On this page from Corridor, (2006) Indian graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee expresses the state of existential drift of his character, a comic book artist in search of “a seemingly innocent-looking object”, the perfect pen and ink. These tools are essential for him and are very hard to find in the city where he lives: the artist’s journey is portrayed almost like an epic descent into the purgatorio of urban Delhi.
Banerjee’s protagonist literally falls into the centripetal force of the collector’s ambition to first find, and then to possess, the coveted objects. Acquiring the pen is not an end in itself, though, since the goal is to actually use the pen and ink to create comic book pages. (When found, the pen will remain unused: “What if I break the nib. The pen rots away along with several other objects, stashed in my red room, rare LPs of favourite musicians, who I cannot listen for the fear of damaging the records” (2006:3). This dilemma is indeed well known in comics.)
In Banerjee’s single-panel page (a splash panel I suppose) a quotation by Jean Baudrillard from his essay “The System of Collecting” (1994:7-24) describes the state of constant flux of the collector, who becomes weightless in a universe of tangible objects. The caption containing Baudrillard’s lines is not narrative, since it is in fact an extraneous quote which serves as an excuse to illustrate the merging of practice and theory, life and art in a comic book page. These lines of theory are noticeably out of place in a fictional comic book page, and yet they are literally both mise en cadre and mise en page (Samson and Peeters 2010; see also Bartual 2010). Furthermore, one cannot resist saying that in the most literal sense this mise en page is also a mise en abyme.
Banerjee’s one-panel page is an interruption in Corridor‘s fictional narrative progress. The reader understands the action takes place in the realm of the imaginary (the theoretical in fact) and not the “reality” of the diegetic universe, in which the protagonist has set out to find his tools. Resembling the moment in which the walker stops or slows down to see him/herself reflected on a mirror or window, the page is a pause, a parenthesis, where the paper of the page, the page itself understood as a “technical unit” (Groensteen 2007) and the frame containing the images and words the reader sees work jointly as an exercise of media-specificity, where the book as fiction becomes an artist’s sketchbook or journal.
The protagonist falls in this time-space continuum after getting lost amongst the streets and crowds of Delhi. The constant waves of vehicle and human traffic are intoxicating, and the journey (the descent) becomes a trip. The body of Banerjee’s artist collector (the man in the crowd) suddenly finds himself drifting in space, apparently weightless (defying the gravity of the physical world), and yet falling in a whirlwind that includes books, records, boxing gloves, a flask, a boot, a film reel, a poster, a skateboard, an unplugged radio, a chess knight.
The purposeful flânerie of an author in search of his creative tools sets the physicality of the human body in ontological equivalence with other objects invested with a value (an aura?) recognisable by a community of collectors. The collector’s “fall” is the subjection to a higher power (like gravity or magnetism), an expression of the drifting , fluctuating identity of people and things. In a world defined by uncertainty, collecting both enhances and offers the momentary relief of [self]preservation. It is as if Banerjee had wanted to redraw Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s Angelus Novus.
And indeed, “collectors are physiognomists in the world of objects,” as Benjamin wrote in 1931 (1982:59-67). Collecting as the practice of “physiognomy” (from the Greek physis; ‘nature’, and gnomon; ‘judge’ or ‘interpreter’) implies then a conscious interpretive act which is physical in itself. It is not only the amassing of commodities, but an integration of what Diana Taylor synthesised as “the place-thing-practice triad” (Taylor 2010).
It is through this triple process that comic book textuality is fleshed out; the triad causes “physiognomies ” to be created and curated. This means that the collector does not simply accumulate objects but actually gives shape to his/her life and world through collecting, which implies an inherently selective process.
The triad between place, thing and practice exemplifies how in the realm of comics collecting becomes a textual matrix where the limits between the textual and the real of human activity are blurred. Collecting implies an awareness of the fragility of physical materiality. In the physicality of the collection, the collector participates in the ongoing construction of textuality, of comics textuality and of the collector’s sense of self.
Banerjee, S. (2006). Corridor. A Graphic Novel (Delhi: Penguin Books India)
Bartual, R. (2010). “Inner focalization: a child’s game”, The Comics Grid, 10 March 2011 <http://blog.comicsgrid.com/2011/03/inner-focalization-a-childs-game-2/>. Accessed 13 March 2011.
Baudrillard, J. (1994) ‘The System of Collecting’ in Eslner, J. and Cardinal, R., (eds.) The Cultures of Collecting. Translated by Roger Cardinal. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Benjamin, W. (1982). ‘Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting’, in Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. (London: Fontana)
Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics (Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press)
Samson, J. and Peeters, B. (2010) Chris Ware: la bande dessinée reinventée (Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles)
Taylor, D. (2010). ‘Archiving Memory in the Age of Digital Technologies.’ Keynote address, Exploring the Archive in the Digital Age Conference, King’s College London, Friday 7 May 2010.