Category Archives: Comic book

The Debacle of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror; Or, When Should an Editor Tell a Writer That Their Work is Unacceptable?

Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh

It came as a surprise to me when I heard Frank Miller’s shocking comments concerning the Occupy Movement a few months ago. He called the movement “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness” claiming that the movement is no “popular uprising. This is garbage … Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy.” What came as a real surprise to me were the words that followed:

“Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.

And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently – must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh – out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.

In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft.

Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.

They might not let you babies keep your iPhones, though. Try to soldier on.[1]

Having discussed these comments with Joe and coming to a consensus dismissal of Miller’s rant as nothing more than a late-night vitriolic rant that should never have been published, I thought this was simply an aberration in Miller’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While 300 and Sin City’s heavy use of graphic violence and ambiguous morals left me somewhat cold, I couldn’t help but admire the artistry of his work. He has a distinct style and is capable of writing a good narrative to match his art.

Then I picked up Holy Terror from the local library. I’m not entirely sure how this book was published in the first place given its blatant demeaning and derogatory stereotypes of Muslims as hell-bent fundamentalists all foaming at the mouth for the chance to destroy “America.” Here in Canada, the criminal code says anyone who “incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” is guilty of public incitement of hatred, aka hate speech or hate literature. An identifiable group means “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”[2] A quick read-through of Holy Terror shows how Fixer and his new sidekick, the cat burglar Natalie Stack, work together to put a stop to a vast Al-Qaede conspiracy to wipe Empire City off of the map. The villains are all identifiably Muslims and all practically spit anti-American hatred at the heroes before the heroes vindictively wipe them out. Holy Terror has no qualms about labelling all Muslims as crazed terrorists and makes no attempt to separate mainstream Islam from its fundamental sects like Al-Qaeda.

The Terrorists … and Michael Moore? Bush? Even Cheney?

Estimates vary for how many Muslims there are in the world but a reasonable estimate records at least 1.5 billion of them in the world. To define this many people by the actions of a small portion is akin to defining all Christians by the actions of the witch-hunting Puritans in Salem, New England.  Holy Terror also conveniently conflates Muslims with Arabs despite the fact that the Muslim population is quite ethnically diverse. According to a quick Wikipedia search, the United States does not have hate literature laws, so I can see why this book has not been labelled as such, but it seems awfully close to hate literature in a Canadian context.

Moreover, what was particularly appalling to me was the way that the heroes endorsed torture  and the right of might in their attempt to end the “terrorist threat.” Of course, this is nothing new for comics as most superheroes are given an implicit licence to treat villains as they see fit (usually with violence). This seems to be a part of the superhero genre, but Holy Terror crosses a line for me. Miller’s graphic portrayal of a torture scene involving a captured terrorist is a step too far. In an eerie way, it condones the American government’s use of torture in their own war on terror, utilising 9/11 as a carte blanche for their own military goals. Miller calls his heroes’ vigilante quest for justice “postmodern diplomacy” showing panels of Fixer and Stack shooting and killing hordes of Jihad-crazed villains.

A small sampling of Holy Terror‘s main course

The violent panels of terrorist killing action all seem crafted to condone the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just giving them a taste of their own medicine, right? They started this thing, and we’ll finish it. Don’t forget to conveniently overlook the fact that Americans have had their hands involved in Middle Eastern politics for several decades before 9/11.

In what can only be unintentional irony, Fixer bemoans the loss of the “lady.” An allegorical Statue of Liberty for Empire City (what I read as a explicit version of New York City), she holds aloft a set of scales and is blindfolded, and Fixer is upset about how the terrorists have attacked her first.

This seems an obvious attempt at painting the terrorists as crossing a kind of imaginary line in warfare into new lows. Of course, let’s not remember that the United States has been using torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, or that civilian casualties are quite high in these places despite the US’s insistence that they are waging a highly-targeted war meant to minimize friendly fire and civilian deaths. What follows this scene is the bloody and violent quest for justice, all justified by the terrorists’ own symbolic trampling of justice. If we take this fictional world as an allegory for the United States and its response to 9/11, a leap to be sure but one warranted by the amount of flags and identifiable locales and events scattered throughout the narrative, then America is a just country waging a war against an unjust and despicable foe (look again at his comments about Occupy). However, there is an unintentional historical irony in this stance as I cannot help but ask who has this blind lady of justice served? The American continent, Canada included, has been marked by 350+ years of colonial injustice in the dispossession, displacement, and eradication of its indigenous peoples by European colonizers. Then again, historical amnesia tends to forget such facts as the polarizing politics of post-9/11 have revealed: you are either with us or against us (and with the terrorists). There is no in between.

There’s a way in which the book also borders on conspiracy theory and its accompanying paranoia. In the penultimate scene, a devious Al-Qaeda leader reveals that his cell, currently blowing up Empire City, is “scarcely a microbe, a speck, a tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief” inciting a the spectre of a vast Islamic army. An bogeyman that justifies any actions taken by the heroes, including using biological weapons against the terrorists, and by a little conceptual leap any actions taken by the Americans overseas. In an earlier post on his blog, Miller calls his own book “naked propaganda” and this is indeed what it is. He cites a comics lineage of Superman “punching out Adolf Hitler” but this doesn’t quite line up as Al-Qaeda and Hitler are not quite the same thing. Yes, both have committed atrocities and I don’t support either. However, Al-Qaeda is much more diffuse than the Nazi Party, and in a way, less immediately dangerous than the Nazis were in the 1940s. While the Allies were certainly not innocent in their war time conduct (the relentless aerial bombing of Germany in the closing year springs to mind as does the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan), the US today in no way holds a moral high ground. Hence, the need to inflate the threat of Al-Qaeda into an ominous looming menace, always just out of sight and out of reach so that we need to be on our toes at all times (kind of like the cold-War commies …).

There is an interesting conversation to be had about the role of villains in the superhero/comic genre. Must they always be cardboard characters acting with very little emotional depth or complexity? Must they always be punching bags for heroes to kick around? Part of what made Alan Moore’s Watchmen series an interesting read was the complex villains behind it all. They weren’t simply monomaniacs hell-bent on destruction, but characters who were far more human. If comics are to be taken as an artform, and I for one believe they are, then we need to talk about issues of characterization, depth, theme, and so on. This not to say that we need to import discussions from literary criticism wholesale but having a 150 page book of two rather flat characters, Fixer and Stack, kicking, shooting, and vindictively punishing interchangeable, identifiably Arab villains is not really a compelling narrative. It might be fun reading if this is your thing (at least for a few pages), but it is hardly a narrative worthy of attention. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had plot and narrative depth, this does not.

I’ve tried to do justice to Miller’s work but I found it very hard to take it seriously as anything but an ill-thought out rant bordering on Islamophobia. This is a real shame as the artwork is quite unique in places and I would much rather have discussed this rather than rant about politics. Yet the blatant repulsiveness of the narrative (not too mention its crude simplicity) simply dragged down any consideration of this.

A rain-soaked, angular example of the book’s aesthetic.

All of this goes back to my title, is the role of an editor to tell a writer, in this case a firmly established icon, that his latest work is not acceptable? That if anyone other than Frank Miller submitted it, it would not even be glanced at? This is not to say that we should censor publications, but it is to suggest that some level of responsibility is necessary in our artists, writers, and visionaries.


[1] All quotes are from Miller’s blog which can be found at http://frankmillerink.com/

[2]  Both quotes from Canada’s Department of Justice Website and the Criminal Code. Available at  laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/page-150.html#docCont

Empty promises, or how ironic narratives leave something to be desired: Daniel Clowes’ Mister Wonderful

Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh

“What’s happened to civilization? When did it become okay for non-crazy people to babble their personal nonsense in public?”

–          Daniel Clowes Ice Haven (9)

In a somewhat ironic way, Marshall, the middle-aged main character of Daniel Clowes’ 2011 graphic novel Mister Wonderful, thinks these lines while waiting for a blind date at a cafe.

While intended as a barb against a obnoxiously loud man on his cell-phone, I believe the comment also applies to the book more generally. Mister Wonderful is Clowes’ latest offering in a series of ironic takes on modern life, often using a detached narrator who offers any number of comments on their own life and the events of it. This is evident in Clowes’ 1997 book Ghost World, which was also adapted into a successful and quite good 2001 film starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as two quirky and ironic friends commenting on the smallness of life in an unnamed American city. Similar to my co-curator, Joe, I really want to like Daniel Clowes and his work. I thought Ghost World was amazing and intelligent on so many levels while Ice Haven, a Rashomon-like tale of a child gone missing in the eponymous town, ventures into some interesting technical grounds of story-telling even if the narrative seems to lack an emotional core. With Mister Wonderful, I was reminded of both Clowes’ technical brilliance in terms of the artwork and Clowes’ use of space but also of the possibility of certain narrative techniques growing stale. Mister Wonderful left me feeling empty and vacuous as if Clowes didn’t really want us to connect with his characters on any kind of emotional level other than mild annoyance and instead wanted to demonstrate his cleverness with the sequential art-form. I’ll begin with a quick review of the narrative along with some panels before I look at some his technical mastery and end with some comments on his mode of story-telling.

In Mister Wonderful, Clowes turns his attention to Marshall, a middle-aged divorcee on a blind date with Natalie, who spends most of the narrative neurotically obsessing over how the date is going, what future he and Natalie might have together, how what he just said is idiotic, what other people are doing to mess up his chances, and so on. In many ways, this obsessive interior monologue is both revealing of the human consciousness, who hasn’t thought about all the things that are going wrong while on a first date, and incredibly irritating at the same time. At a certain point, I kept thinking “Okay, I get it, this guy has problems, let’s move on with the story.” Case in point, the panel below:

In these panels, I wanted to know what Natalie was saying. Was it an interesting conversation they were having or the quite of mundane first-date material that everyone goes through in a kind of half-hearted manner? How about this panel below:

Yes, I’m interested in the kind of self-defeating and masochistic conversations that Marshall is having. But Natalie is an intriguingly damaged character who has just revisited her old friends after a nasty break-up with a long-time lover. Marshall has unwittingly just met this man and will later confront him. In this scene, he revisits (again) how best to proceed on the date. He is clearly interested in Natalie but his own tendency to self-effacement is working against him. This may be exactly what Clowes wants to leave us with, but I’m bothered by the kind of rich material that he displays only to take it away. I won’t reveal the ending, but I will say that I didn’t buy it. It gestured toward the heart-felt, perhaps even trying to be genuinely poignant in a world of cheap and easy relationships, yet the weight of the ironic, detached narration deflated this scene for me.

Turning to Clowes’ technical brilliance, Mister Wonderful is incredible for the way that Clowes makes use of a very awkwardly shaped book. The book is roughly 17 inches long but only 6 inches wide so that Clowes can only incorporate two horizontal rows on each page. With these dimensions in mind, the narrative becomes a running reel of tedium as if Marshall’s story is but one of many. In some ways, the page setup also resembles a length of movie film running out before you. Perhaps this is a fanciful reading, but I’m convinced that Clowes himself intentionally chose these dimensions. While he may not have had the tedium in mind, he did have in mind using the entire page to produce some exceptional panels.

This panel expresses Marshall’s reaction to Natalie’s entrance. To my mind, this is a prime example of a story-teller showing his audience what is happening rather than telling it as an inferior writer might. Marshall’s eyes stare out at you in a kind of awkward and magnificent encounter that highlights Clowes’ ability. Another example of this incredible use of space can be found later:

You can feel the pathos emanating from the page as Marshall’s date has ended and he is feeling dejected. This was one of those moments that I felt like Clowes really had some incredible material. Moving towards the tedium again, he gives us these four panels:

It’s not entirely clear which words Marshall actually says to Natalie after a homeless man interrupted their dinner. That doesn’t seem to be the point though as Clowes illustrates the kind of ridiculous things we will say when we are nervous. The panels also seem to nod in Andy Warhol’s direction with its pop-art styling of the same image over multiple channels while making ostensibly superficial chances (in this case the background colours and Marshall’s words).

Returning to Natalie, I was really attached to her as a character. This may be a result of Clowes’ work in filling out her details of her former relationship.

Visually, these panels exemplify the way that certain issues can dominate a relationship, so that an innocuous laugh becomes the literal elephant in Natalie’s room. Natalie is just as damaged as Marshall, yet she seems more sincere. Access to Marshall’s inner thoughts makes him seem neurotic and over-bearing whereas Natalie comes across as a shattered individual who has the possibility of recovery. In a way, I wanted Clowes to take off the kind of ironic-detached mask, but he doesn’t.

To my mind, this kind of story-telling has had its moment. It worked in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it seems to be dated now. Perhaps this is a side-effect of graduate school and the insistent cynicism bred into me by academia. I no longer want the detachment or cynical view of life, but instead want genuine characters engaging in real relationships. I don’t want the overt ironic comment on the sentimentality of human beings or the cynical overtones filtering into romantic dates. It seems to me that this mode of story-telling is connected to post-modernism even if I am hesitant to make this claim. The undercutting of any master narrative means that the “grand” narrative of human love itself loses traction, producing a glut of parodic and self-reflexive narratives like Mister Wonderful. While these are useful and productive in many ways, I feel like they lack an emotional care, leaving me wondering why I even bothered to read them in the first place. I’m not advocating a return to Leo Tolstoy-esque narratives (of 600 page epics), I do want some form of sincerity or affect from the things I read. There’s a way in which I admire what Clowes is doing, even seeing how the kind of ironic, detached position is necessary in a high-speed, low-contact celebrity culture where fashions and aesthetics change from day-to-day; and yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel that something is lacking in this book, some kind of emotional attachment to the narrative being told so that by book’s end you don’t feel anything at all (perhaps this is his greatest artistic achievement).

Out of the Deep Woods and into the apocalypse?

review by Matthew Zantingh

Recently, a friend of mine at a conference made a statement that post-apocalyptic films are a failure of the imagination, often being cheap translations of the contemporary moment’s anxieties into a future period where some protagonist eventually survives due to chutzpah or some other individualistic trait. They fail to provide any way for those watching the film in the present to address what are often legitimate concerns – overpopulation, disease, racism, etc. – and instead posit the only way out as a total failure of the system, a failure which often hinges on the continuance of some of the same traits in the present moment (think of the importance of canned food and Coke in the 2009 film adaptation of The Road). While I don’t entirely agree with my friend’s comment, it is hard to dispute it when discussing films like the 1976 Logan’s Run (which I quote only because I recently watched it), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and other examples. These movies are often critically panned, yet they do a brisk business at the box office which suggests to me that they fulfill some deeper cultural need for those viewers.*

I’m going to take my friend’s comment, which I admit was qualified and not a blanket dismissal of the genre, up and question the workings of the genre in a recent contemporary post-apocalyptic graphic novel: Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth. This series is now into 29th issue due for release sometime in 2012 just as the 4th collected paperback is also scheduled for release (January 31st to be precise) in the new year. Jeff Lemire is a rising star in graphic novels, and one close to my heart, as his Essex County takes up small-town Ontario as a subject worthy of not just one but a series of graphic novels. Personal remarks aside, there is clearly a market for this series as it has been nominated for both Eisner and Harvey Awards in its relatively short life-span as well as maintaining strong enough sales to warrant its continuation by Vertigo. I’m only going to discuss the first collected paperback, Out of the Deep Woods, for the sake of brevity, even though I’ve read the other two. In discussing the genre and this work, I will give away some of the plot but I’ll try my best not to give away any of the later developments even though the second and third collections begin to develop interesting ideas and take the series in what I think is a better direction.

Some plot basics: the series is set in the United States after a devastating viral outbreak which causes the mass extinction of most humans. However, Lemire has given it a twist in that the virus has not only killed most humans but has also caused any new children born to be hybrid animal/human beings who are seemingly immune to the plague. As a result, these animal/humans are highly sought after by roving gangs of men and weird tribal cultists who worship them. The main character Gus, or Sweet Tooth as he is later named by Jeppard, is a young boy with deer antlers and pointed deer ears.

He is recognizably human, unlike some of the others in the later collections, and comes across as a naive and bumbling boy schooled in the the art of survival by his father but also taught a fundamentalist Christian worldview. The collection begins in the woods where he and his father have been hiding for a number of years but follows Gus as he leaves this wilderness with Jeppard after his father’s death. Jeppard is a hulking, ambivalent hunter who rescues Gus initially from some redneck hunters before promising to take Gus to a preserve especially for the animal/human children. Already you can see some of the defining traits of the post-apocalyptic genre at work here: a devastating crisis which destroys our current consumer/capitalist state, a reduction of humanity to violence and cruelty as their defining traits, guns as the primary form of law in this new world order, a journey undertaken by the main characters in hopes of a better future, and the absence of any real strong female characters.

Perhaps it is in the last post-apocalyptic staple that my friend’s comment bears the most truth on the genre. Most of the post-apocalyptic films, novels, and comics that I have read feature strong male protagonists and characters but almost never have strong female leads.** Recall The Road where the mother wanders off into the unknown rather than face the brutal future; the classic 1979 Mad Max where Mel Gibson fulfills a vendetta against Toecutter’s motorcycle gang after they murder his wife and child; Logan’s Run where Jenny Agutter, or Jessica 6, is basically arm-candy for Richard Jordan; or the 2009 film Carriers in which any significant decision made by a group of four adults comes from one of the two men. The genre in itself seems to create this problem: if you create a future where the current system has failed entirely and the worst has happened or is happening, then humanity will resort back to its more primal/basic instincts. In this scenario, the rule of violence and power comes to the fore, therefore men become the most powerful figures and women become property which is traded between or fought over by men. These scenarios seem to be a failure of imagination for two reasons: one that women, in the event of an apocalypse, will inevitably become weepy, weak, and submissive; and two, that there aren’t women who couldn’t do exactly what most of the men do which is find weapons, food, and survive by their instincts. Now I know plenty of women who stand a far better chance of surviving an apocalypse than I do. Some are biologists while others are athletes, far better suited to the rugged climate that features in almost every post-apocalyptic narrative while almost any woman from any military anywhere would certainly have better odds of survival than I would as an academic whose body is slowly melting away as a result of too much sitting around and reading.

Returning to Lemire’s series, Gus’s mother is missing from the beginning, glimpsed only as a wooden cross on a grave outside the cabin in the first few pages. The only live women who show up in the first collection happen to be prostitutes pimped out by a disgruntled married couple who are not averse to domestic violence in order to put them in their place. To be fair, Lemire doesn’t just leave them here, but frees them by having Gus guilt Jeppard into stepping in on the affair.

Gus's humanity

In writing this, I’m hearing Joe over my shoulder reminding me of the comics audience: an audience which happens to be primarily male. This may serve as a general explanation of why there are so few female characters in this series, but it doesn’t really address the general lack of strong female characters in the genre more broadly. Does this then suggest that the genre is primarily a male one? That it is disgruntled men who are viewing, purchasing, and producing post-apocalyptic narratives? Unfortunately I have no answer for this question as statistics showing the gender of film goers and comic purchasers are not readily available (if they exist at all). This, then, remains a key tension in the genre itself: how do post-apocalyptic genres configure gender relations, and can these narratives produce non-patriarchal power structures?

A second issue within Out of the Deep Woods that I would like to take up is the issue of nature and the natural world. This is an area close to my heart as my dissertation focuses on the role of nature in literature and how the way we talk about the natural world in cultural texts shapes our relationship to this external world. In post-apocalyptic texts, there is often a pervasive sentiment of anti-urban, misanthropic wilderness worship. I apologize for the clunky handle, but I can’t seem to put it in a more lucid phrasing. Basically it runs something like this: there is a crisis, the protagonists need to escape the city (because this is where lots of survivors are and they are competition for resources) into the wilderness in order to survive. At the heart is weird form of a masculine individualist ethos: get into the wilderness, survive by your wits and strength, and above all, avoid other human beings. My problem with this framework is that it suggests that wilderness will somehow save us all despite the fact that there may be some very compelling reasons it is wilderness in the first place (think of the Canadian tundra: it is wild because not a lot grows there and survival there today is touch and go at best ). The other, perhaps larger problem that I see is that it suggests that at a fundamental level humans cannot co-operate with each other in any sustainable way. This naturalizes consumerism’s inherent individualism and a weird form of social Darwinism common in capitalist thought where the brightest and strongest individuals survive.

Jeppard

Now I’m not completely convinced this is the case, I tend to see these concepts as cultural constructions rather than absolute facts (even though my rather limited knowledge of world history seems to suggest otherwise).

Returning from my digression to Out of the Deep Woods, Lemire’s text has a special place for the wilderness as the story starts here and some of the book’s best panels come in this section.

Gus meets a buck

Pastoral Eden, aka the woods

Such panels suggest that this is the kind of landscape best suited for survival, imparting it supreme value in a post-apocalyptic state. However, the problem becomes that such landscapes are pristine precisely for their lack of human inhabitants. The subtle suggestion running underneath this is that humans don’t belong in nature. That nature is best off when humans leave it alone, a theme that returns in the second and third volumes.

Returning to my opening anecdote and friend’s comment, while I see some flaws in Out of the Deep Woods, these seem to be genre or convention flaws rather than a failed artistic vision on Lemire’s part. This doesn’t let him totally off the hook for the way women are treated, but it does allow his other strengths to shine. I particularly like his innovative use of panels throughout the comic; he is not afraid to play with panel size and placement in a way that pushes the graphic medium further.

This may be my favourite panel in the issue. It's pretty amazing.

Note Lemire's use of red circles to highlight violence

He does not do it so much as to be distracting but chooses his points carefully. In such experimentation, I think Lemire shows that post-apocalyptic texts can be very imaginative and engaging. Moreover, I think that the way plays with the animal/human divide in not only its very premise but in the action of the narrative suggests an intelligent and compelling engagement with questions of what it means to be human and what it means to be non-human. Gus, despite his hybridity, continues to prove himself more human than Jeppard in this volume suggesting that Lemire himself may not be so uncritical of the violence he uses. Gus becomes the centre of Lemire’s social critique in the series, even though his naivete leads him into several tight spots. Gus suggests different possible ways of being in dire circumstances, a warning that is applicable to our own time amidst warnings of environmental collapse, economic meltdown, and other such cataclysms. Perhaps a return to wonder, compassion, and curiosity is our only way forward.

In closing, I politely disagree with my friend’s comment. Instead I would suggest that post-apocalyptic narratives can be fully developed and engaging imaginative exercises that offer a unique avenue of critique for our contemporary society. This is not to say that this is always the outcome of post-apocalyptic narratives. In fact, most post-apocalyptic narratives seem to contradict such statements. But as the old saying goes, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

* The Day After Tomorrow collected $186 million at the box office and received an average rating of 5.3/10; The Road didn’t make much in the 2009 year at only $8 million (although this may be because the film was released in November) but did slightly better in ratings with a 6.9/10 ; 2012 made $166 million at the box office while receiving an average rating of  5/10. All totals are from boxofficemojo.com and reflect American gross totals (not international releases) while the ratings come from Rotten Tomatoes rating aggregator.

** One exception is Brian K. Vaughan’s Y:The Last Man which despite its male protagonist boasts a primarily female cast although one could take issue with the entire premise of the series which seems to read like a male sexual fantasy even if the series doesn’t really devolve to this level. A second exception is the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome which stars Tina Turner as Aunty who controls Bartertown through an uneasy truce with Master Blaster. However, she is the villain of this movie even though she begrudgingly allows Gibson to live after earning her respect.

The Deckhand Tragedy: Sammy Harkham’s Poor Sailor

review by Joseph Frank

The ocean has been on my mind. Melville’s Moby-Dick, of course; also Billy Budd. But I’ve been reading short fiction by Guy De Maupassant, as well. So it was a pleasure to discover his story, “At Sea,” which shares moral and thematic elements with Melville: an intense interest in the ill-fated curiosity of humans to find profit in the ocean; the ocean’s intolerance of humankind’s lice-like presence; among humans, a compassionless leader more concerned with his mission than his crew; a lonely conclusion, emphatically silent, focused on the protagonist’s orphanlike existence, which, upon reflection, is logical, unavoidable, but no less tragic.

Maupassant’s “At Sea” is about a young man called Javel Jr. onboard a trawling smack captained by his older brother, Javel Sr.. When Javel Jr.’s arm becomes tangled in the rope pulling a net filled with fish, Javel Sr. refuses to cut the rope, which would cost him the net and catch. When they finally drop anchor and slacken the net, Javel Jr.’s arm is gristle. For days he ladles sea water over the wound, but gangrene sets in and he finally amputates his own arm. The fishermen examine it. They preserve it in salt. Once home, Javel Jr.’s family examine it. The carpenter builds a small coffin and a funeral is held. Javel Jr. gives up the sea and recalls the incident as the day his brother chose profit over blood.

Of the many stories Maupassant penned, “At Sea” is, perhaps, not counted among his most well-known.

Along comes American comic creator Sammy Harkham, maker of the esteemed avant-garde comics anthology Kramer’s Ergot, who adapts “At Sea” to comic form. That Harkham’s Poor Sailor (the title of his adaptation) can be read in less than fifteen minutes speaks nothing to the time it requires. It is a taciturn but deeply multilayered story. It maintains the concision of Maupassant’s original, in its parts and as a whole. The motivating hopes of the characters leads to brutalities that recall Melville. And something of Harkham’s decision to expose the story in reticent and ostensibly uncomplicated illustrations summons the sentences of Chekhov and Hemingway. It would be apt to use Poor Sailor to coin the term “graphic short story,” as opposed to the ever popular “graphic novel,” but that’s not my concern. What strikes me is how Harkham’s visual style and panel pacing unite traditional slapstick cartoon aesthetics with a deeply realist moral universe laden with ambivalence and tragedy.

Poor Sailor opens on pastoral domesticity. The main character, Thomas, lives in Edenic seclusion with his wife, Rachel. They are completing or repairing the thatch roof of their small house. They work, flirt, stroll, and skinny-dip. One day, Thomas’s older brother, Jacob, arrives. He encourages Thomas to join the crew of his trawling smack. Rachel refuses: Thomas has domestic responsibilities and her wellbeing to care for. As days pass, Thomas and Rachel grow distant, preoccupied by differing opinions of Jacob’s offer. One night, Thomas rises and says Rachel’s name – to wake her or to make sure she’s asleep, it’s unclear – but she sleeps and he leaves to join Jacob. One day, in particularly rough water, Jacob insists they drop the nets. Here, Harkham remains close to Maupassant: Thomas’s arm is caught and then crushed when Jacob refuses to cut the nets. Where Maupassant details the process of pouring salt water on the wounds, Harkham skips to the moment when they decide the arm must go. Jacob advises the amputation. It is unclear who performs the deed. Less an arm, Thomas remains with the ship, unable to work, dreaming of Rachel. One night, they are ambushed by pirates who slaughter everyone. The ship sinks. Thomas clings to debris. A rowboat filled with missionaries saves him. By foot and train, through valleys and forests, as snow begins to fall, Thomas returns home. When he arrives, he discovers a burial mound marked with a cross. He falls on his face. Five empty panels progress like weeks of silence. Finally, one-armed Thomas continues repairing the roof alone.

Harkham’s illustrations are darkly juvenile, and yet they recall well-established, indeed even watershed events in comic history. The aesthetics of his characters and scenes recall the stark monochromatic worlds of early Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks cartoons like Oswald the rabbit (Trolley Troubles 1927) and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), as well as the Little Orphan Annie comics of Harold Gray (including unnervingly empty circles for eyes), and, more recently, Harkham’s Drawn & Quarterly colleague, Chester Brown, who cites Gray as an influence (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, “Forward”). Brown also cites Hergé, creator of Tintin; Harkham’s style equally references the French method ligne claire: clear line. But Harkham’s illustrations succinctly elaborate the oddly grotesque morphology of styles like those listed. Such characters usually exist according to the nonsensical, slapstick physics of hokey cartoon universes, but Harkham’s style asks what if the universe of such weird looking figures was ruled by moral ambiguities like our own? What if their strange bodies stood for something more than cutesiness? What if their look was the product of personifying how fucked up life is? With crisp precision, the weak shoulders, crudely large hands, dullard expressions, and hollow eyes of his characters transform the substances of their psychological lives and the unsympathetic fates into correspondingly ill-proportioned bodies.

Unlike the early Disney/Iwerks characters, who easily recover from myriad physical brutalities, Harkham’s characters are not so invulnerable. The story hinges on the event of mutilation and amputation. When Thomas loses his arm, our presuppositions of the traditional conventions of this illustration style are attacked. As Leonard Michaels argues about the goring of Hernandorena in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932), Thomas – and, by extension, the graphic narrative tradition after which his aesthetic follows –  is more essentially himself with a stump where his arm once was (“What’s a Story”): no character who is worth caring for, worth investing in, worth feeling pathos toward, is invincible.  Pathos requires ambivalence, inarticulateness (depicted both literally and illustratively in Poor Sailor), and a sense that good intentions of best laid plans are in direct conflict with cruel fates against which we are helpless. The loss of Thomas’ arm represents the magnitude of what’s at stake. The stoicism of the characters and the narrative, especially when it is decided that Thomas’ arm must be severed, represents the only logical response to such an existence: ambivalence, bewilderment. And they foreshadow an even greater loss awaiting Thomas, one which serves to further expand the tragedy of his choice to leave Rachel: her death.

Another feature of Harkham’s style that brings the cartoonish aesthetic into our moral universe is his penchant for eliding decisive scenes, for letting them occur between panels; the audience gets a picture of the instant before a major event and the fallout thereafter. The event itself – Thomas’s departure, the moment of his injury, the amputation, his escape from the pirates, Rachel’s death – are suggested as though glimpsed by way of events signal them, rather than illuminating them in full. Lacunae like this bear the mark of Old Testament realism and, on Harkham’s behalf, are an ingenious exploitation of the ‘gutters’ between panels, or perhaps an ingenious investment into the gutter’s potential to host moments of unsayable and unseeable importance. Events so important they oppose articulation.

Early in the book, we glimpse one such event, after which all comparable events are omitted. Concluding the pastoral introduction, Hakham illustrates Thomas and Rachel standing naked in water, holding hands in silence, looking at one another with uncertain expressions. It is a definitive moment in the text – the height of what six panels preceding it worked toward: laying bare the couple’s love, simple though it may seem. It haunts the remainder of the story. It infuses the maiming of Thomas with the sense that he is not the only one injured – to return home with only one arm means he must forever bear the wound of betraying Rachel as well as the myriad ways it would impose upon Rachel. But that scenario, no matter how humbling and inconvenient, is no match for how the story actually ends, with Thomas returning to find that Rachel has died in his absence.

As I try to conclude this review of Poor Sailor, I’m burdened by the feeling that I’ve barely articulated the story’s power to evoke unplumbed and unplumbable depths, which is achieved, in large part, by Harkham’s mastery of storytelling and illustration. Indeed, his revision of classically cartoonish iconography and his brilliant exploitation of gutter silences make for a taciturn tragedy that increases the scope of his imaginary, expanding it through the abovementioned cartoon traditions, while also gesturing toward Melville, Chekhov, Hemingway, and the Old Testament. (Thomas’s lone survival following the massacre by pirates echoes Ishmael floating on Queequeg’s coffin after Moby-Dick sinks the Pequod; his single-panel train journey home recalls Hemingway.)

Poor Sailor is a beautiful book. A heartbreaking story. An expert instance of narration by sequential pictures. An impressive example of the potential of the comic form for artful adaptation and, in this case, improvement of already impressive source material – though this last point has much to do with Harkham’s genius. It exhibits the power of pictures to tell a story with heavy emotional impact, without resorting to graphic gratuitousness or melodrama. Harkham disarms us with cartoonishness, draws us in with darkness, involves us by requiring interpretation between panels, and creates characters whose outer appearances reflect how feeble humans are, how grotesque our betrayals, failures, and fates.