Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sequart Reprints:: The Three Paradoxes

This review was originally written in 2007 at sequart.com
I don't want to say that The Three Paradoxes is the culmination of Paul Hornschemeier's career to date, because that implies an end to a process that's still ongoing. However, it does manage to combine a number of the visual, intellectual & emotional concerns that have always informed his work. Hornschemeier has always relentlessly pushed the formal edge in creating comics. A lot of his early work wasn't quite formal experimentation for its own sake, but it was obvious that he was as curious about how comics could look as he was about what they could express. I always liked his crazier experimental work, because it revealed a playfulness that was absent from his more straightforward narratives, which were relentlessly downbeat more often than not. What's most exciting is that he has clearly moved beyond his influences in this book; the lessons have been absorbed and the result is something new and startling.

Hornschemeier is often compared to Chris Ware for his inventive use of color, cartooning chops and choice of emotional tone for his narratives. Many of his stories have focused on lonely or alienated characters suffering through the banality of existence, or else emotionally crippled characters trying to come to terms with unspeakable tragedy. To combat maudlin tendencies from creeping into the proceedings, Hornschemeier's style was remarkably restrained in those stories and his work seemed even curiously drained of emotion.

Upon closer inspection, I've thought that the similarities to Ware were mostly on the surface and that his more profound influence was Dan Clowes. He did an interview with Clowes back when Hornschemeier's Sequential went through a one-issue broadsheet phase, and it was obvious that Hornschemeier drew inspiration from the way Clowes used flatness of affect as a device to create distance between the reader and the material. The Three Paradoxes seems to be influenced in terms of direction by Clowes' masterpiece Ice Haven in that it weaves interconnected narrative styles simultaneously, it uses color as a crucial tool to get across emotional tone & as a way to offer narrative clues; and that it also uses an intentionally dated and/or childlike style at times to offer narrative (as well as temporal) clues. Where Hornschemeier differs most from Clowes is that all of these devices are used to bolster both the story's emotional & philosophical concerns in a fairly direct, though subtle, manner.

In particular, Hornschemier is interested in a crucial ontological question: the idea of personal change. Can the self ever really change, or are we just trapped in a set of repeating loops that create the illusion of growth? The narrative clues that he uses are quite clever. The "Paul" character is drawing (in blue pencil) a strip about a boy afraid of the world and is constantly changing and revising the nature of the boy's apprehension. The struggle he has creating something as an artist is reflected in his blue-pencilled tot and his difficulties dealing with monsters. When Hornschemeier recalls an incident where he gets beaten up partially as a result of his own exaggerations (but also partially as a result of his father's reluctance to interfere), he uses a cartoony style with a 4-color palette along the lines of a standard "little kids" strip. That style also gets used for an extended daydream about a man he meets with a scar, and an account of Zeno's paradoxes. For "real life", Hornschemeier uses his standard muted palette, standing out in sharp relief compared to the more lurid colors of the stories that surround it.

The story is simple: he's visiting his parents in Ohio and walks with his father to his office in order to turn off his lights. Meanwhile, he's thinking about a woman from Germany that he's about to meet for the first time when he returns to Chicago. Throughout the story, Paul freezes up. The anxiety and excitement of this potential meeting and the possible changes it might bring cause him to freeze up at the drawing board and in front of the man with the scar. The narrative goes from stream of consciousness from Paul's perspective (when we see Paul's strip or he imagines his past in the form of a comic) to an outsider's view of what Paul is doing with his father. It's an extremely clever way of presenting an interior monologue while avoiding the tedium that often accompanies such a technique.

The climax of the story is Hornschemeier's comic-book version of Zeno's paradoxes. Essentially, Zeno postulates that movement is impossible because when we reach the halfway point of a destination, we have to continually go halfway over and over again in asymptotic fashion, never reaching our destination. He further notes that motion is illusory because we can't accurately describe a particular point in time as an arrow moves in its flight. The paradox is clever because it uses rationality's tools to hoist it by its own petard--concepts of divisions in time and measurement are man-made, but their ultimate conclusions are contradicted by the evidence of our senses.

Hornschemeier adds a beautifully tragic element to this story that's told with a huge dose of smartass (another element present in a lot of his short stories that didn't always make it to his long-form work) thanks to a young Socrates. That element is another philosopher telling Zeno that his theory is clever, but the real reason he postulated it is that he wanted to pretend that time didn't exist so that Zeno's much-older lover would cease to age...but they both knew that wasn't going to happen. Hornschemeier ends the story with a gag that's made all the funnier by the pall cast by this realization.

Of course, the natural response to this from Zeno's point of view is that ultimately, death is an illusion. The implications of this are that existence in general is an illusion, a paralyzing thought that was the basis of Descartes' exploration of the mind/body split. Zeno didn't reply in the comic, because we know that if he continued to defend the paradox, it would be a denial of his love. This causes the greatest paralysis of all: how to deal with human relationships.

At the book's core, the story is about relationships and their complexity. There's Hornschemeier's relationship between himself and his character, which is of course really the struggle between an artist and his medium. The fear of paralysis is obvious here; can there be real change and growth for an artist, or is there only the illusion of growth? The next key relationship is between Paul and his father. This was the element that I loved most about the book. There's that midwestern lack of affect that his father evinces, but it's clear that there's an enormous amount of affection between the two. At the same time, there are unresolved tensions that lurk between them as well, forever destined to be unspoken.

Then there's Paul's relationship with the man in the convenience store with a scar on his neck. That jarring detail pushed Paul out of a place where he could even attempt to interact with him and compelled him to compose a long story in his head about the man as a boy and how he got the scar. The story is ripe with detail and meaning, yet the fact that it remains entirely in Paul's head as he can't even talk to the man in real life is the best example of the kind of paralysis described by Zeno. The gulf between the two of them was short (both temporally and physically) yet was impossible to cross.

The relationship between Paul and his friends in the past is also important. The contrast in the cartoony, friendly style and the unpleasantness of the encounter was obviously a device that served to distance himself from the painfulness of the memory. That story addresses another gulf that seemed attainable, that of fitting in with a crowd. Finally, there's Paul relationship with the woman from Germany, with whom he's only communicated via letters. It's the one relationship that we don't actually see played out in the story, but it plays with the book's themes of distance and attainability. It is fitting that Paul is so excited about a relationship that has a built-in distance, and apprehensive that the physical distance is about to disappear. When talking to her on the phone, Paul draws himself as the blue-pencil boy--another sign that he's not quite ready to connect. The lingering question remains: will he be able to overcome the paralysis of the Zeno's paradoxes and bridge the gulf between all humans, or are all relationships doomed to be simultaneously near and far? Hornschemeier leaves this question to the reader to answer, but it's obvious that while there's no clear resolution, he's determined to keep trying to bridge the gap. Whether or not he succeeds (both in establishing relationships and growing as an artist) is less important than the effort, because paralysis is commensurate with death.

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