The Marat/Sade Journals

Donny lays a comic review on us from the guy who taught Scott McCloud. This guy must be awesome!

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The Marat/Sade Journals
by Barron Storey

The book opens with a quote attributed to Charlotte Corday, “What I have to say cannot be said in writing,” and a jumble of scraps of some mixed-up text. From there it becomes obscure, dark, complex, personal, confessional, and brilliant. One of the most virtuoso displays of sequential text/visual artistry ever.

Barron Storey is the most important contemporary illustrator you’ve never heard of. He’s been teaching illustration since the 1970’s. His Time magazine cover drawings of Howard Hughes and Yitzhak Rabin hang in the National Portrait Gallery. The Howard Hughes cover he drew in half an hour in the Time offices while speaking with the coroner on the phone. His huge, NASA-commissioned space shuttle painting is on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and a print of it was regularly seen on the set of Northern Exposure hanging in Maurice’s office. He’s done many book illustrations including his iconic 1980 Lord of the Flies cover.

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He’s done some comic book work, too, but his biggest influence on comics has come indirectly, through his students and admirers – like David Choe who gushed, “Nobody draws better than Barron. Not you, not your little sister, your architect dad, not your rebellious ex-boyfriend who draws with his own blood, not the most talented kid at your art school. Not your favorite artist in the whole world; I’ve seen the work with my own eyes. Nobody draws better than The Barron.” His students have included Scott McCloud, Dan Clowes, Peter Kuper, Kent Williams, George Pratt, and John Van Fleet. His fans have included Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, David Mack, John J. Muth and the aforementioned David Choe. If you don’t recognize those names I just dropped, let’s just say that this dirty dozen made up the leading, avant-garde of comic book artists of the 1990’s. Safe to say, there wouldn’t have been an avant-garde of comic art in the ‘90’s without The Barron; everybody would have gone on drawing like refined Jack Kirby, like more stylized John Byrne and Art Adams. Storey gave artists permission to experiment and go completely outside the box of mainstream, how-to-draw-comics-the-Marvel-way house styles. His impact on American comics at the close of the last century and the beginning of the current one shouldn’t be underestimated.

So how did Barron Storey become the Edward Manet of the comic book rebels? In the late ‘70’s, according to Storey, he was in love with photorealism. This was the period when he did the Time covers and Lord of the Flies. In the 1980’s the “world goes in for fantasy” (said Storey on the Escape from Illustration Island podcast). He drifted away from mainstream illustration towards modernist fine art and started to experiment through his journals. His technique was to “draw myself awake” every morning – he’d grab his pens and sketchbook as soon as he started to gain consciousness, and would just start scribbling and doodling about anything that was floating through his fuzzy brain. These ideas would get re-worked, refined, remixed and played with. Barron spent years experimenting with how a picture can suggest a very subtle narrative rather than feed you an obvious story. On Escape from Illustration Island, Storey explained, “The journals are research and development… How do you [for instance] illustrate feeling ambivalent about a guy? …Through my journals I learned to illustrate things that were not visible.” This kind of work led to him doing illustrations of the Big Bang for National Geographic, drawing something that was literally impossible to render in a literal, realistic depiction. His recent Time magazine illustration for a story about Isaac Newton’s interest in alchemy went beyond just showing us what Newton looked like – Storey shows us what was going on in Newton’s head.

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Storey shifted away from traditional illustration and drew on modern art techniques. “Modern art is a toolbox for illustrators. The surrealists were researching a language for how to illustrate dreams [for example]… Fine artists are the vanguard. What they do isn’t illustration, but they create a language that can be used for illustration.”

The journals appeared after Storey got divorced and found himself, for the first time in his life (he says), living alone. That is when he really turned to journaling as a kind of obsession; he doesn’t have anybody else at home to have these conversations with, so he just starts having these conversations with himself on paper. The lonely pages are a form of therapy (dealing with his sadness over his recent break-up with a woman called Kelly) but also a venue for wild artistic experimentation.

In the early 1990’s, Williams, Pratt, Muth, McKean, and Sienkiewicz were all talking about this genius illustrator and these amazing sketchbook/journals he was doing. This inspired Kevin Eastman (one of the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who used his TMNT millions to create Tundra, a publishing house for independent comics) to approach Storey about publishing some of his journals as a kind of artsy graphic novel. This led to the 1994 publication of Marat/Sade as a limited edition, leather-bound hardcover. Only 1000 were printed. (After years of searching, I acquired mine in the late ‘90’s for around $125.) The journals Storey used to create Marat/Sade were created between 1989 and 1991. He selected pages from five of his journals plus created some new material.

Marat/Sade begins with an aging artist (Storey was then turning 60) in personal crisis over his inability to make it as a “fine artist” and the recent breakup with Kelly who also has breast cancer. The book is very dark, and the reader gets the impression that Story is a very morose kind of fellow – which by all accounts he’s not. In interview, Storey has talked about an important idea he learned from journaling: that people have moments and we should not always try to tie people to some consistent “super-identity.” Just because someone seems this way at one time in a certain context doesn’t mean that’s always – or usually – who they are.

As the book progresses, he overlaps his personal meditations with dialogue from Swedish author Peter Weisis’ play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Better known simply as Marat/Sade, it is described on Wikipedia as “a bloody and unrelenting depiction of class struggle and human suffering which asks whether true revolution comes from changing society or changing oneself.” The quick IMDB synopsis of Peter Brook’s film adaptation reads, “In an insane Asylum, Marquis de Sade directs Jean Paul Marat’s last days through a theater play, and the actors are the patients.” De Sade is best known for his erotic works which combined philosophical discourse with sexual fantasies that emphasized violence (hence our word “sadist”). He was imprisoned several times. The play is set in 1808, and de Sade is held in Charenton Asylum. As a form of therapy, the inmates are allowed to produce a play which de Sade writes and directs about the 1793 assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the French Revolution who sent countless “dissidents” to their deaths on the guillotine, by Charlotte Corday who fatally stabbed him while he was in his bath. Throughout the play-within-a-play de Sade conducts a philosophical argument with “Marat,” advocating his own nihilistic and individualist beliefs.

Readers of Storey’s book expecting to find a comic adaptation of Weisis’ play will be very surprised. Hardly any of that set-up ends-up in Storey’s book. Storey samples lines of dialogue from the play and remixes them. Marat, de Sade, and Charlotte Corday do appear. On one page we see Marat’s head split in two, the way Storey is splitting himself into various personas. A few pages later a face is peeling itself open (the way Storey is, figuratively, with his journals), and a few pages after that is Marat with his head bisected by a zipper.

Storey has a strong theatre background, and in addition to his teaching and illustration jobs, he’s written and performed in plays. The voices of de Sade and Marat are soon joined by others – most frequent are Alan and Dysart from Equus. (In Peter Shaffer’s play, Dysart is a psychiatrist attempting to cure Alan of his pathological, religious and sexual fascination with horses which he sees as representative of God.) There’s also Beckett and Lear as well as Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes… and they all engage in this bizarre cut-n-paste dialogue that reads like William S. Burroughs. Storey explains (in the new Afterward) that the characters and dialogue that creep in are just whatever he was watching or looking at at the time. One drawing shows Storey sitting at his desk with copies of Equus, One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, and Hamlet along with a picture of Kelly. However, there is a surreal synergy at work here. Meaning arises through the “conversation” of the random characters and quotes. Many of the quotes seem directed at Storey himself. “To persist in obstinate condolement is a course of impure stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly,” is a line from Hamlet, but it seems to criticizing Storey for wallowing in his sorrow over Kelly leaving him. When Hamlet says, “You can not call it love, for, at your age the heyday in the blood is tamed,” he is speaking to his mother – but here he could be talking to Storey who has just turned 60.

The climax comes when Storey is confronted by a Bacchae of women who have surfaced in the journals (Ophelia, Cordelia, Diana, and Nurse Rachet) and a list of girls I interpret to be all of Storey’s ex-girlfriends and lovers (Norma, Mary, Gralyn…). I’ll quote from John Mueller’s review on : “As the book reaches an emotional crescendo there is a moment of clarity in which the female antagonists from all of the various sources that the artist has been referencing come forward at once. Here The Marat/Sade Journals as a whole can be seen as a metaphor for Storey’s failed relationship with Kelly and perhaps also the other women in his life as well.” And then Charlotte Corday kills Marat.

The Postscript tells us that “Marat becomes JFK” in a new play or film which Storey is working on: The Assassination and Discrediting of John Fitgerald Kennedy as performed by Members of the Millionars Club at Bohemian Grove Under the Direction of Joseph Campbell. If Kennedy is our modern martyred revolutionary politician then the great mythologist Joseph Campbell takes the role of de Sade: the literary philosopher of individualism and critic of the Church. Kennedy asks “Joe Campbell” about death, and Campbell goes on one of his characteristic riffs: free-associating about sacrifice, Gaia, and the oroboros.

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It’s surreal – or maybe even DaDa! Witness the wacky commercial jingles that intrude into the text for no apparent reason. “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz.” “Double your pleasure; double your fun.” It’s also postmodern in it’s destruction of high/low art distinctions – splicing Bob Dylan lyrics with lines from Hamlet. It most reminds me of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique of remixing texts and visuals, something I was hugely into and influenced by when in art school (around the same time Marat/Sade came out). It also has the quality of the channel surfing and randomized text blurbs created for U2’s Zoo-TV concert created by video artist Mark Pellington, photo/conceptual artist David Wojnarowicz, and satirical group Emergency Broadcast Network. That concert blew my mind when I saw it in high school, and it already planted in me a taste for re-mixing texts and images. In Marat/Sade, Storey experiments with a number of ways to overlap dialogue and create a sensory overload effect approximately like that of the Zoo-TV experience.

Is it a comic book? Storey admits that his journals are “stretching the definition” of graphic novels. There is a very buried, stream-of-consciousness narrative – or maybe parallel narratives that only begin to cohere as they increasingly overlap. It perhaps fits best with Art Spiegelman’s definition of “co-mix”: words and pictures mixed together.

After Marat/Sade, Storey has done a few other comics, mostly in the same style: intensely personal, rather obscure, and visually brilliant. He was featured in Tales from the Edge #’s 1-10, W.A.T.C.H., and illustrated a story for Neil Gaiman in Sandman, Endless Nights. However, The Barron is really an illustrator’s illustrator, the same way others are sometimes said to a painter’s painter or an actor’s actor. I need to mention again that Storey had a tremendous influence on an entire generation of illustrators – myself included. In 1994, with the comics market in a near terminal crash, Marat/Sade was like a declaration of war on mainstream comic styles. I fell enthusiastically under its sway when I was an undergrad. It was my artistic cause célèbre. Screw Kirby! Screw Romida and Romida Jr.! Bite me, Buscema – John or Sal! Why did all comics need to look that way? Why not draw a comic the way Picasso might draw it? A comic in the style of Egon Schiele? Or German Expressionist woodblock prints? Japanese ink-brush paintings? Or something nobody has ever even thought of or seen before!? This argument became something deeply meaningful to me the way ideas can when you are 21 years-old and majoring in art and philosophy.

For many years The Marat/Sade Journals was a legendary, very rare object, heard about but never seen: a holy grail of comic book art geeks. (Neil Gaiman said, “One of the treasures on my shelf is The Marat/Sade Journals.”) However, it has lately been reprinted by Graphic Novel Art in a re-edited edition with new material which can be purchased from Barron Storey directly: .

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