Comics Raw and Cooked

Oneway of thinking about drawing style in comics is to reduce it to a single axis:the continuum of styles between “raw” drawing and “cooked”drawing. Those terms are borrowed from Robert Lowell, who, in turn, borrowedthem from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and used them in 1960 to describetwo competing schools of American poetry. In comics, it’s not a competition—art-comicsare a little too collegial for that. But it’s easy to reframe Lowell’s ideas todescribe what cartoonists do. Raw drawing is (or presents itself as) the barelymediated expression of the artist’s impulses: it eschews rules andstraight-edges, it flows directly out of the brush, it bubbles over with life.Cooked drawing originates in the conscious mind: it’s precise and rigorous,with a firm distinction between “correct” and “incorrect”execution, and it’s best suited to carefully planned narratives. Raw vs. cookedisn’t a useful way to classify mostcartoonists; most of them work somewhere between those two poles, and a lot ofthem change their position on the line from moment to moment. But the Canadianart-comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has just published a pair ofremarkable books that perch near opposite ends of that spectrum.

Lynda Barry, the creatorof the weekly strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” is about as invested inraw drawing—as a practitioner and advocate—as it’s possible to be. Her new bookPicture This is a companion piece to her earlier What It Is, which was a sort of illustrated version of herfamous “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops; that one was a bunch ofimages and doodles and personal stories surrounding a set of writing exercises,and this one is a similar framework for drawing exercises. For Barry, though,they’re very similar processes; they’re all about putting a pen or brush downon paper and moving it until something comes out. Drawing, she claims, is”not something that you are good or bad at. It’s something else. You moveyour hand and you scribble all you want and it feels very good.”

As you might guess fromthat description, Picture This isn’tparticularly structured, and it’s very scribbly. Its interior is in the form offour quarterly issues of an imaginary magazine, and its focus is whatever LyndaBarry feels like drawing that day. (Which means, of course, that it’s gorgeous;part of why drawing feels so good to her has to be that funny pictures andwonderful shapes appear where her brush meets the paper.) There are questions meantto spur readers into making marks of their own (“Why do we stop drawing?Why do we start?”); there are panels and strips about Marlys, thepigtailed protagonist of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”; there are pasted-inwords and phrases from old magazines and school papers; there are a bunch ofimages of a character that Barry calls the Near-Sighted Monkey. (Barry’spleasure in drawing it, a kind of ultra-stylized self-portrait, is palpable.)Most of all, there are decorations: hand-scalloped borders, circles and blocksand leaf shapes, flowers and curlicues.

Barryjokes that “if you use coloring books past the age of ten, you will wreckyour imagination forever”; then she provides a bunch of shapes to traceand color and cut out, as well as a diagram to make “a chicken inwinter.” Is it possible to make the leap from thinking about tracing andcutting out a chicken shape to actually doing it? Not easily: Barry notes overand over that children are willing to take the risk of making pictures in a waythat most adults aren’t, but maybe the reason for that is that some adults—likeher—have a gift for it, and others don’t. And the suggestion that rawself-expression is not just a universal right but a universal delight is alittle disingenuous coming from someone who’s so good at it.

Way over on the other sideof the stylistic scale is Chris Ware, whose artwork is cooked to the point offalling off the bone: perfectly geometrical shapes, micro-calibrated lineweight, flawlessly composed images that strip everything down to iconicsimplicity. The Acme Novelty Library 20 is the official title of his new book (the creator is identified only as “F. C. Ware” in the book itself), and it’s thetwentieth in a series that he’s been publishing since 1993 (first as individualstapled comics, more recently as hardcover books). The only word that appearson its front cover, though, is “LINT”: this is the life story of oneJordan “Jason” Wellington Lint, from birth to death. It’s apparentlya chapter of Ware’s work-in-progress “Rusty Brown,” but it’s also astandalone volume, formally complete in itself.

Jordan Lint, like most ofWare’s protagonists, is a genuinely pathetic person, although of a differentilk than the nebbishy Jimmy Corrigan or geeky Rusty Brown. Lint’s world is oneof privilege and instant gratification: he obeys every impulse he has, nomatter who it hurts. That, of course, means that he’s a moral failure everystep of the way. Acme 20 runs throughthe crucial moments of his life as he experiences their importance—and they’renot necessarily the moments that are most important to other people, as we findwhen off-panel events surge up from his past.

Ware, a master formalist,has actually worked up a new set of storytelling tools for this particularvolume. Lint’s world is dominated by language, and oversized words (that stickout in his experience) are graphic elements on almost every page. So are arraysof tiny dots, another kind of lint. At the beginning of the book, a set ofBen-Day dots form the face of baby Jordan as his consciousness coalesces and hespeaks his first “mama.” And at the end, as elderly Jordan is dying,his world disintegrates into dots again, as he thinks “am I… am…am…” Which, of course, bleeds through the back cover to appear, inalmost imperceptible white type, as “ma… ma….”

Allthis precision pays off emotionally. There’s a phenomenal page wherewe see that teenage Lint has gotten into a car accident—which we laterunderstand has killed his friend in the passenger seat—while getting highbehind the wheel. Every single graphic element on the page is significant: thehuge red stop sign has been foreshadowed on the previous page (and echoes aseries of little red bursts throughout the book); the spatter of dotsrepresenting the moment of impact recapitulate Jordan’s birth-of-consciousnessimage (and are echoed in miniature by the glow of his one-hitter); the”dude” and “whoah” that erupt into the page’s white spaceare his verbal memories of the incident; the images of Jordan lifting his headout of his hands in the hospital waiting room are as tiny as it’s physicallypossible to get away with.

Near the end of the book,there’s a section where we briefly move away from Lint’s perspective and see acrucial scene from the point of view of his son. All of a sudden, the artworkisn’t in Ware’s standard style any more, shifting to an all-red palette as itassumes a scraggly, deliberately awkward technique partly borrowed from thesuper-raw cartoonist Gary Panter for five pages. It’s a visual shock, it lookslike nothing Ware has ever drawn before, and it drives home one of the story’spoints—that Lint’s carefully conditioned perception of his life is entirely hisown, because he’s utterly oblivious to the devastation he’s caused. It’s alsonot exactly Ware being “self-expressive”—there’s nothingunpremeditated about it—but he proves his mastery of his “cooked”style by simulating rawness.

For all its relentlessdarkness, Acme 20 is at heart asatire. There’s a brutally funny gag imagining what a big-box media store willlook like a decade or so from now, for instance. And the artist saves some ofhis choicest barbs for himself, and the limits of the mastery to which he hasaspired. On the inside front cover, there’s a complicated diagram that’s thisbook’s closest thing to an “about the author” paragraph: a schematicillustration of Ware, at his drawing board, producing this volume of The Acme Novelty Library, a labor thathe puts in the context of his entire life-span, the amount of time it takessomeone to read it—and the size of the entire Milky Way galaxy.