SOME COUPLES are just better hosts than everyone else in their circle. Their beguiling homes beckon, they cue up the perfect music to set the mood, and the enchanting art that hangs in their homes says something fascinating about the owners.
The authors who created and curated the new graphic-novel anthology “Bizarre Romance” (Abrams) most certainly come across as a born-to-entertain literary couple. The writer is Audrey Niffenegger, the best-selling American novelist of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “Her Fearful Symmetry,” and the artist is her husband, Scottish comics-maker Eddie Campbell (“From Hell,” “Alec”). The clever works in “Bizarre Romance” span from the couple’s own collaborative beginnings, in 2003, through to the year of their marriage, in 2015, lending a layer to the title that warmly reflects some elements of autobiography.
What the dynamics within “Bizarre Romance” mostly feel like, though, is a bedeviling hourglass in which the sands of perception are constantly shifting. Nothing reigns forever but impermanence, and so characters are often grasping to understand what they detect or suspect through the windows and walls and portals of sliding connection.
One of the book’s most personal comics, for instance, revolves around two interlocked elements: death and the perception of time.
” ‘Digging Up the Cat’ was written in 2006, a few days after the events described,” Niffenegger tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “My father and I used to do all sorts of projects together, and transplanting my cat was just another of those odd jobs, but it affected me in a funny way; I got a glimpse of the future.
“I think, read and make art about death often, but in 2006, I was 43 years old and though a few friends and family members had died, I hadn’t yet arrived at the time of life when death starts to carry off whole generations,” she says. “My father died in July 2016 — that terrible year. Eddie made the art a few months after Dad died.”
In another chapter comic, titled “Secret Life, With Cats,” a home darkly morphs from reassuring retreat to a would-be emotional tomb.
“I am a bit obsessed with houses, both in my real and imaginary lives,” Niffenegger says. “I think there are strong reasons that houses are the main thing that can be haunted: We spend so much of our most intimate time in houses, we imbue them with our own characters, and they shape our days and nights. We build houses to protect us, but they are fragile and easily destroyed.
“Houses hide a lot of weird human behavior,” she continues, “so they are ideal vehicles for stories, especially stories about secrets, memories and ghosts.”
That sense of the supernatural elevates another chapter, titled “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels,” in which a man calls on spiritual ghostbusters — his home, it seems, is infested with winged figures like cherubim.
“It’s true that there is something curious about houses appearing in Audrey’s work,” Campbell notes. “Though you couldn’t have known it, a ‘yellow house’ plays a pivotal role in her next novel.” (Niffenegger’s sequel to “Time Traveler’s Wife” is due out next year.)
When it comes to using creative frameworks, the “Bizarre Romance” authors also thought in terms of music — specifically, the structure of an album.
The anthology’s 13 chapters, which are each very distinct in their visual styles, all “concern themes that I’ve been interested in all my life: love and loss, the ordinary and the fantastic, the relationship between art and daily life,” Niffenegger says. “When we collected them and began to think about how to shape them into a book, we started talking about albums and mix tapes, and how it would be great if each story had art that exactly suited it, like the instrumentation of a song, instead of trying to come up with one style that straitjacketed them all into conformity.
“I see one thing — a book — that’s bursting with ideas and styles and energy,” she says, “and a few themes that hold it all together.”
“Yes, it’s like a record album of songs. It’s as though we said, ‘Let’s go into the studio and lay down a few tracks’ or ‘bring along any stories you’ve got and we’ll make some comics,’ “ says Campbell, picking up the theme. “There’s an element of enjoying that for its own sake instead of having a big sensational revelation, like ‘My Granddad Was Jack the Ripper’ — a problem that bedevils ‘serious comics’ these days.
“So, you might notice,” he adds, “that there are 13 stories — the number of tracks you will find on some classic albums of the past, like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ ”
Each comic here varies the balance levels between prose and picture — a necessary shift in these visually disparate chapters to wrestle with the complex needs of the storytelling.
“When I first had the idea for ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife,’ I considered making it as a graphic novel, but I quickly realized that it would be extremely difficult to convey all the time shifts and loop-de-loops in pictures,” Niffenegger says. “I have deja vu frequently, and it reminds me of how subjective our experience of time is. We can’t see it, touch it, smell it — words can help us navigate it — but it’s tough to communicate time in pictures.”
(To help achieve the stylistic shifts, Campbell is mostly maximizing tools within Photoshop rather than render on board or canvas. “The computer these days just feels like the natural medium to use,” he says, employing “idiomatic techniques — effects that are easier to make by computer than by the old routine.”)
And in terms of narrative tools, Niffenegger especially relies on the power of human curiosity — including for comics in which a woman’s reign ends in a flash, and bewitching love reduces a man to a hamster.
“I love curiosity as an instrument because the reader and the writer must both be curious in order for the story to be told,” she says. “ ‘And then what happened?’ is the most primal question — the question that lets you keep your head for 1,001 nights. The characters’ curiosity is also the reader’s, and as long as we don’t run out of interesting mysteries, the story can keep igniting new ones.”
As for keeping their creativity ignited, do Niffenegger and Campbell see more collaborations in their future?
“I think this book surprised us both — it’s something neither of us could have made without the other,” Niffenegger says. “It’s hard to say how we might evolve, as we each have large projects of our own to finish before we can make more things together. I guess we will find out when we experiment again.”
“We’ll need a lot more material,” Campbell says, “before we go back into the studio.”