MOME vol. 4 (Spring/Summer 2006), ed. Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth
Rock 'n' roll is suffering from that old progressive school fallacy that says if what you write is about your own feelings, no one can criticize it. Truth telling is beginning to settle into a slough where it is nothing more than a pedestrian autobiography set to placid music framed by a sad smile on the album cover. This is about as liberating as thinking typecast movie stars are "really like" the roles they play. In many cases, though, this has come to be true in rock 'n' roll: singers have dispensed with imagination and songs are just pages out of a diary, with nothing in them that could give them a life of their own. A good part of the audience has lost its taste for songs that are about something out there in the world that the singer is trying to make real--usually by convincingly assuming the burden of that reality; replacing such songs are tunes that desperately deny the world by affirming the joys of solipsism.
That's from "Randy Newman: Every Man Is Free," a chapter from Mystery Train that I haven't been able to stop rereading for the past month. Marcus delivers a disconcertingly accurate manifesto of my own critical tastes, not just for music but for film, literature, and comics, and with minimal rewriting his words would explain why this site tends to focus on popular genres, creators, and characters: "When it is alive to its greatest possibilities--to disturb, provoke, and divide an entire society, thus exciting and changing a big part of society--pop says that the game of a limited audience is not really worth playing."
The passage about autobiography and solipsism needs the least transformation, especially if you've read the fourth volume of MOME, the Fantagraphics anthology of art comics. Marcus unwittingly nails the majority of its contents thirty-plus years in advance of their creation, even those stories that do not literally record the authors' lives--"autobiography" being understood here as a style of writing more than a simple transcription of one's life. Most of the stories in MOME are not pages out of a diary, though the label certainly applies to Sophie Crumb, who actually has the gall to complain about "boring" autobiographical comics while submitting a couple of the same. She exempts herself from her rant, saying
I'm too busy having an interesting life, and I don't take enough time to write and draw!! [That much I agree with.] I am not a bored suburban loser! My life is so weird and crazy, I wouldn't know where to start!!
Just in case you've mistaken this winking narcissism for a genuine rhetorical irony, the editors have thoughtfully preceded her complaints with "Melanie & Billy," which uses the tragic fates of two homeless New York kids to illustrate that, yes, Sophie Crumb does lead a weird and crazy life. This aria to the self lacks even the excuse of technical accomplishment, being composed mostly of debased, deadened language. Here's Crumb's reaction after her friend ODs on heroin:
Of course, I was shocked, then sad, thinking of what a waste it was... a waste of beauty, life, all that shit... what a stupid mistake, how easy it could have been to avoid... how it just couldn't be. It couldn't happen to someone like Melanie.
Crumb musters some modicum of reflection on her own vacant words ("all that shit," "This is corny as hell") but she doesn't act on it, doesn't go back and write a better elegy that comes from real grief and not the regurgitated mush of a thousand funerary clichés. More crucially, and fatally for any art that seeks to be more than pages out of a diary, Crumb doesn't direct her reflections outwards to the world or to the friend she supposedly mourns. She's so taken with the romantic image of lamenting Melanie's senseless death that she doesn't even seem to realize it isn't all that senseless--that homeless drug-using nineteen-year-old girls who shoot up alone with creepy guys that nobody in the neighborhood likes are precisely the someones to whom it happens.
She does pause, though, to illustrate herself three times (as many as nominal protagonist Billy) and to tell us in detail about her drinking, her passing out, her grieving ("all that shit"), her feelings, her "orgiesque" parties. In one picture a caption pointing to Sophie (or, more accurately, to the woman Sophie is kissing, precision being no more a feature of the art than it is the writing) reads "Caution! Gay when drunk," which Crumb honestly seems to think sets her apart from all those bored suburban loser girls. The half-formed meditations on her friends, poor simulacra of feeling, don't conceal Sophie Crumb's utter infatuation with her own lifestyle, in which all her gay and bi and drunk and high and jailed and evicted and dead friends are just so many status symbols. What could be more bohemian than an overdose?
It's tempting to dismiss Crumb as a legacy cartoonist who got her spot in MOME on the strength of her last name; her final piece, a cartoony incest funny in the vein of her dad, certainly does nothing to dispel this idea. The truth is that Crumb's work is entirely of a piece with her fellow contributors'--a little more directly autobiographical, perhaps a little more artless, if such a thing is possible. Anders Nilsen is so lo-fi he shows us the scratched-out words on the hastily scrawled introduction to his decoupage piece, presumably to confirm its authenticity. Nilsen describes his piece's development in the same banal, noncomittal, painfully inadequate language as Crumb's elegy ("...wondering what the hell I was doing. As an artist or a cartoonist or whatever I was") but he at least manages more proficiency in his story's graphic design. Regrettably, the tremendous production effort feels wasted on this striking but empty and affectless collage, which allegorizes its own aimlessness.
Nilsen's piece does serve as a reminder that, just as not all autobiography is solipsistic, not all solipsism is autobiographical. Even the stories that feature fictional characters typically feature only one, as though the artists are not yet confident enough to imagine something so wondrous and strange as two people interacting, and that single character is typically a lonely shut-in who has vivid dreams and fetishizes childhood experiences and talks to stars. ("And they shrink you into nursery rhymes": the depths of the universe reduced to mute reflections of the hero's gloom, with a range of reference that does not extend beyond childhood.) These pieces are observed, not made, and their observations are too familiar; they are unable to imagine anyone much different from the sort of character--or the sort of artist--who usually ends up in books like MOME.
The most interesting thing to be gleaned from these stories is the overpowering influence Chris Ware has had on the next generation of comics artists. One contributor will ape his cutaway diagrams and repetitive staging; another will duplicate his muted yet richly textured colors; almost all go for his fumbling, emotionally stunted protagonists. Copying these superficial features, they miss Ware's interest in history, urban space, causality, fate, time--all those somethings out there in the world. An honest comics criticism would hold these pieces in about the same regard we have for the impoverished Frank Miller imitations that came out in the eighties and nineties (some of them, to be fair, from Frank Miller).
Instead, Gary Groth opens his interview with Jonathan Bennett with a saucy dig at Secret Wars II, a comic released more than twenty years ago and reviled ever since. This is a bit like opening a festival of halfassed student films with a shot at Ed Wood, but the line serves its purpose. Groth's cozy disdain projects an ethos common to many of the most celebrated comics of the nineties (including Ware's, to their detriment), a strictly negative argument for the value of their work: it's good if it's not superheroes. It's great if it hates superheroes. The problem with achieving the cultural respectability that Groth and his peers so desperately sought, a respectability that now hovers within their grasp, is that we can no longer confuse their negative argument with an affirmative case for quality. When comics aspire to the stature of literature or art they have to succeed as literature or art, not as not superheroes.
MOME might be able to cruise by on such oppositional posturing if it viewed itself solely as a showcase for developing artists, a workshop for talents that haven't quite reached the creative imagination necessary to produce good comics about the world outside their own skulls. But the Fantagraphics website calls MOME "the premier literary anthology in comics" and compares it to The Believer or Granta. The latter is exactly the sort of journal I might expect a status-conscious anthology to aspire to; I haven't enjoyed a Granta piece since 1999, but at least it expects its contributors to demonstrate technical competence in their chosen medium and to engage with the world.
Only a few stories in the fourth volume of MOME meet either standard. R. Kikuo Johnson abandons last issue's Jimmy Corrigan-lite comic strips for a polished piece on John James Audubon; Martin Cendreda wisely trades in ironically-drinking-smoking-cursing-and-flopping-out-of-panel cartoon animals for a story about the weight of time. One selection alone achieves the formal command and creative inspiration that we should demand of a premier literary anthology--of premier literature--and it does so by embracing the very things most of MOME's contributors either cannot encompass or actively reject.
David B.'s "The Veiled Prophet," although based on a historical figure, is one of the few stories to use fantasy elements and the only one to do so without a smirk. Like "The Armed Garden," translated in the previous volume of MOME, the story features a reluctant prophet of humble origins who leads a fanatical sect to repudiate his nation's temporal authorities and retreat into a new, isolated world of his own perverse making. The twist here, and the thing that may elevate "The Veiled Prophet" even above "The Armed Garden," is that Hakim al-Muqanna doesn't initially proclaim himself a prophet: everyone who beholds him sees a different religious figure behind the piece of cloth that miraculously gets stuck to his face. As more people gaze upon him his prestige grows, and so does his veil, until the cloth appears to be composed entirely of speech, unspooling from gossipy mouths like the ribbons of old-fashioned word balloons.
The story is filled with gems like this, where the minutiae of panel composition provide essential keys to interpretation; and if this seems like too neat a metaphor for our tendency to invent our own messiahs and acquiesce to what we only believe to be a higher power, it must be noted that David B. complicates this reading even before he finishes setting it up. (This superficial interpretation is still leaps and bounds beyond anything the other stories attempt, with the possible exceptions of Johnson and Cendreda.) Legendary caliph Haroun al-Rashid, journeying incognito, overhears three travelers speculating on what lies beneath the veil. Two of them toss out the first guesses anyone versed in psychoanalytic theory (or The Maltese Falcon) might venture:
Clearly, he has no face. [...] Behind his veil there is emptiness. This revolt is founded upon wind!
His face is like a mirror! [...] Whosoever looks into it sees his own soul!
More suggestions that the veil's power lies solely in its observers, but they are floated too early, and on too slender evidence, for us to accept them. They may be plausible, but they aren't likely to be right. And look again at that panel where the gossip appears to increase the size of the veil and turban: two of those ribbons of cloth/speech are coming from a dog and a cat! It's a cute visual joke, but it means our clever, eminently reasonable theory that al-Muqanna's power comes from the awed words of those who see or hear about him can't be entirely right. The truth is more mysterious and terrible: the power behind the veil turns out to be horrifically real, and Haroun al-Rashid soon learns that even if he can accurately theorize it, that doesn't prepare him for it.
"The Veiled Prophet" flirts with interpretations and discards them, but still manages to allude to the faith we invest in self-proclaimed prophets, the power of the prohibited to dominate our imagination (especially the prohibited image), the universality of violence (especially religious violence), and the inadequacy of reason in the face of such terrifying power and violence. Reaching far outside his and our personal experience, David B. finds a means of representing forces that touch all of us, and he does it through the stuff of orientalist fable: caliphs and prophets and harems, protean veils and armies of the dead, magical weapons and a climax of virtuous violence straight out of heroic fantasy--but if a thing seems too simple to be true in this story, it probably is.
It may seem unfair to compare the work of a seasoned professional like David B. with the nascent (or stillborn) talents that fill the rest of MOME, but "The Veiled Prophet" sets itself apart by its ambitions. While the other pieces in MOME vol. 4 are angling for the kind of bourgeois literary respectability Sophie Crumb pretends to disdain, David B. is happily toiling away in the issue's only true demimonde, the gutter of genre fiction, and he finds in it a path to the world.
He's out there at the margins, scheming.