As promised, I’m trying to catch up on my reading list. Then, I must knuckle down and finish my three-parter on starting, transforming and finishing idea, with possible related theme of Story in Art, which I will eventually convert to a Keynote presentation, for a possible standalone lecture.
I have first drafts of all these posts, but have been procrastinating/ wimping out on finishing them up. Eventually, they’ll go into a downloadable section on this site, also a much postponed project.
But I have been enjoying a lot of reading time, and in view of my irregular posting schedule, it seems a shame not to share it. One part of this list seemed to tie in with my World Cup/American exceptionalism observations from last week, which included observations from England’s surprising run. While I jettisoned the precious little segue I’d dreamed up for that (Yes! I DO edit these things), I’m re-boarding that train of thought now.
I think we tend to regard one part of the outside world, England, with a comfortable familiarity. We speak the same language (hah! sort of), read their literature in high school, adopt laughably poor fake accents to evoke sophistication or eccentricity. Even the high-fat, low information voters adore their fish ‘n’ chips! When we examine Ol’ Blighty more closely, however, we begin to see a place that’s alien, and not just in high quality of medical care.
When I came to this city in 1985, having been starved on the Wyoming High Plains of anything interesting in comics besides the occasional sci-fi or eurocomics gem in Heavy Metal Magazine, I immediately began to haunt the comics shops on Colfax.
My timing was pretty good. The Alternative/Punk/Zine scene was burgeoning, and I was able to locate back issues of the legendary Raw Magazine, along with new discoveries in the exploding black and white indy comics then beginning to appear. Each week I would go down on delivery day to a shop that regularly ordered one or two copies of the new comics to pick up the latest Love and Rockets, Hate, or Eightball. I’d grab any other interesting new titles I saw as well. These included more and more, comics from across the pond. One was Mauretania Comics, from England, an oddly titled and -produced number that fit right in with my punker’s sensibility for avoid-the-mainstream.
Mauretania was an anthology featuring most often, three cartoonists of similar, unique mood, working in stark black and white, or drizzly grays. Paul Harvey and Chris Reynolds worked in thick murky b&w, and Carol Swain in her exquisite graphite crayon grays. Swain had been appearing in early Fantagraphics anthologies, and her comics were the reason I picked it up.
New York Review Comics, published by the New York Review of Books, has recently been publishing avant garde gems from the past, such as Mark Beyer’s exquisitely neurotic Agony, first published by Raw. Their latest project is a thick collection of Reynold’s eerie “Monitor” stories from Mauretania Comics, edited and designed by cartoonist Seth.
Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story. I only found three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative, though its brooding air of mystery was palpable, and I saved them.
A sense of incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in the context of a 275 page collection. Episodically, in 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.
It makes for compelling reading with the emotional distance implied by the sometime third person narration countered by the immediacy of Reynold’s thick brush work. There are few comparisons I can make to this unique body of work, though Swain and Harvey fit in quite well in the original issues, which I re-read. Mario Hernandez of early Love and Rockets also comes to mind. Though not really similar in either narrative or graphic sensibilities, Eddie Campbell’s The King Canute Crowd body of work is also emblematic of the appeal of these mid-late 80’s alternative comics from England. Alan Moore and others had already begun to make a mark on mainstream American comics. Those troubled by the libertarian violence of V For Vendetta might find these comics a more subtly poetic evocation of England’s Thatcher-era dystopianism.
Reynolds and Swain continue to publish, in print and on the web, but we may not see Mauretania’s quiet, slow-paced angst again. Seth himself comes closest.
Lately the torch of British alternative comics has been carried by NoBrow, with their occasional anthology NoBrow Magazine, and other published work. A new NoBrow (#10) is out and I recommend it highly, though I haven’t seen it. I’m going on issues 6-9.
Their esthetic hews more closely to mainland eurocomics artists such as Blexbolex, or America’s Fort Thunder ( cartoon brut) style cartoonists. These are characterized by expressionistic color, retro-big foot-style or neo cubistic images, transgressive or even picaresque characters and situations. Nobrow also publish cutting edge illustration, much like Monte Beauchamp’s Blab Magazine. Another aspect of American exceptionalism is to gloss over English contributions to the advent of the comics, which Americans like to say we invented (Wrong! It was a Swiss guy, Rodolphe Topffer). Nobrow and the Mauretania collection bring needed focus to British and European artists.
Nobrow has also just released Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn, by Canadian artist Ryan Heshka. Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in luscious 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 with a soupcon of S&M. All in a fast paced story that delivers arson, cigarettes, gunplay and booze along with a Sweet Gwendolyne type submissive heroine who sees the light, gets herself a leather jacket and becomes a femme fatale. It’s all good fun until someone loses an eye; which they do, along with other body parts in a tale that delivers a “stiletto-stab to the crotch of the patriarchy”.
A lesser noticed aspect of the 80’s punk/zine-inspired alt comics renaissance is the role that it played in giving a voice to female artists. At the time, largely due to the cost and old boys connections required of producing movies, television and books, second wave feminist artists were shut out of pop culture. Black and white comics changed that. Trina Robbins pioneered cheap to produce, easily distributed feminist underground comics as early as the 70’s, and the punkers and zinesters of the 80’s did not slack the pace.
Fiona Smyth, another cartoonist I discovered at the shops through her stylishly executed Nocturnal Emissions mag, has just released a collection of her bawdy, urban primitive, third wave feminist comics with Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sex crazed and sexy 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.
This is no didactic screed, more a hallucinogenic trip through alternative sexuality and punk tribal lifestyles. Like many documents of subcultures, it’s very in-your-face. Her heroines meet injustice and disrespect positively and forthrightly with unabashed sexuality and compulsive art making, two very related impulses in the war against American Puritanism. Or in the famous (unattributed) dictum: “Everything in the world is about sex. Except sex; sex is about power.”
It’s important to give these 80’s artists (I’ll add Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Carol Lay, Debbie Drechsler and Phoebe Gloeckner, to name a very few of many) their due in the gradual inclusion of female voices in pop culture, which in the USA, is an important source of cultural power. I really don’t think it could have happened without them.
The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing as a Way of Thinking; Ball and Kuhlman, editors: French Situationists! Oedipal superheroes! “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams”! And, at least one Roland Barthes citation. It will not be easy to explain to my grandchildren why I was reading stuff like this when I should have been earning money for their college funds, or at least, enough cash to ask someone on a date, so that I might consider even having them (grandchildren!).
Chris Ware, the somewhat misanthropic cartoonist ( Building Stories, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth) who, as much as anyone, spearheaded the comics’ charge into the book market and critical significance, garnered his own collection of critical essays in 2010, which I’m now reading.
The interpretations in this wide-ranging set of academic papers are very thought provoking in terms of all art and ideas, very validating in that I’ve collected everything from Ware I could afford, and a very pleasant way to escape the grind of Trump’s new feudalism for an hour. Surprisingly readable as these things go, and for someone who’s new to the medium’s ongoing renaissance, but past the Buzzfeed listicles of “Graphic Novels You Must Read” phase, it just might serve as an intro to the unique aesthetic advantages and challenges comics are now posing.
I’ve also been reading some novels and books on art and printmaking. I’ll post those, along with my own thoughts on art soon.