Our final project, that we will work on in class throughout the course, is a sixteen page comic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s masterful short story “The End of Something.” This work was selected for its metaphoric weight and a nuance necessary to its success that many indie comics do not attempt. I would love to see comics best craftswomen and craftsmen attempt imaginative stories that tell emotional truths, as those of our best literature do, and get away from this absurd notion that autobiographies and non-fiction historical tales are somehow more fitting to a form aiming for art because “it’s REAL, man.” In all honesty, I believe the slew of comics practitioners who are merely relating banal occurrences in their own lives without “hiding” behind fictional scenes and constructs are really just exhibiting a laziness regarding the crafting of the tale. It is more difficult to fit real life situations to thematic goals. It is harder to select which details of the event were central to its effect on one’s life, and which were merely superfluous circumstance. It’s tough to decide whether or not a change in time, setting, or age would amplify the impact of the event. It requires impressive acts of imagining to attach feelings and happenings to appropriate metaphors. It’s even harder to take further steps back in detachment from the scene to find recurring motifs or symbols that could be shown to repeatedly echo the story in miniature.
I am baffled at the simple fact that nearly every page of any published novel will have at least one visual metaphor to help the reader understand the scene in a relational context and assess the appropriate tone, yet comics nearly NEVER employ metaphors. In college, a roommate of mine named Aaron Greenblatt changed my life by simply sharing something he found beautiful. He was reading Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and he just had to share the following section with his artist roommate:
He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands to the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel. (Chapter 8 )
His experience was how true that was to the physical feeling described. Sleeping hands beneath water do seem like “strange aquatic animals.” West had to go that far away from the reality of the situation – to the bottom of the ocean from a dirty apartment – to get to the truth of the experience. That requires impressive thinking to get the reader to experience what he did in the same way by relating it to a completely different field of knowledge. Aaron summed this up with, “I love the imagery. His hands as a squid at the bottom of this bowl.” I was floored and embarrassed. How could a novelist have come up with a better visual than an artist ever drew? Why had art explored such images for the sake of the surreal with Dali, but almost never for the sake of the more real as West and all novelists and poets did. I believe I said aloud, “Why would an artist not draw exactly that if he were adapting this work: the man’s hands now transformed to squids at the end of his arms lying submerged in the sink? Would the audience make the leap if the arts stole that figurativeness as another tool for visual arts as well?” Unfortunately, I have yet to fully employ this trick in my own art – though it’s in the works for an adaptation of another work of West’s I have begun. Of all places, the television series Ally McBeal was perhaps the first place to really give that sort of thing a go, but it was always employed to campy effect. “I feel like I’m drowning” becomes the skeletal main character swimming past legal pads and office chairs.
“The End of Something” instead employs a literature trope that can clearly be turned visual without any fear of audience confusion. It is truly the bread and butter of comic book mechanics: juxtaposition. Hemingway chooses to adapt reality by placing his tale of a breakup side-by-side with a discussion of the dismantling of a mill town. The latter becomes a symbol of the former. The paragraphs on the mill come first, serving as a foreshadowing for the dismantling of the relationship that is to follow. Even these sort of thematic resonances are rarely explored visually because of the unwarranted respect “honesty” is given in the indie comics world.
Those who are familiar with Hemingway will point out that the character of Nick Adams is the frequently recurring stand-in for Hemingway himself in his most autobiographical stories: an author who survived a war or two and has lived in exotic locales. This fact could be thrown in my face as proof positive that Hemingway too is just “telling it like it is.”
He is not. Nor did he ever. That’s why we keep him when so many diaries of fascinating contemporaries of his have been justly lost to the ages.
Hemingway, in actuality, lived a life much more fascinating than many of us could dream of, and yet his writing that truly matters most is to convince us of an existence that is humdrum and every day. The Sun Also Rises do not interest us for its travelogue settings throughout Spain; it is for its pitch perfect evocation of malaise. The African mountain that gives the name to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” does not prompt fancies on the part of the reader involving Papa Hemingway’s macho hunting safaris. The story is set there for the astounding otherworldly image of the inexplicably out-of-place snow leopard that opens the work: a confoundingly perfect symbol for the feverish death and hope for ascension that is to come. Hemingway had so much “fascinating” life experience that he had every reason to rest on it and be an absolutely atrocious adventure writer. Instead, he subverts the outward truths of his life and develops an art that is perfectly constructed to have us believe he is merely reporting factually the utterly banal. His best sentences never rise to more verbosity or figuration than “It’s pretty to think so,” or “I feel fine,” or “Little devil, I wonder if he lied to me,” to say nothing of the brilliant line that seals the deal in this final project. They are so stripped of pretense so as to seem verbatim. But how many of us could pare worlds of complex and conflicting emotions to such perfect, crystalline expressions that say everything through nothing? Thomas C. Foster explains this phenomena much better than I am in his wonderful How to Read Novels Like a Professor, but we all must at least acknowledge this: Hemingway, through intensive thought and effort, makes stories seem crushingly commonplace, tossed off, and therefore real.
Let us consider the story in question, “The End of Something.” Are there any details we learn of Nick Adams that prevent him from being Hemingway? None, in fact, we know Hemingway was an avid fisherman. Was Hemingway familiar with and sympathetic to American towns that had lost their sense of purpose and become shells of their former glory? Certainly, he grew up in Michigan. Lastly, were Hemingway’s relationships with women as riven and sublimated as they come off here? More so, if Gertrude Stein is to be believed, which is perhaps hinted at in the ending I decided to trim as too complicated here. The Complete Nick Adams Stories glosses over what is perhaps the true nature of Bill’s appearance at the end of the story by following it immediately with the less suggestive but equally awesome “The Three Day Blow.” All I’ll say about that here is that it is hardly accidental that a story this short contains the echoing sentences “They (Nick and Marjorie) sat on the blanket without touching each other and watched the moon rise” and “He felt Bill coming up to the fire. Bill didn’t touch him, either.” So finally, could Hemingway have actually broken up with a girl in this manner? Of course.
But did it happen near a ruined mill in a town that had been ripped apart physically the way Nick was now tearing Marjorie down emotionally?
Were the fish coincidentally not biting that day either?
Did he rip the guts out of a fish with absolutely no realization that this act was pretty damn symbolic of what he was about to do to his lady friend?
Hemingway is no idiot. They probably weren’t even fishing when this occurred.
Did they really begin their conversation with the girl offering the loaded words “There’s our old ruin.”
Are you kidding me?
Hemingway has done a ton of difficult work in making connections across vastly different times in his life that share an emotional resonance. He has placed all these disparate events side-by-side, and thrown in some believable imagined ones, to create what Sartre’s main characters in Nausea strove for: a perfect moment. And in this case, perfectly horrid and, given that it involves a breakup, thus perfectly real, true. Eye-witness accounts are bunk. We do not remember what happened. Our every experience is selective. We change our own details without knowing it in the service of heightening the only truth we experience: an emotional one. Breakups feel this desolate and awful. Our experience of them includes the pathetic fallacy of the environment: they never occur on sunny days. If food was consumed, it was terrible. Our every word leading up to the event seemed passive aggressive in retrospect. Our past is constantly being rewritten in the way that Salman Rushdie describes the phenomenon of John Lennon (it applies to Kurt Cobain as well): every photo of him became morose and prophetic the moment he died. An instant before hundreds were joyous.
It is the author and the artists job to shape those truths. To make them more real. If events are put down exactly as they occurred, it becomes the readers job to analyze your boring life and figure out its significance. To…what? Significance to you? Why is that my job? Significance to me? I don’t care! It’s your life. I’ve got my own humdrum existence to try and figure out.
Comic book artists, and yes, some of ones with the most potential, have been getting away with lazy pointless writing that would NEVER be published in any serious literary magazine, and would be TORN TO SHREDS in even an introductory creative writing class. As soon as it’s made into lines on a page, it’s a lie. “Real”ness just leads to lots of derivative and unlistenable punk rock. We needed the Stooges and the Sex Pistols exactly once, and thats going on forty years ago. Stop being real and learn how to play your instrument, and by that I mean manipulate your audience. Figure out what you are trying to make me feel and use tools, including lies, to make me feel it. Then we can both share in your truth. Comic historians would probably trace the horrible trend of getting daring points by just telling it like it is, warts and all, to the underground comics of Robert Crumb. I would argue that just about everything that made Crumb interesting, aside from his awesome hatching, is completely fantastic and totally detached from reality, (drugs were probably involved). Ask the average person who lived through it what they remember about Crumb and I can almost guarantee your going to hear Mr. Natural, a farcical mystic with an impossible beard, Fritz the Cat, an anthropomorphized feline porno star, or the Vulture Goddess, a horrific extension of the misogyny of La Demoiselles d’Avignon. Or they might recall any of a number of his fantasies about the bizarre escapades he might have with impossibly proportioned women. His run-of-the-mill, by-the-book, infinitely less-interesting work on American Splendor was not what he built a reputation upon. Why is that the aspect of his work that is currently being aped by so many?
To hammer this all home, I present the worst thing my idol, Chris Ware, has ever done:
For nearly the first time, Ware is guilty of the charges he has so often self-deprecatingly levied against his own work: it is insular, self-serving, self-pitying, whiny drivel. And it is guilty of the “worst crime in art,” it is boring. Ironically, I can learn more about Chris Ware and his daily existence from the fictional lives of his fictional stand-ins Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown than I could ever hope to from this page about the daily existence of Chris Ware.
To end an essay that has clearly gotten away from its stated purpose, let me state my purpose. The final assignment for this class is an adaptation of a work of literature so that future comic book artists are not afraid to use the tools that have served great fiction for so many centuries: symbolism, metaphor, and other forms of lies. I hope the work you all go on to make has more in common with the artistry of Hemingway, one who purports truth to reality through meticulous constructions, than with the current crop of comic authors who worship a false god of “realness” and end up creating meaningless, nonsensical, haphazard “truths” that cannot be mined for any Truth, even by their creators, because even they don’t know what it all means. It is no accident that the most widely acknowledged and read works remain those that most resemble the constructions of great fiction: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and the works of Dan Clowes. In the words of Beyonce and Shakira, they are beautiful lies. If this focus here on what to draw seems to contradict my Frank Miller argument elsewhere on this site, it is only because I truly believe these artists are not considering what they want to or should create, they are supporting a bogus concept of hipness, and opting for what is easiest. We all know what happened to us today. And, no, I don’t want to hear about this crazy thing you dreamed last night…
“Listen, do you want me to make an effort or don’t you? You were so stupid this last time. Don’t you see how beautiful this moment could be? Look at the sky, look at the color of th sun on the carpet. I’ve got my green dress on and my face isn’t made up, I’m quite pale. Go back, go and sit in the shadow; you understand what you have to do? Come on! How stupid you are! Speak to me!”
I felt the success of the enterprise was in my hands: the moment had an obscure meaning which had to be trimmed and perfected; certain motions had to be made, certain words spoken: I staggered under the weight of my responsibility. (Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Lloyd Alexander, 62)