Strip Mine

Jeanette Winterson‘s review in the New York Times of Joan Schenkar’s biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith draws a connection between not only Highsmith’s plot sequencing and the six-panel comic but Highsmith’s–and her characters’–personalities as well. Highsmith, who died in 1995, wrote Strangers On a Train The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cry of the Owl (yes, all became movies) and other tales in which apprehension becomes a palpable force (in his posthumous introduction to The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith published in 2001, Graham Greene calls her “the poet of apprehension…” ).  She famously consumed alcohol, cigarettes and love affairs with equal abandon.  After her graduation from Barnard College in 1942,  Highsmith wrote for a handful of comic publishers and Winterson suggests the staging of her novels, as well as the lives of  her subjects, is true to that visual form:

“…the comic strip formula of threat/pursuit/fantasy life/alter ego/secret identity was the formula she used in all her work. The four-color, six-panel comic strip shaped Patricia Highsmith the crime writer like nothing else–however much she cared cite Dostoyevsky and Henry James.”

Winterson, who loves the biography but has doubts about its subject, implies an important point about comics when comparing them to Highsmith’s story-telling ability. The pace of the action from panel to panel, and what (and how much)  to illustrate inside each of them is a crucial part of the craft. Emphasis on the scene–what’s pictured and it’s relationship to everything else pictured (composition)–and the angle from which it’s viewed is part of the narrative path.  As Highsmith demonstrated, the same goes for fiction writing, with description and symbol standing in for illustration. Highsmith not only knew how to create tension and suspense with her pacing, she knew that alter-egos are common to all of us (think The Talented Mr. Ripley). She apparently didn’t like to concede her background in comics. She “only vaguely acknowledged,  when pressed by the more ferrety kind of interviewer, having conjured up a few story lines for Superman and Batman,” write Winterson. But she seemed to recognize a comic-truth that  the Rabbit has always believed: Peel away the conservative suit of a mild-mannered reporter, or anyone for that matter, and you’ll find an unlikely leotard–with cape!–if not a different being all together. In other words, someone with something to hide.–Cabbage Rabbit

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