Today’s title inspired by:
…but seriously, if you needed the link to get the reference you’re likely a horrible person and I don’t wanna know ya.
It was a few months back that I ordered the new Daniel Clowes book Patience from Amazon, along with Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull—which I hadn’t realized had been released in late 2014. So they’re both new (or relatively new) releases, but they’re also done by two of the all-time classic creators of the indie comics scene of the 80s and 90s, which I believe qualifies them as worthy of mention here (a classic comics blog). First the spoiler space.
Has Clowes ever had a creative misstep? Certainly none that I can recall at the moment—and if this premise didn’t screw him up, I’m guessing nothing ever will. That’s because the premise here involves time travel, a device that almost always leads to ruin. But Clowes makes use of it perfectly in Patience.
First he establishes a solid narrative base with the key relationship here, between Jack Barlow, our protagonist, and his wife, the titular Patience. Then the inciting event, Patience’s murder (while pregnant with Jack’s child), is sufficiently powerful. The loss leaves Jack absolutely broken.
Then when Jack travels back in time to save Patience and their unborn child, Clowes avoids the mistake of getting bogged down in the mechanics of time travel. In fact he barely even touches on it at all—brilliant, because why get involved with all that bullshit pseudoscience when the story isn’t about that? What this story is about is “the primordial infinite of everlasting love.”
Also, traveling through time and changing a historical event has the appropriate consequences here. It shouldn’t be like Back to the Future, because that was bullshit. If you change your personal history in a significant way, you create a paradox—the paradox being, if you change the conditions that made you travel back in time in the first place, you lose the motive to travel back in time in the altered reality, which means the altered reality would never have become altered.
In my mind, one of two things needs to occur in such stories. Either the time traveler creates a second, alternate timeline/reality separate from his own (thereby effectively accomplishing nothing), or the traveler erases himself from reality in some form or fashion. These are the only two ways to realistically resolve the paradox of time travel, and Clowes does give us one of them (I won’t spoil which).
Slate has a more in-depth review here. One of my favorite observations from it: “Jack’s journey may be the stuff of science fiction, but it demonstrates what we all endure when we delve into our partners’ pasts.” And then this: “Patience, for her own part, goes through even more, though we see less of it. She never learns, as Jack does, what her partner was before her, but she does discover what he might become after her, what he might be without her. This is her curse, and it is, we gradually realize, far more powerful than his.”
Wonderful AV Club review here, and a more critical review offered up by (who else?) The Comics Journal here. (As Fantagraphics is Clowes’s publisher, I was impressed with just how critical they were.) Interviews with Clowes revealing still more insight can be found on Wired and The Observer.
Sugar Skull is the concluding portion of a trilogy that began with X’ed Out (2010), and The Hive (2012). It’s appropriately weird, as one might expect of Burns, overflowing with symbolism & loads of hallucinatory/dream imagery, to go along with a dash of body dysmorphia and a pinch of genophobia. I’ll confess that reading the first two installments in isolation left me a bit confused; but reading the whole thing together, finally, was completely satisfying.
This is also Burns’s first major work in full color. It’s interesting to see Burns work in color, and he makes good use of it, but B&W still favors his style, clearly.
More in-depth coverage abounds across the web. Slant had a review that observed: “The thought that romance and love exist in service to that lizard-brain impulse for reproduction and survival is a worm constantly burrowing through Doug’s mind.” (The primitive impulses behind sexual desire is a recurring theme that can be found in nearly all of Burns’s work, of course.) In other articles, Neel Mukherjee’s review for New Statesman makes a connection between Burns and David Lynch and David Cronenberg, while David Faust at Sequart points out several parallels to Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil. Meanwhile, Boing Boing has an article featuring an interview with Burns here.
I would recommend both this trilogy and Clowes’s Patience for any and all comics fans out there.