Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Sempé Fi: The Masquerade

Filed under: Sempé Fi   Tagged: , , , , , ,


Pollux writes:

Sometimes my approach in writing these Sempé Fi columns involves showing someone, usually not a New Yorker reader, the cover of the latest issue and see what their initial reaction is. With Chris Ware’s cover for the November 2, 2009 issue, called “Unmasked,” the reaction I received, from more than one person, was: “Yeah, that’s how people are.”

That’s how people are —meaning the parents who stand in the street depicted in Ware’s cover, their attention monopolized by their phones, rather than in their young children, who are trick-or-treating. The parents are there and not there at the same time, empty uniforms in the field of battle of parenting.

The kids are having their childhood experiences; they probably won’t remember their parents being there at all, if they remember the night at all. The parents aren’t living it. A night out trick-or-treating is a distraction from real life rather than an experience of it. Their phones are keeping them connected to what’s “real.”

The phones cast a glow upon the parents’ faces. Ware skillfully renders the artificial illumination both a masking and an unmasking. The glow turns the faces into masked faces that match the children’s actual masks, but the glow is actually casting a light upon the parents, revealing them to be what they really are: busy, unfocused, unsentimental, and somewhat selfish.

When their kids, whose faces are literally masked and facing the glow of not LCD screens but houses warm with light and candy, get their sack full of Milk Duds and M&M’s, the parents will momentarily put their phones down and move to the next house. It’s an empty ritual; it won’t make for a memorable night, both for child or for parents.

Ware leaves out the usual color and magic associated with Halloween night. Ware creates a bleak image of undecorated houses and parents focused on all the wrong things. It’s a glum procession of the masked and unmasked.

Ware’s cover works as a stand-alone visual piece, but the cover ties in with a graphic short story, also by Ware and also called “Unmasked,” that lies within the covers of The New Yorker. Ware manages to incorporate a lot of family drama and commentary on families within the four pages accorded to his illustrated piece.

The first panels of the short story match the image on the cover: a middle-aged woman on her iPhone 3G receiving a text from her husband Phil, who is too busy to accompany her and their four-year-old daughter on Halloween night. He’s too busy. “I was so mad. I could hardly type…” she thinks. “How many Halloweens did he suppose he’d have with his four-year-old?”

But as her young daughter innocently and happily frolics throughout the short story, the woman, too, seems to direct most of her energies and attention elsewhere. As Ware’s story unfolds, we learn that the woman’s mother lives alone since her husband died. The woman and her mother sit in the park, as the four-year-old daughter enjoys herself on a swing. There, at the park, the woman’s mother reveals that her late husband had been having an affair with his teaching assistant.

Her mother’s revelation makes the woman angry rather than sympathetic. Was her mother implying by her revelation that Phil is now cheating on her? She stops drying her daughter with a towel in order to make “a very important phone call to Daddy.”

After she finishes the call, she shrugs off such fears of an affair. “Poor mom…” she thinks, “she was still naïve in so many ways…”

And so the woman assures herself after communicating with her husband via a telephone. Who knows what her husband doing? There’s no way to tell; husband and wife never seem to be in the same room. And her daughter, while still young, will not be young for long, and perhaps will grow up with her own set of resentments and issues.

That’s how people are, and always will be, except now they have access to the fastest, most powerful phones on the market.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree