by Dash Shaw
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Warning: This is a light post. I just thought it’d be a good time to appreciate Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius saga since it’s now completed serialization in vol. 15 of Mome and Frank recently posted an appreciation of Tom K’s stories, which appear in the same anthology. (Disclosure: I’m a contributor to Mome too, so it’s possible I’m biased, although that has never prevented me from disliking work in Mome so if I am biased I’m not consciously aware of it.)
Tim Hensley’s a hard cartoonist to write about. He’s divisive. The two camps are: (1) he’s not funny and (2) he’s funny. I’m in the latter camp, since I think he’s fucking funny as shit. In the climactic episode, Wally is caught in an R.D. Laing Knot as he prepares to marry The Saddest Girl in the World. This monologue is especially moving if you’ve ever been in a long relationship with a clinically depressed person.
If you don’t think his idiosyncratic dialogue and melodramatic “cartoony” performances are funny, you probably think the writing is overdone and the drawing is just a throw-back to some Archie/teen comic house style. But teen comics never looked like this:
The characters move through minimal rooms with immaculately placed objects. It’s like what he chooses to draw in the environment (and what he chooses not to draw) is determined by some graphic Feng Shui.
When his comics are at their most beautiful, these environments function both as the story’s world and abstractly.
His writing is a continuation of his earlier mini-comics (Ticket Stub) that were collage-like transcriptions of movie summaries and dialogue. If you get an opportunity to look at any of these, don’t miss it. They contain some of his best work, and it’s interesting to see the wide range of graphic languages he employed with his writing. He’s one of the few cartoonists who arrived with a writing language before a drawing one. He did these while working as a closed-captioning editor. In his Mome interview with Gary Groth, he talks a bit about how this job improved his comics formally:
I think in a way the experience of that job really improved my comics, because it’s almost like captioning is comics but they’re upside down, because you’re sort of taking an image and you’re putting a balloon underneath, and you have to position it. So you’re constantly, over the course of 10 years, making these immediate decisions like, you find a shot change in a movie, and you have to say, OK, this person’s on the left, or this person’s walking through a crowd of people, how do I make sure that you can assign the words to the person.
I think it intuitively made me think more about how the eye moves through an image in time and space.
At the same time, this probably contributed to his language sensibilities, as well as…
(from a totally random interview on an amazon.com message board:)
Maybe growing up in a family with a sibling who is learning disabled and sometimes mentally ill internalized a general scrambling of language in me or at least an interest in that direction.
These are hints at what’s behind this dialogue, but it doesn’t matter how he arrived at this. It’s clearly completely logical in its own way. They reward repeated readings. With his best dialogue, a line that you first read as being surreally disconnected on a second reading is funny and on a third reading reveals a wider scope of the story.
It’s incredible that he can pull this off in such a seemingly intuitive way. It feels like this dialogue, and these comics, just pour out of him. It’s like you’re reading a complete personality on a page. All of the characters speak in the same “voice” because there’s really only one character: the comic.
On top of all this, it’s worth noting that this highly evolved, specific personality exists inside of the guise of a personality-less “house style.” It’s a balancing act between the generic and the specific.
Now that Wally is done, I’m curious to see where he goes next. Ticket Stub sketched out many unexplored directions. It’s possible that Wally Gropius wasn’t an arrival to his final resting place, but just one path from his previous work; he could pick up where some of his past work left off and spin in a new graphic direction. Whatever happens, I can’t wait to see.