How Do Comics Frustrate Desire?

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.


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.


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.


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?



Is Bill Mauldin’s Back Home a Graphic Novel?

Guest Post by Brian Cremins

“History should be understood and practiced as toys.”
Tony Trigilio, White Noise(2013)

I’ll begin by repeating the question I pose in my title: Is Bill Mauldin’s Back Home, a memoir first published in 1947, a graphic novel? After all, it contains words and pictures—or, as the original dust jacket describes it, “text & drawings” by one of Charles M. Schulz’s (and Snoopy’s) favorite cartoonists.


A year ago I found a copy of Mauldin’s first book, Up Front, at the Gallery Bookstore in Chicago. I’d been reading Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War and Brave Men, too, so I thought I’d learn as much from Mauldin’s cartoons as I’d learned from Pyle’s collections of newspaper articles. When I discovered a copy of the beautiful 2011 Fantagraphics edition of Willie & Joe: Back Home, edited by Mauldin biographer Todd DePastino (2011), I looked forward to reading the post-war strips not included in the original 1947 edition. But something was missing: the Fantagraphics collection, named for Mauldin’s two bedraggled infantrymen and their return to civilian life in the United States, contains the cartoonist’s “drawings,” but not the “text” of his memoir. The captions of each cartoon, of course, remain, but this new anthology is far different from the 1947 book titled Back Home.

While the 2011 edition is a book of cartoons—all of them beautifully rendered, many of them still funny, others as haunting today as they must have been in 1946 or 1947—the 1947 “text & drawings” memoir called Back Home is a more challenging text. I think it can be called a graphic novel, in the same way that I might describe Art Spiegelman’s Maus as a graphic novel, or Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, or even W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz: none of these is a work of fiction, but each one contains a series of words and pictures designed to evoke, or to celebrate, or to memorialize the past. The 1947 Back Home is a graphic novel, not because it is a sequential narrative, but because, like these other texts, it is a book of ghosts.

In her discussion of Maus and Austerlitz in Chapter 1 of her 2012 book The Generation of Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch describes how drawings and photographs embody a sense of the past, both as it was lived and as it is remembered:

It seems to me that this may be the clearest articulation of what we fantasize and expect of surviving images from the past: that they have a memory of their own that they bring to us from the past; that that memory tells us something about ourselves, about what/how we and those who preceded us once were; that they carry not only information about the past but enable us to reach that emotional register. (Hirsch 52)

Is it possible for these “surviving images,” however, to “have a memory of their own that they bring us from the past”? And, if so, whose memories do they carry, and how might those memories speak to us in the present? A closer look at some of Mauldin’s drawings may help us to answer these questions.

mauldin2Mauldin’s Up Front (1945), like Back Home, is a memoir, but  the cartoonist’s first book is a record of his experiences during the war. Cartoons illustrate Mauldin’s text just as they do in the 1947 sequel. “Illustrations” is not the right word, however. I am looking for something else. The cartoons are more than footnotes, points in the narrative where the reader might pause and reflect. At times the words and the pictures work together. At other times, Mauldin’s drawings express what he is unable to say in his prose. Early in Up Front, for example, Mauldin reveals to readers his limitations as a writer:

I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. (Mauldin, Up Front 7).

There are two cartoons on the pages where this passage appears: first, to the left on page 6, we see an image of Willie and Joe. They are carrying rifles. Behind them are shattered buildings. In the foreground of the image sits a cat, his back to us, as he stares at the two soldiers. The cartoon’s caption reads, “Them wuz his exack words—‘I envy th’ way you dogfaces git first pick o’ wimmen an’ likker in towns.’”

Here is a good example of Mauldin’s dry, observational humor for those readers not familiar with his work.

On page 7, Mauldin describes the nature of this humor, written not for you and me in 2013, but for these “dogfaces” and their families in 1944 and 1945: “The only way I can try to be a little funny,” Mauldin explains, “is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life can be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think it over.”

The cartoon at the top of page 7 is easier to read and to understand. The laughter is more familiar, more present, not shadowed by the violence and catastrophe of the panel on page 6. “Ya won’t have any trouble pickin’ up our trail after th’ first five miles, Joe,” Willie says:


As Todd DePastino reminds readers in his introduction to the 2011 Fantagraphics collection, Mauldin’s Up Front was an immediate success, so much so that Henry Holt and Company “didn’t have enough war-rationed paper to meet demand” (DePastino viii). Despite his claims of not being “old enough to understand what it’s all about,” Mauldin created a series of cartoons that revealed the war and its complex, sometimes absurd, nature to his readers. After the war, Mauldin turned his eye to the social, political, and cultural changes that had taken place in the United States. As Mauldin fills the 1947 Back Home with critiques of American xenophobia and racism, the book reads like a catalogue of post-war trauma and paranoia: the poor treatment of veterans; the continued oppression of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans; the origins of the Red Scare.

Throughout the book, Mauldin mixes text and image in the same style as Up Front, but his second book feels more incomplete. The United States of the late 1940s was still taking shape when William Sloane Associates published Back Home. Of course, with 1947 almost 70 years in the past, contemporary readers can fill in the historical blanks Mauldin has left for us. But will reading this book bring us any closer to the lived experiences of those who survived the war and looked to fashion a new life for themselves and for their families at the dawn of the Cold War?

Back Home, Mauldin explains, is a book written as a message from his present to his future self: “I’m sure I’ll continue drawing about politics once in a while,” he writes in Back Home’s closing paragraph, “but I got my big burden off my chest by getting this book out. I don’t ask anybody to agree with me, nor do I hope to convince any readers of anything. I simply feel age creeping up; my bank account grows, my radical years are almost over. I want to stick this thing on the bookshelf as a reminder of my wild days so I can read it over and be a little more tolerant of the next generation of upstarts” (314-315). One last cartoon offers a possible ending:


“Zat’s just like parents,” says the little boy. “Zey always leave their messes for their kids to clean up.” He walks with his hands in his pockets. She, barefoot, carries a pail. Behind them are the ruins of a house, the skeletal timbers of its attic revealed, its walls marked with bullet holes. This time we don’t see a cat in the foreground. Instead, we see the cobwebbed remains of a tank, its barrel covered by a vine newly sprouted from the black soil. If there were another panel, a series of panels, maybe the children would slowly disappear from view.

Tony Trigilio’s new poetry collection White Noise includes a one-page, Heiner Müller-like play titled “SHE WAS PLEASED THAT NOTHING ODD HAPPENED TONIGHT.” We meet three characters: He, She, and Grandmother. The grandmother, as Trigilio explained last week during a reading from the book at Columbia College, gets all the best lines. “There’s nothing worth knowing or exploring,” says the character named She. Grandmother replies (responds?), “History should be understood and practiced as toys” (Trigilio 6). I listened to this play and I thought again about Bill Mauldin’s legacy and about the historical value of old comic books. What do they ask of us, and what might they teach us?

Graphic novels, at least ones like Maus, for example, employ a children’s form in order to salvage what Hirsch describes as those “surviving images” from the past. Only in the act of play, of improvisation and wonder, can we resurrect these otherwise lost and neglected historical fragments.

Is Back Home a graphic novel? Yes, I think so. I don’t know what else to call it. But read it for yourself. What do you think?


DePastino, Todd. “Willie & Joe Come Home” in Bill Mauldin, Willie & Joe: Back Home. Ed. Todd DePastino. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2011. viixix.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.

Mauldin, Bill. Back Home. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1947.

Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1945.

Trigilio, Tony. White Noise. Las Cruces & Jersey City: Apostrophe Books, 2013.

Is it okay to laugh at Li’l Eight Ball in 2013?

NR0201fcI’ve spent the first few weeks of my African American Comics class dispelling myths. With a sharp and tremendously engaged group of diverse university students, we’ve tackled questions not just about the form, but also about the range of black representation in America’s earliest comics from Outcault’s The New Bully and Herriman’s Musical Mose to Dell’s New Funnies, Fawcett’s Negro Romance, and EC’s Shock SuspenStories.

This week I asked the class what surprised them most about our readings so far and a few voiced their initial skepticism that a course on black comics could have enough material to last a full semester. (One student is particularly pleased that she can argue now about comics with friends whose experiences begin and end with Batman.)

So far the Negro Romance story, “Possessed” and the first issue of Rural Home’s Jun-Gal have inspired the liveliest exchange. But what has stuck with me is the conversation surrounding our analysis of a Li’l Eight Ball story from a December 1945 issue of New Funnies. The story is very much in keeping with the slapstick humor of other Walter Lantz characters. A clumsy little boy tries to please his mother in a simple plot that revolves around physical comedy and a serendipitous happy ending. Still, the boy in this story has a large shiny pitch black head, oversized pink lips, and wears white gloves. His plump “mammy” wears an apron and handkerchief around her head as she scolds her son’s well-intentioned antics.


Immediately the students targeted the physical features of the characters; we referenced blackface minstrels and the game of pool, juxtaposed Eight Ball’s quasi-human features with the story’s animals, and remarked upon the dialect that clearly marked him racially and regionally. We compared the images to other problematic black caricatures from earlier comics that we had studied.

The room got quiet then and something much more interesting happened. One student raised his hand and admitted that he still liked it, thought it was quite funny when he first read it. Another agreed. Then another. (This was a first for me.) Some were on the fence, puzzled by their own reactions. A couple thought the title character seemed strangely familiar.  Other students continued to insist that the offensiveness of Li’l Eight Ball was undeniable and that no black people, either in 1945 or 2013 could find it funny. Except that there were several readers (black and white) in my class who did.

I ended the class by sharing unattributed details from Don Markstein’s Toonopedia that the title’s editor may have pulled Li’l Eight Ball in response to written protests from a group of black schoolchildren. This effectively ended our conversation for the day, but I have felt since then that there is much more to say about the collective tensions reflected in the students’ conversation.

Certainly we can intellectualize our first encounter with this charged material, distance ourselves from both the pain and pleasure of the reading experience for 1940s consumers. Being honest about our own reactions involves a different kind of risk, one that I’m quite proud of my students for taking.  How do we process controversial comics that are designed to “entertain” and draw on formulas traditionally associated with light-hearted amusement, but that also bear the legacy of painful racial misrepresentation? Is it okay to laugh at Li’l Eight Ball in 2013?

Are comics predictive, or do they simply follow the society they’re produced in?

In early August 2013, Alyssa Rosenberg posted an article about a panel discussion she attended, which was a press tour to promote a new documentary about the history of comics in the U.S. One of the panelists was Gerry Conway, who made the claim that “comics follow society. They don’t lead society.” This was in the context of a discussion about the nature of superhero comics and representations of male and female characters.

Rosenberg’s article explores the disappointment she feels with the restrictive, underdeveloped representation of women in superhero comics. I think we can also ask similar questions about representations of race and sexual orientation in comics as well. Can comics ever lead society rather than just follow?

I disagree with Conway. I think that if we say that comics follow society (and that they necessarily don’t lead society), we seriously underestimate the creativity and the imagination of comics artists and writers who so often give us a glimpse into the near future or distant future that they want to see or, in some cases, don’t want to come to pass.

In April this year, Jason Collins, a player in the National Basketball Association, came out as a gay man. This was a major announcement in the world of sports as well as for those of us who identify as LGBTQ. As more and more athletes come out, it makes the world a better and safer place, especially for young athletes who find themselves in that position.

Back to Conway’s claim about comics. Interestingly, a decade before Jason Collins came out, Dylan Edwards (NDR) published this single-panel cartoon on the Outsports website.



This was part of his the series called ‘The Outfield,’ many of which are available at Dylan’s site.

This comic is notable because of the dialogue. These two athletes are on opposing teams, yet they are having a conversation on the court about romance. We can read the dialogue in a couple of ways. Because it was drawn by Edwards, and because it was published on a website devoted to sports and LGBTQ issues, it is easy to understand this as an earnest, sincere chat between friends. (In a different context, we could perhaps read this as a mild form of trash talk, where Mr. Red Team is trying to distract Mr. White Team and interfere with the shot.) There is also enough ambiguity in Mr. Red Team’s turn that he may be gay himself or he may not be gay and might just be looking out for Mr. White Team. In other words, this cartoon could reflect two friends, simply and plainly. Or, it could reflect two friends in a revolutionary way, depending on how we look at it.

What does a 2003 cartoon have to do with a 2013 comment by Gerry Conway? For me, it indicates that comics do not only follow society, that they can in fact predict or lead. Admittedly, this panel was created by an artist whose work largely revolves around sexual minorities as well as transgender characters. Perhaps artists who self-identify as LGBTQ are more inclined to have vision about LGBTQ issues and events. But this cannot always be the case. For a long time, people who do not identify as LGBTQ have been forward thinking and have created comics accordingly.

Naturally there are many other comics that could be cited for leading, for making predictions about society. What comics have you read that, in hindsight, were remarkable for the vision of their creators?

Is Television Better Than Film? (for Comics)

FlashTricksterSo, I am pretty excited about Joss Whedon’s new television series: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Of course, part of the excitement is that it is a new television show by Whedon. And part of the excitement is just nerding out about S.H.I.E.L.D. But it also got me thinking about different artistic formats, and adaptations from one to another.

The surge of film adaptations of comic book properties has been well-documented. Notable recent examples include The Amazing Spider-man, The Avengers, Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Green Lantern, Iron Man 3, Kick Ass  2, The Losers, Man of Steel, Oldboy, Red 2, R.I.P.D., Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Thor: The Dark World,  The Wolverine, and X-Men First Class.

BirdsPreyLess well commented on is the list of comic book properties that have been adapted to television over the past few years. nevertheless, there are some notable examples, including: Arrow, Birds of Prey, Blade: the Series, Human Target, The Middleman, Painkiller Jane, Smallville, and The Walking Dead.

Sure, list of films based on comics is both longer and (perhaps) more impressive (critically, aesthetically, etc.) than the list of television shows. But there are still a decent number of TV shows – and a decent number of decent TV shows –  being based on comics these days. And this raises the question: Are television shows better or worse than film at adapting comic book stories?

My buddy Henry Pratt wrote an excellent article about film adaptations of comics in The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. In that essay, he notes a number of structural similarities between comics and films: For example, there is a relatively straightforward analogy between the shot-scene structure around which films are built, and the panel-page structure upon which comics are built. The ultimate example of this is the cinematic version of Sin City, which avoided the entire process of creating storyboards (comic strips?), and instead used the graphic novel itself as script/storyboard. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, but it goes some way towards explaining why comics have been so successfully adapted to film in recent years.

ArrowThe structural properties of television, however, allow one to draw the analogy even tighter: In addition to the shot-scene/panel-page analogy, we also have the fact that (unlike the vast majority of films) television programs are serialized and, in principle at least, completely open-ended (there is not fixed date or episode at which they must end). As a result, the sort of storytelling that has developed in television is, arguably, more similar to storytelling in comics than is cinematic storytelling.

Does this mean that we should expect television adaptations of comics to be, on average, better (or, at the very least, more faithful) than corresponding film adaptations of the same properties? Does this mean that we should get more excited (and fight more for) television adaptations, rather than film adaptations, of our favorite comics? Hard questions, but questions worth thinking hard about.

What is the relationship between form and content in Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen?

–guest post by Davida Pines


In her three-page comic Beginnings, Raina Telgemeier remembers reading the first volume of Barefoot Gen as a 9-year-old. “I guess I thought it was sorta interesting,” she recalls, “but nothing special—not better than reading Calvin and Hobbs, anyway. I stuck with it because of my dad’s encouragement.” Reading to the end of the work, the young Raina is shocked and even indignant: “They all die!” she protests. Later, sorting through the many questions and fears of nuclear war inspired by the book, she reiterates her sense that content has betrayed form: “I mean jeez it was just a comic book.”

Indeed, despite chronicling the events leading up to and following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen appears to be “just a comic book.” The drawings are simple, the characters literally and figuratively cartoonish. In volume one, we meet protagonist Gen and his younger brother Shinji, high-spirited rascals who get into one scrape after another, their good spirits and ingenuity seemingly impervious to the dire circumstances of their impoverished and reviled family. If the glass repairman needs more work, Gen sets off to break some windows; if his mother, pregnant and suffering from malnutrition, needs fish to survive, he knows just the man to steal from; if the family needs money to ward off starvation, the brothers pose as street orphans, performing songs and skits for money. When their high jinx is successful, their grins are wide, and when their mischief is not rewarded, they redouble their efforts. Violence, a characteristic of manga, is rampant and often mixed with humor and affection. On page one, for example, in the lower right panel, the reader encounters Gen, Shinji, and their father in pyramid formation: Papa grimaces on top, elbows raised, fists clenched, knuckles landing on the crown of each boy’s head. On the bottom, the two boys are mirror images of each other, their outer legs reflexively kicking up as Papa’s fists come down: “You scamps!!” he cries, insisting that they take seriously his belief that boys, like wheat, must be trampled (or beaten) in order to grow up strong.

Given the work’s cartoonish qualities, in addition to its relentless plot twists (typical of the boys’ manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in which Nakazawa’s series was originally published), readers might reasonably question the reality of the events that they encounter in Barefoot Gen. Yet, in comparing Nakazawa’s manga with the prose memoirs of a survivor, one finds uncanny similarities. Toyofumi Ogura’s Letters from the End of the World: A Firsthand Account of the Bombing of Hiroshima (1948) offers detailed observations of what Ogura saw and heard in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. He addresses each of his thirteen letters to his dead wife Fumiyo, hoping to “inform her of the events leading up to and following her death” (9). Detailed and straightforward, Ogura’s reporting style stands in sharp contrast to the terse, emotion-drenched panels of Barefoot Gen. Yet in calling, as comics do, on the reader to fill in the gaps left in between the panels, as well as to imagine the horrific reality that the simple drawings only allude to, Nakazawa invites the reader to formulate his or her own cultural memories of Hiroshima.Of the many seemingly unrealistic aspects of Barefoot Gen, among the more difficult to absorb are the adventures that Gen has in volume two, when he sets out to find rice for his mother and baby sister. “Wait here till I come back, Mama” (17), Gen instructs his mother, and thus begins Gen’s 117-page journey through nuclear holocaust. Over the course of what seems like weeks if not months, Gen is mistaken for dead and very nearly burned alive; he is helped by a soldier who succumbs to radiation sickness even as he attempts to take Gen to the medical station; he contracts but somehow resists radiation sickness himself, going on to encounter bodies whose bellies have burst open,


whose skin lifts off the bones, and whose intestines are visible. Investigating a streetcar thrown off the rails, Gen faces maggot-infested bodies, frozen in the exact positions they were in when the blast hit.

ImageRunning from the horror, Gen finds his body—eyes, ears, face, arms, and legs—swarmed with flies. The horror is endless.


On reading of Gen’s adventures for the first time, I worried about how much time each of Gen’s episodes was taking. How long could his mother and sister wait for his return? Would they be dead when he came back? Why, I wondered, does Gen spend so much time with first, with the soldier, then with the old woman who keeps watch over her dead grandson, and finally with Natsue, the dancer who mourns her ruined face? Wandering further and further into the chaos of Hiroshima, would Gen ever be able to find his way back? In teaching the text in a nonfiction comics class, I noted that my students, too, questioned the elusive quality of time. They detected a surreal aspect to the cascade of horrors and wondered how many of them were “real.”

In reading Ogura’s prose memoirs, I was surprised by a similar meandering quality to Ogura’s experiences on the day of the bombing. Walking on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the bomb exploded, Ogura stops people along the way to ask what happened. He visits the house of his sister-in-law to see how they have fared. He stops to hear a long and detailed account of what happened to a university colleague and his wife. Aware, in retrospect, of his own unhurried response to the bombing, Ogura comments, “Thinking about it now, it seems like I must have been in a strangely relaxed state of mind to dawdle like that. But maybe that’s what people are inclined to do under these circumstances” (43). By the time it occurs to him that his own wife and child are in fact near the epicenter of the explosion, much of the day has passed: “I looked at my watch; it was past three. Seven hours had elapsed since the flash. [My colleague] said that he and his wife would go and get futons and mosquito nets from their air-raid shelter and would spend the night there on the hill. So I left them and proceeded down the hill. I had to get home and see how things were there” (47).

As he makes his way towards the epicenter, Ogura witnesses scenes much like those that Gen witnesses. Attempting to move a dead body aside so that he can pass, Ogura lifts the legs. He reports, “It was an indescribably weird sensation. Looking down at my hands, I saw the exposed muscles of both legs from knees down, glinting in the sun. . . The skin had peeled off and had gathered at the ankles, all wrinkled up” (58).

In another similar moment, Ogura comes upon a burned streetcar. Like Gen, he “peeked inside and saw that the floor had burned through and that dead bodies were piled up inside. Later I heard that in some streetcars passengers had been found seated side by side. On close inspection, they were all found to have burned to death instantly in whatever posture they’d happened to have assumed at that critical moment: sitting, standing with one foot on the step and so on” (59).

Comparing the prose descriptions with Nakazawa’s images, I am struck both by the similarities between Gen’s and Ogura’s experiences, as well as by the primary witnessing that manga permits and the secondary witnessing that descriptive prose offers. The manga images, lacking as they are in specificity, nonetheless confront the reader head-on. We are forced to imagine what the reality was like. Suddenly what seemed unreal—cartoonish—about Nakazawa’s text now seems deeply appropriate to the nightmare into which the world has been transformed. ImageAnd while Ogura’s text confirms the reality of the manga, the prose does not have the same impact as word-and-image. As Raina Telgemeier’s mother observes, when it comes to the events of Hiroshima, “. . . there’s no such thing as “’just a comic book’” (Beginnings).


(Davida Pines is an associate professor of Rhetoric at Boston University in the College of General Studies. She teaches courses in writing and research as well as in nonfiction comics. She is currently working on a monograph on the representation of traumatic history in long-form comics. Her essay “History, Memory, and Trauma: Confronting Dominant Interpretations of 9/11 in Alissa Torres’s American Widow and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers” appears in the forthcoming volume Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art, edited by Jane Tolmie. Her book The Marriage Paradox: Modernist Novels and the Cultural Imperative to Marry was published by the University Press of Florida in 2005.)


How might comics be used to teach French Civilization?

PencilPanelPage has been a platform for many valuable discussions about the use of comics in the classroom. It’s a question I have been contemplating along very pragmatic lines as I prepare my syllabus for the French Civilization sequence I’m slated to teach this year. French Civilization courses are standard in most French curricula, usually taught as a two-course sequence with the French Revolution as the chronological dividing line. Traditionally, I suspect, the rationale behind the course sequence was that French majors need a basic grasp of French history if they are to master the French literary canon. But now that French curricula no longer tend to be organized narrowly around literature, French Civilization courses are able to target the broader rubric of “French culture” through almost any combination of disciplinary approaches and using any number of cultural artifacts, from opera and architecture to film and comics. But how can anyone impart so much history, and such a rich archive of cultural production, responsibly? In this vein, my two biggest concerns are: 1) how to cover so much historical ground while also being faithful to the attentiveness to form that my disciplinary training has taught me to value? And 2) how to avoid teaching the class as an uncritical celebration of a certain hegemonic version of French (high) culture, as it is so often taught?


It goes without saying that I will incorporate comics into the course. A colleague recommended the Casterman series l’Histoire de France en BD [The History of France in Comics], which offers the tempting possibility of covering two millennia of French history in three highly accessible 90-page volumes. Although I may end up using the series for the sake of historical coverage, I also find myself resisting the use of comics as an easy and accessible means of teaching history and culture. For one, the perception of comics as an art form in its own right gets obscured as soon as it becomes a pedagogical vehicle. What’s more, I’m not convinced that these pedagogically oriented comics convey as much cultural and historical information as, say, historical fiction comics. Nor do I think they are as capable of taking a critical approach to celebratory grand historical narratives.

Le cri du peuple tardi

I only wish every historical fiction comic matched the level of cultural richness and intertextuality that we see in Jacques Tardi’s four-volume graphic adaptation of Jean Vautrin’s novel, Le Cri du Peuple. The series follows a fictional murder mystery tied to and set amidst the events leading to the famous Paris Commune of 1871. There is an extraordinary amount of cultural information that might be unpacked for the benefit of French students in Tardi’s series. Among the fictional characters, Tardi places a number of historical figures associated with the Paris Commune, including Louise Michel, Jules Vallès, Victor Hugo, and Gustave Courbet. He also includes some interesting allegorical characters who represent the many anonymous citizens and archivists of the Commune, including a cabaret singer, Gabriella Pucci, and a photographer, Théophile Mirecourt. Each of these figures presents an opportunity to examine the Paris Commune through other media: popular song (Pucci sings a famous resistance lyric while baring her breast in what seems to be a visual reference to Delacroix’s painting), poetry (Hugo published some of the first poems about the Commune), painting (Courbet and Girardet are both referenced visually and Courbet himself appears as a character), and print culture (through Jules Vallès whose daily, Le Cri du Peuple, the series is named after). Additionally, Tardi’s series requires its reader to unpack a great deal of linguistic information: the characters speak in ways marked by social class and regional background; a Basque phrase, “hitza hitz” is inscribed on a gun. And on the visual register, there is almost too much to mention: architecture and urban design as indicators of class and power, not to mention the numerous historically significant monuments such as the Hôtel de Ville; clothing and hairstyles on various characters as markers of social class, regional background, and vocation; a number of Tardi’s panels reference famous photographs of the communards and at least a couple famous paintings. And perhaps most interestingly, from a comics studies point of view, Tardi makes a number of self-conscious references to the political cartoons and caricature that played such an important role in the cultural battles of the Second Empire. These references to the comics of the 1870s ennoble comics as a medium tied to popular revolt and as an art form with roots deeply embedded in French history. 

Le cri du peuple 1

Does Swamp Thing have a penis?

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing

Perhaps the answer to this question depends on who is in charge of the character. While many artists have been involved in Swamp Thing story arcs over the decades, I am most familiar with the Alan Moore arc, with art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.

In ‘The Anatomy Lesson,’ there is an autopsy performed on the body of Swamp Thing, who is presumed to be dead and whose body has been frozen for study. The autopsy reveals structures inside the chest cavity that resemble anatomically correct human organs. However, although they look like organs, they don’t function like them. The ‘lungs’ inside Swamp Thing don’t actually take oxygen into the body and expel carbon dioxide as they do in mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Anatomy Lesson

Anatomy Lesson

Even without an invasive surgical procedure, though, it is clear that Swamp Thing has a body that is very similar to a male human. He walks upright on two legs; he has two arms, and he has eyes and other facial features that make him seem animal-like. One logical question, then, is how much does Swamp Thing resemble a male? Does Swamp Thing have a penis? If we limit ourselves to a discussion of anatomy, then the answer might be ‘yes.’

Anatomy alone doesn’t answer the question, though. Several issues after the autopsy, we see that Swamp Thing has recovered from cryostasis, and he has established a relationship with Abby. Swamp Thing explains that even though he loves her, he cannot physically make love to her. They manage to have a relationship via other means, and the narrator calls them lovers.

Swamp Thing and Abby

Swamp Thing and Abby

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Swamp Thing doesn’t have a penis, just that it may not function as penises normally do.

Before Alan Moore wrote Swamp Thing stories, though, there was a 1982 Wes Craven movie. This live-action movie involved a man wearing a Swamp Thing suit, which was created by William Munns. On his website, Munns explains how he got the job on Swamp Thing, how he created the suit (it was modeled on Creature from the Black Lagoon), and how decisions were made about its anatomical features:

“I sculpted a body design that included a ‘root’ that was between the legs and had a masculine proportion, sort of like an uncircumsized Cypress knee. […With ] immense regret on the director’s part, he okayed the castration of the sculpture, and we concluded if there would even be a movie called ‘Son of Swamp Thing,’ he’d have to be adopted.” (website accessed on 24 July 2013)

Click here to see the two images of the suit before the ‘castration.’

Several of our posts at Pencil Panel Page have addressed the issues of gender, anatomy, stereotype, and sexism. Most of these, if not all of them, have explored the representation of human anatomy, especially of the costumed superheroes. These posts mention breast size and biceps size, but what of the penis? Are male characters somehow de-humanized if their tights don’t reveal a bulge?

And what of Swamp Thing? Is he human? Is he fauna or flora? And what does that say about representations of the male form, human or otherwise?

Was the Comics Code Really So Bad?

cca-sealOkay, so let’s get something out of the way: Of course the CCA Comics Code was bad. It was bad, horrible, atrocious, and decidedly not good. The Code was a self-imposed form of censorship that was instituted by the comics industry in the face of widespread moral outrage, and a real possibility of governmental censorship, in the mid-1950s. It drastically constrained the kinds of stories comics creators could tall, and the ways that these stories could be told. Censorship is bad, hence the comics code is bad. So why the fuss? Isn’t the answer just this simple?

Well, there is no doubt that the previous paragraph is completely and utterly correct, as far as it goes. But there are some issues that are deserving of further scrutiny. Sometimes bad things have good consequences. And while I would never suggest that the good consequences of the Code outweigh the obvious bad consequences, I think that some of these, admittedly inadvertent, good consequences deserve greater attention.

ClaremontFirst off, as already mentioned, the Code imposed severe restrictions on the kinds of content that could be overtly included in a comic. But, as is often the case, this didn’t necessarily mean that such content wasn’t included – it just meant that it was hidden or coded. And, as is often the case in art, the efforts and creativity that was brought to the task of encoding or hiding ‘forbidden’ content sometimes brought with it real aesthetic gain. Various movements in comics (OuBaPo), literature (OuLiPo), and elsewhere are explicitly based on this premise: that great art can be the result of engaging with, and overcoming, various sorts of constraints. We should remember, however, that these constraints need not be self-imposed or voluntary in order to spur artists to greater heights. On the contrary, sometimes great work comes out of dealing with constraints that are the result of an injustice (like the Code).

JumpRopePotential examples within mainstream superhero comics aren’t hard to come by: The queer subtext of Chris Claremont’s X-men runs (and pretty much any X-title he gets near enough to sneeze on) might not be the subtlest thing on earth, but it’s likely more interesting than what would have resulted if he had been allowed to have various X-women snogging on the cover of every issue. Likewise, John Byrne’s often brilliant satirizing of the Comics Code in The Sensational She-Hulk and elsewhere really wouldn’t have any point if it hadn’t have occurred in a book carrying the CCA Code.

It is also worth noting that the Comics Code was institutionalized in 1954, when superhero comics appeared to be on the way out, and other genres (notable, but not only, horror and crime) were gaining more and more steam. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that part of the point of the code was to put the horror and crime comics out of business. But the code also allowed superhero comics to eventually regain their preeminent role in mainstream comics. Part of this likely has to do with the publishers of other genres shutting their doors, and the resulting decrease in competition. But is it possible that the code provided superhero comics, and their creators, with exactly the sorts of constraints that were needed to push them to create better, more creative, and more successful stories? I don’t have a good answer to this question, but it seems worth thinking about.

Do Alienation Theories shed Light on Contemporary Comics?

Scanned-Image-103070005-500x247This summer, I am working on a research project focused on theories of alienation, particularly those that explore the relational aspects of social alienation.  Tapping this theoretical vein offers me new language and critical insight into the fractured, abject spaces I find myself inhabiting when immersed in the comics I gravitate toward, particularly those of David Mazzucchelli, Chris Ware, Seth, Daniel Clowes, and Luke Pearson.  In this blog post, I will sketch out just a few of the theories I’m working with, and ask that you remember, particularly, the depiction of Jordan Wellington Lint (Rusty Brown’s tormentor in earlier Acme Library volumes) from birth through death in Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library #20 (Lint) (Drawn and Quarterly, 2010) Ware-Acme-Novelty-Library-20-Lintsince I have only limited space here to tease out a few connections between this comic and the germane theories.  Though he mainly frames the narrative through Jordan Lint’s myopic and self-serving viewpoint, Ware nevertheless provides us with enough visual and verbal detail (and you do have to work hard to hear and see the small chunks of more objective visual and verbal content) to slowly piece together the trajectory of an alienated life lived badly and punctuated by rare, brief bouts of self-awareness and remorse.  If you haven’t read Acme Library #20, substitute Clowes’ Wilson (Wilson) or Enid and Becky (Ghost World),  Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (Asterios Polyp) or your favorite misunderstood/reclusive/embittered/once-bitten-thrice-shy comic character, though Jordan Lint is unmatched in his capacity for self-justification and self-gratification in the midst of a steady series of passive and active infractions against others.


Alienation theory is a broad field, and allows those of us who are interdisciplinary by inclination to recognize the layered and multiple sources of subjective perceptions of disconnect from others and even from ourselves.  These approaches include philosophical explorations of self and other, either existential or rooted in theories of mind that explore the cognitive source of emotions like (social) disgust and shame.  In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of  Emotion (Cambridge UP, 2001), for example, Martha Nussbaum suggests that disgust and shame are rooted in all things “animal,” everything, in short, that reminds us of our mortal—decaying, exuding, dying—selves:  “With disgust as with primitive shame, our ambivalence about our bodily makeup, its helplessness and its connection to mortality and decay, color the emotions of the child’s developing social life, sowing the seeds of some tenacious moral and social problems.” (206) Recall 2 year old Jordan’s classic fecal/penile pleasure early in Lint, and the mother’s horrified “No, Jordan!”  acme_20_0085But also recall a slightly older Lint (age 10) reaching up and missing a catch, which then prompts him to yell an invective at his innocent team-mate.  This act of cursing others because one is in pain will recur frequently and Lint finds himself (again, as he often will) rebuked by another (in this case, the school headmaster) for his social transgression.  Though certainly comparable to psychological theories of projection and the return of the repressed, philosophical considerations of alienation can stress the thought processes and language acts that scaffold and construct notions of self/other, me/world, inside/outside.

Approaching alienation psychoanalytically, we begin to move into examining the causes and effects of more tangible expressions of behavior, from antisocial acts and affects (including substance abuse, rage, lack of empathy/numbing, misogyny and abuse) to active withdrawal from others to reduce social pain (recently given the label hikikomori by Japanese psychiatrist, Saito Tamaki, who suggests that there are now nearly a million Japanese people—usually young (20’s, 30’s), usually male—living as “shut-ins” in their parental homes, attending neither school nor work, and seeing no one outside their immediate family (and sometimes not even them, preferring instead to have their meals left at the bedroom door). (Hikikomori:  Adolescence without End, trans. Jeffrey Angles, Minnesota UP, 2013).  The manga series, Welcome to the NHK, is one comic response to this growing social problem in Japan, but I agree with Tamaki that this is not a uniquely Japanese problem and that we can also find American hikikomori in life and in our graphic novels.  Lint’s troubles with the world—his inability to inhibit impulses or sacrifice self—repeatedly jeopardize and then sever his relationships with others—leaving him stranded, indignant, and self-medicating (chiefly via masturbation, alcohol, and risk) despite an unusually high number of opportunities to “try again” (new friends, new girlfriends, new wives, new children, new financial schemes).   Though Lint does not shut himself away in a room, he certainly does so figuratively, carving out an inviolable bubble of personal space that casts him as eternal victim, not victimizer.   Brilliantly, Ware offers us glimpses of the wreckage Lint leaves behind:  the hurt expressions of women unseen or unprocessed by the titular character, the haunted face of the father of a friend killed through Lint’s recklessness, references to bilked share-holders of the now-ruined family company, a review of his estranged son’s memoir of abuse at his hand (Lint will later sue his son for defamation).

tumblr_lqii93NBuP1qlys10Julia Kristeva, who is as much philosopher as psychoanalyst, shares Nussbaum’s interest in how we arrive at conceptions of self and other, but cares most about how these concepts shape behavior.  Taking on the concept of the “foreigner” in Strangers to Ourselves (trans. Leon Roudiez, Columbia UP, 1991), Kristeva seems to suggest that we cannot accept the strangeness of others until we accept the strangeness of ourselves.  Jordan Lint renounces his name–“Don’t call me Jordan!”– after the death of his mother when he is very young, adopting “Jason” instead (he’ll return to Jordan in his mid-twenties).  Channeling both the offhanded racism of his father and stepmother (“daddy sometime talk about black people. he say bad black people.”[n.p.] “Well I’d prefer not to hire a negro, since you ask” [n.p.]), as well as his father’s casual subordination of women, Jordan/Jason also adds homophobia, verbal denigration of sundry others, callousness, and possibly—this is how I read a certain set of panels– child sexual abuse (of his stepdaughter).  Ware shows us a nested set of cycles of abuse:  from father to son, victim to victimizer; precisely after Jordan makes connections to the pain of others (remembering his own similar pains) opening up the possibility of empathy, he closes the channel down expeditiously and attacks whoever is nearest.  For Kristeva, this brings about the supreme social failure:  not recognizing and tolerating one’s own unknowable and strange self means others remain foreign, alien, some more so than others.  “Uncanny, foreignness is within us:  we are our own foreigners, we are divided….The foreign is within me, hence we are all foreigners.” (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 181-182)  The bully that Jordan Lint becomes grows in no small part from the accretion of a hundred different failures of rapprochement by himself, his father before him, and so on…

 Finally, it is worth a brief detour into the work of social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who reminds us that there are inherent problems in conceptualizing alienation as a simple mismatch or failed integration of self and world (whether world is constituted as environment, workplace, social milieu, or as particular institutions like family, school, romance).  Sociologists and alienation theorists, at least since Melvin Seeman (1959) defined alienation as having five key components:  powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement (qtd. in the Introduction to Felix Geyer, Alienation, Ethnicity and Postmodernism, Greenwood Press, 1996), have historically relied upon a fairly fixed and unified sense of self (and world, for that matter) when they discuss the disjuncts between individuals and their environment(s).  From a classic Marxist perspective, for example, alienation occurs when a person’s core self (their self-concept, essential nature, consciousness) is denied, obliterated by profit-driven labor structures:  “… ‘estrangement’ from a human being’s essential nature as a result of a cruel set of industrial capitalist demands” (Irving Horowitz, “The Strange Case of Alienation:  How a Concept is Transformed without Permission of its Founders,” in Geyer, 18).  Kenneth Gergen, however, recognizes what cultural critics also regularly argue:  that the self itself is not unified, nor is there a single essential nature of a person which is simply in harmony or at odds with the world out there.  If human nature is fragmented, shifting, phasal, and multiple, and we can say the same for the institutions, systems, world and other people encountered by individuals, then it makes more sense, argues Gergen, to view alienation relationally:

            …[I]n much constructionist writing there simply is no sense of self

            outside the cultural matrix.  That we identify single selves at all—that we

            attribute to them emotions, intention, logical thought and the like—is entirely a

            byproduct of cultural relations….All that was natural and autonomous from the

            alienationist’s standpoint, is now cultural and relational. (Gergen in Geyer, 121)

scan0003Viewing Jordan Lint’s alienation relationally moves us profitably away from essentializing statements (for example, that he is simply a sociopath, which I’ve avoided saying), and underscores the complexity of Ware’s depiction of the simultaneity of Lint’s victim and victimizer states, of his vulnerable moments alongside his self-destructive and antisocial acts.  From here, we can move into a dynamic reading of the interplay of alienating forces and relationships in Ware’s comic, but this I’ll save for the larger project from which these preliminary notes emerge.