People talk about “perfect marriages between form and content” as an artistic ideal, but in non-art contexts, perfect marriages are rare. Most romantic relationships should not even aspire to marriage as their endgame. Two people can relate to each other in a way that is invigorating in the short term but unsustainable over time. Works of art can gain power from a contentious dissonance between their elements, and still succeed.
Keren Katz’s The Academic Hour concerns a relationship between a teacher and a student. It is easy to miss this. The book announces in narration early on: “This is the story of Prof. Pothel and Liana set in a school founded and designed by a team of renowned architecture professors accepting only students who have been involved in traffic accidents but who have never broken any bones. The school was designed so that during the course of their studies, and by way of their conduct within campus, they would break everything they were supposed to break before.” However, a reader looking through the book’s pages for Final Destination-esque sequences of elaborate machinations culminating in physical comedy will be disappointed. The statement of premise primarily serves to establish a subtext for what follows, in the manner of a dream having all sorts of tensions swimming intuitively below the surface. The true meaning, identifying the originating sources of anxiety, will need to be decoded upon waking.
What the reader receives in the pages that follow is more beguiling prose in the vein of the introduction, mixed with elegant illustration, drawn in colored pencil in a style pleasant enough for high-profile publications’ art direction. The drawings match the writing inasmuch as it is as hard to say what they depict as it is to know how literally to take the prose. While the colors are soft, the compositions themselves are visually noisy, with askew angles and contorted angles, clad in patterned clothing. These images can not be “read” in any sort of straightforward pictographic sense. They are busy enough that even attempting to recall their composition after the fact seems difficult.
The narration speaks of classes in architecture and anatomy, and the art analogizes these to each other by distorting each. They’re further conflated by one of the the plot elements described in the text, which is that rooms move. Architecture is given the pliability of the body. In comics, the page is the architecture, in which the eye moves like through rooms. The drawings here have the architecture of an exploded building, which only the contortionist’s body can survive.
All forms are similarly entangled. Liana writes letters to her professor, telling him stories. These stories she describes as if they’re scenes in the book she’s reading. This book parallels the book we’re reading as well, and the stories she is telling are basically “real” within the context of the book, the story of their relationship. If you think of the pages’ lack of panels, you see the similarity to the story’s unwillingness to frame anything within a stable structure. In the way Katz lays out ideas with their own set of imagery and ideas, her drawings would run the risk of redundancy if they didn’t feel so completely other.
The relationship between the written text and the accompanying images consummates itself as comics largely through implication, which is true for what happens between the characters as well. The book is essentially devoid of any explicit content, even bad language. It is functionally all-ages-appropriate but for how deeply weird it is, and how confusing it would be to someone without the experience to contextualize it. I connect it to comics history in a very particular way. Maybe I’m stretching, and only thinking about this because of the author’s name, but the relationship between the two main characters is sort of like that between Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, if Ignatz didn’t throw bricks, but rather used them to build elaborate architecture.
The relationship between these two people, we can infer, is inherently destructive and violent but simultaneously rewarding. This describes certain romantic relationships, but it also speaks to some degree of college in general, especially if you’re studying art. A student can come out with uniquely enriching experiences but also a mound of debt. Teacher-student romantic relationships, inside this context, can feel inspiring, even if in retrospect the student feels she was deluding herself. One can elect to ignore a power imbalance, or be aroused by it, but to attempt to do both at the same time causes a cognitive dissonance that does oneself a disservice.
This is maybe what is alluded to when the text says that there is no stairwell to the second floor, but everyone who makes it up there regardless becomes the same person, and shares the same injuries. It’s been established that the professor’s office is on this second floor. While Liana is the main character, it seems safe to suppose that if a professor has an affair with one student, they will do the same with others, and for all the things that distinguish one in the sequence from another, each will be a part of a pattern that reduces them to a single entity in the eyes of professor, a byproduct of his power.
It is strongly implied that Liana has been preceded by a woman named Renata, who the professor confuses or conflates her with. This woman was not necessarily a student of the professor’s, but may have been a student at the same time he was one. One of the longer passages written from Pothel’s perspective concludes with him expressing a desire for Liana to act in some ways like Renata did.
The book is so rich in strange images that attempting to square them all with specific symbolic meaning seems fraught and silly, and perhaps would lead to misguided conclusions: The talk of a growing pencil, for instance, which comes up a few times, could refer to an erection as an instrument of will and agency, but suggests an argument that true agency for a woman comes not through her sexuality but through acts of writing or drawing. How can a young woman argue with the swelling cock of an older man positioned in power, if not through telling her story?
It is useful to note that the book, for all its weirdness, is seemingly rooted in autobiography. The page of acknowledgments ends by thanking someone “for teaching me so much and inspiring me, I like telling you stories.” While I do not assume Katz necessarily had a romantic relationship with this person, I do think a good rule of thumb for abstract art is: “It’s about something sort of fucked up that the artist feels embarrassed about.”
Following the parallel in which the formal elements of the comic correspond to the characters, I think of the book’s visual aspect as belonging to Liana, assuming the attraction an older man feels to a younger woman is rooted primarily in similarly visual aspects, whereas the narrating text corresponds with the voice of the lecturing professor. Similarly, Katz’s website is a portfolio for her illustration work, where even the coverage given to her comics, including this book, does not include the captions she has written. The illustration is the marketable aspect of her work. The strangeness of the writing is the sort of uncommercial prestigious thing tenured professors are more free to pursue.
The book’s conclusion contains a final letter sent from a student to teacher, obliquely ending the relationship with an acknowledgment of the way it’s worked. Afterwards comes a series of images unaccompanied by any text, suggesting independence. The images themselves contain their own meaning, but while before the character had someone else to tell her what her meaning was, and in turn describe the imagery, the book ends on a note where it fully reclaims the mystery embedded within it all along.