REVIEWS

Chimo

Look, you go to David Collier for the Collier voice more than for any particular subject matter. Collier is your pal who you call by his last name: “Hey, Collier!” And who inexplicably bears up under any hardship, is able to retell that hardship, and, in the midst of the retelling, digress about any number of subjects. Collier. He is mighty, but he is exhausting. He will wear you down before he is done with you. He will talk.

Collier. I’ve missed him. Chimo is his first book in quite a few years. It is the story of our man’s re-enlistment, at age 42, in the Canadian Army so that he can document the war in Afghanistan in cartoon form. We open with Collier jumping rope (“best done on wood,” he tells us) in preparation, we learn, for a return to basic training. But while jumping rope, Collier takes us through: a brief meditation on the activity itself; his own history with the Army; the fate of a soldier he once knew; the history of Canadian visual war reportage; some thoughts on manliness; some neurotic concerns about a skeezy guy talking to his wife (about Canadian war reportage); and finally, at 3,000 jumps, a mention of breakfast and a return to his sleeping family. What a nested narrative. Bit into bit into bit. But you gotta hang in there. Collier doesn’t offer transitions — he just tumbles from one subject to the next, and the whole damn thing is rendered in that cramped, beautifully gnarled Crumb-like line of his. Arms squeeze to fit into panels and heads rubberize upon contact with backgrounds, but what the hell, it’s Collier telling you a goddamn story. His voice is bound up in his drawings — unvarnished, imperfect, but, and I use this term sparingly: authentic. What we’re getting is one man (who happens to be a man of extraordinary observational skills, if less than ideal, one imagines, social skills) describing a life that is woven deeply into unique Canadian histories and traditions. He comes from, and can only be understood in relation to, a culture that is foreign to me, but made explicable by Collier himself. And, in terms of comics, he nestles in with outsiders to the medium — artists using comics, but not necessarily of comics, or part of the dialog about the medium. He uses it as he must.

Anyhow, part two has Collier aboard the HMCS Toronto documenting the work of the ship. Part three of the book follows Collier into basic training, during which he blows out his knee, recuperates, re-enters training, and graduates. Chimo ends with this graduation. There’s not a narrative flourish here, but more like ol’ Collier ran out of breath. The book just sort of ends. Afghanistan is not mentioned again. This is a bit of a problem. Collier-the-yarn-spinner is tough to resist for a 32-40 page chunk, but he has some structural problems. As above, transitions are non-existent, and stories start and stop according, I suppose, to Collier’s wandering mind. That works for me, as someone who has been reading this voice for fifteen years now. But there’s no internal logic or structure to crack, really — no way into his story. And in book form, I really wanted something beyond one last anecdote (caught sketching while driving, Collier loses his military license and rides his bike home at night) and a lamentation of “kids today” before the cartoon bubble lettering “The End.” I might be asking too much. Collier, as Mike Watt says, “spiels,” and “spiels” don’t have a beginning or an ending — you just walk in and walk out and the talk lopes on. He’s jumping rope, then he’s biking home. We happen to be there, listening, and bully for us. Lucky for us. He’s Collier.

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5 Responses to Chimo

  1. JeetHeer2 says:

    Great revew Dan, very insightful. I sort of agree with this: "And, in terms of comics, he nestles in with outsiders to the medium — artists using comics, but not necessarily of comics, or part of the dialog about the medium." But perhaps the way to look at this is to say that Collier is engaging with certain traditions in comics but these are traditions that aren't much remembered these days, the traditions of observational cartooning that goes back to Clare Briggs and J.R. Williams fused with the Sidney Smith tradition of comics as rumination (Andy Gump even makes a one panel appearance in Collier). If Briggs, Williams and Smith were more visible or known, Collier might seem a little less eccentric (only a little). Also, I think there's overap between what Collier's doing and some of the roughhewn autobiographies of the undergrounds, particularly Spain's stories of his Buffalo boyhood and of course the great Justin Green's work.

  2. JeetHeer2 says:

    Also this: "There’s not a narrative flourish here, but more like ol’ Collier ran out of breath. The book just sort of ends. Afghanistan is not mentioned again. This is a bit of a problem. Collier-the-yarn-spinner is tough to resist for a 32-40 page chunk, but he has some structural problems." Again, this is true enough but perhaps the best way to understand this is that the book is not really about Afghanistan or soldiering or the Canadian War Artists programme; all of these are the narrative hooks or pretexts but the book is really about Collier's mid-life crisis as a man and artist. Re-joining the army was the way to solve that crisis (chapter one) but it introduces Collier to more difficulties (chapter 2) and eventually a humbling encounter with his own physical limitations and the the way we're all crowded out by the young (chapter 3 and conclusion). The final story about Collier being busted and sent down the ranks because of a photo taken by a young soldier is pre-figured at several points in the book (notably in the story of the death of the Collier family dog Large), so there's a sense in which the whole book was leading to that point.

  3. JeetHeer2 says:

    I think that's what Chris Ware meant when he wrote: "Seemingly a quirky memoir about soldiering, it’s really a quest for survival — both basic and artistic — and a meditation on aging, family and the fight to simply try and understand oneself." Of course, Collier is partially to blame for this because the book is being marketed as if it were about soldiering when its really not. Soldiering is the pretext, not the deep meaning.

  4. Dan Nadel says:

    True enough, but your gloss on it is more generous than Collier himself was with the structure. In other words, he's asking us to assume things that are buried a little deep.

  5. JeetHeer2 says:

    Agreed. There is a structural problem with the way the real thematic concerns of the book aren't made as explicit as they should be. I think your use of the word "spiel" is helpful. The typical Collier story is a spiel, which works well for 10 or 15 or 20 pages. But for a longer narrative, the spiel has to be organized in a way that makes it clearer what the point of it all is; in other words, the story has to have a structure. There are signs here and there that Collier did have structure in mind, but the the tendency to digress and spiel makes it harder on the reader to see that structure.

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