By David Haldeman
I was standing in the middle of Fantagraphics Books, the sole retail outlet of the legendary indie comic book publisher. Housed in an old brick building in a slowly gentrifying industrial district in South Seattle, the space is part gallery, part bookstore, and part record store, and I was there for catharsis.
Fantagraphics is responsible for the rise of Daniel Clowes, the comic artist whose Eightball series (in which the Ghost World comics were serialized) may well be responsible for propelling independent comics to a mass audience and artistic legitimacy. It was March 2008, and I was there to sift through the works of Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, and other independent comic artists because I was in a terrible mood.
I’ve discovered that the graphic novels of these artists express loneliness like no other work that I’ve experienced, providing a badly needed sense of being understood even when feeling isolated. But while their characters are often outcasts (from family, from relationships, and from the culture at large—and more often than not, all three), the characterizations alone don’t provide an explanation for why the feeling is so effective. There is something in the art form itself that, when combined with the right kind of talent, allows loneliness to be channeled with unusual force. In fact loneliness is a theme that has been explored with fervor in indie graphic novels, particularly in the past two decades. The medium seems oddly conducive to it.
Why is this? Maybe it has to do with comics being the only visual storytelling medium that isn’t captive to time. Movies and television demand a certain rhythm, grabbing you by the neck and leading you from scene to scene. Want to linger on a shot? Sorry, on to the next one. Want to hear that dialogue again? Go tell it to the projectionist. The result is an inherent busyness, a need to fill the eyes and ears and keep on a schedule.
In contrast, comics give the feeling of immersion and immediacy of narrative visual art, yet give readers the freedom to linger. That freedom is exhilarating: you can re-examine dialog, savor visuals, and just generally move at your own pace. Perhaps this allows greater creativity when portraying the silences and awkwardness in the lives of the lonely figures in Tomine, Clowes, and Ware’s books. In Chris Ware’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged man, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, pages and pages are devoid of dialog, and actions like wiping food off a break-room table are stretched out across multiple panels. The medium allows a more detailed look at a lonely life where we feel the weight of everyday actions and the icy silence inherent throughout most of it. There’s no soundtrack necessary to fill the awkwardness and tell you how to feel, no editing rhythm to maintain.
Of course, the freedom to linger has benefits beyond the graphic novels portraying outcasts in the 1990s and 2000s. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity, a graphic novel about the making of the atomic bomb uses this freedom to explain not only in a narrative format the story itself, but also more detailed science behind the bomb via multiple two-page spreads. Science of this depth might fly by a film or TV show viewer. Using comics to educate is nothing new, but acceptance of the medium’s legitimacy is still not what it should be (perhaps 2012’s unlikely bestselling graphic novel, Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works will help change minds). Through comics, a subject matter can be explored at one’s own speed and encourage greater comprehension.
Six years ago, in the middle of Fantagraphics, I was looking for relief from the melancholy monologue that filled my mind. I picked up a copy of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings. I read a few pages and looked up for a moment. I noticed the store was mostly empty. I noticed a song from The Boomtown Rats playing on a scratchy record. I noticed the layout of the store. I noticed the dilapidated brewery across the street. And I noticed it was gray outside. It felt good to linger.