What Craig said (in his review of Crickets on 2/26) about the "tiny fragment" technique in comics, particularly alternative comics, left me with plenty to think about (I especially liked his David Heatley examples). I agree with Craig that the use of "tiny fragments" is a fascinating page design strategy, one that seems increasingly common in alt-comix and indeed reveals something about the current state of alt-comix. Craig, I owe you one; I hadn't figured out how to get my mind around this issue until your post.
Multiple examples of the tiny fragment approach come to mind. Dan Clowes, of course, works with narrative fragments in Eightball #22 ("Ice Haven") and #23 ("The Death-Ray"), building up stories through the chaining-together of discrete sequences, each of which is titled as if it were a separate comic strip. Most of these "strips" are granted entire pages, or several pages, but on occasion more than one "strip" will appear on a single page layout, as in this example from #22:
In examples like these the tiny fragment approach seems designed to serve narrative indirection and insinuation; the increasing fragmentation of the story into discrete design elements puts the question of narrative ellipsis front and center.
This suits Clowes, of course: he often works in a kind of narrative parataxis, putting fragments up against each other without comment and thus forcing us readers to do the work. The episodic narrative of Ghost World is like this, on a larger level (though Ghost World does not use the tiny fragment approach). So, I suppose, is the elliptical narrative of David Boring. For Clowes, storytelling is often a kind of mosaic-making.
The tiny fragment approach requires a certain knowingness on the part of the reader. It seems to me that our efforts to reach narrative closure (in the McCloudian sense) are further complicated when the different fragments are labeled as if they were discrete comic strips, giving them a seeming individual identity that momentarily misdirects us, throwing us off track. In this connection, consider what, say, Ruben Bolling or Ivan Brunetti have done with pages of mock-newspaper strips (here's Bolling -- click the thumbnail for a better view):
I'd say Bolling's approach is halfway between Craig's examples from Ware and Heatley and the example from Crickets that Craig and I argued about. If in Crickets the frags really ARE discrete comic strips that don't add up, then in Bolling some of the strips add up but others don't, except in a vague thematic sense (self-reflexive comic strips about comic-strip cliches). The mosaic doesn't quite cohere as it does in Ware, Heatley, or Clowes.
My sense is that the emergence of the tiny fragment approach/trope has something to do with the recent revisionist appreciation, or re-appropriation, of vintage comic strips by those who have grown up with underground and alt-comix. We're seeing the benefits of this currently with the new wave of archival strip reprint projects, in which "alt" cartoonists like Ware and Seth have of course played a big part. Artists create their own precursors, to paraphrase Borges, and we are seeing that with a vengeance now (when we see, say, Ware designing for Herriman or Seth designing for Schulz).
Eddie Campbell has said, in his interview with Dirk Deppey in The Comics Journal #273, that what we're seeing is the repositioning of vintage strips within the new "graphic novel" sensibility. This is why it makes more sense to see, say, the D&Q Gasoline Alley books in a bookstore or library's GN section rather than its "Humor/Comic Strips" section, even though, by rights, that should be completely wrong. Here, let's see just how Campbell put it:
For instance, Walt and Skeezix. Gasoline Alley is reprinted, but it's dressed up lovingly by graphic novelist Chris Ware. Now, the book has been assembled and produced within the sensibility of the graphic novel. To take that and say, "Yes, but this is daily strips," and then file it in the library in the humor section next to Garfield is not a productive thing to do. You would take Walt and Skeezix and file it with the graphic novels because it belongs to that sensibility.
Doesn't the tiny fragment approach represent that same dialogue between past and present?
The tiny fragment approach perhaps first emerges as a distinct strategy post-Raw, in the work of Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden. Spiegelman's review for Artforum of the MoMA show "High and Low" (1990) mosaics together a bunch of discrete chunks, each with its own visual identity: homages to Gould and to Herriman, riffs on Lichtenstein and on Duchamp and Bud Fisher, a lift from Ripley's Believe It or Not, et cetera:
In his interview with Todd Hignite (within the splendid In the Studio), Spiegelman says of this strip,
there's something about getting as much information as you can into a box, so it unpacks in your head -- dense with possible meaning. With this, I thought, you could write this as an essay or if you took enough notes and figured out how it all worked together you could make it into one page. (43)
Spiegelman's Schulz tribute strip, "Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy" (2000), takes this "dense" approach in a new direction, building its pages out of fragments designed to mimic the various configurations in which Peanuts actually appeared in newspapers: as a horizontal daily, a vertical four-square daily, a Sunday, etc.:
Spiegelman manages something more complicated than mere parody or homage here, or at least an homage so sustained, complex, and ironic that it sticks out in my mind as the best comic strip he's done post-Maus. Is it too much to suggest that, with this comic, Spiegelman lent credibility and warrant to the new generation of strip historian-cartoonists, such as Ware?
(In any case, Spiegelman hasn't abandoned the tiny fragments approach: note how fragmentation, homage, and nostalgia uneasily coexist in his frantic In the Shadow of No Towers.)
Besides paying nostalgic tribute to bygone strips (and showing today's artists learning from same), the tiny fragment strategy, again, also serves the purposes of narrative fragmentation, indirection, and suggestion. It seems to me that this is a favored strategy of literary comics because it so obviously results in the creation of what Roland Barthes called "writerly" texts, that is, texts that force readers to take up a writerly role and do much of the work of inference themselves. It also allows for the multifaceted exploration of favored themes and the insinuation of attitude, as in Mark Newgarden's work, akin to Spiegelman's but more beholden to Ernie Bushmiller and magazine gag cartoons. Here's Newgarden's "The Little Nun" and et cetera, reproduced from McSweeney's No. 13 (click):
One of Newgarden's favored approaches to is cluster a bunch of thematically-similar gag cartoons together, often to devastating effect. The approach is amply demonstrated in his collection We All Die Alone. More than anyone else I can think of, Newgarden has taken the minimal and cliched stuff of gag cartoons and pushed it in the direction of alt-comix.
Actually, the first example of the tiny fragment approach that I came across was Gilbert Hernandez's "My Love Book" (from Love & Rockets Vol. 1, #49), his satire/riff on autobio comix, where the overarching narrative is constructed of disconnected strips, each with its own name. Most of these strips are full-pagers, but there are some pages in which more than one strip appears on the same layout (click):
"My Love Book" (which I discuss further in my book, plug plug) is both a parody and neglected classic of "autobiographical" cartooning. I could go on and on. Suffice to say that, as Craig suggested in his original Crickets post, tiny fragments can be assembled to fashion a more compelling portrait than a straightforward plot could. Here's what Craig said about David Heatley, and it applies too to Hernandez:
Heatley, like Ware, offers us an avalanche of fragments that give us information about a subject, but we make our own inferences; we draw our own conclusions [...]. Because people are so complex and mercurial, a postmodern portrait made from fragments like this feels more true to life to me than a portrait that follows a more typical storytelling structure.
Of course, when Hernandez did "My Love Book" he was partly ridiculing the then-popular trend toward autobiographical comix. The story is mock-autobio; it's a spoof (see comparable satires by Clowes, Scott Russo & Jeff Wong, and, more recently, Johnny Ryan). It's not only a spoof, though. Themes bounce around and echo through the story's dozen fragments, reinforcing, insinuating, and kicking up questions.It's a wonderful, suggestive use of fragmentation and indirection to get at deep stuff.
POSTSCRIPT: Comic Book Baroque
The tiny fragment approach presupposes an alert, self-conscious, and comics-centered reader. In a sense, it calls out to and flatters readers with a high tolerance for fragmentation and a wide knowledge of various comics genres. It's baroque. These days similar strategies can be found even in mainstream comics. Consider for instance the radical fragmentation and use of parody and pastiche in Seven Soldiers #1, by Grant Morrison and JH Williams, et al. For the most part, the fragmentation takes place between discrete pages or multipage sequences (à la Clowes), but there are times when the pages themselves fragment. The book contains some pages laid out to resemble a newspaper, though which the narrative actually weaves (click):
Because it's tied up in a larger continuity, and comes as the climax of a bewildering, decentered "crossover" series, Seven Soldiers #1 is frankly a confusing comic, though of course a design coup for Williams. Several kinds of gaps or ellipsis are at work in this project, including gaps between comic book issues and artists; Williams' herculean job is to bring it all together (oddly enough, this issue, labeled #1, serves as climax and conclusion to the whole shebang). What I like about Williams is precisely what dominates here: his design sense. To refer back to my take on Bryan Hitch's work in FF, what Williams brings to the table that Hitch doesn't is a McCay-like appreciation of page design to offset the cloying photorealism of the drawings. There's a kind of metafictive playfulness at work here (going beyond even Frank Quitely's formal gamesmanship). Granted, Morrison & William's playfulness impedes the flow of the story to a near-frustrating degree, and, anyway, there's none of the resonating emotional poignancy of our Heatley or Hernandez examples. Still, on a formal level it's dazzling comics for seasoned comics readers.