Unconventional Panel Borders in Amy Kurzweil’s Flying Couch – by Lauren Allen
In any conventional graphic novel, panel borders are essential. They mark time, duration of a moment, and create a sense of space. However, when panel and page flow seamlessly and the borders are lost, a unique sense of timelessness emerges, and in Amy Kurzweil’s Flying Couch, she uses the lack of panel borders to her advantage. In her graphic memoir, Amy Kurzweil explores her life as a Jewish woman while simultaneously carrying her grandmother’s third generation holocaust anxiety. This graphic memoir is able to illustrate a unique approach to identity formation and the recollection of memories. As Kurzweil takes us on the visual and literary journey through her discovery of her own identity, the fragmented and anxiety ridden image she has of herself is emanated through the lack of conventional borders in her panels. The reader is guided through both Amy’s past and present; however the explicit distinction between different memories are skewed by the unconventional border style that contorts the reader’s sensation of time. Unconventional use of page space without explicit borders creates a sense of distorted time and timelessness throughout the graphic novel.
In many of the pages throughout the graphic memoir, the lack of borders not only skews the reader’s perception of time, but also the way the reader’s eye is guided through the page. Based on the structure of the page, the reader is either able to float through the narrative with ease or struggle through its hectic dynamism. The reader can attribute this page style to the way Amy feels at the given moment. Amy’s mother reminds Amy that “I think you’ll be alright” (17). Without listening to Amy’s problems further, her mother dismisses her to watch the television. As Amy grows up and becomes a young woman, the hectic panels that lose the reader’s eye become more frequent. This parallels with Amy’s lack of guidance as a child. She was always consoled for her anxieties, but never dealt with them properly. However, the lack of guidance across each page also leaves space for error and redundancy. That being said, Kurzweil is able to portray the dynamic nature of the way an individual identifies herself, but the way that the quest for identity is not always a linear process.
Through Amy’s encounters with her Bubbe, the reader can gather that their relationship is nowhere near conventional due to the fragmented panels and lack of guidance for the eye across the pages. On page 36, we are first introduced to the whirlwind that is Bubbe. The only thing holding her to the page is the pathway that the girls are walking on through the park. However, even as a guiding force for the reader, the pathway is not doing much in terms of the chaos that is ensuing between the “panels” and Bubbe’s actions. When I use the word panels in the context of this book, I more readily mean the instances between each action or moment. Wherever the reader’s eye lands on the two page spread, the image of Bubbe is still both literally and visually apparent. Since there is no central anchor for the eye to be drawn to, the reader’s eye moves frantically across the page for an anchor to hold onto. Amy seems to be torn between her grounded mother and her scattered grandmother throughout the page. Since Amy is illustrating this memory from her childhood, it is apparent that her perception of Bubbe has not changed. Through these two pages where the borders are not explicit, Bubbe is chaotically moving about, both skewing the reader’s understanding of space and disrupting Amy’s narrative flow.
The representation of Bubbe and the chaos she brings to the page deeply affects Amy’s identity discovery because she carries around the third generation holocaust anxiety. Amy’s depiction of Bubbe is chaotic and disrupting to the page. Bubbe does make up a great deal of who Amy is, and because Bubbe is illustrated in such a hectic light, it is safe to assume that Amy gathers a lot of her anxiety from the wake that Bubbe creates. As the reader struggles through Bubbe’s chaotic nature, we experience a lot of what Amy is experiencing. Without the explicit panels, it seems that the reader becomes a part of the narrative, both observing Amy’s life through pictures and text while also experiencing it with her. The overwhelming nature of family is familiar to everyone, and Amy does not fail to depict what many encounters with a Jewish family feel like. On page 151, Amy visits her family in Israel. The page is scattered with speech bubbles: “Are you hungry?”, “Do you like black people music?” (151). There is no telling how much time this arrangement of memories took, but when they become memories, it is silly to expect that Amy knows the exact duration. Amy’s stream of consciousness and memories are so naturally spread out onto the page that including borders to emanate the conventionalities of time and space seem useless. Borders here both mean comic borders as well as the borders between narrator and reader. As Amy experiences her anxieties surrounding Bubbe and her family, the reader does too. However, Amy’s anxieties start from a very young age.
The reader has to bear the abrupt transitions between Amy’s adult life and Amy’s child life. There are multiple occasions throughout the text when there is no clear distinction between present and past, childhood and adulthood.
On page 116, Amy’s adult self goes to sleep, and as if magic, the reader drifts into a memory of childhood bedtime routine with Amy because of the lack of borders. Time as we know it is gone and the present for Amy transitions into the past before the reader’s eyes. The only indication of the shift is the way her headboard from her current bed is different from that of her childhood bed. A similar occurrence happens on page 155, when Amy is tossing and turning in her bed as an adult, and out of nowhere she jumps back to her past. As a reader, the way the panels are still cohesive even though Amy is jumping between two completely different time periods, highlights the true ebb and flow of time. As Amy is an adult she still struggles with going to sleep as much as she did as a child and still craves her mother’s comfort. However, this struggle to fall asleep is directly correlated with Amy’s lifelong struggle with anxiety, and the way the panels flow into one another highlights the fact that even though Amy has grown, her anxiety has remained the same.
Kurzweil utilizes this brilliant strategy of making memories flow into the present in order to show the way in which time may separate one moment from another, but it does not loosen the correlation between those two moments. With the lack of borders when it comes to Amy’s childhood and adulthood, the blurring of the two depict the way Amy has forever struggled with anxiety. Even though Amy is an adult with a new sense of maturity, her anxieties will transport her back to her childhood. As the transition from adulthood to childhood in these moments of anxiety are seamless, the reader can identify with the way Amy depicts the sensation. Her adult life and child life often blur together because she carries a lot of the same weight with her through her development. Baggage is a commonality among many, especially those who have had a family member or family members survive the holocaust, but by completely neglecting panel borders in this scene and every kind of scene in the memoir, Kurzweil paints a picture that is both irregular and relatable throughout the comic. However, on pages 272-275, the shift from the adulthood to childhood bedtime routine is encaptured within border-like bubbles.
Even though Kurzweil never uses a conventional border style, she does use a form of panel borders that are in the shape of a circle. The bubble panels typically give an insight into different aspects of the same theme or moment. On pages 272 and 273, the bubbles depict Amy, Bubbe, and her mom all during a similar moment, getting ready for sleep. This creates a sort of uniting structure across the three states that the women live in. Then the reader flips the page to a similar scene: Amy’s in adulthood mirroring herself in childhood while struggling to find sleep. However, this time the moments are not cohesive. Amy is illustrated doing the same thing in both bubbles. This reinforces the purpose of the bubble, just as we see in another example on page 77 or on pages 206-207. These recurring bubble borders mostly depict aspect-to-aspect transitions and do in fact highlight some form of structure. Aspect-to-aspect transitions typically capture multiple moments from the same scene in order to create a feeling of mood and location in the reader’s mind. Even though some of the bubble borders do not always capture moments from the same localized scene, it is safe to generalize that all the bubbles are aspect-to-aspect simply because localization of time is skewed throughout the entire graphic memoir. This structure is depicted on the final page which is surprisingly a flashback to when amy was a child. Here, we see her and her independence at work when she does not need her mother to help her get to sleep. We are introduced to the scene in the typical way: Amy’s adult self morphs into her child self. However, Kurzweil ends the book on Amy’s child self which reinforces the fact that her child self is just as influential or even more influential than any other memory that we experience with Amy.
Kurzweil is strategic in her stylistic choice to show that time is not static; it constantly flows and interacts with itself and its environment. Time is illustrated with the lack of borders because everything in time affects everything in the present: just how Amy’s adulthood and childhood affect each other and how her memories all blend together. Humans are accustomed to the anchor of time as a constant within life, but Kurzweil is strategic with her lack of borders and depicts a kind of time that many are not familiar with. Kurzweil’s kind of time is a stream of memories and consciousness, by which can only be depicted in an unconventional way in order to convey the essence that memories embody. Kurzweil attempts and succeeds at illustrating something that can not be done in a novel or a conventional comic format. The sensation of time in the novel by means of the skewed panel style helps the reader interpret Amy as a character and as a narrator, while simultaneously involving the reader in Amy’s story and memories. By eliminating the sense of space and time, the reader is able to float or struggle through the narrative with Kurzweil, making the graphic memoir more engaging and relatable.