Johnny Damm, The Science of Familiar Things, The Operating System, 2017
Reviewed by Bradley Bazzle
In an age of hybrid texts, The Science of Things Familiar stands out for its hybridity. Author Johnny Damm mixes the visual with the verbal, the creative with the critical, and the book consists of three distinct sections on the subjects of books, films, and music. Also, there are interstitial diagrams. A book like this could easily come off as a catalog of oddities, but in The Science of Things Familiar the impression slowly mounts of a speaker, or creator, who is using the disparate materials at his/her disposal (comics, obscure films, archaic diagrams, personal narrative, etc.) to make sense of familiar phenomena like romantic relationships, the role of the artist, and the decline of rural America. Because we sense the hand of this creator throughout, the book comes off as a unified whole. That said, the visual element so dominates the book that I would be doing potential readers a disservice if I didn't focus on it.
This is kind of an art book. It's big. It's expensive. It looks like it should be even more expensive, with many pages in full color. Even the diagrams, which could have been black-and-white, are rendered in a cream color that gives them an appropriate patina of age. Happily, the rich color treatment is justified. The book is at its best when Damm's visual sensibilities are unfettered by his more conventional verbal approach. And yes, there are entire pages without words. But Damm leads us carefully to these pages so we can make sense of them when they appear. In case this sounds vague, I'll narrow my focus to the first of the three major pieces in the book, which happens to be the most visually and conceptually daring.
"Books: The Old Man's Illustrated Library" combines panels from Classics Illustrated with original text by Damm. In case you aren't familiar with Classics Illustrated, it's an American comic book series adapted from the type of books taught in American middle and high schools. The series ran from 1941 to 1962, putting 167 literary classics—from The Three Musketeers to Faust—into the hands of its young readers. In addition to drastically condensing most of its sources, the series tended to emphasize action over just about everything else. If you have a chance, pick up a copy. They're interesting, and also quite funny.
Damm's treatment is also funny and interesting, but for different reasons. On its surface, his trick is simple. When we see, for instance, a bare-chested Indian brave from Classics Illustrated #57: The Song of Hiawatha above text that reads, "Walt Whitman considers with pleasure / the ridiculousness of the word ‘probiotic,'" we may be struck by the incongruity between the action in the panels and the interiority Damm describes. But there's a subtler trick being played here: Damm is asking us to imagine that the brave is Walt Whitman, and that Walt-Whitman-as-brave has a mundane, even tedious, interior landscape. If Classics Illustrated takes canonical books and makes them exciting for young audiences by visualizing (and emphasizing) their action sequences, then Damm is deflating that action with Whitman's thoughts about yogurt, Herman Melville's fixation on his flabby body, and Jonathan Swift's idle rubbing of his own teeth.
In a Q&A with his editor at the end of the book, Damm describes his intention to "take the original books back from the comics and use them," and in doing so to "make the authors themselves, whose original stories maintained at best a ghostly presence in the adaptations, the characters of the new work." To me, that undersells the project of the book. By using the word "adaptation" to describe what Classics Illustrated does, Damm implies that his own work might be thought of the same way: an adaptation of the adaptation. But to apply the word "adaptation" to Damm's process would be akin to describing a log cabin as having been "adapted" from trees.
While some panels seem mostly unchanged, simply rearranged with incongruous dialogue and thought bubbles, others are duplicated, zoomed in on, cut up and layered, and combined in a sort of collage, sometimes with photographs. On the very first page of the section, taken from Classics Illustrated #10: Robinson Crusoe, we're presented with what looks like a log or plank floating in water. The image is repeated, then blown up, and then, finally, on the facing page, cut and recombined in a way that suggests a tangle of grass. The incongruous text (about Defoe tearfully chopping jalapeños) would be funny if it weren't for the weird power of the visuals. That power, I think, comes not just from their odd beauty, which has something to do with their repetition and subtle mutation, but from the clear presence of the creator's meticulous hand. On the second page, we can see shadows beneath some of the tiny cut pieces of wave. There's a whiff of insanity here.
We see something similar in a section based on Classics Illustrated #38: Typee, where, after a fairly straightforward visual of ships arriving at a tropical location, complete with natives, we're shown a ship on waves cut and pasted onto a dull gray background, then onto a photo of actual waves, then onto a sort of greenish miasma that may or may not include wallpaper. Then, finally and most stunningly, we see a close-up of the purple, blue, and white zigzags that are meant to signify waves in Typee. Here, Damm has found something in the goofy comic that's actually quite beautiful, and has magnified it for us to see. This art from the original comic has nothing whatsoever to do with Herman Melville, of course, but it's art; or at least it's allowed to become something like art when re-contextualized by Damm.
For another example of what Damm is doing, we can look at the following page, where Damm rotates the waves, causing them to appear more like vivid feathers on the wing of a bird. He adds a disembodied hand, and then brings back the greenish photograph of toxic-looking water. The juxtaposition here has terrible power (without a single word!), but the seed of that power was in the simple comic panel of the ship on the waves: the contrast between the small manmade ship and the vast body of water brings with it a feeling of loneliness, and Damm has teased out that feeling through the transmogrifying power of his method.
On other pages, Damm shows Gulliver (i.e. Jonathan Swift) lost behind a uniform row of green hills. He shows Don Quixote's windmills as a film negative, appearing bright and skeletal in front of a background of night. He shows, using intricate collage, the setting of Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror as a hellish landscape of upside-down twisters and greenish waves, which grasp at the human-scale dirigible like claws from above. I could go on. And I haven't yet mentioned the third part, "Music: Your Favorite Song (Battle Stories)," which does similar work using pulp war comics from the fifties. It's arresting stuff. Some of the images have continued to haunt me. And the haunting experience of my reading makes me hope Damm will go even further in the years to come, leaving behind whatever vestiges of narrative and commentary he has clung to here, and dig deeper into the dark and original territory he has begun to carve out for himself.