Joe Brainard’s Grid, or, the Matter of Comics
“I remember trying to save money, for a day or two, and quickly losing interest.”
-Joe Brainard, I Remember 1
Best known for his autobiographical text I Remember, published between 1970 and 1975, the artist and writer Joe Brainard has recently undergone something of a recovery project.2 Following a 2001 retrospective exhibition at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and an accompanying exhibition catalogue, the 2008 volume The Nancy Book collected Brainard’s renditions of the comic strip character Nancy, and in 2012, The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard was published by the Library of America.3 A still underappreciated figure, Joe Brainard was born in 1942 and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He moved to New York City in 1960, where he would become associated with the “second generation” of the New York School, collaborating with his long-time partner Kenward Elmslie, as well as John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman, among others. Brainard’s output was vast, yet much of Brainard’s work is difficult to categorize—small, mimeographed chapbooks that are mostly illustrations and collages, two issues of a comics anthology, book and magazine covers, and prose poems.4 Even his visual art is seemingly minor in scale—the largest artwork in The Nancy Book, the drawing Untitled (If Nancy Was a Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci) (1972) measures 10 ¼” x 14”, and Brainard would draw on materials as small as postage stamps. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard makes much of Brainard’s prose and chapbook work available, yet the volume cannot do justice to all that Brainard created, much of which doesn’t collect easily within the pages of a single-author text.
The terms of the recent Joe Brainard recovery project, steeped in the personal reminiscence of Brainard’s collaborators and friends, have turned on the intimacy, warmth, and everydayness of Brainard’s prose, often marveling at his own disinterest in the literary and the artistic marketplaces. Following Brainard’s death, at only 52 years of age, from AIDS-induced pneumonia in 1994, Edmund White’s remembrance, originally published in 1997 in Art in America, is a good example of the terms and approach commonly used to discuss Brainard:
Joe was the only person I’ve ever known that I’d try to talk and act like when I was with him. My imitations were embarrassing and never successful, but the urge to delete all phoniness and really look at the surrounding world with a fresh eye and to shower everyone with generosity was so compelling that by the end of an evening with Joe I was even unconsciously imitating his stutter. Joe’s personal style was certainly hypnotic.5
Brainard’s authenticity, generosity, and ease are motifs that one can find in almost any account of the artist and writer’s work, and today, in a moment when “personal style” can be said to dominate both the memoir-saturated literary marketplace and the artist-as-brand fine art world, it is no surprise that Brainard has been the subject of renewed interest. Moreover, Brainard has been the focus of a recent monograph that aims to situate him within 20th-century poetics, Andy Fitch’s Pop Poetics: Reframing Joe Brainard. In Pop Poetics, Fitch approaches Brainard as a poet whose “pop poetics . . . adopts the oft-dismissed lyric subject as site for adventurous explorations of poetic space.”6 By recognizing the ways in which Brainard’s text I Remember functions as an “algorithmic artifice” that is also “a banalized, chatty prose-like form,” Fitch argues for Brainard’s status as a unique mediator between confessional and Language poetry, as well as between Pop Art, abstract expressionism, and minimalism.7 Fitch’s account is a valuable contextualization of Brainard that questions some of the boundaries, period designations, and formal categories in literary studies and art history, and Fitch ultimately finds in Brainard a new lyrical subject articulated through “serial-identity.”8 Building upon Fitch’s contextualization but moving beyond his focus on the lyric subject, I will argue that Brainard’s work is less about the lyric subject than it is about economic structures that facilitate and mediate the subject in late capitalism. Indeed, in this essay, I will think of and approach Brainard as a writer and artist, or, really, as a comics poet, who engages in anti-capitalist imagining, a negation of value that preserves aesthetics while bypassing the monetized categories of fine art and literature.
As Marjorie Perloff noted in a review of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard and The Nancy Book, the recent collections of Brainard’s work continue in the same vein as Edmund White’s personalized reminiscence above:
To accompany the volume, moreover, the Library of America has put together a special website (http://www.loa.org/IRememberJoeBrainard/) where you can hear leading writers from Edmund White to Frank Bidart and Ann Lauterbach providing fond reminiscences of Joe. The reverential tone of these video commentaries reminds one of the ardent response in 1966 to the tragic death of Frank O’Hara, struck by a beach buggy on Fire Island at the age of forty. Like the charismatic older poet– in a 1969 diary, Brainard quipped “If I have a hero (I do) it is Frank O’Hara”—Brainard seems to have been adored by all who knew him; they can’t say enough about his charm, wit, brilliance, generosity, kindness, modesty, and just plain loveable nature.9
Perloff goes on to note that she is decidedly less adoring of Brainard’s work, and that perhaps Brainard’s intimacy was, in fact, a limitation rather than an invitation, because it limited Brainard’s appeal and relevance to those involved in or interested in the coterie of the New York School. As Perloff remarks about the writings collected by the Library of America, “however charming, funny, and disarmingly frank this narrator could be, there is something missing here: perhaps the larger world beyond the little in-group where feeling is all.”10 Perloff’s critique can be loosely mapped onto the division that has served as a template for 20th-century poetic history. Oren Izenberg has described this as the “two kinds” approach to poetic history, in which poetry in the twentieth century is divided into a “traditionalist lineage” and a “paradoxical ‘avant-garde’ tradition.”11 Brainard’s work is, then, perhaps experimental enough in form but lacking in meaning-making to qualify as properly “avant garde,” and its warm, personal content seems to disqualify it almost immediately from consideration as a contribution to late modernism. Like Izenberg, I wish here to argue not for the value of one side over another, or even to claim that Brainard has been a misunderstood modernist or an underappreciated avant-gardist, but instead to read Brainard as representative of a third way of thinking of not just poetry but also aesthetics in the twentieth century.
Inspired by Christopher Nealon’s account of poetry’s relations to capital—that poetry can aim to be “fleet and circulatory, like money, or defiantly valueless, money’s opposite”12 —I view Brainard’s work as aiming for the latter option, as using mundane materials—comics, everyday life, casual remembrance—not to elevate them but to defy the expectation that art aspires to be valuable. Brainard’s work stands in contrast to the texts and authors analyzed in Michael W. Clune’s American Literature and the Free Market, which imagine a kind of utopian free market, unhinged from material constraints. Instead, and because so much of his work was in the comics medium, Brainard differs from his collaborator Frank O’Hara, for whom “the aesthetic frees economic choice, economic interest, economic agency.”13 Brainard’s work, and especially his work as a comics artist, dwells on valuelessness and materiality, the ephemeral matter that can be thought of as art but that eludes value.
For example, in a stapled, mimeographed book titled Some Drawings of Some Notes to Myself, Brainard draws exactly what the title of the book purports: a series of handwritten notes, written on torn, sometimes lined notebook paper. One drawings of a torn piece of lined notebook paper lists “Shine Shoes / Quarters In Bottle / Genet / Cut Out” (Figure 1).14 While the mundane content might seem to give the viewer a glimpse into Brainard’s everyday life, the note is so vague that it tells us nothing, really, about the person who compiled it. The act of drawing the note—from the lines on the notebook paper to the spiral holes and tears at the top and bottom—is careful and precise, yet the drawing, even as a drawing, seems to have no meaning. It is merely a drawing of a note, again revealing nothing about the notetaker. Is “Genet” a reminder to read something? Does “Cut Out” refer to Brainard’s collage work, or something else entirely? There is no way to even begin to answer these questions given the material in the 8-page chapbook. The seeming transparency or disclosure of the artist’s self, then, runs aground. The note neither captures a moment of everyday life for lyrical reflection, nor does it function as an expressive device. When approached as an artifact, it raises more questions than it answers about everyday life or the note’s author. As a drawing, its precision is in the service of nothing—verisimilitude accomplishes the transcription of a scrap. A line from Brainard’s I Remember encapsulates the lack of content here: “I remember searching for something you know is there, but it isn’t.”15
What Some Drawings of Some Notes to Myself makes clear is how Brainard’s work is less a record of Brainard’s own kindness and authenticity, as so much of the current recovery project serves to insist, than it is an abstract mediation of subjectivity itself by aesthetic forms, a mediation that Brainard would often enact in the comics medium. The warmth, kindness, and authenticity so often described as integral to Brainard’s writing emanates, then, not as what Perloff describes as a surplus of coterie and insider feeling, but instead as a feeling of individual dissolution and valuelessness, a sensibility that I will characterize as stemming from an anti-capitalist aesthetic.
The major venue in which Brainard published comics was his short-lived C Comics magazine, which ran only 2 issues, one in 1964, the second in 1965.16 The fact that C Comics only appeared twice is part of a larger trend in Brainard’s life, one that is linked to what I am calling his anti-capitalist aesthetic. Despite a long record of publications and gallery exhibitions, Brainard would stop exhibiting his work and mostly stop making art or writing from 1980 until his untimely death in 1994. This reluctance or even refusal to continue to work is reflected in Brainard’s early work, too, which resists the terms and modes of valuation in both literary culture and the art world. As Ann Lauterbach notes, “By the time Joe Brainard and I had become good friends, he had virtually ceased making art. Once, after a day of Christmas shopping, we stopped for a drink, and I had the temerity to ask him why. He said, ‘I am not good enough,’ and then, in a variant, ‘I don’t have enough ambition,’ or, maybe, ‘the right kind of ambition.”17 The slippage here, from talent to ambition to the “right kind of ambition,” is a glimpse of what I will argue makes Brainard’s work anti-capitalist and also what makes his work seem “minor” when approached from traditional artistic or literary standards. Brainard’s engagement with the mundane, the comic, the serial, the repetitive, and the meaningless amounts to art that aspires to have no value, and for Brainard by 1980, could have no value in the context of a neoliberal art world where “collectors, curators, and dealers were playing for high stakes in the quixotic markets of finance, real estate, fashion, and fame.”18
C Comics featured collaborative comic strips drawn by Brainard and authored by a number of the New York School poets in his circle, including John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Kenward Elmslie, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Frank O’Hara, and others. Outside of C Comics, Brainard would collaborate on more comics, many of which appeared in stapled chapbooks in the 1970s, and some of which would appear in books like Kenward Elmslie’s Album (1969), Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett’s Bean Spasms (1967), and Anne Waldman’s No Hassles (1971). In terms of comics, Brainard is perhaps best known for his drawings and paintings of the comic strip character Nancy, works that both mock high art conventions, as in If Nancy was a Painting by De Kooning (1975) and If Nancy was Art Nouveau (1972), and engage in a queer aesthetic, playing on the word “nancy,” as in If Nancy was a Boy (1972) and If Nancy was a Sailor’s Basket (1972).19 These drawings and paintings are akin to Roy Lichtenstein’s large-scale paintings of comics panels, though Brainard plays with the content of the comic strip rather than magnify the mechanical, benday dot production of comics. What makes Brainard radically different than Lichtenstein, though, is less Brainard’s humorous play with Nancy than his engagement with comics as an aesthetic form, rather than a form to be appropriated and molded into the format of fine art painting. Indeed, most of Brainard’s Nancy artworks are 9” x 12” in size, conforming to the approximate size of the comic book page rather than blowing up a comics image into a larger format. Unlike Lichtenstein, Brainard is a comics artist, not a painter who uses comics as raw material. C Comics, then, stands out as Brainard’s most concentrated contribution to comics. Moreover, it is a contribution that is not included in the Library of America’s Collected Writings of Joe Brainard and that is absent from the growing scholarship in comics studies. Indeed, while some of Brainard’s comics have been reprinted in The Nancy Book alongside his drawings and paintings, and while some original copies of C Comics can be purchased for hundreds and even thousands of dollars from rare book dealers, the only way now for a scholar to read C Comics in its entirety is to read it in a collection like the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. What C Comics makes visible is the way in which comics have been integral to twentieth-century aesthetics, though our aesthetic categories in both art history and literary studies have made comics invisible as a determining aesthetic force throughout the twentieth century.20
To chart the aesthetics of comics, it is useful to draw from another history of aesthetic legitimation. One of the major accomplishments of postmodernism has been the legitimation of photography as an aesthetic medium. A process that began during the early twentieth century, photography’s full incorporation into the art museum occurred not through modernist experimentation but, instead, through the postmodern critique of the work of art. One way to mark the success of photography’s incorporation into the art museum is Michael Fried’s revisionist history of photographic aesthetics, which identifies a painterly aesthetic of absorption in some contemporary photographers—an approach to photography that is only available after its incorporation into the museum.21 As Douglas Crimp noted in 1980, the art museum as an institution responded to postmodernism by backwards-looking attempts to “recuperate the auratic. These attempts are manifest in two, contradictory pheonomena: the resurgence of expressionist painting and the triumph of photography-as-art.”22 What matters for our purposes is the difference between the legitimation of photography and legitimation of comics. While photography at once questioned the role of the artist and the status of the original, and also ultimately reinforced those ideologies in the museum, comics have entered the art world and literary studies as a medium of artistic expressivity. Rather than being part of the postmodern simulacra, the comics and the comics artists most celebrated in the art museum and in literature anthologies today—artists like Art Spiegelman who write in the memoir form and whose art bears traces of the artist’s hand through hand-drawn grids and expressive lines—reinforce the importance of the individual as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. This legitimation of single-artist, memoiristic comics reflects and contributes to the broader neoliberal culture in which we still live, where the entrepreneurial individual is the ideal subject.
The reception and legitimization of comics has progressed unevenly over the past two and a half decades. As Bart Beaty has argued in his analysis of MoMA’s 1990 High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture exhibition, even Pop Art’s use of comics came to connote not an openness to comics as a visual arts tradition suitable for the museum, but instead a form that could be appropriated by artists: “According to the logic of High and Low, the vast bulk of comics history can only inspire art as a sort of mutely passive muse; it is not art itself.”23 Later in the 1990s and 2000s, in literary studies, an emphasis on single-author “graphic novels” has allowed comics to enter, for example, the Norton Anthology of American Literature and the pages of PMLA. Many comics artists who produce single-authored, long-form works, such as Daniel Clowes, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware have been the subject of recent museum exhibitions, shoring up the distinction between the kinds of comics that count as art or literature, and the reservoir of comics that undergirds, a kind of raw material for artistic appropriation. Brainard’s comics work, published in his C Comics or in other literary and artistic venues, poses an interesting counter to both of these modes of addressing comics. Neither mass-produced “low” art nor single-authored, long-form work, Brainard’s comics draw attention not to how comics can be molded into an already established discourse – not, in other words, because they can be read as novels or approached like paintings – but to how comics bear their own aesthetic ideology.
Contrary to the focus on the virtuosic artist in contemporary comics discourse, part of the promise of photography during postmodernism was the elision of the artist, the incoherence of originality and authenticity, and the troubling of the fine art museum’s curatorial practices. As Walter Benjamin noted in his oft-cited “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” photography undoes “aura” and “authenticity” only to present an illusion of an unmediated view of the world, “the Blue Flower in the land of technology.”24 This curious ontology is described by Crimp as shifting in postmodernism, into “an aura, only now it is a function not of presence but of absence, severed from an origin, from an originator, from authenticity.”25 The aura of postmodern photography, then, both confirms and offers an alternative to our mediated relation to experience under postmodernism. If the postmodern promise of the photograph has been its production of presence without the artist and without originality, then comics pose an interesting inversion. Comics have been legitimated in both the art world and literary studies through the most conventional appeals to authorship, authenticity, and the unified work, which has privileged a certain brand of comics art’s emphasis on the hand-drawn, the hand-lettered, and the autobiographical. As I have already begun to suggest, comics that have been incorporated into literary, cultural, and visual studies most robustly—Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories—are bound to each artist’s individual style and even life histories. Postmodernism’s obliteration of narrow modernist categories has been undone, ironically, by the incorporation of a mass cultural medium into the museum and the literary canon. In the now-established field of comics studies, scholars have begun to question the field’s focus on single-author “graphic novels,” such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.26 The emphasis on the above texts in comics studies has entailed the misreading of comics as chiefly concerned with representing personal experience and family relations as traumatic, while the medium is clearly not limited to those subjects.
To develop a way to analyze Brainard’s comics, and to further develop an account of the matter and medium of comics, I will now turn to a classic essay on modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, an essay that has an important bearing on how comics might be conceptualized as and against the category of art. In “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” Rosalind Krauss demonstrates how modernist painting is premised on a mythological origin point, the grid. The grid’s artificiality and primal structure bears the promise, for the heroic modernist painter, that painting is autonomous and original, not copied from nature but instead the product of the painter’s hand and mind. Yet, of course, as Krauss argues, the opposite applies to the grid, too—the grid is not, can’t be, original, and the grid frustrates imagination:
the grid is . . . highly inflexible. Thus just as no one could claim to have invented it, so once one is involved in deploying it the grid is extremely difficult to use in the service of invention. And thus when we examine the careers of those artists who have been most committed to the grid, we could say that from the time they submit themselves to this structure their work virtually ceases to develop and becomes involved, instead, in repetition.27
The grid, then, is both the structure of avant-garde painting and its repressed unoriginality, a structure that is critiqued and liquidated by postmodernism, which, in its embrace of repetition as/and originality, renders clear modernism’s “fictitious condition.”28
Building on Krauss’s explication of the grid as a mythological origin point for abstract painting, I would like to dwell on the presence of the grid through the twentieth century in the form of the comics page. The “first comic book,” Famous Funnies, was published in 1933 and reprinted newspaper comic strips, and it would be quickly followed by comic books that contained original material, most famously Action Comics #1 in 1938, which featured the first Superman story. The comic books were preceded by a number of comic strips that made use of a large grid, such as George Herriman’s Krazy and Ignatz and Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. These comics often call attention to the grid as a material surface, a kind of medium-specific limitation on which to experiment. The grid connotes not only abstraction or blankness, but also the comics page, conventionally divided into nine or twelve panels of equal size.
For Krauss, photography and its reproducibility constitute the “repressed” of modernist aesthetics, the repetitive structure of the purportedly original grid, only to rise to prominence and be given their due in postmodernism. The continuation of this dialectical logic can be seen, for example, in recent work by Crimp, Jonathan Flatley, and Catherine Zuromskis, who go even further by shifting attention from the artist Andy Warhol’s silkscreens to his collaborative factory’s production of film and photographs, moving from the individual to the collective.29 What I wish to demonstrate with Brainard is how the grid as the comics page functions as a key element and somewhat paradoxical repository of personhood in the late twentieth century: personhood not as a referent in the representation – its subject – but as a source of intention that denies the value of that subject. That is, comics allow for the trace of the artist and author, even as it is an inherently mass-produced medium, one that seems to function along the same logics as film and photography. But, despite its mechanical reproducibility, the artistic engagement with the grid and the importance of the line on the comics page bears the trace of the artist and artistic intention in the way that a photograph or a film can only do through the frame.30
While a history of the longer intermingling of comics and fine art remains to be written, my focus here on Joe Brainard’s work is meant to seize upon a key moment, both in terms of aesthetics as such and in terms of how aesthetics function in relation to economics. This intersection of aesthetics and economics is encapsulated in a passage from one of Brainard’s prose pieces about Nancy: “Nancy wanted to be ‘that’ kind of girl. I at ‘that’ age didn’t know what I wanted to be. But I certainly didn’t want to be ‘that.’ Nancy did.”31 Brainard engages a subject/object dichotomy here (“I” versus “that”), one that on the surface seems to be about conformity and gender. While that valence is certainly present—Brainard doesn’t want to be a “nancy,” and growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1950s and early 1960s, Brainard quite possibly lacked other models for homosexual manhood—the “Nancy” here is also a commodity, a well-known comics character whose eponymous comic strip began in 1938 and is still running today.32 Brainard’s resistance to gender norms is also a resistance to the commodity form—the confusion of personhood with objecthood, of “I” with “that.”33 The rejection of type and object, the refusal to inhabit a category recognizable as an economic category, resonates as a rejection of rational subjectivity itself, which, in the 1960s, is beginning the process of becoming inextricably connected to the free market. In Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics, he notes that under neoliberalism, “economic behavior is the grid of intelligibility one will adopt on the behavior of a new individual.”34 Brainard’s resistence to “that” is precisely a resistance to an intelligibility that Foucault argues produces the “new individual” of “homo œconomicus.” Brainard seeks out an unspecified role, a way of being that can’t have value because it can’t be named or seen—and in the art world of the 1960s and 1970s, comics have no value in and of themselves. Brainard seizes upon an aesthetic that is aesthetic precisely because it can’t be pinned down to “that,” to an object. A comic that merely uses Nancy, rather than a painting that appropriates Nancy, does not seek to elevate its subject matter. Instead, as is so often the case with Brainard’s Nancy drawings and paintings, the point is to devalue painting, to turn painting into a valueless form, by folding painting into comics.
Brainard’s comics negate value by acknowledging the repressed structure of fine art, thus demonstrating how art can be art without being valuable. This is, ultimately, the work of Brainard—not the proliferation of meaning but the denial of meaning, the negation of value. For someone like Brainard, who uses popular culture materials (importantly, he does not appropriate them as content but as a medium), the function of art is less to critique than to stand apart, to posit a formal existence that cannot be monetized in either the art or the literary world. This project is even more crucial today than it was in the 20th century, as fine art has increasingly become, in David Joselit’s phrase, an “international currency” in and of itself.35
To see the denial of value enacted by Brainard’s comics, one can look at “Poem,” a collaboration from C Comics Number 2 with poet Frank Lima. A three-page comic, “Poem” does not use a grid, but it does use thought balloons, a conventional formal element of comics. The comics’ first page is a title page, with a small arrow pointing to the title “POEM,” and a large, black ink blot (Figure 2). While the arrow lends the page a kind of intimate urgency—as if this page had been annotated by someone who wished you to notice the text—the ink blot connotes error and mistake. Though clearly carefully drawn, with smooth edges and a uniform interior texture, the inkblot is intentional yet accidental, an error that makes the artist’s hand visible on the page.
These kinds of “errors” persist throughout Brainard’s comics, which routinely feature crossed-through words and scribbled out illustrations. For example, in a page from Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett’s “The Nancy Book,” a long, abstract comic featuring Brainard’s signature, adopted character, a striking page features Nancy falling through a comics grid, with a struck-through word, the not-complete word “Pride,” in her word balloon, “Of Crazy Pride that Goeth Before a Fall” (Figure 3). Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation,” remarks that film is an important art in the late twentieth century because of its visible mistakes: “Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good.”36 In keeping with this, one could argue that comics also share this quality, and even a shared geneaology with film.37 The visibility of the artist’s presence on the page through his mistakes is also the visibility of his intention. Creeping in through the mistake, this intentionality presents a vision of the artist that is not rigidly structured by self-interest and monetization, that eschews virtuosity and value.
The next page of “Poem” features two desk objects, an inkwell and a tape dispenser, both with thought balloons containing the word “Iron” (Figure 4). It is hard to posit any meaning to the thought balloons or the objects. Indeed, it seems as if the tape dispenser and inkwell’s “Iron” thoughts gesture to the impermanence of comics and the comics artist. Iron is more durable than ink and tape, and the tools of the comics artist, the matter of an ephemeral medium, can only dream of permanence.
This self-awareness is made coherent in the comic’s final page, which depicts Nancy saying “I have burned down the sky” (Figure 5). The apocalyptic image here, delivered by a silhouetted Nancy, is at once impossible—the sky cannot be “burned down” in any literal way—and also terrifying, the sign of a true apocalypse wherein air becomes solid and all is aflame. Objects becoming conscious, then, leads to the sky burning down. It is both terrifying and impossible, invoking an emotional response yet also complete nonsense.
As in his “Poem” with Lima, Brainard’s comics are emblems of negation. “I have burned down the sky.” And, burning down the sky, positing something incoherent and impossible, is one way to imagine an art that isn’t a mere critique of capitalism, but an art that stands apart from capitalism. By making a comic about comics’ ephemerality and impossibility as art, Brainard’s comics collaboration with Lima and his work more generally, take comics seriously as an aesthetic medium and, in so doing, find in comics no value that can be monetized, commodified, or even really translated into either the fine art world or literary culture.
One two-page comic from C Comics Number 1, “Red Rydler and Dog,” by Frank O’Hara and Joe Brainard is an example of what the grid as comics page brings into relief, and how Brainard’s comics engage personhood, sexuality, and genre to foreground economic relations (Figures 6 and 7). The cowboy protagonist of the comic, Red Rydler, has two companions, a dog and a young Native American boy referred to as the “Runt Indian.” In the comic, Red gets in a confrontation with another cowboy because Red has taken the cowboy’s pants. The other cowboy accuses Red of having a “pants fetish,” and the two get into a brief gunfight, only to be interrupted by Red’s dog and the “Runt Indian.” Remarking that his dog’s “puss is peculiar” (the dog’s face has been scrawled out in black ink throughout the two-page comic), Red proposes that he take his pet and the Indian boy to Vegas. On the one hand, this comic clearly uses common genre tropes and elements—the iconic mid-century American western, the trope of the homosocial bond between the Western hero and his Native American companion, and even the queer connotations of cowboy fashion and culture in the 1960s and 1970s. But, these elements should not be viewed as tropes that Brainard is appropriating or somehow elevating from mass culture. Instead, like in Andy Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys (1968), the Western is, indeed, just a Western. When “Rex Rydler and Dog” is viewed as a comic, rather than an artistic appropriation of comics, three things rise to prominence: the overt sexuality of the narrative, the imposition of the grid as a device of interruption, and the dog’s scratched-out face. All three of these elements serve to make us aware of the abstraction at the center of the comics form—the story of Red Rydler the pants fetishist may be bizarre, but it nonetheless can conform to the conventional comics grid. The dog’s scratched out face serves almost as an element of horror in the strip, the intrusion of the artist’s hand onto the codes of the comics page. And, the interruption of text as it is written in panels—sentences continue without any notice from one panel to the next, providing a jarring reading experience for those accustomed to the comics page, where sentences are usually completed in one word balloon—serves to emphasize the gutters, the space between panels that are usually silent indicators of the passage and juxtaposition of different temporal moments. Not only do Brainard and O’Hara produce a comic about comics, they also produce a comic that is a bad comic according to the medium’s conventions of representation and narrative coherence.
This essay’s epigraph is taken from Brainard’s best known work, I Remember. Like many comics, I Remember is a serial work—a book-length collection of sentences that all begin with the phrase “I remember.” As the epigraph makes clear, savings is not something Brainard was interested in, nor did his efforts result in the accumulation of interest—“I remember trying to save money, for a day or two, and quickly losing interest.”38
This line from I Remember plays on the relation between interest as attention and interest as return on investment. Today, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated with such success, interest and accumulating returns on investment have given rise to a class of oligarchs and a much larger class of people who have little chance of accumulating much of anything.39 Those with the most capital can achieve high returns on investment, while those with little capital receive small, and sometimes even negative, returns on investment. What Brainard’s work enacts is the eschewal of value, and in valuelessness we must find not the possibility to monetize that which is outside of the market or hope for a renewed “interest” on our human capital, but the possibility of there being a space outside of the market that can be inhabited, that can be a home to us all.