Obviously, I hate comics

I never really went away.

That stretch of one set of footprints? That’s where I was carrying you!

The Three Paradoxes, Paul Hornschmeier. Fantagraphics, 2007. $14.95, 84 pages.

There’s a scene in Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix where long-suffering character Sinus O’Gynus gets sent to Hell. The devil leads Sinus to a well-stocked library where he is to spend the rest of eternity. Oh well, thinks Sinus, this isn’t too bad–and then he realizes it’s not a library. It’s a graphic novel library.

Naturally, he’s horrified. I know just how he feels.

As comics have gentrified over the last five years, they’ve drifted toward the sensibilities of their new, middlebrow readership. They’ve done this largely by imitating the worst tendencies in the modern non-graphic novels familiar to that same new readership. The worst tendency of all being their myopic focus on the minor travails of the middle-class (economic and intellectual), and the most banal of everyday epiphanies.

Exhibit 1,213 for the prosecution: The Three Paradoxes.

Hornschmeier’s last book, Let Us Perfectly Clear, was a collection of his earlier, shorter work. Some might say that book was strongly influenced by Chris Ware, but let’s not mince words. It might as well have been called Schmacme Shmovelty Smibrary, only it fell far short of Ware’s originality, or his savage gallows humour. Still, at least Hornschmeier was aping one of the five best cartoonists of his generation and not, say, Michael Turner. Or Art Spiegelman or Marianne Satrapi, for that matter.

The Three Paradoxes represents a definite step backward in Hornschmeier’s artistic development. For the Ware influence has attenuated, to be replaced by an equally heavy Dan Clowes influence. Visually, that’s troubling but not the end of the world. Thematically, it’s just disastrous. For it’s the trite, “literary” Clowes post-Ghost World that Hornschmeier has now applied the tracing paper to, and not the earlier, funnier Clowes.

Thus the book’s barely-there plot: Paul, a cartoonist, is back home visiting his parents. He has trouble finishing a strip, takes a walk, reminisces about his childhood, free associates about the check-out guy at the service station, frets about an upcoming meeting with an internet pen-pal, and thinks about Zeno’s paradoxes. The End.

A couple of factors mitigate The Three Paradoxes‘ overall slightness. First, Hornschmeier at least avoids the unearned self-pity that so often clogs the new “graphic novels”. His autobiographical proxy doesn’t feel sorry for himself, nor does he offers apologiae for making comics. This latter may reflect a generational difference between the young Hornschmeier and his older peers like Ware, Clowes, et al. Comics are so respectable now that you don’t even have to apologize for making them!

Second, even though his line remains derivative, Hornschmeier is still a visually appealing draughtsman, with an especially gentle use of colour here. The section recounting Zeno’s paradoxes is a treat, a pastiche of Dell Comics (home of Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge, among others). Extra kudos for his ugly-cute depiction of Socrates, notorious for his bad head.

In fact, the Zeno section is far and away the best part of the book, precisely because it wrests the book momentarily from (semi?) autobiography and thereby allows it to flourish. It flourishes by becoming something quite different, something we might call popular philosophy–explaining philosophy to the layperson.

Popular philosophy has a long and respectable tradition in the West, starting well before the current publishing craze for popular science, popular economics, popular cultural history and popular phrenology. Cicero wrote popular philosophy, as did Lewis Carroll (while cleverly alluding to Zeno, too) and Bertrand Russell, and the tradition is carried on by modern philosophers like Dan Dennett and Ian Hacking.

But popularizing anything is a tricky business, as shown by all the lousy pop books out there. Hornschmeier acquits himself admirably in the all-too brief pages where he discusses the paradoxes in question. Devised by the Greek philosopher Zeno, the paradoxes purport to show that our everyday notions of physical motion are incoherent. Hornschmeier, himself trained in philosophy, presents them succinctly and entertainingly, an object lesson to all would-be popularisers and educators.

By contrast, his attempts to connect the paradoxes with his navel-gazing ruminations in the rest of the book are unconvincing and half-baked. This isn’t so much a novel of ideas as a (dull) novel with some (very well explained) ideas tacked on.

In short, The Three Paradoxes is one of the most frustrating comics of the year. Hornschmeier is clearly talented and intelligent, and may have great work in him. But not yet. Visually, he would do well to develop his own style and get out from the shadow of his influences–no easy matter. Thematically, at least, the solution is clearer: get out of the generic cul-de-sac of autobiography and jump right into the real ideas. For the few pages when he does this here, The Three Paradoxes soars.

Or, to put it another way: less whining, more opining.

Recommended?Maybe in ten years’ time, when we can look back at the early promise shown in this book. Until then, not so much.

IYL Graphic novels. You know who you are.

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One Response to “Obviously, I hate comics”

  1. Matt Brady Says:

    Hey, good to see you back!

    I just read this book, and I agree about what you say (in fact, you seem to specify what was bothering me about it), but I still enjoyed it. Maybe I just liked the Zeno bit. I do know who I am, however.

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