In our blog roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics there was much discussion of Gilbert Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism. At the time of the roundtable, neither Caroline Small nor I had read the entire work. So we decided to do so, and then talk about it. Page references are to the 2007 Fantagraphics edition.

Noah: So one of the discussions we had in the roundtable with Charles Hatfield was about the use of fetishization in Hernandez’s work. And after reading this book, I have to say that I”m more than ever convinced that fetishization is just absolutely central to his comics in a way which I often find both ugly and hypocritical.

As I said before, the fetishization is sometimes worked through in terms of pin-up art; the Dan DeCarlo zaftig curves on Luba, or Pipo or Tonantzin’s perfect proportions. But I think it touches all of his female characters. The cornucopia of body types he presents (tiny Carmen, body-builder Diana, va-va-voom Doralist) or his obsession with imperfections (characters without arms, or with scarring) — there’s just a very insistent emphasis on defining people by surfaces. And I think that ties in to the way Palomar works in general; it’s very much a world of surface; you very rarely get internal monologue or a sense of what’s happening inside character’s heads. Instead, you get caricature and theatrical gesture. And there’s also, as Charles pointed out in Alternative Comics, a insistent formalism — Hernandez leaping from time to time or character to character, fracturing the narrative so that you feel it as narrative construction. The result is for me that the characters don’t have independent life; that Hernandez is pushing them about the board hither and thither for his own amusement. All the frantic insistence on interconnectedness and infidelity and the wonderful variety of people and bodies — the point seems to be “Look at this wonderful web of life!” But to me it feels cynical and dead, the characters worn flat by his obsessive need to run his hands over them.

In that sense, there’s something queasily apropos about Humberto’s statues of all the townspeople sunk beneath the lake. In “Chelo’s Burden,” one of the later stories included in the “Human Diastrophism” Fantagraphics volume, Petra demands to know how Humberto can reproduce people if they haven’t sat for him, and he says he can instantly size people up. “I have a very strong vision for beauty, Senora” he explains, while his coconspirator Augustin agrees and checks out Petra’s chest. Basically, Humberto’s artistic process involves a facile empathy in the interest of creating a world of collectible, “beautiful” fetish objects. It’s condescending…and not the less so because Hernandez is also (perhaps self-reflexively) condescending to Humberto.

Caro: I am struggling mightily with this. I intellectually appreciate the way his insistent formalism allows him to do interesting things with the aesthetic world of surface — Gilbert, much more than Xaime, puts together conceits on par with the most ambitiously literary prose writers. I can, with some effort (and I’ll try to write some of this down), articulate the “cool tricks” of the narrative structure, and they’re mightily impressive — possibly more so in Poison River than here but in both places.

But something makes me feel like this work is “ugly” and prevents me from getting that next step, where I’ve figured it all out and suddenly have a meaningful aesthetic experience. Something makes me feel closed off from this work. I went through the L&R sketchbooks (1and 2), and to be honest, the pin-up art honestly doesn’t offend me. I don’t get a strong sense, out of context, that these characters are objectified.

What I think is happening is that the “insistent formalism” is itself a kind of fetish. There’s a fetishistic character to the surface itself – the formalism isn’t so much playful as it is intricate. He’s “running his hands over” the vocabulary of comics as much as he is the objectifying pulp imagery. The formalism is geeky, rather than decadent.

Out of that narrative context, the pin up art could be read as decadent. But in context, the insistent formalism traps everything in its path, and I get BOTH objectification and control. I’m not having an easy time articulating how this works, but at the level of aesthetics, it’s actually stronger for me in Xaime than in Beto, so maybe it is going to have something to do with the pulp representation, but with regards to the aesthetic overall, not just the representation of bodies. It’s not WHAT bodies are represented to me; it doesn’t matter that they’re a body associated with fetishistic beauty. There’s just something about the way they’re represented. But I’m still not entirely clear what it is…

Noah: “the “insistent formalism” is itself a kind of fetish.”

Yes! Yes yes yes! This is exactly what I was trying to get at in that Poison River page.

The page in question: from Poison River

The way the narrative is insistently broken in order to emphasize formal connections or patterns is a means of turning the characters into their surfaces. The page in that instance becomes about his control of Maria as a formal element; the men in the sequence can’t hold her, but Gilbert can.

That’s a feeling I get form his work in general; that the stories are rigged against the characters and in favor of the formal elements in a way that flattens the characters out. As a simple maybe too literal example, on page 111, the top sequence, where Luba starts laughing uncontrollably following the fight with Guadalupe, and then the book that Guadalupe lost in the tree back on page 36 falls on her head…that to me is such a contrived Seinfeld moment.

What went up at the beginning has to come down at the end in a dramatic fashion — rim shot! It’s this cutesy little sleight of hand joke…and there’s even a joke within the joke, where Guadalupe in the second panel is saying, “make her stop…make her stop…make her…” and then the sound effect in the next panel when the book hits Luba lispingly finishes for her with “THOP”. Luba’s looking up, out of the page at the viewer and/or at the artist, with this excessive display of emotion, and then Hernandez throws the book at her and shuts her up in the interest of completing his narrative arc.

I think you see this in the fracturing of time and space that Hernandez is so fond of. At times it’s like the whole comic can become this one long montage, so that there’s no real now, just a retrospective wash of images as you jump from panel to panel, time to time, place to place. That becomes even more the case as you read more of his work, since all the characters appear in different stories at different points along their timelines. It really is analogous to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, except that it’s Hernandez and/or the reader who can see all times at once.

The point of that all the crosscutting is supposed to be to see how everyone’s connected, or the community as a community. But in fact the effect is something like what happens in Watchmen; you break up cause and effect and you break up identity. With past and future accessible with a leap across a gutter, the characters contradictorily become frozen in each panel. When we get a shot of the icon sketch of the murderer as an angel in p. 113; the still (banally ironic) drawing isn’t any more still than the “real” characters with frozen expressions of horror in the preceding panel. Nothing can move because Gilbert sees everything, and everywhen, at once.

It’s an impressive and weird effect, and in a different context I could really like it. I do really like it in Watchmen…and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore was directly influenced there by Hernandez. But Watchmen is very thematically aware of how the formal elements rob the characters of agency and identity. With Gilbert I feel like he just enjoys fucking with the characters so much he can’t back up and let them live.

I think this is particularly disastrous with Tonantzin’s death…but that’s probably enough from me for this go round….

Caro: I’m rereading and I’m still stuck on trying to really wrap my brain around why I’m so disengaged with this. I’m not willing to say I dislike it — it just isn’t particularly aesthetically or emotionally or narratively exciting for me, though, so the experience of reading it ends up being very self-conscious — figuring out how I am parsing it and why it doesn’t really engage me — rather than about experiencing the story. I don’t think it’s intended to be read with that self-conscious distance, so that’s damaging my experience of it.

I find myself resisting giving attention to the images: most of the time, I’m reading the text and using them just enough to parse who’s talking and where the setting is and some emotional cues, etc. The effect of this, though, is to increase the impact of the visually arresting panels or pages, the ones that are more abstract, sometimes referencing “fine” art. These are quite aesthetically effective and I like them a lot — they’re literally arresting. That sounds good — except I’m feeling thrown off by the fact that the initial function of those arresting bits is also primarily aesthetic and emotional: they are, although I’m still parsing the details, clearly the building blocks of extended metaphors and an overarching conceit, but what’s not happening for me is the quick first-level metaphorical payoff. I feel like I’m supposed to wait for it to build, and enjoy the emotional shifts and cues, and I’m generally impatient with that. I want something conceptual to chew on right away, and what I get right away is visual metaphor in the service of characterization and atmosphere and emotional texture, clearly gesturing toward some upcoming conceptual meat but not plentiful or detailed enough yet to actually offer a meaningful conceit that I can play with while I wait for the bigger one to play out.

The first example of this is page 20 — I get the association of the grimace of childbirth and death (a few pages later it will show up again in the monkeys, who also grimace and chatter, so that the open mouth is a locus for both life and death), I get the allusion of the desolate landscape — to surrealism, to psychology — and I get the contrast of the desolate landscape with that lush jungle imagery (monkeys and elsewhere). But I’m hesitant to connect the dots without more information than I have, so it’s just enough metaphor to make me stop and change gears from surfing along with the storytelling, but it’s not enough metaphor, or rather the metaphors aren’t finished enough, to actually deepen my experience of that emotion. The result is that those bits are actively distracting. They’re interesting enough building blocks that I feel like there will be a payoff, so I’m not actually put off by it — but at the same time, I’m sort of stumbling over them and wishing for something that isn’t there yet.

When I read this the first time I read it quickly, and I did get the sense that the conceit is there, eventually. I read Poison River too and it seemed much, much better — the metaphors get meaningful faster; they rise to the surface more consistently and make more meaning more consistently in that one, so some of this complaint may just be G.Hernandez’s artistic maturity when this book was written. But the reliance on visual metaphors that haven’t yet been woven into a conceit is definitely getting in the way here.

I haven’t found myself particularly distracted in any way by Luba’s large breasts, though (to allude to the problem that initially kicked off this discussion). I don’t really notice them at all, honestly — I’m identifying her by her hair.

Noah: That’s interesting. Disengagement is an important part of my experience as well — even more so on my rereading it today.

In terms of the visual imagery — really, the primary pleasure of the art for me, the main thing I key into, is the fetish stuff. I’ve always thought Beto drew hot girls, and I still think he draws hot girls. I guess that’s shallow…but as I mentioned earlier, he’s an insistently shallow creator in a lot of ways. And it’s not like he doesn’t take some pains to point out that he’s drawing hot girls, either. Luba’s breasts get mentioned more or less incessantly; the narrative draws attention again and again to Pipa’s clothing or lack thereof, and specifically to how it transgresses the sheriff’s modesty decrees (it’s not just sexy — it’s anti-authoritarian, you cheerless Puritans!) And of course a big part of Tonantzin’s insanity is that she dresses in “native” garb, i.e., in next to nothing. And then there’s Maricella’s monologue where she goes on and on about how much she lusts after Tonantzin, declaring at the end that she isn’t sorry about it. Again, both the prurience and the justification for it are explicit (as it were.)

I wouldn’t say that this bothers me — on the contrary, as I said, to the extent I enjoy Hernandez, it’s pretty much as soft-core porn. Nor (again) do I think that that’s unintentional — I know many people in the Blog vs. Professor roundtable said, “well I don’t masturbate to Beto’s work, so it’s obviously not porn,” but come on. The book is wall to wall sex; most of the characterization is about who slept with who; there’s even a scene where Luba flagrantly seduces the art geek character — which is probably in part satire, but I think also has to be seen as fan-service wish-fulfillment. It’s prurient.

I wonder if that’s in part why you find it so alienating? If you’re so uninterested in fetish imagery that you’re identifying Luba by her hair rather than her breasts, it seems like a substantial amount of what Hernandez has to offer visually is going to be wasted on you.

As an example, on p. 41, the second row, where Humberto is thinking about how nothing was strong enough to turn the old time artists away from the light, not money or power, or etc….and then in the second panel Luba’s breast hoves into view, almost like a sun itself, and then there’s Luba herself, giant earth mother switching from inspiration to sexy bodacious distraction. It’s funny; I giggled. But if you’re watching her hair you’re going to lose the joke (not that you didn’t get the joke! Just saying that the fetish stuff is pretty important to what he’s doing throughout.)

I’d say too that the monkeys visual association with childbirth and death (which is a nice point) is actually worked out in some ways through the fetish imagery. Specifically, on page 82, where we get the montage of Borro fucking Luba interspesed with the monkey hunt and with the the efforts to get Tonantzin to eat. Particularly in that upper middle panel, where the “Chit, chit” sound effect of the monkeys is placed so it seems to be Luba making the sounds. Both her mouth and Borro’s (gaping in the background) are contorted so that they look like the monkeys. Appetites for sex, food, and murder are all related visually to animality — and animality is tied to fetish through that center top panel, prominently located and visually arresting. So animal consumption is elaborated and linked insistently to consumable fetish. In a way, the whole town narrative — the violence, the melodrama, the interconnection of relationships — becomes itself a fetish, desirable for its life-like animal vitality and, indeed, for its animal desire.

Which links up to my sense of the story as ethno-kitsch. And I still want to talk about that penultimate page and Tonantzin, and disengagement…but again I’ve gone too long before getting there. So I’ll send it back to you….

Caro:I’m digging this notion that my disengagement has something to do with my interest in fetish imagery — my experience is definitely that there isn’t a lot here for me visually — but I don’t think it’s that I’m uninterested in fetish imagery entirely. Just not particularly intersted in THIS fetish imagery. I mean, I love Barbarella and there’s not much more fetishistic than that. And I actually find the use of fetish imagery in Poison River to be really powerful and meaningful — but it is also significantly more overt than here, and like Barbarella, more campy and theatrical.

I can understand someone seeing this as soft-core porn… It’s really a smorgasboard of sexy women; there’s one no matter what your type, physical or personality. But I’m a straight female, and it’s definitely soft-core: it doesn’t really engage me as porn. The men here aren’t equivalently interesting or appealing. If he’d drawn a smorgasboard of sexy men…

I think there’s more here than the prurient stuff, though — at the story/dialogue level, there are these elements that read a little like Oprah Book Club lit to me, really relationship-centric: girls talking to girls about boys and babies and families and girls talking to boys about stuff. But I don’t really get engaged by Oprah lit either. I talk to women all the time, I do not want to read a book that’s a realistic depiction of the conversations I have with my girlfriends in chat or over a glass of wine. I don’t care how funny it is or how well characterized and emotionally compelling the women are — they will not be better characterized or funnier or more emotionally compelling than my real-life girlfriends and family.

I agree the metaphor of consumption — I like your description of it — is definitely linked to the fetish imagery. There’s a strong contrast for me, though, between the mood of the relationship sections and the mood of those more appetite-driven sections. That gives, for me, a real metaphorical charge to that scene where they’re trying to get Tonantzin to eat — the resistance of female and ethnic self-actualization to the destructive forces of appetite and consumption, here forces immanating from both lust and the limitations of gender and ethnic and social identity. That scene is one of the places where I get enough building blocks to grab onto a metaphor I can work with for awhile…but it’s bracketed by the scene at the beach “I am nothing like Luba” and the scene where Luba is ranting about Khamo, Pipo, and the plastic surgery.

Both of those scenes are very stereotypical female characterizations (well-plotted, consistent with the metaphorical point, but essentially shallow and much less funny than their all-too-common equivalents in chick lit), just like the sex scenes are also pretty stereotypical depictions of lust and sexual social interaction. The book spends a lot of time wallowing in conventional depictions of the very things that the metaphors work to destabilize, rather than letting the metaphor destabilize those depictions throughout.

So I think there are three pieces: the prurient stuff, the Oprah club stuff — and this conceit that circles around self-actualization, resistance, and the limitations of ethnic, gender and social identity. But there’s just not enough of the conceit in this one to really, ahem, turn me on. It’s something created over the course of the book, rather than the lens through which the entire world of the book — character, narrative, setting — is refracted.

He’s definitely more masterful of those metaphorical moving pieces in Poison River than he is here — there the conceit does function as a lens through which all the images are depicted. There’s more sex, more ethnicity and queer identity, more social commentary — everything’s ramped up and id-driven right on the surface, and I find it much more satisfying and edgy and incisive. I think that’s the root of the problem for me here: this is still trodding really familiar territory in really familiar terms, and although you can see the beginnings of him doing something interesting with that territory, he just doesn’t get it to that point here.

Noah:Just a quick note — I wasn’t saying that the fetish imagery’s failure to appeal to you was because you’re a het woman. Lots of heterosexual women love images of fetishized women, as any issue of Cosmo will reveal. And I’ve talked to men who find Hernandez’s fetish depictions completely uninteresting. These things tend to be fairly individual — though obviously gender and sexual orientation play an important role.

The Oprah-lit note is interesting. Are you not that interested in Jane Austen? To me the problem is less that no realistic depiction of women’s conversations is going to be worthwhile than it is that these particular depictions (in HD) are pretty rote. As you say — “I’m not like my mother”, “this is your child,” “I’m getting old and no one will want me any more,” etc. etc. — it’s like a checklist. And the half-assedness of the characterization means it’s just not very compelling as soap-opera or melodrama.

I think Tonantzin is actually the most important example of this. She’s central to a lot of the thematic material you point to — resisting consumption, resisting (while also exemplifying) cultural and gender fetishization and appropriation. I think Charles Hatfield is right in suggesting that the story relies on an identification with Tonantzin for a good part of its emotional effect. That is, the reader’s identification with her is what is supposed to make the ending with her death painful. And it’s that pain which forces the difficult questions about art and life, ethnic identity and exploitation and political engagement, that Charles sees as central in his book. Just to quote Charles’ comment:

The larger plot of the novel questions the social responsibility of artists who create Symbolic representations of trauma, and does so not only through the walk-on recurrence of an earlier character (Howard, the photographer), but also, and more importantly, through the creation of a new character, Humberto, a failed artist who seeks to intervene in real trauma in a merely Symbolic way, thus prolonging and perpetuating the crisis at the heart of the novel.

The “distanced position of privilege” is just what is indicted in the novel’s conclusion. And this is done through the humble tools of serial narrative: the self-immolating girl in the climax is a major recurrent character in Hernandez’s stories, so far readers of the entire novel, and even more so the entire series, her sacrifice is not mediated in the same way that it is for Howard and Cathy.

The problem with this is that, unlike Charles, I really don’t give a fuck what happens to Tonantzin. And that’s not (or not solely) because I’m a cold-hearted bastard. Rather, it’s because I dont’ believe in her for an instant. Of all Hernandez’s unbelievable, shallow, stereotypical characters, she is easily the least believable, the shallowest, and the most stereotypical. Hernandez makes no effort to give her an inner life or a believable consciousness; he just says, “hey, she’s crazy,” and that’s that. He couldn’t be much more flagrant about it really; all of her actions are based on letters sent to her by a character we hardly ever see. Even diagetically, her brain is written by someone else. I always see Hernandez pulling the strings, but with Tonantzin, there’s barely a pretense that she’s anything but a puppet. Go here, go there, take off your clothes, put some clothes back on, and, oh, hey, now kill yourself. Awesome! They’ll have to think this is some profound shit now, huh?

Being a cold-hearted bastard in this way actually puts me in league with Howard on that penultimate page. Which is pretty much where I want to be, as I said on that same thread in response to Charles’ comment:

But thinking it through a little, I realize that indicting the distanced position of privilege is precisely the problem for me. In public tragedies, there’s a massive desire to share in the grief of strangers. If the past decade has shown us anything, it’s that that desire is as likely as not to lead to staggering amounts of bloodshed. Empathy and sentiment are powerful political levers, and where they lever you is often really, really not anywhere good.
That page is indicting the photographer most of all for not caring. It’s not at all clear to me that it’s indicting Cathy as well; I think I find the reading in your book on that matter more persuasive than the one you give here in comments. However, even if it *is* indicting her to a lesser extent, the final oomph, the last sneer, is at the photographer when he turns to other concerns.

But, from my perspective, that’s the one moment when he’s actually being honest. He doesn’t know this person (I mean, he does, because Hernandez has stacked the card to show us how we’re all connected, but he doesn’t know he knows); her death can’t actually be an occasion for grief. So he goes about his business — and doesn’t, say, run off to bomb some random country in order to assuage his emotions. In short, if the problem is imperialism, the solution is not necessarily a sentiment that connects distant people in a web of grief. The solution may well be borders. Isolationism now, as my dear friend Bert Stabler is wont to say.

To me, then, Tonantzin’s fate, and that penultimate page, really sums up for me what I dislike and even more distrust in HD. Its interest in its characters, its empathy for them, seems dependent on turning them into forms and fetishes for the political and sexual aggrandizement of the creator and his readers. Hernandez thematizes this to some extent through Humberto and then through Howard. But the critique misfires because it’s built on arguing that the problem is not enough empathy; that the problem is too much distance. Whereas the difficulties in HD are caused, not by Hernandez’s distance from Palomar, or by his lack of empathy, but rather by the way he is so present in his creation that there isn’t room for anyone else. Empathy becomes a kind of sadism.

Caro:I’m interested in Jane Austen mostly as something nostalgic: I read so much of it as a teenager that I’ve practically memorized it. I don’t go back to it to read and reread, though, not as an adult. I would enjoy it, but I don’t seek it out.

Human Diastrophism is just a double whammy for me on that front: in the women’s life narrative bits, he’s trying to do something I don’t find particularly compelling, and then he’s not getting much past hackneyed. I think it’s competent, though – I guess my standard isn’t “does he get it like Austen” so much as “does this get past fanfic?”

I guess I also just feel sort of inadequate to judge it as melodrama since it seems to be referencing Spanish-language melodrama, which I don’t know anything about…I’d probably be more engaged if it were going after Douglas Sirk, but that’s just a matter of taste and interest, isn’t it? We haven’t really chased down that path but I suppose there is something about viewing a culture I’m not terribly familiar with through the lens of melodrama that doesn’t quite work for me: I can view my own culture, even displaced in time, through the lens of melodrama, but I hesitate about the emotional identifications required for viewing another culture that way. I’m very sensitive to my outsider status here and that may also make the book ultimately resonate less.

You said:

I wasn’t saying that the fetish imagery’s failure to appeal to you was because you’re a het women. Lots of heterosexual women love images of fetishized women, as any issue of Cosmo will reveal. And I’ve talked to men who find Hernandez’s fetish depictions completely uninteresting. These things tend to be fairly individual — though obviously gender and sexual orientation play an important role.

Oh, I didn’t think you were saying that the fetish imagery failed to appeal to me because I’m female and straight. I mentioned Barbarella…it’s just that this feels like very normative everyday heterosexual fetish imagery to me, intended so exclusively for straight men that it makes me just sort of roll my eyes and head into another room. That’s sort of a middlin’ agreement with you: I agree there’s a lot of overt fetish imagery here, but it just isn’t as loud to me. You say you find it both ugly and hypocritical, and I definitely don’t. I find it aesthetically tedious but not ugly. I feel that it overreaches, but it doesn’t hit hypocrisy to me. We’re seeing the same things, I think, and responding to them with different levels of intensity.

I think it’s significant that this same stuff bothers you in both Poison River and Human Diastrophism, because as I alluded to before, I really, really liked Poison River. I think he gets it right there — and I think what that boils down to is that I’m not looking for the same intensity of “life” in the characters as you are. I’m ok with the characters being “reduced” to these metaphoric figures; I just think they don’t successfully get there in Human Diastrophism, so the net effect is not interesting. I guess I could say that in Human Diastrophism, there’s too much life still left in them for me!

Obviously the ideal situation is when the characters are packed with both life and signification, but that’s so very rare. If it wasn’t exceptionally hard to do that, literature wouldn’t have split into that story/abstraction divide that Rick Moody talked about. In many ways this book is a dramatization of that split: the two purposes for the characters never get really synthesized for me. Not even at the end — when I read it immediately after the roundtable discussion, I absolutely saw the conceit that Charles points out in the comment you quote above, the critique of the “distanced position of privilege.” I once complained that Chris Ware loses something when you articulate it, and this doesn’t — if anything it gains when you articulate it, because it’s not tight on the page: when you recap it for the narrative overall, looking back and picking up the elements that go into the conceit, it has more elaborate implications than just the critique of the “symbolic representation of trauma” applied to the specific narrative trauma and the concomitant emotions as we discussed in the comment. The critique also applies to the general traumatic condition of all the characters in the story: there are very few characters in Human Diastrophism who are not experiencing some kind of trauma, small-scale or large. Blunt trauma, emotional trauma, psychological trauma, family trauma, the trauma-lite shocks of childhood, the trauma of sexual objectification and exploitation, the collective trauma of racial otherness and disenfranchisement. He gestures at metafiction there — but the finished conceit undermines his own representation rather than enriching it. The critique in the end is ambivalent, because Hernandez himself creates those representations. At the level of metafiction, the conceit collapses.
I mean, I gotta credit the guy for trying. I LOVE that he tries. HD is, like, the bare minimum of that stuff I need to see to make a book worthwhile for me. But he just doesn’t nail it here. Poison River is significantly stronger — although I think you still find the characterization to be cynical and dead there, whereas I just find it artificial. But in a story with so much camp, the artifice works metafictionally for me, so I like it a lot.

From my perspective, I can’t help but think about Alter’s point from the Genesis discussion about how images are inherently more concrete than words. Of course it’s too extreme, but these are pretty representational images. I wonder if this would be a problem for this specific narrative if there weren’t these pictures. If he told exactly the same story with exactly the same characters and exactly the same metaphors, but had prose descriptions and execution rather than images, would the same conceit hold up metafictionally? It’s hard to know, but there’s at least a possibility that visual art realism is just so much more inherently non-abstract that it always resists elements of metaphoric abstraction. When metaphoric abstraction works in comics, really works the way it works in literature, it’s almost always with more abstract images. Poison River isn’t exactly abstract, but it does make much more use of artifice, which is a kind of abstraction of character…I think that’s why that’s so much more successful to me, and also why I’m generally find realism so much less appealing than abstraction. Getting the metafiction right with a realist component is just a hell of a lot harder than getting it right with matching abstractions.

Maybe I could work this out with more effort, or maybe someone who likes the book more than I do can work it out, but right now what seems particularly telling to me is that I can’t come up with a conceit that really “works” at both the metafictional and the fictional levels. The two levels just don’t send the same message: metafictionally, the conceit critiques distance and privilege and exploitation and the forces that perpetuate social trauma, and yet those things are represented throughout with complete sincerity and realism. At least, I see sincerity in this representation – I know you don’t, but I can’t quite put my finger on why we see it so differently. From your last it sounds like you just distrust the very impulse to metaphorize and abstract these characters, distrust the impulse so much that even the conceptual abstraction itself becomes a signifier of their objectification. It doesn’t quite work for me either but I’m reading it as a sign of overreaching — their abstraction is layered on top of a realist characterization rather than being a lens through which the characters’ representations emerge — which I read as not quite getting how to build a successful conceit. You read it as actual legitimate and suspect objectification, all the way down.

I think we might have to read Poison River to figure out which one of us is right. ;)

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