Jonathan Crary’s 2001 work, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture offers comic scholars a unique tool for understanding the often slow paced and subtle comics of Canadian cartoonist, Seth. Frequently misread as nostalgic, delving into the nature of attention presents readers with a new lens for considering Seth’s sequences, especially the oft-derided conclusion of Palookaville #19.
In his study on attention, Jonathan Crary argues that modern attention is tied in with how one views the past:
[M]odern attention will coincide with an individual evasion of both history and memory. Habitual and commodified, it becomes an imaginary deletion of all that is unbearable or intolerable in collective and individual experience (2001: 361).
Here, Crary argues that the modern viewer will choose to “delete” any “unbearable” experiences, especially those relating to the past. This sort of edited attention is exactly what Seth tries to avoid in Clyde Fans, which often directs the reader’s attention toward objects and sites that imply a sense of failure. In so doing, Seth succeeds in creating a sense of “suspended temporality,” defined by Crary as “a looking or listening so rapt that it becomes an exemption from ordinary conditions… a hovering out of time” (2001: 10). This hovering enables a viewer to hold something in “wonder or contemplation,” and conversely, could be viewed as “a cancellation or an interruption” (10).
Suspension’s dual pull is important for Seth’s work encompasses this dialectic. It encourages contemplation by using his characters’ gaze to focus reflections on the past. His work also encourages interruption as his most poignant sequences are silent, breaking the narrative pattern and forcing the reader to fill in his or her own reading of a given scene.
Thus, to use Crary’s terms, Seth succeeds in creating a sense of perception “that can be both an absorption and an absence or deferral” (2001: 10). The absorption encourages meditation on the past, while the sense of deferral refers primarily to the gaps left in his narrative. By focusing the reader’s attention, especially on particular objects, Seth succeeds in constructing his illustrations in such a way that trains the viewer to meditate on the objects from the past that are intrinsic to his stories.
The dual pull between contemplation and interruption becomes clear at end of Palookaville #19, which comprises part of the Clyde Fans serial. At this point in the story, the man depicted (Simon Matchcard) had just seen his mother, a woman suffering from dementia, sent to a nursing home. The last six pages of the comic are dedicated to a tour, or inventory, of the mother’s room, mostly focusing on the dresser and odd objects that catch the character’s eye.
Reviewers, including the popular blog site PopMatters, called this sequence indulgent, annoying, and described it as padding (Gatevackes 2008). Such reviews missed the mark here as this process shows Simon’s own desire to find out (and recall) as much as he can about his lost mother. The pacing is notable. The panel set-up repeats a key pattern as items are set up, and then pauses or interruptions frame them as unique in space.
This directs the reader’s attention and provides gaps meant to slow down the visual flow and focus attention, which contextualizes the idea of suspension… “a looking or listening so rapt that it becomes an exemption from ordinary conditions… a hovering out of time” (Crary 2001:10) This hovering enables a viewer to hold something in “wonder or contemplation” (Crary 2001:10).
As Simon moves through the bottles, he trails into his own contemplation as he does not know why his mother would have kept them, also showing the absence that persists as his own memories of these objects do not begin to grasp their meaning.
The scene continues through four more pages. It is lengthy, but repeats a key visual pattern wherein especially important items are zoomed into and focused on for multiple panels. These include a brush with the Egyptian motif that was out of style even when it was first produced (Seth 2008:91), and the broken vase that was too precious to discard, even though it was no longer functional (Seth 2008:94).
Disturbing objects like the box of tubes (Seth 2008:91), the garish diamond ring (Seth 2008:92), and the kitschy Eskimo figurines (Seth 2008:93) receive less treatment. The panels are the lens that guides our eye across these items. The emphasis, or lack thereof, helps the reader to see what Simon knows best, but also presents the gaps… why were some (like the box of tubes and bulbs) dismissed so quickly? Why were others (the doe-eyed paintings) handled with such care? The questions reflect back to Simon’s own questioning mindset, creating, once again, a sense of suspension between both past and present and between what we are allowed to cull from the depicted items.
As the sequence comes to an end, the panels fade to black. With the visual flow suddenly cut off, the words become the only guide for interpreting the overall scene. The reader sees the objects, in the end, as locks without keys. An archivist might appraise many incorrectly, and indeed, there are ways to view the pieces that could review different meanings. This may lead the reader to think back to the earlier pages and view them out of order, or perhaps in an alternative order; a reading process that is permitted in a sense, due to the set-up of the pages. One could read a single black box at a time, using them as the stop/start points since the content itself need not be read sequentially. It is a collection of objects… important objects, as the next panels show:
Are six panels needed here? Perhaps not. What they do, however, is visually slow down the previous scenes. As the moment-to-moment pacing slows down the reader, his or her eyes are left to focus on the verbiage, and the last line stands out as Simon moves his gaze from the reader’s view. The pages that preceded were, in effect, an act of mourning.
Seth’s Palookaville #19 is demanding. It requires the reader to negotiate the space of memory, and can be too easy to dismiss due to this challenge. Stopping to look between the lines is rewarding, resulting in a suspension of perception that not only helps connect with the character, but also share in his grief.
Crary, J. (2001) Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press)
Gatevackes, W. “Palookaville #19.” PopMatters <http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/palookaville-19/>. Accessed 11 April 2011
Seth. (2008) Palookaville #19 (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly)