Thursday, April 05, 2007

100 Great Pages: Samuel R. Delany and Mia Wolff's Bread & Wine, page 10

Sixth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Warning: One of the images in this post is NSFW (although you have to look closely to see it).

Samuel R. Delany is a name more likely to be familiar to SF fans than to comics fans: Delany is extremely prominent (and good) as both a writer and critic of SF, and has been for several decades. His work in comics has been more limited, however, consisting mainly of two fairly obscure graphic novels: Empire, an SF "visual novel" done with artist Howard Chyakin (which I've never seen), which was apparently altered greatly in the editorial process in ways Delany didn't like; and Bread & Wine: an Erotic Tale of New York, an autobiographical work done with artist Mia Wolff.* Like Delany, Mia Wolff is someone who has done most of her work outside the comics field; judging from her web site, she's only worked on two, being primarily a painter (& martial arts instructor).

(I've actually met Delany on a number of occasions, largely at Readercon where we're both regulars. He's a nice guy, and an extremely good speaker. He is universally known as "Chip"; I'm going to refer to him as "Chip" when talking about the character in the graphic novel, and "Delany" when referring to the author of it.)

But despite (because of?) the fact that its creators are not well-known within the field of comics, Bread & Wine is a fantastic work, which I recommend extremely highly. (And, in case you need someone with more rep, Alan Moore wrote the introduction, and the book has plugs from Neil Gaiman, Howard Cruse, Frank Miller and Edmund White.)

Bread & Wine is the story of how Chip met his (still-current?) lover, Dennis, when the latter was a homeless man living on the streets of New York. Chip -- then the acting head of the Comparative Literature department at U Mass Amherst -- meets Dennis on the street. We watch them court; we see their first sexual encounter, in a motel room Chip gets for the two of them; and at the end of the narrative Dennis goes up to Amherst with Chip. For all its gritty detail about life on the street (not presented in any romanticized terms: it looks hard, and horrid), it's often described as a "fairy-tale" (e.g. in the plug by Edmund White on the back cover) -- largely, I think, because of the 'prince rescuing the helpless' aspect in which Chip takes Dennis from a hard life into an easier one. White also talks about Bread & Wine as "breaking taboos", but I think the one taboo -- not even quite the word -- that really stands out is the issue of the sexuality of the homeless: even describing the book to people, people who would never be remotely shocked by (to mention White's other taboos) gay sex in a house with a teenage daughter or interracial relationships, have found it hard to get around the notion of the desire, and the desirability, of a homeless man. (If you feel the same way... read the book.)

Incidentally, the title -- "Bread & Wine" -- is taken from a poem by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, "Bread and Wine", which is quoted throughout the text in a running contrast to (and comment on) Delany's words and Wolff's images.

Wolff's art is extraordinary: I wish she'd draw more comics, because she seems to be a natural at it. Her art varies a lot from page to page, even drawing to drawing: sometimes her figures are extremely simple (a minimalist line sketch) or abstract (a smudge, like a child's fingerpainting); at other times she draws Chip and Dennis in quite rich detail. This jump from the highly abstract to the grittily concrete takes place all over this book. Here, for example, are two panels from the bottom of page 7:

On the left you have a mere silhouette of Chip, done with rough hatching (although you can tell it's Chip, not Dennis, from his posture and shape (given the earlier images)); but on the right the image of Dennis is quite detailed. This see-sawing between styles is extremely effective, and is on of the wonderful things about the book.

My main complaint about Bread & Wine is that it's too damn short -- only 44 pages (not counting the forward, afterward, or many pages of ads in the back of the book). It's such a wonderful work, one wishes it were twice or three times the length. It's particularly ironic given that, in the afterward (which is a conversation between Wolff, Delany, Dennis and a few others) there's talk about how space was limited, how "if you tell one story, that means there are lots of others that you don't tell", and so forth. The stories hinted at in the afterward are wonderful; and I for one would have loved to read them in comics format, with more details about what happened later, and so forth. (I wrote this paragraph before seeing this review, in which the same complaint is made, or this one, which has a similar issue as well; I guess it shows that I'm not alone!)

Let's look at a page.

I've mentioned before how, in thinking about entries in this series, I am often caught between several possible pages from a given work. But so far, that has never been truer than for Bread & Wine: I swung indecisively between two possible pages over and over, before finally settling on page ten. The other candidate -- I can't resist showing it, even if I won't talk about it at length -- was page nineteen, from what is (in many ways) the climax of the story, in which Chip and Dennis have sex for the first time:

(Click for a larger version.)
Page nineteen is simply gorgeous: its two images beautifully laid out, the smaller echoing the larger, the kiss and the blow job mirroring each other, surrounded by those wonderful lines, as if the entire thing were a woodcut. It's a marvelous image -- would make a marvelous poster if one hung it on a wall.

But I think that I've decided instead to talk about page ten:

(Click for a larger version.)

Page ten is less obviously beautiful: but its very beautifully done. The scene is that Chip has just rented a motel room in which to spend the weekend with Dennis so that they can see if they're right for each other, and is offering Dennis the key. (The motel room is where the sex scene depicted in page nineteen takes place.) And Delany and Wolfe show us the entire scene focusing only on Chip and Dennis's hands.

And what an extraordinary, expressive page!

There's the subtle shift in perspective from the first to the second panel -- in the first, we're seeing through Chip's eyes, looking at his own hand holding out the keys; in the second, we're seeing through Dennis's eyes, watching them offered. Then there is the shift between the views of Dennis's hands in the second tier: we see the same hand three times in the first three panels, never fully, never from the precise same angle: it conveys all of Dennis's awkwardness, shyness, hesitation. Then in the final panel on the second tier we see him fingering his ponytail (which we've seen earlier in the comic, or we might not be able to identify what we're seeing). The hands say a lot: just as a great actor will convey extraordinary nuances of emotion in subtle gestures, the shifting, partial view of Dennis's hands conveys volumes about his emotional state.

And he mere fact of just showing hands conveys shyness, disconnection, isolation -- but also, simultaneously, the reaching across the gap between persons to show the possibility of connection.

This page takes place within the context of Chip's specific sexual interests. He says on page eight: "I told Dennis that since I was a kid, I'd been sexually attracted to guys with big hands who bit their nails badly -- and that's what I'd first noticed about him." And, in fact, five pages earlier -- in the scene of their first meeting -- Delany concludes a descriptive sentence with the phrase: "[Dennis] waved a big grey-black hand with bitten nails."** So the focus here on hands -- first Chip's, then Dennis's, and lastly the two of theirs together -- takes on an extra, erotic dimension.

(In fact, there are a lot of hands in this comic. I don't want to give the wrong impression -- page ten is atypical; most of the comic shows people's faces, or whole forms, or settings -- the usual stuff of most comics. But there are a number of images of hands, and two other pages -- page thirty-seven, and the final page (which duplicates the cover image) -- are, in different ways, also centered primarily around images of hands.)

Then there is the final image: one hand reaching out -- awkwardly! -- to the other: taking it -- sweetly, we are told in the narration, but also at an incredibly hesitant, halting angle. It is not the grip of two men used to holding hands: it is the tentative grip of two men just getting to know each other, just wondering if touching that way is something that their bodies and spirits will do well together. There is not only hesitation but desperation in that touch: rawness and newness and hope. The angle here is neither clearly Dennis's nor clearly Chip's: it is impossible to determine, the perspectives meshing awkwardly together as their hands do.

Even apart from the hands, there are amazing artistic things going on on this page. Look at the linework that Wolff does as backgrounds: it, too, is incredibly expressive and rich. The top half is all straight, even, orderly: the lines have character (they don't look ruled nor machine made), but they're quite regular. The top two panels, of course, have no background at all -- there's just blank white space -- which again increases the sense of isolation, of there being a distance to be crossed. In the middle tier, the lines come to life, moving with the hands, providing a hint of motion, and more than a hint of emotion. Less regular, they are far more expressive. And at the same time, the background lines come together to form the dense black background of the second half of the page: swirling, growing denser to the point of (here and there) becoming sheer black, although most of it in fact remains lines. Still, it is black enough to turn the text white for clarity. In the bottom left of the page, Chip and Dennis's arms come out of the swirling lines as from a void, the lines coming and flowing together as they do, and whether the dense hatching at the bottom is supposed to be Dennis or Chip or the city can't be said, and hardly matters, as if there were no distinction between them at all.

It would be a terribly different page without the background: far less rich, far less beautiful. Expressive as Dennis's big, nail-bitten hands are here (and look at his knobby fingers in the second panel on the second tier -- those are the hands of someone who has lived too hard for too long), the page is as beautiful and emotional as it is because of Wolff's extraordinary hatching behind them.

The reason, in the end, I decided to write about this page rather than page nineteen is because it seems to me that anybody can make a love scene meaningful and beautiful: the human body is gorgeous, gorgeous as two meld together, and their union is a powerful emotional moment. But to make a page of nothing but two hands so expressive, so filled with the unspoken emotion of the moment, is an extraordinary achievement.

If you haven't read Delany and Wolff's Bread & Wine, I recommend it extremely strongly: it is an amazing love story, superbly told: in its words, in its drawings.

Sometimes just with hands.

* In the early 1970's, Delany also scripted two issues of Wonder Woman, #202 and 203. I haven't seen those, either.

** Actually, if you read Delany's other work, both fiction and nonfiction, he frequently describes their hands, mentions if they have bitten nails, etc.

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