Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Six Graphic Novels That WIll Draw You In"

Saw this article about graphic novels today on NPR:

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Waltz with Yoni Goodman: An Interview with an Animation Director

by Raymond Jeong
(Inspired by Chapter 9 in Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad)

I had chosen the perfect spot at the classroom’s table. Placed after three people, each of whom presented his/her final project proposals, I had time to muster greater confidence, to slowly gather railroad cars for a coherent train of thought. I didn’t know whether the idea for my project would fare well. However, my turn soon arrived, and my thoughts melted into desiccated vibrations of my vocal chords.

I began to speak. “I want to study how storyboards for non-fiction movies can be related to non-fiction graphic novels.”

I hoped that my proposal didn’t seem cliché. Of course, everyone knew that I was very into movies...and that I was trying to sneak my passion for filmmaking into the study of non- fiction graphic novels, the latter being the main purpose of the class. When I brainstormed my idea, I originally intended to study the storyboards for movies like The Aviator, The Exorcist, or, I don’t know, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then someone made a brilliant suggestion: Waltz with Bashir, which is about Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s journey to recovering his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. A critically acclaimed documentary about an extremely serious topic, Waltz with Bashir has received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award-nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Oh, by the way, it’s animated.

Entering the course English 185F: Graphic Non-Fiction, I hadn’t encountered real-life stories that were made into the graphic novel format. I was like the general public, because, when I thought about fiction graphic novels, I usually pictured strapping superheroes, vicious villains, and bodacious babes punching onomatopoeia into each other’s faces. Non-fiction graphic novels are an emerging art, and many people don’t know that they exist. Because fictional comics are so well established, people tend to doubt the legitimacy of those that are non-fiction. They question whether graphic novels are an appropriate format for serious, real-life issues. However, my class and I had been reading an extensive collection of graphic non-fiction novels, and we fell in love with this unique genre. Only a few weeks of the course were necessary to develop my deeper understanding of graphic non-fiction novels. When my classmates and I discussed the proposal for my final project, I didn’t scoff at the fact that Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary--I embraced it.

As an animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir worked perfectly for my project. Using it as the foundation of my final project not only included my passion for filmmaking but also examined how non-fictional stories are made into the graphic format. With a smile of satisfaction on my face, I easily killed two birds with one stone: an interview with Yoni Goodman, Waltz with Bashir’s Animation Director.

Yoni was a very approachable man. Sacrificing his time for a mere college sophomore, he is an incarnate embodiment of humility who is truly devoted to his craft. Yoni, a professional animator who does not own a webcam, Skyped with me on December 3, 2011, and five minutes into the interview, I knew that I was going to get many of the answers that I wanted, those of which prove that graphic non-fiction novels are the s***. As I wrote this article, I wanted my readers to experience what I have learned from my English 185F class, and I hoped that I would help my readers appreciate the fascinating world of graphic non-fiction. But if Yoni’s interview, a juicy collection of powerful responses, doesn’t convince anyone to accept graphic non-fiction as a legitimate art form, then I don’t know what will.
The Interview
Ba-da-da-da. Ba-da-da-da. Skype’s sound effect for an incoming call rang in my headphones, and a window popped into my laptop’s screen. For me, it was 12:00 AM in Stanford University, California. For Yoni, it was 10:00 AM in Israel. For both of us, it was time for the interview. Lingering the mouse cursor over the green Answer button, I mentally prepared myself to conduct the first interview in my entire life. My nerves thumped with anxiety, and before I answered the call, I quickly checked my surroundings. An empty room. A printed list of questions. A leather- bound notepad under my left hand. After a deep breath, I quickly activated a screen-capturing program. I left-clicked my mouse, and the green Answer button darkened under the mouse cursor’s electronic weight. The window maximized, and a black screen flooded my desktop, pouring the sound of an accented voice into my ears. Yoni and I exchanged a confusing series of greetings as we adjusted to communicating with someone on the opposite side of the world. When both of us realized that we could hear each other (but couldn’t see each other because Yoni didn’t own a webcam), I gave a brief introduction of myself: Hello, Mr. Goodman, my name is Raymond Jeong, and I am a Stanford at--.

Sigh. What a way to begin. Whatever. It was a bad start to a successful interview:

• Side Note #1: Two of the following answers are followed by videos.
• Side Note #2: Said videos are proof that I actually interviewed Yoni Goodman.
• Side Note #3: Of course, no copyright infringement is intentional. Hell, I talked to the Yoni Goodman. Don’t I have enough permission?
• Side Note #4: Music in said videos is taken from Balam Acab’s album Wander/Wonder.

1. How did you come into animation?
Well, I always wanted to do animation, but I started out as an illustrator. I enrolled into [Bezalel Academy of Art and Design], and I was really thinking about improving my illustration techniques. The second year, I started...just playing around with animation and from that point, I was hooked. So that’s it. (Laughs.) You know, I almost dropped illustration completely and went to animation.

2. Please describe the pre-production of Waltz with Bashir. How closely did you work with Ari Folman? How did you approach the storyboarding process?
[Ari Folman, the director,] kept us in the loop. [In] the beginning, it started with research: just find stories, find soldiers [and] veterans. [Ari] found around, I guess, 20 stories, and he had a basic concept. He had the story about the dogs and his personal story. [Ari] wanted to find other stories, and from these 20 people, he selected 10. He had...basic interviews with front of cameras. These interviews were actually edited into a 96-minute version of the movie, a whole thing [of live-action]. You could see just talking heads. Then we started our work, and we just took these interviews and broke them apart: This is going to be the part where we’re going to see the person talking, this is going to be reconstruction of what he’s saying, this is going to be fantasy. [We made these decisions in storyboarding], but the basis for [everything] [was formed by] all of the interviews. Now, in some cases, [Ari] knew what he wanted to do. For example, the Junction Scene, the part where the reporter is walking with the cameraman. This is [an actual] story. [You can] always find [the reporter] in the weirdest places, and he’s walking, bullets really flying past him...[For] the part where [the reporter’s] walking and the cameraman is crawling, [Ari] knew what he wanted in that scene. He also made a video reference of himself, imitating the cameraman and the reporter. [For, the] Car Scene, the part where they’re driving in Holland, he actually built...a model of a car to get the feeling. This part specifically was done by an actor, because the person who [was interviewed], [Ari’s] childhood friend, said, “You can do whatever you want with my story. [I] just don’t want to be a part of it. I’m having nightmares since you came to me.” [Ari] actually took an actor for this part. [It’s not actually the interviewee himself.]

3. What was your source material? Did you have visual references for anything like locations? I can imagine that the physical remnants of Ari Folmanʼs story no longer exist in Lebanon.
That’s the funny part. We [had] very little source material. It’s kind of crazy. We can’t really go to Beirut and get location shots. We had a few movies by the [Israel Defense Forces] Filming Unit. We didn’t have one frame of location that was actually [in the movie]. We had the general idea. [For] the part where [Frenkel’s] waltzing, we didn’t have any [shots] from that scene. We had five, six photos of Beirut. This is actually David Polonsky’s work. It’s like reconstructing a memory. Part of the illustration is taken from the photos we have of Beirut. Part of it is actually Tel Aviv. The Junction Scene is actually amazing because we only had descriptions. We [had], like, one shot of the bridge. Very few images for reference. [David] actually drew that scene from that image. So, most of the drawings were done by photos, general photos. We never had the specific location, and [we had only] the atmosphere of the interviews. The funny thing is [that] I went to that reporter [from the Junction Scene, Ron Ben-Yishai]. He was the journalistic truth. Other [interviewees] were talking about their feelings and emotions. [Ron Ben-Yishai] [gave] the hardcore journalism.
I asked him, “Were we close?”
“Listen, this is actually 100% as I remember it. You really nailed it. It’s actually how I remember it. [The only thing that you got wrong is the car that I drive, but I like the car that you gave to me better.]”
It’s interesting [to reconstruct] memory. We know for a fact that what we drew was based on pictures, on photos. [However], it was more about the atmosphere. The same goes for the airport. [For] the airport, we didn’t have the [photos of the] terminal inside it. The only photos were outside the terminal, and the photos we did get of the terminal was from 1990. [The terminal] was completely [rebuilt] and became our model airport. David took elements and essences of the airports of the time. He sort of built it partially from what we saw in the background [in] the photos [of] the exterior. Part of it was [made up]. More about the feeling than the actual “Is it true or not?”

Reconstructing Memory: Turning Photographs into Visionary Creations

4. Please describe the animation technique that you employed in the film.
The animation technique is Cut-outs in Flash. It’s [a] fairly odd technique. Taking pieces of paper, dissecting your character into several parts, and moving them under the camera. We did it digitally. We could use lots of pieces. I built this system where we just move certain elements. Like the head, for instance. You go inside, you go into the head, and you move the elements of the head separately. You can get into very fine details. It was all about building the right hierarchy. Eventually, each character was constructed of almost 200 pieces, which would move separately. Very insane technique. Very technical. It was a solution to a problem. We had a very low budget. We didn’t have experience [or] manpower to handle traditional animation. We couldn’t afford it. [Cut-outs] was the right technique for it. It worked.

Cut-Outs: An Animation Technique

5. I love the live-action footage at the end of the film. When and how was the decision to include that footage made?
From the early beginning. This is a question that people ask in interviews all of the time. [Animation allows the audience to escape] really [easily]. You can trick the audience into accepting things [that] they wouldn’t accept when dealing with live footage. [For example,] people would find [the part where Ari commands a tank delivering the dead and wounded] hard to take if it were done in live action. [The audience thinks,] “This is not real, I can take it.” The whole point of the live action [at the end] [allows no escape]. We didn’t want people to leave the theater thinking, “Okay, that’s fine.” The final conclusion gives context to the whole movie: Everything that you saw was real, everything that you saw happened. It was meant to be the final shock. That everything you took was real.

6. In the Acknowledgements of the graphic novel, you are thanked for your illustrations and storyboards. Did you have a role in making of the graphic novel? Can you please describe it?
Not really. It was actually David [Polonsky]’s work. He added a few frames. Some of the frames were taken from the animation. My role was the same as [it was] [for] the movie, doing the storyboard and making the compositions. I did take part, so to speak, in making the graphic novel, in the sense that I designed most of the compositions in the storyboard. [However], the graphic novel is 100% David.

7. Are you familiar with graphic novels? Yeah.

8. Most people think of graphic novels as stories about Superheroes and other fictional characters. What is your stance on the graphic novel form? Do you think that it's a legitimate form of non-fiction?
Yeah. Of course, it’s the same as animation. Really. [Most] people take animation as a form for children, cartoons and such. It’s really hard for people to accept that it can be [about real life]. I think that this was part of the success of Bashir. People were really shocked [that] [we] used [the Lebanon War] as a subject material, relatively the same time Persepolis also showed up. Have you seen Persepolis? You should. It’s good. Both movies talk about serious subject matters. It’s not for kids. It’s kind of shocking for people. I take it for granted. Animation...and graphic novels can be used to tell a story. In a sense, you can go into bigger depth than live action movies. I don’t think that there’s a difference between graphic novels and serious [non-fiction]. I don’t think that it should be constrained. It’s a form of art. It can say anything you want.

9. What are special challenges that you encountered in using animation to capture a real-life story?
Well, making the movie. (Laughs.) Hard to say. The challenges. Actually, reconstructing the stories, trying to make them fit, trying to lock them down. Making all of these decisions to [find] what’s the best way to...not just tell it but make people feel it. In that sense, animation--and also graphic novels--have much greater freedom because you can really go for what the viewers are looking for.

10. Were people receptive of the film? Were people receptive of an animated non-fiction story?
They accepted it quite well. As a concept, people don’t take it for granted. Bashir was a rather big success. Part of it was that no one saw it coming. It’s true. People go to the cinema and say, “It’s an animated documentary,” [but] no one even knows what an animated documentary is because there’s really no such thing. I think that part of the success of Bashir was [that] no one really expected an animated movie to leave such an impact on the viewer. You know, we didn’t expect it actually. We were hoping, but [when] you make a movie, you never really know. You know what you want, you know what you’re aiming at, but you’re never really sure until the first screening if you got it right, if you got your message through. For us, it was an amazing surprise, of course.

11. Do you think that you opened a door to a new form of non-fiction filmmaking/ storytelling?
Well, not the first. It’s been [around] for quite a while. It’s a growing field. You have lots of [animated] movies...that aren’t necessarily for kids. Even movies that are for kids. Take for example, Rango. Have you seen it? You should. [Rango] [is] for adult viewers as well, and it’s an homage to movie classics like Chinatown and the Clint Eastwood movies. It’s a growing field, I think. Again, it’s an art form. [As] it evolves, you find different angles and uses for it. I don’t know. We certainly helped.
As Yoni gave recommendations of other people that can be useful to my project, I quickly jotted his words on my notepad, adding to the hurricane of illegible scribbles that populated the once barren sheet of paper. By the end of the very first question, a rage of excitement had surged through me, violently replacing the anxiety of being a first-time interviewer, and I folded my legs under my sweat shorts, sitting on them in anticipation of Yoni’s next responses--I knew that Yoni’s words were pure gold. Once he finished his list of recommendations, I remembered reading that he was a huge fan of Brad Bird, and he and I commented on The Iron Giant’s sheer awesomeness. We soon reached the end of our interview, and I endlessly showered Yoni with verbal variations of gratitude. My appreciation for Yoni’s time was difficult to express in words; I secretly wanted to kiss his feet. We said our good-byes, and my desktop returned in full bloom as the gateway to Yoni’s home in Israel disappeared. The interview was over.

It may appear that Yoni Goodman’s responses to my questions strongly reinforce the idea that graphic novels cannot be a legitimate form of non-fiction. He did acknowledge that people perceive animation as cartoons for children. He did say that he reconstructed entire settings with few photographs and other vague references. He did explain that the film’s conclusive live-action footage helped to remind everyone that the animation in Waltz with Bashir was based on true stories. However, Yoni Goodman strongly agreed that the graphic format is absolutely appropriate for non-fiction stories. He made two essential points:

(1) The film succeeded at leaving an impact on the audience.
Yoni Goodman claimed that he and the Bashir team strived not only to tell the story to their audience but also to make them feel it. Bashir’s success shows that they achieved their goal, and the fact that many of the images are attempts at reconstruction is meaningless if the audience was able to feel the story’s realism. The audience’s emotional experience with the story’s realism only solidifies the legitimacy of graphic non-fiction stories.

(2) The animation in the documentary helped the audience to prepare for Bashir’s conclusive live-action footage.
As Yoni Goodman has said, the film’s animation helps the audience to digest the heavy images of war and death that are almost endless. The live-action footage of massacred Palestinians strongly hits the audience, only because the audience has willingly registered the animated sequence of Bashir’s pervasive violence. The animation of Waltz with Bashir, therefore, facilitates the delivery of intense material. If it fulfills that purpose, then isn’t it just another form of non- fiction? Shouldn’t people agree that, since Waltz with Bashir is among other forms of non-fiction, the graphic format is a completely reliable source of non-fiction storytelling?

When I started to write this article, I wanted to turn the experience of my first interview into a narrative, imitating the style and structure of chapter 9 in Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit from the Goon Squad. The result is only evidence of what my classmates and I have discussed in Graphic Non-Fiction: real-life stories rarely provide a narrative arc. Unable to find another way to “narratize” my interview with Yoni, I don’t believe that I did that chapter in Goon Squad justice, but I do hope that readers who have doubted the legitimacy of non-fiction graphic novels experienced a different arc. I hope that I have convinced them to change their opinions, to join the ranks of me and my English 185F classmates. For the readers that are still doubtful, please take one thing from my article. The general public doesn’t know that non-fiction stories in graphic format exist, but their budding presence is proof that they can be appreciated. In your consideration of graphic novels, leave room for books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and David Small’s Stitches. Leave room for movies like Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis. Graphic non- fiction is an emerging art, and it’s here to stay.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TWO Outside Readings -- Brittany Perham & Justin Torres, David Vann (Raymond Jeong)

Brittany Perham & Justin Torres Reading

I never expected myself to attend a poetry reading. I ain’t no poet. I ain’t even a writer. To be honest, I should say that I didn’t think that I would enjoy Brittany Perham, but I loved the poem “Ambulance.” Actually, all of her poems about her brother in the hospital were very effective for me. I can’t say that, listening to Brittany Perham’s reading, I understood the meaning of each poem, but I found them to be extremely emotional. It’s my guess that much of the emotion that I felt during her reading came from how she read them. She had this softness in her voice, the kind that a mother would use when trying to get you to go to sleep at night. I realized that, in a way, poetry relies on a type of vocal narrative. It’s a performance. The way the words roll of the tongue, the slight and inconspicuous pauses between sounds, and the general intimate tone of a reading are all involved in the actual narrative of a poem because a poem is meant to be read aloud. To clarify, I should mention that her voice would trail off at the end of each line, as if she were blissfully falling to sleep. Such a subtle yet peaceful effect allowed me to flow with each poem, to smoothly pay attention without anxiously trying to interpret its meaning. In the end, I understand that interpreting a poem during its reading is second to, at least for me, experiencing the range of emotions that the performance and the text itself creates inside of me.

Justin Torres performed his text in the same way. He wasn’t David Vann or the author of the first reading that I attended. He also had Brittany Perham’s softness in his voice, and, in his spoken words, I felt the nostalgia with which the text is imbued. For me, his novel, whose name I don’t remember, was the first piece of prose that is told from a “we” perspective. I am uncertain whether his novel counts as an example of that form (because, once in a while, the narrative would be told from “I”), but I don’t believe that I have read anything that used “we” so prominently. I can’t say whether the use of “we” worked and what that use did for me, but I thought that it was particularly effective in the chapter about the brothers’ father digging a hole in the front yard. Here, Justin Torres’ vocal performance raised goosebumps on my skin because it allowed me to feel a calm sadness for the novel’s characters. In fact, he was especially like Brittany Perham, because his work read like a poem, or, at least, how he read the text made it seem like a poem. The dreamy quality of Justin Torres’ voice either created or added to the nostalgic sadness that I felt throughout the second half of the reading, and I don’t believe that the reading could’ve produced that emotion if Justin Torres had been another David Vann.

David Vann Reading

On one hand, the David Vann Reading was different from the first and only reading that I have attended at Stanford. Instead of reading from just one book, David Vann read from four of his works, which include Caribou Island, Last Day on Earth, Dirt, and a work whose name I cannot remember (but the section of the book that David Vann read was about a dead poacher falling from where he was originally hooked). On the other hand, however, the David Vann Reading was very similar to the first in that the reading would have been interesting...if I had read them myself.

Well, I think that I expect too much from these readings. I attended the David Vann Reading with the same expectation that I had for my first one, where I hoped to find an emotional and engaging experience that only the author him/herself can deliver. At my first reading, I wanted the author to read her characters’ dialogue with emotion and personality. I also wanted the author to dramatically approach her text, adding pauses at suspenseful moments or reciting certain lines with appropriate emotions. Like a parent reading a bedtime story to a child. However, what I experienced at both my first reading and David Vann’s reading was the opposite. At both of these readings, I listened to a bland delivery of the authors’ texts, which I found to be just a bit more entertaining than listening to the works read aloud by a computerized voice. I guess that I shouldn’t expect authors to be actors/actresses, but is a little bit of emotion too much to ask for? After David Vann’s reading, I wondered whether attending a reading is worthwhile if the author’s delivery will be less entertaining than how I would read his/her work in my head.

There was something that David Vann provided that I didn’t experience at my first reading. Instead of going straight to the text, David Vann shared his views on issues like gun control and gave brief accounts of his life that have some relation to his texts. As I listened to David Vann, I realized that it was nice to see how an author approaches his work. The work becomes so much more personal and, as a result, much more realistic. Well, it was slightly disturbing to hear how lightly David Vann discussed certain aspects of his life, which include family suicides, but I guess that writing books is how he handles some of his, what I believe to be, traumas.

During the Q/A of the reading, I was amazed to hear David Vann’s interpretation of and praise for Blood Meridian. Listening to David Vann’s technical interpretation of Blood Meridian was astounding. First, I should admit that I haven’t finished the book, but I know that my mind is going to be blown when I return to it. Second, his idea that Hell is an American literary motif/device was brilliant. David Vann’s concept of Hell has completely changed the way that I will view the appearance of those burning depths in the novels that I read in the future.

The David Vann Reading is only my second, and I understand that I can’t expect to listen to dramatic interpretations of authors’ texts. It has also saved me from thinking that I am going to see the same thing at every reading, and I look forward to my next one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

And here is the link to the line-up with short descriptions. There's wine at the post-screening reception. Hope to see you all there!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A List of (Really Cool) Wordless Graphic Novels

Hey guys! So I know Leslie wanted me to put up this list, and I've been wanting to share a lot of this too so here's a list of some really awesome wordless graphic novels I've come across in my research. I'll try to bring some in tomorrow as well.


The System, by Peter Kuper

Eye of the Beholder, by Peter Kuper

Mind’s Eye, by Peter Kuper

Cinema Panopticum, by Thomas Ott

Flood! : A Novel in Pictures, by Eric Drooker

Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City, by Will Eisner

Passionate Journey, by Franz Masereel

SpaceDog, by Hendrik Dorgathen

Comix 2000

Wordless Books, by David A. Berona

And these are some other ones that Peter Kuper suggested that I couldn't find at the library (a lot of them are easy to find online fact all of them are...well I guess everything is easy to find online these days...I digress):

Sticks and Stones, by Peter Kuper

Speechless, by Peter Kuper

Spy vs. Spy: Secret Files, by Peter Kuper

Blood Song, by Eric Drooker

H Day, by Renee French

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

Happy reading!! (um can i still call it that? lol) :)

and here's the link to The System

Comic: Take a look!

Hi All,

Attached is the almost-final draft of my comic! I don't have a title yet or subtitles in the file, but I hope you get the gist of it. I'll have the title page and final touch-ups done soon for you all to see!

Also, sorry if the pencil makes it very hard to see. I couldn't get around that. You might want to download it from Google Doc instead of viewing it from the window since it loads pretty slow.

Comments are welcome!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michael Moore: Art & Politics

(I apologize for the late post on Michael Moore’s presentation and reading – good thing I took notes!)

It was a very eye-opening experience for me when I went to see Michael Moore present his views about life and politics and then do a reading from his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life. I didn’t realize how intertwined art and politics was for him, even from an early age.

Indeed, the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the presentation was basically him talking about the Occupy Movement and how he was at the one held in Oakland just before coming to do his presentation at Stanford. Initially, I was thinking, “what had I gotten myself into?” because I assumed from briefly scanning the flyer for this event that he was going to do a talk mostly on his art form and his documentaries. Instead, by opening with his thoughts and views on the American government, the Occupy Movement and a whole plethora of American political issues, I was able to see the source of motivation for his films and his art form, and how he utilized his talent in film as an instrument to get his audience to think about important issues, however political.

Michael Moore was very blunt and outspoken about anything political, and he came not just to do a presentation, but to also send a message to students like me. He believed strongly in the Occupy Movement and the idea that the public should find any means possible to show to those in authority and power that they are dissatisfied. His method was through art and film, and that is when his politics became woven with his art. I always believed that his art came first and then the politics associated with the subject of his art but I found that it was actually the reverse.

Then I began to really think about all the non-fiction novels we’ve read in this class, especially the memoirs. Michael Moore’s reading from his own memoir focused on a high school boy who saw the injustices of the highly selective and discriminatory Elks Club, who sought to reveal their faults through a publicized and public speech. This was the source of his later use of film to highlight various injustices in America and other parts of the world. Although many of the graphic novels we read were simply authors who had a story to share, I can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more non-fiction graphic novels out there who will take the time to illustrate the political injustices out there as well. Sacco did it in his own way, but as a journalist, he was more limited than Moore in using his art form; where Sacco presented his subject, Moore took a definite position. In fact, Moore actually believes that schooling hinders creativity by teaching consistency, complacency and conformity, which is very interesting.

Being a filmmaker, Moore also had a different take on his own art form. He spoke extensively on students “learning to march to a different tune” and “doing your own thing.” Moore emphasized the need for people like us to use art to tell the world something they don’t know. He states that through your chosen art form, “Get us mad about he problems in the world. Make us jump up and make people want to go do something.” On film itself, he insists that students “be subjective. Don’t separate your films from politics. It’s a great art form, non-fiction film. Don’t make a documentary. Make a movie. People love movies. Honor the art form. Put the art first and politics second.” The last line especially intrigued me because although his art is fantastic, from his reading and presentation, he seemed primarily focused on the politics first and the art second. I guess this statement, like most art, is open to interpretation.

Very rough draft of my thoughts for feature story- please comment!

A graphic novelist, a political cartoonist, and an illustrator join a collective part of an entirely new form of journalism. Though they are defined differently by the outside world, these three artists are part of a new style of journalism that could change the way we see the news. Each is a member of Graphic Journos, a collective dedicated to promoting new narrative forms in a world with “new technology and economic constraints.” ( Dan Archer is the graphic novelist, Jen Sorenson the political cartoonist, and Wendy MacNaughton the illustrating documentarian. They are artists with a knack for storytelling, though each of them talks about their artistic inclinations first. Each started drawing at an early age, then developed a desire to document the world around them. Though they’ve all become experts in some niche of illustrating, they are doing the work that goes beyond today’s definitions of journalism. Thus they become Dan Archer, Jen Sorenson, and Wendy MacNaughton: pioneers of nonfiction graphic communication.

Dan Archer has been drawing since he was a child, especially during his middle school years. He says he was always editorializing as well, but it wasn’t until he saw Joe Sacco’s work during his gap year in Spain that he realized the potential for the graphic format. Joe Sacco is a famed comics artist and journalist who has pioneered nonfictional graphic expression. His book Palestine played a part in convincing Dan Archer to pursue his drawing more seriously. He soon enrolled at the Center for Cartoon Studies to learn the form of comics journalism. Unsatisfied with freelance illustration work, Archer seeks to tell compelling, true stories through his graphic works. Both Jen Sorenson and Wendy MacNaughton share the same desire- to showcase people and issues to the world so that people must pay attention. They’ve all simply combined their artistic qualities with their journalistic impulses.

Jen Sorenson spent her childhood drawing comics, then spent college submitting graphics to the school newspaper, then promptly resisted comics artistry as a career. Like any finicky college student, Sorenson contemplated many different majors at the University of Virginia before deciding on anthropology. She then

Wendy MacNaughton’s childhood obsession with drawing led her to the Center College of Design in Pasadena. “Art school kicks the drawing out of you,” she says of her years there, where the curriculum was focused more on conceptual art than illustration. Immediately after graduating from art school, MacNaughton became a copywriter for an advertising firm. Though she reflects on the stint as a ‘dream job’ to land right out of school, she hated it. Soon she was presented with the opportunity to illustrate promotions for democratic elections in Rwanda. Her reaction at the dream job: “I’m outta here.” Such is the impulse of all three of these storytellers- to illustrate and inform the stories that might otherwise go untold.

My Thoughts on Kafka

I know Adam said we didn't have to blog about this, but in light of the fact that I didn't get to express my views in class on Monday, I figured I'd take some time to talk about Kafka here.

Now let me preface this by saying that prior to this book, I had never read, heard, or watched anything by or about Franz Kafka. The only thing I can confidently say I was familiar with was his name (which I probably only remembered because it sounded cool - Mairowitz really hit the nail on the head when he discussed the intrigue of that "K" sound on page 156 - "Kutting their way like Kutlasses through our Kollective Konsciousness"). That being said, I must say I really liked this book as a window into the life of Franz Kafka. His morbidity, his social commentary, his daddy issues, and his self-hatred and self-abuse all were fascinating aspects of his life which made me want to look even further into his works. In that way I feel this book would be a perfect precursor for someone new to Kafka and his fiction.

As a graphic novel, I also must say that I really admire Crumb's work. He maintained the perfect balance of horror and humor from start to finish. Literally. The first page with its image of a butcher cleaving into Kafka's skull and the last page with Prague depicted as touristy and commercialized both prove to be perfect examples of the skill and ability of Crumb to get that "Kafkaesque" feel. Bravo. Also, he did a great job of adding to the text and complementing it, rather than just illustrate it, something I've found myself looking for more virulently since Working and Anne Frank. I must say, Crumb, I am a fan.

Now about the stories, I unfortunately can't say I didn't feel a little ripped off. I know this is supposed to be about Kafka and his life and all, but at times I feel like this was done at the expense of Kafka's fiction. It almost felt like I was reading the SparkNotes versions of Metamorphosis of The Trial, or like I was watching a documentary of Kafka's life on A&E where no-name actors attempted to give real life portrayals of his stories. I almost wish the stories were just alluded to rather than summarized but I realize that may have been trickier to pull off. I don't know, it might just be that I don't like to know anything about the books I read before I read them and now I feel like the surprise has been ruined.

Overall though, I did enjoy the book a lot, and I recommend it for any Kafka or Crumb newbies.


Monday, November 14, 2011

A Difficult Challenge: Seeing Life with a Cold Eye in Special Exits

After reading this graphic memoir, I must first commend Joyce Farmer for attempting to provide a genuine depiction of the last years of her parents’ lives, something that I’m not sure I would be able to do. This may explain why it took her so long to finish the memoir. I think Farmer gave herself a difficult challenge in pushing herself to present her parents under such a harsh light and I think in turn it made it difficult for me to go through her memoir because I found myself wondering about how I would approach similar situations with my parents.

I found myself really enjoying the beginning and end of this memoir, because I expected Farmer to give a gradual introduction into her parents’ daily lives and to slowly illustrate how they slowly wind down. I really liked how Farmer set up the story for the difficulty readers will face later and I thought the pace at the beginning was also really well done. After the first few chapters, I was able to get a feel for what it is like to live in South Los Angeles, the daily lives of Farmer’s parents, a bit of their history and also get a glimpse of Farmer’s personality. The ending was hopeful and full of acceptance of her parents’ death, which I think is appropriate after spending so many years writing about such a difficult time in her life – anyone’s life.

I believe that much of my confusion, and in some cases, frustration, stems from the bulk of Farmer’s memoir: the middle. I share a lot of the sentiments others have brought up in regards to this graphic memoir. I think it is at least in part my lack of understanding about some of the choices Farmer makes in representing herself and her parents and partly the narrative itself that prevented me from feeling moved by a story that should have moved me to tears like Maus, Safe Area Gorazde, and Stitches did. I feel terrible and guilty that Special Exits did not have the expected affect on me, and after flipping through the memoir again, I began to understand why.

Part of the reason was the way in which her parents lived and Farmer’s acquiescence in allowing to increasingly live in their own filth, even though she does increase her visits in order to compensate for this. I understand from her parents’ point of view that they feel they must be a burden to Farmer if they ask for too many “favors” or bother her with their issues, but I don’t understand why Farmer did not insist on them having someone around to help with meals and cleaning and overall general hygiene. I was appalled when I learned Rachel didn’t leave the couch for a year and bathed only every so often after Farmer began visiting more frequently. How could Lars allow Rachel to live that way? How could Laura not insist on hiring more help after seeing her dad fall to the floor? Or when they weren’t sleeping well or eating well? Why did she take her dad to the same doctor/hospital that obviously neglected to care for Rachel? It was very difficult for me to read through the memoir when I realized that Farmer gave in to her parents’ wishes to remain independent even after seeing how they lived, or didn’t try to provide better care for them. It may be the nature of reality and it might just be how Farmer normally interacted with her parents, but it was unfathomable to be. In addition, I share Lee’s comment on how Farmer depicted herself in the memoir – or how she didn’t depict herself. There were some thought bubbles throughout the memoir but for the most part, we as readers don’t really get inside Farmer’s head about how she felt about her parents’ lifestyle, the fact that they were near the end of their lives, or when she was making the tough decisions that changed everything. In providing a cold eye to her parents’ lives, I believe Farmer herself became cold when it came to depicting herself in this memoir, to the point where I don’t feel the tumult of emotions she must have been feeling. In fact, it was difficult for me to feel the emotions her parents must have been feeling as well, and I am not sure whether it was because it was hard for Farmer to get inside her parents’ heads or if it was a stylistic/narrative choice to only include insightful moments here and there. I think this is where I as the reader became perpetually disconnected with Farmer as the narrator/author of this memoir. And although I liked the ending, I think the suggestion that Farmer had accepted her parents’ deaths came too fast for me. I would have wanted to see her grieve (and grieve with her) for a longer period of time before reaching the last few panels.

Overall, what Farmer tried to accomplish is really commendable and remarkable. I constructively criticized her work with the mindset that what she is doing is something that I probably would not be able to do, mostly because I don’t think I would want something so private and so sad to made so public.

There is a coin of no value in his mouth. Please leave it there.

To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes. - Akira Kurosawa

Adam asked us to think about how Kurosawa's axiomatic expression functions in Special Exits. I must say, when I began reading this memoir, I expected to be looking for the ways in which the artist/author, Joyce Farmer, would use the means provided by the graphic format to illustrate the process of the end of life; I thought I would be looking for the ways that pacing, space, time, and composition would function to reveal her parents' deep and tumultuous--and slow and painful--transition into death. But I found myself thinking more about the way that art functions, as a plot device, in the memoir, and how, more existentially, art functions as a facet of life and an affront to death. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, I am drawn to a quote about the relationship between art and death from an article I quoted in one of my first posts on this blog. The article is a chapter from Andre Bazin's book, What Is Cinema? In it, he writes about the function of art, historically, as a means of defeating death. Bazin points to the role of sculpture in the burial rites of the ancient Egyptians. He says: "[N]ear the sarcophagus, alongside the corn that was to feed the dead, the Egyptians placed terra cotta statuettes, as substitute mummies which might replace the bodies if these were destroyed. It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life." This preservation of life by its representation seems to me to find an interesting, but complicated, place in a work like Special Exits. I am left to wonder if a work of art, even and especially a work of nonfiction like this one, which deals with the end of life, or seems to be oriented towards a telling of the deaths of two people is alike the Egyptian use of terra cotta statuettes: that is, does Special Exits, or any work about the death of its main characters, work as a meditation meant to preserve them and protect them against death? or does it work simply to preserve their deaths instead?

I am left wondering whether Lars' growing superstition towards the end of the memoir (is this the right word for his growing sense of the hereafter? Is a term like Nabokov's potustoronnost' a better one?) is meant to function as a kind of attempt to negotiate with the ways in which the living, with no epistemological surety about what comes after death, if anything does, themselves negotiate with the coming ends of their lives. I think it significant that Lars, towards the end of the memoir, seems to imagine Charon in his ferry beckoning him towards the hereafter, and that he chooses to make ready payment for his passage across the river Styx. I think it is perhaps more significant to remark that Joyce Farmer seems to think it important, both for personal and for literary reasons, to include and extend the function of Greek mythic elements in both her real life (see the scene at the mortuary in which the title I take for this post comes) and in the work itself, embedding the notion of her father's superstition in the text and adopting it for herself in his memory in real life.

Perhaps there is no experience more universal than death. But can we call this an experience? Is something which we have no ability to talk about once we're gone something we can call an experience? That is, don't we have to have the ability to communicate experience for experience to be constructed in the ways that make it experience? This is where and why I think that Farmer's literary and artistic efforts in a work like Special Exits are perhaps more important and more significant than other works we've read for this class. That she is able to communicate the experience of death for her parents, means that she has both demonstrated and conquered the fundamental paradox of narrative's relationship with death. That is, however secondhand this process of communicating the experience of death must necessarily be, however refracted it must appear to us, and however fleeting and ultimately unknowable the experience actually is, Farmer shows us the power of the artist's eye to capture, through narrative, the incomprehensible, secondary relationship between art and the inevitability of death that it is meant to, or has been meant to, obstruct.

by Kyle O'Malley

Studs Terkel's Working: Representation of Self

Out of all the portraits in the graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, I found the portrait of “Dolores Dante, Waitress” the most moving. I think it speaks to an important aspect of work, which I find most alluring, and which is the condition of loving what you do. Now I was tempted to write about a more stereotypical portrait of “loving one’s work” in “Bud Freeman, Jazz Musician” but I think the difference lies in loving one’s work as an artist and finding the art, finding the thing to love, or finding the art in work that is not commonly associated with creative interpretation. “Dolores Dante, Waitress” adapted by Lance Tooks, I felt, was human in its quest to find meaning in the mundane and the necessity of finding meaning in one’s work.

And it takes a sort of philosopher in order to find meaning like Dolores does in her work. Also, what I found really interesting is this concept of the “social actor” or the popular saying, “the world is your stage.” I used to have a favorite quote that a friend of mine shared with me. A bum on the streets of San Francisco once told her, “Hey baby. It’s yo’ life. I’m just passing through.” It’s interesting for me to think about everyone as an actor, playing the lead role in their life movie. I read recently a chapter in Bill Nichols Introduction to Documentary Film where he spends a lot of time on the social actor. This also brings to mind another quote that I really like, which is, “An artist’s greatest work of art is her own personality.” There’s this conscientious shaping that goes on in every social actor of how they wish other people perceive them.

That’s what I find so fascinating about these kinds of “documentary interviews” which is essentially what Studs Terkel’s Working is comprised of. In the past, I would have argued that they don’t get us past the speaker’s own act of self-representation. They annoyed me to the extent that we are viewers, listeners, or readers are forced to hear how a specific character tells his or her story, and as the filmmaking adage goes, one ought to “show and not tell.” Given the chance to observe someone’s behavior, and draw our own conclusions, or to arrive at conclusions about the character’s motivation through a gentle and non-overt prodding by the storyteller, often can tell a lot more about a person that words spoken within their own framework of how they relate to the world.

Bill Nichols talks about the gap between representation of self and the actual person. He also talks about a “front” which serves as a way to negotiate the nature and quality of human interaction as it unfolds. As such, individual identity is not a permanent, indelible feature, rather, it is a response to others, a flexible means of adaption. I think this gap is what is interesting about watching an act of self-representation—where does it conflict in a meaningful way with a non-subjective reality? How does what a character says and does not match up? When and how does the self-representation or “front” come down? Is it a change that we can see once the speaker gets more familiar with her interviewer? That discrepancy between self-representation and “actual person” is what I want to see.

In the beginning of Dolores’s profile, she is mistress of her world. She knows what she likes, what she doesn’t like; what she’ll stand for, what she won’t. She states clearly her boundaries, her idiosyncrasies in a take it or leave it manner. She talks about the mental games she plays, the theatre of the restaurant, the adrenaline rush of being “under the spotlight.” (Actually, I feel it might have been more apt for her profile to be included under the “In the Spotlight” heading.) She talks about not doing it for the money, and she talks about how her own interpretation negates any function of being demeaned or belittled in her job. In the beginning, it’s a testament to how a free person can define her own world. We’re amazed by, how we might see her world vs. how she sees her world, and we’re humbled.

I think what really does it for me about Dolores is how her profile takes a down turn from all this “hype” that she’s espoused in the beginning. She starts to bring it home when she starts talking about the forces that threaten her “theatre” – jealousy, backstabbing, loyalty, tension, politics, her exhaustion. Lance Tooks renders her in silhouette, head in hands, looking exhausted. And that’s when she gets honest. “Aw hell, why am I trying so hard?” That was very real for me. I can’t speak for others, but I know that my manner of working, the pressure I put on myself, the perfectionism I seek, sometimes you hit a low and you ask yourself, “Why am I trying so hard?

I don’t know who to applaud for this feat of storytelling and the authenticity it lends to her story—is it Studs Terkel’s who edited the interview? Dolores herself for telling her story? Lance Toons for rendering it graphically? But in the end, it was all bright lights and at the end of the night, “I feel drained.” And Dolores is depicted back towards us, curled up over the counter, heels slipping out of her shoes. And I think it says it all—right there. That’s the discrepancy I was looking for between the actor and the real person.

U Mad? Yeah Kinda... (David Bell)

Frustration. That emotion pulsated through me strongly throughout this entire book. And I felt bad for feeling it. Really though, so much that this old couple went through was unnecessary. I guess it’s hard to understand if you are not in their shoes, but I don’t know. I was just frustrated. Why were they constantly living in filth? Why were they always so resistant against seeking medical help? Why did they eat like crap? But my frustration is not only towards Lars and Rachel. I was also frustrated at Laura who put waaaay too much on her own shoulders (I understand she loved them but she put her life on hold for 4 years…or maybe I just don’t understand) and at the severely flawed system in place at the hospitals and nursing homes especially toward the end (You’re really going to leave the railings down and not feed a patient who is blind? Especially when there is a sign right above her head? Seriously?)

Overall, however, I believe I feel this overwhelming frustration because I care for Lars and Rachel so much. They truly are sweet people, and they deserved so much more than what they had to go through. However, I do find some comfort in the fact that, for the most part, they did not feel too troubled by their situation. They transitioned so slowly and gradually into senility: “Things get worse in such small increments that you can get used to anything.” But still, why did it have to be that way?

Maybe that is the effect Joyce Farmer was trying to convey. Maybe her experience brought her intense frustration too, and this book was her catharsis. The passivity and inattentiveness at hospitals, the overwhelming obstinacy of her parents, their increasing senility, her never-ending sense of duty and guilt; it all took its toll. It all makes me wonder how much I could handle. And then I realize that I would do anything in the world for my parents. Hmm…interesting.

Also I wanted to quickly comment on the depictions of the characters themselves. Many, if not most of the expressions are (I hate to say it) just plain ugly. And I know these are not ugly people; why were their faces always so grotesque at the slightest inclinations of emotion? I feel like it was definitely done on purpose, but I’m not sure what Farmer’s motivations were.

Special Exits (Raymond Jeong)

Joyce Farmer was extremely lucky. Yes, it is very painful to witness your parents’ slow departure from the physical world, but to spend your parents’ last years with them can be only gratifying. Initially appearing to be a story of misery, Special Exits quickly proves to be an extraordinary balance of two parents’ struggles and Laura’s lucky chance to spend time with them.

As a narrative, Special Exits first appears to be extremely bleak. It does an excellent job of employing a very depressing Ticking Clock. Although the very first page of the book is deceiving with Ching’s mildly violent antics, the reader eventually realizes that Lars and Rachel’s deaths are inevitable. By the last panel on page five, he/she understands that Lars and Rachel are extremely old, and the look of desperation on Rachel’s face in that panel allows the reader to know that only death can end Lars and Rachel’s story. The reader becomes tense with anticipation of Lars and Rachel's fates. In the second-to-last panel on page 6, my understanding of what filmmakers call The Act One Lock, the point of the movie where the character is forced to take the hardest path toward restoring his status quo, compounds the despair that I feel for Lars and Rachel. I see that Lars and Rachel’s lives will become only harder and possibly more miserable. Such a realization powerfully adds to the amount of tension that the Ticking Clock has already created for me, and I expect to experience a difficult ride before I reach the end of the book.

However, soon, I see that the book has a much more hopeful trajectory. Laura’s constant visits prove to be very meaningful for her. Laura learns of their pasts and, from their stories, gains a deeper understanding of her parents. She had zero idea that her father owned guns, and her discovery of them in the garage brought her ancestors into light. Lars’ adjustments to his will resulted in Laura’s appreciation for Rachel as a stepmother. Laura’s involvement with her parents’ steady decline deepens as her visits become more frequent. By the end of Special Exits, Laura experiences an incredible journey, during which bathing Rachel and debating with Lars are only two ways that she expresses how much she cares for her parents. In addition to Laura’s efforts, Joyce Farmer puts an immense amount of detail in each panel’s imagery. The characters’ faces are very distinct from each other, void of the cartoonish characteristics that allow readers to identify with the characters. My guess is that Farmer wants the reader to know that her experience with her parents is a significant period in everyone’s life with which nobody can identify until the time arrives. Although the illustration of each character is intensely individual, I don’t believe that Farmer wants to claim that her experience with her parents before their deaths is particularly unique. I think that she wants the reader to know that her experiences cannot be understood until the reader experiences a similar journey. Farmer also uses an immense number of details to show how dedicated Laura is to her parents. The hypnotizing mess in the rooms that she cleans, the overflowing pile of groceries in her shopping carts, and the towering stacks of dishes highlight the phenomenal amount of effort that Laura gives to taking care of her parents. By the end of Special Exits, I can tell that Laura has accepted her parents’ fates and has extensively grown as she developed that acceptance. In fact, she originally says that she “always kept mother on too high a pedestal” and “couldn’t allow [herself] to love [Rachel]” (72). However, in the second panel on page 146, she refers to Rachel as her “mother” when she asks for her whereabouts. I’m not sure whether such a subtle contradiction holds significance, but I found the occurrence to be extremely strange, considering the fact that she still refers to Rachel by her first name in the next panel. Even if the instance of Laura using mother to refer to Rachel isn’t an indication of her development, the single panel on page 196 of her saying good-bye to her father is definite proof. Dedicating only one panel to Laura’s good-bye shows that Laura has expressed most of her farewell long before her receiving the news of her father’s death. I originally have found that panel to be extremely sudden and too abrupt, but I realize that the use of only one panel is appropriate. Ultimately, Special Exits is a beautiful story that expresses Joyce Farmer’s last heartbreaking memories of her parents. Farmer provides a wonderful account of returning the care that her parents have given to her, in an ironic but lovely way.

I don’t know whether I can be a Laura for my parents. When I graduate from college, I will face the same problems that my parents faced. My parents will return to their homeland and be located 7,000+ miles away from me, and I won’t be able to be by them as frequently as Laura was by her parents when they become old. Joyce Farmer is extremely lucky to have had the opportunity that I will probably miss.

Special Exits: a cold look at life?

When reading Special Exits, I didn’t really feel that Joyce Farmer was casting a cold look at her own life in creating the book. For one thing, she changed most of the characters’ names, giving her memoir a fictional feel to it. I didn’t fully get the sense that this was her life that she was depicting; it almost seemed like it could have been someone else’s. There was a certain distance that she kept which prevented the book from becoming overly invasive and personal. She rarely depicted scenes from her home life, choosing rather to show the lives of her parents in great detail but distancing herself from the reader by not putting herself under such a close microscope. As a result, the reader learns much more about Lars and Rachel than about Laura, who seems more like a regular visitor than a main character. Furthermore, Farmer rarely documents personal scenes or conversations; most of the book just consists of everyday struggles like cooking, bathing, and cleaning, without focusing on the emotional connections between the characters. The interpersonal relationships are touched on but not fully explored, which to me left the characters feeling not fully formed and thus, in some way, fictional. It seemed like, had the characters been real people (as they supposedly are), their representations in Farmer’s book would have felt more lifelike and less two-dimensional.

Also, in terms of an author averting his or her eye, I felt that there was some of that going on regarding Farmer’s depiction of her decision to put Rachel in a nursing home. Farmer didn’t show much debate or discussion on Laura’s part, and she certainly didn’t represent much guilt about the decision. There were a couple panels that showed some internal feeling, but for me they really weren’t enough to convey what I thought must have been a very emotionally difficult decision. Farmer seemed to avoid depicting a lot of her own struggle during her parents’ decline and death, and while she showed their physical struggle, I didn’t feel like I fully witnessed their emotional journey and trouble. Therefore, I can’t say that I consider Farmer to have cast a cold look on her parents’ deaths and on her own life in this book, because it seemed like there were some topics that she often avoided.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

David Sedaris Reads On Campus (And I Document It One Week Later)

David Sedaris is clearly a funny guy, and maybe he’s just dedicated himself wholly to this personality trait. We briefly discussed in class that part of his talent lies in his ability to perform his stories well and the other part lies in his dedication to write down the funny things he sees. From this assessment, it does not seem that his work is particularly extraordinary. I’ll be honest: I’d read only about three of his short stories from the collections he’s printed, but more often I’ve heard him through readings and interviews on the radio. Some people just have the gift of telling a great story. I think a lot of that is the desire to entertain people. David Sedaris seems to fit this description. Yes, his stories are oftentimes hilarious, but he will stop at nothing to entertain people. His reading included several dirty jokes, passages from his diary, and some painful memories he’d put into funny story form. His willingness to pull from the depths of his personal life to entertain others shows an audacity that is at once respectable and appalling. Does he document his life with the intention of showing it all to the public? I assume it’s become exhausting at times. I’m not decrying Sedaris for exploiting family members and innocent members of the public, but I do think all of us are loaded with these ridiculous stories, and perhaps we are more reticent to share them. As a writer and a great storyteller, Sedaris has simply found the way to document daily life and share it with a larger community. His unique voice and apparent immunity to laughter certainly helps the delivery of it all.

Though Sedaris has capitalized on the humorous narration of ‘everyday life,’ I must also give him credit for being somewhat of a cultural anthropologist. Sedaris talks about some of the most preposterous human behavior I’ve ever heard and he seems to track it through different populations. Enter the stories of people ‘shitting on their hands’ as a normal bathroom routine. I do apologize for typing such horrid things, but I’m only writing what Sedaris must have repeated fifty times during his reading. Perhaps people are just more willing to tell Sedaris their own strange anecdotes, after hearing so many from him. If he has made himself a magnet for such stories, then he has certainly earned them. Or perhaps David Sedaris has always had the ability to draw these stories from people through his personality; onstage he seemed a very inquisitive person and bold enough to ask people anything. Regardless, Sedaris chronicles strange human behavior I never would have dreamed to exist. Alongside his humorous and silly readings, I also appreciate that Sedaris suggests a book for the audience at his readings. It’s always interesting to see what people do with their celebrity power, and it only seems right for a writer like Sedaris who has ‘hit the jackpot’ to suggest books and even to say “I would buy this book before I’d buy anything I’ve written. It’s much better.”

Dealing with the end of life

My first reaction to reading this work was an overwhelming feeling of sadness. As I flipped from page to page, the heaviness of death weighed heavily on me. I felt, and still feel, envious of my own youth and feel that I should be demanding more from my able-bodied, able-minded self. The illustrations in the novel depicted a type of unavoidable sadness that comes from losing the abilities and luxuries of youth. Farmer’s story itself, very detailed and personal, bravely communicated the story of two parents dying. The illustrations added a depth of understanding, providing the visual representation of two elderly people literally wasting away. The graphic novel seemed so deeply personal and true, yet I wonder why Joyce Farmer didn’t use her actual name or the real names of her parents, husband, and presumably other characters. The drawings were also perhaps, not so true to form. As we have discussed in class so often after McCloud’s suggestion, the cartoonish natures of the characters allow their stories to apply to any person, giving them a type of Everyman quality. Perhaps this also applies to naming of characters. Assigning names and profiles already taken in the real world might limit the reader from imaging this story in their own life; Fake names could allow the reader to imagine assume the role of Joyce Farmer. After all, this story describes a situation we may all face as children.

My parents are currently at the age where their parents are starting to deteriorate mentally and physically. As a grandchild, I feel somewhat removed and ‘safe’ from dealing with the situation, though I see the mental toll it has taken on my parents. Joyce Farmer’s experience seems very similar with the emotions of helplessness and shame in handing the care of her parents to someone else. Perhaps this book also weighed so heavily on my mind because it makes me consider the future of caring for my own parents. The alternative of their premature death is a far heavier thought, so I suppose long life and old age are mixed blessing at the very end. Like Farmer’s father in the graphic novel, my own parents tell me now that they don’t want to be a burden when they get older. They’d rather I hire someone to care for them than spending my time with them. However, Farmer’s father expresses this and then must accept his daughter’s help once a week, then more frequently until he completely relies on her. She stumbles through all this and seems to manage, but shows that it is not an easy road despite being such a common road.

It is amazing that all of this is expressed in a graphic memoir, where Farmer draws the naked truth of the situation, sometimes portraying her parents in less than dignified positions. Portraying her naked stepmother several times certainly communicated the daily routines necessary to care for the very elderly. Near the end of the story, on page 165, Joyce’s character tells her father that he must start wearing diapers. He replies with an accepting smile, “It took fifty-five years to make the turnaround,” in reference to the time span between father putting diapers on daughter, and then daughter putting diapers on father. The entire story follows this motif of parents returning to an infantile state while children assume the role of caretaker. Joyce Farmer’s illustrations follow a predictable comic style and pacing. The story follows a four-year time span on a fairly regular time scale, except for the couple remembrances of the past, clearly defined by the cloud-like frames. Farmer consistently used phrases like “Time moves on…” to describe the passage of time from her occasional visits in the beginning. Such a simple phrase expresses how her parents’ lives could go unnoticed before she had to take care of them. Once she becomes emotionally and physically invested in their well being, specific phrases such as “One month later…” demarcate the passage of time, showing she must now pay specific attention to time, and hold onto every last minute while her parents are still alive. Her drawings are amazingly detailed and wonderful, and yet, I felt that her portrayal of facial expressions is confusing or simply too comical at times. Though Farmer expresses the complexity of emotion through the events and characters of the story, the facial expressions seem too simplistic, either happy or sad, to detail the feelings one has when they know death is coming. However, the graphic memoir was still completely moving and brave as a memoir, as Joyce Farmer was willing to tell such a personal story.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


There is so much that I love about this book. And I know I talked about silence a lot in my presentation so I’ll try to abstain from talking any more about it…. No I can’t. I have to talk about it. Just a bit more though, I promise. Silence is so appropriate here I can’t get over it, and not only after David’s vocal chords get removed. He never had a voice in that house to begin with. No one did. The significant lack of text made the silence and tension in that family so sentient, their dysfunction so palpable; I don’t know how any of them could stand it. But enough of that now.

On to a few questions I have which I’ll attempt to answer now, but will probably bring them up again in class. First of all, what the hell was that little demon creature??? At first I thought David was just schizophrenic and was seeing beings his disturbed mind had created. But now I have a better theory. I think that creature was just a manifestation of his anger as a child. So much had been suppressed and bottled up, it was only a matter of time before it broke free. And maybe that’s why the creature lost its “demon-ness” towards the end of the book. David had come to terms with his past and was beginning to finally lose the anger he had built up. What about the angry Jesus though? Was that the same thing? Or am I missing something?

I also want to talk about something that was mentioned toward the tail end of my presentation but did not get the full attention that it deserved. And that is Small’s use of aspect-to-aspect transitions. The heavy, disturbed tone of the book is brought on heavily by the use of this transition. Small was able not only to give setting and establish the emotion of the book, but also he was able to slow down the pace of the book and allow the reader to fully dive into David’s world. Most notably, this is found after David’s visit with the psychiatrist (as the White Rabbit which is SO COOL!). David’s emotional breakdown is followed by nine pages of pretty much nothing. Rain. An empty kitchen. A TV no one is watching. More rain. But it was all necessary. I felt David’s hurt in those raindrops; I felt his betrayal, his loneliness. Words could not do that. One picture could not do that. I needed to feel the length and breadth of his sadness.

I also appreciated the use of moment-to-moment transitions. Everything felt deliberate. Every action felt meaningful, even something so simple as putting a yellow towel on his head. But he sure loved that long. Blond. Hair.

Okay well I’m done rambling on for now. I’ll continue in class; there’s still so much more to say.

Another Slightly Delayed Response

To be perfectly honest, when I first started reading Working, I wasn’t too excited about it. The first couple of stories I felt were either too cliché or mundane (don’t get me wrong I have immense respect for coal miners or farm workers, it’s just that their plight is nothing new) or too cluttered with text. I also shared Raymond and Lisa’s sentiments about it feeling kind of picture-booky. But then I came to some of the stories where the illustrations actually enhanced these accounts. My three favorites which were able to do this, which were able to take the comics genre and push it towards its potential, were Farmworker, Organizer, and Waitress.

The appeal of Farmworker is obvious. Though it is still heavy in dialogue (something I’m not very happy about) it makes up for it with fascinating images. The portrayal of the protagonist using ancient Mixtec codices juxtaposed with coddled “Anglos” (who looked like their brains were cooked in microwaves) and Spanish phrases in my mind redeemed the story. The words were brought to life and given greater and deeper meaning. The great separation between Mexicans and Anglos was made wider by the barrier of language. The irony of the fieldwork they were boxed into was heightened by their physical depictions as ancient royals. The comics done in this story were not just illustrations of what had already been said in the dialogue boxes. They enhanced the words and did what I expect them to do in graphic nonfiction. I am not six. I am not reading Dr. Seuss. These images have to do something more, and in Farmworker I feel they did.

Organizer was also well illustrated in my opinion. When the main character describes his dad cutting coupons and getting worked over by the myriad companies he admired, Peter Kuper doesn’t just show the dad cutting coupons but goes one step further and has scissors cutting the entire panels in half. The gravity of those cut coupons is amplified. Not only are pieces of paper getting torn apart in the face of these companies, but so also are hopes and dreams (kind of cheesy sounding I know but what can I say I was impressed). I also appreciated the use of very basic and angular shapes in this piece. I don’t want to say too much about it but I felt it very appropriately symbolized the protagonist’s strong and solid views on society and what needed to be done to improve it.

Finally I want to talk a little about Waitress. I really appreciated the depiction of her as both an artist and a work of art herself. She is her own masterpiece. She is that Venus de Milo, that ballet dancer, that high-energy performer, and she works hard everyday to make it that way. I feel the illustrations were able to capture that well. Also I agree with Lee; the progression of her character was really fascinating. What starts out chipper and upbeat slowly morphs into exhaustion and anxiety, and it was nice to see that vulnerability. I feel it grounded the story, validating its realness.

Overall, there is no denying that the lives of these workers are each fascinating and worth investigating. However, in adapting their stories to a graphic novel format, I feel it was necessary to have the illustrations not only stand up to the stories but also enhance them, and I felt only a select few were able to do that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

David Sedaris (a slightly delayed response)

I loved hearing David Sedaris read in MemAud on Sunday. I’ve read some of his stories before, but it’s a really different experience to hear him read them aloud. He has excellent comedic timing, and separate from the amusement value of his work, it’s always great to hear an author read his or her own writing.

On one level, I found Sedaris hilarious, as I’m sure many others have previously. And he really tries to be funny, by telling dirty jokes that he’s heard or relating ridiculous stories. To be sure, his essays are humorous in and of themselves, and reading them on paper often produces a laugh or two per page, but when he reads them live he really goes for all-out comedy. In a way, when he reads his stories to an audience, he seems more like a comedian than a writer, possibly because he brings up topics that seem common to comedians (things like family issues or the struggles of traveling). Now that he’s famous and is well known for his readings, I wonder if he takes that into account while writing his stories; that is, if he thinks about the effect of reading an essay aloud while he’s writing it. On some level, I think it would be difficult for him to eliminate any thoughts of an audience, since his stories are so well suited to live readings and since he’s become so accustomed to delivering his work.

What I found most interesting in Sedaris’s reading wasn’t his dirty jokes or his diary entries, but was rather his personal story about his childhood experiences with his father. Although this essay certainly contained its fair share of humor, it was really moving on a deeper level. It reflected his extreme feelings of inadequacy as a child, which generally resulted from his father’s refusal to be proud of him. Honestly, I had trouble laughing sometimes during Sedaris’s reading of this essay. It didn’t seem all that funny to me. It seemed utterly depressing. It revealed some serious parenting problems in his family, namely his father’s disapproval and his mother’s apathy, and at some points it was painful to hear the extent to which Sedaris’s father criticized him and praised others. Worst of all was the fact that these memories have clearly stuck with Sedaris for a long time, revealing his painful experience of growing up with his father’s disapproval. When Sedaris said that to this day his father refuses to be proud of him, even to the point of denying the legitimacy of being on the New York Times bestseller list, I could find nothing amusing in such hurtful parental treatment. I can, however, see the therapeutic value in writing about his childhood and his relationship with his father. I’m often impressed by how much writers are willing to share about their personal lives, and in this case I thought it was very brave of Sedaris to discuss these childhood emotions, which clearly troubled him for a long time. But I guess once you reach fifty you’re probably better able to talk about problems from when you were ten or eleven. Still, though, I could fully understand Sedaris’s satisfaction in learning that Greg Sackis is currently selling sex toys.