely funny and well drawn. The Comix Block ends with a whimsical painting by Jen Ferguson titled, “Holiday Schedule,” which depicts the Easter Bunny riding the subway. A single image, “Holiday Schedule” bookends The Comix Block with the Block’s title page, a really cool, noir-ish, piece depicting a watering hole and its denizens, loitering about a waterfront under a bridge, as expertly rendered by Mike Cavallero.
These more whimsical pieces give rise to my one criticism of The Comix Block and its place in Cousin Corinne’s Reminder: If the editors hold that comix can be literature, why are the comix given a block, and not distributed evenly throughout Reminder? It’s nice that The Comix Block is smack dab in the middle of the publication, so I don’t think the comics are being purposively marginalized, but there’s still a sense of “oh, here’s the comics section” like in the back of the Sunday paper. I also appreciate the play between the title of “Comix Block” and the visual components of streets and brownstones and neighborhoods as kicked off by Cavallero’s striking title page, and running through “Back On Nervous Street,” and “Elegy.” But I can’t help but think that Roberts’ “Baby You The One,” might sing as juxtaposed with Emma Straub’s short story “Rosemary.” Why can’t “From Barcelona With Love” nuzzle up with Mona Kuhn’s photographs from her series “Native”? Would Ferguson’s “Holiday Schedule” provide a welcome, light apertif, to Ben Lasman’s heavy and grotesque prose short “The Society of Disappearing Alchoholics”? I think that these works would stand out more, and perhaps be better appreciated among other narratives in The Reminder than they do as juxtaposed with the works of Lethem, Haspiel and Fiffe in The Comix Block.
I’m torn on whether this criticism is a minor nitpick, or a point of great importance. On one hand, Cousin Corinne’s Reminder is a good looking, earnest publication featuring well-crafted and meaningful prose, poetry, photographs, interviews and art, and Haspiel has curated some equally wonderful comix to appear between its covers. On the other hand, I think a passionate argument should be made by those of us who care about the state and perception of comix that if we are letting comix into our literary journals, shouldn’t the comix be allowed equal footing and placement throughout its pages? I mean, comix as a form are older than the genre of “literary nonfiction,” but due to the familiar formal appearance of nonfiction prose as “literary,” “Field Notes: Ayahuasca” by John Wray and “A Quick Guide to Some Confusing Shit in Hollywood” by James Frey aren’t presented together as The Nonfiction Zone. Why can’t our more widely appreciated “comix as literature” mingle more with their compatriots of genre?
At any rate, I highly recommend Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, as it was a pleasure to read from cover to cover, no matter what the narrative mode--and I hope that any readers who haven’t yet discovered the joy of graphic fiction, can do so with this publication.
Subscriptions to Cousin Corinne’s Reminder are available at http://www.cousincorinne.com/ , and Issue Number One can be purchased from the website or in store at Book Court, 63 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY.
Jeffrey C. Burandt is a writer and rock star living in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He is currently writing Odd Schnozz and the Odd Squad for Oni Press, and publishes the science fiction adventures of his real life rock band Americans UK. You can check out his prose, comics and other work at jefwrites.com and americans-uk.com.
Posted by Christopher Irving at 9:20 PM