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Kramers Ergot 8 Post #1

Notes on Kramers Ergot 8, Part 1

Give yourself a little credit as a comics reader (or a comics critic), and don’t assume that Ian Svenonius’s essay is the mission statement of Kramers Ergot 8 simply because it is written in prose and appears near the beginning. It isn’t even the first thing in the anthology – it follows a series of Robert Beatty’s abstract, suggestive imagery entitled “Overture,” a title that suggests that those looking for clues as to what Sammy Harkham had in mind in assembling the anthology should begin there. Of course, the nebulous, spacey images in “Overture” don’t give much away, but my point is that Svenonius’s deliberately intellectually faulty essay doesn’t either. It doesn’t pretend to be academic criticism – none of the conspiracy theory claims are cited, and the author goes out on several trees’ worth of limbs – and it wouldn’t make sense in this anthology if it were.

It’s standard fare in contemporary art catalogues to commission a laudatory essay from a noted scholar in order to elevate the artist being showcased to someone worthy of such a publication… as if the artist’s artistic worth were not self-evident enough to be plopped down on a coffee table on its own. Similarly, a genre anthology (say, of spy fiction) might include an essay situating the contents in historical context. But KE 8 isn’t an art catalogue or a genre anthology, and it doesn’t need an essay to provide context or clarity for its contents. Harkham’s skill as an editor is evidenced by his assembling contents that, in the aggregate, suggest that something is going on that needs to be decoded. This wasn’t the case in earlier volumes of the anthology. Those earlier issues (I’m thinking of #4 through #7) exploded with comics of all different lengths and styles and contained so much content that even the most jaded fan could find quite a bit to appreciate. Here, though, the smaller size, scaled down list of contributors, and almost relentlessly dark thematic orientation converge to goad the reader into figuring out what the point of it all is.

If the graphical content is difficult, therefore, the prose content must be there to shed light on it all, right? But it doesn’t. And, it’s kind of a weird reversal to think that this should be the case in the first place: after all, comics are known for telling stories, which is why a successful series of books uses them to break down the impenetrable prose of famous philosophers.

Graphically, KE8 spans mediums: from Beatty’s abstract creations to Takeshi Murata’s vaguely threatening still lives, and from Kevin Huizenga’s and Gabrielle Bell’s tidy characters to CF’s angular, pattern-driven aesthetic. Taking it on its own terms then, why can’t the prose piece just be another part of this swirling mix of themes and ideas?

To add in my personal feelings about the essay: I’m ambivalent about it. Svenonius paints the history of camp with so broad a brush that his conclusions lack any resonance. On the other hand, though, he gets so over-the-top in places that the piece reads like a hypothetical… In other words, if we change setting from the academic (the vaunted INTRODUCTORY ESSAY) and switch instead to a bunch of college friends sitting on pillows and passing around a bong, then sure, I could see contemporary comics as the gussied-up end point on a continuum that started with pagan animal-sex. Why not?

Anthologies should have stand-out pieces, but a truly great anthology shouldn’t have stand-alone pieces. This essay doesn’t work as a stand-alone piece, but it does work as the counterpoint to Beatty’s overture. The imagery in the overture is ethereal, and it invokes ideas of the divine, the cosmos, metaphysics… really heady shit. Then, Svenonius comes in and basically says, “All this art came from pagan animal sex.”

It’s about balance – word and image together to hint at something deeper. This is comics’ promise, and so it’s wrong to short-circuit that by looking for something simple and familiar (words/prose) to diffuse the tension that is ratcheted up by the graphical content in the book.

Up Next: Why is Kramers Ergot 8 Terrifying?

The Darkest Black – A Bunch of Words about J.-P. Manchette, Jacques Tardi, and so on

The Darkest Black

1. Framing Device

I didn’t decide to start writing this essay because of anything having to do with the eventual subjects, cartoonist Jacques Tardi and author Jean Patrick Manchette. That’s not to say that those two subjects aren’t interesting to me; I have been some level of obsessed with both of them for over a decade now. But the little bug that gets in my brain and motivates me to start trying to wrestle my thoughts down on paper didn’t come from anything Tardi or Manchette put down on the page, or at least not initially. It all started with the printer: the black wasn’t black enough. And since we’re talking about noir, that was a problem.

2. Peas in a Pod

Quickly: Tardi is a fantastically celebrated cartoonist who has been at the forefront of the industry in France for 35 years. In contrast to his slow burn, Manchette shot out ten crime novels over the course of ten years, redefined and reinvigorated the French crime novel, became hugely influential, and died of cancer in the 1990s.

Tardi and Manchette first teamed up to publish Griffu in 1978, and then, after Manchette’s death, Tardi began adapting his novels, starting with Le petit bleu de la côté ouest, published in 2005. The compatibility between the two artists is uncanny; maybe a better critic could point out exactly why in just a few words, or maybe it’s one of those matchups that works without needing explanation. To elaborate a little, I could go on about how Tardi’s strong and confident linework parallels Manchette’s objectivist depiction of the world, or how both artists excel at finding beauty and poetry in the visceral, and so on. However, Manchette is not the only crime novelist with whom Tardi worked, and yet I find Tardi’s adaptations of his work more powerful than his adaptations of/collaborations with other crime novelists. Similarly, Tardi is hardly the only cartoonist with strong linework or an unflinching commitment to depicting violence. Still, I recently sat down to read a Manchette novel that has yet to be adapted, and I couldn’t help but imagine it populated by characters drawn by Tardi. The book (L’affaire N’Gustro) was in French, and as I read it, the Tardi adaptation unfolded naturally in my head, as if I understood it not in an impromptu mental translation into English, or in the native French, but in Tardi’s own visual language.

The impossibly perfect matching of an artist and writer is a rare thing; I would put Bukowski and Crumb in this category, as well Raymond Queneau and Jacques Carelman. Or, to bring it full circle, Tardi and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Tardi’s collaboration with Céline was part of a series of books published in a joint venture by Futuropolis and Gallimard, the titanic French publishing house. The idea was to marry classics from the Nouvelle Revue Francaise (an imprint of Gallimard, whose books are about as iconically French as books can be, with their cream-colored cardstock covers and red and black printing) with prominent cartoonists for a line of elaborately illustrated large-format collaborations1, 1a.

However, Tardi’s artistic compatibility with both Céline and Manchette is not to suggest that those writers are particularly similar. For one, Manchette occupied the extreme left, whereas Céline was so far right that he was banished from France following World War II for supporting fascism (and for being vehemently anti-Semitic). In terms of their writing, though, they differed as well: Manchette self-consciously wrote in a particular genre, and he used that genre toward ends (namely, political engagement and social critique) that eclipsed its staid embodiment in throwaway airplane novels. (Or “train station novels” as those relentlessly quaint Frenchies insist on calling them.) Céline, on the other hand, used writing as a giant middle finger to the French literary establishment. He viewed the establishment as one that would never have him, and his eventual acceptance in the 1950’s when his novels were rereleased following his exile seemed only to make him angrier. Ever the one to bite the hand that feeds, he famously proclaimed in his preface to the new edition of Journey that all his racist, anti-Semitic, and fascist tendencies were present in that one novel. That is a debatable point – there is certainly nothing overt, although his utter disgust with modern life and humanity in general is what gives the novel its strength. It is, after all, a psychological (and literal) travelogue about finding the depths of human misery and cruelty, and understanding one’s own capacity to withstand the realities of modern life. To accomplish this goal, Céline weaves a competent enough plot (although it is so episodic it almost feels like the book was serialized), although his real strength is in his language. Never before had slang, profanity, unconventional grammar, and colloquial speech been used so extensively in French literature. Other authors had dabbled in slang and perhaps included passages spoken in colloquial language by individual characters as a way to illustrate them more realistically, but Céline was the first to write an entire book in that language. It’s one long first-person narrative that starts with the author protesting that it wasn’t even his fault that he began speaking in the first place and finishes with the author’s declaration that he has said all there is to say, and so he should just stop talking. The character is the protagonist, but speech is both the hero and the villain – it lays bare the human condition in a way that hadn’t been explored in literature before, but it also dooms the character to occupy modern life fully and without respite. And, to believe Céline’s declaration, it brought the author literary celebrity while also getting him exiled from his homeland and briefly imprisoned.

To whittle it down a little bit, Manchette used language within the confines of a genre as a finely-honed tool to explore political and social realities, whereas Céline used an explosive form of language like a grenade, consequences be damned. Many authors maintain a carefully calculated persona like a marketing gimmick, but I believe (without having any references on which to base this conclusion) that Céline simply wrote because he wanted to talk about a world that he abhorred. He didn’t have much of a point to make except that he hated everything about modern life. He was a pacifist, but in a very nihilistic way; he was not a reactionary, because he understood that industrialization was impossible to stop, and he didn’t care to try. He hated war, and he hated people for perpetuating war; he hated Jews, because he thought they hoarded money and pushed societies toward war for their own gain. When he began to tout pragmatic steps to end war (such as deferring to the Nazis so as to not see France embroiled in World War II), the wheels fell off, and his writing started to make less and less sense. The increasing bitterness consumed him and his later works, not all of which I have read, since to me they don’t hold nearly the same power as Journey and its sequel, Death on Credit. It is in those two books that his style develops most significantly, and where his worldview burns through the page like nothing I’d ever read before. It’s not that it is dark, it’s that it so spectacularly illuminates the author’s position in a world he can’t control and is just starting to understand. There’s beauty in the suffering, in the artifice that people construct, and in the ways they hurt each other, and that beauty is in the clarity of seeing all of that for the first time, of experiencing a character as he sees it for the first time. The plot is incidental; it’s the language that elevates the story from a bitter, reactionary treatise to a work of literary art.

So, while the diversity of locales and colorful personalities lend themselves to colorful illustration, merely depicting the action of the plot doesn’t add anything to the book. Tardi’s task in illustrating Céline, then, was to illustrate his language. Obviously, this is impossible, but Tardi succeeds in injecting his own visual language into Céline’s text. He doesn’t mimic Céline so much as he captures the energy of Céline’s language through drawing. Again, how he does this is something I’ll leave to a more astute critic; I’m content to point to almost bizarrely spot-on compatibility of Céline’s verbal language and Tardi’s visual language and leave it at that. (Put more crassly, anyone can illustrate a soldier vomiting in front of a pile of mangled bodies, but only Tardi can illustrate a soldier vomiting in front of a pile of mangled bodies in a way that rises above the shock value of such a scene toward more lofty ideas like self-discovery.)

So, Céine and Manchette are very different writers, yet Tardi is a perfect match for both. I’m aware of undercutting my own point either by attesting simply to Tardi’s versatility as an artist or even worse by coming across as an obsessed fan (though I am), so I should add that Tardi is not a swiss army knife. For example, consider Le Procès Verbal, another Gallimard/Futuropolis book. Written by J.M.G. Le Clézio, the book is sparse and meditative and great match for Alain Baudoin, another famous French cartoonist. Baudoin’s expressive brush strokes and partially unfinished characters mimic Le Clézio’s smoldering prose in a way that Tardi never could.

3. Key Plate

The more I thought about it, the dichotomies between Céline and Manchette came into even starker relief: confessional versus calculated, modern versus postmodern, grenade versus scalpel, etc. However, the two authors are certainly not without commonality: most notably, that truth is easier to find in blood, guts, and sex/injury; in violence, destitution, and  disease/malfeasance than it is in the linguistic games of the high modernists (Céline’s contemporaries) or the linguistic, err, games of the postmodernists (Manchette’s contemporaries).

Switching gears: most commercial printing is four-color process, meaning that all the colors are made up of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black or combinations thereof. Newfangled digital printers mix all the colors together via microscopic robots (I’m pretty sure), but true process printing involves the use of plates. Essentially, you stamp the same image one time with each color plate, and the overlapping combinations of color product the full-color image. The combination is called CMYK and not CMYB, because the black plate is the “key” plate. In other words, because the detail of the image is most often rendered in black, all of the other colors are keyed to the black plate; it holds the rest of the image together.

For Céline and Manchette, what I call the “low focus” (meaning, the obsession with violence, misery, blood and guts, and so on, and as opposed to “high focus” like spirituality, idealism, and virtue) is the key plate that holds their work together. And, like Céline, Manchette is unflinchingly dark. There’s a reason he’s the modern hero of the noir novel – his books are populated with such relentless violence that if they were made faithfully into movies, they would still shock audiences even in a world that has been desensitized by the likes of Human Centipede.

People don’t merely die in Manchette novels; they elevate the act of dying to a form of performance art. When a Manchette character dies, he doesn’t simply bleed to death – his bowels empty noisily as he screams in agony. Fragments of his brain splatter the walls. If a character is merely being tortured, he vomits uncontrollably, often to the frustration of the torturer. However, Manchette doesn’t sentimentalize death or violence – even as his setpieces are clogged with gore, he moves through them swiftly and then leaves them behind. The people engaging in violence are just doing a job. They are hired killers, not sadists. The callousness with which Manchette writes about violence makes the depictions darker when viewed within the novel as a whole. Rather than wallowing in violence, his books merely depict the world the way he sees it – as a fucking violent place.

4. The Pleasure of Manchette

The book I referenced earlier, L’Affaire N’Gustro, opens with Manchette at his Manchettiest. Henri Butron sits alone in a room and speaks into a tape recorder well into the night. He finishes, stops the tape, and has the intention of listening to the recording, since “his own life fascinates him.” However, before he can get to it, the door opens, and two men enter the room. One takes out a gun, at which point Butron soils himself. The man shoots Butron in the heart, and bits of flesh and blood spray the wall behind him as he falls to the floor. And, as if you could expect otherwise, his bowels continue to empty for three or four seconds after his death. After setting up the death to look like a suicide, the men take the tape and leave, eventually delivering it to a military official. End of chapter one.

I should note, though, that the book actually begins with several post-mortem testimonies about Butron from various characters the reader has yet to meet, so that by the time the reader finds Butron sitting alone in the room, he or she is aware that he was a difficult guy – hateful, dangerous, and an overall bastard, depending on which testimonies are to be believed.

All this has the effect of profoundly disorienting the reader within the first few pages of the book. This is obviously not a simple genre exercise meant to entertain and kill a few hours. On a structural level, the reader is introduced initially to a succession of characters with no context and no indication of how significantly they will factor into the narrative. The varying spotlights on Butron are similarly unreliable; they seem to converge on certain aspects of his character but diverge on others, leading to a very murky picture right from the beginning. I get the sense that Manchette is playing with the idea of an introduction, and rather than leading the reader into the story, he is blindfolding him/her and spinning him/her around a few times before letting the reader in to explore the narrative itself.
Speaking of the “narrative itself,” the narration itself is another site of disorientation. After the quick bursts that open the book, a third-person narrator describes Butron, who is in the process of narrating what will become the bulk of the book. Then, upon stopping the tape and intending to listen to it, Butron shifts roles from the narrator/author to the listener/reader – although he doesn’t completely make this transition, what with being brutally murdered and all. So, the job of listener/reader shifts to Oufiri, the military figure with whom the two hitmen leave the tape. The third-person narrator still drops in and out over the course of the book, although the bulk of the rest of the text is comprised of Butron’s narration. Frequently interrupting Butron, however, is testimony from other characters about Butron, and these interludes often narrate the same events Butron is in the middle of describing. The ultimate effect is one in which no one voice triumphs – Butron’s is the most engaging, since much of the other narration takes on a purely objective tone, whereas Butron is fascinating in his callous (although not emotionless) recounting of his misdeeds, although no one voice ever captures the mantle of reliability.

Among all the praise Manchette has received for resuscitating the French crime novel and using it to critique politics and culture, I haven’t seen anyone praise him for what he does with text. I’ll admit I haven’t looked very hard into French-language scholarship about Manchette, but I get the sense that a hard, textual analysis of his works isn’t too high on anyone’s bucket list, since he is still, after all, a genre writer. But, the narrative disorientation in play in L’Affaire N’Gustro is significant in its subversion of the very concept of genre fiction. When I think of genre fiction, I see plot as the ultimate goal – the particular genre is determined by certain tropes used in the story, but above all, any genre exercise has to move, the reader will leave it behind. Disrupting the narrator the way Manchette does in this book pulls the rug out from under the narrative momentum. Once the reader settles in to Butron’s narration, the book starts to move a little. He recounts an episode in his youth in which he steals a car to drive around a couple women, only to be confronted by the car’s owner when he returns. A fight breaks out, and the car’s owner gets injured. At this point, Manchette cuts in with an excerpt from the testimony of Jacquie Gouin (a character who has yet to be introduced at this point), and this testimony goes all the way from Butron’s birth to just after the auto theft fracas in the space of a couple pages. From Gouin, the reader learns that, as an alternative to jail, Butron joins the army and sustains an eye injury during a training exercise. Then, Manchette cuts back to Butron’s narration, and Butron proceeds to detail the aftermath of the confrontation, his legal trouble, and his military deployment in greater detail.

This strategy plays with the reader’s expectation of the novel’s velocity – rather than chugging along, it stops and starts, speeds up and slows down. The multivalent narration doesn’t just call into question the notion of each narrator’s reliability; it fragments the very nature of plot, turning the book into a formal examination of exactly what a genre novel should do if it isn’t simply going to advance a plot from point A to point B.

While thinking about the answer to this question, my mind turned to my favorite theorist whenever text is involved: Roland Barthes2. In his book The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes lays out a manifesto of sorts for how the author imbues pleasure in a text and how a reader finds it. He separates intellectual “enjoyment” of a text with a more pure/elemental pleasure. In the French, the word is “jouissance,” which is difficult to translate; most English translations use “bliss” although bliss can connote peace and serenity, where “jouissance” does not. (Keep in mind that “jouir” in French means “to come” in English). (Keep in mind that I’m talking about the orgasm version of “to come.”) So on the one hand, there is intellectual pleasure, and on the other hand, there is this untranslatable sublime experience; of course, it’s the second one that Barthes is interested in.

From the text: “The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense.” He goes onto explain that a striptease progresses from clothed to nude, and the desire on the part of the viewer is all stored in that end point, when the dancer is fully nude. Shedding individual garments builds enjoyment by building anticipation to the final garment dropping, although each step of the striptease does not create any enjoyment except in its relation to the rest of the process. Similarly, focusing only on plot, as one would when reading a genre novel, renders the individual developments meaningless except in service to the end, to the reader’s ultimate goal of knowing what happened. Barthes equates the endpoints here: a striptease is titillating the same way a plot is interesting – because at the end of both, the reader/viewer knows. A performer has become naked, and the viewer now knows what was underneath those garments. A plot has concluded, and the reader knows what happened. This is the intellectual side of things – the exercise of intellectual will over the text, to know the mysteries it holds. The problem with this pleasure is that once the end point is reached, the pleasure is over. The plot of the book never again holds the same power.

The flipside to the intellectual pleasure of the text is that which resides in the edges. Returning to the analogy of the flesh, Barthes (ever the pervert, as he himself readily admits) describes the different kind of pleasure that exists when two pieces of clothing momentarily spread apart and flesh is glimpsed underneath. This moment is not part of a progression from clothed to nude; it is a flash that suggests the mystery of what lies underneath but is totally self-contained. The edges of a text are where it seeks to undermine itself, where it departs from traditional narrative. But, Barthes is not placing unreadable postmodern texts on a pedestal here; to him, Flaubert and de Sade are masters of the “text of bliss” because their texts abandon a traditional narrative structure at the same time that they are still easy enough to follow.

Thus the idea of the edge: to Barthes, a book by Flaubert is blissful to read, because it juxtaposes the conventions of the traditional plot-driven serialized 19th Century novel with a realist dismantling of narrative. The plot moves the book from point A to point B, but the true enjoyment is in the way discontinuity dismantles the narrativity of the text without rendering it unreadable. Manchette, anyone? Here is an author of genre fiction who goes to great lengths to subvert, interrupt, and disorient the plot’s progress from beginning to end. The edges in this book are neon-lit from the very first page, and once the reader realizes that Manchette is doing much more than being cute, the pleasure of reading a book like L’Affaire N’Gustro takes on a surprising new dimension.

Manchette’s success here is the same as Flaubert’s, in that L’Affaire N’Gustro still succeeds as a noir novel. As Barthes notes, if Manchette used the conventions of the genre as window-dressing for his linguistic games, reading the book would be a chore. What is pleasurable is that the ultraviolence, sexual aggression, and rip-roaring plot continue to pull the reader in even as the text itself twists and turns.

5. Journey to the Darkest Black

Manchette’s last novel, La position du tireur couché, translated as The Prone Gunman and (more successfully, in my opinion) Like a Sniper Lining up his Shot, is more subtle in its textual subversion, although it is far from a traditional genre exercise. Its narrator is a static 3rd person with an extreme behaviorist focus, to the point that the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters are never expressed. Here is another edge: the reader is drawn in to finish the portraits of Manchette’s characters, and to populate them with inner lives that the narrative leaves blank. As well, the premise of the book is so absurdly cliché that Manchette seems to be thumbing his nose at the entire genre: he has become such a master by this point that he can take even the most contrived premise and weave a successful book with considerable depth out of it. The premise is as follows: Martin Terrier is a successful mercenary and contract killer who wants to cash out so he can retire with his high school sweetheart and live a life of comfort. Conveniently, the woman had promised him that she would wait ten years for him to do what he needed to do.

Of course, his plan unravels, also in expected ways. Of course his employers have something to say about his decision to retire and rope him in for one last big score. Of course his sweetheart moved on and married a sensible man. And so on. So, like the beginning of N’Gustro, in which the death of the main character is known from the beginning, the general plot of Tireur is not hard to figure out without ever reading the book. Sure, there’s a twist at the end, but even that is something that a reader of this genre would expect.

Personally, however, my reaction to Tireur was much stronger; despite the contrivances, it stayed with me for days, and I kept returning to it to try to figure it out, although I wasn’t really sure what it was I needed to figure out in the first place. Whereas N’Gustro is a great little noir novel with some really daring subversive narrative structure, Tireur was more readable and moved quickly from beginning to end, yet I had a much more difficult time extricating myself from the text. I suppose I was trying to finish filling in the characters and never felt comfortable totally pulling away.

I should also add that my reading of this book was different than N’Gustro (and not just because I read it in English first). My first encounter was with the English translation of the Tardi adaptation, published in 2011 by Fantagraphics. Then, I reread the Tardi version in French, and finally I read the original novel in English. So, I have experienced reading this book from multiple perspectives, all in the hopes of better focusing my thoughts on it. A side effect, though, is that the story now feels larger to me than a single book, since I have approached it from so many different angles.

Despite being a very faithful adaptation, Tardi’s version of Tireur is substantially different from the novel3. I don’t mean that is different in terms of the plot… It’s so obvious that it should go without saying, but telling the story using half pictures and half words dramatically changes the reading experience. To return to Barthes, the narrative still moves from point A to point B, although the combination of visual art and text creates a specific set of edges in the text through a visual addition-by-subtraction. I didn’t notice it until I had read the comic alongside the original book, but Tardi deftly excises chunks of narration that he can easily illustrate in order to move the narrative along. This might seem like an obvious thing to do for a cartoonist adapting a novel, but it’s still pretty sly in its maintenance of balance between retaining the word-for-word narration of the novel and incorporating images to illustrate the action.

To clarify a little, the panels that grab me are not simply where Tardi replaces textual narration with visual narration. (Meaning, if the narrative read “X drove the car from his home to his office,” and cartoonist drew X in the process of driving the car from his home to his office, this wouldn’t be particularly interesting. It’s adaptation, so that sort of textual/visual substitution is to be expected). Instead, it’s the way Tardi pulls off a textual/visual mixture rather than a textual/visual substitution. Consider the following panel as one example among many… The text reads, “Past Châtelet, the Estafette stopped for a red light. Terrier quickly took advantage of the moment to climb into the back, where Maubert was beginning to stir. He hit him hard in the back of the head with the butt of the Smith & Wesson before returning to the wheel and setting off again.” However, in the comic, Tardi crops the narration after “Maubert was beginning to stir.” His illustration tells the rest of the story.


Two things happen here: first, Tardi invites the reader to make the connection that the “opportunity” presented by the red light is the opportunity for Terrier to clobber Maubert with the butt of his gun. Second, in illustrating the attack, Tardi goes beyond what is described by the text; the violence is just as quick, but the effect on the reader is more visceral, both in terms of the victim’s suffering (Maubert’s pained reaction) and the aggressor’s urgency (Terrier’s scrunched, tense face). In this way, the comic is similar to the novel but altogether different, and the play between the images and the text (and the metaplay between the adaptation and the original text) demands an actively engaged reader. (Sure, the rollicking tale is fun enough just to sit down and read, but what I’m getting at is that there’s so much more there.)

For instance, the illustrations betray Manchette’s behaviorist focus at the same time that they enhance it. The story opens with a sweeping depiction of a London street, focusing eventually on Terrier hiding in a van, gun in hand, ready to do some killing. He sees his target, shoots him, and then shoots his girlfriend (complete with loud emptying of bowels). Then, he returns to his hotel, has a drink, cleans and disassembles his gun, and goes to sleep. In the novel, the narration ticks through his actions like a shopping list, rigidly avoiding giving up any information whatsoever about what Terrier might think about any of what had just transpired. Ditto for the comic, as far as the text is concerned. It should be noted that Tardi doesn’t take many liberties with Manchette’s narration (for the most part), so what’s there is there verbatim. Still, in drawing Terrier as he completes all of these actions, the reader of the comic sees more of Terrier than the reader of the novel. The extreme tightness of the novel’s opening scene is loosened slightly by the inclusion of the illustrations – seeing the way Terrier carries himself in the course of completing his job and handling the aftermath and getting a feel for his facial expressions gives the reader significantly more insight into the workings of the main character than the bare text in the novel. Still, Tardi doesn’t exactly draw Terrier with an expressiveness that is out of step with the novel – his face is generally blank, save for a spike in intensity in the heat of the moment when he’s doing his killing, and his posture doesn’t communicate much more than coldness. As a result, the illustrations have the dual effect of pulling the reader in by depicting Terrier much more naturalistically than in the novel (since a picture tells a thousand words and all that) while simultaneously keeping the reader at arm’s length by depicting Terrier in a way that gives away as little as possible of his inner workings.

I found the novel easier to take at face value, whereas the comic seemed to goad me into attempting to understand the characters better than is possible. This is why it stayed with me so strongly after reading it. Manchette’s narration is so cool and methodical that it is difficult not to follow it as it progresses. In contrast, Tardi’s characters are so over-the-top in their actions and reactions that some scenes, while being easy to follow thematically, barely make sense on an emotional level and require multiple readings. This isn’t an indictment of Tardi’s illustration; in fact, it is the opposite. Tardi is a master of expressing subtle emotions, especially on faces – and usually with not much more than some squiggly lines – and here, he succeeds in capturing the fact that his characters are experiencing strong emotions while somehow avoiding giving any clues as to what they may be feeling beyond the most obvious reactions (fear, pain, anger, etc).

The bottom line, though, is that the adaptation should offer more meat to chew on than the original text. If not, there’s not really much of a point to it. Like in his collaborations with Céline, the illustrations push the text to new places. Some of this, as I’ve described, is due to the nature of reading a comic versus reading a novel, although some of it stems from areas where the comic more directly plays with the original text of the novel. Tardi’s adaptation is very faithful, on its face, especially for around the first third of the book. However, in some key areas, Tardi’s version veers away from Manchette’s in subtle but significant ways4.

Now, I’m not talking about ‘editing for length,’ so to speak. Tardi leaves out certain details and even a couple entire scenes that are not consequential to the narrative (one that springs to mind is later in the novel, when Terrier leaves Alice at his hotel room and goes to visit a doctor, among other errands). This type of omission doesn’t really concern me, since leaving it in wouldn’t have added anything, besides a few more Tardi pages to look at (nothing to sniff at, sure).

Of greater import is the novel’s comment on the futility of ‘having a plan,’ and how Tardi represents this differently in the comic. In the novel, there are two scenes in which Terrier engages with a minor character long enough to listen to the character talk about having a plan to improve his situation. First, he talks to a hotel desk clerk, who confides to him that his ambition goes beyond working at the hotel, and that he’s squirreling money away in order to do something greater. Then, a bit later, a taxi driver says almost exactly the same thing to him. As a result, the reader understands that Terrier is not unique in his desire to set aside a fixed amount of time in his life to put a plan into action, however utopian his endgame comes across. It makes a larger statement about class mobility as well, suggesting that all throughout the service class exist people who have their sights set higher than their menial jobs. The spectacular failure of Terrier’s plan, in which he ends up in his father’s dead-end job with his father’s debilitating injury, puts a point on Manchette’s critique of the optimism people hold for upward mobility. There are those in power and those who aren’t, and Terrier’s transgressiveness in this regard, for all its drama, lands him exactly back where he started.

Interestingly, although both the hotel clerk and the taxi driver are present in the Tardi adaptation, neither gets enough screen time to describe to Terrier their grand plans. As a result, the comic narrows Manchette’s criticism of the myth of class mobility to Terrier himself. The class issues specific to Terrier’s situation (such as Alice’s father telling him that he has no future with her, or his unfulfilling one-night-stand with an employee at Alice’s father’s record player assembly factory) are still present, although the comic presents his failure to move up as his own, and less as a general constant of modern capitalist society.

Still, even with the spotlight directly on Terrier, the Martin Terrier of the comic is different than the Martin Terrier of the novel. Tardi’s Terrier is machine-like, powering his way through physical, emotional, and circumstantial setbacks (things like having his finger forcibly dislocated, being betrayed, and finding the dismembered corpse of his cat suspended in an aquarium, respectively) without losing focus. Manchette’s Terrier maintains the machine-like focus, although he stumbles and struggles and is at times overwhelmed by his emotions. In the novel, as Terrier’s plan falls apart and he takes desperate measures to try to resuscitate it, he visibly comes apart at the seams, until the final climactic scene in which a shot to the head metaphorically kills his grand gambit and relegates him to the lower class forever. In the comic, as his plan falls apart, he focuses only on how he can resuscitate it, ignoring even his sudden inability to speak as a mere inconvenience, until the final climactic scene in which all of his illusions suddenly come to an explosive halt via that shot to the head.

I’ll go into greater detail… At the beginning, Terrier’s emotional response to events around him (or lack thereof) is pretty much the same in the book and the comic. A good touchstone is when Terrier learns (in the newspaper) of his ex-girlfriend’s death, and that she was raped and tortured. He had split with her earlier in the book in order to put his plan in motion, cash out of the hitman game, and run away with Alice, and he learns the gruesome details of his ex’s death while in the car before driving to see Alice (and her husband Felix) for the first time in ten years. In his typical behaviorist style, Manchette writes:

As he read, Terrier brought his thumb and index finger to his face and mechanically smoothed his eyebrows. Then he threw the newspaper on the floor of the DS, turned off the overhead light, and passed the palm of his hand across his forehead to smooth it out. He seemed to reflect for a moment. He did not seem shocked. Perhaps he experienced a little sadness. Certainly he must have been thinking, for his face was screwed up in concentration. After a moment, he clicked his tongue and started the engine. He continued to frown all the way to his destination.

This scene is represented similarly in the comic, including the notation that Terrier might have been a little sad, and that he was definitely thinking, judging from the look on his face. Tellingly, Tardi doesn’t illustrate his face here, and instead pulls back from the car entirely, showing the environment around it. In the novel, the narration focuses the reader’s attention on Terrier’s face, a face twisted up in contemplation, but not betraying any specific emotion. The comic further distances the reader from Terrier’s emotional state by pulling away from his face rather than focusing in on it – thus making it even more difficult to tie Terrier to any particular emotional response to this event.

However, it isn’t until Terrier’s plan really starts to go awry that the novel and comic versions of his character begin to differ. The pivotal scene occurs when Terrier and Alice are involved in a violent clash at Alice and Felix’s country home. At this point in the story, Terrier has shown his face in his hometown and declared his intention to take Alice away, per his original plan. Felix good-naturedly entertains Terrier’s declaration, thinking Terrier is a lower-class thug beyond whom Alice has evolved. Felix invites Terrier to spend the weekend with them at the country home and uses the occasion to humiliate him, in order to illustrate just how far below Alice he is, both economically and intellectually. The happy gathering is interrupted by Rosanna Rossi and her thugs – Rossi is the sister of one of Terrier’s long-ago victims, Luigi Rossi, and she wants her revenge. In the shuffle, Felix gets shot, and while Rossi draws out her interrogation of Terrier, Alice manages to sneak up unnoticed and stab her through the back with a pitchfork. Terrier shoots the thugs, and then he and Alice escape by car.

Terrier tells Alice to stay, but she insists on sticking with him, and so they leave together. And here is where Terrier’s plan begins to fall apart. He was supposed to be done with the killing game, collect Alice, and steal away to a comfortable retirement. However, Alice’s husband and a bloody clash get in the way, and even though he leaves with Alice in tow, it is clear to him that there are more loose ends to tie up, and that he is not really free from his old life. In the novel, the first cracks in Terrier-the-machine’s exterior start to appear around this point. When driving toward Paris with Alice, she tells him that she isn’t tired and can drive if he’d prefer to sleep, and he responds by giving her “a perplexed look, as if she had said something strange that didn’t fit into his perspective. They spoke little after that.” This trend continues from here; whenever Terrier is confronted with something that doesn’t fit into his plan, he has a difficult time responding and either says nothing or stammers.

This difficulty with speaking happens again when Terrier tries to tell Alice that he is financially ruined. See, yet another hitch in his plan is his financial manager’s sudden murder (staged to look like a suicide), and so he realizes that he must return to his previous work if he is to raise enough money to escape with Alice as he’d previously planned. In the comic, he animatedly tells Alice that he needs to go back to work, and after laughing at him, she responds that he should go do what he needs to do, and that she’s beat and needs to sleep. In the novel, Terrier has a much more difficult time verbalizing his predicament. Narrating the scene, Manchette writes, “His lips moved, but he no longer seemed capable of speaking. ‘I’m ruined,’ he said suddenly.” Then, after explaining that he must return to work, he leaves the hotel, at which point Manchette adds, “Terrier had left the hotel and was walking toward the metro. At times, his lips moved. But he made no sound.”

In the novel, this scene underscores the reality that Terrier’s plan was the backbone of his entire being. As the plan falls apart, he becomes considerably weaker, to the point that he has trouble speaking. This difficulty with speech reaches its climax when his voice fails him completely and he spends the last part of the novel writing his thoughts on paper whenever he needs to communicate. In the comic, on the other hand, returning to work is simply what Terrier must do, and so he announces as much and sets about doing it.

The strongest diversion between the comic and the novel takes place in the scene between Terrier and Alice that follows his initial proclamation that he must return to work. Plot-wise, it isn’t hugely consequential, but in both the comic and the novel, the scene is one of the most illustrative of both Terrier’s and Alice’s personalities, although in very different ways. To summarize: Terrier returns to the hotel room to find Alice in a drunken sleep. She wakes up, and they have an argument in which he demands that she hide out while he takes care of his business, since his employers could use her to put pressure on him. She insists on staying with him, and she drunkenly invites him into bed with her for sex, despite his protestations that more pressing matters must be dealt with first. The scene ends when Cox’s henchmen burst in to capture Terrier and Alice and bring them to Cox.

And again, in more detail…

[Note: for some reason, the translator of Manchette’s novel translated “Alice” as “Anne.”]

Novel: “Anne was sleeping. She was crying in her sleep. Terrier studied her. He had an anxious, perplexed expression. Since the young woman continued to moan in a miserable, infantile way, he took her by the shoulders. She was naked in the bed. He gently shook her. She opened her eyes and stared at him with a lost look…

Comic: He returned to his room around 5:00 PM. Alice stopped sobbing in her sleep and woke up suddenly.”

Novel: “How many people have you killed?”

“Don’t drink any more! We have to take care of practicalities! Practicalities!” Terrier repeated nervously. With his hands in his pockets, he was facing Anne and rocking impatiently on his heels. The young woman took a swig from the bottle.

“You’re on the blink,” she declared in a neutral tone. She might as well have been pronouncing a diagnosis concerning a broken clock. “On the blink. Come to bed, then.” She threw herself violently back down, with her eyes hermetically sealed, without letting go of the bottle. Her whole face was red, and a flush spread across her throat and breasts. “Let’s fuck.” She opened her eyes. “That’s what you wanted,” she said decisively.

Comic: “How many people have you killed?… Dumbfuck! Psycho! Pervert! Come to bed and let’s screw! Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Quit drinking! There’s some practical matters we need to resolve!”

“Let’s fuck!”

So, a number of things in play here. As the scene opens in the novel, Terrier pauses to linger over Alice. True to his style, Manchette does not elaborate on Terrier’s thoughts, except to note anxiety, which is in keeping with what we’ve seen of him as his plan collapses. Immediately, Terrier is more of a participant in the scene, taking direct action, and involving himself with Alice, rather than reacting as events unfold around him, as he does in the comic, when Alice simply wakes up and the two begin arguing. And, in the comic, he contends with a very different Alice as well. Tardi’s Alice is missing the deliberateness that she possesses in the novel. She is much more aggressive and impulsive; in both scenes, she is very drunk, although her drunkenness in the novel causes her to bounce between amorous, angry, and resigned, whereas in the comic her sexuality is dialed up to the point drowns out the other facets of her character. When she says, “Let’s screw!” she adds “Isn’t that what you wanted?” The question at the end seems almost to be goading Terrier into sleeping with her, poking fun at him that he is hung up on other matters. In the novel, she doesn’t ask if sex was Terrier’s goal all along, she declares it. She presents herself to him, declaring that she is offering to him in that moment the fulfillment he had been working toward for a decade.

Terrier’s refusal, then, means different things in different contexts. In the novel, he is dealing with a more complex set of emotions; while Manchette doesn’t make them clear to the reader, he nonetheless indicates that Terrier is having a difficult time processing what is happening around him. The consummation of his relationship with Alice is at hand, but he is breaking down, suffering a crisis of his identity, and the reader gets the sense that he is unable to act on his desire. His only hope at this point is to cling to practicalities (both verbally, as evidenced by his nervous repetition of the word, and thematically), and to ignore Alice’s sexual availability.

Over in the comic, he is not breaking down, but Alice’s over-the-top come-ons are not conducive to his being able to get his plan back on the rails, so he resists them. The back-and-forth is of two people who have very little bonding them together but circumstance, and Alice is simultaneously amused and angered by the ridiculousness of the situation, prompting her to drink and to act irrationally. Terrier’s insistence on imposing a rational course of action only makes her more combustible. Unlike the Alice in the novel, who sadly but deliberately arrives at the conclusion that she and Terrier should sleep together, Tardi’s Alice is cavalier, her rational self unseated by the absurdity of the preceding 24 hours of her life.

Terrier doesn’t nervously repeat his statements here, he (aided by Tardi’s illustration) seems almost to bark instructions at Alice and – very far from the Terrier who gently shakes her awake in order to stop her sobbing – he sees her come-ons as ridiculous. To him, Terrier-as-machine, he can’t consummate his relationship with Alice until everything else has been settled; she is the endgame and not something to distract him while the game is still being played.

Finally, after Cox’s henchmen have rounded up Terrier and Alice, they bring Terrier to see Cox, commanding Alice to stay behind. Terrier says, “Any problems, just scream.” And, in the comic only, Alice replies, “Shithead.” Her animosity toward him is highlighted in the comic – it exists in the novel as well, but as part of a portfolio of emotions she experiences while processing her situation – whereas, in the comic, it becomes the defining feature of her relationship him. It begins in the previous scene, in which she manages to emasculate Terrier even while offering herself to him, and it continues even more so as the story progresses.

Following from this scene, true to the clichéd nature of the main plot, Terrier has no choice but to accept Cox’s offer to complete one final job, in preparation for which both he and Alice are installed in a remote country house and overseen by Maubert and his female companion. One afternoon, when Terrier is out for a walk, accompanied by Maubert’s companion, he assaults her suddenly and escapes into a nearby town so he can make arrangements to extricate Alice from Cox’s agents’ grasp. He returns to the sight of Alice in mid-coitus with Maubert, and he promptly loses the ability to speak.

Again, the novel and the comic arrive at Terrier’s muteness differently. Starting with the comic this time, Tardi depicts the progression of events with a masterful sense of velocity, using his panels to shift  the setting rapidly from a forest path to a remote road to a town to the inside of a telephone booth. There, he lingers for four panels while Terrier speaks on the phone and then returns to the exterior of the country house, the staircase leading up to the door, and finally to a shocked Martin Terrier suddenly finding himself unable to speak. The text here is used sparingly, and Tardi includes precise timestamps to heighten the effect of these events elapsing over a compressed period of time.

Due to the page layout, the reader doesn’t see what causes Terrier to lose his voice – and there is nothing in the comic that suggests any lead-up to this. Unlike in the novel, where difficulty speaking is a visible symptom of Terrier’s declining mental state, the sudden muteness arrives like a ton of bricks, the first sign that Terrier’s machine-like deliberateness may crack. Of course, upon turning the page, the reader learns quickly what caused Terrier such shock, as Alice is in the middle of screwing Maubert. Her reaction upon seeing him is not one of embarrassment; instead, she greets him with, “What the fuck are you doing here, dipshit?” And then, after Maubert shuffles out, “You thought I was gonna wait ten years for you? You think I’m gonna wait another ten years? You think Félix was the only one before this? You think I’m some kind of little porcelain doll? What do you think I am? Idiot! I screwed around on Félix more than once, by the way.” Terrier being mute, of course, can’t respond to her tirade, although he does explain his muteness via a pen and paper, on which he writes, “I can no longer talk. No idea why. Maybe the shock of seeing you fucking that asshole. This is a huge pain. Hopefully it will pass. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”5

Alice’s “betrayal” here doesn’t seem like much of a betrayal – beyond the fact that she and Terrier demonstrate almost no affinity for one another, their relationship in the comic is especially antagonistic. Terrier’s desire to escape with her doesn’t take her into account as a real person and not simply the adult embodiment of his childhood fantasy. However, the sight of her having sex with someone else, coupled with her rather damning and unapologetic explanation is the clearest sign Terrier receives that his plan was doomed to failure all along – even if he can robotically navigate the human dangers, Alice was never going to escape with him, because she didn’t want to. Unlike the novel, in which the futility of upward class mobility is painted in fairly broad strokes, in the comic, Terrier learns the lesson in a much more personal fashion. It isn’t from Cox’s impromptu speech about how there’s nowhere for him to escape to (he brushes this aside), and it isn’t via his conversations with other low level workers about their life plans (since he doesn’t have these conversations in the comic) – it’s from Alice, the impetus for his entire plan in the first place, which makes the realization all that much more damning. Still, this isn’t enough to throw him off his tracks, and so he informs the other characters that he will communicate via written notes for the remainder of his stay, and he proceeds with his preparations for the final job.

Now, back to this scene in the novel. (I should add that I do happen to be going somewhere with these back-and-forth comparisons. In addition to the fact that I find a close reading of how Tardi adapts the novel into a comic interesting in itself, I do have a point to make about it all. Just not yet.) In contrast to the velocity of the scene in the comic, Manchette draws out Terrier’s actions, both leading up to his stumbling upon Alice and Maubert in the act, and his response to it. Because of the page break in the comic, the reader sees Terrier’s shocked face, and then turns the page to see why he is shocked; in the novel, Manchette stretches out that moment of time. Terrier arrives in the room to see the two having sex, although his state of shock brings everything to a sudden halt – and even though the events of the novel don’t move at quite the same pace as the comic, this sudden pause is still jarring. Terrier’s loss of speech is not sudden – he tries to make sounds, but the difficulty speaking that has been creeping up all this time finally takes hold completely, and he makes only muffled sounds. The record player masks his presence at first, and Manchette even goes so far as to include the lyrics playing on the record, the light in the room, and the sounds coming from outside. Terrier finally makes himself known by pulling the record player’s plug out of the wall.

From here, their confrontation plays out similarly to the comic, although the antagonism between them is less vitriolic; rather than “What the fuck are you doing here, asshole?” Alice simply looks offended; rather than writing that he may have lost his voice due to the shock “of seeing you fucking that asshole,” Terrier merely writes that his muteness may be from psychological shock.

At this point, the novel and the comic again more or less converge for the rest of the story: Terrier helps Alice escape Maubert’s country house and proceeds with his final job. Minutes before pulling the trigger, he realizes that he’s been set up and Maubert is about to murder him; he retaliates, killing Maubert, and then sets out to find Alice and ultimately to confront Cox. Along the way, his friend and mentor gets blown up by a landmine, and he rips someone’s ear off. In the final confrontation with Cox, he learns that he had been set up all along as a patsy, but that Cox as well is a pawn in a larger game; Cox shoots him twice in the head, and he suddenly regains his ability to speak, moaning to Alice that she is beautiful as he passes out. In the denouement, the reader learns that Terrier will indeed be relieved of his duties with the company, although the bullet in his brain has damaged him to the point that he is only able to work as a waiter in the same restaurant as his father – and that he is prone to the same bouts of cartoonish idiocy that made his father a laughing stock around town. Alice stays with him briefly and then leaves suddenly in the night, and the story ends with Terrier asleep, taking the position of a sniper lining up his shot.

The conclusion to the story couldn’t get much worse for Terrier – his entire goal was to elevate himself above the level of his father, and at the end of it all, he becomes exactly like his father, with the same low-end job, and the same debilitating mental deficiencies. Only in his sleep does he retain some grasp on his dream of escaping his situation, almost like an amputee feeling phantom sensations in an amputated limb. Alice leaves, because she has no reason to stay; with Terrier unable to escape with her according to his plan, she no longer factors into any future with him – if she ever did at all. It is a blunt object of a book: a violent, gruesome story of failure and disappointment.

Both the novel and the comic begin and end with a framing device:

It was winter, and it was nighttime. An icy wind, having blown straight down from the Arctic, funneled into the Irish Sea, swept over Liverpool, and raced across the Cheshire Plain, where cats flattened their ears, shivering, upon hearing it rumble in the chimneys. The wind blew over the small Bedford van’s lowered window, straight into the eyes of the man sitting within. The man did not blink.

And then, at the end, the exact same description, except, instead of finding Terrier in the Bedford van, the wind “rushes across the gray French plains and comes pushing on the windows of Martin Terrier’s little abode; but these windows do not rattle and by now the wind has spent itself.” One of the major differences in Tardi’s and Manchette’s approaches to the story becomes evident when considering the effect of the framing device on the story as a whole: the novel situates Terrier in his environment via the framing device. It begins and ends the novel with a naturalistic focus, one that continues throughout the book. Manchette frequently departs from the immediacy of the story and from Terrier’s reactions to the events around him to describe both physical details of Terrier himself as well as his surroundings. His inclusion of the lyrics of the record playing on the record player when Terrier walks in on Alice and Maubert is a prime example of this, although it is more or less consistent throughout the book. Coupled with the wider social commentary contained within the novel, the framing device has the ultimate effect of depicting Terrier as a pawn in society at large. Of course, he is already a pawn in a game being played by people more powerful than himself, but Manchette makes a larger point about Terrier being one among many who seek and ultimately fail to move beyond their station in life; it is not Cox or the Company who is the villain in this case, it is a class-based, capitalist society. In this way, Terrier, though certainly not likeable, becomes a relatable character, because his plight mirrors the plight of the lower class. He is a pathetic hero who starts to fray around the edges before completely unraveling and finally getting shot in the head.

The same framing device, in Tardi’s hands, has a much different effect. Without the narrative lapses into naturalistic, almost poetic descriptions, the comic puts a spotlight on Terrier and leaves it there throughout. Given Tardi’s history with Céline’s Journey to the end of the Night, it is difficult not to draw parallels in this case. To recap: Journey starts with the main character protesting that he had never said anything in the past, and that it was his friend’s fault for goading him into speaking up about his beliefs. From this point, the novel is nothing but the main character voicing his beliefs, as he recounts his incredible tale from that initial conversation. 600 pages later, when he has reached the end of the night, he finally has run out of things to say and closes simply with: “So let’s speak no more of it6.”

Similar to Journey, then, Tardi’s adaptation uses the framing device not to paint Terrier as one among many, but instead to zoom into Terrier’s life and stay there until there is no more to say of his story, at which point Tardi pulls back and leaves Terrier for good. In this case, it is significant that the wind has spent itself by the end of the novel; like Céline’s “Let’s speak no more of it,” the now powerless wind fleshes out the conclusion that there is nothing more to say about Terrier. His story is done, and so the book ends. Fin.

One approach isn’t necessarily superior to the other. As it concerns the story itself, I prefer Tardi’s method of restricting his scope mostly to Terrier and those immediately around him, although there is plenty to mine in Manchette’s use of a murderous psychopath as an everyman through which he explores society’s class structure, and Tardi doesn’t really touch this at all. As a result, much of the tension in the novel of this unhinged character somehow taking on pathos and even inviting a little sympathy evaporates, and the Terrier that remains in the comic is purely an absurd character. He imposes a rational grid upon his life, and he refuses to recognize that it is all a fool’s game; he becomes absurd through his insistence to proceed according to this life plan even in the face of everything falling apart around him. Without the backdrop of social commentary, he is simply an absurd failure, and his antagonistic relationship with Alice, his impotence, and his inability to outwit the Company all illustrate him as a man going through a protracted total failure. If he were more aware of his own failure – and if Tardi drew him with the sort of physical foibles that Manchette describes over the course of the novel – he would become tragic, but divorced from this self-awareness, his plight does not come across as tragic.

This absurdity is what caused this book to stick in my mental craw for so long – for a book with an easy-to-follow plot, I was having a hard time putting the pieces together in a way that added up to anything more than a genre exercise. Not that there’s anything wrong with a genre exercise, but I felt that if it were intended simply as such, I would have an easier time moving past it. (I should add that this is exactly what Barthes means when he talks about the edges of a text bumping up against each other to produce pleasure.) Seen in the context of the absurd – as a genre exercise in existential absurdity via the conventions of noir – the book started to take on new life as I reread it. The triumph of Tardi’s illustrations is not only how well he captures Manchette’s behaviorist perspective, but how he manages to juxtapose Terrier’s impenetrable exterior with everything falling apart around him. I already knew that Tardi was an expert illustrator of violence – what I didn’t expect was how much Tardi is able to wring out of the less physically violent scenes, such as the confrontations between Terrier and Alice, or between Terrier and Maubert. The art plays a key part in Terrier becoming absurd rather than pathetic/tragic – he is drawn with such confidence that the reader can actually see the hyperviolence of the plot bounce off of him without having any effect, that is, until the final bullet finally lands in his brain.

There are a few key terms in play here as I stumble toward a conclusion, and their relationship is worth discussing further. First, there was pleasure as “jouissance,” and then noir, and finally the absurd. One conclusion I don’t want to make (as I noted earlier) is that Manchette’s noir novels use the conventions of noir only as window dressing for some postmodern textual games as a playground for old Barthes. Manchette’s deep engagement with the genre is evident in just how much he commits to it – it is precisely due to this commitment that his books have so much power. The same holds true for Tardi, which goes back to why they are such a phenomenal pairing. Tardi begins with a novel that is considered one of the high points of French noir, and he manages to make it even darker. His adaptation of the story increases its velocity, trimming non-essential scenes here and digressions into poetic narrative there. His panels heighten this effect, leading to a near breathless pace, from one violent setpiece to another. It finally comes to an explosive conclusion when Terrier gets shot in the face, like a car suddenly crashing into a telephone pole. Without the little moments for self-reflection during which the reader comes up for air, the bleakness of the story is relentless. Tardi manages to infuse as much darkness into the story as is possible – the darkest black.

The characterization of Terrier as absurd thus fits hand-in-glove with the exceptional darkness of the comic. In such overwhelming bleakness, reality has a difficult time making rational sense; as Terrier thrashes about trying to control events around him, he merely gets swept away by the force of these events. Rational action loses any effectiveness, and what makes Terrier absurd is his absolute refusal to submit to this force. “This force” is the essence of noir – a sublime (in the literal sense of the word) space that is incomprehensible, horrifying, and strangely beautiful. The violence (and sex) that permeates the noir novel is the storm, while the eye of the hurricane is pure darkness. To recall Céline, this concept is not unlike the “end of the night” – one major difference, of course, is that Céline’s alter-ego Bardamu submits to it readily, whereas Terrier resists it at all costs. However, as an elemental force, it doesn’t really matter how these characters engage with it, and both books end roughly the same way.

6. Jouissance, Violence, and Submission

In N’Gustro, after the first time that Butron gets arrested, he gets beaten up in jail by a group of thugs. After a typically brutal description of the beating, Butron expresses a sentiment that seems applicable here (but please note that my translation is inexact, since I’m not proficient enough in French to be much of a translator). During the attack, he recalls, “I could no longer even articulate anything, because of a kind of somnolence. I’m no homo or masochist, but I’ll say frankly that there’s ‘jouissance’ in being brutally roughed up by a group of thugs, especially when they’re intellectually inferior.” This sentiment sets the tone for the book, as Butron emerges from his legal trouble only to come out more determined to live life as someone who flouts authority en route to his own personal gain. Whereas Terrier engages in killing for pay as a means to an end that involves only happiness and tranquility, Butron never eyes an endgame – he submits to the elemental noir force readily, and it pulls him along his life until he too gets shot. Again, the ending is the same, regardless of how the characters engage with noir. I should add that there’s quite a bit more in N’Gustro to dissect, but I won’t go into it here. I hope to see a Tardi adaptation of it one day (in addition to the version that plays out in my head whenever I read it).

7. Light and Dark

There is a two-panel sequence in another Tardi adaptation, Le der des ders by Didier Daennincx. This book is more of a traditional detective novel and less of a no-holds-barred noir in Manchette’s style; it follows a PI named Eugène Varlot, a World War I veteran who is still haunted by his time in the trenches. (Fantagraphics publisher and Tardi translator Kim Thompson helped me with the title: it is a slangy way of saying “the war to end all wars” – so even though this is a detective story, the aftermath of the war plays an equally important part.) It’s a great book, and maybe I’ll get bored again in a couple years and write another essay about Tardi’s war comics, of which there are many. What I want to touch on here, though, is a sequence in which Varlot follows a woman he is investigating as she goes to a nightclub frequented by air force pilots. Impersonating a pilot, he infiltrates the club and sits at the same table as the woman, watching her eventually disappear with a man into a back room. He follows with another woman who has taken a shine to his war hero persona, unsure of what he will find in the back room. When he opens the door, cast in darkness, he sees an orgy in progress, depicted by Tardi as nothing more than suggestive shadows and outlines intertwined with each other. This sight triggers Varlot’s PTSD, and his mind flashes to a starkly lit battlefield strewn with twisted, mangled corpses and body parts. These two panels are beautifully rendered by Tardi; the dark is the site of sex and the light is the site of death. Living flesh in the dark, dead flesh in the light. Permitting myself the intellectual irresponsibility of conflating noir-the-genre with noir-the-color, this sequence ties back to this idea I’m trying to hammer home of noir as an elemental force. The light (to return as well to Barthes) lays everything bare, like the text that is only interesting in terms of what happens at the end, at which point it ceases to be pleasurable. The light shows off the horrible reality of what the war to end all wars wrought across the European landscape. The dark, however, is the elemental force; in the dark, the twisted figures become mere abstractions, and it becomes a site of pleasure (even moreso given that in this particular example, there’s a whole lot of sex going on). In the dark is where the pleasure of abstraction and the shock of finality meet up; orgy or no orgy, from a textual perspective, this scene is all about jouissance.

This scene also illustrates the power of the color black in Tardi’s hands. It seems overly simplistic, but it can’t be ignored: the black and white color palette is essential to a comic like Tireur’s success as noir. So tied to the story is the black and white that the 3-color silkscreen that accompanies my edition of the French book just looks weird. As a standalone art object, I love it, but it feels separate from the world of Tireur with which I’m familiar. So, finally, I’m back where I was at the beginning: in a book like this, the absolute most important aspect, aesthetically speaking, is the color black, and if that isn’t right, everything falls apart.

8. Framing Device

A few months ago, I emailed Kim Thompson asking about the possibility of Fantagraphics ever releasing deluxe editions of Tardi’s work for the English-speaking market. His French publishers do this routinely – they release the trade edition in the standard “album” size and then produce a separate special edition that is larger (usually 12” x 16”), which is often accompanied by a signed and numbered print. This edition is called the “tirage de tête” (literally, “head printing”) although publishers sometimes release the trade edition earlier, despite the name. Thompson responded to me that in a market where Tardi sells 100,000 copies of a book, a 500 or 1,000-copy special edition requiring different plates, different binding, etc. still makes financial sense. Unfortunately, in the English-speaking market, sales figures don’t justify a separate deluxe printing. (To which I plaintively responded, “Fine, just have him sign a print or put the book in a slipcase or something!” because I’m the kind of nerd who is impressed by that stuff.)

Sometimes, the publisher adds to the tirage de tête by using a better paper stock as well. Tardi’s first Manchette adaptation, Le petit bleu de la côté ouest (published by Les Humanoïds Associés), featured a tirage de tête with really chunky off-white uncoated paper, which I appreciated. Unfortunately, the black didn’t register quite as dark as it does on a coated paper, and the result is a little washed out, a little like the volume is turned down. I love the way the larger format lets the panels breathe and causes the detailed line work to appear rougher and more immediate, but without that dark, dark black, the overall presentation suffers. The content is still the same, but one of the chief rewards of comics – the immediacy of the aesthetic experience – gets muffled ever-so-slightly.

Whether or not Futuropolis, the publisher of Tireur, was conscious of this issue or not when they published its tirage de tête is unclear, although their description of the book suggests as much:

“To salute the return of Jacques Tardi, the master of black and white, Futuropolis brings you – in the mythical 12” x 16” format – a deluxe, limited, signed, and numbered edition. The 98 plates are printed in two colors (the black is supported by a Pantone color to give it more intense depth) in a size that approximates the format of the original pages.” So there it is, as clear as can be: simply printing Tardi’s artwork with a normal 2-color process does not do justice to the master of black and white (and of course, the master of noir). Tardi requires something extra – a black that has been specially formulated to be the darkest black the printer is capable of printing. This color is pure darkness, and it becomes a part of the overwhelming noir of the book; mere black just isn’t dark enough.

Notes

1. That such a venture was even entertained by a publishing house with NRF’s reputation is a testament to the high cultural position cartooning occupies in France. In the US, such a mashup would amount to ‘The Classics Illustrated,’ with dumbed-down illustrations and heavily abridged text. The Futuropolis/Gallimard books, on the other hand, present the original text, complete with at least one illustration per page, splash page illustrations, and so on. I haven’t counted, but I would bet that there are over 100 individual illustrations in Tardi’s Journey to the end of the Night, all created specifically for that volume. And, to lend even more prestige to the imprint, the books ape the design of the classic NRF books, although they are flexibound in large format (close to the traditional “Album” size of French comics, which is 23 x 32cm).

1a. According to Kim Thompson, Tardi’s Céline illustrations also mark an important moment in his development as a cartoonist as his “clear line” style (a popular style in Europe descending from Tintin creator Hergé) starts to loosen up. I would add to this that, upon closer examination, Tardi’s style slowly changes throughout the book. It is not immediately evident going page by page, although looking at the first page alongside the last page presents a striking stylistic difference. The opening illustrations are very neat, with a tight, almost fussy line illustrating Paris’s streets and cafes. By the middle of the book, it looks almost as if Tardi had begun by drawing with a freshly sharpened pencil and neglected to resharpen it as he drew. The illustrations give a sense of velocity to Céline’s narrative, but they tie into the novel on a deeper level as well. After all, the main character begins the novel as a buttoned-up medical student who has never spoken out of turn before; once he begins speaking, his character development truly begins. As this process goes on, and he moves further along in his journey, the reader sees Tardi’s style develop in parallel, to the point that, just like the narrator, the illustrator at the end of the novel is not the same illustrator he was at the beginning. I’m not quite making the point that Tardi’s stylistic development exactly corresponded with his illustration of this book; however, I do find it interesting how Tardi visibly plays with his own style just as Céline comes into his own as a writer and the main character undergoes a translation over the course of the book. What a great fucking book is my point here, I suppose.

First illustration - clear line

Toward the end - not very clear line

2. My favorite thing about Barthes is that he can flat-out write, and he is the only theorist I have the patience and stomach for in these post-graduate school dropout days. Hypertechnical, twisted, and downright impenetrable writing is so fashionable among late 20th Century critical theorists that reading Barthes is almost guilt-inducing. His obsession with language didn’t end at the texts he analyzed, and so he put as much care into his prose as he did his critical pursuits. Almost more impressive, though, is his intellectual rigor. While Deleuze and Guattari ambitiously (and arrogantly) tried to rope pretty much all philosophical thought into their intellectual system in the 2-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Barthes was more concerned with going small than going big. In S/Z, for instance, he fills 300+ pages by painstakingly analyzing the short story “Sarrasine” by Honoré de Balzac, and in doing so, lucidly enumerates his own theory on text, narrative, and meaning.

3. Hopefully no one will want to crucify me for calling Manchette’s original text “the novel” and Tardi’s adaptation “the comic.” I’ve never been a big fan of the term “graphic novel,” and I certainly didn’t want to use it here, since it would be all kinds of confusing. Hopefully the amount of time and energy I’m devoting to Tardi’s work is evidence enough that calling it a “comic” or “cartooning” is simply a reference to the medium, and not an attempt to diminish it.

4. In an interview about Tardi’s fourth Manchette adaptation (published in 2011), Ô dingos, Ô chateaux, he elaborates on his task in creating an adaptation. To him, adapting Manchette isn’t all that difficult, because Manchette is a detail-oriented writer. The flow of the action, the characters, and the settings are all very well described, so there isn’t great need to change things around just for the sake of it. (Although, Tardi remarks, this is exactly what all the film adaptations of Manchette’s do, which is why they aren’t very good.) As a result, his job is to concentrate all of his energy on how to narrate the action of the book. I like this focus on narration, because it underscores how the comics adaptation attempts to tell the same story using a different instrument altogether: the combination of text and images. This process isn’t unlike translating from one language to another, which Kim Thompson affectionately likens to karaoke. And like karaoke, it is unrealistic that Tardi would “sing” Manchette’s novel without adding in his own voice. So, while it is remarkable just how faithful his adaptation ends up, I couldn’t help but wonder about the subtle ways in which Tardi’s voice showed through in the narration of Manchette’s novel. 13,000 boring words later, I almost have something that resembles an answer.

5. Before I get to the comparison with this scene in the novel, it’s worth mentioning that Terrier’s impotence with Alice becomes an issue in both versions of the story. It’s not explicit in either, although it plays a more prominent role in the novel, like all the other signs that Terrier is falling apart. (Physically – he loses his potency, becoming more and more desperate as he grasps for control.) In the comic, it is less explicit, although there are mentions of it. The first time Alice confronts him, before he joins her and Félix at their country house, they lie in bed together naked, and at first Terrier is unable to touch her on account of his hands being too cold. It’s unclear from this scene what Alice expects, although she gets out of bed and gets dressed just after Terrier notices his erection going away. After this, the next time they are alone is the previously discussed scene in which Alice offers herself to him and he is unable (or unwilling) to act. Finally, immediately before leaving for his walk in the current scene, Alice says goodbye: “Whatever. Go freeze your nuts off!” To which he responds, “I explained it to you. It’s because I’m on a job. I have to concentrate. That’s it. I have to concentrate.” This explanation occurs in both versions, although it takes on different meanings in each: in the novel, it comes across as a feeble explanation by a man who is well aware of the futility of his predicament, whereas in the comic, it seems more as if Terrier would prefer to ignore all sexual activity in order to focus on the task at hand.

6. In one of the most egregious mistranslations I have ever seen, the English version ends with “And that will be the end of us.” While this may be more poetic and contain more gravity, it obliterates the framing device of the novel and totally changes the way the reader interprets the ending. Translation is by nature an inexact process, but how this utter violation of Céline’s masterpiece has remained in print for almost 70 years is beyond me.

Note: All photos are my own. Scans of ‘Like a Sniper Lining up his Shot’ are copyright and appear courtesy of Fantagraphics.

My Comics Top-10 List for 2011

What’s the point of this? I dunno, I just felt like doing a list, and everyone else seems to be doing one too. Keep in mind that I am not a professional comics critic, and I haven’t even read some major works yet, like Habibi or Jaime Hernandez’s new story, so while those will be on everyone else’s list, they aren’t on mine. How I made this list: I scanned my bookshelves to pick out every book published in 2011 (that I read), put them on a spreadsheet, and imagined that I had to sell all but 10 to pay my rent (assuming, of course, that they would all sell for the same price – the value of the books doesn’t factor into this.) I do write a lot about my favorite books to own, since this is a book collecting blog… but for a change, this post is about my favorite books to read. That being said, I have written extensively in these here pages about how the physical object of a book plays into my experience reading it, so I can’t ignore it entirely.

Here we go…

THE TOP TEN

Mascots by Ray Fenwick (Fantagraphics)
Sometimes art, sometimes comics, all graphic insanity. The thing about Fenwick’s work that keeps me coming back is the way his page designs are always completely perfect and orderly, whether they conform to a rigid, boxy structure or float randomly on the page. He has total command of every page, and every letter or little detail within that page, but he uses a logic that is totally unique to his work. Just amazing stuff. Not much of a story to follow, but this is the book I come back to whenever I’m feeling burned out creatively, and it never fails to inspire me.
(Note: this was actually published in December 2010, but the special edition was released through Tiny Showcase in January 2011, so I’m counting it.)

Stupid Dreams by Joey Alison Sayers (1984 Publishing)
Along with Julia Wertz and Lisa Hanawalt, Joey Sayers is the funniest writer in comics. Stupid Dreams collects her 5-minute comics, which perfectly suit her sense of humor… the drawings are rough, which only aids the jokes, since impeccable draftsmanship isn’t really required when the punchline is “Whatever, dude, I’m gonna go shove some pot up my ass.” Sayers is capable of a mining pretty difficult emotional territory, as evidenced by her “Just so you Know” series, so she certainly isn’t a one-note cartoonist. Still, this is a mostly one-note collection, although it’s a consistently hilarious note, hence its place on the list.

Forming by Jesse Moynihan (Nobrow)
Oh my God, I love this book. I guess sci fi epics are kind of having  a moment in alt comics right now, with CF, Chippendale, Thurber, etc. fully embracing the genre to much success. Still, Forming offers something those others don’t by playing off the contrast between the epic nature of the story and the colloquial informality of the dialogue (which is often very funny). Moynihan keeps the story moving along without devolving into self-indulgent setpieces, and his art has a handmade quality to it that is just awesome to look at. (I don’t know how Moynihan works, if he uses a tablet or messes around with color in Photoshop, but whatever he does, it came out great.) I can’t wait for the next volume in the series.

Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)
This one is a no-brainer – Woodring is at the top of his game right now, to the point where his stories almost look effortless, like he dashes them off in his sleep. While maybe not as tight as Weathercraft in terms of plot structure, the notion of a world where the laws of the Unifactor no longer apply gives Woodring free rein to indulge all kinds of craziness, with Frank as the innocent-but-not-noble center of it all. I’ve read it a few times, but still feel like there’s quite a bit for me to get out of it.

The Wolf by Tom Neely (I Will Destroy You)
Tom Neely is kind of my hero, given that he’s built up a substantial reputation without a major publisher behind him. The Wolf is the proof that he’s on the right track, since he used the total freedom afforded by his choice to self-publish to produce one of the most unclassifiably brilliant books I have read in a long time. Like Congress of the Animals, it is totally wordless, but while I see Woodring’s work as a way for the artist to work out many of the ideas swirling around in his head, The Wolf digs deeper, laying bare the dark and difficult forces in the artist’s soul. It’s also the most Hegelian art book I have seen, moving from thesis to antithesis and finally to synthesis in a way that causes the book ultimately to transcend a lot of the shocking sexual and violent imagery within. Simply stunning.

Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (Drawn and Quarterly)
I have been awaiting this one for years, as I watched the serialized version of the story wend its way through each issue. Like Ganges #4 on this list, Big Questions is remarkable for how much it pulls from a plot that can be described in only a couple sentences. The open, airy panel layout lets the story breathe, although it reads much tighter than I remember it from the individual issues. This book has already garnered quite a bit of deserved praise, so I’ll just finish this off by saying that reading this book consistently leaves me in awe of how Nilsen actually succeeds in examining every aspect of the human condition via his little birds.

Ganges #4 by Kevin Huizenga (Fantagraphics)
Another comic that has received quite a bit of praise, I think this was my favorite issue of the Ganges Ignatz series, simply based on how deftly it weaves Ganges’s real life with his mental flights of fancy as he fights his insomnia. The little touches really set this one apart, such as the little book covers of the boring books Ganges searches through in hopes of finding one sufficiently boring to put him to sleep. Now that the Ignatz line is kaput, it will be interesting to see where Huizenga goes with this storyline, since it definitely has legs beyond this issue.

O Dingos O Chateaux and Like a Sniper Lining up his Shot by Jacques Tardi (Futuropolis/Fantagraphics)
OK so maybe it’s a cheat to include two books in one spot, but both of these are amazing, and I can’t just choose one. The French version of Like a Sniper was published last year, although Fantagraphics published the English edition this year. O Dingos O Chateaux hasn’t been translated yet, but supposedly it is on Kim Thompson’s slate for the near future, which is a good thing, since it’s aces. These books are similar, in that they are both adaptations of the same author (Jean Patrick Manchette), expertly rendered in comics form by Tardi. I have a much longer piece I will post soon about Like a Sniper – of the two, that one is more challenging from a reader’s perspective (although it is still quite a blast to read). O Dingos O Chateaux is an earlier work by Manchette, before he had evolved to become the master of the French noir novel. The central relationship between a caretaker and the child charged to her care is multilayered and adds quite a bit of depth to the book – and of course, the presence of a deranged hired killer whose need to complete his mission goes beyond just pleasing his employer and cashing a paycheck makes things pretty fun as well. It’s not quite as violent as Like a Sniper, although there’s plenty of blood. In Tardi’s hands, both novels make excellent comics – Tardi’s late-period departure from his clear line style suits these types of stories perfectly, and his art just adds to the fun of reading them.

The Eyes of the Cat by Jodorowski and Moebius (Humanoids)
And here we are with yet another Moebius book that appeared and then disappeared within the space of a couple days. A deluxe reprinting of the original Jodorowski/Moebius story, this one really benefits from the oversized publication (12 x 16), as Moebius’s linework has a chance to relax and not come across as compressed as it sometimes appears in smaller formats. If you are a fan of Moebius (which I am), there’s no way this book doesn’t make your list, as it is more or less a showcase of what he brings to the medium. (I also toyed with the idea of putting the French version of the collected L’Incal on this list, since it was only released this past September, but I didn’t, since that book has been collected in so many other editions. I haven’t read the Humanoids editions of The Incal, since the lettering in the Humanoids editions is robotic and gross, and Moebius is a really dynamic letterer. Luckily, The Eyes of the Cat isn’t heavy on text, so it works okay here.)

Mr. Wonderful by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon)
Yeah yeah, Clowes is great, let’s move on. I didn’t read this story when it was originally serialized, although I do think Clowes made a great choice in adding splash pages in between the different weekly episodes. They work within the context of the book and add to the story without making it overly episodic as a self-contained book. Another artist (like Woodring and Tardi) who at this point seems incapable of releasing something subpar.

BONUS SELECTION:
Furlqump by Brett Harder (Chance Press
How could I not put Furlqump on this list? I have invested quite a bit of my 2011 in bringing this book out, from scanning the art, correcting colors, designing the book, printing, binding, marketing, etc. But all that aside, it is an amazing book – I wouldn’t have made that investment of my own time (and yes, my money) if I didn’t believe in it. Brett’s is a totally original voice in comics, and while he’s flying under the radar now, he won’t be for long. And yes, I would argue that this is one of the best comics publications of the year, biased as I may be.

THE NEXT TEN (and why they didn’t make the Top-10 list):

Paying For it by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly) – Daring and well illustrated, but Brown’s emotionless approach to sex and love leaves me cold. Despite agreeing with him for the most part, I couldn’t help feeling like I was arguing with a libertarian in my own head, and that is one of my least favorite things to do.

The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes (Drawn & Quarterly) – Possibly the best single-issue comic of all time and deserving of its own hardcover version, but with all the other good stuff on this list, I didn’t want to use a spot on a book that isn’t substantially different from when it was first published.

Love from the Shadows by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Beto’s Fritz B-Movie series books are fun, but they’re missing the depth of his other work. I’m glad they’re part of his universe, but I think he’s selling himself short – something that will hopefully be remedied when Marble Season comes out.

Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly) – I liked “Amber Sweet” better in Kramers Ergot 7… I don’t think it particularly benefits from the embellishments added in this volume. “Hortisculpture” is good but not great in the context of Tomine’s canon, and my favorite part of the issue is the short autobio strip at the end. I loved both Summer Blonde and Shortcomings, and this issue feels like a step back from those books, at a time when so many of Tomine’s contemporaries are producing the best work of their careers.

1-800 Mice by Matthew Thurber (Picturebox) – This book is awesome, and it is one of the last ones I cut before making my list. Ultimately, though, I found it slipping here and there into self-indulgent territory  - we all know Thurber is incredibly talented and a super-nice guy to boot, I just think 1-800 Mice sprawls a little bit too much for its own good.

The Cabbie by Marti (Fantagraphics) – Another darkly funny noir book that I enjoyed, although I prefer Tardi’s engagement with the genre. Also, I am not very familiar with the Dick Tracy comics that Marti satirizes in this book, so perhaps some of it was lost on me.

Freeway by Mark Kalisneko (Fantagraphics) – This book has some great (the perfectly-drawn flashbacks to the early days of Los Angeles), some good (the story of a man coming to terms with his dream not panning out), and some I could have done without (the behind the scenes politicking at an animation studio). Freeway lays it on a little thick that it used to be great to work in animation, and now it is a grind like any other job. Also, every time I read a Kalisneko book, I wish he hand-lettered his dialogue or used a font that was less cold and fonty, since for me it detracts from his art, which is otherwise super expressive.

Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly (AdHouse) – Love it. Not quite substantial enough to stand up with my absolute faves from this year, but I absolutely enjoyed reading it, and I can’t wait to read a collection of these stories, which I’m sure will make my list whatever year it comes out.

Someday Funnies by Michel Choquette (Abrams) – This is the greatest comic book never published (and then finally published), and it doesn’t even make my list? I don’t know, this one kind of stands in a separate category for me. First, I’m young enough that I don’t feel any great connection to the 60′s, so my emotional investment in the art is much less than if I were 15 years older. Second since the stories in here are so short, I don’t lose myself in this book like the others I described – I approach it as more of an art book that I look at here and there, and less something that I sit down and really read.

Forgotten Fantasy by Peter Maresca (Sunday Press) – Same deal as above. Another amazing book that has opened my eyes to all kinds of comics I never knew existed. I’m happy to own this book, I’m grateful to Sunday Press for publishing it, and I look at it pretty often, but I just don’t connect to it on an emotional level like my top 10.

New Edition of Serafini’s Storie Naturali

In my original post about Storie Naturali, I said that it would surprise me if anyone released a trade edition of it. My feeling was that Serafini’s version was itself a deluxe edition of Jules Renard’s book, which is widely available as a cheap paperback, so it wouldn’t make sense to make a trade edition of the deluxe edition.

Well, good on Rizzoli for proving me wrong, since now the less financially reckless can enjoy this amazing book as well. The new edition is around $100 (US dollars) and it is available at Amazon.it and Deastore.com, among other places. It also looks as if the first version is sold out, so prices for that one should be going up (I have already seen $800 and $1250, but I suspect those are hostage prices). You lose the pull-out leaves and the signed bookplate, both of which are very cool, but I don’t doubt that the print quality is outstanding in this new version, and it is probably easier (though less interactive) to look through.

I think it’s neat that the design mimics the design of the Codex – unlike the original version with its facsimile of 1959 first edition on the cover, this is very much Serafini’s book, with his name first and and foremost (above the title, even). It’s exciting to think of a line of Serafini art books from Rizzoli that all use this design, like the world’s most amazing encyclopedia set. I will probably buy this even though I own the other version, just so I can satisfy my curiosity in case there are any new pages added, like the 2006 version of the Codex. I’ll post some better images when I do – this one is from an eBay auction I found.

Making Things Mean Things – Part 1

Read the first installment in this gripping series here.

Part 1 – The Small

Start with the obvious: there are many ways to think about alphabets. Then get more specific: a good way to narrow it down is to consider how an artist engages with an alphabet. The Roman alphabet is what it is, although it is also infinitely malleable, being pulled and pinched by all manners of fonts, printing technologies, and design programs. Does a font designer invent an alphabet when he/she creates a font? Is the font just a decorative cipher for the Roman alphabet, or is it a new alphabet that is easily relatable to the Roman alphabet? What about a font designer who creates an alphabet that is not recognizable as the Roman alphabet but that bears a direct one-to-one correlation to it? How far is this new alphabet’s equivalent to the letter “E” from a poorly handwritten cursive letter “E”? This could go on all night.

There are three ways to create letters: you can create a letter that clearly correlates to a letter in the alphabet with which your audience is familiar. You can create a letter that does not clearly correlate to a letter in the alphabet with which your audience is familiar, but that would correlate with the aid of a key or code. Finally, you can create a letter that does not correlate to any existing alphabet – an empty symbol not recognizable as a letter but for its proximity to other empty symbols, thus comprising letters of an alphabet in the aggregate. The degree of correlation between an invented letter and the alphabet with which an audience is familiar I call the representational dissonance quotient. If you assume that this alphabet you’re currently looking at is the alphabet with which you’re familiar, then this letter “e” (<– that exact one right there) has a representational dissonance quotient of zero (meaning, it is identical to that with which you are familiar). Here are some examples of other representational dissonance quotients:

Assume that an artist has created an alphabet with a representational dissonance quotient of higher than zero. What, then, does the alphabet “do”? Does the artist merely create the letters of the alphabet or does he/she employ them in some usage that demands further examination? Does the artist create a world that couldn’t stand apart from its alphabet? Substitute the font in most books with a very different one, and the content would still exist. Readability might suffer, and typographers might furrow their brows, but the characters and the plot would remain unchanged. When is this not the case? The artists that create worlds that start with the alphabet – these are the ones who have been getting in my head lately, motivating me to sort through my response to their art and settle my own ideas on alphabets.

Mascots by Ray Fenwick is a great place to start. The book announces itself boldly – it is small, but its hot pink cloth cover is difficult to ignore. The title breaks across a few lines, so it is less a word than a jumble of letters – a mascot for the word “Mascot,” so to speak. The book is appropriately titled: from the very beginning, everything announces itself as something else – forms are always changing, names are invented “mercifully” (to use one of the narrators’ parlance) for things that are unnamable, faces that smile when the book is held in one direction are revealed as faces that frown when the book is flipped. The book conveys a sense of being stuck just outside of where everything makes sense and fits together.

This is all normal: it seems pretty common that when artists create a world based on an alphabet, the result is a world that is recognizable as my own yet different… and that tension produces this sense of being “just outside” – not far enough away to observe it detachedly, but not close enough to go native, either. I can touch it, but I can’t pick anything up or move anything around.

First, I should probably defend my claim that Mascots is a world based on an alphabet – it doesn’t use any foreign characters, for instance, and could just as easily be read as a series of narrative paintings and cartoons. It is significant, though, that it is painted on the covers of old, discarded books. These books contain old, discarded stories, but Fenwick has pushed their meaning into the background, superimposing his own on top of them. Maybe painting on books was simply an aesthetic choice (the buckram cloth cover on most of them gives all of the artwork in his book a toothy texture that is pretty distinctive), but it’s hard for me to ignore the thematic implications as well. As one of the only self-deploying methods of cultural transmission humankind has ever invented, books occupy the pole-position among physical objects that contain language. They are briefcases full of alphabets. Using them as the base for new artwork does not erase what was inside, even though it is invisible (discarded, in this case) – that buckram shows through, and with it, the memory of the book’s alphabet. It’s similar to the permanence of a crease in a sheet of paper – an artist may use a creased sheet of paper for artwork, but the fibers of the paper store a memory of the creases, and they will always be visible underneath the artwork.

So before even engaging with the content of Fenwick’s artwork, his book begins by subsuming an alphabet. No matter what it does, it will carry the memory of that alphabet, and thus the discarded, unseen alphabet forges a subliminal undercurrent to the entire book. Everything is tied together with more coherence than a run-of-the-mill art monograph, but it isn’t exactly sequential. Here are some good jumping off points:

1. Fat Air: Letters here create concepts. “Fat Air” is a kind of air that is invisible until it is grabbed, pulled, and massaged – it is thick and squishy, and probably fun to play with. It is a completely alien concept to anyone who hasn’t traveled to Venus (or thereabouts), yet the idea is clear from the very letters that compose the word – the letters themselves are more evocative of fat air than the name (which, like the name of the sometimes-narrator Cthulu, is most likely a moniker mercifully bestowed on something unnamable).

2. Dewy Wisdom of Droughty Youth: Could mean anything. What’s important is that the letters read in both directions and bleed into each other. Concepts are like fat air – they don’t simply float around – they can be squeezed and stretched around, like silly putty impressions of newspaper cartoons. “Dewy” and “Droughty” are probably opposites who together have their own opposite facing them on the other side of the page, which obscures what is really the opposite of what.

3. “Sky Ghost, please advise on down to me. Should I create the language beforehand, and practice it, or should I trust the moment and just freestyle? Sky Ghost, please advise. The last time I tried I just spoke. No tongues!” Mascots presents all sides of this dilemma – how to skirt the bounds of flat, simple speech while using coded, incomprehensible language to evoke something deeper than mere understanding. In a way, it is written in tongues – letters that are readable on one plane but more complex in that they have their own intrinsic meaning and don’t simply serve to transmit the meaning of the words, sentences, and paragraphs that they comprise.

4. Look on my Face is What: This could be a question, or it could be the beginning of a declaratory proclamation, or it could simply be the entire proclamation. The look on the face in question is made through an assemblage of shapes – the same shapes that form the letters in the original statement. Here, the letters are the building blocks of all facial expressions – a face cannot even emote without an alphabet with which to do it.

5. What’d I Miss?!: The question is urgent – an aerodynamic traveler of sorts emerges from an ethereal space composed of squiggly shapes (I’ll go ahead and call them letterforms), and he must know immediately. Unclear is whether he even knows where he is, or how long he has been gone (or if he has been there before) – the traveler is distinguished only by his sudden appearance and pressing need to know what he has missed. It is more an instinctual response to arriving in a new place than an ongoing inquisitiveness; as the vortex through which he jumped fades, his query fades as well, becoming less urgent, receding into the new environment, becoming something that has just happened that was missed by anyone who wasn’t there in that exact moment. The letters are not permanent the way we think about the printed pages of a book – they exist just as much in the realm of instinct and reflex.

Most of the reviews of Mascots that I have read laud it as a representational object. In other words, critics are awed by its ability to create the alternate world I have been trying to describe and then to depict that world through individual color paintings. And of course, Fenwick deserves any and all praise heaped upon him for his remarkable achievement – where I take issue is with the idea that the artwork in the book depicts anything. So enveloped was I in the world of Mascots that I felt like I was witnessing something while reading it. The book didn’t merely depict a world, it functioned as a document from it that somehow made its way back into my hands. It took me out of the world I was in, literally: I read it while riding on a BART train into San Francisco, and I realized afterward that the fact that the train had gone through the tunnel underneath the bay – something that usually inspires fear and dread in claustrophobic ol’ me, despite the routine nature of the trip – didn’t even register.

This notion of a book being so tied to the world it creates that it seems somehow foreign is something that I have never experienced except with a book whose alphabet is the foundation of that world. Two other books I plan to write about, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus and Charles Burns’s Johnny 23, achieve the same thing. However, what makes Mascots even more astonishing is that it accomplishes this without using an invented “foreign” alphabet – on the scale, its alphabet has a pretty low representational dissonance quotient. Yet, Fenwick’s creation of his own alphabet removes the world of Mascots from the familiarity expected from a book composed in the Roman alphabet.

The copy of Mascots that I bought came with a small inkjet print with the words “AND YOU ARE A PART OF EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING IS LIKE MELTING” painted in a crisp serif font over a yellow background with very small yellow circles and dots on it. Again, there is play between the haughty nature of the letters and the content of the words – the letters themselves are authoritative, not melting. But, maybe they are “like melting” in that they announce that the previously agreed-upon cognitive path from letter to word to meaning does not exist in this world. If the letters were painted to evoke the idea of melting, everything would be a lot easier… but “like melting” is much more difficult to grasp, and as such, it is a fitting introduction to Mascots. And not just the letters, of course: everything is like melting.

Image Credits:

Mascots book photo from http://www.RayFenwick.ca
Interior images courtesy of Fantagraphics, used with permission
Inkjet print image from http://www.tinyshowcase.com 

If APE is a Gorilla, what is MoCCA?

Not being any sort of artist myself, it is hard for me to know much about the cartooning/comics “scene” in any given area, except that New York is where seemingly 99% of the action is. I say ‘seemingly’ because the MoCCA show just happened, and just like every other year, reading recaps of the show makes me greenish-red with envious rage. I should just up and go to it, but I live on the opposite end of the country, and the cost of a trip all the way out there (plus some spending money, since I almost feel like it would be worse to go and not be able to buy anything than not to go at all) just isn’t something I can support right now. From the look of it, EVERYONE goes to this show. People’s flickr streams have photos with captions like, “Adrian Tomine randomly bumps into Ben Katchor and David Mazzuchelli while Gary Groth and Gahan Wilson look on.” Fantagraphics had SIXTEEN artists doing book signings at their booth. It’s nuts.

Lucky for me, I have a top-notch convention in my back yard every October (formerly every April) – the Alternative Press Expo. Having never been to MoCCA, I can’t compare them directly, and I have a feeling that APE has a richer crossover with the up-and-coming gallery artist crowd (people like Skinner, Robert Bowen, Dave Correia, Alex Pardee, etc). As far as a pure comics show, APE does a great job, but it doesn’t compare to MoCCA. I posted about this on Twitter – something about the 16 artists Fanta had at MoCCA vs. the two they had at APE (not that those two – Megan Kelso and Tony Millionaire – weren’t awesome to meet in person) – and they (“they” most likely meaning Mike, who I’ve met a few times and who is totally nice and who I’d never want to offend) tweeted back that if APE were anything like MoCCA, they’d have 16 artists there too.

Thinking about it, my original comment came across a little snide, since I know that they didn’t purposely give APE the short shrift – it just doesn’t draw the number of artists that MoCCA does. Last year, Fanta, D&Q, Top Shelf, and Picturebox (who, in their/his defense, did make the expensive trip from NYC) all had authors who were official guests of the convention, whereas it seemed like a lot of the people signing at MoCCA just happened to be there for kicks. I’ve written reverently about the magic APE 08 when Buenaventura Press debuted Kramers Ergot 7 and had cartoonists from all over California and beyond there to sign the book and appear on a star-studded KE7 panel. While that year seems like a unique experience to me now, it’s pretty much par for the course at MoCCA.

So I guess my point is that I wish there were a way to make APE the kind of central event that MoCCA has become. Part of it is that it is only a few months after Comic-Con, which is in relatively the same geographical location. And a lot probably has to do with the fact that the drive from somewhere like LA to SF is still a decent-sized trip. But, there are tons of amazing and legendary cartoonists living in the western US, and I would love to see APE become the kind of draw that would pull them all into the same place just because it was that great of a fest. I know I shouldn’t complain at all, since what I get living in the Bay Area is a hell of a lot more than I would get if I lived in Kansas – not to mention the fact that a lot of east coast cartoonists did attend APE last year, like Lisa Hanawalt and Julia Wertz and others who I’m likely leaving out… and Emilie Ostergren even popped in from Sweden to say hi. So that’s pretty good. But still – I can dream, right?

The final thing I’m curious RE: MoCCA vs. APE is how it treats young (or semi-pro) cartoonists who haven’t had book deals come through yet – since that is one area where APE really shines. There are a bunch of cartoonists around here that I see at pretty much every comics/art/zine fest, big and small, and their work is really strong. Some of them (*cough* Geoff Vasile *cough*) are so talented that I get as excited when they release a new mini as I am for a book like Chester Brown’s Paying for It.  It would be a real shame if these artists got swept away by the tidal wave of Big Names that everyone talks about at MoCCA. Reading the follow-up press, most journalists almost seemed to struggle to fit mention of all of the name brands into their column space, and “new” artists like Brecht Evans (who has books with Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf) took the place of the up-and-comers who are still self-publishing their own stuff. A good amount of press focused on Pizza Island (the ALL FEMALE collective – I know, right? Can you believe there’s a cartooning collective without even a single she-male?!?!), although again, you’re not exactly talking about unknowns, when one of the members has books published by Random House and another just came out with an extremely well-reviewed title from Vertigo.

So there you have it – I am both insanely jealous of MoCCA and curious about it, since my impression is just that – an outsider impression from someone who has read about it a bunch but never been. Maybe in between the comments telling me I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, readers might be so kind as to compare it to other fests around the country. And I’ll see everyone (all six of you) at APE this year from behind the Chance Press table -  I’m sure exhibiting for the first time will give me a whole new set of impressions that I can blather on about. Stay tuned!

Making Things Mean Things – Part 0

Part 0 – It’s Not Academic/Where to Begin(?)

Aside from listening to the same music (Greg Ginn’s post-Black Flag instrumental project “Gone”), not much of how I write is the same as when I was in graduate school, cranking out literary theory essays that said a lot while saying nothing. Back then, my standard operating procedure was to compose bits and pieces of the essay on separate sheets of paper and then to arrange them on my floor, writing transitions and conjunctions on new sheets to bridge the original sheets together. It made my head feel like exploding, and that was before I even sat down at the computer to write the essay itself. The writing process was the best part – it was a release of all the intellectual tension I built up trying to force some coherence on the frayed strands of thought tangled up in my head. Throw in a day of editing as a buffer before the torture of checking my cites and references and compiling a works cited (the only part of an essay anyone in academia actually reads, anyway). I lasted two years before dropping out in a fireball of incomplete coursework.

I’ve been thinking for a couple years about alphabets, and I have wanted to write an essay about alphabets for a while, but I haven’t been able to start it. The essays on my blog have been mostly “freehand” – meaning, no outlines, no notes except for jotting down an idea or two, and none have taken me more than a couple nights to write (“The Worlds of Luigi Serafini” being the exception – it took around a week). It’s a deliberately non-academic way to write, but it satisfies the only thing I do miss about graduate school – really deep individual intellectual engagement with a particular subject matter. I don’t cite, because I talk enough about my source material that if you care, you can find it yourself. I say things like “if you care” rather than “if one cares.” It’s not stilted. Well, as unstilted as my fairly dry, stilted writing can get, anyway. It’s fun. So, I’ve got this idea to write an essay about alphabets that maybe a handful of people will read. But I can’t start it. There’s too much going on, and I feel the old pull to start sketching clumps of it on sheets to try to force some order into the process. Maybe do some more research before I start writing? There is a cornucopia of research on the connection between alphabets and meaning, and I suppose I should meticulously read all of it (or at least enough that I can act as if I’ve meticulously read all of it) – symbology, cultural studies, linguistics, aesthetic judgment… brush up on my Kant, my Saussure, get my Wittgenstein going again (did I sell my copy of Philosophical Grammar to a bookstore? I can’t even remember anymore). There’s a 30% chance I’ll talk about smooth vs. striated space when I write about alphabets. It’s been a long time since I cracked the spine on Deleuze and Guattari.

But the point of this is not to explain alphabets to anyone. I don’t care to take five years becoming the expert in order to establish some sort of credibility. My goal is to explain my personal aesthetic experience of certain alphabets to anyone who cares (raise your hands). The only thing keeping me going when I was slogging through my miserable time as a Ph.D. student was the notion that I might “do it” and break some new intellectual ground. Dropping out, I had to come to terms with the fact that that ship was sailing – but what I realized when I started writing again was that my personal experience with literature and art had always been left out of the equation, and that was interesting to explore. And, because I’m your garden variety web 2.0 exhibitionist, I put that exploration out there, and a surprising number of people seem to be interested in it.

“Making Things Mean Things” is the title of the essay. I’m going to post it as a series of entries rather than one giant blob, because the major hurdle to my even being able to envision starting it was not being able to conceive of it as a complete idea. Problem solved – I don’t know how long it will be, or how long it will take me, or even how often I will add new chapters. But it will be fun.

Ebooks – I’m Supposed to Hate them, Right?

This is an essay I wrote last January and posted on the Chance Press blog.  I decided to post it here as well, because I’m just so goddamned desperate for people to read my insightful wisdom that I have no problem posting the same thing on many blogs.  Since I’ve written it, the major change I’ve noticed reading book trade publications is that publishers are starting to soften their stance toward ebooks, and you are seeing less and less defensive tactics like refusing to issue a potential bestseller as an ebook until 90 days after the print version has been in stores.  The other thing I have noticed is that – like pretty much all forms of cultural discourse lately – the two sides of the debate are getting increasingly more ridiculous in their claims.  On one side is the MIT headline-seeker who is boldly prognosticating that the book will be dead in 5 years (does anyone seriously think this is even remotely possible?).  On the other side are the printophiles (I like calling them “printies”) who are whipped into a frothy frenzy over the fact that kids as young as 3 know how to use smart phones, and that this youthful technological savvy all but guarantees that culture will implode within 20 years when a computer virus wipes out the stored data of our shared culture.

Of course, my view is somewhere in between.  If there’s one thing I feel even more strongly about than when I originally wrote the essay it’s that if there is one thing that actually WILL kill off the book, it’s not a format change, but rather the annoying defensive arrogance you see from people who automatically assume that print books are superior in ALL CASES, no matter what.  And that, by extension, bookstores deserve to exist solely by dint of the fact that they sell these sacred cultural objects.  (Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino just came out with a book.  It has his abs on the cover.  It’s 128 pages long with illustrations.  Come on.)  The inherent superiority of books can’t be assumed – it has to be demonstrated, and there are a lot of great commercial presses doing exactly that: McSweeney’s, Chronicle, Last Gasp, Gestalten Verlag, Ginko, and so on.

Books have a pretty good thing going for them:  they are the only self-deploying method of transmitting information that humankind has ever developed.  As a result, I just cannot see them ceasing to exist under any circumstances.  Even if large publishers stop publishing them, they will still exist in some form or another.  You can make them by hand – even if there is no one left to run a large, commercial binding machine, you don’t need anything except a needle and thread to make a book.  Other forms of information technology that have been left behind didn’t have the same material properties as books – and the reason for this is that other forms of technology only reproduce or create, rather than storing data.  No one is worried about binding machines going off line.  And no one looks at an old mimeograph machine lamenting the fact that it will never make another crappy looking copy of something.  Sure the move away from darkroom photography to digital changes the experience for photographers and the look and feel of photographs.  And CD’s will never sound as good as vinyl records to true audiophiles.  But books, again, are different, because the deployment of their content doesn’t depend on an intermediary – they are not dependent on a stereo or a darkroom or a computer or a camera, or anything – they can simply be opened and read.  The Kindle/iPad/Nook/Sony Thingy is an intermediary that makes reading a lot more convenient – but I see very little chance of humanity ever voluntarily giving up the straight dope that only exists in printed book.  That being said, I think that the degree to which books survive depends a lot on the kind of books that publishers make.

So, now that you’ve read a good blob of my rambling long-windedness, here is the original essay:

***

I think, as someone who is putting even a few books out into the world, it is useful to have a position on print books versus ebooks. The topic will continue to be debated, but it is inevitable that the terms of the debate will change over time, as technology advances, and the voice that defends print books will get more and more shrill in the face of the “embrace the future”-ists whose side is very clearly winning the battle.

This is not to say that I think that print books will cease to exist –only that the debate will become unwinnable for people who defend print books to the exclusion of ebooks and other electronic media. I think the writing was on the liquid ink screen a few years ago when liquid ink screens hit the market, and “printies” could no longer cite the eye strain that comes from looking at a computer monitor for hours at a time as the smoking gun argument as to why books would always be superior. I think a lot of printies haven’t seen a liquid ink screen up-close before, because it is difficult to acknowledge that they don’t look great – especially compared to your average mass-market paperback.

The main thrust behind ebooks is that they make large amounts of information portable on a small device. This device will continue to develop to the point that a Kindle takes on the comical proportions of a 1980’s cell phone when viewed from a similar future vantage point, but that core drive will never change. As portability and access to incomprehensible amounts of data entrench themselves as the inalienable rights of contemporary culture, it makes less and less sense to decry the rise of ebooks or to adorn them with accusations that they are killing off print books, putting bookstores out of business, and so on.

I hear the position often stated that books are the key gateway to our culture, near-sacred objects that preserve our history and document our existence for future generations. To me, this misses the point – the books merely carry that data. And it’s all data. Now, the emotional engagement with that data in itself is a key aspect of our culture as well. It’s necessary to split the two apart, because it isolates the materiality of the book itself from what the book contains. Not one of the printies’ emotional screeds that I’ve read defends an empty book – every time, the books are the keys to passing on what they contain from generation to generation, but there’s never a reason why this can’t be done electronically, especially when electronically transmitting information becomes the standard method to do exactly this in every other aspect of society.

What do you get from a Kindle when it is turned off? It is a functionless machine whose existence does not justify itself until it is displaying text on the screen. A closed book is more than that – the materiality of the book has the ability to communicate more than just that there is content inside. This is a tenuous distinction, but the cultural history of books (their “place in our culture” trumpeted by the printies) makes it a necessary one – the Kindle has come along as part of a cultural movement based on the potential to do different things with data, more advanced things than anything humanity has conceived of before. When you receive a Kindle in a box, you are receiving the potential to homogenize incredible amounts of print in a single device.

On the other hand, a book will always be tied to the specific data that is contained within. This unbreakable marriage between the exterior device and the interior content creates the emotional attachment to books-as-objects. The specific book becomes the signifier of one text – a favorite story, perhaps – whereas the Kindle is the signifier of all texts. So, can an electronic device that promises totality ever compete on an emotional level with the multitude of cherished specificities contained on a bookshelf?

Probably not, but I am realistic enough to know that emotional reservations are never strong enough en masse to trump the march of technological innovation. Instead of throwing up my hands and running to the printy camp, however, I have come up with my own personal four-word manifesto that sums up how I feel print books can eke out a foothold in a world that is drifting inexorably toward a land of ebooks: make print justify itself. Because it needs to, and quite often, it doesn’t.

The end of the printed wor(l)d isn’t at hand right now. Printies are citing laundry lists of bookstore closures, but pinning this on ebooks is tough. Look at the state of the book industry, the drop-in-the-bucket sales of ebooks versus print books, and the fact that most people don’t spend $250 on books in an entire year, meaning that they aren’t very likely to buy a device for that much that enables them to do something they can do for free by visiting a library, for ten dollars by visiting a Borders & Noble. Instead, I’d look to look at the business decisions of some of the closed bookstores, to see how they managed inventory, engaged with the community, and promoted themselves – since yes, a lot of bookstores are closing, but so are a lot of other businesses, and moreover, a good number of bookstores are thriving as well.

So really, what are printies doing to save the printed word, other than coughing up sky-is-falling scenarios and putting the guilt on anyone who owns a Kindle for the downfall of our shared cultural history? We – lovers of print books (and if this essay suggests I’m not one, the fact that I co-run a small press should be sufficient evidence to the contrary) – need to change the way books are printed and how they are perceived. The corollary to the all-data-in-existence-on-a-thumb-drive world we now live in is the resistant upsurge in crafting and handwork that is visible everywhere. People are turning forgotten hobbies into semi-commercial enterprises selling needlepoint felted animals on Etsy that are even more popular than – gasp – Sony’s robot dog! Letterpress printing is making a huge comeback, with book arts workshops springing up all over the country. And idiots like me are leaving their deskjobs at 5:00 PM to go home and work on small press publishing. The resistance is active and needs to be fed, but it isn’t going to eat garbage.

One printy I read recently talked about the legitimization of his written work manifesting itself in the pile of books he had published – a satisfying material signifier that couldn’t exist in electronic form. I completely understand this, but I think the dark side of book publishing needs to be factored into this too… the remaindered copies on sale for a few bucks, or the creased, worn copies that people didn’t want any more sitting in the dollar bin on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore because the store already had so many that they wouldn’t give it a proper space on the shelf. Books get exalted in the fearmongering that goes on when people start to feel that books as a whole might not exist anymore. But maybe it’s time to admit that not all books are all so great, and that some of them are downright useless as material objects and are only a way to transport some data from one place to another.

I don’t own an e-reader, but I’m certainly not against it, because I see their value. I don’t love every book on my shelf, and I wouldn’t mind if some of them existed on a flash drive instead. If publishers weren’t so difficult to steer, if they could actually recognize new technology as an opportunity rather than a threat, then the publishing business wouldn’t be weaving stories about its own demise at the hands of these awful, awful ebooks. One of the more common bugaboos is the $9.99 maximum retail price for an ebook – a publisher will naturally make less money if $9.99 is the retail ceiling for a hot new book, versus $25.00 for a hardcover. But who does this really hurt? Amazon is going to sell the hardcover for $13.00 anyway, because they have the publisher by the balls and are enforcing a ridiculously low price. Add in the cost of producing the hardcover, warehousing pallets of them, and shipping them, and selling the hardcover through Amazon becomes a loss-leader, with the real profits to be made from a) selling the ebook, which has almost no production costs beyond initial formatting, and b) selling the book at standard wholesale to bookstores, who then have to try to find a way to sell it for full retail when it’s going for half that on the web.

The death of the independent bookstore, then, is not going to come at the hands of the ebook, but at the hands of predatory pricing that has been driving all sorts of independent businesses into the ground for decades now. So how to cope with this and survive as a bookstore that deals exclusively in print books? Make print justify itself. Stock the shelves with books that have to be seen to be appreciated. If a customer’s attitude about a book is, “I don’t care what it looks like, I only care what’s insde,” then print isn’t justifying itself, and the bookstore is fighting a losing fight. But, if the book looks great, feels great, AND has great content, chances are someone is going to buy it straight away, rather than marking it down to buy later from an online retailer. (A quick case study: in the fall of 2008, a comics anthology called Kramer’s Ergot 7 came out – an unspeakably gorgeous 16” x 21” hardcover book that had to be hand bound because of its enormous size. Also enormous was its price tag – $125, although it was much cheaper on Amazon.com. This is a book that could never have the same impact as an ebook, because the size is integral to the experience of reading the comics (sized to mimic the original Sunday page comics of the early 20th century). Additionally, those that bought it from Amazon found that shipping was delayed so that they didn’t get it in time for the holidays, and when it did arrive, it was packaged poorly and thus damaged. People posted on message boards about returning their copies and buying copies for full retail from comics shops, because Amazon wasn’t doing a good job fulfilling their orders. And so, the end result is a book that makes print justify itself, while also bolstering the independent bookstore over the gigantic online retailer.)

It’s a process of separating the wheat from the chaff so that books that have no reason to be physical books eventually get converted into ebooks, and books that justify the print format become the main commodity sold in bookstores, alongside ATM-like terminals that offer the texts to people who would prefer to read it on their ereaders. Obviously this is merely my imaginary future, but anyone reading this article is free to steal my idea and set up a bookstore that sells both print books and ebooks – I promise I’ll patronize your business.

What I think it would benefit print culture to move past is the arrogant assumption that any form of print is superior to any form of electronic publishing. I have seen blogs with amazing, artistic designs that publish groundbreaking works of literature, yet for many authors, a small press that prints something on copy paper, Xeroxes it at a copy shop, and slaps some staples on it is a superior publisher to the web counterpart. And I just don’t understand why some presses dutifully churn out book after book on cheap paper, with ugly design, uneven stapled covers, etc. when the same presses could be publishing the work online in a much more attractive format. This isn’t the 1960’s, where self publishing was limited to typewriters and mimeograph machines. The idea of internet as a second-class citizen of the publishing world helps keep printies lazy by suggesting that no matter what they print out, as long as it is on paper, it is more worthy than what’s online. And with that attitude, why wouldn’t ebooks eventually put print books out to pasture?

My goal is to put out books that justify their existence as books. I don’t want to take for granted the idea that printing something is more worthwhile than just hosting content on chancepress.com. I want to sweat over every last detail of the books – even if it means we can only come out with three or four books a year – because I want the materiality of the books to live up to the cultural importance ascribed to books. Ebooks have a place and aren’t going anywhere, but they can never enable a reader’s emotional connection to the content the way a well designed print book can. And my mission as a small press publisher is to get the absolute most I possibly can out of the print medium in order to do that, in order to create something that just can’t be uploaded and converted to computer code without losing the essence of the original book.

APE 2010 Wrap-Up Thingy

Well, another APE is in the books, making three that I have attended.  One of the things I’m starting to realize is that the energy of the 2008 edition was quite possibly a unique event that won’t be duplicated any time soon – and so, as the first one I ever went to, I think it might have even spoiled me a little bit.  There were a few things about that show that were unique…

  • Chris Ware was there, which I’m to understand is a fairly rare event.
  • Kramers Ergot 7 debuted with all the hype that had built up around it.
  • Buenaventura Press organized a ridiculous roster of cartoonists to sign it (Ware, Clowes, Hernandez, Pham, May, Johnson, Hensley, Huizenga, Furie, Harkham, Groening, and more that I’m probably forgetting).
  • It was DUMPING rain, which for some reason (maybe only to me) made everything crackle with an energy that isn’t there when people just seem to wander in off the street.
  • It was the first APE in a year and a half (the 2007 version having taken place in April)
  • This one applies only to me, but it was the first comics convention that I had ever been to, and so literally everything about it was totally new and exciting to me.

But, all this isn’t to say that the show has lost any of its appeal to me – it’s still the weekend of the year I look forward to the most, and it seems even better now that I have been to Comic-con and can compare it to that.  (Enough has been written about Comic-Con, and I don’t have anything new to offer.  Suffice it to say that it took me about a half-day to decide that 30% of the con is the best thing I’ve ever been to, and 70% is close to intolerable to me).  APE is such an easy show compared to Comic-Con… I’m local to it, and I can just jump in the car and go.  In fact, Saturday morning when I got off I-80 at 9th street, it occurred to me that every time I take that exit, I wish it was so I could go to APE, but this is the only weekend of the year where it’s actually the case.  And that put me in a good mood before the show even opened its doors.

One thing that added a new wrinkle to my APE experience this year was that I was trying to do some networking for Chance Press, which gave me more to talk about with a lot of people there than if I were just there as a collector.  (“Networking” is a nebulous term, and for someone as socially awkward as myself, my version is basically to introduce myself, talk a little bit about Chance Press, and hope not to embarrass myself that much.)  I’ve written about this a lot on the Chance Press blog, but I was trying to pursue a handful of people at APE to work on some comics or art projects, and we’ll see in the coming weeks/months if any of my efforts end up paying off in terms of new projects.  Because of the mini-comic, DIY ethic, I’m realizing more and more that cartoonists – even unpublished just-starting-out cartoonists – see Chance Press as pretty unnecessary… not bad or worthless, per se, just unnecessary.  Meaning, they can make their own mini comics and zines, so when a publisher comes calling, they want it to be someone with the muscle to get the book distributed on a wide scale, Fantagraphics-style.  Which makes total sense, I should add.  At this point, I’m still feeling out whether or not there’s room to publish the sort of comics projects I had in mind originally.  My hope when I started pitching Chance Press to cartoonists was to find someone interested in book arts who was interested in having a deluxe, limited edition book to promote their work, and to have some copies to sell on their website and maybe make a little money.  I still think that cartoonist is out there, and so I went to APE with a handful of business cards (and a few copies of a “publishing prospectus” that I made) in hopes of making some contacts and finding that person.

But, nascent small press publishing stuff aside, what else do I have to say about APE this year?

  • So happy to see Pigeon Press up and running with their first two releases.  I was really disappointed to hear about Buenaventura Press folding, and I’m really happy that Alvin B. will continue to be a force in the publishing world.  Of course I picked up a copy of those releases – I Want You #2 by Lisa Hanawalt and Boy’s Club #4 by Matt Furie, and both are as good as you would expect them to be.  IWY #1 was the surprise of APE 09 for me, since I hadn’t read Hanawalt’s work before that, and so of course it was great to see a new issue come out.
  • Also great that BP folding doesn’t mean the end of Alvin showing up at conventions with a table full of European comics that no one else has and that are really hard to find anywhere else.  I suppose this will come to an end when supply eventually dries up, but given the volume, that’s not likely to be any time soon.  My favorite finds at his table – L’Horreur est Humaine – a 450+ page hardcover comics anthology from France for a mere $25 and a Frech edition of book 2 of Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest. Good thing I went to college and majored in French – now I don’t have to wait for Fantagraphics to publish their version later this year.  He also had the letterpress-printed catalog for an art exhibition he curated for a mere $30… I’m pissed at myself for not buying it (even though I went WAY over my limit), since I have been looking for it for a couple years now.
  • Emilie Ostergren was at the Pigeon Press table as well.  Her book Evil Dress was another surprise from 2009 – I bought it last year and got it signed with a really cool little drawing, and I have read it three times since then.  She had a couple comics for sale that I made sure to get signed as well.
  • Drawn and Quarterly had great guests this year – the only really noticeable lines for author signings were at their table – first for Dan Clowes, and then an even longer line for Lynda Barry – one that was so long that I got shut out from it when I tried to join it.  (A problem I remedied by showing up at D&Q’s booth 30 minutes before she started signing on Sunday so I could be first in line.)  I wouldn’t have bet on Lynda Barry having a longer line than Dan Clowes… I mentioned this to one cartoonist I spent some time talking to, and his opinion was that – in an environment like APE that is rife with DIY cartoonists – people are “fans” of Clowes while they are inspired by Lynda Barry.  Personally, I’m fans of both, although I prefer reading Clowes’s work.  But, to look at it from the other direction, Clowes’s work might seem off-putting to some in how clean and technically proficient it is, whereas Barry exudes encouragement with everything she does.  This was echoed again by another cartoonist who mentioned that she likes Clowes’s work very much, but “the first time I met Lynda Barry, I almost started to cry.”
  • Because I’m a signature hound – most likely to a fault (see my APE 2009 wrap-up thingy for more on just how big of a geek I am when it comes to signatures) – I was a little disappointed that Fantagraphics only had two booth guests this year.  Of course, this disappointment was mitigated by the actual guests – Megan Kelso and Tony Millionaire – being authors whose work I am particularly fond of.  But… they’ve got a big list of artists, right?  And San Francisco isn’t that bad of a city to visit, right?
  • Speaking of people I wish were there, I was hoping to see Frank Santoro and his boxes of curated back issues that I read about every time there is a show on the East Coast.  Alas, it wasn’t to be, but…
  • …happily the show wasn’t entirely free of some sort of presence from Comics Comics, since Dan Nadel brought a whole slew of Picturebox books all the way from New York.  H-Day by Renee French was the first book I bought at the show, but it was also great to see If n Oof and Powr Mstrs 3 in the flesh, not to mention the new Mat Brinkman book that is printed on gigantic sheets of vellum and housed in a death-metal black cardboard envelope.  Also cool to support the release of H-Day with what had to have been 8 hours total of Renee French signing books.
  • Also enjoyed meeting Chris Pitzer from AdHouse books – I’ve been a fan of their books for a while, and I was really happy that yet another publisher made it all the way out from the other side of the country.  I picked up Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines, an artist I wasn’t previously familiar with.  It’s about the size and thickness of a regional telephone book, so I’ll have to set aside some time for it, but the art looks superb at first glance.
  • I’m looking forward to reading what other people have to say about the flip floppy layout this year (the entrance being on the other side and all) – I didn’t really care either way, although it definitely seemed like the tables in the back section consistently had less foot traffic than those on the other side of the dividing wall, and this wasn’t the case the last couple years when the show was all in one section of the convention center.
  • Great art presence again this year – even better than in past years… I saw a lot of people whose primary business was selling prints rather than zines or comics, and I really like the idea of APE becoming a place where sequential artists and (for lack of a better word) “fine” artists coexist.  (What I mean is “people who make books” and “people whose metric for success isn’t necessarily book publishing as much as it is showing in galleries.”)  I spent the most money at Skinner’s table, since he had a bunch of large format inkjet prints that were too cool not to buy.
  • APE cost me a lot of money this year, but as I left, I thought about how I could have easily spent double and still left the show wanting more.  You can decide whether this says more about me or the quality of the work at APE.
  • There’s a guy I see at APE every year who I call “Cart Guy.”  Apparently, there are a couple Bay Area cartoonists who refer to him instead as “Pushcart Pete.”  I shouldn’t poke fun, though, as more than one person gave me shit for my gigantic backpack (and at times, the totebag I carried because I had too much stuff for my backpack), and my shoulders wish I had a pushcart instead.  How long before I’m “Backpack Bill” or “Totebag Tim”?

Okay, well that’s probably enough… the thing I’m most content with as I wrap up another APE weekend is that my enjoyment for this convention has been reaffirmed, and I’m already excited about next year.

Finally, my standard disclaimer: sometimes this blog gets picked up by link aggregation blogs (FLOG, Comics Reporter, etc.), so I kind of feel it necessary to state that I don’t consider myself a comics critic, expert, afficionado, etc.  You probably know more about comics than I do, and you have probably been to far more conventions.  The “audience” I have in mind when I write is one made up of people who really like books and book collecting, and APE is one of the premier events of the year for me in terms of that hobby, which is why I like to write about it every year.

Medium Rare – The Value of Scarcity in the age where Everything is Available

I got into collecting books when I was 17 – I had a very engaging English professor my senior year in high school who introduced me to classics like Of Human Bondage and The Brothers Karamazov, and my first foray into collecting was to spend more time at Borders or Barnes and Noble than was necessary to buy books for school, reading the summaries on the backs of all these other famous books, trying to see what else might actually be as good as advertised.  Books underwent a transformation from “chore” and “homework” to “hobby,” and the bookstore was the site of this newfound hobby… and, since I have an obsessive personality, I spent a lot of time in bookstores.  Once I got bored of the local new-book stores, my then-girlfriend’s father gave me a guide to used bookstores in the area.  (He also gave me one for Southern California as a gift before I left to attend college in Los Angeles… as relics of the pre-internet age in book collecting, I doubt these books are even in print anymore.)  The first place I went was the famous labyrinthine shop Bookman’s Alley in Evanston, IL.  There, I found a copy of The Brothers Karamazov published by the Heritage Press, handsomely presented in a slipcase and illustrated throughout the text with full-page woodcuts.  This was my first experience liking a book as a physical object as much as the text inside.  I paid $25 for it, which I eventually learned was a bad deal, but to me it seemed like a bargain, given that a new copy in hardcover cost the same amount and was much more boring.  From that point forward, I was hooked, and my relationship with books as things to keep, things that enriched my life simply by sitting on shelves, began.

By book collector standards, I’m a little sapling at the ruddy-cheeked age of 29.  At least I have the luxury of being prematurely bald (a process that started a full ten years ago now), which gives me the credibility of a 40-year old when I’m poking around in rare book stores.  So, one of the things that has always been part of my reality is using the internet to support my hobby.  I can’t imagine buying a book without checking its price on Abebooks.com first, unless I’m buying it from a dealer I trust or I already have an innate sense of what it is worth without having to go online.  Rather than having to pore over auction results or other missives sent out to the trade, I can keep a pretty good handle on how well the market for the authors in whom I’m interested is doing based on my daily eBay updates.  The first book I bought from Abebooks – a collection of Oscar Wilde short stories published by the Limited Editions Club – was a revelation… here was something I had seen in a local bookstore for $200, but I could have it for $60 from someone selling it online (and in better condition, it turned out).

Much has been made, especially by older book dealers, of the havoc wreaked on the trade by the internet.  I don’t disagree that it upended their business model, but I definitely don’t think what it has done is all bad.  By providing a level of transparency previously unheard-of in the trade, the internet exposed what was really rare, and what just seemed rare because dealers said it was rare and charged an appropriately high price for it.  But, and this is the main thing I’m interested in in this post (after what I’m sure has been another gripping rambling preamble) the question of what “rare” is is as ambiguous as it has ever been.  At first, the books whose value suffered the most were the modern fiction first editions.  It turns out that, as publishers began using better materials to print books, modern first editions in fine condition are pretty common and not worth the premium dealers were hanging on them.  Thus began the great race to the bottom on Abebooks, where many dealers tried to position their books as the cheapest copy available, while others kept their prices high, hoping their status as premium bookmen would keep the customers buying from them.  (An aside about condition: many collectors grouse about the confusing way books are graded: “fine” means like new; “very good” means anywhere from pretty crappy to pretty good; “good” means bad; “acceptable” means horrible.  But, if you imagine these terms describing a book published in 1880, they’re probably pretty accurate.  A book in “good” condition that is 130 years old probably is pretty messed up, but it still looks good, given its age.  Now, though, in the age of acid free paper, quality adhesives, sophisticated binding machines, and heavyweight stock for dustjackets, books just aren’t falling apart… and so a book in “good” condition looks really ratty given the quality of its binding and its young age.)

The plight of the modern first edition was made evident this February, when I worked for a British dealer at a book fair in San Francisco.  Over the course of the weekend, I watched him sell probably close to $15,000 worth of books.  Meanwhile, nearby dealers came by to chat and all noted how awfully the fair was going for them – one dealer whose stand was across from mine even complained of not making a single sale.  The thing I noticed at this fair was that ultra-modern was all the rage… a first edition of Infinite Jest or House of Leaves was de rigeur at nearly every booth.  By contrast, my stand had a very eclectic mix of books, most of which were very old, and all of which were priced a little bit below market.  Instead of trying to “float” the market for Danilewski, Foster-Wallace, Eggers, Chabon, and friends by obstinately sticking at high pricepoints even the face of a clear lack of consumer demand, my employer sold books that were actually rare, and at reasonable prices too.  (He did most of his business to other dealers, suggesting what I had already been told before meeting him – that he is “not to be trifled with” when it comes to sourcing books that other people want to buy and resell.)  Fair patrons were looking for something unique, something you don’t see in bookstores – not just a nicer copy of a book that came out 10 – 15 years ago that they already owned in paperback.

So what does “rare” mean, and how important is it that a book be rare?  Of course, basic supply and demand dictates that fewer copies will be more expensive than too many copies, but when a casual book collector browses listings on eBay, just about everything is “RARE” – I’ve even seen this term used to describe books with print runs of 20,000.  I’ve written a lot about this regarding the Codex Seraphinianus – a book that is ALWAYS described as rare, even though – at the time I’m writing this post – there are three copies available on eBay, and over 10 on Abebooks.  Are there different levels of scarcity?  Sure, the Codex is rare if you’re looking for it in bookstores… in fact, I’ve only ever seen two copies of it in bookstores, and I spend a lot of time in bookstores.  Second-Life addicts describe non-Second-Life time as “meatspace,” so does that mean that a book like the Codex is “meatrare” (rare meat, meaty rare, medium rare, OH PUNS!)?  Actually, this isn’t a bad term – “medium rare” is a book that you’re unlikely to find in meatspace, but that a credit card number and 5 minutes online will have sitting on your doorstep in a week’s time.

Then, there are books that are easy to buy on the internet, provided that you find them first.  Sticking with Serafini, let’s look at Storie Naturali, his latest book.  Now, if you search for it, a bunch of people in the US are selling it on Abebooks.  Back when I bought it, this wasn’t the case.  (Farbeit from humble me to claim credit for introducing this book to the US market, but until I posted a blog about it, there was NOTHING about it in English, except for a bullet point on Serafini’s Wikipedia page.  No pictures, no articles, no nothing.  Then I posted about it, and the Abebooks blog brought the story to a wider audience (they could have done a better job crediting me, but the dates of the posts speak for themselves), and all of a sudden I was getting 50 hits a day for a few days, and then another few weeks later, a handful of dealers is advertising the ULTRA RARE new Serafini book in their stock.)  I happened to find it from Deastore.com – the Italian Amazon – during a routine search for Serafini stuff that I do every couple months, because I want to make sure I have as much of his work as I can get my paws on.  Now, was this book rare when I bought it?  Or medium rare?  It was right there for the taking, but not one US bookstore, nor Abebooks, nor eBay had it for sale.  Is a book still rare if an intrepid book hunter unearths it?

This question in turn brings us to the size of the edition – Storie Naturali at 660 copies is statistically more scarce than the first edition of the Codex at 4000 copies, but the latter is decidedly rarer.  Now, it makes sense for it to be rarer, since it is older, but it was always a deluxe book, meant to be treasured and not merely read and tossed off.  So where did all the 4000 copies go?  It’s not as if it’s even that old – not even 30 years yet.  Maybe in 10 years, after Storie Naturali has sold out, it will become the new “lost” Serafini work, generally unavailable to all but the most well-monied collectors.  And money does play a significant part – let’s switch gears and consider the other “lost” Serafini book, Pulcinellopedia (Piccola), a book that had a healthy first (and only) printing of 5000 copies.  Online listings dub this the “lost second book by the author of the Codex Seraphinianus,” although it’s hard to say how it really got lost, unless there is some backstory I don’t know about, whereby the publisher lost half the boxes in a fire or something.  This book is another “medium rare” title – I have never seen a copy in bookstores, but there are three available online currently.  However, the prices are awfully high – $800, $1200, and a not entirely unreasonable $1850 for a beautiful inscribed copy (see my next-most-recent post for more on this copy).  In my opinion, the book isn’t worth this much.  I bought my copy for $250 from a bookseller who at one point had multiple copies, and I have bought copies as low as $95 (bad eBay listings in foreign languages are your friend, apparently) and sold them as high as $400.  In my insurance documents, I have this book listed at $500, and the true value of it is probably between $300 and $500.  The problem is that the Abebooks sellers who are listing it are effectively holding it hostage, floating the market for it in hopes that the demand for the book eventually catches up to their price.

Demand, then, is the other key here.  Before I started writing this post, I was thinking about rarity, scarcity, and trying to figure out what was the flat-out rarest book in my collection.  This is kind of like finding the smallest grain of sand – is it the book with the smallest limitation?  I have tons of books with limitations under 100, and some with limitations as low as 10.  Then, I have books that are rare not because of the limitation, but because they are very unique – for example, I have a number of Black Sparrow Press publisher’s copies.  These copies match the “lettered” limitations of 26 that were only offered to collectors, but only one of each title was produced.  My copy of John Yau’s My Heart is the Eternal Rose Tattoo even has the original invitation to the Author’s wedding (sent to the publisher) laid in under the front cover.  That’s rare – I know that not one other collector has a copy like this.  Same with my copy of Kramers Ergot 7, which I wrote about (and photographed) a couple years ago.  I have signatures from (I think) 20 contributors, as well as two letterpress prints (also with multiple signatures), one of which is numbered out of 200, and another that is numbered “A.P.”  Because of the signatures and the two prints, I know my copy is very unique.  I’m sure the publisher’s personal copy is more desirable, but I can venture a guess that my copy is in the 5 or 10 best copies of this title.  Likewise, many of my comic anthologies and art anthologies are signed by multiple contributors, and I know that these books are truly rare, meaning that if they were lost, they would not be replaceable.

But… how much do people really care about these books?  In the age where everything is available, how much does it really matter to have a really exquisitely unique book by John Yau?  Who cares about John Yau, or having a book that rare in the first place?  What separates that book from a potato chip that looks like the Virgin Mary balancing a beach ball on the nose of a trained seal?  This cuts to the heart of how the internet has affected the book trade… it’s not just that online book sites drove prices down, or that ebooks are going to replace print books eventually or somesuch hobgoblin of the technophobe.  It’s that the internet has turned collectors into overexposed film by bombarding them with collectibles.  There’s just SO MUCH OUT THERE, how do you collect just books?  Or, more accurately, how do you land on books?  It takes a certain type of personality to become a collector of anything in the first place, and the internet is an impossible-to-navigate bazaar of things to collect, and even worse, it has made all its collectibles sickeningly available to the point where, with a decent credit limit, you could have 10 respectable collections in just a few hours of browsing.

So, it’s no wonder why the term “rare” gets used so frequently – books are not only vying with each other for supremacy, but with everything else available on a site like eBay, trying to grab the attention of the type of person that cares if something is rare in the first place.  It’s like an antenna ball in a crowded parking lot – and now all the cars have the same one.  (I’m going to do my best to propagate the term “medium rare,” since I think it’s clever, and I’m hoping that the Abebooks blog publishes a blog post about it while only obliquely crediting me as the person who coined it.)

What, then, is the value of having something “rare,” besides simply owning something that announces its own opposition to the overwhelming abundance that collectors confront when buying online?  It has to start with the book itself – if it’s a book no one wanted in the first place, being rare matters very little.  Let’s say I decided to sell my John Yau publisher’s copy on eBay and in a separate auction sold a paperback reading copy – my guess is that the publisher’s copy would sell for $20, and the reading copy for $3.  Clearly, being rare does not innately create value.  Now, let’s take a book of mine that is medium rare and repeat the same experiment… a signed first edition of Bukowski’s War all the Time.  I bought it for $200 after looking around for a long time for a nice signed copy.  It isn’t the signed, limited edition (which is actually less rare, since all 400 of the signed, limited edition sold to collectors, while much of the 500-copy first trade edition was sold to libraries, and very few were actually kept by collectors, signed incidentally, and preserved in fine condition), but it is a nice copy of a book that didn’t have a very big print run in hardcover when it was published.  If I put it up on eBay, given the crappy economy, I could probably expect $200 – $250, while maybe getting $5 – 10 for a paperback reading copy of the same book.  If it was the signed, limited edition, I could probably get $300 – $350 for it (more when the economy finally rebounds).  Yau vs. Bukowski – one is a little known art critic and poet who writes incredibly beautiful abstracts, and one is a folk hero and American icon, beloved by millions around the world.

Above, I define rare by how physically common the book is.  The Yau is extremely rare – it is a unique copy of which there is only one.  The Bukowski is medium rare – not common to see in bookstores, pretty limited, but available online.  But, in the context of the internet as the all-consuming and all-consumable bazaar, the Bukowski is more rare.  What I mean is, the Bukowski book connects the owner to a major event in American literary history.  It is one of the most desirable copies of a very well-regarded collection of poems by the man who many argue turned American letters on its head.  It is hand-signed by Bukowski, and he was probably drunk when he did it.  It is a piece of history.  This book, then, is so much more rare than the simply unique Yau book, or any number of singular items that go unsold in late-night auctions.  It is truly a rare find on the internet – it’s something of substance, for once!  Something the collector can latch on to and pull out of the fetid morass of commerce, porn, and boneheaded comments on news stories, something with more history and longevity than the tangled mass of wires that comprises the worldwide web.

Obviously, scarcity only matters when there’s demand for the work in the first place, although the point I’m trying to make goes deeper.  A book may be rare or medium rare, but the real value of scarcity in the internet age is when the very feature that makes the book scarce ties it back to history.  This could mean a signature, an uncommon copy of an edition that was suppressed or censored, a pristine copy of a poorly bound book most of whose copies have since fallen apart, a key association or inscription, and so on.  Collecting books means keeping literary history front and center in one’s life, and the truly rare books are the ones the have a tangible grasp on that history that other books just can’t duplicate.

***

So, as an epilogue, I thought I would describe what I finally decided was the rarest book in my collection, keeping all of the above in mind.  The book I chose is a Presentation Copy of There’s no Business by Bukowski and illustrated by R. Crumb.  This book was published by Black Sparrow press as a showcase of the Bukowski/Crumb collaboration (the second such book, after Bring me your Love), and it contains the titular story as well as several full-page illustrations by Crumb.  There was a limited edition of around 475 copies (a numbered edition of 400, plus a lettered edition of 26, plus presentation copies, publisher’s copies, printer’s copies, etc.), meaning that Crumb signed 475 individual pages, sent them to Bukowski who also signed them and then sent them back to the publisher to have them bound into the books.  A presentation copy is already a pretty rare variant to own (around 10 were designated as such), but this one is special… as the story (which was relayed to me by the dealer from whom I bought the book, who heard it from John Martin, the publisher) goes, Crumb grew bored signing his name on sheet after sheet, so on one sheet, he signed Bukowski’s name in his distinctive thin-line rapidograph script.  Bukowski, receiving the page, then proceeded to sign Crumb’s name in his rough, angular felt-tip pen scrawl.  Martin received the page and designated it a presentation copy, since it didn’t really fit any of the other designations, although it remained in his collection until it was sold fairly recently.  Bukowski’s official bibliography by Aaron Krumhansl confirms that there is only one copy with the “double forged signature.”  The reason this book is so rare is that Bukowski and Crumb signatures are both common as signatures go – both authors have countless “signed, limited” editions available, and it isn’t unrealistic to think that between the two of them, there are thousands upon thousands of signed books floating around.  But, I am reasonably certain that there is only one book that has ever been published in which either of them signed another author’s name.  The father of underground comix and the main inspiration for pretty much every cartoonist that I admire, and the greatest American poet of the 20th Century signing each other’s names in one book, one time, among all the books the two of them ever published.  And I have it.



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