GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Damian Duffy & John Jennings, The Hole: Consumer Culture Volume I – A graphic novel (Chicago: Front Forty Press, 2008), $30.00, 168 pages, ISBN 0977868923—Georges-Claude Guilbert, Université François Rabelais – Tours

Front Forty Press is an independent publisher based in Chicago. Its founder and director, Doug Fogelson, is well-known for publishing original, daring products. Short Stories Illustrated by Artists (2007) is a good example. The people of the (very) creative team at Front Forty Press have set up a tradition of double blind collaboration: pairing “writers and visual artists together […] without ever having the artists interact with one another at all.” They also finance very “noble” projects, “pro-bono,” such as Inner City Lights (2006), “a group of dedicated teachers who give urban youth a chance to develop their creative process.”

Rarely has a graphic novel been more worthy of the label. This book is an ambitious piece of work which tackles an inordinate amount of issues. Gender, sexuality, economics, class, race especially, it is all there for the reader to enjoy and leisurely process. Food for thought if ever there was any.

A book of this sort should not be summed up, supposing such an undertaking were at all possible. Suffice it to say that as an academic I would not hesitate to include it in an African American Studies compulsory reading list. If forced to provide but two words of description, I dare say “postmodern voodoo” might do. It deals notably with the avatars (very much in the proper sense of the word) of Papa Legba (from Africa to the Americas, complete with linguistic idiosyncrasies), and with the way the “social, economic, and racial politics” in / of the US have resulted in a negative representation of voodoo in popular culture.

Entirely in black & white and various shades of grey, the vivid, crude drawings jump out of the 168 pages to aggress the reader, in the best sense of the verb. In terms of narration, anything goes: intradiegetic, extradiegetic, homodiegetic (sometimes autodiegetic), heterodiegetic narrators, experimental dialogue, etc. The most interesting feature of The Hole: Consumer Culture in that respect is the play on frames. The authors cleverly frame—or seemingly refrain from framing—the action by taking all sorts of liberties with the usual conventions; obviously this has been done before, but they still manage to renew the device.

As far as influences are concerned, one has to go back to the 1960s and the underground press of New York or San Francisco to find some elements. But there are also shades of 1970s alternative French comics. As far as today’s production is concerned, this book has more to do with the Avatar school than Marvel or DC comics, except that Avatar is Disney compared to The Hole. But the overall aesthetic choices clearly mean to invoke hip hop visuals. It is, incidentally, very violent, and the sex scenes are entirely uncensored, so perhaps one should insist on the “mature reader” tag.

What is most interesting is the way the theme of transformation is treated. Every natural or supernatural character undergoes transformations. From the most (apparently) minute alteration to the most spectacular transmogrification, reincarnation—often in the most (deliciously) horrendous literal sense—rebirth, regeneration, etc., the way people are swallowed up and spat out again, through variously disgusting natural or supernatural orifices, is fascinating. One feels very much as if one were witnessing an attempt by voodoo practitioners and victims to literalize all sorts of Freudian tropes, while simultaneously acting out Jungian ill-digested myth rewrites.

As far as genre is concerned, The Hole: Consumer Culture could be seen as horror, or Science Fiction. It definitely qualifies as a satire, as well as a treatise on Media Studies, I suppose. In more ways than one it functions as a political denunciation of the commodification (and recuperation) of African American culture (including voodoo?), whatever “African American culture” may mean. It is not altogether clear, however, if the Caucasians who buy (into) it are more targeted than others. Some of us, for example, frequently question the political implications and / or social effect of the purchase in massive numbers of gangsta rap albums by middleclass white boys.

The authors are “eggheads,” evidently. Damian Duffy is the editor-in-chief of Eye Trauma Comix. John Jennings is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a co-founder of Eye Trauma Comix. As a Cultural Studies exponent I thoroughly approve their creed: “The group is committed to adding its critical and scholastic efforts to the efforts of other comics advocates who encourage academic respect for the medium and keep it in the consciousness that comics is an art form.” (<>)

Duffy does not pursue a career in academia. He is a writer, a letterer, a curator of comics art shows. As “eggheads” with avowed interests in educational enterprises, they have helpfully provided paratext with The Hole: Consumer Culture: biographical notices, bibliography, short essays, glossary; it is all there. There is even a lesson plan of sorts. In fact there is a Gender Ad Project that is disturbingly similar to some assignments I myself have been known to dole out:

Are gender roles sold to us? Do we buy them? Go to the bookstore, pick up a men’s magazine and a women’s magazine. Compare and contrast the advertisements in the two different magazines. Choose a product (e.g. toothpaste, hair gel, a candy bar) and make two ads for that product, one to sell to men and one to sell to women. What do the ads say about their target genders […]? (162)

I do hope this is “for real,” and not meant to mock us poor Gender Studies specialists. It sounds terribly dated, so one cannot be entirely sure. But when it comes to such problematics, there are not so many new schemes one can conjure up to help one’s students develop a healthy distance from the essentialist chow they have been fed all their lives.

I was expecting to find bell hooks somewhere and I am glad to say she is indeed referenced, especially, of course, her indispensable We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinities (1992). As a matter of fact, many aspects of the book really do make it a work of Gender Studies, or more particularly of Men’s Studies, and indeed more specifically of African American Men’s Studies—a textbook, practically, and that is meant as a compliment.

© 2009 Georges-Claude Guilbert & GRAAT On-Line