Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar: Over Now, But Back Next Yeat

Here we are at the end of another semester. I want to thank all of the members of my Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar for all of their great contributions to the blog over the last several months. It proved to be a fascinating class and I'm pleased that readers got to see just a bit of the complex thinking about comics that students did. Again, thanks to all who contributed, both in class and on the blog. And thanks as well to Jeff Lemire for his productive visit to class and for his wonderful reading. It was a great semester.

A lot of the students who are currently in their 3rd year at UW have asked me if I'm going to be teaching this course next year, so I am happy to announce that I will be teaching the Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar in the Winter 2010 semester. I'm looking forward to more great conversations about comics and comics theory; readers can look forward to a whole new set of guest bloggers for More Than Words.

In the meantime, I'll be back with my regular musings about comics, theory, literacy, and education. As I do so, I plan to use the blog to do some thinking about a larger research project that involves Marvel 1976. More on that in the next couple of days.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mother, Come Home -- The Trick of Paratexts

A post by Melissa Schnarr-Rice, a student in my Winter 2009 Graphic Novels class.

Upon first glance, Paul Hornshemeier’s Mother, Come Home seems pretty straightforward. The muted colour palette, understated drawing style . . . even the powerful (albeit not so uplifting) story is pretty clear-cut. Here, Thomas Tennant narrates his own story of dealing with the loss of his mother, and the resulting mental collapse of his father when he was a little boy. The subject-matter’s heavy, yes, but nothing inside the book is overly-complicated. The page layout is all very orderly; the story’s divided into nice little sections; nothing “experimental” or “weird” is going on.
But that’s the trick, isn’t it?
Like Sturm’s Unstable Molecules (discussed in class earlier this semester), the paratextual elements in Mother, Come Home play with the audience’s sense of what is real and what is not and in doing so, relate the physical make-up of the book to the major themes within the narrative.
In his Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Gerard Genette defines a paratextual element as “a vestibule that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back” that “is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it”. Mother, Come Home uses what Genette calls official peritexts, which is to say elements originally produced as part of the book (the cover, titles, back matter) that the publisher or author openly accepts or endorses; it is these official peritexts that transform the rather straightforward story into a real-life (but fictional) domestic tragedy that ultimately acts as a promise never to be fulfilled.
If we look at the cover, we’re first presented with a lion’s head door-knocker, effectively inviting us into the book. The lion’s head as a symbol will also later become quite significant – as readers, we will make connections from this first image to the lion mask Thomas is given by his mother shortly before her death. (The mask quickly becomes a shield from the outside world, as Thomas escapes to an imaginary world rather than deal with the harsh reality of his mother’s absence.) Secondly, we read the title and then the credits underneath. Paul Hornschemeier is named, presumably as the author of the book, “With an Introduction by Thomas Tennant”, the main character of the story – implying that Thomas Tennant is a real person. Inside the book, Paul Hornschemeier is further credited as the “designer”, never the “writer” or “creator”, furthering the illusion that Thomas is more than just a character from the story. Within the first few pages of the story, Thomas even describes problems he had “writing this introduction” when first approached to do so. All of these tricks, (for lack of a better word), persuade us to see Thomas as a real person, which – I think – is an attempt to make the story all the more emotionally powerful, because it is perceived as being “real”, not made-up.
The book’s set up and back-matter also work to confuse the line between fiction and reality. We read Thomas’ story as an introduction because we are told that’s what it is – a preface to a much larger work, the first chapter of which is titled “We Are All Released”. So by the end, we expect more. More story, more explanation . . . essentially, there is a lack of closure because of this promise that there is more to come, even if we never actually get to see it, even if it doesn’t actually exist. Thomas’s story is the story but setting it up as an introduction to a larger work makes us read it differently than if it were just given to us as a story.
Well, I think partially to continue to blur our ideas of reality vs. fiction but also to make us read it as something that needs to be fully understood before moving on – think of it as a step-by-step guide, I guess: You should know and understand step 1 before moving on to step 2. In this way, readers are urged to pay close attention to the story because what they take from it will inform their reading of the rest of the book (that doesn’t and will never actually exist).
It’s a very poignant use of paratexts, and one that I probably wouldn’t have been ready for if we hadn’t already come across something similar. This use of paratexts, of course, is just one of the many great things Hornschemeier does in this book with regards to the comics form and story-telling in general. Highly recommended.