[Before reading this essay, you might want to read the five-page comic I discuss: John Hankiewicz’s “The Kimball House.” Click for a PDF. It comes from the cartoonist’s 2006 Sparkplug collection Asthma and appears here with his permission.]
“The images in Hankiewicz’s comics move like an elegantly choreographed, yet inscrutable ballet.”
— Imaginary Critic X
“Each of Hankiewicz’s strips is a meticulously designed structure, whose purpose remains uncertain. Paradoxically, his comics function both as a manufactured object and its blueprint.”
— Imaginary Critic Y
. . .
Since John Hankiewicz’s comics carefully avoid familiar narrative and sequential approaches, they defy easy description. When trying to capture their ‘essence,’ a reviewer might employ one of the above metaphors: comics as ballet or as architectural blueprint. It’s true that Hankiewicz’s comics are carefully choreographed, and a writer could be forgiven for thinking that such metaphorical language is the best, if not the only way to talk about them. To borrow a phrase from Borges, they’re “rigorously strange.” But this, too, doesn’t tell us much. Hankiewicz’s enigmatic “The Kimball House” presents critics with a challenge: to describe the comic in a way that’s truthful as well as useful. Metaphors may be helpful along the way — we all use them — but they’ll only get us so far.
The comic begins with a playful nod to the kinds of questions about genre and visual conventions that will preoccupy the work. The opening panel is simultaneously a single frame and four distinct panels. Perhaps it’s a four-pane window, an object that introduces the comic’s “house” motif (it’s a comic/filmic convention to begin a scene with viewers ‘entering’ a building through a window). In a way not typical of comics, some of the panes/panels are text-only bordered white spaces; in other words, they’re embedded pages. What appears on these pages, however, will determine precisely the kind of page each is. Perhaps because the text resembles a third-person narrative, each pane is (or should I write “is like?”) a page of fiction. Yet, this particular combination of text and white space resembles a page of poetry more than one of prose, given the large amount of white space.
So, what genre (or genres) does “The Kimball House” belong to? I think the answer is none, but I’ll provisionally call the work a formal metacomic, a comic about comics that relies on conventional cartooning forms as its ‘characters.’ As is often the case in metafiction, the story’s author is a main character, and he or she occasionally turns readers into characters, too. This move happens early, with the phrase “see the dust.” The prose shifts from third-person to an implied second-person, in the form of a command: “You, reader, see the dust below.” We soon realize that the comic — at least its prose element — is ultimately first-person: “If I had written.” “The Kimball House” is an abstract account of an artist at work — a “how to” manual — and an account of a comic reader reading. It’s also a multi-medium comic, combining standard elements of different mediums, like prose, poetry, and comic books. (See my discussion of Kevin H. and comics as an “omnivorous genre” here – scroll down.)
A digression on diegesis and characters.
Without necessarily knowing the terminology, readers instinctively understand the distinction between a comic’s diegetic and non-diegetic elements. A diegetic element is one that is (or could be) experienced by the story’s characters. A non-diegetic element is not part of their world. For example, a word balloon represents language that characters hear, but the balloon itself is not present; it exists at a level above/outside the narrative. In “The Kimball House” Hankiewicz takes conventional non-diegetic comic book elements and transforms them into diegetic elements. Thus, in panel 2, a thought balloon’s bubble tail (which comes after the command “Think”) becomes a physical object, casting a shadow on the ground. In the next panel, these circular shadows reappear as another form central to comics: the ellipsis. (Traditionally, American comic strips and stories have used far more ellipses than works of fiction or poetry because of design issues generated by organizing word into balloons/text boxes; see my mini-essay on ellipses in Peanuts.)
While the comic’s human characters — the Kimballs and the roofer — are confined to embedded pages, the other ‘characters’ —forms like the ellipsis —appear throughout the comic. “The Kimball House” plays with a limited set of geometrical shapes that function as reoccurring characters: rectangle (as pane, panel, page, house), triangle (as rooftop, arrow top), circle (dot, ellipsis, thought balloon tail bubble, star), along with other main characters — the asterisk (star) and cloud (narration balloon). The comic’s crucial form, the ellipsis suggests the passage of time and/or an omission: un-narrated time and deletion are two of the comic’s main themes — although which theme is suggested by a given ellipsis is often open to debate. Along with the ellipsis, the comic privileges the asterisk; * and … are the only typographical elements that appear on embedded pages and within other panels.
Echoing the prose narrator’s vocabulary, I have referred to “The Kimball House” as a story. But despite the many ways it gestures towards a plot (with phrases like “let time pass”), I don’t really think of the comic as a narrative. Although formal elements reoccur and appear to transform as we move from left to right, this kind of change doesn’t always imply a chronology. Since the terms narrative and non-narrative don’t entirely work, I might describe the comic as ‘resembling a narrative without exactly being one.’ The prose aspect is clearly narrative (displaying a continuity of characters and of place across sequence), but, as a whole, the comic is semi-narrative.
The asterisk functions in two conventional ways on the embedded page:
(1) it tells us to look elsewhere for information, a use with a long editorial history in comics, as in this panel from Steve Ditko’s Shade the Changing Man #8 (1978):
2) it indicates the censoring of a ‘vulgar’ term. Signs like “#*$”often work this way in comics, as in this detail from Daniel Clowes’s Mister Wonderful (2011):
Off the embedded page in “The Kimball House,” asterisks appear as stars (a visual/verbal pun, since asterisk means little star). The controversial word Albert Kimball and his roofer debate is one that’s anything but vulgar: soigné, French for elegant or well-maintained. Two iterations of the word perch on a triangle that visually echoes the pitch of a roof. Albert believes the roofer promised him a soigné roof, but the roofer claims he never used that word. Their discussion of structural elements like soffit, fascia, and shingles recalls the comic’s use of cartooning design elements, like * . . . , reminding us that “The Kimball House” — Hankiewicz’s ‘building’ — can be seen in terms of architecture and construction. Maybe blueprint is the perfect metaphor for this comic . . .
Not all comic pages ‘want to be contemplated’ as a single design. As many cartoonists will tell you, designing pages this way might ‘take readers out of the story’: rather than losing themselves in narrative content, they focus on visual form. But “The Kimball House” thematizes its own manufacture. We should contemplate Hankiewicz’s soigné design, free from the worry that it’s distracting us from something else; there isn’t really a conventional narrative thread to be lost in. The more abstract a story is, the more importance the cartoonist grants to design as an end in itself. “The Kimball House” is representationally abstract.
Page 3 plays with ellipses in a self-conscious way, alluding to a “passage of time” without necessarily representing it. In a series of transformations, the 3-period ellipsis begins on embedded text pages, reappears as a 4-period ellipsis, and returns outside of the embedded page in image panels. Finally, the dots re-materialize, changing from comic-book grammatical elements to familiar real-world objects: stars (is labeling them stars a fact or an overly literal interpretation?). The three panels that follow the four-pane panel echo it, developing, in an abstract way, what an ellipsis ‘means,’ what the conceptual notion of omission might look like when graphically represented.
Another note about chronology: it would be a mistake, I think, to interpret the sections of the comic in between the prose pages as ‘taking place’ between them: this reading forces the comic into a rigid narrative schema.
The apparent presence of a ‘horizon line’ in a panel here (as on page 1) may compel us (or trick us) into to seeing the black and grey fields as sky and ground; the panels may resemble an iconic representation of a real-world night scene. But, impossibly, on a pitch-black night (with no visible moon), a cloud casts a perfectly defined shadow; and why does the cloud with narration cast a dense shadow?
So, where are we?
One answer: we are looking into/at a kind of utopia — the otherworldly ‘nowhere’ of the comic panel/page. It’s an alternative reality, in which the utopia’s founder — the cartoonist — establishes the rules. In Hankiewicz’s comic, the distinction between diegetic and non- diegetic is always disintegrating. “The Kimball House” is a fantasy comic — a formally speculative semi-narrative graphic fiction (ha!)— and John Hankiewicz is a pataphysical cartoonist . . . . Strange things happen. Here, the missing rooftop suddenly blasts from the margin into the panel; in panel 4, it even fuses with the approaching thought-balloon tail . . .
The tail gestures toward the asterisk, which is both a star and stand-in for soigné. In “The Kimball House,” the streamlined sequences always move toward and attain elegance. The non-narrative teleology is design, a goal imminent in the comic since the first panel — and even present in its border decorations. Every moment emphasizes the notion of a well-maintained rectangular space.
“The Kimball House” plays with forms, giving it a playful tone. Yet we also experience fear (Mary Kimball hiding from her son), disappointment (the roof remains unfinished — we never get to see the Kimball’s house), and the frustration of endless waiting (the many ellipses). But the comic’s layout, organization, and pacing generates, for me at least, an overarching sense of quiet drama — a controlled tension exercised by a disciplined and economical cartoonist. Toward the comic’s end, however, things change dramatically, when, in a moment of near-spiritual ascension, a missing rooftop emerges, like a powerful thought magically materializing in the physical world, like an imaginary blueprint becoming the thing it represents.