While The Comics Journal did not lead to mass suicide in the mainstream comics corporate offices, it certainly did question the way comics were created, marketed and critically evaluated. Image from Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware, published by Fantagraphics beginning in 1993.

I picked up a used copy of We Told You, So Comics as Art, a massive self-celebration of Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books’ 40 years as alt-comics publishers and industry provocateurs. At 630 pages, this 40th anniversary brick is a hefty read, especially for those unfamiliar with the alt comics/zine/ punk DIY subculture of the 80’s. But for those who’ve caught themselves wondering how the scruffy pamphlets collecting dust on the squeaking drugstore spinner racks of their youth became the cinema multiplex/Netflix and library/mainstream book publishing phenomenon they are now,  it’s an essential read.

We Told You So is an oral history-style chronicle of the (sometimes literal) trials and tribulations of this pioneering publisher of many alternative comics landmarks. Anyone familiar with their signature publication, The Comics Journal, knows that “interview” and “Fantagraphics”  (and this book is essentially Fantagraphics, interviewing itself) is not a recipe for concision. Gary Groth, spiritual leader, is not really an editor, so much as publisher/advocate. I think there is way more info about the early days of alternative comics than most people who weren’t fans from the beginning, like me- really want. But Fanta was a leader in transforming the grassroots energies of the fanzine subculture into a real renaissance for comics, and if the process of pop cultural subversion is interesting for you, no book explicates it more.

Comics fanzines actually predate the punk rock music fanzines/DIY movement of the late 70’s-early 80’s, going back to the 50’s, where they were an outgrowth of sci-fi fan culture. By the late 70’s there was quite a bit of overlap. Groth, a zine publisher since his teen years, and Fantagraphics, the small publishing company he took over as a young adult, soon began to rather stridently question the entire structure of the entrenched mainstream comics business in ways that the undergrounds of the 60’s and 70’s never did. It’s not really a coincidence that FB’s history encompasses the move toward more creator’s rights, less censorship and a general flowering of comics’ more literary qualities in the last four decades. When Groth and co-founders Kim Thompson and Mike Catron decided to publish their own books, artistic milestones like Love and Rockets, Jimmy Corrigan and Ghost World followed, and are still coming (see below). Movies, television and New York Times book supplement coverage came next.

This book’s design mirrors those roots, deliberately expressing a fanzine aesthetic,  with the oral history format an obvious nod to Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb.  A chapter in this book also explores FBI’s somewhat tenuous relationship to the concurrent Grunge scene of early 90’s Seattle.

There are major differences in style, tone and attitude between Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, a slightly later alt- and Euro-comics publisher. Their self-published histories are both essential to understanding the growth of the medium from spandex youth fantasy through mature sci-fi fantasy, then punk/fanzine ravings, and on into auto-bio memoir, literary art and the experimental comics that share cultural space with fine art today. These are the people who finally rescued comics from the imposed infantilization of the 50’s, and brought them back to the creative vibrancy seen in the turn of the 20th Century period, when they rivaled another new medium, movies, for cultural relevancy. We Told  almost miraculously, given Groth’s exhaustive editorial ‘style’, somehow comes in under Drawn and Quarterly’s recent 730-page 25th anniversary doorstop, though in fairness, D&Q’s self-homage is in a slightly smaller format, and features quite a lot of actual comics.

How well I remember the day, spotting my first issue of Love and Rockets in a grungy little shop on East Colfax. It fit right in with my then lifestyle of grinding, oppressive day job, followed by loud punk rock show or raucous art opening at night. We Told You So gives voice to others who experienced the same epiphany, many of whom went on to become published creators themselves, and their stories are surprisingly moving.

Fantagraphics gradually lost its seat-of-the-pants DIY aesthetic.  Its seminal publication, the Journal, is a (still very useful) shadow of its former self, an online-only show case for critique of comics from the margins and reconsiderations of classic comics and their creators, stripped of its confrontational New Journalism-style news function under editors Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler. A 26 volume Complete Peanuts project seems to have finally erased their continual money woes. Its history of frat-rat type hijinks mellowed with time and growing respect and the loss of one of its co-founders, Kim Thompson, to cancer. I didn’t really need a 4-page account of Fanta’s early shooting parties, complete with a two page photo spread of people shooting things, and the things they’d shot. But comics, from their beginnings in the yellow journalism period of the 1890’s, to their reimagining as comic books in the rapacious publishing world between the wars, to the 60’s undergrounds, have always been characterized by a boisterous approach to business, and they are currently in the midst of another such creative explosion. Fantagraphics’ rollicking history is inseparable from the comics’ growth as a mature medium.

Book of Hope, Tommi Musturi: Fantagraphics found these unusual comics in Finland. Lovely, lyrical and existential, these contemplatively paced 2-paged segments are formatted like gag strips, but inevitably the punchline is death or at least loneliness. Nonetheless the uplift promised in the title does arrive, if belatedly and in surprising ways.
In tidy, luscious clear line style and hallucinogenic, somewhat ironic colors we follow a middle aged man through peregrinations both mundane and fantastical in a lush landscape of quotidian wonder and dreamlike dread. The narrative pacing is exquisitely slow, allowing subtle sight gags to bubble up and themes to simmer. Spanish artist Max is an influence, though Musturi is less given to the psychologically surreal; as is Chris Ware, though Musturi is not as emotionally bereft. Musturi reminds us that in game of cards against death, the only winning card is the Joker.
Thus, mortality coexists with pratfall, the existential with the trivial, the end seems near, whether in the form of spaghetti western desert, or nature’s slow seasonal decay. The book starts with autumn’s existential emptying and ends in winter’s deathlike peace, but is redeemed with the slow relentless nagging of love, in the form of our hero’s companion who opines: “So what do you do? You live”. They go to pick Lingonberries.
It’s a sublime synthesis of comedy and contemplation, alternately silly and poetic, that Musturi arranges in 5 subtly themed yet fantastical chapters, as if Mr Hulot was taking a holiday in Valhalla, or a John Ford film had been shot in Oz. And it can only be done in comics.

Hellboy’s World, Scott Bukatman: A fairly recent book which the author touts as the first full length critical study of the horror comics character Hellboy.

Hellboy is a guilty pleasure of mine since the early 90’s, when it began as a short black and white feature in a Dark Horse Comics anthology. A formally sophisticated comic about an exiled demon from Hell who appears on Earth to hunt down paranormal and occult evil doers, Hellboy blends seminal pulp horror tropes with folk tales, Nazis, zombies and vampires; not to mention Nazi vampire zombies, to present a unique mythos. The comic features expressionist cartooning by creator Mike Mignola (and his associates) and moody earth tones by colorist Dave Stewart along with quite a bit of blacker-than-black humor. In Hellboy, we see an expansive pastiche of pulp fiction tropes woven with symphonic richness into a cohesive visual/linguistic language that transforms genre. Mignola’s is a very unique and synthetic approach to genre- Hellboy is part wise cracking superhero, part monster, but done in an engaging and simple style that sets it apart from over wrought mainstream books.

Thus, Hellboy became one of the titles that changed comics, and helped usher in the creative renaissance for the medium. It’s also a book that is owned by its creator, changing the economics of comics, even as auteur Mignola has taken on other artists and writers to expand the franchise to other titles set in other decades. It was, for example, one of the first titles to move into bookstore collections in tpb form, now a surging market niche. Though eschewing the bombast and self seriousness of the mainstream superhero books, Hellboy is a comic that has become serious business indeed.

Bukatman is obviously a fan, though it doesn’t cloud his judgement. He approaches Hellboy in seven thematic sections, and his book is well researched. He cites sources ranging from iconic early 20th Century critic/essayist Walter Benjamin on reading and children’s literature to experts on illuminated manuscripts to the new wave of comics literary criticism that has grown up around the recent resurgnce in the medium. The examples he cites are often recognized critical darlings in literary comics, such as Chris Ware and Jerry Moriarty- rather than the many genre comics still crowding the comic shop racks. This is in keeping with Bukatman’s thesis: Hellboy comics are effective and significant not so much because of their roots in genre escapism, as with their approach to how we read. Large parts of Bukatman’s book are about that: the diegetics of how comic artists tell a story, and the phenomenology of how we read it.

Bukatman is conversant with academic criticism and a related thesis, that Hellboy’s world of monsters and liminal meanings is analogous to the marginal world that readers of children’s books, comics and monster lit as well as genre collectors themselves occupy, is interesting enough to contribute to pop culture study, but not so esoteric as to put off the fan.

I pulled out my old Hellboys. I came to them late, having left mainstream genre behind in the alt comics boom. In many cases, having assembled them in a monthly frequency, I’d not read them as a unified tale. It’s a frequent problem with ‘floppies’ (pamphlet comics), and one of the reasons that I, and I assume many others, are transitioning to collections (so-called ”graphic novels”).

Hellboy has recently returned to his roots (in Hell).  There are collections of both short stories and longer story arcs, most of which feel self contained enough to reward casual reading. But in the back of each volume can be found a chronological list of Hellboy publications, if you want to follow from his first appearance in a blast of light in wartime England to his final, epic, and apocalyptic return to the circles of Hell. With Hellboy, we find a story that retains its consistency and narrative progression over a long period of time (since the mid-90’s). “Is anybody else doing this?” Mignola asks in an interview (The answer is yes, actually. The Hernandez brothers have kept Love and Rockets, with their amazingly consistent narrative world-building, going since the mid-80’s. This is not even to bring Frank King’s Gasoline Alley into the mix).

As Bukatman points out, it also utilizes the unique qualities of comics- their interplay between often poetic- or folkloric word and picture, their simplified colors and Mignola’s preternaturally dramatic sense of pace to craft an atmospheric narrative that really gets at the heart of what horror is. Mainly, a desexualized expression of floating anxiety, a place where puritan America gets under the covers with its issues about things that go bump- if not horizontally “bop”, in the night. All this, in color, for a dime. Okay, $17 for five episodes, actually. In the midst of our nation-wide Drumpf-dread, this qualifies, in my book as real art.

Hellboy contains pulp vigilantes (The Lobster, a Shadow-like avenger); aliens and Kriegsaffen (Nazi war monkeys!) -a spectacular anachronism, really. Why does one need a secret Alpine redoubt and a Wehrmacht general’s head preserved in a robot’s body to revive fascism, when a few Citizens United billionaires and a minority of low-information racist voters can install it in the White House?

In the best of pop culture, we often find both truth, and a place to escape from it.




Notes From the Comics Underground | 2017 | Books, Comics, Music | Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *