It’s telling that Dan Zettwoch’s full-length solo debut, Birdseye Bristoe, is touted on the cover as “An Inventions and How-To Book.” He’s never been an artist whose stories are driven by narrative. Instead, he likes to show his audience schematics, maps, instruction sheets, and cut-away drawings that nonetheless reveal something about the people who are building them. What’s odd about this book is that there is a narrative, but it’s almost entirely buried in an avalanche of diagrams that doubles as a tour of the non-town in which the story is set. If a reader is careful, he is provided with every clue as to what is happening and why, but Zettwoch gives nothing away for free, so to speak. As a result, it took me a couple of reads to figure out what was going on, beyond a simple collection of the usual clever Zettwoch drawings.
The root theme of all of Zettwoch’s comics has tended to be the tension between inventors and the increasingly impersonal advance of technology. This book opens with two huge images. First, we see a stylized and labeled version of a map of the territory designed to look like a postcard, which is the nearest thing the reader gets to a table of contents. Through the course of the book, Zettwoch methodically takes the reader around to virtually every point of interest on this map. Second, we see “Birdseye” (his real name is never revealed) surveying the ruins of a huge cell-phone tower after a rain storm. Zettwoch tells the reader right away that the reason for its collapse is unknown, but he provides clues. We are then taken back three months, when the construction of the tower is about to begin.
We see this small section of territory mostly through the eyes of his teenaged niece and nephew. The niece, Krystal, is an energetic go-getter who is fascinated by her uncle’s DIY philosophy, in which virtually everything is built out of bungee cords and empty three-liter bottles of soda. The nephew, a heavy-metal loving kid named Clint J. Murgatroyd, is interested in local monsters, conspiracy theories, and geodesic domes. Both find different ways of occupying themselves in an area with almost nothing to do, other than enjoying the spectacles of the tower being built and of the protesters whom it draws. Everyone loves drinking “red cows” (the recipe for which is of course included) and has affection for the gruff but generous old man.
In order to follow the narrative, the reader must constantly ask the question, “Why?” Why would Birdseye (who owns almost all of the land, as is revealed between the lines), a man who occupies the only house in the area, allow a company to build something that is essentially anathema to his way of doing things? In bits and pieces, Zettwoch helps the reader guess. That first map gives us the location of the old local church, as well as the adjacent site where a “mega-church” is being built. Judging from the fact that the slimy cell-phone company is having a meeting in the church and that the preacher is obviously grateful to Birdseye, it seems clear that part of his price was a donation to the church on the part of the company in order to expand it. Indeed, he exploits the tower to help virtually everyone in town, and the final thing he demands is that the tower have a giant cross-bar to make it look like a cross–what better way to advertise an emerging mega-church?
It’s telling, however, that in the fold-out (or fold-up, rather) diagram Zettwoch places in the middle of the book, the new tower (billed as the world’s “tallest man-made structure”) is compared to the Tower of Babel. There are also mentions of “freak electrical storms” that had skipped the region that summer (perhaps because of a local’s cloud-buster gun?), but the last panel of the book shows a storm brewing. While Birdseye quite notably takes no credit whatsoever for his involvement, there’s still a sense of hubris at work here, and that hubris is ultimately punished.
Zettwoch’s devotion to hand-made craftsmanship as a virtue certainly extends to the page. The book was obviously shot directly from his original art with little to no digital alteration. Indeed, one can see layers of Wite-Out splashed on top of his colored pencils with no attempts made to conceal it. Zettwoch’s figures have a blocky, cartoony quality that fits in with his tendency to continually remind readers that they are looking at drawings, and hand-made drawings at that. It’s not so much that Zettwoch fetishizes the hand-made quality of his art, but rather that it seems to be the only way he’s comfortable doing it. If you commission Zettwoch for an illustration, it’s not because you want something slick, but because you want something that has the can get across a complex, technical idea in a manner that is warm and welcoming to a reader. Zettwoch is clearly interested in the relationship between sign and signifier in this book, as both Krystal and Clint are obsessed with labels versus function, the ways in which labels carry mixed messages, and in how adults tend to tune out the symbolic power of things like corporate logos.
Again, all of these ideas are under the surface. The book can be read as a breezy romp through the sort of rural Midwestern environment that Zettwoch loves to explore. It can be seen as one of his diagram stories writ extremely large. The way I see it, however, is that’s a commentary on what can happen when one abandons something that works, a way of life that’s viable, for something slick and garish. It’s telling that the story is set in the late ’90s, right before the huge cell-phone boom. Zettwoch emphasizes the ways in which his protagonists have to engage each other in person, something that is removed in a cell-phone-heavy culture. I’m not saying that Zettwoch is explicitly anti-technology, but rather that this book wants the reader to stop and think what is gained and what is lost by building that tower.