Nothing in life is fixed.
At least, few things in it are permanent. Buildings inevitably collapse, people grow older, nothing can last forever. The world always turns, and time renders everything temporary. As Chabouté playfully shows within The Park Bench, “the party is finite”, you have to leave eventually.
Comics are susceptible to this linear perspective of time, as all narrative mediums are. Reading through them, they appear to have beginnings and ends. The moment-to-moment scenes show the continual passage of time. However, comics are uniquely suited to visualise ‘Eternalism’, a philosophical viewpoint of time where events are not sequenced, but rather all existing simultaneously. Under Eternalism, only our perception, or our consciousness, moves through time linearly. But every moment of existence is like a film-strip, or a comic-panel. They all exist at the same time in the book, we only read them one at a time.
Alan Moore once described time under Eternalism as “these frozen individual moments with our consciousness moving between them… every moment that has ever existed or will ever exist are all existing conterminously, at the same time. Including all of those moments that made up our lives, and the lives of everybody that we knew, and the one thing that we can definitely say about those lives is that we were alive during them.”
Through its examination of time and space, Chabouté’s The Park Bench is also deeply concerned with this state of being alive. Of the routines and micro-dramas which make up individual existence, of how people wait and how they act. He uses a fixed landmark to observe the activities around it, using an ordinary park bench to take snapshots of the lives it encounters. What results is a collage of humanity, silent fragments from a distinct vantage point. The bench is a node where rhythms of lives intersect, and such pathways come to demonstrate not just living through the moments, but living within them.
Routines and repetition form much of The Park Bench, focusing less on grandiose, dramatic changes, on more upon how frequently our lives are habitual. Here, the bench is a pit-stop, some intermediate place between where people are going. The business constantly passes by on his way to way. The runner exercises through all seasons. These moments of routine are peppered throughout the book, serving as intervals between longer ‘scenes’, acting as reminders of continuity despite developments beyond them.
Such repetition only emphasises when the stories deviate from their pattern, becoming more effective from the familiarity with their rhythms. Such changes may be small, like the businessman wearing a coat to work, or grander ones, like when he eventually throws off his shoes and tie, taking a moment to relax on the bench he always walks past. Witnessing the same thing helps us see, and understand, the differences. It is only from seeing an elderly couple stop and share dessert on the bench four times, that we understand the significance when the man shows up for the fifth time, alone. Even routines, attempts at enforcing regular structure into our lives, are not protected from the inevitable passage of time. Of course, even after his wife’s death, the man still came to the bench with dessert. The ritual itself still persists.
Death is not the only conclusion, change is not always negative. The Park Bench may be wistful at times, but it is certainly not cynical. Rather, it remains observational, and while all grow older, some form new relationships, while others pick up new hobbies. One woman receives a positive letter on page 71, before appearing pregnant on page 169, and then with child on page 242. New life is another measurement of time, and the bench acts like a memento, not only to birth, but to the process of living.
Change is hard to capture in comics, visually speaking. Unlike animation, comics show only frozen images. The Park Bench cannot show everything, as not everything happens motionless, and not life all will happen within a park. This problem seems to extend to the characters too, as it seems so many within The Park Bench spend their time waiting, like the moustached man, constantly expecting a date that never arrives. Of course, waiting is a huge part of life. To quote The Wire, life is what “happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come”. It is what people fear will pass them by. One comedic scene from The Park Bench features an old man, who falls asleep next to a skinny man, who is eating McDonalds. While he sleeps, the skinny man suddenly leaves his hat and food, only for a fat man to sit down and take both. When he awakes, the old man assumes the skinny man has transformed, that he has been asleep for ages. But he has missed the intermediary panels, by life passing by he has missed the context.
The Park Bench persistently argues, despite all the frustrations and routine, change does happen. A central relationship within the book is between a policeman and a homeless man, where the hobo tries to sleep upon the bench, and the policeman shouts him off. Their routine becomes so predictable that, on page 187, the homeless man leaves before the policeman can interfere, knowing he is about to arrive. Even this uneven power dynamic becomes subverted, as after the policeman retires (another measurement of time’s passage), the two bond on an equal level. Only a minor shift changed their entire perspective. The former policeman even prevents a new recruit from removing the homeless man. Change has broken through their dormant relationship; the cycle of the homeless man’s removal has been stopped.
For long stretches, The Park Bench’s individual story-threads remain independent, the characters stay isolated despite their proximity. Therefore, these eventual moments of interaction between them, where characters defy their routines to stray into another’s path, become immensely satisfying. It demonstrates their shared community, all bonded by the crossroads of the park bench, even if the object itself is not thought of. A kid reads a leftover book. The businessman dances with the struggling street-musician. The moustached man finally shares his flowers with the woman sat beside him, rather than continue to wait for a date that never shows. Here, the story-lines become bigger than themselves, cross-hatching over each other to demonstrate a web of humanity, illuminating how they all share the same space.
Chabouté does not only focus on these climatic moments of connection. Under Eternalism, all moments are equal. Every panel is designed to give an immersive feel, none of them can be disregarded. Chabouté primarily crafts The Park Bench this way by having it be entirely ‘silent’, for the most part lacking any dialogue or text. Not only is this silence more universal, but it removes urgency from reading the book. In Making Comics, Scott McCloud discussed how ‘silent panels’ removed “a panel from a particular span of time” (page 164). Most readers use a word-balloon as the indication for a panel ‘length’, once they have read it they scan over the artwork and move on. Removing any text means the panels become more than backgrounds for the story. Every moment becomes its own world to explore.
Chabouté achieves a similar thing through his use of panel borders. Most of The Park Bench features thin, delicate borders, draw around the action to keep it within a concrete container. However, at key points, these borders are removed. When this happens, the panels’ contents are removed from being ‘in the moment’, or from being part of linear sequences, to being transcendent of them. At the end of the ‘introduction’ on page 12, the bench goes from being bordered to non-bordered. This small change removes the bench from a narrative sequence, to existing within its own atemporal state. It is free from the surrounding story-lines, it has moved into a state of being.
Such techniques are also utilized to emphasise narrative points, reflecting a character’s internal perception of time. On page 84, a woman receives a letter containing bad news. We understand the impact upon her not from text, but from the comic’s format. When she first reads the letter, the borders around her disappear. With this, she has exited conventional linear time, as under this shocking news, the world outside her seems to stand still. It’s impact has given her tunnel-vision, making her feel separate from regular time and space. Then, after reality reasserts itself and the borders reappear, the panels slowly zoom out. Therefore, she appears small and helpless, insignificant to her outside environment. Using the form of the medium, Chabouté shows how, both for the woman and for us, time and space seemed to stop.
But time always creeps in, even the bench cannot withstand its passage. But while the components still change, there remains some consistency to the pattern. After the bench is removed, it is replaced by a modern version. Some routines are greatly affected, a minor but damning bit of social commentary being how this ‘new bench’ prevents the homeless man from resting. Others barely notice the change. Some actively defy it. Truthfully, for most characters, the bench was only an object, a collection of wood and steel. This does not prevent them from attaching meaning to its triviality, and there is nothing insignificant from providing a space for life to happen. The park bench was as integral to people’s lives as all the other parts are, as all moments are.
Things are not fixed. We know nothing lasts forever. People die. Leaves fall. Seasons change. Steel rusts, and wood rots. But regardless, while it existed, this small park bench formed part of the lives of those who crossed it, even if they were only walking past. It had no ‘meaning’, but also meant many things; a job, a shelter, a meeting place, a refuge, a memory. And although in our perception its physical existence was temporary, while this bench was standing, it lasted forever.
The Park Bench is written and drawn by Christophe Chabouté, and can be purchased here.