August 2012

Martyn Pedler


Empty Bottles and Personal Alphabets: It Is Almost That

In his infamous 1950s screed Seduction of the Innocent, anti-comics crusader Frederick Wertham claimed reading comics caused illiteracy. Admittedly, he claimed reading comics caused pretty much everything from ingrown toenails to the eventual heat death of the universe, but here he almost had an inkling of a point.

Give anything more elaborate than a four-panel newspaper strip to people who are not used to comics and you'll see their eyes skitter and panic around the page. Despite the fact comics and prose share the written word, it's easy to overestimate their similarities. Comic literacy isn't just absorbing a few decades' worth of tangled X-Men continuity. It also requires learning how to make sense of what each panel holds, how the panels connect, what meaning they make together.

Released last year, It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image & Text Work by Women Artists & Writers is a book of hybrid art -- image and text together -- by women artists. It's a fascinating collection of excerpts, stretching back decades, playful and grim, livid and cerebral. In her afterword, editor Lisa Pearson says that she searched for work that "lives in the visual and literary but also beyond them ... in which language and image are inextricable and thus must be seen and read -- not two separate acts but multiple ones."

Does that make them comics? Maybe. Some do feature a sort of sequential art, and some form illustrated stories with text beside images. Other pieces combine the "seen" and the "read" in ways far more difficult to categorize, let alone to entirely understand.

(I've never been particularly interested in criticism-by-taxonomy, anyway. Even the ambiguous title of It Is Almost That shows its lack of interest in labeling boxes, digging moats, and defending borders.)

Suzanne Treister's Alchemy, for example, takes front pages of newspapers around the world and reconfigures them, turning headlines about Britney's nip slips into something like magic spells and familiar mastheads into religious iconography. Geneviève Seillé's Ud Vraes Ojc is pages crammed with words until they're unreadable, forming shapes instead. Sue Williams's Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn? and Other Works smears words and pictures together into an abject mess: blowjobs and stitch-marked breasts and women torn apart by horses, "the soul is in the sperm" and "grow a dick -- get a life" and, if you look very closely, "why horses? I don't know but they're pissed."

Why horses? Why anything? In her explanatory statement for He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Louise Bourgeois writes: "Symbols are only empty bottles. They function only through what you put into them -- personal symbols means personal alphabet, our uniqueness is all we have."

He Disappeared consists of short stories illustrated with engravings. "Once there was a girl and she loved a man," one begins. She dresses up for him, but he cannot come to meet her. "So the purpose of this picture is to show how beautiful she was. I really mean that she was beautiful." The picture, though, looks like a piece of abstract architecture. A freestanding clock, perhaps, with an X where face would be. Is that how you spell "beautiful" in Bourgeois's personal alphabet?

Pearson says she ordered the book so that "relationships -- conversations of sorts -- could emerge between the works." Flipping back and forward through its pages, the dialogue that struck me was one of cryptography. Each excerpt here could be an artist's private Enigma Machine. Some make sense with maps: Unica Zürn's The House of Illness, created during a ten day fever, is a fantastical representation of what it takes to get better. And others with graphs: Eleanor Atwin's Domestic Peace tracks the emotional content of conversations with her mother in a Manhattan apartment with spiky, frantic lines. Kelly La Rocca's In Principo Erat, shows photographs of different kinds of handshakes with helpful-sounding explanations of what each might mean.

La Rocca says women "have a lot to do and then they only have one language at their disposal, which is alien and inimical to them." Like a Vegas magician spoiling others' illusions, she's exposing the codes of another's language. I had no such luck cracking the connection between Louis Bourgeois's words and her images, but my failure helped create her meaning, too.

There are many more pieces I haven't mentioned in It Is Almost That, and almost all of them interesting. The most arresting work might be Molly Springfield's Translation. She's taken Proust's In Search of Lost Time and redrawn every page at full size in exacting detail. I've said before that one of the most powerful illusions in comics is they can appear to be the work of one person and for one person. As if hand drawn, hand lettered, just for you. Springfield achieves the same. Serious literature becomes comic book caricature; she puts Proust into her own alphabet without changing a single word.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.