Graphic Novels/Manga

WATCHMEN BY ALAN MOORE

My father is worried about Devil-dog. He has been out of intensive care, and a coma, for two days. Devil-dog! he shouts and points from the chair by his hospital bed. I’m not sure if he is pointing at me, but it appears so. Before his illness, I barely knew him; I hardly ever thought about him. It is only in this vulnerable state that his existence has become a thing, a fact, for me. Devil-dog, he shouts, and I think that he may be pointing at one of the tattoos on my arm. Or at least I hope so. Before his illness, my father was almost invisible to me; but now that he is on my mind, now that I see him at last, I realise how difficult his life has likely been. A man so meek and undemanding, so out of place and out of time, that the world – our world – must have been bewildering to him. Not once have I seen him do anything wrong; but then I never saw him do anything at all until now. It seems as though he had to lose his mind in order to impose himself, to speak up. Devil-dog! he shouts again, his frail arm extended and scanning the room; and suddenly I’m convinced that he’s passing judgement; on me, on all of us.

“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”

When I began to take a serious interest in graphic novels I knew that one day I would have to read Watchmen. Although I was not, to be honest, excited about the prospect. Despite its lofty reputation – a reputation that makes the book difficult to ignore or bypass – the little I knew about it didn’t appeal to me. I picked it up, therefore, with a feeling of, not dread, but mild irritation, as though I was performing a duty. Yet it took no more than the first frame to dispel my misgivings. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach, begins Rorschach’s diary; and I knew immediately that the writing – the narration, in this case – was superior to any I had come across previously within this genre; it is superior, in fact, to most conventional novels, and frequently verges on the poetic. Often when reading something of this sort there is a begrudging acceptance that the prose parts will be average, at best; and that this is a necessary trade-off for the interesting visuals. That a book could be as impressive in both areas was incredibly exciting. Indeed, it made graphic novels look like the future of literature, rather than a fun diversion.

Everything that I thought a novel of this sort could achieve Watchmen does it; it does more, in fact. Throughout, there are extracts from a character’s autobiography, newspaper articles, letters, an academic journal; there are quotes from Nietzsche and the Bible; and so on. These are not new tricks, of course; one will find similar in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and such like, but certainly I wasn’t expecting to come away from Watchmen referencing the touchstones of Modernism. Moreover, the prose pieces, or essays, are of the highest calibre. The story of Joe Mermon, for example, really touched me. He was, we’re told, a collector of erotic novelties, who one day put on a pair of false plastic tits to get a cheap laugh. However, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him; and when he tells his colleagues they go into hysterics because he had forgotten to remove the breasts. The writer, and former masked avenger, Hollis Mason, concludes: ‘and although I have never worn a set of false bosoms in my life, I’ve stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.’

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Usually, I will complete a graphic novel in a day, no matter how many pages it contains, but Watchmen took me over a week to read. This is because it is so dense, so sophisticated and detailed. One gets the impression that Moore [and Gibbons, the illustrator] threw everything at it, gave it everything, and remarkably almost* all of it works. One of my favourite aspects of the book is how multiple stories are told simultaneously, in a cinematic fashion. In Black Hole by Charles Burns, if someone is having a flashback the frame is wavy, which is a simple, almost childlike, technique. Here, however, you are made to work; it is only by following the story, being fully engaged in the story, that one is able to distinguish present day from memory. Moreover, and most impressively of all, there are times when two stories are told within the same frame[s]. For example, there is a scene in which a couple are having sex, which is a significant plot development, while on the TV there is a news broadcast, followed by an acrobatic performance, both of which provide information about other plot points. Not only that, but the TV could be said to commentate ironically upon the sex: ‘one smooth, seamless flow of motion’ is how the acrobatic performance is described, while the couple’s endeavours are fumbling, awkward.

Moore also clearly put a lot of work into developing his characters. We learn their back stories, their fears, their hopes, their motivations, etc; they are, without exception, rounded, believable and, in most cases, relatable. This, one imagines, was intended as a kind of comment upon the genre itself, as a deliberate bucking of a trend. Prior to Watchmen, almost all masked avengers, or superheroes, were flat; necessarily so, you might argue. They were not ordinary people, they were special. One was meant to look up to them as superior beings, both physically and morally. Flawless, they dealt in absolutes: absolute goodness, absolute justice, and so on. They were essentially Gods. Well, Moore’s ‘heroes’ are not at all God-like, except the brilliant Dr. Manhattan. Take Rorschach, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. The Comedian, on the other hand, is not only morally dubious in a Batman-like manner, but, in killing an innocent woman and attempting to rape a colleague, actually behaves in such a way as to make him the book’s biggest villain.

The Comedian is particularly interesting because he is a man of the times or, more accurately, a man who moved with the times, who saw and understood where humanity was heading. One of the book’s major themes is social change, away from old ways of behaving and being towards new, and less innocent, ways. At the beginning of the book all of the avengers, except Rorschach, have retired. It was a forced retirement, but the impression is given that they were no longer needed, that they were, in fact, no longer capable. Crime had changed, the world had changed; and not, one is led to believe, for the better. Indeed, Watchmen, like Bolano’s 2666, is a kind of literary death rattle; it’s humanity’s last rites in book form. In short, we are fucked; and there is little that we can do about it. We are circling the bowl of the toilet. It might take one last flush, but the end, for us, is at hand. Moore sees it, Bolano saw it, and my father sees it too. Devil-dog! he shouts repeatedly from the chair by his hospital bed, his eyes intensely focussed and his frail arm outstretched.

 

*there was a point in the book, about a third of the way into it, when I began to wonder how Moore was going to draw all the strands of his narrative together in a satisfying manner. And the truth is that he doesn’t. In the final stretch, the plot becomes corny and silly.

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BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a bonehead child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls who I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.

GARDEN BY YUICHI YOKOYAMA

Unknown. He works at the Post Office. I’m here to pick up a package that could not be delivered to my home. ‘I haven’t seen you for a while,’ he says. I used to order more packages than I do now. ‘I don’t buy as many books these days,’ I say. Not all my packages contain books but it’s easier to allow him to think that they do. He hands me my book-shaped package.

Andreea. We are talking about architecture and geometry. I speak with authority, although I am not especially knowledgeable about such things. It is possible, in fact, that I have directed the conversation towards these subjects purely in order to be able to discuss the book I am reading, which, conveniently, I have in my bag. I take the book from my bag and place it on the table. I open it at random. She peers over the two page spread. I shift my chair closer to hers. She appears to be interested. She points at one of the pages. The characters have caught her eye. At first glance one would say that they are dressed in strange and flamboyant outfits, like professional wrestlers. Upon closer inspection, however, some of the characters, perhaps most of them, do not appear to be human. I put the book away, so as to avoid spilling beer on it.

Ballal. I am outside smoking a cigarette. He is puffing on an e-cigarette. We have been talking about The Lonely Doll for approximately ten minutes. I have shown him a number of the book’s photographs on my phone. He likes me to tell him about the unusual books that I have read, of which The Lonely Doll was the most recent. There is a brief period of silence. I check the time. We must return to work in approximately five minutes. ‘At the moment,’ I say, eventually, ‘I am reading this thing about a bunch of people who break into a garden.’ I immediately regret this statement. We return to work early.

Rebecca. She looks confused. Or bored. I would like to show her the drawings, but I did not bring the book with me. ‘It is not an ordinary garden,’ I say. I am aware that this is not normal or advisable post-intercourse conversation. ‘Almost everything within it is man-made, non-organic; yet many of these structures, objects, and machines resemble the natural world.’ It is likely that I am saying these things in an attempt to avoid any uncomfortable post-sex sharing of feelings or physical closeness. ‘A waterfall of balls, a paper mountain, a river of photographs.’ In short, I do not want to cuddle.

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Mother. [on the phone] ‘…There are some natural objects in the garden – such as the boulders – but these have been arranged for a specific effect. Everything within the garden has been arranged for effect. The garden as a whole has been carefully designed, but it is not clear why, for what purpose. In fact, nothing about the garden is explained. Who designed it? Who built it? None of your questions are answered. I’m enjoying it. The book, I mean. It’s like walking around a modern art space, a gallery, a big one; or something like that. Or like an abandoned amusement park. Or, more accurately, an amusement park that gives the appearance of being abandoned. I talk a lot of shit, mum…’

Myself. The behaviour of the characters is mechanical. They move forward as if propelled, rather than of their own free will. Or something. I talk a lot of shit. If they – the characters – see a ladder they climb it; if they encounter a door they go through it. Their behaviour gives the impression of being one part of a larger mechanism; of being, I should say, a small but essential part of the overall design, of the garden itself. I was put in the mind of the Mouse Trap game, in which they  – the characters – would be the ball, of course.

Unknown. They live next door. We are in the elevator. We are heading for the second floor. Therefore, it will be a short journey. Strictly speaking, they do not live ‘next door,’ but on the same floor as me. We are travelling upwards, from the ground floor. ‘It’s funnier than it sounds,’ I find the time to say. ‘The style is clinical, geometric; and that sounds dull, perhaps.’ They smile in unison. I am pretty sure they are stoned. This is the first conversation we have had, even though they moved in approximately six months ago. ‘The funny looking characters,’ I say, ‘and how they appear to multiply as the book progresses.’ The landing smells almost constantly of weed now. ‘The exhibits – if you want to call them that – become more outlandish, bigger and more dramatic, too. I don’t know the technical term for it; I am sure there is a technical term for it…’ They are both still smiling. ‘…how the ‘camera’ pans out, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, the images are close ups, or something; and then, later, there is a, uh, definite panning out, so to speak, to reveal grander exhibits, mountains and such; and the people, they get smaller, further away. Or something.’

You. I now realise that I did not successfully explain to the neighbours how, in what way, the book is funny. What I said to them, I now realise, was not amusing. If I had my time again, or more time, I would say that what seems to be a small group of people request to enter the garden. They are refused and so break in. Then, as the story progresses, you notice that there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of them running around this huge, absurd, and very dangerous, place. This made me laugh. Especially as they have chosen to be there, to do this; for no rational reason, or no reason at all. Which is to say that, in conclusion, the sheer lunacy of the whole thing strikes you, after a while.

THE LONELY DOLL BY DARE WRIGHT

I did not read children’s books as a child and do not remember ever having them read to me. We did not, in fact, have any in the house, and I knew instinctively that, being poor, I should never ask for anything. The only books we owned were a large leather bound collection my dad had bought when he and my mother married. These included poetry anthologies, the complete Shakespeare, and so on. Occasionally, I opened them. They smelled of damp and appeared to be written in a foreign language. At the age of around six or seven I did attempt to steal an adventure book from my primary school teacher, but I was caught and ordered to give it back. I was told that if I wanted to borrow something I should say so. I stared into his beard and remained silent. It was impossible; he didn’t understand.

I have never wanted to recapture my childhood and do not consider myself to have an inner child. Whatever is inside me is not playful and innocent and I don’t feel as though it ever was. In this way, perhaps The Lonely Doll would have been then, and is now, the perfect children’s book for me, the perfect evocation of what childhood meant, and means, to me. It is the story of a lonely doll, of course, who ‘had everything she needed except somebody to play with.’ The girl, who is called Edith, prays every day for some friends and eventually gets her wish when two bears appear at her door and move in with her. However, if that sounds cute or magical, the reality, the presentation, of the story is anything but. It is, in fact, deeply odd and at times genuinely unnerving.

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The first thing you notice is the photographs. There is some narration, but most of The Lonely Doll is made up of large black and white photographs staged and taken by the author using an actual doll and teddy bears. There are people who are frightened of dolls, and although I am not one of them, I imagine that the reason is that they strongly resemble the human, but are not human; which is to say that they look real, and alive, whilst being of course not real and not alive. They cannot move spontaneously and they have a fixed facial expression; and yet, at the same time, they can be manipulated and made to be anything you want them to be. In Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties the old men wanted to be with the sleeping women precisely because they had these doll-like qualities.

In this way, presuming that Dare Wright did want to create something touching and magical, the doll was a strange choice. Firstly, one is always aware that the author, the photographer, had to put Edith in those positions; one cannot look at the pictures without imagining an adult playing with a doll; or even, if you are able to believe in Edith, without seeing her as being somewhat in bondage to Wright. Secondly, because of her fixed expression, Edith cannot convey a range of emotions; and the expression that she does have is, with her sideways glance, one of unease. This works in the early stages, when she is alone, but becomes disquieting when Wright puts her in situations where she is meant to be mischievous or having fun, such as when she is at the beach or trying on adult clothes and make up. The same problem applies to the bears. The bigger bear, Mr. Bear, always looks angry, and the smaller one, Little Bear, looks positively despairing.

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There is one, almost now infamous, photograph in The Lonely Doll, which shows Edith being spanked by Mr. Bear for being naughty. It is this photograph that readers tend to [or claim to] find the most disturbing; and to some extent I can understand that, although I feel as though it has more to do with a kind of prurience than anything else. Certainly, for me there are other images that are much more problematic. For example, on one page, when the bears first arrive, Little Bear whispers to the doll that she should see what kind of fun they are going to have. This alone is a little menacing, but the accompanying image – which can be found further up this page – shows her with her arms outspread and the two bears – one on each arm – giving the impression of holding her down. When the idea of having fun is later referenced again the photograph shows the doll running away from the bears. It does not, on any level, look like fun. Indeed, in this context her unease seems more like outright fear.

I would guess that the photographs are black and white because it was cheaper to reproduce them, but this too lends a kind of gloomy air to every image. However, not all of the weirdness is confined to the images and the author’s choice of toys. For example, when the bears arrive Mr. Bear calls Edith by her name, and nothing is ever said about how he knew it. After the introductions, they then simply move in. Where did they come from? Why is Mr. Bear, who one can only assume is an adult, moving in with a child? Why, for that matter, is the child living alone in the first place? What, finally, is the relationship between the two bears? Little Bear [is he a child? or just a small bear?] calls the larger bear Mr. Bear, not dad or father, or uncle or anything of that sort, which suggests that they are not related. In short, on every level, on every page, visually and within the story itself, The Lonely Doll is baffling, peculiar, and disconcerting.

THE FRANK BOOK BY JIM WOODRING

For years I have been searching. Yet it is only recently that my plan, my mission, has crystallised; only recently that my goal has become clearer to me. I have long sought an escape, a way of avoiding the world, a world that seems, not incomprehensible, but vulgar and tedious and grotesque. I want to avoid you, and myself too; myself most of all. This is why I read books, why I have always read books. To be apart from, to find some refuge from, you and from me. So, for years I have read, and for a while I was happy in that space that wasn’t quite ours. But I’ve found that ultimately it isn’t enough. I can still see you, lurking in the corners. The closer I look, the more distinct your figure becomes. I am there too, of course. The drone of my voice; my filter, my thoughts. Recently, my nausea has been reaching intolerable levels. A life spent hiding in books, and I hadn’t escaped. I had climbed the fence and found that my trouserleg was caught on the barbed wire.

To my surprise, The Frank Book feels like an important step towards my end point, my goal, the thing I have been searching for all along. Certainly it is the closest I have come to comfort and excitement in my reading for a while. Jim Woodring’s work is almost completely wordless, and that was initially the biggest draw. I could ‘read’ it, I thought, without my narrating voice, without having to listen to, and engage with, myself. This turned out to be not strictly the case. I was there, for I am unfortunately that through which all information, all words and images pass, but I felt somewhat muffled, at least. Moreover, the geography of The Frank Book is unlike ours. There are trees and so on, so it isn’t completely alien, but it doesn’t look much like earth [the place is, in fact, called Unifactor]. The characters too – including Frank and his sidekicks, friends and enemies – hint at the familiar, but are not human nor really the animals, creatures or objects that they resemble.

Real shapes and real patterns are things you would observe in nature, like the marks on the back of a cobra’s hood or the markings on a fish or a lizard. Imaginary shapes are just that, symbols that come to a person in dreams or reveries and are charged with meaning. – Jim Woodring.

Frank is a cat-like creature, who walks on two legs. He is drawn in an uncomplicated, almost crude, fashion, and looks much like Felix the cat or something from one of the earliest Disney cartoons. The simplicity of his form is mirrored in his personality also. He has a limited number of expressions and therefore emotions; or visible emotions, anyway. During his adventures he appears to be a happy-go-lucky sort. When he is invited to a party of the dead, he goes; when, in another story, he sees something that looks like a kind of toffee apple, he takes it. At various points he comes across holes and he invariably sticks his head in them. There is something child-like about Frank, whilst being obviously not at all like a child. He isn’t, all told, particularly likeable or charming or interesting, which is a pattern I have noticed with many prominent cartoon characters; that is it, in fact, their enemies who are more sympathetic and developed, such as, for example, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry.

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Frank’s nemesis is Manhog, and he is drawn with much greater precision [as is the devil-like Whim], to the extent that he and Frank do not look as though they exist within the same world. Manhog is avaricious, mean, self-serving; and, unlike Frank, he mostly crawls along on four legs, intimating his lowly position. And yet he is, in fact, the only character who’s motivations make sense to the reader, or to me, in any case. In my favourite, and the most shocking, episode he steals a dead tadpole [i.e. child] from its parents, eats it, and then writes a ransom note. Manhog is bad, yes, but he has a notable personality and is, more importantly, flawed and judged, and that is something relatable. Indeed, throughout Woodring’s tales he is beaten, made fun of, and generally persecuted [deservedly so, you might say]. His principle facial expression is a grimace of despair. Due to this he is the emotional heart of the book and, for me, the one inhabitant of Unifactor to whom I could warm, against my better judgement. I wanted to escape you and I completely, and yet I found us regardless, in this horrible pig.

Recently, I read Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clewes [which, incidentally, I really enjoyed]. It is often described as nightmarish or surreal, but its weirdnesses are but small breaches in the fabric of normality, of the recognisable and familiar. Clewes’ world is a world that, for want of a better phrase, largely makes sense. It is still our world. It is populated mostly by human beings, who do human stuff, who communicate with each other, and as such with the reader, in a human fashion. In The Frank Book, however, it isn’t always clear what the characters are doing, never mind why. Even something like time, which so dominates our existence, does not appear to exist in Unifactor. The reader can, and should, make of Woodring’s drawings and stories what he wants; he can, for the most part, create his own meaning or – more attractively – not look for meaning at all. It is clear when reading the book that you are somewhere else, where our laws, our ideas, ourselves are largely irrelevant.

LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON BY DANIEL CLOWES

I started to draw my response to this. I completed only four panels. A man walks up to me. I’m sitting reading. He asks me what I’m reading. I tell him: it’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes. He then asks me what it’s about. The fourth and final panel shows my sad, frustrated face. I dream in words, rather than images. It has only recently occurred to me that this is strange. Clay Loudermilk enters what appears to be a pornographic cinema. He watches a film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. I see nothing, darkness, blackness, void, but I hear words. Or I sense them. The content of the film is a kind of fetishised violence. In the fifth panel, the man waits, a look of concern or perhaps impatience on his face. I am not adept at drawing facial expressions. Clay Loudermilk becomes intent on finding out more about the film. He borrows a car, sets off on a road trip. My waking life is more like a dream than anything I experience while asleep. I try to explain to the man that Clay Loudermilk goes off in search of information about the film. Like a Velvet Glove, I tell him, gives the impression of being a kind of quest. I speak to myself more often than I speak to other people. The man wants to know what I mean by ‘gives the impression.’ I tell him: the film really isn’t that important.

[a quote from the text]

The man, I have forgotten to mention, has an overly large head. It is as though his head isn’t really his head, but a false head, a joke head that he has placed over his own, ordinary-sized, head. This is most likely due to my artistic limitations. There are hints at a wider, overriding significance to the individual events. The tease of being able to pull it all together and arrive at an explanation, a satisfactory resolution. Mr. Jones, for example. As the story progresses there is the sense that you are getting closer to the truth. Mr. Jones is, I should explain, the face that is carved on Clay’s foot by the policeman. The image, henceforth, crops up multiple times. Like a Velvet Glove gives the impression of being something like a detective novel. There are clues, which may not be clues, if you understand what I mean by that. In panel number twelve the man is crying. I do not know what I have done to upset him. Perhaps it wasn’t me, however; perhaps the man is having some trouble at home; perhaps this is why he, without any encouragement, has approached a stranger and engaged him in conversation. The man is angry because he feels as though I am making fun of him with my explanation.

[an image which gives some indication as to the content and tone of the book]

It is with earnestness that I describe the plot of Like a Velvet Glove. I slowly count and recount the panels. The plot isn’t really a plot, although it gives the impression of being one. If I cared less I would say that Like a Velvet Glove is weird or surreal or something of that sort. My dreams are not my waking life. My waking life is a nightmare. He cries, terribly; his face is contorted. It is with great conviction that I state that I am not sure at all about what I am saying. I draw in the tears, which, as I am using a black biro pen, look like large ants, or bullets. There are so many striking images, I tell him. Paul, Clay’s friend, with crustaceans in his eyes, for example. These things are accepted in Clowes’ world without so much as a raised eyebrow. They are part of the ordinary fabric of this world, I tell him. The dog with no orifices. These things are, I tell him, strange only to the likes of you – I cough – and me. Even Tina, the odd fish-like young woman who lays eggs when sexually aroused, is accepted. It is possible that I am mistaken and the man is neither crying nor angry, but is, in fact, laughing. My eyesight, I have until now forgotten to disclose, is very poor.

[sometimes there is a second image here]

It may be, in fact, a woman whom Clay is seeking, an actress. Daniel Clowes did once state that Like a Velvet Glove was inspired by his dreams. Yet, while there are peculiar, and unsettling, and unexpected events, the action does move forward in a linear fashion. Accusations of meaninglessness are, I tell the man, wide of the mark. Clay has a purpose. Billings has one too. What is absent is a relatable cause. In panel thirteen or fourteen I assure the man that our lives are random and unpredictable, in both large and small scale ways. One might argue that Clay’s quest is itself a search for meaning. In one of the panels, perhaps the last panel, the truly last, I am glumly smoking a cigarette. I hold up one finger, the first finger on my left hand, and then plunge it into the hole made by my right hand. The actress may be Clay’s mother or his wife. The man laughs, or cries, or whatever. His big head shakes like a dandelion in the wind.

Clowes’ art, I say to myself, is noirish. B-movie noir. I’m embarrassed by my inability to capture, on paper, a true likeness of a dick and a vagina. My head pounds. The vagina, I must admit, is causing me greater problems than the dick. Tropical slush. Shush. The man wakes. It is possible that I nudged him. Hey, I might have said, don’t sleep. This is panel something or other. A black bordered panel; a black square with nothing inside. The people in Clowes’ world are grotesque-looking. Not only Tina the fish. Everyone, really, except Clay. Hey, I say. Something something America. Cults and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson and murder. Something something America. I don’t know. I have never been. I don’t own a TV either. Hey, mister, have you ever been to America? The man solemnly walks away. I sketch his receding figure. Hey, mister! His big head trembles, like a golfball rattling the rim of the hole.

FEVER IN URBICAND BY FRANCOIS SCHUITEN & BENOIT PEETERS

She is coming from Moscow with the expectation that I will show her the sights. There is nothing here, I told her over the phone. Except parks and gardens. That is not nothing, she said. I like green. Why is it nothing? I tried to explain that this sort of thing bores me. It is just there. It exists, and that is all. It’s beautiful! Maniac! She sounded angry. I’ll kill you: put put put. I knew that, if I could see her, her fingers would be making the shape of gun, and that it would be firing straight at me. Perhaps I deserved it. You like always grey, she said. Always grey, aways concrete and broken windows. Which is true. I do like those things. I like the way, for example, that the grim Park Hill housing estate hangs ominously over the city like a spider. The story goes that the council wanted to tear it down, only to find that it is a protected building. If they’d had their way it would now be flower beds and water features, no doubt. The city in which I live is losing its identity. What once was wild and spirited is now twee. I feel this gentrification as a threat; I see it as a kind of creature or spirit that is invading, transforming, taking over. Soon, this place will be Sheffield in nothing but name; and that other place – the real Sheffield – will exist only in the imagination.

“Right now, the network continues to grow outside this city, this house, this room, where it began. It weaves its links between distant stars.”

Fever in Urbicand is the second instalment of the Les Cités obscures series of graphic novels [or comics, if you prefer] by the artist François Schuiten and the writer Benoit Peeters. Its plot centres around a cube that has been unearthed at a construction site and handed to the urbatect Eugen Robik. In the beginning, much is made of how innocuous the object is. It is, Robik notes, ‘merely an empty cubic structure with sides approximately 15cm long.’ There is ‘nothing extraordinary about it’ and, moreover, it ‘appears to be totally useless.’ Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the cube is growing, and that it shows no sign of stopping, such that eventually it takes over Urbicand, forming a new landscape, a new city. When one considers the drama and damage caused by the cube as it expands one realises how clever a choice the shape was. It’s power and destructive ability seem all the more terrible and awesome as a consequence of its familiar, ordinary appearance.

Eugen Robik could not be described as the hero, but he is certainly the most prominent character. Prominent, yet largely passive in the face of what many of us would call ‘life.’ He is not interested in furthering himself, is adverse to adventure or risk-taking, and only briefly flirts with the idea of starting a liaison with a woman before allowing her to slip through his fingers. He is a man consumed by his work and projects, so much so that initially he is all but disinterested in the cube, even when it begins to grow. His primary concern is the vote to deny permission to build a new bridge in Urbicand. Having designed the city, this denial, he feels, compromises his vision. Without it, he says, his project becomes ‘unbalanced’; the space where it should be he describes as a ‘void.’ I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. It is unusual for an architect, or urbatect, to be so central to a story, to be given such responsibility. It struck me that Schuiten and Peeters wanted to highlight the importance of this profession. Indeed, I have long thought that architects are something like Gods. They create our world. We live within their imagination.

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One might say that one of the themes of Fever in Urbicand is the arbitrary nature of boundaries. A bridge is, of course, something that connects two things, it brings them together. It is, in fact, something so significant that the great Serbian writer Ivo Andric devoted an entire novel to one in The Bridge on the Drina. As noted, Robik’s planned bridge is rejected, because, one politician states, ‘travel between the north and south bank will become too easy.’ It is never revealed why bringing the two banks together is undesirable, but one gets the impression that it is not with the good of the people in mind. The art and architecture in the book is stark and imposing and characters are frequently seen to be dwarfed by Robik’s buildings. There is an atmosphere of suppression and oppression, with, for example, those who cross the border being threatened with execution. Fever in Urbicand is, therefore, a kind of totalitarian dystopia. One cannot read it without thinking of two walls, one that was once built in Berlin and one that thankfully still only exists in the mind of Donald Trump.

However, what is most interesting about all this is that, in a seemingly random manner, as the cube expands it connects the two banks, making passage between them possible. The cube – which is also, significantly, called the network – doesn’t require planning permission; it doesn’t care about ‘hidden implications’, power and politicking; and it is, moreover, stronger than any man or manmade material. Indeed, in order to protect its interests, the government of Urbicand attempts to stop it by firing at it, but the cube is unaffected. What this ultimately means is that it is a structure, a kind of architecture, not a man, that is the hero of the story; it is the cube that changes and improves lives; it is the cube that frees the people.