Discussing “Generous Bosom”: A Breakdown Press Breakdown

Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bososm, Breakdown Press

Generous Bosom is a comic I wouldn’t have picked up myself. You know why? All I ever talk about is tits, man.

And that’s what I said to Tom at Breakdown Press when he suggested I sample this title (free book, holla) from their library. “I think you should really carve out your niche,” was his salesman’s response, and I got caught up in a vision of literal carving, of a breast-shaped niche in a cold cave wall and of scraping out grey rock nipple cavities with a small thin trowel. Ridiculous. So, I forgot to argue.

Generous Bosom is a really good comic. And barely about breasts, at all, in the isolated sense. It’s certainly a break from the tiresome norm.

“The title … I think it came from a character description in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure of Arabella Donn’s ‘generous amplitudes,’ that stuck in my head for being comically over-euphemistic. It seemed to pair, in (I hope) a similar comic manner, to a story (especially the first volume) that’s trying to deal very directly with our corporeality. I think now I’m trying to pivot the story so that the title refers to a metaphorical bosom rather than a literal one.” —Conor Stechschulte

Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bosom, Breakdown Press Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bosom, Breakdown Press

It’s a comic of such quiet confidence that it’s hard to discuss or dissect: a perfect whole with no fissures in which to plant a lever. There’s that understated, anti-statuesque illustration of interpersonal interaction that characterises a Clowes comic, but is much better compared to John Pham‘s sort—fond slice of life comics. None of the chilly cynicism I sense and lean back from in Clowes. These people could be called losers without your being wrong, as well as mean, but why? Their lives aren’t about winning. You could try to negate their validity, but the only one reduced would be you. The work is more interested in people being people, than people being shinily successful. Generous Bosom is dealing, as Conor says, with corporeality, which is deeper than constructs of success that exist only in community contexts. Isolation and micro-community, withdrawal from larger scenes, shape the characters’ lives, values, contexts, reach. They shape them: don’t make the people living them inhuman or small.

Throughout, conversations are reduced to no more than two or three participants. Their scope is enormous, and for the characters, that makes them harrowing, discussions of things that really matter to their psyches. But they’re spoken of gently, and for the reader, it’s a smooth ride. I read both volumes in bed after a busy convention day, and then drank a tequila flavoured beer and watched Australian cop reality shows. Reading Generous Bosom didn’t get in the way of beer or of antipodean arrests; it didn’t impinge on trash hotel time-wasting. It made them better because I felt well-exercised and valued as a person, because Conor Stechschulte and Breakdown Press made these two weird books and believed in my human ability to appreciate them.

Within Generous Bosom, everybody reflects upon themselves very calmly and seems to believe their clear-eyed approach to discussing their problems means that their perspective on them is unclouded. The generation of simultaneously believable and readable dialogue is remarkable, and initially undetectable. It reads so well you forget to notice.

Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bososm, Breakdown Press

The book begins with two friends discussing a recent foray one made into casual sex, and fades (gorgeously fades; the inventive cartooning of this book is delicious) into a live, book-long sequence of said adult male experiencing said casual sex. And it is casual in that it’s not committed and not expected to be, between people who will never meet again, but it’s also extremely formalised. The circumstance in which their sex eventually takes place is an irregular one, and though all consent and enter the intercourse proactively none of the participants (active or adjacent [is this what they call a “cuck” situation..?]) are settled with the idea. As Part Two begins, “casual” becomes “casualty” and “causality,” and things start to seem exactly as fucked up as Part One convinced you they weren’t.

I spoke to Conor, and to Breakdown’s editorial, to get some information on how a unique terrarium like this gets produced.

Claire Napier: Hey, Conor! I really enjoyed both volumes of your book, and here is my first question. If you can’t answer it no biggie; I’ve got more. Okay: What the fuck, man?

Conor Stechschulte: Hi, Claire, nice to meet you! Haha … Uhh, well… since you said you enjoyed the books, I’ll take it (I hope!) this is a good sort of “what the fuck?” In which case, I admit that was one of the goals with the second volume. The first part is pretty self-contained, so I wanted to expand the scope of the story a good deal and begin to allude to a lot more in the new volume without giving a lot of explanations. Does that answer it for you?

Claire: Yeah, no, it definitely is. You started out with such a strong sense of mystery and…ungrounded familiarity? Establishing the story by allowing characters to know each other far better than the audience, and giving the reader very minimal detail about these people’s lives to connect with; there’s a strong sense of just come along, you’ll pick it up as we go. The reader has to agree to trust you as their guide. But then in volume two, the trusted guide essentially takes out a clown mask and starts gesturing strangely, and one starts to wonder: where are we GOING? It’s exciting. Do you know? Do you have an actual plan, or are you striking out without a map for the fun of it?

Conor: A little of all three. When I finished The Amateurs (in which every page was planned ahead of time), I felt like I spent the latter portion of the book working as my own secretary. So, as I dove into this project, I wanted to set it up to be a more active process throughout.

Going into the second volume there were things I knew were going to be in there (I’d outlined the VCR scene pretty early in working on the first volume), and a lot of things that I left for myself to figure out along the way. I’ve found the decisions I make intuitively tend to be smarter/more interesting than those I grind my gears over. So I’ll plan about ten to fifteen pages at a time to work out pacing and where page turns fall. Then I catch up to myself and have to drink an extra cup of coffee and figure out where I’m going.

Also, I’ve attached a picture of myself wearing a clown mask and gesturing strangely.
Conor Stechschulte for WWAC, gesturing strangely

Claire: Aaah, amazing. Thank you! Great jumpsuit! Great picture! Here’s a question: what’s your attitude to dialogue creation, and how did it evolve?

Conor: Dialogue, especially since in comics that’s where a written “voice” can come out, is super important to me. I really admire writers like George Saunders or David Foster Wallace who can immediately convince you of a super-strange world by using the perfect voice. I try really hard to get that stuff right with whatever I’m working on. For Generous Bosom I’m trying to make naturalistic-sounding dialogue—trying to capture the stops and starts and repeats and unfinished sentences that we are usually using to communicate verbally. Also with Generous Bosom, I’m trying to figure out ways of framing (how to break up the panels, how much dialogue is in one panel, etc.) these long dialog scenes so that they’re not tedious to read.

Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bososm, Breakdown Press
Its not enough, with a book like this, to discover what drove a cartoonist to make it or how their motivation grew. It’s also important to consider the people who took the art and made it into a product, a book, a thing you can hold and buy. How does unique, undefinable graphic fiction find its way out of the hand of the person to whom it must make sense and hold value (the creator) and into the hands of those people who must respond to it without prior investment or familiarity? The confidence and daring of Breakdown Press in publishing the books they do is impressive to me, and I’m grateful for it. I hope you want to know more about their perspective as well. This is a short Q&A that I pulled like teeth—in future, I hope to converse more precisely on the subject.

Claire: What’s the editorial process like at Breakdown Press? Generous Bosom is hard to predict, as a reader; do you, as the publisher, know where it’s going, or do you simply trust Conor to produce good comics in an open field?

Breakdown Press: The editorial process differs from project to project. We’re very hands on with some comics we work on and with others much less so. It entirely depends on the needs and wants of the artist. Generous Bosom has minimal editorial input from us with regards to the narrative; we discuss options about format, colour, printing and sub edit for grammar. We’ve discussed the story with Conor, relating to its structure and themes, but we don’t, as yet, know how it’s going to resolve; we don’t know the characters fates. We trust Conor implicitly, whilst also making ourselves available for input on any aspect of the book he requires.

Claire: Breakdown Press is pretty discerning. Your library of titles is small and clearly curated. Is there an element of Generous Bosom that, were it removed, would make the book inappropriate for publishing by your imprint?

BP: Generous Bosom is great art; all the components are finely balanced and intertwined, so altering or removing any of them would change the unique nature of the work. In short, it’s a brilliant comic. It’s a perfect fit for Breakdown as it’s an engaging, character-driven narrative, whilst also pushing the boundaries of the language of comics. I don’t say that lightly, it’s pretty astounding to see how mature and confident the work is, whilst still being surprising and fresh in its approach.

Claire: What is it about this book, or about this creator, that was the seal on your partnership?

BP: Conor is amazing at utilising the language of comics. His pages are rich in information, sharp, well-observed dialogue, excellent use of colour and panel layout. All these elements communicate rich subtleties in both the characters, narrative and overarching themes. Conor is also an incredibly kind, funny and intelligent guy who handles himself professionally.

Generous Bosom has been discussed by a number of other critics, but I can’t recommend much better than reading the comic itself. I’m looking forward to Part Three. My clown mask is ready, if that’s what it takes.
Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money