One of the most striking pages of Derek M. Ballard’s Cartoonshow is also one its most mundane. The page in question, page 71, appears in the middle of the book’s longest story, “Call Security,” which features Ballard navigating the kafkaesque (to use his term) bureaucracy of the state: judges, lawyers, police officers, social workers, and the DCF–all of whom are intimately bound up with loan servicers, credit card companies, and debt collectors. Charting a course through this Scylla and Charbdis of capitalism and state bureaucracy, Ballard depicts an ordinary life textured by obstacles, paperwork, ignorance, antipathy, doublespeak, predation, and punishment. In one particularly acute passage, Ballard is repeatedly told that the only way to discharge his liability for his ex-wife’s debts is to sue her. If you want to save yourself, says the machinery of the state, you must find a replacement to sacrifice on the altar of Moloch.
Page 71 crystallizes this logic in a single image, which features Ballard himself standing in a nondescript hallway. The whole thing is rather straightforward and, in many respects, unremarkable. There is but a single panel on the page, and Ballard draws it in pencil. The lines are uneven, and the rectilinear figures misshapen. The doors that run down the corridor are flush with the wall, but they appear to be vibrating at a different frequency than their frames. The result is an uncanny space: familiar but haunting, mundane but monstrous. It is a uniform, flat plane that may have something buzzing under its skin or, perhaps even more unnerving, it may have no life at all. It may, instead, house death-making and death-dealing. “I’m just trying to get some help?” Ballard calls out. “Help for my family? Hello? Hey.” At the bottom of the panel is an annotation that reads: “crickets.” Help, we are to understand, is not coming.
If this page is indeed worth highlighting, it is because it is perhaps the most emblematic of the book. Like many of the stories collected in Cartoonshow, “Call Security” explores Ballard’s day-to-day existence as a working artist, teacher, and single father trying to raise three kids. While most of the other stories are far briefer, and many don’t extend beyond a page or two, “Call Security” exemplifies the kind of story rehearsed throughout, which is driven largely by an accumulation of ordinary crises. “How am I going to pay the bills?” “How am I going to get groceries?” “How do I get this debt collector off my back?” Insofar as Cartoonshow is “about” anything at all, it is about these questions. Consequently, it is about the most important question that human beings can ask ourselves: How do we make a life? Given the interminable nature of this question, Ballard cannot possibly be expected to provide an answer. Nor does he attempt to. Instead, what he depicts are his experiences in working out an answer in practice: with great difficulty, in the face of obstacles, under duress.
In this light, the question “How do we make a life?” is not speculative. It is not, in other words, a matter of “how we might live.” It is a matter of turning to our own lives and examining the nature by which they reproduce themselves in reality. Accordingly, Cartoonshow’s power finds its roots, at least in part, in the injunction to take seriously this question of living, which is the basis for any effort to ameliorate the conditions that, at present, make so many aspects of living so unbearable for so many of us. Furthermore, in a period of mass culture characterized by the consumption of escapist fantasies that enable us to forget how miserable we are, or ones that otherwise delude us into believing ourselves mistaken about our misery, it is worth recognizing Ballard’s insistence that life, our lives, the struggles that make them up and the ordinary experiences of wonder and love and humor that sustain them are worth paying attention to rather than looking away from.
While this kind of emphasis on the mundane will be familiar to readers of autobio comics, Ballard distinguishes himself, in part, by rendering his story as common rather than unique. His life just is not all that special. Frustrating, funny, rich, confusing, difficult–perhaps. But not special. Instead, what he depicts are experiences that he shares with millions of other working class people around this country. Indeed, Cartoonshow is a distinctly working class comic that speaks to working class lives from a working class perspective. In many ways, this sets it apart from most other autobiographies, which more commonly offer a bourgeois perspective on bourgeois lives.
Cartoonshow expresses this class difference in its form as well as its content, and Ballard resists the characteristically bourgeois impulse to treat the incidents of his life as self-evidently meaningful. Instead, reality serves as the raw material of artistic expression, which is a process of imbuing reality with significance. Art, in other words, is a process of stylizing, shaping, mapping, punctuating, structuring, flattening, heightening, stretching, detailing, texturing, lettering reality, which is always approached and experienced from a certain angle, a certain perspective, which clarifies this but obscures that. In this sense, we can begin to recognize that Ballard offers readers a working class theory of art and interpretation: not a theory of “working class art” or a privileging of working class artists, but an account of perspective itself as political rather natural, which is derived from his experiences as a working class artist.
In Cartoonshow, Ballard conveys a level of self-consciousness about this working class theory of art, and many of the stories collected here can, in fact, be better described as essays than autobiography–though, as Ballard’s comics often demonstrate, the line between these things is smudged and blurry. For example, in “Covert Communiqué,” the comic that directly follows the more conventionally autobiographical “Call Security,” Ballard helps his son with his art project by feeding him ideas in class via earpiece. Ballard stands outside the school in a trenchcoat and fedora, yelling into a walkie talkie: “Representational art is usually mimicry made for a mass digestion!” “She wants me to make a shape–” Ballard’s son says before Ballard cuts him off, instructing him to “Tell her innovation for its own sake is simply a predecessor to built-in obsolescence!” Punctuating the sequence is a final panel of the art teacher poking her head out the window and Ballard simply telling her to “Stop. Stop lookin’ at me” while he pulls his collar up to conceal his face.
Only here at the comic’s end can we appreciate it as a series of aesthetic inversions between telling a joke and doing philosophy, which turn upon the tension between the comic’s rhetorical content and its visual stylization. Balancing this tension through a specific rhythm of images, a flatness of image, and a contortion of anatomy, Ballard demonstrates his capacity to compel his reader visually. Making full use of the comics form as a way of writing with images, Ballard doesn’t tell jokes, he renders them. They are funny–when you see them.
While it’s unlikely that this episode played out literally the way it does on the page (in fact, it’s unclear if we are to understand this as something that actually happened at all), the story highlights Ballard’s self-critical capacity to make comics that reflect on their own existence as comics. We are not just being asked to read a comic that stretches the bounds of representational art, for instance. We are also instructed that that is precisely what we ought to understand the comic as trying to do. Many of the stories in Cartoonshow embody this ethos, and they feature Ballard (either directly or indirectly) speaking to the reader and unfolding an idea rather than a narrative. Consistent with the class consciousness that pervades the book, many of these ideas are about the nature of work: care work and the work of parenting (and the ways in which they have been historically gendered), the work of art-making, the work of finding work, the work of making ends meet.
Given the reflexive ways in which Ballard approaches these ideas, we ought to understand the book’s class consciousness as a kind of self-consciousness. In this way, Cartoonshow distinguishes itself not just from bourgeois autobiography but from other traditions of working class art that intend to represent working class life (often to romanticize, fetishize, pathologize, or commodify it) rather than undermining and antagonizing the conditions under which working class artists are forced to live.
This fact alone does not, however, make Cartoonshow worth reading. In fact, this political self-consciousness makes the production of a comic worth reading even more difficult for Ballard precisely because he asks his readers to think critically about what it is they’re reading, and, consequently, to judge his work by a higher set of standards. Ballard further constraints himself by choosing to work in the autobiographical form, which does not permit narrative invention, and to focus on the mundane without romanticizing it.
What does make Cartoonshow worth reading is that despite these constraints, and despite his insistence that readers engage his work critically rather than passively, he manages to surprise, frustrate, compel, move, charm, invent, amaze. In accomplishing this feat, Ballard demonstrates that, despite capitalism’s best efforts, the working class inevitability produces intellectuals and artists who have something to say and refined ways of saying it. From their experiences, which are mostly marginalized in/by our mass culture, these intellectuals and artists develop new ideas and new insights, which are expressed in new aesthetic forms. These aesthetic forms have their own histories, their own nuances, their own techniques, which develop out of the conditions of working class life. It is from here, where we are often told to least expect it, that new artistic and cultural possibilities begin to take shape. Cartoonshow proves this point: not by demonstrating that art about working people is good but by demonstrating that working people are capable of producing interesting, insightful, visually accomplished art. It is, in fact, these working class innovations that have historically preceded aesthetic leaps in the history of comic books. Consequently, Cartoonshow compels readers to ask themselves, why the fuck are we not making it easier for working people to live with some decency, some integrity, with some more time and space to actually make the art that so many of us claim to love so much? That Ballard is able to compel this question on the strength of his visual acumen signals that the stagnant fog that has enveloped the comic industrial complex for the last twenty or thirty years may finally be lifting. The end of comics history may finally be coming to an end. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.