A Review of Allan Haverholm's When The Last Story Is Told

  • Peter Wilkins

Allan Haverholm's abstract comic When The Last Story Is Told ( 2015) issues a challenge to the literary conception of comics. There is more to comics than story, Haverholm suggests; we can have comics without narrative. However, the book is framed in terms of story, as the title indicates.

The frontispiece reads 'It's absence rings with colours:' and the end paper reads 'Shapes and structures linger.' The inference we draw is that what comes between these pages are the post-story colours, shapes, and structures. Indeed, it is possible to 'read' When The Last Story Is Told as the apocalypse of story in comics: the revelation of a new non-narrative beginning, if a beginning is possible outside of narrative. However, the framing of the book poses the paradox that haunts it: even when we get rid of story, we need story. Eliminating narrative is like eliminating oxygen: it's interesting but everything dies, which is perhaps why the book strikes an end-of-days tone with the few words that it uses.

Nevertheless, apocalypse is as much about shifting perspective and re-framing what is important as it is about destruction. After all, apocalypses can only be metaphorical, or we wouldn't be around to talk about them. The shift that Haverholm enacts with this book is towards a comics of colour, shape, and structure. Colour is muted, frequently grey-scale, with some browns and reds thrown in. Shape is square, with some circularity thrown in. And structure is the six-panel grid that is the basis for each page. The grid in this book functions as what Heidegger (1977 [1954]) called Gestell, the framework of a technology: a skeleton or a bookshelf, something that holds and through its holding defines and shapes. The structure infers a contents: something that goes in the compartments of each page. The grid here is more of a jewelry box than a set of hieroglyphic tiles. We examine each frame in relation to others on the page and we relate any given page to others through similarity or difference. The Last Story thus enacts Groensteen 's concepts of braiding and arthrology (2007).

The grid makes the book comforting and links it to comics with which we might be more familiar. Gilbert Hernandez' Marble Season (2013) uses the same consistent structure, for instance. Such a grid provides a nice, even rhythm with which to tell a story, if one has a story to tell. I would argue that the grid is the closest we get to narrative in The Last Story: it provides the 'rhythm' of narrative drawing but not the 'melody'. Or rather, we get a different melody, one of colour and shape rather than figurative drawings and words.

Haverholm's relationship to drawing in The Last Story is ambiguous: there are fewer depicted 'things' in the book than 'words,' as if to draw something other than an abstract shape would commit to narrative even more than using words. At the very least, depiction and story are in cahoots, as Rod Stewart attests. Occasionally one might want to see a 'figure' in the book, but it feels like a Rorchachian imposition. But such impositions appear to be the dare of abstract comics: find narrative.

My response to this dare was to focus on the strangely compelling bits of text in the book; I was tempted by logos: 'At last, a word or two!' The words in The Last Story are bits of writing or printing on envelopes: addresses and customs forms. The author's name appears frequently (autobiography!). The words give the book a sense of transit, exchange, and global movement. The fact that we never see the contents of the envelopes lends an air of mystery, even sentimentality. After the last story is told, the forlorn fragments of a postal system will persist. This 'theme' that Haverholm establishes provokes a self-analysis in the reader (this one at least) of how the mind schooled in narrative will construct it out of the slenderest threads of possibility. In its way, it proves Haverholm's point, or at least the point I construct out of Haverholm's book. This narrative drive so consumes us that we need to be dislodged from it to see something other.

If I sound negative in describing what is by any stretch a beautiful book in content and presentation, it is because abstract comics work by negating our standard concept of comics, by saying 'whatever you think comics are, this is not that.' We have to spend a lot of time thinking about what The Last Story is not before thinking about what it is. I showed the book to my daughter, Sophie, who at 13 is pretty savvy when it comes to comics and art. Her response was, 'It's pretty and everything, but why is it in a book? I can see a page hanging on someone's wall, but I don't get why it's in a book.' This reaction shows that she has some expectations of what a book should contain and that this is not it. It also identifies The Last Story with fine art, something one would hang on a wall. Sophie identifies here an issue of register or context: The Last Story makes us do a double take when we think about it as a comic, or indeed, as a book.

Sophie's comment raises a question about abstract comics that I often struggle with: why do we need abstract comics when we already have abstract art? The history of comics is of a 'low-brow,' ephemeral form, not something one would wish to preserve or value as art. Of course, comics collecting is a big thing, but having a big comics collection of rare #1s is not really the same having a house full of Picassos. Again, we are in a different register of value and meaning. See Beaty's Comics vs Art (2012) for a discussion of how these registers intersect and interact. Haverholm pushes towards high art but holds on to comics as an idea, a form, that allows him to bring the two into a productive relationship. Haverholm answers my question with a couple of his own: why would you not want to put what you might otherwise hang on a gallery wall in a book that is not a mere collection of pieces but a continuous, coherent whole? Why not have sequential art rather than narrative drawing?

In the end, Allan Haverholm's When The Last Story is Told goes beyond what has become a seemingly insoluble question- 'What are comics'-to what is perhaps a more interesting one: What are the fit contents of a comic book? If a book announces itself as comics, are its contents necessarily comics by authorial fiat? If so, one could present a book that contained nothing but continuous text as comics just by announcing in the paratext that what we were looking at was comics. While such an example might be extreme, I have had conversations where I have sincerely claimed that Derrida's (1981 [1974]) could fit a definition of comics. Clearly there has to be some negotiation between the creator or publisher's idea of a comic and the reader or consumer's idea of a comic: a Venn diagram where there is an overlap. To my mind this negotiation is the 'subject' of When the Last Story is Told. Every page invites an argument and a question. In that light, the book is not only comics, but a pretty good book of any sort.

Competing Interests

The author declares that they have no competing interests.

Editorial Note

This review was published simultaneously on the companion blog from The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship and on The Winnower.

References

Beaty, B. (2012) Comics versus Art. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Derrida, J. (1981 [1974]) Glas. Paris: Denoël/Gontheier.

Groensteen. T. (2007) The System of Comics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Haverholm, A. (2015) When The Last Story Is Told. Malmo: C'est Bon Kutur.

Heidegger, M. (1977 [1954]). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. London and New York: Garland Science.

Hernandez, G. (2013) Marble Season. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly.

Stewart, R. (1971) Every Picture Tells a Story. Mercury Records.

This post is open to read and review on The Winnower.

Additional Assets

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    Allan Haverholm
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    Although I'm not too fond of authors commenting on reviews of their work, I want to thank Peter Wilkins for this thoughtful and reflected reading of "When the last story is told". He hits the nail on the head on several central aspects, and I specifically would like to address the matter of register and context.

    I knew from the beginning that the non-narrative work in "When the last story is told" would prove challenging to most readers, and it is certainly a deliberate double conceit to present it in book form. While the works have been sequenced for publication, and are bound (literally!) to be read linearly from end to end, they were more importantly selected to communicate with each other to allow for a random reading, flipping back and forth through the book as one pleases. Recurring motifs that may be punctuate parenthetical sequences in a linear reading could just as well be considered "analogue hyperlinks" at a later, non-linear one.

    "When the last story is told" is indeed an invitation to its readers to reconsider their accepted ideas -- not only of comics, books, or high and low art, but of the fluid relationship between all of them. I would even take Wilkins' offhand remark that "we get a different melody, one of colour and shape" to propose that the invitation extends to other art forms as well.

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    Ernesto Priego
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    The images did not transfer at all from the Comics Grid blog to this version, but I have added them as 'additional assets'. They should really not be 'additional' but a part of the argument. (See the blog post version for reference, linked above in the Editorial Note).

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    Granville Chaussee
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    Rod Stewart lyrics are truly entertaining, Every Picture Tells a Story brilliant song, I always loved this track.





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