Bryant Paul Johnson, Teaching Baby Paranoia

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, March 2005

Bryant Paul Johnson’s Teaching Baby Paranoia has been on the web for over five years, first at Tragi-comix.com, then to ModernTales.com, where it has reliably updated every Friday for the past three years.

The series, which Johnson describes as “faux intellectualism,” presents quasi-historical short stories that seamlessly blend fact and fiction into a smart satire of history and society. Sometimes the stories are clearly more fiction than fact; other times, you only hope that’s the case. Through much of its run, each episode has been a standalone story, much like Carol Lay’s Story Minute. More recently Johnson has begun to experiment with larger, more sophisticated story structures.

A classic information junkie, Johnson is constantly reading, constantly researching, taking in history, politics, literature, and even cutting edge science in equal measure. He then pours it all back into his comics, to tell some of the smartest, most entertaining lies on the web.

First off, to confirm what I already know: Teaching Baby Paranoia updates every Friday on Modern Tales. You’ve also recently had stories appear in the True Porn anthology and SPX 2003. Any other publications I should know about?

Over the years, I’ve had various other comics in small anthologies. My work was in three or four issues of “Newbies Eclectica” a McGill University student publication, edited by Jordan Raphael (the co-author of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book). In 1998, I had a two page comic in Chris Shadoian’s anthology called “Skin Eater Comics.” Between 1998 and 1999, I published three issues of a minicomic called “Mumbletypeg.” I wouldn’t call any of them indispensable. For the most part, the Teaching Baby Paranoia, as it appears on ModernTales is the only body of work with which I’m marginally satisfied.

TBP has changed considerably since it first began. Early strips had a more conventional gag structure, much more overt political themes, and a self-aware authorial proxy, all of which have more or less fallen by the wayside. It wasn’t until “Coriander Leaves” that you seemed to really grab hold of the idea of doing quasi-historical narratives. Was this a conscious shift in focus?

When I first set out to create a weekly comic, I didn’t want to tell one particular type of story; I didn’t want a strip that was dictated by a cast of recurring characters. My attention span is pretty short. I knew that I’d grow tired of the characters, and thus the strip.

I think the beginning of the strip was my gestation as a cartoonist. I clung to the themes of my college days: overt politicizing and overt cultural commentary. As I’ve matured as a cartoonist, I’ve focused on the things that interest me most (which, consistently, has been the intersection of history and folklore). Though I’m still interested in political and social commentary, I try to be more subtle about it.

I don’t think this change was so much a conscious effort to refocus the tone of the strip, so much as an evolving process of self-evaluation.

Where does the title “Teaching Baby Paranoia” come from?

The title, “teaching baby paranoia,” was the punchline to an unpublished, single-panel comic I wrote back in college (it had something to do with overzealous parents and a baby monitor). During my final year at McGill, I was the staff cartoonist for the weekly paper. After four or five weeks on the job, the editor told me I needed a name for my strip (titles have never been that important to me). I was flipping through old sketchbooks looking for a title and found the words: “teaching baby paranoia.” I liked that it had a completely non-descriptive quality; taken from the context of the image, it meant absolutely nothing.

Six or seven years ago, I began doing comic strips again, this time for a monthly magazine called VMag. For the first year, the editor was obliged to title my strips in the indicia, because, again, I never gave them titles. Once again, I dragged out the name “Teaching Baby Paranoia” (presumably, to cash in on the gigantic Canadian readership I had built up!).

The title really means nothing, it just has some sort of intangible quality that I like!

I’m intrigued that you say titles aren’t all that important to you, since you’ve actually titled every individual strip in TBP since some time in 2001. Why make that effort?

Two reasons, really. The first is rather mundane. I was never sure what the publishing schedule of the strip would be, having switched it several times over the course of its online history. Other than titling each strip, I didn’t have a convenient way of identifying an individual episode.

Talking about “that one strip where the guy goes crazy and builds a giant concrete fist, visible from space” became too awkward!

The other, and more important, reason is the illusion, or sometimes, the disillusion of continuity. By giving each strip its own title, I’m telling readers that this is a complete story unto itself. This, of course, works both ways; in the case of “Cell Division,” I gave each a unique title, leading people to discover the connections between episodes themselves.

In the case of my last “big” storyline, “Calabiyau” each episode has a unique title, but one that reflects its antecedents within the looping storyline.

“Calabiyau,” “Cell Division,” and “The Clockwork Marvel” were interesting departures in a number of ways. You’ve done multi-part stories before, but sporadically. Why the recent interest in longer work?

To be honest, it’s pretty much because, in each case, I came up with an idea that required a bit more room to work.

Generally, I like working in short form. I like leaving the reader with the impression that they’re getting just a glimpse of a larger history (in addition, I find that the most mundane of events becomes comically absurd when viewed through a tiny frame. Take for example, this past election: when you look at the big picture, it’s a pretty depressing affair [at least from the side staring down the barrel of this particular rifle]. But, zoom in on any particular moment, stripped of its place within the tapestry of American politics, and it’s pretty much two rich guys bickering over details of no concern to 99% of the population.)

In each of the longer stories, I had an idea for a concept that I wanted to try, beyond just a momentary look at the absurd.

For the first (Cell Division), I wanted to build a “secret” narrative that tied a number of seemingly unrelated stories together. I wanted to look at the number of historical coincidences that it took to create a present-day disaster. By keeping all of these plot elements relatively hidden, I hoped people would suddenly realize how the isolated things we do, tie together into a larger picture (which plays into my aside above, where I talk about the absurdity of zooming in on a particular event. Cell Division was my attempt to give a “macro” view of the types of stories I usually do).

The second (Calabiyau) was a narrative that I wanted to mirror a mathematic theory (string theory) that I thought applicable to history. String theory postulates the existence of numerous realities in parallel (a Calabi Yau manifold being an eleven dimensional geometric object). The story was dictated by some comically pretentious need to write an eleven part story to match each of the eleven dimensions! And to make it revolve around a textile manufacturer.

The third story (The Clockwork Marvel), was my attempt to do a relatively straight-forward story. Which didn’t exactly happen. As I worked on it, certain themes — that I thought important — led me to twist the narrative around and make it, by far, the most convoluted story I’ve ever done.

“Coriander Leaves,” “Calabiyau,” “Cell Division,” “The Clockwork Marvel.” Is there any significance to the fact that the titles of all your longer stories begin with the letter “C?”

Wow… that’s a really bizarre coincidence! Until you mentioned it, I had never noticed the connection! Maybe it’s my version of the “comedy ‘k’!”

How much advance planning goes into a story with complex narrative structures like these?

It really depends.

To motivate myself into doing a longer story, I usually come up with the metastructure first; something that makes me think in an exciting way. It’ll be something that I mull over in my head or in my sketchbooks for a few weeks, as I do my regular strips. Eventually, when I’ve either hammered out how I want the narrative to work, or get too impatient to keep “thinking” about it, I start with the actual plotting.

I try to plan out as much of the story, as possible, before I begin. I make notes to myself, and assemble the narrative as a series of index cards, or as a flow chart. From there, I actually start the writing and the drawing of the individual episodes. Because I tend to work pretty tight to the deadline, my overall story plan tends to be plot heavy, but detail light (Luc De Lyon travels to Marseilles. He catches a boat bound for Jerusalem. Boat sinks…). I flesh out the details as I write each episode and as I do the research.

Usually, I wander off topic a bit, as I chase down some theme that has become apparent in the details.

And sometimes, I drop certain elements of my metastructure, when I realize they’ve become too unwieldy, or drag the story away from where it is headed (If you look at the first dozen of strips from The Clockwork Marvel, there are allegorical attachments to the titles [all of the strips are named after celestial bodies, and thus characters from Greek and Roman legend]).

Come to think of it, I pretty much let the flow of the story dictate the end result.

Is planned “winging it” an answer?

For most cartoonists, “experimenting” usually means a drastic shift in art style. For you, it seems to mean a drastic shift in narrative structure, while the artwork remains fairly constant. What is it about these fractured narratives that sparks your interest?

I think fractured narratives more accurately depict reality.

Rather than thinking of stories as a sequence of points on a timeline, I tend to think of narratives as rays emanating from an event. You have an almost infinite number of moments that trigger the story on the page and, essentially, an infinite number of possible scenarios following.

In each of the longer stories I’ve done, I was trying to look at the causes and effects of certain actions. In those cases, the fractured narratives work pretty well; the reader can see the cause and effect without having to suffer through some arbitrary chronological progression (or in the case of psychological trauma, without a narrator explicitly identifying the root of a particular behavior).

That reminds me of another comment you made shortly after the conclusion of Calibiyau. You said: “It seemed to me that the mathematics of theoretical physics and the mathematics of history share a number of similarities.” Care to elaborate on that idea?

In the early part of the twentieth century, Einstein created the theories of General Relativity. They were a refined set of rules that showed how the universe fit together.

Einstein’s theories were based upon the observational physics of Isaac Newton. They largely dealt with the universe as seen through a telescope, or seen with the naked eye. Einstein’s theories started to bend some of the assumptions that we held dear (time as a constant, nothing moves faster than light) but didn’t break them. The universe made sense.

Once we developed sophisticated means of observation, physics turned its attention to the subatomic world. Though largely governed by the same forces of Newton’s and Einstein’s theories, there were things that physics could no longer explain: objects seeming to appear in two places at once; objects behaving as particles and waves; objects with a seemingly disproportionate amount (or a lack) of mass.

There was a discrepancy between the physics of the macroscopic (planets, black holes, apples) and the physics of the microscopic (electrons, photons, quarks).

In the late twentieth century, mathematicians and physicists working on refined versions of Einstein’s General Relativity came up with a theoretical model of the universe that unified the physics of the very large and the very small, called string theory (and later, superstring, bosonic superstring, symmetrical superstring, and now m-theory).

In this current model of thinking, the universe is an eleven (or ten, or twenty-six) dimensional object made up of harmonic “strings.” Our universe is four dimensions projected onto a two dimensional membrane floating in “‘branespace.” These membranes run in parallel, yet exert some degree of influence upon those around it.

Though this model is mathematically very sound, we can see no tangible proof of it. Yet. We need to sharpen our senses, and train ourselves to look in a new way.

So what does this multidimensional model have to do with history?

When we think of history, we tend to think of it as a tightly focused, and unbending sequence. History moves in only one direction, and irrevocably.

If we look at a regional history (say for example, the history of the city of Boston), we can see a timeline of events: 1620, Plymouth Plantation. 1641, Massachusetts Bay Company. 1776, War of Independence. 2004 Red Sox win World Series.

With a bit of due diligence, we can create a fairly accurate portrait of Boston. A history that makes sense.

But, to fully understand the true history of Boston, we need to look at a bigger picture. We need to look at a number of sequences, moving in parallel. We need to look at religious history (the conflict between Catholicism, the Church of England, and Puritanical Protestantism, and how that interacted with aboriginal religion); we need to look at economic history (the economic impetus for creating the Massachusetts Bay Company, tax laws in England); we need to look at military history (the military histories of England and France), cultural history (the ideas of manifest destiny, and pioneering) and so on.

Hundreds of events running in parallel –whole fields of study in their own membrane– exerting influences on the whole.

We can’t look at things in a strictly linear fashion. Events don’t always segue from one to the next. Things fester in the background, only to flare up decades later, and play a critical role in shaping history.

Plans are made looking into the future: England looked into its future, saw what damage a protracted guerilla war in the American Colonies could do to their balance of power with the French, and acquiesced to the Colonies’ demand for autonomy. Strictly speaking, the events of the past were influenced by events from their immediate (though hypothetical) future.

We have multiple dimensions of theoretical time affecting one dimension of perceived time.

It’s a matter of training ourselves to look in a new way.

When I started reading about m-theory, I saw a parallel (there’s that word again!) between how physicists were trying to reconcile microscopic and macroscopic observations and how I had been trying to reconcile microscopic and macroscopic history in my head.

And, of course, this isn’t new thinking. I know Joey Manley will be delighted to hear me talk about Jorge Luis Borges. Fifty years before the mathematical foundation of superstring theory was made, Borges wrote about a garden of forking paths; realities branching out from each choice we make in life.

M-theory is just a beautiful metaphor for a particular way of looking at our collective history!

Okay, let me see if I’m understanding this correctly—in the context of Calibiyau, the company meets the same end regardless of the decisions of Day and the board because of the confluence of seemingly unrelated external factors. The company wasn’t doomed by bad management, but by the wider web of events around it.

Correct.

External factors (events that predated the point at which the three stories diverged [the death of August Day,] or were beyond the direct influence of the players involved) caused the death of the Calabiyau manufacturing plant.

Each of the three story-lines are drawn to similar (though not identical) conclusions by the gravity well of one particular entity (the never explicitly named W——). Through the footnotes, I tried to make it clear that W—— was in its position of power through a number of events that seem unrelated, out of context (environmental regulations, free-trade agreements, tax incentives…).

Again, I was trying to describe a more metaphysical look at history.

To be honest, I’m not terribly happy with how this story came out. I feel that by using such a loaded subject, the plot (the Moore Twine Company vs. W——) became more important than the story (the consequences of short term economic thinking).

I think I like the idea behind the story more than I like the story itself!

This theory would apply to Cell Division as well, correct? Where a series of interesting but seemingly unrelated and largely minor events culminate in a massive tragedy?

Again, correct.

Over the course of a couple hundred years, we trace physical and psychological trauma through a couple of families to an eventual boiling-point. And without any one clear cause of the disaster (the three potential triggers).

I think that by keeping the plot-at-large a secret, the emphasis is really on the theme.

Though this predated my interest in theoretical physics by a couple of months, this story is a more nuanced example of the history I was thinking about when I wrote Calabiyau.

Let’s turn to “The Clockwork Marvel,” the most recent, and I’d say most ambitious of your stories. In this piece, about a 13th century Christian heretic and Arabic astronomer, you bring the early development of the Heliocentric model of the solar system together with a surprisingly chatty Holy Prepuce [Note: that’s the foreskin of Jesus]. And then bridge the whole thing to an 18th century French Theologian obsessed with obscure history. With so many layers in this one, I have to ask: What was the seed that started you off?

It was really the culmination of a couple of things, the first of which was, obviously, an interest in world politics. In the process of trying to learn a bit more about the history of our conflicts in the Middle East, I read a few books on Arab history and the Crusades.

The second was the realization that this civilization that we westerners sometimes think of as “barbaric” was really the savior of most classical scholarship.

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the rise of the Catholic Church, many of the seminal works of classical thought (Aristotle, Ptolemy, Pythagoras) were considered heretical by the church. They were either hidden away in boxes, never to be seen again (or at least until the Renaissance), or destroyed.

The Arabic speaking people (which included the non Arab Persians) had an immense interest in Greek and Roman scientific philosophy. It was really only through their direct intervention that so much of our knowledge of Greek learning survives.

So, I started reading a bit about the history of Arab science…

One of the strips in The Clockwork Marvel was a “secret” episode that depicts a conversation between me and a hermeneutist named Baran Juteland. That conversation pretty much sums up my reasons for doing this story (though, in the strip I imply that it is non-fiction, when in fact, it is almost completely fictional)!

Ah, so you admit that it’s fiction! Not that this comes as a surprise, of course, but in your forums, you tend to maintain the illusion that your stories are true, even when they clearly aren’t, going so far as to debate the details and motives of imaginary events and entities. This is further enhanced by the footnotes that accompany each strip, which even include an “editor” who sometimes corrects and pokes fun at the author. It seems like you intentionally avoid drawing the line between fiction and non-fiction.

Once you have the talking foreskin of Christ as a major character, I think it’s safe to admit that you’re writing fiction!

One of the reasons I like playing around with the line between fiction and non-fiction is that it changes the role of the reader.

When you read a work of fiction, you play a more passive role in the flow of the narrative. You let the author build and establish the rules of the world (that’s not to say that all fiction needs to establish new ground rules; the vast majority of fiction operates within a logic consistent with “the real world”), and how their narrative functions therein.

When you read non-fiction, the reader is charged with placing the story within the context of history, as they understand it. The reader is asked to make connections between what they see on the page, and their culture.

In my shorter comics, this works to my advantage. I don’t have the space on the page to establish exactly how the world works, and how the characters will play off of it. By using the framework of non-fiction, I can assume that the reader will understand enough of the history and culture referenced, for the strip to function.

For longer works, I’m willing to push the boundary between fiction and non-fiction a bit more. I have more room to establish an internal logic that facilitates more of the fantastic, while still using the resonating frequencies of history and culture.

By constantly straddling that line, ventures into the purely fictional have more emotional resonance. If the reader comes to expect a certain logic (religious artifacts don’t talk, for example), breaking this logic makes the reader question the validity of this trespass, and the role it plays in the narrative.

At least, hopefully…

It was interesting to see your authorial proxy make an appearance after such a long absence — and in the middle of a major story no less. What brought you back to this device?

While writing The Clockwork Marvel, I did a bit of reading about “hermeneutics:” the study of meaning behind words (a recurring theme in The Clockwork Marvel). Generally, it was applied to the study of the bible, though in the case of Janus Joseph, the study of Lucius Francus’ astronomical texts.

When I was scripting “Titania,” the strip paired with the “secret” episode, I was trying to figure out why the story had veered drastically from my original plan. In my original outline, Luc De Lyon was the focus of the story; Janus Joseph was merely a framing device. Somewhere along the way, I changed the story without really knowing why.

The “secret” strip was a hermeneutic look at my own work. I have largely abandoned using my proxy in Teaching Baby Paranoia because the focus of the strip has changed. Here it seemed appropriate (and divorced from the narrative).

In The Clockwork Marvel, you overtly raise a number of issues about our understanding of history. You point out that much of what we know of ancient history comes from records that were made centuries after the events documented (highlighting the questionable veracity of your own tale in the process). And, of course, there are simply many areas of history where nothing is recorded at all. Much of your work, this story being no exception, seems aimed at filling those holes in history. Where does this interest come from?

I was a Classics major in college. My forté in Classics was history, not surprisingly.

The history of the ancient world is spotty at best. Every piece of knowledge gained is the product of near-endless debate, generally between the historians, and the archaeologists.

A couple of years before I started at McGill, a major rift developed between the historians in the department, and the archaeologists (over research on the Greek province of Boiotia, for those keeping score). By the time I entered the program, the two most senior professors no longer spoke to each other, and wouldn’t even conduct classes in the same building (the department dissolved by the time I left).

From the beginning of my education in Classics, the divide between the literary (history) and the scientific (archaeology) was both philosophical and literal.

On some level, this fundamental split in the study of history has stuck with me. I have a hard time reading history without looking for some sort of corroborating evidence, from either a literary or scientific perspective.

Every historical narrative will have holes; short of omniscience, there’s no way to fully understand every event, and every angle. What makes the study of history so appealing is to work through these holes, and to try to find solutions that work from different perspectives.

(And of course, if you’re creating your own “historical” narrative, it’s also quite entertaining to challenge the assumptions that historians and archaeologists hold as canon!)

Since the end of The Clockwork Marvel, you’ve returned to doing short form pieces again. Do you find it challenging to go straight from something as expansive as The Clockwork Marvel right back into doing single page micro-fictions?

In some ways, it’s a bit of a relief. As you may have gathered, I have a million different interests. When I’m working on a longer story, all of these little interests haunt me in my sleep, begging to be made into a comic. When I do shorter stories, I can let my mind roam free, without fear of ruining six months’ worth of work!

Plus it gives me a convenient forum for future research!

Your last attempt to set aside long form work and return to short pieces (right after Calibiyau) turned out to be pretty short lived, before you got caught up in The Clockwork Marvel. Should readers expect to see another long form story in the near future?

I’m working on one now! My plan for this next story is to alleviate some of the pain of serializing, by releasing it in chapters. I plan on doing short stories for a while, as I work on a longer piece in the background. Eventually, when I’ve completed a chapter’s worth of material, I’ll release it all at once, and repeat the process.

Though it means doubling the amount of work I do on a weekly basis, I think it’ll smooth out some of the limitations of serializing.

Generally, serialized works suffer from one of two things: an arbitrary break between each installment that makes the individual episodes a fragment (one that relies upon the reader to keep re-reading the material, or to remember the important details), or a choppy narrative that pulls the reader along with an obvious mechanical trick (by devoting part of every comic to recapping the previous material).

We’ll see how that works out, I suppose…

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