The Three Paradoxes’ many-faceted narrative is structured around the most mundane of events: a thirtyish cartoonist’s visit to his parents’ house. In name, appearance, and personal history, the cartoonist is a reasonable facsimile of the book’s author, Paul Hornschemeier. Like many adults visiting home, he finds his serious adult thoughts about work and love competing with the primordial feelings triggered by his return to where he grew up. What’s unique about this book is the way it dramatizes these clashes on the page.
The Three Paradoxes interleaves five distinct stories drawn in five distinct styles, giving it a superficial resemblance to Daniel Clowes’s recent Ice Haven. But whereas Clowes’s stylistic panorama serves to differentiate the thoughts and actions of a large ensemble cast, Hornschemeier’s fragmentation of the visual unity of his book reflects the struggle within a single mind. The artwork shows elements of both homage and parody in its references to various stages of comics history and production. While certain of the more broadly parodic of the book’s visual styles threaten to cross into self-parody if considered by themselves, in context they serve nicely as shorthand for specific acts of imagination or memory, as well as for the many contradictory beliefs and desires embedded in any human mind.
Three of the five stories star versions of Paul, and are arranged so that they bleed into and out of each other, often panel by panel. In the first, Paul the adult artist is struggling to draw a comic about a fantasized version of himself as a child adventurer who battles monsters and wise men with a magic pencil of limited usefulness. This comic is presented as adult Paul’s unfinished, blue-penciled handiwork, featuring frequent visible evidence of second-guessed plot points as well as occasional erasure marks. The panels we see of it skillfully mirror the commingled whimsy and trauma of childhood, but adult Paul is perpetually unsatisfied with his attempts to develop them. He finds himself compulsively returning to another story of another child Paul, this one the actual younger version of his adult self.
The true histories of a young and an older version of Paul comprise the interconnected second and third stories. As a child, Paul walks a route with his friends around their Ohio town; the route is overlapped, but not overwritten, by the route that adult Paul walks with his father. The connection between the two Pauls is clearly evoked—at one point, the bright orange children stroll side by side in the same panel as the blue-gray grownups. The children are further distinguished by having the rounded shapes and coarsely dotted coloring of newspaper comic strips, while the grownups have a "realistic" look and are flatly colored. The "realistic" story, the only untitled one of the five, is slightly unsatisfying as a visual narrative. Pauses in speech and action are extended for longer than feels natural, and from panel to panel there’s some monotony of composition. My hunch is that these apparent flaws are intentional attempts by the artist to make real-time experience (slow, muted, boring) appear inferior to memory (fast, bright, action-packed). These are not exactly the qualities I’d choose to contrast when comparing experience and memory, but the effect of Hornschemeier’s choice of them is to highlight the distinction between the benign end of the grownups’ walk (they return home safely) and the violent end of the children’s walk (Paul gets beat up). The experience of abuse remembered here casts a deep shadow over Paul’s older self, justifying the odd juxtaposition of qualities somewhat. What helps justify it further is Paul’s personal interpretation of Zeno’s paradoxes, about which more below.
In the book’s fourth story, Paul melds his personal memory of victimhood with his recent impressions of a car crash on the way to his parents’ house. The product is a self-contained melodrama, drawn as a yellowed old mainstream comics story, that may or may not be the true biography of the convenience-store clerk who sells Paul a bag of Tostitos. By itself it’s pure bathos, but considered as a product of Paul’s overheated imagination it works nicely against the almost punishing mundanity of their exchange.
The remaining story, presented as a series of pages ripped from an old humor comic, unpacks the three titular paradoxes and serves as the book’s philosophical center. Its centrality is telegraphed by the use of philosophers as characters, but it’s also the most broadly cartoonish portion of the book. Zeno, accompanied by his mentor Parmenides, travels from Elea to Athens to present his paradoxes, each of which demonstrates the logical absurdity of belief in motion and change. These arguments receive a fiery and profane rebuttal from a beardless young Socrates. Hornschemeier renders the philosophers as bobble-headed caricatures of classical sages, but with contemporary mannerisms: Parmenides and Zeno are a chatty gay couple, Socrates a loutish punk. Although presenting a philosophical dispute this way can be seen as merely fliply ironic, it’s also deeply faithful to the spirit of Socrates the master ironist.
In spite of the evidence Paul’s senses give him about change being very real, Zeno’s paradoxes are an obsession for him. It’s not hard to see one reason why: the unaltered scenes of his childhood traumas, as well as the presence of his mom and dad, are undeniable evidence of the continuity between the person he was and the person he is. Like many of us, he’s not sure these are really different people at all. It’s unclear that Zeno’s paradoxes are the best tools for understanding issues of personal identity, but a connection between them and Paul’s specific anxieties is made late in the philosophers’ story. "Your paradoxes honor your lover’s monism," Protagoras tells Zeno, "yet still he ages." This is both a logical challenge to Zeno and a reminder that everyone does get older, with both good and ill effects. What traps Paul is the doubt that even his imagination can free him from stasis.
His doubt is made concrete late in the book, in a scene that has the blue-penciled cartoon adventurer speaking in clean, black-inked speech balloons meant to represent the voice of the adult cartoonist. This merger of Paul’s real and imagined selves is on the phone with a girl he’s never met but already loves, and who the real Paul is only a few days away from meeting for the first time. What’s suggested is that until then, she’s as unreal as his creations and he’s as static as his fantasized self, none of whose adventures ever conclude.
For a work of under 100 pages, The Three Paradoxes is impressively dense. Each of its parts completes its own arc and supports its fellows in the larger project of exploring Paul’s thoughts. Given the unfocused navel-gazing that often dooms autobiographical comics, it’s also impressive how formally sophisticated this exploration is. Paul the character might have his doubts, but Hornschemeier the creator knows exactly what he’s doing.
Sacha Arnold is a contributing editor at Other and lives in San Francisco.
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