A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.
Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.
By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action. Continue reading →
Our youngest daughter will graduate from high school this weekend. I’m curious to find out what words of wisdom the commencement speaker will impart to the class of 2012. In that spirit of good advice, I bring you this splendid poem by Taylor Mali.
One assignment that has become a staple of my first-year writing course is a reflective essay about why your favorite song is your favorite song. This is the first major essay that we write, in fact, followed by more research-driven essays about music and its social, historical, and aesthetic role in our culture. My own personal favorite song is “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz, a young batch of super-smart goofballs from Chicago in the early 1990s. They may have done a reunion tour or something since then, but that’s not the kind of thing I tend to feel comfortable encouraging. Either way, and nostalgia or no, this song is one that I really still love.
But where’s the humor in all of this, you ask? For some reason – and this happens every time – most of my students straight up erupt into laughter when I play “Little League” for them in class. Something about this song is funny to them, but it is not a funny song. It might be the howling. Or maybe the fact that this song doesn’t sound at all like the way that I look. So over the last few years, I have developed the following short essay as a way of writing with them and sharing my own work and seeking out the reasons why my favorite song is, well, my favorite song. I have my reasons.
Being Nerdy Loudly
I didn’t learn shit in science class, but I remember that centripetal force draws things into the center – like the “petals” of a flower or some other pneumonic device – and centrifugal force goes the other way. I guess, therefore, that in my own life, I tend to move centrifugally: outward from the center, haunting the fringes of wherever I end up, and stopping only when there is finally a wall.
This is also how I played sports. As a once-aspiring hall-of-fame baseball player, I began little league on the first day at first base, and slowly made my way around the infield – seeking out less important positions – until the only place I could be trusted to stand was in deep right field, where no one was yet strong enough to hit the ball.
This is also how I listened to music. I went to my first punk show a few years after my retirement from future professional athletics, and I hit the mosh pit immediately – only to learn that the pit hit back. Within minutes, I was standing with a cool, cerebral distance in the back of the club, where I’ve remained a gargoyle for the last seventeen years. I’m the same at parties, too, and I can describe most of the artwork on my friends’ walls with a depressing attention to detail.
Which is why, when it comes to music, I’ve always preferred the awkward to the anthem. I mean, I’m not the fist-pumping-est guy in the world. Basically I am the “you” who gets rocked in “We will, we will rock you.” It also goes without saying that I’m not much of a dancer. I dance the way that babies eat: it’s messy, it’s kind of gross if you actually watch it, and something usually gets knocked over.
And so when I first heard the song “Little League” by Cap’n Jazz through the tinny, tiny speakers of a thrift-store record player in a stranger’s basement, I heard myself dance, play baseball, and grow up all at the same time. It’s a really messy song – almost embarrassingly messy – as though the band had never played it before. The verses sound like someone is mugging a group of maladjusted choir-boys in a room where different stereos are tuned to different songs – none of them hits. The chorus… well, I’m not totally sure that there is a chorus. The lyrics are really kind of brilliant, but you’ll never hear them. The vocal delivery is as earnest and clumsy as finally telling a girl that you “like” her in junior high, but at maximum volume. There is also a lot of yelling.
By the end, there’s nothing to sing along to, nothing identifiably rhythmic to dance to, and if you really wanted to pump your fist in the air, you’d have to do it randomly.
It’s like my national anthem.
This song is my answer to age, really, because it always sounds young to me – again, like it is being played for the first time each time. And you can hear the band grow up as well; the song somehow already embodies their own short career. It starts small, gets loud, and then basically kind of falls apart. And so you can literally hear the band emerge from their modest, awkward beginnings (in 1993) to their glorious, awkward brilliance (in 1994) to their tragic, awkward demise (in 1995).
Whenever I play the song, as loudly as I can in my small car or apartment, I feel as though I am hitting back at the same world that I am also hiding from, and that it’s okay if I’m not totally cool. No one will probably notice anyway.