Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comic Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column.
WE ALL WISH FOR DEADLY FORCE
By Leela Corman
Published by Retrofit Comics
My friend Megan Purdy and I talked about We All Wish for Deadly Force for three hours before I’d even read it. She was working on a review (which turned out quite well) and wanted to talk it out to get a better idea of what there was for her to say about the book. I like talking things out; fielding questions and going on tangents is an essential part of me finding out what is or isn’t there. So I asked Megan questions and the most interesting things she said were about the book’s design and how the collection of shorts was organized beautifully. I must be easily influenced, because I have to say that upon reading it, the organization of this collection immediately stood out to me even after what must have been a couple months.
There’s no table of contents in this book and there very well shouldn’t be. This isn’t a collection designed for a reader to thumb around the various comics in order of shortest to longest. Like a museum’s collection is curated and organized into what will hopefully be the most effective delivery for visitors, this collection guides you through it with purpose. The names and details change as the line between semiautobio and autobio is erased and redrawn, but a larger narrative develops because it’s the same voice singing the songs.
Corman’s first comic in this collection, “The Wound That Never Heals,” is part medical pamphlet and part confessional about the effects of the long-term effects of PTSD that the author has lived with following the death of her daughter. Corman illustrates the concept of hypervigilance as the titular wound that never heals; it’s a compelling image onto which even readers who haven’t experienced PTSD can project their own personal experiences whether they’d like to or not. It’s a world-ender.
Hypervigilance and triggers become an integral part of the collection as longer pieces are punctuated by a strip centered on a moment in time when the author’s grief was triggered so that the reader remains vigilant as well. The belly-dancing stories in this collection live side-by-side with Corman recalling a traumatic event at a grocery store because the price coincides with the date it occured. It’s the gift of Corman’s cartooning that made me feel I could understand the emotions she was expressing, but it’s the strength of this organization simulating the effects of triggers and hypervigilance that made them intimately real.
The story that concludes the collection, “The Book of the Dead,” is a great work on its own about the necessary sacrifices made by forbearers that create distance between them and their children. The Holocaust weighs heavy on Corman’s family tree, having inflicted a wound that never heals even as each generation responds to it in their own necessarily different way. That weight carries over into Corman’s work as she playfully questions what makes someone a good/bad Jew or ponders what the living have to offer the dead for their sacrifices. “The Book of the Dead” serves as a statement (not final, never final) about Corman’s use of art as an offering to the living and the dead. It carries an additional weight after these questions have been intimated for the reader to unconsciously consider in the previous stories. This final comic can not simply be boiled down to Corman reacting to one or even two things after the reader has been presented with a rich portrait of her life and personal history. It could not come at the beginning. Placing it there would be tantamount to instructing the reader how to interpret the following comics rather than encouraging them to create connections between them that are then illuminated further by the final comic after the initial experience has already been forged. It’s the sum of all the stories; the autobios, the belly dancers, the extended metaphors.
Corman spills blood on the page in order to commune, and her book speaks to the reader. A short comic exploring trauma through the visual metaphor of a forest being contained inside of someone might be inscrutable if presented in isolation, but one understands it as this book is largely a conversation between Corman and the reader about reactions to trauma. There is no forward, no afterword. All the words for understanding Corman are in the work itself and it’s up to the reader to listen.
By Katriona Chapman
Published by Tomatito Press
In his short story “The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson,” American Naturalist writer Frank Norris explores the fragility of human personality. In this tale, the titular character, a Methodist Preacher, becomes a cut-throat pirate after suffering a blackout due to heat stroke, only to later return to his preacher ways after a blow to the head. It’s the kind of story that makes you wonder how we define who we are as it points to the idea that no matter how sure we are of ourselves, that “self” is fleeting; we are constantly evolving.
I look back at the cock-sure, punk kid that I was in the 80s and I have no idea who he was. He has given way to a softer, kinder, more understanding and fearful man in the year 2017. I’m the same person, yet I am not as I was.
Who will I be tomorrow?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tenuous nature of identity, especially as it relates to the relationship between an artist and their art. If art is a fundamental expression of the self, but that “self” is ephemeral, then what is the lasting meaning of all artistic endeavor?
Strangely then, as if on cue, British cartoonist Katriona Chapman sent me copies of her softly-rendered, solidly-produced autobio zine series, Katzine. At first I wasn’t really sure what to make of these. In page after page of subdued and washed graphite drawings suffused with meticulously hand lettered text, Chapman presents herself. She does this not only through straight-up facts about who she “is” and what her life consists of as if part of a get-to-know-you type interview, but also by stepping back and documenting her interactions with her life, specifically her world travels and the people she encounters along the way.
As a person, I was initially uncomfortable with the forthrightness of Chapman’s presumption that her life is important enough to bear such scrutiny and light. I was worried that she was giving truth to a self that, for all extents and purposes, is a lie, a construct, mutable and inconsistent.
But as a reader I was pulled in, awash in this artist’s understanding of herself as it stood in the moment of creation, and how her lens allows for a particularity of perception. For example, in Katzine issue #4, Chapman uses a 12 panel page featuring aspect-to-aspect transitions to indicate how quickly the days go by on her vacation. Chapman chooses to show particular things in each panel give a sense of place, but also give a sense of a single perceptive lens. The choices indicate a particular point-of-view that “becomes” in the moment of making that choice.
It is as if the primacy of the self, the fundamental underpinning of so many autobio comics, became secondary to the presentation of information that reveals an understanding. While certainly you learn about “who” Katriona Chapman is through the pages of Katzine, her “self” is a cipher for decoding experience in the larger sense of understanding perception. The act of mimicking experience through her art allows her to be the person she becomes. In effect, living life and transferring those moments into a method of conveyance transforms not only that experience, but the self itself.
While I assume Katzine is not meant to answer questions of the lasting meaning of artistic endeavor, through it Chapman explores the nature of the artists. And perhaps this is what makes all art important — how it relates to the individual. It functions as a lens that allows us all to peer at the minutiae of life. Katzine points to the fact that it’s not just the sum of experience that creates the person, it’s the perspective one uses to both make sense of those moments and the stories we convey afterwards that make the self.
And that is pretty powerful stuff. I’m glad that Katzine exists and that Katriona Chapman felt the need to share her “self” as it stands.
The world looks a lot brighter to me now that I’ve looked through this lens.
— DANIEL ELKIN @DanielElkin
By David Biskup
David Biskup’s Seagram opens with a fellow walking in front of Mark Rothko’s painting Black on Maroon and taking a bunch of pills. His blurred silhouette — another veritable black on maroon — haunts the pages that follow, as do many other things. When reading up on the Seagram murals both after and during my experience, one of Jones’ descriptions of Black on Maroon in this piece stuck out. Referring to the window-pane-like maroon shapes in the painting, Jones mentions how one might expect that “it ought to allow the mind egress.” And of course, the same can be said of the past.
I cannot fathom what PTSD must be like for those whom it inflicts. It acts as a real haunting; a master of ceremonies lies dormant in your mind, taking their cue to conjure not from you, but from the way light reflects from across the room, or a particular smell of a passerby, or as in the subject of this book, the sound of a ripped dress.
Seagram is a direct, unambiguous comparison between the restoration of a brutally un-esoteric painting and the rehabilitation of Biskup’s wife on her journey to cope with PTSD. As such, it occurred to me that this work might feel ham-fisted to some; but, despite the apparent convenience of the metaphor (and the clumsy way that Biskup emphatically gestures at the book’s end towards the chance meeting between dealing with his wife and picking up a Rothko biography), it is perhaps the most promising gateway into understanding why Biskup is able to dig deep in these pages. The crudest question you might come away from this work with is, I think, the right question:
In Seagram, Biskup makes a conscious decision to include the pages in which Rothko sets up to commit suicide. While in one way it functions simply to display the tragically serendipitous arrival of the Seagram collection at the Tate gallery on the very same day as Rothko’s suicide, it also stands in serious contrast to the main thread of the book in which Biskup tries, unflinchingly, to help his wife continue her life.
The answer to, “why bother?” as Biskup presents it, is certainly not, “because this shit is easy.” His wife’s trauma, whether things are falling apart or improving, is presented on the page in a striking fashion. The initial trigger of her trauma is presented as fragments of relevant memories, haphazardly mixed with increasingly obtuse echoes of themselves, which then fade out into juxtaposed evocations of Rothko’s work. The effect is an appropriate one in which it feels like not only has the dam broken, but some semblance of meaning has been lost. The rest of his wife’s struggle — save for a moment of peace with a cigarette and the empty question of what the hell is supposed to come next — is presented in this fashion. Rothko achieves a powerful effect with these layouts: he makes the reader feel as if — both in spite of and because of the frenetic visual structure — the reader has a better grasp on what’s going on than the people in the story.
Meanwhile, Black on Maroon, a work I would not have thought about twice if I had looked at it three times prior, suddenly feels imbued with a great deal of meaning. A painting that initially smacked of a knee-jerk restrictive definition of art (“art? But I could paint that!”), is contextualized not just by the inclusion of Rothko’s fate, but also by the juxtaposition of reductive cartoonish exploits within the painting’s sub-particles (via Bertha the Barium Ion) with the much more sombre Biskup family tale. In Seagram, Black on Maroon comes out feeling oddly humanized.
Compared to the obvious fragility of art (grab a pencil and you can literally just destroy invaluable things), the fragility of a human is something that permeates their entire existence, both the things unseen and those pieces of them that stretch outward into the world through experience. Moreover, fragility is shared. One of the reasons Biskup’s depiction of his wife’s trauma does not feel out of place or out of turn is because he depicts his own perception of the situation in the identical style to the traumatic episode itself. Once trauma is conjured, the spell is not kind enough to keep to a single mind. Biskup is careful to depict his wife’s experience on a continuum with his own. As a result, a book built on a tenuous metaphor succeeds at both of that metaphor’s ends, helping readers find life in an inaccessible work, and meaning in a common struggle.