Upside Down Reading

The strip I wondered about most from the supplement to “In The Shadow of No Towers” was the one entitled “The Upside Downs of Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo”. In order to read the whole story, the reader must turn the book upside down, considering what had been ground sky and what had been sky ground. The main characters are already pretty silly-looking, and in this fairy-tale story, the reader accepts that this strip uses a fun trick to tell a magical story which functions as a mirror. Each panel depicts two things which happen in the same location at times equidistant from the middle turn-around point where the book is flipped. It’s mostly remarkable because it is both impressive and comical that the story should make sense in both directions.

It’s interesting to compare this strip, which uses the upside-down technique to depict a fictional universe with internal consistency, with “An Upside Down World”, a strip on page 7. When I first read it, I didn’t even bother to flip the book around — I could tell from the little red man’s pointy nose that this demon-filled sky was meant to evoke Spiegelman’s feelings about the unreasonably powerful Republicans. But the strip conveys more than just his anger- the Spiegelman character connects the politics to questions he has about reading: who will read his strip? Will any soldiers even get to read it?

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Those in power are reading “the book of revelations”, and he’s “reading the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick” — everyone’s reading about the end of this world, but no one is reading the same stories. In the first and last panels, Spiegelman seems to be walking on the ground near a building, but in all of the others he seems to be up in the clouds too – props appear and disappear out of nowhere – his book, cigarette, peace sign. When the page is flipped, a mouse has a nightmare, and then we see red Bush leading his animals back through the strip. This world doesn’t make sense, either from above or below, and the Spiegelman character worries about his page’s being “well-printed”. If it can be said that the old timey comic uses the upside-down technique to create a coherent, but unreal space, this strip depicts some other (maybe inner) world, where all these elements coexist but the meaning doesn’t come from some internal logic. On the purely physical level, these strips invite the same type of “reader participation”, but they depict very different spaces within which the technique’s meaning is drastically altered.

I think that this can also be connected to the book’s title — what is the sense of his (or our) being “in” the shadow of things that no longer exist in reality? Is the shadow the effect of the event — the feeling of a lack, or of a lingering sadness? Or is it something more like the absence of the light of knowledge, logic, coherence? We might be engaging in the same activity with both strips, but the activity no longer has the same meaning it had in the context of the old-timey comics. What does it mean that the way we’re used to reading can no longer serve as a guide?

2 thoughts on “Upside Down Reading

  1. Not directly related to what you discuss but I was wondering what you thought about the physical flipping over of the book. Is the form of all print media something that enables this? Or is it specific to comic supplements? or books? I was thinking on the lines of how this upside down thing would work in another medium, say internet comics. What similar techniques are used in other similar mediums to similar effect?

  2. My interpretation of the upside-down trope the Spiegelman uses was that, instead of create a sort of general chaos, it creates a dichotomy between the real and the imaginary. The way Bush and his cronies fall in the last panel seems particularly meaningful to me, as they twist their return to the real as evidence of God, meaning the inexplicable and the miraculous. There are notes, too, of “the sky is falling,” “the world is upside-down,” and in light of this, I think we can read the title as referring to the way that trauma creates an inseparable rift between the sane and the insane.

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