“Why” books are on the rise. The past year has seen, for instance, “Why Dylan Matters” (Richard F. Thomas) and a spate of medium-specific why books, including “Why Poetry” (Matthew Zapruder), my own “Why Comics?” and now Eleanor Davis’s WHY ART? (Fantagraphics, paper, $14.99). We’re in an inquisitive moment, but also, perhaps, an exasperated one, wondering what art can do for us during a time of uncertainty.
“Why Art?” both is and isn’t as serious as it sounds. A cartoonist and illustrator, Davis mixes drawing with handwritten and typeset text. The narrative alerts the reader from the very beginning to the book’s devious agenda: Despite the straightforward title, and misleading back-cover copy, this is not a pedagogical treatise.
The title page conspicuously and incorrectly notes that the reader is holding the “Fourth Edition.” The opening pages depict spare assortments of objects labeled “orange artworks” and “blue ones” — in black and white. Later, color will enter the book, but here, in the section about color, it is withheld.
Just like Magritte’s famous caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” Davis underlines in a fond, joking way how the representation of an image can dominate the image itself. The “blue” category also offers what looks to be a small toy pig (what other kind of pig would be blue?) standing near an amorphous monochrome blob. Davis wordlessly switches between images that are realistic and those that are abstract, a move that endows the book with an appealing tension from the outset, as well as with a kind of gag reel of effects that unfurls alongside nuggets of wisdom about art and audience.
She shifts in this way from the didactic to the fabulist — and at her best moments melds the two.
Davis eventually has us follow the fortunes of a cast of nine fictional artists, including Dolores, a performance artist (think of a slightly gentler Marina Abramovic); Ju-Long, a sculptor; Twicetwo, who works in “massive multimedia”; and Richard, whose practice involves humble papier-mâché. Eventually, devastation strikes during an art opening for the group in the form of a catastrophic storm. “Why Art?” recalls significant comics about disaster, whether Josh Neufeld’s nonfiction “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” or Richard McGuire’s quietly ominous graphic novel “Here.” There is both whimsy and sharpness in the storytelling.
Water and winds rapidly destroy the group’s building and entire city; they escape into a small hand-held shadowbox, pulled in by its miniature residents. Recovering inside the shadowbox, they make — because they’re artists — tiny versions of themselves who make tiny artworks. “We rebuild our entire world,” the nameless narrator explains — but they rebuild their small selves aspirationally, slightly better than they are. Eventually Dolores crushes the built world, making the story recursive, repeating the disaster the artists themselves had experienced and survived. “Show us how to be brave,” she demands of her miniature self. “Show us how to save ourselves.”
Eccentric and visually inventive, answering all the many questions it raises, “Why Art?” is about the power that comes from creating. The art that we mold with our own hands shows us how to be strong; it shows us how to live. The book, at 5.6 by 6.7 inches, is about the size of a person’s spread palm; the cover swarms with hands drawn at size.
Davis earned a degree in sequential art from the Savannah College of Art and Design — one of the few rigorous comics-making programs in the country. But she started creating her own mini-comics — a term for self-produced work — in high school, inspired by cartoonists like John Porcellino.
Porcellino, Davis’s elder by nearly 15 years, is now out with FROM LONE MOUNTAIN (Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95), a collection of his autobiographical zine King-Cat Comics and Stories, which he has self-published since 1989. The Chicago-born Porcellino has a clean, stripped-down style, his black line art a minimalist take on bodies and scenery (see the notes in the back about his obsessive-compulsive “despecking” of his drawings). His comics unfold in neat, regular panels, small boxes containing wonderment in the everyday.
This collection revolves around the power of place, as Porcellino bounces from various Midwestern locales to Denver and San Francisco and back; wherever he is, he finds tranquillity in open space, in the silence and grandeur of nature. “From Lone Mountain,” earnest and sweet, is not as wacky and weird an art object as the hybrid “Why Art?,” but it does put on display, zine-style, a mix of modes, from long comics stories, such as the moving “Las Hojas” (about playing football with a group of kids in Elgin, Ill., in November 2001), to written ones, such as Porcellino’s memories of his father, to meditative four-panel comic vignettes and Porcellino’s signature “Top 40” lists of things he loves in his life, which are my favorite element (they routinely combine “thinking about Thoreau” and specific Led Zeppelin songs).
Porcellino and Davis are two of the most important cartoonists still dedicated to the punk-inspired world of self-publishing. But even before Porcellino launched King-Cat from his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs, Jennifer Camper was publishing her queer and feminist comics in underground comic books and independent newspapers. There’s a great example of her work in the April/May issue of The Believer in the form of a 16-page comics story called “Boys Will Be Boys.” The fictional yet true-to-life story was inspired by Bill Cosby — who was just found guilty of sexual assault — and spotlights the sordid life of Bobby Otis, a celebrity baseball player, on trial for rape.
Camper uses to brilliant effect the ability of comics to easily switch perspective: She presents readers with Otis’s interactions with eight different women over the decades, starting from the late 1960s, but at the same time spotlights, throughout, how the women themselves experienced the abuse. While Otis doesn’t seem to distinguish between them, the reader can — we see their names and witness the aftermath — thus restoring a sense of their humanity. Camper’s piece is devastatingly timeless and current at once. It includes hard-to-look-at scenes of assault, rendered in a black and white much less airy than either Porcellino’s or Davis’s. The discomfort it produces is its strength — another potent answer to the question “why art?”