Monday, August 3, 2009

Lisa Hanawalt's I Want You

I was happy to see Scott McCloud discuss Lisa Hanawalt’s I Want You at his site: "I like Hanawalt’s work because it creates sensations I’ve never seen comics achieve and opened my eyes to radical possibilities." I certainly agree. Her comic is not only an impressive debut, it’s one of the best new comics I’ve read this year. I appreciate McCloud’s review -- this comic certainly deserves attention -- but I have a different take on a few aspects of Hanawalt’s work.

To set up my brief look at his comments, I'll talk a little about the form of I Want You:
Hanawalt’s comic is a 32 page anthology that features 18 different pieces. Yet because some of the pieces are one-page illustrations that relate to stories that come later, we can’t even say precisely how many works are in the anthology -- do we count these as two separate pieces or as one that’s been split into two locations? And I say pieces and works -- slightly awkward terms -- because some of them are not really comics, in the traditional sense.

This is one of the things that’s so interesting about I Want You. It’s loosely composed as a single work that’s held together by recurring themes (bodily fluids, wounds, horses), characters (She-Moose), and cartoon forms (the many illustrated lists, for example). It mixes conventional narrative comics, illustrated lists, single-page illustrations, color pieces that resemble a standard three- or four-panel daily narrative newspaper comic (without actually being one), and more. Some of the lists, too, create a categorizing problem; they could be described as non-narrative comics, or as semi-narrative, or even as narrative lists. They have properties that I think would make any of these terms applicable. Deciding on the genre category that these ‘comics’ fit is an interpretive act . . .

McCloud says "There’s no pretense of a 'story,'" but I don’t think this is correct. It’s true that the comic itself is not a single story, but no anthology is. I Want You does include five conventional narratives, at least in the formal sense. These stories feature what we could call “continuities of character, place, or time”-- the things you typically need some of for a story. “One Day at Work,” for example, features a group of characters who ‘proceed through’ a linear plot in a consistent setting. Formally, this story ‘reads’ like the average Archie comic -- except for the sex-bugs.

Here's the first page from another narrative, the story "Lunch Break":

McCloud notes that "Hanawalt’s pages are aggressively experimental." I think he's right in some cases, but many, like the above page, chart the familiar comics territory of the grid. Hanawalt's comic is innovative, especially in the way it combines familiar and unusual page layouts. And in many ways, it's aggressively accessible, with all of its funny animal humor and gleeful crassness. . .

"Hanawalt’s work," McCloud writes toward the end of his review, "is the type often dismissed by artists I know as ‘pretentious’ or ‘self-indulgent.’" When these terms are typically applied to an indy comic, it’s because the comic is either a slow-moving slice-of life story, or a "navel-gazing" autobiography, or tries claim the status of Serious Art. I don’t think Hanawalt hopes these comics will appear in The New Yorker (the standard claim made by bloggers etc. against cartoonists they think are pretentious and desperate for legitimacy). I can't see what an illustrated list of funny menstrual terms (can you guess what the "The Death Valley Stuffer" is?), a mini-instructional manual on how to fake jerking off while driving, or two pages of beautifully-drawn animal heads with silly hats is aspiring to.

[I recognize that McCloud doesn't use ‘pretentious’ or ‘self-indulgent’ himself, but invoking these terms might mislead some readers about what kind of comic that I Want You is.]

I Want You is a very funny and formally inventive anthology, one that's the opposite of pretentious. Hanawalt’s comic is something fresh: an anthology of cartooning styles that has no allegiance to any single kind of comics form. Like the car accident on the cover above, it’s “cartoon chaos” -- in the best sense of the term.

(Coda: Perhaps it makes a kind of sense to call a comic that includes a masturbation manual "self-indulgent." And McCloud say "the subject matter seems tossed-off," making a clever masturbation pun himself.)