Bob Levin talks to J.T. Dockery, the cartoonist behind In Tongues Illustrated

Posted by on November 30th, 2009 at 9:04 PM

In Tongues Illustrated
(, B&W, $40) comes at one wielding its illusive classification — art object? comic? album? book? — like a sword-swinging, Kali-armed assassin. Its aim is not dismemberment, though, but the re-tailoring of minds. It is 25 sheets in length, 11” X 13” inches. It weighs 1.25 pounds.

The first thing that strikes one about “Tongues” is this sheer physicality. It is to its neighbors on the shelf as LeBron James is to other small forwards. Its paper is as thick as shoe leather. Its cardboard cover is thicker than that. Each volume has been hand-bolted by the author. “I had a secret notion,” he says, “that readers could take it apart and put it together in any way they saw fit.” To hold Tongues is to know you are into something.

Its merit is more difficult to grasp. The gestalt is noir — private eyes, women in distress, criminal masterminds with brutish henchmen — but of a hallucinatory order. Stories run one page or a dozen. Characters vanish after a single appearance or recur several stories later, seemingly having run their course. Narratives do not sustain. Solutions do not surface. At one point, Dockery interrupts his string of fictions for the “true” account of Harry Stephen Keeler, who came out of an Illinois nut house in 1913 to compose countless pulp stories and novels (The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Case of the Transposed Legs) from a weave of obsessions, coincidence, and indecipherable ethnic dialogue, for, Dockery surmises, “an audience that [could] … not exist.” In a later effort, Blood Around the Heart, perhaps Tongues’s major one, amidst a nightmarish iconography of blood stains, melted buildings, and freakish mutants ping-ponging through a maniacal monologue that references the riddle of existence, fall of civilizations, corruption of language, origin of being, dreams diluted into illusion, Dockery suggests that his narrator is receiving telepathic transmissions from the character about whom he is speaking — and that Mona, the woman this character pursues, is the character himself, which, if I follow this correctly, makes her/him the narrator — or the “author” — or Dockery. Or I may be mistaken.

In Tongues does not encourage confidence in the stability of one’s grounding. Its prologue states flat-out it may lead nowhere. Its text references “mind-forged manacles,” matters “beyond wildest imaginings,” “disblissful moments of doubt,” ponderings of the imponderable, truth as falsity, man as God’s stupidest creature. The verbal/pictorial chum is of amputated limbs, bald, hollow-eyed, naked men, tentacled, gun-toting amorphous shapes, and quotes from Homer, Luke, Epimenides of Knossos, and Ludlul bel nemeqi. Such juxtapositions explode order rather than lead to it. The drawing is impenetrably crosshatched. Its blacks and blacks and more blacks hammer into one’s mind and guts. It is a recitation without uplift — a score card of defeats. Tethers have run out. Only dead ends remain. Smoke has denoted fire and fire burns to ash.

In his entry of Harry Steven Keeler, Dockery notes that he found some success — two books made into movies — and much frustration — 1.3 million unpublished words at his death. He quotes a New York Times review that Keeler wrote “his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” I can understand a reviewer choosing to disparage an author by calling him “peculiar” and “undisciplined,” though I am uncertain that to be, say, “commonplace” or “tamed” would better guarantee estimable work. And I am even less sure that the motivation of “creative joy” warrants the cold-water dousing of “merely.”

I suspect that Dockery applied the Times quote to his collage with irony. I suspect he has not only a fascination with but an appreciation for Keeler. A thread in the “Why Art” weave, to which I suspect Dockery subscribes, holds that a creator ought push his views and demons to the extent that most satisfies him — that, in other words, affords him joy. While only a few of these seekers may find their visions resonate with a sufficient audience to award them further, it is such efforts that benefit society with the intellectual chasm never before spanned, the emotional ice pack not previously shattered. I applaud the seriousness of Dockery’s effort, the sincerity of his engagement, the severity with which he commits to the grapplings of the soul.

I decided to learn more about him.

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