June 2012

Arts & Letters

Memory Palaces

By Luke Davies
Panel from 'Sensitive Creatures'. © Mandy Ord
Australia’s budding graphic novel scene

The recent, beautiful graphic novel Mister Wonderful, by the American cartoonist Daniel Clowes, tells the story of Marshall, a man who frets – greatly, incessantly, neurotically – both in the lead-up to and all the way through his first blind date in years. The hilarious intensity of the interior monologue, the exhausting self-analysis of Marshall’s anxiety, holds us rapt. How could anyone be this uptight and survive? we ask ourselves – Woody Allen’s longevity notwithstanding. The febrile machinations of Marshall’s mind are rendered the funnier by the apparent passivity with which he inhabits each of Clowes’s lovingly rendered frames: like the realist painter Edward Hopper, Clowes, whose work has graced many a New Yorker cover, likes to isolate his characters in quiet moments of inertia, surrounded by the architecture of the everyday.

That impulse is at odds with the kinetic, frenetic tendencies more generally in play in comic-book art, but it is perhaps not tempo that defines the genre so much as staging. With traditional (text only!) novels we are forced, in our imaginations, to build the stage ourselves, so that great novels become many-roomed memory palaces. The graphic novelist introduces a new tool and can dispense with much that is verbal: the staging, the sets, are laid out for us. Paradoxically, this often makes the reduced word count of a graphic novel work at a higher RPM, for the sets are nothing without the drama that plays out in them.

Yet graphic novelists are not, traditionally, literary stylists, and the drama – so often, as in Clowes, the psychodrama of self-obsession – plays itself out as interior monologue overlaid on what are essentially filmic freeze-frames. If the traditional novel is a virtual universe, entire and three-dimensional within the psyche, its rough-edged cousin straddles the verbal and visual regions of the brain, crafting adult narratives out of kinetic ‘jump cuts’ – establishing shot, close-up, extreme close-up, point-of-view – that emerge from that most minimalist of childhood theatres, the comic.

Clowes is one of the form’s master craftsmen. His warm, funny Ghost World traced with precision and economy the post-adolescent bewilderment of two young women cut adrift from the relative though illusory safety of high school, as they wander, with detached cynicism, the ghost world of the great American vacuity. (The ghost of The Catcher in the Rye hovers over many a graphic novel.)

In contrast to the deadpan humour that undercuts the seriousness of the existential frustration of Clowes’s characters, his American contemporary, Charles Burns, gives us no such reprieve. Burns’s thick tome Black Hole is a very odd artefact in the already odd world of the graphic novel. Where Clowes draws his frames in what could be called ‘plain style’ (squint your eyes a little and you could be looking at those bright, colourful panels from ’70s Archie comics), Burns’s black-and-white format is more akin to Dürer woodcuts, only not as subtle: big slabs of black stand in for the more delicate gradations of cross-hatching in Dürer.

Burns’s portrayal of fear and trembling is akin to that of Clowes, but for Burns our very existence – at least as it is experienced in our late teens – is the primal nightmare, from which there is no escape, neither in the living of it nor the remembering. Black Hole takes place in a kind of claustrophobic B-horror film dreamscape, where raging hormones seem to act as psychotropic drugs and unsettling hallucinations abound. Teenagers pine over love objects they’re barely able to approach, or ruminate forlornly and repetitively over choices badly made and scenarios badly played; the sexual anxiety is irrevocably entangled with the dread. As in Peanuts, there is nary an adult to be seen, but we’re a long way from the transcendent, almost spiritually nurturing loneliness of Charlie Brown here.

Clowes was born in 1961; Burns in 1955. They were coming of age as artists in the ’70s and ’80s as the graphic novel was developing, both as a genre and a marketing phenomenon. The primary audience back then was adolescent boys and men in their twenties. You might say – you might hope – that this core audience has expanded somewhat over 30 years, and you’d be vaguely right. You might expect that as the genre grew through its own adolescence, its concerns would not forever be the pursuit of sex or the evasion of loneliness.

American graphic novels have long dominated the market, and there has never really been a recognisably Australian comics culture beyond specialist bookshops. Slowly, that has been changing. In Australia, Shaun Tan has led the way, though so sui generis is his work that to categorise it is somewhat reductionist. What can you call Tan’s great The Red Tree other than, say, a ‘graphic poem’? More recently, The Arrival dispensed with words entirely. It’s been marketed as a “silent graphic novel”, and yet, so rich, so suggestive and economical is Tan’s handling of narrative that The Arrival does read more as a novel than a picture book.

Still, surveying the burgeoning – and very much Melbourne-based – Australian graphic novel scene, a quote from the pseudonymous critic Harvey Porlock comes to mind: “Reading reviews of modern poetry is like attending prize-giving in a small, caring primary school: everyone has done terribly well, it’s all absolutely marvellous.” Neophytes wanting to explore the world of graphic novels would do well to start with the American ones. Yet while there’s a rough-around-the-edges quality to some of the recent Australian releases, there’s also tremendous energy.

Mirranda Burton’s Hidden (Black Pepper, $20.00) is a sparsely drawn, elegant book, fewer than a hundred pages long, in which the narrator (“Mirranda”) works as an art instructor at a centre for adults with intellectual disabilities. Each chapter tells the story of one of her clients: men and women with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to autism. The tone is tender, the humour forbearing and wry. Steve begins each day at the centre writing up the weather on a white board, with his own inscrutable system of symbols. “So today will be 16 °C with a Cyclops being chased by a police car?” asks Mirranda. “Yep,” says Steve. Eddie, working from old National Geographics, creates “a swarm of graphite marks” that converge in dark masses and eventually puncture the drawing pad. Julie comes once a week from her job in a sheltered workshop; her anxious, OCD-filled world is lightened whenever ’50s rock’n’roll – about which she has an encyclopaedic knowledge – comes on the radio.

Throughout, Burton tracks her own uncertain responses, as government policies continually change, facilities close down and her special-needs students face the possibility of being “integrated” into the “real world”. “At the time of Eddie’s departure I felt small, confused and encircled by unanswerable questions,” she writes. “The future of our little operation is uncertain, with voices from a distant control room crying ‘Icebergs ahead!’” But Burton’s gift is to endow her characters with warmth and three-dimensionality, despite the minimalism of the palette.

I first came across Mandy Ord upon the publication of her graphic novel Rooftops (Finlay Lloyd, $25.00) in 2008. Her style took some getting used to: there’s that woodblock feel again, with large areas of black shading, and her thickly drawn heroine has one giant eye, the better, I suppose, to observe the world with. She’s not actually Cyclopean – it appears rather that Ord draws her autobiographical “I” character in profile, while the rest of her world’s inhabitants can be seen front-on. After a while, the chunky coarseness of her aesthetic becomes endearing, and the story takes over. Rooftops is a pleasantly off-the-wall tale, recounting a single frenetic night replete with a rooftop cinema screening of Ghostbusters, reflections on Bill Murray and ruminations on the nature of coincidence, all taking place in a recognisable contemporary Melbourne.

Ord’s latest book, Sensitive Creatures (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), is as charming as Rooftops, though it sprawls more. Vignettes range from the narrator’s sense of being menaced by bogan hoons on trains and in streets, to giving art classes (the back-up job for Melbourne comic-book writers?) to unwilling juvenile delinquents; from being trapped in Sydney Road traffic to being trapped in a mosh pit; from memories of childhood and chocolate bars to a Kafkaesque encounter with a Flinders Street Station ticket seller. The thread that holds everything together is simply the narrator’s own journey through the minutiae of every-day life. Male graphic novelists’ characters do this too, yet somehow they always seem to be inching towards narcissism, with a stance of resistance, of kicking against the pricks. Narcissism is probably not solely the domain of the male. It’s just that statistically, it’s largely so. With female graphic novelists, on the other hand, there’s always a thread of self-deprecation, a sense of our heroine sliding with events.

In Ord’s case, what this means is that the book is imbued with a nimble and whimsical sense of the absurd. There’s a great scene where a waiter grating parmesan says, “Say when,” and the narrator, despite being aware she has crossed some invisible line, lets him grate on well past the point of resentment. Elsewhere, in a fantasy where books have human characteristics, a book with arms holds up a puppet reporter and puppet politician. The reporter asks: “Minister – what is your view of paperbacks who arrive in the country express post while fleeing persecution in their own libraries?” The minister replies: “Our policy is to send them to remote op shops where they will be stacked on shelves until they voluntarily agree to be shredded.” 

In Bruce Mutard’s The Silence (Allen & Unwin, $29.95), the lines are finer and cleaner than in Burton or Ord, and the story, rather than feeling like a collection of vignettes, contains a single narrative thread. The oddly named Choosy McBride is some kind of art consultant in the city. Her boyfriend Dmitri is a painter, but just now he’s going through a dry patch, full of self-loathing, ranting about the closed coterie of the art world, happy to treat the question ‘What purpose is there to making art?’ as philosophical rather than ever putting brush to canvas. In short, he’s a pain in the neck. When Choosy heads off to far north Queensland to locate the unknown artist behind an amazing painting a client found in a tourist gift shop, she drags grumpy Dmitri with her, thinking it might shake him out of his funk.

So far so good. There seems to be a mystery developing here, though it all becomes a little like The Twilight Zone meeting Paul Auster. Theories of art are jammed into the characters’ speech bubbles, yet in terms of characterisation the real problem is that we don’t find out enough about what makes them tick. The pair track the mysterious artist’s works to a beautiful prayer room high on a hill, where the paintings may or may not exist, and may or may not be free for the taking. The prayer room itself may or may not be a vortex in time and space. Mutard’s exquisite line-work is offset by some of the heavy-handedness of this, if the subtle and the unexplained can be said to be heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not a big Auster fan: all that meta is makin’ me itch. Still, Mutard captures beautifully the wild, windy, head-clearing expanses of the tropical Queensland coastline, even if his Dmitri remains something of a prat.

Pat Grant’s Blue is the most beautifully produced of these books. Where bogans make cameo appearances in Ord’s Melbourne, they are the feature players in Grant’s seaside town of Bolton. Christian, a council worker gone to seed, reminisces about his youth, when wagging school and surfing was all that mattered, when life was simpler, before the strange blue aliens began arriving in town. Younger Christian and his two schoolmates, in possibly unreliable flashback, head out to the railway lines, where, they’ve been told, you can still see fragments of a dead body from a recent accident – “some dopey starving bastard who stumbled out of a boat and onto the train line.” Older Christian mouths racist platitudes, bemoaning the blue people’s invasion. “You play ‘Spot the Aussie’ down here”; “They buy up all the real estate. Pretty much own the whole town now”; “You can’t even get a sausage roll in Bolton these days.”

Grant doesn’t so much juggle the twin narratives of Anglo-Aussie childhood nostalgia – those blue remembered waves – and the current boat-people-era fear of the other. Rather, he integrates them, deftly and with great control of his form, in a gently arcing narrative that is at the same time restrained and batty. It’s uncomfortable, too, because Grant doesn’t draw any easy conclusions. He judges neither bogans nor the casual mimicking racism of children. As he trawls back through his memory, it’s not the racism Christian regrets; more just his realisation that he may, with the passage of time, have become an unreliable narrator.

In ‘Genealogy of the Boofhead’, Grant’s complex and thought-provoking essay that accompanies, frames and contextualises Blue, he writes:


Sinking into the story space that comic art affords us – as cartoonists, but also as readers – is to step back into an adolescent or pre-adolescent state, bypassing the analytical and historical filters with which we, as adults, process sensory data. This leaves us exposed to raw, emotive readings of time, space and form. Comic art seems to be the key that many people need to access a chamber of their psyche that is otherwise locked away from their adult consciousness. 


If fear of annihilation is at the heart of childhood terror, Grant shows how the national psyche, too, might be viewed very much as an anxious adolescent.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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