Train of Thought

Hamza Walker, 1999

The crusade against the comic book publishing industry began as a series of local decency campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s and escalated to a national concern in the 1950s as efforts such as Wertham’s linked comic book reading to juvenile delinquency. By contrast, Writing Degree Zero was aimed at a French intellectual community that throughout the course of the century had been debating the relationship between politics and a French modernist literary tradition. It is an account of French literary history that culminates with an avant-garde characterized by a “transparent” mode of writing. This new, “colorless” writing stood outside a literary tradition that had become bogged down with an historical accumulation of styles. Written in part as a polemical yet congenial response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature, Barthes’ slender volume appeared at a moment when a tradition spanning from Gustave Flaubert to Albert Camus was set to be historicized. But outward appearances can be deceiving. This becomes apparent if Wertham’s call for censuring comic books and Barthes? Marxist based claims for a writing that disavows its own history are situated on a spectrum of literature that encompasses both comic books and Camus. Clearly, Wertham and Barthes occupy opposite ends of this spectrum with popular culture on one end and high art on the other. But it is more productive to think of the manner in which Wertham and Barthes are linked since they share a concern for the reader, which outweighs the sum of their differences.

Raymond Pettibon’s artistic practice consists as much of reading as it does drawing. Constructing a literary spectrum that displays as much respect for the Golden Age of the comic book as it does an historical, modernist literary tradition is perhaps the only way to capture with any accuracy the breadth of his work. Pettibon’s practice is deceptively simple and his drawings could be objectively described as singular panels from a comic strip. Pettibon combines hand drawn images and text taken from a variety of indiscriminate sources and his reverence for the word and image is directly proportional to his irreverence for their context. The style of his drawings ranges from the highly illustrative work of cartoonist Milton Caniff to the fluid brush work associated with kanji. His eclectic iconography includes Gumby, surfers, trains, and dollar signs to name few and he draws as much from pulp fiction as he does the Bible. The simplicity of means, however, does little to explain the complexity of the results. Likewise, the familiarity of the form makes it difficult to articulate exactly what separates Pettibon from a clever cartoonist or illustrator. It certainly is not Pettibon’s drafting skill, which in many instances he purposefully disregards, opting for an aesthetic of rapid execution that forsakes elegance for urgency. In addition, many of Pettibon’s drawings operate in a relatively straightforward manner, delivering their punchline, be it poignant or perverse, by exploiting the irony between what is written and what is rendered. Although their eclecticism and their irony are a source of pleasure, neither qualifies as a characteristic that makes Pettibon’s drawings a distinct body of work. Insofar as there is a singular quality that allows the thousands of drawings he has produced to be called a body of work, it is the manner in which they literally draw attention to the act of reading, an act to which he refers incessantly, and an act he skillfully disrupts bringing his work within equal purview of both Wertham and Barthes. An avid comic book collector will most likely hiss at the mention of Fredric Wertham’s name. Wertham (1895-1981) is the figure most credited with the demise of one of the industries greatest publishers, Entertainment Comics, which specialized in the crime and horror genres. EC Comics, to which Pettibon admits an artistic debt, was an unfortunate casualty in the creation of the Comics Code Association, a self-censuring board responsible for monitoring the content of comic books. The code, adopted in 1948 and revised and stringently enforced in 1954, reflects nearly all of Wertham’s fears regarding children’s access to the graphic depiction of sex and violence, material which Wertham considered psychologically harmful to the extent that he declared comic books a public health hazard. As with any decency campaign, the comic book crusade needed an expert and Wertham had both the concern and the credentials for the task. “Although I am a psychiatrist - or maybe just because I am a psychiatrist who recognizes a social, scientific problem when he sees one - I was not interested in personalities. In this story, there are no single villains whose character would explain the picture as a whole.” (1) Bent on gathering the facts regarding social ills unleashed by the comic book industry, Wertham manages to sustain a Joe Friday tone throughout Seduction of the Innocent. He viewed children as impressionable victims of an industry whose profits were derived by exploiting their desire for sensationalist tales. Given his credentials and the profound respect for literature he displayed in the choice of quotes that accompany each chapter heading, his understanding of the psychological mechanism that underlie reading comes off as crude. With no statistical data linking crime and comic books, his case studies are reduced to a “Rippley’s Believe It or Not” style of bombast. Seduction of the Innocent, however, paints a misleading picture of Wertham who was a very complex public figure. Serving as a senior psychiatrist for the Department of Hospitals in New York City from 1932 to 1952, Wertham’s concern with the depiction of gratuitous sex and violence developed out of a much broader conviction regarding the social role of the psychiatrist. He had hoped to institute preventive measures for the public’s mental health. But Wertham picked an all too easy target for social ills, vigorously maintaining that the symptoms were part and parcel of the cause. His was a pyrrhic victory. The early martyrdom of the crime and horror genres would only make the comic book a more strategic medium for capturing the transition in the national mood from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies when Pettibon would come of age.

Although Pettibon was born in 1957, had he been producing drawings when Wertham was compiling information for Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham would probably have devoted a chapter to Captive Chains, the self-produced publication with which Pettibon began his artistic career in 1978. Instead of relying solely on case studies and testimonials from police, parents, judges, children and convicts, Wertham could have randomly chosen a page from this black and white underground comic to illustrate almost any of his points. Pettibon’s early graphic work, all done for the purposes of reproduction, was not striving for “bad”, it had the look of something demanding to be reprimanded by a prudish parent. A generous 68 pages with glossy cover and newsprint interior, Captive Chains can be divided in half. The first half features a series of short narratives that go under the name City Kids. Each story is roughly a page, broken down into the standard comic book format of roughly nine panels, over which the narrative unfolds. The narratives are dark surreal tales whose irony revolves around the ubiquitous poles of sex, death, and occasionally baseball. The other half of Captive Chains features full page drawings. Sadomasochism, blood stained serial murderers, dismemberment, knife-play, and sexual frustration precipitating into violence are regular themes. Filled with tales that lend themselves to “a readiness for temptation”, that stimulate “unwholesome fantasies”, that suggest “criminal or abnormal sexual ideas” and that have “an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit”, Captive Chains offers itself up point for point as a parody of Wertham’s claims regarding the social degeneracy captured in comic books.

By the time Captive Chains was published, however, comic books had long ceased being considered a menace and the newspapers and television of the mid to late seventies far outpaced the graphic depiction of sex and violence in the comic books of Wertham’s generation. As a regular media offering, gore was a given and Wertham had clearly missed his marked. Curbing the content of comic books did nothing to halt a series of events that would lead to a national mood shift from the post war euphoria of the fifties, to a fight over national values in the sixties and finally to a period of cynicism and profound uncertainty in the seventies. Photojournalist accounts of events such as the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Manson murders and the kidnapping of Patty/Tania Hearst, all of which were prominent subject matter in Pettibon’s early work, make it hard to believe that comic books were worthy of national attention. Pettibon’s decision, at the outset of his career, to adopt an aesthetic belonging to a disgruntled teenager of the seventies, and later to adopt a more general aesthetic of cold war deviancy marked by mushroom clouds, juvenile delinquents, organized crime, J. Edgar Hoover, Joan Crawford and film noir, clearly reflects this shift in ideals. The irony in Pettibon’s earliest work underscores our collective resignation toward, yet inability at coming to grips with the darker and often depraved undercurrents of our society, undercurrents that since the publication of Seduction of the Innocent have become both a national and psychic fixture.

Pettibon’s early career is well documented in the promotional materials he produced for the Los Angeles South Bay punk rock scene, most notably the flyers and record covers for the band Black Flag. If punk rock would pride itself on being louder, faster, angrier and, as far as production values are concerned, crummier than its predecessors, then Pettibon had the graphics to match. As if one sign of deviant youth had finally found its long lost sibling, between 1978 and 1985, Pettibon offered up his drawings for dozens of flyers and record covers. With album titles such as Slip It In, Damaged, What Makes A Man Start Fires? and My War, and concert flyers featuring drawings from Captive Chains and Pettibon’s first fanzine, Tripping Corpse, these bands openly mocked any standards of decency. But the youth culture of the seventies was a far cry from the youth culture of the fifties. Prior to the sixties, youth culture and counterculture could be considered independent of one another. During the sixties, however, they would become inextricably linked, as college campuses across the country became hotbeds of political protest. Rock and roll, the alternative press and their hybrid, the rock and roll fanzine, were the means by which youth and counterculture sanctioned themselves as critical social commentary. Although punks would try and distance themselves from the failed idealism associated with the sixties, after several years producing a graphic that would serve as a youth and countercultural aesthetic, Pettibon would be led to compare his efforts with those of his countercultural predecessors. A resentment for failed ideals aside, Pettibon understood that there were certain fundamental values from the previous counter-culture that were indispensable to forging an audience for the endeavors of he and his punk rock colleagues. In the face of an unassailable rock music industry on the verge of declaring itself “classic” at the ripe old age of thirty, a do-it-yourself means and attitude towards production, distribution and promotion of a new generation’s countercultural product would prove invaluable. This could not be more the case than with the fanzine.

Pettibon published roughly 100 fanzines between 1978 and 1993 with the bulk of them produced between 1985 and 1992. These were the initial means by which he made his work available. Throughout the eighties, Pettibon’s publications were distributed by SST (Systematic Record Distribution), a label founded by members of Black Flag in 1978. If anything serves as proof that Pettibon considered his career trajectory as that of a fine artist, it would be the fact that he made no money from his publications, which were treated like the courtesy stick of chewing gum in a pack of baseball cards. Like most genuine punk endeavors, the fanzine project lacked a profit motive. But unlike most punk endeavors, Pettibon’s persistence was fueled by something more than anger. It was the fanzine project which set the break-neck pace at which he was to work for the next several years making it the means by which he would realize a body of work. Although he had collaboratively produced a couple of stray fanzines between 1978 and 1980 and a lone issue of Tripping Corpse in 1981, it was not until 1983 that Pettibon would secure his folded letter size format. With the exception of Tripping Corpse, all fanzine titles would be different. By 1985 he was producing on average ten fanzines per year. Although they consist of the occasional interview with band members from Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and the Minutemen, poetry or fiction from a friend, or drawings from his nephew whom he dubbed Master Nelson Tarpenny, the greater portion was given over to drawings. At the same time, Pettibon began to expand his drawing practice, wedding a repertoire of graphic styles to recurring socio-political and idiosyncratic motifs. Whereas his drawings were originally intended for reproduction, by 1985 only a fraction of them were being published.

There are several clues that distinguish Pettibon’s late work from his early work — borders, blue cross-hairs in the corners, type of paper, the introduction of a particular subject etc. Perhaps the most misleading characteristic by which to date his work is drafting skill since he uses a variety of styles, which require varying degrees of control. In general, however, establishing a chronology for Pettibon’s output is somewhat problematic due to the fact that there may be a substantial discrepancy between the date of a drawing and the addition of text. This is certainly the case with the six children’s drawings, all executed by an extremely young Pettibon, that open the exhibition. Although seriality and grouping by subject are possible ways to make sense of Pettibon’s work, those are exercises he has reserved for several fanzines, artists books and an occasional drawing in which he renders the same subject in a series of panels, changing the text in each panel. Since his first gallery exhibition in 1984, Pettibon has maintained the practice of displaying his drawings unframed, tacked directly to the wall in groupings that reflect their eclecticism. By and large, collectors of his work have adopted this method, obtaining a mix of drawings that consists of early and late works as well as a range of subjects. Following suit, this exhibition is grouped according to collection and in a couple of instances one can detect a disposition towards a particular subject, as is the case with Roger Herman’s Vavoom drawings, or towards a particular tone be it sinister, sexual or poetic. Exhibiting Pettibon’s body of work in this manner tends to place emphasis on its eclecticism. But again, eclecticism is hardly a distinguishing characteristic. The quality that allows his output to be called a body of work is also the one that would mark his development as a mature artist, and that is the introduction of multiple excerpts of text.

Pettibon’s work has always been riddled with an ironic subtext or code and it is difficult to determine exactly when he introduced multiple excerpts into his work. The best approximation is provided by a 1985 issue of Tripping Corpse in which he began Xeroxing onto drawings fragments of texts cut directly from books. Prior to incorporating multiple speaking subjects into his work, Pettibon’s drawings functioned in a relatively straightforward manner. Like most comic books, the text is attributable to a subject. No matter how harrowing the thought or hardened the irony, the overall effect is similar to the union of text and image via the comic book’s thought bubble and dialogue balloon. Pettibon’s early drawings are characterized by a rock and hard place, teen angst irony, one that centers around the moral and social U-turn the country underwent from Eisenhower to Nixon. But their irony is a thin veneer not for angst but for anger. What comes across in the rape, racism and numerous electric chairs of Pettibon’s early drawings is that by the mid 1970s the United States had become intolerant of its contrasting and contradictory values. Oscillating between unbridled sin and salvation lost, these drawings are not simply dark, they altogether lack redemption. These pictures hardly require a thousand words. With voices firmly fixed to a subject, they stand on cruelty alone. But Pettibon’s narratives are far from new. What lends them their nasty resonance is the extent to which they are already known. Pettibon hardly need claim responsibility for his artistic intentions since they draw upon a standing reservoir of social, historical and personal narratives fueled by psychosis. In short, his irony need no longer be fabricated for it was in fact ready-made.

Although the goal of using ready-made texts was to fortify an already bitter irony, the mingling of various text produced a more subtle and sophisticated effect that did not so much involve an inversion of meaning as it did a multiplication of meaning. The irony in Pettibon’s early work rests upon a broad understanding of the turn of events from Hiroshima to Patty Hearst. Irony, however, is a code and as such the degree to which it is explicit, competing with an intentional surface meaning can vary greatly. The multiplication of texts within a single drawing would transform Pettibon’s irony from one of cruel certainty to one of profound uncertainty. Take for example a 1985 and a 1989 drawing of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). Both images are of a cold-war Hoover, not the G-man who made his reputation combatting organized crime nor the wartime spy on spies but the post-war surveillance hound who was invaluable to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House on un-American Activities Committee in their crusade against communism. This was a Hoover who’s web of information was used to strategically leak information about the private lives of his political opponents; a Hoover whose desire to know, many considered obscene. The link between Hoover’s unscrupulous gathering of intelligence and later speculation regarding his private life can only lead one to wonder exactly how deep were the head G-man’s thoughts when the photographs upon which these drawing are based were taken. Whereas the single line of text in the 1985 drawing portrays a titillated Hoover, the 1989 drawing is an uneasy psychic portrait of a Hoover whose homosexual, misogynist proclivities actually fueled his desire to undermine the right to privacy. Starting with a paranoia that developed from a “sudden revelation” regarding genitalia (read pubescent trauma), leading to an obscenely vicarious investigation of human acts, and ending with homosexual eugenics, the logic of the drawing’s punchline belongs to a convoluted sociopath. Hoover was certainly dark, but this is a Hoover whose psychological drives go way beyond titillation towards a deviancy that brings him full circle, face to face with the enemy of the previous decade, the Nazis. Unlike the 1985 drawing, this is an irony of psychoanalytic depth. But more important than explaining a maturation in the content of his work, Pettibon’s skill at exploiting irony’s more subtle gradations also accounts for why and how his volume of production would become part of the works’ meaning. Whereas the ironic content of Pettibon’s work is readily apparent, especially when compared to Seduction of the Innocent, the terms for understanding irony as a means of production belong to none other than Roland Barthes (1915-1980).

Barthes, one of France’s most celebrated literary theorists, described his work as an attempt at founding a “science of literature.” This is a rather ominous description given his sense of humor and his advocacy of reading as one of life’s sublime pleasures. Writing Degree Zero, Barthes’ first book, is often considered uncharacteristic of his work because it paints him as a literary historian. But Barthes had to become an historian before he could become a scientist. Barthes credits Camus’ Outsider as having heralded a new era in literature. The aim of this new, transparent writing was “to go beyond literature by entrusting one’s fate to a sort of basic speech, equally far from living languages and from literary language proper.” (2) But Writing Degree Zero is less an analysis of transparent writing and more of a manifesto that would play a crucial role in establishing a critical distance from literary history which for Barthes had become a history of styles. This distance from historical developments was strategic in that it allowed Barthes to subject a vast but still finite universe of literature to the scrutiny of semiotics, the science of signs. Not only would this strategy prove invaluable for fresh readings of old works, it also allowed Barthes to shift his emphasis away from the writer and more toward the reader.

From a semiotic standpoint literature is an encryption, the construction and deploying of signs that readers must decode in order to recreate narrative cause and effect and arrive at meaning. For Barthes, irony is a semiotic device, a tool crafted by writers but used by readers. Barthes had a very complex understanding of its limits and its strategic use as a code, particularly as it relates to what he called a multivalent text, a text characterized by multiple meanings. According to Barthes, irony prevents a text from becoming multivalent. The true/false dichotomy upon which an ironic reading depends is too stable to give way to multiple readings. Attribution, he says, stabilizes references because it inevitably leads to an author, the voice of intent (origin, paternity, propriety). Irony, although it challenges this intent, can only do so in a binary, true/false manner and is therefore still bound to an author’s original intent for its meaning. In order for a text to escape irony and become multivalent, attribution must be relinquished.

Stated by the discourse itself, the ironic code is, in principle, an explicit quotation of what someone has said; however, irony acts as a signpost, and thereby it destroys the multivalence we might expect from quoted discourse. A multivalent text can carry out its basic duplicity only if it subverts the opposition between true and false, if it fails to attribute quotations (even when seeking to discredit them) to explicit authorities, if it flouts all respect for origin, paternity, propriety, if it destroys the voice which could give the text its (“organic”) unity, in short, if it coldly and fraudulently abolishes quota-tion marks which must as we say, in all honesty, enclose a quotation and juridically distribute the ownership of the sentences to their respective proprietors, like subdivisions of a field. For multivalence (contradicted by irony) is a transgression of ownership.

With astonishing brevity, this passage from Barthes not only chronicles the formal developments within Pettibon’s work; it also explains the more radical implications of Pettibon’s practice of decontextualization, implications that would compel Pettibon to produce thousands of drawings. Whereas Barthes presents irony as antithetical to a multivalent reading, it was through irony that Pettibon would arrive at a multivalent art. Applying Barthes’ quote to Pettibon’s work leads to the conclusion that the only thing keeping irony from becoming multivalent is the quotation mark which Pettibon relinquished when he began collaging excerpts of text around the edges of his drawings, a practice he began in 1985 and continued throughout the decade. Whereas the drawings to appear in the nine fanzines he produced prior to 1985 were presented with a generous, white border free of text, several dozen drawings to appear in fanzines after that period, particularly those featured in Tripping Corpse, a fanzine devoted exclusively to sixties nihilist escapism (sex, drugs, rock-n-roll and revolution), were accompanied by fragments of text cut directly from a variety of sources. The singular voice within a drawing was now joined by a host of disembodied thoughts. What began as a simple strategy of rummaging for ready-made irony resulted in a more complex multivalent irony. Shortly thereafter, as Pettibon began transcribing similar excerpts in his own hand, often altering them towards more specific ends, he would further abandon linear ordering, all the while broadening the weave of associations. By the mid to late eighties, Pettibon began employing a variety of literary tropes that would reveal him as an increasingly self-reflexive reader. Scattered throughout the drawing, the texts often shift between the declarative, the imperative and the interrogative as well between the first, second and third person. In many instances it is uncertain whether the thoughts in a Pettibon drawing are the property of the viewer, the artist or the subject depicted. The tone can range from the introspective to the exclamatory. In addition, the excerpts may cross-reference themselves as well as the image. The result is a profusion of associations that resist any singular meaning. In short, Pettibon’s drawings would confound so as to become profound. The appropriated voice could be as immediate and disturbing as the internal monologue of a psychopath or as eloquent, detached and supremely a matter of fact as the voice of God. Seemingly exhausted visual archetypes, regardless of whether they were high or low, abstract or representational, from a self-portrait to a Jackson Pollock splatter, from Vavoom to Christ, were sufficient signifiers in plotting a universe of scenes for already known narratives. Gumby, Art Clokey’s claymation creation who lived on a bookshelf and could pass in and out of volumes of literature had become Pettibon’s alter-ego. Not only would the use of multiple excerpts lend cognitive depth to a flattened irony, it would also expose the meta-physical hidden within the mundane as surfers, trains and baseball would become the unlikely bearers of transcendent meaning. Pettibon’s eclectic visual motifs would then serve as knots or nodes in a vast web of literature in which he was free to roam. Transgressing ownership of both the visual and linguistic components of his work now made process as important as content. As Pettibon would go on to produce thousands of drawings, it would no longer be a question of what any one of them means, but as a body of work, how do they mean.

The passage on irony was taken from Barthes’ S/Z (1970), his most sustained literary analysis in which he employed a method of fragmentation on Sarrasine, a short story by Honoré de Balzac. The fragments, or lexias, as he calls them, range from a single word to passages a few sentences in length. Simply reading the lexias is uncanny in its resemblance to reading one of Pettibon’s more text cluttered images. By fragmenting Sarrasine, Barthes calls attention to reading as an aggressive activity in which the reader constructs meaning from a variety of associations he or she may bring to bear upon the text. In short, a text is defined by a relationship between writer and reader in which both draw from the same well of signs to produce meaning. This relationship is a key feature of structuralism, the linguistic movement with which Barthes is synonymous. In Barthes’ words, structuralist activity “is a mode of thought (or ‘poetics’) which seeks less to assign completed meanings to objects it discovers than to know how meaning is possible.” (4) For Pettibon, structuralism is clearly poetic. Although Pettibon’s work is often described as such, it is not poetry. It derives its poetry through an operation performed on narratives whose meaning is presumed rather than determined.

Oddly enough by the time of their deaths, Wertham and Barthes would share more in common than either would know. Although Wertham’s attack on the comic book industry would reveal him to be a high brow of sorts, his respect for high culture actually translated into a legitimate appreciation of high modernism. In addition to collecting his works, Wertham was a close friend of the Russian Constuctivist, El Lissitzky. Paradoxically, Barthes gained public notoriety for his column, “Mythology of the Month” that appeared in Les Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1956. These essays, later collected and published under the title Mythologies, display Barthes skill as a critic of mass culture. Signs taken for wonderful, Mythologies still holds invaluable insights into everyday mass cultural phenomena ranging from boxing to detergent. Wertham and Barthes could then be seen as having achieved a brief equilibrium on the seesaw of high versus low culture. But by the time Pettibon would begin producing a mature body of work, the issue of high versus low had become a historical phenomenon, as structuralism would leave that distinction to the viewer. Structuralism, however, is not without its consequences. Shuttling back and forth between intention and interpretation, meaning’s ultimate location is uncertain. Its location, however, will never be certain for it is actually dispersed across what has now become a sea of information. In a recent interview, an extremely nervous Pettibon, after long pauses from which it was uncertain if he would return to finish his sentences, would offer a gentle apology saying, “Sorry, I lost my train of thought.” The interviewer, equally nervous before an audience which did not know what to expect, thought to himself, So have we all Raymond. So have we all.