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“Don’t Draw That!”: The Power of Obscene Comics

While attending a Sunday morning church service, I watched my cousin Matt draw dirty pictures on his program with a tiny church pencil. I must have been nine or ten years old. Matt was older and had the reputation of a troublemaker. By nature, I was a cautious child who tried his best to follow the rules. The lunch ladies at my elementary school would always make a point to tell my mom how polite I was. He always says ‘please’ and ‘thank you!’ So I found Matt’s inclination to rebel fascinating.

I call his drawings “dirty” because, at the time, I thought they were the filthiest images anyone could dare to imagine in a sacred place like church. I recall, in the margins of the program, a monster with a wide blood-soaked maw of jagged teeth eating the remains of some poor human victim. Near the header, there was a gangster with a giant black tommy gun mowing down a group of police officers. And there were other sketches of monstrous faces and mutilated bodies. Sitting in the middle of church while the pastor gave his sermon, I knew these images were just plain wrong, even unholy—but I couldn’t look away. Every time I looked at those indecent doodles, I felt a rush. By gazing at them, appreciating them, I was a participant in my cousin’s small rebellion.

This is one of the fundamental qualities of comics; they depict images society says we should look away from. They are doorways to the unnatural, obscene, incendiary, and abhorrent. By depicting the obscene, comics creators challenge traditional beliefs regarding moral values and artistic taste. While literature and film are also highly subversive, they lack the immediate reaction produced by comics. You have to read a novel, or sit down to watch a film, to realize it’s offensive. However, with a comic book, you only need to flip though the pages, or sometimes just see the cover, to say that the images are “wrong” according to society’s moral standards.

The history of comics in the United States has demonstrated this numerous times. The pulp horror and crime comics of the 1940s and 50s contained visceral depictions of violence, such as beheadings, cannibalism, and torture. Here’s one of the most disturbing examples from Crime SuspenStories #22, 1954:

crime_suspenstories22(If you would like to see more, here’s a link to a website devoted to crime and horror comics covers.)

In 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham published a study titled Seduction of the Innocent that was persuasive in convincing the American public that comics caused childhood delinquency. Once adults started noticing what their children were reading, there was pandemonium. Comic book burnings were held in several states.

9a5c37d57781fa8d6190297bd23e47c1-orig (Binghamton, NY, 1948)

Eventually, Senate subcommittee hearings, in which Dr. Wertham served as an expert witness, resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which was similar to the Production Code in Hollywood. Some of the rules drawn out in this code included:

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

The Comics Code Authority effectively declawed mainstream comics. However, the era of the illicit crime and horror comics made a lasting impact that’s still being felt to this day. The modern artist Charles Burns (Black Hole, X’ed Out, The Hive), makes many references to this history in his work. His stories often revolve around mutilations, alien invasions, spontaneous mutations, and so on. Here’s an image of his recurring character Big Baby reading a sci-fi horror comic in bed with a flashlight.

Big Baby Example (From Charles Burns’s short story “Teen Plague”)

The iconic image of a child secretly reading a comic book has been embedded into our culture, creating this sense that comics, like pornography, are something to be kept hidden away. Consequently, if you did read comics, you were a rebellious child with decaying morals.

In the 1960s a counter culture movement began to take shape that broke every rule of the Comics Code Authority. Underground comix (comics with an “x”) were produced by a group of artists (including Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Art Spiegelman, and Justin Green) whose aim was to make work that exposed the human desires and thoughts that were being repressed by mainstream society. They explored many topics, such as drugs, sex, and racism. 6a00e5506d89ca8834011570016263970c (Cover of Zap Comix #0, 1968, which featuring the art of Robert Crumb and others.)

As they gained popularity in the late 1960s and 70s, underground comix were labeled “pornographic” and retailers in many areas of the United States were barred from selling them. This resulted in the movement eventually losing steam, but it had accomplished some incredibly important achievements. These artists demonstrated that the stories in comics were not bound by a particular genre (superhero, romance, western, etc.) and that it was a medium where highly subversive images could get exposure.

Many of today’s alternative comics contain controversial images, but they are much more subtle compared to the incendiary underground comix of the 60s and 70s. Graphic memoirs such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and David Small’s Stitches depict taboo subjects, such as homosexuality, mental illness, and suicide. In her book Graphic Women, Hilary Chute describes this as the “risk of representation” and states, “The complex visualizing [graphic narratives] undertakes suggests that we need to rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory as well as our current censorship-driven culture in general” (3). Essentially, society is still saying that certain ideas shouldn’t be written or talked about, and certain images shouldn’t be drawn or looked at.

Current events prove that censorship is alive and kicking. Lawmakers in Charleston, South Carolina approved a budget bill that defunded a reading program at the College of Charleston for suggesting (not requiring) college freshmen read Bechdel’s Fun Home. This action was taken in an attempt to punish the school for assigning a memoir by a lesbian author. In protest, Bechdel brought the Braodway-version of her graphic memoir to Charleston College and held performances for the public.

fun-home-by-alison-bechdel (From Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, page 215.)

Cases like the one in Charleston highlight how comics are still being portrayed as dangerous and morally depraved. However, certain people may view many of the greatest works of art as obscene. I’m sure the nudity of Michaelango’s David still makes some people blush. When a graphic novel, film, painting, or book causes controversy for its obscene material, that’s usually a good sign. It means that the art is pushing against a widely held belief, exposing us to something new, something society is trying to keep invisible and inaudible. Well-made, thought provoking comics, almost always contain something society labels as “weird,” “dirty,” or “wrong.”

I can’t recall what happened to my cousin’s doodle-covered, desecrated church pamphlet. He might have left it in a hymnal with the intention of scandalizing the next church member who discovered it, or my uncle might have given Matt a stern warning and snatched it away. Whatever happened to it, I’m sure that pamphlet is long gone now, but I know those drawings will stay seared in my memory forever.

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Four Superb Batman Graphic Novels That Do Not Star The Dark Knight

In the seventy-five years since Batman’s debut, writers and artists have been cultivating a rich fictional world populated by young Bat-family members and diabolically evil villains. Among the many Batman-related graphic novels, a few stand out as well-crafted works that deserve your attention. These graphic novels take place within Batman’s world, but the Bat himself plays a side character. While this may seem like a negative, it actually allows the creators to explore Batman’s world in new and unexpected ways.


Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty (Book 1)

Written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka

Art by Michael Lark

Not only is Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty the best book on this list, it is one of the highest-quality Batman comics series ever published. It’s HBO’s The Wire, but Baltimore has been replaced with Gotham. Brubaker and Rucka focus on day-to-day life at the Gotham City Police Department where the detectives encounter bizarre cases linked to Batman’s rogues gallery. The writing is razor sharp with plot twists you won’t see coming and natural dialogue that will make you think you’ve just spent the night cruising the streets of Gotham. Lark’s artistic style (which is reminiscent of courtroom sketches) helps further ground the series in realism. The third story arc, Rucka’s “Half a Life,” won an Eisner award in 2004.


Batwoman: Elegy

Written by Greg Rucka

Art by J. H. Williams III

Batman only appears in a few panels of this beautifully drawn graphic novel, and that’s about as close as Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman, is related to her namesake. In this reinvention of a character from the 1950s (who, ironically, was supposed to serve as a love interest for Batman, proving that he was not gay—as Dr. Frederick Wertham asserted in Seduction of the Innocent), Rucka casts Batwoman as a ex-military cadet who dropped out because she wouldn’t lie about her homosexuality. Finding all conventional pathways for quenching her thirst for justice barred to her, Kate uses her wealth and her training to become the Batwoman. Williams’s page layouts are wildly inventive, often utilizing the two-page spread, and his decision to use two distinct artistic styles to contrast the Kate’s nightlife with her daylife is brilliant.


Batgirl/Robin: Year One

Written by Scott Beaty & Chuck Dixon

Art by Marcos Martin & Javier Pulido

This book, which combines two graphic novels into one, is a joyous ode to Robin and Batgirl. Don’t let the title fool you, this isn’t a team-up book; however, there are connecting threads between both narratives. The first half eschews Dick Grayson’s origin story and focuses on Robin’s first year on the job. Told from the perspective of Alfred, it explores why Bruce Wayne would let a kid tag along on his nighttime excursions. The second half of the book tells the story of Barabara Gordon’s transformation into Batgirl, and it highlights how she turns people’s tendency to underestimate her, due to her gender and small stature, against them. Beaty and Dixon’s writing style reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series. Every story not only has a dynamic plot, it also has an internal struggle the protagonist is working through. They also have a good sense of humor and you can tell they love these characters.

Arkham Asylum - Living Hell

Arkham Asylum: Living Hell

Written by Dan Slott

Art by Ryan Sook

Maybe your favorite part about Batman is his frightening villains. Following white-collar criminal Warren White, who pleads insanity in an attempt to avoid prison time, this book dives into the mythology of Gotham’s iconic mental institution. Slott’s most substantial contribution is creating new Batman villains and highlighting lesser known ones, such as Jane Doe, Humpty Dumpty, Death Rattle, and Doodlebug. The strength of this book lies in its unflinching portrayal of the horror inside Arkham. Since the character of Warren White is not insane, we can place ourselves in his shoes and feel the terror of trying to survive among these brutal psychotics.


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Origins of a Style: David Mazzucchelli’s “The Boy Who Loved Comics”

I have a terrible confession to make. Somehow, even after spending a year writing my thesis on David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, I overlooked a crucial point in his development as an artist. In my thesis, I outline Mazzucchelli’s artistic evolution. He goes from his great successes in mainstream comics with Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again to experimental art comics in his own comics magazine Rubber Blanket. While working on this, he also collaborated with Paul Karaski on an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

“The Boy Who Loved Comics” was first published in The Comics Journal Special #1 in 2001 and then was republished in 2006 in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories. I’ll admit it; I wasn’t looking for Mazzucchelli’s work when I bought the anthology. I just happened to find it at Half Price Books a while ago. So you can imagine my surprise when I found it while I was flipping through the books pages. The art is so distinct; I didn’t need to check the name to know who had made it. “The Boy Who Loved Comics” is remarkable because, even though it was published eight years earlier, it possesses many of the distinct stylistic and thematic elements of Asterios Polyp.

the boy who loved comics page 1

the boy who loved comics page 2

Page Layout

While some artists, such as Chris Ware, design pages that are filled to the brim with boxes and arrows, Mazzucchelli lets his pages breath. In “The Boy Who Loved Comics” he plays with the open page layouts that became a trademark of his graphic novel. His panels hang on the surface of the page like paintings in an exhibition. Mazzucchelli has made a few extended trips to Japan and it’s easy to see how the country’s art has influenced his approach to page layout. A common concept in Japanese art, in disciplines such as ikebana or calligraphy, is the idea that the space around an art form should be just as aesthetically pleasing as the art form itself (Hana even mentions this in Asterios Polyp when she discusses her approach to sculpture). Furthermore, Mazzucchelli includes paneled images and images lacking frames, which creates a nice rhythm while reading the pages.


Cyan and magenta, the main colors used in Asterios Polyp, take center stage in “The Boy Who Loved Comics.” However, instead of using these colors to distinguish the character’s personalities as he does in his graphic novel, Mazzucchelli uses them to define the boundary between two worlds. The boy resides in a world made up of cyan, magenta, and yellow, while his creation, the girl with the cat mask, lives in a world of black ink on white paper. After establishing this division, Mazzucchelli breaks this boundary on the second page. The black ink invades the boy’s world. It rains down on him and an overturned inkwell eventually engulfs him. This technique of utilizing color to symbolically overlapping two worlds is reminiscent of the moment in Asterios Polyp when Asterios and Hana’s perceptions of the world intersect with one another.

Asterios and Hana Meet


Another important similarity to Asterios Polyp, “The Boy Who Loved Comics” has elements of meta-art. The story is essentially about an artist’s obsession with his work and how it completely takes over his life in the end. Mazzucchelli is definitely this type of artist. He worked on Asterios Polyp for nearly a decade. When you think about it, that’s both amazing and a little scary. I also find this line significant: “He invented his own characters and made up stories about them.” This was the creativity Mazzucchelli was seeking. After working in the mainstream comics industry, he wanted to leave superheroes behind and create comics where he could be both writer and cartoonist.

It’s amazing how a two-page comic contains many of the elements of a graphic novel that won’t be released for another eight years. “The Boy Who Loved Comics” stands as a testament to the amount of artistic meditation Mazzucchelli put into Asterios Polyp, his masterpiece.

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Finding Your Way Home: An Interview with Jason Walz, creator of the graphic novel HOMESICK


A Russian cosmonaut floats alone in a capsule above the earth. A young man must deal with the pain of seeing his mother suffer from breast cancer. In HOMESICK, Jason Walz (jasonwwalz.com) explores the subject of endurance in the face of immeasurable loss.


Unlike most autobiographical comics, HOMESICK possesses both nonfictional and fictional elements. Walz tells the true story of his mother’s fight with cancer alongside the dream-like tale of a Russian cosmonaut stranded in space. Walz takes us along on his journey, which includes: learning that his mother’s cancer has relapsed, his travels from New York to Kentucky to visit her, his reflections on the many ways she’s influenced his life, and other life-changing events. Along with his mother’s illness, Walz struggles with his own recurring seizures and panic attacks. The tale of the Russian cosmonaut, which we get snippets of throughout the graphic novel, serves (as Walz said in our interview) as a metaphor for his feelings of isolation during these experiences. While he highlights the fact that he received generous support from his fiancé Emily (now his wife), along with friends and family, the grieving process is still an internal struggle that a person must face alone.


Walz’s black and white drawing style strips away unnecessary details and focuses our attention on his characters’ facial expressions and body movements. Some of his most heart wrenching images are the close-ups on his characters’ faces. In terms of composition, he’s also not afraid to weave surreal images into his art in order to reveal inner conflicts (as the panel below demonstrates).


Walz also utilizes wordless sequences in his work. These sequences can be emotionally raw. In the page below, Walz is visiting his mother for the first time since she’s slipped into a coma. The three panels at the top of the page slowly focus in on his face as he tries to process what he’s seeing. The next three panels in the middle of the page provide close-up images of different pieces of medical equipment. This makes us feel as if we’re seeing the scene through his eyes. We are jumping from one object to the next. Like him, we’re also trying to take in what’s going on. Because of it’s larger size, the last panel at the bottom of the page breaks the rhythm established by the other panels. It catches the reader’s attention, and makes us pause on his mother’s face.



Through a friend-of-a-friend, I was lucky enough to snag an interview with Walz, who, like me, lives in Minnesota. Jason generously answered a few of my questions about his background, the process of writing his graphic novel, and his approach to art.

How did you start making comics?

In middle school I made a comic series called BRUTE. It was a blatant Conan ripoff. I copied it off on the school copier and sold it for a quarter. I ended up sticking to the schedule of one per month and in the end, I made it to issue 12 just so that I could have an “annual” issue. None of this really endured me to the cool kids, but it did instill within me the desire to keep creating comics.
”What was BRUTE’s catchphrase” you ask? 
”Oh boy.” He would say this at least twice an issue. I’m still waiting for Hollywood to come calling to buy the rights.

What’s your educational background like? 

After high school, I moved away from comics for a bit and studied figurative painting for several years. In the end, I never really enjoyed it as much as comics. I’ve always felt less pressure when making comics. The single painted image for me always carried too many expectations with it and I always wondered if it was profound/unique/edgy enough. Ironically, going back to comics let me grow up a bit and stop worrying about such stupid things. Sequential art has always felt more liberating since it carries a lot less baggage. In the end, the narrative structure of comics lets me focus on the heart of a story first and foremost

Who are your biggest influences?

I’m in love with Craig Thompson as an artist, Paul Pope as a comic book rock star, and Jim Woodring as an alien genius. In the end though, I love Jeff Lemire for telling beautiful, relationship stories through his comics.

Are there any writers or artists outside of comics that influence you? 

Outside of the comic world, I spend a lot of my younger years absorbing myself in French New Wave films. I always seemed to have a Godard or Truffaut movie playing in the background. I think those silent black and white images have shaped my storytelling and aesthetic today.

What was it like writing an autobiographical graphic novel? What was your process like?

When I lost my Mom to breast cancer, it really did shake my foundation more than I ever expected. I needed to take the time to process the loss or it ran the risk of changing me in ways that would ultimately be unhealthy. So I started creating HOMESICK as a way to think through everything. It was meant to be cathartic. Specific images came to me right way (especially the last page of the book), and much of my writing time was dedicated to connecting these images together.
 Early on in the writing, I realized that I would never find answers to the questions I had. Death was just death. It’s heartless and it will always be scary for me. Once I started to take that in, the story become more about acceptance and letting go. With that realization, the story became whole and I began to feel a bit lighter.

Where did the inspiration for the Russian cosmonaut in come from?

There is a really fun book called “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach. She details all the weird complexities involved with getting humans into space. 
She spends some time talking about how Japanese astronauts had to fold thousands of origami cranes before being allowed into space. The idea was that the last crane should look as carefully constructed as the first crane. Going into space is a series of monotonous events that only the most patient can endure.
Immediately after reading this, I saw a lonely, forgotten astronaut in space continuing to make cranes.
Discovering that Russians may have sent people into space with no expectations for return was the final piece. It all seemed to work (without being able to directly explain it) as a metaphor for anxieties about death and loss.


How long did it take to write HOMESICK?

My wife and I saved up enough money so that I could take seven months off work to create HOMESICK. This deadline was the perfect way to insure that I actually got it done. After the first few months, work moved along really quickly, but I still drew my final page just days before the deadline.

Now that it’s published, how does it feel to have people reading it?

Having it published has been fantastic. My previous life was spent painting on canvas. I’ve always loved the idea that people might buy my work and have it in their home. Strangers might enjoy my work enough to own it. But I was never able to experience that feeling. When one of my paintings was bought, I usually wouldn’t hear anything about it again.
With this book, it’s out in the world and strangers have it. It sounds terribly needy and narcissistic, but I love hearing from people I don’t know that have enjoyed the book. I have a neurotic streak that seems to grow wider every year. I guess hearing from strangers about my art sort of calms that neurosis a bit (or feeds it?).

 I stole this next prompt from The Best American Comics 2012. Please complete the following phrase: For me, drawing is…

For me, drawing is…
a series of constant mistakes punctuated by occasional successes.

How do you compose a page layout? Are there any tricks you use, or is this just something that takes years of practice?

My sense of laying out a page for pacing is pretty straightforward. If I want to move the reader along quickly, I usually use several small panels with minimal dialogue. I don’t want to use anything that will make the reader linger too long on any one panel. For the “slower” pages (which is what I prefer most of the time), I may use larger panels that work together in as fluid a way as possible. Hopefully there is a flow between panels that makes it feel a bit dreamlike and lets you linger a bit more. 
I used to actually squint my eyes at a finished penciled page to see if it looked balanced. Now, I’m usually just looking for a full page that leads to a “cliffhanger” in the last panel. This is often something very simple, but it is hopefully enough to make the reader want to turn the page.

What brought you to Minnesota? How does it compare to NY?

I lived in Minneapolis before coming back here. I grew up in Kentucky, went to college in Nashville and stayed awhile, moved to Chicago for a couple of years, and then moved to Minneapolis. I was here for about ten years before meeting the woman that would become my wife. She was visiting from New York, and within a year I had moved to Brooklyn to be with her and to get my teaching master’s.

I loved so much about Brooklyn, but in the end, I just wasn’t built for it. The panic attacks began to come more frequently. Of course, I was dealing with my mom’s cancer, planning a wedding, and going to school full-time while teaching full-time.
The thing about New York is that you often have to bring your “A” game. There’s a lot to be said for just bringing your “B” game sometimes.
Minneapolis allows me to slow down a bit and appreciate my life a bit more, rather than struggling to “win”. I like the quiet my home offers when I need it and the excitement the city offers when I need that. I just feel like I can control my needs in general a bit more here.

What is a question no one has asked you that you think they should be asking?

Q: What have you learned about the comic book world now that you are part of it?

A: The comic book heroes that I love to read have been kind, supportive, and willing to give their limited time to give me some advice and guidance. 
Also, most of them are either broke or need to work a second job. This is an absolute shame.

Your new project is called CRAP SHOOT. What’s it about?

CRAP SHOOT is an anything goes comic series that gives me a bit more flexibility now that I have a newborn in the house. Each issue revolves around a theme (LOVE, LIES, LOSS, etc) and will include at least two new short stories by me, a conversation with a comic hero of mine, a story by a guest artist, and sometimes a music or video download.

Issue one CRAP SHOOT (LOVE) should be available by the end of June through Comixology as a digital download. The conversation for that issue is with the great Jeffrey Brown and it comes with a fantastic love song by The Ericksons.

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Dropping into Hell in Scott Chantler’s Two Generals

In his graphic novel Two Generals, Scott Chantler drops his readers into the hell of war. He immerses the reader into the mayhem through some meticulous page layouts that predict the reader’s eye movements. I came across an excerpt of Chantler’s work in The Best American Comics 2012 and I plan to read the entire graphic novel as soon as possible. His story focuses on his grandfather’s experiences as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army in WWII.

Two particular pages from this excerpt caught my attention. The first page (figure 1) sets up the battle at Buron. Chantler provides context with the two panels at the top of the page. The first panel shows the Nazis forcing the citizens of the city to dig the trench. In the second panel, a map shows how the trench protects the city. The action starts in the third panel with Chantler’s grandfather and the other soldiers invading the trench.

Dropping into the Trench

Figure 1. Clearing out the trench

The shift in panel size and color palette (from beige to a muddy red) in this panel helps to change the tone. The first two panels objectively shows the obstacle in the soldiers paths, while the third panel shows them confronting the obstacle in vivid and frightening detail. Furthermore, Chantler composes the characters in the third panel in mid-leap. The reader’s eye drops down the page along with the soldier’s bodies. Gravity (and the conventions of reading comics) pulls us down with them into hell on the next page (figure 2).

Two Generals War

Figure 2. Hell on Earth

Chantler drops us into a world of violent chaos. In this nine-panel grid, each image depicts a moment of searing brutality. Chantler intentionally breaks the storytelling sequence. Suddenly, the images do not form a story, but instead they become a barrage of explosions and gore. As the reader, you try to make a connection, but there’s none to be found. Chantler is not only depicting war, he’s trying to show what it might feel like to be inside a battle. Surrounded by gunfire, you’re enveloped in a claustrophobic cloud of death.

It’s important to note that the panel in the middle of this grid is a closeup of Lieutenant Law (Chantler’s grandfather). This may be the artist’s way of hinting that we, the readers, are perceiving the battle as he did. It’s easy to imagine that,  while working on this graphic novel, Chantler was trying to find some way of entering into his grandfather’s memories. Figure 2 serves as his attempt to reproduce what his grandfather must have gone through in that trench.

Chanter’s technique of dropping the reader down in to the action through his page design, when the reader transitions from figure 1 to figure 2, reminds me of Art Spiegelman discussing the comics medium in MetaMaus. He highlights the technique he uses in Maus II when he drops the reader into the concentration camps with Vladek. “On page 185, you have no choice but to read down the vertical panels in the present, separated by a wider-than-usual gutter from the panels to the right,” says Spiegelman. “Vladek is pulling me back into a discussion of Mala again: if he can avoid talking about Auschwitz, he will. I rather unpleasantly say, ‘Auschwitz, tell me about Auschwitz.’ He explains, ‘Auschwitz was in a town called Oswiecim. Before the war I came often her to sell my textiles. And now, I cam again.’ Now you must read down again  and reenter the past for a second time, literally descending into Auschwitz” (188). By manipulating the reader’s eye movement, Spiegelman forces he/she to drop down into, what he later calls, “the hell-pit” (189). The reader is pulled down into the violence and despair. The drop is inevitable and turning back is hopeless.

maus 185

Figure 3. Page 185 from Maus

The non-sequential panels in figure 2 remind me of a section in David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp.  Mazzucchelli uses a cacophony of  different images to represent Asterios’s fragmented memories of his relationship with his ex-wife Hana (figure 3). While these artists differ in that Chantler attempts to show the horrors of war from a soldier’s perspective and Mazzucchelli, in contrast, depicts his lead character’s warm memories, both artists use non-sequential images to show their character’s perceptions. These pages remind us that we, as humans, only see the world through a hole the size of a pinprick. We cannot perceive everything at once. All we have are fragments. The panels in a comic, which are typically fragments in a much bigger story, serve as convenient tools for showing the reader a character’s limited perception of the world.


Figure 4. Page 241 from Asterios Polyp


“The Dying’s All That Matters”: Why You Should Read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

My first experience with Swamp Thing wasn’t through the comics. It was a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for a short while in the early nineties. In that show, the opening sequence for every episode explained Swamp Thing’s origin. The scientist Alec Holland became the Swamp Thing through a freak accident. He was experimenting with a “bio-restoritive” formula that could create plant life in the most extreme conditions when a bomb, planted by some nefarious characters, exploded in his lab. The force of the explosion tossed Holland, who was covered in his bio-restorative formula, into the nearby Louisiana swamp. The result was Swamp Thing. Part man. Part plant.

This origin story is what I thought of every time I heard Swamp Thing mentioned while growing up (which wasn’t often). It wasn’t until I was in graduate school just a year or so ago that I heard about Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. In fact, it was my graduate advisor who had some original artwork from the comics on the wall of his office. It was a preliminary sketch for the cover of issue #56. When I showed some interest, my advisor highly recommended Alan Moore’s  run on the series.

Warning, Spoilers Ahead:

One of the most fundamental changes Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary GentlemenFrom Hell, etc.) makes to the Swamp Thing mythos is an alteration to the character’s origin story. In issue  #21, he reveals that, while all along Alec Holland and the rest of us have assumed that he’s half man half plant, the truth is that Holland died on the night of the explosion in his lab. The reason the Swamp Thing believes he’s Alec Holland is because Holland’s consciousness, due to the bio-restorative formula, was absorbed by the plant life in the surrounding swamp. From absorbing Holland’s consciousness, the plant life assumed it was human and made itself into a shape that reflected human anatomy. Moore reveals all of this through a brilliant scene involving an autopsy of the believed-to-be-dead Swamp Thing. The character performing the operation soon realizes that all of the Swamp Thing’s leafy organs were never functional.

Once Swamp Thing realizes he’s not actually human at all and he can never return to a fully human existence, he starts to question his place in the world. At one point, he even puts roots down into the ground and intends to give up on even acting human. He just wants to become truly one with the swamp.

As the story continues, Moore probes deeper and deeper into the question of how Swamp Thing can hold onto his humanity even when he’s not human. As my graduate advisor pointed out, Moore also asks similar questions with Doctor Manhattan in the graphic novel Watchmen. All in all, by asking this fundamental question, he pulls the reader into some deep waters that I don’t believe anyone would ever expect to go into with a Swamp Thing comic.

Moore brings some masterful writing to this series that turns it into a thought-provoking and philosophical piece of literature. The artwork by co-pencillers Stephen Bissette and John Totleben is also superb. Please check it out if you have any inclination at all. The entire series is out in a series of volumes in graphic novel form entitled Saga of the Swamp Thing.

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“Hello, Did Someone Say Legend?”: Adult Harry Potter

It turns out that J. K. Rowling is writing a book for adults. After I showed Melody (a fellow TA and HP fanatic) the Slate article discussing its release, we started talking about what it would be like if Rowling wrote an adult version of the Harry Potter series. And of course this conversation eventually led to some jokes about “polishing wands” and “beating bludgers.” SNL sort of tackles this question in one of their skits (Horatio Sanz as Hagrid is especially brilliant here). Anyone who hasn’t seen Daniel Radcliff’s sketch should check it out too.

I’m intrigued and also a little worried at Rowling’s announcement. Of course, I want to read more of her books, but I’m afraid that no matter what she writes it will be disappointing. I’m not sure I want to read anything she writes that’s not about Harry Potter. Obviously, this says more about my crazed fanaticism about the HP series than her writing abilities.

Still, no matter what else I say, deep down I wish she would write some prequels. In Prisoner of Azkaban, she definitely sets up a story about the Marauders (James, Sirius, Lupin, and Peter). Why not give us that tale and further broaden the world of Harry Potter? However, she does establish in The Order of the Phoenix that Harry’s dad is a bit of dick in school. So maybe that story would be more irritating than exciting.

Anyway, my conversation with Melody also reminded me of how inept Harry is with the ladies. The scene in Order of the Phoenix where he fails to get it on with Cho Chang is especially excruciating to read. This is totally appropriate though, since Harry has no romantic chops because he has no experience even talking to girls outside of Hermione.