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Where I End and You Begin

eshaw's picture



I recently discovered Fred Tomaselli and I love him. Like Lynda Barry, Tomaselli works in collage, so his images are always explosive with activity – a kind of controlled chaos. I thought that he would be a good way to introduce my project because his art seems to embody “the formless thing which gives things form” as Lynda Barry describes the image. This circuitous phrase seems to be the perfect way to articulate the process of identification, which is the topic that I will be exploring in my project. Like Fred and Lynda, I would like to think about identity categories – a topic that we are forever returning to in the discussion of gender, sexuality, race, disability, class, etc – through the realm of image. I think that using image to discuss identity is particularly helpful because categorization relies so heavily the visual presentation of the body, which is of particular import to the gender binary. Again, I think that Tomaselli can articulate so much about the concept of “self” here without needing to say any words at all. The chaos and division within the individual, the parts of self that seem to reach out of the body, moving into the space around the body.

What I mean to say with all of this, is that being inside a physical body and being aware of the boundary between self and other seems, to me, to be the central aspect of these identity categories, which are fundamentally walls between self and outsider.
So how am I going to work with these abstract concepts?
Create a comic book, of course!
To ground my project more concretely, I will be illustrating a poem in comic form. The poem that I chose for the project is “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop, which I posted below:
If you do choose to read the poem, I’ll provide some questions that I have been trying to figure out how to bring out through image:
  • How are disembodied objects, particularly limbs, emphasized throughout the poem? What effect do they have on Elizabeth’s understanding of the collective whole and the ordering of herself? 
  • How does Elizabeth get lost inside images in the National Geographic and then lost inside herself?
  • What are the significance of dates and places and naming on Elizabeth and why does she insist on vocalizing them?
  • What kinds of feminine and masculine codes are being evoked in what she sees? Why do they embarrass her?
  • How is Aunt Consuelo’s cry of pain acting as a trigger for this loss of individual self?
  • Why is everything so creepy?



In the Waiting Room
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
Early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of the volcano
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
- “Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
Wound round and round with string;
Black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight though.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
The yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
- Aunt Consuelo’s voice –
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I – we – were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
The sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
To see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
- I couldn’t look any higher –
at shadowy grey knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities –
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts –
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How – I didn’t know any
word for it – how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.



(Another Tomaselli piece that I thought interestingly evoked the moment when Elizabeth falls back into herself and also falls into the hands that are the collective.)
 So, to get more specific about what I’m going to actually do with the comic, I’m going to illustrate the poem in small lines of text – one or two at a time. I am interesting in playing with the form of the comic itself – using the panels to embody a kind of self contained order, using the gaps to convey the moments when that order becomes unhinged and everything blends together.
I’m using both the work of Chris Ware and Neil Gaiman to inspire the aesthetic of the project. At first, I want the panels to be traditional and structured, keep the images simple and clean. I’m drawing the National Geographic into the book so the reader of the comic is actually participating in Elizabeth’s actions as she goes along.
As the narrator begins to lose herself, I want images to begin to bleed outside of the panels – the lava of the volcano, for instance – and when the poem gets really crazy with all the limbs and falling off into space, I wanted to evoke Gaiman’s aesthetic in The Dollhouse – the part where he leads you to turn the actual comic on its side and read downward and I thought that this could evoke the sense of falling. I want to use a collage format, as well, when all of the clothes and limbs and breasts and everything begin to intrude upon her. I want to evoke sense of collected chaos, kind of like the Tomaselli pieces above.
I want the end of the book to return to the traditional paneled form that I began initially, mirroring the final panels and words with the initial ones.
In terms of gender more explicitly, I think that this kind of panel and non-paneled effect should help me to articulate the panels as masculine - hierarchical boundaries with straight lines with the spaces as feminine - more fluid and open. I think the image of the dead man as “Long Pig” as compared to the “awful hanging breasts” is another really interesting place to facilitate a discussion of gender as well as a race and culture. The Non-white or non-male “other” takes on a strange and almost sinister quality in Bishop’s poem as both a site of violence and the grotesque. I want to try to evoke that through my images as best I can.
To close, I wanted to use a final image by Rachel Salomon that depicts a different kind of loss of self, unlike the process that Bishop or Tomaselli depicts, but one that I feel articulates a gendered truth, as well (despite the fact that it's apparently about anti-depressants).





1. Chris Ware. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.
Ware's visual format and aesthetic have influenced my illustration of the structured panels and the images - the sanitized sense of a waiting room. Also, since this is a text particularly invested in the production of masculinity, it seems like the perfect place to draw influence from to depict me "more masculine" structure.

2. Barry, Lynda. What It Is. Washington D.C.: Drawn and Quarterly, 2008.

Lynda Barry has been a great tool, inside and outside of the workshop, to help shape my thinking about the creative process in general, the creation of image in particular. She is sort of the overarching muse behind this whole project. 

3. Gaiman, Neil, Malcolm Jones III, Mike Dringenberg, Michael Zulli, and Clive Barker. The Sandman Vol. 2 The Doll's House. New York: Vertigo, 1991.
Gaiman's work has been infinitely helpful in inspiring me how to use the "gap space" in both a discussion of gender and, more generally, convey a creative way to draw outside the box! As noted above, I will be using his technique of turning the book on its side and drawing the images downward rather than left to right.
Tomaselli, "Head"
Tomaselli, "Expecting to Fly"
Rachel Salomon, "Couch Lady"



dshetterly's picture

This project sounds

This project sounds amazing!    You have given your idea so much critical thought.  I am really eager to see how it turns out, particularly after reading  how you  have conceptualized it.  Your plan for your piece seems like it will beautifully illustrate the poem.  I really like your plans for how your are going to extend the discussion by exploring different themes. 

I know you are going to be using collage a little bit later on but are you going to be drawing the first part?  I was thinking about different ways of creating a "traditional and structured" sense.  There is this process  called xerox transfer that might be useful in doing this.  Basically it allows you to transplant the ink on a xerox onto another medium.  It is kind of hard to explain it without gesturing so if you are interested, we can talk about it in class.  I just thought it might be a way to incorporate very clean images into your drawings and to connect the drawn portions to the collaged portions.  Just an idea!

Anyway I am really really excited about your project, will you post pictures onine so that we can see it?  It sounds so awesome.

kayla's picture

I am SO excited for how this

I am SO excited for how this is going to turn out; I think it'll be awesome and the way you are looking at the project gives you the capacity to address so many issues at once without it being overwhelming. I know that you are worried about your drawing abilities, but I really think there are ways to go about this that would make the pictures in the panels look awesome while avoiding that issue. When you said that you were going to draw the issue of National Geographic into the pictures, an image popped into my head of a small colored print-out of a copy of it. A mixture of different mediums throughout it would be really visually stimulating, and you're already planning on using collage and etc to begin with.

Now I'm going to attempt to respond to a couple of your questions about the poem, because I find them really intriguing and like you said, you've been trying to think through them and the imagery that could represent them.

As far as the significance of the dates and places that Elizabeth emphasizes in the poem, I see this as a concrete way of grounding her body in one place. She's only a child, and she's very much stuck in this setting until her superior says otherwise and these things very much define who she is and what she is doing. She has to vocalize them and recognize them herself because before she's able to break out of the waiting room, they seem to be a part of her identity. Maybe to illustrate the overwhelming aspect of these otherwise inconsequential signifiers (I mean, I hardly ever consider stuff like that), maybe you could have a series of panels where one is the date on the magazine, one is the window outside (dark and snowy) and maybe even a wall-clock, just for emphasis? 

And the one thing that struck me about feminine and masculine codes was this: 

Black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.

Maybe I'm being really picky, but their breasts were horrifying? There's so much to say about this line. I was more put off by it before I thought about the fact that Elizabeth is not even seven yet, so it's not surprising she would be shocked by these images. But you could say that it really puts women in a certain place and it's not something to be proud of, and that aligns with her own embarrassment about her identity.  

Serendip Visitor's picture

I came across this page when

I came across this page when I was googling Fred Tomaselli and really understood it and your reference. I now want to see how it turned out... You were excited... How was the journey and outcome.