Two Jonathans: Writing on comics in essays by Zara Dinnen

30 Mar

Once upon a time (in the 1970s) there were two little boys, both named Jonathan; one lived in St Louis, Missouri, the other in Brooklyn, New York. They both liked comics. Readers of Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem know these general facts because both authors have written prolifically on their own pasts through essays and articles. We know they like comics because both authors have written substantial essays framing comics as important cultural objects in their childhood and adolescence. These essays are: Franzen’s ‘Two Ponies’ from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2007); and Lethem’s ‘Identifying with your Parents, or, the Return of the King’ from The Disappointment Artist (2005). They were published by two established, critically acclaimed and lauded authors, either approaching, or in, their middle-age. The essays differ: Franzen’s is formally traditional, Lethem’s more experimental—with sections that write text in panels, and conspicuously hail comic book characters. But both are long mediations on the role of comics in the lives of their adolescent and childhood selves—the strip Peanuts for Franzen, and Marvel’s Silver Age for Lethem; both write about comics as formative, biographical encounters that have left an indelible trace.

Essay writing is a different discipline to writing fiction. No less driven by narrative, representation or interpretation it is also tethered to recollection, re-inscription and remediation—of knowledge and information—appearing through something other. In the reflexive and reflective essay, ‘The White Album’ (first published in 1979), Joan Didion meditates on the form:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. […] We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the impression of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience (47).

In the ‘White Album’ Didion tracks her own doubts about the authenticity of such an exercise: ‘[…] I wanted still to believe in the narrative, and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical’ (48). Didion is recounting a time in her life where she finds her working processes unhinged by the tenuousness, even arbitrariness, of the structures they adhere to and are meant to reproduce.

In Chris Ware’s introduction to McSweeney’s Issue thirteen, ‘An Assorted Sampler of North American Comic Drawings, Strips, and Illustrated Stories etc.’, he reflects on the form of comics, and the complex boundaries they trace between script and the ‘phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’. Ware writes:

[…] the strange process of writing with pictures encourages associations and recollections to accumulate literally in front of the eyes; people, places, and events appear out of nowhere. Doors open into rooms remembered from childhood, […] distant loves appear, almost magically on the page—all deceptively manageable, visceral, the combination sometimes even revelatory (12, Ware’s emphasis).

For Ware the blurred field of the real and imagined that emerges through the art of production is one perhaps specific to comics; and it is true that images of faces remembered only emerge as that, as images, ‘literally in front of the eyes’, in drawn form. And yet there is something of a shared sentiment—from Didion to Ware—something that marks both their modes of writing as peculiarly reflexive, peculiarly caught up in the act of production itself, in the limitations and noticeable borders of the form. When reading Franzen and Lethem on their own encounters with comics, through essay, the shared idiosyncrasies of the two forms seem heightened. The essays themselves represent writers discussing reading and writing through the study of a medium that instantiates these cross practices—a reader of comics is always an active reader, living ‘by the impression of a narrative line upon disparate images’. The reader of comics in this instance is also the writer who lives by their impressions of a narrative line; the subject of comics and the form of essays both written as biographical, indexical and reflexive.

If I knew then what I know now

Jonathan Franzen’s essay, ‘Two Ponies’, interweaves writing about his family and writing about Peanuts. I say interweaves; these two narratives are more juxtaposed than entwined, in many places literally alternate paragraphs. The structure invites a reader of the essay to perform a kind of double reading of Franzen’s anecdotal recounting of strips and strifes (family, school). The paragraph separations are a kind of gutter; wherein the reader is left to (re)produce, as if for the first time, Franzen’s relationship to Peanuts. There is in Franzen’s writing here an assumed familiarity with the author and his work; the reader makes for themselves the points at which cartoon and real life intersect particularly along the lines of character. There is the occasional heavy-handed shove in the right direction from the author: ‘It’s hard to repudiate a comic strip, however, if your memories of it are more vivid than your memories of your own life’ (49). In addition to the comic and the memories, Franzen diverts at places to discuss his own biographical reading of Peanuts’ creator, Charles M. Schulz. Franzen opens the essay by describing how he turned to Peanuts during a family argument; he does so for solace rather than escapism: ‘Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house’ (29). Franzen writes himself as an individual in a collective; E Unibus Pluram. In this passage Franzen identifies with the comic strip but also with a peer group and moreover a national feeling; he does not identify with his parents, or older brothers. In this he sets the tone for the essay, and establishes the awkward position Peanuts occupied in his remembered process of self-identification.

In Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Identifying with your Parents’ the various strands of essay—biography, autobiography, fandom and readership—are much more tightly meshed; each type of authoring an inflection on another. In contrast to Franzen, for Lethem the peer group is not a dispersed concept but a close, physical presence: this group comprises himself, and his childhood friends, Karl and Luke. Perhaps the closeness of this group is manifest in the aesthetic styling of the essay—comics are not distinct from those other stories Lethem tells about himself. For Lethem comic book reading is one experienced as a group; and one that comes to define the relationships of that group. And yet, like Franzen, Lethem can’t write his experience as one solely of the group: ‘This is a closed circuit, me and the comics which I read and which read me, and the reading of which by one another, me and the comics, I am now attempting to read, or reread’ (67). Immediately more reflexive in tone Lethem suggests the ways in which the essay is rereading not only the subject of comics but of himself as he consumed them. The comic strip for Franzen is a thing which instantiates difference; he is, like Snoopy, that ‘creature of a different species’. For Lethem it is something that explains those differences: ‘At the moment in my childhood I’m describing now, bodies were beginning to change, and the exact degree and nature of their changes provided psychological opportunities, and thwarted others’ (64); ‘Marvel was implicated in my yearning backward—ours, I should say: mine, Luke’s, even Karl’s’ (65).

Both writers suggest these essays are re-readings and that comics were things to be reread. Much hazier is how these essays are rewritings; how they are writing the story of their subjects as writers. I want to first establish the particular kind of child these authors identify themselves as through comics, and then to consider how these children might be in fact proto-authors.

A certain kind of adolescent boy

In the essay ‘Secret Identity Poilitcs’, Scott Bukatman discusses at length the way a particular group of American authors—Lethem, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody—use Superhero comics in literature in order to channel a remembered idea of childhood; they use comics to, figuratively, pencil and ink a certain type of nostalgia. Bukatman writes:

With this generation – somewhere between baby boomer and Gen X – the superhero comic becomes a fundament of childhood, a crucial scenography against which one’s own origin took shape (or flight). Comics become a crucial site of escape to, rather than escape from, a protected terrain of self-definition (assuming one is a certain kind of adolescent boy) […] (113).

In Bukatman’s essay Franzen is not one of those kind of adolescent boys: ‘[Franzen] tried, perhaps a bit too hard, to interweave family history with an appreciation of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts’ (113) [1]. But Franzen does use comics as a ‘crucial scenography’. Like Lethem Franzen, in his recountings of those early encounters, writes himself as the kind of child reader who ‘escaped to’ the comic. And, like these other authors, for Franzen comics offered a place of arrested development: the comic book page functioned as a point of orientation at which the child learned to identify himself as a character.

For Franzen: Snoopy ‘was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child’ (29). This sentiment is disingenuous; in practice a reader takes away the impression that Franzen’s identifying Snoopy as a child is more his identifying himself as unlike other children. For Franzen children are always self-absorbed, ‘sunny egoists’. This manifests as difference in that they are always apart from the world, and potentially each other. In Lethem’s writing on the comics of his childhood the comics did not offer difference – they offered connection and connectedness not only in that they were shared and passed around but also in that they became a site for tracing notions of cultural ‘influence’ at the level of the text whilst endorsing the idea of ‘origin’ at the level of the story. For the child-Lethem the politics of comics were those of allegiance through immersion: pick an author, pick a generation, immerse yourself in its idiom, defend it against all others, but importantly, with others. On why he decided to ‘side’ with Luke over Karl when it came to the return of Jack Kirby to Marvel comics (representing the return of the old guard, the golden era of his parents’ youth) against the accusation that Kirby’s return heralded the end of something much better (a next generation that had been), Lethem writes: ‘[Luke] and I were partnered in a more baroque strategy, of rejecting childishness by identifying with our parents, and by sneering at rebellion as childish. As paltry new teenagers we adopted a “you can’t fire me, I quit” position’ (65). The brutal, comic, honesty of adult-Lethem on his childhood posturing writes comics into the discursive frame of the essay itself—the comic books were, and are, the argument, the argument is the essay, the essay, that ‘action or process of trying or testing’, this action both the recollection of, and the formative experience itself (OED n.1).

Boys and their… cherished objects

‘On my night table was the Peanuts Treasury, a large, thick hardcover compilation of daily and Sunday funnies by Charles M. Schulz. My mother had given it me the previous Christmas, and I’d been re-reading it at bedtime ever since’ (29). Franzen’s most memorable encounters with Peanuts are precious; they are bound and reified in a book that is a permanent object, and a persistent presence. The book sanctifies Peanuts as literature, as a subject-object worthy of Franzen’s considered writing. The book is also wholly separate from family life and social relationships; its place is on the bedside table. There is a kind of performance of a particular type of private reading here, one that is only undercut by the humour of thinking about the oh-so-serious child Franzen communing with a comic—albeit a droll one. The thickness and seriousness of the Peanuts collection verifies the seriousness and thickness (the depth) of the child. The two figures alone – the book and the boy – seem to communicate not a picture of a boy immersed in these stories, but a boy accompanied by a book. The adult Franzen looks back on this encounter as formative. He doesn’t explicitly say so but echoes of this image are all over his fiction and non-fiction prose: the serious act of reading as a moment apart. Perhaps more particularly the adult author Franzen writes his child self as having required solace (from his family); the child subject of this essay is always-already an author (he is only the reconstruction of Franzen the adult author), an author who has publicly spoken, and written, about his own need to ‘be alone’.

The child-Lethem that the author Lethem writes about in ‘Identifying with your Parents’ is a figure crossing, double-backing and re-crossing thresholds: of adolescence, adulthood, and childhood but moreover of culture, notions of influence, reference and authorship. Again, these are preoccupations abound in Lethem’s fiction and non-fiction work, clearly signposted—like Franzen’s need to be alone—for an alert, familiar, reader. But there is another kind of writer-being-written-as-in-the-making here. That is rather than the self-identification through difference that marks Franzen’s childhood self as the writer he will be, Lethem writes himself as being hailed as a writer, or at least a proto-writer, by Karl. After an afternoon of drawing their own superhero characters Lethem asked Karl: ‘Who […] besides Kirby, had ever shown the ability to generate so many characters, so many distinctive costumes, so many archetypal personas? In reply, Karl turned the tables on me, with a weird trick of undercutting flattery. He said, You’ (71). The end of a paragraph (though not a section) this ‘You’ is left hanging, italicised, emphasised, with the blank rest of the line for the reader to take it in. Lethem goes on to make the point that really Karl recognised the immaturity of Kirby at that stage in his career (producing characters in the way children do). But it seems that the rewriting of this incident in an essay all about formative experiences marks that ‘You’ as a kind of echo: the early identification of Lethem as an author, or at least like an author; a moment of recognition that has reverberated through time and then been written back into that time.

There is more to both these essays than there is space to say here; and maybe I have not represented wholly accurately the amount to which the authors in these essays are self-consciously constructing a particular kind of narrative. Or, rather, two kinds of narrative: the comic book guys and the personal essayists—from The Simpsons to The New Yorker. But perhaps these figures are closer in kind than might seem obvious. From ‘doors [that] open into rooms remembered from childhood’ to ‘know[ing] that one could change the sense with every cut’; both forms incorporate a critical ambiguity into their modes of production and reception. This is not to say that these two forms are the same; rather that when thinking about comics criticism, particularly as it relates to biography—of the fan, the artist, the writer, the academic—perhaps the formal function and mechanism of the Essay might be a productive point of reference. Franzen and Lethem, the two Jonathans, provide an interesting jumping off point to think through such considerations.


Bukatman, Scott. ‘Secret Identity Politics’. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Ed. Angela Ndalianis. Oxon: Routledge, 2009: 109-125

Didion, Joan. ‘The White Album’. In The Next American Essay. Ed. John D’Agata. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2003: 47-73.

Franzen, Jonathan. ‘Two Ponies’. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. London: Harper Perrenial, 2007: 28-51.

Lethem, Jonathan. ‘Identifying with your Parents, or, the Return of the King’. The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 2005: 59-76.

Ware, Chris. Introduction to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Issue 13. Ed. Chris Ware. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2004: 8-12.

Zara is PhD candidate in the department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, researching representations of the digital in contemporary American culture. She has articles and reviews published or forthcoming in the Journal of Narrative Theory, ImageText, Journal of American Studies and Textual Practice. Zara is co-organiser of the Contemporary Fiction Seminar at the Institute of English Studies; and Reviews Editor at Dandelion.

[1] – The suggestion that Lethem and Chabon represent a certain type of fanboy-author, a category from which Franzen is excluded by his high-culture interests, is taken up to more comic effect in the strip by illustrator Patricia Storms, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Lethem & Chabon’, which can be viewed in pages at Storms’ flickr stream.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 2012/03/30 in Guest Writers


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: