William Burroughs, America's Best-Loved Cartoonist
So comics can't be real literature, can they? So there's no way to achieve the lush imaginative effects of prose in a series of pictures pasted all in a row? So prose fiction outmatches visual narrative in any contest, when dealing with any subject?

William Burroughs disagrees with you.

Burroughs spent the last decades of his life doing heroin, as well as everything else (Scientology, writing rock operas with Tom Waits.) One of his lesser-known projects appeared in the British underground comic newspaper, Cyclops, put out by Innocence & Experience in 1970. The project was called "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart", the artist involved Mr. Malcolm McNeill, the medium the humble funnybook.

No, it's not wonderful as far as comics go. Burroughs wrote the text; Malcolm McNeill illustrated it. These two worlds don't meet and don't interact with one another interestingly, which is a senseless waste. Imagine the early fake-stereo Beatles albums, the ones where all the voices are in the left ear and everything else is in the right. That's what doing comics this way is like. Comics give you two tracks--visual and narrative--and if you're not making those two tracks run into one another in interesting ways, if you're not using the visual to complement the linguistic and vice versa, you're just asking someone to illustrate your story or you're asking someone to narrate your illustrations. Which is fine, sure, do whatever you want in this world. But let your heart hang heavy every day of your life with opportunities missed.

Tips for comics writers who aspire to "seriousness": even if you aren't up on your back issues of RAW, you can at least do this. Use the pictures to advance the plot. Use the text to say whatever the hell else you want. Burroughs uses the text both to advance the plot and to say whatever the hell else he wants, and it makes the comic worse as a result.

So let's try this experiment. Take a look at this collection of collaborations between Burroughs and McNeill, why don't you. What else are you doing on your Saturday or Sunday?

Look at the comics; feel them rotting your poor brain. Now take out every line that's just talking about what the characters are doing, every line that you could replace with the picture associated with it with no information lost.

Notice how much more upset you've suddenly become?

Congratulations! You've just become a better comics writer than William S. Burroughs! Welcome to $$$ and fame!

Of course, we have to cope with the fact that the text that remains is still some of the best insane comics narration ever produced. But that's neither here nor there.

You could write this all off, say that it's just Burroughs; he isn't a real writer. He writes about heroin and erotic hanging. And to a large extent, you're right: Burroughs is completely irrelevant to mainstream literature. He discourages sustained, lingering narratives and thoughts and encourages dipping into works at random, becoming startled by weird juxtapositions and images--literature as a sampler pack of cereal rather than as, you know, a book, like the kind you read to find out if they get married in the end or not.

But comics--especially comics we smear and ruin in the GIMP photo editor--prove one of Burroughs's points, even if he didn't take full advantage of it in this collaboration. Somehow when Burroughs writes that someone has just impaled his guts on a fence post, we think that oh, it's just Burroughs, up to his old tricks. When we just see someone impale his guts on a fence post, we think that wow, we shouldn't jump out of windows to escape fires anymore. Then we just get kind of depressed. Then before you know it we're all hanging out in cafes in Tangier, all doing hash, all cutting up magazines and philosophy books, all buying shotguns.

Images, as a rule, are the only language people have for talking about completely horrible events that force you to question reality. That's one reason comics are so popular among you young smart set these days. People like Crumb, Clowes, Charles Burns: these artists attempt to deal with ugly contradictions in reality through upsetting imagery, images to say wordless things. Whereas most modern literature, for better or for worse, doesn't take reality seriously enough to follow it to its ends, to push narrative to the point where it breaks.

Burroughs does. He keeps writing, even where language ends, where Hollywood and the comics pages begin. There are problems with "apocalyptic truth and contradiction" as, you know, an aesthetic principle. But Burroughs does it, and you don't. (But you could!)

Just like he does writing for comic books, as it turns out! And you don't! (But you could.) Zing, gang! Check it out! What will happen... next issue?!

Posted by future on Sat, 19 Jul 2008 16:32:37 -0400 -- permanent link

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