Transforming an Idea

Or Being Transformed By It?

Ideas are far from static entities. I mentioned in another post that like the particles in Maxwell’s Demon, they will usually gain energy or significance only by colliding with other ideas, and thus are born of a process of synthesis or transformation anyway. But even an idea born whole -assuming that really exists- will benefit from different approaches to it. Transforming an idea puts you in the driver’s seat, even when you are not sure where you are going- especially when you are not sure. Taking ownership of an idea sometimes means taking it apart and putting it back together again. If you find you have parts left over, perhaps they didn’t belong there in the first place.

There are different strategies for transformation, and some are additive, and some are subtractive. It’s become a convention to speak of Picasso, for example, as a ‘creator/destroyer’ as Arrian Huffington once put it, and apart from the implications in an artist’s personal life, the famous time-lapse film of Picasso painting onto a clear panel, erasing whole areas and putting new elements in their place is an extreme (and possibly self-dramatized) example of the way process can be far from linear. A good book on Picasso’s  creative process that I’ve enjoyed recently is The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, by Rudolf Arnheim.

It is a bit of a self-drama, for me, anyway. I’m sure other artists might agree. One gets one’s favorite studio soundtrack going- let’s see, Pixies, or Phillip Glass? A stimulant can be added; now, it’s usually coffee, though I admit that wine or beer was more common in the early days. There is a certain choreography that pertains: anything from organizing the studio, to a restless pacing back and forth from close-ups to long view, a sort of rhythmic dance might even break out.

And then the adding and subtracting. This has a real metaphoric weight- it’s not just a surface arrangement. Questions of positive and negative space, visual weight and color messaging impact the meaning of an idea, the way it blossoms from pure visual immanence to a more objective literal object. No artwork can escape this fluid dynamic. 

So what can be added? Especially in printmaking, which is subject to the technical limitations on effects and processes that can be changed after they are once applied, and a general bias toward simplified graphic forms? The short answer is: distance and movement. There are many ways to add depth to a print, which by nature and design, can sometimes be flat. These range from the traditional, such as perspective, to other more abstract strategies.

Visual and metaphoric distancing strategies affect our reactions to a picture emotionally and analytically. This often takes place in terms of creating eye movement, which is the physical manifestation of ‘interest’ in looking at an artwork. Something detailed, heavily textured or just very hard-edged often gets our most immediate attention because of how the eye works. Something fuzzier, and less distinct feels ‘farther away’, less of an immediate question or challenge. Distance is the essence of ‘depth’ in an artwork. It also creates musicality when we consider that distance=rate x time. Similar objects, varied in size, and placed at regular intervals, create a rhythm and depth that becomes harmonizing. We follow the ‘beat’, moving into the space and time of a picture.

Textures can add energy and attract the eye, things such as “noise”, a word I  use to refer to ‘accidental’ by-products of ink manipulation- debris, extruded strokes, distressed color forms, and scratched-in forms, such as in clouds or dark areas. Textures impart important cues into an artist’s attitudes toward the basic shapes in a composition, and are not to be ignored. Texture sounds like a decorative detail, but two shapes, treated in a soft, fuzzy, mystery suggesting way; or in a hard-edged, definite, foregrounding way, can say different things about meaning. Literally and figuratively,  texture provides definition.

Edges and contours work the same way. A hard edge will physically ‘foreground’ an element, owing to the way the eye works; and in combination with a darker color can also create a sort of silhouette, a neat trick of adding both proximity and mystery to an object, a very basic and challenging question to the viewer’s eye: Do I stay here, or move around this, into what has by implication become a distance. Thus movement is created.

Contours bring softer, more reticent shapes forward. Contours can be textured to add intrigue or expressive notes, or faded to add mystery and metaphoric movement. Contours can be found in shapes that already exist in the image, or imposed on top of textures or patterns beneath. They can be somewhat arbitrary or even contrary, or harmonious and integral.

Textures can be stylized (semi-abstract), or realistic and sort of gritty or tonal. In monoprints, texture can also include different printmaking techniques such as relief, dry point, and collograph, among others; each offering a new ‘window’ into a separate reality, upping the way meta narrative can be incorporated. Whatever one’s opinion of Andy Warhol, his genius was to prove finally, conclusively, that art can never be wholly a matter of physical gesture. Ideas are born, live, and die in the mind. While his art is obviously about much more than printmaking, the surrealist juxtapositions of process color and deliberate mis-registrations inject the ultimate distancing effect of all- irony.  Viewed in these lights, texture and color, especially in printmaking, is anything but decorative.

“Treehouse”, 2019, 21×15″, Monotype. In every monotype, there are things one might wish to change, or that one hadn’t changed.

Color’s transformative qualities are magnified in printmaking. Transparency can form newly surprising or intriguing colors, change mood overall or in parts of the picture, or unify disparate elements. Transparency is a measure of color’s willingness to engage with other elements in a print.

Bright, warm colors bring the underlying elements forward; dark, subdued colors can make the overlapped elements recede. In printmaking, where color schemes are often simplified, accents can attract the eye to important areas, add irony or balance, or a visual counterpoint. When complementary colors are used, they can demonstrate visually the adage that “opposites attract”.

Positive/negative elements can foreground detail, or create visual reversals, which are energizing and add intrigue. As in famous optical illusions such as Necker Cubes, positive/negative elements in art can be both additive and subtractive, foregrounding and backgrounding, at the same time. A splash of textures or small shapes can lead from positive (dark) areas, in color on light areas and segue immediately into negative (light) shapes in a dark area. This is a cubist trick that leads the eye and breaks visual planes. Again, eye movement trumps surface illusion. 

As for the subtractive side of the creative process, As an idea becomes more developed it often becomes more complex. Other ideas and nuances accrete, leading to a signal to noise disjunct that can obscure a simple first idea. It can be liberating and freeing, in a creative sense, to simply take something out. Let the idea suggest itself, rather than spelling it out. If an idea isn’t strong enough to survive this at least you know that now.

And white space is well known, in printmaking’s cousin, advertising, to create places for the eye to enter a picture, or to rest briefly while considering a next move. Monotypes or prints without sufficient white space can sometimes feel heavy, or busy. With an often limited color palette, and no way to reclaim the resplendent whites once they’ve been printed over, this is not surprising. But balance in darks and lights doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 mix. A small, very bright white area of the original sheet showing through a mass of black ink can be very compelling.

When do the transformations end? It’s a question I get a lot in classes- when is it finished? Do I keep going and risk irreversible change, or stop and risk Superficiality and incompleteness? Transformations have consequences. Do I dare to eat a peach? is T.S. Eliot’s sublime, elegant and wholly understated version of this existential dilemma.

And it is very much existential. Change will happen anyway. Embracing change places you in the very engine room of the creative process. What to do there? I wish I had a simple answer for that in my own studio work. Be present. Open yourself to the movement and the music. 

My next workshop for adults with at least some printmaking experience is Mad Science Monoprint, beginning July 23. Register this week. The thoughts from this post will be on my mind then, and you are welcome to join the conversation.

In Media Res

Show’s over, It certainly was a good one, and I may have stories and pix to share about the Summer Art Market 2019 after I sort through the post-show jumble. Few will match this one, from my second post, just after SAM 2009.

That’s right- a few extended silences notwithstanding, This blog is now 10 years old! It calls for a post of some sort. The 16th, the actual date of my first post is Bloomsday, the day of Leopold Bloom’s Odyssean wanderings through Dublin. But after what is usually one of my busiest periods of the year, thoughts turn to lighter fare. Comics and videos are definitely part of that. This Squishtoid blog, originally an attempt to document my creative life after leaving my day job, also functions as an outlet for my reading and pop culture musings. So while I dig out, and prepare for summer’s workshops, here are some thoughts about Marvel, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Earlier in spring reduced class time and social life during a fairly cold winter led to more reading and quiet time. I do enjoy reading up on ideas, and the most recent post for that is here, but sometimes, especially after a long hard day wrestling with those ideas in the studio, some comics are in order. While there are many literary and artistic comics out there, I think what most people first think when you say ‘comics’, is superheroes. This simplistic confusion of genre with medium dogs serious discussion of what comics are capable of, but on the other hand, superheroes remain, at least sometimes, a unique and vital genre.

It really makes no sense commenting on Marvel’s comics without having at least a passing knowledge of its movies, which have mined its long comics mythology to create one of the great Hollywood, or pop culture franchises. I’ll never really be a mainstream superhero guy, as far as comics go. But the movies are certainly hard to ignore. I’ve probably seen just over half of them now, and I’ve seen some major links in their ongoing narrative as the culmination comes in the release of Avengers: Endgame.

But it also makes sense to bone up on the source: the long history of the comics mainstream’s major superhero innovator :

Marvel: The Untold Story, Sean Howe : A book I’d been meaning to read and inhaled when I finally did. Marvel Comics had been the one of the formative pop cultural epiphanies of my youth, as I grew into them about the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were hitting their stride with angst-ridden characters on real urban streets. 

I was mostly done with them by ’75, and having returned to university, completely abandoned them for the alternative comics revolution of the mid 80’s, which tapped into the twin themes of high art and punk culture informing my life. Interestingly, this was in Laramie, Wyoming. If there were any doubts about the reach of the punk/alternative revolution that came in reaction to the Reagan repression of the 80’s, I’m here to tell you that it was alive and vibrant even in the red states.

The book fills in the gaps of my experience of superhero comics, describing the editorial turn to dope-fueled space-opera ( and the advent of movie mega-villain Thanos), then X-mutant melodrama- not a part of the movie universe, as another company owns the franchise. All leading to the 90’s hype years of foil covered ‘collectables’ and dark mannerist heroes in impenetrably convoluted crossover plot lines.

Each was the product of editorial office drama, which lead to bankruptcy, creative defections and the beginning of Image Comics, which failed to challenge Marvel’s dominance in super heroes, but eventually transformed the industry with royatlies and creator-owned properties. Eventually a lot of these characters and story elements popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, about which, more below.

The book, transitioning smoothly between the creative innovations and eccentricities, and the board room maneouvers to control and exploit them, tells a compelling story well. It seems well researched and avoids fan boy platitudes, along with emotionally charged revisionism. The story of Lee and Kirby’s now controversial collaborations and subsequent break takes center stage early and often. Who invented Spiderman? Thor? The Fantastic Four? It’s difficult for me to imagine that Thor would ever be grossing billions in cinemas without both Kirby’s myth-making artistic dynamism, and Lee’s corny but engaging faux-Shakespearean patois, and gift for making highly relatable characters, all of which have been liberally mined for the movies. 

These characters from a highly marginalized medium have resonated as much as any Hollywood ever came up with, as tacitly acknowledged by Disney when they shelled out billions in the 90’s to acquire them. This book, paced like a four-color thriller from the early days, helps to explicate the genius and the strife that spawned them.

 But the name of the game for the movies, as it has always been for the comics, is ‘crossover’. Marvel has always tried to get one to try different superheroes with different storylines, by linking their exploits in one great ‘Marvel Universe’. In the comics, by the 80’s, this had led to needlessly tangled plot lines running across multiple titles, which has created a geeky insularity that has ultimately hurt direct market comics outlets. But the movies have proven that it can be very compelling, narratively.

The movies have managed their affairs rather well. This is mainly because, as an economic juggernaut, Hollywood has felt free to make different sorts of movies out of different characters. Each flick that finds its way to the theaters has focused on a different niche of the broader public. Guardians of the Galaxy were C-list heroes played for laughs, for example. They date from the 70’s, when stoned writers wandered the halls at Marvel’s offices, inventing characters like Howard the Duck. This strange creation, by Steve Gerber, made one of the all-time bombs early in the MCU, but also enabled the fourth wall-shattering irony that more successful efforts, like Thor: Ragnarok have used to mainstream camp in the cineplex.

It was up to Marvel, notably producer Kevin Feige, to enforce a continuity on the franchise, which they did an excellent job of with the now famous ‘end-credit’ scenes. This encouraged movie-goers of the ultra serious Captain America movies to try goofier characters like Ant Man, and allowed directors latitude in how they presented the material. The apotheosis of this approach came with Thor: Ragnarok, which appalled older fans of the Lee-Kirby canon of my youth by applying the silliness of Guardians to an A-list character. It’s as though whole movies were being made of the Star Wars ‘cantina scene’. The movies I’ve recently seen epitomize this blending of sub-genre, with A-list, B-list, and C-list characters from the comics all playing their parts in the oncoming Endgame.

Ant Man and the Wasp: Because it taps so wonderfully into the humor and absurdity of super heroes ( especially ‘B’ or ‘C’-list characters like these two, who haven’t gotten so much as a phone call from Marvel since 1965, recent revivals for the YA market excepted), and yet does not fuck with sacrosanct Lee/Kirby texts of my youth, as does Ragnarok, this is probably my current fave MCU movie. The directors have a real feel for the comedic potential behind comic book fantasies such as instantly shrinking and enlarging objects, which also provides lots of thrilling sfx. 

And in a brilliant and highly underrated creative choice, this flick resembles in its plotting nothing so much as one of those madcap ‘caper’ movies of the Rat-Pack 60’s, such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where diverse groups quest maniacally after the same prize. Rather than money, in this case, it’s the technology to enter sub atomic space. There are subplots galore, all deftly interwoven ( well organized plotting is an MCU hallmark), and each more uproarious than the last. A few examples: a prolix security system sales crew debating the efficacy of ‘truth serum’, a shrink/expand suit with a fidgety control, an entire shrunken office building that is stolen and continually popping up in expanded form in multiple convenient/inconvenient times/places, and numerous running gags about actual ants. 

I underestimated how much the movie ties in to previous installments in the ongoing Avengers storyline, such as Captain America: Civil War, which I haven’t seen. So I was a bit flummoxed at the beginning, but the movie doesn’t require that knowledge to enjoy its antic charm, and stands with Gaurdians of the Galaxy, and yes, Thor: Ragnarok as MCU flicks that are probably friendliest to Marvel Cinematic Universe outsiders. Again, the MCU genius for blending lively expository with propulsive action erases any need for a fan boy guide book/litmus test. And the visual humor passes the eye test . Despite the accelerated pacing, Jacques Tati would approve of the subversive cinematic non sequiturs, which include a Bullit-like (shrinking, expanding…) car chase on San Francisco’s serpentine Lombard St. Tati, who made suburban garden hoses into dragons, and rondel windows into peeping eyes, would also approve of the flick’s transforming animism.

I’m amazed by how often MCU movies that that stretch the bounds of suspended disbelief at first have me on the edge of my seat by the middle. Nor can this really be described as a formula, because each film and set of characters engenders its own unique solutions. As has been pointed out, different directors have felt free to make radically different movies, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier as a libertarianism-tinged political thriller; Ant Man and the Wasp as caper comedy; Guardians as prison flick/space opera, etc. 

Captain America: Winter Soldier: More of a traditional action-political thriller than Ant Man and the Wasp, but it is not afraid to foreground serious contemporary issues, in this case the very relevant dichotomy between security and government control. Along with contemporaneous S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes from 2011, when it was released, Cap, Nick Fury et al, must fight their own government, making for a very timely but painless exploration of the libertarian strain now in our political dialogue.

The body count, had these events with their 9/11-style SFX destruction happened in real life, would have been catastrophic. Here it’s just another well-paced shoot-em-up, a larger, more expensive version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Unlike the paranoid anti-government fantasies of America’s right wing, Winter Soldier at least, admits it’s a fairytale. 

Doctor Strange: The hubris/redemption tale is relatively hackneyed, the ‘mystic arts’ turn out to be a punch-up with arcane spells, and the ending feels more like a prelude than climax, but this was definitely enjoyable, if mostly for the hallucinatory special SFX.

When B-lister Dr. Strange started in the 60’s, he was a vehicle for the oriental mysticism enjoying a vogue with the hippie crowd on campuses, and also for the unique autodidactic artistic visions and philosophies of Steve Ditko, who was the third, and most reclusively embittered, of the creative triumvirate that started Marvel’s 60’s renaissance.

More than Kirby, Ditko blamed Lee for taking too much credit for characters like Spiderman and Dr. Strange he felt he’d developed. And even more than Kirby, his post-Marvel creations, done without Lee’s promotional flare, tended to be wooden and dull. He was given to expressing Ayn Rand’s objectivism in comic book form- yecch!, and gradually made himself impossible to work with.

His Dr. Strange was a milestone in visual storytelling, however, and the movie takes off from there, with mind bending cityscapes and strange universes. And wormholes- lots of wormholes.

Three different movies, three very different directorial visions. Yet each advanced the overall Avengers storyline in their own way (warning: no spoilers ahead). I may see Black Panther soon, another movie with a very different take on what a superhero might be, and another with a meta-narrative (of racial achievement) that transcends its place in the MCU.

Marvel’s superhero franchise, which took my entire youth to finally make it to the big screen, has become somewhat of an epic must-see. And whether Kirby, or Ditko would ever have admitted it, Lee’s sense of playing to the crowd was all over these movies. Many people contributed to the making of this historically successful franchise for sure, but Lee’s wit, persistence and personality- his vision, however superficial many might see that to be- were essential to its existence.

I also recently watched Wonder Woman, from Marvel’s staid rival DC: I need to see it again, it was too suspenseful during the first view to really analyze. 1st impression was very positive. It was an eccentric choice, placing it during WWI, but it makes sense in the execution. Director Patty Jenkins was able to make a myth/fable of the origin of WW, much as William Moulton Marston, the pioneering pop psychologist/feminist who wrote her early adventures did when he created her. It’s set in a time of great existential crisis for the western world, and not coincidentally, at the climax of first wave feminism. Yet by distancing the setting, Jenkins and Gal Gadot are able to forge a fable about women’s power and peace and justice without heavy didactic symbolism. Gadot projects both a steeliness, and a young girl’s naivete, while Jenkins builds in combat/action vignettes to a climactic battle that blurs the line between comic book slugfest and allegorical battle between peace and war, thus allowing the viewer the psychic space to judge it in his own terms. I’ll definitely watch it again, and it expands the potential for comic book movies.

Play It Again, SAM: How To Win Friends and Get Good Art At the Summer Art Market

I’m not sure how many Summer Art Markets I’ve done, but this year’s must be close to 25, if not there. I’m in booth #100. I’m entering the final week of preparations, and I think it’s going pretty well. Some years- especially the earlier ones- were frantic. There have been a few like this year where I had a good start, and though it’s always work, it’s been pretty calm the whole way.

The Art Students League #SummerArtMarket2019 is one of the better shows for artists, and many long time shoppers believe, for art buyers. It combines experienced artists, many of them, like me, on the faculty at the school; with newer artists doing their first festival show, many of whom are students at the school. It has a real community feel, and tends to emphasize the art, rather than the food vendor and sponsor booths, and it is the school’s biggest fundraiser. Only media taught at the school can be exhibited in this show, so various ‘craft-ish’ items are not allowed, giving the show a real focus that true collectors have learned to love.

A nice feature of the Summer Art Market for buyers- Giclees and other reproductions that represent themselves as ‘fine art prints’ are not allowed, so one can shop for original art with confidence. At some shows, you might see these offered in “limited editions” at inflated prices, as if they themselves were art. At SAM, you can buy actual handmade art, often for prices as friendly as others charge for their Giclees. It’s worth pointing out that at any of the many printmaking booths at this show, only true, hand-pulled fine art prints are for sale.

“Ladder at Moonrise”, Monotype, 15×11″. An original fine art print differs from a Giclee, or other commercial reproductions, in that it is hand-pulled by the artist ( in my case) or Master Printmaker under the artist’s supervision. Etchings and woodblock prints can have larger edition numbers ( 1/10; 1/25; etc, meaning: 25 total prints from the same plate or block), but in the special case of a monotype or a monoprint, only one unique print can be created: thus, 1/1

You’ll probably find art bargains there. The beginning artists, many of them quite good, tend to keep their prices very low, whereas the more well known need to protect themselves from the competition in this large show, and many probably also try to keep prices as low as they can, or offer smaller more affordable pieces as I do. Many of us are trying to maintain a consistent, gallery price level, so higher prices from established artists are not a surprise, either, though Denver in general has low prices for art, so it can be hard for a full time artist to generate sustainable sales in a year. Great for buyers, though. This is the balance an aspiring art community must attain.

Haggling is a personal issue with artists, though a show of this type, especially on Sunday afternoon, would probably be as good as any a place to try it . Some artists seem to see it as an insult. I personally don’t mind it, though it should be reasonable, for the issues of consistent and sustainable prices mentioned above. Even galleries offer discounts, especially when a multiple, or larger sale is being considered. Repeat buyers also get nice prices. Be respectful, is my advice. Again, if you’re shopping for art in Denver, you’re probably getting a deal, anyway.

If you’re just looking, that’s fine, too. Questions about process and philosophy are fun for me, anyway- they break up a long day; and questions about my classes are certainly encouraged (you can register there too!). But be mindful of monopolizing an artist’s time for too long, as this may be a major source of income for their year, so they must make sure they don’t miss the opportunity to speak with any potential buyer. If you are a buyer, monopolize all you want. Enjoy being a hero. Not only have you paid some nagging, distracting artist bills, or even launched a career, but you’ve put money into the creative economy, money proven to be beneficial to a region’s economy and quality of life, especially as it tends to be returned to the economy quite quickly!

Other situations call for common sense: Solicitations for donations for your group’s charity auction, or for your new framing business or whatever are not that welcome if they’re going to take up valuable time. I certainly don’t mind if you leave your card or a flyer. No artist is going to make room in their crowded booth for your ad flyers for CFE’s, shows, etc.

The real value of the show is interaction and feedback from peeps you wouldn’t normally meet in a gallery, so don’t be shy. I certainly enjoy it- all conversations about art are more welcome than say, any conversation about the Broncos. Stop by and introduce yourself, make a comment about the art, get to know the community.

Search: #sam2019, summerartmarket2019, #asld, #artstudentsleague, and my personal favorite, #sambooth100.

Summer School Daze

The process of updating the blog has turned into a tragicomedy with two stubbornly unfinished drafts awaiting liberation. I’m posting an update on my Workshops page to get the ball rolling again.

The school features Kids Art Camp classes during many of the days, so most of my adult classes will be at night, when the breezes run cool through the print room windows. However, I am offering a Teen workshop, Monoprint Mad Science, during the camps. Monoprint Mad Science is also available for adults on Tuesday Evenings.

A fun way to have your questions answered about workshops is to come down to my Summer Art Market booth, #100, during the show. You can also register with a friendly human in the ASLD booth, only a few feet away.

Though it’s no excuse for not posting, I have been quite busy in the studio. The best way to stay updated on new work is through my Instagram account, @JoeHigginsMonotypes. I’m also still active on Twitter, @hggns; and I’ve been trying to revive my Facebook page, honest.

( Detail of large monotype) No title for this one as yet, it is only a day old. It is a elaboration on a ghost from a different monotype. I enjoy bugs, mostly, especially when they stick to their gardens and pollination bailiwicks.

Revenge of the B-List: Marvel Now!

Matt Fraction’s innovative Hawkeye, from Marvel Comics

I’ve spoken of a current comics renaissance, but as with the actual Renaissance, it’s not a single movement but a series of interrelated developments. These have often been seen in small press comics in opposition to an ossified ‘mainstream’ comics establishment embodied by “The Big Two”, Marvel and DC. The quote marks are an acknowledgement that, as I’ve mentioned, and as the latest revival of The Comics Journal’s print edition examines in depth, the mainstream is in flux. Bookstore-market stars like Hartley Lin, Alison Bechdel, YA queens Noelle Stevenson and Raina Telgemeier and others might be the new ‘mainstream’ in terms of numbers sold.

DC was once the mainstream that Marvel, with the innovations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al, were reacting against as the Silver Age dawned, but lately both have struggled to define what their role is in an era of change: shrinking direct market sales and expanding movie and TV licensing.

DC’s ongoing creative paucity seems to derive from the same corporate ills that characterized their wholehearted embrace of the 50’s censorship: a complete lack of respect for the care and feeding of creative energy in comics. Marvel, on the other hand, was birthed, depending on whose version of history you subscribe to, in a 60‘s reaction to the corporate blandness of DC and others, such as Dell. Lee and Kirby really did intend to make great comics (I’m going to ignore the ongoing controversy over which of the two contributed more- my view is that it couldn’t have happened without both). Most of the comics discussed below are mentioned in the context of what might attract a longtime comics reader back to the Big Two, or into the odd, famously insular world of the comic shop.

Both corporations are trying to parlay licensing of properties, whether ill-gotten or not, into billions in media licensing deals. Real imagination is rare in either camp, though Marvel has managed their cinematic ‘universe’ quite well. Their comics, not so much. Few have escaped the general sales attrition afflicting the mainstream industry. We don’t know how much of this is due to shifting formats, such as digital comics and ‘graphic novel’ collections, which are cracking into or even buoying the bookstore market. But certainly there is change in how the medium reaches readers, and the Big Two, along with their ‘direct market’ retail network, are not handling it well.

Overall, there’s a general atmosphere of creative desperation, even as the movies and TV shows mine past storylines and continue to set records. The comics now are often ‘ret-conned’ (retro-conceived, to establish a retroactive narrative continuity) to match movie tropes. This explains why there are two Nick Fury’s- the white one from the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos from the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby comics of Marvel’s youth; and the black one, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movies. The tail is wagging the dog.

There have been exceptions, though, and they are well worth looking into. Marvel seems to have gotten into an experimental frame of mind during the Marvel Now! retcon/marketing campaign of 2012-2016, and several titles featured imaginative re-boots featuring the work of fresh, vibrant artists, many obviously influenced by the alternative comics revolution.

From ‘Grim and Gritty’ to Feminist Noir: Jessica Jones

The whole Marvel Now! push seems to have been inspired a few years earlier with the Marvel Max adult themed titles that included Jessica Jones. Brian Bendis invented the character, a failed former superhero and does pretty well with his spot on the margins of the Marvel Universe, including the obligatory preposterous origin story, but Jessica Jones had already disappeared from print when the success of the Netflix series engendered a series of GN collections, then a revival. The revived series serves up creepy, gritty, bone chilling thrillers of Jones, now a PI, raising her interracial kid with another c-list Marvel superhero, and trying to stay in one piece between whisky benders. In The Secrets of Maria Hill, Bendis hits his stride, with the superheroes thankfully being downplayed.  Hill, from Marvel’s 60’s James Bond rip-off S.H.I.E.L.D., pivots the series into hard boiled spy/crime fiction. S.H.I.E.L.D has been a linchpin in the interplay between Marvel’s cinematic and TV offerings and the comics. This instance makes for an exciting fusion rarely seen since Jim Steranko integrated it into the mod 60’s spy fiction genre.

Understand, I’m not generally a crime fic guy, though I’ve had my binges with Marlow and The Thin Man in college, and more recently, Darwyn Cook’s excellent Parker adaptations. Still, this is good crime fiction, channeling Chandler and Westlake’s ambiguous moral landscapes to use in this tale of  a near-dysfunctional detective/a failed superhero helping a troubled spy with her PI skills. A ret-con of a faux ret-con, inspired, in typical Marvel fashion, by the TV versions (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Jessica Jones) the comics inspired.

The fact that both main characters are women cannot be ignored. It is mind boggling in what it attempts to say and the very understated way in which it says it. And- first things first- both characters, Jones (essentially, in the “Purple Man” episodes, a rape victim) and Maria Hill (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suffering from a bullet-proof glass ceiling?), are very much victims, but only in the best noir tradition- of a corrupt reality, and of the complex moral code they live by, and of their own self betrayals of that code.

Exquisite writing, really; the book communicates its agenda through the lips of its characters without ever getting in the way of their right to make bad decisions. Bendis sometimes overplays the stuttering, conversational mash-ups he employs to keep the pacing brisk, but the incomplete sentences also convey very well at times the incomplete lives in extremis and real existential fears of its two main protagonists. True noir, in that sense, and a bright ray that is completely the opposite of the ‘grim and gritty’, women-in-refrigerators world of the superhero genre in the 90’s. When the genre speaks forthrightly to female power and its price, it has much to say still.

Many mainstream comics are only now starting to update their pacing and dialogue, usually by copying the faux-expository colloquy of TV’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the revved up narratives of the MCU. This is fresh and dynamic writing, much like Brian K. Vaughn’s in Saga.

Often, in my infrequent mainstream explorations, I have to ask: when did Wikipedia become such an essential tool to understanding comics? The convoluted backstories, the changing marketing imperatives, and the fact that one rarely reads these in order, because who has time for a weekly trip to the comics store, makes it necessary. I have a copy of Silver Surfer #9 with “#1” emblazoned across the top. Huh? The months-long arcs across multiple titles are hard to follow, another obstacle to good writing, but here Bendis keeps it simple with breathless pacing, gut punch twists, and small, redemptive epiphanies. If one must write in five-chapter story arcs, then this is probably the way to do it.

This, with Hawkeye(s), is why I can’t write off the superhero ‘mainstream’ altogether.

My Life as a Trick Arrow: Fraction’s Hawkeye

Matt Fraction’s brilliant 2011-2015 Hawkeye run got a lot of critical exposure (here’s a thorough examination in The Comics Journal) and won several industry awards. It was plagued by delivery date issues due to the artist, David Aja’s deadline problems, which didn’t help sales, and it ended after only 22 issues.  I hunted these obsessively after coming in in the middle. It concerns a tenement in New York, bought by Hawkeye with money he’s earned with the Avengers, and that stands in the way of developers. Clint defends his building to give his tenants a place to live, but a Russian-ish gang appears, first comically threatening, and gradually more violent. The series is funny and innovative but also emotionally rich. One issue is told in American Sign Language, after the hero temporarily loses his hearing after a fight, but it calls up memories of a similar occurrence as a child, after being beaten by his father. The episode intersects with another, told from the point of view of Lucky, a dog Hawkeye has rescued from the abusive Eastern European gangsters, who knows only a few English words, and thus, must also understand signs. When he does this correctly, during a fight with his former masters, he is able to make a crucial intervention, and the moment is glorious.

Fraction engineered many such glorious moments during this series, a miracle due to the irregular publishing schedule (again, the deadline problems) which caused a major shuffling of storylines, and finally a split storyline. In it, Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye- a Clint Barton protege, strikes out on her own across the country for alternating adventures in LA. This is in addition to challenges relating to shifting formats alluded to above, in which stories are offered in the episodic, cliff-hanging monthly pamphlets sold in the comic shops, then collected into somewhat resolved ‘graphic novels’ for the bookstore/Amazon market. Hanging over the creators’ heads after all of that, is the need to maintain a certain sales level, even as the direct market seepage continues. Yet despite that, perhaps because of it, the series holds together, without feeling like ‘infinite crises on gold foil variant earths’. Fraction decamped to Image Comics, where he owns the rights to his own stories. These are good, but nothing so far (that I’ve read) has matched the pathos, bathos and sheer car-chasing, plate-glass-window-shattering energy of this series. And Aja’s simple, muted but expressive art has been worth the lengthy wait times.

I did patch together, with GN’s and fill-in issues from the comic store, most of a run of a subsequent Hawkeye arc. Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye, illustrated by Leonardo Romero, follows the further LA adventures of Kate, and while it didn’t get the attention that the Fraction/Aja run did, it’s surprisingly strong. It also ended after 16 issues this year.  This is sort of Jessica Jones light; she starts a private eye office and must scrounge for jobs to feed her dog and cat. Running gags accumulate as Kate blunders her way through capers, but the storyline escalates when it becomes about her father, whom Kate suspects of murdering her mom. The art by Romero, straightforward and chromatic, eschewing the over-rendered, muddy, mannerist posing of most mainstream comics, and not coincidentally reminiscent of Aja’s, is dead on. Comic-y enough to convey humor and irony, not so much to counteract the tension. Marvel recognized what made the first series so unique, and against all odds, was able to do something almost as compelling. But at some point, declining sales caught up with them, too. It’s been a continuing problem with all comics, not just the innovators.

Scrapyard Pulp: Revenge of the B-List Heroes

Several other titles from this period also pushed stylistic and narrative boundaries: Black Widow also mined the spy/crime fiction vein, and also featured punchy, stylish art. She Hulk, by Soule and Pulido, about a giant green attorney at law; and Secret Avengers, another S.H.I.E.L.D.-based meta comic that pokes fun at superhero angst, not to mention Post Modern dialectics. The funny and endearing FF took Marvel’s iconic group, Fantastic Four, and re-imagined it as a gifted (super) child academy, guided by b-list heroes (She Hulk, Ant Man, etc.) with Fraction and Madman alt-comics auteur Mike Allred.

Dan Slott and Allred’s visually ambitious Silver Surfer fared less well, dragged down by specious plotting and the character’s inherently limited range of emotions, a longstanding problem since his invention by Kirby. It could have been a classic with just a bit of focus on character and storyline, but came far short as it fell into a puerile romance and easy answers to cosmic questions.  The spectacular art became sort of a superficial space-born travelogue. It reminded me of DC’s mawkishly teen-centered Legion of Superheroes of the 60’s. Is this a case of Kirby and Lee’s ‘Marvel Method’ going all wrong?

Most of these were ‘B-‘ or ‘C-‘ list characters, or even one (FF) fallen from the A-list, and the alchemy of turning scrapyard pulp into genre gold was part of their thrill. Marvel had little to lose. They all lasted about 16-20 issues, getting cancelled around the time they dipped beneath 25k in sales. These titles often sold 200k or more in the early days of Marvel; now they seem satisfied with 30-40k. But feminist noir and ironic, ret-conned superheroes don’t seem to do so well in the fan boy enclave of a direct market comics shop. In the ones I visit, these titles seemed to be there simply because they appeared in the catalog, not because they shone a light out of the grim and gritty comic shop past and into the bookstore market. At Mile High Comics, one of the country’s oldest and largest direct market stores, you’d be hard pressed to know that the new, bookstore-oriented mainstream even exists, though comics (the bookstore market calls them ‘graphic novels’) have been credited with being one of the fastest growing categories in publishing. Mile High simply is not interested in what is driving the renaissance.

Marvel’s undergone yet another re-boot, re-emphasizing ‘core’ (A-list, movie-tested) characters in order to cash in on the cinematic success. Company marketing now talks in terms of TV seasons; the usual series running 13-16 episodes per season. That’s something like three standard format ‘graphic novel’ collections, then onto the next creative team, the next ret-con.

I hope things like Hawkeye and Jessica Jones can hold steady sales in the TPB format, so Marvel might be tempted to try other adventurous projects. Stepping away, occasionally, from the restrictive 5-floppies-then-a-GN marketing format and trying euro-style album format might work with the more mature, and thus bookstore-friendly content. I don’t really blame writers, or even editors for this failure to innovate. It’s another case of corporate micro-management, I’m pretty sure. Fraction’s Hawkeye and Bendis’ Jones have been steady presences in bookstores and libraries that I visit, so there’s hope. However, a new vision of Jessica Jones by Kelly Thompson suffered from mundane art and a weak, superhero-centered story. Perhaps give it time.

These books proved that superheroes are not devoid of creative potential. After all, that’s kind of how the comic book industry (paperbacks, too!) got started; selling the odd, pulpy vigilantes of marginalized imaginations. Comics were humble, transgressive, and not audience-tested. They were never really meant to be a feedback loop. If Marvel and DC can’t figure out how to use this vibrant medium for something other than cineplex content creation, then there certainly appears to be others who can.

Reading List: The Art of Reading

Stories and transformation; these are elements to all successful art, whether realist, abstract or conceptual. It’s ironic that art often involves very non-verbal narratives and transformations, yet we persistently try to describe and understand it in words. We have to- if it’s compelling enough, we feel the need to communicate its transcendent glories and vain failures to others. Any truly successful work is a teachable moment- but how to teach it? That question is often on my mind, but in pondering it, one is fortunately standing in the shadows of giants.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger:  A sociological, and sometimes, overtly marxist take on art’s role in propping up the higher echelons of the class system, and attitudes toward gender, power and possession.  It’s based on a BBC series from the early days of cultural studies’ slow seep into popular discourse and is presented as a series of essays both literary and visual on aspects of art and advertising as they relate to each other and to the conventional wisdom. As such, it goes well beyond interpretation of composition, iconography and metaphor and into cultural theory and structuralism. How do society’s truisms affect the way an image is created, viewed, interpreted and consumed? Who is it for, and who does it exploit, or exclude, or perhaps more cogently, gaze at?

The images presented mostly span the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Romantic/Surrealist movements and the Advertising Age, excluding the Medieval and Modernist (the Modernist era having its own fraught, and possibly post-structural relationship with the materialist/imperialist impulse, of course). Thought provoking and compellingly readable, it becomes a sort of reference to the semiotics of privilege in art .

Picasso the Printmaker, Dallas Museum of Art: Catalogue of an 1983 exhibition of the Marina Picasso Collection that I sadly never saw ( it appeared at the DAM before I arrived here). It very much has a cataloguer’s approach to fitting the prints into Picasso’s main body of painting work, so most of the actual process of printmaking is glossed over, except what can be seen in the reproductions. Which is enough- these are rich images. A history of Picasso’s various Master Printers and graphics publishing over the decades is nice, but not nearly as interesting as the revelation that Picasso did not merely show up at their print shops to doodle on pre-prepared plates; he actually bought a small press for his studio to pull his own (gloriously sloppy) proofs. Whether Picasso intended this as a way to access less wealthy collectors, or simply loved the medium would be something I’d like to see studied. Mostly readable.

The Genesis of a Painting, Rudolf Arnheim: A reconstructed history of one painting, Picasso’s Guernica. It is very engaged in the examination of the creative process. How many of us have seen the famous film of Picasso at work- the cigarette smoke in the backlight, the shirtless and barrel-chested artist, the time-lapse transformations, painted on a see through surface. This is a more academic, less romanticized version, using the artist’s sketches and preceding iconography- much of it found in prints, by the way ( see above). Much less visually dramatic than the film of course- many of the records of the process are faint squiggles on scrap paper, but one must always wonder how much of the film is exhibitionistic posing.

Reading, and the slow visual mining of images both complex and improvisational leaves us the mental space to absorb and contemplate the creative process. We are following in the footsteps of genius, and Arnheim’s accompanying observations add much food for thought. This is especially true in a long first chapter in which he gives more general thoughts on the subconscious processes at work. I’ve been writing on this subject, and these passages were red meat.

Literary TheoryA Brief Insight, Jonathon Culler: I’ve made numerous snarky comments about academic theory, but if one reads a lot of lit and art criticism, as I do, one is bound to run into it. I’ve found it creeping into comics criticism. A basic understanding of it is quite helpful, in fact, and I admit that one of my major frustrations (beyond the clotted academic jargon) with it is that I can’t just bluff my way through a given passage on context; my lazy reading habits are exposed. Still, its multiple contexts and arcane canon are confusing to the recreational reader. Regular readers of this blog ( Hi, Mom!) may be surprised that I didn’t search out the Classics Illustrated version of The Foucault Reader, but it’s hard to find in Very Fine or better.

Instead, I ran across this little volume in my favorite used book shop. It seemed very readable and concise, yet didn’t soft pedal the subject, or end in “For Dummies”. At eight bucks, it was thousands of dollars less than a Masters Degree in English.

It turns out to be very useful. Not a page-turner, by any means, but organized well into basic concepts in separate chapters such as “Language, Meaning and Interpretation” and “Rhetoric, Poetics and Poetry”. These introduce major figures, and an appendix tries to sort out significant movements within theory. I still can’t claim to fully understand literary theory after having read it, but it’s very handy to have around to crib from.

As Culler points out, literary theory actually spends relatively little of its time on books. Linguistics, psychoanalysis and philosophy are often part of the analyses, and the objects  of study are often images or pop cultural ‘texts’, with tweets noticeably being more avidly deconstructed since 2016. It seems as though theory and cultural studies are here to stay, and bluffing one’s way through this critical landscape is not an option. At less than 200 pages of fairly limpid explication, this seems like the sort of volume one might pack if one is trying to travel light.

Library Drop-in Workshops Added

I’ve updated my Workshops page to reflect two additional dates, January 22 at Gonzales Library; and March 5 at Montbello. These are free and open to the public. Yes, they’re very basic, as there are often kids there, but the main interest for artists might be the chance to try the non-toxic Akua inks. Not to mention, you can actually let your kids try etching without fearing for their health.

I’ll be teaching full 4 week classes in non toxic methods twice this year, doing workshops in both etching and photo-etching techniques. Approach 18

Above is a photo etching with top roll I did using non-toxic techniques this fall after taking a workshop with non-toxic etching expert Henrik Boegh. It’s a drawn image on transparent film, exposed to a polymer film, then etched with a soda solution. I hand pulled the print using the Akua water soluble inks, Black for the hand-wiped image, then a top roll of blue. Please excuse the iPhone snap shot.

Besties

In looking back over 2018 posts, I found that I’d kept up with new comics releases much better than I’d thought, and probably better than most years. It’s not easy, there’s a ton of worthy material coming out each year now, and my budget is small, while the library can be slow to have available copies, especially with the critical attention some of these things are getting. Comics’ first Man-Booker prize short-listed graphic novel appeared this year (Sabrina). There are several must-reads I’ve not gotten ahold of yet, such as Sabrina. I don’t count my favorites down, like a lot of the media lists. Some are very different from others, so I try to characterize and categorize, rather than rank.

Bestiest:

New World, Mauretania Comics, Chris Reynolds: Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story in a vaguely dystopian England.  I  found just three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative. But its brooding air of mist and mystery was palpable, and its thick dark inks bathed in Norman light were seductive.

Incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in context in this collection by cartoonist Seth. In episodical snatches, characters drift in and out, small mysteries proliferate; aliens, detectives and disciples of a mystery religion wander blasted, yet pastoral landscapes, mostly unpeopled (Reynolds hails from Wales and Sussex). Yet nothing really resolves in a narrative sense, and the stories haunt.

Rest of the Besties, No Particular Order:

Young Frances, Hartley Lin: We’re used to referring to superhero comics from big companies like DC and Marvel as ‘mainstream’. But with their shrinking sales- Saga, hardly mainstream, is outselling Superman-do they deserve that? This true graphic novel (as opposed to collected story arc) is emblematic of ‘mainstream’ in a literary sense: its heroine navigates the corporate politics of her job, while yearning for the authenticity of her bohemian friends. Its roots are in the Chick Lit or socially conscious novels of the publishing mainstream, rather than the hippie- or punk-inflected undergrounds and alternatives of 80’s self publishers and zinesters. It’s well written and cartooned, an absolute page-turner.

Mean Girls Club, Ryan Heshka: Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed; and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in dry brushed blacks, grays and lascivious pinks, it’s laugh out loud funny, and a comics masterwork. Heshka channels Golden Age Batman and Dick Tracy, along with a healthy dose of Thelma and Louise, and a soupcon of S&M.

Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez : Always. It never is less than one of the best, but we take it for granted because it never slackens. Not sure how many issues came out this year, but #’s 4-6 included a Locas reunion/punk rock show.

Love That Bunch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb: I’ve mentioned that she’s pioneered in both the underground comics, and the transition to the alternative comics as artist and/or editor of the first feminist UG comics; and then the early alt-comics anthology Weirdo. These are autobiographical comics about a suburban, sex and drug loving Jewish teen who moves west to make art, marries an underground comics legend, and moves to France. Obsessive and raw.

Coin-Op Comics Anthology, Peter and Maria Hoey: The writing is lively and unique. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere illustrative nostalgia. Their subject matter ranges from classic 50’s movies and Rock music, to modern alienation.

Somnambulance, Fiona Smyth: bawdy, urban primitive, 1980’s third wave feminist Nocturnal Emissions comics collected by Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sexy and sex crazed punkerettes, sexualized mannikins, transgendered goddesses, are perpetually emergent. They slide from asses, mouths and cunts to float in an atmospheric scrawl of tribal squiggles, dots and hatchings, as if the very world they inhabit is tattooed. A “Complete Twisted Sisters” collection of ground breaking feminist comics also came out recently, and along with Kominsky-Crumb’s overdue reprinting (above), I think people are beginning to realize the role of the humble comic book in providing a pioneering venue for female voices in pop culture.

Honorable Mentions:

Hawkeye, Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero: A surprisingly strong follow-up to Matt Fraction’s acclaimed masterpiece Marvel Now!- era run with David Aja (and Kate Bishop, Hawkeye’s protege in episodes by Annie Wu). Thompson doesn’t stray too far from a successful formula- struggling, marginal superheroes, bruised and bantering. But Kate must face the question of whether her father murdered her mother. Romero never overworks the art, a rarity in superheroes.

Saga V.9, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Bit of a warning sign, perhaps, as some of the bizarre humor has flattened out a bit. The honest sex, ultraviolence and family values are still there though, as Hazel, lovechild of a forbidden marriage between two warring cultures, narrates their flight from prejudice across galaxies.

Sex Crimes V. 5: Fraction’s satiric tale of the power of sexual outsiderness started meandering, so he ended it at the right time. Funny and relatively forthright on America’s squeamishness about sex.

Monstress V. 3: Horror fantasy with fairly complex LOTR-style plot and great, art noveau tinged illustration. Too soon to call a classic, but fun to read so far.

A Clunker:

Jessica Jones: Blind Spot, Kelly Thompson and Mattia DeIulis: This is an example of how things can go way wrong in ‘mainstream’ (superhero) comics. The character was created by, but of course not owned by, Brian Bendis and Gaydos as a PI/failed superhero working the margins of the superhero world. After a promising but uneven early series, Bendis pretty much ditched the superheroes for a second series emphasizing a straight up hard-boiled crime fiction and spy thriller hybrid and really hit his stride. The Secrets of Maria Hill aspires to stand with Chandler and Westlake, with the eye opening proviso that both its hero and its villain are women (they are both, like Marlow and Parker, both hero and anti hero). An edgy, neurotic single mom trying to survive a violent career, Jessica takes her failures and rare victories straight, with a side of Jameson. I will note here that comics fan sites take the opposite view, with the issues that emphasize costumed heroes rating higher.

After Bendis left Marvel, they brought in Thompson to do the character. She’d done well with the superhero/PI parody Hawkeye (above), but here, showing no real understanding of the character, she tries to bluff her way through with a weak plot and standard issue superhero antics complete with banter. Here we get a suddenly very domesticated Jessica lecturing her client on how to be a woman, exactly her most compelling failing in Bendis. She winds up in a latex superhero kit, a bit of attempted irony that only highlights that her scruffy charm has gone missing. In combination with DeIulis’ very routine illustrations and bubblegum colors, this was a huge disappointment. Perhaps Thompson will ‘grow into’ the character.

Still Need to Read. These absolutely might change this list:

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I have actually read this ambitious, 20-year project about Weimar Berlin  in three intermittent collections, but not the whole thing at once.

Blammo #10, Noah Van Sciver

Why Art?, Eleanor Davis

Coyote Dog Girl, Lisa Hanawalt

Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, Ken Krimstein

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso

Happy Hopeful Holidays!

I think most Americans feel that the 2018 election greatly increased the chances for democracy to survive in this country, and for justice to be served to those who would profit from corruption. So it’s a hopeful end to the year. I’m taking a week to relax and recharge after a very up-and-down professional year that also came to a hopeful end. We’ll see if optimism is justified in either case, but one thing is certain: we must press on.

While I don’t have a full post ready, I may have one soon, as I have several unfinished drafts to work with, and I find writing blog posts with morning coffee very relaxing. In the meantime, I’ve updated my Workshops Page with all the Winter/Spring workshops I currently have scheduled. It’s a light schedule. My first one begins January 20, and it’s my Monotype Starter workshop, the one most likely to fill quickly. It’s also the only session of this one scheduled this Spring. The next one won’t be till Summer.

I do have two new workshops debuting, Modern Intaglio: Etching; and Modern Intaglio: PhotoPolymer Etching. These are a result of a workshop I took in September with Henrik Boegh, a Danish printmaker recognized as an authority in safe, earth-friendly etching techniques.

There are descriptions and links for all of my workshops, as well as my schedule of free DPL workshops. I’ll also be giving a series of professional development workshops through Colorado Art Educators Association. If you are involved with that organization and need professional development credit, watch for them! The first one is January 7.

A happy holiday season to all, however you may celebrate. I wish you prosperity and hope in 2019, and I thank everyone who supported me through art sales, classes, or a friendly word.

Fall Into Books

I cherry picked quotes from Rodolf Arnheim, The Genesis of a Painting; Douglas Hostetler, and an article by James Geary to put together my relatively abstract post speculating on the formation of ideas. It was neccessary to do that as I’m not that confident in my own thoughts about ideas, and I called in reinforcements. I haven’t finished Genesis  (about “Guernica”) yet, nor have I finished Picasso the Printmaker, another rich text on art and printmaking. It’s getting dark and cold, so I hope to finish them and write a post on them, and other art related readings soon, if the wine holds out. But some other, lighter reading from the Fall is blurbed below:

Herge, Son of Tintin, Benoit Peeters: A microscopic examination of the life of Tintin cartoonist Herge. His conservative yet humanist attitudes, his love affairs, his dreams, and importantly, his relationship to the collaboration during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the war are all examined in depth. This is not unusual in Europe, where Herge occupies a place akin to Disney here, though he never mechanized, nor monetized, to that extent. 

I discovered Herge, who began appearing in this country in the early 60’s, in the late 70’s in my college bookstore. It was my first real introduction to Euro comics. I later developed a bit of an obsession with Asterix, and read Heavy Metal regularly, but my Tintin reading has alway been incomplete. I enjoyed the well constructed plots, and the colorful details, along with the slapstick humor. But Tintin was always sort of a cipher, without context. I read some of the most well regarded tales, then never sought out the rest, unlike Asterix, whose context  in the Roman Empire and the fun loving characters seemed to have appeal. 

This book places all the adventures in the context of historical and biographical events in Herge’s life and thus enriches the stories on the page. I pulled out the few remaining copies I still had and re-read them. I had early stories such as Tintin in America, filled with stereotypes about Native Americans and a lot frenetic action. Also, I had an unexpurgated reprint of the original Tintin in the Congo, replete with racist caricature and a fairly appalling attitude toward hunting animals. 

Later adventures, such as the breakthrough The Blue Lotus, exhibited a much more humanist attitude, as well as more concise storytelling, but with the coming of World War II, Herge made the unfortunate choice to ally with his right wing friends and join the collaborationist staff at a Nazi-fied Le Soir  daily during the occupation. Anti-semitic caricatures popped up in one book, then were later edited out when Herge went back to his early black and white work to add color. The popularity of his character, not to mention its commercial potential, insulated him to an extent from the legal backlash after the liberation, but he remained close to many of his friends who served prison sentences for collaboration. This led to later complications, both legal and psychological.

His own work took a turn toward fantasy that resulted in some of his best work, including the Robert Louis Stevenson-esque The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, and the two-part Destination Moon, with Explorers on the Moon. These books occasioned, and benefitted from, the expansion of his cast of characters, as he added  Capt. Haddock and Professor Calculus. Secret and Red Rackham still provide laughs and entertaining reading. I haven’t read either Moon book, but may have to revisit Herge’s middle period, which has been re-released, albeit in a smaller format, in recent years.

The book makes a minute examination of his transitional life events during the 50’s, which culminate in his separation from his wife, and the psychologically complex tale Tintin in Tibet, which examines what we owe to friends and others, not to mention the creatures of the natural world. Some may find Peeters’ interpretation of this period perhaps too detailed, but it’s hard to discount his ultimate conclusions on the relationship between Herge’s life and work. Even in comics ostensibly for children, artists draw on their own experiences.

But then, is Herge’s work only for children? Herge never domesticated his characters, as Disney did; nor did he dumb down his humor, which even in its most slapstick moments, always carried a bit of Monsieur Hulot’s sophistication. His modernist obsession with speed and movement, as well as his famous ligne claire (clear line) style influenced many  later cartoonists, for example, Joost Swarte, who used it to both pay homage to a master, and satirize Herge’s racial tropes.

Tintin remained a cipher, without family or lovers, and his creator’s politics remained naive and ham-handed at best. But his humor and humanism showed through, and was ultimately redemptive.

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I rushed through the final six chapters of this 23 year old epic of the rise of Nazis seen from street level in Berlin. I had recently re-read the earliest chapters after reading the middle chapters for the first time. So like a lot of these long term GN projects, I feel the need to reread the whole thing in proper sequence. The entire finished work has just been published, so I’ll tackle that later this winter, perhaps. The final chapters are, as one would expect, bitter and depressing, much like our current politics.

Super Mutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki: Another re-read after I found a beat up copy at the library used book sale for a couple of bucks. It’s still brilliant compared to the highly praised, but somewhat calculated Boundless, partly because its humor adds to its pathos. It holds together quite well as an entire narrative, despite its origins as a single page web comic. Its main character, a lesbian who eventually comes out to her boarding school roommate, grows in maturity and self realization, and begins the process of accepting herself, and thus, accepting her friends. It’s underrated, though both this and Boundless seem like attempts to escape her ‘Award Winning Young Adult Illustrator’ shackles. They are clearly, two different responses, but the latter book could benefit from some of the hilarious, subversive humor of Super Mutant.

Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk: an unexpected find at my favorite used book store. I’d never heard of it. This 2007 book is constructed as a five chapter introduction to what Wolk calls a ‘golden age’ of comics, followed by reviews of specific works, mostly mainstream works of the 80’s and 90’s; or early stars of alternative comics.

The beginning chapters function as essays on various cogent topics, such as a general speculation on “What Comics Are and What They Aren’t”; a survey of the alt (“art”) comics of the 80’s and early 90’s; and the complex history of “Superheroes and Superreaders”, or why superheroes continue to dominate mainstream comics publishing. These are all worthy subjects, examined not in the laughably faux-academic style often seen in these early days of comics criticism; but in a personalized yet uncompromising vision of comics as a transcendent yet flawed art form.

The reviews that follow the overview exhibit some of the most clear-headed looks at the 80’s-90’s renaissance (there are a few later examples) in both mainstream and alternative comics that I’ve read. I didn’t read everything- one hallmark of the renaissance is that there suddenly became far too much interesting stuff to keep up with- but enjoyed several on artists I was never able to clear time or money for, Chester Brown and Grant Morrison, for example. I read many that I was very familiar with- Alan Moore, Los Bros Hernandez , Jim Starlin, etc, and Wolk had some very bright fresh takes.

The book will stay on my shelf, and be returned to. It’s subjective, and can’t be counted a comprehensive survey even for its time, as Wolk admits. It’s not dated, per se, but it’s amazing how much has happened in comics since this book. He strives to represent female artists, Hope Larson and Allison Bechdel for example, and predicts a flowering to come (and has been proven right), though Lisa Hanawalt, Eleanor Davis, Gabrielle Bell, et al, are all later stars. Julie Doucet and Fiona Smythe might’ve been a bit too far off the beaten track for him, though their influence will only grow. One wonders why Aline Kominsky-Crumb isn’t here, but so too with her husband, Robert, and many others such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.

It’s not often that both mainstream, and alt comics get examined together. It’s a compare and contrast that highlights their strengths and weaknesses, while explicating the universal appeal of the medium. Wolk is nothing if not versatile, and this book, instructing with out pretension, matches the medium’s spirit of creative fun.