Home Decorating in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

There are comics all over my apartment but only one hangs on the wall. Surveying those walls, white like eggshells and for the most part just as bare, I suppose that I am particular about what I’ll display. Or in less effete terms, what I’m willing to look at day in, day out.

A five-foot-tall Stranger Than Paradise poster from France commands what my landlord and I call the kitchen and everyone else refers to as a closet. One summer evening after work I carried the dry-mounted monstrosity (“Un Film de Jim Jarmusch”) home on the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn. My fellow subway riders, vagrant and salaried alike, couldn’t have looked at me stranger if the stiff board had read “The End Is Nigh” and been sandwiched around my naked body. When I switched coasts the following autumn, I packed the poster with my mattress.

The living room features two more dry-mounts: a Raw magazine promotional, illustrated by Dutch comics master Joost Swarte, and a black-on-tan human body marksmanship target produced by the Alco Target Company of Duarte, California. The target is visible through my window, which I suppose should be of some concern to me in this time of personal-armament deregulation. What I find far more worrisome, however — alarming, even — is that the same target is visible through the window of an apartment three blocks up my street, where I spied it a few weeks ago while driving home from the supermarket. My target may be retired shortly.

The dining room, which extends from the kitchen much as a dog extends from its tail, is graced by a black-and-white photograph of a bombed-out library. I first saw the image in the Sunday book review supplement of a London newspaper in 1993, and it took a year to track down a copy to the Royal Historical Archives. The photograph is of Holland House Library in October of 1940, no doubt after a German air raid. The floor is carpeted with charred books — an allusion to municipal book burnings, Nazi, PTA or otherwise — and the ceiling has collapsed into an X of charred beams, but the walls remain erect, extending into the distance, as do whole shelves of singed volumes along them. Three men stand among the ruins, unfazed by the disaster around them or, apparently, the terror of the night before; each is in a different stage of perusing the library, almost Muybridge time-release style. One, hands buried deep in his overcoat, scans the titles; the second selects a single volume with an index finger; and the third, younger than the other two and the only one minus an overcoat, is already reading deeply. A chair sits empty just off center.

In the past year, friends, relatives and I have stumbled upon the photo in no fewer than four places: the cover of a recent history of World War II; the cover of volume 7 of a lefty political journal titled Americas Review; the street window display of a large Manhattan bookstore, blown up three times the size of my Stranger Than Paradise poster; and buried deep in, oddly, volume 7 of Building America, an early-’40s scholastic encyclopedia published by the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, National Education Association.

What appealed to me about the Holland House photo when I first saw it reproduced on cheap newsprint was not so much the compositional spark, as it were, that raised the image from photojournalism to art. Instead, I was deeply touched by this romantic image of knowledge’s triumph over violence. So I suppose that I should be pleased to find it widely circulated. Sure I am.

Oh, and then, without pausing at the cork board suspended above my desk or the flea market oddity haloing the toilet, there’s this piece of comic art I mentioned.

I suppose it was a long time coming. I have been reading comic books since I was at an age when knowledge’s triumph over violence meant preferring to read books in my bedroom over chancing an encounter with the bullies, and other human beings who populated my suburban cul-de-sac. Along with fear, my parents can be credited with inspiring my bookish retreat from the world. Family legend tells that they chose the site of our house’s construction because it was within walking distance — .6 miles — of the local public library: a left off Beech Place onto Briarwood Drive, a hike right down Woodbury Road, and a right again onto Main Street. Place, Drive, Road, Street: Long Island offered such diversity of experience.

Woodbury Road was a thoroughfare, and though I was allowed — encouraged, in fact — to walk along its east side to the library, my parents forbade crossing it. A rebel, I was not. I remember when the town built a new road intersecting Woodbury from the east: Washington Carver — can you guess? — Avenue. My civic pride at my hometown’s racial pluralism was cut brief, for it quickly occurred to me that Mom and Dad might now consider the east side of Woodbury too heavily trafficked. They did not.

Then, one day, someone rented some office space next to an accountant on the west side of Woodbury and built a museum of cartoon art. I kid you not. Across just two lanes of blacktop stood a small red-brick building housing original drawings from comic books and daily newspapers. My parents took me to the museum on occasion, but for the most part I had to imagine its contents from the other side of the street, forced to satiate my image-lust at the library with New Yorker compendiums and historian Maurice Horn’s The World Encyclopedia of Comics (which, I recently discovered, neglects Joost Swarte). As if to taunt me, the cartoon museum eventually replaced its generic bronze street number with word-balloon-style signage: a bright white Dairy Queen swirl tilted on its side and outlined in black. Eventually, after a few years of beckoning me into a speed zone, the gallery closed.

The trip from Woodbury Road to my second story apartment in Sacramento is fairly brief, as far as comics are concerned. College. English degree. Shit work. Job offer. Move to California. For the past six and a half years, I have been employed with a music-magazine publisher where, among other things, I edit the comics. We have space for about four or five comics a month, which averages the arrival of one per week. Nothing beats the thrill of opening a package containing comic art, not even interviewing a favorite musician or acquiring the freelance services of a favorite novelist. The ritual surrounding the arrival of comic art is all mine: the NASA-quality Federal Express adhesive; the layers of protective cardboard; the arcane language of the artist’s instructions to the printer — the rare experience of comic-as-art, several times its eventual printed size, before it’s been scanned, filtered through computers and reproduced into 350,000 identical copies. (I instigated comics at the magazines in the first place, so the sense of having built something from scratch only adds to my excitement each time a page arrives.)

Recently in Seattle on vacation, I visited the offices of Fantagraphics Books, where I was faced with the reality of big-league comics publishing. Color separations beamed from a half dozen computer screens. Galley copies sat stacked below chairs. Entire issues-worth of comic art lay about the room. “Oh, here’s the new Jim Woodring,” someone said, motioning toward the top of a sticker-covered file cabinet.

Well, the experience of original comic art — “original comic art,” those three words cemented together in vernacular like “recommended daily allowance” and “sexually transmitted disease” — can be nowhere so distant from the Fantagraphics experience as in my apartment. I have always wanted to possess such a thing, probably since I lost the raffle for a Spider-Man page at the cartoon art museum back on Woodbury Road. It has always been a question of what more than when. Several hundred pieces of art pass across my desk each year, editorial illustrations (often assigned to comics artists, rather than to traditional commercial illustrators) and comics proper. But I only bought my first piece less than a year ago, the piece I have since framed and hung in my apartment.

In San Diego for the annual comics convention, I don’t often find much of interest. Sure, I swoon over episodes of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, of significantly greater dollar value than my car. But financial matters eventually took a back seat in the comic-art search. Originally, I was set on a piece by British artist Dave McKean, the rich photographic collages and the stark pen-and-inks. But the latter, I came to realize, lost something when a single page was orphaned from the context of a lengthy story. And as for the collages — I should have learned from my work experience. For what looks tremendous on the magazine and comic-book page is a figment of printer’s magic. Though fully painted comics, complete with hand lettering, are not unheard of, a single color page may be constructed from as many as a dozen separations. McKean’s work was tremendous in person, some four times its printed size, but it was also an awkward origami of vellum, onion skin, instructive overlays and color separations, more puzzle than painting, and certainly not suitable for framing.

As I write this, I am expecting at work a comic by an artist I greatly admire. He will be providing the piece in two parts: one watercolor, one black line. I am flirting with the idea of purchasing both and framing them separately, but I have not seen the draft yet, so I have no idea whether the piece itself will be of interest to me personally. In any case, computers have rendered such a suggestion meaningless in most of comicdom these days. An overwhelming percentage of comics are colored digitally, as on the tubes in the Fantagraphics office, so there is no actual color work to be displayed in the cartoon museums of the future. At best I could beg a copy of a computer file from a color technician and turn it into a memory-intensive screensaver on my computer. (Hmm?)

Eventually I came to focus my comic-art search on black and whites — true black and whites, comics meant to be printed in black and white, not a black-and-white piece of art destined for a professional colorist. Ironically, the piece I chose to purchase, the piece that now hangs in my dining room on the wall adjacent to war-torn London, was selected before I ever saw the completed art. A series of faxes arrived one day from a cartoonist named Matt Madden who lives in Austin, Texas, and whose self-published Terrifying Steamboat Stories comic I have long enjoyed. Among the faxes was a draft for “House Music,” which contained six simple panels. The final art is reproduced here, and it doesn’t differ much from the draft, aside from the quality of the line work: A needle retreats from a vinyl LP, instigating a musing about the kind of life-music of which John Cage and Erik Satie wrote, a chamber music that meshes household appliances, street distractions and other ambient noise, orchestrated by the nature of the built environment (“Filtered through drywall,” writes Madden). The remainder of the comic art focuses on elements in that environment: a desk, a fan, the book-lined corner of the room, a tea kettle. The peace inherent in Madden’s comic is lovely; reading the fax that day reminded me of a “story” he had once drawn in Steamboat Stories about slicing a zucchini.

I OK’d the draft and negotiated with Madden for the purchase assuming the final art met my expectations. Then I sat and waited for the arrival of the comic, feeling like an Alaskan fisherman must in advance of his bride’s appearance.

A month or so later Federal Express delivered it. The wording had been slightly altered. The draft’s opening (“When a record side comes to an end, a new song begins”) had flowered (“When the needle reaches the end of its ever-narrowing vinyl spiral, a new music begins”) and other descriptions had been trimmed (“household appliances” became “appliances”). Several objects had shifted further out of the panels. I have to say that I feel odd complimenting Madden’s comic from this vantage, as if I have some vested interest in increasing the work’s value. Let it simply be stated that I loved “House Music” upon its arrival. So did much of the staff, and it ran in the next issue of one of our magazines.

Three hundred and fifty thousand copies later, I still loved “House Music” and once the art returned from the printer I installed it on my wall. From where I am sitting, my own bookcases are reflected in the corner of its Plexiglas frame. I hadn’t looked at the draft in close to a year before I decided to write this essay. I pulled it out of my files at work. Ever the editor, I remembered the text changes. And I was pleased to be reminded that the tea kettle, which faces inward in the final art, once pointed off the page; I believe that Madden’s alteration aided the piece’s sense of privacy and enclosure.

But the biggest change of all I had never even noticed before. In the original draft, a man sits in front of the computer, typing. His presence thoroughly changes the strip. In the early version we’re led to believe that the comic’s narration is what the man is typing. In the final version, the narration is freed from such a physical mooring, much as the sounds are freed from their reference points and allowed to mingle into an imaginary musical composition. I haven’t discussed this with Madden, but I imagine that he felt that the presence of a body violated the quietude of his piece. One of the ironies of his title is that house music refers to the loud, bass-heavy soundtrack of club life, in contrast to the contemplative peace of home, the peace of being alone. “House Music” rests on my wall now, and it can rest on yours as well, or your fridge for that matter, if you choose to cut it out of this magazine . But don’t begrudge my cherishing the original. Part of the marvel of the art is that the ink still reflects, as if it were freshly drawn. White-out is apparent in places, lending texture to the LP. And a light trace of blue-lined drafting remains. The phonograph needle in panel two, for example, was first rendered half an inch above where it now rests. But even in the blue line sketch, there’s no trace of the man at the computer, which leaves the house empty for me to enjoy the work.


Three supplements to the above article:

1. Here is the final version of “House Music” by Matt Madden:

2. Here is the draft:

3. This is an amendment, which I wrote in 2001 when the article was reprinted at TheComicStore.com:
Memory plays tricks. Washington Carver Avenue does not exist. The street I reference, the one that I crossed on my regular walk to and from the public library in my home town, is named W Carver Street.

According to the town historian, the street was initially laid out in 1875, barely a decade after George Washington Carver was born. There is, apparently, no identification for whom the street was named. The primary public document, the “Road Record” (“Highway Book D pg. 162”), sheds no light in this area. “It’s possible,” I was informed, “that Carver was a real-estate broker at the time, since we have seen other roads named after people in the real-estate industry.”

I was approached by TheComicStore.com in early 2001, because the editor, an old friend, wanted to reprint this article I’d written about memory and comics and decorating and editing and so forth. I already knew at that time that I had gotten this street-name information wrong when the piece was first published, in Destroy All Comics magazine in 1996. I wrote not only to the town historian, but to my dad, to see what he knew about W Carver, and he emailed back:

“It was built some time in your youth. I don’t remember when but certainly before your adolescence. One of the selling points when we bought our house was that you would only have one street to cross going to the library, but they did us in by putting in W Carver and making you cross two streets.”

If you follow W Carver and cross New York Avenue, W Carver turns into E Carver. So W means West, not Washington. As a kid, I never wandered along Carver that far; I didn’t know about E Carver, just W Carver. I didn’t really look at street signs much at all, anyhow. I just knew when to turn left, when to turn right and when to walk straight ahead.

I did walk near E Carver later on, because it was near the Radio Shack, where I first got hooked on computers, and near several used book stores, where I accumulated copies of Mad Magazine paperbacks — dusty, fragile collections of “Spy vs. Spy,” Don Martin, “The Lighter Side,” and parodies of old movies I’d never heard of.

Originally published in ever so slightly different form in Destroy All Comics #5, May 1996. The parenthetical amendment about Carver Street was published on TheComicStore.com in May 2001.

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