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.

Laughter In The Void: Ideas-Where Do They Come From?

Bramble_Monotype_2018

Into an emptiness comes a lone rider. Whether dark, intimidating nightscape, or  infinite and featureless white mist, the landscape of ideas exists just over the border from conscious intent, and many see it as just an obstacle to be gotten through to get to the final destination. But artists, like explorers, often linger. Sometimes, too much. Other times, not enough at all.

This shrouded interaction of actor/spirit/blue spark and fallow ground/environment/lightning field will determine what happens in one’s studio for the foreseeable future. But ideas answer to no one, and understanding what they are and where they come from is not only hard, it can be inimical to the process of actually having them. I sometimes suspect that my ideas are laughing at me.

Where DO ideas come from? Douglas Hostetler believes ideas stem from analogous thinking- something is like something else. If this is true, then there is a lot of mystery hidden in that adverb ‘like’. Rudolf Arnheim in The Genesis of a Painting, about the creation of Picasso’s Guernicanotes the difficulty in scrutinizing an “impulse issuing from beyond the realm of awareness.”

For me, there are often three components- A mental image, let’s go with a landscape, in the spirit of our opening metaphor; a word or phrase that can often start the metaphor rolling, literalizing it just enough to invite mental manipulation; and some supporting imagery or sketch material, often preexisting, but not necessarily.

In “Bramble, above, my first conscious awareness of the idea came from the phrase “in the bracken” in a Robyn Hitchcock song “I Don’t Remember Guildford”, a fairly surreal little ditty about blocking out painful memories- or so I suppose. In my mind the phrase merged with the idea of tangled wilderness, a place of power and danger I’d explored in the previous decade, in a series of pictures about ravines inspired by mountain hikes during and after a residency in Wyoming.

A verbal or visual component, once teased into more literal form, can be ‘flipped’ to add tension or surprise, as in a palindrome, or anagram type of treatment. Recall that printmaking is, in itself, an actual visual flipping of any idea. This becomes habit, a creative gymnastics that kicks in when cliche or a rote visual syntax threatens to starve or disorient the mysterious, laughing rider. Ideas, I believe, may start with analogy, but thrive on paradox. They are jokes that consciousness plays on itself.

In this case, I’d made acetate stencils of natural forms that I’ve used in past work. When I get sick of them, or feel they’ve been repeated too much, I simply take out the scissors and modify them or cut them into smaller fragments. During printing they can be literally flipped, too, revealing crystalline formations of residual ink formed by the pressure in printmaking. This mimics the mental activity of paradox; it provides the “disruption” or syntactic flipping, though there are of course many other ways of doing this. The cutting and decaying of image also physically mimics the natural breakdown processes that happen in a ravine or wilderness.

Ideas are “functions that prefer the shadow to the light,” Paul Valery said.

Ideas come in colors, though ill defined. When the blue spark hits, a simple color scheme (such as black and white) and a limber, intuitive hand can help clarify ideas, without scaring them away. Enter the sketchbook.

In the Jungian, pre-concious soup, elements collide, creating more energy. Though as Arnheim points out, these are not in themselves significant, or even ideas. An interpretive, conscious creative mind must bring them into the light. The sketchbook, with its fluid watercolor wash, or open-ended pencil lines, is the stage where this drama plays out. Write your phrases, working titles or half baked poetry in the margins. There’s no sense entering this wilderness without a verbal lifeline. Date your entries, yes, if only so you can later marvel how long you’ve wandered the void. It takes years, sometimes.

No matter what baggage you’ve brought into the void, it is only your senses that can get you back out.

Loosen the reins and follow your pencil. Paths coalesce, contours emerge. One is receptive at this point. Most of us are not geniuses; it’s good to listen to the words, feel the contours. Ideas favor the receptive mind. It’s okay to laugh back.

Receptivity comes in different forms. When working in black and white, a schematic, a transparent ideograph is the thing I see. When shadows are added, movement of light is implied, which is a simple narrative. Then colors are added. Colors are in themselves receptive, and speak to other colors. On an existential level, colors are just as baffling as ideas, and may also be having fun at our expense. If you set yourself a balanced, simple palette, it’s quite possible that a given color will find drama in its tonal neighbors and vice-versa. Complementary colors are all about paradox. And black and white are dynamic, so a single added color can tease out a lot of nuance.

The color chosen above, a sort of dark sea-green, refers to nature, but also somewhat to the watery depths of subconscious. This is actually the ‘sketch’- the first appearance of this idea, direct to the printing plate. There is no ‘preliminary’ sketch, although I explored the idea further in my little note book later. The etching I did to learn the non-toxic polymer process in a workshop last month, which I posted here, is also a later sketch. The image is  compelling to me, but far from a ‘finished’  idea. I like working this way, with smaller versions ( here, 11×15″) leading up to larger, more refined work.

IMG_3547

Above is a further image relating to this idea. I found a crude, simplified clarinet shape that was stick-like, so I added it to “Bramble”. It makes no sense, but I enjoyed the joke.

In information theory, there exists the phenomenon of signal to noise. Ideally, when the noise is filtered out, meaning coalesces. I had a conversation with a friend, Noah about how writers write. His observation: writers for larger audiences- his example, screenwriters- always seem to have more definitive ideas about their process than writers for smaller audiences (eg: poets). We decided that poets often don’t even know what they are writing as they write it. It brought up the question of creative process. This resonated, and brought me the sudden flash that “Bramble”, heretofore a compelling but simplistic dreamscape, might be considered a metaphor for the creative process itself. If you were expecting me to talk about a light bulb moment in my discussion of ideas- there it is, though, of course, it came relatively late in the game. If all this sounds a bit self-reflexive, I can’t argue, but viewers bring their own stories to works they see as well. I’ve seen it happen, at street fair shows, and I don’t begrudge their creative input. The conversation, both before and after execution, informs the idea.

The Pixies once wrote a song called “Space”, about the conga player they hired to make that same song seem more ‘spacious’. “d=r times t” they sang, the first time I’d ever understood that synesthetic concept in relation to creativity. Thus, an idea is never really finished.

The creative mind is a creature of habit, too. A raw idea in its soupy jumble is often affixed to an image matrix the artist has used before, in order to establish order. It’s worked for him before, it can work again. I chose the landscape metaphor very deliberately. It’s been a powerful and generative notion in my mind since that month long residency in the mountains of Wyoming in the Oughts, and indeed, since I came west as a teen. Paradox and reversal, palindromic thinking can un-moor us from pre-conceptions and add freshness and surprise to an idea, like a punchline to a joke, or logic leap in speech, or dissonance in music. The surrealists used this sort of thing often, and a small bit of disorientation in a visual conception can paradoxically, add to a sense of presence or heightened reality in a picture, as the senses are awakened, and curiousity engaged. Max Ernst made a career of these disorienting juxtapositions.

Ideas are messy. I think that they are less like lightbulbs and more like radio static.

I often don’t know what an idea is until well after I’ve had it, because I’m unable to separate the signal from the noise. The subtle calculation of what belongs in a given composition and what does not often involves a complex interplay between “story” and image. Something as simple as an unrelated conversation can provide the story that focuses the image. Separating the signal from the noise often involves keeping these syntactic “negotiations” open for a while. It’s not a hierarchy, but an interplay. The street fair interactions with viewers sometimes add to meaning in a specific work as well.
Ideas have their own logic and rhythm which can be quite circular or even hermetic, and which lends them power. In a formless void, they very much march to the beat of a different drummer- their own.

Somewhere between “paradox stated” -the joke or pun, and “paradox resolved”-the scientific discovery, Arthur Koestler says, lies creative fusion. “The ‘ah’ of aesthetic insight” is placed in the middle between “the aha! of scientific discovery” and “the Haha of …the punch line.” puns James Geary, in an article adapted from his book Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, And Why We Need It.

Analogy, metaphor, puns. Palindromes, anagrams and literal non-sense. The wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser seems to be no different from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. I’m not sure I know where ideas come from, but there seems to be much laughter tumbling in the void.

Collective Wisdom

I’ve always collected books and comics. As a kid I amassed a pile in the closet of Superman and Fantastic Four comics along with others. My brother and I stretched our comics budget by teaming up on purchases. He’d buy Batman and Spiderman, and we’d trade. One day, we came home from school and found our extensive closet floor library emptied out in some sort of Spring cleaning catastrophe. Such are the injustices of youth.

When I got a job bussing tables at a restaurant and started commuting into the city for school, I discovered the direct market. This was the transition of comics sales from the drug store spinner racks of youth to dedicated (and often dingy) urban comic shops, spurred by the growth in the collector subculture. During my freshman and sophomore years, I began collecting again, searching out the Silver Age classics of my childhood.

I came out west, where the occasional bookstore carried only current, not-very-classic Bronze age issues. My interest waned, but fortunately, European humor and Sci-fi comics were beginning to appear in Heavy Metal Magazine, and the college bookstore began to carry classic Euro comics such as Tintin and Asterix. The Sci-fi trend began to carry over into obscure mainstream titles, such as Jim Starlin’s delightfully weird Warlock series, and the passion was back, though frustratingly hard to satisfy.

My return to the city in the mid-eighties changed all that. The direct market had led to a flowering of small publisher and independent or self-published “alternative”comics which inspired by the  undergrounds of the urban 60’s and 70’s, explored more sophisticated themes, but without the drug references and sexist imagery. The renaissance had begun, and I was back to collecting in a big way, with the medium growing up along with my tastes.

I’ve said that the alt comics that led to the comics renaissance we currently enjoy grew out of the Punk zines. This is partially true, in that the Punk movement in music caused a sudden profusion of music zines, and cartoonists, like Los Bros Hernandez for example, punk music fans, naturally began to emulate self publishers in their own medium. Early Love and Rockets is often centered around the punk scene in L.A.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as comics fans were publishing zines long before punk, and made a major contribution to the collector culture which later led to the direct market. Squatront, a zine about EC Comics, which had been essentially censored out of existence in the 50’s by the Comics Code, a comics industry self censorship agency, was publishing by the early 60’s, along with a few others. The first mini comics seem to have popped up around the same time, if you don’t count the Tijuana bibles of the 30’s. Even Siegel and Shuster self-published an early version of Superman, before (to their eternal regret) shopping the character around to the nascent comic book industry.

The minis seem to have really begun to flourish with the alt comics of the 80’s. With that, mini comics broadened as a category, from the tiny photocopied, hand-stapled, self published and frankly amateurish efforts one spied in music stores and small bookstores, to fairly sophisticated small press numbers. Some well known artists got their start in minis, and for what ever reasons, have continued to put them out. Even after securing contracts with established publishers, some artists have emulated mini comics formats in their major publisher output. Chris Ware, Jessica Abel and Gabrielle Bell are examples. I recently posted a brief review of one newer artist, Sophia Foster-Dimino whose mini comics relate to the current conversations on sexual ethics. I’ve mentioned recently that comics, a fairly accessible publishing medium, can offer opportunities for expression for marginalized creators, such as women. Mini comics are at the frontline of that battle. A Frontier Comics mini by alt comics star Eleanor Davis, for example, is one of the few sensitive, un-sensationalized treatment of S&M sex that can be seen in any pop culture medium.

Smaller presses have sprung up to specialize mainly in minis and in the emerging artists who make them, and an ad hoc network  of distributors and web sites can now be found that carry a wide variety. It’s become easier to access minis from all over, and in that sense, collecting minis can be pretty fun, as you’re getting in on the ground floor creatively, and can also access rarities by well regarded artists. They certainly don’t take up much space, and with their mostly small print runs and relative rarity, and with alt comics very definitely beginning to be a presence in the secondary market, you can tap into the quintessential collector’s high: owning breakthrough early work that you can brag about when it gets popular, or sell on to latecomers when the artist becomes popular.

Standard disclaimer: although early independents (80’s and 90’s) are beginning to pop up on secondary markets such as Ebay and Amazon at solid prices (30-$50 is not uncommon for significant artists, and breakthrough comics can get up to 400-$500), this is not usually a good way to get rich, though it can help support your reading habit, while clearing space on your shelves! You are of course, required to plow the profits back into obscure comics, or lose your street cred. As I’ve said, the alternative and small press stars of the 80’s are now best found in traditional hardbacks, with impressive print runs, in good bookstores, and sometimes on the short list for the Mann-Booker Prize. But inexpensive comics can still be found. Here are some good minis I’ve found lately, and after that, some good places to find minis and indies.

Lovers in the Garden, Anya Davidson: featuring the same raw, choppy brushwork, fractured perspective and garish colors as School Spirits, her 2013 Small press debut with  Dan Nadel’s PictureBox. This is a crime tale, modeled on the blaxploitation narratives of 70’s B-movie Hollywood.  Its characters all have aspirations, even the drug lord who wishes to open an asian art gallery. It has a fairly arbitrary, though open ended conclusion, and doesn’t match up to School Spirits, but is a worthy read by this rising star. I found this on John Porcellino’s web site (below).

Coin Op Comics 1997-2017, Peter and Maria Hoey: This anthology collects the mini comics of this brother/sister pair. There are seven issues collected here, along with some of their older work from the Blab anthology, where they were regulars. They got their start in illustration ( Blab mined both comics and illustration for its yearly collections), but have become interested in comics and printmaking. They seem to love the freelancer’s life, and self-publishing. This hardback was put out by Top Shelf, a fairly small comics publisher. Their other output, including Coin Op’s 1-7, are available on their website in small print runs, and includes hand-pulled items such as accordion books and silkscreen posters, which taps into another love of mine, printmaking. 

The writing is lively and unique as well as the visuals. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere nostalgia. Along with collaborator C. Freund, stories cover a wide range of formal and topical subjects, including an ongoing series, Saltz and Pepz about vagabond dogs, one white and one black, that touches on, without indulging in, 40’s racial stereotypes. Other subjects: Jazz, Blues, and movies, including a fairly brilliant mash-up of Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and a biography of Nicolas Ray. All are rich with historical and stylistic allusion, comics for intellectuals- but still laugh out loud funny!

Your Smile at the Top of the Dial, Peter and Maria Hoey: This mini , formatted like a 45 rpm single, features a hand silkscreened cover and a somewhat retro, slightly surreal tale of cross country radio stations. The Hoeys dedication to the small press model means it may never really be a collectible, but like many of these comics, it’s certainly unique.

Vulture City Stories, Sam Spina: Kilgore Books product that I got at DINK, it features the zany, over-the-top misadventures of the characters that live in an anachronistic old west town where a Saguaro cactus has been appointed sheriff.

Here in Denver, the DINK Expo, a yearly mini-con for mini- and indie comics comes around in April. It’s cheap, $20 (early bird tix) for a whole weekend, and the line up is strong, with small press stars like Dash Shaw, Sammy Harkham and Los Bros Hernandez, along with lesser known talents, such as Peter and Maria Hoey, and Sam Spina. It’s still small enough to have nice chats with creators, and you can get a small pile of (signed) comics for $50. A personal treasure: a silk screened accordion book in an edition of 350 by Peter and Maria Hoey, signed by Maria.

Kilgore Books and Comics on the Wax Trax block carries a nice selection of minis, including some that their associates at Kilgore Books publish. The Denver mini-comics scene has always been fairly strong, with well knowns Noah Van Sciver and John Porcellino having spent time here.

These connections remain strong, and Porcellino’s website, Spit and a Half, provides a source for mini-comics by up-and-comers and indie projects by bigger names. They’re packed well and most are under $20.

Coin-Op Books is really one of the few places to get work by the Hoeys, though they do a lot of small press expos like DINK. Other websites to visit: Retrofit Comics, Youth in Decline, publishers of Frontier, a series of minis by cutting edge authors both new and established, Uncivilized Books, and  Kilgore Comics.

 

New Territory

Bramble _TP 3 _18
Above is a photopolymer etching I did as a test proof during a workshop by Henrik Boegh, a Danish Master Printer well know for developing non-toxic methods in printmaking. I applied marker pen, ink wash and scratches to a hardened polymer surface, then wiped and printed like a regular etching plate. 

I took, at the invitation of the school, a couple of workshops taught by Henrik Boegh, a Danish Master Printer in non-toxic intaglio. Intaglio is a traditional word for etching- it means, roughly, ‘cutting into’. It’s a different medium than monotype, a very simple process of making an ink picture on a smooth plane and then transferring it to paper. For one thing it’s repeatable, as indicated by larger edition numbers, such as 1,2 or 3/10, etc. (Monotypes, unique one-of-a-kind prints, often are designated 1/1).

There were two 3-day workshops on different aspects of etching. Photo-polymer etching was the first. One uses a light source (including the sun) to expose an image onto a polymer film, then hardens it, and prints it like a traditional etching plate (that is to say: put ink on, wipe off the excess until only the etched lines have ink, and run through a hand press.) I’ve done this often with prepared plates, such as Solar Plates, invented by Dan Welden. Here one actually prepares the plate.

The second was the more traditional, centuries-old process of etching lines and tones into a metal plate. Here a whole range of non-toxic, or perhaps more accurately, relatively less toxic, materials were used instead of the highly toxic acids and oil-based grounds that we learned about in school. These are acrylic grounds of various types, some specialized, others using common materials (such as Johnson Floor Wax!)

The whole idea of the League offering this workshop to me and a couple of other instructors is that we would eventually teach it, expanding the school’s offerings into safer processes. So in October, we three will be meeting to process the large amount of new techniques and get on the same page before new classes and workshops start in Spring. Eventually, though traditional methods will continue to be taught at the school, toxic etching materials will be replaced.

Here is an image I made of one process during the workshop. More rough sketch than finished art, this test proof was made to see how well I’d used various ink drawing, washes and scratchings on a photo plate. But it relates to some themes I’ve been exploring about (mental) brambles and undeveloped wilderness, so I may try to clean it up as a finished piece soon, while working on my technique. I’ll post more as I go along.

Gathering Hopes

This rather contented looking feller is from a nice thank you note I received from artists and staff of The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women where I taught a series of monotype and relief printing workshops this summer. Card by JVO

I’ve got a brief break for writing and studio work after finishing up two workshops. One was my Monotype Portfolio summer evening class, which went well; I’ll post a nice image from that soon. The other was my Wednesday morning workshop with the women of The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women. It was a wake-up but a joy, for several reasons.

I love a morning class anyway. You get to start off the day with conversations on creativity, it really puts a hopeful spin on things. The perspective of the whole day changes to one of possibility. Also, the women there, despite their many struggles, are talented. All of us need to see reminders of the humanity in everyone, whether fortunate ( Yes, I’m grateful) or not, and art provides that.

And I felt welcomed there- The staff and clients made me feel valued- a contributor for hope. At some point, I really began to buy into that hope. I began to ask myself how I might help advance the hopes of others. TGP is not surprisingly situated at the epicenter of this city’s exploding homeless population. Eat day I went there, I walked or rode through the hordes of much less fortunate people that our current failing politics seeks to ignore.

That brings me to the point of the post, not the art we made in class, which was mostly fairly simple processes which in some cases led to spectacular results. As I said, there were some talented artists here, and I’ll post some of those below.

But the cat above is not from the class. It’s part of a separate Gathering Place project I’d like you to know about: Their card project which allows down on their luck women to make money from their talent for art and making. I got this one, with some nice notes written inside, as a thank you for teaching the workshop, and it’ll be treasured along with some other artworks and notes I’ve received over the years. I wish the picture showed it better- it’s drawn in a sort of sparkly colored ink!

 

By Purchasing this piece of handcrafted original art, you are making a difference in the life of an individual who is experiencing homelessness or poverty. 75% of the revenue generated for The Gathering Place by the sale of this card will be returned to the individual artist.

-back of the card

Many of the artists were pondering how the simple relief prints we did could be incorporated into The Card Project, which made me feel very happy. Have I contributed in a small way?

As you might imagine, The Gathering Place is not really open to the public. But you can visit, and see all of these hundreds of cards at affordable prices by contacting them at cards@tgpdenver.org or calling 303.996.9068. We’ve all been feeling a bit knocked around since November 2016. Soon, we get to vote, but we can also pay it forward a little. 

Just a few of the many prints done by the artists of The Gathering Place.