Thursday, October 12, 2000
While our techno friends crow how e-books will revolutionize literature by melding text and sound and pictures, a better revolution is happening under our noses.
The form can finesse effects that text alone fumbles. It can release the text from having to paint those dreaded "word pictures" that got your Freshman Composition teacher so excited but that seem, out in the real world, so 19th century. It can win young readers, numbed by schlocky TV and movies but savvy about how words and pictures go together.
Of course, those of us who are old (but not that old!) and unhip (ditto!) are a little late to the party. Exhibit A is Chris Ware's smart literary series about Jimmy Corrigan, which the young and hip have been reading since Fantagraphics Books started publishing installments in 1992. (Learn more by visiting www.fantagraphics.com .) They are shaking their heads even now.
But today's point is not that smart, literary comics exist. Today's point is that Pantheon, better known for literary novels that win National Book Awards, is now publishing them. For the rest of us.
Will mainstream publishing bring more fans to gifted artists and writers such as Ware and to his creation Jimmy Corrigan, the biggest loser this side of Kafka? Or will uncomprehending, unappreciative critics never accept that a book with pictures is real literature?
"Jimmy Corrigan" is the braided story of four generations of Corrigan men in Chicago and small-town Michigan. One thread is 30-something Jimmy Corrigan's story, set in the present day, after he suddenly hears from the father who abandoned him as an infant. Another ï¿½ more excruciating ï¿½ is of Jimmy's grandfather, who is abandoned by his father during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The grandfather is still alive, and his appearance at the Jimmy and Dad reunion wraps both dark, awful stories together.
Both tales are drawn in a blunt, woodcut-like style (but using different palettes) that reminds me of nothing so much as Depression-era Monopoly game cards, the "Get Out of Jail Free!" ones. The cartooning is extraordinary; the dust-jacket alone is worth $27.50.
But let me talk about just one effect that arises directly from the cartoon panel. Writers have been trying to layer time ever since they noticed that words have to be trudged out one after the other. While it often seems to you that you are thinking two incongruous things at one time ï¿½ feeling the breeze and remembering to buy milk ï¿½ full-bore attempts to mimic that ("Finnegan's Wake," say) in narrative have often been incomprehensible and unread.
But comics achieve that same effect with ease, playing words and pictures off each other. For instance, Jimmy gets hit by a truck (slightly!) and he and his newfound father go to a clinic, where they wait endlessly in an examining room. Ware puts the present-time narrative, as Jimmy's father drones on about little things, in panels that take about a sixth of a page.
But suddenly, Ware fractures two panels into 12 smaller squares that interweave two of Jimmy's Thanksgiving memories: the near past, as grownup Jimmy talks with his mother on the phone, and the distant past, as boy Jimmy questions his mother about the man "who came to our house today." Next three large panels, present time, Jimmy's dad droning. And then, a huge panel in which little Jimmy is twisting from his mother's grasp and a man's hand is poised above a camera shutter-release in the foreground. Above the mother's head: "It's OKAY, Jimmy.. . . He's just going to take a PICTURE."
The effect is thunderous, heartbreaking. And all in the space between the father's words. But see how much clumsier my telling is than the pictures on Ware's page?
"Jimmy Corrigan" is a depressing, claustrophobic story, but Ware also has a hyper, self-effacing streak that will be familiar to anyone who's read Dave Eggers' memoir earlier this year, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." The most precious parts are on the endpapers, under such games-playing as "General Instructions." Instruction No. 5 is an "Exam," in which question No. 5 is "When you started to realize that maybe your childhood was over, you a.) cried; b.) watched in horror as everyone around you became attractive, while you stayed small, pale and offensive; c.) continued to read comic books; d.) tried to lift weights; e.) stopped looking others in the eye."
Beautiful writing is beautiful. It will live. We await the Great American Novel, with or without pictures.