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The Complete Jack Survives

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My favorite room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art holds a series of paintings by Cy Twombly called “Fifty Days at Iliam”. I always spend a few minutes walking around the room, looking at the paintings — which are not completely divorced from the idea of comics, they are a sequence involving both text and images. At my most recent visit I noticed how much Twombly seemed to correct his images. You can see places where he put on some paint or pastel and then covered it up with a layer of off-white paint. That these corrections are visible cannot be accidental. He could have covered them with paint to match the rest of the mostly white paintings, yet he used a cream color that fades into the background but does not disappear. These cream-colored corrections do disappear in the reproductions of the paintings. They are too subtle to appear in most reduced photos and web images.
Two rooms over in an exhibition of early Ellsworth Kelly paintings were a few works of black geometric lines on white. Some of the black lines had been painted over with white, leaving them neither completely erased nor completely there.

Both of these discoveries lead me back to Jerry Moriarty’s The Complete Jack Survives. This volume collects Moriarty’s series of short comics, some of which appeared in issues of Raw and were subsequently published as a “Jack Survives” pamphlet in the 80’s. Those previous publications of this material were printed in high contrast black and white, like most line art has been published throughout the history of comics. This method obscures erasures, white-outs, and other markings that are only seen on the “original art” pages. In contrast, this edition of Jack Survives, beautifully printed in an oversize volume by Buenaventura Press, reproduces the pages in full color.
The printing gives the images themselves an added density and weight. Moriarty’s blacks are not flat and lifeless, they enclose brushstrokes and variation, and the whites are far from bold, bright white, they are messy and grey. The copious use of white paint to cover the black ink is made manifest. Objects are drawn and then whited out, figures are shifted, text is replaced, word balloons are moved, all leaving behind bluish grey ghost images. The removing of parts of the images makes the pages both sparser and fuller. In the represented world there is less, but on the page itself there is more.

If you compare the same strip from each edition, the difference is astounding. Take a look at this side by side comparison (images courtesy of the Drawn & Quarterly blog). While the scans aren’t great, we can see a large framed picture whited out above the couch in panel four. Also note the ghost text in panel seven. This partial covering is like a palimpsest of images, evidence of process and work, but it is also metaphorically linked to the comics themselves. The full-color image is also much warmer and nuanced. Moriarty is primarily a painter, and I get the impression he made these comics like paintings, wanting the reader/viewer to be aware of the ink and paint and brush, a facet of art that is often lacking in comics.

The comics are small vignettes featuring “Jack”, a 1950’s American man who is rarely seen without hat and tie. As Moriarty explains in a short text in the book, Jack is based on his father, who died when Moriarty was young, but he is the father as filtered through the son. The character is neither Jack nor Jerry ; he is both Jack and Jerry. He is the image of Jack painted over by Jerry, partially obscured.
There is something compelling about these pages. They pull between opposing poles on many levels, not unlike the erased/not-erased nature of the whited-out inks. While Jack looks like a clichéd 1950s man, this is belied by a number of the vignettes. In one, instead of mowing the lawn, he lays on the grass and finds horses in the shapes of clouds. In another image we see him painting a chair in his basement. A thought balloon above his head shows he is thinking of himself painting a canvas on an easel. Other stories show him confronting both the banal and the odd. A Cadillac drives past his house and knocks over the trash cans. The contents of his pocket — keys, wallet, change — fall into a storm drain as he’s getting on the bus (“All my identity is down there. That’s sad.”). At a restaurant counter he is only able to order coffee by using the same nonsensical words spoken by the Indian sitting next to him.

The stories are not laugh out loud funny. They are humorous, though I occasionally question whether we are laughing at or with Jack. Is it funny or sad that in painting a chair he imagines himself as a painter of art ? In one story, Jack struggles with his television reception in an attempt to watch a boxing match. The positions of his body remind one of a boxer. The game/fight has been shifted into the realm of the banal, the everyday. Is it funny ?
Most of the stories have the rhythm of a daily strip with a set-up and a gag, though not all of them, particularly the stories that stretch to two or four pages. In many ways, Jack Survives reminds me of Peanuts. Jack seems lonely and isolated much like Charlie Brown. And it’s hard not to make comparisons to the milieu (the 50s American suburbs) or the stories about seeing shapes in clouds and Jack’s newspaper blowing away by the wind (like Charlie’s kite). Schulz gets us to both laugh and sympathize with Charlie Brown, and I get the same pull of humor and empathy in Moriarty’s portrayal of Jack. The events in Jack’s stories are just one step removed from the everyday oddities and annoyances we all face.

The collection itself is nicely put together, collecting all the Jack Survives pages, a number of related drawings — that look to be in ball-point pen, and a few paintings. The ball-point pen drawings seem to relate to each other, some variations on ideas. A number of the paintings appear to be based on the stories or drawings. The covers — inside and out, front and back — as well as the first and last page of the book form a six panel Jack story — a clever way to design a book of comics. The sequencing of the pages is mysterious to me. Based on the dated pages, it is not chronological in the order they were made. I am tempted to find some other organizing principle, but perhaps it was just Moriarty’s preference.
Richard McGuire provides a brief preface while Chris Ware offers effusive praise in his introduction.[1] In it, he claims this volume as the “most important” comic art reprint to ever appear. Ware admits a tendency to hyperbole, and I must call “hyperbole” on the statement. Is this volume more important than Krazy Kat reprints (to name just one title that comes to mind) ? This is not to denigrate the work itself, it is excellent, just not as amazing as Ware would have you believe.
He also reaches a bit by stating that Jack Survives sets “a new tone and target — poetry — for comics.” If Moriarty’s work here is to be considered poetry in comics form (quite debatable), then surely it is new only in degree but not in kind. Moriarty draws heavily on the template of a comic strip, yet instead of a four panel daily gag, he expands the narrative into full pages or sequences of pages. He has also removed emphasis from the gag humor, though, as I noted above, it is not absent.

In a way, Jack Survives is like a hybrid of comics strips that preceded it and the autobiographical comics that followed. By fictionalizing himself into his father, Moriarty has created work that is at once both real and fictional without suffering on either account or falling into the many clichés of autobio comics, such as an overemphasis on romantic relationships (which are completely avoided here). The more time I spend with the book, the more I can see how it might inspire such effusive praise. I won’t go as far as Ware, but I do recommend giving Jack a try.


  1. Ware and Moriarty share the rare distinction (along with Gary Panter) of appearing in two of most pre-eminent English language comics anthologies : Raw and Kramer’s Ergot.
Chroniqué par in October 2009