‘Here Comes Kitty’ Disturbs and Delights

Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton's latest work is a visually stunning, intellectually perplexing postmodern comic.

If you’ve ever wondered what a postmodern comic would look like, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera will give you a pretty good idea. It achieves the hidden aim of all postmodern work. Namely, befuddling the reader with the dilemma: is this sheer brilliance? Or merely incomprehensible nonsense?

While this dilemma can be distracting (it’s tough to read a book while worrying about whether the whole point of it is simply going over your head), in the end Here Comes Kitty achieves the equally postmodern goal of making you feel bad for even worrying about whether there’s a distinction between the brilliant and the incomprehensible in the first place.

Visually, the book is beautiful. It’s a stunning, gorgeous work of art; complex and Pythonesque. The pages are full-colour collages drawn from a range of sources, and particularly comic books about Nazis. Indeed, we are told that the artwork derives principally from a collage-style “re-assembly” of a Cold War-era comic book, something about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis, and this claim is a plausible one. It’s quite possible to be delightedly absorbed in the artwork, and not worry too much about whether there’s a plot, and whether there’s a deeper meaning, which may or may not be flying around over your head. The book is worth it for the art alone.

The storyline, plot, theme (if any of these things are to be found here) is another matter. It’s probably quite telling that one reviewer says the book “tells a tight tale”, while another reviewer calls it full of “[m]onumental incongruities… a riot of images and words.” Well, it’s certainly one or the other (and I would lean toward the riotous). The art pages themselves contain little by way of dialogue (and none of it in any straightforward narrative form), but collaborator Danielle Dutton offers periodic “interpolations” – pages of pure text which intersperse the pages of artwork. These texts are as incongruous and riotous as the art. An example:

We were on a bench. We were in the park. “But Americans eat it,” Judy said. I tapped the ground with my foot: the front, the back, the left. “One assumes,” I finally said. This was earlier. No time had passed. We stood out on the lawn. An astrologer dressed in green was visiting his aunt. I was wearing a tailored pantsuit. I was attuning myself to the day. I mean: I was being attuned to fascinating ideas. There were so many men there, that afternoon. It seemed easy to be a hero. There were lanterns and red balloons floating above the grass. “Don’t worry,” the astrologer said. He was impersonal-looking and holding out his arms. “Avoid Florida,” he told me, “never return to Berlin.” It is difficult to put this conversation into context. The house was made of glass.

You get the idea. What is noteworthy is how Dutton manages to echo in text the “incongruities” and “riot of images” of the art. Reading text like this induces the same feeling as studying the collage art on the surrounding pages; the unexpected juxtapositions and the vague sense that there’s some connecting thread hovering just beyond your comprehension. There is perhaps something deviously clever here, after all. Precisely what that is, however, is hard to say.

An extensive afterword lends some help in interpreting the whole affair. Presented as a ‘conversation’ between artist (and author) Richard Kraft and American poet Ann Lauterbach, the two discuss the work and help the reader better understand what was going on (or not going on) in it. What emerges is an intervention on the linearity of narrative form. A hapless reader such as myself was expecting a cute little story with some pretty pictures to read while curled up in bed. The unexpected dissonance, however — that riot of images and words — was unsettling, and perhaps that was the desired effect after all. (It’s not unpleasant, but I don’t recommend it before bed-time.)

“The relationship between sense and nonsense is one of the main threads in Here Comes Kitty… the beauty of nonsense is that it makes multiple kinds of sense,” says Kraft. He talks a lot about John Cage, who is clearly an important influence in his work. Kraft is suspicious, he says, of “viewpoints [that] attempt to define and thus constrict the actual experience of life which I find most beautiful and compelling in its paradoxes, its inconsistencies, its wide swaths of gray.” It’s an apt reflection of the sentiment the work conjures: even when it makes no sense, the riot of images and words is strangely compelling, comforting, and mesmerizing. It’s beautiful to behold, even if deeper meaning remains elusive.

Lauterbach is much more comfortable with these incongruities, and so it’s a good thing that she (and not I) is the one interviewing Kraft for the afterword. She points out that “one of the crucial insights of postmodernity (is) the sense that history is multiple and layered, not singular and linear.” Also an apt description of the work, a style to which Kraft’s artistic collage and Dutton’s verbal pastiche lends itself well. The images assault the intellect, which expects them to form some sort of order if one looks and tries hard enough. But they don’t. Not in any straightforward sense, anyway. Never mind the lack of narrative: why is Gandhi’s head super-imposed on the body of a woman wearing an old-fashioned dress and carrying a briefcase? Why is Martin Luther’s head on the body of a reclining naked woman? Kraft explains: “The presence of portraits and pieces of documentary photographs creates a different and perhaps more precarious kind of simultaneity — invoking specific times and places and then collapsing them so that one can see through one world into another and another. The ‘where’ and the ‘when’ is up-ended, no longer fixed or finite.”

In other words, my attempts to discern some sort of meaning weren’t totally misplaced: I’m sure all my possible interpretations were accurate to some degree. Taken together, the reader’s struggling efforts to piece together meaning lead only to a “precarious kind of simultaneity” which enables us to “see through one world into another and another.” (And another, and another…)

The riot must have affected Lauterbach, after all, who finally feels compelled to ask Kraft “if you think language has any real traction or efficacy in our present world?” (Yes and no, replies Kraft, in a couple of pages of philosophical reflection.)

I’m tempted to suggest the reader ought to read the afterword before starting, simply to have a better appreciation of what the book offers (I’m sure the authors would wholeheartedly endorse this non-linear approach to their work). But then you’d miss out on the disquieting and dissonant affect that I experienced, so forget I said that.

Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera is an unexpectedly original work. Kraft describes the book in musical terms, as a song, or an opera. I get his point, but I would describe it more as an extended work of visual art: a painting whose canvas stretches across 50-odd pages, shifting and morphing before the viewer’s eyes. Even the ‘interpolations’ of text carry a visual quality to them, both in the images they generate and in the nature of their incongruous and riotous presentation.

I must disagree with the reviewer who described this as “a tight tale”: if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re interested in a beautiful book whose non-linear narrative conveys “its own revelatory nonsense”, Here Comes Kitty offers an infuriatingly thought-provoking and uniquely creative delight.

RATING 7 / 10