Comics As Unresolved Labyrinth : Bruce Zeines’ “Life Out Of Sequence”


Confession time : the title of this review isn’t mine. But it sure is good, so I appropriated it — fortunately, from the very book we’re here to take a look at, so I needn’t feel too terribly guilty. And, in truth, the notion of graphic sequential storytelling as an “unresolved labyrinth” is only one of many that stuck with me long after I closed the covers of cartoonist Bruce Zeines’ 2021 self-published opus on the nature of very medium he’s utilizing, Life Out Of Sequence. Time, spatiality, the unique properties and possibilities that a blank page to be populated by juxtaposed words and images offers — Zeines is equally haunted and fascinated by all these things, and so the subtitle of this, the second volume in his “Musings” series, is very apropos indeed : “A Personal Exploration Of Sequential Art.”

I’m tempted to be glib here and say that Zeines accomplishes more in a standard-format (and standard-length) comic book than Scott McCloud did in a “doorstop” graphic novel, but in truth this is no “primer” on the medium a la Understanding Comics, nor is it a de facto “how-to” guide for aspiring cartoonists to take their cues from. The word “Personal” in that subtitle looms large here, as this is Zeines feeling his own way forward through his creative process, and commenting upon it as he does so — not so much a lecture, then, as it is a mapping out of territory that is ever fresh, ever new, ever confounding, ever expansive. Did I just say it was a map? Maybe more like an atlas — but a decidedly theoretical one.

What’s not at all theoretical but is, rather, concrete reality is the power of Zeines’ intensely-rendered and almost obsessively-detailed illustration : he fills every scintilla of space with imaginatively-conveyed visual information that somehow establishes, and subsequently sustains, an incredible naturalistic fluidity in spite of its admittedly crowded-at-first-glance appearance : it’s a lot to take in, sure, but the act of doing so is thrilling, immersive, and never less than consequential. Zeines doesn’t waste a line or a brush stroke any more than he wastes a conceptual thread or a thematic beat — this is story and art both with a purpose and related for a purpose, and while those may seem like they should always be one and the same thing, a masterfully-articulated work such as this makes you realize how often one or the other is either serving a subservient role or, even worse, absent altogether. Not so here — this is a cartoonist at the absolute height of his powers grappling with how to most effectively use them. And, for the record, succeeding marvelously at doing so.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about all of this, though, is the welcoming, accessible, and downright conversational tone that Zeines maintains throughout — these are some heavy issues he’s tackling for those of us with a personal investment in the comics medium, and he’s approaching them with the near-reverential respect they deserve, without ever crossing the line into pretentious gibberish or faux-erudition. Somebody who’s never picked up a comic could enjoy this quite easily, then, but for those of us who pick up hundreds, if not thousands, of them per year? Well, this is the kind of thing that sends us over the damn moon — a dissertation on the form we love, communicated through the form we love, that deepens our admiration of the form we love.

I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but there’s nothing a person can’t do with words and pictures — as Zeines himself knows full well. Given that, then, the next thing to figure out is how to use words and pictures to their utmost as a storytelling tool. I think it’s something all comics creators and readers grapple with — sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously — and to see it dealt with from a fresh perspective many actually haven’t considered at all is an unexpected joy. I hope I’m not giving away too much here, but Zines’ central thesis is that life itself — and certainly memory — doesn’t actually have a sequential flow, so arranging a visual story in a way that does? Well, it’s a bigger challenge than it would at first appear.

I’ll tell you what, though : this is an artist who’s more than up to that challenge, and probably any other that you can throw his way. And so I’ll close this review with a challenge to you, the reader : find me a flaw in this comic. Anywhere. Because I sure as hell can’t.

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Life Out Of Sequence is available for $15.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/lifesequence.html

Also, be sure to check out Bruce Zeines’ website at https://www.theartofbrucezeines.com/

One response to “Comics As Unresolved Labyrinth : Bruce Zeines’ “Life Out Of Sequence”

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 2/14/22 — 2/20/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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