Monday, August 17, 2020

myth and magic in the age of mechanical reproduction


Ricky Jay’s most pristine miracles were not intended for strangers to see. 

These were events that were never captured on film. Jay preferred to deal his best magic in bright impossible bursts—ephemeral shows for audiences as small as one that will pass from living memory within decades. 
 
Arguably, Jay’s most powerful performance was staged for an audience of just one woman, in 1995. 
 
I find this to be such an interesting choice for a performer in the age of mass media, especially given Jay’s deep connections in show business. He appeared in dozens of films, consulted on others, and was a fixture on late-night television from the 1970s. On the prestige drama Deadwood, Jay played some version of himself, a card sharp from another era, and before that, he had an enormously popular show off-Broadway, directed by David Mamet and taped for HBO. 
 
Despite these many appearances on stage and screen, the fact remains that Jay’s most brilliant performances unfolded in front of a select few. Like most things in Jay’s carefully controlled life, this was surely by design.
 
He was an enthusiastic and careful historian. So it seems meaningful that Jay’s most profound acts of magic appear on the historical record only as described by the handful of people who were lucky enough to witness them. Like the great acts of his beloved forebears—magicians and other oddball performers who lived in a time before video—the most deeply compelling magic of Ricky Jay will persist only in arcane territory, somewhere between history and myth. To reconstruct these transient works of art, we’re confronted with the wonders and limitations of imagination.
 
Authenticity is not reproducible.
 
Jay’s most elaborate tricks required intricate setups that were informed by a lifetime of experience and made possible by months of site-specific preparation. These were artful illusions that hinged on opportunities that might have never presented themselves.  (I wonder most about the magic that Ricky Jay never had the chance to perform.) It’s thrilling to read about a diabolical card trick he performed at a party, late at night. Or an uncanny display of mentalism at a bar. This past Saturday, I had a complicated feeling watching a scene in a documentary where a man described the time Jay manufactured a two-dollar bill out of thin air—not on the stage, but in the shower after a workout. This interlocutor was a skeptic who had hoped to catch him off guard. But Ricky Jay was always ready.
 
Each of these perfectly executed moments in time was a polished piece of technical theater seamlessly woven into the events of everyday life, to the wonder and delight of whoever was watching. In the 2012 documentary Deceptive Practice, Jay described this genre as “impromptu magic,” which he regarded as the highest form of art. 
 
One of the magicians Jay most admired and studied was Max Malini (1873-1942), a world-famous practitioner of impromptu magic. Malini was known for his splendid spur-of-the-moment performances. He often staged them in rich people’s homes in a bid to capture their interest (and their dollars). These were acts composed not of scripted stunts, but minor miracles. Or so it seemed.
 
Jay’s innovation in the practice of impromptu magic, from what I gather, was in catching people completely off guard, and his near total lack of agenda. This kind of magic was very personal and enormously special. Jay loved to surprise people in mundane places and offhand moments—in a diner, say, or at a hotel bar. The banality of the setting must’ve made the magic that much more real. 
 
“For it truly to be magic…a magical moment, it has to be spontaneous,” Jay explained in the documentary. “It has to be something that just happens. Not in a stage show that’s carefully plotted from beginning to end but, rather, in a moment.” 
 
That which withers in the age of mechanical production is the aura of a work of art.
 
In the film, Jay describes how Malini was known for a dinner-party trick in which he produced a large block of ice from the seemingly empty space beneath a hat lying on the table. Jay recreated this magnificent show and arguably did it better, if only because the person he performed it for never saw it coming. (For Malini, it was a signature piece.) But Jay’s performance did not appear in the documentary; it was only described by the woman who saw it. The actual event had transpired in a diner some 15 years before.
 
The context is very important: in 1995, Jay was being filmed for a BBC special. He had been clashing with a producer who wanted him to perform Malini’s ice trick as a set piece for the show.
 
Jay had zero interest in doing this. But privately, he planned a surprise: instead of performing for the camera, he chose to conjure the huge block of ice for one person, a journalist named Suzie Mackenzie who had been hanging around the set. At the time, they were having lunch in a busy diner. I think she was profiling him for a story.
 
As she described the ice trick in Deceptive Practice, Mackenzie visibly struggled to find words to express how much it moved her. It was like religious awe: not for Ricky Jay, but the for the experience that he had given her.
 
The BBC didn’t get the footage, because there was none. At the diner, between Jay and Mackenzie, the ice began to melt on the table—a potent symbol for a fleeting moment. It was a very hot day.
 
Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. 
 
At a memorial service for Jay in 2019, Mark Singer (who wrote the definitive profile of Jay and worked as a producer on Deceptive Practiceadded this remarkable coda to Mackenzie’s story:
 
It was the only time Ricky performed this [trick]. For anyone, ever. … When it happened, Suzie Mackenzie burst into tears. In the film, she says, “It’s a moment I’ll never have again. I’ll never forget it. It was a kind of supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed, that was done for me.”
 
What she doesn’t say is what Ricky told me, years ago, about her reaction. After she had regained her composure, he asked her what she felt. 
 
“Love,” she said. 

Jay often spoke about the difference between magicians and con men. I don’t think he’d put it this way—he seemed to think about the distinction in terms of honesty—but my understanding is: one gives where the other takes. 
 
“He’s unbelievably generous,” David Mamet said of his friend. “One of the world’s great people.” 
 
Jay reportedly worked very hard. Before a performance, Michael Chabon once said to him, “You must get tired of it sometimes, night after night, show after show.”
 
“Yes, Michael, sometimes I do,” Jay said. “But once I get out there, I guarantee you, not you or them or anybody is ever going to know.” 
 
As a performer, Jay kept a lot of secrets, which people sometimes regarded as elitist or stingy. “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in doing things,” said Michael Weber, the magician who was Jay’s business partner. “They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own.”
 
The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.
 
It seems to me that Jay’s professional secrets were in the spirit of giving people something (an experience, a feeling) rather than a selfish wish to withhold. Jay had his reasons for performing his most amazing magic for so few people. It certainly wasn’t a problem with resources; he had access to all the right people, plenty of money, and a surplus of tools. 
 
“Today, audiences are just as curious, just as willing to be amazed” as audiences from the distant past, Jay remarked. “But look at everything we’re barraged with—it just doesn’t lodge in the imagination in the same way.”
 
Everything we’re barraged with.
 
As a magician and a historian, Jay had a special understanding of perspective and constraints. Talking about the HBO special of his off-Broadway show in an interview, he said
 
The show is different live. Particularly something that deals with magic: The very essence of it is the spontaneity; that’s the moment you’re looking for. The very idea that you have a TV camera there, even though we went through great lengths not to cut away and not to use camera trickery… [Mamet] even came out and directed himself, which was nice. But it’s still different. It’s a live show, and it’s meant to be seen live.
 
Reading the interview, I came to an understanding of why Jay saved his best stuff for off-camera; it would have been a degradation to film it. Impromptu magic cannot occur on film, by definition; it’s an experience that only occurs if and when the right moment presents itself. 
 
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be
 
Jay wasn’t interested at all in showing people how his tricks were done. (Why would it matter?) But he did impart a kind of understanding of what it might have felt like to experience them. The experience was the art. His process was only a method.
 
In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it is perhaps notable that the obituaries for Jay in mainstream outlets differed on the point of whether he had died at the age of 70 or 72. Like so many of the magicians who came before him, the details of his life are fuzzy. Most of us don’t know so much about him as an individual who existed in the world. We watched the parts he wanted us to see, and the rest is stories.
 
The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.
 
I’ve always had a fondness for people who do amazing pointless things. I don’t have that kind of talent, but it’s an impulse I understand. It resonates with me now more than ever, in this sad time of accelerated media consolidation. It hums faintly somewhere deep within my chest as I try to live through this period of US collapse. 
 
“Behind every transcendent, unforgettable performance is a deeply ordinary chore,” Jay’s former assistant wrote. I can’t decide if that’s some rarified philosophy, or just one way to describe a life. 
 
I read a story about a time Jay performed a stunning miracle for yet another audience of one: Steve Freeman, a fellow magician who stopped by Jay’s apartment to return a shirt. 
 
“It was nice to be fooled,” Freeman said of the experience. “That’s not a feeling we get to have very often anymore.” 
 
A mystery doesn’t always yield an answer, but may yet offer some reward.
 
I don’t know much about magic. Nevertheless, it exists.  
 
 
 
 
--
All italicized passages are from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Walter Benjamin.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

faux food insecurity

An interesting thing about the whole self-quarantine experience is how much of my anxiety and horror about what's happening in the world get poured into the grocery shopping, an activity I used to really enjoy. Except for maybe a two- to three-day respite following a given shop, I work on the grocery list constantly, with weird intense pathological desperation. That list is by far the most cursed thing in my home (or on my phone, I guess). Hundreds of years from now, if an anthropologist finds one of my pandemic-era grocery lists, its horrible dark energy will probably kill them instantly. They won't even have time to wonder why I have so many different kinds of fake milk while also using real cream in the coffee.

Like a lot of my anxieties relating to the pandemic, this new unhinged relationship to food feels... unearned. Whatever I'm feeling isn't food insecurity, a real actual problem that a lot of people have, especially now. The extremely disordered way in which I sterilize and put away the groceries (which is somehow both completely inadequate and wholly over the top?) may make me feel like Meredith Baxter Birney in a Lifetime movie, but I don't in fact have obsessive-compulsive disorder. So it's this very circular stupid psychodrama of having weird fears and fake problems, and then feeling guilty and even ashamed about the fears and problems, because honestly it seems reasonable that those of us who aren't sick or grieving or working for Bezos (yet) should buck up and not complain. Part of the problem is that I know my brain is equipped to scan the landscape for predators and instead it has been reduced to checking the same five websites for my preferred brand of paper towels. For the first few weeks I think my body was flooded with stress hormones, like I woke up every morning and ate several handfuls of stimulants, but that seems to have died down, at least. Finally, my nervous system (if not my brain) seems to have grasped that the stakes of human survival in this household are - for now - having enough cans of the good tomatoes.

Anyway part of this whole melodrama is the new (fake, but deeply felt) stakes of cooking, another formerly pleasant activity which now feels very fraught. There was a viral reddit post (also fake, imo) about someone's girlfriend burying cans of beans in the woods "for when things get bad" and that is like 100% the mentality I have to fight to cook a dinner. That reddit post is either a parable for whatever my problem is, or an actual story about my future, and I'm not sure which. Anyway I'm now (probably appropriately...) worried about food waste and using the gross stems of vegetables, etc. So a type of quarantine content I have really appreciated is chefs who are committed to helping people figure out how to cook stuff. I mean, I can cook, more or less, but it's been hard to take any pleasure in it. Or, worse than that, where cooking used to feel pleasurable, I find it sort of upsetting now. So I'm just intensely grateful for any podcast or show or anything else hosted by people who make me feel better about food: buying it, cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it. There's a lot of this content right now (I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface), but my very favorite is a TV show with Jamie Oliver called Keep Cooking and Carry On. It's not available in the US, but some kind soul links up all the episodes on deep reddit.

Jamie Oliver is probably my favorite celebrity chef? In a profession that is so often about machismo and misery (which whatever, I'm into some of that too), he stands out. He just seems like a good person, plus I really like his recipes. One time someone gave Chris Morocco a Jamie Oliver recipe on Reverse Engineering. It was just the saddest burger in the world, and CM spent the entire show making fun of whatever chef had devised this terrible recipe. But then! After the reveal, when Chris Morocco he found out this burger he had insulted for half an hour was made by Jamie Oliver, he immediately backtracked and talked about how much he loved and respected Jamie. I'm not sure if that's a meaningful anecdote to anyone else, but to me it had the same kind of magic as when someone's difficult pet decides that you're all right. The Chris Morocco blessing.

The incredible thing about the new Jamie Oliver show is that it was sort of thrown together, but still quite well produced for about a week before he started literally filming it on a phone in his garage. After a handful of episodes it went from this:



To this:




Dirty t-shirt. Uncombed hair. I think the first thing he made was quesadillas. It was straight up dorm-kitchen cooking, albeit in the cake pan storage area(?) of his literal estate, and I love it so much.

You know...working through it.


Good things:
My favorite Jamie recipe
My other favorite
Highly entertained by these coronavirus update videos from Spiegelman and Seth
The Longform podcast interviewed Ed Yong, my fave science writer

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

meditations in an emergency

Am I to become profligate as if I were blonde? Or religious as if I were French? The two coronavirus pastimes are baking bread, or hating people that bake bread, and unfortunately I can't get into it. In a perfect world, I would've gotten around to my vague aspiration to "get into meditation" before this pandemic cranked into high gear (premium David Lynch brand, not that cubicle-poster shit). You know... that ship has sailed. So my personal journey seems to be transforming from a vaguely anxious person into a state of pure consciousness I fondly imagine as a raccoon trapped in a trash can.

Any complaint I could possibly make would have to be offset by 10 years of gratitude journaling, a fate almost worse than death. So this is just an observation: My concentration is bad. Very bad. Every day is just a row of car alarms going off in the middle of a tornado siren. Everything takes longer than it should. Sometimes I stare at the screen, or forget what I'm doing. I rewrite things until they start to sound like me? And it still sounds like someone else. But apart from a sort of blankness, and the bizarre experience of the gears grinding so slow I can almost feel a thought laboring its way through my brain, the worry feels physical. It jangles its way through my nervous system. I worry about the risks in my family. My oldest friend works at a poorly supplied hospital in a hot zone. The required reading is about to get worse (much worse, I think...). My old job is taking a lot longer, and now I have this second job trying to piece together some idea of how any of this works. At the same time, even in a vacuum of leadership and the most basic facts, I feel alienated by a lot of the conversation about uncertainty. I feel the question mark of it all on a personal level for sure, but what really overwhelms me is a stunningly clear notion of what this first stretch will look like, if not what comes after that. And then this intense state of emergency gets some very complex notes and shades from the new uncanniness of everyday life. I'm just constantly fascinated and deeply unsettled by how the most banal, pleasant tasks from before - walking around, buying groceries - have these new overtones of anxiety and dread. I really miss walking around in a regular way. The little moments that make a day.

So anyway I wish I'd gotten into meditation. It might have come in handy. But it always seemed like homework, and maybe also meta spiritual thinkpiece hell. Sometimes the people who teach meditation describe learning it as a process of embracing failure, because it's so difficult to clear the mind. The experience of frustration and failure is perversely what trains your brain to meditate better. And I guess maybe now that I'm typing it out, that's what it's like to learn anything? idk, I don't have the patience.

What I do have is a little low-effort trick - a relaxation hack, if you will! - that doesn't feel like anything reading bad Bechdel comics. Just as backstory, I began using it a few years back, when I started getting headaches. Getting a lot of headaches seems sort of like having a small child, in that your are constantly trying to appease something that is irrational, all-consuming, and only partially under your control. (I guess anxiety is like that too, come to think of it.) I ended up trying a lot of stuff, but the activity that helped most over the long term was acupuncture, I think because it helps with tension? But the caveat is that acupuncture can make your body feel weird in all sorts of wild and mysterious and unsettling ways, including rousing the fight-or-flight instinct. This can happen even if you're not squeamish about acupuncture at all. You start to sweat. Your heart races and you feel faint and ill, and all of this is because your lizard brain perceives a threat on some level of consciousness you don't even have access to.

The trick I learned to offset this was to focus on a positive memory to center myself and relax.

This could obviously mean a million different things. But just to give you an idea of how it works for me, the memory needs to be a very specific, with a very high level of zoom. I choose experiences (always from travels, seems like?) where I felt either really content or full of awe and wonder. The first memory, my go-to, is from a boat ride with friends on a beautiful day. I don't really think about people during these fake meditations, because that somehow feels too charged (even before all this). So I think about the moments where we were standing quietly looking out across the water. I think about how the sunlight glinted off the surface, and how the water made the nicest sound as we moved toward an even more scenic view, and how blue and stunning the sky was that day. I think about the cool wind on my face as the boat moved through the water, and how glad I was to be there.

My other go-to, which is considerably more sociopathic but extremely effective, is from the time I went to a museum where the exhibits were just these massive halls filled with enormous Viking ships.

It was a calm and awesome and intensely metal place. The floor plan of the building itself formed a cross. Minimalist presentation. Walking through those halls made me feel a deep sense of wonder that I was looking at things people made and used a thousand years ago. At least two of them were burial ships, if I remember correctly. I liked approaching each ship slowly, just full-on gawking. And I especially liked going to these raised platforms that let you look down into the decks. You could gaze down into these beautifully made objects and indulge a gentle kind of curiosity. Who were the unhinged murderers who made these incredible things? I went to public school! Who knows!

I've been trying to build up a better stash of these small, quiet moments. One I'm working on is from a time I was in a place where it had been gray and misty for days, when a patch of clear sky opened up to reveal the distant mountains. It looked like a portal into another world, and was maybe the most magnificent thing I've ever seen. I like to think about sitting on a bench that was almost too warm from the sunshine in a botanical park. Or the occasion, so many years ago it feels like it was someone else's life, when I was in the mountains floating down a really quiet river edged by the fullest, tallest trees.

That's it. That's my advice. Close your eyes. Work up a nice memory by really fixating on the sensory details. Remember the easy feeling you had in your chest. Take deeper breaths. Think about the possibility of going somewhere else.



Good things
Jamie Oliver's quarantine cooking show - The raw mania emanating off Jamie in episode 02 is truly something to behold. Would die for this man.
Samin Nosrat's quarantine cooking podcast - good vibes, solid advice
Bon Appetit test kitchen home kitchen vids - I have a lot of opinions on this
Daniel Lavery talks about the Americans - a topical television program about tension

Saturday, March 21, 2020

notes on another person

I'm not big on offering advice. I would never presume, just for instance, to share my thoughts on how to work from home, though I have done so for most of my adult life. I have zero boundaries and multiple levels of catastrophic sleep disease, and while I prefer my own coffee and the lack of commute there are times when I feel like I'm coming up short on every side of the equation--at work, at life, etc.

There are an awful lot of articles right now on how to do this thing, huh? Judging from appearances all my work-from-home brethren have been living right! They have routines. But all that advice...whatever listicles there are for these poor souls who have suddenly found themselves running an old-fashioned schoolhouse for their kids out of two-bedroom apartments, plus all this new required public health reading, the interviews with epidemiologists, all this shit we've got to read to feel we're on top of all the different ways in which we're about to die...the answers these words on our screens purport to offer feel more inadequate than usual. As disorienting as the moment may feel, I believe the world is weirdly simple right now: a stunning series of object lessons about obvious issues that too many people have tried very hard to ignore.

I mean, don't get me wrong. I've fully subscribed to the empty American dream of using this time to organize the closets and heal my gut. There's just the horrible unease of being forced to nest when you're feeling crazy that feels like it's going unacknowledged. It's the elephant in the room that's never mentioned in each day's packet of explainers, right? The strain of it.

The question that people are asking isn't how do I work from home. It's when will life go back to normal. And it's in thinking about that subject that I realized I actually do have a piece of advice to offer: It won't. And that's okay.

People are still asking if this is going to change the world, when it seems very plain that it already has.

There is a thinness to things I've always felt, a sort of tenuousness or transience. I assume it comes from the experience of having been a kid who saw my parents in crisis. A difficult fact of life is that some of the most basic things you take for granted are secretly subject to sudden, violent revision. That reality is a contract that is easily broken. I learned about how events beyond your control can change the person you thought you were into another person who feels unfamiliar. Then 9/11 happened! I was living in another country at the time, and had been laid off from my first grown-up job. I came home and I started someone else's life again, and at some point it became mine.

I don't mean to sound flip. Last night I heard the mayor of Chicago is looking at empty schools and convents to house thousands of sick people, which is somehow the most sobering fact I've heard to date. But the bigger picture according to my reading packet suggests this won't be an extinction event. What I know is that when the world changes, you become another person.

This is the New Productivity: becoming whoever we need to be next. It's day nine of quarantine. Yesterday I ordered a cookbook with the dumb fantasy of preparing simple, nourishing Japanese food in a methodical way, like a character in a Murakami story. I want to meet whatever intensely weird thing the world throws out next with instant acceptance and unflappable patience. I did not expect to find myself in a reality in which unknown forces are trying to murder me. Whatever. I'm going to heal my fucking gut.

I'm posting through it, y'all. Please be well.

 
Some good things:
Just listened to my favorite episode of my favorite podcast
That cookbook
Series of lectures that explains pandemics as a product of history, not an outside attacking force
New hobby: pretending your living room is various Witcher taverns

Thursday, November 14, 2019

thanks, tom

Today I’ve been thinking about Tom Spurgeon. To many industry folks he was a dear friend, but to even more of us he was the closest thing that comics had to a local weatherman – a small but familiar daily presence who provided context, predictions, and perspective. He was a guy whose opinion you always wanted to know, even if there were days when you knew in your bones that history would prove him to be incorrect. 

I think that Tom was the only person in comics who I’ve butted heads with who I’d count as a helpful acquaintance. (I’ve been fascinated to see so many people say something similar.) He was a valuable resource to me when I was working on an investigative piece that I never quite saw my way to publishing. I admired the way he conducted CXC, the annual comics festival he directed. It was plainly apparent, though I never attended the event, that he handled unpleasant incidents quietly, competently, and with great care. It says it all that Olivia Jaimes – a cartoonist who receives a lot of unwanted attention from a very dark and creepy corner of the internet – made her first and only public appearance there. (And from the way that panel was handled on the day, it was plain that Tom and other people at the festival put Jaimes’s safety and well being above all else.) Another time, after a cartoonist who was harassed at CXC wrote about her experience for the Comics Journal, I told Tom how well I thought he’d handled it and what an impact I thought that would have as an industry model. He told me how grateful he was that the cartoonist who had been harassed had written the piece. (How many organizers would have felt the same in his shoes?) He also mentioned, just in passing, that a zero-tolerance policy for harassers had been among the conditions of his employment – a quiet but remarkable act of allyship.

There were a few times over the years that I noticed stuff like this, and over the last 24 hours I’ve heard about similar things I never knew about. My impression is that Tom wasn’t one to take credit for the things he did well, though he was quick to own his failures. More than once he publicly apologized for never following through on the comics journalism project he promised in his Patreon. I remember thinking that most of his patrons were probably funding the work he was already doing, as well as the work he had done. He went about that work in such a principled way. And he never engaged in provocation for provocation’s sake, something that I think set him apart from many of his peers. 

As many others have mentioned, I was struck by Tom’s frequent directive to thank people for work that you admire. It’s advice I’ve tried to follow, if not as often as I should. I know that it’s advice he lived by, as I received one of those emails. Other times he absorbed my criticism with the manners of a bygone age. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: When you’re young, there’s this bright dividing line between the grayness of history and the vibrant present. A distressing part of growing up is watching the color drain from the world as pieces of it recede across that line into the dusty past. I don’t know that we’ll ever have another weatherman here in comics. I’m very sorry to see him go. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

select writings on chris ware

My Twitter reading group for Marc Singer's Breaking the Frames convenes tomorrow night (April 22, 7p central) to discuss Chapter 4. It's about Chris Ware, so I have some opinions! I've written about Ware quite a lot over the years, so I collected a few things that seem most relevant to the discussion.

For your consideration, a few points:

1. Chris Ware has a lot of trouble writing about himself.
Much of Singer's chapter is about Ware's cheerleading for autobio (in his capacity as an editor for McSweeney's and Best American Comics) and his commitment to narrative realism in his own comics. In discussing Ware's relationship to his protagonists in Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, as well as Ware's "cameos" in comics like Rusty Brown, Singer gestures to Ware's complicated relationship with autobio. But I don't think Singer quite conveys how tortured that relationship is...how palpably uncomfortable Ware is in writing about himself and even discussing himself in public. I talk about Ware's fraught relationship with self-expression in my review of his quasi-memoir, Monograph (2017), a short section in a much longer article about the State of Comics. Here's an excerpt:
Some critics have characterised Ware’s aesthetic as emotionally cold. But Monograph, with its preponderance of mechanical drawings and photographs of painstakingly handmade wooden automata, makes for a revealing psychological portrait. There is clearly something about these objects with which Ware identifies; there’s something moving, too, in the concept of an autobiography told mostly in picture captions. The way in which Ware narrates his life story is often more revealing than the writing itself. 
One of the best features of the book is its pasted-in booklets, many of which replicate Ware’s original mini-comics. The most interesting of these, which is not much larger than a postage stamp, describes the last few months in the life of the artist’s grandmother. Ware’s caption admits that although the booklet, which bears no resemblance to his distinctive style, is “of no aesthetic value,” it “allowed for something to come out on the page which [he] otherwise would not have permitted.”
(Read "The New Age of Comics" at Prospect magazine.)

One of my central opinions on Chris Ware is that his comics would be a lot better if he either committed to writing about himself or committed to writing truly fictional characters.


2. Chris Ware expresses some stunningly sexist attitudes in his work and his comments.
Singer discusses Ware's sexist attitudes in his capacity as an editor (an argument that was first laid out by Bart Beaty in Comics Versus Art). But this attitude isn't just limited to Ware's work on two anthologies (which I think Singer places way too much weight on anyway); it's also a frequent theme in Ware's own work and his interviews. I think a lot of it comes down to Ware's inability to write about himself, coupled with his tendency to impose his own point of view on other people instead of truly empathizing with them. I wrote about a truly incredible video where Ware talks about his ambivalence on writing female characters:
Ware’s fundamentally incapable of imagining a convincing character or even another actual human who isn’t, on some level, Chris Ware. That isn’t because he’s white, or because he’s a man, but because he mistakes all human experience as interchangeable in a way that would only ever occur to white men. In his hands, exploring difference is the project of locating other people’s inner Chris Ware.
You can read the full post right here on the blog.

Related:
Ware's #MeToo cover for the New Yorker
A misogynistic comic he did for the New Yorker
Another one 
Ware on makeup
Ware on his wife


3. The whiteness of Ware World
Given that Singer delves into Ware's sexist attitudes, I'm VERY surprised he doesn't go down a similar line with race. (I'd just about bet those anthologies that Singer talks about are as white as they are male.) A few years ago Ware wrote a real humdinger of an essay on George Herriman, whose work Ware has edited for Fantagraphics' infinite Krazy Kat series. I thought it had some problems:
Pegged to a new biography on kartoonist George Herriman (1880-1944), a black man who passed as white, Ware writes about the merits of the comic and how they deepen and multiply when considered through the lens of black identity. He has a Maya Angelou epigraph and everything. Which is all fine and good till, inevitably, Ware comes around to the universality of Herriman's (really rather particular) predicament. You know, because "fiction...in its finest form" isn't just about articulating black identity--it's about transcending it.
You can read my full post on Ware's Herriman essay here.

Related:
Ware and Spiegelman get real racist in conversation
Ware's unfortunate blurb (on the Tisserand book)


4. Why are people so reluctant to criticize Ware?
People seriously get SO MAD when you criticize Chris Ware. It's a whole thing, and I took it to be the subtext of this chapter given that, as someone who has written about Chris Ware on the Internet, Singer has surely experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Behind people's anger there's a real reluctance to criticize Ware in his capacity as an artist, an editor, or a historian. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ware's absolutely terrible work as a cover artist for the New Yorker. (My complaint on this was actually the first post on this blog.) While I think the New Yorker covers are probably outside of Singer's scope, they represent the true convergence of all Ware's bad takes on sex and race, which I consider central to his "real" work:
Chris Ware’s comics are about white misery, which people (including him, including me) tend to talk about in terms of universality. I don’t even mean this as a judgment of his work. The comics of his that I know at least--Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories--are about miserable white protagonists who live in miserable, mostly white, worlds. That’s not my opinion; that’s the text. (And isn’t it also the text of Rusty Brown? I’m not a completest, but I’m pretty sure this is Ware’s thing?) You can say Ware’s comics are about human misery, and that’s not wrong exactly, but it’s not the whole truth. To tell the whole truth, you’d have to acknowledge that the worlds Ware builds, and particularly Ware’s Chicago, are pretty dang white.

You can read the full text here.

Monday, December 31, 2018

my favorite comic of 2018


Someone new comes to town. Someone goes away. There are only two plots in all of literature, a late mentor once told me, and it’s only now I realize he was paraphrasing another dead novelist. I think in comics there’s undue focus on innovation—on who came first, and what comes next—when most of the time it doesn’t matter. If there are only so many ideas, what’s important is the articulation. It isn't about who has an idea so much as who conveys it in a manner, in a time, in a place, so that the idea feels like it's speaking to you.

My favorite comic this year is an eloquent exploration of not one, but both, of the classic storylines in just 14 pages and a few hundred words. Four months after her daughter was born, the cartoonist Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was dead before the girl turned two. In between, Castrée made A Bubble, a children’s board book about their time together that was published posthumously. It is a story that could’ve easily been weighed down by sentimentality, conveyed with a lightness of touch as effervescent as the book’s central metaphor. 

The artist’s conceit of suspending herself in a soap bubble was of course a reference to the isolating nature of Castrée’s illness, which had its own demands. (“That’s what the bubble book was about,” her husband told Pitchfork. “She knew that she was shut off from us and the people that she loved.”) And yet it seems to me the bubble also conveys a certain intimacy, a nod to the almost otherworldly relationship between mother and child in those first years of life. A bubble’s surface is semipermeable, and Castrée’s daughter appears inside and outside its barrier, or sometimes both.  



Every page, with the marked exception of the book’s only spread, is a portrait of mother and daughter on an unadorned background, as though they live in a world where nothing else exists. The story takes place during that liminal time when a child begins to grasp the concept of the autonomous self, and a mother learns how to let go. To build a bridge, Castrée wrote the book from her child’s point of view, and drew herself into places where she never was, and never will be. A Bubble is, on one level anyway, a mother’s lament. Many readers will relate to Castrée’s ambivalence about working too hard, I think. 



But as much as this is a folk tale, it is also one woman’s story. It must have been a strange and heavy task for Castrée to compose what she surely knew to be her final work of art, and stranger still to balance the personal, painful nature of the story with its public consumption (which she planned). What we are privy to, as this late woman’s readership, is her effort to preserve a time that her small daughter will not likely remember. This is heirloom-quality drawing, down to the lovingly rendered textiles that comprised the Elverum family’s real clothes. The book’s most magical imagery, from the single spread I mentioned before, reminds me of the work of Frida Kahlo, with fauna and wildlife serving as emblems of the family’s home in the Pacific Northwest. Like Castrée, Kahlo knew pain and suffering, and there’s a powerful melancholy magic in how both women imagined life beyond the confines of their beds and bodies. 

Eternity no longer appears as such, but only as refracted through the most ephemeral of things. I think Castrée’s strength as a cartoonist was in her ability to locate truth in contradiction. The great irony of A Bubble is that the artist died before she ever drew a single bubble on the page, leaving the work incomplete. I suppose there’s some technical reason that she saved the bubble for last (a task that was ultimately carried out by her friend Anders Nilsen, per his remarkable essay for The Comics Journal), but I find myself wondering about the significance of that membrane—and its absence—in this story about life and death. It is there, and it also isn’t there, a marvel in all its porousness and integrity. In art, in memory, in progeny, there is a sense in which we persist when we’re gone. On the back cover of the book, the artist walks off the page. She doesn’t saunter into the abyss, to the right, but exits left, as if she’s returning to the story inside. Castrée’s daughter trails behind, blowing bubbles. 


A dumb quirk of human existence is how our most fundamental experiences, birth and death, transcend understanding. Too often mistaken for child’s play, the purpose and privilege of imagination is to answer these failures of intellect. Our stories are simple, but rarely easy. Someone comes to town, he told me. Someone goes away.