I’m not sure if there is consensus on this question but I’ve encountered here and there versions of the historical argument that the rise in popularity of comics is tied to the emergence of the modernist novel, which eschewed traditional narrative in its experimentation with form, its foregrounding of the materiality of language, and so on. As the argument goes, comics then became a sort of “refuge” for “pure narrative.” This argument has a strong personal resonance for me because it reminds me of a time in graduate school when, reading tons of twentieth-century works of literature for my qualifying exams, I found myself craving commercial comics more than ever before. I did grow to appreciate the less narratively driven writings of authors like Claude Simon who use a few hundred pages to describe a single instant in time. But for every two hundred or so pages of Simon I read, I’d make a trip to the comic book store in hopes of getting sucked into a new serial.

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Of course, historically, not all comics have been narratively driven. There is also the parallel tradition of the one-off comic strip that delivers its payoff in a few short panels without much narrative at all. These comics are structurally closer to the form of a joke in that they rely on logics of condensation and displacement and always deliver a punch line, however subtle.

I am thinking about these questions in relation to some contemporary comic artists I’ve encountered recently who work in both the narrative and the “one-off punch line” mode, but whose work frustrates the desire of the reader whose expectations are shaped by these two modes I’ve just outlined. French artist Simon Roussin, for example, draws comics albums that range in length from 12 to 72 pages and that have the form of a traditional comic book narrative, replete with action scenes and adventure scenarios, but curiously lacking in narrative tension. He works self-consciously to trouble the notion of comics as the refuge of pure narrative by presenting narratives that refuse the usual narrative pleasures. One of these pleasures is the delight in new twists or new ways of presenting old twists. Roussin’s stories are always ones we’ve heard before told in ways we’ve heard before. At times his stories appear to follow an opaque dream logic, or childlike reasoning, that add to their interest but further frustrates the reader’s desires. His reader is not interested in reading on to find out what happens next; the interest of his albums is largely visual. He colors using felt markers in a rich combination of neon and primary colors. The unevenness that results from the overlapping strokes of the markers creates an effect that is both naive, sensuous, and also, I think meaningfully, suffocating.

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Brad Neely of Creased Comics does something similar with the one-off punch line mode of drawing comics. He takes the structure of the single-panel-single-punch-line comic (à la Gary Larson) and yet frustrates the desire of the reader for a laugh by withholding context, producing a surreal and haunting effect instead. In one panel, for example, we see a couple in bed, apparently post-coitus. The woman removes a mask in the shape of her lover’s face and says, “I’m sorry. This mask is giving me a headache.” It speaks to some subterranean truths about the narcissism of  sexual desire and the fear of ontological difference. It feels like a parodic literalization of the Tarantino fantasy of difference without difference. But these dimensions are wide open to the reader’s interpretation and there is certainly no straightforward punch line.

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I think of it, perhaps naively, as the difference between a deferral of desire, as in the case of traditional comic book narratives, and a frustration of desire, as in the case of modernist writing and experimental comics. In neither case could we say that the reader’s desire is “satisfied” but in the traditional comic book, the reader’s desire gets hooked into the continuous deferral of narrative resolution while in the experimental mode, the pleasures are displaced to such an extent that the reader’s desire gets disentangled from the narrative or the joke structure. Are there comics that have frustrated your desire as a reader but that you still found interesting or valuable? Is the frustration of desire a necessary element in experimental comics? How else might comics frustrate our desire for narrative or punch line payoff?

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About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

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