Going North with Joe Sacco – a Research Log (Part 1)

A lot of things have happened since my last blog post. Back in March, I was still optimistic about my plans to go to Berlin for an internship at a German comics publisher. Little did I know how quickly the spread of the coronavirus would lead to a total lockdown in Europe. (The best image I can come up with is that of someone flicking off the switches of a fuse box, one by one, until there is complete darkness). It is difficult for me to put into words the emotional roller-coaster of the last weeks. All I will say is that I am doing okay considering the circumstances and I am back in my hometown of Bonn, proceeding with my studies.

One of the projects I am working on to keep myself sane during this time is my MA thesis. Maybe it is the experience of being involved in a global catastrophe, but something is pulling me back the work of Joe Sacco, the famous US-Maltese cartoonist and journalist. Sacco is widely considered a pioneer of comics journalism and has reported on multiple armed conflicts including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Palestine,1993-1995) and the Bosnian War (Safe Area Goražde, 2001).

© Joe Sacco

This year, Sacco is releasing a new comic titled Paying the Land. Instead of travelling to a war zone, the book is about the Dene, an indigenous people in northern Canada who are impacted by the oil industry and the colonialist politics of the Canadian state. Paying the Land will be released in the US in July this year but the publisher, Metropolitan Books, has kindly supplied me with a review copy that I am reading parallel to the already published French edition.

Paying the Land is a massive book, featuring roughly 260 pages of intricate, cross-hatched drawings and a narrative that weaves together complex issues of climate change, environmentalism and colonialism. It is clearly the work of a master cartoonist in his prime. The comic offers a lot of interesting material for an in-depth analysis, yet the question where to begin is daunting. Anyone who has written papers in the social sciences will know how important it is to formulate a precise research question. It is like setting the foundation of a tall building: if the research question is not precise enough, the entire structure will wobble.

© Joe Sacco

A book that has given me a good clue about which questions to ask is Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? Her thoughts on comics, trauma and catastrophe are a good starting point for an inquiry into Sacco’s oeuvre. Among the traumatic issues addressed in Paying the Land is Canada’s residential school system which forced indigenous children out of their homes and formed an attempt to disrupt and destroy indigenous cultures. To investigate how this complex issue is portrayed in Sacco’s new book seems like a promising starting point for my thesis.

Writing an academic paper of this scope can be a pretty solitary activity. So, I am sharing some of my experiences and thoughts on this blog. If you have anything to add or just want to comment, feel free to contact me. Stay safe and sane!

Comic Review – War and Peas (Jonathan Kunz & Elizabeth Pich)

Humor For Dark Times

A German version of this review can be found here

I will admit, there have not been all that many reasons for laughter in the past couple weeks. Unless you have been on the moon or in some parallel dimension, you will have been affected by the Corona-pandemic which has killed thousands and put public life on standby in Europe and beyond. If you need a break from the news-cycle and are looking for a book to take your mind off things, I have a recommendation: War and Peas by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich.

© Kunz & Pich – God’s Plan

War and Peas is originally an English-language webcomic that was launched in 2011 and is being published in weekly episodes on the net and Instagram. The minds behind the strip, which has accumulated thousands of fans, are the German artists Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich. The short gag strips of the duo are seldom longer than four panels and always confidently steer towards the next punchline. The humor can best be described as a fusion of the absurd and morbid, mocking everything as implied by the title, a parody of the Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. In War and Peas, office workers contemplate suicide but are saved in the last moment by the promise of pizza. At the same time, the mischievous “Slutty Witch“ abandons her date in favor of her vibrating magic broom. Visually, the comic is quite minimalist, reminiscent of the art of Tom Gauld in its lack of facial expressions. But this style clearly suits the sharp, dialogue driven humor.

© Kunz & Pich – Fashion Show

At first sight, War and Peas reminded me strongly of the German Comic Nichtlustig (English version here) by Joscha Sauer. But it sets itself apart with its own humoristic edge and a sprinkle of millennial zeitgeist. Particularly refreshing is how the comic comically handles issues of feminism and queerness. The book to which this review refers was published in March by the US publisher Andrews McMeel and is a great introduction to the webcomic. It a selection of strips on 150 pages which can be read individually but also chronologically and form a neatly ongoing narrative. All things considered, this is a charming humor strip and I recommend it to anyone seeking a diversion from current events.

War and Peas
Jonathan Kunz & Elizabeth Pich
2020
Andrews McMeel

Comic Kritik – War and Peas (Jonathan Kunz & Elizabeth Pich)

Witz mit Biss

Zugegeben, allzu viele Gründe zum Lachen gab es nicht in den letzten Wochen. Für alle, die frisch aus der Mondkapsel oder Zeitmaschine gestiegen sind: die per Virus übertragbare Lungenkrankheit Covid-19 hat sich zur Pandemie ausgeweitet, tausende Menschenleben gefordert und in Europa und anderswo das öffentliche Leben weitgehend stillgelegt. Solltet ihr euch derzeit im Lockdown befinden und euch nach etwas Abwechslung vom Nachrichten-Karussell sehnen, dann habe ich hier einen Buchtipp: War and Peas von Jonathan Kunz und Elizabeth Pich.

© Kunz & Pich – God’s Plan

War and Peas, das ist eigentlich ein englischsprachiges Webcomic, das seit 2011 wöchentlich im Netz und auf Instagram erscheint. Hinter dem äußerst erfolgreichen Humor-Strip, der über die Jahre zehntausende LeserInnen für sich gewinnen konnte, steckt ein Deutsches Autorenduo und jede Menge schwarzer Humor. Die kurzen Gag-comics umfassen meist nicht mehr als vier Panels und steuern zielsicher auf die nächste Pointe zu. Der Humor bewegt sich dabei zwischen absurd und morbide, ganz im Sinne des Titels, eine Parodie von Krieg und Frieden, dem Romanklassiker von Tolstoi. In War and Peas sinnieren Büroangestellte über den Selbstmord, werden im letzten Moment doch durch das Versprechen einer Pizza von ihrem Vorhaben abgebracht. Zugleicht lässt die umtriebige „Slutty Witch“ einen Liebhaber zugunsten ihres vibrierenden Besens sitzen. Visuell ist der Comic minimalistisch gehalten, verzichtet zum Beispiel ganz auf die Mimik der Figuren, was den kurzen dialogfokussierten Strips aber keinesfalls schadet.

© Kunz & Pich – Fashion Show

War and Peas erinnert auf den ersten Blick stark an den deutschen Comic Nichtlustig von Joscha Sauer, hebt sich jedoch mit ganz eigenem Biss und einer Prise Zeitgeist von diesem ab. Erfrischend ist hierbei besonders das humorvolle Verarbeiten gesellschaftlicher Themen wie Feminismus und Queerness. Das Buch, das im März dieses Jahres beim amerikanischen Verlag Andrews McMeel erschien, ist ein guter Einstieg in das Webcomic. Es versammelt auf 150 Seiten verschiedenste Strips, die sowohl einzeln als auch in chronologischer Reihenfolge lesen lassen und so eine fortlaufende Geschichte ergeben. Alles in allem vorzüglich kurzweilige Unterhaltung, die mit ihrem morbiden Charme eine willkommene Ablenkung vom Tagesgeschehen darstellt.

War and Peas
Jonathan Kunz und Elizabeth Pich
2020
Andrews McMeel

Auf dem Sprung / In Flight

© Viola Bender

Hello and welcome to my first blog post. I’ve been thinking about recording my personal experiences for a while now, but something always made me shy away from the idea. Perhaps it’s the obvious fact that the act of writing often seems to take oneself away from the lived experience. Or that it superimposes a layer of language onto something that is most often beyond words. Then again, the world is so full of things worth talking about, resonating with stories that hover under its surface. Also, I have a pretty bad memory and tend to forget the cool things I’ve done. This is partly an attempt to remember those things, partly an offer to share some of my experiences to anyone who cares to stop by. Welcome, whoever you are.

In May 2019, I travelled to Berlin to work for the wonderful German publisher Rotopol at the annual Comicinvasion festival. I had worked at some festivals before, but this was only the second one where I was responsible for the publisher table on my own. And so, on a clear Berlin morning, I found myself setting up a table at the fancy Museum für Kommunikation, arranging comics between imperial marbled columns underneath a bright dome.

After the first wave of visitors had passed, a tall young guy with a beard showed up, introduced himself as a fellow exhibitor at the festival and handed me the zine he was selling. It was a colorful comic, professionally printed with a distorted alien on the cover. We were talking for a bit when we noticed that we both lived in Bonn, a relatively small city in western Germany. It was a fun coincidence that repeated itself when we spotted each other on the bus on our way back home two days later. This guy with whom I would later become friends is Vasilis Dimopoulos, an amazing Greek cartoonist who has been diligently working on a Sci-Fi/Horror comic series called Barghal ever since I’ve met him.

© Vasilis Dimopoulos

Comics create connections. They brought me to the small town of Ludwigsburg where I had my first internship, all the way to Luzern, Switzerland where I sold books for Rotopol at the Fumetto Festival. I have spent considerable portions of my afternoon hauling boxes of signed books through central Hamburg and spent two night in a converted bunker in Switzerland, offered to exhibitors of a festival as a free sleeping place. From what I can tell, working as a publisher can be stressful at times, and I doubt I’ll ever have a lot of money. But also, I don’t want these experiences to stop.

If the Corona pandemic doesn’t cause a total lockdown in Europe, I will be heading to Berlin for another internship in a couple of weeks. With a semester in Paris on the horizon, 2020 is promising to become an exciting year and I hope to share some of my impressions (and book discoveries) here on this blog. Until then: happy reading and stay healthy.

Comic Review – Blankets (Craig Thompson)

© Craig Thompson

Reading a Classic

Do you know that feeling when a book or another piece of art is valued so highly by a certain group of people that one is almost hesitant to pick it up? It’s as if all the expectations or assumptions create a barrier to the work itself, at least that’s how it feels to me sometimes. This winter, I tried to leap over some of those gaps, first by reading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and, more recently, Blankets by Craig Thompson.

Blankets, which was originally published in 2003 by Top Shelf Productions to much critical acclaim is an autographic (an autobiographical graphic novel) about the artist’s childhood and adolescence in rural Wisconsin. The plot begins with the early years of Thompson and his younger brother Phil in the Christian community of their hometown, then gradually transforms into a romantic account of Thompson’s relationship with Raina, a girl he meets as a teenager at a ski camp. This relationship takes up most of the space of book and casts a warm light on the otherwise grim portrayal of the artist’s childhood, which is filled with bullying, depravity and religious doubt. In many ways, Blankets is a comic-turned-love-letter as it relates the meeting of the two misfits, Thompson and Raina, at a pivotal time in their lives, and how their relationship shifted their perspectives.

© Craig Thompson

What struck me the most about Blankets is how it captures the intensity of falling in love for the first time. Romantic love as the subject of fiction is a tricky affair because it threatens to dissolve into cliché, into an emotional language that everyone knows, and no one really believes in. And while Blankets can get quite sentimental at times (perhaps even kitschy), it mostly feels like a highly personal story and reminded me of similar experiences I made as a teenager. The book somehow captures the force of those feelings, the proximity and long conversations that feel special precisely because they are experienced for the first time. It’s like stumbling upon a secret too big for words, like a written note from a crush that you kept tight in your sweaty palm when you were a kid.

As an autographic, Blankets lacks the complex meta-narrative of, say, the work of Alison Bechdel or Art Spiegelman. But that’s okay because the book brings the reader closer to the memories themselves instead of weaving them into a broader life story or social commentary. Blankets zooms in on momentary feelings that constitute Thompson’s memories, from the way a kiss or a piece of fabric felt, to the view of a snowy sky from below.

Of course, the book mostly radiates these feelings because of its drawings: Thompson’s lines fly boldly across the page, rending characters and their faces in a highly expressive way. Bodies and objects seem to stretch or shrink with emotions of the characters, and ornamental imaginings of heaven and hell accompany renderings of childhood fantasy worlds.

The dynamic nature of Thompson’s art also applies to the composition of panels on the page. In an interview, cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud elaborated on how Blankets was quite innovative for its time, and I can sense why. As with the drawings, the panels underline the characters’ emotions. Sometimes things seem to jump out of the images, sometimes they blend into each other as lovers embrace. Finally, the book is littered with skillfully placed blank spaces that act as pauses in the comic’s rhythm and say more than any image could. Thompson’s playful compositions still feel fresh 17 years later and it is not hard to see their influence on the work of other cartoonists. All in all, Blankets comic worthy of its renown and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who needs a story to get through the cold winter days.

Comic Review – Rusty Brown (Chris Ware)

© Chris Ware

Spiraling Into Infinity

Some time ago, I came into an argument with a friend. We were talking about life after university and the difficult choices that go along with it. “Well”, she said, “all things considered, control is definitely an illusion”. I asked her to elaborate and she replied that because our world is so very complex and we only have a limited set of information to work with, all our decisions are necessarily flawed. We may think we are being rational and in control, but we are more or less like kites in the wind, moved by the forces to which we are oblivious. While I did not necessarily agree with her line of argument, I was strongly reminded of it while reading Rusty Brown, the new comic by Chris Ware.

Throughout his work, and especially in his much-acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, US cartoonist Ware has exhibited an acute sensibility for the complexities of life. His comics trace the vast web of causalities in which we are entangled as individuals, including our family histories, upbringing and the mental idiosyncrasies of our times. This panoramic mode of storytelling is inseparably linked to Ware’s unique visual style: his drawings are ‘cartoony’ with clear, yet unadorned lines and flat colors that add up to an artificial, sometimes almost sterile appearance.

What makes the artwork so appealing, however, is the way in which Ware arranges his panels on the page. His work often features exhilarating compositional experiments with vast numbers of images sprawling into different directions. Ware’s groundbreaking Jimmy Corrigan from the year 2000 is exemplary for this as it featured complex tableaus that lapsed remarkably from conventional layouts. The book pointed to the fact that, yes, comics should be treated as a “visual language” of their own and that there is still much room for exploration.

Rusty Brown, the new comic by Ware, published in 2019 by Pantheon Press, is in many ways less experimental than Ware’s previous work, which makes for a different, but no less dazzling read. The book, which is around 350 pages in length, revolves around a snowy winter day in 1975 Ohio. In a style that parodies old soap opera TV series, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters. There’s the ginger-haired Rusty Brown, a painfully introverted boy who is convinced he has superpowers, his father, a melancholy schoolteacher, his new friend Chalky White who just arrived in town, Jordan Lint, a teenaged long-haired troublemaker, and many more.

© Chris Ware

At first, the lives of all these characters cross in a way reminiscent of high school dramas: there’s a dose of teenage angst, the fear of not belonging, heartbreak and half-hearted rebellion. But there are also adult characters stuck inside their own routines, caught in the daily drudgery. Just as one has gotten used to Rusty Brown’s mode of narration, the tone shifts again. The snowy day in Ohio is not so much as the setting of a scene but the starting point of a spiral into different characters’ lives.

Just as a snowstorm is comprised of countless individual flakes, the narrative of Rusty Brown dives into the lives of people first introduced in passing. Each episode features a distinct visual style which points both to the characters’ inner life and Ware’s development as an artist. While the stories span a variety of subjects and genres (including a pinch of science-fiction), they also share a particular flavor of melancholy and sadness. Like the perspective presented by my friend in the opening anecdote of this review, Ware’s characters often find themselves dazed by the complexity of life while at the same time dreaming of more.

© Chris Ware

At its most touching, Rusty Brown deals with forms of regret. The episode of Jason Lint in particular, is a devastating roller-coaster ride that sees its character going through a many-stage metamorphosis, from an angry teenage firecracker to family father. It is a character on the run, who trying to escape his own abusive past while involuntarily causing hurt in others. That Jason still feels like a coherent figure undergoing life changes and not a cluster of ideas on paper is evidence of Ware’s strength as a writer and cartoonist. It also matches his own views of seeing art as a medium of empathy.

Rusty Brown is an incredibly ambitious work and it achieves the balance of both relating entire lives of its characters while remaining attuned to the more ephemeral texture of experience, the seemingly mundane and trivial details that constitute our existence. Despite veering away from formal experiments, Ware still proves he is a master of composition and space by presenting unusual and appealing layouts. All in all, Rusty Brown feels highly atmospheric and emotionally charged. The colors are rich and underscore the shifting moods of the different stories and perspectives. Yes, the complexities of life may make any claim of control seem ludicrous. But thankfully, we are not alone and have artists like Ware who can trace our patterns in the void.

 Rusty Brown, Part 1
Chris Ware
2019
Pantheon

Comic Review – Off Season (James Sturm)

© Drawn & Quarterly

It took a while, but fall has finally reached my German hometown. As the days get shorter, I turn to some of the more somber books on my reading list, beginning with Off Season by US cartoonist James Sturm. Published in the beginning of this year by Drawn & Quarterly, the comic caught my attention early on because of its appealing art style and its references to the 2016 US presidential election. I’m glad I finally read it and can safely say that Off Season is among my favorite books of 2019.

But let’s start from the beginning: Off Season is an episodic comic that tells the story of a family caught in the turmoil of a disintegrated marriage. The events are set in New England during the snowy winter of 2016 and narrated by Mark, a freshly separated husband and father of two kids. From the very beginning, we get the sense that he is struggling, not only with the end of his marriage, but also with financial issues and personal mental health. While their emotional wounds are still sore, both Mark and his estranged wife make efforts to reach some form of agreement in order to take care of their children. Apart from their private struggles, the family is also shaken by the ongoing 2016 US presidential elections and the growing political divide of the country. Mark and Lisa were both avid supporters of Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic candidates in the primary election, but later disagree on Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s final candidate.

© Drawn & Quarterly

What is immediately striking about Sturm’s comic are its drawings and its layout. Off Season’s plot is utterly realistic but its characters are anthropomorphic animals drawn with clear lines and a grey wash reminiscent of watercolor. This gives the images an appealing depth and contributes to the generally melancholic atmosphere of the story, especially during the winter scenes in the later episodes. In addition to its drawings, Off Season also features an unusual format and layout: the book has a rectangular shape and each page consists of two panels of the same size. As the artist explained in an interview, he originally drew the single panels on index cards. While the simple two-panel comic-strip layout sounds like it would impede any form of advanced storytelling, it works surprisingly well in practice. Sturm accomplishes the feat of making each episode feel significant on its own while still advancing the overall narrative. This is also due to the superb writing: Off Season packs an emotional punch, but it never feels overburdened by its themes.

© Drawn & Quarterly

Sturm deftly intertwines the personal and the political in his work while also addressing the growing economic rifts within the United States. Reading Off Season made me feel the intense strain of its principal character who works in construction and is trying to get by, despite being taken advantage of by his employer and supplying for his kids. Ultimately, Off Season invites to be read as a story about the modern struggles of masculinity, fatherhood and the genuine difficulties of family life after separation. It is a great comic and one I will surely return to in the wintry days ahead.

Off Season
James Sturm
2019
Drawn & Quarterly

Comic Review – My Friend Dahmer (Derf Backderf)

© Abrams ComicArts

Chasing Shadows

In the realm of pop culture, the stories of celebrities tend to develop a life of their own. Rock stars, famous rappers and activists are all shrouded in a mystical halo, making everything they ever did either point to their inevitable success or failure. The same applies to famous criminals. It would be naïve to assume that our perception of convicted murderers and rapists remains unchanged as soon as they are dipped into Hollywood limelight, wrapped into layers of representation, the faces of actors superimposed upon their own. One interesting question to ask is why people who commit such atrocities even spark fascination in the first place. Why even dive into that rabbit hole of human abyss?

The answer of Derf Backderf, the U.S. cartoonist behind the 2012 graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer would probably be relatively simple: He knew the guy. Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer, the teenager who would later in his life murder, rape and mutilate 17 males before being killed by a fellow inmate in prison in 1994. Backderf’s comic looks back to a time before these horrible crimes were committed, to his own high school days in 1970’s Ohio in order to get closer to Dahmer as a person. As stated in the comic’s foreword, the intent of the work is not to excuse the actions of his school friend but to contextualize them, to show that the transformation of the shy and severely troubled teenager into a mass murderer was not set in stone and could perhaps have been avoided.

This attempt to humanize a person whose later actions were unspeakably violent and deranged, to add a perspective to the story that suspends judgement and strives for understanding, is constantly under threat within the comic. This is a memoir, not a psychological report, and despite a visible aim for clarity, Backderf’s graphic memories of Dahmer and his high school days are always steeped in emotion and presented by a very prominent narrator. One might even say that there are two conflicting perspectives within the comic: there is one in which Backderf recounts his own personal memories of Dahmer as a teenager, who traces their parallel trajectories from adolescence to adult life, recounts their shared time in hallways, during lunch breaks and car rides. And then there is another in which the narrator attempts to ‘fill in the blanks’ with the help of criminal records and interviews to understand the struggles of Dahmer and the events to which Backderf was oblivious at the time.

The way that these levels blend into each other may be one of the comic’s greatest strengths. Backderf draws parallels between his life and Dahmer’s and thereby asks meaningful questions concerning the forces that shape us in our upbringing and the extent of our own personal freedom. By describing to the peculiarities of 1970’s rural Ohio he points to the paradox of a tight-knit neighborhood that is simultaneously inert when it comes to helping people who are obviously in desperate need, whether this be Dahmer himself or his severely ill mother. In the comic, Dahmer is presented as a vulnerable and isolated figure, neglected by his self-absorbed parents, and isolated from his peers first by his growing mental instability. However, he is also an enigma, a person retreated to far into himself that his personality is hardly more than a small shadow in the corner of a room. The only time Dahmer drew any attention in school was in his role as ‘class clown’ who briefly amused high fellow students (including Backderf) with his antics.

© Abrams ComicArts

The inscrutability of Dahmer is mostly conveyed by the drawings which present the face of the troubled teenager as a cold mask, almost devoid of any emotion except for the grotesque grimaces during his pranks. In general, Backderf’s drawings are cartoony in the best way, the detailed and clear fineliner art reminding me of the work of Joe Sacco. The comic presents characters, objects and landscapes in an angular and weird fashion that is both clunky and appealing despite its simplicity.

© Abrams ComicArts

Like the drawings, the narrative structure of My Friend Dahmer also shows Backderf’s skill as a cartoonist. The story has a distinct arc as it zooms in and out of Dahmer’s and Backderf’s lives, sometimes comparing their upbringing in juxtaposing panels. At certain points, however, the comic seems too absorbed by its own meaningfulness. Comparing Dahmer to Jack the Ripper in one unfortunate panel, or making references to the “hellish future” that awaits him are unbecomingly sensationalist and divert attention from the events as they unfold. In keeping with the advice “show, don’t tell”, My Friend Dahmer is at its best when it is at its most personal. Many of Backderf’s drawn memories are certainly haunting and bear the regret of not having known enough.

© Abrams ComicArts

While this is certainly a graphic memoir worth reading, the question remains whether My Friend Dahmer can contribute to the demystification of its subject or merely adds yet another layer of representation to his story. While the passages that recount Backderf’s first-hand memories certainly feel genuine and thought provoking, it is only too telling that the cover of the book’s newest edition already points to the next medium, the 2017 film of the same title. The photographed boy on the cover of my comic’s edition may look like Dahmer, but beware, it is in fact actor Ross Lynch.

My Friend Dahmer
Derf Backderf
2012
Abrams ComicArts

Novel Review – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)

© Penguin Random House

Ocean Vuong is not a new name for me. Back in 2016, I stumbled over his poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds while browsing NPR’s Book Concierge on the search for holiday reads. What caught my attention at the time was the name (what better word to encapsulate depth and uncertainty than ocean) but also the cover which displays two women sitting at the sides of a small boy in a faded and slightly ominous photograph. The poetry of the US-Vietnamese poet struck me. Vuong’s vivid, yet enigmatic pieces dealing with family, cultural heritage and same-sex desire left a dent in the back of my mind, deep enough that I was excited to hear that he had released his debut novel this year.

© Copper Canyon Press

My expectations were not disappointed: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fragmented yet beautiful work, the novel’s 240 pages feeling not long at all but condensed and sharp. Plot-wise it is a difficult book to pin down, however. As the falling leaves on the cover of the radiant UK edition suggest, Vuong’s novel deals a lot with transformation and loss. Written as a letter from a young man named Little Dog to his mother, the novel invites to be read autobiographically as the narrator shares many traits with Vuong himself, including his childhood immigration from Saigon to Hartford, Connecticut.

There are many different narrative strands in the book, from the experiences of Little Dog’s grandmother in South Vietnam during the war to the tragic story of the narrator’s drug addicted first love Trevor, who lives with his father in a trailer on the outskirts of town. What binds many of these strands together is that they revolve around different types of trauma and their effect on the body. The physical and mental wounds inflicted during the Vietnam war have painful repercussions in Little Dog’s life, from the schizophrenia and flashbacks of his grandmother to the violence and frustration of his mother.

The novel succeeds in conveying the state of loss and disorientation brought by the family’s move to the US, a foreign country both in culture and language. In one of the book’s many memorable passages, Vuong’s mother is humiliated in front of her son as she tries to buy oxtail for a Vietnamese dish at a local mall. Gasping for words, first in Vietnamese then in broken French, the butcher laughs at her final attempt to communicate with gestures. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous treats the loss of language as a particularly painful wound, a perhaps irreparable blank space between severed connections, a void experienced only as phantom pain.

Many of the novel’s passages feel like memories in the sense that they are carried by a feeling of urgency and visceral sensory experience. This is especially true for the relationship between Little Dog and Trevor which takes up a considerable portion of the book. As the narrator visits Trevor in his trailer, he describes his yearning for the taste of his lover, the flavor of his tongue, the salt around his neck and scent of his fingers. Vuong’s language manages to feel both precise while repeatedly blooming into poetic imagery. In recounting the experience of being bullied during bus rides to school for example, Little Dog remembers pressing his head into the seat in front of him, looking at his electric sneakers which “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.”

The novel avoids the pitfalls of devolving into a static assortment of such images through its elaborate structure. Vuong skillfully interweaves and juxtaposes different narrative strands, switching from past to present and back in a way that feels like it is creating a meaningful rhythm. At times, the experimental structure of the novel threatens to dissolve the narrative altogether, especially in the middle section where the prose breaks into fragmented sentences that somehow seem unfinished. But it all comes back together in the end, mirroring through its fractured form both the characters and perhaps even the state of the country as a whole.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a beautiful novel that I will surely come back to in the years ahead.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong
2019
Penguin Random House

Comic Review – Les Têtards (Pascal Matthey)

© l’employé du Moi

During a recent family vacation in Brussels, I snuck off to discover some of the comic book stores in the area. Admittedly, I didn’t get further than Multi-BD, a shop on one of Brussel’s main streets with an incredible assortment of French and English independent comics (including all the R. Crumb you can think of). Faced with an impossible choice, I stuck to a shelf of local flavor and picked two books by l’employé du Moi, an independent publisher I had heard about before that is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Among the two books I chose is Les Têtards, a beautiful wordless comic by Swiss-born artist Pascal Matthey. It’s a small book, around 100 pages and half the size of a sheet of paper, with a minimal yet elegant hardcover binding that features the title in green letters superimposed over a drawing of frog-shaped gummy bears. This type of candy, also found in kiosks on every German street corner, reminded me of my childhood and this association is not far off: Les Têtards is a drawn collection of childhood memories, presented in short wordless episodes.

What immediately struck me about the comic are its delicately shaded pencil drawings. Apart from the characters who follow a more cartoony aesthetic, everything is rendered in detail and the still life drawings and landscapes that dominate the book are beautiful to look at. The comic consists of different interwoven episodes that each center on moments of the protagonist’s childhood. These penciled snapshots of time range from the mundane to the extraordinary, there are memories of family vacations in the mountains, of falling in love for the first time, of discovering sexuality but also of marveling at a snail on the roadside. At times, the memories are bound together by a shared theme, specifically the tadpoles that give the comic its name. The child protagonist is fascinated by the metamorphoses of the tiny embryos that eventually turn into frogs while he himself is steadily growing, slowly shifting from childhood into adolescence.

© l’employé du Moi

At other times, the episodes of Les Têtards are structured more by means of association. One memory leads to the next and the single images morph into each other. While the layout of the book sticks mostly to a calm 6 panel composition, Matthey skillfully finds a rhythm to his stories by juxtaposing still images that share visual similarities, comparable to match cuts in film. In one of my favorite sequences of this type, the spawn of frogs transforms into a soccer ball and later into marbles. At their best, such sequences not only evoke the memory itself but also the act of remembering.

By taking its time, Les Têtards finds beauty in silent images and succeeds in conjuring up the intensity and wonder of childhood experience. The memories that stay with us over the years, that get carried over the tide of forgetting are significant in their own right and Matthey’s thoughtful, meditative comic reminded me why.

Les Têtards
Pascal Matthey
2016
l’employé du Moi (Belgium)