Friday, June 12, 2009

Chris Ware's The Acme Novelty Library # 18 - Coda # 1









1. "Ticonderoga"'s first two pages (two tiers each in landscape format) by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Hugo Pratt (Frontera mensual [frontier monthly] # 1, April, 1957); In the first caption we can read (my translation): "I was hit by a bullet in the head on September 4, 1812, when Captain Decatur, in command of the "United States," captured the "Macedonian," one of the most powerful British frigates;" at a certain point the story is a long flashback narrated by a seventy five year old Caleb Lee; the first person narrator violates one of Greimas' three rules to define mass art (socio-literature): the non interference of the narrator (this is, however, the only rule that Oesterheld dared to break: sometimes I wonder if Oesterheld knew that he could do a lot better, but refrained himself from doing so because he was writing for children?); we can even see Caleb Lee in the next page, but that's a problem: if we're in first person mode, how can we see him?...; when a comic is constructed using the polyphony of words and images there's always the possibility of two simultaneous narrative modes; in the case above the homodiegetic narrator (Gérard Genette: Figures III, Seuil: 225 - 227) in the captions contrasts with the, apparently, heterodiegetic narrator of the ocularization (André Gaudreault and François Jost, Le récit cinématographique [narrative in film], Nathan Université, 1990: 129) - excepting the third panel of the second page, clearly a subjective point of view; in the last panel of the second page Caleb addresses the reader (even if in a slightly slant way), s/he is the one who ultimately sees: the problem is that the reader can only watch what Caleb narrates; on the other hand, could Caleb see the roofs in the first panel of the first page?, or his granddaughters in the fourth panel of the second page?; certainly not: he could only imagine such things; in the end, if the narrator is Caleb Lee, we must also consider other instances: above all, André Gaudreault's meganarrator (Du littéraire au filmique: système du récit [from literature to film: the system of the narrative], Méridiens Klincksieck, 1988:113);
2. detail of "Binky Brown Makes Up His Own Puberty Rites" by Justin Green as published in Binky Brown Sampler (Last Gasp, 1995 [Yellow Dog # 17, 1969]); one of the first autobiographical underground attempts is completely heterodiegetic in a traditional way; even so it's successor Binky Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) remains one of the milestones of the history of comics; the hairy title is one of those iconic-diagrammatic signs that underground artists seemed to like so much;
3. "An Idea" by Chris Ware (The ACME Novelty Library # 18, The ACME Novelty Library, 2007) mimics old newspaper comics pages with their mastheads (Daniel Clowes did the same thing in Eightball # 23, Fantagraphics, 2004; Chris Ware is always juggling with traditional aspects of the art form and innovative ones); again, the ocularization is the meganarrator's point of view, but there's no verbal narrator; what happens is that there's an internal focalization since we can read the main character's thoughts; plus: quoting Joris Driest (Subjective Narration in Comics, Secret Acres, Critical Ends: "Film images are commonly focalised. Point-of-view shots [...], in which the viewer literally adopts the spatial orientation of a character seem the ultimate example of it. However, focalization is not restricted to these point-of-view shots. A shot from a neutral (non-character) angle can still have elements originating from character experience. [Edward] Branigan ([Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film, Mouton,] 1984) notes that 'the look of the viewer is not equivalent to that of the camera'. […] Thus we may very well see space from a neutral angle while simultaneously holding an aspect of that space – say, colour – apart from the image and attributing it to a character’ (96). A classic scene is that of a thirsty man seeing an oasis in a desert. As he tries to dive in the water, the fata morgana disappears, and he lands in the sand. A viewer sees both the man and the oasis from a neutral angle, but still understands that the image of the oasis originates from the man’s mind;" this is a kind of subjectivity that's used a lot by Chris Ware in The ACME Novelty Library # 18: in "An Idea" we see empty word balloons attributed by the main character to all sorts of plants... and the cat too...;
4. in "A Feeling" (The ACME Novelty Library # 18) Chris Ware plays with the fragmentary side of the comics layout to perfectly convey the awkwardness felt by the character towards her body; Chris Ware placed the drawings in the panels strategically to allow (or force) a tabular reading: strange changes of scale from panel to panel glue the character's limbs to her body in a very strange way; if we look again nothing stranger than different framings mixed together is occurring (the ninth panel is different though: since the balloon has white lettering over a black background indicating that she has her eyes closed -, this scene was imagined by the character - see above);
5. in this page (also from The ACME Novelty Library # 18) we can detect Belgian artist Edgar Pierre Jacobs' influence; according to Renaud Chavanne (my translation): "[in Jacobs] the principles of composition [of the layout] are organized at the level of the strip in the first place without forgetting the page and, sometimes, the double-page" (Edgar P. Jacobs & le secret de l'explosion [Edgar P. Jacobs & the secret of the explosion], P.L.G., 2005: 259); Jacobs used the method of dividing the panels to create reading rhythms, guiding the reader through a sort of maze; here we can see five strips (with some fragmented panels - others are the result of a fusion of the gutter) that both convey the monotony of what's happening and the diversity of the imagined situations (again): the character "changes" clothes, she's sleeping with her boyfriend again, she's on a different bed, she's a child again, etc...
6. a page from "Le secret de l'Espadon" (the secret of the Swordfish) by Edgar-Pierre Jacobs, Tintin magazine, third year, # 8 (February, 19, 1948); the three strips are clearly visible and the use of fragmentation to convey a rhythm (and the passing of time with the images of the clocks) as well as to reinforce the changing perspectives helps to explain some of Chris Ware's more intricate page layouts; Jacobs also payed a lot of attention to symmetry (the two men in the first strip, the similar forms of the mountain and the submarine in the second, the two images of the same plane in the third); as for focalization and ocularization this is a seventy five percent traditional, children's comics page (there are three subjective points of view: panels two, five, eight - symmetry again); in a good action comic manner the meganarrator seems to have gone mad, jumping all over the place; (Edgar-Pierre Jacobs is part of what I call, the great stylists: their work can only be appreciated for their formal qualities, nothing more; for instance, here we can detect the racism that's in so many comics for children: in this particular case: the yellow peril.);
7. the first page of "Monotony" by Bernard Krigstein (as published in Crime SuspenStories # 22, February, 1998 [Crime SuspenStories # 22, April / May, 1954]); here we can see the same repetition of the point of view (the opposite of the action packed Jacobs page) to help to convey boredom as seen in so many Chris Ware pages;
8. page from l'Ascention du Haut-Mal (Epileptic) Vol. 4 by David B. (L'Association, 1999); David transformed Jacobs' strips into a whole page; the reading path has the form of an "N" with the counter slashed left to right, bottom to top; thus, the reader encounters the guts of Jean-Christophe and his heart before arriving, at the end, to David's penis pissing; jealousy is a gut feeling: instead of being just a layout virtuoso, like Jacobs, David B. (and Chris Ware) go way deeper than style and surface;
9. in this masterpiece of comics layout composition (The ACME Novelty Library # 18) Chris Ware doesn't limit himself to suggest a reading path, he clearly indicates it; the closed hand is a metaphor for the character's heart, but it also serves indexical purposes pointing to the two last panels of the first strip; at the end of the aforementioned strip we see another subjective point of view (the birds); then the black arrow sends us back to the left side of the page; after that, and following a white arrow, we go directly to the heart at the center; here, something spectacular happens: we have to beat our tendency to obey indexes going against our will and against another white arrow (plus: there's a menacing black circle waiting); now another arrow leads us to two images of the character masturbating and two images of absence at the bottom of the page; then we continue a path that leads us from the character's rectum to her head; going to the left side of the page (following a red arrow) we end up in a foot shaped like an erect penis; from health, or the lack of it, to libido (or libido repression; the "no, broken" that we read immediately can be interpreted in two related ways: what broke was her leg and her heart; that's why she fantasizes with childhood, a time when she was whole) to stream of consciousness daydreaming; Chris Ware strips his character to the bone, as seen in this page, but he also gave her a distinct voice, a life story, and a fleshed out personality rarely seen in comics form.

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