Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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5-17-10 Joost Swarte Novel Approach.JPG

Pollux writes:

The May 17, 2010 issue of The New Yorker was The Innovators Issue. The issue’s cover, called “Novel Approach,” by the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, captures the process of invention and inspiration, and the insanity that drives them both.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists and thinkers were obsessed with solving the problem of longitude. In our own day, we are concerned with solving the issue of global warming.

In “Novel Approach,” Swarte gives us a wordless comic in his trademark ligne claire style. As Sean Rogers elegantly put it, “Swarte’s drawings communicate so clearly because they’re executed in so concise and direct a fashion. Clarity of line engenders clarity of thought: each line set to paper acts as one element among equals, like a term in a balanced equation, or a word in a sentence that comes quickly but elegantly to the point.”

In “Novel Approach,” however, we are presented with a series of drawings that are open to various interpretations. Are we following a linear story, or, unguided by captions or balloons, can we start at any point in a series of panels that symbolize the fits and starts of innovation?

If we take a closer look at Swarte’s drawings, I believe there is a linear story here. It is the story of global warming and man’s tardy efforts to solve this problem.

Swarte’s hero, a bald, bespectacled man, is reading a newspaper -which perhaps is running stories on the issues of climate change. While he does so, numerous forms and shapes, all black in color, hover, enshroud, inspire, or approach Swarte’s hero.

Black smoke in various forms and increasing intensity emerges from the man’s pipe; from a passing car; from a large truck. In the second row of panels, black smoke belches forth from a factory.

In the next illustration, the man is alarmed by the levels of bovine flatulence. Do cow farts cause global warming? According to The Straight Dope, “animal methane does present a definite threat to the biota. It’s believed 18 percent of the greenhouse effect is caused by methane, putting it second on the list of offending gases behind carbon dioxide.”

In the next drawing, a black sun angrily glares at the man, who is engrossed in his newspaper. The sun is warmer and more dangerous.

In the third row, we see the effects of global warming: emigrating penguins; a large, black tidal wave, symbolizing the increased threat of tsunamis; and flooding. Swarte’s hero wades through black waters. It doesn’t seem to disturb him; in fact, it is moving him closer to an idea.

In the last row, he gets a flash of inspiration while swimming underwater. The world is perhaps covered by a Panthalassic Ocean.

His idea? A propeller beanie (also colored black) that will allow him to read his newspaper in peace amongst the clouds. Will it come to that? Swarte’s hero does not solve the issue of global warming at all; his novel approach, which is also the surreal approach of a mad fool, is simply to sit atop the clouds while our world turns into a water planet.

Swarte’s clean lines provide us with a future that is all too frightening in its clarity. Will we take action before it’s too late or will we all drown in an angry sea cluttered with empty cans and dead fish?

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree