Reading Between the Lines

Words, words, words.Like the singer/songwriter — a lank-haired
warbler in patchouli-stained flannel — the artist/writer in comics
is a very peculiar bird. Our logographer resembles a forked tongue,
licking in two directions: to the left, where Staedtler crumbs and
ink spills lie, and the right, to a boundless thicket of synonyms.

For starters, it takes Mormon devotion to learn how to draw.
Looks simple enough when Dan Clowes does it, but you can bet your
batusi Mr. Enid Coleslaw (Clowes’ anagrammatic alter ego) spent his
adolescence sweating boulders to master a proper circle, not to
mention the clammy grotesques that populate his books. Pro
cartoonists, even modern primitives like the Fort Thunder clan (a
group of art grads from Rhode Island who suppress all hints of
tutelage in their work), spill litres of saliva licking clean their
Rapidograph nibs and run their carpals ragged practising shadow and
perspective, proportion, volume, movement, composition, etc.

Writers are no less burdened. In fact, they have the collected
works of human cogitation to stare down — from the Vedic Sanskrit
to Dude, Where’s My Country? Many cartoonists have a
counterpart slinging the dictionary: Jack Kirby had Stan Lee, Will
Elder had Harvey Kurtzman, René Goscinny had Albert Uderzo.
Likewise, celebrated scribes like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Harvey
Pekar have a phalanx of mercenaries sketching their visions for
them. Cartoonists on double duty come mostly from an arts
background, and as brilliant as their comics may be, the swaths of
mediocre prose by the likes of Chris Ware or Adrian Tomine pale
badly next to copy by a full-time writer, who can twist a phrase
like a strand of Bubblicious.

Yet there are a precious few cartoonists whose work is stacked
with their own ace wordplay, whose comics are, so to speak, worth

One of them is Ivan Brunetti, a Chicago artist and teacher who in
his comics seems the most miserable bastard this side of William
Randolph Hearst, but whose smarts are as fascinating as the things
he envisions doing to a severed head. Brunetti’s Schizo series
is the misanthrope’s gospel. His prose can skew purple, but his
pungent quips are gold. “Luckily,” he writes in Schizo No. 1,
“the absence of any supreme being in this pitiless abattoir of a
universe will eliminate the possibility of cosmic retribution for
any human wrongdoing. Ha ha ha!”And more words.

Phoebe Gloeckner, a medical illustrator and cartoonist from San
Francisco, was a hit at last spring’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival,
where she read from her book A Child’s Life and Other
. She describes one of its quasi-biographical comics,
A Shoulder to Cry On, as “The pitiable tale of a maddening
little child and how she disrupts those around her, and a glimpse
into her fantasy life.” Like all her writing, the piece is
diuretically confessional and undercut with a cynical, ebony wit.

From 1992 to 1999, cartoonist/writer/musician Peter Blegvad
published a strip in London’s The Independent on Sunday
called Leviathan about a faceless baby and his feline
companion. It’s surreal and fiercely literary (an Anglicized
Calvin and Hobbes), and quotes Hegel as readily as Prince.
One strip is subtitled “A digression on the subject of noun verbs,”
and contains exchanges like:

“Can one chair?”

“Yes, and table, too.”

“Can one wall?”

“Up or in, yes. And one can, from time to time, completely

And no list of artist/writers should neglect one of comicdom’s
best: R. Crumb. Yes, he’s praised/razed for his art, his influence,
his anal fixation. But often ignored in the melee is his damn-tight
prose. Here’s a passage from a 1976 comic in which he imagines a
conversation with Mao Tse Tung. “It is the weakness of man that he
does not get it together until he is forced,” Mao intones. “And it
is his own wanton destruction of the bountiful and generous Mother
Earth which will finally compell him to change his ways.” Heavy
stuff, especially from a guy best known for hatching a firm caboose.

Of course, singling out writing in a comics column may be a bit
disingenuous, the medium being a melding of two art forms, with the
best work a true symbiosis. But then, the art is always in the
spotlight. The phrase deserves its turn.

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