When They Go High…

April 30, 2017

“Magnifying Glass”, Roy Lichtenstein.

I like writing about comics because they partially relate to my professional work in graphic arts. How much do they relate?

Most people have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom to ignore comics as a relevant art form, high or low. This is getting harder to do. There is starting to be a significant body of criticism available to scholars and aficionados, and each new study advances the conversation in both quality and tone.  The book “Origins of Comics”was previously mentioned here, as it makes interesting connections between the narrative, moralistic print tableaus of Hogarth, a pioneer of popularly available printmaking in an academic tradition, and the kinetic narrative of satiric picture stories by Topfer, generally considered the inventor of the comics and by some, as a precursor to visually subversive art such as expressionism. Comics and prints were really the first popular (visual) media. Movies often copied comics’ prank narratives in the early days. High art has been raiding the non sequiturs of cartoon satire since Odilon Redon and Grandville. And into that well have movies and TV, today’s dominant popular media, been increasingly dipping.

My reading choices have tended to reinforce this connection. Mini-reviews that I post on my blog to add diversity from my show and studio news, pretty much track what I’m reading. I love literary and art criticism and comics in their recent mini-renaissance have touched on both. Here are several items from my recent stacks of reading material, randomly acquired, but that seemed to relate:

High and Low, Modern Art, Pop Culture, essays on comics and caricature by Adam Gopnik, 1991: I carefully parsed Gopnik’s essay on comics in this voluminous catalog from a 1991 MOMA show. It ties into other essays in the same massive book, notably his essay on caricature. I was prepared for elitism, but I find nothing particularly canted about it, and in fact it fairly deftly meshes the histories, intents and impulses of both high and low art forms, and brings nice new perspectives on the mutual concerns, even influences, of George Herriman, R.Crumb, Phillip Guston, and others, including Miro, and of course, Lichtenstein.

Gopnik presents one of the more well-researched speculations on comics I’ve read, and it’s filled with original interpretations and unseen affinities. I can’t imagine not returning to it often. Just the section on the evolving and fairly conscious relationship between Crumb and Guston alone brings light to this often obscured relationship between high and low. Gopnik traces Guston’s cartoonish big feet figures from Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff) through Crumb, who’d recently published the first issues of Zap Comix at about the same time Guston switched from Abstract Expressionism to representational figuration. The tone of these fragmented, angst-ridden, offhand personages matches well with Crumb’s neurotic slackers. Crumb, discovering Guston later, pays homage on a cover of Weirdo Magazine. And the lineage continues now with Marc Bell, whose affinities with Fisher and E.C. Segar, again by way of Crumb, and his sense of lower class, paranoid humanity recalls Guston.

The very informed speculation on the artistic relationship between George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Miro are well argued.  Gopnik parallels Herriman’s contingent (Southwestern) dreamscapes with Miro’s Iberian surrealism, pointing out perceptively that while it’s commonplace to speak of “surreal” elements in Krazy Kat, Herriman’s style was fully evolved before Surrealism even existed. High culture critical bias thus sometimes puts the kart before the Kat.

And I’ve not seen Lionel Feininger so well-placed in the history of comics, nor his comics so well integrated in a description of Feininger’s other intellectual  pursuits; Gopnik defines his role as go between for the romanticist  fantasies of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Wonderland) and the fauvism of European modernism, reinforcing the idea of comics as a movement toward expressionism in popular culture.

The discussion of Lichtenstein could have made a significant short essay in its own right. Gopnik rescues and humanizes this complex relationship from the mere “ironies of scale” and rote appropriations seen in conventional criticism, thus redeeming both Lichtenstein and the hack artists he thrust into the galleries, one of whom, Irv Novick, in the plainest irony of all, was his commanding officer in the army.

Gopnik also states flatly that Mad Magazine, which led directly to the subversive energies of Crumb and the Undergrounds, and then to the DIY /alternative press which eventually brought comics to the book market (and their current renaissance), changed humor and satire, and thus, politics in America.

This pop cultural transformation in American entertainment, from the rural puritan tropes of minstrelsy, to the urban cosmopolitanism of Jewish culture (which touches all popular media) probably deserves more examination, as does the role of comics and caricature in breaking down the academic tradition in art. He is a bit less convincing in his discussion of caricature from this perspective, though the idea that Picasso’s experiments in facial displacement are essentially caricature and date back to Leonardo’s notebooks is certainly interesting stuff. Like any good critic, Gopnik raises more questions than he answers, and I’m glad to have finally read this important milestone in pop cultural criticism. It’s rare that critics- even comics critics- grant such weight to comics in cultural history.

The Ganzfeld #6, Dan Nadel, 2008: The Ganzfeld was an obscure journal whose intellectually synthetic juxtapositions tended to ignore categorical barriers between high and low art. #6 presents cutting edge comics such as those from the Fort Thunder group that grew out of the Rhode Island School of Design, later published by Highwater Books and Drawn And Quarterly, alongside contemporary NYC artists in a way that shows Nadel’s curatorial brilliance, but doesn’t really offer any analysis as to why it succeeds or fails. High and Low succeeds brilliantly because Gopnik recognizes that both high and low art proceeds from the same romanticising quest for a “universal visual language” though they approach the inquiry from opposite paths.

At issue in The Ganzfeld is how we distinguish (or really, curate) high and low culture to get at truths often obscured in their specific visual languages and metaphorical subtexts. Nadel, who now edits the online Comics Journal, excels at creative mash-ups. But by the time he published Number 6, he was apparently burned out from the rigors of self-publishing, as evidenced in this collection’s theme, I’m Done. It implies either frustrated surrender or self-satisfied completion, and this issue, though I’m sure I’ll return to it rewardingly, has a feel of something jammed together as is, a sort of curatorial catch-all, take it or leave it. So, along with some obvious editing failures to credit artists, there’s not a lot of effort to make his curatorial decisions transparent or readable, though they are often brave and imaginative. The customary page of blurbs about the contributors is gone, for instance.

I’m not making this up. The difference is clearly seen in earlier issues of the anthology, such as the exquisitely allusive Number 3 (2003), which states “We hope it’s […] cohesive and that by reading all of the pieces and then pondering them in tandem, you’ll gain insight into a larger though still inexplicable design.”

Each time I pick this book up, there’s a new wonder. There is a reprint of an Alfred Hitchcock essay, “My Most Exciting Picture”, which begins: “Shooting ‘Rope’ was a little like unpuzzling a Rube Goldberg drawing.” Nadel adds to the synaesthetic fun by engaging a modern day illustrator, Eric Lebofsky, to provide diagrammatically Golbergian cartoons. These in turn cannot help but allude to Jonathon Rosen’s “Monsters of the Medical-Industrial Complex”. In another issue, he prints a Lawrence Wechsler essay on Edward Snow on Brueghel.  This is why I love anthologies- they bring these “Convergences” (Wechsler’s term) of curatorial impulse face to face with fresh, even transgressive creative output such as comics.

Art Ops, Shaun Simon, Mike Allred, et al, 2016: I happened to pick this “Graphic Novel” on impulse as I was reading Gopnik, and though it provides some good laughs and even provocative questions about art, I think they were mainly not intended.  Art Ops, by alternative comics mega star Allred has real potential but ultimately fails because of a reliance on ad hoc plotting and over used cliches about art.

Nowhere are the inherent challenges and ever present pitfalls of comics creation more on display than in Art Ops, a Vertigo project with great promise that appears to have fallen victim to rushed production and fuzzy plotting.  This is the ever present obstacle of the graphic novel itself: especially in mainstream publishing, one must employ enough conceptual hooks and compelling characters to ensure the title makes it to the stands long enough to complete any sort of long term vision.

Some brief background: the star of Art Ops’ creative team is Mike Allred, an independent comics auteur who rose from self publishing in the 80’s to alternative press mega star with his self-owned Madman title. The story of a brain damaged “super hero” in search of his own identity, Madman brought a compelling personal quest and retro-Silver Age sensibility to the comics scene.

A true pioneer of creator-owned comics publishing, Allred has always exhibited a somewhat digressive, approach to story plotting, and this actually meshed well with his main character. Frank Einstein was Madman, and his super power was empathy.  But Madman has been on hiatus for a while now as Allred has pursued a number of projects with mainstream publishers, often bringing a buzz with his quirky mix of troubled characters in media-driven landscapes, rendered in retro-pop art comics visuals.

Yes, there’s a real danger of the tail wagging the dog. He’s had his fair share of successes, such as X-Factor, an X-Men spin-off that featured superheroes as media obsessed celebrities in a Buzzfeed world. And iZombie became a popular TV serial. Others have have been far less edgy but still engaging, such as his current Silver Surfer revival, designed to appeal to the suddenly essential market for young girl readers.

In Art Ops all of Allred’s weaknesses come to the fore, and a few of his strengths. The result, though it has flashes of real innovation, is often a slapdash, confused, cliche-ridden mess. A group of 60’s era hipsters metaphysically extract the Mona Lisa from her frame, substituting a forgery. This is to prevent her from being stolen by art thieves, a paradox which touches on real issues of authenticity and accessability in art, but which is never really delved into. Such throwaways- some of them truly clever- abound. The villain of the story is a “Demoiselle” from Picasso’s Analytic Cubism period who wants to turn Mona into a figure from his later, still much-lampooned Synthetic Cubism period. This is actually hilarious, but again, seems to have gone right over the heads of those who wrote it.

Once again, Allred has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, but satirizing high art is a risky business. On one hand, it presents a tempting target with its pretension to high concepts and strange forms, on the other, it requires real insight into its intellectual inquiry, or one runs the risk of coming off as superficial troll. Comics artists, often illustrators trained in the remnants of the Academic tradition, are as susceptible as any to superficial or reflexively antagonistic attitudes toward modern art. Allred, no less than Gopnik, often has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, and thus very often touches on real modern concerns, as pop culture can. But one treads a fine line. Gopnik, with relentless research and a mind alive to the social secrets that popular culture‘s very popularity explicates, walks it quite lucidly. Art Ops, with its scattershot, improvisational satire, not so much.

The Complete Jack Survives, Jerry Moriarty. Raw Magazine founder Art Spiegelman met Moriarty at the School of Visual Arts, where they were both instructors, and included him in early issues of Raw, then published the first Jack Survives collection as a Raw One Shot. I’ve always wanted a copy, but it’s been a hard find. This expanded collection came out from Buenaventura (publishers of another influential comics anthology, Kramer’s Ergot) in 2009. It’s a unique hybrid in the interface between comics, illustration and fine art.

Moriarty along with punk cartoonist Gary Panter is a pioneer of a somewhat Fauvist cartoon style that has more lately found popularity in the so-called “Cute Brut” style of Fort Thunder artists such as Mat Brinkmann and Ron Rege, along with others such as Brecht Vandenbroucke, Brecht Evens, and even Lisa Hanawalt.  His rendering sits somewhere between painterly and illustrational- he calls them “paintoons”. These artists are consciously or not, inhabiting the gray area between high and low art. Moriarty incorporates elements of both, and Jack, a fedora-wearing 50’s everyman inspired by Moriarty’s father, inhabits a somewhat airless neo-expressionist world as silent as Hopper’s yet subject to the inevitable disappointments and ironic displacements of any comic character. They’re funny in a disquieting way, both funny “ha-ha”; and funny “strange” like that feeling you get on a beautiful day when you hear distant laughter after someone has died suddenly or an airplane has flown into a building.

Just as Lichtenstein made Novick’s limited magna dots a complex metaphor for the emotional vacuity of American culture and the intellectual pretensions of Seurat’s pointillism, so Herriman and Crumb’s India ink scratchings have given way to broad range of different styles and techniques to express complex personal visions more like Guston’s mute personages than Crumb’s confessional, sex-obsessed neurotics. Comics have appropriated a lot of the expressive toolkit of high art, accruing the spiritual disquiet as well, while continuing to refine their satiric message, which is why people write about them.

Like the Post-Modernists, Moriarty does not seek finish in his art, and often lets changes and overpainting show, as if to place Jack, trapped within a medium that dares not speak its name, in this dialog with the gods of existential inquiry. Some of these visual effacements seem planned, as if to pit text against subtext, paint against line, caricature against portrait. If there is anyone still puzzling what might have happened had the Ash Can school survived the intellectual buzz saw of Cubism to make it to the age of Pop irony and emotional effacement, then maybe Moriarty has the answer. Jack survives, indeed.

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Workshop Update for Summer

April 14, 2017

I’ve updated my workshop page (click at the top) with Summer workshop information and links. The registration for these opened up this week and most have already had enrollees, so don’t wait too long. The first, Monotypes for Advanced Beginners is intended for those who have been printing in recent years, and want to explore a more intermediate level- finished, frame-able work for a show or portfolio perhaps; larger, multi-layered work, or those who need only a minimal refresher in print room technique who want to execute a project or series. There are still openings for this one, which begins June 20, 6-9:30 PM. It runs  5 weeks, excluding July 4.

I’m adding more workshops, and alternating more between morning and evening sessions, so if you don’t see a time slot that works for you, check back for Fall, and it’ll probably be offered.

I’m preparing a long post on the intersection of comics and fine art, but it’s been busy, so I’m not sure when I’ll have it ready. I’m finishing new work in the studio, and I’ll have some new photos to post in mid-May. Summer Art Market is coming June 10-11!

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Group Love

March 18, 2017

Wholesome Hey Kids! Comics! Entertaining

Anthologies are often the proving ground for innovation in comics.

Comics were birthed in innovation. The newspapers comic strips’ anarchic humor, along with early cinema, synthesized vaudeville, minstrel and photography to create new visual languages. This lasted until the end of the Jazz Age, and the ascension of radio and Talkies as the dominant pop culture mediums.  Nonetheless, invention continued with the great newspaper adventure strips, leading to superheroes, horror and crime in the nascent comic books, until they censored themselves out of pop cultural relevance with the Comics Code in the Fifties. The fans of these “Golden Age” comics were the ones who started the Undergrounds with Zap Comix, an anthology of cartoonists publishing communally in the wake of the Summer of Love.

As with the hippie love-ins, things turned dark quickly in comix, a freewheeling attitude toward sex giving way to a culture that often degraded feminine creative spirit. In reaction, women published their own comics anthologies such as Tits ‘n’ Clits, channeling anarchy into feminist manifesto. These were very influential as the undergrounds gave way to the Punk/DIY-inspired Raw Magazine, edited by Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Francoise Mouly (later art editor of the New Yorker) to provide an outlet for avant-garde comics.  Thus the era of great anthologies began. This model of self-published personal expression led eventually to creator-owned titles in the mainstream comics business and a new market for Euro-style albums in the bookstores. Here’s a list of some of the best, many still available cheaply through online booksellers, and constituting a history of the growth of adult-oriented comics in their current renaissance:

A qualified tip of the hat must first be given to Heavy Metal magazine, a pioneer in bringing Euro-style sophisticated fantasy and sci-fi (meaning non-superhero), along with gratuitously naked, large-breasted women to America in the late 70’s.

Arcade Comics Revue, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith: provided an early link between the UG’s and Raw. It featured R.Crumb, Jay Lynch, and Griffith’s early Zippy stories, among others. I was not living near a decent newsstand at the time and missed it, but it’s available through online sellers.

Raw(1980-1991), Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly: To paraphrase the old line about The Velvet Underground, it didn’t sell a lot, but everyone who bought one started their own comic. This large format mag revolutionized the market for intelligent, artful comics and was the first great alternative comics anthology. It still inspires imitation, starting with its ironic tag lines. “The Magazine That Lost Its Faith In Nihilism”, one early issue deadpans, and it’s one indication of Spiegelman and Mouly’s unique genius that no other magazine was able to come up with tag lines as funny and clever as theirs.  Its aesthetic was edgy, punk, expressionistic, as with Gary Panter’s Jimbo. Their stable of artists such as Richard McGuire, Jerry Moriarty, and Joost Swarte are now stars, and they started the careers of others, such as Chris Ware. They also provided my first taste of alternative Manga ( Yoshiharu Tsuge’s Red Flowers, flipped. Neither Raw nor I knew then how defeating to the original vision is printing Manga left-to-right). But there were certainly many niches to fill besides Raw’s New York School/Euro Clear Line, and a host of anthologies arose in the 80’s and 90’s to fill them.

Weirdo, Robert and Aline Crumb: A poor man’s Raw, traditional magazine-sized newsprint comic not afraid to publish some very unrefined artists, including the first episodes of Bob and wife Aline’s innovatively synthetic collaborations later collected in Drawn Together. This is largely because Crumb had made enough of a name with Zap that his other contributions and covers could keep it afloat for thirty-or-so gloriously uneven issues.

Escape, Paul Gravett: A well-produced, London-based magazine that was definitely inspired by Raw, even publishing many Raw artists in a tribute to the New York School in #13. Mostly concerned with the first great wave of British creators like Brian Bolland, Eddie Campbell and Carol Swain, who were soon to have a big impact on American alternative and mainstream comics alike.

Graphic Story Monthly, Zero Zero, Street Music Gary Groth and Kim ThompsonAfter the demise of Weirdo, its publisher, Fantagraphics, undertook their own series of anthologies in magazine and comic book format, all featuring fresh faces from the burgeoning American alternative scene, along with significant British and Euro artists. Serialized stories by Jacques Tardi and others abound here.

Drawn and Quarterly, Chris Oliveros: D&Q brought a new tone in their editorial choices, leaning less on the raucous, edgy Punk/Alternatives of Fantagraphics with their UG roots, and more toward the European clean line revivalists such as Dupuy and Berberian and the retro styles of Canadian cartoonists, such as Seth and Michel Rabagliati. They also brought light on forgotten classic cartoonists, such as Frank King.

Blab, Monte Beauchamp: Provided a link between the graphics of yesteryear ( e.g, Artzybasheff), underground and alternative comics (Spain Rodriguez), neo-realists (Camille Rose Garcia) and cutting edge illustration ( Baseman, Christian Northeast). It was also the first to go to TPB format, thus making it a pioneer in the move to the bookstore market.

Nobrow, Sam Arthur, Alex Spiro, Ben Newman: Another English publication, also combines illustration with comics with a strong emphasis on cutting edge European work such as Blexbolex, making it almost indispensable.

Mome and Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, Eric Reynolds and Chris Oliveros, respectively: Both Fantagraphics and D&Q continued to push the anthology form, moving to TPB’s after the demise of earlier magazine formats, perhaps in an effort to make them more profitable. They may have had some success with this; both had long runs and are widely available in the secondary market, suggesting decent print runs. D&Q featured longer stories by 2-3 artists per annual issue, including Genevieve Elverum and  Nicholas Robel; Fanta continued to serialize up and comers like Tim Hensley, Gabrielle Bell and Dash Shaw.

Best American Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, series editors: This annual is a very nice summary of recent trends, with individual guest editors choosing current work by long time favorites like the Hernandez brothers and Chris Ware, along with new faces from web- and mini comics like Kate Beaton and Noah Van Sciver.

Kramer’s Ergot, Sammy Harkham: The heyday of anthologies seems to have passed now, with only this, Best American, and Blab still publishing. But Kramer’s is the current gold standard. Harkham has his ear to the ground for fresh faces soon to be discovered (Anya Davidson) with an emphasis on the avant garde of the Fort Thunder school and others, such as Mat Brinkmann, Marc Bell and Ron Rege. Bonus: he often includes his own sublime work. Some of these are still available at cover price, but many have become very pricey collectibles.

Extra Credit! There is an increased interest in comics criticism, and these journals mix literary exegesis, art critique and comics history to varying degree, along with actual comics; filling a void in the understanding of the medium, which can be quite superficial in traditional critical circles. These can be uneven; Thierry Smolderen’s painfully jargon-filled study of the invention of word balloons in early comics from Comic Art #8 was fortunately cleaned up and much more focussed when he included it in his later book The Origins of Comics, From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. But they can be sublime, too: a tribute to the illustrated letters of H.C.Westerman, in the form of an illustrated letter by David Sandlin in The Ganzfeld #4.

The Comics Journal Special Edition, Gary Groth: The regular Comics Journal is famous for clotted, digressive meanderings at length and contentious criticism, but these stick mainly to the cartoonists themselves, from Lionel Feininger and Al Hirschfeld on up to Steven Weisman.

The Ganzfeld, Dan Nadel: This is why magazine junkies (and hopefully magazines) will never go away- Sandlin’s is not the only relentlessly obscure synthesis on art and literature Nadel has published; Henry Fielding “On Taste”, Lawrence Wechsler on Edward Snow on part of a Bruegel painting, Jonathon Rosen’s expressionistic medical diagrams, and the Hairy Who’s History of The Hairy Who. Also, the strange Manga of Shigeru Sugiura. Nadel is now editor of The Comics Journal’s website. Fine, it’s undoubtedly less stress-inducing than small press publishing, but web sites do not hold a candle to bizarre eccentric journals in my house. Print runs seem to vary per issue; some numbers are easy to find, some not.

Comic Art, Todd Hignite: Not quite as eccentric, but certainly wide ranging. Unlike the others, Comic Art rarely reprints any comic longer than a single page, so they are more accurately a critical review than an anthology. But in the larger purpose of discovering new artists and placing them into context in both comics history and cultural history as a whole, its essential, and also still relatively cheap and easy to find online.  The early photo-comics of Rudolph Topfer, the perverse scatologies of S.Clay Wilson in the underground era, and the quiet existential horror of Anke Feuchtenberger are analyzed and the explorations of comics theory, including Smolderen’s, are often ground-breaking.

Introducing oneself to such a variety of comics through so many eras and geographies would be impossible on the normal budget without anthologies. If you are curious about the current creative explosion in comics, you would do well to start with some of these.

 

Denver’s DINK Comics and Art Expo is April 8-9 at McNichols Building, with headliners Los Bros Hernandez. I’ll be there, and I’ll write about it sometime in mid-April.

 

 

 

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Counting On The Arts

February 14, 2017

The most recent biennial Colorado Business Committee for the Arts Economic Activity Study has been released. It uses Scientific and Cultural Facilities District raw numbers in a statistical model developed by Deloitte Consulting using U.S. Department of Commerce multiplier data. In short,  “quantifying the economic and social relevance of arts, cultural and scientific organizations in the metro area.” I’m a geek for this because I live it everyday. Sort of, anyway.

The study can’t measure how much individual artists pump into the economy when they take your $500 dollar check downtown to buy art supplies (and maybe a beer or two), but it can give a hint. It measures numbers reported by organizations, such as the SCFD-supported Art Students League of Denver, which pays me to teach your children- and you- art in the 21st Century economy, which is screaming for workers with creative skills.

I keep it handy and quote from it often, not only to shut up the troglodytes who think art is an indulgence not relevant in the “real world” of business and NFL football, but to reinforce those of us who encounter art every day, and think it matters, but can’t really describe why. You can get one, too, it’s published for free distribution thanks to business sponsors. There’s more info about the CBCA at cbca.org. But I’ll be posting nuggets from it, along with some of the striking graphics, periodically here.

A reminder: The deadline for my next “Monotypes for Advanced Beginners is less than a week away. You can register here: https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

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Color in Monotypes

February 06, 2017

Most printmakers use a somewhat limited color palette. Editions of hand-pulled prints often require a separate plate for each color- which can lead to a fair amount of time and expense. This has lead to a tradition of very strategic and inventive color use in printing, and its growth as an advertising medium since the Industrial Revolution has reinforced this. Advertising’s need for bold, simple visual form and messaging dovetails with this, too, and it’s no accident that printmaking is very often- not always- on the leading edge of modernist visual style.

Monotype prints- not technically printmaking, we are reminded by an educational poster in the Art Students League Denver print room, since there is no repeatable matrix from which to make identical prints- is not technically bound by the problem of multiple plates, but there are other reasons why the impetus towards simple color schemes pertains. The tradition of bold, clean-edged design is only one of them.

Artists encounter special challenges in using color inks, which are formulated to withstand the roller of a press, bond with different kinds of paper, and create vibrant results when dry whether applied with brayer or brush. Different ink formulations are used with screen printing, wiping etching plates or rolling onto litho plates and wood blocks (though most of these are fine for monotypes). And while oils, for example, are fairly consistent in texture (subject to modification) and are usually intended to be applied with brush or knife to canvas, inks tend to vary a lot in stiffness and viscosity, transparency and covering power. This makes predicting how they will interact with the more and less delicate types of paper used a learning process.

In monotype, ink can be mixed right on the plate, but delicate final effects can be hard predict after a ride through the 5K psi pressure a typical press generates. Textures, brush strokes and glazing are wiped out, so planning often becomes essential, even when trying for expressionistic or “spontaneous” effects. But these strategies work well with graphic, hard-edged modernist imagery too.

Layering is a good strategy for putting down a spontaneous effect in one color that will retain its integrity when another color is laid down next. Transparency in inks or modifying mediums allow different textures and hues to shine through while creating new tonalities and blends. A good understating of positive and negative space and how the (often) white paper will interact with these allows for light to shine from within, like glazing in oil, or watercolor. And printmakers will often pick a limited selection of colors and make a given color perform multiple roles, as in “process” color (CMYK).

A fairly simple image that actually stretches every rule of color usage in composition to create a compelling, dramatic visual message.

The example I’ve included here, which I’ve often used in classes, uses not a “somewhat” limited palette, but an extremely limited one. Its visual elements also are simple and separate themselves very straightforwardly into five elements; two in the foreground, two in the middle ground and a background. It’s in the colors assigned to these elements that we get a sense of creative transgression, and a feel for why the image is so arresting to the eye.

The first foreground element is the press, done in near silhouette, which provides a deep black field to highlight the second  element, the printer’s address. Clever way to deliver crucial advertising info, yes, but for this discussion the important fact is that we are used to seeing black as a background, as in the prints of Rembrandt, or Castiglione (monotype’s inventor), who use it to convey transcendent mystery, or to highlight bright foregrounds. Here it’s used as a visual tease of sorts, with the darkened foreground obstacle challenging us to peek at what’s going on behind.

The middle ground also has two elements- The printer, done in a simplified chiaroscuro to impart the drama of what he’s doing, ala Rembrandt; and the print he’s inspecting.  This is the most important info in the poster, the printer’s solitary quest for perfection, his attention to detail; and it is substantively done all in white, or to be precise, no color at all, since it is the white of the paper that is generally used by printmakers to get the brightest highlights. There is black, of course, to outline the intensity of the expression on his face, and to set his business-like suit off from the background. We are given to understand, both literally and figuratively, that this print shop owner stands out.

The background is the background, naturally. They often suggest distance, a void, an infinity; restful to the wandering eye, open to contemplation on what has been seen in the fore- and middle ground, but not often a hot, in-your-face foreground-type color like red. It is so insistent that it pushes the middle ground out toward us, adding to the intensity of the message.

Almost every color decision is the opposite of how our instincts tell us color should behave in a realistic image. The foreground is an obstacle to entry into the picture. The most important information is done in no color at all. White is the color most often used to denote negative space, but here used to denote the most positive elements in the composition, printer, press and print.The background is a hot, insistent, almost bludgeoning primary. But these visual transgressions grab us and lock us in instantly to a simple, powerful message (presumably, about printmaking’s power to deliver simple, powerful messages).

Again, bold, graphic, advertising is not necessarily fine art printmaking, which often needs to convey complex messages. But the two have developed hand in hand since the dawn of the printing press, and there is much to learn from it. Thoughtful, unique color use can really make your monotypes stand out.

My next workshop is Monotypes for Advanced Beginners, a studio class for people with some past printmaking experience who want a dialogue about developing their ideas in unique ways. Register by February 21 here:https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

Source of the picture is The Poster in History, Max Gallo, NAL, 1975. I’ve left the photo credit on the scan, at the top. I could find no further info on the artist, Ming.

 

 

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Coming Out of the Refrigerators

January 05, 2017

From the 20’s through the 40s, both newspaper comics and comic books featured women creators and tough smart female characters. That changed with the 50’s move toward conformity and censorship in all media, but especially comics, deliberately infantilized during the Wertham witch hunt, though the medium had previously appealed to all ages. Women often appeared as marriage-obsessed brats who needed a spanking.

An exception was feisty Little Lulu by John Stanley, which belongs with Marston’s Wonder Woman with the great feminist characters of pop culture. Marvel Comics’ much-noted renaissance in the 60’s in fact placed female characters in very subsidiary roles, as Mike Madrid’s well regarded survey, Supergirls, notes. The otherwise revolutionary undergrounds tended to sexualize women. It wasn’t until the alternative publishers that emerged with the growth of the direct market and the Punk/DIY movement in the 80’s when women began self publishing titles such as Wimmen’s Comics and Twisted Sister, that their viewpoints became a part of comics again.

This did not end the struggle, of course. Mainstream (superhero) comics, with the exception of slight stirrings, remained a sexist fanboy’s club, in both production and characterization, for over two more decades of broke-back* “bad girls” and “women in refrigerators”.

It’s finally changing, and as many feminists have long advocated, comics for girls are leading the way. Gail Simone, pioneer female comics creator and the instigator of WiR, speaking of sexualized disposal of female characters in 1999, noted “If you demolish most of the characters girls like, then they won’t read comics.” Women writers, artists and colorists have now taken advantage of the rise in creator-owned properties rising through the zine and web comics world to bring fresh air and light to the dingy fan boy world the direct market comic shops had become. Libraries and traditional bookstores are enthusiastically reinforcing this trend, and the big producers, spurred by a very vocal WiR-inspired feminist voice in the blogosphere, are finally placing women such as Kelly Sue Deconnick and G. Willow Wilson of Captain Marvel, a muslim teen super heroine, in starring roles.

A long time Lulu, and even sometime Archie, fan, I’ve read several critical analyses of women in comics, such as Madrid’s Supergirls or Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman, which defends the positive subtext of then-radical queer sexualities in Marston’s WW, without glossing over its sometimes misplaced fetishism. When I run across a teen or young adult comic for girls, I tend to pick it up, if only out of curiosity.

Many of these titles have been acclaimed critically and have sold well, indicating a market too long ignored. Others seem to pander, as if girls and YA women were a niche market some VP ordered them to check off the list. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Wet Moon Sophie Campbell: An edgy goth melodrama about multiply tattooed girls at a southern art school. Extremes of punk rebellion manifested in fashion and body piercings and played off against the disdained redneck mainstream as a group of young adult girls attempt to sort their love lives. It’s well paced with good dialogue. It’s only the first of six volumes but sets up well. It seems to be a rewrite of a previous series of comics. I always favor adventurous, edgy writing as opposed to mainstream fluff, and I feel that even pre-teens enjoy somewhat rebellious or transgressive themes, but this would probably be most appropriate for high school or college readers.

Bandette, Colleen Coover: It must be wonderful, if fluffy, summertime reading for girls of 12, with a perky Audrey Hepburn-like hero lifted from To Catch a Thief. It has Euro-style clear line art and some good running gags. But its ineffectual villains and lack of real dramatic tension is a recipe for a superficiality that it rarely transcends.

Nimona. Noelle Stevenson: This is a funny, clever, retro-futurist fantasy about a teen girl who is a shape shifter, and wants to be a super villain. She convinces an aggrieved former do-gooder to take her on as a sidekick, and the mentor/intern relationship is hilariously fraught. “There are rules”, to evil doing, he reminds her rather incongruously when Nimona delights in her body counts. It becomes clear that Nimona is more powerful than any of them dreamed, and the subtle themes of emotional maturity and anger in this quirky coming of age fable, along with the graceful, spontaneous cartooning and bright, evocative colors are enough to make it appealing to any age. It resists easy answers or moral dogma, and its impetuous, transgressive heroine must be a breath of fresh air to a teen reader. It was a finalist for a National Book Award, and will be made into a movie. One senses a classic-in-waiting.

Lumberjanes, Noelle Stevenson: The success of Nimona and the sudden rush to serve the long ignored and hungry girl market opened opportunity for Stevenson, and this collaboration with Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen for Boom! Comics resulted. It’s necessarily more episodic, and becomes fairly silly at times, but its themes of girlhood friendship (and nascent crushes) have made it a hit and won it a comics industry Eisner Award. It takes place in a summer camp with a high incidence of paranormal activity, and the plucky heroines meet each three-eyed terror with resolve while bucking up each other’s courage. I prefer Nimona’s darker, more complex themes, but I’m clearly not the target market and Lumberjanes delivers intelligent fluff ala traditional classics such as Little Luluwith none of Archie’s male-centric conformity.

Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat, Kate Leth and Brittney Williams: This character as teen market superstar seems like kind of a no-brainer, but something went wrong here. Marvel has been active in development of comics for girls and an early pioneer of strong female characters since the 80’s X-Men reboots. And Patsy herself is a holdover from the first boom in teen- and romance comics in the 50’s. But Marvel obviously overthought or over-analyzed this one. In fact Patsy’s last appearance, as sidekick to She-Hulk in the alt-comics inflected Marvel Now series, had already been named to some comics-for-girls lists when they let a focus-group mentality and cliche take over for the present reboot. There’s nothing wrong with gay and bi characters, until they take on a vaguely stereotyped, check list feel. And the simplistic art in pastel colors also feels a bit like a marketing move. Stereotype infects the storytelling too, with illustrations of smartphone text messages often taking the place of inventive interplay between word and picture, a glaring violation of the ‘show it, don’t tell it’ rule. How did they get this so wrong?

Bombshells: Alternative-universe series where various young female superheroes-including Anne Frank (!) battle Nazis in WWII. The art (meh) and plotting are by committee, and as these group things go, the story is choppy and abrupt, but again, escapist comics targeting girls or young women are rare at DC, and they’ve lasted 18 issues, so who am I to judge?

Mockingbird, Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk: A spin off from TV’s Agents of Shield, with some of the same romantic complications, a healthy dose of snark and fantasy, and some pretty engaging art. Marvel gets this one right, as it does with Hawkeye and Silver Surfer, two other general interest comics with strong female leads that seem inclusive without pandering to stereotyped marketing categories.

Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Though war and sex take very prominent roles in this general interest sci-fi epic-to-be (it’s ongoing), I’m betting teen girls make up a lot of its NYT Bestseller List readership. Partly because its overriding theme is the power of love and family. It’s narrated by the offspring of a very unlikely marriage of warring soldiers, and it’s funny, heartwarming and poignant with appealing illustration and endearingly bizarre characters.

This One Summer , Jillian and Mariko Tamaki: These cousins are the gold standard for graphically and thematically sophisticated cartoon literature for girls, in my opinion. This tale of quietly but seismically changing relationships among friends and family in a previously idyllic summer vacation spot reads like a novel and looks like a master ink painting. In short, it puts the “graphic” and “novel” back into “graphic novel”, a not very descriptive marketing category in the book industry’s raging love affair with the various types of comics now flooding the shelves. As a measure of the suddenness of this infatuation with bookish female teens, their last GN, Skim, was even better in its take on girlhood coming out rites of passage, but did not attract nearly as much mainstream attention. And there is nothing in these richly drawn, subtle, emotionally incisive coming-of-age tales that prevents an engaged reading by even, say, middle aged men, so read them, and see what happens when a vibrant medium meets a diverse and challenging creative landscape.

Paper Girls, Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang: Image Comics has evolved from the home of sexist “Bad Girls” such as Witchblade, etc, into a solid purveyor of genre with a fairly diverse line up of creators and characters. Interesting, if not all that innovative story of 12-year old paper girls in a post-apocalyptic time warp. Again, if I was a 12 year old, I might think this is great.

*Brokeback is the snide feminist term for the contorted poses that busty, wasp-wasted female superheroes were forced into in order to display both tits and ass during the bad girls era.

 

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Winter-Spring Update on Workshops and Shows

January 01, 2017

Winter-Spring Doings:

I hope all of you had a wonderful autumn, and a great Holiday/Solstice season! I’ve got a lot going on this winter/spring, and I’ll be getting off to an earlier start in 2017.  I hope to see you for one of these events.

Workshops:  The next session of  Monotypes For Beginners begins January 17 and runs until February 7. There are still spots open, if you’d like to or get a start on some creative “me” time in 2017. The full workshop runs on Tuesday mornings and gives you every basic step needed to certify you to work independently in the Print Room.  I also have one Moxie U Monotypes sampler, on February 21. This is a three-hour, hands-on intro type class. I do most of the technical stuff, and you just make monotypes. And it’s less than $30! There are still spots open for that, too. Online registration is here.

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Monotypes For Advanced Beginners comes right after that, Feb. 21- March 7. This is a follow-up class to my Monotypes For Beginners workshop and is intended for people with at least some printmaking experience. It covers some more advanced techniques, such as larger work and Chine Colle, and is a bit more portfolio-,  or studio-oriented. Take it as a part II continuation of Monotypes For Beginners, or take it independently if you’ve already had that course, or other printmaking experience, and can demonstrate knowledge of the press.

 I’ve added an evening session of my Monotypes For Beginners workshop

The biggest news is the spring schedule  running a bit later, as I’ve added an evening session of my Monotypes For Beginners workshop.  I’ll have a Session B of Monotypes For Beginners, beginning  April  4 on Tuesday evenings and it will run for 5 weeks, making it very affordable. It filled up very quickly the last two times I’ve given it, and I’ve also had quite a bit of feedback that more evening sessions would be welcome. This affects younger people who have to work, and teachers looking for development credit, which is available at the League. In all, there are more of my workshops of various sizes and times available this spring.  I’ll post a complete list at JoeHigginsMonotypes.com, or you can search and register online at ASLD.org.

There is also a holiday show wrapping up in Colorado Springs at G44 Gallery. I’ve recently refreshed there with about 10 new pieces, so go say hi to Gundi!  You can buy selected works online through their website, and on JoeHigginsMonotypes.com.

Appointments to see work are always available. Email or call 720.855.7340. This is a productive time of year for me, so if you just can’t wait till Summer Art Market to see new work, contact me.

I will have a brand-new debut piece in the Art and Soul Gala marking the 30th Anniversary year of the Art Students League. Sale of this piece will partially benefit the League, which I believe in, and enjoy teaching at. If you have a question about any workshop or show, feel free to contact me.

Finally, people already active in the print room  have an opportunity to help the League! I’ll let Libby Garon, our Marketing and Development Coordinator, and a printmaker herself, explain:

“After a very creative conversation with Mr. Joe Higgins & Shari Ross, we all came up with the idea of having programs at ART&SOUL [Benefit] with original artwork from the printmaking department on the front.

Prints that have not passed your quality inspection can be torn down to 4”x6” to create unique pieces and placed in photo corners of each program, creating a unique framable piece for each guest (or each pair) to take home that night as a party favor.

If each printmaker was able to donate 12-15  4”x6” pieces we would need about 20 printers, approximately.

The goal is to have a total of 250 and we will have volunteers place each piece in the photo corners.

I am suggesting that we all get together Thursday, January 5 from 4:30-9:00. There will be snacks and wine as well.

Please note: you don’t have to attend the tear down party to participate. You can tear them on your own time, but please do let me know how many you can submit, and  drop them off by January 20.”

To me, this sounds like a fun way to not only support the League, but to meet other artists, compare notes, and creatively re-assess work you’ve already done. As I often say in my workshops, a good print is sometimes not a function of what you put in, but what you take out. I’ll be there, so I hope to see you!

 

A very happy and peaceful New Year to all. We’ve had a rough 2016, but I still believe in the power of art and will be looking forward to meeting new friends in ’17!

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America Goes Low: Art, Culture, and Political Healing

November 30, 2016

I’ve got some news about workshops and shows to post, but first, a little commentary on the current political regression:

I don’t make a lot of political commentary on this page, as it’s a bit counter- productive to what I’m trying to do here. My art isn’t demonstratively political, I can at least provide a haven from my political opinions for the people who come here to enjoy it. But art, culture and politics cannot be completely separated, as my early post on the importance of access to health care to the arts makes clear.

So in trying to come to terms with what most mainstream commentators recognize as a president-elect with fascist tendencies, I’ve had to ask myself how the art can help us reverse this disturbing trend.

Waves of anger and nausea, stress and distraction are to be expected, but I do not intend to add my anger to the bonfire of rage, ignorance and intolerance that the dumbfucks have lit. Resistance is a good thing: well organized and thought out, especially in the areas of health care and Medicare, environmental issues and immigration, which will be under siege in these reactionary times. There are many ways to protest and resist, and I will continue to use them. But in the meantime, art, books and friends will be my refuge. I’ll try to stay off social media for a while, do some more writing and sketching, and let the darkness do what it does, which is to prepare for the light.

First of all it’s polarizing to post too much about it. While anger is a natural human reaction to the travesty of intolerance we witnessed on Election Day, and a time-tested motivator to the type of activism that will be needed to rescue the country from incipient fascism, I don’t wish to add mine to the raging bonfire of entitled grievance that has been started out in the ideological hinterlands. My hot air, however righteous, can only fuel that inferno of ignorance. The proto-fascist backlash has a momentum of its own in this country, and must be met with real contemplation, not reflexive confrontation, lest it feed on itself.

Second, though I haven’t articulated this very well over the years; as I’m sometimes guilty of indulging my own anger- I feel real empathy for those who’ve chosen this path of fear, anger and scape-goating of minorities, though of course without endorsing their rather self- destructive solution. Some of the grievances are real, though whom they have chosen to blame are ghosts and strawmen, planted in the path of their blind rage by the authoritarians and oligarchs who have successfully manipulated them.

Third, anger is destructive to my own personal growth and creative energy. It creates actual physical stress, for one thing, to which many we saw on social media on the night of the election can attest. If we could have done a word search on Facebook and Twitter, I’m sure the word “nausea” would rank very high. It’s distracting and self reflexive, not good companions to personal  reflection and contemplation, which aid in thoughtful creativity.

And of course it doesn’t work. We’ve seen an entire reactionary political backlash fueled by anger, and what they got for all their self-consuming rage was… that. It’s unlikely to make them feel better about their lives, or about their country. After abuse and bullying comes self loathing. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a massive, red-state-wide temper tantrum, and it can’t be solved with more anger. However, we can’t put Michigan and Wisconsin in “time-out”.  We are, much as we hate to admit, not parents, we’re peers. As abhorrent as these people’s views are, they must be addressed as equals.

So it’s time to breathe, count to ten and listen to the grievance, without endorsing the ignorance. Somewhere between the lines of  the ugliness, the anti-gay screeds, the religious intolerance, and the deep seated hatred of women, there are real  issues that could be addressed without buying into the hate, to defuse the bitter anger these people have given into:

Educational opportunities must be increased. The rather pathetic cry to “bring our jobs back” (newsflash, demagogue voters: they’re not coming back, no matter which orange tin-pot you install in the oval office) would be greatly reduced by simply getting more people in rural areas and depressed suburbs into higher ed, even community colleges or computer schools.  Equally at risk with the redneck crowd are the immigrants whose votes are depended on for the Democrats’ coalition, so it’s a win-win.

Infrastructure needs to be repaired. This degradation is the GOP’s own fault of course, but it will provide jobs for the aggrieved and strengthen the country for the future. Again, emphasis must be placed on rural areas, who often  have overcome their distrust of schools, art centers and public transit when real, decent jobs are provided.

Arts, culture, religion are potential allies, not necessarily enemies. Bush’s plan to fund faith-based charities could be revived and converted  to enlist more moderate religious orgs to counteract the poisonous mega-churches where right wing intolerance incubates.  Yes, we’ll wind up funding kitsch like ten commandments sculptures and youth centers with abstinence programs,  but the trade-off could be meth education and occupational training, with opportunities in senior care and home health care in areas where they are desperately needed.

Many rural areas truly are depressed and deserve our attention. This is also true of immigrant suburbs too. The almighty free market has fattened the cities at the expense of outlying areas, and to that extent, the rage is justified. The orange buffoon who rode this wave of ignorance will have little interest in these things, of course, except as a sop to his massive ego. Yes, we could wind up with a brand new hospital or two named after a certifiable member of the rape caucus. But the Republican Congress might be amenable to sliding some relief for their incredibly Gerrymandered districts into the coming care package for billionaires their corrupt colleagues are sure to demand. The demagogues used to sneer at this as “throwing money at the problem”, but the poor whites who actually do the voting are in fact the biggest consumers of welfare, and won’t complain about money flowing to their small towns, as long you don’t call it that. Similarly, The deficit issue was co-opted by Dems from Clinton on, and is a dead issue with the GOP.  Rural economic relief was how FDR sold the New Deal to Congress, thus marginalizing the radical ultra conservatives for two decades. What matter if we drive up the debt to defuse the vindictive rage of the white power crowd. It must be insisted to include black and immigrant areas, too, and when possible to include the more traditional arts as a tourism attractor to depressed areas.

It could lead to a lessening of fear and rage in the boonies. This is the real driver of the dysfunctional  GOP, the demagogues who intentionally fan the flames of hatred only look to profit from it. Jobs and tourism might pave the way for a stronger economy and a more temperate political dialogue.  This could eventually lessen the impact of social change on psychologically threatened white males and loosen the grip of rape culture, bigotry and gun fetishes on the fragile ego of the uneducated white male.  A few more social moderates in the GOP caucus might result, balancing out the political opportunists who prey on these red state insecurities.

Yes, it’s incremental, a real dirty word with the far left dreamers. Yes, the representatives who might sign on to solidify their districts will hypocritically continue to provide lip service during campaigns on “wasteful government programs” for the benefit of the gullible, but they will not vote against it as they are in the White House now and will need to bring something home and is it not better to see them profit politically in this way, than to accept Koch brothers’ money to foment  anti-immigrant hatred?

And it can’t hurt to try. Our own propensity for outrage at every cultural failing, every pipeline, and every moralizing dickhead, hasn’t really solved much, as we found out November 8. We should save our energies for the truly important battles: women’s choice, environmental treaties,  immigration reform  and reducing militarism, which are feeding this incipient domestic terrorism and hardened hatred. We must cop to our own sometimes extremism and admit that we are equal partners in the race to vilify honest political compromise, incremental social change, and the large amount of hard working politicians who still want to do things together but are stranded between the loudmouthed blowhards on both sides. It doesn’t mean compromising our values, it means rewarding honest intentions, whether we agree with them or not.

As a culture, we’ve grown fat slow and angry, swinging for the fences of political absolutism, rather than playing the small ball and manufacturing compromises. It opens the field for manipulators to play a cheater’s game with the lesser angels of our social media and leads to real corruption, as we are about to see, not the kind the conspiracy theorists on both sides screech about.

Neither side is reacting well to seismic social changes, whether the side that desires their undeniable benefits, or the side that fears the insecurities it inevitably brings.  It leads to a failed state. While honorable resistance to the very real threat to democracy that demagoguery brings is needed, so is a recognition  of, and concern for the very real needs of these victims of a rapacious political culture. We can work together without sacrificing our principles.

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How and Why to Do Black and White in Monotypes

October 24, 2016

“Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea”

-A Paper Moon, Billy Rose/ E.Y.Harburg/Harold Arlen

This image relates to memory and the way we move through it.

“Man With Torch”, Monotype, 30×42″, 2004. In this large monotype, black and white each define both positive and negative elements. White forms the infinite misty negative space behind the smoke and the water, for example, but also defines highlights on the water, and billows in the smoke. Charred trees foregrounded in black are silhouetted against distant grays and brown blacks. Similar values used in multiple compositional structures can make for dynamic graphics.

Color is an integral component of all art. We regularly talk of “color” when describing sounds in music, for example.

But in talking color in art, we often forget the two colors that are not considered colors at all: black and white. Managing black and white in ink on paper composition is at the very core of composing good prints.

For one thing, there is the subtractive nature of light in printmaking. As with any sort of color involving pigment, the addition of the pigment subtracts various wavelengths of light from those being reflected back to the eye. Unlike additive color such as projected light, where addition of more color eventually results in bright white, in subtractive color, you tend toward black. And in the thin applications of ink under pressure inherent in printmaking, it’s not possible to completely cover most inks. The most white space, and thus light, you will ever see in a print is in the blank piece of paper you tear before printing anything. Everything thing you do from then on only reduces the amount of light in your composition.

It’s also true to a certain extent, of watercolor, though many water colorists can cover with Chinese white ink, or gouache in their paintings to bring back the white areas. There is a very nice show of  Charles Burchfield pictures at the Denver Art Museum now where you can find wonderful examples of that. Print makers can certainly add opaque water media such as acrylic paint or even pastel to a print, making it a hand colored print, but in its essence as something run through a press and thus presented as something graphic and in some way repeatable (monotypes are not strictly repeatable, though a ghost can be made, which has very unique advantages in itself, explained here). So white is a valuable visual resource in the print room. And in managing the sorts of positive/negative relationships that bold graphics and dynamic compositions often depend on, it is indispensable.

Its material opposite and spiritual twin is black. While both can evoke a void or an infinity, and each bring definition to shape, as in chiaroscuro, only black can be physically applied in a pure state in printing. And it cannot be taken away. White is just the opposite, and thus becomes almost sculptural. It is fun to work with white inks, but even “opaque” white does not cover nearly as well as black. The best example of this is in scratchboard-style composing such as seen in the monotypes of Castiglione, their inventor, who recently had a show at the DAM.

It thus becomes very important in monotype printmaking to be “present”. One must have a good sense of where the light in a given composition is “coming from” and where it is going. Transitions from white to black and from positive to negative space create compositional movement and intrigue. This is true in any medium, of course, but in print media it cannot be corrected, and must be planned for. A monotype can be layered with great subtlety, tones shifting almost miraculously into hues as complex as many oil paintings, but the white slips away with each run as relentlessly as melting snow. It’s true whether the composition is abstract or realistic, hard-edged or gestural, baroque or minimal.

So having a sense of balance and proportion is vital, even if balance is accomplished with one shining burst of light in the darkness. In the most poetic sense, the two need each other, as the Bible, and artists from Rembrandt to Escher to Motherwell remind us. Because that bit of light may be where your viewer’s eyes enter your picture.  And the finest pin prick may be where they move after that, and how they are led through your composition, searching and constellating as with stars on a dark night. Eyes bring light to the synapses, and their movement is analogous to interest and engagement in the viewer. Grays and blacks can be compelling and dynamic, and a dark composition can create real mystery but there is a danger of busy-ness or a visual claustrophobia when there is too much of a grayness in a print, and if there is real depth or motion in your monotype, a bright graphic electricity, the chances are that the white is shining through somewhere like a big paper moon.

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The World Is a Funny (Book) Place

October 17, 2016

I read some big, brainy, brick shaped books this summer. A respite was inevitable, and when my eyes want a rest, I very often pick up some comics.

Comics, A Global History 1968 to the Present, Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner: The 50’s suppression of comics in America had echoes in Europe and Japan, but they weren’t as long lasting, and thus innovation came sooner there. This is one of the valuable areas of context offered in Comics, which despite its limitations, is the most comprehensive survey of the creative maturing of the medium around the world I’ve seen. I was searching for a history of Euro comics from WW II onward. This isn’t it, but it’s a very readable account of the modern era of comics in their three largest markets.

Any art form requires context for informed interpretation. Comics, a form that has been subject in this country to an infantilizing censorship and commercialized lassitude since the witch hunts of the post war era, have lacked any sort of critical context for decades. This is finally changing, and important scholarship is proliferating, often at a pace that stretches the budget of an amateur scholar.

I thus passed this book up in the store both for cost, and for its scope, which cuts off the crucial 50’s Mad Magazine/EC era, roots of the seminal undergrounds. Mazur and Danner choose to start in 1968, a year rich in a larger cultural sense, but an odd place to start here in that it was the industry’s self-censorship push of ’54 (the infamous Comics Code Authority seal on the comics of my youth) that really led to the Underground comics movement of the 60’s, and ultimately, the innovation of the 70s and especially the 80’s. By putting EC out of business, the Code created an artistic void into which the young fans who missed those raucous comics (such as R. Crumb) ventured when they started Zap Comix, et al.

Mazur and Danner, limited by page count, did find a rich time to start, but nowhere else in the book is cultural ferment linked to pop culture innovation, so it seems arbitrary, and a missed opportunity. The reactionary Reaganauts and the dystopian Dark Knight Returns or Otomo’s Akira? Grinding, punitive Thatcherism, and Judge Dredd, or Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta? Not explored. To be fair, the book runs to 300 pages already, and it’s my only major complaint. The book, which I finally got from DPL, certainly does provide a creative context, if not a cultural one.

Instead, I was impressed by its integrative vision of comics as international art form. Within its narrowed time frame, it examines both Euro and American mainstream comics against underground/alternative upstarts, and provides a nice survey of alt- and mainstream manga, not to mention the frequent cross pollinations, such as Akira’s influence on Dark Knight or the “British Invasion” of creators that led to DC’s Sandman and Watchmen.

This survey attempts to link these culturally disparate but creatively interlinked threads in the development of a more literate and adult oriented comics media. Its authors appear to be knowledgeable about this complex period in comics history, where the rebellious spirit of early 20th century comics found rebirth in reaction to the post war censorship movements.

They note that there was in the late 60’s and early 70’s a movement to different marketing dynamics. The Franco-Belgian comics went to an album format (as American comics are doing today) while American comics began to be sold in the direct market, opening opportunity for creative experimentation. By then, Manga and Euro comics were already appealing to a more mature reader, often in the form of Science Fiction and other genre. This movement came to our shores in the form of Heavy Metal magazine, which despite its T & A editorial bias, published many interesting comics auteurs, as they point out.

At around that time, I  discovered Herge’s Tintin. This was a real revelation when I first encountered it in the college bookstore. His ligne clair (clear line) style defined Euro comics as a whole new simplified graphic style different from over-rendered American superhero comics, a real breath of air. The authors clarify the roots of different European styles of the time, tracing clear line to Brussels, and another looser style, epitomized by Goscinny’s Asterix, to Charleroi.  By the early 80’s Fantagraphics and Raw Magazine had begun publishing Jacques Tardi, Jooste Swarte and other European artists, who’d re-appropriated clear line with an ironic, post modern twist.

I was immediately hooked. Naturally, these early discoveries were on my mind as I read Comics, so I returned to two Euro comics pioneers.

Tintin has been recently repackaged in a smaller format, and I don’t recommend them. The whole appeal of clear line is its simple, open lines, allowing the art and story more space and air. Reducing the size of the panels defeats this. Herge is very funny and engaging in his details. The older format is often found on eBay or in used bookstores at great prices, and allows Herge’s dynamism and visual pacing to shine. The early stories, such as King Ottakar’s Sceptre, echo romantic genre fiction, such as the Prisoner of Zenda, but with interesting political overtones in the approach of WWII.

I found Adele Blanc Sec, by Jacques Tardi, in a favorite used bookstore. Tardi was a pioneer of more adult-oriented genre comics in France in the mid 70’s, mostly in the realm of the murder mystery, but also in a history of a soldier’s (his father) experience in the WW I trenches. In Adele, plots pile complication upon complication in lieu of a cohesive narrative about a mysterious prehistoric bird terrorizing Paris, but his cartooning, hovering stylistically between Herge’s clear line style and George Pichard’s texturally voluptuous landscapes, is atmospheric and evocative of the Edwardian era he seeks to evoke.

Empire of a Thousand Suns, Mezieres: 70’s Euro sci fi in a stylish “Charleroi School” art but fairly unsophisticated plot. Had hoped for something like Barbarella, a sexy pioneering sci fi fantasy, but got a pedestrian space mystery instead. The parallels between it and the slightly later first Star Wars movie are quite striking, though.

It was also in the early 80’s that I had my first taste of Manga. This came in Raw, too, which published 70’s Garo magazine alumni such as Yoshiharu Tsuge. They also introduced such important Punk/DIY (“Do It Yourself”, a movement of self-publishing and music recording) creators as Gary Panter and Mark Beyer. More recently quite a bit of pioneering  alt-Mangaka such as Tezuka and Hayashi have become available, and Mazur and Danner have done a good job of tracking their impact in the Japanese market and elsewhere.  If you become curious about these European and Japanese creators, then any of the better anthologies, such as Kramer’s Ergot or  Mome (Fantagraphics); Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, or the massive Drawn and Quarterly 25th Anniversary collection ( D&Q); or back issues of Raw can provide good samples. Comics: A Global History unfortunately chose to present examples in the original languages (easier to get rights, I’m assuming), but the anthologies’ translations are pretty easily and cheaply available online or at a good used bookstore.

Comics continues into the 21st Century, with brief examinations of web comics; the “Fort Thunder” collective, working in what Mazur and Danner call a “Cute Brut” style of edgy, primitivist graphics merged with Disney-style anthropomorphism; and the autobiographical movement.  It is a real renaissance in comics right now, and the book will quickly become dated. I really hope they revise it then.  In terms of defining creative trends in the three main comics-loving regions, USA, Europe, and Japan, Comics makes for absorbing and necessary reading, and I did find myself referring back to it as I re-discovered old works.

Adult Contemporary by Bendik Kaltenborn: This Norwegian cartoonist is very much in the vein of Brecht Evans (The Making Of, below) and Brecht Vandenbroucke (White Cube); that is, very edgy satire with urban themes in a cartoon brut style of hyperactive color and unrefined line work. They really grew on me as I settled into their neurotically absurd humor.

The Making Of, Brecht Evens: Gorgeous and dense watercolors and absorbing layout in this tale of artistic ego turned loose in the hinterlands of creativity.

City of Glass, Paul Auster: adapted by Paul Kurasic and David Mazzuchelli. A Noirish thriller of identity and social interaction by Karasic, who once worked on Raw Magazine, and Mazzuchelli of Asterios Polyp and Batman Year One where he brought back a purer cartooning style to the over-rendered medium of superheroes. Mazzucheli’s stylizations sometimes carry real elemental power, as in Batman; and sometimes seem overly self conscious or precious. But it’s a compelling story.

Tales to Designed to Thrizzle, Michael Kupperman: bizarre non sequiturs and 50’s style ad graphics collide in this often funny satire of capitalist messaging. Best in small doses, possibly.

Drawn Together, Aline and R.Crumb: Another worthy anthology in the 80’s was Weirdo, where these unexpectedly affecting collaborations between R. Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb appeared before being collected in this 2012 edition. Aline influenced him to try autobiographical comics, which she helped popularize, and he alertly recognized the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts harmony of her scratchy primitivism with his iconic retro-E.C.Segar Zap Comix style. It is a visual analogy of what makes a relationship work; neuroses, kinks, self-absorption and all. The whole becomes a funny and romantic page turner and ultimately tells the fascinating tale of 35 years of their unconventional marriage. And, by extension, of the maturing and broadening of the conventions of an always vital medium.

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