Charles and I work together swimmingly as Thought Balloonists because we have complementary strengths. As his post proves, Charles knows both older comic strips and contemporary alt-comix like the proverbial back of his hand, and he took my "Tiny Fragments" idea a lot further than I ever could. Charles doesn't see one big picture; he sees dozens of them, hanging like huge canvasses in the metaphoric gallery of his theoretical mind. Me, I'm more of a detail man, more of a nit-picker, and in my post I'm a-goin' nit-huntin'. Specifically, I'd like to bring up some issues and examples that challenge the suppositions Charles and I have formed about the Tiny Fragments.
First, let's talk terminology. We should come up with a term for the Tiny Fragments that's more descriptive, and snappier. ("Tiny Fragments" sounds like the name for a new postmodern Mattel doll: "Tiny wets herself! She drinks from a bottle! She analyzes the limitations of the collage method in Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz!") Charles used the word "mosaic" a few times in his post, and I like the phrase mosaic technique better than "tiny fragments"; the word "mosaic" conveys the notion that the fragments, autonomous within their own boundaries, are still connected to a larger aesthetic whole.
But how do these fragments connect?
They can connect by theme, by character (as in Heatley's "Portrait of my Dad"), by authorial point-of-view (as in the hilarious violence and nihilism of Evan Dorkin's "Fun!" strips), by picture repetition, etc., ad infinitum. All this palaver about connections brings to mind Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics, and specifically Groensteen's notion of braiding, where an artist both tells a story in sequential panels and (in Groensteen's words) layers on an "additional and remarkable structuration" that unites the work in ways beyond the drive of the narrative. (In my Groensteen post, I talk about how Jason's Hey, Wait is structured around a visual formula: "three central moments in the narrative represented by the repetition of six panels in a row.") Braiding doesn't tell us how the "structuration" is done, just that it is done, and it seems that when we talk about the connections between the fragments, we're talking about braiding.
Maybe our definition of the Tiny Fragments/Mosaic technique should mention of braiding as a general concept. Let me steal some prose from my Crickets post, and take a shot at an updated definition:
The tiny fragment/mosaic approach occurs when an artist works within three specific formal constraints: small panels, simplified rendering that fits legibly into those small panels, and short strips (usually less than 10 panels in number) built to braid (in all sorts of visual, verbal and/or narrative ways) with other strips on the same page or in the same book.
Of course, as soon as I suggest a definition like the one above, I have to nit-pick. The phrase "usually less than 10 panels in number," for instance, strikes me as somewhat arbitrary. Heatley's "Portrait" squeezes 30 strips into 5 pages, but there are whole books--single-author collections--that increase the size and number of the panels yet still follow the same structure as Heatley. I've been re-reading Eddie Campbell's After the Snooter, in preparation for a future Thought Balloonist retrospective on Campbell's Alec/autobio work, and Snooter, like Heatley's work, collects a lot of disparate fragments under one umbrella (although Campbell's umbrella is book-length). Further, both Heatley and Campbell do their weaving and braiding to create portraits--Heatley profiles his dad, while Campbell in Snooter offers up an autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man, a genial (but still ominous) build-up to his psychic crisis in The Fate of the Artist.
In Snooter, Campbell's imagination is his central escape from the annoyance and boredom of everyday middle-age life. In one two-page strip, "Used Car Dealers are Human Too," Eddie botches buying a car because he's too busy dreaming about his character Bacchus instead of paying attention to the contracts he's signing. Note that his son Callum likewise escapes drudgery through daydreaming:
One way this theme of imagination braids throughout the strips in Snooter is through physical symbols, with one example being the common wooden stick. In "The Visitation," Neil Gaiman visits the Campbell family, and as he prepares to leave, Callum brings him a bow and arrow made from a stick as a going-away present. Gaiman immediately flies off on his own flight of imagination, building a mythology around the weapon:
...and Callum learns from Neil's example, as illustrated later in this one-pager from Snooter:
This example from Snooter, and Snooter as a whole, brings up at least two key issues. First: Snooter is as much a mosaic as "Portrait of my Dad," but Snooter's length gives it more freedom to braid and develop its themes, structures and symbols in more depth. Does this length and attendant complexity disqualify it from being an example of the Tiny Fragments/Mosaic technique? Second: when we argue that the stick functions as a symbol of the transformative power of the imagination (to cite just one possible interpretation), we're borrowing some well established concepts from literary study. If a critic reads J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, and s/he discovers a symbol that links "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," s/he's doing the same thing we did with the stick in Snooter. If that's the case, why do we have to define a whole new paradigm--the Tiny Fragments/Mosaic paradigm--to talk about what is, in literary studies, a pretty typical, traditional hunt for symbols, motifs, etc. that lend artistic and structural unity to a work? How much do we really need to diagnose the TF/Mosaic approach to do serious interpretation of these comics?
Also, how do we define the limits of the text when we read a work of the Tiny Fragments school? Allow me to drag the great narrative theorist Gerard Genette into my nit-pickin'. In his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Genette coins the term "paratext" to define those elements of a book that aren't usually considered part of the central text, yet are still part of the book's publication and appearance. Paratexts is organized according to examples of such elements, like the title page, the author's dedication, and the preface (if the book has one). Genette argues that paratextual stuff operates as a liminal zone designed to usher the reader into the text:
The paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or--a word Borges used apropos of a preface--a "vestibule" that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping in or turning back. It is an "undefined zone" between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world's discourse about the text), an edge, or, as Philippe Lejeune put it, "a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one's whole reading of the text." (2)
I was introduced to Genette's work by our buddy Gene Kannenberg Jr., who gave an excellent paper at ICAF in 2003 that analyzed the various paratexts present in a typical issue of Spider-Man. As I recall, Gene had some pithy things to say about the changes in the Spider-Man logo over the years--the logo being, of course, one of many paratexts that conditions our experience of the comic.
Should we count paratextual elements as one of the Tiny Fragments, as part of the Mosaic? Do we agree with Genette (and Lejeune) that paratexts "control one's whole reading of the text"? Maybe an example will clarify the issues here. Like anyone else who's sane, I'm a big fan of Kevin Huizenga's cartooning, but I remember a feeling of slight disappointment when I heard that his solo anthology was going to be called Or Else. I consider Huizenga a thoughtful, profound, spiritual artist, one who grapples with some profound philosophical ideas--with the clash between faith and science in "The Sunset," with the Nietzschean Eternal Return in "Time Traveling," with the existence and nature of Hell in "Jeepers Jacobs"--which is probably why the Or Else title annoyed me. It seemed casual, tossed off, not indicative of the depth and ambition of Huizenga's best stories. (Maybe it just reminded me too much of my Dad's threatening rhetoric: "You better take the garbage out...or else.") Recently, though, while re-reading (and re-ogling) Kramers Ergot #5, I came across the following sequence, as Jeepers takes a break from writing and goes for a walk, and the top of my head exploded:
"Or else." Suddenly that phrase is pregnant with meaning. Is Huizenga telling us that in order to draw his comic book, he has to move away from spirituality and embrace profane popular art? Or is he using Jeepers to set up a false dichotomy between Christ and the "or else" category? (Remember, Huizenga is a cartoonist who sells sketchbooks of pictures that he draws while at church.) I don't have any definitive answers, but I'm sure that this single paratext--the "Or Else" title--now influences everything else I read by Huizenga.
Given my example, it's probably no surprise that I think paratexts are important signifiers of meaning in any text. But if, as Charles says, the Tiny Fragment/Mosaic approach best suits the construction and interpretation of single-page layouts, are we by definition excluding paratextual interpretation? Perhaps not. The proposed definition of the Tiny Fragments is very specific--ten panels or less, postage-stamp panels--but that doesn't rule out the ways a single panel might connect with an adjacent panel, with the page layout, with the title and format of a "graphic novel," and with even the indicia in a book's earliest interior pages. The Tiny Fragment/Mosaic aesthetic is about establishing margins--through discrete panels and strips--and simultaneously subverting those margins in quest of an aggregate meaning, as we do when we realize that the individual strips are also pieces of a mosaic. As such, it's a good metaphor for the act of criticism itself, which is as much (if not more) a rhetorical modulation of terms and boundaries as an argument based on evidence and facts. An interviewer once asked literary critic Terry Eagleton what theory he used to interpret literature, and Eagleton replied--I'm paraphrasing here-- "Whatever theory leads me to something interesting about books." So far, artists have used the Tiny Fragments technique to produce some provocative comics, but I'm not yet certain that Tiny-Fragments- as-critical-tool will yield provocative insights about texts, although Charles' post is a fine stab at establishing a canon. We shall see.
So how does Heatley's "Portrait of my Dad" braid with all the other stories, drawn by all those different artists, in McSweeney's #13? Ay-yi-yi...!