Great Moments in Western Civilization
Created by: Caitlin Cass
Published by: Self Published
ISBN: 0989169006 (Amazon)
At the 2013 Small Press Expo, I made discovery of two entirely awesome comics. The first was not so much a discovery, because though I had not yet read Summit of the Gods, I have been very familiar with Jiro Taniguchi’s work. He’s been one of my favourite comics creators since 2004 when I first had the pleasure of encountering The Walking Man. So really, it was merely a matter of time before I took on Taniguchi’s five-volume mountain-climbing series. My other discovery is something in the realm of Discovery Proper. If I hadn’t encountered her table at the convention last week, I can’t imagine another circumstance in which I would have been introduced to Caitlin Cass or her wonderful evolving creation, Great Moments in Western Civilization.
I’ve always had a bit of a taste for the historical. While it’s true that I don’t often anymore11When I was a younger Hahne, perhaps in my early twenties, I actively pursued reading historical nonfiction. With the introduction of more interests, more adult responsibilities, and more beautiful family members to engage my time, many of my interests were forced to wane. have the patience to read lengthy historical texts that aren’t also written by Eric Larson, I still take interest in works that refer to historical moments, events, and figures. I adore Umberto Eco’s historically-minded works like Foucault’s Pendulum and Baudolino. Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant is a delicious excursion into the foundations of our historical and literary tapestry. And because of the time constraints on my life currently, brief reminders of the building blocks of our cultural milleu in the form of comics are truly delectable. Which is where Caitlin Cass’ Great Moments in Western Civilization and its Postal Constituent comes in.
Cass’ table at SPX was one of the first I saw, and I spent the rest of the expo telling people, Omigosh I’m so excited about Great Moments in… Something! You have to check it out. It’s over there near the end of one of the aisles! I wasn’t the best salesman. People definitely knew I was excited about something but it probably wasn’t entirely clear what it was or where this Thing could be found. Let’s rectify that here.
I’m not as creepy as you might imagine.
This pic of Cass screening covers for the Index is straight from the top page of her blog
Great Moments in Western Civilization is foremost a by-mail program, the Postal Constituent, through which Cass delivers screen-printed artifacts of various sizes and contents. Many of these pieces are smallish mini-comics in the common-to-find pamphlet form. Others are foldable brochures. At least one held a set of art cards (on a perforated sheet) dedicated to favourite literary figures and their vices. Another was a phenomenal piece devoted to the library of Alexandria and took the form of a compacted papercraft whose story would unfold even as the sheet was unfolded in proper order. Just for fun, I drew out the steps:
If this doesn’t make sense, then good. Buy her book and see it for yourself.
Though the series primarily exists as a collection of individual physical objects, Cass does offer a single volume collecting what I gather are highlights from the first five years of the comic. This was my first taste of the work. Since then, and probably among other bits and pieces, Cass has been organizing a series (her first) called The Index, in which a couple of characters attempt somehow to taxonomize and tie together the entirety of recorded human history. These can be ordered from her site, where subscriptions are also available.
Great Moments is one of those works (like Beaton’s more famous line) that fits shoes of both educational and humourous makes. The jokes (when there are jokes) are going to be funnier if you’re familiar with the figures skewered and their historical contributions and significance, but they also function as an easy invitation to discover some interesting personalities through the responsible extra-curricular use of Google. Or Bing if you’re so inclined. We won’t judge. The humour is a bit wry and arch and is entirely in line with my own comedic preferences.
Visually, each of Cass’ postal-born pieces has a rough-but-classic sort of feel to it. I know, right? So helpful a description. I’m not really super sure of the terminology to use for the style, but it looks familiar. A bit Gorey-esque. One of my favourite things beside the creative ingenuity by which Cass develops the comic is the ramshackle hand-lettering, also a bit Gorey-esque. The mutating, resizing, and bold typefaces she often hand-scrawls give the comics a comfortable sense of place, as if these were stories your talented cousin developed for you and some select relatives as gifts one Christmas, in lieu of crassly commercialized plastic extrusions.22So popular with all the cool kids on the quad. Simultaneously they’re a bit creepy, giving you the sense that maybe there’s something not quite right about this whole venture called History.33And also, about your talented cousin.
I’m stoked to have noticed Cass’ table at SPX. It somewhat resembled the patchwork nature of the work and drew me in immediately. For all lovers of the historical, I highly recommend investigating her project. Maybe order the retrospective volume, In the Beginning. Maybe subscribe to the Postal Constituent, as I will be doing with the next of my discretionary income. The idea of having these mementos, these artifacts, these Things arriving occasionally in my postbox or at my doorstep is an excitement I haven’t felt for mail in at least a couple decades. At least.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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