In describing a novel, a literary scholar might describe how narrative “unfolds.” In the case of Kenan Rubenstein's micro-comic series “the Oubliette,” the meaning is literal.
Like elaborate high school love notes, Rubenstein’s comics are contained on single sheets of 8 ½ X 11” paper, each crisply folded into 3 inch booklets. It’s not a lot of space to tell a story – but Rubenstein manages quite nicely.
The series follows the romantic misadventures of a sensitive, scruffy-haired hipster who looks suspiciously like the author himself. When I point out the resemblance, Kenan jokes it would be “somewhat more striking if I were a better artist.”
Rubenstein’s bold, high-contrast inking is reminiscent of Charles Burn’s “Black Hole,” though the tone of the series is less morose, more geek-chic. For example, in the third installment, “Drought,” the narrator opens, “OKAY, HERE’S THE THING. I SUCK AT GIRLS.” Comic readers worldwide are familiar with girl problems – so maybe Rubenstein’s not breaking any new ground there – but his exploration of format definitely sets him apart.
Space is the vehicle of illustrated narratives – and deciding how to utilize it is central to the job of a comic artist. I asked Kenan how imposing spatial limitations informs the narrative of his work, and here’s what he had to say:
"…when you turn the page of a comic, you immediately take in a quick overview of what will happen over the course of the next two pages. If someone gets shot unexpectedly halfway down the page, your reader has very likely just ruined the surprise for himself. So page turns aren't arbitrary in comics, they're like hinges and clasps connecting bits of story, and normally they come at regular intervals. But each page of an Oubliette is twice the size of the previous page... This significantly limits your pacing options; each page, you're either doubling the number of panels to tell more story, or else you're doubling the size of your image, which slows the reader down and creates the expectation of something narratively significant."
Another of Rubenstein’s work, Tick, reads like a graphic novella calendar - although nearly free of dialogue, Tick requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the Frankenstein-esque plot. In a nutshell, it’s Edward Scissorhands meets Frosty the Snowman.
The high point of Tick comes midway through – where the panels are divided into dozens of squares like days on a calendar, illustrated with partial snapshots and still images that beautifully demonstrate the shifting nature of time. Like comic artist and industry anti-hero Chris Ware, Rubenstein recognizes the unique spatial properties of illustrated narrative, and isn’t scared to stray outside the panel.
For more about Kenan Rubenstein and his work, the full interview is posted below.
Where did you come up with the idea for the Obliette?
I was working as receptionist, and had a) a tremendous amount of time on my hands and b) unlimited access to office supplies. I had all these little doodles and crafts projects going, including a pop-up paper model of my apartment, and when I heard dress shoes coming down the corridor I would sweep all the bits of tape and paper scraps and scissors and markers into my lap and smile in a way that must have been totally creepy and suspicious. So that was it, I was just playing, and eventually noticed that a sheet of paper could be folded and unfolded in such a way that one never sees the same bit of page twice, but still travels all around the sheet (save for the one sixteenth of one side that serves as the back cover).
It immediately struck me as a fun vessel in which to deliver a story. But I went through five or six tries before coming up with a narrative ("Prologue") that was legitimately served by the format, rather than just feeling like gimmick. (My friends who have since made comics in this format didn't seem to have nearly so much trouble. And I've been surprised by how many comics educators have told me they're using it as an exercise. I thought they were really hard, but apparently they're just hard for me.)
Is it just me, or do you bear some resemblance to the main character?
I suspect the resemblance would be somewhat more striking if I were a better artist.
How does imposing spatial limitations change the narrative of your work?
Ideally, I think, this relationship is symbiotic, with form and narrative informing, inspiring one another.
Cartoonists spend a lot of time worrying about page turns, and how they can be used to conceal or reveal information. This concern is unique to visual storytelling, I think; when you turn the page of a comic, you immediately take in a quick overview of what will happen over the course of the next two pages. If someone gets shot unexpectedly halfway down the page, your reader has very likely just ruined the surprise for himself. So page turns aren't arbitrary in comics, they're like hinges and clasps connecting bits of story, and normally they come at regular intervals. But each page of an Oubliette is twice the size of the previous page, and all but the last of them is pretty small. This significantly limits your pacing options; each page, you're either doubling the number of panels to tell more story, or else you're doubling the size of your image, which slows the reader down and creates the expectation of something narratively significant.
Beyond that, the act of unfolding is somewhat more substantial than just turning a page; it isn't done as reflexively, and it takes a moment longer, so it's something you notice you're doing. And it changes the shape of the object you're holding, which makes it more like opening a book than turning one of its pages. For my taste, each opening needs to be motivated within the story, which in turn should open onto a new setting or narrative perspective (or both). So in short, the story should be unfolding in tandem with the physical object on which it's printed.
I am aware, by the way, that this sounds unbelievably pretentious, especially considering how insubstantial the final product is. But this is what I fret about when I'm making them.
Have you considered taking on any long-form projects? Would that prove challenging for you?
Yes, I'm working on one now (hence the dilettante cartography). There have been two major challenges:
1) I'm really so slow, and inclined to obsess over minute details and abstract resonances (see above). That just isn't practical for longer stories. Comics are, at the best of times, a tweak-y and arduous undertaking, and making longer ones seems to necessitate learning to trust my instincts in a way that doesn't come naturally to me.
2) I'm just having a difficult time affording it. I freelance at a pretty much subsistence level. I can take a few weeks off and pump out a new Oubliette from time to time, but sustained narratives require sustained attention that I've had a hard time coming by. (This is not a complaint; I feel very lucky, in this or any economy, to have work that I like and a boss with whom I generally get along.)
Do you plan to continue experimenting with format – if so, how?
Yes again! I love books, by which I mean the objects themselves, rather than their contents. (I like actually reading books, too, of course, but it's almost a secondary pleasure, and I sometimes have a near-erotic response to new issues of McSweeney's.) So I'd like to keep making books that demand their shape and materials, that couldn't possibly be republished for your kindle or reformatted into a mass-market form factor. I want to make the kind of books that people leave lying around in a faux-casual manner, in the hope visitors will notice and play with and ask about them, and be impressed.
The next comic (not the long-form one mentioned above) is a series of 6 large prints, that you'd ideally read on someone's wall. Since most folks won't buy all 6, each has to be its own complete thought/picture, while working as part of a larger piece. But the bigger challenge is making them attractive enough that people will want to hang any of them.
What comics are you currently reading/influenced by?
I'm consistently inspired by the work of Eleanor Davis, a cartoonist and illustrator from Athens, Georgia, and Lilli Carré, from Chicago. They both use formal and narrative experimentation to unexpectedly touching and evocative ends, in a way that never feels forced, like you're reading an illustrated math proof. Both have some beautiful work published, but their self-published minicomics are just the greatest, lovingly designed and hand-assembled and totally unique.
My buddy Neil Brideau has also been a huge influence in a number of ways. He's a great, playful cartoonist (a recent comic called "Secret Formula" came wrapped up in a test tube, and contained a recipe for vegan brownies). He works at Quimby's in Chicago, a hub of the indie comics world, and he keeps me up-to-date on what I need to be reading. And he's my unpaid editor, helping me work through my scribbly early drafts, which is in an invaluable service that no one performs for most of us self-publishers.