Windowpane, Joe Kessler’s debut graphic novel from Breakdown Press, collects four stories from the one-man anthology of the same name. However, rather than taking the form of a compilation for those who missed the single issues, the stories in Windowpane are deliberately arranged to speak to each other and continue into a larger thematic story, at once aesthetic and humane. As in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the disparate people in Kessler’s world constitute a grander narrative from youth to maturity. Kessler explores perspectives on experiences from different angles to attain a profound insight.
The first story concerns a moment in childhood when the certainty of peace and security is challenged by our perceptions. A little girl visiting her cousin wanders with him through his neighborhood, a strange and exciting place for two children. Eventually, they come upon a house where many adults have gathered. The children peer in through a large window and see a disturbing film the adults have gathered to watch, a seemingly meaningless montage of explosions, houses, cars utterly destroyed by planes, fleeing people being shot. The girl is kept awake that night by a vision of a house being bombed, and sneaks away to a bus to return to her family, frightened and seeking safety. For a comic about explosions and hyperactive children, Kessler’s tone in this comic is quiet and relaxed, his art immersed in the patience and expanse of the suburban idyl his protagonist feels adrift from for the first time.
An image in this story, where the children are surprised by an older man, contains an effect that is repeated throughout the book in which the space previously depicted flat vibrates with jagged lines, like a shock wave from an explosion emanating from the shocked children. In this scene the “waves” clearly reflect the sudden panic of the children, attuning the reader to Kessler’s skill in altering his approach to depicting surroundings to suggest the state of his characters - see again on the next page, how excited the green lines representing hedges are, rushing with the children in their panicked flight toward the perspective points. In later stories, however, the vibrating effect appears again without anyone present, the nervous energy of the kids re-emerging with no witness but the reader.
The protagonist of the second story is a young man, somewhat older than the girl in the first story, an early adolescent who by the story’s conclusion has grown to be a young adult. This is an age when people are aggressively immersed in and targeted by popular media, and like many teenage boys our hero seems to slip between boundaries of difficult-to-parse social reality and video game logic. Video games are not mentioned once or even quoted aesthetically at all in the story, but when one considers that the plot involves a boy being sent on a quest by a wizard, picking up coins out of tall grass after completing the quest, failing to defeat an enemy after buying the wrong item with the coins from the quest, toiling on a pirate ship and then returning to defeat the same enemy and finally rescue a princess, the weight of commercial, interactive media on the boy’s psyche is hard to deny. Allegorically, it’s a story about a young man drifting through school and work, unfamiliar social dynamics and time-consuming pastimes, conveniently filtered through the lens of a hero’s journey to lend complex signs coherence he cannot attain by perception alone. Finally he comes to an adult life with a house and a wife, bereft of whatever pieces of his past he may wish to define as fantasy, but the confusing time of before hangs on, lizard-like, a lump in a throat, perhaps not his own.
The third story, Goodbye Sailor, continues forward on the course set into adulthood, a brief vignette of an affair between an affluent single woman and a sailor. It’s an intimate, simple story about a complicated but meaningful connection. There is no enemy in this story except our perception. The opening pages are noirish, the characters held at a disconcerting distance from the reader when they meet. In a splash illustration brilliantly split so the reader has to turn the page to see half the drawing, the couple appear to be killing each other until, once we see the next page and understand why the bodies are positioned the way they are, we realize that they are in fact making love. Thus the reader is wonderfully placed in the bizarre position of learning what sex is for the first time, again. Like the children peering in the window in the first story (or like the child protagonist of Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, which I suspect this story owes much of its vibe to), our confusion at what we are seeing induces terror, but in its final, optimistic and touching pages Goodbye Sailor turns our discomfort around to discover the beauty and optimism of intimacy.
The final story of the collection is as much of a fable as the second, a gesture toward the middle age neglected in the coming of age tales presented before, a dystopian allegory of the struggle toward a stable career and domesticity. A woman takes in a man hiding in a forest, later explained to be a political refugee of some sort. The woman is a potter, and she and the refugee connect over her craft. Alternating between scenes of playful sex and the creation of ceramics, the two take joy in living forms, bodies in living contact with material. In contrast, a leering cartoon frog, presumably a manufactured toy, looks down in harsh primary colors from the second panel of the story, not to appear again but its plastic animation casting an odd terror on what follows. Similarly cartoonish is the big-headed, big nosed fascist king, who eventually captures the lovers. The refugee is beheaded and the woman is told to paint a jar which will hold her eyes, which will be plucked out as penalty for her crimes. Waves of tears flow out of the completed jar, flooding the monarch’s palace. She and her lover escape through art meant to confine her. The connection between her emotional state and the object she is forced to create in her punishment, the artistic value of her labor, literally rescues her from her oppression.
Considered as a whole, Windowpane is a progressive, nuanced story of the art object and our engagement with media. In the beginning, art incites terror but also a clarity of knowledge, the little girl scared by the movie realizing her love for her parents in the face of the apparent danger. In the second story we vividly experience the confusion of media fantasy and reality with non-judgemental but unflinching nuance. From here we move on to formal distance, seeing how presentation can confound the presentation of others. And finally, we experience the paradox of commercial art, something so personal or so beautiful it is transcendent, but not without its labor, and not without a price tag.
Windowpane is a truly beautiful book - a different critic could easily write a completely different essay purely on its aesthetics. Yet this book comes to us as a commodified object as well. Breakdown Press, the publisher of Windowpane co-founded by Kessler, has championed comics as works of art and their publications are art objects. The craft that Kessler both practices and champions is artisanal, but also necessitates interaction a capitalist market of commerce and exclusivity where the value of some work will be placed against others. Yet in that engaged practice of art there is that expressive connection to the art we make, a feeling that an audience understands and shares viscerally, freeing our minds from the systems we’re stuck in as Kessler’s characters are at last freed from fear and punishment through the act of craft. To create art is suffering because any labor is suffering, but at times that labor is meaningful for artist and audience alike, a power that is not so much escapism as it is one of the truest escapes we ever have.