Structures of Isolation in “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”

 Don’t Get Around Much Anymore By Art Spiegelman ©1973

Panels marked for Clarity

            One of the basic structures of the medium of comic books is the panel. This enclosure separates one piece of art from another, creating the sequence of images known as comics. Panels can vary in size, shape, etc. but ultimately they isolate one image from another, dividing up a page. This idea of isolation is prominent throughout the short comic “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” whose basic contextual and constructive structures exploit the medium of the comic to create a feeling of isolation.

Elemental to the comic is the panel. It should first be noted that the first three panels of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” are drastically different in shape and framing than the rest of the text. The first two larger rectangular panels, at the top of the page, are equal in size, but different in size from the remaining panels which are uniform in size and square. These opening panels establish a setting and frame of reference to the room that Spiegelman’s narrator is about to detail. The third panel, reading from left to right has no frame at all and presents the title.

As a consequence, these three panels act as an introduction to the more structurally uniform panels that follow. While some of the structural oppositions that form the analysis of this piece apply to these introductory panels, due to the schematic nature of panel 2 and the title in panel 3, the connections between the oppositions are more tenuous, though to some extent present.

While paneling naturally isolates the pictorial events on the comic page, it is how Spiegelman exploits the pictorial and textual events themselves and juxtaposes them that creates the inherent and oppositional structures present in “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” They can be articulated as follows:

  • Text to Pictures
  • Object to Text
  • Narrator to Object
  • Real to Represented

These structures, while independent, seem to interrelate and it is this connection, along with the most elemental comic forms and draftsmanship of the page, that amplify the feeling of isolation conveyed by the character.

            Text to Pictures

Every single panel of the comic contains some sort of juxtaposition of picture and text. Even the first introductory panel includes the sole word “Life”. Labels are applied to objects in the floor plan of Panel 2 and there is the inclusion of a picture next to the title in Panel 3. From Panel 3 on, text is placed primarily in “captions” or otherwise are part of some object, such as the magazine covers in Panel 5 and the magazine spread in Panels 12 and 13. With Spiegelman simulating a collage with the magazines in these panels, those textual examples can even be considered pictures rather than “text,” which would be rendered by Spiegelman’s own hand.

The text remains isolated from the pictures in general, separated either by caption or actually completely divorced from the frame of the picture, such as in panels 4, 7, and 14. This separation allows the words to have meaning that is equally divorced from the pictures and often references the panel preceding them. In Panel 5 we are told “… I have a room with a view…” which we see in the previous panel. The magazines in Panel 5 are commented on in the subsequent panel while displaying a picture of the record player that is commented on in the following panel. The “Teevee” referred to in Panel 7 is visible in panel 8 while the refrigerator mentioned in panel 8 is depicted in Panel 7. While crackers and water are mentioned and shown in Panel 9, they are repeated as part of the text in Panel 10, a view outside the window. Similarly, the image of the child bouncing the ball is also repeated in panels 10 to 11, but the text about the child is relegated to Panel 11. The texts in Panels 12 and 13 vaguely reference the pictures in the magazine. The phrases “At Last a Star? – She Still Has Doubts” and “Put More Flavor in Your Life” in Panels 12 and 13, although not fully framed are equally ambiguous in their meaning. The final picture and text juxtaposition in panel 14 makes no reference to the text near it, but instead refers back to images in Panels 6 and 7.

This separation of meaning in text and image is potent. The pictures rarely illustrate the meaning of the text beyond panel 2. Instead, this alienation creates a sense of confusion and lack of understanding. By isolating the image from the text as he has, Spiegelman conveys “doubts” as he phrases it in Panels 12 and 13. The isolation of the text as well as his narrator’s isolation are mirrored through confusion.

Object to Text

            This sense of confusion extends to the next opposition in this structure of objects and text. In each panel, with the exception of Panel 3, which again acts more as title, the central object is in juxtaposition to the text. In first panel, the generic man, who is presumably the narrator, and television are objectified by their geometric design. A number of objects are identified through words in Panel 2. The man appears in panel 3. The window frame as well as an object-like child appear in Panel 4. Panel 5 contains magazines. Panel 6 contains records. Panel 7 contains a refrigerator, Panel 8 a television, Panel 9 a faucet and Panel 14 the television again with a different image displayed. Note that the appearance of people in Panels 5, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 can all be classified as objects. The boy, drawn in a style that reduces him mostly to circles and squares resembles a toy. The object with which he interacts, the ball, is of equal size to him. All other people that appear are in fact mediated. They are both presented as a collage, using actual images from magazines presumably and are placed in media objects, such as magazines and television. They are also, in the case of the television images, split and spliced and shown more as objects and “things” rather than fully formed people.

In all cases, then, not only is the text isolated from the picture to which it refers, but also, what it refers to is always either the narrator or some object, not a person, a place or even much of an emotion. The narrator is relegated to the world of things and even the people in his life, such as the boy, Ann Margaret and Melvin Maddocks are shown to be merely objects also.

Narrator to Object

 

However, there is a person, specifically the narrator, who is present through the entire piece. In almost every panel, the narrator makes some sort of appearance, with the exception of Panel 2, which again can be considered an introductory panel to the narrator’s environment. The narrator does appear in panels 1 and 3 as a mere outline of himself. He is never seen beyond a trace, his hand appearing on Panel 5, in the remaining panels.

He does refer to himself throughout the piece in the form of captions. He uses the personal pronoun when he mentions “My Cable Bill” (Panel 5), “I have a room…” (Panel 6), “I don’t care, I own a record” (Panel 7), “All the water I can use” (Panel 9), “I don’t get around much anymore” (Panel 10), “I read…” (Panel 12) and “Did I tell you the Refrigerator is empty” (Panel 14).

His references to himself once again contrast with the images that the reader sees although the statements are factual. The narrator expends little time expressing any emotions. Instead, he speaks mostly of the objects in his presence. His only emotion throughout the piece declares his relationship to the objects around him. His only emotive comment lies in Panel 7 when he states, “But I don’t care. I own a record!” Lacking distinct personal emotions, the narrator solely reflects on the objects around him. This augments the isolation. His world is merely the product of the objects within his purview.

Furthermore, while the narrator, nominally,  is “present” in every panel, a subcategory of this opposition could be the lack of visibility of the narrator in the presence of the object. The narrator himself displays no full, animated form in any of these panels, being an outline in Panels 1 and 3, a hand in Panel 5 and a nonentity to the objects that take precedent in every panel with the exception of Panel 3. Isolated, he is relegated to words and a hand. His objects contain more reality than he does and some, such as the magazines or mediated pictures on the television, are created with photographs making them, in the context of this piece, most real. While the narrator’s invisibility reduces him merely to words we read and defined by objects he owns, those objects become important visual entities.

 

Real to Represented

 

            This photorealism of the mediated images of people represents the final set of oppositions in this piece, namely between real and representational iconography. Every panel with perhaps the exception of Panel 8 reminds the reader of both its reality and unreality through visual cues. In the first panel, a generally realistic room houses an incredibly unrealistic looking person. By contrast, Panel 2 contains very definitive statements describing objects that barely resemble what they are. Panel 3 contains the same unrealistically rendered man. The boy appears like a toy in Panel 4, while the curtains flutter and the panes on the window reflect light and are drawn in a more realistic manner. Photorealism is applied to the “Life” Magazines, while the hand next to them is, by contrast fairly iconic[1]. The record player may appear real, but the notes that surround it and the fact that it is duplicated question its reality. Admittedly minor, but the refrigerator door and box in Panel 7 look fairly realistic, while its insides look iconic, particularly the ice crystals forming in the freezer. Photorealistic faces are placed on the screen of an unrealistic television. A realistic “Ritz Cracker” logo hovers above a nearly abstracted sink where the water from the dripping faucet transforms to words because of where the drip is placed. The boy over the next two panels is as unrealistic as he was in Panel 4, but the two images placed next to each other make his movement unnatural as well. His ball’s bounce seems to have slowed down in time. The magazine’s left page is a photograph and the right page’s advertisement is clearly drawn. Finally, the photograph of several sets of teeth is once again placed on the screen of  the television. This particular set of objects can be charted:

Photorealistic Iconic Abstracted
  1. Television Pictures
  2. LIFE Magazine Covers
  3. Magazine Articles
  1. Magazine Advertisements
  2. Faucet
  3. Refrigerator
  4. Record Player
  5. The Window Pane and Curtains
  1.  The Boy
  2. The Narrator
  3. The Music Notes

Reviewed in this format, the relationship between real and represented becomes more apparent. Those things that might not isolate the narrator, either an awareness of himself or those objects he may imbue with personality and emotion, including the boy and music, are abstracted visually. By contrast, those things that are completely exterior to him, such as celebrities or stars of television and magazine appear real. Meanwhile, the objects that he describes fall between the representational extremes and are presented iconically. This further isolates the narrator.“Real” images are only those presented through media, while people and things that might stir emotion are completely abstracted.

Conclusion

Through these sets of oppositions a new set of results can be articulated:

  • The text in these objects is isolated from the pictures (Text ≠ Pictures).
  • The objects in the panels are primarily the only thing the text references (Text = Objects).
  • The narrator is not connected to the objects (Narrator ≠ Objects).
  • The narrator is barely a presence at all (Narrator ≠ Real).
  • Neither is any person who might in any way be real (People ≠ Real).

The piece, in general, speaks not only of isolation, but also of reality. Using isolation as a contextual theme, Spiegelman is able to convey that feeling by removing all that might seem real, personable and human from the comic itself. He reduces people to outlines of themselves and text. He removes the narrator’s assertions from the objects the reader sees, causing a lack of certainty as to the validity of the phrase and the narrator. The narrator himself barely states anything beyond observation and merely identifies the objects around his apartment without stating any feelings or details about them. These objects and the narrator himself need to be explained because they are depicted in a style that only barely reveals what they are. The only things that are presented with any certainty are mediated objects, which are cropped and adjusted as well.

Spiegelman removes all certainty from his visual world. Instead, a tension develops from  the fact that the people in his piece are seemingly unreal, including the narrator, and the only things that appear real and that are addressed are objects and mediated images. Spiegelman’s narrator has become almost a ghost in his own apartment, completely isolated from the objects and people around him and even himself. He is barely there and yet leads us quietly, simply through an emotionally disturbing and depressing state of being.


[1]                I use the term here to mean a more abstracted representation of a real thing, similar to the definition applied by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics

Creative Commons License
STRUCTURES OF ISOLATION IN “DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE” by Maxwell Foxman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at maxwellfoxman.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://maxwellfoxman.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/structures-of-isolation-in-dont-get-around-much-anymore/.

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