Reviews

Peanuts minus Schulz

Peanuts minus Schulz

Ilan Manouach

Jean Boîte Éditions

$39

672 pages

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This is the new book from Ilan Manouach - and, even if you do not recognize his name, you can probably recall Katz, the most notorious of Manouach's user-created mods of canonical comics works. Unveiled at Angoulême in 2012, the year of Art Spiegelman's presidency at the international comics festival, Katz was an unsigned bootleg edition of the French-language translation of Spiegelman's Maus, with the character art modified so that everybody is a cat instead of merely the Germans. The copyright holders of the French translation reacted with displeasure, and all undistributed copies of the book were eventually burned. Not a few American commentators framed Katz as a work of literary criticism, in a familiar vein - Harvey Pekar's 1989 critique of Maus in the letters page of The Comics Journal #130 focused significantly on its "thin and obvious" set of anthropomorphic animal symbols, for example. But Manouach is not only interested in the storytelling of a comic - as the critic Kim Jooha remarked in issue #304 of the Journal, "Manouach pulls the veil off of ideologies behind matters that are assumed to be apolitical in the medium — formats, colors, printings, translation, character design — and demonstrates how indifferent comics discourse has been toward these matters." This can be most easily ascertained from those works of Manouach's that do not involve any actual drawing; Tintin Akei Kongo notably (and illegally) translates Hergé's Tintin in the Congo into Lingala, a language primarily understood by people from the region caricatured in that most-disclaimed of childhood favorites. "One should never forget the implicit consensus that stands behind the choice of languages for translated works," remarks the artist's website, following a lengthy roll call of simpler potential intents for the project, sardonically anticipated and dismissed as singular motives: the problems with comics, we might discern, are inseparable from the shy analytics of comics studies.

Such pursuits have afforded Manouach some renown - Peanuts minus Schultz boasts a pull quote from UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith, who declares Manouach "the most provocative, critical, and intelligent comic artist alive." The book's other pull quotes, however, were solicited from anonymous reviewers engaging in microwork - which is to say, people who are paid small sums online to perform tasks that an algorithm cannot efficiently handle, such as populating e-commerce sites with review data. "I read it 4 times my family members," remarks f4853a24 on this 700-page brick. "This is really a masterpiece and color and shades being used really depicts the situation very clearly," raves 132d2e25 about the black & white project. But 4f49804f takes a wider view: "The book Peanuts Minus Schulz makes us to know the microwork. The microwork is an online platform that represents many types of task that are completed by workers from all over the world. Microwork finds themselves as an important place in the history of labour." This is a good take - it not only describes the new book's conceptual chassis with rare efficiency, but it identifies a continuing fascination in Manouach's practice. His 2016 book Harvested was comprised of screengrabs from pornographic videos, harvested from peer-to-peer sites and plopped onto to a dedicated server; microworkers were then tasked with selecting images that contained pieces of contemporary art somewhere in the frame, maybe hung over a bed or glimpsed in a mirror. Peanuts minus Schulz is similarly beholden to crowdsourced processes.

At the heart of this book -- published bilingually in English and French by Jean Boîte Éditions and translated by Hélène Planquelle -- is Manouach's response to a statement made by Charles Schulz concerning the merchandized nature of the Peanuts gang: "I have drawn every one of the 10,000 strips that have appeared and I have thought of every idea," Schulz remarked in the 1975 Penguin collection Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art with Charlie Brown and Others. "Not once did I ever let our other activities interfere with our main product - the comic strip." Manouach questions whether the 'main product' of Peanuts really is the comic strip. In an extensive introduction (which doubles as a peer-reviewed academic paper, readable online in a somewhat modified form, as Manouach is presently a PhD researcher at Aalto University in Finland), the author inquires as to "the value of a statement that buys into the fiction of the economically disinterested artist stuck to his drawing table, unfettered by mercantile calculations[.]" Rather: "Through the multiple forms that move beyond the pages of the newspaper and the book, Peanuts characters are immaterial energy storehouses built on an ever-growing capital of emotional and affective investment."

To this end, Manouach has utilized "a digital labor management platform" -- unidentified, but one is deliberately put in the mind of Amazon Mechanical Turk -- to commission over one thousand workers from 20 countries to draw their own rendition of individual Peanuts strips, modified in accordance with a variety of optional instructions. Or, at least, this is what I can gather from the limited information Manouach provides; we are cautioned that some "procedural opacity" is necessary for "the non-disclosure of sensitive information that might collide with some academic standards." Nonetheless, the book does make clear that Manouach himself is selecting which of strips are actually present in this special all-bootleg Peanuts collection, thus placing him in an editorial role.

"I get it!" I cried to my Lyft driver. "Manouach is curating an alternative comics anthology!" Of course, it is awful and misleading to reduce this project to the provincial concerns of the small-press comics scene. (For one thing, Manouach is paying his contributors.) But I think a circumscript reading may nonetheless help to emphasize what I find interesting about this artist's conceptual comics, which -- again, per the book's introduction -- "thematize the industrial aspects of their medium." Read in terms of literary or dramatic themes, Manouach has not cast himself here in a sympathetic role: the various contributors do sign the strips with their own names, but it is only Manouach's name on the cover, and his biography in the back, telling of his published works and fellowships and curatorial endeavors, and his aspiration to create the first graphic novel generated via artificial intelligence. Comics has historically been suspicious of 'fine' art, and the conceptualist Manouach of Peanuts minus Schulz evokes a classic villainous trope: the foxy fine artist directing an army of studio hands to manufacture 'his' works. Or, worse: Manouach as a boss, rhetorically valorizing the product of inexpensive labor while availing himself of those mechanisms that assure the precarity of laborers. To be clear, I am speaking here in metaphors - it is noted that this project was moderated and assembled as part of Manouach's artist-in-residence tenure with Onassis Digital, which described Manouach's research, in part, as exploring "how artists, in spite of arguing for fixed subject positions, have been often complicit in providing and updating a blueprint for precarious and often abusive labor conditions, that can, and has been generalized in other sectors of the economy."

Ask yourself: is this mystery play not a drama of today? Anybody who has been to the movies or looked at memes in the past three years can tell you that Thanos is more a storehouse of affective investment than the authored work of Jim Starlin. And, when you are posting memes online, or logging a contrarian take on Letterboxd, or commenting "Joe, this is ridiculous and you have again wasted our time" via Disqus on TCJ dot com, you are performing value-adding work on behalf of those platforms. Some of it is creative work, and a lot of it is probably fun - at one point, Manouach cites to Trebor Scholz's concept of "playbor" for activities that defy traditional definitions of work and play, which might as well describe the tribute art fans pour into deluxe zines paying homage to their favorite characters. Peanuts minus Schulz, then, is not just a Complete Peanuts volume as envisioned by Rerun, but 'about' the process of readers creating meaning from their impressions of a work, and those impressions solidifying into a potentially superseding work of their own. To Manouach, this is the unalloyed good, resulting in works that "resist the smooth integration and style uniformization conventionally required in the industry of comics: the collected material constantly fails to fulfill the seamless, unbroken metabolization that leads to a totalizing system," and indeed represent "a queering of the industry's prototypical standardized practices," in the phenomenological sense.

Ironically, this all adds up to probably the most 'readable' comic in the Manouach oeuvre - which, as Kim Jooha notes, generally "don’t have to be read panel by panel" to be understood. I think this is fine with Manouach, who, beyond his conceptual endeavors, has devoted some time to developing a system of tactile comics for readers with visual impairment, removing the ocular element of 'reading' comics entirely. But there is a hint of the old OuBaPo whimsy in the modification instructions (or "campaigns") that Manouach offers to his contributors. For example, one might be invited to "redraw the strip by adding a wildfire that is burning everything. Draw also one of the characters dying." Thus:

Several contributors were given the option to render a strip entirely in descriptive text:

One might also "Replace all the characters with figures from the Flinstones," to Panteresque results:

Manouach does not appear to know much about the contributing artists beyond their names and regions. However, there are two that he singles out for special description. One is Vidjay, who interprets the instruction to "Insert yourself in one of the panels" as license to insert himself into *every* panel and offer a running commentary on the circumstances of his life alongside the jokes and business of the strip:

Some of the instructions are funnier than others, such as "Make an offensive version of this strip."

"Make a communist version of the strip" is also reliably good, particularly given the diverse ideological inclinations of the contributors:

And, perhaps most frequently, there is "Translate the strip's text in your mother tongue."

 

There are many languages present in Peanuts minus Schulz, and Manouach leaves them without translation - these are the artists in foreign terrains given the opportunity to speak for themselves, without the intervention of French or English editorial interpretation. Really, there is surprisingly little 'interpretation' necessary throughout the project; bound for the most part to Schulz's visual layouts and his gags, there are few comics in here truly without Schulz, in the way that parasitic arts such as fanfiction can never entirely escape the orbit of the originating work. I wonder what Manouach makes of American superhero comics - truly those are works where 'authorship' is subordinate to the appeal of characters sewn from a thousand rags. And, superhero publishers have profited greatly from those 'immaterial energy storehouses'!

I am reminded of a 2016 book by the very occasional comics critic Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet, which highlighted a statement by the critic and podcaster Jeff Lester (a former sitemate of mine, eons ago) to the effect that superhero comics pioneered basically all of today's most prominent exploitations in American capitalism. Kobek's book is unabashedly declarative and moral: 'bad' by its own withering estimation of literary quality. Peanuts minus Schulz, itself not lacking in descriptors, is "an experiment with the digital ramifications of distributed labor as a compositional practice," ostensibly striking against the individualist "glorification of the artist's creative genius" in favor of collectivized readings of cultural product, but it is also a mimetic work, adopting the economic framework of microtasked labor to emphasize some qualities of the production of that labor - in this way, it presumes the immovability of the framework. I am not saying Manouach sees this framework as immovable, but, conceptually, his book must.

Still, there are complicating factors to witness, as a simple result of Manouach working with so many people. The second artist that he highlights is Anika, whose "mother tongue" appears to be Bengali:

Anika works with a smooth, rather thick line - one could imagine her showing up in the Tinfoil Comix anthology, or something from Sonatina. Apparently going off the instruction "In the last panel add a text bubble and comment on the story," she not only draws herself in a good estimation of Schulz's style, but accommodates Schulz's dialogue by positioning her own dialogue bubble *behind* his, visually characterizing her speech as an aside:

Sometimes she either misapprehends or deliberately undermines Manouach's instruction, applying "Make a pornographic version of the strip" by adding variations of the term 'pornography' to the dialogue:

On a few occasions, she takes the campaign as an opportunity to simply draw completely original strips, in Schulz's style, about her own efforts to fulfill her work obligations:

And then, at one point, there is this instruction: "In the second panel, remove everybody and insert a picture of yourself narrating in 40 words your feelings about this task."

Anika draws herself in a realistic style in the second panel, and reflects on how much she enjoys drawing, and how she did not think she would make any money from that. She is probably somebody who is good at drawing, and maintains that talent on a recreational level. This is not how we are encouraged to see talent on the computer - we are begged to think of talents as monetizable things, framed as an escape from the drudgery of average work through vim and hustle. But there are people who can just sing, and are not singers. Manouach briefly escorts Anika into this zone of professionalization, but it's like a daydream - this is not somebody who, no doubt for a variety of reasons, sees cartooning as anything like a viable job.

Such is the readymade sentimentality in Manouach's project. Bootleg works do not solely exist as a means to profit, but also as a manner of artistic practice in a globalized economy that acts to standardize 'work' by the rules of technological advancement. Among the microworkers of Peanuts without Schulz, there is nobody that does not like to draw; everybody who elects the opportunity to speak about the assignment speaks of how great it's been. The big trick of online is that it is pleasurable in a way that leads you to believe that you may yet break through to some space where what is pleasurable in that way is how you will feel all of the time. But comic strip panels are frozen time - three or four boxes in which you might cultivate a situation where everything is fun. Imagine this is the world, the page whispers, the scale model capitalism Manouach has built. Imagine this is the world.

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