hello and a short critical essay on 'bread and wine'
- Hello Delany-list people,
I'm happy to know that the list is picking up a bit and we're getting some
queries and information after a mostly not-very-active few months! I hope
you all have been well -- I know that busy-ness in my own personal and
work lives have made it hard to find time to do some of the writing for
this list I would like to.
It seems that Chip Delany is now teaching at SUNY Buffalo. That's pretty
interesting -- thanks to David for posting that syllabus. I'm not too far
away [Toronto] -- I'll keep an eye out for public events and readings in
Here are some thoughts of mine, not as organized as I would like, on the
topic of Bread and Wine (Delany, drawn by Mia Wolff, Juno Books, 1999).
As I generally do with Delany's writing, I like the story -- the narrative
thrust, the economical yet passionate writing, the warmth and generosity
of it. It's not a long story, but it is very sweet (that NY Press article
quotes someone that it's basically a long valentine to Dennis), and I
enjoyed reading it.
However, I have a bunch of problems with the illustration that detract
from my appreciation of the story. I feel strange about disagreeing with
such a comics eminence as Alan Moore, who is effusive in his praise for
Wolff's work in his introduction, but there it is.
(I should mention here that I've been reading comics and comics criticism
for years, and my tastes run the gamut from ironic superheroes to some of
the bleaker black and white alternative comics to New Yorker gags. I have
some basic acquaintance with the range of styles possible in comics, and
this informs my discussion of what follows.)
Wolff's style resembles that of Frank Stack, illustrating Joyce Brabner
and Harvey Pekar's _Our Cancer Year_. There are a lot of black lines in
white space, a lot of figurative portraits with a loose or scribbled pen,
some quite interesting when looked at as sketches. (Some of which seem to
reach for though not achieve an interesting kind of simplistic
characterisation through a 'cartoony' style -- like the rather
fantasy-troll like image of Delany on page 3 -- which I feel is not very
well done.) Though it's not the kind of cartoon art that I respond to most
strongly, I can appreciate it.
However, I feel that Wolff's work doesn't work, most of the time, as
comics, in the sense that the words and the pictures form an interesting
whole. What Wolff does with most of Delany's words is a kind of
literalism, often stooping to cliche -- twinning what happens in the
narrative that runs beside, above, or under the pictures -- and that is
probably the least interesting way of doing comics as COMICS -- unity of
art and word -- as opposed to illustration.
Some of the lyrical passages -- mostly sex scenes -- are beautifully
rendered and very poetic (as well as being essentially wordless art
pieces... as opposed to comics).
Take page 15, top panel. The text reads 'The high laced workboots and the
three layers of socks beneath them came off--and out of them came a stench
that, frankly, beats anything I'd *ever* smelled before.' 'The inner pair
of socks had simply *decayed* around his feet.' The illustration is a
realistic sketch of a single workboot and a couple of shreds of fabric,
presumably rotted socks. 'Smell lines' -- upward-moving wavy lines
representing 'odor' -- emanate from socks and boot.
This combination of realism -- the footwear -- and cartoon iconism -- the
smell lines -- is a way to handle the illustrative task that adds nothing
to the text. Yes, smell. Yes, rotted fabric. The panel doesn't interesting
contrast, amplify, play with, react to, dimminish, or do anything dynamic
with the text -- it just illustrates it.
Chapter 6 of Scott McCloud's _Understanding Comics_ (which I would
recommend as an entertaining read for anyone interested in comics, or
anyone who likes to think about critical methods applied to pop culture)
discusses the different ways that words and images can play off one
another in comics, and in general, Wolff restricts herself to what McCloud
calls the 'duo-specific' mode, where pictures and text send essentially
the same message (a simple listing of the other modes available gives some
idea of the range of possibilities [word-specific, picture-specific,
additive, parallel, montage, and (most 'comics-like', to my mind)
Page 37 -- another example. No ironic or inventive play with all the foods
-- just a literal example -- food on a fork, at dinner table -- of all the
things Dennis mentions.
There are perhaps two panels where Wolff reaches for an expressive
non-literal illustration style that I think adds more to the story -- the
distorted landscape with face on top of page 5, and of course the bicycle
with wings on page 38.
From the round-table discussion at the back of the book, Delany says "I
might have written things differently had I been, say, writing a novel
rather than a comics text of 44 pages." I'm sad that Delany didn't work
with someone I would think of as a real comics artist, as admiring as I am
of Mia Wolff's technical proficiency and expressionist drawings -- I think
it would have been a richer and more interesting work.
zvi@... <-- note new email address