Tag Archives: stories

Six Boxes: Deconstructing and Illuminating Bonnie Jo Campbell Part 3

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Data is beautiful, even when it is meaningless.

[Part 3 of the presentation I gave at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.]

Part III

Memory

Another thing we can do in comics, which is more difficult in print (but not impossible, if our text is digital) is quickly scan for information. Picking out the most important symbols made the themes of each story pop out from the page, so it was easy to create a graphic interpretations of those themes (see graph), but after I did so, I realized that basing the graph on the comics presented, of course, my own bias. I drew far more metaphors for women’s bodies than I drew the visual and physical assaults on those bodies. In the books, the assaults outnumber the metaphors. Sometimes, I had to look away, because the stories were so immersive, in their way, that the rural noir world of Campbell’s Kalamazoo threatened the world I live in, a world in which I have so much privilege that it’s possible for me to look away, even as I’m intentionally fixing my gaze on the subject.

But I also know what a privilege that is; in many senses, the ability to look away from things that may distress you but don’t affect you is the definition of privilege. In the American Salvage comic book, I devoted an entire page to examining my privilege in the face of Campbell’s work, so instead of talking even more about myself now, I want to finish by talking about a colleague of mine, Sarah.

I met Sarah at the same time, in the same place, as I met Bonnie Jo Campbell, on the campus of Western Michigan University in 2002. I asked her for permission to share her story with you and she enthusiastically approved.

Sarah was born in rural Michigan and lived the first part of her life in the physical and emotional space occupied by many of Campbell’s characters, at risk, in socioeconomic distress, in Kalamazoo county. Her parents might have sprung from the pages of Campbell’s books: her father was a schizo-affective Vietnam veteran who would sometimes mistake Sarah and her brother for Viet Cong and hold them at gunpoint in his home. Her mother was a narcissistic alcoholic who brought a parade of strange and sexually inappropriate men into the house. One of Sarah’s oldest memories is of her mother arguing with her flavor of the week and both adults driving away from the house in anger. Little Sarah, perhaps five years old, chased after her mother’s car, begging not to be left behind, but her mother, who thought her parenting was more than good enough, disappeared down the road, and my friend fell into a muddy ditch, where she cried until she couldn’t cry any more, realized that no one was coming to save her, and then climbed out of the ditch and went home to clean herself up. She voluntarily chose homelessness at fifteen, because anywhere felt safer than her mother’s house. Her arm still bears the scar of that tumble into the ditch thirty-five years ago.

Sarah tells people, “If you want to know where I come from, read Bonnie Jo Campbell.” She says, “The thing I have most loved about Bonnie Jo is that I know her characters. They’re real, not fictional.”

Ultimately, Sarah didn’t become a Bonnie Jo Campbell character herself. She finished her master’s degree, recognized that physical separation was the only way to escape her family’s cycle of insanity, and headed out to the Bay Area.

Today, Sarah, the impoverished, neglected, hurt kid with the crazy, unpredictable, unprotective parents, the girl who came up in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Kalamazoo, is the Lead Techwriter for one of the largest internet companies on the planet.

At the same time that I read Bonnie Jo Campbell as a window into a world outside my experience and learned to see situations uncommon to the world of my childhood, Sarah, straddling the blue collar and academic points of view, reads these stories and feels heard. Knowing that Campbell has verbally recreated the conflicts of her origin is almost an assurance, decades after the fact, that someone actually was listening when a small child cried in a muddy ditch for a mother who would never come to her rescue. Decades and miles removed from the trauma of her early years, Sarah cherishes the honest, brutal, funny portraits of the world she knew, grateful that Bonnie Jo Campbell is listening for these voices, delighted that someone is recreating characters she find familiar, giving voices to the unheard and putting the unseen in the spotlight. Because Bonnie Jo is watching, listening, and writing, Sarah’s truth is seen and heard.

 

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Old Dogs

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Cutting it all the way down here.

There’s two sides to this short, slice-of-near-death story, and this comic reflects one a lot more vividly than the other. It’s a flash piece, just a single moment of almost no action that generates volumes. We have a room and we have characters: three old women and four old dogs. They don’t have heating oil, yet, but they do have firewood, and blankets, and sweaters, and each other. They’re still alive. Aside from the heat, they have booze, nicotine, and sugar. They are living in poverty, but they could be poorer still. Things are not so bad. There’s a quality of warmth to the moment.

At the same time, these characters are huddled together for protection. They are not related, don’t seem to have family to care for them in their dotage, and they’ve come together by necessity to survive a cold world. The last dog, the one with 3 legs who can’t get up on the couch, is the closest to the cold, although the story intimates that it could be the fat collie who dies first, if it ever gets incontinent and they have to put it outside.

Meanwhile, the plastic on the window has come loose, and the cold is invading their warm oasis while they doze. The same image is used in “Bringing Belle Home,” to symbolize Belle’s utter inability/unwillingness to take care of herself. The women in “Old Dogs” are on their own.

Crimes against a Tow Truck Driver

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All about being all about American Salvage

Bonnie Jo wrote this script and provided the pictures of the junkyard. She also wrote the following text:

Why Write Fiction?

Most of the stories in AS were all inspired by real life, but I ventured far from actual characters and events.

Sometimes we fictionalize a story in order to make more sense out of it

As Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

There are some stories that can be told ONLY in fiction. In “The Inventor, 1972,” I write a guy trying to rescue a girl he’s hit with his car, and while she’s lying there in the road, he has a fleeting thought of molesting her. No man who hoped to survive the night could dare admit to such a thought.

Natural Disasters

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Status: I’m just drawing a human placenta here. 

The world is a terrible place to bring a child. It’s full not only of sharp and hot objects, but also of dangerous plants, animals, geologic and meteorological phenomenon, and, most corrupting influence of all, human beings. I don’t actually understand how anyone over the age of 30 can even consider it. I get being young and naive and optimistic, or being a kid who doesn’t fully grok birth control, but surely by 30, most reasonable people have become cynics, no matter how much love they have in their hearts. Our world is inherently dangerous, and more so if you happen to be a completely helpless and dependent organism. And yet my Facebook feed is constantly full of babies and sonograms, even though I turn 42 this November and have a number of friends who are grandparents. My cohort keeps creating new humans, on purpose.

I’ve been to parties where people brought gifts of baby products to a pregnant woman, but I’ve never attended one of these weird-baby-themed-games kinds of baby showers. It sounds demeaning for everyone involved. Most likely, anyone who actually knew me would know better than to invite me to such a gathering, but it’s always interesting to see what “normal” people think is normal.

While I share the narrator’s belief that the world is wildly dangerous place, I’m not afraid of babies breaking. I’ve worked with many babies in my life. Babies are actually more resilient than adults in many respects. A lot of new moms seem overly cautious, in my opinion.

Tell Yourself

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I think we’d all jump off a bridge if Amber dared us to. Am I right?

This comic seems a little graphically threadbare to me, compared to the previous ones, and I think it’s because “Tell Yourself” just doesn’t have as much definitive imagery as some of the other stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. “Playhouse,” yesterday, for example, has the peonies and the playhouse and the alcohol and everyone’s hair and the rabbits and the fruit stickers and the Tasmanian devil tattoo. The central visual feature in “Tell Yourself has got to be Mary’s clothes, and frankly, I also find the idea of a barely-adolescent girl wearing low rise jeans and a crop top with a pair of cupcakes over her cupcakes slightly discomfiting. I didn’t want to spend too much time focusing on her “darling new breasts.”

My mother would have done anything to persuade me to dress in a more feminine fashion when I was in 8th grade, but she never in a million years would have let me out of the house in that outfit, even when I was in high school. She would have been highly critical if she saw me dressed that way when I was in college. But I see little kids dressed like that all the time. The supply seems equal to the demand.

After the outfit, the only big visual symbol is the rocking chair, because I couldn’t figure out how to work in the gum-cracking or the terrible baby perfume. For the first time in this project, I was really at a loss for how to illustrate the final panel. I settled on the potatoes; it locates the narrator in this role she has created for herself: being a mother comes first, even though Mary’s already gone. But she did change her shirt. And I’ve left mom with the knife. She’s not wholly defenseless.

Playhouse

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All things considered, the results are pretty pleasing.

This being one of my favorite stories in the book, I wanted to really do it justice. Unfortunately, today was the day that all my equipment decides to rebel: both the computer and the Wacon tablet failed over and over again, in a variety of new and enraging ways. I must have unplugged and replugged the tablet a hundred times, and closed and opened Photoshop fifty times, and rebooted the box twenty-five times. Hundreds of times I had to go back because the tablet either did something I didn’t tell it to do, or didn’t do something I did tell it to do, or just didn’t do anything at all because the power cable is frayed and sometimes disconnects. It was the perfect storm of resistentialism. At least I’ve learned my lesson about saving everything all the time. If only I didn’t require so much technological assistance.

At this point, I’m leaning strongly toward using my savings to invest in entirely new machinery.

Despite all that, the comic seems right. Not sure if there will be a comic tomorrow. Gotta work out these gremlins before I spend another 8 hours cussing at a hunk of metal and plastic.

Special thanks to the Bear, who didn’t mind me freaking out on him and invading his home for tech support just before midnight.

ETA: I went back and fixed the 2 typos pointed out to me oh so gently and lovingly by the trolls at Reddit. I also gave Pinky some eyelashes in panel 6.

The Rockets’ Red Glare Mandala

Patriotism is a circular argument

Patriotism is a circular argument

Clearly, this mandala celebrates the raucous chauvinism of America’s Independence Day. Originally, I think I had bigger plans for it, but somehow, just like real fireworks, it was a short display that ended too soon. Probably I should hold it back until July but who knows what the future holds? Today we celebrate the glorious 4th mandala, and that’s that.

Yesterday, while I was still reeling from my personal crisis of can’t even, I received the official invitation to become a regular contributor at Panels.net. I didn’t even realize until I skimmed the contributors’ bios that there are a number of really accomplished people affiliated with that site. Illustrious company. Go me. I really do have a lot to say about comics, and I believe I say them very well, thank you.

Today was one of the days I read to kindergarteners because it lightens my heart. We read 2 Jane Yolen books. Talk about a gifted writer! How many people in the world could create a story about a little girl being extremely quiet in the woods and end up with something that would keep a room full of 5-year-olds in rapt, delighted attention (Owl Moon)? Plus, the hilarious Recess Queen, which always gets a lot of laughs, as well as a short book about cowboys. I started my new bulletin board but made the mistake of doing the picture before settling on the words. Now I have about 12 tabs open, each with a different quote that might possibly be usefully paired with an image of an exploding volcano.