In Art and Illusion, the historian of art Ernst Gombrich says that “a style, like a culture or climate of opinion, sets up a horizon of expectation, a mental set” (2002, 50). Daniel Clowes is well aware of that. The author is known for switching styles in order to play with conventions and expectations that are original from other genres, especially in his later works Ice Haven and Wilson.
This kind of play with styles already appears in Clowes earlier works, like in this page from David Boring. But here this mechanism has significant differences. First, the change corresponds to a shift in focalization: the new style signals the introduction of a new graphiator – term coined by Philippe Marion to refer to a graphic enunciator – , and marks a new fictional territory: the embedded narrative in the comic book read by the protagonist. Besides, unlike what happens in Wilson and Ice Haven, the change doesn’t happen from page to page, but within the same page, offering a tension between panels that obeys a completely different dynamics.
This is the second to last page of ‘act one’, as Clowes calls the first of three installments serialized in Eightball (and later published as a graphic novel). David, the protagonist, has discovered that his father was an obscure comic book writer and examines a copy of Yellow Streak Annual in search for more details about his dad. The combination between diegetic space and story-within-the-story invites the reader to a comparison induced by the simultaneity proper to a tabular reading of comics pages.
The first three panels of this page show more or less the same situation, but from different perspectives: David, the main character, reads a comic book in an empty cafe. The fourth panel introduces a different fictional dimension and creates a clash between two fictional worlds. We have, on the one hand, the uniform, monocromatic, silent and motionless situation in the comics that we are reading and, on the other hand, a colored, lively, tense and noisy condition on the comic book David is reading.
The clash between the two fictional worlds can be read in many levels: in the story level, this juxtaposition forces associations between characters and situations from both stories. In panel four, for example, we see a warning about a potential iminent “danger” that can be connected to the events in the next page, when David himself faces an attempt of murder (leaving the reader with a sadistic cliffhanger, but that’s another story). In the same panel, a tower in a falic shape is just one more sign of a mocking symbolism in the web of clues, anagrams and coincidences Clowes obsessively built all over the narrative. Basically, what happens in Yellow Streak Annual functions as a frame story to feed this puzzle.
But, besides that, what calls attention in this specific page is how it reflects some aspects of the history of the medium itself, reinforcing formal and content-wise differences between two traditions, namely that of “mainstream comics” and “alternative comics”, or at least a caricature of what these two vague labels are assumed to be.
The first is composed by extraordinary worlds – worlds of fantasy inhabited by extremely active characters in comics driven by a highly immersive narrative dynamic, moving forward the expectations of the reader in order to keep the flow of the serialized production. Besides the type of story, Clowes also mimics the use of gestures, color palette, printing techniques (Ben-Day dots), and trace typical from a certain epoch and school.
The alternative comics, in their turn, usually address ordinary worlds. Nothing much happens in this page (although that doesn’t apply to the whole book), the protagonist (whose surname, Boring, already suggests something) has a blasé attitude, gestures are used with parsimony, and David’s facial expression could be interpreted as indifferent. The visual style here is basically composed by the very thin lines that Dan Clowes himself helped to spread, and that became recognizable as typical in many alternative comics.
In the last panel, an older man says “I’m glad to see they’re still teaching the classics” (2000: 35-6), just as a blink to the reader to add a bit of irony so typical of Clowes. This is followed by an equally revealing brief conversation, in the next page. The man apologizes to interrupt David in the middle of the story, because he’s “very opposed to all forms of narrative disruption” (2000: 36-2). That statement reinforces one more contrast: while the “classics” should “avoid all forms of narrative disruption” or anything that could possibly threat reader engagement in the story, “alternative comics” are actually encouraged to blur the boundaries, and expected to kick “against the calcified limitations of the medium” (Hatfield, 2005, x). As a matter of fact, few things could be more disruptive for a fictional immersion than such abrupt change of style.
Clowes, D. (2000) David Boring (New York: Pantheon).
Fresnault-Deruelle, P. (1976). “Du linéaire au tabulaire.” Communications (24): 7-23.
Hatfield, C. (2005) Alternative Comics: an emerging literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississipi).
Gombrich, E.H. (2002) Art and Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation (London: Phaidon Press).
Marion, P. (1993) Traces en cases travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur (Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia).