Thursday, November 15, 2018

Blooming heads in Jeff VanderMeer’s Recent Fiction

Blooming Heads in Jeff VanderMeer’s Recent Fiction

Why a Duck?

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne cannot seem to end. Less than four months after its April 2017 publication, Tor.com released The Strange Bird: A Borne Story digitally that August. Eight months later, “The Borne Bestiary” appeared online (and was then included as an addendum to the subsequent paperback publication of Borne. In May 2018, VanderMeer was finishing a novella, The Three, also set in the Borne universe. That work has grown into a novel, Three Dead Astronauts, that will be released in 2019 (?). Borne moves backwards in time, too. The Subterranean Press limited edition of The Complete Borne, which was originally slated to include “The Three” as a short story, has now substituted VanderMeer’s 2008 work, “The Situation,” as a “proto-Borne novelette.” Like Area X from VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the Borne narrative universe is ever-expanding. The Borne world is “sticky,” in the sense that Timothy Morton uses the term.

Indeterminate, open to change, moving backward and forward through time and space. The Borne-world exemplifies ecologically engaged fiction not through a mimicry or representation of a world in crisis. Instead, it enacts and engages such a world. Our world is in crisis. Borne-world is in crisis. How these two worlds relate to each other is in flux.

Many abstractions work here—fungal, growing, infectious, ecological, unknowable, indeterminate, world-ending, late-capitalistic—be they literary, biological, climate-sciencey, economical, or apocalyptic. But it should not be a question of who can shout HYPEROBJECTS the loudest, of who can say “Anthropocene” is already archaic, that we’ve already moved beyond it. Everything is sticky and everything is in flux. There are no entry or exit points. One just either starts somewhere or one does not start at all.

I will start with a duck, a duck that is not a duck. Toward the end of Borne, as Rachel and Wick make their way across a blighted landscape, they see a bird.  “Coming off the plain, we spied a single duck with a broken wing near a filthy puddle. It waddled back and forth in front of the puddle, drank from it, stood sentry, drank again, stood silent. Waiting. A kind of mercy that no one had killed it, that it had escaped notice” (264). The act of spying the duck shows us that Rachel is wrong to say that “it had escaped notice.” She and Wick see it, and she notes it.  Rachel means that the duck “had escaped notice” from those who might kill it for food or for a thrill. Regardless, this encounter with the duck is short, almost inconsequential. After noting the duck, Rachel says, “we moved on, toward the Company.” A reader might remember this duck or he/she might not. It’s hard to say.  My bet is that the duck did not take up residence in the memory of most of Borne’s readers. Imagine a reading quiz: What animal do Rachel and Wick see as they make their way toward the Company?  A Fox? A minnow? Wait, is it a duck? No—it’s a trick question.

What they see is “not a duck.” Or, that’s what they see if you read The Borne Bestiary’s entry “Duck With Broken Wing (p. 264)” which even gives us the page number to re-find the duck. The Bestiary says

Often sighted and also often misunderstood, the duck with a broken wing reported as living alone on the approaches to the Company building is in fact not a duck at all. But none who have approached it have ever lived long enough to report as to its true nature. As a result, ducks have flourished as a species in the City due to a general suspicion and caution. (See also Elongated Elastic Creatures) (11).

Our reading is altered. We, readers, now know something that Rachel, the narrator, did not know. She and Wick dodged a bullet. Had they approached the duck, they would not have lived to report their notice of it. For a reader, this inconsequential detail has acquired great consequence. Had Rachel and Wick approached the duck, their whole story would be different. But we would not know their story because they would not exist. The duck is not a duck at all. But we still call it a duck. We do not know that the duck is unknowable.

Everything is this duck. Everything in Borne-world and everything in our world. The concept of fiction. of reading. Of authorship. Of memory. Of species.  Of global warming. Of mass extinction. The “duck with broken wing” that is not a duck can stand for abstraction itself. It is how we grasp something and how it slips away; it is how we know something and how we don’t. It is the success and failure of figurative language. In his essay “The Slow Apocalypse and Fiction,” VanderMeer writes about the ways that fiction might engage hyperobjects, and specifically how it might engage the “slow apocalypse” of global warming. He notes that humans have difficult understanding the many variables, the ways that objects interrelate with each other, at play in global warming.

“For one thing, we are unable to hold in our minds the necessary number of variables and the connections between those variables; thus immobilized, sometimes also misled by disinformation, we rationalize or compartmentalize. In a sense, the enormity of the situation renders us irrational, could also be said to act as an invading agent or alien presence in our thoughts that destroys the impulse toward necessary autonomous action” (9).

We cannot grasp this “invading agent;” we cannot act; we do not know how to respond to this “alien presence” in our midst. VanderMeer does not propose an answer to how we might more effectively engage this presence. Rather, he defines this question as the content of his fiction, as something that he has “irrevocably turned toward” (18) even as it remains a question “without definitive answers” (18). It becomes a question about a question. VanderMeer asks,
“How do we more effectively convey ineffectiveness?” (AS 2). How can he tell us that we do not know a duck that is not a duck?  He can do what he does; he can write fiction.  In the Borne-world, via duck, we can engage the difficult question of why humans want to destroy the world.

Why do Humans Want to Destroy the World?
(destroy and destory)
Why do humans want to destroy the world? There is a short answer and a series of longer answers. The short answer is disarmingly simple: the Enlightenment and Capitalism. We have been told this time and again, from Marx to Derrida to Haraway. We clearly do not want to listen. In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing offers as succinct a summary as anyone. ““Ever since the Enlightenment, Western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature” (2). Nature is there; we are here. We want “there” to become “here”.  This answer has a lot going for it. It is true. But it is ineffective. That is, knowing that capitalism turns Nature into commodities, and knowing that the Western philosophical tradition has done backflips, first to justify this mastering and then to reject it, only gets us so far. We can define the problem; we can acknowledge the problem. But then we get stuck. We cannot engage the problem, which, it turns out, is not one problem, but many.

Tsing does not offer a solution but something much more modest: a reminder. She writes, “it was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human” (2). Those who make things up—fabulists and storytellers—offer words that might imagine something other than progress narratives, something other than tales of mastery. Fiction, then, can offer glimpses of multiple, entangled forms of life. VanderMeer makes a similar claim about how fiction should strive to engage non-human life. “Somehow we need to be humble enough to finally admit to the true complexity of and importance of animal life — not just some anthropomorphic and patronizing sympathy —and in the process continue the necessary step of de-centralizing the human experience” (SA 15). Fiction can imagine non-human centered worlds; novels can present biological complexity that both responds to, simplifies,  and exceed the biological complexity of our world. Tsing reminds us that, even though Japanese research institutions have spent millions of yen, it remains “impossible for humans to cultivate matsutake” (4). The complexity of matsutake growth, its relationship to trees and soil, cannot be replicated by humans. To grow, matsutake “require the dynamic multispecies diversity of the forest—with its contaminating relationality” (4). Such “contaminating relationality” resists the logic of agricultural science that seeks to isolate a species from all connection to other things (think of endless rows of corn growing in the Midwest). Tsing’s fabulists understand this “contaminating relationality,” and, in turn, amplify and broadcast it to receptive readers. VanderMeer’s creatures, like his duck that is not a duck, gesture toward a complexity that undermines human centrality in the world. Humans, then, can imagine themselves out of a world of mastery, conquest, and progress and imagine themselves into worlds of contamination and entanglement.

Imagining such worlds can paradoxically offer a reminder that these worlds of contamination and entanglement actually exist. They are not idyllic or nostalgic, though; they are dangerous. Tsing continually argues that humans (and some humans more than others) live in a state of “precarity” and “indeterminancy.”

The world’s climate is going haywire, and industrial progress has proved much more deadly to life on earth than anyone imagined a century ago. The economy is no longer a source of growth or optimism; any of our jobs could disappear with the next economic crisis. . . Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious—even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end. (7).

Precarity has become the state of all life. Climate science essentially gets ignored, even as it notes with more and more precision the economic, social, and political devastation of global warming.  Tsing claims that we must recognize “precarity as an earthwide condition” (8) in order to imagine other possibilities, to look for “life in this ruin” (9) of a world formed by global capitalist practices. In these ruins, Tsing finds matsutake mushrooms, sprouting in human-altered forests, building assemblages that spread nearly unnoticed through the cracks of accumulation and concentration of wealth. She asks “What do you do when the world starts to fall apart?” This question has infinite answers. Tsing’s very localized answer is that she goes for a walk and hopes to find mushrooms, to remind herself that “there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminancy” (7). Tsing’s walk, though, is not a Thoreauean romantic withdrawal from the world. Rather, it is a way to become part of an assemblage that breaks off in multiple unknown directions. This walk becomes an entry point into the multiple entanglements of The Mushroom at the End of the World. For my purposes, it also serves as both a reminder of and a way into a world, that in the title of VanderMeer’s short story, is “full of monsters,” a world that is not about humans telling stories to other humans, but about stories as alien agents, stories as assemblages that attack us with precarity, with indeterminancy, with ineffectiveness. They grow on us, into us, through us; they are fungal, arboreal, bacterial, viral, bio-mechanical. They can even be dead. Stories infect tellers and tellers transmit infection to readers, listeners, receptors. Through this interactions, stories become “story-creatures.”


What do “Story-Creatures” want?

In Jeff VanderMeer’s short story  “This World is Full of Monsters” stories themselves might be the most monstrous beings. The first section of the story “I Did not Recognize What Sought Me” presents “a tiny story” as a living, sentient being that infects the “I,” the narrator who tells us elliptically, “I am a writer . . . I was a writer” (3). The story that the writer encounters was “covered in green fur and lichen” (3). It had “large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth” (3). It is not a metaphor, not a narrative, but an attacking agent that infects the writer.  It bursts out of “the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds” (3). It then grows “roots [that] plunged greedily through my brain and through my soft palate and through my lower jaw, seeking the soil” (4). It grows through the “I” of the narrator; it leaves his body, but only after it has altered the “I” to a state beyond recognition. The narrator loses parts of his memory; his sensory inputs get skewed so that “the world as it had become held a strangeness too vast for me to understand (6). The story-creature spreads the impossibility of understanding through the world. “It did not care about your belief system, your grasp on reality, the excellence of your
analysis or your senses” (16). The “I” continually transforms; it continually waits for “the next thing” (23), the “next part of the story” (23). The “I” does not understand what is happening, but it does absorb “a capacity to understand beyond my actual ability to understand” (17).

And that’s what it feels like to read “This World is Full of Monsters.” I might understand the story; I might read it as a story about the capacity to understand stories. I might disappear into the ether of my own close reading. The story ends with these words. “Now I would be a story-creature and have a world of my own” (24). This could be a dead end of perception dissipated into a world, of story and world inextricably, precariously rooted into each other, forever noting Tsing’s “terrors of indeterminancy.” Stories can only do so much.

In the “Slow Apocalypse,” VanderMeer asks “if you were standing in a hideous post-apocalyptic landscape, would you want me to tell you a story or would you just want me to shut up long enough so you could convert me into edible protein?” (SA 2). I take this question as rhetorical. I would want edible protein. But. Maybe we are in this “hideous post-apocalyptic landscape” already.  So maybe the question is not rhetorical. I still want stories, even in the land of what Tsing calls “third nature, that is, what manages to live despite capitalism” (3). Third nature, according to Tsing, often remains invisible when we have been “blinded” by “progress stories” (3). Counter-stories, anti-stories become necessary. Tsing writes “To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead. Like virtual particles in a quantum field, multiple futures pop in and out of possibility; third nature emerges within such temporal polyphony” (3). Instead of turning the writer into edible-protein, we might want them to spew out all the stories they can, to be a story-creature, a telling and a thing at the same time.

The duck-that-is-not-a-duck shows us third nature. It looks like the narrator’s description of a moment in the transformation of the world.

The terrain became more floating than fixed, the ground covered with a thin stubble of vegetation while the clouds had come close above and turned sea-green and from them tumbled down a forest that hung wrong, the bird-things that were not birds stitching their way through that cover upside down. 11

Everything is messed up and backwards. The whole world is “hung wrong.” We still live in it, though. And we live with “bird-things that were not birds” with ducks that are not ducks.





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Monday, June 18, 2018

Reading How to Read Nancy and rejecting the cult of Bushmiller

1. How I Read How to Read Nancy

The heart of Paul Karasik’s and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels comprises forty-four numbered, detailed, nuanced close readings of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy strip from August 8, 1959.  From my perspective as a professor of literature trained in both literary theory and close reading, these analyses astound me in their depth and breadth. Like many excellent close readings, Karasik and Newgarden start with a seemingly simple text: a three panel, black and white comic strip that contains only three words repeated three times. They start with a “look at the strip, the whole strip, and nothing but the strip” (73). Each numbered reading has three sections; “Context,” “Text,” and a short, one sentence “Moral.” The readings are color-coded by section; for instance, numbers 2 through five are marked by a green rectangular box that contains the words “The Script” on the left side page. Each number, in turn, focuses on a detail of the script, so that 2 is titled “The Gag;” 3 is “The Last Panel;” 4 is “Dialogue;” and 5 is “Balloon Placement.” Other sections include “The Cast,” “Props & Special Effects,” “Production Design,” “The Cartoonist’s Hand,” “Details, Details, Details,” “The Reader,” and a final return to “The Strip (Again).” Each of these sections contains differing amounts of numbered readings. “Production Design” takes up readings 17 through 21; “The Cartoonist’s Hand” contains readings 33 through 37. 

Taken together, these readings establish just what kind of comic genius Bushmiller was. He was a master of the line, of pacing, of gesture, of economy and detail. More simply, he was a master of the gag, of what he called “the snapper.” Karasik and Newgarden write, “The pursuit of the Perfect Gag (‘the one which will knock everybody dead’) clearly became the raison d’êtrefor Nancy—and for Bushmiller himself” (62). Their book shows how Bushmiller achieved what he wanted. After reading How to Read Nancy, one would be hard-pressed to argue with the assertion that Bushmiller was the master formalist of the gag comic strip—no other comic creator comes close. (I would claim that Charles Schulz is the only other genius of the comic strip, and a more nuanced and wide-ranging one at that, but Bushmiller and Schulz are so different in their work that the comparison is unfair to both of them.) 

One might argue that a reader only needs access to Bushmiller’s strips to see and appreciate his genius. While this may be true, it is also true that Karasik and Newgarden teach readers how to see and appreciate even more in Nancy. Literary critics often note that so-called “difficult” books like those by Gertrude Stein or James Joyce are best understood through the lecturing, discussion, and close reading that takes place in the classroom. How to Read Nancyteaches readers that Nancy’s simplicity belies its complexity. One can learn a lotby slowing down, and slowing down in a serious way. Instead of taking the few seconds that it takes to read a typical comic strip, Karasik and Newgarden ask readers to dwell for hours, days, weeks, thinking about one Nancystrip. That dwelling pays off. 

Let me give a few examples of what their close reading reveals. “4. Dialogue” illustrates how the differing placement of the strips only words “DRAW, YOU VARMINT” on the right or left side of each panel guide reader’s eyes through the strip. As they note Bushmiller’s familiarity with television Westerns of the 1950s, Karasik and Newgarden note, “Bushmiller, always working with the iconic, invoked the precise three words and four syllables that gave him what his gag needed—no more and no less” (79). Their discussion of “5. Balloon Placement” is no less elucidating. The speech balIoon appears in the upper-right corner of the strip’s final panel, so that “the rhythm pauses a beat. When the reader and the third balloon finally meet, it is at the outermost extreme . . . The payoff comes from reading the same line of dialogue a third and final time afterencountering  a very different image than what we have been conditioned to expect” (81). This reading leads Karasik and Newgarden to the moral “In the design of comics, situating the text is primary” (81). 

The authors pay just as much, if not more, attention to the visual aspects of the comic. Their close readings serve multiple purposes. Readers do indeed learn “how” to read Nancy. We also learn about the craft of comics writing, the nuts and bolts that we don’t see in a finished strip. And, we learn, from Karasik and Newgarden’s example, how to do close readings. The attention they pay to small visual details such as “17. The Horizon Line,” and “19. The Fence” show what readers can gain from close, focused, looking at and thinking about the seeming mundane details of a text. They note that Bushmiller does not include “cross braces” on the fence even though they should realistically be there, because “to include the cross braces on the inside of this fence would disrupt the visual flow that Bushmiller establishes here with its linear vertical repetition” (109). As a reader of texts, I love this level of attention. I could go on for pages with more examples—the way they write about negative space, about gesture, about motion lines, about panel size, all with the same brilliant concentration on the words and images on the page. All of these close readings add up to give voice to the “deep poetry” of the cartoonist’s “language exemplified by the clear, unambiguous example of Ernie Bushmiller” (158). Karasik and Newgarden offer ample evidence that Bushmiller’s achievement is singular in the 20thcentury. 

Perhaps what is most impressive about their close reading lies in the fact that it is not exhaustive. More could be said about this specific Nancystrip. And one could do such close reading of nearly any of Bushmiller’s Nancys. Karasik and Newgarden’s close reading opens the world of Nancyto a multitude of other detailed readings. There will always be something more to say about Nancy.

I have focused so far only the “reading” part of How to Read Nancy. While their long close reading makes up the bulk of the book, Karasik and Newgarden sandwich their reading with a critical bibliographic essay called “How to Read Nancy?” and a series of appendices that show Bushmiller’s inspirations in everyday objects and architecture, context for his gags, discussion of the ways that different newspapers laid out comic strips, the strategies Bushmiller used in longer Sunday strips, and pages and pages of Nancystrips that illustrate things including Bushmiller’s use of white space, his balloon design, his use of punctuation, and panel gutters. 

The bibliographic essay is especially welcome, as the authors note that Bushmiller “was a man of few words [who] left behind remarkably few interviews, press items, and written works” (9). Karasik and Newgarden create a vivid picture of how Bushmiller got his foot in the door at the New York World by doing hackwork like drawing (!) crossword puzzles and illustrating brain teasers. Bushmiller, thanks to the connections he formed at the Worldwas able to publish his first comic when he was fifteen. Bushmiller seemed to have lived an idealized 20thcentury life. Karasik and Newgarden write the Bushmiller and his wife Abby “were best friends as well as partners [who] enjoyed a marriage that worked for over half a century” (52). The Bushmillers moved from the Bronx to the suburbs of Stamford, Connecticut in 1951 (63). The authors describe the Stamford house as such: “Their Stamford home was large and comfortable and decorated with the work of contemporary American illustrators . . . The rambling grounds offered ample foliage and wildlife . . . A small grouping of rounded white rocks cropped out from the closely trimmed world outside his studio window” (64). Here, and in the studio he kept in New York, Bushmiller dedicated his life to creating Nancy. We are all the better for it. 

But. Something about this biographical essay makes me uneasy. I fully admit my unease is no concern of the authors and is outside the purview of the kind of book they have written. But. I do wish at least a small gesture had been made to the systemic white privilege of 20thcentury America that provided the soil for the blossoming of Bushmiller’s talent. (I did mention I was a literary theorist in the first paragraph of this review.) The pictures of Bushmiller and his colleagues that appear throughout the essay universally show groups of white men. Look, for instance, at the picture of the “Art Department of the ‘Sunday World’” on page 32. I count twelve formally-dressed white men at their drawing boards. Karasik and Newgarden cite Leo Kober, a Sunday World Magazineillustrator, describing the workplace environment of the art department. “Art enchained into two columns and three columns, veloxes and silverprints, comics, pretty girls and cartoons . . . done by men devoted to a great and wonderful passion” (34, ellipses in original). I don’t think the pretty girls were creating cartoons. Karasik and Bushmiller quote a Bushmiller neighbor who said that Bushmiller’s wife, Abby, “was the ideal cartoonist’s wife, attuned to the rhythm of and heartbeat of his work . . . but she also knew when to give him space” (52). Another Bushmiller colleague notes that Bushmiller “never had children. . . I’ve been thinking about cartoonists, and I know there are a few exceptions to this . . . but they had either very, very small families—or no families. It was almost a characteristic of the business. Either the woman becomes part of the operation or it falls apart” (52). Here, we are firmly in the mythos of the singular, white male genius, working away in his study, insulated from the everyday cares of the world.

Bushmiller was a formalist. Besides some propoganda during World War II, Nancycan be read as an insular work, cut off from the world. Karasik and Newgarden quote Bushmiller as saying “I have never gotten an idea from real life” (62). They add, “Emotional depth, social comment, plot, internal consistency, and common sense were all merrily surrendered in Bushmiller’s universe to the true function of a comic strip as he now unrelentingly saw it” (62). The connection between his idyllic life, and his ability to become a formalist by not worrying about his place in the world might have been made explicit here, instead of remaining implicit. 

This is not to say that Bushmiller is not a genius. His 22,000 strips are a singular accomplishment. As Karasik and Newgarden put it, “few cartoonists ever provided such a dependable public utility for so many years” (63). They write elsewhere, “We like Nancy. A lot” (23). In How to Read Nancy, they make this clear. I like Nancy a lot, too. I like her more after reading How to Read Nancy

2. Addendum: Rejecting the Cult of Bushmiller

In the review above, I note that one might see in How to Read Nancyan inattention to social representation, cultural norms, and systemic practices. I’ll just say it. Ernie Bushmiller had to be a white male or he would never have become Ernie Bushmiller, creator of Nancy. This point is obvious, and is not meant as a critique of Karasik and Newgarden’s book. But it does point to the one thing I don’t like about How to Read Nancy, and it’s not really the fault of Karasik and Newgarden. I see How to Read Nancyas  an after the fact manifesto of the cult of Bushmiller, or “Bushmillerites.” Bushmillerites seem to be mostly white middle-aged males (true story: I’m a 47-year old white male). The names are familiar: Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Bill Griffith. A quick tangent. Griffiths has done amazing work incorporating Nancy and Sluggo into his Zippy the Pinhead. He brings things full circle in this recent strip. 




But back to my point. The Bushmillerites don't like Olivia Jaimes. Look for some double-secret Facebook pages or read the comments on Go Comics if you want evidence. Why do they dislike Jaimes' Nancy? Some don't like her drawing style. Some don't like her focus on contemporary technology. Some think her gags are not funny. Any of these criticisms may be more or less true. Certainly Jaimes (whose career we know nothing about) has not had the same kind of apprenticeship that Bushmiller did, hand drawing crossword puzzles and hanging around with newspaper artists. No contemporary cartoonist has done those things. 

And Jaimes' has trolled the Bushmillerites in the early weeks of her Nancy, as exemplified by this panel. 




Jaimes has noted that she is inspired by memes and this panel should be in wide circulation. I've written on this blog about how I think Jaimes is funny and on how Bushmiller himself focused on the technology of his time (telephones, records, television). In this addendum I want to address a different point.

To be blunt again: Many of the Bushmillerites fetishize Aunt Fritzi in some creepy ways, inspired by Bushmiller panels like this one. (Again, do some internet searches if you don't believe me.) 



After waiting a month to reintroduce Fritzi (so readers could forget the ill-conceived Guy Gilchrist marriage of Aunt Fritzi that he ended his run with), Jaimes made clear that she had a different vision for Fritzi. Starting on June 4, Jaimes did a number of strips focusing on the "new" Aunt Fritzi. 




Besides her pearl earrings, Fritzi is remarkably less formal. She wears a blue t-shirt and her hairdo is a bit simpler. She is also not so large that she has to lean into the frame. She also seems to have lost interest in sending Nancy to the corner or beating her. In the Bushmiller years, Nancy would only get away with a smart aleck comment in the first panel.

Fritzi declutters her office on June 5 and tries a new hairstyle on June 6. 


Fritzi with Nancy's hair in the last panel is hilarious. And Jaimes brings home the idea of a new, non-exotic Fritzi on June 7. 

She has donated her "old outfits" which we are clearly meant to read as her 1940s-era formal skirts and dresses. Meet the new Aunt Fritzi. She wears athleisure wear. (Let's all try to forget the t-shirts Guy Gilchrist gave her.) 

Jaimes has brought another update to Nancy. In How to Read Nancy, Karasik and Newgarden write that in the early 1970s “Bushmiller found himself under increasing editorial pressure from his syndicate to introduce a black youngster into his insular cast. In a widely printed 1973 article on this issue by Associated Press reporter James Carrier, the cartoonist came across as sensitive (yet ambivalent): ‘My instincts tell me to do it. I’m waiting . . .’ His private concerns were, according to Al Plastino, far more characteristic: ‘Black kid? Where’s the gag?’” 

Of course, a "black kid" could just be a kid in Nancy because black kids exist.  Karasik and Newgarden follow up the discussion of a black character in Nancy by writing about Bushmiller's cast of characters. “By keeping his cast small and familiar Bushmiller kept one aspect of his strip absolutely predictable to his daily readers—an important consideration given the often surreal bent of his visual humor. ‘I think I have an instinct. I can smell and taste the average American” (86). Putting these two quotations together draws a line between "black kid" and "average American." I'm sure this was unintentional, but I'm also sure that Jaimes is more interested in representing different kinds of people.

Nancy's classroom is less crowded than it was in the Bushmiller days and it is also less white. 





 I like Bushmiller's Nancy. I like Jaimes' Nancy. I like Gilchrist's Nancy.





Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tree Time in Richard Powers’ The Overstory


I read my first Richard Powers’ novel (Operation Wandering Soul) while in graduate school over twenty years ago. I’ve read everything he’s written since then. I note this because there’s a compelling sameness to his body of work. Lots of reviewers have complained that his characters are flat, designed more to embody ideas and ways of understanding than to portray complex human emotions. For me, that’s more of a feature than a bug. I can barely remember any of his characters and that’s fine. What stands out for me is the subject of each book. Orfeois the one about avant-garde music; The Gold Bug Variationsis about classical music; Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance is about photography; TheEcho Makeris about brains and birds. Gain is about corporations. 

In that way, The Overstory: A Novelis about trees. This sense of “aboutness” is at the heart of each of his novels. Powers writes about a subject like Herman Melville writes about whales or N.K. Jemisin writes about earthquakes. His chosen subject leads to a way of being in the world; give Powers a subject and he will make you an ontology. If you want to know, Gainwill tell you what it is to live in a world of corporate personhood. He’ll tell you the history and the present of that world, and he’ll at least gesture toward the future of it. 

So what is it to live in a world of trees? It’s a slow, subterranean, aerial world where communication takes place through sunlight and volatile organic compounds. Unlike the Lorax, who gets mentioned once in the book, Powers does not speak for the trees. Some of his characters try to do this, but Powers speaks near the trees, in the trees, around the trees, even asthe trees. The Overstory’s first section is called “Roots.” Its final three sections are called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” The book grows like a tree. In between these tree parts are sections titled with human names, but most of these humans take on tree pseudonyms. “Douglas Pavlicek” becomes “Doug-fir;” another character becomes “Maidenhair,” another “Mulberry,” another “Maple.” A character thinks of death as “hemlock time” (417). In fact, trees render time inhuman in The Overstory. One character, Neely remembers a favorite science fiction story about aliens who land on earth but remain unseen by humans because “they operate on a different scale of time. They zip around so fast that human seconds seem to them as tree years seem to humans” (487). And some other characters come close to experiencing what could be called “tree time.” 

A character sentenced to two consecutive terms of seventy years in prison thinks of the sentence in tree time. “Seventy plus seventy is nothing. A black willow plus a wild cherry. He was thinking oak. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew. Seventy plus seventy. With reductions for good behavior, he might even finish out the first half of the sentence just in time to die” (471). Another character suffers a stroke and sees himself “turn brown and fall” (311). He loses most of his ability to speak and move. He becomes a tree. Later, his wife “envies” the stillness that has been forced on him.  “His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires (458).  When he dies, she thinks that she will join him, “at the speed of trees, very soon” (498). 
Through the scale of tree time, Powers tries to makes global warming visible. A character has a mystical experience in the “boreal north” (355) and briefly hears trees speak. 


Nearby lodgepoles and jack pines demur: Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing. 

The black spruces down the drumlin put it bluntly: Warm is feeding on warm. The permafrost is belching. The cycle speeds up. 

Farther south, broadleaves agree. Noisy aspens and remnant birches, forests of cottonwoods and poplars, take up the chorus: The world is turning into a new thing (355-6). 

The man thinks to the trees, “we’re all doomed.” The trees tell him that “we have always been doomed.” The man tries to tell the trees that “things are different this time.” And the trees answer him: “Yes. You’re here.” (356). Humans destroy what the lodgepoles and jack pines call “long time,” the slow time of the lifespan of trees, the slow time of evolutionary change, the slow cycles of climate change. The trees tell the man that human time is deadly; it goes too fast other living things to adapt. Humans have accelerated global warming past the point of return. 

Ray, the character who has a stroke, lies in bed and comes to the same realization. He reflects on his previous life as a property lawyer. He realizes that no law, no attempt to avert global warming will work. They’re on the wrong time scale. “Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees” (498). Tree immanence is unthinkable for humans. It has been for at least a century, since humans sped up time with the industrial revolution. Powers makes the case trees live in a fundamentally different world than humans. Unfortunately for trees, these worlds overlap. One character thinks, “it’s not the world that needs saving. Only the thing that people call by the same name” (495). Tree time, tree world, trees themselves, can outlast the short time of global warming. 

This is sort of where The Overstoryleaves us. It’s not a happy book. Powers makes a science-fictional gesture toward a techno-scientific understanding of life, but it is only a gesture. He’s not the type of writer who speeds off into the future. He tries to slow things down. He succeeds for 502 pages. But then the book ends with the voice of a ghost, and the stillness of its last few pages disappears. Back at the beginning of the book, a pine tells a woman “Listen. There’s something you need to hear” (3).  


Friday, May 4, 2018

This Week in Nancy: "Mass Hysteria"

In How to Read Nancy, Karasik and Newgarden, in their discussion of "ballon design," note "Any number of word balloons can be used within a panel . . . For Bushmiller one balloon per panel was the norm, two were the exception, and three or more were reserved for mass hysteria" (140). On April 28, then Olivia Jaimes gives us mass hysteria. Five word balloons crowd the space of the third panel, crushing Nancy, who pulls her arms toward her body and grimaces. All of the words in the balloon exceed the space of the panel; almost half of the words cannot be read because the push into the invisible space inside or underneath the panel.


The words themselves continue Jaimes' meta-commentary from last week about Ernie Bushmiller purists. The first panel features Nancy, seemingly floating in white space, while someone off-panel intones, "Nancy is iconic for her simplicity." In panel two, another voice adds a longer commentary--notice that the line of the word balloon is lower in the second panel than the one in the first, suggesting a second speaker. Another speaker than chimes in from the right. We cannot see all the words that this speaker intones. The words will not fit in the panel. And the word balloons are beginning to crowd Nancy. She raises her hand as if defense, as if she is getting ready to push back. Her half-smile from the first panel becomes a frown. Her eyebrows straighten out and push toward each other. By the third panel, her mouth opens slightly in a frown. She looks like she cannot breathe. Word bubbles from the left and from the right touch each of her hands as she tries to push back. The word bubble in the bottom right side of the panel cover part of her shoe. Nancy is in danger of being blocked out, erased. That's the gag. The online commentary is not allowing us to see Nancy today.


On Monday, April 30, Jaimes continues her meta-commentary. Speaking to Sluggo, Nancy says "I'm sick of these reboots and restarts." Fans of Bushmiller everywhere nod in agreement (perhaps while they acknowledge but dismiss the irony as simplistic). Panel two zooms in on Nancy's angry face, ash she complains "why can't something that's gone stay gone?" The half of Sluggo's face that we can see looks neutral--his mouth a straight line, his nose a quarter circle and a dot, his pupil a black dot, and his eyebrow a semi-circle above his eye. Panel three pulls back from Nancy's face. We see four bushes and two gigantic flowers. Tiny black dots of pollen emanate from two of the bushes and the flowers. There are no rocks. The gag, as revealed by Sluggo's dialogue: Nancy was talking about the return of spring, and the pollen that causes her allergies. See--she wasn't talking about her own reboot. We have one more day of direct meta-commentary ahead of us. 

On May 1, Nancy sits on an undersized chair and looks through her window at the black diagonal slashes of rain falling. She says "I love the sound of rain." Readers, of course, cannot hear the rain, we can only see the black lines that signify rain is falling. In panel two, which zooms out a bit, Jaimes helps us to hear the rain. The word "PLOP" appears seven times, in bold type, around the window. But Nancy sees the words! The gag is in panel two. Her word balloon partially covers two of the "PLOPS" as she says "also the sight of the sound of rain." Karasik and Newgarden write, "In short: the lettering in comics is generally meant to be read and not seen." Undermining that general knowledge establishes the gag--we first read the words and hear them as the sound of rain but then Nancy sees them and we cannot help but see them. She concludes, in the third panel, her face occupying the middle third of the panel "Ahhhh . . . so relaxing." Her eyes are shut. Nancy does not see the "PLOP"s that fill the space around her because her eyes are shut. Note, too, that Jaimes uses what K and N call "The Modified Silhouette," the small white (or in this case, green) space that surrounds something. "A white halo around an object grants prominence" (143). Unlike the word balloons from a few days ago, the "PLOPS"s do not touch Nancy. Instead, they follow the contours of her body, head, hair, and bow. Not only do they lend prominence to Nancy, they keep their distance, as they are in on the joke. 


May 2 gives a straight-up visual gag. Nancy's jam handprint serves as not the kind of reminder that she intended. Sluggo is mad about the jam on his shirt but he is also aware of Nancy's obliviousness,  as one of his eyebrows arches and the other curls. No meta-, no social media, just a gag.


 May 3 returns us to the outdoors and to spring. Nancy seems to have gotten over her annoyance of a few days ago regarding spring. In the first panel, she is framed by blue sky as she smiles and says "Spring is so beautiful." The second panel makes a jarring shift in perspective. Nancy speaks from off-panel left, as we see bushes, flowers, and a tree take central focus, like the scene Nancy and Sluggo walked through on April 30. The bushes seem to have finished blooming. Instead of flowers, all they have are small black dots. Nancy sets us up for a visual gag. Spring is only beautiful "for the ten seconds I can see it before my eyes start tearing up from allergies." The ten seconds elapse in the gutter before panel three. The lines of the scene become wavy and imprecise. Nancy's teary vision infects the reader's eyes. But there's also a secondary joke. The word bubble in panel three differs from the one in panel two a bit. Whereas panel two's bubble's tail starts very close to the edge of the panel, telling us that the speaker is outside the panel, the bubble tail in panel three is a bit further from the edge. It actually seems to be emanating from the bush, which is now simply green, absent not only of flowers, but of black dots that signified flowers that have shed their petals. The bush speaks, "We had a good run this year." Is this another meta-commentary? Is the bush actually Bushmiller?


All of which brings us to today's strip. Nancy sits crosslegged on the floor, her laptop on her lap. "Reading social media all day is making me grumpy," she says, and her facial expression shows it. From outside the room, someone (Aunt Fritzi?) says, why don't you go outside? Nancy curtly answers "Fine." She still looks perturbed. Panel three's gag relies on the literalist Nancy established by Bushmiller, the Nancy who lounges with Sluggo in the "Lounge" and literally rests on someone's laurels. 

 In panel three, Nancy sits in the exact same position, legs crossed and laptop on her lap, only now, as the view pulls back a bit, we see that she is indeed outside. "Now there's glare on my screen!!!!" She has followed the advice given to her to its letter but not its intent. She is probably still reading social media as the sun shines down on her. But does the fact that Nancy sits among two trees and flower mean anything? Unlike the other two outdoor scenes this week, there are no bush(miller)es to be seen. Is Nancy free of the yoke of Bushmiller's long history? No--she is still reading the comments.



Friday, April 27, 2018

This Week in Nancy: "Be E(A)RNEST, DANG IT!"


I'm feeling compelled to write about Olivia Jaimes' Nancy reboot every week, so here goes.

In their exhaustive, detailed, and insightful book, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden perform a detailed analysis of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy strip from Aug 8, 1948 in order to get at just what makes Bushmiller a master of the "gag." They examine the strip in whole and in parts--the images, the text, the word-ballon placement, the spacing, the background, the props, and as they write, the"details, details, details"--to work toward their conclusion that to make "good comics" one must understand "the hard-won language of all the great twentieth-century practitioners, a language exemplified by the clear, unambiguous example of Ernie Bushmiller" (158).


Does Olivia Jaimes' know Bushmiller's language? Can she speak it? Lots of people say "no." I say, "not so fast." As Karasik and Newgarden tell us, Bushmiller published his first comics as a teenager, and by the time he changed the name of his strip Fritzi Ritz to Nancy around June 11, 1938, he had been drawing Fritzi for more than ten years (58-59). And he didn't have Ernie Bushmiller as a guide. Nobody knows how long Olivia Jaimes has been making comics, but we do know that she has fifty years of Bushmiller's Nancy to contend with.

So what is she doing with this history? To my eye, she is "working backwards" with it. That is, Karasik and Newgarden write that Bushmiller often wrote the "gag" first. Bushmiller says "I draw the last panel first and work back toward the beginning, which is the opposite of the way you read (I hope)" (66). I don't know if Jaimes ever starts with the last panel, but today's strip seems most interesting if a reader considers the last panel first.



We end with a pun, a pun aimed directly at the new Nancy's critics. "You Hooligans, Be Earnest, Dang It!" says a crotchety-looking old guy, half out of the frame, shaking his fist at Nancy and Sluggo. Be Earnest . . . Be Ernest . . . Be Ernie . . . he might as well be saying. Nancy dismisses him with an emotionless "Nah." Here's the whole strip.

In the first panel, the old man looks toward Sluggo and Nancy and starts with a cliched "Kids these days." In the second panel, we see that he was concealing a mailbox from our view, so his claim that kids today "don't know how to mail letters" makes some sense. (I can't say the same for his "or write checks"). We see Nancy holding a letter; she and Sluggo look sleepy. The old man's speech balloon fills the top of the panel (the old man himself is off panel) with a long tail, as he explains that these two kids are exhibiting "an air of ironic detachment." Jaimes is trolling the trolls. She has set up a false dichotomy between the "earnest"  old man and the ironically detached kids, Nancy and Sluggo. The joke is on the reader. Are you an earnest Bushmiller purist or an ironic fan of the Nancy reboot? The battle grounds are staked.

But the dichotomy is false. Jaimes has been creating Nancy for less than a month.  She knows the Nancy vocabulary, but she only deploys small parts of it. Look at the balloon placement in the second panel. It's hideous and distorted. Or is it just a riff on the precision of Bushmiller's balloons? Is the weird inconsistent perspective on purpose, "on purpose," or neither?

On Monday, April 23, Jaimes anticipates Friday's old man with the picture in the "Age-Me App" that apparently allows you to "See Yourself Old." Jaimes has something invested in having Nancy and Sluggo use social media and apps. "NANCEE 22" gives the app 1/5 stars. Is this a comment on the online comments about Nancy? Is it?


On Tuesday, April 24, Jaimes breaks out Bushmiller's "Nancy sees Sluggo talking to another girl and gets jealous" trope. Only this time, Jaimes reveals that Sluggo's interest in the nameless girl is only because her parents "have accounts for HBO and Hulu." Sluggo must be dreaming of watching Game of Thrones. 

On Wednesday, April 25, Jaimes gives us Nancy lying in a dark room. Is that the voice of Aunt Fritzi?

Is this comic an homage to this one? Look at the blanket. But also look at Nancy drop the phone on her own face. She looks like a cyclops. That's funny.

On Thursday, April 26, we get Sluggo looking at Nancy's computer in panel one. In panel two, he seems inordinately angry that Nancy has "logged five hundred hours" on a game but hasn't "beaten any levels" yet. What the heck is she doing. In panel three, Nancy tells Sluggo "Oh I love that game." Sluggo must be wondering why she's so bad at it again. The gutter between the third and fourth panel shifts the scene. Nancy is now in bed, and we see the gag. "Nothing overheats my computer faster." We even see three (three!! Bushmiller's favorite number) little heat waves emanating from the laptop that sits atop Nancy's blanket. She plays the game only to overheat her computer to warm up her bed. Bushmiller's Nancy could get behind that logic.

 Of course, Bushmiller's Nancy would just invite some pets into her bed.




I'll end with a question, Does today's future, except for the "Earnest," know what bebop records are?



Friday, April 20, 2018

Nancy Lives!



A simple press release came out early in April.

KANSAS CITY, Mo—April 9, 2018– Andrews McMeel Syndication has announced that Olivia Jaimes is the new cartoonist for the legendary “Nancy” comic strip.

The Guy Gilchrist era was ending. (No more oval face! No more sweetness! No more weird Aunt Fritzi t-shirts!)

But who is Olivia Jaimes? The syndicate was cagey. They noted her love of Nancy and they noted her gender.

Glynn continued, “We’re going on almost 100 years of a man writing for Nancy and we loved the idea that Olivia had this delicious blend of love for the old Bushmiller work and a 21st century female perspective that would bring new life to this iconic character.”

But they didn't provide any more of Jaimes' biography. No mention of other work she had done. Barely anything else--"In addition to comics, Jaimes enjoys jogging, video games and playing piano."

Clearly, they were being coy.  And mysterious. "Olivia Jaimes" is a pseudonym!

The press release does give readers a brief quotation from Jaimes. "“Nancy has been my favorite sassy grouch for a long time. I’m excited to be sassy and grouchy through her voice instead of just mine,” said Jaimes, “and I can complain to the whole world about things that bother me instead of just my friends and family.”

Sassy and grouchy. Complaining. In other words, a super-promising statement of purpose. Ernie Bushmiller focused on these aspects of Nancy's personality.


Jaimes' first strip, on April 9,  immediately showed her love for Bushmiller's Nancy. The lines are simple. Nancy's head is the right shape. And most importantly--Nancy likes food!


Nancy's love of eating was one of Bushmiller's favorite tropes.





Over the next few days, readers could see that Jaimes was bringing something new to Nancy, too. Her adults looked nothing like the ones Bushmiller drew. Jaimes' adults, at least going from the first strip, are more simply drawn--they're "cartoonish," with basic curved and straight lines. They're less detailed than Bushmiller's adults, and because of that they seem to fit into the strip more naturally. Bushmiller's adults always seemed to be too big for the strip. They only fit partially into the frame, unless seen from a distance. Jaimes follows this tradition, but her adults seem different, less detailed and fussy.


On April 11, we see that Jaimes' Nancy is not just sassy and grouchy, but also resentful.  And Jaimes is a master of Bushmillerian wordplay, using over-literalization to great effect. Yes, Nancy is "always thinking of other people" but not in they way the speaker expects.  Jaimes gives Nancy an inner life. People don't know what's she's thinking. Jaimes' Nancy's mind shares the same self-doubt that Bushmiller gave her.

Like Bushmiller's Nancy, Jaimes' Nancy takes extreme actions. On April 20, instead of reading her report card in a happy, park-like setting, Nancy finds a place that fits her emotions--two dumpsters and a garbage bag. 


And Jaimes honors Bushmiller's visual language. On April 12, we see lazy Sluggo leaning against a tree. On April 18, we see Nancy lying awake in bed, thinking. 




All of this is not to say that Jaimes is not bringing something new to Nancy. She is not resting on Bushmiller's laurels.
In the first two weeks of the strip, Jaimes' has begun to establish her own visual and linguistic style. Bushmiller often reflected on the art of drawing and the space of the comic strip. 

Jaimes' updates, in a direct way, the joke of the cartoonist not wanting to draw, on April 19. Nancy and Sluggo stand in a bare room marked out by three straight lines to make things easier "for the cartoonist." The last panel pulls away from the close-up of the first two panels. Nancy and Sluggo look almost like they are floating in space. 

And Jaimes makes the strip contemporary and timely, like Bushmiller did in his day. Instead of talk of war bonds and modern art, Jaimes gives Nancy and Sluggo cellphones; they talk about internet bots. And Jaimes gives us an almost surrealist rendering of Sluggo as a bot on April 17.

And perhaps best of all so far, Jaimes updates the "poorly drawn comic" trope that Bushmiller used so well, when he "lost his glasses" or was "tired". (For a poor use of this trope, see Billy's drawings in Family Circus.) On April 16, Nancy and Sluggo look "a little . . . off." Nancy says that that the "cartoonist is having an off art day." But the cartoonist is having none of that. She crosses out Nancy's  words in the second panel. Instead, in the third panel, Nancy tells us that "this is just a snapchat filter"! Jaimes' has gone meta-, crossing out the words in a speech bubble so that we don't know how to read panel two. Does Nancy say these words? Does she unsay them at the same time? And the fourth panel gives us a "Cartoonist Note" telling us that "any questionable art from now one" is a snapchat filter. Jaimes uses the joke, retires the joke, and hints that the joke will return, all at the same time.


Bushmiller had an inkwell and modern art to go meta-.

Jaimes has a world where meta- is so common that we barely notice it. I can't wait to see her Aunt Fritzi. She might destroy the internet. 


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