Mortimer Adler’s Dream: The Comics of Caitlin Cass

Posted by on May 15th, 2010 at 5:36 AM


Caitlin Cass is a cartoonist with an interesting academic background. She attended St. John’s College in Maryland, a school with a unique curriculum: the course of study revolves around the Great Books of Western Civilization. I know the concepts behind the Great Books well, thanks to a three-year high school philosophy program that had us choose a topic from the Syntopicon (Good and Evil, Love, Time, etc.) for a semester, do weekly readings and then discuss them. The idea behind St. John’s is learning optics straight from Newton, geometry from Euclid, history from Herodotus, medicine from Galen, etc.

ON STILTS, a 24-hour comic, explicitly discusses her relationship with these “dead white males” and why they obsess her. A key theme in Cass’ comics is the importance of direct experience over mere theory, a concept that helped her get over the feeling that she was a nobody compared to a thinker like Pascal. Using a thick line that emphasized shadow, she concluded that what St. John’s really taught was the opportunity to learn how to think for oneself by grappling with how others approached the problems of the day.

That sense of immediacy, that philosophy should be a living thing applicable to our experiences because that’s how these ideas were originally formulated, continued in another 24-hour comic, PHOSPHENES. This was the best comic of this group both in terms of idea and execution. As a girl, she was fascinated by the patterns that appear when one closes one’s eyes and pushes against the eyelids. The complexity and variety of patterns struck her as something almost mystical, yet it was a phenomenon that fascinated Newton (who used to poke himself in the eye with a stick to evince this reaction), who reduced it to being a chemical and neurological phenomenon.

While this disappointed Cass, she once again realized that phosphenes was something that could only truly be understood by way of experience, once again bringing an emphasis to temporality and material existence that she found comforting. Despite her typically crude draftsmanship, working big greatly aided her storytelling in this comic. Her pages had an open feel to them that helped in detailing both the patterns and the vastness of space that she used as a counterpoint.

On the other hand, SUM OF THE PARTS was a messy jumble of a comic. There were some clever visual ideas in this story (like her soul being composed of Golden Snitches and St Augustine coming back as a pear to lecture her on sin), but she simply didn’t have the chops to pull it off. The larger problem was that the visual ideas she employed didn’t seem to pay off in a larger way, as she tried to grapple with the problems of identity, the soul, and how & why we choose to act.

There’s no question that Cass is quite witty and a keen observer of the foibles of the great thinkers. The problem, as can be seen in the amusing AN ALPHABET OF REASONED FAILURE, is that I’m not sure what she’s trying to do as an artist. It’s not just that her figures are frequently crude, it’s also that her page & panel design are sloppy and her lettering frequently looks rushed. With a single panel per page in this book, the reader expects a striking image to go along with the anecdote she’s chosen about assorted philosophers, theologians and scientists that were not exactly their shining moments. (The gag about Lamarck was especially funny.) Instead, there’s awkward white space, lumpy figures and weirdly-composed panels to contend with on many pages. Cass seemed to veer from attempting a realistic line in her depiction of historical figures and something a bit more fanciful, and she got stuck in between. As she figures out her style, her already-sharp wit will be better served by clearer, more dynamic and simpler images.

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