“You’re a good listener, Glen.”
I was excited when I saw news of an upcoming fourth and final issue of Generous Bosom, Conor Stechschulte’s hazy slow-burn thriller from Breakdown Press. I'd really enjoyed the earlier books in the planned series but had already gone through familiar stages of mourning and forgiveness customary when you believe an artist has dropped an ongoing project. The sort of ambition you need to create a Duncan the Wonder Dog is probably very similar to the sort of ambition that prompts you to announce it’s the first of a nine-book series. Mild disappointment is often the cost of reading interesting work people create alone.
This excitement was tempered a little by the accompanying news that there was also a screen adaptation that would be touring film festivals under the more market-friendly name Ultrasound. More worrying still, the writing of the fourth volume, and indeed the third, had apparently happened after the screenplay was written. Breakdown Press is not a publisher I’d accuse of being a content mill (my idea for an adaptation of Jon Chandler’s Wet Shape in the Dark where every character is played by Kristen Stewart remains on the table), but I was concerned my wish for a conclusion to Generous Bosom was going to be granted with monkey’s paw conditions.
Paying money for a movie pitch disguised as a book is one of the many sad rites of passage a comic fan undergoes, alongside “moving” and “it turns out the secret project a childhood hero alluded to was Become a Racist”. It’s long been the case that any film you can blame on a comic, even if it’s a film people hate, will make a lot more money than any big hit with comics people; cinema had been strip mining comics for over a century before Marvel began pumping comedians full of steroids to achieve the appropriate gravitas to quip mildly at a tennis ball in front of a greenscreen.
There have been many great comics adaptations from unlikely sources. There still are. The last two decades, however, have seen the rise of a certain kind of aspirant, airless comic-shaped object. These temporarily embarrassed pitch decks regard the general reader as a mere impediment to their ultimate goal of slithering onto Amazon Prime to be draped in bisexual lighting and cancelled before the first episode airs. There’s very little joy to be had in reading an illustrated summary document that only exists to be gesticulated with during three specific Zoom calls. Appropriately, there is a sense of the walking dead about these books. If we’re going to ruin our lives by filling them with comics, the least they could do is be comics on purpose.
In the first issue of Generous Bosom, a guy in a bar relates a story in which he runs into some car trouble after a wedding, stumbles upon a couple in a secluded house while looking for help during a downpour, and ends up sleeping with the woman, partly at the behest of her manic, befuddled husband. Though in summary this sounds like the kind of elliptic Carveresque tales produced in industrial quantities by MFA students, Stechschulte’s technique and attention to detail marks it out as something quite different.
Rain and darkness are both rendered as oppressive textured walls, contrasting hard with plain white backgrounds once a doorway is entered or a light switch is flicked. This recalls the issue's epigraph, a quote from Kobo Abe reading “the night is not an invited guest but rather the air that fills the room.” The framing story is rendered in red, distinct enough from the main story’s blue to allow the narrator and listener to be superimposed onto the events of the past, underlining the narrator's unreliability. The gap between braggadocious elision and actual recollection is never more pronounced than during the extended sex scene, which feels as if drawn on tracing paper and is characterized by the kind of bashful, giddy intimacy that doesn’t translate well to drunken shit talk. After the telling finishes, a final acidic twist suggests something larger is at play.
At the offset, Generous Bosom loosely recalled the breathing walls of light and shade in Joe Kessler’s Windowpane mixed with Frank Santoro’s and Dash Shaw’s "Childhood Predators" from Kramers Ergot 8. As it continued, however, Stechschulte’s approach revealed itself as wholly distinctive. In issues two and three, Stechschulte managed to oscillate his distinctive one- or two-color style to perfectly accentuate the frequently flaring disorientation of its plot, be that by generating space for deliberate, gesture-driven dialogue scenes—suddenly wrenching the readers and characters into panicked mental abstraction—or peppering in moments of quiet reflection to allow its growing sense of unease to percolate.
The real excitement in the third volume of Generous Bosom, however, was the dawning revelation that its experiments with blending scenes, color motifs and slow-dissolve pacing were not only an artistic exploration of memory, but central to the engine that drives the plot. Generous Bosom, it turned out, is a story about hypnosis, which raised questions about what had gone before. But, even had the story never gotten its planned conclusion, the lack of concrete answers would not have lessened its command of color and its crackling low-key dread.
The long-awaited fourth issue, which approaches the size of the first three combined, transforms Generous Bosom from a paranoid '70s British Play for Today into a paranoid '70s American thriller. It’s even got a climactic action scene. Thankfully though, this is far from a licensed surrender. Quite the opposite. Though issue #4 certainly shifts the series’ pace, weight and scale in the more tightly-plotted direction of indie thriller cinema, the momentum behind this move is decidedly comics-powered.
This fourth issue begins with twin statements of intent. The first page is a two-panel POV of a character cutting a fringe which initially curtains her vision, appearing to signify that all will be revealed in a comic clearly influenced by its parallel cinematic development. On the second page, a Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Guy is shown gyrating over six panels, each moment of contortion frozen in time to create a rictus tableau of powerlessness. We are going to learn just how far the characters have been out of their own control, and we will do this in a way only comics are capable of portraying.
It’s not really fair advice to give to other cartoonists but, judging from Generous Bosom, it turns out if you’re writing a comic that leans heavily on naturalistic conversation, it’s a great idea to get a bunch of accomplished actors to run through it before you sit down at the drawing board. Total control is an understandable impulse for someone accustomed to creating stories alone. Though Stechschulte’s involvement in Ultrasound may have initially come from an unwillingness to cede control, having requested to write the screenplay, he was present for much of the shoot in early 2020, and clearly gleaned a lot from seeing the scenes play out. Far from turning the thing into a glorified storyboard, it feels like Stechschulte’s first pass through the story as a filmed screenplay has led to a fourth issue that is both more dynamic but even more focused on gesture and expression. There are a couple of acknowledgements in the back of the book that dialogue has been taken directly from on-set improvisations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, and it opens up an exciting realm of possibility - a total departure from the lone artist drawing and writing a book into something a lot more collaborative.
I have occasionally encountered YouTubers who have embarked on a readthrough of a particular manga and, depending on their mood, alternate between reading volumes and watching anime. Though they are not to blame for creating this context, it is still sad to see both mediums reduced to glorified Wikipedia entries. Generous Bosom and its adaptation do pair well together, but for entirely different reasons. Each journey through the story feeds off each other formally and structurally in a way that obliterates the old shortsighted canard that “the film is always better than the book”.
Whichever order you choose to watch or read, you’ll notice how each version feeds off the other from the very beginning. You’ll immediately start noticing the casual deployment of a room service tray outside Art’s and Cyndi’s house in Ultrasound, or the realization that for the years when Generous Bosom was a comic alone, the plot only covered the first 40 minutes of the film. These subtle touches and structural changes both give greater understanding of the story itself. The beats of the story were fairly loosely defined when the comic began. The film revises this so the genre paranoia is more evident from the off, whereas the comic is allowed to meander more circuitously into the territory eventually covered in its fourth issue, illustrating the haze from which the main characters are struggling to emerge with a totally different kind of nuance than could be found in cinema.
A good illustration of how both adaptations differ is the use of sound. The story of Generous Bosom centers around hypnosis, driven by certain tones both audible and inaudible. The film is able to play with this idea on the soundtrack, creating a feeling that the audience too are under hypnosis. Comics don’t have the luxury of sound, but Stechschulte takes care of this by ramping up the medium’s fluency with visual abstraction. At key moments in the fourth issue, sound becomes a solid circular color block on the page, radiating out from eerie concealed hypnosis devices. The single-color approach taken previously in the series really pays dividends here. No mere visual flourish, the color allows us to see the hypnosis taking place while clearly delineating between reality and hypnotic suggestions; past scenes rendered entirely in this color are immediately recontextualized.
Of course, the symbiotic nature of Generous Bosom and Ultrasound can mean they both present the same weaknesses. Though deployed at a slightly different pace, both suffer from a side story that occasionally feels slight. This would not be so much of a problem if it did not eventually emerge that this is no side story at all, but rather the other half of the main plot reaching out to meet our main characters in the middle. In my reading of Generous Bosom I definitely realized its true significance a little later than I would like. This element centers on a Republican politician archetypal enough to feature in a Hitman game, and thus quite at odds with Generous Bosom’s thoughtful mumblecore. His sore-thumb status is particularly accentuated in Ultrasound as he barks “fake news” at a key moment, briefly plunging an artfully dissociated and almost timeless story into Doctor-Doom-weeping-at-Ground-Zero territory. This half-baked feeling is totally at odds with the bold recontextualization on which the story hinges.
Generous Bosom frequently involves people masquerading as someone else in plain sight, their deception only affecting those under hypnotic suggestion. The comic tackles this with grossly over-inflated heads or faces entirely smeared out. A character’s influence, and distinctive color, bleeds into other panels. Their faces warp, twisting with the effort of disrupted remembering. Ultrasound, meanwhile, uses a simple but effective trick of having the appearance of the character, who they’re masquerading as or who they actually are, change depending on the eyeline of the hypnotized person. Both of these techniques arrive with no fanfare, just like a terrible memory, and twist the perception of the audience right along with the characters.
It’s an old saw that having a main character wake from a dream is the worst way to end a story. And yes, there are good and bad ways a story can call you a dickhead, and that is definitely one of the more tiresome. But what if instead of a shrug over the finish line, the waking was the whole point? Twin Peaks: The Return answers this question, and so does Generous Bosom. Though the entire fourth issue is very plot-heavy, its fulcrum is still this idea of painful waking. It’s striking that both Lynch's series and Stechschulte's comic feature the same motif at the story’s climax: of a face superimposed across an entire scene, realization dawning on the character simultaneously with an audience.
When the strength of hypnotic suggestion is discussed in both iterations of Stechschulte's story, it is described as the willingness of the human mind to fill in the blanks in narratives so as to explain away any inconsistency. Cinema and comics both depend on their audiences, while navigating cuts and panel gutters, to do the same. In each form, the telling of the story parallels the disorientation of the powerless central characters, ceding control of time and space exactly the way an audience does to a film crew or a comic artist. Their time and lives are chopped up and reframed, manipulated wholesale by another to pummel them with the desired emotions and lasting impressions. They are trapped in the form itself.
Thriller fiction thrives on scenarios centered around a key early scene in which all is not what it seems. The questions of who is taking part, what are their motives and why are they performing certain actions is the bedrock of most Sherlock Holmes stories. Issue four of Generous Bosom does this with the comics form itself. It throws the entirety of the first issue into question. What I initially read as a standalone story now could almost all have been a feint. Upon reading the concluding chapters of the story, it becomes clear the shifting style and color temperature of the first issue was not for emotional emphasis alone, but also used to implant a niggling awareness of what was true and what was not. The center of the mystery is not just what we were told, but the way we were told it and why.
The epigraph of the second issue of Generous Bosom is a quote from a Lungfish song: “when you are limber enough to split in two, I will walk between you.” The final volume of Generous Bosom and the release of Ultrasound have cemented the work as just that. Two sides of the same whole, waiting there for the audience to navigate. A comic on purpose, a film on purpose, and an illuminating look at form and story.