Tag Archives: fiction

Family Reunion

american salvage 7 family reunion

I wasn’t sure if I was really going to draw that final panel, but I drew it.

As I recall, there are a couple of pieces of American Salvage that appear in Bonnie Jo’s second novel, Once upon a River, which is apparently being made in a movie even as we speak, and the events of “Family Reunion” are a big part of Once upon a River, which I guess means that in short order we’re going to have a feature film in which a teenage girl shoots off the tip of her rapist’s weapon.

I guess America is seriously ripe for this kind of honesty in cinema. If more rapists got their dicks shot off, maybe there would be fewer rapists in the world.

It’s really only a couple of pixels, but it did seem like a kind of far-out thing to draw. Then again, so are gutted deer and spit roast pigs. And this is the 4th comic in a row that features a gun.

In the story, Marylou finally recognizes the violence that was done to her through the metaphor of a gutted deer. The word “rape” doesn’t appear in the story, and there’s no particular recollection of the actual event, although she describes the details of the moments before and after. The pig makes a vile, but apt metaphor as well.

Selective mutism is a not completely uncommon response to trauma among children. There’s a certain degree of power in willful silence. The way Marylou experiences the world, jumping back and forth between current and past events, is also a result of trauma. In illustrating the story, I jumbled up the images, quotes, and captions, too. Everything is mixed up. But Marylou has a moment of clarity at last. It’s a satisfying ending, the kind of justice that we so rarely see in the real world.

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A Multitude of Sins

bjc-multitude-of-sins_edited-1

Those are some extremely nasty feet.

Admittedly, the interpretation, “She doesn’t need religion anymore,” has been filtered through my experience, but this is the only story in the book that really depends on religious references to forward the plot*, and it doesn’t look good for Christianity. The idea that a man could spend an entire marriage physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abusing his wife, and then be worthy of heaven because his fear of the flames of hell caused him to seek Jesus while lying delirious in his deathbed, is sort of deplorable to me. I know plenty of Christians who believe the way to heaven is good works, and that people of any denomination will be rewarded if they live righteous lives, but I probably know more who cry and pray over perfectly wonderful human beings who don’t happen to be saved, and are therefore damned.

By this metric, the Dalai Lama is damned, but Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven. Chew on that. Or don’t, if you find jokes about cannibalism in poor taste. Whoops, I did it again. I am also damned. I think Mark Twain summed it up best in Huck Finn when Huck says that if Tom Sawyer isn’t going to heaven, he doesn’t want to go either.

The thing about her identity is unquestionable, though. One really cool technique that Bonnie Jo uses in this story is to offer clues in the form of nomenclature. To wit, in the exposition at the beginning of the story, the main character is referred to as “the wife.” Then, as she starts to react to her situation instead of lying back and taking it, she becomes “Mrs. Betcher.” Finally, at the very end of the story, when she ignores the preacher to work on the fascinating theater curtain (a project her husband would have never allowed her to take for pecuniary reasons) she is “Mary” at last. This may be why Bonnie Jo has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and I have not. But I guess the fact that I can point this out is why I’m drawing these comics, and everyone else is not. I bet I could write a 2000 word essay just on the use of this naming convention in “A Multitude of Sins,” but I guess I’ll leave that to people who write more conventional and less personal literary criticism.

*In some ways the Corinthians quote in “Somewhere Warm” could be the flip side to the terrifying Revelation visions in “A Multitude of Sins,” but religion plays a very different and less prominent role in that story, whereas this one even takes its title from the New Testament.

Blood Work, 1999

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So much imagery, so little time.

This comic was a lot of fun to draw, although after I drew it, I realized that Marika should have been wearing a lab coat, not scrubs. But that’s a minor point and I don’t think it detracts from the overall theme. Here’s another character who just loves too much, just like yesterday’s comic, except that Marika is (apparently) a virgin who’s never had  real relationship, so she pours her love into people and places and things that don’t even know her. It’s a sad story to me. At least the protagonist in “Somewhere Warm” has a her ungrateful daughter back in the end, and a military son, and a tabula rasa grandbaby. Marika, it seems to me, is going to end up with a pink slip. Her awakening is unlikely to make up for whatever would happen in panel 7 if the story kept going.

I love how the burned boy came out, and the window with the cardboard sign. Panel 5 has to be my favorite, even though every time I have to cut an idea for space, I get a little sad, and even in that panel I ended up leaving a lot of the material out. If you haven’t read the book, the crazy homeless guy is referred to as the Lightning Man, having been, as far as anyone can tell, hit by lightning preceding what seems to have been his first visit to the hospital. When human being are hit by lightning, they can exhibit Lichtenberg scars, fractal-shaped burn marks created by electricity. Lichtenberg figures are observed most commonly inside insulation materials, but they can form in solids, liquids, or gases, so it’s not strange that electricity etches upon human flesh. The background of panel 5 mimics the shape of a Lichtenberg scar.

Being obsessed with lightning, I’ve always thought this would be a wicked tattoo.

Somewhere Warm

 

bjc somewhere warm_edited-2

In Dad’s defense, I also fled Kalamazoo for the southwest. Those winters were killing me. 

Believe it or not, this comic took longer to draw that any of the others. I must have drawn the girl’s face in panel 3 about 50 times. Same with panel 5, and the mom never came out quite the way I wanted. Panels 2 and 4 are perfect, though. That’s my biggest obstacle drawing comics. I can usually draw one character the way I want them to look 1 time. But drawing the same character over and over, with different expressions and postures, from different angles, and make them still appear to be the same character feels impossible. I need a life drawing class. Or a bunch of live models.

I left the clothes and skin intentionally blank so as not to detract from the girls’ freckles.

It’s kind of a sad story. The mom just starts to thrive on being alone when the kid comes back, and the kid coming back is going to be a massive burden on her. The mom doesn’t exactly change as a character, although she does grow. It’s sort of like she’s choosing to stay the course, even though she never gets the outcomes she expects, but the growth is in her understanding that some people are just awful. At least, in the future, she’ll understand that she’s pouring her love into an open sewer. I mean, I guess the baby can be seen as a chance at redemption, like maybe this time, if she just loves enough, the baby won’t grow up and leave her. But personally, I sort of think she’s going to keep getting the same outcome. The fact of the matter is, if she ever met a man who she didn’t drive away with her creepy, cloying talk, he would suck her dry.

My Bliss

bjc my bliss_edited-2

I get wanting to be married once, but I don’t understand how anyone could do it 25 times.

Originally, I thought this would be the hardest story to adapt to comic format. Even though it’s a very short flash fiction–that’s literally the complete text in the comic–it leans toward what I would call “experimental” and doesn’t lend itself to summary. Like, what would the yellow box say? “A woman claims to have married a variety of inanimate objects and non-human animals”? That’s not a story.

Admittedly, when I first read the book, it was my least favorite piece. I thought it was too precious, too blithe. Drawing this comic helped me see it in a different perspective, though. The narrator is much like many other characters in Bonnie Jo’s books: clueless about relationships. Once my brain delved into the layers of the story, the way to adapt it seemed obvious.

My first stylistic idea was to use the full text as a background and draw everything on top of the words, but that makes it even more experimental. If you can’t figure out what’s going on with the entire story, you’re not going to get much out of the entire story with half of it covered up. But as I started writing out the actual words, the idea of putting all the pieces, words and images, together with only one sentence of commentary from me seemed like the way to go.

It’s entirely possible that I have it wrong, and this is not what the author intended.

Then again, I know people like this. The next thing is always the thing. Whatever catches their eye, that’s the thing that’s going to save them. And they drop what they have and run after something new. A lover, a job, a hobby, a car. It’s not really the lover, job, hobby, car that they’re chasing. The reward is hope, because it’s easier to maintain hope about something new and totally unknown than it is to focus on all the problems and obstacles in your current situation.

There are always obstacles, though.

My Dog Roscoe

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For once, I take no credit for the messed up things that happen in this comic.

At long last, the wait is over. Here is the first Bonnie Jo Campbell Mothers, Tell Your Daughters comic.

For those coming in late, after I drew my comic about Bonnie Jo’s mother, some of her legions of admiring fans said they wanted to see her entire most recent book made into a series of comics in that style–6 panels summarizing an entire story–and Bonnie Jo said she would like to see that, too. And part of me was like: who am I to say no to this opportunity? And part of me was like: who am I to say yes to this opportunity?

It was a daunting task. You can’t say much in 6 panels, and Bonnie Jo’s work is so complex and nuanced, both in its use of language and its understanding of human nature. And the thing is, I absolutely knew that I had the ability to do it. If not me, who? But I also doubted my ability. I kicked around ideas. I pondered and perseverated. I realized that I didn’t own a corrected copy of the book, just the ARC, which Bonnie Jo had explicitly told reviewers never, ever to cite, and also to burn, which you know I didn’t do. But I did request the complete manuscript, which she kindly sent.

Then, overwhelmed, I failed to decide where to begin. Originally I thought it should be the eponymous “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” which, in some ways, I think is the most powerful story in the book, but it’s also 20 pages long, and my brain wasn’t prepared to wrap around that yet. Then I thought I should start at the beginning, but it happens that I have a particular relationship with the first story in the book, dating back to more than a decade before the book was published, and, in keeping with the original comic, I knew that if I did that one, I would have to tell my story about the story, rather than the story itself. And that didn’t seem the way to begin either. If anything, that comic would come at the end of the project.

“My Dog Roscoe,” like most of Bonnie Jo’s work, and also like Bonnie Jo herself, has this sort of electric undercurrent of humor. The concept is ridiculous. You want to shake this character and explain to her what’s actually going on, but you can’t, and to the character, the scenario is life and death serious. That’s another thing I love about Bonnie Jo’s work. She writes about people who either have the worst luck or make the worst decisions or were just born into the worst circumstances (or some combination of all 3), but there’s still something funny about their misfortune. There’s this story in American Salvage where this guy is having an increasingly terrible night (mostly because he makes terrible decisions, because, like the woman in “My Dog Roscoe,” he’s missing some key information about himself) and he literally douses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire by accident. And it’s terrible. He’s badly burned. But you’re also still laughing a little bit.

Comically tragic.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m a terrible person. Maybe nobody else thought it was funny when that dude accidentally set himself on fire because he didn’t understand women or the rules of safety at the pump.

Then again, if it’s just me, then why does this work so well as a comic?

Also today, I was thrilled to note that my work was used (with attribution and backlinks) in a post about Venezuelan idiom on a language blog. It’s an Australian website. I think the Australian idiom would be “chuffed.” I am chuffed to see my work travel and see the world.

 

A Shonda for the Vays Menschen

I've seen some stuff, you know?

I’ve seen some stuff, you know?

It’s all true, anyway. An African cab driver really did ask me if I was raped, and a bitter, critical, English professor really did tell me that there was no way that could ever happen when I tried to tell the story in an undergraduate fiction writing workshop. I suppose that’s a big difference between fiction and non-fiction. Readers just won’t accept certain types of events in fiction: you can’t write too many tragedies into a story, or too many coincidences, even though strings of tragedies and coincidences of course happen in real life.

We’re used to reading clean dialog, too, and heaven knows people don’t really speak the way their words appear in books. People say “um” and “ah” and “like,” and they stutters and repeat themselves in a way that would be utterly annoying to read. Fiction isn’t like life, after all. Fiction wraps up. There are metaphors and meanings. Life is messy and crises don’t always happen for a reason, and people don’t always learn from them.

A “shonda for the goyim” is a Yiddish sentiment, which expresses that a Jewish person has done something shameful in the sight of non-Jews, which will then reflect badly on all Jews, because anti-Semitism. I’ve since been told that black people would say, “a scandal for white people,” or something to that effect. I had mixed feelings about having an entire panel depend on a phrase in a foreign language, but that’s really what was going on in my head, too, and I think it reflects an important parallel, the kind of point upon which fiction depends, but which life often fails to deliver.

When I was looking up how to say “white people” in Yiddish for the title (I hope vays menschen is correct; I known “menschen” is “people” and if “vays” is pronounced like the German word “weiss”  then it makes sense) I came across a couple articles asking if the Yiddish word “schvartze” was considered racist. Schvartze is the word that some elderly Jews used to refer to black people, and let me tell you, it’s racist as hell. At least it was when my late grandmother said it, usually in the context of, “Lock the doors, there’s schvartze everywhere.” And that’s what I was taught about black people as a child.

I could pretend otherwise, but it’s the truth, and that’s what fiction and nonfiction have to have in common.