Monday, August 10, 2009

Tremors: Talking Lines

Rob reviews the collection of short works by R.O. Blechman, TALKING LINES (Drawn & Quarterly).

R.O. Blechman is a perfect example of the ways in which a cartoonist with a great eye and something to say can succeed without being a great draftsman. As long as an artist is aware of their own limitations and understands how to work within them, there's nothing they can't express. Blechman has been cartooning and providing illustrations for over fifty years, and he's made his scratchy, trembling, minimalist line his trademark. The way he leaves gaps in his lines gives his drawings a vibratory quality, which isn't surprising given his background in animation. That feeling as though the lines on the page are moving is quite compelling, and fuels his often acidic satire. Blechman's social commentary reminds me a bit of a slightly more removed and restrained Jules Feiffer, another scratchy-line social/political cartoonist.. He's no less direct or unsparing in his opinions, but Blechman's subject matter is more eclectic and slightly less tied to a particular time or place. He's also a remarkable wit with an impeccable sense of timing and rhythm. That rhythm proves to be the real underpinning of his strips. His line simply falls into place around the whirring motion of his panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions, like the orbit of electrons around a nucleus forming an atom. Comparing him again to Feiffer, the latter's work tended to focus in on several primary concerns, like relationships as power struggles. Unlike Feiffer, who for decades did a weekly strip for the Village Voice, Blechman's cartooning work has been far more sporadic.

TALKING LINES not only collects a number of his shorter works, it also features commentary on each piece by the artist himself. There are strips from his HUMBUG days which are slightly more labored than his later work, both in terms of line and punchline. 1964's "Contamination" is a vicious Cold War-era comic about a scientist who accidentally discovers a formula for the ultimate weapon and has a nervous breakdown while everyone else treats him like a hero. Blechman is adept at piling on layer after sardonic layer in his stories, like "The Emperor's New Armor", wherein hucksters convince the emperor that his new, heavy armor that they sold him was very light--which makes him armor up everything, until he accidentally kills his son. Blechman noted that this story was inspired by the build-up in Viet Nam in the 60s, alluding to the "domino theory" regarding communist countries.

"The Last Stand" is another example of Blechman piling on, as an elderly woman is killed when a corporation demolished her building with her in it, only to find her haunting them. The tone is acidic yet playful, as Blechman repeatedly makes his point but still manages to use restraint while doing so. Even Blechman's attempt at a regular comic strip, Magicat, immediately turns into the titular character cynically going for a money grab at the expense of his cockroach sidekick when he learns the roach is the key for turning things into gold. The debate the two of them have, with the cat becoming ever more amoral, is both hilarious and unsettling, since the cat's logic becomes increasingly difficult to argue even as it becomes more monstrous. This was an especially lively and playful strip as Blechman seemed to relish drawing these particular characters and their exaggerated attributes.

So many of these strips feature characters having perfectly reasonable debates about horrible subjects. "Three Cheers For the Red, White and Blue (But 1350 For The Yellow)" features a couple of yellow ribbon salesman getting a once-in-a-lifetime order for the ribbons supporting the troops. They can't find anyone who has that much yellow ribbon, and after briefly trying to pass off orange ribbon for yellow, they call a place in Iraq for the order...but it's been bombed to smithereens.

Blechman's foursome of stories meditating on famous figures were some of the best in the collection. "Ars Brevis" imagines a world where Shakespeare took a job as a copywriter to pay the bills instead of sticking to his art, a lifetime of inspiration going unvented. "Shakespeare's Sister" picks up an idea from Virginia Woolf of an imaginary female sibling for the Bard, who was denied the schooling and opportunities her brother received. She decides to leave her husband and children to join her brother in becoming a playwright, reconsiders, and kills herself (drowning, just like Woolf) to "quench the fire" act that naturally inspires her brother. Both of these stories are meditations on the fragility of art as a profession, how making a choice out of convenience or need can permanently shut doors. In both stories, the need to create is always present, bubbling under like lava about to spew from a volcano.

"Changes" finds 74-year old Goethe despairing over seeing an old man in the mirror only to realize it was himself (an idea that Blechman would later reuse on himself) and goes to a spa for "a change". He falls in love with a 17-year-old girl and proposes marriage, but even though her family says "no", the mere reawakening of his sexual appetite inspired a great poem...not that he would admit it to himself. Finally, "Sacrifice" was a heart-rendering piece about Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard. He lived a life of serving others and not meeting his own emotional needs, up to and including nurturing his brilliant but emotionally fragile wife, with her output as an artist giving him the satisfaction that he could never receive physically from their relationship. What goes unmentioned is that despite his constant care, she still took her own life, though it clearly pained her to hurt her husband. The latter story focused not on the tragedy of Woolf's eventual death, but rather the triumph of her having the chance to create art at all. This story in some respects recapitulates this entire collection of strips; Blechman may not have always been creating, but he had the opportunity to do so.

The longest entry in the book is "Georgie", a shattering story that combines his effortless and snappy dialogue, glib hucksters trying to con honest people, and a deeply personal sense of tragedy. It's about an older couple with a dog named Georgie who miraculously have a child who becomes the light of their life. When the child dies (perhaps due to a dirty safety pin, which is what the mother thinks), the mother deliberately exposes herself to the elements and dies of pneumonia. The father takes refuge in his dog (amusingly teaching him how to sit and eat at the table like a person), until his brother (thinking him crazy) gets the dog taken away. The final scene, of a surprising reunion, mutes much of the heartache from earlier in the story but doesn't remove it entirely. The scene where the mother dances in the rain because it feels like "nice icy liquid pins" is devastating because it's obvious that she's already checked out. Even Blechman's most sardonic strips have a human core, usually an honest and forthright person being victimized by "progress", corporations in the form of shameless and exploitative salesmen, or the government. There's a very plain and upright indignancy to be found in Blechman's work in that basic, humane principles are so very often trampled with rationalizations, a situation that the artist simply can't ignore. He may not have motivated himself to do as much cartooning as he might have liked in his career, but when he did set pen to page, the results were never anything less than entertaining and were quite frequently profound.

No comments:

Post a Comment