Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Comics From Caitlin Cass

One of the common threads in Caitlin Cass's Great Moments In Western Civilization Postal Constituent series is a fascination with failure. The dominant narrative of Western civilization is one of progress through time, a sense that things get ever better as one success leads to another. Cass concerns herself instead with the ways in which the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge was either met by utter indifference or total disaster. In this, her third volume of minicomics dealing with famous historical, literary, scientific and philosophical figures, Cass depicts the struggle to obtain knowledge as a battle that is not always won, nor is a successful outcome necessarily desirable. With an increasingly expressive but still occasionally over-fussy line, Cass' visual imagination explodes off the page with a variety of clever designs for her ideas.

Volume 3, #2 is "Nabokov's Butterflies", a fascinating account of the author's obsession with the colorful insects. Cass notes, in a series of lovingly-rendered and bright images, that the author loved them because of their mimicry markings that went beyond natural selection into pure beauty, the sort of beauty that only a human mind could appreciate. That capacity for beauty in a crazy world gave him a tether of sanity, leading him to a compulsion to study and understand them as a scientist might. Of course, his methods were old-fashioned and his results largely ignored, even as he became a literary superstar. He never achieved the respect he sought from the scientific community, despite a number of unique insights that later received some notice after his death.

#4, "A Brief History of Failure", is a clever folding comic that can be read from the top down or the bottom up. It's a parody of the nation of "Western progress", noting how opposable thumbs led to opening Pandora's Box, how the writings of a saint led to a bloody war, to how the printing press disseminated information but also spread "fanaticism at an alarming rate". From the beginning of civilization, our technology has outstripped our capacity to handle it without it leading to further pointless violence. The "tower of history" Cass constructs here teeters and tilts periously, and it's topped by the ultimate instrument of pure rationality: the guillotine.

Finally, issue #3 is "Patterns and the Abyss". It's an allegorical comic about a couple of writers who manage to pull themselves up out of the abyss thanks to the strength of their ideas literally becoming objects they can hold on to and climb upon. They are of course doomed to be knocked back down into the abyss by a bullying intellectual force. Battles can be won for knowledge, but the war goes ever on. This is the one story where I thought Cass' chops were not up to the task of clearly illustrating her ideas in a dynamic fashion. The line is too scribbly and many of the images look smudged, especially when she introduces color. Still, it's a clever idea and the cardstock the comic is printed on really allows the screenprinting to pop. They are certainly my favorite comics about philosophy, and one can sense that Cass will slowly find her way to the style that works best for her soon.

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