Dead Ringer by Jason T Miles $14

15 1/2 inches long by 10 inches high, with cardstock covers and 16 heavy interior pages.

 

Without a doubt, one of my favorite comics of the last decade. Top ten comics of all time. Here's a review I wrote of it around when it came out---not sure how the review holds up but if anything my love for this book just gets deeper:

Dead Ringer is a substantial work of art. Yet, I’m afraid that, at first glance, readers will see the opposite: a book that’s sparse and unfinished.

Jason T. Miles is probably best known for his one page comics in Kramers Ergot 5. Those comics were quite skillful, but in comparison to Dead Ringer, they were crowd pleasers. In Kramers, Miles used a thick line and drew geometrically pleasing (and stylish) page designs.

Dead Ringer isn’t stylish, and Miles’ line seems like its disappearing in some panels. And yet, Dead Ringer is the piece that brings Miles’ to the forefront of art cartooning. In comics, there are a lot of people with visually innovative ideas to express but rarely do we find someone with innovative literary ideas. Comics has (and not without some struggle) produced many consummate writers (Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, the Hernandez brothers) but you’d be hard pressed to deem their literature progressive or experimental. It’s naturalistic fiction, sometimes with some tasteful bells and whistles (see Clowes). With Dead Ringer, Miles draws a line in the sand from his kramers peers----for the past decade, we’ve pushed the drawing in comics in a myriad of directions. Now, Miles says with Dead Ringer, let’s push the writing.

The most prominent thing about Dead Ringer is its attempted break from the tradition of fine comics writing being forever linked with traditional story structure----and the success of this break. Again, let’s consider some of the good comics writers listed above (and their ilk): all of them write traditional fiction or autobiography. All of them basically employ 3 act structure and tell linear stories, light on symbolism and heavy on characterization. The people who don’t do this are often consummate artists with important things to say in terms of drawing---the narrative aspect of comics forces these people to generate interesting images that they couldn’t imagine if they were making stand alone images. And yet---it’s still a visual world they’re exploring, not one of letters. The world of letters in comics looks barren---no matter how closely words and pictures are linked in comics, we can still advocate for work to be done in one area or another. Dead Ringer begins the argument.

Dead ringer’s characters have no names and there isn’t a story (i.e. plot points, location). The book consists of someone encountering a near dead man on the road and talking with him in his final moments. As comics readers, we are so used to the idea of “characters” that it’s hard for us to approach a work like Dead Ringer (even if we’re comfortable with metaphor and poetry in other art forms). For a comic about a man encountering another man rotting on the road to be about anything other than exactly that is incomprehensible to the mind that has had a steady diet of comics. Comics are so predominantly about surface meaning and melo-drama that it’s ahrd to imagine a work like Dead Ringer finding an audience.

It should find one though---anyone who cares about comics should read it. Miles writes the dialogue between the near dead man and the living man with great feeling. The narrator states “He was sprawled out for all to see.” “Let me look inside your teeth” says the living man. “Humor me and look away” responds the sprawled out body. This passage stirs up so much---displaying your weakness, followed by a callous response (“let me look inside”) and then mock self-pity (“humor me”). And all that on one page in 3 sentences. It makes me wish other cartoonists were thinking as much about what they want to write. In film, we see every aspect of humanity tackled, every corner of the mind explored. In comics, we have formalism---how can I tell a story? Miles wants to explore and write about people instead of trying to figure out an innovative way to move plot points along.

There are inevitable feeble questions that will arise with readers who encounter this book. “Why is the main character drawn so much thicker than the background?” “Why does the background keep changing?” “Why do the drawings look unfinished?” I wish there was enough work like Dead ringer to render these questions irrelevant, but that’s not the case. Dead ringer is like a poem---although simply saying that brings more trouble. The last time I wrote about “poetic” comics (in the pages of The Comics Journal), most people assumed I was talking about work like Gary Sullivans “Elsewhere.” “Elsewhere” is essentially illustrated poems. I like Sullivans work a good deal, but Dead Ringer is close to what I’m advocating.

Here’s why: much fo the work in kramers breaks away from narrative with spectacular visual results. Dead Ringer breaks away from narrative with spectacular literary results---and that’s poetry. Poetry abandons the rules of fiction but doesn’t’ abandon the pursuit of literary sophistication and beauty. With poetry, anything goes except failure. If it’s mush, it’s not poetry.

There’s a moment in Dead ringer that I dound very sad, but Miles writing is such that he makes you wonder if he’s playing the scene for laughs:

Narration: I could tell from his face that he was a hideous man. I could tell from his skin that he knew darkness.
Dying man: I want to make people cry.
Other man: I sure hope you’ve written your will.

Saying “I want to make people cry” only to be met with “I sure hope you’ve written your will” is rather affecting---but there’s something about the flip nature of a line like “I sure hope you’ve written your will” that is undeniably funny. Normally, in a comic, it would have to be one or the other: comedy or tragedy. With Dead Ringer, Miles helps us grow up and remind us that true art has to focus on everything, even if we’re used to focusing on only one or two things at a time. Dead Ringer eases us into the complexity that we all have within us already.