|The Three Paradoxes
by Paul Hornschemeier
Fantagraphics – hardcover, $14.95
Comics are not particularly well suited to the bookstore reading format, where most of the story is lost for the lack of visuals. I once saw Judd Winick manage to pull it off at a reading of Pedro and Me through a combination of reading the dialogue and describing the pictures, but it probably helped that I’d already read the book, as it was an incomplete experience.
A few weeks ago, Paul Hornschemeier took a different approach at a “reading” of The Three Paradoxes at Powell’s, staging a puppet show with help from members of the audience to follow along with projected pages and using puppets made by his siblings. Hornschemeier promised that if the show went how he hoped it would, it would be endearingly awful. Which it was. One “cast member” decided that his ancient Greek character should have a Scottish accent, while another was cast as a racist hothead, but it turned out that the page he appeared on wasn’t among those being projected. After later noting that the book features more bullying than fit into the puppet show, Hornschemeier entreated us to “buy the book for more bullying and racism!” Good times.
As for the book itself, it’s clear from the first panel, a story-within-the-story rendered in non-photo blue pencil, that Hornschemeier is a formalist. The Three Paradoxes is ostensibly autobiographical, featuring both a present-day version of Hornschemeier and flashbacks to his childhood, but Hornschemeier takes the unconventional approach of retelling his autobiographical anecdotes not for their own sake but as an entry into larger philosophical issues. Rather than the philosophy being included to support the autobiography, it’s the other way around.
The paradoxes referred to in the title are the three strongest of the eight paradoxes devised by Zeno of Elea illustrating his belief that motion and change are illusions. The paradoxes continue to fascinate today because, while they seem easily refuted by our senses, math and science took considerably longer in catching up, and many philosophers still argue that the paradoxes have not been adequately solved. Hornschemeier explained at the reading that the paradoxes obsess him personally and pointed to the solution in physicist Peter Lynds’ paper, “Time and Classical and Quantum Mechanics: Indeterminacy vs. Continuity,” as a favorite. This could be the stuff of a dry or boring treatise on philosophy, but thankfully The Three Paradoxes never takes itself too seriously. It’s actually very funny in places, particularly Hornschemeier’s various thoughts on how to finish the project he’s working on, Paul and the Magic Pencil, and the abuse that Socrates heaps on Zeno.
The story is told through a series of interconnected moments in time, each drawn in a different art style and using different production techniques to evoke different settings. Flashbacks to childhood use large dots to render their primary colors, like early comic strips, while the yellowed pages of the story of a checkout clerk and the story of Zeno and his paradoxes (in that case, complete with cover and the appearance of scans of entire torn-out pages) evoke pulpy older comic books.
The result is reminiscent in tone and appearance of some of Daniel Clowes’ comics and, like Clowes’ work, feels somewhat detached. Hornschemeier doesn’t seem deeply invested in the main story of visiting his family, or even in the childhood bullying flashbacks, and these threads end up feeling unresolved and mildly unsatisfying as narrative. More involving is the Zeno sequence, with its portrait of an angry young Socrates, and the most overtly emotional story, that of the peripheral checkout clerk. It may have worked better if the main character stood in for Hornschemeier metaphorically rather than representing him literally. Autobiography brings a lot of baggage with it, and an expectation of identification is part of that. If the book’s autobiographical details were ascribed to a fictional surrogate, the detachment from him would likely be less distracting from its philosophical issues than they are here.
However, once past that, all of these pieces fit together thematically as explorations of the paradoxes, arguing whether or not change is possible and how difficult change and overcoming inertia, both in life and creatively, can be. The Three Paradoxes is a thoughtful book, and its ideas will stick with me more than the specific details of its narrative. It’s also just a beautiful object, designed by Hornschemeier himself, utilizing elements of all the different art and production styles within and giving an immediate sense that this is not conventional autobiography or even conventional storytelling.