Slumberland

The Man Who Grew His Beard (Fantagraphics) by Olivier Schrauwen

(Spoilers ahoy, though there may be little need for this disclaimer, so reliant is the book on the reader’s first-hand experience of form clashing against form; nonetheless: “…warned…” etc.)

I’d consigned Olivier Schrauwen to a hazy and pleasant memory from a volume or two of MOME, so many thanks go out to Chris Mautner for pointing out this book’s existence, Schrauwen’s first actual stateside release (any stray copies of My Boy you wanna send my way are welcome, comickers), which escaped my notice when it was published a few months back.

It’s a big batch of critic-friendly comic strips, comics which resemble curios excavated from some none-too-defined European past and more often than not have all the daring shallow-space visual syntax of a Garfield strip. They’re less stories than contraptions that wear their artifice and structure on their sleeve, like those medieval homunculi which transparently show their cogs and mechanisms while making their programmed movements. You can get a decent grasp of the fundamentals of The Man Who Grew His Beard– its blunt force of two levels of reality interacting – from the panels below.

The man is what registers first – beyond the obvious trait of viewer identification, the man’s physical form closer to our own than anything else on display, we can see that he’s constrained to the literal edges of the frame, a far sturdier base for reality than the rickety (presumable) spatial dimension before him. You can see the shift in the blissfully shoddy environment to accommodate him from panel-to-panel, the ceiling of the crawlspace raised, which should give the nature of the sequence away, assuming it wasn’t already clear – the man interacting with his own imagination, at the losing end of a conversation with himself. It works as shorthand for his character that he’s at first obliged to obey its rules, fitting himself into the low crawlspace to speak to the mouse, with the ceiling shifting itself upward according to his instincts as he raises himself to react in the second panel.

Venture a bit further into the image and Here There Be Dragons. Seemingly, the mouse would appear to occupy the background, the average reader intuiting a man against the crudest of stage backdrops, with the mouse merely the liveliest element of that backdrop. And, were we compelled to squint more, we could place the mouse well in depth along the left-hand pathway, the key visual cue being the walls which recede away from us, the man’s posterior at their meeting point, with him awkwardly chilling (as all talking mice do) flat against the corner where the floor meets the wall, his artist unable to give him a spot in the ample spatial dimensions provided. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the spot below the mouse is space. It could be merely an inclined bit of floor, a ramp or ramp-like, which would place that damn mouse in the same foreground as our man – note how its textures match that of the ceiling, a ceiling which, no matter that it refuses to stand still, laughs at your attempts to gauge its dimensions. Maybe it’s both, the man’s imagination unable to settle – who knows? Everything is contrasting cues, dots that seem to connect but never quite.

It’s a toughie!

Which is the point. What’s presented here isn’t the ugly-for-ugliness sake that comics often traffic in – the Panter/Brinkman/Chippendale/Nemoto/Rory Hayes/Everyone/Ever mold – placing the image in its sequential context foremost over any prefab notion of beauty, allowing moments of grace to arise as we perceive the relationship between one image and the next, creating its own makeshift vocabulary. Nope. It’s just plain ineptitude, a deliberately charted system of not-living-up, ugliness which sticks its tongue out at both the man with the bad haircut and you, dear reader. It’s not a representative sample but the idea of “worlds colliding” is plain to see, the fuel for every story – hell, every page – in the book.

This sequence is from “The Assignment” (click to experience it in full force), which may be the funniest strip in the book thanks, I suspect, to the contrast between the man’s impotent and bewildered Little-Nemo-like panic and the all-declarative-statement insolence of his imagination. The man asking for the cheese is emblematic of the central character of most of the stories here, his physical features those of maturity but his mindset and social standing that of a twelve year-old, a succinct metaphor for arrested development who all throughout will maneuver his way through an environment which resists his control, albeit an environment that doesn’t always wear its contrast as eagerly as the one above. 

So yes – worlds colliding. Built around that basic structure at every story’s center – the man, his will to control – is a binary opposition of perception, one representing reality and the other unreality: the terrifyingly mundane vs. fantastical exaggeration, a controlled rationality vs. a short-circuited imagination, reality vs. art, etc, with both sides of the marquee frequently defined in stylistic terms: one of them recognizable, easily equivalent to the world we know, its laws of logic, and the other dimension none-too-steady, impressionistic or grandiose or just continually shifting, ready to become something new in the next panel; Little Nemo’s dilemma played out in seven variations. Surrealism is probably a faulty description – there’s a ruthless logic underlying every detail, a sense of gamesmanship which ensures we always know where each element stands in relationship to its counterpart.  

That system-frenzy might suggest a built-in sense of distance in the work, surface pleasure as something either glossed over for the sake of appreciation or ready to reveal itself under the amorphous term of “beauty”, which is pretty far from one’s actual first-hand experience; I may be speaking as someone who’s clocked in a few thousand hours staring at art comics, but these are some mighty user-friendly strips – you might make your way through the hundred or so pages here in twenty minutes, the book humming along like clockwork, seemingly reading itself. The narratives tend to snap shut from the first panel on, the reader guided along helplessly through the story like Charlie Chaplin flowing through the gears, with one concept/style and another concept/style working in tandem, formal fireworks all ablazin’.

Most of the strips end as only such stories can – with Schrauwen undermining the system he’s set up. Sometimes it’s a bold rupture between boundaries, a sly authorial wink, or merely a concluding ellipsis, letting the matter at hand stand unresolved; extratextual gestures which allow both sides of the dualism at play an equal footing, if only to underline what we’ve been doing all along: watching drawings comment on other drawings. Little Nemo rarely wakes up here – he wasn’t really sleeping. With the playing field leveled, the parity of style and content thoroughly established, you might be obliged to stare and stare again at these strips, parsing the overall patterns from the smallest details, discounting nothing: background pattern abstractions; the seemingly throwaway panels, very much akin to the apropos-of-nothing center panels you’d find in Krazy Kat, that begin and/or end various stories as punctuation; the specific symbolism behind page border design, etc. Is the final panel of “The Imaginist” – a series of yellow, blue, red, and brown watercolor smudges – abstract or literal? Either way, it may be the most moving moment in the book. Go too far into this mindset and you’ll find yourself wondering whether you can extrapolate the conceptual thrust of a strip from the spatial relationship of an obnoxious mouse in a single image. Stay wary, readers!

It may be foolhardy to view them as anything other than top-down idea-first affairs, but it is fun – a sideways glance at them, with “equations” taken out of the equation, and it’s easy to see each strip as a single-minded exploration of a different kind of space: “Outside/Inside”, with its two halves at cross-purposes, is two iterations of the same idea – the borders of its panels as claustrophobic and imprisoning barriers; the final untitled strip shows space at its most inconsequential; “Congo Chromo”: the traditional comic strip space, with the image lugged around by the characters at all times; etc.

Mautner mentions Yuichi Yokoyama as a point of comparison and you can see where he’s coming from. Schrauwen’s works aren’t precise studies of hypothetical physical structures and forces in time, of course (though who knows? I’ve only read the one book), but you can tag them both as experimental, and that term here isn’t a critical byword, ready for a blurb, but an exact description, each strip air-tight and controlled, everything you see wrung dry of any interfering association, all for the sake of effect. But if Yokoyama’s consistency and uniformity (any glance at a Yokoyama image and you may not know what you’re looking at but you know you’re looking at Yokoyama) suggest the obsessive-compulsive m. o. of your average cartoonist, the stories in TMWGHB are as different as they are alike, enough to suggest seven twists of a kaleidoscope, a new and distinct pattern produced from the same specific set of elements each time around.

In this respect, Schrauwen seems closer in approach to Mark Newgarden (discussed aplenty here) – beyond their commitment to bringing the laffs, each are top-down technicians inclined to approaching their strips in a made-to-order manner, a specific style for a specific concept. Newgarden (The Man Who Grew His Nose?), though, is a postmodern man of tomorrow who works in an inveterate mode of pastiche, his bag of tricks diverse but (the key difference) limited, while Schrauwen footprints in TMWGHB are rarely in the same place twice – once a problem has been worked through, it’s tossed and the roundelay begins anew. This may be a slight exaggeration – no aesthetic ground is ever completely salted, but, cursorily scanning the book, the variety and the widely dispersed skill set on display may suggest the work of three or four different cartoonists rather than a single antsy one.

It’s not all novelty obviously – even beyond Schrauwen’s reliable “x + y = z” structure, he’ll gleefully repeat the same story, as evidenced by “Hair Styles” and “The Assignment”, each a conflict between a good/rational student (apparently the same student in each, his beard and hair of considerable length and his eyes set at an unwavering intense gaze redolent of an emotional disorder) and a bad/irrational student, with their setting a school for artists/cartoonists (all meek men in suits, no ties) – both clear iterations of one basic scenario, but with different variables inserted, enough to  imply a hypothetical Schrauwen-verse (where a Crisis of dimensions collapsing into each other is a regular event). “Hair Styles” is a sly and enigmatic point/counterpoint piece, bare bones and diagrammatic, and not only because about half of it is composed of illustrative diagrams – easy to digest but difficult to describe. In it a phrenological-type treatise on hair set forth by the good student bedevils the bad student, his own unruly hair placing him at a problematic place on the hair scale, the eventual punchline being how this sublimely ridiculous bit of categorizing devours both the bad student’s form of rebellion against it, revealing it as entirely in key with his crazy hair nature, and, possibly, the narrative itself. “The Assignment”, already discussed above, takes a less subterranean and more process-minded approach, hewing closer to the narrative rule of “show, don’t tell”: an assignment is proposed and the students navigate a psychological space dictated by their one-dimensional nature toward its completion.

“Outside/Inside” (a name which could apply to every story here), with its point of departure a school of man-boys, may form a triptych with those two, story wise, if not in point-by-point structure; it certainly is the most rigorously defined piece, with both sides, banality and delirium, given a thorough working over. It may be the best piece in the book or, more strictly, it has the best sequence – nothing can quite touch the strip’s first half, a misbegotten journey from a school to a train station by one of Schrauwen’s bearded man-children, a wordless set piece, all momentum, that can be boiled down to a camera eye glued to a character who only knows two actions – standing still and moving – with every page another chunk of spatial continuity livened up by a new angle. It’s a combination that yields a fluid series of effects, at first registering as a nice and precise portrayal of the humdrum, our protagonist’s steady movement across a continuous environment rendered moot from our perspective by the way he’s glued to the same spot in each panel, and then shifting into something close to the climax of a Buster Keaton movie later in the sequence as he races to reach his train, now well in transit, running his legs to their limit across town, all the while seen in long shot against scenery that, no matter how much it changes, will always see him pinned roughly to the same damn location.

The second half (“Inside”) is the expected inversion, a replay of the scenario from the boy’s POV. If space overwhelmed our lad earlier, proving, in the end, victorious, here the boy conquers space, unreliable narrator-style, retaking those all-too earthbound events and enfolding them into a fantastical and outlandish self-serving story, expanding and eliding all the earlier po-faced ineptitude into a saga of triumph, replete with a faithful horse and an orgy scene. The earlier black-and-white naturalism and rhythmic beats follow suit, replaced by a thudding storybook style of stained glass pomposity, the ornate symmetrical page designs refitting all happenstance into moments of distinct dramatic purpose. The sum of it can’t live up to the first part, but as a potent game of dueling authors – Schrauwen vs. our little man – it stands on its own, a mighty bit of conceptual stunt work in the Raymond Queneau mode.  

Of all the stories in this book, “The Imaginist” comes closest to resembling a more typical Ware-inflected entry in the afore-mentioned MOME, the original stateside port of call for much of the book’s contents, with its sympathetic positioning of a lone soul against the world in hand with a sense of the mundane close to the desultory static happening outside the window nearest to you right now, coming as it does with a familiar 21st-century setting (the only given status quo here which resembles our status quo) and stray bits of pop culture (dude, Extreme). It’s a more conventional take on “Outside/Inside”, or just more organic – another case of a coherent external environment juxtaposed with a frenzied subjective reality but with its emphasis on sensory immediacy over overt formalism, the two states at play not discrete but intertwined, intersecting. Squint a bit and you can see other traits transposed here and made literal, most plainly the earlier metaphorical stasis of our little man unable to escape the frame, a state which here becomes genuine physical stasis, our protagonist (the titular “Imaginist”) a wheelchair-bound catatonic, his interior world another realm of glory, an oddly twee and mutable dreamscape both informed by the outside world and complete detached from it, a place of bright bright bright colors, endless airy movement, and rendezvous with pretty ladies, all prone to being continually affected/disrupted by the drab shit-colored actuality of his situation. As with everything else here, those interactions come with their own logic, with our hero reframing and readjusting any outside stimuli set to a steady lull into a dependable bit of joy and, whenever overstimulated, helpless before the turmoil of his perceptions, with a trip into the less familiar domain outside his apartment leaving him adrift in an ocean of synaesthetic chaos with only stray bits of coherence floating in and out of his frequency. The final frames are another reiteration of “Outside/Inside”, the boy’s imagined denouement here played absolutely straight in a key bit of uplift; too good to spoil in either case.

Loosen the tether of the reality principle and you’d get something like the untitled story at the end of the book, the closest anything here comes to empty calories, all exhilarating effect. Elements from earlier pieces – the teacher/student relationship, a male id running Duck Amuck – appear here, inserted into a sci-fi premise (the use of an old virtual reality machine which looks a lot like a beach ball drawn by C. F.), with everything attenuated into a quick thin-as-can-be pretext for the sake of the main event: Schrauwen’s manipulation of a glowing garish beach scene, an image with the generic beauty of a postcard and the pictorialism of a diorama, two wide panels to a page, with every form therein in constant flux, subject to subtle or extreme shifts from panel to panel – a hermit crab becomes a crab and then a cartoon crab which is then slain with a trident by a sea god-type who emerges from the waves riding a giant sea horse; a monkey  enters, changes into a Neanderthal and then into a mulleted party dude who  proceeds to frolic with and fuck a bikini babe, along with five or six other variables, all against a mutable backdrop set to a prime directive of “beach scene. It’s an overcaffeinated idyll which culminates as you’d expect – into chaos, our machine malfunctioning and the two-panel structure breaking down, the images stuttering into chaos in the familiar digital age error pattern and climaxing on what one imagines is an actual climax, a vision of our lovers embracing in endless repetition looping into the yellow static infinite. And then the teacher says stop and then it stops. End!

At the other end of the spectrum are “The Grotto” and “Congo Chromo”, each, all things being relative, a step or so back from the dominant mode of full-blast formalism, the expected themes displaced not onto any erupting formal mechanisms but directly onto the subject and action of the story, matters of Ye Olde Literary Substance.

Of the two, “Congo Chromo” is both less traditional and more straightforward, a blunt-as-can-be satire about a comedy duo of hapless self-satisfied Belgian colonialists who blunder through a cartoon Congo, going about blindly as masters of their foreign domain and all the while getting their asses handed to them two or three times a page. And that’s basically the whole of it, seemingly free from the prevailing conceptual schema – an odd characteristic for the first story in sequence, not where you’d expect to find an outlier. But a closer look and you can see the same preoccupations. The bulk of the story is long stretches of medium shot images of our pair gettin’ into hi-jinx, their very physical form unstable all throughout, slipping and sliding from a default human form to the bodily proportions of big-headed kids or bloating up to Humpty-Dumpty size, a switch-up depending sometimes on their situation and other times, you suspect, just because Schrauwen felt like drawing them that way. Interspersed are occasional long shots of the scenes we’ve been watching, with our viewpoint loftier and all characters devoid of most features beyond their race – the Europeans rendered mainly in white and the Africans (who, significantly, only appear in these instances) all in brown; it’s a sudden shift into understatement, past tense, with an absence of motion or caricature, a step back from the strip’s de facto immediacy which places a frame of realism around this Silly Symphony, letting us feel the weight of history. In the end, thoroughly trounced by the unfriendly jungle, our beleaguered pair o’ pals are only left with escape down the river, a voyage which leads not toward a confrontation with any Heart Of Darkness but, inexplicably, to a dreamlike European countryside, where we leave them – snug as a bug in the familiar complacencies of home. I think we can draw the necessary conclusions.

“The Grotto” isn’t a top tier strip, but it’s still pretty good, beginning with one of the odder things you’ll encounter in a Schrauwen strip – a prologue – which may be a tip off that what follows may prove atypical. It’s something like a fable – an alternate mythology of life on earth arising directly from ink on the wall of a grotto, humanity arising from that Platonic cradle, doing great deeds, and, in its twilight, receding back into it and then segueing into a performance by an artist who’s seized upon that Promethean force of creation to conjure up butterflies, alien-types, a Pegasus, and various other cutesy forms, all coming alive to delight his adoring audience, with a lot of mileage from his hammy flair on stage before his fellow cave dwellers, part magician and part arena rock, tight leather pants and all (Hey! Photoreference!). Soon enough, our artist grows weary, realizes his “art” amounts to glorified balloon animals, and opts, like a prima donna God, to rest. He immediately makes a James Brown I-can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on about-face, casts his cape aside (sure!), douses himself with ink and dares to go even further, drawing a passageway into which he beckons his audience – to escape their comfortable self-imposed grotto prison and accompany him on a Journey Into Mystery into whatever lies beyond. As an aside to this concluding image of possibility, we see that the same inky medium which may carry us to transcendence can, perhaps, breed monsters as well, as seen with the spiders – formed from stray ink carelessly spilt – which crawl menacingly toward a lil’ tot in the audience. Ambivalence!

And so it’s the most ground-level strip, a shift in polarity from the pure play in the field of form we saw in the “day at the beach” story. The struggle for control which plays out everywhere else has here been won; rather than appearing as a language with its own grammar, the irrational is subjugated to the demands of the narrative, reduced to an adjunct of “the way things are”, a given, domesticated into an entertainment. It’s a “useful” story from which to learn, fraught with significance, lending itself to a one-to-one interpretation (slot “art” or “creativity” or whatever your preferred term is into the symbolism provided) rather than the book’s more common self-sufficient experiential metatext. Fittingly, it ends the moment before every other story begins – poised before the entryway into the land of wonderful, horrible dreams.

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One Response to Slumberland

  1. Peter says:

    I really like the description of his and Yokoyama’s work as “experimental”, but quick to save the word from being a euphemism for messing around. It’s important to note that experiments are both tightly controlled as well as solitary searches into the unknown.

    thanks for writing about this release! had no idea schrauwen’s gotten a concentrated release by fantagraphics.

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