Surreal Classrooms: The Academic Hour

The Academic Hour, Keren Katz, Secret Acres

The Academic HourThe Academic Hour, Keren Katz, Secret Acres

Keren Katz
Secret Acres

The Academic Hour, according to the book jacket, is a series of vignettes about the romance between Pothel, an architecture professor now banned from teaching architecture, and his student Liana. I am not convinced of this.

The first hint that this comic is not actually a romance appears quite early in the book, in the story titled “The Student.” In this story, a student writes a mystery about a professor who disappears and titles it “Pothel and Liana.” Assuming the student is Liana herself, this could simply be Liana’s way of working through her emotional strife surrounding Pothel, but it could also be Katz’s way of telling us the entire romance is fabricated.

The second hint comes in the form of a suggestion that Pothel, as her professor, is abusing his position of authority to take advantage of Liana’s feelings. Some of the book takes the form of abstractedly illustrated letters written from Liana to Pothel, and her voice is quite prominent. Pothel’s voice, however, only appears nearly at the end, and he tells her about a supposedly unrequited love with a woman named Renata. The nature of the letter is quite strange, possibly romantic, but also possibly manipulative.

Returning to the first possibility – that the romance portion of The Academic Hour is entirely fabricated – we must ask, if there is no romance and in fact no relationship at all, what is this comic about?

I read The Academic Hour twice, because I was intimidated by it. Katz’s illustrations are surreal and often abstract; you can read “classroom” and see a classroom, read “car” and see cars, but there is often a disconnect between the text and images. Her work is mesmerizing, which is likely why she’s been nominated for the “Outstanding Artist” Ignatz Award. Outside of the long-limbed character designs, Katz populates her pages with shapes and structures reminiscent of architectural sketches, and never uses a traditional comic panel. She also employs patterns to great effect, using a particular triangle-and-scales motif that repeats throughout the book, usually on clothing or other fabrics. It’s this pattern that we see wrapped around the train cars Pothel designed, and in his hands as he crafts his designs in “The Campus.” When the school bans him from teaching architecture, this pattern seems to take over his body. (It’s perhaps worth noting that triangles are the strongest shape, and crucial to engineering, while scales join together to be protective.)

As a former English major who once actually enjoyed reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, I enjoyed the puzzle of this comic, and feel that I could spend endless time exploring Katz’s images and spinning readings out of her work. However, part of me feels very resistant to a comic that doesn’t always marry its images and text, albeit on purpose. So, during my first read-through of the book, I focused on the text, hoping to get a grasp on the story so I could more easily take in the images.

During this read-through I found myself drawn back to my undergraduate experience, and the way college feels engineered to try and break you down and make you miserable. Characters – named and nameless – are constantly falling off chairs, losing limbs, and literally, physically coming apart. In one of the first vignettes, the students must try to get rid of a horse, and the enormous animal evades them completely without ever dropping its smile. Like a huge, unsolvable problem – say, a monumental amount of homework, emotional stress and extra-curriculars – it eventually reigns over the fallen, hopeless students.

This particular reading of the comic was quite enjoyable and cathartic, but Pothel and Liana’s probably relationship cannot be ignored.

The architecture school that Liana attends specifically recruits students who have been in car accidents but emerged uninjured, and attempts to create situations that break the bones they “should” have broken. Pothel dreamed up the plans for this dangerous, Hogwarts-esque school and was banned from teaching architecture for his absurd and threatening designs. However, through a terrible coincidence or a twist of fate, his plans were mixed in with the real plans for the school, and so his dreams came to be.

While the story isn’t really linear, there are a few key events that cycle around: Pothel creating his designs, Liana becoming trapped in the ruins of a classroom, Pothel and Liana having some kind of relationship, and Pothel disappearing from the school and returning as a car. It’s possible that Liana’s love is completely unrequited, but a different reading of the final letter that Pothel sends to Liana suggests he is imposing his past relationship with Renata onto his relationship with Liana. I personally was unable to read any kind of balance in their relationship, because I could not put aside an early image of Liana trapped in the long-forgotten ruins of a destroyed classroom. She’s missing her left arm from the elbow down, and has an ever-growing pencil tucked behind her ear, and she feels more like a part of the ruins than a human being.

In addition to questioning the nature of the story, I’ve also been asking myself if I like this comic. It isn’t necessarily a pertinent question; I obviously liked it enough to delightedly agonize over the meanings of patterns, smiling horses and broken bones. There were certainly various vignettes that I liked more than others, which is a benefit of a story like this, and some vignettes have more traditional storytelling structures, which give readers something to hang onto during the more surreal pieces. Architectural shapes and cut off limbs aside, Katz’s art is quite evocative; later scenes of a younger Pothel in warehouses, pubs and offices were so engaging and surprisingly warm – especially the image of an empty office, with it’s tea kettle, messy sketches, rulers and fallen pencil cups – that I found myself happy to be inside memories of Pothel and Renata. If you are willing to let go of your attachment to traditional story structure and let Katz’s bizarre but engaging style wash over you, you may want to pick this up. If surreal storytelling doesn’t appeal, then maybe not.

You can buy The Academic Hour through the Secret Acres website, or check with your local comic shop.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.