Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Filthy Spectre: Paranarrative and the Cultural Position of Lo-fi Art Comics

In our efforts to keep this blog alive, Raighne and I have agreed that we should expect contributors to post at least four times per year. Realizing that I've only posted one substantial entry thus far, I told myself I better think of something to write about before the year was out (failed). I started with the simple and clichéd idea of putting together a best of 2010 list, but after looking over what I read last year, I realized that a lot of it was 1-3 years old already (I always feel like I'm playing catch-up). I do have plenty of 2010 comics on my 'to read' pile, but most hadn't been opened yet. I then thought maybe I can cull from what I read last year what has had the strongest influence on how I approach my own comics, which was plenty, but for the sake of clarity I wanted to narrow it down to one primary theme or tendency.

Part of what helped me focus my thoughts was how Good Minnesotan 4 has been received and I how I've interpreted Raighne's design and editorial choices. In our lengthiest and most thoughtful review of said volume, Rob Clough claims, "Hogan at times goes overboard by inserting too many incidental drawings and sketchbook scribblings of some of his contributors". Other reviewers had similar misgivings regarding the level of craft involved in some of the comics Raighne chose to include. Looking over GMN4 again, I can see what they're getting at, but at the same time, I'd have to disagree. While we've mentioned here and there during our time putting out the Good Minnesotan series that we're drawn to rough, loose styles just as much as some of the more polished, technically accomplished cartooning out there, I think that point may have been missed by many. Yes, there are quite a few roughly sketched incidentals and even comics, but the space accorded those comics/creations alongside work by more established cartoonists was to me our way of saying that although something like this (nothing personal here, choices made are for the sake of argument):
Luke Holden

 holds up just as well as something like this:
Kevin Cannon

Obviously, the aims of each artist are quite different and maybe it isn’t fair to even juxtapose them here, as they were kept in separate minis for the volume, but the fact that they still both reside in the same slipcase meant that we held both contributors in a high enough regard to expend the same amount of energy and time in showcasing their comics to the outside world.

That’s all well and good, but where am I going with this? What I’m trying to say here is that while Cannon’s work demonstrates his drawing chops and ability to craft an interesting little narrative or sequence, it feels like a much more mediated (read distanced) experience. Now that is just my reaction to his work, so maybe that’s an unfair criticism, but what I get from Holden’s comic feels more direct, which subsequently makes it appear to be a more sincere or authentic statement. Again, different intentions between the two, different ways of reading each, but what makes me, or others, have that kind of reaction to rougher styles that foreground their imperfections? Is Holden really being more truthful or genuine than Cannon? What is it about seeing partially erased images, traces of a ruled out page, smudge marks not removed in Photoshop, or any vestiges of the artist’s hand that connotes authenticity? This is something I noticed repeatedly in my own reactions to many of the comics I read this year. What struck me as interesting was that it wasn’t limited to a particular time (from Jerry Moriarty’s Jack Survives strips in the early 80s
Note: these are from the reprinted edition put out by Buenaventura. The original printing did not include the traces of unused word balloons, etc., yet the choice to include them in the reprinting is worth noting.

to Blaise Larmee’s Young Lions, put out in 2010),

 region (Mark Smeets in Holland,

 the east coast output by CF,

west coast work by Jason T. Miles, etc.)

 or genre (autobio from Moriarty,

 Fantasy from CF,

 abstract stream of consciousness from Miles

and Al Columbia,
and so on).

 Keep in mind this is a very limited sampling, as I’m basing it mostly on what I’ve read this past year and a little bit of 09’, so do not consider it exhaustive by any means, but I did find it notable that so many of the comics that are critically well-received share elements of this lo-fi tone to them. Of course, this is only one tendency amongst many, but what makes this less mediated mode of address feel more authentic to so many? What follows is my attempt at trying to interrogate my own reactions to this aesthetic upswelling and how it possibly fits in to the larger discourse about contemporary comics and culture in general.

One train of thought that came to mind when thinking about this trend or tendency was something Jason Overby discussed in a post on his blog in the summer of 2010:
We started talking about how Crumb (and most cartoonists) has internalized the vernacular of comics history and makes things according that particular set of rules. As great as Crumb is, he's also a good counterexample w/r/t his aesthetic conservatism. I brought up that there is no reason in the era of Photoshop and cheap printing for drawers to go through the steps printing deemed necessary 40 years ago. Surely, many folks have recognized this, but the ramifications of desktop publishing for comics are immense. As long as your images and words function in combination to create something that works and is cool, then you've made good comics. Scanning drawings made on paper and then tweaking them for printing could be eliminated in favor of directly making images using a computer. There aren't a lot of good examples of it so early in the game, but this newish technology will probably bear more interesting fruit in the future.
Quite often Overby seems to theorize in whatever direction he’s leaning in terms of how he approaches his own comics, but that aside, he does have a point. Technology has eliminated the need for certain processes and conventions that have been instilled in many cartoonists, without much thought as to their necessity. Obviously, plenty of cartoonists have gone in directions far removed from the pencil-ink-scan-‘clean-up’/color-print method, but that process still has a strong enough pull that typically the division of labor in superhero and genre comics continues to fall along those old production lines. But besides the broadening of aesthetic possibilities, what’s the significance of being freed from these dated parameters? How does being able to scan in straight pencils or light watercolors or ink washes broaden the narrative or poetic potential of comics? Does it? Some reviewers like to think so, calling smudged and erased pencilwork a technique for conveying memory or liminality, whether that be perceptual or ontological. I can’t say I disagree with these hermeneutics, but what continues to stick in my craw is this assertion that these methods are somehow more truthful or carry with them an air of authenticity that work by someone who adheres to more conventional processes might not. How truthful a narrative is isn’t dependent upon its aesthetics, yet there is something being told in that approach that differs from what you would find in the type of honesty someone like Chris Ware might deploy.

While others have thought of these choices or techniques as a way of manifesting some of the more ethereal qualities of a narrative, I see them rather as a means of overlaying the artist’s own narrative of creation onto the more overt or primary narrative. By leaving the imperfections, discarded ideas laid bare on the page, the artist is creating a paranarrative. This paranarrative engages the reader on a different level, one separate from the primary narrative. Instead of regurgitating what has been said about this concept, I’m going to drop some choice quotes from the essay I encountered it in (credits to Benjamin Biebuyck):

In this sense, it seems implausible to expect that the paranarrative actually interferes in the primary narrative; it can be said to cast a new light on it and put things into a different perspective, but these are supplementing actions rather than real interventions. 
…The paranarrative, however, being tied to the eventuality of figurative occurrence, has no continuous time-line, but takes on a lapidary form, becoming very prominent at some points of the primary narrative, only to retreat at others. Conjuring up dispersed portions of the narrative and shifting figurative networks, the paranarrative manifestly traverses the intentionality and temporal linearity of the primary order. This urges us to interpret it as a counter-telling, joyously released from the illusion of narrative sequentiality and – although requiring recipient activity – not depending on a specific and purposive hermeneutic intervention, as is required in case of allegory. 
…Being a derivative narrative, the paranarrative is not necessarily the shadow of an epinarrative, since it has the potential to disrupt its most elementary narrative parameters. As such, it is determined to be an answer to the primary narrative, by means of which the literary text can fully unfold its reflexive potential. 
…Most importantly, in all of the cases the paranarrative is there to enhance and intensify reader involvement, not allowing him or her to remain a witness of what is being represented, but urging them to become an active participant in the encompassing cultural dynamics of the narrative, which does not satisfy itself with mere representation, but always supplements this with a figurative counternarration.
In some cases (especially in some of the examples I noted above), applying this concept may be a bit of a stretch, but in others it feels like the most apt way to describe what I’ve felt as I’ve read some of these comics. The paranarrative doesn’t necessarily alter how I would read or interpret the primary narrative, but it adds a dimension to the comic itself that makes it symptomatic of one of the potential zeitgeist(s) of the 00’s.

In a post meant to instigate debate on the music/film review site, Tiny Mix Tapes, the question of whether lo-fi music could be considered to have any political or critical value was proposed:

Point: By emphasizing pastoral escapism conjoined with nostalgia, these artists dangerously put aside the material world of political reality and choose to embrace a form of dreamlike, childhood fantasy that results in apathy and inaction. 
Counterpoint: American music’s so-called “retreat” into the past was not escapism at all, but rather a process of carving out an alternative psychic reality to the bourgeois economic and political value system. Lo-fi’s return to low-cost, outdated recording technologies, which Beaumont-Thomas decried as a “retro” fad, was in fact a move toward the democratization of the music-making process. And while it did not discuss politics directly, lo-fi and its nostalgia for the past constituted a critique of society’s failure to deliver the egalitarian future that technological progress once promised.

Can we find a parallel in the increasing popularity of lo-fi art comics? Is this a democratization, or what may have been thought of a little over 30 years ago as a punk approach to comics? Privileging passion and ideas over technical skill or refinement? If we refer back to Overby’s statement above, it would seem that way. The price of basic scanning equipment and desktop publishing software has dropped to the point that with a little shopping around online, you can acquire the means to put together comics for a few hundred dollars as opposed to the thousands you would have needed a couple decades ago to gain access to the same tools. In light of people like John Porcellino and the new-wave minicomics of the 1980’s, even the cost of entry at those price points seems rather prohibitive, as they were making comics without these tools for even less money. Nevertheless, one could say that this renewed interest in the rough-hewn quality that was commonplace in minicomics from the 1980’s has returned, but maybe as more of an aesthetic pose or layer, meant to connote authenticity. Numerous critics have leveled like-minded criticisms at the profusion of lo-fi bands over the past few years, describing the trend as just a fashionable scuffing up of one’s sound to mask the mediocre skill and ideas lurking behind the static and low-production values. Whether the same could be said for the primitivist and lo-fi comics currently enjoying favor by many critics will of course remain to be seen, as the trend wanes and those working in those idioms make their next moves.

If we are to give those practicing in this vein of comics the benefit of the doubt, that they are trying to communicate something besides potentially mediocre work disguised by fashionably low production values and claims of primitivism, what would that be? By leaving the spectre of process, of error, within the work, it could be said that these artists are trying to fight against the simulacraic reality of how their work is produced and consumed. This is but one paranarrative that could be applied to these works; another could more directly address the quotes listed above concerning lo-fi music’s political connotations (or lack thereof), that the appearance of rough artwork could be a way of distracting from the bourgeois privilege typically accorded to those who can create these comics. Regardless of what one may take away from this relatively new aesthetic branch of comics history, its mere existence demonstrates the broadening scope of the medium, with all the attendant messiness and contradictions that such growth engenders.


  1. Lots to think about, paranarrative is an interesting term, never heard of it before.

    There's also the fact that sometimes messy raw lines convey the emotion and content of the story better than refined lines can.

  2. To me, why this sort of post-punk rough art feels more true has to do with leaving mistakes, erasure marks, scribbles, etc-- not caring about there place in the comic/art. On an emotional level, that authenticity of excressive scribbly lines add something that sleek perfect or photo-referenced lines cannot. The reverse is equally true. The cartoonist has all of these variables to use to add debth and subtlety to their narrative. I'm going to try to use some of this to greater effect for NF.

    And I'll second what Meghan said, as there is quite a bit of fat to chew on. Great post overall!

  3. @Meghan: Thanks, glad it made sense (I think I could've fleshed out parts of it more, but I was sick of working on it). I agree that those choices or techniques are better suited for setting a certain tone or expressing a certain emotion/feeling (see reviews I linked to), but I guess I was trying to come at it in a way that wasn't concerned so much with the intentions of the artist, but why this trend has been gaining steam in the past 5-10(?) years and how it may relate to shifts or trends occurring in other mediums. I guess the paranarrative bit could sometimes be seen as being in the domain of artist intentionality, since that raw, unfinished look is a choice, but I don't know if some cartoonists even think about it that much. May not be giving them enough credit though. Many aspects of that concept just seemed to be fitting to a feeling I was having difficulty articulating (and still am to a small extent).

    @Raighne: I agree, but at first I was having a hard time thinking of it as more 'true' than more cleaned up or mediated work. I had this term/concept, "artifice of honesty", that was one of my central points in the essay, but I dropped it because I couldn't justify my position. I still feel like it's just one form of honesty, not necessarily superior to other types, so I get irked when it's held above other work as more honest. It just feels like a more visual way to convey what another cartoonist may do via subject matter or level of detail they share about their life (e.g. Joe Matt, R. Crumb, et. al.). I'm not opposed to it (I like it quite a bit actually, as you know), but it grates when I get the impression someone considers it more honest or authentic because they chose to leave some marks and smudges in their work. Again, I agree that those choices communicate something different than photoshopped art or whatever, but the value judgements are what I think I take issue with. I agree, the more options one has at their disposal, the better (as long as you don't try to juggle too many in one book, setting 'rules' helps too, as you know). Yes, I think a lot of the scenes in NF could benefit from this type of approach.

    Ok, I better stop, this is almost another blog post! Thanks for the feedback, Hogans.

  4. It's funny, I was just working on a comic today (the third image here: ). I work all digital. I wanted repetition with slight variation. In conventional analogue one would redraw each image, making them different. I'm working digital, so I just edited parts of the same image and then copied them next to each other. It's obvious (I think) this was done digitally and I was just copying.

    In a sense this is very similar to the leaving of erasures and smudges. The process origin of my piece is left exposed. A weird kind of hifi corollary?

  5. Hey Derik,

    I'm somewhat in-between in how I work: it's a mixture of analog and digital in the sense that I will draw some images/pages once and then scan and repeat them instead of redrawing them several times. Initially I felt I was 'cheating', but I'm no purist, so I got over that quickly.

    That's an interesting point regarding 'hi-fi erasure', especially considering Overby was discussing a movement towards a solely digital process and I used it to describe how some cartoonists foreground the physical qualities of their implements via technological advancements. Just feels like an unexpected middle ground: instead of going further in the straight digital direction, some are using it to give the appearance of rebelling against the potential of endless revision that digital processes provide. The concept of leaving behind a history on the page certainly applies to straight digital as well, as you've noted, but it'd be interesting to see it used more aggressively (I guess you do see it in some digital art, but you don't see it too much in art comics, at least off the top of my head).

    By the way, I'm a big comics blogosphere lurker and I appreciate your commentary throughout. I'm too lazy/busy(?) to craft considered responses, so it's always good to see 'recurring characters'!