There is something very intriguing in the high incidence of comics about cartoonists whining about the struggle of their métier, especially in the realm of alternative comics, in which the combination of autobiography and a tendency towards a depressive mood has been setting the tone in the last decades. In fact, the idea that many ‘alternative comics’ feature stories in which ‘autobiography would be the mode’ while ‘neurosis and alienation the dominant tone’ (Leith) is so well spread that it has become almost a genre in itself. It is not a coincidence that these two elements appear together, though. There is a connection between the subject (the routine of making comics) and the mood it awakens (most of the time, self-deprecating, depressing) that is directly related to the tricky dynamics of boredom and interest in the creative process: making comics appears both as the escape from boredom and the source of it. Although the role played by boredom and melancholy has been addressed in many arts, there seems to be something special with comics, given the high number of artists that bring up this topic in their work, such as Lewis Trondheim, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes or Ivan Brunetti.
‘Cartooning Will Destroy You‘
Lewis Trondheim was so concerned with the question of aging that he devoted a whole book to the subject, a comic-essay entitled Desoeuvré (published in English as At Loose Ends), in which he tries to understand why comic authors age badly. Trondheim interviews a number of his peers, mainly from the French-Belgian bande dessinée tradition, and makes an inventory of artists that ended up falling into depression – like Hergé, Franquin, Gotlib, Fred or Carl Barks and Winsor McCay (not to mention the countless artists that ended up just falling into repetition). Trondheim was obviously worried about his own work, a fear of becoming himself repetitive and boring without noticing. That is the reason why he decides to kill the main character of his series, Lapinot (McConey in English), as a result of an urge to avoid being ‘trapped in a gilded cage’ (Trondheim, Désoeuvré) in repetitive and endless sequences. This fear of falling into cliché is illustrated several times, as when he enumerates an undesired sequence of events for his character: ‘McConey becomes a daddy, McConey gets married, McConey becomes a granddad, McConey has his prostate surgery’ (Trondheim, Désoeuvré).
Trondheim is definitely not alone in his concerns and he is not the only one to express them in the comics form. A brief look at the sketchbooks of Chris Ware quickly reveals an interest on this same topic, not as a fear of getting dried by routine, but as a series of complaints about the struggle and minutiae involved in the making of comics. In one of these confessions, he says: ‘all day today, nearly impossible to work, heavy feeling, […], lack of interest in work, feeling stupid stupid stupid, can’t even look at what I should be doing, lots of procrastination…’ (Ware 32).
Ivan Brunetti manages to go even deeper in addressing his depression in the comics format, as in the one page story entitled Cartooning Will Destroy You – quoting Schulz’s famous statement (Brunetti). Drawn in a sketchy style, the repetitive structure of the grid and the marks of corrections and redrawings in the page only reinforce the burden of the comics production mentioned by the main self-referential character: ‘I’ve tried to quit a million times, but I always come back to it. Am I insane or just completely crazy?’, he asks. Such conviction that there must be something utterly wrong in the choice of making comics is also echoed by Trondheim, who declared that ‘one of the conditions to become a comics artist would be to have a sort of psychological flaw’ (Trondheim, ‘Interview with Matthias Wivel’).
It is true that this connection between creative process and moods keen to boredom, melancholy and depression is not exclusive to comics. Actually, this melancholic state has always been presented in a rather glamorized status among artists and intellectuals, given the popularity of the idea that ‘the melancholy man was one who felt more deeply, saw more clearly, and came closer to the sublime than ordinary mortals’ (Radden 15). The idea dates back to Aristotle, who associated inspiration and melancholy by questioning why people ‘who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic’ (Aristotle 155).
But this struggle seems much more evident in comics (or at least in a particular genre). Benoît Peeters – a comics author and theoretician himself – believes there is something specific to the comics language that reinforces this feeling, and that is related to the artisanal craftsmanship based in manual labor and the consequent ‘complex and unending mechanism of repetition’ (Peeters 113). This ‘iterative principle’ can’t be found in other plastic arts (not to the same degree at least). Peeters considers this mechanism of repetition (that he proposes to call redrawing) as one of the fundamental features of the comics medium, appearing in different levels, such as from sketch to the rough (the artist has to draw and redraw), from inking in to the colouring, from panel to panel (always repeating scenarios, making small changes), from page to page, from album to album (in the case of serialized works) (Peeters 113).
Trondheim also seems to agree with Peeters on that matter: ‘repetition is the biggest trap’, he says (Trondheim, Désoeuvré). That seems to be even more true to what he calls the ‘complete authors’, the comic artists that take care of drawing and writing in all phases of production, and therefore accumulate all these levels of repetition. Ivan Brunetti also addresses this repetitive aspect: ‘my whole world, rectangle after rectangle. I have reached the October of my enthusiasm’ (Brunetti).
What is very symptomatic here is to notice that the same authors who constantly address their levels of exhaustion are precisely the ones who use repetition as a deliberate stylistic choice. If repetition is already an intrinsic part of the comics language, as Peeters reminds us, what happens then to authors who extrapolate these limits in order to represent minimal changes to refer to, for example, the monotony of their everyday life?
Cartooning will save you
The whole irony is that making comics can not only be a source of boredom, but also a solution against it – the initial motivation to start drawing is often to escape routine. There is something paradoxical in the mechanism of boredom – appearing both as a threat and as a point of departure – a crucial dynamic in the creative process in general: ‘it is from the negative power of boredom that the aesthetic impulse draws much of its force’ (Raposa 79). Nietzsche notes the necessity of enduring boredom and awaiting its effect in the work of thinkers and artists, describing it as ‘that disagreeable “lull” of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds’ (Nietzsche et al. 57). Likewise, Spacks places such urges to overcome boredom in the very foundation of the literary process. According to her, ideas would be nothing more than responses to boredom’s threat – and that reactive movement would constitute the very basis of literature (1).
The most frequent sign of that can be found in the testimonials on childhood experiences. In many interviews, when asked about the motivations to start making comics, many cartoonists will often refer to a lonely childhood and drawing to kill time and distract themselves. Chris Ware’s sketchbook is, once again, revealing. In a section entitled ‘What I may (or may not) have learned thus far‘, one of the topics is: ‘you will never again be as happy as you were when you were a child’, illustrated by a young Chris Ware happy to be drawing with the only purpose of enjoying himself (supposedly contrary to what would be his life at the time he was drawing his sketchbook) (Ware 206). Daniel Clowes says he was ‘definitely a loner’ (Raeburn 19) when he started drawing. And Adrian Tomine starts his anthology 32 stories by describing an escapist motivation:
The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me. […] It was on those quiet weekend nights when even my parents were out having fun that I began making serious attempts to create stories in comics form (Tomine 7).
This first impulse of drawing comics to kill time is very different from the obligation to draw comics as work – and it happens not only in childhood, but also in situations in which the authors are, somehow, held in limbo, and need an activity to distract themselves. In these senses, reacting against boredom is actually a source of creative power. This can be found, for example, in the phenomenon of “travel comics”. Much of the autobiographical work by Trondheim is done during trips (hence all the airports, stations) because he has some time on his hands and ‘don’t like to be bored’ (Trondheim, ‘Interview with Matthias Wivel’). The same reason is given by Craig Thompson, in his Carnet de Voyage – a travel-diary in his trip to Europe. At a certain point, he loses his sketchbook and has nothing to draw during a flight, leaving him in a clearly uncomfortable situation: ‘it would have been a perfect time to draw. With nothing to distract me, I had to face how UNHAPPY a person I am’ (Thompson 86).
Making comics can manifest as an antidote against tedium or the source of exhaustion and angst. The secret for engagement here is balance. Peeters says he considers essential that ‘every page, or at least every album, should represent a real challenge. Otherwise, the drawing becomes stale, and that is quickly apparent’ (Peeters 113). The key to dealing with such ambiguous moods, then, is to keep engagement by finding an optimal point between these two extremes. Doing comics should never cease to pose a certain kind of challenge.
Aristotle. Aristotle Problems II, Books 22-37. Cambridge Mass.; London: Harvard University Press; Heinemann, 1983. Print.
Brunetti, Ivan. Schizo. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006. Print.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety : The Experience of Play in Work and Games. San Francisco (Calif.): Jossey-Bass, 1977. Print.
Klapp, Orrin K. Overload and Boredom : Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. Westport (Conn.): Westport (Conn.) Greenwood 1986, 1986. Print.
Leith, Sam. ‘When It Comes to Comics, You Just Can’t Beat a Drunken, Violent Aardvark.’ The Guardian 18 July 2010. Web. 14 July 2011.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm et al. The Gay Science : With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Peeters, B. “Between Writing and Image: A Scriptwriter’s Way of Working.” European Comic Art 3.1 (2010): 105–116. Print.
Radden, Jennifer. The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Raeburn, Daniel. ‘The Fallen World of Daniel Clowes.’ The Imp 1997.
Raposa, Michael L. Boredom and the Religious Imagination. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Print.
Spacks, Patricia. Boredom : The Literary History of a State of Mind. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
Thompson, Craig. Carnet De Voyage. Marietta GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004. Print.
Tomine, Adrian. 32 Stories : The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics. Softcover ed. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 2004. Print.
Trondheim, Lewis. Désoeuvré : Essai. 2nd ed. Paris: L’Association, 2005. Print.
—. ‘Interview with Matthias Wivel’ The Comics Journal Autumn 2007. Web. 14 July 2011.
Ware, Chris. The Acme Novelty Date Book : Sketches and Diary Pages in Facsimile, 1995-2002. 1st ed. Montréal Quebec; Enfield: Drawn and Quarterly; Publishers Group UK [distributor], 2007. Print.
Greice Schneider is currently conducting PhD research on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives at K.U. Leuven, in Belgium. She is a founding member and co-editor of The Comics Grid.