As a lover of American literature, for me the name Flannery O'Connor evokes the thick voice of the South as it used to sweat all over the more grotesque aspects of the American Dream. O'Connor's use of language could both embrace and destroy in the same sentence. Her novel Wise Blood defined a certain gothic sensibility for me, and it continues to be a touchstone for comparison for any new thing I read that affects even the slightest of drawls.
Needless to say, when I heard that Fantagraphics had published Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, my upper lip moistened slightly with excitement. One of my favorite American authors augmenting her craft with her visual sensibilities? It seemed like a no-brainer, a must-have, a need-now. What I got in the package of Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, though, was a conundrum.
This book complies cartoons that O'Connor created in the 1940s for the various publications from the high school and college she attended. Apparently, O'Connor's original intent was to pursue cartooning (then journalism) as a full-time career, but was diverted from this path when she nestled into the warm womb of the Iowa Writer's Workshop where she gestated and was reborn a dangerous writer. The cartoons contained in this collection are single panel commentary pieces about wartime campus life and a seemingly cavalier attitude toward the institutions of education. For the cartoons in this collection, O'Connor worked almost exclusively by cutting out her images in linoleum, which was then covered in ink and stamped on the paper.
The artwork is rough, rudimentary, stripped down, static and heavy. As a print, each picture relies on negative space to convey its form (a notion upon which I could endlessly over-intellectualize, but for the sake of this review shall eschew), so each is primarily dark blocks punctuated by these pale outlines of figures contorting in all sorts of odd poses. The captions that run along with the cartoons are, for the most part, rather pedestrian in and of themselves, and are now so far removed from their original context that they have become either anachronistic or confusing.
And herein lies my conundrum. Were I to come across these cartoons out of the context of them being A) by Flannery O'Connor and B) collected in a hardbound book by Fantagraphics, I probably would look them over, give a solid "Hmmmm," nod to the artist for having the intestinal fortitude to put their art out there and then go about my day without giving them a second thought. Devoid of their context, these cartoons are relatively nondescript — oddities at best.
But when I put them back into the context that these cartoons are A) by Flannery O'Connor and B) collected in a hardbound book by Fantagraphics, something else occurs. What happens in this context is that these serviceable little whatnots gather depth of meaning. Here are the early ejaculations from the primordial form of what was to become one of the great American writers. Here is Flannery O'Connor as she is formulating her unique vision of America and all that it entails. This context leads other reviewers to write things like "the cartoons reveal O'Connor as profoundly concerned with the emotionally fraught relationships between individuals and the institutions that both guide and constrict them" or "what's clear (in these cartoons) is the perspective of the outsider." Both of these reviewers sound like they know what they are talking about. They are able to unearth rather obtuse intellectual understandings from these linoleum prints and crash those concepts into nicely constructed sentences. And it all sounds like it means something, doesn't it?
But would they have done so in the absence of the context? Had these very cartoons been done by my grandmother for the Elmont Gazette and found in an old box in the attic, would these reviewers still wax so intellectually? Is it the work itself here that is being reviewed, or is it the context?
I don't know. I'm not smart enough to figure out these sorts of things.
What I do know is that I really enjoyed looking at Fantagraphics' Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, but I fear that experience occurred only because I am a fan of Flannery O'Connor. I would probably enjoy looking at copies of her handwritten grocery lists or the notes she took in the margins of her copy of The Great Gatsby (which I would REALLY like to see). So ultimately the question is, am I reviewing the work, or am I reviewing the context?
What value does Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons have inherently? I think the answer to that question is entirely subjective. If you are a fan of O'Connor and interested in anything she may have produced in her far too brief of a career, then this book is right up your alley. If you're not, then I cannot imagine that this book will hold your interest for too long.
Still, regardless of any of this, I personally wish to thank Fantagraphics for going out on a limb and publishing this book, if for no other reason than to put Flannery O'Connor back into the pop culture discussion for however briefly it may be.
Daniel Elkin has been reading and commenting on comics since the mid '70s when he used to wear a great deal of brown corduroy. Currently he lives in Northern California where brown corduroy is slowly becoming fashionable again. Daniel has worked in bars, restaurants, department stores, classrooms and offices. He is a published poet, member of MENSA, committed father, gadfly and bon vivant. He can over-intellectualize just about anything and is known to have long Twitter conversations with himself (@DanielElkin).
P.S. He keeps a blog, Your Chicken Enemy.