From the 19th century motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, to popular Italian “fumetti,” the use of photography in comics and sequential art has a rich but much-neglected potential. While cartooning—simplified drawing with a strong emotional pull—has dominated, photo-comics have long been niche. With the recent rise of webcomics and digital production, as well as the proliferation of more experimental sensibilities, this may be changing.
This makes last year’s publication of Stephen Saperstein Frug’s “Happenstance: A Photographic Novel” an important event. A book-length (450 page) meditation on faith, doubt, friendship, and love, this is a vital contribution to comics. That it was created in-town, and that it takes Ithaca and Cornell as its stage, makes it all the more remarkable. Shot in the fall of 2007 using local actors, the novel took over a decade to complete and was serialized online between 2017 and 2019. It can be read, in full, at http://happenstance.thecomicseries.com/.
Following a successful Kickstarter fundraiser last summer, it was self-released in print. While many independent local publications have an amateurish look and feel, this is an elegant production inside and out. Here is the novel as fully intended by its author.
As established in the opening chapter, the story revolves around four characters. Paul (Tony Simione) is an aspiring novelist who works in a local used bookstore. He struggles with prosopagnosia—inability to recognize faces—as well as crippling depression and self-doubt. Paul and his wife Rebecca (Amy Rogers) are observant Jews. She brings him to a local café, where she introduces two fellow Cornell graduate students. (Settings will be intimately familiar to local readers but are often effectively interchangeable.) Chris (Eva Louise Hall) is a cognitive science student and an earnest, if sometimes doubtful evangelical Christian. She struggles too over her inability to tell her conservative parents about her relationship with her “roommate” Alex (Lisay Chizmar)—herself a student of comparative literature and a sharp religious skeptic.
As Frug’s story develops, the focus shifts towards an unfolding friendship between Paul and Chris. The two discuss theology, as well as their personal and familial struggles. Both are lead to challenge their respective faiths in ways that reverberate throughout the narrative and beyond.
As a (photo) novel of ideas, the characters necessarily serve as mouthpieces for more general points-of-view and their familiar oppositions: Jew versus Christian, skeptic versus believer, scientist versus humanist—and so on. Rich as this is, the approach can threaten to become overly abstract. There are passages here where Paul and Chris’ clearly divergent yet somehow intersecting journeys begin to feel over-determined, their alliance improbable.
Yet Frug consistently brings us back from speculation about God, the universe, and larger human purpose—back to everyday human reality and its occasionally rude intrusions. Back to happenstance.
Complimenting “Happenstance’s” sophisticated themes and emotionally resonant storyline is his keen grasp of comics’ formal elements and a compelling interplay between naturalism and abstraction. As with any artform, comics makes use of standard elements and their variations. Among these: panels and their proportions; their spacing within pages and between page spreads; the use of captions and speech balloons; and filmic variations of scale and perspective. As well, digitally manipulated photography affords new possibilities for visual style.
Frug varies such elements in ways that deny monotony and build memorable visual analogies. Variant panel grids are conscripted to create literal parallels that reinforce parallel tracks of introspection and conversation. Also effective is his filtering of backgrounds through “painterly” effects while keeping his characters more straightforwardly photographic.
The tension here between naturalistic and abstract visual styles mirrors the tension, mentioned above, between the characters’ quotidian existence and their struggles to make sense of larger reality. While skillful acting and attention to setting anchor the story in the familiar, occasional passages of collage and abstraction serve to emphasize key experiences and insights. Eccentric variations on—even departures from—the standard comics grid punctuate the storyline while quotations from scientific and art historical imagery conjure other places, other times. Characters and settings fragment, blur, even go dark—yet things soon return to apparent normality.
“Happenstance” is a wonderful book: keyed to a now somewhat nostalgic Ithaca but of potential interest to followers of sophisticated graphic novels everywhere.