Failure is an Art
My father tried to be a cartoonist. Growing up, I’d find correspondence-school books filled with figures and illustrations, works to imitate. He filled sketch books with black-ink pictures. His own drawings favored Andy Capp, working-class figures with hairy arms and cigarettes dangling from their lips. All of his drawings looked a lot like him, though I doubt he’d have seen it that way.
The dream: syndication. The obstacle: the market, then crowded with artists who saw themselves at the next Charles Schulz, the next Walt Kelly. Another obstacle: location. Far from the glitzy offices of New York, he eked out a life in a rural town, far from anything, a Pogo world, a Gasoline Alley world. He drew what he knew, but in the end, what he knew wasn’t enough. Are stories true if no one reads them?
One day, he stopped sending out packets of cartoons to publishers. The rejections got too much. It was easier to create if he had a dream, but the hope had turned to a hard shell, a carapace that shielded him from disappointment. When it cracked, too, he quit drawing altogether. My mother still has a lot of cartoons, unorganized, stacked in boxes beneath her bed. I don’t know why she keeps them.
Teaching is an Art
I give each student an oversized index card and tell them to fold it in half and cut a square out of it to create a frame. I lead them out onto the campus quad and say, Hold up your frame. Study the world that you see. Really look. See how all the parts unify. They wander in the St. Augustine grass, observing long leaf pines and azalea bushes, tilting this way and that, lingering on groups of students. Sometimes, they look at each other. It’s then that my students look the loneliest, strange wanderers studying the world through paper.
Scott McCloud calls comics sequential art. The mind must fill in what happens between each panel. We see Charlie Brown rushing at Lucy, squatted down, the football a lie at the tip of her finger. Then, Chuck sails through the air, his face an aaaargh! of agony. In some of Schultz’s comics, each panel is the same: Snoopy on the doghouse, eyes closed in thought. The change is internal. Once, a student plopped down in front a brick wall and held up his pane to study it. Every brick is the same he said. How am I supposed to write about this? I told him, You have to write them differently even if they seem the same.
In some movie I saw as a kid, a film director made a panel of his hands, touching his thumbs to one another and holding his palms out. You ought to be in pictures, he told some breathless starlet. He swept his finger-camera around, muttering, This is perfect. This is so perfect. We are meant to see him as crass, an exploiter, not an artist. We are meant to think him a hack. He doesn’t want to make a movie; he wants to sell one. His process is at the service of product. My students always want their grades. I want them to write well. You should be a writer, I tell the best of them.
Memory is Sequential Art
The past is not the past. It is made fresh with each memory. I do not remember my father’s clean ink lines or black felt-tipped pens. I recall the last time I recalled them. Memory is not narrative—it is lyric, flashes of images like sunlight off a calm bay. We arrange the images. Lay them side by side. Tell ourselves that this is the story of our lives. In comics, the spaces between frames are called gutters. On a city street, the gutter drains the garbage away.
Today, I am seven years from the year my father died. He had slowed already, taking to bed each night at dusk, arising before dawn. He had to have felt the arteries slowing to sludge. He had to notice the shortness of breath, the way his body no longer responded to commands. He told me once, I wish I’d had you much earlier in life. I’d felt robbed, the father I could have had just a memory. Now, I know: It wasn’t about me at all.
There will come a day when my son tries to cipher my actions. He will recall every errant What do you want now? He will string together images: me writing, me with a late glass of bourbon, me in front of the TV (my eyes on a book and not on him). If I could do it for him, I’d create a better gallery: the two of us at a Chuckie Cheese. The two us in a movie theater, sharing popcorn. Me in the soccer bleachers, yelling his name. There is art in juxtaposition. There is meaning.