A few weeks after the Death of a Salesman opened it’s doors at the Morosco Theater in 1949, Arthur Miller ruminated in the New York Times,
“There is a misconception of tragedy with which I have been struck in review after review, and in many conversations with writers and readers alike. It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to pessimism. Even the dictionary says nothing more about the word than that it means a story with a sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.”
Tragedy, to Miller, is essentially hopeful. The tragic hero is someone who attempts to assert their place in the world and to affirm their existence, whether for the first time or to recapture something once possessed and now lost. The protagonist’s determination to act rather than submit when confronting insurmountable odds often leads them to disaster, yet at the same time tests the basic substance of humanity, proving its worth. Miller’s article goes on to reject a stiff Aristotelian tradition which specified that the hero must be of high social standing and intellectual power. There is dignity in failure, and Miller suggests that dignity should not be limited to those on the top of the social hierarchy. The “common man” is as apt as any monarch to evoke the tragic feeling within an audience – perhaps even more so. We no longer need kings to exalt us. Even the average of those among us carries the potential to illuminate what’s tragic about being human, “The disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”
In Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman, a successful traveling salesman loses everything; a story more common now than when Miller first scripted it. The U.S. is one of the biggest debtors in the world, and we each in effect become debtors. Debt discards people across the country peremptorily from a productive way of life. From the credit schemes used to approve or disapprove us for services to political leaders telling us to spend more after a big disaster to prove our patriotism – our entire infrastructure is set up to support, maintain and encourage debt. A system which often victimized users and gives them no options to help themselves. Miller theorized that there was a tendency to view life on purely psychiatric or sociological grounds. This in turn overwhelms and makes heroic action seem impossible. As the financialization of our world develops Miller’s ideas ring hauntingly resonant. These truths are as absurd as they are daunting. It is, perhaps, indisputable to say that America is enveloped in an ambience of debt. The atmosphere that develops out of a debt-ridden economy is inherently fragile and volatile. These adjectives seep down into our lives in unknowable and ubiquitous ways. Sometimes only perceptible if you listen carefully in conversation with others.
In a world burdened by disempowerment, comes a hopefully impelling computer game in which the only control players get to have is in the characters’ inflection.
Kentucky Route Zero, initially released in 2013, is a point and click adventure game developed by Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott,Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt). Part metafiction part play-you-play, the game takes cues from a dizzying array of sources such as American theater, magical realism, electronic music, slow cinema, early gaming history, and on and on. The story begins at dusk somewhere on the back roads of rural Kentucky. Conway, an antique delivery truck driver and recovering alcoholic is on his last job of the evening,delivering something to someone – although the details are not important. He pulls in at a gas station in the shape of a gigantic horse, half hidden underground, to ask for directions. The old man that runs the place hasn’t heard of the address but suggests he takes the Zero, a magical elusive highway. And the quest begins.
The unpredictability of the world in the game is out of sync with traditional gaming and regularly seeks to subvert your expectations. The game exists in five acts (three have been released to date) and the player becomes both audience member and participant. Your role, unlike other games that are typically goal or task oriented, is to idle and talk to strangers. Since most of the game play happens at night, no one is preoccupied with a sense of urgency and given the setting is Southern America, Southern hospitality makes these encounters normal and believable. Along the way you encounter a cast of damaged characters: A TV repair woman whose parents died in a flood, a conceptual artist with a full time job, a boy with a gigantic eagle, a nomadic android and her keytar playing sidekick. Each of them has lost something and wants to tell you about it but only if you implore them. During game play you switch between characters sometimes speaking as more than one at a time. Occasionally you are something other than a character, playing hypertext games within the game, interacting with computers or picking song lyrics during a bar band performance. These conversations and moments are not about what happens next but instead you chat about what’s happened before. Rather than seeking an obtainable resolution, you listen in on the memories that shape and haunt the lives of those around you.
Even though the world you explore is familiar to the inhabitants, as a player you are estranged. People give you directions to get around – often similar to those someone would give an out-of-towner driving around rural America – relying on landmarks and strange visual cues or things not rooted in reality at all. The Zero is mysterious and unpredictable. Along the roadways vignettes and scenes pop up: a drive-in movie theater, hidden moments you read, beautiful landscapes. To reveal them you must go off the suggested path. But the map is vast. Once you’ve come across a few you are left with a somber sense of missed opportunity.
Conversations take place on small sets; places that seem abandoned but full with the residue of once being used. Pulling from a history of modern theater set design, the lighting (what this refers to in virtual reality I am unsure?) is what guides our eye and signals certain moods in the story. Spaces are designed, not for characters to inhabit, but to move through. There is always a sense of the past concurring within the present moment. The world we sift through is a disaster at rest imbedded with the aftermath of tragedy: A Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, A Museum of Dwellings where people who used to live in the neighborhood on display remain within their houses, a cave full of trapped graduate students. Tamas Kemenczy’s visual design is both eerily spare and generous. Figures are usually distant, away from us, and lacking faces. Reinforcing a sense of watching a theater production from a bad seat in an auditorium, but you don’t care because you waited all month to be there. Their bodies are delicately balanced geometric shapes – lacking specificity allowing the player to project onto them. Moments between dialogue carry equal weight of emotional potency. An ambient score by composer Ben Babbitt fills the silences, and traditional bluegrass songs covered by the fictitious Bedquilt Ramblers croon between scene shifts, hinting at how we should feel.
Writer, Jake Elliott modeled the design of the game from an idea adopted from U.S. national security expert, Gregory Treverton. A puzzle is different from a mystery. A puzzle can be solved – a solution exists and there is pleasure to be gained in finding the solution. A mystery, on the other hand, poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on the future interaction of many different factors, known and unknown.
As the end of Act three closes on Kentucky Route Zero, Conway and his collected friends are in pretty bad shape. Without giving too much away, Conway has weathered a ruinous leg injury and has been duped into being indebted. The delivery still has yet to be made. And we are full of questions about an alternate reality full of offbeats and folks dealing with hard times not so different from our own.
In comics in the US, there is a prevailing stigma of creators being misanthropic shut-ins. A stereotype that afflicts not only content but creators’ self-hood alike, and an identity which is defensibly bunk.
I first met Lyra Hill during a class we had together at the School of the Art Institute. Hill is a filmmaker, cartoonist, and the producer behind the experimental comics reading series Brain Frame. Since it’s conception in 2011, Brain Frame has served as a storytelling platform for a mash-up of emerging and more established artists (myself included).
Every other month audiences are invited to a celebration of strangeness and a showcase of eccentric ambition. In it’s many iterations, the event has become a beloved happening among independent artist communities in Chicago. What began as an exploration into what a comics reading could be, has become a site of social engagement within a medium still haunted by rigid versions of its self.
Lyra and I sat down recently to draw upon and reflect on Brain Frame’s final year.
Chicago-based artist and musician, Anya Davidson, has recently debuted her first full-length comic book, School Spirits. Up until now, her modest print editions make her work difficult to come by outside of the defiantly small world of alternative comics. Davidson is probably one of the few artists for which it is appropriate to combine words like brush pen and bad-ass in the same gust. Her stories are often eclectic mash-ups of metal fantasies, female overlords, science fiction, collected vernacular and whatever else gets whirl-pooled away into her consciousness. Her newest creation, a high school story that follows the friendship of two teen girls and their fanatical love of a metal band, is a keen understanding of comics as an art form synthesized with Davidson’s own radical tendencies.
She graciously took the time to give me a tour of her studio and working process and shed some light into the zany world(s) of School Spirits.
How do you describe School Spirits to people unfamiliar with your work?
School Spirits is a story about two very unusual girls. Most of the narrative takes place over the course of a single school day. There’s a large supporting cast of characters, some fantasy and some inter-dimensional travel as well
Why did you want to make a high school narrative?
I wanted to examine the friendship between women. I had done a zine called School Spirits years and years ago and it was basically the same idea. The comic was pretty crude. I was still figuring out how to draw and cartoon but the idea was very similar. It just didn’t go away – that desire to explore gender and female friendships. That’s something that has always felt alien to me. In terms of gender, I’m happy to be a woman I just feel like it was really hard for me to relate to other women growing up. I don’t know how I missed a lot of the messages that other girls were getting. I grew up in rural Canada and I was always out riding horses and stuff. Really being confronted with, oh this is the norm, this is how women are supposed to behave. It just didn’t jive with my personal experience. I think the friendships that I had as a kid, really intense friendships with other weird women, were very formative. So I wanted to delve into that.
Do you think of your characters as surrogates for yourself?
In fiction for sure. I’m not interested in making autobiographical work. They definitely are all surrogates for me. When it comes to making characters, part of it is because it’s cathartic and part of it is that I don’t know anyone else. I’m curious to examine all aspects of my personality and delve into them, create nasty characters out of the nasty parts. I heard George Saunders lecture and someone asked him if he wrote the characters of young girls so well in his book, the 10th of December, because he had two young daughters. And he said, â€œno, that young girl is an aspect of my personality.â€
How long did you work on School Spirits?
I have a good friend of mine from high school who always wanted to be a Latin teacher. She’s in a masters program right now to teach, but I watched her get thrown into a couple situations while she was in undergrad. She had a couple teaching jobs that were really really stressful and didn’t feel ready or supported to teach at that moment. So I was thinking about her a lot too when I wrote the teacher characters.
Did she form the basis for the art teacher in the book?
Yea. Loves to teach, loves her subject, and loves her students but doesn’t feel equipped to do the discipline stuff. I really like teenagers. I really care about them. In addition to not ever feeling that comfortable with gender norms, I really don’t feel comfortable with norms in general in terms of how adults are supposed to behave. I feel like our culture is really stifling. I was big into punk and hardcore music as a teenager. I think that that ethos carried over. I do feel that society is fucked and you should do what you love. As tough as teenagers are, it’s sort of socially acceptable for them to manifest dissatisfaction with power and just be a little moody, or on a voyage of self-discovery. But at a point that it’s not socially acceptable to be on a voyage of self-discovery anymore. I think I will be on a voyage of self-discovery until I die.
What were you making as student work at SAIC? There were probably no comics classes when you were there.
I was in the painting department. I’m still a nut for painting. A good painting drives me crazy in a way that nothing else can. I’m a really big fan of painting and painters.
You can totally see that in your line work too.
Yea, it’s really all over the place. It’s really big. I work huge, and I’ve been obsessed with asking other cartoonists how big their originals are.
My boyfriend’s work, Lane Milburn, is real tiny. He’s part of a group of cartoonists originally from Baltimore. They all went to Mica together. They were putting out anthologies as Closed Caption Comics. Then recently, they are all branching out and becoming more independent with the stuff that they are making. He works tiny and he uses a tiny little nib pen. Everything is just so detailed and his pen control is so spectacular. And I’m just like making giant brush marks with a giant brush pen. I really envy people who have that kind of detail. But I don’t think that will ever really work for me.
How big are you working?
The pages from my book were 13×18. I did a zine recently, that was maybe, 15×20. Pretty big!
The narrative of School Spirits is really unstable in an exciting way. While I was reading it, I wasn’t sure when reality was happening or when the reader was in the realm of fantasy. Adolescence comes across as a fantastical space, which, I think it is for a lot of people.
The logic of the book is my own internal logic. The first three chapters are staging for the final chapter. You are meeting the characters and getting to know them. I think of it as one story, but the few short pieces are just build-up.
I was curious to experiment. The one narrative thing that I tried that is unlike the rest of the book, is the 30 page silent battle story. I was really curious to know how people would react to that because I thought, oh this is like playing a guitar solo alone in your room. It sounds cool and interesting to you but if anyone else were listening they would just be like, oh why is this person dicking around. It’s fun while you’re in it but not fun to listen to. I was wondering if that silent part of the story, if I would just lose people.
I wanted to do a piece where Oola and Garf visit the natural history museum and we see the entire creation myth of the peoples that they are coming to see. When you’re in a place like a museum, you can see these totems that are just radiating power and energy and people are just like, where’s the snack bar! I also worked at the planetarium for a while, so I’m pretty fascinated by museum culture or what putting something into a museum does to an object and wanted to examine that. But wasn’t sure if anyone else would have any idea what it was about.
In School Spirits the reader is waiting for a magic love ritual to be performed. But the ritual never happens.
That was something that happened in the original School Spirits zine. I wanted to examine that. It’s a laugh at the characters’ expense. Grover is clearly unavailable to anyone. I wanted to magnify that. To make one character who was not giving off any sexual cues, totally off in their own world and this other character who’s a puppy dog following them around. Grover is really unsexy.
You seem to have two distinctly different ways of approaching comics. You have a crazy, unstructured, stream of consciousness style of setting up a page and a more straight forward linear approach to comics like in School Spirits. I was wondering how you make the decision to set up a story?
For the more experimental stuff, it can take ten pages to tell a few pages of story because it’s more of a stream of consciousness with me working around a theme. For Barbarian Bitch – I love like Kung Fu movies, I love trash cinema and I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of the righteous warrior. Somebody who has carte blanche from above to exterminate their foes in the name of something greater. How does that work? Because they seem so antithetical. I’ve been really fascinated with warrior priests. I’m really obsessed with discipline, what it takes for someone to master a craft. That piece in Kramers 8 was a meditation on that. It was me pulling threads of that all together. Whereas School Spirits is me attempting a storytelling approach. Even if I were to approach School Spirits in that way, it would have been a mediation on female friendship and then I just would have been pulling from my source material different threads but I wouldn’t have been able to have those moments where characters have sustained conversations and I wouldn’t have been able to develop the characters.
I like both of those ways of working, and I still reserve the right to work in both of those ways.
For the CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) zine, I just googled The worst experience of my entire life, and it was fascinating and not what you’d expect. It was really weird. One person’s rant about how they slept in a hotel room that was really dirty and they found a crack pipe in the ventilation system. Some angry bitch ranting about how, like a Motel Six or something, how the cleaning staff did a lousy job, and it’s like, really? That’s the worst experience of your entire life? Sleeping in an unclean motel room? There was one that was someone’s middle school experience, but it was really evocatively written. The language was really fascinating. I just like those kinds of sources and pulling them together. For a graphic novel, I don’t think that would really work. But for short story writing I think that’s a fun avenue to explore.
Do you consider art making and discipline going hand in hand?
Absolutely. Creativity is a muscle. Also-cartooning is a craft. You have to be extremely disciplined to hone it.
Have you always been interested in writing dialogue? Your characters come across as very real.
I took some creative writing classes. I’ve never been able to keep a journal but I was always I’m really into listening to people speak and recording conversations.
You’re a collector?
Yea, maybe at the cost of plot. That stuff interests me a lot more. Character development and dialogue more than building the skeleton of a story. What I will do is, I’ll have scenes and scenarios in mind that are unconnected by a story. Then I will weave them together. I will have a character and I’ll know more who they are than exactly what they are supposed to be doing. It grows organically out of knowing I want a scene.
There is a scene in School Spirits where Garf is at her job at a fast food restaurant with her co-worker who is complaining about his toe. He tells a story about how it was injured when he was young. That’s the story that one of my co-workers told me. I thought, this is an incredible story, and I knew I wanted to incorporate it in the book and I knew I wanted to show this character at her after school job, because I had these vivid memories of my after school jobs. How weird they were and what a strange training ground it is for the real world. Your weird mall job that you have when you’re 15. That’s a lot of my process – collecting those moments, paying attention to the way people speak, and listening to other people’s stories.
Are you worried about repeating yourself?
I repeat myself a lot. What I realized about most of the fiction writers that I love, is that they really like to riff on a theme. Sometimes it gets frustrating. John Irving has written the same book like 15 times. I really don’t have the patience for that anymore. There is definitely a danger, but I do think that we live in our own bodies and our own minds.
You’re also a very dedicated screen printer?
I do my screen printing at Spudnik Press. I do a lot of screen printing. That’s my favorite thing to do. It sucks because they are so labor intensive. I can make 50 or 100 if I’m really busting my ass and then they’re gone.I love Spudnik. I was on their board of directors for about four years. Angee Lennard, who runs the shop, was in the same year of college as me. She could charge like two times what she does for studio access, but it’s really part of the mission to make screen-printing accessible to everyone.
You seem really excited about the prospect of teaching.
Yes I am. and I feel like Spudnik gave me the foundation to start doing that. Iâ€™m really pro Spudnik. I feel very grateful that I got a lot of the skills that I have. They gave me a lot of opportunities. I thanked them in the book.
In terms of influences, not necessarily limited to comics, who are you looking at?
The old masters. John Stanley, Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood. A ton of E.C war, sci-fi and horror comics. The underground heroes too: Crumb, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Dori Seyda. Some French Heavy Metal artists: Caza and Philippe Druillet. Gilbert Hernandez. Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby. I looooove Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Dredd. Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.
Is there a soundtrack for School Spirits? What would be on it?
Yeah, it’s pretty much the soundtrack of a gore obsessed kid in the early 90â€™s. Carcass, Death, Morbid Angel, Cancer, the Misfits.
Where are you going next?
I do know where I’m going. I think it will be based on another zine that I made in my early 20s. I feel like, those ideas are ideas that I have not explored fully. And now that I have more discipline and focus I can flush them into full, bigger stories. I do want to play with color a lot. I’m committed to making the next thing exactly what I want and if someone will publish it that’s great, and if not, I will publish it myself.
PictureBox Inc. 2013
8.5 x 10.75, b&w hardcover
*Many thank yous to Brian Nicholson.
Eightball #18, 1997
Daniel Clowes is one of the artists of his generation associated with bolstering comics’ status into the realm of literary inquiry. While Clowes’s widespread popularity is not necessarily intentional, it does allow me to assert that Clowes had a hand in making it possible for comics to be considered required reading while I was in college (no really, thank you). His work is haunted by teenagers and adults adrift in a lonely American landscape. All of whom are currently on the loose in Clowes’s eclectic, career-spanning retrospective, Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On view is an impressive collection of originals spanning all of Clowes’s publications to-date, including: Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (1993), Ghost World (1997), David Boring (2000), Ice Haven (2005), Wilson (2010), and The Death-Ray (2011).
My initial reaction was not towards Clowes’s work, but rather an irksome canonical attempt. The show is fronted with a wall wide timeline of comics history by cartoonist, Paul Hornschemeier. The assumption being that the MCA’s audience has had little previous exposure to the medium. Even though it’s arguable that Clowes’s imagery is ubiquitously cross-hatched into American pop consciousness. The effect is awkward; awkward like an overbearing posi-parent who is clearly not comfortable with their teenager’s blossoming identity politics, but is supportive nevertheless. While the MCA has hosted comics exhibitions in the past (Chris Ware. 2006, New Chicago Comics. 2011) the timeline epitomizes a friction still present between comics and art institutions’ reluctant willingness to accept them as one of their own.
For viewers with no working knowledge of comics, the timeline is unfortunately ineffective in educating. Hornschemeier scripts a stringent and odd history: foregoing women’s participation in comics, jumping erratically between different nationalities’ connection to the medium, omitting important innovations in print technology, and a puzzling lack of references to Clowes’s influences. Clowes’s retrospective, in part, celebrates the diverse and rambunctious comic centricity of Chicago and the impact of Chicago on Clowes’s work. The city houses a high density of comics creators, enthusiasts, academics, and thinkers – Clowes himself a Chicago native. With so many smart comics folks wandering around you can’t spit without hitting one, I’m left wondering why Hornschemeier was selected for the task of canonization and whether the museum curators sought a second opinion. Thematically, Clowes’s work trends to showcasing his simultaneous self-protecting cynicism and affection of comics’ evolving place within an art context. While the show’s introduction is an embarrassing example of the potential root of Clowes’s uneasiness – it’s certainly not working in his favor.
Comics exhibitions are typically, perhaps even inherently, about process. The work on the walls is unstable and has not yet calcified into it’s final form as a work of art. Clowes’s comics are intentionally built to be read. The focus is on narrative structure and storytelling, as opposed to the flip-side of playing with the visual richness of the medium. Reading desks and large, upholstered nooks with copies of Clowes’s books dapple the space while original pages of his comics span the width of the galleries. The result is claustrophobic in a good way, providing a daunting depiction of the amount of labor involved in comics creation. Clowes’s work is more emblematic of illustration than that of a painter or print maker, albeit his skills as a draftsmen almost render the various changes that occur during printing production invisible: penciling or under drawings are rarely present, Clowes’s adept brush work meticulously cover the initial draft, Â and the gouache painted covers in the show are breathtaking. The flawlessness of the line work and the confidence embedded in Clowes’s drawings almost seem to undermine the self-doubt and alienation present within his stories.
One way of encountering the show as a whole, is through the logic of Clowes’s Ice Haven, a comic originally published in Eightball #22. The story follows the lives of residents in the small midwestern town of Ice Haven as they slowly become enmeshed in the kidnapping of a boy named David Goldberg. Each character stars as the lead in their very own comic strip. Each stylistically unique, Clowes occasionally appropriating from comic strip classics with nods to Charles Schultz’s, Peanuts and to the Flintstones. The move is a kaleidoscopic one, and serves as a metaphor for the inter-connectivity of the characters’ worlds even if the characters themselves are in a constantly tragic state of misunderstanding. Like Ice Haven (sans the kidnapping), the Daniel Clowes retrospective is an intimate microcosm in which each of Clowes’s character contain some small conflicting slice of his psyche. From beginning to end, his characters even seem to inhabit his own lifeline: from the bummed out art school graduate, to the cliche misanthropic middle-aged man. Whether the conflict lies between Clowes and the art world, his tumultuous love/hate relationship with alienation, or contained complexly between the characters in his comics, each contender stands ready to duke it out all the way to the disturbing and bitter end, yet secretly smitten for the other.
Special thanks as always to comics critic Brian Nicholson for being an all around smart guru.
Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago
$12, Tuesdays free for Illinois residents.
This weekend marks the second annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, fondly known to comics creators and fans alike as CAKE. For two days out of the year, artists and publishers from all over the US, Canada and beyond congregate in Chicago to share and shop-talk their work. The result: an overwhelming flurry of comics, prints, self-published ephemera,Â weirdos and spontaneity. Be sure to stop in for a visit!
Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE)
Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16, 2013
11 am 6pm
Center on Halsted
3656 N Halsted
FREE and open to the public!
Amy Lockhart’s Walk for Walk. Screened today as part of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation.Â