Category Archives: Books, Comics, Music

A Place For Us

Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011
Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, but never published it. It seems to fit in well with the Sgt. Pepper’s 50th Anniversary post of a few weeks ago, so here it is:

 

I made the above etching for very practical reasons- its a small work that might  provide a little cash at shows here, where the art-buying public is often living with small crowded walls, or small budgets. It has also turned out to be just ambiguously meaningful enough (to me) to use as a gift- I like to bring a small piece of art to house warming or holiday parties, and was actually able to convince myself that its simpe dichotomy between absence and presence made it appropriate for friends who’d lost a loved one.

So it’s become a small symbolic token of life stages for me, anyway, and a fairly successful creation after first being concieved of as an simple, expressive sketch of a plain subject. It has taken on complexity, which is how I enjoy my works best. It has reminded me that “place” can be a very evocative concept.

The song “There’s a Place” does not get mentioned alot when anthologizing, or  mythologizing the Beatles. But it occupies a unique spot not only in their development, but in the progression of popular Rock and Roll music as a whole.

It serves only a minor role in their history- it comes between their breakthrough no. 1 single “Please Please Me” and the monster releases that brought them world fame: “She Loves You” and  “I want to Hold Your Hand.”  At the time of its recording, their record company was eager to rush them back into studio for their first album, to capitalize on the success of ‘Please’, and its predecessor, “Love Me Do”, which reached Number 5 in England. But LPs were not the central product of the singles-driven music industry then, not the art form that the group would later make them. They were given only 10 hours (?!) to record the collection of George Martin-approved covers of ravers and schmaltzy pop ballads that along with their own songs would become Meet the Beatles, but having fought to get the privilege of recording “Please Please Me”, it was only a matter of time before their very unique muse would push out.

George Martin’s genius for propulsive, immersive song intros, later manifested in classics like “Eight Days a Week”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, makes an early appearance here as McCartney’s one strangley neutral bass downbeat launches a nervously rolling guitar /drum backbeat, leavened only by Lennon’s keening harmonica. At the end of the first stanza we don’t know anything about what the song’s about, or where the referred-to “place” even is. But the second reveals much, in the span of eight urgently ascending words : “And it’s my mind/ And there’s no time/” while the next three sum up what’s at stake: “when I’m alone”.

Ironically, as Lennon intones this curiously flattened phrase it sounds less like joy and suspiciously like lament. In Martin’s production the song’s central paradox emerges: he is in fact, utterly alone as the rest of the supporting voices drop off. Into this jarring emptiness, from somewhere distant but achingly real, one single wail of the keening mouth harp intrudes. A stumbling, stuttering, inarticulate ensemble of bass drums and guitar introduces another emotional disjunct- a curiously unconvincing self assurance in the second, less exalted refrain. “In my mind there’s no sorrow/”, Lennon declares plaintively, as the background chorus doggedly stands by his story: “Don’t you know that it’s so?”

Observe that the song names no love object: no Donna or Peggy Sue. It is ambiguously enough written that we can’t really be sure who is loving who. “I think of you,” in the context of its era, and the Beatles’ personal history, seems to suggest a beautiful woman. In subject matter, it can be compared productively with both “All I Have to Do is Dream”, by the Everlys and “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin. Neither of these song makes an attempt at the existential complexity at work in “There’s a Place”. It is not unusual to sing about dreams of nameless women. The difference is in the palpable sense of sonic disjunct in the rollicking guitars, lonely harmonica and alternately rasping and ethereal vocal harmonies; the nagging sense that the singer is creating his lover from the whole cloth of alienation and existential longing.

There is poetry here, and not only in the raw, street level conjunction of sex with rhythm that elevates the delta-born poetics of the body in early rock’s opposition to the infantilized prudery of 50’s pop. Neither Darin nor Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, writers of  ‘All I Have to Do’ achieve the evocative economy of words that Lennon (with McCartney, but Lennon seems to claim the words, at least) does. ( For the record: 219 Dream Lover (not counting (Yeah, Yeahs), versus 181 All I Have to Do , and 101 Place) “The things you said/Like, I love only you/” is the only place in the song that comes close to describing a specific person, and the lyrical context is not clear whether the words exist on the lips of a real lover, or in the mind of a fantasizing narrator. So who is loving who? And why the unmistakeable tone of melancholy? Is it the love of a man for a woman, or given the Beatles’ still precarious career state ( the song originated in their early live set), a muse, or even the bitch goddess fame? No one, not even Dylan, in ’62, was writing songs like this. On the cusp of becoming part of the biggest musical act the world had ever seen, Lennon brings home a very basic truth about why we sing -and dream- at all.

None of these songs, in fact, names names. But only Lennon tells us what’s at stake- the yawning abyss between happiness (creative fulfillment) and death (loneliness). Although The Everlys sing flippantly “that I could die,” the real problem, as the song sees it, is ( gee whiz! ) he’s “dreaming his life away”. Dreaming and not being married is the problem. With Lennon, loneliness is the problem and dreaming is the solution.”There’ll be no sad tomorrows”, he insists, but his voice betrays his doubts.

In its complex abstraction of what it means to dream- what is its purpose, and who lives in that interior “place,” and the emphasis on the existential loneliness of the “I,” the song can probably be argued as a debut of the modern pop singer-songwriter aesthetic, as Dylan did not release Freewheelin’ till a couple of months later. Lennon, of course was not a singer/songwriter, he was in a group,   but it’s a very personal song. He would return to the approach in “Norwegian Wood”

The song also anticipates the end of album as pure packaging of hits and covers, though the album as artistic concept, also a Martin/Beatles innovation, in their Sgt. Pepper’s incarnation, was still a few years away. The place that this song yearningly describes is not a place at all, but the soul.The real subject of the song is a quest for connection, whether with the self, or another. And its central narrative, framed in relentlessly discordant parts of an ineffably sad whole, is that the soul dreams alone. Lennon and The Beatles were to explore vexing human problems like this long after the cover songs had disappeared. Lennon, who died pretty much alone, albeit in the middle of a small crowd, never got a chance to resolve the basic question of why we dream at all.

The 50’s were over, the 60’s, a decade of Mutually Assured Destruction, moon landings and assassinations, were beginning, and the reassurance of safe havens for the soul, as the Fabs and all of us were about to realize, were becoming harder and harder to find, even in dreams.

I Hope You All Enjoyed The Show.

I have a post I didn’t have time to finish and post last week, on the Beatles’ 50th anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, June 1. I didn’t post it with the rush to prepare for the annual Summer Art Market show. That went okay, with the main news being I won “Best In Show.” I’ll put up an album of photos soon. But here’s the Beatles post, and I’ve got another that I never posted, so I’m going to finish that, too.

 

It was 50 years ago today. We’ve been seeing that almost obligatory headline a lot recently, as the media return to a longtime, can’t-miss subject: The Beatles, and the anniversary of the release of their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Everyone old enough will have memories of this release, which was a watershed in both artistic and cultural, even political history. Its effect is probably emotional for some people who lived it, and difficult to describe to those who weren’t there without using hyperventilated superlatives. The Beatles were sort of magical at that time; the hair- a big issue then, the flippancy, the “more popular than Jesus” defiance. There were some Goldwater Republicans and what we then called “Jesus Freaks” who hated them, but no one else did. It’s important to note- you young whippersnappers! -that no later artist, no Prince, no U2, R.E.M., Beyonce or Katy Perry, has ever had that grip on the imaginations of the young.

Suffice it to say, I’ll never be all that distant from Sgt. Pepper’s. It seems a part of me, and retains its immediacy. For one thing, at that time Sgt. Pepper’s was the only show in town. But it’s become fashionable to place it behind Revolver in the Beatles’ canon.

Like many, I’ve read a lot of books on the Beatles. My two go-tos, musically, remain Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley, a song-by-song analysis of the musical and lyrical structures of all their albums, and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, by Mark Lewison, a day-to day record of their studio work with George Martin. Both provide critical analysis, as well as cultural and biographical context for their many moods and innovations. As I’ve mentioned here before, The Beatles Anthology albums (Vols. 1-3), with their out takes, creative progressions and studio half-steps, are an indispensable companion. Also search out The Atlantic’s The Power of Two, (July 2014) by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a shorter analysis of what made the Lennon and McCartney collaboration so effective.

In 1967, others, notably rivals The Rolling Stones, were still standing on the shoulders of blues giants. The Beatles however, had leveraged their unassailable chart postings by quitting touring, and had unlimited studio time to explore pop, folk and psychedelia.

On Pepper’s, the sheer power of George Martin’s control room vision can no longer cover up the centrifugal motion of Lennon and McCartney’s artistic intentions. On Revolver, we hear McCartney’s R&B masterpiece “Got to Get You Into My Life” moments before one of the first great 60’s psychedelic/mystic songs, Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. They are clearly moving apart musically. But with Pepper’s, their ideas are still engaged in metaphorical dialog, thanks in part to its loose concept (faux Victorian psychedelic nostalgia, which quickly became the rage for pop bands, and eventually informed steam punk genre fiction and fashion). Three songs epitomize the Pepper album’s failures and its triumphs. One is on the album, two are not.

The first is “A Day In The Life”. It is the emotional core of an album that has been criticized for not having one, when compared with the worldly love songs and social realism of Revolver.  But its disjunct between bouncy pop and existential questioning is part of its brilliance, and the Atlantic article defines this as part of Lennon and McCartney’s collective genius, the tendency of John and Paul to respond to each other’s ideas, in the same way that the dreamy search for identity in Strawberry Fields plays off against the uncannily superrealist nostalgia of Penny Lane, the other two songs I allude to above.

This is the real problem with the record: it’s not complete. In early 1967, their record labels Parlophone and Capitol, anxious that a cash cow single had not been seen for all of 10 months, were pressuring the band, just liberated from brutal touring schedules, for a new 45. The fireman rushes in, indeed. The labels’ release schedule was out of sync with their creative one. Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were two of the few songs ready. But by custom, these midterm singles were not included on the subsequent album. By late April, work had begun on several other songs, and only a month after Pepper, the “All You Need Is Love” single is released. No song was ever released from  SPLHCB as a single, in fact. “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” are included in December on another Capitol mash-up, the “Magical Mystery Tour LP.  It’s treated as a trivial oddity if mentioned at all, but is in fact a pop artistic tragedy on a par with a lost Shakespeare play. Or perhaps it’s enough to state that George Martin called the songs’ omission from the record “a dreadful mistake”. He’s right- only those two songs refer both to the floating anxiety of Lennon’s distant, ironicized dreamscapes brought together with McCartney’s photorealism in one disturbing “Day”, between morning newspaper and first cigarette.

In A Day In The Life, the Beatles themselves puncture their own nostalgic Victorian band conceit before the record even ends. As Riley points out, in a useful discussion of the song’s metaphoric soundscape, the spare acoustic guitar opening of Day emerges from the fading illusion of Sgt Pepper’s (Reprise), and Lennon’s dreamy absurdity ( “4000 holes”) asks us to ponder what is real and what is illusion. We hear an alarm clock; the dream is over-  a studio alarm clock included in an early take as a time marker inspires McCartney’s man on the bus smoking segment, which plays what is in this context, as quotidian zombie horror, as his working stiff rushes for the bus. This daydream plays off perfectly against Lennon’s existential nightmare.

Without Penny Lane, however, The crystalline nostalgia of McCartney’s hyperrealist suburban vignettes (When I’m 64, Lovely Rita) can sound gratuitous and superficial next to the anxiety-prone absurdity of Lennon’s hallucinogenic Victoriana ( Good Morning, Mr. Kite). These songs, in turn, sound like LSD fripperies without the primal identity quest (“No one, I think, is in my tree”) of Strawberry Fields to anchor them. “Fields”- about an orphanage grounds, and “Lane”, about an everyday intersection, center the ideas of the Pepper sessions as no other song, other than “A Day”, can. The metaphoric backstory of the album begins with these childhood memories and ends with Paul and Martin’s orchestrated crescendos, knitting disparate sounds and leading to a note of attenuated anticipation, a sort of definitive ambiguity. What’s next, the long closing note asks? Martin was excited by the creative effusion, and anxious to return to the studio. But the band, in retrospect, suddenly seemed adrift.

“A crowd of people stood and stared” referring perhaps, to the just-exited Sgt. Pepper’s audience? Or to the Beatles themselves? Nobody was sure what exactly they were seeing. The disjunct between Lennon’s dark apocalyptic dreamscape; and the sunny clarity of McCartney’s blue suburban skies is explained, as a dream within a dream. It all adds up to a kind of existential, hallucinogenic identity crisis,  one that mirrors the one many of us, in large parts of society as a whole, experienced then. But the Beatles, now without Brian Epstein, might’ve been having one, too.

It brings up the question of what might have been released instead of these two songs, and the correct answer is, really, “Who cares?” “When I’m 64” was the other song ready in February 1967, and would be no great loss to the album, where it’s more of a breathing space between more meaningful songs. Same with “Within You Without You” which fits only by virtue of geography into the album’s loose concept. But that brings up band politics, as it was Harrison’s only song on the album. So why not include them all? Recording technology was apparently an issue. Sgt. Pepper runs 39 minutes, Revolver, 35. Mostly, though, it was commerce triumphing over art.

For the Beatles’ part, they’d made themselves clear on this issue with the “butcher” cover to the spurious Capitol Records release Yesterday and Today, but never seemed to have returned to the issue. “Well I just had to laugh” is, as Riley notes, a token of resigned disillusionment.

By the time Pepper’s was released, they’d recorded several sessions for Magical Mystery Tour. Self indulgence was rearing its head. On the very day of the Pepper album release, Lewison reports the Beatles in studio, recording unplanned and “frankly tedious” jams. Perhaps it was the Beatles themselves who had lost their emotional core. Did they have an inkling that some element of magic had gone mysteriously missing? Had hubris set in? But if the album does fail, it’s a failure of execution, not of artistic vision. Sgt. Pepper’s, always great in terms of its cultural influence, if not in terms of its artistic cohesion,  was sacrificed to an already outdated business plan.

 

When They Go High…

“Magnifying Glass”, Roy Lichtenstein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Love

Wholesome Hey Kids! Comics! Entertaining

Anthologies are often the proving ground for innovation in comics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Coming Out of the Refrigerators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The World Is a Funny (Book) Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Porn

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A computer crash and a temp job in a shorthanded college bookstore really cramped my writing though I do have plenty of raw first drafts, typed shakily into my phone or tablet on public transit. So I’m posting some summer reading commentary now as I try to catch up: 

I finished The Novel, A Biography. It’s an eleven hundred page survey of novels and their authors, written by Michael Schmidt.  I’d intended to cherry-pick it, for authors I love, or am curious about. But its many and various cross referencings made it hard to put down. And its subject matter is undeniably as significant as any art history, about which many back-breaking tomes have been published.

The novel exists as both high and low culture, though it must certainly qualify as the world’s first pop culture medium, having come into being roughly at the same time as the printing press. It’s inherently ironizing, which is undoubtedly why it very quickly outgrew its early tendency to masquerade as “true” memoir, and became wildly popular with Cervantes and then Fielding’s introduction of contemporary satire. It goes without saying that most of the novels discussed in the book I haven’t read, though in choosing examples here, most I have.

I’m especially callow in regard to books written before the height of the American Romantic era, around 1850, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I’d tiptoed around English Victorian novels like literary quick sand and somehow avoided finishing anything by Dickens in high school, actually bragging of not having flunked the class.

In university it was easy enough to concentrate on modernist writing. Summers then and non-term months were for pop culture heroes, genre and post-modernists. Yes, I probably read every Vonnegut novel before 1985. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the novel’s roots, though. I had a vague familiarity with and attraction to the picaresque and the Gothic, having read enough of my parents’ collection and literary criticism to make ad hoc connections between Cervantes, Melville and Pynchon.

But placing those things in the context of the novel’s development from Cervantes to Fielding; from Richardson to Austen to James, requires a road map and that is what Schmidt ambitiously attempts to provide- a bird’s-eye view.

Schmidt generates critical dialogue through the device of writers writing about writers. It’s a shifting perspective to be sure. He has his favorites (Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Vidal), but often includes contradictory critiques, and thus one is left to compose one’s own critical map through a sort of triangulation. Nor does he hew to strict chronology, especially after 1900. This leads to pairings that are useful (Richardson with Austen), brave (Bruce Chatwin with Daniel Defoe), unimaginative or even stereotypical (a gaggle of early gay novelists followed by a murder of Jim Crow-era black writers) and plain bizarre (fellow paranoids, but political opposites Ayn Rand and Pynchon). A passage on John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) alludes to Kurt Vonnegut (Billy Pilgrim, get it?). And if “Biography” can be defined in one sense as “mistakes made, lessons learned”, then what are we to make of the fact that the last chapter of the novel’s “Biography” features Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and Martin Amis?

The point being that seeking the definitive would be a fool’s errand in such an expansive undertaking and Schmidt mostly avoids it.

 Schmidt does not attempt to rank or qualify writers, though he does give oblique commentary and his likes and dislikes are often easy to suss. Likes include picaresque adventures (Cervantes, Fielding) Late Romanticism (Melville) and early modernism (Woolf). Dislikes include Richardsonian romance, the Gothic (Scott), late Modernism (late Joyce) and most Post Modernism (watch out, Thomas Pynchon). Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade is not mentioned despite his fairly obvious, though often unacknowledged thematic affinities with Dostoyevsky and others (including Rand). Yet contemporary mainstream writers who’ve had best-selling decades ( Jane Smiley, John Irving) also don’t merit a walk-on.

Schmidt does include a chapter on genre where he discusses Raymond Chandler and Walter Moseley as artists before giving a wave of the hand to the putative heirs of Austen and the Brontes such as Barbara Cartland, who has sold hundreds of millions of books if not over a billion. This gives one an idea, when seen with the advent of mass market and trade PB market in the 50s, of just how massive and diverse the reading public has become. He imposes a cutoff, sensibly set at Y2K. It seems far less sensible after reading this, to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the book is dying. After the apocalypse, who will survive along with the cockroaches? Jane Austen in various paperback versions, my adventures in bookstores both new and used indicate.

Having a road map is important, I think. I’d like to read Fielding’s Tom Jones, influenced by Cervantes and very influential in its own language. I can probably live- and die- without Richardson, but my sense -or sensibility (?!) is that Austen, inventor of what Schmidt characterizes as a “free indirect” interiority is of far more importance than the commonplace rubric “inventor of the romance genre” that’s often assigned her. I will probably continue to avoid Dickens. I feel I should try to get all the way through a Bronte sister, perhaps Charlotte this time. I can no longer avoid James, I fear, though that brings me to Woolf’s doorstep, a safe haven.  As the “too many books, too little time” shopping bag franchisees remind us, life is short- but novels are long. When the hell will I re-read Ulysses?  And can I get back the hours I spent with the overwrought moral and psychological convolutions of Iris Murdoch?

add to these the regretfully unread (Barthelme, Gaddis, and I did happen to read an old Granta excerpt of a then-prospective Martin Amis novel that Schmidt praises as a modern classic, and I’m very curious about it), the under-read ( Bellow, Roth and always, Woolf), and the untried (Hardy? Conrad?).

So Schmidt’s unwieldy bucket list gets two thumbs up here.  It’s the kind of book one would keep in a home with limited space because one would refer to it often, as each bucket list entry gets crossed off. If it is eccentric in its realization, then so are many readers.

My own bucket list started with Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Digging down to the very roots of the novel, I found an agreeable translation/annotation by Tom Lathrop. Ignoring the clunky framing conceit of a “true history” so characteristic of the era, I dove in. The tale is most ‘modern’ and vibrant when the indefatigably deluded would-be knight-“errant” argues strategy with his faithfully self-interested squire, but I guess we all knew that. The story is culturally imprinted, whether from childhood excerpts or Broadway lyrics, and the copious broken ribs and loosened teeth that incited Europe’s first ever viral laff-riot now seem tiresome and gauche, but the interplay between the Woebegone Knight and Sancho is still pure gold. Cervantes popularized the novel, it is often said. Less often he gets credited with the first buddy movie.

I had to stop near the end of Part I (1605) and skip Part II (1615, partially a Cervantes reaction to pirating) to move on to my temp job. It’s in a college bookstore; life plays some cruel jokes.

The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, Ed: Another bruising, categorizing war-horse that I found on the shelf next to Novel and couldn’t resist lugging home. Some of the major players from Novel are here also; notably Virginia Woolf. Again, there are the early pioneers – Seneca, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt taxing syntactically, but they lead eventually to 20th Century riches. Joan Didion, Max Beerbohm, Walter Benjamin and George Orwell, the list goes on in easily digested five to ten page bites. The editorial work is exemplary, with underlying themes emerging, then carrying from ancient Rome to Edwardian London. These are indexed for ease of comparison, and cherry-picking. My favorite, “Walking”, led to an exquisite, sublimely transporting gem by Woolf, “Street Haunting”, in which the artifice of needing a pencil leads to an impressionist’s fantasia reminiscent of the ‘House’ chapter in “To the Lighthouse”, along with the emotional coda of a domestic squabble and make-up. The kind of piece that in a small way, leaves you a different person coming out than going in.

It’s been a Woolf summer. I found, and dallied with, before I put away for Fall reading, a collection of critical essays on each of her books. I also inhaled Orlando, before savoring each crystalline Woolf-ian blurb on each Victorian and pre-modern writer in Schmidt. All the while repeatedly reminding myself that it’s now been decades since I read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. Add them to the list.

Masterpiece Comics, R.Sikoryak: Sikoryak, a Raw Magazine vet from the 80’s, has been writing and illustrating these sly little mash-ups of high- and low culture and publishing them, very much under the radar, in anthologies all along. They’re collected here, and they’re funny because they get to the heart of the artificial divide between high and pop culture. In the process, we get a good laugh and confront the question of how and why we tell ourselves tales.

Here again, context is essential. Most can appreciate the hilarious sight gag of Dagwood in “Blonde Eve”, a biblical Garden of Eden retelling in the iconic “Blondie” style, carting arm loads of apples, waiter style, as he prepares to snack on the tree of knowledge. But a real shock of recognition comes to fans of Golden Age comics in seeing Raskolnikov, with his exaggerated sense of moral agency, compared with Batman’s vigilantism in Jerry Robinson’s dark Gotham City alleys.

 “Lil Pearl”, a Scarlet Letter retelling, gains far more satirical punch if one is familiar with Dell Comics’ Little Lulu, arguably one of the most widely read feminist voices of the benighted 50’s, who was continually and subtly turning the tables on, and claiming moral high ground from, the boys. And “Crypt of the Brontes”, a Wuthering Heights pastiche, becomes creepily compelling as a spot-on take of EC horror comics, complete with the narrating housekeeper in the iconic EC framing role as Crypt Keeper.

Sikoryak has retold Shakespeare, deSade, Camus and Dante ( as Bazooka Joe!) He apparently did not make a fetish of avoiding classic literature, as I did. Might Emily Bronte be rolling over in her grave at the thought of her masterpiece re-cast as  pre-code horror pulp? Possibly.

But she might also be tempted to grab Raskolnikov’s ax at the sight of one billion Barbara Cartland novels.

Lazy Daze

We’ve had a large hatching of dragonflies- possibly brought on by a sudden spell of cool wet weather. Squadrons of them, swarming the neighborhood. It seems like a nice omen for a summer that’s already been pretty enjoyable. I am teaching, and watching a lot of football. I pulled for the USA, then I pulled for Ireland, but I’ll pull for Azerbaijan if there’s good beer and someone who knows the difference between an in-swinger and an out-swinger. Subject for a long-postponed future post.

All the rest of the time, I’m reading. There’s been a large hatching of books, too. I had an art show last month; I like to stock up when I have cash. If it sounds like a vacation, that’s what it is. I head back to a temp job next week, and life is short. I’m reading prose; fiction, and non-,  but I’ll save that for another post to cut down on length. Here’s what I’m reading in comics:

 

Spaniel Rage: Vanessa Davis. These are sketch diary entries, in an engagingly loose pencil and ink style, of a twenty-something’s adventures in the NYC Millennials culture. Autobiographical comics have come a long way since the 80’s, and Davis’s uninhibited line work and eye for quirky human detail and absurdity is along with others such as Gabrielle Bell, a great example why.

Black Eye Magazine #1: Ryan Standfest, editor. There isn’t enough of this type of journal. It highlights edgier examples of new comics output, and offers critical examinations of some of the ignored creators of the censored 50’s and 60’s.  This issue has a good eye for comics outliers: Michael O’Donoghue’s Phoebe Zeitgeist, Al Feldman Panic comics, and the objectivist solo work of Spiderman creator and lone wolf Steve Ditko are all discussed. I found this 2011 number at a used bookstore, but I’ve located a second issue on the net ( Rotland Press.wordpress.com) along with an impressive selection of mini comics they’ve commissioned from artists like R. Sikoryak, of which, more below.

Comic Art #8, Todd Hignite, Editor: This well produced, but dearly departed journal featured critical essays and historical research on many comics and creators, from the medium’s origins to the present. This one has an interesting speculation on the origin of the word balloon, only somewhat marred by a tendency toward academic jargon; a long feature on the comics and graphics of Richard McGuire (Here); a look at the influence of Arizona’s Coconino County on  20’s newspaper cartoonists; and a critique of early Marvel Comics auteur Jim Starlin’s trippy, cosmic Warlock, from the 70’s. Back issues can be found on the web, and they’re all worth reading.

Sir Alfred #3, Tim Hensley: I’ll admit to my ignorance- I haven’t more than the barest knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock’s life, though I’ve seen many of his films. The intrigue here, for me, is in Hensley’s well crafted melding of “apocryphal anecdotes” from Hitchcockian lore with a dead on parody of the 50’s Dell children’s comics of once-anonymous now belatedly-recognized-comics-genius John Stanley.

Stanley, who might accurately be called the 50’s most popular feminist writer, wrote and sometimes drew Little Lulu comics. In these, Tubby and his gang, goaded on by an inflated sense of self esteem, often scheme to deprive Lulu Moppet of her allowance or a treat, or to con her into completing an odious task, all without surrendering the supreme entitlement of membership in their “No Girls Allowed” clubhouse. Almost invariably, Lulu, whether through her wits, or the impervious grace of the just, turns the tables on the boys. Stanley’s brave flipping of the insistent 50’s trope of the dumb, emotionally unstable, quiescently domesticated woman serves him well, as these comics will crack you up. Stanley later brought his eye to the burgeoning genre of 60’s teen humor, which Hensley also sends up in a previous effort, Wally Gropius.

In Sir Alfred, Tubby plays the role of eccentric legend Hitchcock, and the sense of entitled aplomb, along with a “well rounded” graphic profile in each makes it a genius bit of casting. Hitchcock was apparently known for poor treatment of women. The comic itself is a clever melange of gossipy vignettes and absurdly reductive movie plot summaries all paced and designed in the classic Dell “One-Pager” format.

This is really a bit overpriced. It’s packaged ($25) as an author-signed, limited edition oversized comic with a Giclee of an interior panel and a letterpress beer coaster (?). But Hensley is a rising star in comics and I was no more likely to pass up his latest satirical project than skip over a well crafted Little Lulu homage, which are more common than one might expect. R. Sikoryak, I think, launched this mini-genre in the 80’s with a pastiche of LL and The Scarlet Letter. These sorts of things are an example of a type of satire unique to comics, which ultimately trace back to the antic transgressions of EC’s Mad (Comics, not Magazine) and Panic. These were censored out of existence in 1955, but lived on in spirit in the 60’s undergrounds and 80’s Raw magazine.  Hensley, Sikoryak, and others are keeping up the tradition.

Spanish cartoonist Max channels The Andalusian Dog along with Charlie Brown and Jimmy Corrigan
Spanish cartoonist Max channels The Andalusian Dog along with Charlie Brown and Jimmy Corrigan

Bardin, the SuperRealist, Max: Spanish cartoonist Max gives us Bardin, a Charlie Brown-like Ligne clair (“clean line” cartooning, popularized by Herge in Tintin) euro-bohemian, who when not cadging cognac from friends in Madrid cafes, is admitted into iconically Dali-esque southern Spanish surrealist landscapes. Max has fun exploring Surrealist tropes, including the infamous “A cloud across the moon…” scene from Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and adds his own in a wide-ranging pastiche that includes Mickey Mouse. I’d passed this up when Max published it shortly after The Extended Dream of Mr D. I was still working full time and didn’t feel I had time to experiment with a lot of new reading, especially with such a bizarre approach, but it turns out to be delightful- witty and hilarious. I read parts twice and will return to it soon, I’m sure.

I’m halfway through Kramer’s Ergot #9, my favorite comics anthology, and picked up Emma Rios’ (Pretty Deadly) just-released I.D. I’ll comment on those later. I’ve also started a commentary on the hows and whys of monotypes which collects thoughts I’ve often shared with my classes.

 

 

Get Back, Stack

 

Month of Printmaking Colorado has been going pretty well. It’s an artist/volunteer run event,  and Denver’s getting too big to do a large scale event with out professional organization and promotion, really. But the crowds have been pretty good, and the press has covered it well. I was pretty relieved when all of the first month’s burst of shows, events and openings (including my own) were over. Then I caught a mild flu. So I got myself on the couch and finished up several books I’d been reading. I recovered just in time for DINK (Denver Indepedent Comics Expo), a small gathering of the city’s burgeoning small press cartoonists and publishers held in an old Masonic hall downtown. There were also several nationally-known creators there and I picked up quite a haul of new stuff to read; I could easily have spent more time and money there, but I needed to get to a printmaking event.

I haven’t done a reading list since New Year’s Eve, so I’d like to catch up on what’s happening in my book stacks. There are two main ones, both titteringly high in the Winter crepuscule, so this is a long post. 

The Sea and Civilization, Lincoln Paine, is clearly a morning book. That is to say, when I’m not too busy, I can snatch an hour or two with coffee on the couch as rush hour jets by. This is important now, as my body clock makes serious, complex books hard to read at night. Some, like this one, get carried everyday from the Living Room stack (Po-Mo doorstops, notes-heavy history) to my Bedroom stack ( shorter, or humorous fiction or nonfiction, such as ambitious, large graphic novels and edgy short story anthologies), but the sheer weight of the many historical facts crammed into it makes my eyes heavy, and not many pages get read.

The Sea and Civilization deals with the role the seas played in furthering civilization, trade and exploration from the dawn of history on. Some how the author, Lincoln Paine, keeps it to 750 pages, including notes. Paine writes clearly and at a good pace, starting with the fascinating and awe inspiring tale of the ancient island-hopping exploration of Oceania, and through the story of the Egyptian trade and development on the Nile, and subsequent expansion into the Mediterranean and Red Sea. More familiar are the tales of Portuguese, Spanish and English exploration and colonization, though for me, the broad perspective he brings, fitting piecemeal seafaring tales from my youth into larger, economic and social trends satisfies my ship design and key battle geekery with a new found desire to understand cultural history as a whole. For instance, the advent of the printing press has a huge effect on European expansion because of the sudden availability of charts and navigational data. The book has maps to help visualize the myriad place names, though this is precisely the sort of thing for which I bought a historical atlas.

Pure Pajamas, Marc Bell: Pre-dates the Stroppy book I mentioned previously and is less refined- a little more fragmented and edgier of line and humor. The riffs on E.C. Segar and R. Crumb are more evident, and the humor- which sneaks up on you- is yet more surreal. Some things come close but miss altogether, such as some cartoon takes on song lyrics. Others anticipate the strange, commercialized dystopia of Stroppy, and its vapid, eager, Candide-like characters.

Sammy Harkham is a cartoonist and editor in the same vein of younger, somewhat surreal cartoonists whose simple, somewhat nervous line harks back to earlier times and definitely is a riposte to the over-worked, computer-assisted mainstream press. I met him at DINK and picked up Everything Together, a collection of shorter pieces that effectively highlight his well-tuned sense of irony, bathos, and precisely paced cinematic distance. I also got Crickets #5, the latest in his ongoing storyline about a small time movie producer in L.A. He very nicely signed and inscribed them with small drawings and we chatted a bit, but I thought of a dozen more things I’d’ve liked to ask him as I hurried off. And I know I will suffer collector’s remorse over not picking up the copy of the fourth Kramer’s Ergot ( cutting-edge comics anthology, soon to publish #9) he was offering for $50. 

Beverly, Nick Drnaso: These spare, candy-colored suburban nightmares recall nothing so much as the tone in Salinger’s Nine Stories. A surprising assertion, but the parallels are inescapable, and one story even takes place on a family vacation. There is a vaguely disquieting, even menacing tone, and the narrative drifts along, as if in a fish bowl, just short of resolution.  There are vague connections, with characters being referred to by other characters in other stories, and we have a hard time parsing which of them are actually menacing, and which are the menaced. Nor do the emotional weight in the words and pictures always sync up, a careful manipulation on the author’s part that proves as much about comics’ unique strengths as I’ve seen anywhere outside of Chris Ware. I was also reminded of Adrian Tomine, and others who’ve melded the simple lines of long ago Sunday Funnies with an existential dread.

After the Snooter, Eddie Campbell: It’s been a while since I’ve read Scots/Australian Eddie Campbell’s comics and that was an oversight. He’d been one of my favorite autobiographical cartoonists from the 80‘s, though his approach was always more straightforward and literary than the very satirical or stylized American counterparts such as Joe Matt, Julie Doucet and recently, Gabrielle Bell. His scratchy, unfinished-looking inks and impressionistic zip-a-tones mask a real precision of characterization and setting. His dead pan voice over, understated banter and subtle shifts in narrative weighting draw you into a life well-lived but prone to hangovers, regrets, new freindships and old haunts. In short, the whir and whirl of life itself, which Campbell has always excelled at depicting.

As soon as I got home after finding this used copy at Tattered Cover, I went barreling to the graphic novel shelf to assure my self I hadn’t blindly culled my copy of The King Canute Crowd.  I knew this boozy, gestural early chronicle of working class bards and bastards would be next on the bedside stack. I also read Three Piece Suit, a series of linking shorter stories. Campbell has moved from the pub crowd into family and professional life and from England to Australia, all without losing his very understated humor. I will probably be searching out more installments I’d missed. Like Love and Rockets, the story takes on a sort of genius in the aggregate.

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Leandro Valentine: I extol DeConnick’s complex take on female anger and male repression here, and was quite excited to try Planet, which like PD, the company has gotten behind with value-priced TPB compilations. It’s a bit of a disappointment, though. BP is a fairly standard issue Sci-Fi dystopia, albeit with DeConnick’s strong feminist leanings and Fifties-style female prison sexploitation tropes built in. A male media-dominated near future Earth punishes “non-compliant” females by sending them off-world to a prison planet, where contemporary Hunger Games-like gladiatorial combat pertain. I get that it’s a mass medium, and all writers must entertain, and importantly, sell. This, however, is not nearly as original as Pretty Deadly, though the retro-grindhouse graphics by Valentine are pretty clever. I’ve “bitched” about comics’ dark, stereotyped themes before, and don’t really find them improved by simply stereotyping a different gender.

Love and Rockets #8 I’ve linked to my very early L&R homage so many times that it’s pathetic. Search for it if you like. Los Bros continue to explore their respective obsessions, with perhaps a few more missteps than in their earlier days. But Jaime’s 35 year Locas storyline continues its usual understated brilliance and emotional wallop here with a “Hoppers” reunion tale; and Gilberto’s  Palomar characters continue to provide over the top twists and turns. Amazingly consistent and readable saga that has flown underneath the pop culture radar for far too long.

Massive Vol. 6 Ragnarok, Brian Wood and Garry Brown: Ends the cycle of stories that began with the environmental activist vessel Kapital looking for its mysteriously missing sister ship the Massive, after a global environmental “crash.” A strange storm wraps things up somewhat abruptly, though two new series, including a prequel, have now begun. I may check them out, but I wonder if the author, like the near-future Earth he depicts, has run out of gas.

The Surface, Ales Kot and Langdon Foss. Another disappointment as Kot, one of the more popular writers in the mainstream, whose Zero spy saga I was very impressed with before dropping it as it was simply too violent for my taste, weaves a tale of three millennial lovers who attempt to escape a Matrix-like virtual reality for “The Surface”. Just as I was wondering whether I should care, Kot abruptly suspends this little metafiction for his own, blithely declaring that the characters were all “himself” and the comic is really about his relationship with his dad. Thus, the characters and situations from the first three chapters are jettisoned, and lushly rendered metafiction gives way to a spare, peeling away the layers-type surreal personal journey, which to me spells “self indulgence.”

Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell: A book I culled from the Ten Years in the Tub collection of Believer mag columns on books written by Nick Hornby. It was actually Assassination Vacation he’d recommended, but rather than go on Amazon and order that book the easy way, I prefer to poke through local used bookstores until I run across it, and this one turned up first. If the snark factor in this tale of Puritan intellectual infighting, banishments and Indian atrocities is glib seeming, its story sticks to your ribs like Thanksgiving dinner. And does even the word “Puritan” call to mind boring, black-coated prudes? I can tell you Vowell’s writing of it reads like a breeze. (Bedroom Stack!).

The Puritans who left 1630 England with John Winthrop in the ship Arbella to found Massachusetts Bay Colony were non-separatists, anti-Catholic but still nominally pro-Anglican. But the colonists soon soon saw a faction of congregationalist “separatists” emerge who wished the right to treat with their god without the controlling mediation of any Church . This faction rose under the wing of Roger Williams, who was eventually banished to Providence, RI, which he founded. This conflict of ideas, as well as other, more violent conflicts with Indians and Anne Hutchinson, Vowell exploits wittily to tell the rich story of still simmering

If Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon was lifted by Reagan to justify American exceptionalism, so his refusal to surrender the colony’s charter anticipated by 150 years the (real) Tea Party. If Williams saw all central authority as against God, so also was he the founding voice for religious freedom and separation of church and state, now anathema to his evangelical descendants. And the guiding Puritan ethic- if you disagree with someone, simply move West and impose your will on the natives (don’t forget the gun powder!) remained a central, polarizing zeitgeist through the era of Manifest Destiny and into today’s Bundy-stained politics.

So the book is highly recommended, and now I’ll probably cave and order Assassination Vacation from Powell’s as I’ll soon be visiting one of its (un)holy centers: Buffalo, NY, where McKinley met his end. I’ve also begun my long-postponed reading of The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s examination of Roosevelt, Taft and the Muckrakers. I’ll post about those in the Summer.

Reading ‘Pretty’

 

“When I was dreaming of what the future of women in comics could be, I was dreaming of her. I just didn’t know it yet,”

-Gail Simone, comics writer and activist ( Women in Refrigerators Blog) on Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Pretty Deadly Volume I (Image Comics) makes one of its stronger statements right on the opening credits page. In a historically male-dominated medium, it is rare enough even today to have a woman writer; rarer still to see two women as lead creators, as with Pretty Deadly’s Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. Four of five who exercise creative input on this book (writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and editor) are female. I’ve written before about comics as a place where larger issues in the culture wars often get hashed out. Pretty Deadly would be significant even if it was a routine story set in a dusty genre. But it is far more than that.

I’ve described it as a “spaghetti western/ folktale/ pulp fiction bloodbath/ magic realist feminist revenge story”, but its roots in a movement toward creators’ rights in comics, and its embedded questions of what constitutes justice in a violent world place it squarely in a larger dialogue about nature, narrative and power.

I plucked Pretty from the rack because of its arresting colors and imagery, and because it had Jordie Bellaire’s name on the cover. A digression: those who may be considering dipping their toes into the burgeoning pop culture art form of comics, and who are confused by the hundreds of titles now being published (some, as ever, are pure dreck), would do well to do as I quickly learned to do: try anything with Bellaire’s name on it. She’s a colorist who has revived comic book art with her subtle yet expansive tones, comprising complex modernist secondaries with gothic, blood-drenched earth tones. These somehow never lose touch with the non-literal, transgressively lurid tones of comics’ limited, 4-color past. She’s not an owner of the projects she works on, but she’s become in demand among creators and publishers seeking to set their projects apart from the muddied primaries and pat mythos of the longstanding DC/Marvel house style, and apparently now has her pick of which stories to work on. Her taste and intuition rarely fail her, and her comics are always interesting.

Emma Rios’ art also caught my eye. Gestural and impressionistic, like alt-comics superstar Paul Pope’s, yet darkling and obsessively rendered, almost crepuscular at times. The dynamism of this Spanish artist’s pen work and page design brings an appealing, cinematic eye to a very complex tale.

The one member of this team I couldn’t know much about until I sat down and read her, is writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. There was quite a bit of buzz about her because of her re-working of Marvel’s then-typically sexualized Captain Marvel (a female character). DeConnick does not censor herself much, nor does she seek to censor others. In reference to Captain Marvel, she said: “I wasn’t like, writing feminist pamphlets, you know. I was writing stories about this lady who shoots beams out of her hands. But I had the gall to have inter-generational female friendships and a largely female cast and, you know, every once in a while, a joke. It ruffled feathers and I thought, Well, if that’s what we’re going to talk about, then let’s talk about it.”

DeConnick’s complex, non linear storytelling is a series of spaghetti western set-pieces; allusive, surreal and often frenetically violent, refracted through fable, manga-style fight scenes and featuring a crowd of startling female characters, from tattooed revengers to feathered creator/saints. My first reading left me confused but seduced.  The narrative is difficult to parse without close reading and reveals itself, even then, only fitfully, as in a fever dream. It begins as a story within a story in a small 19th Century southwestern town, told medicine show-style on an appropriated hanging platform by a pair of drifters, a young, strangely costumed girl, and a graying blind man, of a Beauty imprisoned in a stone tower by her jealous husband (the Mason). Despairing Beauty summons Death, who instead of granting her release, falls in love with her and fathers a child by her. This story itself is part of a fabulistic framing narrative related by a skeletal ghost Bunny to a Butterfly, both of whom are also alluded to in the main narrative.

This narrative disjunct is a distancing device which suffuses the whole book. It punctures the genre-based Sergio Leone spaghetti western ambience so artfully created by Rios and Bellaire and goes farther back to its stolen roots in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, or more pointedly, its obscure Hollywood homage/sexploitation remake, The Outrage (1964). It forces us to ask (on every level): who is telling the story? And while DeConnick does not immediately make her answer clear, it’s a question that haunts any post-Second Wave feminist enterprise like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

This sort of layered writing opens itself to criticism, especially in comic-book land, long the home of tortured, loopy, plots and clumsy, expository dialog. Though DeConnick does not make it easy to tease out her meanings, she does provide plenty of food for thought. Pretty Deadly is a tale of paired opposites, many of them unusual by virtue of being wholly female. Binaries of character, allusion and metaphor create most of the intrigue, tension and drama in this taught, very fragmented narrative.  Here, Deathface Ginny- Pretty Deadly’s central anti hero, a violent, implacable revenger of troubled victims, is paired with Sissy, painter, poet, pruner of Death’s overgrown winter garden, in a sub-texting of Persephone’s journey to and from the underworld. DeConnick forthrightly addresses the themes implicit in her raging mythology: the human scourges of spiritual rape, sexualized repression and vengeance. Ginny rebels against her mother’s imprisonment by The Mason and (her father) Death, so she also vies with Big Alice, a warrior woman who is Death’s enforcer and is sent to bring her back to the underworld. They both hunt Sissy the bird-costumed medicine show beggar, for different reasons too complicated and spoiler-laden to go into here.

Death (the idea, not the character) is often paired with creative impulse, violence with redemption, and the way is fraught, DeConnick seems to say: self-inflicted wounds are another binary- in one chilling confrontation, Alice scarifies her face to match Ginny’s tattoos.

Pretty Deadly's mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.
Pretty Deadly’s mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.

Sissy has another mirror in Molly the crow, a companion of Eastwood-like drifter Johnny Coyote, who reveals to her-and us-her real role in the drama. Johnny and Ginny form another pair of opposites. DeConnick has been quoted about her desire to create a female version of The Man With No Name, Leone’s (in Fistful of Dollars) quintessential Clint Eastwood role. But in a book full of anti-heroes, DeConnick, an avowed feminist who regularly advises aspiring young female comics creators on how to navigate the embarrassingly male geek space of the comics industry ( “My advice? Be terrifying.”), does not demonize men. Johnny feels he must protect Sissy, and empower her with narrative truth, and he pays a price. Another of Sissy’s male protectors is Fox, also hunted for a dark secret that is revealed only after the book’s propulsive, biblical, lyrical cacophony of sex, betrayal, retribution, swordplay, fire and flood has been irrevocably loosed. Yeah, swordplay. This is a wild little book, people.

And what is DeConnick saying? Though her imagery is rich and alludes to archetypes both ancient and more recently minted, it’s hard to confidently say, really. For one thing, the creative team (including editor Sigrid Ellis and letterer David Cowles) are not done telling the story yet (more on that below). Clearly these women are just as capable of darkness, violence and ultimately, redemption, as the men. Nor is Pretty Deadly a ‘feminist pamphlet’. She lets all of her characters fight their own battles and their own demons, even when they themselves are, technically, demons.

After too long a wait, Pretty Deadly Volume II has begun, in comic book form. I missed the first installment, but snatched the last copy of the second. I won’t try to describe it on such incomplete reading, but it does not lack for ambition- it jumps one generation ahead in time, to WWI; and one genre to the political left, to war comics. It’s a genre that Kurtzman and Elder rescued from rote patriotic juvenilia in their 50’s EC Frontline Combat series. But it’s as male-oriented a genre as it gets, and once again, DeConnick and Rios do not fear to tread.

The conversation about this book can only continue to grow. It has not, to my knowledge, been addressed in the rapidly expanding field of academic comics criticism and close reading (please link in the comments section if you have knowledge that I don’t), but I would be surprised if the screenplay(s?) aren’t already being banged out. In fact, I’m betting the price of Pretty Deadly’s upcoming Volume II graphic novel/compilation ( $14.99, May 2016 ) that the preceding is also true of DeConnick’s other current project, Bitch Planet, a sci-fi women’s prison sexploitation-themed story. DeConnick has in fact signed a script development deal with Universal Television, along with husband Matt Fraction, also a comics writer (Sex Criminals).

If her seemingly endless capacity for invention, vivid characterization, and mythic staging can be channeled into a real, coherent fictional thesis on what women’s existential -and justifiable- rage might mean to them and society in light of their often redemptive (and also existential) creativity, then we will be talking about Pretty Deadly for years to come.

But already there’s a message in its author’s refusal to bow to convention of any sort. In reference to a question about those who seek to “rebrand” the word ‘feminist’, she says “I don’t flinch, when I say I’m a feminist.  You don’t get to define that for me”.