n.b. Today’s post is a revision and expansion of a presentation I gave at MLA 2018 as part of a panel entitled, “Connecting the Dots: Museums and Comics.” It was originally entitled, “There’d Be a Hanging: Community as Art Gallery, Comic as Museum in ‘Gilbert Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism’.” The theme of the panel and its call for papers allowed for a wide variety in approaches, and my fellow presenters did a great job demonstrating comics in the museum world and museums in comics, but I have to say that my presentation was the only one that made a clear and strident claim that museums are death houses. Well, I didn’t say those literal words, but I felt them. And, since the panel was scheduled for 7 pm on the first night of the conference the day after a snowstorm, there were about six people to hear these papers in a room that probably held 150. As such, I have decided to re-present it here, for your enjoyment and as a glimpse into what my academic work is like outside the context of The Middle Spaces, as I did with “Marvel Five-in-One: Prominent, Notorious and Invisible Black Lives of the Marvel Universe” back in 2016. Furthermore, while I have embedded art examples in the post, you can also download and follow along with the powerpoint presentation I used at the conference.
“I didn’t start writing to go to Paris. I didn’t start writing to do canvases.
I started writing to bomb. Destroy all lines.”
In the seminal 1983 documentary on New York City graffiti culture and its intersection with early hip hop—Style Wars—an oft-sampled scene (listen above) has young artist SKEME describing a piece that extends over two subway cards reading, “All you see is…Crime in the City.” The ambiguity of the textual art traversing the length of the city suggests the conditions of New York in the 1970s and 80s, while marking (and ironically reducing) its own existence as a crime, given City Hall’s contemporaneous strident position on graffiti and its support of the NYPD anti-vandalism squad. As anyone who lived in New York City in the 1970s and early 80s can attest to, graffiti was so ubiquitous as to become nearly invisible. Nevertheless, graffiti of that era established a counter-cartography of the city, a different way of mapping not only urban space, but a counter-history of art that at the moment of recognition challenges the viewer to weigh its value by flouting the rules for what is worthy of inclusion in the canons of art. As French novelist and philosopher of art André Malraux writes, “A museum without walls has been opened to us”—though when it comes to graffiti maybe it is more accurate to say a museum of any wall—”and it will carry infinitely farther that limited revelation of the world of art which the real museums offer is within their walls.” In other words, museums delimit the possibility of that revelation. The “lines” that SKEME claims to want to “destroy” may be a reference to “bombing” subway lines (in the parlance of graffiti, to cover an area in tags, burners, and/or full pieces), but serve as a way of thinking about how the artistic tradition has an autoclastic—that is, self-breaking—tendency that helps define its power.
These young artists (many of whom prefer the term “graffiti writers”) practiced identity work via engagement with their environment through inscribing their constructed identities on the very systems and institutions that both constitute New York City and allow it to function, highlighting the nadir of those systems. Of course, rather than being recognized as social critics, graffiti writers were criminalized, and accused of being the source of the dysfunction and blight (in an arc of thought that would culminate with the embrace of “broken windows” policing). These identities are built around a counter-vision of the city that recognizes disenfranchised youth and the omnipresence of violence—not only the type of violence characterized by the state as criminal, but the violence of the state itself that leads to the very conditions of so-called criminality and to some degree the violence that establishes state power. In other words, rather than promote violent criminality, as broken-windows theory would have us believe, graffiti highlighted the violence that is always already present and actually draws that violent gaze towards itself by announcing itself outside the social order.
Consider 5 Pointz, a former factory turned open-air graffiti museum in Long Island City, Queens that once featured art on its exterior walls not only from all the five boroughs (which is from whence it derived its name) but from all over the world. It fell victim to the wave of gentrification that has been transforming New York City since at least the mid-90s. Since it did not “look like” a museum, it fell subject to an institutional gaze that did not recognize its artistic and social value. A petition to preserve the “Aerosol Art Center” fought to include 5 Pointz into the National Register of Historic Places but was unsuccessful, and thus “the Institute for Higher Burning” was razed in 2014. While the developers of the condos to be built in its place promised that its graffitied history would be incorporated into its aesthetic, such attempts are inevitable failures—as the renderings of what the interiors will look like make evident—because graffiti’s power only emerges from its resistance to artistic and social institutions. While many of the artist’s whose work on the outer walls of 5 Pointz was destroyed recently won a multi-million dollar settlement from the developers, such an award will do little to change the reputation of street art. In other words, while street art may occasionally gain some recognition and legitimacy in the art and museum world (as in the Museum of New York City’s “City as Canvas” showing of 2014), that world cannot wholeheartedly embrace this art without impoverishing it or destroying both itself and the art—that is to say, deprive graf of its situated context, or transform its own gallery spaces into sites where artists can “go over” what is already there. As Style Wars director Tony Silver claims in the DVD extras for the documentary, graffiti and the establishment are “absolutely irreconcilable forces. There could be no possible way of there being any kind of reconciliation between [the artists and the authorities] that could allow the art to exist as it was created in its original form.” As I have written some about on The Middle Spaces and explored in my dissertation, the “contradiction between hip hop as [a site of] resistance and its far-reaching success continues to circulate through its dialogues regarding authenticity and what constitutes ‘real hip hop’” (Oyola 221). In fact, the role of graffiti as part of hip hop culture itself is a contested idea, as there are many graffiti artists of the time documented in Style Wars, like Seen, that reject the notion that they were a part of hip hop culture. However, such discrepancies of self-conception reinforce, rather than undermine the notion of cohesive culture, as such difference—to paraphrase Stuart Hall—is constitutive of a shared identity. The tensions and disparate ways of conceiving these practices point towards a complexity indicative of culture and stands against the simplistic notions of a hegemonic understanding defining one. These conflicts play out in the very practice of graffiti culture.
Now, you may be asking: Aside from the perhaps happy coincidence that the term “graffiti writer” enjoins us to consider the intersection of words and art, what does all this have to do with comics?
The discourse of comics-making practice and its study circulates around similar tensions between low regard/marginal status and artistic merit/financial and cultural success. I am not going to waste my time with pointless debates about which comics are “grown up” and thus worthy of inquiry and inclusion in institutions of power that are purported to shape culture, but I will say that much like in comics studies where some folks seem to never get tired of debating why G.I. Joe comics are not worthy of study, but Chris Ware’s are, there is a common discourse in graffiti that seeks to place detailed murals above the ubiquitous tag. Instead, I am interested in considering how both of these marginal artforms operate in an ambiguous space regarding legitimacy. While comics benefit from their frequent literary pretensions both in creation and critical reaction, comics’ complex relationships of images, text, structure, and even their history as mass-produced ephemera, challenge established literary and artistic evaluative methods. While some comics scholars, like Marc Singer in his Breaking the Frames (2018), resist the notion that comics are actually still a marginalized art and form of lowbrow culture that requires cheerleading, others like Christopher Pizzino in Arresting Development (2016), suggest that narratives of comics “growing up” and becoming legitimate are not only premature, but faulty in their assumption of a linear unified progress in that direction. In that book, Pizzino pursues “a way of reading comics that works against the narrative of respectability and remains fascinated with the problem of status” (4). Pizzino’s claim of comics creators exuding “[a] forceful rejection of self-imposed shame [about making comics], alongside a keen sense of what it means to be viewed as illegitimate, and an unwillingness to let this awareness slip away” (7) is one that could just as easily describe graffiti writing. The fluctuative quality of both comics and graffiti in terms of so-called “legitimacy” as (high or low) art help to define them (see Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art (2012)). I am interested in using this ambiguous space in order to make the claim that it is that very ambiguity and recurrent dismissal that make comics uniquely indicative of valuable cultural ideas.
In exploring this notion I want to make use of comics’ self-referentiality and consider the role of Humberto from Gilbert Hernandez’s “Human Diastrophism” a story arc from Love and Rockets. It was originally published in Love and Rockets #21 through #26 (from July 1987 to June 1988), but any page references here are from the out of print Blood of Palomar collection (1989). Gilbert’s stories (I use his first name not out of a lack of respect but to distinguish him from his brothers who are also comic creators) take place in the fictional Central American town of Palomar. “Human Diastrophism” is too dense a story to give an ample synopsis here (or perhaps anywhere), as Gilbert Hernandez takes full advantage of the comics form to pack it with the plenitude that helps shape Palomar’s magical realist setting. Suffice to say, the town prides itself on its isolation and a sense of cultural purity. This is a town where the alcalde and the sheriff argue about the necessity of a telephone, dress codes for young women are strictly enforced, and the outside world is considered a corruptive influence on their small-town life. The story revolves around a serial murderer (and other related and unrelated deaths) in the town around the same time a team of archeologists arrive to explore the pre-Colombian ruins on the edge of town but also involves a plague of destructive monkeys, questions of parentage, an awakening to global Cold War politics, a closeted young lesbian couple, among many other explorations and interactions of new and recurring characters from Gilbert’s half of the Love and Rockets serial. “Human Diastrophism” provides a lot of material from which to construct a view of Palomar, and the interplay of people, memories, events, and motivations threatens to be overwhelming, challenging a reader’s ability to make sense of it. The serial killer plot of “Human Diastrophism” is simultaneously central and ancillary to the narrative and the people of Palomar. Mostly it provides the context for several of the comic’s characters to develop.
Among all this, Humberto, a young artist, struggles to develop his art while considering his duty to his community. When Heraclio, the local teacher, sees Humberto’s work (mostly studies of the townsfolk), he recognizes the boy’s discerning eyes and the potential in his art, encouraging him by sharing art books exploring works ranging from Toulouse-Lautrec to Van Gogh to Matisse to Kandinsky and many more. All of this art is new to the boy. Responding to Humberto’s artistic efforts, Heraclio says, “There’d be a hanging for sure if everyone knew how you’ve been secretly portraying them…good stuff.” Heraclio’s claim is noteworthy in its ambiguity (much like “All you see is crime in the city”). The “hanging” Heraclio mentions suggests a possible violent reaction to Humberto’s work, but the “good stuff” also suggests that the boy’s work is worthy of display, a public hanging of the work. He offers to bring Humberto to an art museum in a nearby city so the untrained teen can learn even more, but this never happens, because as the horrific events of the story come into focus, Humberto’s desire for artistic immediacy pushes him to make the community into a gallery space disseminating his art to directly confront his world and suffers the consequences of his confused priorities. At the end of the story, he will be forbidden from ever drawing again (though in later stories we won’t cover here, he takes advantage of a loophole in that ban by secretly taking up sculpture).
The conflict with his community arises after Humberto witnesses the attempted murder of a local girl named Chancla, but rather than report what he saw, he retreats from his community to draw about it and eventually begins to anonymously share his art by posting it up around town. In his foundational work, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005), Charles Hatfield connects this public hanging of art to the tradition of “revolutionary political muralismo of such Mexican artists as Siqueiros and Rivera” (83)—both of whom are mentioned earlier in the story—but both the paste-up nature of Humberto’s work and its independence from government-supported goals of social idealism lead me to think of it as having a stronger relationship to urban street art and its informing illicit quality. As such, I resist claims by some scholars that Humberto’s approach is—in the words of Enrique Garcia in his book on the Hernandez Brothers (2017)—“an aestheticization of the events by painting the murders” (97). This is an echo of Hatfield who suggests that “Humberto puts himself and others at risk through his single-minded dedication to his art” (80), but Humberto and the people of Palomar are already at risk regardless of the immediate presence of a serial killer. Violence is already present, and while Huberto’s claim that his work “speaks for itself” (“Blood” 78) echoes a detached artist’s gaze, Hernandez draws the boy to appear deeply agitated by what he renders and when confronted with what he has been doing. Sheriff Chelo even asks him if it is fear that kept him from reporting what he saw, and his stuttered response does not deny that fear (83).
Humberto’s encounter with art, while still mediated to some degree by Heraclio and the art books the teacher brings, remains foremost raw and experiential. In Against Interpretation (1964), Susan Sontag writes, “Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there,” but Humberto’s view of art is not shaped by standard intellectualization. Nearly illiterate, he cannot read the commentary in the art books Heraclio lends him. Instead, he makes experiential connections. Humberto experiences all this great art through his senses, not through a curated museum gallery creating an explicit narrative context of art history but as shocks of visual and affective presence. These works are spontaneously authentic for him because he must try to understand and organize a lineage from them based only on experiencing them, a lineage that must also provide a space for his own artistic efforts. He must perform (re)collection in order to articulate his own identity as an artist. “Spontaneous authenticity” (as I defined in my dissertation project) emerges from the work of (re)collecting identity— an acknowledgment of the indebtedness to and limitation of one or more lineages and contexts that accompanies an articulation of something new and distinct from what has come before. Here, Humberto’s artistic efforts chime with Pizzino’s notion of “autoclasm” in making comics, “not…a theme that can be safely contained, but as a reality inside which the comics creator must struggle” (4). Spontaneous authenticity is “a claim to original and unique identity in the moment of speaking as ‘authentic,’ but that is ironically predicated on a deep knowledge of a tradition that is under erasure in the moment of utterance” (Oyola 232).
As such, Humberto’s art is not about an aestheticization of what threatens his community—at least not only that—but about a spontaneous expression of what undergirds Palomar’s sense of social stability: erasure. It is not wrong to read this aspect of “Human Diastrophism” (as Hatfield does) as challenging the efficacy of art in making social change, but in Humberto’s own words, “Great art reveals the deepest truths” (83). The truth here is not only the practical immediate reality of the killer’s presence in town but also a much more complex and frequently incoherent web of connections that function through violent erasure. As the pre-Colombian statues on the outskirts of the village attest to, violence is written deeply into the DNA of the place. One visual example Hernandez establishes is Humberto’s naked form laid out Christ-like among his sketches on the floor, laid low by the connections between violence and salvation that inform faith and sought to destroy pre-Columbian peoples. While Hatfield claims that what Humberto is struggling with is the “violence that threatens to tear his world apart,” I think it is the much more foundational role of violence in his world that has the young artist reeling. A violence echoed in the subplot of monkeys plaguing Palomar and their grotesque and graphic massacre, which does its own part to demonstrate the banality of violence.
Take for example the serial killer, Tomaso, himself. Though the middle-aged man arrives in Palomar with the team of archaeologists, it is revealed that he is a former resident of the village. He left as a teenager when he “couldn’t see much of a future [there]” (“Blood” 34). While he gives no reason for his crimes, Tomaso’s return recapitulates the transformation of pre-Colombian civilization upon the arrival of Europeans—his attempt to enact the lack of future he foresaw for Palomar due to its inability to hold out “the world” is an echo of deadly cultural contact. While the killer’s return, like the digging archaeologists, the arrival of one of Luba’s former lovers, and the plague of violent monkeys, may all seem like new events, they are only catalysts for the forces already present in the town that strike at the stability of its identity narratives. Over and over, in many seemingly incongruous panels, Gilbert draws the pre-Columbian idols as looming reminders of foundational violence. In fact, Gilbert Hernandez’s earlier Palomar stories, like “Sopa de Gran Pena” (1983) and “The Laughing Sun” (1984) circle around violent events that threaten the self-serving sense of the town’s peaceful nature. In other words, Palomar is not so isolated as it imagines itself, and Humberto’s art tries to reveal that to the people of the town. As such, his art stands counter to the town’s authority, not in that he inadvertently abets a criminal, but in that it calls into question the degree to which this violence actually runs counter to what shapes the town’s history and identity. Humberto’s eyes (who Hatfield reminds us look more and more like the violent monkeys’ (80)) begin to see the constructed nature of the lines that ostensibly define the town’s borders from the rest of the Americas, the rest of the world (something the Tonantzin plot in “Human Diastrophism” also explores), and the lines that mark particular lineages while ignoring others. In the words of SKEME in Style Wars, Humberto wants to “Destroy all lines.”
“Palomar” means “pigeon coop,” a place from whence the birds leave and return. From the perspective of the citizens of Palomar who have accepted its narrative of isolation, the events of “Human Diastrophism” seem like traumatic changes, but they were developing geologically all along—something the use of the word “diastrophism” in the title suggests. Violence returns home like eponymous pigeons. It is Humberto’s challenge to the monolith of Palomar’s narrative lineage that potentially disrupts that narrative, not the possible institutional conception of that lineage represented by the archeological work at the dig site. Presumably, whatever is dug up will find its way to a museum far from Palomar, will not be a part of Palomar’s self-telling and thus, fail to challenge anything. The serial killer may seem to be a disruption to Palomar’s quaint village feel but multiple imbricated disruptions are taking place and obscure each other. Take a couple of examples. Another townsperson not only takes the opportunity of the mayhem to kill his own children (the suggestion being he’s been molesting them and their death is a way to save them from himself), but then, overwhelmed by his guilt and his sense of not really belonging to Palomar’s presumably idyllic existence, confesses to all the killings, (“Blood” 83). At the same time (and on the positive side), the murder of el alcalde makes room for Luba, a woman, to become mayor, and the chaos of the town makes an opportunity for Luba’s closeted daughter to escape to the U.S. with her girlfriend, and so on.
“Human Diastrophism” is a narrative palimpsest. Will Eisner’s term “sequential art” over emphasizes the degree to which comics are actually sequential. While the layout of panels suggests a sequence, the way in which panels are rendered both individually and in complex series suggest a temporal simultaneity that the term “sequential” does not effectively capture, even as those sequences and their disruptions reflect a complex way of seeing. The comic form, despite gutters and panels, challenges discrete representations of time. Sequence is another “line” that needs to be destroyed, using the very arresting possibilities of the form to disrupt the accepted norm. Consider how Gilbert Hernandez makes use of this possibility to conflate Humberto’s artistic study with his own act of storytelling. Whole panels become examples of Humberto’s raw sketchy work, studies of the people and events of Palomar through his understanding of art. Pizzino’s chapter on Gilbert in Arresting Development does a great job of exploring how the cartoonist’s work increasingly challenges attempts to use the sophistication of his work to define it as not connected to the multitude of pulpy “lowbrow” influences that got him there. Gilbert’s skepticism of the discourse of cultural value pushes him to “destroy all lines,” including not only how “high art” is defined but the very line of his own art, which Pizzino astutely describes as demonstrating an “ambivalence.” As he writes, “The very element that coalesces to form his memorable and resonant figures can, at other moments, manifest as destructive marks” (172). These examples—from replacing Humberto’s art for his own to replacing whole stories with B-movie schlock in his later work—collapse the distinctions between “high art” and the “low art” of the comic through re-appropriation and sampling, a move that brings us back to graffiti and hip hop, and its challenge to the efficacy of museums to properly accommodate these cultural media.
Rather, I see comics making use of its “fluctuative quality” to get its foot in the door of the academy and bomb it. Canonization is a stultifying process. Instead, comics and comics studies need to practice Humberto’s “spontaneous authenticity,” something graffiti and much of hip hop folk culture makes use of in claiming an identity, even as that identity fluctuates between the margins and million dollar mass cultural commodities. Creators and critics must foster—as much of graffiti culture does—a fusion that functions through a memory of traditions but that puts it to work towards an ephemeral now that cannot be institutionalized.