Saturday, December 10, 2011

All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna

(Image used on the front cover, with the title of the book replacing the text. Otherwise, most cover images online were too tiny to be of use.)

All Over Coffee
by Paul Madonna

My introduction to All Over Coffee came through The Rumpus, when they started running the strip February 2011, and where Paul Madonna currently serves as the comics editor. To call it a "comic" doesn't feel right, though it is categorized as one on the site. All Over Coffee is a work of visual art paired with prose poetry. Yes, other comics could operate under this same definition, but there is something so beautiful and otherworldly about Paul Madonna's work that stands apart from the other comics on the site, especially his other Rumpus contribution, Small Potatoes.


About the strip, Madonna says this in the introduction:

All Over Coffee launched in the San Francisco Chronicle and on February 8, 2004. Immediately, letters of praise, confusion, and disgust poured in. Angry voices brought out voices of support, and debate over the strip took on a life of its own. The strip ran in the Datebook section four days a week for one year, then three days a week for six months before settling into its current position of one day a week in the Sunday Datebook.

The collection comprises of 151 of the 320 available at the time of putting together the book, and I must admit, I wish I could provide more visuals to complete the overall effect. While I have screen-capped a few selections that appear in the book, I hope that my linking back to Madonna's fine art print store will karma-clear me.

The early strips are smaller horizontal panels, primarily divided into two and three panels rather than a single scene. Their backgrounds are smoother and a brighter white, while the blacks remain impenetrably thick. Though there are less fine details compared to later strips, the writing still started out strong. The very first reads:

Maurice sips mocha latte at his
favorite cafe and argues with a
man in shorts

"I'm sick of you unobservant
transients," he says. "San Francisco
does TOO have seasons!"

It almost comes to blows

It settles over a slice of tiramisu
when they both agree that
Kundera can't end a novel.

I've used the spacing of lines shown in the panels, where it becomes easier to see how Madonna has laid out his version of poetry, down to his lack of periods until the end of the strip. What's great about his drawings is that they are not literal interpretations of the story. The first panel shows a bridge and electrical lines; the second, a cathedral and buildings partially obscured by a dark and leafy tree. The third goes back to a white sky and an industrial building from far away. He manages to capture the right mood between text and picture each time, with the first example reminding me of what a person might see outside a cafe window while eavesdropping.

Though many accused Madonna of loitering in public places and reporting what he overheard, his stories remained fictional. Perhaps it is the level of detail in the art that leads people to believe the words come from real life, or perhaps it comes down to the concept of "truth." Of course, truth is not the same as fact, and when presented with words that feel true to our experiences, we find value in them.


Eventually, Madonna switched to letting the texture of his paper come through. Working entirely with India ink and ink washes, his depiction of shadows and light are amazing. The book is horizontally aligned to best showcase each strip, and I found myself bringing the pages closer to examine the scenes. His work both invites lingering and inspires one to get to work.

The overall color palate in later strips, I would describe as sepia, but many of the strips have subtle color, as well as a few that have outright bursts. The letters AOC hide in graffiti, door signs and corners, Waldo-style. Some of the stories are slyly funny, others more introspective, and some ache hard.

She was definitely gone;
mornings were the worst

He'd be hungry, but to eat,
he'd need to cook, and to cook,
he'd have to wash the dishes

Everything was too much

He needed something,
but couldn't figure out what.

After all 151 strips, Madonna says, "I chose to write an afterword because I wanted to offer my story and not have it color your experience with the strips before engaging with them. I believe my intentions add insight to how you see the work, but ultimately, each piece must stand on its own." I won't ruin that by detailing too much of the afterword here.

When my family and I planned a trip to San Francisco this past August, I knew we would be visiting City Lights Books, and knowing that City Lights published this collection, I picked it up within minutes of walking through the door. (I wished I could have purchased both All Over Coffee and the second collection of strips, Everything is its own reward, but I could not quite afford two full price hardcovers at the same time.) While I know that seeing the strips on a printed page will not compare to seeing an original piece — it would be great to own one someday — being able to have the book far exceeds reading the strip on a computer screen.

Lately, Paul Madonna has taken to collaborating with other writers. Sometimes he provides them with the image first and asks them to use it as a guide, but most of the time, writers provide the words first. Frequent Rumpus contributors/editors Cheryl Strayed and Isaac Fitzgerald have offered stories for the strip, and I'm very interested in the progression of the strip from here. All Over Coffee is a gorgeous book, an instant favorite, and I cannot recommend it enough.



(Yes, I know it might seem otherwise on this site, but I do purchase books with my own fool money.)

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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