APRIL 8, 2017
DAWN BREAKS over a modern apartment complex in the very first pages of Hariton Pushwagner’s dystopian graphic novel Soft City. The sun peers back at the reader from a single eye at its center. Its hundreds of fine, radiating lines call to mind a wild mane, the strands of which resemble heads of hair in William Blake’s work — paintings such as The Ancient of Days (1794), or any of a number of plates from The Book of Urizen, published in that same year. Pushwagner’s eye of providence invokes an array of eschatological meanings. The divine watches us with an organ akin to our own.
The immense eye at the middle of the very next page belongs to Pushwagner’s infant protagonist, a son who extends the gaze of the sun. The child’s perceptions bookend Pushwagner’s story: his work concludes with a matching image, a nearly identical wide-eyed gaze as this same child prepares to close his eyes for the night. This motif has led some to make comparisons between Soft City and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was released just before Pushwagner began his project in the early 1970s. The one infant is, however, much more foreboding than the other: the baby at the climax of Kubrick’s film was intended to signal the arrival of another species, a successor to Homo sapiens. Pushwagner’s child, by contrast, is named Bingo, and he is less the avatar of humankind’s displacement than the joyful spirit of curiosity, fascinated by the day’s events. The world with all its perils is reflected in his eyes, and Pushwagner outlines the clearly discernible shapes of the continents in the black oceans of Bingo’s pupils. He watches his father read the newspaper, and his impressionable mind takes shape as he gazes out, beyond the bars of his crib.
The sections of Soft City that focus on Bingo provide a sharp contrast with the rest of the story. Pushwagner’s portrayals of white-collar workplaces are ominous, but in the Bingo sections the boy, who cuts an oddly doughy silhouette, merrily explores the domestic spaces around him. Some of the illustrations in this part of the book, where Bingo can be seen wandering through the family apartment, are reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (1970). Bingo also happens to have been the name of the sunglasses-wearing Gorilla featured on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, a music-centered television program that aired from 1968 to 1970. Pushwagner’s own child was born in 1973, and for this reason the artist might well have been familiar with both Sendak’s work and the Hanna-Barbera program. Then too, in his role as the Banana Splits’s percussionist, Bingo calls to mind the femur-bone wielding ape at the beginning of 2001.
These two apes, we might say, capture the somewhat jarring tonal incongruity of Soft City. On the one hand, the story offers Bingo as an avatar of blameless nature and clear vision. He is the silo in which a world gone wrong stores its hopes for something better. But one need not be alarmed: Pushwagner does not neglect collective misery. Human life in Soft City is an infinitely reproducible commodity, and the citizens themselves are depicted as mass production’s most refined objects. Those who live in this city’s apartments and work in its offices are hardly more differentiated from one another than items on an assembly line. In terms consistent with Theodor Adorno’s 1951 appraisal of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Pushwagner highlights the unalloyed similarity of everything mass-produced, and the way in which mass production demands consistently identical mass producers. The process of creation is inverted, and the assembly line assumes its place as the origin of the world. No one in Soft City’s white-collar workroom would dare say they dislike their job, because this society does not seem to tolerate anything that does not conform to its own image. For the most part, the smiles of the city’s inhabitants are merely the grins of victims, resigned to acting as though they enjoy what they do.
Hariton Pushwagner is a pseudonym for Terje Brofos, a Norwegian artist born in 1940. According to an interview published in 2012, Brofos did a lot of hashish in the company of the influential science fiction writer Axel Jensen, whom he met in the late 1960s. Jensen had, Brofos explained, “some of the very best acid, Sandoz LSD, direct from [R. D.] Laing in London.” Summing up this part of his story, Brofos adds: “And that’s how Soft City started.” Work on the project was completed in 1975, but in 1979 someone stole the portfolio containing the artist’s original drawings. They were recovered in 2002, and after a court fight he finally regained the rights to his own work.
Pushwagner identifies mechanical reproduction as the root of the problem that he criticizes in Soft City, signaling this by placing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 lithograph “Jane Avril” on the wall of Bingo’s parents’ residence. Toulouse-Lautrec’s picture was widely reproduced and has come to stand for the artist’s immense significance in the history of reproducible images. While Walter Benjamin is forever associated with the mass reproducibility of artworks, one could argue that his pioneering essay was also concerned with the mass reproducibility of popular images’ consumers. If culture is mechanically reproduced on a massive scale, then one can say the same of its patrons. Although the Beatles’s title “Here Comes the Sun” is explicitly invoked in Soft City’s metaphysical opening pages, not every work of popular music is similarly profound. Strains of “Yesterday” seem to provide comfort when they waft through Soft City’s stereo systems, and “King of the Road” and “Sentimental Journey” are among the refrains used to dissuade the city’s countless commuters from bolting out of their vehicles.
Pushwagner relies on panoramas to convey the scale of this world, and his giant, page-spanning illustrations do well in this edition’s sizable format. Unending repetition highlights the city’s abyssal sameness. A two-page spread of nearly identical and almost uniformly male white-collar employees exiting their indistinguishable apartments presents readers with an image of biological life divested of individuality. The building’s inhabitants are only as distinct from one another as bees in a hive, or as an assemblage of UPC codes. Pushwagner also highlights this interminable reproduction by means of a recurring motif involving mirrored images. The urban courtyard is a mise-en-abîme: a virtually indistinguishable family consisting of man, woman, and child lurks behind every door. Across the way one finds a sea of reflections — a dozen windows in which the very same scene transpires. The domestic spheres are unvarying, their uniformity recapitulated on the micro-level insofar as husbands and wives step out of bed symmetrically. This population is composed of highly trainable animals, and any differences in how one wakes up in the morning, drives a car, or sits in an office chair are hardly detectable. In a running joke, Pushwagner’s protagonists become confused when they encounter actual mirrors, greeting their own images as they would greet their neighbors, mistaking their own faces for ones belonging to identical others.
Yet very little of this mirroring — the eternal reproduction of Soft City’s subjects — seems to horrify those involved. Pushwagner’s protagonists are resigned to their own mass production. One is forced to wonder whether Pushwagner holds this world in contempt. Has the life he depicts been damaged by its reproducibility? The adults all take “soft” pills so that they can avoid confrontation with hard living, hard news, and hard truths. Even at the supermarket the products are “soft,” and “soft meat” — whatever that might mean — is the object of a hard sell. These infantile adults need everything around them to be spongier than stuffed animals. Their pills appear to convince them that this is the case, yet there are glimmers of dissatisfaction. The story line’s wife and mother evinces just enough independent subjectivity that she can be caught registering vague impressions of discontent. At the moment she is most akin to Mad Men’s Betty Draper, she counts the seconds until her white-collar husband goes to work. The city’s commuters indulge in small fantasies while sitting in their cars: idle vehicles beget idle daydreams. One of these men imagines taking flight, while another engages in an inexplicable and barely detected act of violence. These people retain sufficient subjectivity and imagination to recall the sensation of having once been human. In the end, though, they have just enough desire to keep them docile, but not enough that they actually change their lives.
Soft City manufactures weapons, and Pushwagner is very literal about the reach and aims of this military-industrial economy. One of Pushwagner’s captions conveys the workers’ maxim, which may as well be etched in iron across the city’s gates: “if you don’t make it / you’re fired / if you’re fired / you are finished.” At no point do we encounter those who are “finished.” The ones who are remaindered out — the drowned, perhaps — might be among those we glimpse on the nightly news, at the end of the workday. These glimpses of the news make clear that Soft City depicts not some far future, but rather the world of the early 1970s or one quite like it. Some hail fascism, while others hail the hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, and Pushwagner depicts the 1970 Kent State tragedy among other then-current events. These stories exist in ambiguous tension with the personal tragedies kept at bay in television owners’ apartments.
Soft City’s workplaces clearly resonate with dystopias of the 1960s, a period when employees feared that they would lose themselves in a white-collar hive. Offices threatened to become anthills, and Pushwagner’s sea of desks looks more like the one depicted in Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962) than the comfy Madison Avenue agencies imagined in Mad Men. But in depicting workplace anomie, Pushwagner perhaps unintentionally conflates blue- and white-collar miseries. When residents of the apartment complex board an elevator, the image is taken directly from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Lang’s film was also a critique of modern conformity, but one focused on factory laborers rather than white-collar workers. Why muddle this distinction? Is all employment in the second half of the 20th century equally alienated and precarious?
In any case, our anxieties today look different. The age of electronically mediated workplaces is upon us. Homo sapiens has been replaced by Homo connexus, connected beings whose eyes are glued to a small screen morning, noon, and night. Many now work from their apartments, but this hardly means that we have become individuated. Today’s telecommunicational fears find expression in the vision of inert bodies that populate the human farm in The Matrix (1999), where people, isolated and fed by tubes, are used like lithium batteries in the service of a large computer. Similar sequestration can be seen in “Thanksgiving.com,” Chris Ware’s gloomy New Yorker magazine cover from 2000. Yet the fact that The New York Review of Books chose Ware to write the introduction to this edition of Soft City suggests that there may be an important connection between Pushwagner’s fears and ours after all.
Serious Pushwagner devotees should also keep an eye out for the 300-page book Pushwagner (eds. Anthony Spira and Natalie Hope O’Donnell [Art Books Publishing: London, 2012]), which accompanied a public exhibition of the artist’s work. That book features reproductions of Soft City’s original sketches in which one can see occasional touches of bright color. Some of the stand-alone pieces reproduced in that volume make clear that there are indeed stylistic connections between Pushwagner’s work and that of Hieronymus Bosch, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, and even Red Grooms. These connections are a bit less apparent when one looks only at Soft City. Perhaps, however, readers should not dwell so long on comparisons. Most who write about Soft City link it to major works of Western literature, art, and cinema. The gesture, as we know by now, seeks to undergird the seriousness of the graphic novel even as it suggests that the medium cannot stand on its own, that it needs to be bolstered by references to more securely canonical artistic traditions.
This is not so. Soft City is a compelling storehouse of midcentury anxieties. Even if these anxieties are no longer quite the same — if we now inhabit a world in which the absence of work is more terrifying than its overbearing presence — there is still value to Pushwagner’s vision. Ware may perhaps overstate the case when he writes, in his introduction, that “now, forty years later, [Soft City] still feels revolutionary.” But revolutions in art are not quite the same as revolutions in political consciousness: we don’t need to share each and every one of an artist’s fears to understand the significance of his or her work. Today we are differently alienated. But in depicting a world that was a precursor to our own, even if that world is now less recognizable, Soft City turned an era’s apprehensions into art.