by Kevin Czap
Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is conveying narrative through use of the second person. That is to say, making comics that aren’t about an event or characters doing things directly, but rather focus on speaking directly to the reader. There are many comics that do this for educational or instructional ends, such as Ikea booklets and airplane safety guides, or Will Eisner’s old PS strips. These examples are all pretty utilitarian though. As someone who likes comics to mess with them a bit more, I wonder how much room to play around there is in something like this.
Off the top of my head, the majority of comics I’ve seen that use the second person are strips that parody or satirize advertising. Advertising is one of the most ubiquitous and insidious aspects of our contemporary lives. It’s everywhere we turn, even invading the air we breathe, and marketing as a whole has altered the course of our culture to a massive degree. Seems like a pretty worthy subject for art, as we’ve seen for at least 60 years in almost every medium. Two of my favorite cartoonists who address this phenomena are Matt Groening and Kevin Huizenga.
The former is well known through his association with the Simpsons for the repeated skewering of the dual nature of marketing (the spectacular language matched with the sub-par/dangerous reality). Of course, being the Comix Cube, I’m going to want to focus on his work on Life in Hell. Akbar and Jeff, the brothers/lovers/business partners have been peddling every conceivable ware for several decades now. Speaking directly to the reader, pages like the one above are plain silly and could perhaps be considered one-note, if not for the amount of stuff that’s going on in them. Groening tends to make sure there’s not any space left unused within his designated square. All in all, it’s a chuckle on its own, but keep in mind this is just one of several “Akbar & Jeff’s Something-something Hut” that has advertised in the pages of Life in Hell over a 10-20 year period. The cumulative effect, at least for me, takes the joke to another level of ridiculousness. It doesn’t strive to be profound, it’s just something you get.
The images above come from Kevin Huizenga’s recent hardcover collection The Wild Kingdom. I think this stuff is hilarious, although I think the humor defies explanation. Again, we see a cartoonist adopting advertising language, devoting an entire panel to ask the reader a serious question. The narration appears to stick close to the character of the salesman, the everything is too generic and vague to really mean anything, until finally the imagery just starts veers off into the abstract. The line “I was saved from my own life!” is a repeat customer in this book, a terribly deep yet meaningless catch phrase that cracks me up every time it shows up.
Huizenga is brilliant with this second person comics stuff, able to wring a beautiful poetic quality out of these absurd strips. It makes me think of the famous Hemingway short short story: “For sale: Pair of baby shoes, never worn.”
Another cartoonist who I’ve seen do a great job is Lisa Hanawalt. What I like about her work is how matter-of-fact the tone of voice is in the narration despite how outlandish or grotesque her drawings get. It’s an excellent dry humor that has similarities to what Huizenga’s doing, but somewhat darker.
So these are just a few of the precedents for this kind of narrative in comics. Do any of you guys have good examples to share? I think what appeals to me about this method of writing is it’s less escapist in a way. Escapism is fine and good, but I guess where I got thinking about all this was thinking about ways for comics to deal more directly with the world we actually live in. Comics journalism? Activist work? It’s tricky, politics in art.
Note: Doing a bit of research for this led me to something called “flash fiction.” I don’t know much about it besides L mentioning it to me one or two times before. Maybe she could fill us in more on it and how it may or may not relate to what I’m talking about?
Image credits in order of appearance: Kevin Huizenga, Will Eisner, Matt Groening, Kevin Huizenga, Lisa Hanawalt