Posted by: Abhay Khosla on July 23, 2010
I don’t think I have anything particularly novel to say about Tim Hensely’s WALLY GROPIUS– if you read Blog Flume or Comics Comics, as I imagine you must, I wouldn’t suggest to you that I have much to add to what those fine gentlemen have already deduced. My Mickey-Mouse “WALLY GROPIUS for Idiots” reading of the book offered below is probably more for my benefit, as a way for me to find a way to have that book stop nagging at the back of my head. As a value-adding proposition for you…? I can’t make much by way of promises. With that caveat: essay, ahoy.
Also: SPOILERS. For reals. Though– look, if you haven’t read WALLY GROPIUS, this isn’t a “Why You Should Buy It” piece so much as me babbling incoherently about the book after having read it and let it fester for a few weeks. So, yeah: this one maybe isn’t for you, and by you, I mean the entire internet, basically. Basically.
One of the poorer ideas I’ve ever had– and one reason I don’t believe kids or possibly even young adults should indulge in any kind of “fun”, of any kind but especially of any sort of chemical variety– was my decision to temporarily loose my grip on a sober view of reality prior to the 2008 Superbowl.
The 2008 Superbowl was broadcast by the FOX Network, and prior to the broadcast, rather than talk about football or sell beer or exploit women, or make you feel sorrow about your favorite classic Rock musicians (i.e. what you’d expect from a Superbowl telecast), FOX instead opened with what for me was a surprise: an out-of-fuck-nowhere recreation of the signing and intensely solemn recitation of the Declaration of Independence.
When you’re sober, you experience the world as a place that makes sense. But that world is a lie– none of that is true. Your brain is forced to lie to itself constantly, because it’s busy processing data, winnowing memories, coordinating your autonomic nervous system, supervising synaptic doo-dads and whats-its– it does not have time to sit around while you freak the fuck out about the world. Because the world is not that place– the world does not make a lick of fucking sense. The world is a place where Don Shula will come onto your television and recite a centuries-old communication between men in powdered wigs and some long-dead King (which communication if anything represents an indictment of U.S. foreign policy circa 2003-present), in a production guest-starring the widow of a soldier murdered by friendly fire; Don Shula will do that unannounced, at fucking random, without any warning, prior to a four/five/six-hour mega-event in which the entire country unites to watch unbelievably large men who’ve spent their lives perfecting the art of running directly into each other, skull first, as violently as is humanly possible.
There is no end to the absurdity of things. But your brain recognizes that you should not spend too much time dwelling on the senselessness of things, and so as a default creates lies for you, constantly, so constant that you don’t usually even pay any attention at all to the lies. It’s a survival mechanism– your odds of transmitting your genetic information to future generations is lower if you spend too much dwelling on the fact that you’re just a barely-intelligent monkey on a rock hurtling through space, designed only to die. And if you’re smart, you accept the lies, except only on limited, celebratory occasions indulged only in moderation.
This seems germane to the pleasure I took in WALLY GROPIUS. GROPIUS is a book that’s constantly lying to the reader, with a terrifying chaos roiling just immediately below its surface. The book is a flood of visual and textual information, but the information itself is near constantly false. A hippie journalist is a concerned father is a rapist, except is none of those things. A girl is happy and innocent and a victim, except is none of those things. According to the cover of the book, Wally Gropius is an umpteen millionaire— but ultimately, his vault is empty. The very first image in the book suggests that material wealth would aid in the survival of the “Destitoot“; the very final image suggests that material wealth is irrelevant to survival.
The reader is thus thrust by the way the comic is told into the same shoes as the lead character Wally Gropius. Gropius wants The Girl, but based on the image she presents to him and not the truth of things. But Gropius and the reader, we’re both inundated with evidence that images are not to be trusted. The art of WALLY GROPIUS visually is very insistent upon that point: objects float in space; perspective is nonsensical; shadows skew willy-nilly; even the sound effects are false, wrong, off. The book is constantly presenting images but divorced from their “proper” context, their so-called “true” meaning. Gropius believes in the image of The Girl anyways, and is undone by it. Our senses are not to be trusted; our senses feed us falsehoods. The culture tells Gropius he wants Huey Lewis, he believes he wants Huey Lewis, he wants Huey Lewis, but when Huey Lewis arrives– he is very much not what Gropius wants.
Our senses are not to be trusted…?
I’m no expert on spiritual matters, but this sounds like the basics of your Eastern philosophical systems. There is the sense object, but the sense object is just an illusion. According to Buddhism (at least according to Wikipedia), the origin of suffering is craving, and craving arises from sensations that result from contact at the six sense bases. Therefore, to overcome craving and its resultant suffering, one has to develop restraint of and insight into the sense bases. Similarly, your neighborhood-friendly Bhagavad Gita might tell you that by constantly thinking of sense objects, a person becomes attached to them, and thus develops desires, from which arises anger, from which anger arises delusion, and from delusion confusion of memory, and from confusion of memory, loss of intelligence, and when intelligence is lost, the breath of life is also lost. Similarly, according to Jackie Chan, if you perceive that there is a wall and there is no ladder, you can just run up the wall– the wall itself is a ladder! But if you instead become too attached to money, you will end up making a movie with Will Smith’s fucking kid, and that too will cause a loss of intelligence.
(Some will say Jackie Chan movies have nothing to do with transcendence, but those people have never seen Drunken Master 2 and deserve only our pity, as such).
Even if we see something true, we may not have the sense to understand it. The reader is even told at one point that Jillian Banks is the “Debutante of the Underworld“– I saw the words. I just didn’t think they meant anything, when in fact they were the only words on the page that did.
(If I can ask you about one page, especially: the page near the end, CITIZEN’S BAND. When you read it– is the Butler telling the truth? Everytime I’ve looked at it, I’ve thought to myself, “He’s lying. He’s a cop, she is Queen Midas, so named for her golden hair, he has lured her into a car marked Diplomatic Immunity, but he intends to drive her back to a shoulder pool where Francis Bacon (i.e. Bacon = Pigs = Police Officers) wait to arrest her.” Is any of that true? GROPIUS doesn’t explain the scene. There are no answers. Maybe the butler lies. Maybe the butler tells the truth. There’s no knowing what the truth is because there’s no such thing as the truth here. It’s just marks on paper; none of it’s real).
Speaking of Wikipedia, consider Mr. Gropius’s namesake, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect. Gropius Sr. fun-fact: “Walter Gropius, like his father and his great-uncle Martin Gropius before him, became an architect. Gropius could not draw, and was dependent on collaborators and partner-interpreters throughout his career.” Gropius was an architect who couldn’t draw, an architect whose work was all, in a way, second-hand, translations. Consider the following excerpt from GROPIUS author Tim Hensley’s interview with the Los Angeles Times: “I worked on it for five years. It took me a long time. I worked on it after work. At the time I was doing closed captioning all day.”
Hensley himself engaged in a sort of translation for the sense-impaired, while creating a book sort-of about the untrustworthiness of our senses, named after an architect who could not create his own visuals. Do you see a connection between all of those facts? I want to see a connection, but there isn’t one. It’s just my mind trying to impose an order onto things– I don’t know, because that’s what brains do. Hell, Wikipedia itself is a fan-run encyclopedia– none of what it says about Gropius, Sr. might be even remotely true. But Wikipedia rhymes with encyclopedia— so, fuck it, close enough…?
GROPIUS works not only because it lies constantly but because I want to believe the lies, because of the great comfort of lies. I want to believe the world makes sense, and things happen for a reason, neither of which is true. The New York Times had a terrific article after BP murdered the Gulf of Mexico called “Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill“: “Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.” As I write this, San Diego is filled with our fellow comic nerds, obsessed with lies from 1960’s cartoonists about America’s glorious cosmic, wonder-filled future; meanwhile, just a couple hours away is proof that 50 years later, the United States can’t figure out how to keep from mother-fucking poisoning ourselves.
Similarly, the very genre that WALLY GROPIUS tenuously exists in is one built on lies concocted decades earlier: the teen comic genre. If I have a favorite thing about the book, it might be how WALLY GROPIUS capitalized upon me having read those comics and their repetitive stories. If you’ve read one ARCHIE comic, you’ve read every ARCHIE comic. GROPIUS has layers of discordant dialogue, discordant visuals, but I was never lost because I always felt… I always felt, “Oh, I’ve read this one before– this is the one where Gropius starts a band.”
GROPIUS functions as a teen comic. I liked that Gropius, Jr. is expected to be an adult, wedding and all, at the time he is most completely addled– that seems like a fairly reasonable observation on being a teenager. But what I liked more is how with one panel, everything about the genre we would want to categorize GROPIUS in is sort of revealed to be a lie. I refer of course to the panel of Jillian Banks having sex. That panel stopped me pretty cold– besides the “kind-of” incest themes in the particular panel at issue, it’s the last thing I expected to see in a comic drawn like this. But it’s the truest thing you could see in a teen comic– that’s really the crucial part of what the teen years are all about: it’s the age when the “human animal” matures to the point where it’s interested in and capable of reproduction. The panel belongs completely in a teen comic and yet is never in the sort of teen comic GROPIUS nods to stylistically. The panel doesn’t belong in the story the art is telling; or the panel belongs in the story the story is telling, but the art doesn’t belong to the story; or… or… Hell, I’m not even sure how this sentence should go…?
There’s more to say here, about any number of things– the finance imagery, say. But focusing on anything else seems … Well, it doesn’t interest me for a book as much as the… I don’t know… the aphasiastic qualities of WALLY GROPIUS. For me, it’s a book that lies constantly, that lies at its very core, but that nevertheless ends up getting at a greater truth of things. And so, yeah: I thought that was pretty neat.