The Daily Comics: an Essay in Frames

 Monday

i.

When I see my son drawing, I think of my father, crafting a comic at the kitchen table. I remember the smell of cigarette smoke and the way he hunched down, almost hugging the table. I liked to draw, too, imitating his thick lines and rounded faces. He once told me to learn to draw shoes because I might be in advertising one day. When my son shows me his latest spaceship or alien, I hold it up t like some treasure I’ve unearthed from an archaeological dig. This is incredible I tell him.

ii.

My early poems were about snakes and fire, demons and abandoned castles, stock images from Dungeons and Dragons, images tempered by a childhood in fire and brimstone church. I didn’t know it, but I think I was trying to rewrite what I’d been taught: that the world was just a veil hiding eternal damnation. In my poems, God appeared as tormentor, the puppet master who caused my father’s heart to burst. Now, my poems dwell in memories: fragments of images that I study the way art critics study a painting, searching for meaning.

iii.

My son wins awards for his writing and teachers fawn over his reading. He carries tomes thick as old city phone books and often draws pictures inspired by what he’s read. An old professor told me that poems aren’t really about anything other than other poems. Postmodernism ruined everything, he said. Everything refers to everything else. It’s turtles all the way down. I once drew a card for a girl I liked back in junior high. On a piece of folded notebook paper I slipped into her locker, I drew hearts nested inside hearts nested inside hearts.

Tuesday

i.

The artist’s vision is translated to medium. No one cares about the ink or paper. You expect them the way you expect the next breath or the bad news that always comes. The doctor says its cancer. Your spouse wants to talk. Your father died, but that’s not enough. Now he wants to talk to you, but you have to imagine that voice. It’s yours.

ii.

No one asks for memories. They come as natural as morning the morning news, the way frost used to form on cold dawns when you ventured out to get the paper, tossed in the ditch, beneath the car, in the bushes. That impression stays with you: how the twigs and grass cut into your arm, how your father read the paper, chuckling alone.

iii.

The mind’s a poor medium. A fluid pastel. A blank screen. A journal without pages. It swirls and shifts, protean as your father’s face in your mind. Some days, you can’t recall the timbre of his voice and wonder if he ever existed. Compose him again. Divide his life into lyric frames. The bad news is you’re the artist. The good news? You get to draw the scene.

Wednesday

i.

All stories have beginning, a middle, and an end. My professors taught me this formula when I began college, though I think I knew it on some basic level. Its simplicity is part of the art of narrative: stories must begin somewhere, either One upon a time or with the writer, staring at a blank white page, or with the mind, wandering through the frames of memory, considering each scene like a painting in some museum, the walls plastered with famous works you lack the education to understand.

ii.

I wanted to write stories like Hemingway. I wanted to write stories like Faulkner, like Chekov. I read all that I could. I jotted down every name of every writer my professors mentioned and spend hours in the library stacks, pulling down books. I carried them around the way architects carry tubes of blueprints. Reading them, though, I forgot about the beginning, middle, and end. I fell into the characters’ lives and worried for them. I cared little for the labyrinth and more for Theseus, brave, but lost and afraid.

iii.

Stories end in dénouement, but I didn’t pronounce it the right way. In class one day, I said The danoo-ment kind of confuses me. The class knew—must have knew—what I meant, but everyone sat silent, and the professor smiled (it may have been a warm smile) and said It’s pronounced dénouement. He had the French right, the syllable at the end like a flourish. I tried saying it that way, but the word felt wrong on my tongue, not foreign but private, something that didn’t belong to me. Every story is personal, no matter how it ends.   

 

 

 Thursday

i.

Everyone remembers the Round-Headed kid, the football, the dancing dog. Some quote Linus, that blanket-dragging philosopher. I can see them both now, heads on palms, leaned against a brick wall, their eyes confused, tiny bodies stunted in forever childhood. Charlie Brown asks Linus questions and that’s how Linus replies: questions. What do you read, my lord? Words. Words. Words.

ii.

Charlie Brown’s father was a barber, just like Charles Schulz’s father. Schulz always remembered his dad’s shop, the warmth and conversation. A quiet, pensive boy, after his mother’s death (cancer), he retreated even further into a silence. Unlike his creation, Schulz suffered alone. No Linus brought comfort. No blanket. Just an empty room where his mother once slept. Cartoons covered his walls.

iii.

Charlie Brown’s father never appears in the strip (no adults do), though we see Charlie at the barber shop a few times, oversized smile plastered on his face, a look of wonder in his eyes. The scissors went snip, snip, snip. Conversation carried all around him, while Chuck, a flattened, two-dimensional boy, lived out his creator’s memories. Charlie’s Brown’s mother never appears in the strips, either, though he talks to her often

Friday

i.

My professor took the class to a prefabricated town, a place near the beach with empty streets, empty stores, empty homes. The sun shone down on it all, somehow lifeless, a clinical glare. We wandered deserted sidewalks and looked up at empty condominiums. This was all designed my professor told us as we wandered this liminal space. I thought of post-apocalyptic movies I’d seen, an earth scoured and scorched. The metaphor didn’t fit the empty town’s contours. Here, there had never been people, the threat of damnation not in absence but in never-will-be. The town sat near a beach, deserted in the off-season, the beach chairs open and empty.

ii.

I tell my students to bring their drafts to class along with a pair of scissors. In pairs, they follow my instructions: Cut your draft into paragraphs or chunks. Then, they move these sections around, searching for order, not an imposed order, but a discovered order. I want them to see writing as organic, a process or discovery, like an explorer blowing the dust from memories they’ve unearthed in their own minds. Today, they’re architects, moving around the raw materials of their essay. A student might complain I don’t get it. I already wrote this essay. I want to say You’ve only laid the foundation. I say Keep playing. Keep looking. The right order will find you.

iii.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water has long fascinated me, often showing up in dreams as I wander room to room. The waterfall echoes. The air smells of river water and earth, loamy and sharp. In a college art appreciate course, I wrote an essay about it. I had no argument—the essay gushed with flowery prose, words meant to praise. I loved the way the home emerges from the cliffside, an outgrowth of nature, a permanent fixture. My parents rented a sequence of houses. They chased cheap rent across town and back again. In one cinderblock home, fuses blew all the time and air stank of mildew and burnt wiring. Beneath, the swampy soil waited.

 

 Saturday

i.

My father called the daily comics the “funnies” or “the funny papers,” though lots of what I read there wasn’t funny at all. Charlie Brown’s existential worry wasn’t funny. In Lynne Johnston’s For Better or For Worse a child nearly drowns and the family dog saves her. Later, the dog dies. You stare into the abyss and dance Dr. Miller told me in graduate school when we first learned to deconstruct the world. I purchased an illustrated guide to help me though critical theory. Drawings of Saussure, Derrida,  Barthes. Witty quips and captions meant to make it all fun and graspable. I didn’t laugh because the jokes made no sense to me.

ii.

Once, I tried to write a poem called “Charlie Brown in College,” a monologue in Chuck’s voice one dark night of the soul in his early 20s. I imagined a haunted philosophy major, dejected, depressed, poring over old books, seeking answers: thinly-disguised autobiography. That was my story, not the Round-Headed Kid’s. Charlie Brown didn’t need my overlay. The real darkness of Peanuts is that Charlie Brown is a child, but he’s already bald, brain swollen with the worry that stalks him daily. Schulz wanted to call the strip Little People, but an editor thought that readers wouldn’t get the joke. Dread was never so funny.

iii.

My father’s comics were never serious, not even the political ones, like the one of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, his glasses wide, her overly-made-up face cracking with a plastic smile. I’ve forgotten the punch line, but the image stands out. Those days, my mother stirred government cheese into boiled macaroni. Christmas was funded by handouts and luck. I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and it didn’t have a laugh track like Scooby-Doo. When was I supposed to laugh? Maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny. The newspapers would pile by the trash can, and I read the same daily strips day after day, twisting my mind to understand the jokes that escaped me.

 Sunday

i.

Sunday mornings, the newspaper lay in discreet sections all over the house, but my father kept the funnies on the kitchen table, where he read and read them. l like to imagine his practiced eye, tracing each line and marveling at the colors, strange in this black and white medium.

ii.

Strange in this black and white medium, Sunday comics allowed more narrative, more movement. Characters could grow and change, their motives more complex, their worlds more fully sketched into view. I noticed, though, that the first two frames were often throw-aways, drawn for newspapers to cut for length. Still, I read them. If Bill Watterson drew Calvin and Hobbes silent standing a meadow, it must have been important.

iii.

It must have been important for my father to see the comics because I’d find them laying on top of the bulk Sunday’s paper, the ads and hard news and movie reviews forgotten. Only art mattered.

iv.

Only art mattered, so I hated cutesy strips. I aimed my ire at Bill Keane’s The Family Circus. Its jokey gags. Its maps of little Billy’s sojourns around the neighborhood. I’d take scissors to the Sunday strips and excise that comic and with my own pencil, deface it: give Dolly a mustache. Put a machete in Daddy’s hands. Recaption them as dirty jokes. Years later, my wife asked, Why did you attack a comic about a stable family? Because it was a lie. Because it didn’t seem real.

v.

Because it didn’t seem real, I never imagined myself with a daughter. A son? Sure. I made plans to be a better father than my own. I envisioned Sunday afternoon games of catch, weekend fishing trips, the Family Circus vision of a “good family.” I’d be a “good father.” When my daughter was born and Spina Bifida blurred the images I’d drawn of my life, I learned to improvise. You can’t plan, it seems. Every day is a different-sized panel.

vi.

Every day is a different-sized panel, each one discreet, removed from some natural narrative (as though such a thing exists). Life isn’t the pre-framed sheets I print for my son from my computer. He never uses them for the comics he draws. He can’t make his story fit the frames.

vii.

I can’t make the story fit the frames that bracket each image of my father, my daughter, my son. Each image wants to be its own thing, disconnected from any story I might impose. We don’t remember; we remember when we last remembered. In my mind, my father is always drawing.

viii.

In my mind, my father is always drawing, creating. He wrote songs, too. Late in life, he wrote religious tracts. I’m close to the age he died now, and the newspaper is an antique. I read it on a tablet computer and leave windows open, like discreet sections of a newspaper, scattered around my home.

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Jeff Newberry

About Jeff Newberry

Jeff Newberry tells stories in poetry and prose and teaches others to do the same.  A native of the Florida Gulf Coast, he  is an essayist, fiction writer, and a poet. His most recent book is the novel  A Stairway to the Sea (Pulpwood Press). His is author of the poetry collection Brackish(Aldrich Press) and the chapbook A Visible Sign (Finishing Line ). With fellow Gulf Coast native, Brent House, he is the co-editor of the anthology The Gulf Stream:  Poems of the Gulf Coast (Snake Nation Press). His collaboration with the poet Justin Evans, a book of epistolary poems entitled Cross Country, will be published by WordTech Editions in 2019.  He reviews books for The Florida Review ​and other publications.