It has always seemed strange to me that comics were chosen to resuscitate narrativity and bear the standards of personal literature into the 21st century. Pointing to the graphic medium, fans and critics somehow reached a consensus that frames, speech bubbles and line art could capture the subtleties of — what has come to be called — a postmodern life. Awarded the crown of “new media,” comics were looked to as the way of expressing the anxieties of a time that was far too schizophrenic for text-only novels, far too saturated with television and the internet to relate to traditional books and art.
Now, this is, of course, a caricature of the modern attitude towards comics and graphic novels. It highlights, though, an expectation that I have never understood. Rather than some futuristic common tongue, comics have always seemed more a lingua franca of absurdity. Even as a fan of comics, my relation to them has always been that of alien wonderment: Margaret Mead in the land of savage graphic art.
This tension between what critics promised that comics were — a return to Babel for a alienated, hyper-everything world — and the direction that comics have trended in is highlighted unintentionally and brilliantly in Fantagraphics’ compendium of 21st century Danish comics, From Wonderland with Love. The dust jacket promises the book will take readers, “…From slice-of-life and snarky satire through nightmare yarns and punk-infected road trips to Lynchian surrealism and visually explosive comics…” While this bombast is ultimately accurate, it is indicative of how far a comic language can go beyond the anything everyman.
The first five pieces in Wonderland are unassuming. The book starts with a series of one-panels featuring small, clever jokes. A frame of several animals looking bored with the caption “Animals have no ambitions.” It’s an exercise on what can be accomplished on a very small scale and these awkward little pieces are my favorite in the collection.
Next, comes “Birte,” an almost silent strip that tells the life story of its protagonist in a sort of comic negative space. Birte is never seen just a glimpse of a crib, a cake with ten candles and “Birte,” etc. Again, this comic is an unassuming and effective practice in the graphic medium.
The artist behind “Birte” illustrates the following page as well, “7 Men Practice the Art of Seduction.” The piece chronicles the vulgar responses the author allegedly receives in response to a fake online personal ad. Of course, humor ensues at the expense of the perverse internet dating community.
The longest piece in the book, “Because I Love You So Much,” is something along the lines of Family Circus meets Law and Order: SVU, wherein a mother goes on a crusade to find out who is molesting her daughter. We know all along it is the little girl’s grandfather, and the dramatic irony makes it all the more uncomfortable as the mother starts a witch hunt at the girl’s daycare. The mother leaves her child with her grandparents until she is sure the daycare is safe. A slow burn of disquiet and wincing, “Because I Love You So Much,” is beautifully successful. Much of the credit goes to the choice of presentation: a Sunday-comic style strip in black-and-white line-art conjures up childish nostalgia to a wonderful complement of the piece’s thematic.
Finally, in close competition with the first joke panels of Wonderland, readers are given more one-offs, though more surreal this time around. At one point, a wolverine expresses concerns about his soul to a priest. Meditate on that image and the virtues of the series should become self-evident.
It is, at this point, that Wonderland veers straight out of the endearingly absurd into the frustratingly obscure. I cannot really explain what happens in most of the comics that follow but here is a short list of visuals readers should expect to encounter: a baby playing a flute for a mermaid in an aquarium, a demonic cleric wearing a Volkswagen necklace and holding a cooked chicken as he belts out an aria, two naked women embracing Anubis, and a smattering of penises.
Just trying to make it through these thoroughly-other works, makes one believe that either they are the last living rubes who do not understand what is a now common tongue or that the comics were made by the craziest of crazy artists. This impasse, though, seems to becoming more and more endemic in comics. Surely this is all done with the idea to, “make life seems as absurd as it is,” but these later offerings in Wonderland, simply lack a point of reference.
Ultimately, although Wonderland is a pretty volume and has, for sure, some works worthy of the $30 price tag, it should be looked at as a bellwether pointing the way toward a comic future completely divorced from any public access. Then again, maybe the world is more fluent in the truly bizarre than I give it credit for.