Back on Nervous Street by Jonathan Lethem and Dean Haspiel: A New Breed of Storytelling

When I first encountered Back on Nervous Street, I noticed a peculiar reaction in myself: a series of half-formed visual associations and a general sense of mild disorientation. I knew that I wasn’t looking at a comic, but I was definitely looking at a composition that combined words and images and was the product of a collaboration between Jonathan Lethem and Dean Haspiel. I put my pixilation aside and “read” the composition before I went back to wonder what those initial, insistent associations had been. The leading impression that was still stuck in my mind consisted of one word with two syllables as if playing on repeat: Dada. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt that Nervous Street reminded me of Dada art, so I dug around a little and tried to deconstruct my own reactions to this highly unusual work.

In the same way that Dada was characterized as a “revolt of art”, Back on Nervous Street defies categorization in a particular format and so has an air of challenge and excitement.  While this composition is not a comic, it could well express some of the tools of comics rising to a different type of challenge.

 

Back on Nervous Street is not only short form in terms of comics panel numbers, but appears in larger poster format with a heavier use of prose than most comics. Dean Haspiel, in the commentary which he provides on the literary arts salon Trip City’s website, describes the struggle for format which he encountered, and the elegant solution he found in a dual panel poster format. This solution enabled him to avoid a watering down of visual punch that might occur through fragmentation into more panels, nevertheless he was posed with the necessity of distributing text without overloading the artwork. It was virtually the question of the sphinx to answer both needs in one composition. The result is a work without “type” or categorization, partaking of many traditions and raising many questions.

Early Dada artwork is know for its posters, often a form of self-propaganda, and its use of combined text and image to promote the movement that officially emerged in Zurich in 1915 out of an artistically charged environment in which abstract painting and avant-garde poetry were flourishing. While World War I was raging beyond Switzerland, artists reacted with “individual response” to war itself. Early Dada mover and shaker Jean Arp explains: “We were looking for an elementary type of art that we thought would save mankind from the raging madness of those times” (qtd. in Dachy 12).

 

Dada was not a movement geared toward critical praise, but intentionally undermined the expectation of critics, generating their own individualistic critiques of cultural production. The “feeling” or tone of the Dada movement may well have been what I felt when I looked at Nervous Street for the first time, but there were other details that I think triggered my memory.

For instance, in Dada art, which was by definition mixed media in the extreme, we see sharp angles, abstraction, city imagery, and the use of cut and paste styles borrowing language from visual media such as books, newspapers, and pamphlets. Combine those features with the poster format and you begin to see where I am going with this comparison. Maybe you can “see” it too.

 

But let’s take this one step further in terms of comparing not only the content and large scale format of Nervous Street to Dada art, but also the arrangement of material within the two panels. One of the most remarkable products of Dada art came from Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” movement in the form of his “Merzhaus” construction, the accumulation of a design technique within his house defying laws of gravity and utilitarian need. The “grottoes” he constructed within his house, with alarmingly fluid city-scapes and organic qualities formed a kind of “storytelling” for those who explored its passageways. The entirely unique construction can be explored in photographs only since Schwitters was forced to flee during WWII and never saw his Merzhaus again. The photos are striking and effective, and most distinctly disorienting. Within the boundaries of a house’s walls, another kind of world has been constructed suggesting all the lines and movements of a mental city or landscape. It’s tilts and angles, and the way in which Schwitters’s Merzhaus relates to the established walls of his home, reminded me distinctly of the way that the city-scape of Nervous Street interacted with the “walls” of its dual poster panels. To me, both were an experiment in world-building within fairly strict confines.

 

I looked back at the first panel of Nervous Street to try to clarify to myself how the text and the images in the composition interacted. Lethem’s narrative brings out the concept of areas blending together without clear demarcation, nevertheless suggesting boundaries that can be sensed, almost subliminally, by a native familiar with the terrain. Lethem also suggests a paradox the reader must accept in that the places he mentions are the “same” but are never exactly so “twice”. The ambiguous phrase declared by his hoodie-wearing character “Good luck to the people on the planet” also leaves room for speculation. Which planet? Why do we need “luck” and where will it take us? What kind of journey are we, in fact, on? The haunting ambiguity in the narrative demanded a psychological landscape grounded in a real landscape, something both recognizable and altered.

When you look at Nervous Street, the use of color has immediate impact.  In the upper title bar, the left half of a man’s face appears in stark silhouette and the use of red is striking, perhaps menacing. The lower panels below the title bar is in vivid green of a color not often seen in comics, and perhaps a little more common in surrealist art like the later paintings of Max Ernst.  The art style has a hint of 60’s advertizing about it, conveying a simpler shorthand for the city and its elements. Small details, like the potted “pot” plant on a window ledge, and the graffiti placed “near” the viewer at the edge of the panel form a dialogue with the text boxes that draw the eye both into the boxes and out to the art panels in a zig-zag motion. The white, somewhat “hollow” walking figure, representing the narrator presumably, resonates a little with the psychologically charged faceless figures favored by the surrealist Salvador Dali. The focus upon mental states in surrealist art (a movement heavily influenced by Dada and in many cases pursued by early Dada members) accords with the psychological aspects of Lethem’s narrative and Haspiel’s visual narrative. “Coming” and “going” are also embedded in the position of the narrative focus’s figure in the labyrinthine streets where the first panel shows the figure moving along and “into” the street, and the second shows the figure moving along and “out” of the street.

In the storytelling of the second panel, terms like “Frankenstein trucks” evoke the unnatural in the man-made, the tension between life and death as something in stasis, about to happen but as of yet undefined.  The fish who spend the night in tanks on trucks on Nervous Street are also “sushi”. The same tension is found in the relief of swimming on hot days and the warning of broken glass the narrator talks about, the precautions that must be taken and the necessity of insider knowledge to survival and navigation of invasive threats on Nervous Street. Memory creates points of continuity, including the fact that you can still get “yoked” here by panhandlers. The lurking threats of Nervous Street are known to the native, but take the form of something more pernicious, a need for its tense attitude and atmosphere. Like an addiction or a conditioning that never disappears, the narrator wants the “panic” in his “gut” and the certainty that he can “handle” violence under known conditions, predicated upon adrenaline. This naturalness confirms the continuity of the past. In the present tense, the viewer/reader becomes aware of the “daily odyssey” the narrator undertakes. A final verbal clue confirms the role of memory, that he possesses a “reanimation library” in his brain. Time passes strangely on Nervous Street and so reenacting and traversing this territory “reanimates” the past to such a degree that it creates a new narrative of reanimated memories every time from the rich associations it holds for the narrator.

Reading the artwork of the second panel inevitably becomes part of a comparison with the first. The second half of the composition begins with the dual face, this time hyper-illuminated in an uncanny bold red color. It creates direct tension, perhaps a sense of nerves, but also a clear indication of being particularly awake or aware in comparison to the “dark” half of the face in panel 1. Does one represent memory, the other immediate experience? Which is which? The visual design of the word “Nervous” on the street sign is highly suggestive, with its backward-forward lettering disjunction and the missing word “street”. When viewing the second half of the composition, the viewer may also get a visual sense of the whole and it is then that the step-design of the white text boxes becomes apparent.  The boxes zig in toward each other in opposite numbers, then zag out again, forming opposite Vs or narrowly avoiding a crossing X between the two halves of the composition. This brings new meaning to the arriving/leaving sense of the two parts which seem like a continuum because of the physical position of the white figure on Nervous Street, but the text boxes suggest a separate coming and going within each panel, as if one may be past, one present.  The chalky-blue background of the title panel also stands apart from the continuing green/yellow theme below.  We can also note that solid blue backgrounds are also a feature of surrealist art like Dali’s, particularly Dali’s unblinking desert skies, a hyper-real psychological space. As the text boxes “step” toward the center of each panel and out again, the position of the white figure becomes that much more pronounced. His movements actually stand in tension to the movements of the panel. He does not follow them; in fact, they seem to contradict his single pathway movement.

When we compare and contrast the two panels of the composition, we might also notice that the pale yellow source of “light” in each panel is particularly strong as a position behind the figure in the first panel, but weaker as a source of destination in the second. Other fairly direct comparisons between the two panels may not be obvious at first: a fully leafed tree in panel 1 contrasts with a bare tree not far from the center panel dividing line in panel 2. Strong similar themes include the fact that all other figures depicted in both panels are turned and “watching” the white figure’s movements, increasing an atmosphere both of curiosity, and perhaps of paranoia. We might also recognize that the distance and angle of perspective for the viewer is similar between the two panels, forming a visual symmetry that’s pleasing in this poster format, an angle far above the streetscape from which you, too, “watch” the walking figure.

While the composition is clearly “comic inspired”, the poster-sized format for Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, a literary arts journal published by BookCourt in Brooklyn, in Haspiel’s words, had to address the “visual poetry” of Lethem’s trek, forming a “graphic backdrop” for his words in which neither image nor language would be overwhelmed by the other. Haspiel’s description, that he sought to “illuminate” Lethem’s narrative, may be particularly helpful here. Like manuscript “illuminators” of the past, he adapts the narrative to visual storytelling emphasizing key passages and thereby guiding the reader’s interpretation. Manuscript illuminations are never neutral; they carry with them all the hallmarks of collaboration we might now apply to the creation of comic books, a kind of combined use of active imagination that creates the same conceptual world in different mediums and brings them into alignment for a dual experience.

 

Interestingly, for a story that’s about tension, the visual narrative presented conveys its own tension, affecting the reader. The question remains unanswered even as the reader deciphers the “message” of the composition. The question is similar to that posed intentionally by Dada art, which is what might have triggered my memory in the first place. When we look at Nervous Street, we ask not only “What does it mean?” but stepping back, we formulate the bigger question of “What exactly are we looking at?”, and resist answering the first question in order the answer the more pressing second question. It’s the same as Dada’s own duality prompted by a similar combination of image and text. Haspiel’s “illumination” is a study that forms a second but cohesive dialogue with the possibilities within the text. It is nearly impossible to imagine a format that would have been more suited to a narrative so rife with possible interpretations. Plenty of other formats would have conveyed some of the qualities of the text, but no others would have conveyed the full strangeness of the text, and its own internal questions, blind alleys, reanimations, and conclusions. The combinations of Lethem’s unusual narrative with a strikingly unusual visual solution conveys perhaps more fully an “experience” through visual narrative than the use of smaller panels in a more traditional comic format might have allowed. If you’re up to the challenge of Nervous Street, you will find that you don’t just “read” it, you encounter a new breed of storytelling with plenty of avant-garde artistic parallels.

-by Hannah Means-Shannon. I am @HannahMenzies on twitter and Gwydion_writes on Live Journal.

Works Cited

Dachy, Mark. Dada: The Revolt of Art. New York: Abrams, 2006.

To view full poster, text and commentary of Back on Nervous Street on the Trip City salon website curated by Dean Haspiel and Seth Kushner, click here:

 http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/01/back-on-nervous-street/

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