Descant, suffice it to say, has been around for a while. The magazine has been published now for five decades, and doesn’t show any signs of letting up. As they write on their website, they have proudly published work of an exceptional caliber for longer than many of my peers have been alive, and have served as a home for new work for Canadian icons like Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley. Certainly, they are about as established as any player in the Canadian literary scene could expect to be. And with a full 164 issues now under their belt, one can only imagine that launching a new issue is something that must have been committed to muscle memory long ago.
Descant‘s very graphic 164th issue
Yes, I’m sure there are still occasional technical hiccups during launches, or problems with venues, and so on—but at the end of the day, it’s easy to tell that the people at Descant know a thing or two about presenting and publishing short fiction and poetry. That is precisely why it is so exciting to see them doing something new with their Cartooning Degree Zero issue.
As Associate Editor-in-Chief Michelle Alfano writes in her preface to the issue, she was “unsure” how to proceed with the idea of doing an issue devoted to graphic fiction. Her concern, she says, was that “the work would not be up to the standards of the magazine. The work submitted would not be complex in feeling or original in thought.” After reading the issue, though, it is easy to reach the selfsame conclusion that Alfano comes around to in her preface: “My reservations (largely unspoken) were conservative, uninformed and … a bit loopy.”
Alfano would not be the first person to question the validity of graphic fiction in the literary arena, nor will she be the last. But no one can deny that graphic fiction has made great bounds into the North American consciousness over the last decade, and many literary magazines are striking out into the still-fresh territory of anthologizing and soliciting graphic fiction. (Taddle Creek’s latest issue, devoted to broadsheet comics, is another relevant example of this phenomenon, while McSweeney’s thirteenth issue, published back in 2004, remains a particularly stunning outstanding exploration of the theme.)
Alfano concludes her preface by writing that “literature must evolve and grow and mutate, sometimes, into forms that overwhelm in their newness and rawness. It should sometimes startle and arouse and terrify you in new ways—prod you into rethinking old paradigms.” It follows, then, that the performance of literature would need to evolve as well. The well-established modes of reading/presenting poetry and fiction (that is, stand behind the mic, speak clearly, make eye contact) simply do not track perfectly onto graphic fiction.
While the launch for Cartooning Degree Zero was both awkward and exciting, I mean it in the most enthusiastic, positive way possible. It was the awkwardness of watching creators doing their best to apply traditional reading methods to their graphic fiction that made the night so exciting. Being there and experiencing the creators fumbling their works off of the page for the crowd was exciting the way watching a kid play tee ball for the first time is exciting. There is a visible learning curve: one that gets tangibly smaller with every turn they take at bat, but one that still makes those first few swings a clumsy affair. The mechanics that are taken for granted when a reader translates graphic fiction from page to mind, all the little gears that make up the panels and gutters and sound effects, were exposed and suddenly easier to scrutinize.
Where relevant (some of the launch’s presenters were essayists without slides), the illustrations were projected onto screens at either end of Handlebar’s narrow bar space. Chris Kuzma’s short piece, S.O.S., which on the page is an open and atmospheric story about an astronaut losing hope, became a little more of an oddball piece when Kuzma read the spaceship’s sound effects out loud. Shannon Gerard’s AND/OR, which functions in print as a beautiful emulsion of words and overlapping images which evokes the story’s thematic exploration of memory, read like stilted movie dialogue. Plenty of pieces included in the issue simply could not have survived the transition to the current reader model at all. Mark Laliberte’s standout Pensee, for example, while delineating a clear narrative arc, contains almost no dialogue to be read. And at the other end of the spectrum, pieces like Marc Bell’s Broughton Bean Bandits contain far too much dialogue to be done justice by one person and a microphone. How to tackle content like that of Laliberte or Bell is a question that will have to be tabled away until another, later launch—but I hope I can be there too.
The launch was successful in every way that matters: I was drawn into the issue and its contents; I was exposed to new, engaging work by creators I hadn’t before encountered. Even attempting to cover every part of the launch here would be impossible, as there is too much to say (I haven’t even started to talk about the essayists yet, or Puritan alum Andy Verboom’s winning of the 2014 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem).
As someone who loves graphic fiction, I was thrilled to see a respected Canadian institution taking steps to legitimize a medium with a rich national history and a vibrant, active scene. And as someone who appreciates the evolution of literature, I was happy to be able to experience this next step in Descant’s development. I can’t wait to see where this new direction takes us.