Thursday, October 8, 2009

Odds and Gems # 2: Storeyville

Words: Gene Kogan

Fucking great,” I thought, after opening a large envelope which arrived with the morning mail on a Saturday morning. “I’m going to get ink all over my hands.” I was thoroughly annoyed at the publication in my hand. “Why would anyone print a comic using newsprint? And in tabloid format, no less.”

I don’t know what compelled me to order this odd publication from an ad in Comic Buyer’s Guide in the Fall of ’95. Was it recommended by my affable comic book Auntie Maggie Thompson? Or some other columnist at CBG? Was it related in some way to another work or artist I enjoyed? I really don’t recall. But I was certainly perplexed by it that day. “How the hell am I going to store this? How am I going to read this without damaging it?” were my immediate concerns. And what was with the title, Storeyville. Imagine going through the expense of printing all these copies only to discover you misspelled the title. Not exactly the height of professionalism here. I had to admit, though, I kind of loved the cover.

Warm yellow and brown hues hung off a loose black and white rendering of a lovely mountainous landscape overseeing a river, bridge, roads and houses strewn about almost haphazardly. Short of a charming little town, it still presented a nice, cozy, albeit chalky, slice of Americana pie. To hell with the ink, I needed to see what was inside.

Quickly skimming through the pages, I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. It had an inconsistency to it that I found disconcerting. 15 grids per page, filled with houses and landscapes, face and figures that were difficult to discern. All rendered in the same tones that adorned the cover. The images ranged from loose to barely more than geometric shapes and figures. But there was something pleasing about the art. There was frantic energy in the images. It reminded me, to a certain degree, of David Mazzucchelli, circa Rubber Blanket. I think that’s what really appealed to me. Although looser than that of Mazzucchelli, it appeared very much as expressive and dynamic, showing influences of Henri Matisse. I was intrigued. It didn’t seem to have much in the way of text, so I figured it would be a quick read and decided to give it a go.

Quick read, indeed. I ended up hunched over on the floor, often on all fours, going back and forth, trying to figure out what was happening, and why. And the reading part was as arduous as trying to sort through the content. Initially, my collecting psyche had my hands quivering turning the pages. I wanted to minimize the damage to the publication, so I turned each page ever so gingerly and made sure not to crinkle it in the turning. It was driving me nuts. By the 3rd page, I said “Fuck it”! I needed to just dive in. And it was liberating, which after I finished the story, felt quite appropriate and in kinship to both the content and form of the comic.

Getting back to the content, well, firstly, I should mention, I’ve had a fascination with the hobo stories and culture ever since reading James Vance and Dan Burr’s Kings in Disguise. I’ve sought it out in various forms, including books, movies and, of course, whatever comics I could find, including the excellent Castaways by Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo. Nothing about it seems appealing to me. Yet, I romanticize it. Perhaps it’s the lack of responsibility or accountability or materialism that captures my imagination, contrasting, as it does, with the world we currently occupy. Or maybe it’s cut from the same fabric as the mythology that blankets my family and their ancestors: the wandering Jews. Tales rooted in identity, survival and acclimation. Whatever it is, I get sucked into these stories and quickly identify with the characters. So when I realized what Storeyville was about, I was immediately engaged. And it’s a simple story.

**Spoiler warning**

Our protagonist, Will, a hobo, learns of the whereabouts of his old friend and mentor, Reverend Rudy, while camping out in Pittsburgh, and decides to trek him down to Montreal, where he was spotted. Most of the story is taken up by this journey and search.

During this trip, we get hints as to why finding Reverend Rudy is so important to Will, through his narration and flashbacks. Will left him in a pinch and has never forgiven himself. It becomes clear that Reverend Rudy is a father figure for Will. And as Will felt he betrayed him, he’s seeking redemption. He’s also looking for guidance, as one would expect from a father; to hold his hand and show him the way. The journey takes its toll on Will. As his desperation grows, and his hope fades, he becomes increasingly lost. When Will finally locates Rudy, aboard a ship, the scene is oddly anticlimactic. Rudy, while happy to see Will, and grateful that he sought him out, sends Will away and grants him no guidance. In no uncertain terms, he offers Will forgiveness, but tells him that he has to be his own man and seek his own path. He asks Will to disembark the ship and take control of his life. The story ends with Will watching the ship sail off.

It’s a poignant tale of a figurative child who feels he let down his dad and is stunted emotionally by it. His father knows that he needs to grow up and stand on his own two feet and pushes him away. This is a common theme that has been explored in literature throughout the ages, from the bible to ancient mythology to modern writings of every form. What’s interesting here is how the story unfolds visually.

While reading the story, you get the sense you’re on the road, in the thick of things. There is energy on every page and in practically every panel. The structure, with the 15 panels per page, lends a rhythm to the pacing that is not common in comics. The landscapes, interspersed generously through the story, often for several panels at a time, give a sense of travel. No two landscapes are alike, so you get the feeling that you’re looking out the window of a train or walking long distances through multifarious roads. And the panels which progress the story, with the loose rendering of characters in motion, crackle with constant action. Even the panels where the characters are just talking or sitting, are tense with potential energy. This is further contrasted against the static page structure.

There is a great expressiveness in the panels and they often reflect Will’s state of mind. This is especially evident in the violent flashback scenes, or where Will is at his most desperate, when the figures barely rise above simple geometric shapes. There is such a wild energy in these panels that it gives a genuine sense of how out of control his situation had become.

And then we hit the end, where form and content collide like two rams, leaving me with a feeling not unlike seeing the eye blink in the film La Jetee. Much like Will is liberated at the story’s end, so is the story itself liberated from the form that held it so tightly throughout, as it reaches the double page spread that closes this comic. It contains the same 15 grid outline on each of the 2 pages, but it shows 1 scene sprawled over all the grids that comprise the 2 pages. An uncharacteristically serene image of the small vessel sailing off into the big yellow sky and brownish water. It breaks the rhythm of the previous 36 pages - like a roller coaster that comes to a sudden and complete stopand sets you free.

**End spoiler warning**

There was such a fine satisfaction upon finishing the story; a sense of accomplishment. It was not easy, but it was a wonderful experience reading this comic, on the floor, excited at every turn of the page. It engaged my mind, body and creative spirit. So, yeah, my fingers were a bit darker by the story's end. And putting it back together was not unlike folding up a large map correctly: you may find the right combination to set it straight, but it’s never going to feel like it did before you opened it. But I was fine with that. This is why it was produced. Besides, I could always order another one.

After all was said and done, I truly felt that the format was appropriate for experiencing this story. It fit with the tone, the mood and informed the story as much as any other element and more so than any other comic I’d read up to that point. It was, by far, the most radical format I’d read. It’s not lost on me that the format was probably chosen for financial reasons, but it also seems pretty clear that someone so keenly in tune with the story telling process must have known that it would be an active participant in relaying the story and the emotional impact it would have on the reader.

The publication had a print run of 10,000, which is very high, especially for a self-published independent. Only about 1000 sold, through various outlets in San Francisco and mail order. The rest were given away or left by the exits of progressive theaters and stores that would allow such things. Most of those copies were likely read and discarded, because this publication is virtually impossible to find. To this day, I’ve never again seen a copy available in any outlet, collectible or otherwise.

Another curious thing about this publication was the fact that it had no credit. It was copyrighted to Sirk Productions. There was no other credit, no writer, no artist, nothing. It wasn’t until the ultra fancy reprint edition was published in 2007 by Picturebox, did I learn the author was non other that Frank Santoro, whose work I owned and enjoyed. In retrospect, it’s not a surprise, as there are many elements that Storeyville has in common with Santoro’s later work, such as Cold Heat, Incanto and Chimera, although I feel that Storeyville eclipses these other works, as strong as they are, in its ambition and execution. Still the lack of credit was both bizarre and infuriating, initially.

The reprint package, released almost 15 years after the original, is a wonderful reproduction of this story. It retains the dimensions of the original, the tone and layout, but with much better paper quality and housed in a very respectful sturdy hardcover, with an adoring introduction by Chris Ware. It’s an ideal way to tell this story. To reintroduce it to the world, to a more mature comic appreciating world, to a world that probably never heard of this work. It was the right thing to do. And if it was the first time I’d seen it, I would have loved it, I’m sure. But I don’t. It feels wrong. Everything about it (except for the Chris Ware introduction). A betrayal, if you will. Being fully credited in the reprint edition, is akin to Kiss unmasking. It feels wrong. The hard cover. It just feels wrong. It’s all too nice and respectable. It betrays the spirit of the original. It betrays its rustic crispness. It loses some of its flavor. It’s griminess. Its hobo aura. There was nothing about the original that should have appealed to me. It wasn’t collectible, it wasn’t credited, it wasn’t storable, it wasn’t displayable. All those things that were corrected in the reprinted version. But as beautiful as the reprint is, it just isn’t a reflection of my experience reading it. For that, I can’t accept it. Luckily, I still have the original.

And yeah, I did order another one.

Gene Kogan first wrote for Yellow Rat Bastard magazine (published by the hipster store chain of the same name), and covered luminaries including Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire and Bill Plympton. Shortly after, he followed it up with online column Back Issue Reviews. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Liz, their son, Shaylem, their dog Mabel Eddie Campbell Kogan and way more stuff than is probably legally allowed in an apartment.