Wednesday, September 21, 2016

NYRB Comics: Soft City

The good people at the New York Review of Books have been rescuing out-of-print texts for quite some time now, performing an incredibly valuable cultural service. Under the guidance of series editors Gabriel Winslow-Yost (a writer whose work I've reviewed on this blog) and Lucas Adams, their task is to find key comics that are either out of print or have never been published in english. I'll be getting to all of them eventually, but I wanted to begin with one of the more unusual and remarkable stories in the history of comics.

In 1969, a Norwegian cartoonist who had renamed himself Hariton Pushwagner started a book-length comic about an average day in an Orwellian nightmare world titled Soft City. He had to abandon the project for three years, then completed it in 1975. At around that time, he lost all of the original artwork under somewhat vague circumstances. It was found about thirty years later, and after a considerable amount of legal wrangling, it was finally released.  Now, the New York Review is bringing it back into print. The best thing about this development is that they have a long-tail model, wherein their goal is to put quality (if obscure) works out into the market, create a backstock that will continue to slowly draw in readers, and patiently wait for the books to sell over time. The editors are determined to bring as many obscure and out of print works of quality as possible.

Back to the book: writer Martin Herbert, in the afterword, notes that the big influences on the book were Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs. The story, such as it is, is very simple. We look in on a family at sunrise in Soft City, starting with the baby and continuing on with the parents, whose glassy eyes never stop staring straight ahead when they take their mandatory "Life" pill. The nameless father gets ready for work, leaving with lockstep with dozens of others of people living in his concrete, high-rise apartment building. He drives to work, parks, goes to his desk, and works. We then flip to the mother, who is going shopping with thousands of other mothers. The only singular figure we follow is Mr. Soft, head of the monolithic SoftCo. The father leaves work, drives home, eats dinner and the book ends with the sun going down and the moon coming up.

That description, while entirely accurate, only hints at what makes this book interesting. The idea of a nightmare future of conformity isn't exactly new and certainly wasn't new in 1969. What is most interesting about the book, as introduction writer Chris Ware suggests, is this idea of "softness". Burroughs talked about that idea in The Soft Machine, which of course names humans as "soft machines", i.e., we are machines made of meat. Pushwagner is suggesting an entire city, and really, an entire culture that has become "soft". The book is an excoriation of the nameless, faceless city and buildings that we see, to be sure, but they are the symptom of what he's attacking, not the cause. The book is really an attack on the concept of capitalism run amok, commodifying every person in the city by way of Soma-like drugs (shades of Huxley, to be sure), It's also attacking that commodification's "softening" of language itself, the building block of culture and knowledge. Borrowing a trick from Burroughs, the very little dialog that we see is nothing more than words picked at random that nonetheless make sense in the context of the book. That approximate sense of meaning, or perhaps words being softened thanks to the soporific effects of drugs, batters the reader as it screams from the newspaper and billboards.

Herbert describes the book, despite its crushing and soulless qualities, as beautiful to look at because of Pushwagner's relentless images. I would have to disagree on how we each looked at the images. If Pushwagner had tried to draft these images with tools instead of drawing them by hand, I might agree with that assessment. Indeed, despite Ware's admiration for the book, Pushwagner's aesthetic couldn't be more unlike Ware's. Even though Ware draws everything by hand, there's a wonderful precision to his work. It might be melancholy, but it always celebrates the essence of life and the act of him bringing it to life. These are sharp, concretized images, and in Ware's work, it creates a charming panorama that often works in contrast to the content of the images as well as the text. For Pushwagner, everything is soft, including the cars and buildings. He is not trying to draft images of technology or draw tightly-rendered and detailed buildings. Instead, the drawings are "soft": loosely rendered, with a slightly wobbly hand. For example, on the page where we see the man waving goodbye to his family, there are dozens of windows drawn on a two-page layout. The effect, rather than being beautiful, is almost nauseating.

That effect gets even worse in the sequence where he drives to work, as dozens turn into hundreds of tiny, hand-rendered windows that disappear into a vanishing point. The cars are just as awful, as they are crammed together on the streets, each one containing four people, slowly moving to the same company for work. The massive parking garage makes the effect even more upsetting, as this monstrosity of a structure is dizzying to navigate as a reader. The vanishing point perspective frequently reappears in the comic, and the effect each time is vertiginous, as though one was falling into a void.

In a city where even language has been corrupted as a means of self-expression, the only ones immune are the babies. It is telling that Pushwagner begins and ends the story from the viewpoint of the toddler. Not having been assimilated into society, his actions are unpredictable, even as he retains the wide-eyed wonder of innocence. When the mothers go shopping at the sort of big-box store that did not exist at that time but certainly does now, all of them have that straight ahead, dead-eyed stare and a ramrod-straight posture. It's their children who are looking back, looking at each other and squirming around. Pushwagner also reveals certain cracks in the system, as a few workers fantasize on their way to work, only their fantasies bypass language and are pure visuals: living on a tropical island, being a fighter pilot, etc. This is a society where the exploitative nature of the military-industrial complex (there's a scene where Mr. Soft looks over his holdings on a variety of TV screens, and missiles are among them) reduces every adult to mere shells of living beings, and that includes Mr. Soft himself. Pushwagner evokes a hopeless situation with the tiniest amount of mitigation through the power of imagination. He suggests that a society entirely dominated by commodification and exploitation almost entirely crushes the possibility of unmediated, personal, aesthetic experiences. The only possible forms of resistance are intimate communication, empathetic understanding and the courage to find the possibility of the aesthetic experience. Pushwagner is less interested in a story where enough people find that courage than he is in laying out how things would work where most people find themselves being forced to conform.

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