Maggots and Time

Does time run left to right?

The most bracing thing about the comics that came out of the Fort Thunder collective is their demonstration that “comics” is not a finished case. Brian Chippendale’s “Maggots”—a comic Chippendale originally made while living at Fort Thunder, drawn over the text-scumbled pages of a Japanese book catalog—radically departs from the way comics ordinarily navigate time. It even disrupts the basic given of the direction that panels run across the page: time flows forward in “Maggots,” but not only left to right.

Most western comics read from left to right, following the format adopted for reading text: if there is more than one row of panels, just as when there is more than one line of text, the eye shuttles from the rightmost end of one row to the leftmost end of the next row. The eye travels like a pen, a typewriter carriage or a cursor across the page, racking forward and backward, with no information expressed in the backward traverse.

In manga, springing from a culture that reads right to left, the flow is reversed. I’ve heard it suggested that some of the appeal of translated but “non-flipped” manga—that is, manga reproduced without mirroring the artwork, retaining the right-to-left flow—is the appeal of swimming against the established stream. It’s a way of reading that, to the left-to-right acclimated reader, seems slightly coded: like reading Leonardo’s mirror-writing, or texting one’s way through the English language. It’s the pleasure of playing the code within the code.

“Maggots,” contrary to either of these models, uses a snaking sequence, like this:

The rightmost panel in a row leads into the panel directly beneath it, and that next row runs right to left; the leftmost panel in that sequence continues into the panel directly beneath it, running the third row once again left to right, and so on. At the bottom of the left page, the sequence may run across the bottom of the right page, and instead of reading down the page, you begin reading up.

The fact that following the action back and forth is sometimes difficult obscures the fact that it’s a perfectly sensible approach—perhaps even more sensible than the approaches inherited from reading text. It’s arguably more “efficient” than the text-derived formats, making informational use of every zig-zag (in the text-derived flows, every “zag” is an interregnum, a willful “blink”). Isn’t it more natural for the panels to be contiguous, each movement emerging from the last one, the way it happens in the actual world, each moment sprouting out of the one that immediately precedes it? “Maggots” is perhaps the first extended comic to throw off the yoke of text, adopting a logic of sequence that is purely visual. In this way Chippendale shows that even the most basic modalities of the medium are still up for grabs.

PARADOXES OF MOTION

Sometimes Chippendale doesn’t follow even his own rules (on the jacket flap, under a reading-flow diagram, he writes: “sometimes it’s tricky like page 4 gets weird. read bottom two lines from left. huh, funny. stay alert!”). The passages where the flow counters your expectation give a strange sort of whiplash; the characters are still in motion, but something feels off, and you realize time is reeling backwards, so you “rewind” your eyes through the sequence.

The combination of time appearing to run back and forth, and being presented in Muybridge-like slices, makes “Maggots” read somewhat like a comic adaptation of Zeno’s paradoxes. Is motion really possible, if a moving object is composed of an infinite number of stationary objects? How can an arrow reach its target, if it must divide the space between its starting point and the target by half, then half again, and so on, the tip eternally forestalled as space folds itself into an impenetrable forcefield of proliferating increments?

Of course Zeno’s paradoxes are, for most people, refuted by the act of reading them; nonetheless, they prey upon the suspicion that whatever time is, it’s not quite what the mind grasps it to be. That suspicion was confirmed by Muybridge’s experiments, and accounts for the fascination they still hold today. Muybridge’s studies were an act of excavation, finding buried in ordinary activities strange spikes of grace and grotesquerie.

FASCINATING BORING

One of the results of Chippendale’s stuttered approach to time is that some of the most interesting passages in the book are the most “boring.” Chippendale uses his stroboscopic attack for “action” scenes, where characters run and fight and fuck, but the prolonged scenes where a character eats a sandwich or reads a book are no less interesting. In Chippendale’s depiction, the act of reading a book becomes obstinately mysterious—you watch the character read a book helplessly, the way a cat might watch a person read a book. That sequence, and the other scenes that draw out ordinary activities for pages at a stretch, reminded me of Beckett’s “sucking stones” passage in Molloy—a passage where Molloy explains to the reader his evolving system of rotating sixteen pebbles in the four pockets of his coat, so that he always has a unique pebble to draw out and suck on. This monologue goes on for about four pages, and it’s a testament to the de-centering power of Beckett’s intelligence that this ultra-mundane scene is the novel’s most riveting and most memorable.

Beckett’s explosion of mundane activity has more layers of psychology than Chippendale’s—in Molloy’s obsessive pursuit, his ridiculous and necessary assumption of a problem yoked to imperfect solutions, you gradually realize, with a mixture of horror and amusement, that the problem of the sucking stones is the problem of human cogitation. The route that the stones follow, migrating from pocket to pocket, forms a closed circuit; the rotatory motion encloses the brain in its hamster wheel of thinking. Chippendale’s characters aren’t given any internal monologues—thought balloons are absent, spoken dialogue is scarce—if we understand the characters at all, it’s through their actions, sliced thinner than seconds. What he shows us is the body in the hamster wheel of time.

THE ERROR IN THE LOOM

“Maggots” isn’t the first comic to use Muybridge-like sequentiality to render motion. The technique, in fact, predated Muybridge himself. Hokusai, in some drawings for his multi-volume compendium “Hokusai Manga,” breaks down motion into repetitive clusters of images, to record the poses of a dance, or the involutions of a wrestling match. Time is rendered as a pattern, the information expressed through the variant irregularities in that pattern. These pages in Hokusai are almost like patterned textiles, made on a loom that introduces an error on each pass of the motif. That “error,” that forgetfulness on the part of the loom, is the substance of time.

WHEN IS A GESTURE AN IMAGE?

“Maggots” complicates questions that might at first seem straightforward: What is a gesture? What is an image? In a traditional pictorial context, gesture and image are incontrovertibly present. Here are some gestures that are also images, indivisibly there: Delacroix’s female Liberty, leading the people with her right arm upraised, clutching the tricolor flag, bared bosom projecting outward to the viewer.

Rembrandt’s Abraham, right hand splayed as it drops the dagger, head turned toward the intervening angel, left hand obliterating Isaac’s face in a suffocating, knuckled mask.

Recalling these paintings stirs no real impulse to see what happened just before, or what happened just after. We may be interested in what happened psychologically in the immediate before and after, but not what happened mechanically (at what point does Liberty’s arm grow fatigued, and let the flag dip an inch?) Gesture and image are fused into one stable surface.

This traditional pictorial surface doesn’t so much freeze time, as to put time in abeyance. This is not a snapshot record of an event, but a memory of an event, reconstituted after the fact, all its pertinent details congealed in an authoritative simultaneity. The duration of time there is not measured by moments, but by experiences. This is in contrast to the way an animator must reconstitute time—or the way one becomes conscious of time when scrubbing through a video clip, looking to isolate from the stream a representative still. The weirdness of time there is most evident in facial expressions—the way human visages are distorted into strange grimaces when motions become moments. A visual stimulus does not always rise to the occasion of an image; an image or a gesture is something that sustains itself beyond the imprint of the moment—something that lives as an echo in the mind after it’s vanished from the gelled chamber of the eye.

WHEN READING BECOMES WATCHING

I found myself “reading” (maybe “watching” is a better way of putting it) “Maggots” in a kind of blur. More than any other comic I’ve read, “Maggots” compels you to abandon the drawing right in front of your eyes for the next (the exception are the occasional two-page spreads, which serve as a visual punctuation—finally inviting you to pause and regard the drawings as such). To comprehend the motions of the characters, you have to run through the moments quickly: your brain is turned into a kind of mechanical apparatus, a film projector or zoetrope that the strip of images is being run through, to deliver its characters into activity, into “life.” A strange correspondence happens, where the time that transpires when reading becomes almost synchronous with the time that transpires when the characters are behaving. The reader reads and the characters act at the same rate. In a certain sense these gestures and images of “Maggots” aren’t really visible on the page: they’re only visible in the headlong activity of reading.

Maggots themselves—as in hungry fly larvae—appear a few times in the narrative of the book. But more than a creature, serving as title and talisman, they’re a mode of perception—the wiggling motion of the eyes across the page, chewing their way through the corpse of time.