Thursday, June 3, 2010

“My Cola Silo is Out Back”: Wally Gropius

Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was released a week ago, and while I closely followed the story during its Mome serialization, the book (which has many new pages) is a whole nother thing. It has quickly become one of my favorite graphic novels. Here are some reasons why:

Parody and/or Something Else?: It’s Hard to Describe
What is it? Is it a parody? Maybe, but Hensley’s sense of parody is so original that it’s difficult to characterize the book or his approach. Wally Gropius is formally and thematically parodic in that it imitates visual, character, and plot conventions of Dell, Harvey, and Tower teen comics and children’s comics. For example:

 The “teen comic that never misses an opportunity to pun” -- like Harvey’s Bunny (one of the “Blog Flume’s Top 50 Comics”) or dozens of other 1960s comic books. (Click on images to enlarge.)
 The “male teen pop star pursued by countless female fans” -- like DC’s Swing with Scooter and many others.

 The “omnipresent visual money pun” -- objects in the shapes of money symbols -- which, of course, come from Richie Rich. (“Cola Silo,” I assume, is an allusion to Uncle Scrooge’s Money Silos.)

 The “adult condescension toward teenage habits” -- from every teen comic ever.

 The familiar character types and drawing styles -- from comics like Richie Rich, Ponytail, Thirteen Going on Eighteen, Tippy Teen, Beetle Bailey, etc . . .

 And the libidinal/obsessive energy present in Harvey Comics, Archie, and countless teen comics is taken to a disturbing place -- taking the “grope” in “Gropius” to new highs and lows.

In this last instance, Wally Gropius is the kind of parody that works as commentary on the earlier material, by exposing, in an exaggerated yet insightful way, energies/ideologies that animate the source comics [more on this later]. But this, too, oversimplifies things . . . The comic is too odd to be described as “commentary.” It seems far more synthetic than parodic: it blends recognizable influences into something truly new (I always avoid the word “truly,” but in this case it’s needed). And yet, it’s not that far from being a teen comic -- remove a few scenes, a few words and it’s kind of “tween friendly.” It’s hard to describe.

Sensical or Nonsensical?
The dialogue and scenarios are often weird/absurd, but they always make sense; they can easily be understood as exaggerations of, or skewed takes on, typical tropes of kid’s comics. The plot of Wally Gropius has been described as surreal or random, but it’s coherent and far more complex than I first thought, especially when I read it during serialization. You’ll likely need to read it few times before you can understand how some of the characters, such as Plenty, fit into the narrative, and how Banks and the reporter are connected. The apparent sense of absurdity might distract an inattentive reader (I include myself in this group) from the fact that things fit together in very specific ways.

The Joy of Drawing
The book is an encyclopedia of cartoony facial expressions and bodily gestures, and should be studied at the CCS as such. WG radiates a real sense of joy, of “cartooning unfettered.” The visual surfaces -- bold colors, elegant compositions, and assured inking -- are extremely inviting. Enjoy the faces and hands in this sequence:

The Ludic Punisher
Puns rule, both visual and verbal. Take the subtitle, for example: “The umpteen millionaire” -- Wally is a “teen millionaire.” The “ump” in umpteen foreshadows the many sports jokes/puns, which all seem to stem from the Huey Lewis’s “Sports” album conceit, a metaphor that pervades the comic. Umpteen also oddly modifies “millionaire” (traditionally what comes after umpteen must be a plural noun) in that Wally has umpteen millions in the bank. (And umpteeen just sounds funny). [See another Hensley ump joke here.] See also the back cover’s riff on Ox, Fort Knox, Babe the Blue Ox, and “olly olly oxen free.”

Writing and the Logic of Saddest and Married
Hensley is one of the best, and most idiosyncratic, writers of text in comics. Toward the end of the novel, Wally launches into a brilliantly executed disquisition on the linguistic and logical problems of marrying a girl who also must be “The Saddest Girl in the World.” A compelling interrogation of “the limits of language” by a recently-pummeled teenager millionaire at his wedding; and it’s also brilliantly staged by Hensley.

Allusive Density
Part of the fun of rereading is finding more puns and allusions, such as the images and literary references to suicide -- Mishima, Sylvia Plath, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. It’s a web of allusion, jokes, and puns about things that are funny, and things that aren’t . . . The constant visual jokes also recall the side-features in kid’s comics that asked readers to find the dozen eggs -- or the like -- in a single drawing.

Money-pun in lower left corner: "Penny pinching"? "Money’s tight"?

Quote Ability
Hensley creates unforgettable phrases that, if there’s any justice in the world, will appear in all of the best quotation dictionaries:
“The Book as Art Object”
Like Clowes with Wilson and Ice Haven, Chris Ware with Jimmy Corrigan and recent Acme Novelty Librarys, or Seth with George Sprott, Hensley in Wally Gropius has exercised careful control of every aspect of the book’s design, creating a beautifully designed object that seems strangely modern while clearly showing its debt to earlier forms, such as the European album format of Tintin collections:


Note the band across the front cover with the subtitle and the head of the main character (the red-headed Wally is Archie [freckles] + Tintin [rouge cheeks]), and “Hensley” is placed where “HergĂ©” would be; also note the style of the encircled page numbers). For all of Hensley’s interest in past comics, there’s little that’s really nostalgic about the book and its design. Though it gives off a comforting sense of familiarity (evoking the thick covers of a beloved children’s picture book), this feeling is challenged by the book’s at time uncomfortable contents. And the peculiar clarity of Hensley’s drawing and inking on the cover -- and a phrase like “the umpteen millionaire” -- instantly tell us that we're not in Riverdale.

Sex and Sublimation
Gropius tells a strange story about sexual desire and sublimation. One of Wally’s songs argues for teenagers redirecting their urges into a sport (there’s that metaphor again), in this case a marathon ping pong session that must end in frustrated teens spewing vomit, which perhaps functions as a “surrogate oral ejaculate”: the body will ‘out’ its desire in some way. This part of the narrative about human nature and self-censorship -- like much of the book, really -- lives on the edge of cartoony comedy and disturbing revelation. The book’s approach is all the more profound because it blends ‘funny’ and ‘upsetting,’ such as when Jillian beats the shit out of Wally: it's a "boy meets girl, girl beats boy" story . . .

The book deals with many such “issues,” and could be read in a number of “serious” ways: as parable about celebrity; a meditation on female suffering, histrionics, and culture (or a reimagining of teen Sturm und Drang in the “Bieber-fever” media climate of the early 21st century); a critique of beliefs underlying the popularity of sports and connection between sports and patriotism (or an exploration of a nationalistic sentimentalism); a harsh critique of misdirected mothering; etc . . . While I think it’d be fine to see the book as “about” these things (as a parody that criticizes or even mocks some of its subjects), this approach also seems misrepresentative. . . There’s a weird tension between the book’s appealing surfaces and its “content” that disrupts attempts (at least my attempts) at generalizing about the comic.
As Hensley recently said at the LA Times blog: “I have a love/hate relationship with those old comics. There are things about them I'm nostalgic about, but there are things about them that infuriate me as well.” These conflicted feelings play out in the book.

Each Panel / Page is Beautifully Designed

The book’s size (printed larger than it was in serialization) is a real plus in drawing attention to the elegant, uncluttered panel compositions.

Hensley’s Skill as a Letter and Title Designer

Color and Space
A while back, I wrote about a number of other things I liked about the comic: http://blogflumer.blogspot.com/2009/09/gropius-in-space.html

Other Highlights:
+Best use of photo/drawing collage since Fantastic Four Annual 3.
+Oddest Abu Ghraib allusion, one that makes sense in the context of the previous panel’s images and reference to patriotism and sports.
+Most Disturbing Scene of Extispicium in a Teen Comic.

Eight Sources For Further Study:
1. Eric Reynolds Interviews Tim Hensley at the Flog
2. Gary Groth Interviews Hensley in Mome
3. Amazon Message Board Interview
4. Five Questions for Hensley at the LA Times Blog
5. Daniel Clowes on Wally Gropius at The Daily Beast
6. Dash Shaw on Wally Gropius at Comics Comics
7. National Anthems
8. Huey Lewis and Sports

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you say so, but I found the series in Mome to be the opposite-boring repetitive and thin on any ideas.

Ken Parille said...

We find different things . . .

blaise larmee said...

looks gorgeous

Ken Parille said...

It is...

Tim Hensley said...

Gee, Ken, that essay is like a daydream.
Anonymous brought me back to earth.
Anyway, this book may be just for the anoraks...

Anonymous said...

I found it to be allegorical rather than a straight-up "story" or even parody of old comics. I felt like Tim was using old humour comics and characters as vehicles and representations of abstract ideas rather than a conventional "main character is developed emotionally and psychologically over the course of the story" type of thing. I don't think Wally is meant to make that kind of connection to the reader.

I liked it...I'm not sure it *all* works for me personally, but I totally love the potential for more and better Hensley stuff in the future.

Tim Hensley said...

Hello, Anonymous,
You mean like, I don't know, Spenser's The Faerie Queene or something??
I can't say I had that in mind, probably more that I tried to do the normal character "journey" as they say on DVD extras and just couldn't connect.
But I'm glad you liked at least some of it!
Boy, these reviews continue to be a roller coaster. One guy said it wasn't as good as David Boring and another that it wasn't as good as "Playful Obsession." Another said I was superficial. Still haven't been dismissed entirely yet though. Some good notices, too.
My wife says I shouldn't read the reviews...

Ken Parille said...

I have read a few reviews, and some of them seem not to have a grasp of the plot basics, or not to recognize that there is a strong main plot (or two) around which the other actions revolve; the central thread about Wally's need to get married (or lose his inheritance) connects to the other main plot of the con-men (con-people?).
The music scenes (with The Dropouts and the recording session) all relate to the teen romance/seduction thread: Wally’s desire for Jillian as it plays out in his lyrics, his actions in and out of the band, his desire to record her singing, etc . . .

Some of the reviews give off the vibe that the reviewers have only read it once or twice – so maybe they have not seen the logic to its humor and construction.

It is like “Playful Obsession” in certain ways -- but as a much longer story (20x), it’s more heavily plotted with twists and turns. The sense of absurd exaggeration in the dialogue in WG might make it a little harder for the reader to understand than “PO” (certainly on a first reading), which is more a snapshot of the psychology of Harvey characters exaggerated and less about a plot. And WG is like PO but its sense of parody is intensified and distorted . . .

I can’t see how it could be described as superficial, for all of the reasons I write about in my posts – I do talk about the jokes appealing surfaces, but I also talk about all of the “issues” that it deals with.

Frank Santoro said...

This fucking book is so well made - drawing, writing, color, package. It is just sick. Out of the park, Tim.

Tim Hensley said...

Thank you, Frank. Just warning you though, there is some photo reference. (The panel where Wally's saying "Huey Lewis!?" is an ice skater I found on the front page of the sports section that morning.)

Thanks, Ken, I can take it hopefully! Yes, the plot is the check taken from the mailroom by the husband of the unofficial winner of the sad girl contest...
It's probably both too unclear and too well hidden.
I went back and read "Playful Obsession." It's still funny and obviously specifically about Harvey characters. (Not "Bunny" though, Ken, which I'm not so keen on myself except for maybe The Soular System and those panels with nothing but psychedelic lettering, ha ha) I've known Dan for 20 years. It's not always easy to be friends with, like, the greatest cartoonist ever when you're trying to draw your own stuff! But you could just as well say I lifted it all from "Starchie" or "Goodman Goes Playboy."

Sam Gas Can said...

Favorite book this year so far!

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Tim Hensley said...

Whoops. Just checked out comichovel.com. I need to put the Hitchcock strips on that site somehow.
Thanks, Sam (and Blaise up above).
Where's the Rotten Tomatoes webpage for comics?
Marmaduke is at 11%.
"In a genre so choked with cynical films, this one was made with enough skill and heart to make its emotional payoffs believable" - Jason Heck, Kansas City Star

Ken Parille said...

I read a review that talks about "Playful Obsession" – it seems like the author has a narrow notion of parody and what Tim’s doing, seeing his comic as all about having Rich Richie smoke a bong and talk in non sequiturs.

That seems to me like someone who is not reacting to the book as much as they could be – they think, “I have seen this before” and disengage; they fit it into a category and don’t see all of the ways that it doesn’t follow that model.

I have seen that kind of comic
100s of times, too, and Wally Gropius isn’t it.

Are there even non sequiturs in the book? – I just don’t see them . . .

Tim Hensley said...

(Rich Richie is a cool name, like Bev Bevan.
Son of Lionel Richie.
OK, time for cereal...)

Anonymous said...

Did you catch any references to Walter Gropius (see http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/246573/Walter-Gropius ) in "Wally Gropius"? :)

Anonymous said...

I think it's an amazing work. The comparisons with Playful Obsession are silly--what, only parody of Harvey comics is allowed? It draws on so many different influences and emerges as something so unique. Wonderful work.

Jason Overby said...

Yep - this book is incredible. Amazingly precise drawings, weird compositions, great stuff!

Tim Hensley said...

Thanks, Jason.
I loved those minis you sent a while back. Looking forward to reading more of your comics.

Jason Overby said...

Thanks so much! That means a lot. More to come!

Jeffrey Meyer said...

Really fascinating and well-crafted book, but I'm still sorting it out in my head and have questions about a few formal choices:

-Why, if the innards of the book are done mostly in the style of Harvey comics and their ilk, does the cover refer to European albums in its design?

-What are the numbers and symbols on the spine? Numerology? Variations of his safe combination? Stock ticker quotes?

Jeffrey Meyer said...

Okay, right, you got me - I was obviously kidding, I really think the book fucking sucks. Way too in love with its own esoteric cleverness to amount to anything meaningful for anyone but Alvin Buenaventura's gastric bypass surgeon, Art Spiegelman's accountant and 90-year-old codebreakers. Perhaps next we can all discuss

Tim Hensley said...

Hey, Jeffrey, I actually usually enjoy your cutting comments and find them very funny, seriously! I really can't tell which is your sentiment here though. I was obsessively checking this post for a while, but luckily had eased off...
It has occurred to me that if there are so many things in the book that could bear explaining, it may not be connecting on any basic level and thus, as you say, fucking sucks...

Anonymous said...

Just cause someone didnt answer you is no reason to do a 180 freak out. Patience is good. Dont be hurt over nothing.