The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade

Only the wrecking balls loom large. Massive, buoyant and colorful, they careen across the sky a little too close for comfort, balloons in reverse hurtling from heaven to scrape the ground. The playful movements of the wrecking balls nonetheless have weight, afforded three-dimensionality by thick colors and strong shading.

Little else in The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade is afforded such consistent definition by artist Yann Kebbi. Buildings often appear defined yet out of focus, colors felt and minutia observed but rendered in vague impressionistic scribbles. People are at times little more than weightless outlines themselves, near invisible. The Yerevan of Viken Berberian and Kebbi’s graphic novel only comes into focus when its protagonist, the naively self-important capitalist architect Frunz decides something is worth paying attention. By this elegant conceit the comic attempts to access the brutalist land developer’s bland vision of beauty while remaining a beautiful book itself.

Frunz’s vision cannot see the beauty of Yerevan hinted at in Kebbi’s illustrations, his program for the city aiming to tear down historic, Communist-inflected architecture in favor of the erection of sky-scrapers (this sort of double entendre is evoked more than once by novelist Berberian’s punny script - says Frunz of the Empire State Building: “It’s defiantly erect. Uncompromisingly capitalist. A testament that... size does matter. Bend over Stalin -- here comes the scraper”). Eager to impress his father, the legendary titan of industry dubbed “Mr. Cement,” Frunz zealously oversteps his abilities, pushing families out of their homes with nothing to their name but stools to sit on (expensive, brand-name stools, mind you), to pave the way for bigger, taller, more “Western” buildings that will boast a multitude of bathrooms.

Frunz can’t really see the city he’s destroying slowly, but the place snaps into focus when it starts wrecking itself quickly, a violent revolution which threatens to spit him out of Armenia. The revolution clearly endeavors to overthrow the political establishment, but from Frunz’s perspective its aim is solely to reject his and his father’s designs for Yerevan, citizens taking up arms against homes with three toilets, tanks emblazoned with the slogan FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION. Pitifully, pathetic while still inspiring pathos, Frunz squirms out of his country and to Paris, his ideal city. His life will be cushy, his ill deeds unpunished. Yet for Frunz it may be a fate worse than death, now living as a subject of the capitalist machine he once controlled, an assimilated foreigner. It’s the city he loves the most, the culture he wished to impose on Yerevan, and now this place will be his purgatory, the proverbial 300 tons of cement an old homeless man curses him to be buried under.

Berberian and Kebbi create a delicate balance in centering their narrative on an abuser of the capitalist system. Frunz’s story is treated sympathetically while at the same time the bland evil of his ideas and actions is made painfully clear. To explore this perspective is brave, and yet this choice also hampers the narrative at times. With the people and places Frunz ignores rendered out of focus, the scale of and humanity of Frunz’s cruelty and even the intensity of the people’s retaliation is effectively muted and distant. It makes the work less upsetting to read, but perhaps this is not a good thing. And while I appreciate Berberian’s devotion to humor and word play, it often softens the impact of moments that could have some real intensity. Humor is a big part of tragedy, but not when you can’t peel back the curtain, and often the riffing tone of The Structure is Rotten raises the curtain only slightly just to show you the dark truths the authors are comfortable with you seeing, batting your hand away as you attempt to explore further.

This tendency to evade discomfort is most evident in the comics’ troubling depictions of women. For the first half of the book, an unnamed, large breasted female architecture student who wears a shirt with the phrase “LESS IS MORE” written across the chest (very funny guys) acts as a foil to Frunz, joking about sleeping her way up to the top while Frunz ogles her in detail that forces the reader to participate. That she exists in the narrative only as a one-dimensional sex object to attract Frunz’s attention is not exactly a problem - she is clearly intended as a critique of both the sexism inherent in capitalism and the unexamined sexual frustruation behind Frunz’s domineering plans for the city - but that she dips out of the story completely once she has served this function after weighing so heavily on the first hundred pages makes her presence in the work feel like an indulgent exercise in misogyny justified by baking in a generic critique.

Ultimately, the greatest shortcoming of The Structure is Rotten, Comrade is that its intentionally unflinching portrayal of its protagonist refrains from any ugliness that might actually be surprising or upsetting. Frunz is a harmful person and clearly warped and repressed by his capitalist power, yet in today’s world this character seems more like a nostalgic antique than anything. You can go on Instagram or Twitter right now and find people very similar to Frunz expressing far more naive and grotesque beliefs and prejudices without much thought. The Frunz’s of the real world are deeply disturbed people, and they’re not only taking out their frustrations on cities, they’re tearing the planet to shreds. Berberian and Kebbi try to capture this calamitous sickness in an admirable way, but by keeping it in the confines of a bookstore-appropriate message they are undone.

Is it possible to create a work of literature that explores and even indulges in the innermost thoughts of a crypto-fascist with a delicate balance of compassion, fascination and condemnation? Yes. William H. Gass wrote several, RIP. Is it fair of me to hold the The Structure is Rotten, Comrade, a legitimately impressive debut graphic novel, to the same standards as my favorite literary fiction? Perhaps not. I liked this book a great deal and I think it deserves the praise it is certain to receive as it brushes up against the outskirts of the mainstream literary press. I cannot understate how lovely Kebbi’s art is, the naive pastels balancing a practiced clarity, how sharp and earnest Berberian’s writing is at times. But this is a comic that is overtly positioned as a literary work, and as much as I want to congratulate and celebrate the achievement of that ambition I don’t think we can neglect as readers to demand better from art that’s aiming for greatness. A towering work which delights the eye can still be built on shaky foundations.

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4 Responses to The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade

  1. Derik Badman says:

    Thanks for the review, been waiting to read something about this, as it looked interesting, but Fantagraphics site just wasn’t telling me enough.

  2. Karine Tor says:

    Smart review of a superb book, though the review, unlike the book, comes across as puritanical at times. I took issue with two points: yes, the female student disappears in the second half of the book, but isn’t that because the tour with Frunz and his students comes to an end and all the students actually disappear, not just the female one? Frunz’s dad disappears too soon after because … well, he dies. Everything has an end. I did not find these ends gratuitous in any way. I also found the female student character in the book to be multi-dimensional and smart, a great foil to Frunz. In the Paris metro, at the very end, I noticed an advert on the subway wall that reads “More is More,” a riff off the “More is More” on her T-Shirt, so the student character’s message does seem to make a canny comeback, just in another form and incarnation.

    My favorite character from the women in this book is the somewhat stoic mom – such a strong personality, who is overtly critical of Frunz’s dad. The most troubling depictions in this book are actually that of men, not of the women really. And many of them appropriately die, not to give away the story to other readers. The men are responsible for all the dread. Are they not, almost always? I also found it to be a “beautiful book,” more engaging and politically powerful than many of the autobiographical works I’ve read in recent years.

    The other point I disagreed with in this otherwise sharp review is the one about distancing – the “rendering out of focus of people and places” which Chazan argues relativizes the pain, along with the humor, which he writes has the same effect. I disagree. That ‘focusing out” is a powerful conceit, as is the humor, because they make the story more universal and relatable. I could almost see myself in the characters because of the abstraction (and the depictions are not always abstract). I found it easier to identify with the “blurred out” characters, for this story can happen in many other places, and with many different faces. The technique of a non-Hergé line is a subtle way of inviting the reader in, not dehumanizing them. A more literal rendering would have distanced them from us. Many other illustrators and writers have been criticized for taking such an approach — from the cats, pigs, and mice in Maus, to others, yet the “blurring out” does make the story more universal – and personal – at least to me. It didn’t relativize anyone’s pain or suffering. This is a super and subtle work and there is also much that I agree with in this review.

  3. Beatrice Simmons says:

    I read this over the weekend in two sittings and loved it – a book read in bursts of fascination and laughter. Such memorable characters. Thanks for the review and here is hoping that the Less is More student makes a timely return in Paris.

  4. Charlie Nagel says:

    A brilliantly written and funny book. Have not seen anything it like it in this golden age of comics.

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