guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

July 2009

Jordan Crane,
Uptight #3 (Fantagraphics, 2009). $2.75

By David B. Olsen

There is a curious tension between the two stories that comprise Jordan Crane’s latest installment of Uptight, and it is not because they couldn’t be more different. One, “Vicissitude,” is a dark meditation on boredom and betrayal set in the shadows of almost entirely artificial light. The other, “Freeze Out,” is a seemingly whimsical addendum to Crane’s trippy all-ages graphic novel, The Clouds Above. So one is about sex and the other about school, but they both attest to the strength of Crane’s versatile linework and are therefore entirely at home in the same book. So, this issue is interesting instead because it asks some serious questions about seriality. One story is definitely the first chapter of something and one story is maybe the last chapter to something else (or maybe not), and their concomitant achievement is greater than the sum of two otherwise pretty good parts.

The first story is either the first chapter of a longer story called “Vicissitude” or a chapter called “Vicissitude” of a longer arc that is unnamed. (The layout of the title page is not totally clear on this, which seems to already invite the kind of flux and instability implied in the title itself.) Similarly, it’s really tough to tell where our sympathies should mingle and agree here. Leo’s wife Dolores is cheating on him with Pete, who looks like a prep school pimp. Leo is a mechanic who takes business classes at night. He’s probably a good guy, and definitely an everyman – kind of like a more reticent, less interesting version of Kevin Huizenga’s Glenn Ganges. There is nothing wrong with Leo as far as we can tell, and that’s part of the problem; there’s no damage, no danger. Dolores is seemingly neither ambivalent nor repentant about her affair, but it’s almost hard to blame her. Crane’s black-and-white compositions are swathed in a thick gray that adds a pall to the action as Leo moves disinterestedly between different rooms, drinks a beer, falls asleep, does homework, falls asleep again. Alternately, Dolores and her lover skirt beneath streetlights, seeking out the most complete shadow to hide their tryst; the grey is equally flat on the page, but gives us glimpses and glances as the light hits their tangled limbs through the car windows. Her affair seems almost irresponsibly exciting for us as readers, because we are too often supposed to side with the cheated and not the cheater. Her transgression seems understandable at least and warranted at best.

But then again, maybe Leo is not so dull; as a vicissitude, we know that the picture is incomplete without an eventual alternation – some future swing. And if the story itself seems boring or ordinary or basically the plot of at least 2/3 of all Woody Allen movies, then maybe it’s really an interrogation: the occasion to ask yourself what familiar steps you’ve shuffled through today, or what you’ve done differently to hold back the looming gray of your own life.

Even though “Vicissitude” could easily stand alone and simply end where it ends, the promise of at least a second chapter is ordained from the first page; we might therefore do well to reserve our opinions of Leo and Delores (and so also let ourselves off the hook for now). “Freeze Out,” on the other hand, is “Freeze Out.” No chapter anything, or at least it doesn’t say so in the story. If you’ve read The Clouds Above, then you’ll note that this story begins literally two seconds after that novel ends, but you don’t have to know that to enjoy the deliriously cartoony exuberance here. Simon is a kid and Jack is his talking cat and Simon gets in trouble (cf. TCA) and a classmate Rosalyn also gets in trouble and on the way to the principal they get into the school’s network of pipes and vents and then they find a hungry monster in the cafeteria freezer who also talks and then they try to help him. Crane’s art is pure line here; practically nothing is filled in and absolutely nothing is shaded, and the resulting arabesque looks more than a little like the mazes that you might find on a child’s paper placemat at Denny’s. The uniform grid of the panels belies the active and adventurous effect of Crane’s perambulatory lines.

All of which makes it a fun story, and everyone is having some serious fun in it until the last few pages, which are kind of unexpectedly horrifying. That is, unless we can be sure that the story will be continued. But because there’s no designated chapter here – to which we know Crane can be willing to commit (cf. “Vicissitude”) – there is therefore all of the irrevocability of an end at the end of “Freeze Out,” making this maybe not the best story for children unless you are good at explaining what continuity in comics is all about.

So if “Freeze Out” can’t stand alone (or at least shouldn’t, if we have any compassion for comic book characters), and “Vicissitude” can but doesn’t, then Crane has given us a book that is complete and complex precisely because he got it all wrong.