Real Talk: Phil McAndrew's 'Crying in Front of Your Dog and Other Stories' Mixes the Surreal with the Tranquil, Also MustachesA comic review article by: Nick Hanover, Daniel Elkin
Nick Hanover: It's often odd to think that cartoon strips gave birth to the comic form as we know it. Intended as a cash-in on the success of the strips in the early 20th century, comic books were merely reprints of the funnies from publishers hoping to coerce a readership mostly comprised of children and uneducated immigrants into giving away their last pennies. But they didn't really succeed until cartoonists began adapting to the new format and in the process gave birth to an entirely new medium. The modern era hasn't exactly erased that history, but as cartoon strips and the newspapers and magazines that house them succumb to the evolution of media in our culture, their legacy is more clearly felt in online comics and the work of people like Phil McAndrew.
McAndrew's new book Crying in Front of Your Dog and Other Stories collects two eras of material from the creator, the first a series of longer, more narrative works from 2008 and 2009 when McAndrew lived in Syracuse, NY while the second is a batch of short, gag heavy material from 2011 and 2012 when the artist lived in San Diego, CA. Though both eras are similar in tone and structure, McAndrew has vastly different goals with each, albeit goals that intersect and recall cartoon strips both new and old. The latter material in particular recalls the work Shannon Wheeler has done for The New Yorker, with its emphasis on surreal yet often tranquil moments; the two artists' may feature contrasting styles, but you sense that they pull their comedy from a similar place, whether it's stray conversations heard out of context or bizarre imagery noticed during every day life.
The beginning half of the book has its own surreality -- most notably a man's quest to become more manly, which involves a test by drum solo and a mustache that can spontaneously generate motorcycles -- but McAndrew fills it with quiet spaces and moments of intense minimalism, where the gag is the repetition itself. When we talk about pacing in modern comics, we often mean the cinematic tricks that have been pulled into mainstream work, which emphasize nonexistent camera movements and force the eye to wander down a path predetermined by the writer and artist. But McAndrew is the master of a different kind of pacing, a kind that emphasizes the page and encourages the reader to determine the pace themselves. McAndrew keeps his pages mostly uncluttered, but there's a frenzy to his work that is immensely pleasing and eye catching, like a bit about a voyeuristic ghost whose visage is unsettling, sure, but also pretty goofy. It works because the frenzy is an intrusion on his otherwise peaceful art, and in the case of the ghost, everything except for the unnatural force is scratchy and uncertain while our voyeuristic, ectoplasmic friend is a bright white beacon of calm.
As a man who is himself a bright white beacon of calm, what effect did this material have on you, Mr. Elkin? I think both of us are more often drawn to narrative works, given our review histories, but were you as entranced by McAndrew's style and humor as I was?
Elkin: Good Lord, Hanover. You may be the first person ever -- EVER -- to accuse me of being a bright white beacon of calm. You've obviously never seen me dance.
But as to Crying in Front of Your Dog, I was indeed entranced by McAndrew's style and humor. This is some pretty funny stuff, in the same vein as Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle or Gary Larson's Far Side -- except it's different, isn't it, as it layers a fine drizzle of pathos and human-ness on top of its boffos and whiz-bangs. It's as if McAndrew is telling me intensely human stories, but he tells them by blowing hot air through enormous wax-lips made of the skin of Antonin Artaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Groucho Marx (if you can make wax out of skin), and is accompanied by the music of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa.
Is that enough name dropping for you? I'm trying to simplify here.
I was drawn to the slow pacing of McAndrew's earlier Syracuse pieces. The pay off for each of those tales was sooooo worth pawing through pages in which hardly anything at all occurs. You inadvertently become the straight-man in these jokes, your expectations careening wildly as if all gacked up on trucker's speed, but no matter where you think you are going, you always end up somewhere so much more funny than anything you could have come up with on your own.
I especially enjoyed the piece called "The Book" in this section -- and not just because it refers to "this special kind of sandwich everyone eats called a Quiggle-Fum" (as you well know, Hanover, any references to sandwiches in a comic instantly makes me fall in love with it), but because I know those conversations, I've had those conversations. As they say, it's funny because it's true.
McAndrew's more rapid fire pacing of his later San Diego pieces rely more on slight-of-hand chicanery then the slow burn build, but their wonk whacks as well in just the right places and made me both snarf and shoot beer out of my nose, simultaneously, which was painful, but in no way diminished my enjoyment. I'm usually not one for joke books, but this one had me puzzling and thinking while snarfing and shooting. And that's a good thing.
But I feel like I'm skimming the surface of larger questions that I think you want to address, Hanover. Point me in the right direction.
Nick: I don't know that there are necessarily larger questions that I want to address so much as what intrigues me about having a conversational review of this work is the opportunity it provides us to discuss the form of comics itself. Most of the work that we review at CB, and in comics criticism at large, has more of a narrative thrust to it than this collection, with the notable exception of works like Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant, but even that work (which I'd argue is the most famous and celebrated recent example of this area of comics) has more of a narrative framework than most of the second half of this collection.
To be clear, I don't have an intrinsic problem with that lack of narrative, but it challenges me in ways that are somewhat foreign to me. I've been reading Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics and while I have a few major issues with that book, it does provide an interesting argument for why comics are so unique and why a work like Crying is in some ways an extremely undiluted sample of What Makes Comics Different. Wolk uses a sample panel from a comic by Seth at one point in his book to drive home his thesis that what draws people to comics often isn't the visuals on the page but the way they allow readers to imagine what's happening between the panels while still guiding them. Wolk believes that pacing is an especially large factor in this, and I think that had Crying in Front of Your Dog existed when he was writing Reading Comics, it would have appealed to him and made its way into the text.
McAndrew doesn't just ask readers to imagine what's happening between the panels of his comics, he's essentially giving them carte blanche to build everything that goes into the world of his comics -- he tasks you, the reader, with developing a fuller, more encompassing story for the intimate moments he captures. But at the same time, the first half of the book so effectively gets across his unique pacing that it's all but impossible to not fill your imaginary world with the quirks and tics he establishes earlier on. McAndrew isn't the only person experimenting with single panel intimacy right now, but there's something about his work that feels so much more lived in and real than many of his peers' similar efforts.
McAndrew is clearly funny enough to provoke volatile body expulsions, but he's provocative in a way that isn't explicitly tied to naughtiness. His shorter work is built around prompting, provoking a train of thought and a narrative through glimpses at larger, weirder scenarios, whether it's a miniature Al Gore in your fridge or a voyeuristic ghost. I think maybe what I'm getting at here is that there's a thrill to being such an active participant in a work of art, which I guess would make McAndrew the Marina Abramovic of the comix set.
Daniel: Comix as performance art, huh Hanover? It's an interesting concept and one I had never really thought about (especially when looking at what is, for all extents and purposes, a joke book). But I like the thrust of your thought here. You mention Wolk's work, I rely instead on Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, only because I have a greater familiarity with it. McCloud calls the space between the panels "the very heart of comics!"
Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea...
McCloud calls this act Closure, the "phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole". In this, we create time, space, movement, and motivation. McCloud uses the example of a panel in which a man has an axe raised to the head of another man. This panel is followed by a second panel of a cityscape in which a large scream emanates. Through closure, the reader decides where the axe hits, how hard the blow, the arc of the splatter of blood. "To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths."
You rightly say that in order to "get" what McAndrew is doing in Crying in Front of Your Dog, the reader must be an "active participant." McAndrew relies on his audience's ability to decode, to expect, and to understand his subversion of expectation. Meaning is made in the mind of the observer, and this is, I think, at the very heart of performance art.
What makes comics unique as a medium of expression, though, is this participatory action in a two-dimensional plane. It carries the audience through with enough clues in order to land where the creator wants to go, but the journey the reader makes is entirely personal. Still, though, it takes the artist to be the guide, to formulate the ur-idea, and to make the funny. McAndrew is a far, far funnier fellow than I, which is a good thing as I am pretty sure I would hate to read a joke book that I wrote. Too many hollow sandwich jokes and a forty-page shaggy dog story does not great literature make.
I really enjoyed Crying in Front of Your Dog and Other Stories for the reasons I've already stated. I think I like it even more thanks to this conversation. You call McAndrew the Marina Abramovic of the comix set. I see him, perhaps, as our own little Tilda Swinton in a box.
Nick: I'm sure quite a few people are now scratching their heads, wondering how the fuck we managed to work performance art into a comic that features someone who has a magical manly mustache, but the flexibility of the work speaks to the point we're making here, which is that sometimes humor that seems self-explanatory and simple can reveal deeper truths after repeated exposure. Or maybe sometimes a magical manly moustache is just a magical manly moustache. Either way, Crying in Front of Your Dog and Other Stories is worth repeated exposure, regardless of whether or not you get as academic and wordy with it as we've done, and that's kind of beautiful, isn't it? Because when you go back to comics' origins, that's a duality that's present from day one, and if Crying in Front of Your Dog has more in common in presentation with the early strips that begat the form, it also shares those pioneering strips' capacity for doing so much with so little.
Daniel: Well said, Hanover. Well said.
By the way, I did mention that this book made me both snarf and shoot beer out of my nose, simultaneously, didn't I? Sometimes you have to suffer for your art.
Crying in Front of Your Dog and Other Stories will be out in May 2013 from Grimalkin Press. You can pre-order it from them right now, and if you happen to be in Canada May 11-12, you can buy a copy from Grimalkin at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.
Daniel Elkin tends to layer his cynicism thick between two slices of bread and then slather it in condiments and sweetmeats. He can be found on Twitter -- @DanielElkin -- doing just that. He is also Your Chicken Enemy.