Sunday Page: Joe McCulloch

 

Every week on “Sunday Page” an author has to choose a single page from a comic book. It could be for sentimental reasons o for a particular technical achievement. The conversation could lose itself in the open water of the comic book world but it will always start with the questione: «If you had to choose a page from a comic book you love, what would you choose and why?».

This Sunday I’m out with Joe “Jog” McCulloch, Comics Journal critic and author. He writes This Week in Comics! and his other writings are translated on Fumettologica under the title of The Italian Jog.

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I’m going to ask you right off the bat why you think about this page at least once a month.

I think about this page often because it’s an absolutely perfect example of how sequence can dictate the feel of the page. This is different from what I’ll ‘pure depiction’ – what is depicted in these panels is mostly characters gesticulating against clouds of sound effects. Plus, the sound effects have all been redone in English, AND the page has been rearranged from its original (right-to-left) reading order, so we’re also looking at an extremely modified version of what Tatsumi originally drew.

But despite all of that, the page communicates setting, action – even sound, perfectly. I feel like I have actually been in this club. There is little indication beyond the stereotype of the band’s costume as to what kind of music is being played, but I feel like I’ve heard it. I could not replicate for you how the characters are dancing, but I somehow understand it, because I can discern the beat and the rising tension from the juxtapositions of bodies: the coiled, hunched bodies of panel two springing outward in panel three. The reversed positions of panels five and six, the zoom in at panel seven and the zoom out of panel eight, the woman doubled over, as if in pain, as if reacting to the sweating, bug-eyed off-panel gaze of her partner in the panel prior – not only is this rhythmic, it also embodies the drama between the characters, which climaxes when they collide in the penultimate panel and the man screams, the perspective darting in again like an irregular heartbeat.

It helps that page is a complete ‘story’ of sorts – there is a beginning, middle and end, with action rising toward climax throughout. I don’t think every page of a comic needs to do that, but it certainly held this one serve as exemplary. Also, conceptually, the music club setting bolsters the effect of the sequencing – you can naturally imagine music continuously playing, and perhaps this helps you connect with the pacing. And, of course, there is the symbology of the sound effects, which threaten to press and push the characters around. Everything compliments this very controlled illusion of reality.

Plus, there is the tension between Tatsumi’s draftsmanship and his skill in building the page. I think it’s a funny page, because Tatsumi’s character drawings are somewhat stiff in their depiction of dance. At the same time, they are very direct, and I’ve found the power of Tatsumi’s best comics lay inside their direct expression of dissatisfaction and despair. Some may call him artless, or unsubtle, or unintentionally humorous, but it’s not out of irony that I laugh; it’s the sheer nakedness of his sentiment that provokes surprise. Or awe. I am in awe of this page!

And I’m in awe of your explanation. There’s something very sexual about the act of dance in this story. Right before this scene he was asking her to have sex, then you got this orgasmic expressions on his face, then the pushing of the panels. Everything convey a very misplaced (‘cause there’s no sexyness at all) sexual feeling. But I don’t know if you this make sense to you. Anyway, do you feel any particular connection to this story? Is there a particular meaning you take from it, other than ‘humanity is a hopeless, cruel and nihilistic race’?

Hmm, my personal take is that the dancing is both sexual and agonizing; self-destructive. The man is not among Tatsumi’s sexually frustrated protagonists; he has gotten the woman pregnant, which, literally, is the reason she cannot dance without experiencing pain. The final two panels definitely suggest sex, and orgasm, but also a wail of despair, because sexuality here is linked to the poverty of the characters, insofar as it is heavily implied they cannot afford a child. So, they’re chasing an intensity of feeling, which only creates further suffering.

Is there a particular meaning you take from it, other than ‘humanity is a hopeless, cruel and nihilistic race’?

This is Tatsumi’s project through many of the ‘60s and ‘70s comics Drawn & Quarterly released: the depiction of people (mostly men) who are out of sorts amidst the miracle of Japan’s economic development, their desires made entirely inseparable from commerce, often mechanized. While inarticulate, and rather brutish, the man here is also a bit guileless in comparison to his sewage maintenance coworker, who sees human bodies as nothing more than an opportunity to scavenge valuable items. The man instead identifies with the corpses, because he knows he cannot allow his own child to come to term. Whether he finally embraces his cohort’s ethos is left ambiguous, though he definitely knows he must at least return to work at the story’s end. It is the victory of progress over biology.

 Is this your favorite Tatsumi story?

It is not my favorite Tatsumi story on the whole. My favorite is the one that comes right after it in The Push Man – “Telescope”. This is the one where an impotent voyeur — maimed in an automobile accident; engines, grinding metal, etc. — takes to staring into a woman’s window through a coin-operated amusement park visor atop a department store roof. Already, the metaphor is heavy. He falls into an arrangement of sorts with an old man, who is either the woman’s lover or client; the old man feels revitalized knowing that somebody far away is watching him perform sex. His virility is predicated on technology, while the voyeur’s was destroyed by the same. As if compelled by this new balance, the voyeur throws himself from the roof, coins scattering around his body on the pavement. Eight pages, several without dialogue. Very fast, uncomplicated. It is Tatsumi’s perfection.

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