“Comics get to the essence of something quickly and efficiently….They distill and refine, they don’t necessarily tell stories or have a message.”
—Mark Newgarden in an interview, and “The Little Nun” from We All Die Alone
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Of course, they can tell stories. The trick is just a million different combinations of words and images and panels.
I’m still a bit obsessed with this idea of a novel constructed out of gag strips. The gorgeous thing about a gag strip is that it doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to have a punchline. And the good news is that a decent novel chapter does the same thing: there’s a rise and fall and then a good punchline at the end to give you some kind of closure, but also get you to turn the page and read the next one. What happens next?
Here’s Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without A Country:
It’s damned hard to make jokes work. In Cat’s Cradle, for instance, there are these very short chapters. Each one of them represents one day’s work, and each one is a joke. If I were writing about a tragic situation, it wouldn’t be necessary to time it to make sure the thing works. You can’t really misfire with a tragic scene. It’s bound to be moving if all the right elements are present. But a joke is like building a mousetrap from scratch. You have to work pretty hard to make the thing snap when it’s supposed to snap.
There’s a reason why Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library is way better than Jimmy Corrigan. Acme is still Ware’s melancholy world, but Rocket Sam and Big Tex have that snap—that punchline of a good gag strip. (Maybe this is because Ware’s art trumps his writing, and a good deal of the gag strip has to do with the visual tricks involved…)
Now: wouldn’t you love to read a graphic novel’s worth of Mark Newgarden’s “Little Nun” gag strips? (You can check out more of them in McSweeney’s 13 or We All Die Alone). All it would require is continuity. Some kind of journey or quest. The Little Nun could just take a trip across America. Maybe she could meet other nuns. Gather a crew. Fall in love or something. It could go on for something like 100 pages. It’d be so easy to draw, you could just churn out the pages. And think of the serializing potential! It’d be spectacular.
Eventually, I think The Complete Peanuts will read something like this. George Saunders wrote in his Shulz obit:
…try to imagine, say, three kids sitting against the side of a suburban house on a summer afternoon….If these characters are allowed to grow up and leave the suburban lawn and get jobs and fall in love, this is called a novel, and you, the creator, are called a novelist. If the imagined children are not allowed to grow up but are confined to the suburban lawn, where they continue for the next 50 years to be rich manifestations of their creator’s psyche, and if this creator’s imagination is supple and energetic enough never to tire of reimagining the children on the suburban lawn and never to make us tired of observing the children on the suburban lawn, this is called “Peanuts.”
But if you read them all together, doesn’t the collected work take some kind of shape, some rise and fall of action that resembles a narrative? Some continuity that resembles something the steps in a journey? Certainly it presents a world.
Or is it the ending that we demand, the closure, the change, the move to point B from point A?