In his column Line Readings, Ivan Brunetti begins with a close read of a single comics unit—a panel, a page, or a spread—and expands outward to encompass the history of comics, and the world as a whole.
Most comics focus on the actions of a figure, and the narrative develops by following that figure as it moves through its environment, or as it is commonly referred to by cartoonists, who have the often tedious, time-consuming task of actually drawing it, the background. One widely used cartoonist’s trick is to draw/establish the setting clearly and then assiduously avoid having to redraw it in subsequent panels, or at least diminish the number of background details as the sequence progresses. After all, once this setting/background has seeped into the reader’s brain, the reader can and will fill in the gaps. Moreover, sometimes drawing the background would only clutter the composition and distract the reader from the emotional core of the narrative, and so the background might judiciously disappear altogether, having outlived its graphic usefulness, until the next shift in scene.
Robert Crumb’s 1979 “A Short History of America” upends all of the above. It is a small miracle of concision and grace, consisting of a mere twelve panels that span across four pages (of three horizontal panels each) and roughly a hundred and fifty years of history. Every line, every mark in this comic imparts not only texture, but vital narrative information. In some ways, this short piece encapsulates the very art form of comics: one panel becomes panels, becomes a page, becomes pages, becomes story. Here the background is not simply a component of the story; one might say it is entirely the story.
The comic is bookended by two pieces of nondiegetic text. We start with the title hovering above a pastoral scene, nature as yet unspoiled: trees, deer, birds, and a gently sloping hill. We can safely assume this is America, but when? It could be yesterday, or thousands of years ago. We deduce that the second panel shows this same setting not long after, because of a key continuity: the trees, placed in the same position inside the two panels, haven’t grown much. Our eyes adjust quickly to repetition and become acutely sensitive to any deviation, however small. Instantly, we take in the hill and felled trees, along with the introduction of the railroad track, upon which chugs a small train, billowing steam as it disappears into the distance. The wild animals are gone, a visual shorthand for the encroachment of humans. Because of the train’s presence, we infer that these first two panels take place in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. In the third panel, a few birds glide in the sky, recalling the first panel. The hill remains in the scene (though altered), as well as the train track, but years must have passed, because we also see a house, shed, and cart (signifying “farm”), as well as a dirt road (signifying “town”), telegraph wires, and a man with horse and buggy. Will this fellow be our main character?
No such luck. In the second page, as details accumulate, the main characters appear to be the sloping hill, the modified house (complete with handsome picket fence), and the road (branching into both a walkway and crossroad, and eventually expanding its width). The home has become a homestead, judging from panels 4 and 5. A signpost hints there are towns nearby, with quantifiable distances. On this page, information accretes slowly but surely. Structures multiply: we see a reservoir, places of business, warehouses, railroad tracks (now plural), larger carriages, a relatively fancy brick building, and wires galore. The main road has been well worn in panel 5, but repaired by panel 6. I am excited when a new character is introduced in panel 4: a sapling. By panel 6, it has matured into a healthy full-grown tree. Meanwhile, the fence has aged, shrunk, and died. Fortunately, the hill is still visible, grounding us in the original scene.
When we get to page 3, we have a sense from context clues that roughly a decade is passing between each panel. The house transforms into a store, and diegetic text in the form of signage and logos first appears on this page; the landscape thereafter will be forever permeated by advertising and sales. Crisscrossing wires and cables usurp the sky in panel 6. Streetcars and motorcars are introduced and morph with time. The town sprawls, palpably congesting the space. Lamps, traffic lights, sidewalks, and neon signs clutter the panels. We begin to experience sensory overload, but then in panel 8, an abrupt shift: the town feels desolate and devoid of bustle, the street and sidewalk are in disrepair, businesses have failed, and a roustabout leans on the light post. The Great Depression (we surmise) has brought everything to a crashing halt. Even the tree that we have watched grow up and grow old has suddenly vanished, and with its death the panel truly becomes elegiac.
As page 4 brings us to a close, time continues its detached, mechanistic march, and the environment clearly possesses its own consciousness and will. Density is destiny. Cars have become stand-ins for humans. With the demise of streetcars and their cables, some of the techno-clutter has lessened, but wires still dominate the air. The street lamp that barely changed on the previous page seems to have come alive, its design streamlining; the cars, however, may have undergone an inverse process of clunkification. Whether these aesthetic changes are an evolution or devolution is left up to the reader. The reappearance of people in the final panel implies a glimmer of hope, although the sign OAKWOOD VILLAGE is sardonic; the reader recognizes it as an empty gesture of reclamation, as the original bucolic scene has been decimated, the stubborn hill its only ghost. The final, non-diegetic text asks us, “What next?!!” The extraneous punctuation indicates a mixture of shock, dismay, and bemusement. We can picture the artist, head shaking, standing at a busy street corner, wondering how we got here.
Incidentally, in 1988 Crumb drew an intriguing one-page epilogue to “A Short History of America,” although some may not consider it “canon” (to borrow the language of superhero fandom). Nonetheless, the epilogue is worth examining. The story suddenly jumps far forward in time, imagining three possible future scenarios for America, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure for humanity that ranges from inferno to purgatory to paradise. There must be an optimist lurking within Crumb, because the strip concludes with, and thus favors, the most positive choice of the three.
Crumb is best known as a trenchant satirist, having created many iconic characters of the sixties counterculture, such as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, along with what might be the most widely dispersed image—endlessly, criminally copied—from what came to be known as “underground comix”: Keep on Truckin’. Although Crumb did not invent the underground comic, his Zap Comix #1 (1968) is considered the watershed publication for the movement. Preternaturally talented, even the comics Robert Crumb drew as a child display an impressive command of storytelling and form; from the outset, his figures possessed true heft, convincingly existing in physical space. Throughout his career, Crumb has plumbed the dark recesses of his own psyche as well as the underbelly of the American soul, occasionally wandering into the proverbial “too-far” corner. Always a diligent observer, his best work, such as “A Short History of America,” transcends satire and shock and instead evinces a deep empathy for spaces, people, and life. Today, there are comics for an adult audience, and there is an entire graphic novel industry to prove it; this development may have been delayed, or even nonexistent, without Crumb.
One way to analyze the multifarious comics form is in terms of lineages, and one possible precursor (or distant relative) of “A Short History of America” might be Virginia Lee Burton’s 1942 classic children’s book The Little House, which follows the life of a house from 1900 to 1940 as its environment continually changes, eventually crowding, dwarfing, and neglecting it. The tale ends happily, I should note, through the house’s being repaired and relocated by the great-great-granddaughter of its original builder. We should all be so lucky. Another sharer of DNA may be a series of Gasoline Alley Sunday comics from 1934. In these successive strips, the cartoonist Frank King draws the action unfolding within one continuous space: we see a house being built, week to week, from foundation to finish, the panel grid dividing the depicted space into discrete moments in time. These comic strips remind me of Art Spiegelman’s observation, unsurpassed in its elegance, that “comics are time turned into space.” There is no better definition of the cartoonist’s essential practice.
Arguably, any fragmentation of space immediately suggests the passage of time, but in comics time can pass in different directions, overlap, or stop. Because comics are static, not temporal, they can be thought of as physical objects, solid and tangible in their external form (page, chapter, book), but plastic and elusive in their internal workings. Cartoonists, like their readers, generally move forward, but at any time might decide to change directions or skip around, trying to take in the whole.
Richard McGuire’s highly influential 1989 story “Here” is another tale that could be thought of as a direct descendant of “A Short History of America”; if so, the parent has given birth to a child prodigy. It is a short piece, just six pages, each anchored by what appears to be six equally sized panels, suggesting an even flow of time. However, by the fourth panel, the reader enters terra incognita: the panels and the space within them are subdivided into increasingly complex grids within a grid, and time starts jumping backward and forward in unpredictable intervals. While the story always remains in one very particular space, the corner of a room (“here”), the reader views the entire history of that space, both cosmic and mundane, with space-time fragmenting into a multilinear peephole: sometimes passing slowly, at other times hurtling unfathomably. The scenes bounce, comment, and riff on each other, and the story becomes a meditation on birth, death, the cyclical workings of the universe, family, and America’s problematic history.
One is reminded of Michelangelo chiseling away at marble, revealing the hidden form latent within it; only in this case, the marble is the totality of time. A better 3D metaphor might be Chinese carved-ivory spheres: these concentric, nested orbs are ingeniously constructed so that the balls move freely inside each other, and holes on their surfaces allow the holder to catch piecemeal glimpses of all the inner balls. “Here” functions along similar principles. Furthermore, with the expanded, graphic-novel length version of Here (2014), which delves deeper into its many themes, the book becomes a kinetic sculpture: the corner of the room is not drawn, but rather implied by the book’s spine, and the pages in our hands likewise become the walls.
Two other noteworthy strips along these lines were drawn by Chris Ware in the early nineties. One is a Big Tex page, an homage to the aforementioned Gasoline Alley strips but with a darker-edged humor, also depicting an isometrically projected and panel-divided single space, except now covering a much longer span of time, which is revealed to be moving backward. The other is an untitled one-pager (let’s call it “Lamp”), originally black-and-white but colored in for the 2003 collection Quimby the Mouse. Ware has often acknowledged the influence and inspiration of McGuire’s work, and in this variation on “Here,” we focus not on a space, but the life cycle of a single, humble object, from store to home, room to room, lampshade to lampshade, decade to decade, and finally to a new home. Through the lamp, we experience the lives of the unseen people in its environment: love, sex, marriage, birth, divorce, attachment, abandonment, acceptance, illness, death, even a tornado. The elliptical narrative unfolds through casual-seeming yet precise fragments of dialogue, as well as through closely cropped, minimal scenery. Every detail is densely narrative-packed, like the family snapshots that unwittingly chart fashion trends, the vagaries of human relationships, and the travails of aging.
Drawing the past perhaps allows cartoonists a way of understanding the present, with the ultimate hope of beneficially affecting the future. In its immaterial form, the past haunts our memories and imagination, its effects lingering even when repressed, distorted, or denied. In its material form, the past manifests itself in every extant molecule, in all that surrounds us or is us, at any given moment, every consequence a subsequent cause. The genius of comics is that it splits the difference between time and space—the abstract and the concrete—in an accessible, unassuming, and lyrical way. History, after all, exists only as dreams or ruins.
Ivan Brunetti is a professor at Columbia College Chicago, the author of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice and Comics: Easy as ABC, and the editor of both volumes of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. His drawings occasionally appear in The New Yorker, among other publications.