Description: STL #4: It starts with Chester Brown but ends with James Kolchalka! And makes passing references to TV in between!
Date: 24 July 2003
I've only become more attracted to the pamphlet form since writing this. Alan Moore called them "little slabs of culture you buy for pocket change," although "change" ain't what it used to be (heh). I actually got the collected Louis Riel as a gift, and it is a handsome object, but I love the sense of the story figuring itself out, and the pause and reflection represented by the back material. In my description below, "subtle and lyrical" is a personal cliche. Some of the links are probably dead.
Earlier this week, I finished Chester Brown's comic book series Louis Riel, a subtle and lyrical biography of the Canadian rebel leader. I had purchased the final two issues of the series (numbers 9 and 10) a couple of weeks ago, but didn't get around to them right away. I never had the convenience of picking up several issues of a series at once in my first life as a comics reader, when all the comics I had access to were returned after a month on the news-stand. Of course, that first life was mostly lived for the adventures of Batman and his cohort, so if a story stretched across two or more issues, I kept an eager eye out for the next installment and devoured it as soon as I got it. Louis Riel will come in book form this fall, like a lot of serialized comic book stories, but twenty yeas ago collections were all but unheard of. If you missed an issue of continuing story on the stands, you’d never know what happened. (I still don’t know how the Teen Titans got back from Starfire’s home planet.) While there are distinct pleasures of following a series (my nostalgia for the pamphlet form, the extras like letters or mini-essays in the back), I usually prefer waiting for the book collection. The dignified pace of Louis Riel encourages the slow and concentrated reading which the book form privileges, but I wasn’t sure it would be collected (Brown’s previous series, Underwater, hasn’t been), and since I admired his other work and had heard good things about this series, I bought the issues in batches.
All this is a round about way of approaching serial story-telling. Serial narrative has always been culturally “low-brow”: the television series comes to mind, and comics, and even prose fiction in 19th-20th century magazines (these can sneak up to middlebrow and even highbrow when collected as novels.) This bias arises from the scattershot quality of the work, and its clear economic motivation: if you liked this, one element of the set says, then come back next week (or month, or whatever.) But the best serial narrative makes the most of its form. We can become intimately familiar with characters, independent of the stresses of specific plots, can experience the ritual pacing of each installment, can learn to see multiple thematic strands. Even after the excitement dies down when the series is cancelled, the strengths remain. Finally, thanks to DVD (for TV series) and the growing viability of comics reprints, we have access to what had previously been ephemeral.
None of which has to do with Chester Brown. I'll eventually, get to Brown’s versatile and impressive oeuvre (later in the series), but for now I’d like to turn to one of his contemporaries who pushes the implications of serial form to its logical extreme. James Kolchaka might be considered an indy rock offshoot of what Dylan Horrocks called the New Lyricism in comics (including Megan Kelso, John Porcellino, Tom Hart, and I think he'd include Brown). Readers of alternative comics probably know Kolchaka for his Kissers or Monkey vs. Robot, or from his appearances in various anthologies. The best moments of his work, whether his story is mundane or fantastic, capture offhand moments, striking set off black background in a broad relaxed contours. In his Sketchbook Diaries (Top Shelf 2001), his style finds the perfect form. This comic/book (thick, but stapled in the middle and clearly a pamphlet) collects one year’s worth of daily comics. He states in a prefatory comic that he “wanted to explore the rhythm of daily life, to become more conscious of what it really means to live.” The sequence of usually four panel strips capture the story of his life from October 1998 to October 1999, except that as he points out, life is lived without the structures of narrative. The “story” of his year then is a record of discontinuous moments. Reading them all, one sees the “natural” patterns—anxieties over art and health, his relationship with his wife and friends, and his peculiar attitude toward things. He’s likely to attribute motive to inaminate objects, and therefore tries to make friends with various things of the world. I should mention that Kolchalka draws himself as an elf named “Magic Boy,” his wife Amy is also an elf, his friend Jason as a dog, etc. Theoretically, this “masking” allows for greater identification between character and reader, if we believe Scott McCloud anyway. But I think the universiality of the work has less to do with the depiction and more with the fact that peculiarities aside, Kolchalka captures the essence of quotidian life in his art: all the small gestures which manage the impossible negotiations between ourselves and the people and things of the world. More importantly, he shows that his daily commitment to his work, his art, is the means (and the only means) of doing so.
Any element of this series is slight, based on a passing fancy, a joke, a moment in time. But in series, they gain the texture of life itself. I agonized over typing the phrase “life itself,” which strikes me as overused and hyperbolic but I think it’s justified in this case. Sketchbook Diaries is a major work of art.
Though I've been arguing that this series need to be viewed in a large quantity, you can see a small sampling of more recent installments online: American Elf: The Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka. Also see the homepage for daily installments, or to pay money to see his entire sketchbook.
I'm reading Cheever "serially" too, pretending that I'm getting his stories in the mail and reading one before sleep most nights. So, lucky you, I'm starting the series, "John Cheever Quote of the Week": "It was getting more and more difficult for him to walk, but this pain did not change his handsomeness and seemed only to increase his vitality. When people saw him, they thought: How nice it will be to eat a cutlet, take a swim, or climb a mountain; how pleasant, after all, life is" (from "The Duchess")
Reading: Cheever, Creeley's anthology, Wuthering Heights, Modernisms by Peter Brooks
Listening: Smiths, Thelonius Monk
Seeing: Sports Night on DVD (grows on you in batches)