Category Archives: Culture wars

Between the World and We

I’m working on new work for the Summer Art Market, June 9th and 10th. I’ll finish in studio in a couple of weeks, then shift to framing and prepping for it. A couple of days after the show the World Cup starts. In theory, I’ll have lots of money from the show, and I’ll spend many afternoons in downtown bars, starting my day with eggs and beer and football. That’s the theory.

The USA isn’t in the Finals this year. Since making a relatively strong run in Brazil 2014, they’d sputtered under two coaches, Juergen Klinsman and Bruce Arena, before an unlikely but mostly well deserved combination of results eliminated them on the last day of qualification. The team had a certain amount of talent, but never any real consistency in play.

There was a real howl from the fans, many of whom were 20-somethings who’d bought their first USA shirts in June, 2014. It’s heartening to see such a failure evoke  an indignant reaction to those of us who remember decades when not reaching the World Cup Finals meant…crickets. But youth is not given to reflection,  and many of the reactions were simplistic and not very well informed:

The US should NEVER fail to qualify, they howled, ignoring the fact that some far more consistent performers, e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, had failed to qualify, and the quality of play in the US’ confederation has been rapidly improving. Getting into the World Cup is hard, no matter who you are.

The US Soccer Association leadership is corrupt and only interested in selling rights fees, they wailed, ignoring the fact that the leadership has been actively campaigning against FIFA corruption for years now, and the rights fees they’re selling are World Cup rights fees, which went down in value by millions when the US did not qualify. There is corruption in football, yes, but applying a blanket stereotype to an organization working for reform is ignorant.

Other, even more preposterous pronouncements followed: The USA will never challenge for the World Cup unless a laundry list of “reforms” meant to mimic the structure of their favorite ‘proper’ football league, the British Premier League, were immediately instituted in our own domestic league, MLS, they screeched. These include promotion and relegation, and a 20-team ‘balanced schedule.’

This ignores the fact that though Major League Soccer, formed in 1996 as a condition of having the World Cup here in ’94, is making solid growth, with four well established major leagues ahead of it, it is unlikely to match the BPL’s position in Britain very soon. It’s likely that BPL is more popular in THIS country, in fact, if we are to judge by TV ratings and the expensive English kits collected by adoring twenty-somethings. Because of that, MLS has had to find its own formula.

MLS has stretched the level of corporatism already rampant in world football with a single entity league structure and salary caps. This has made investment in the still fragile league attractive to the types of oligarchs that tend to own big teams around the world, but those billionaires are unlikely to welcome relegation to a lower league, especially as infrastructure in the lower leagues remains spotty. And TV networks see no profit in imposing the 20-team footprint of a country of 50 million onto this vast land of 300 million. Euro-snobbery is when you unreflectively expect all leagues to operate exactly like the Premier League. This is textbook euro-snobbery.

Nonetheless, some reforms are definitely needed, particularly in youth development, which tends to serve suburban white kids while ignoring Hispanic and African kids. Soccer is now ranked number two (behind NFL) in popularity in certain prized demographic groups, and the fact that the new fans see it as something worth agitating about, however magical their thinking, is a great sign.  Football, and the World Cup, are kind of about magical thinking, anyway. After the USA crashed out, many fatuously vowed to not watch the Cup this year, or to become permanent fans of other nations. Fat chance. But millennials are not the only football fans who lack logic.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors: As in the 2006 World Cup. This is a book about how football affects entire nations in ways that defy common sense. I got this during the run up to the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, USA run in the Germany World Cup. The US was ranked number five in the world that year, in complete defiance of common sense, as was proven on the pitch.

It was to go in the bag of culled books to take to the used book store for trade and for shelf space. But as sometimes happens, in scanning it, I got hooked again. Though it sounds outdated, the editors’ approach, much like Franklin Foer’s in How Soccer Explains the World, (highly recommended) is not to concentrate on what the world says about football, but on what football says about the countries who play it. In this case, many of the national teams are the same ones back for the current World Cup, and the observations here are still quite relevant to the cultural landscape, as football tends to be.  

As great change and the frustrations of progressives shakes the country, we acknowledge  that American exceptionalism in sports and in other areas is a real obstacle to American progress, but even liberals might not realize how steeped in it we are. After all, even liberals wear shirts that proudly proclaim their home city’s league team “World Champions”, when the only teams they’ve beaten come from suburbs outside of Boston or Atlanta. The essays here form a travelogue of footballing nations and bring their own failures and triumphs, baked into their cultures, into relief. The millennials who howl do value the power of travel and football to bring nations together. They distrust the spread of global corporatism. Their complaints about Team USA are simplistic, but they are not xenophobic. In them, we hear hope for real change.

There is a weird sort of justice in football. Thomas Jones talks about the justice of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal vs. England in Mexico ’86 (One of the first WC games I can remember watching on American TV) in the context of the fall of the Argentinian junta after the Falklands War of 1982. He is not the only one to mention that war, with the posturing of a conservative government in England that the dispossessed hooligans in England instinctively lashed out against.

Tom Vanderbilt and Eric Schlosser write about exceptionalism in other white, progressive societies, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. And Sayid Sayrafezadeh and Binyavanga Wainaina wrestle with the complexities and culture shock of leaving more anglicized societies to visit ancestral nations (Iran and Togo). Strong men, ayatollahs, and juntas use football no less than corporate oligarchs. Supporter culture often stands in opposition to these forces, and that’s why, in the world, football is the only game that matters.

Other favorites: Robert Coover in post-Franco Spain, watching the 1982 WC in an immigrant neighborhood, in the stadium of the OTHER Barcelona football club, and Wendell Steavenson on the political currents surrounding football in Tunisia under Ben Ali, later deposed in the Arab Spring, along with James Surowiecki, who writes about disillusionment in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain. 

Dave Eggers writes the USA segment (surplus to requirements this year!) with an exaggerated humor that manages to both highlight and embody American sports exceptionalism. Foer himself contributes an afterword on which political system is more likely to win the Cup. Fascist dictatorships and military juntas have gotten a large share, but social democracy is still the best system. Proto-fascist, post-truth oligarchies are not mentioned, and perhaps we can get a more winning approach at the voting booth soon; by relegating the oligarchs, and promoting someone less a buffoon. Here is the real corruption.

All of the essays are interesting, even the second time through; some barely touch on soccer at all. All in all, this is a hard book to put in the trade bag, and I would welcome something like this for each World Cup, but sales were probably never impressive. The millennials, who are way ahead of most Americans in their understanding of why the world is so passionate about ‘proper’ football, will change that, and sooner than we think.

Dangerous Conversations

America is a Puritan country, it is often said, though we very rarely talk about the implications. It’s kind of assumed there are implications, in a piecemeal way, but we really tend to talk around it. The reason is; we don’t like to talk about Puritanism, because that would require us to talk about sex.

This is true of both sides of the polarized political spectrum. Not talking about sex corrupts our conversation about a wide range of subjects, including art and culture, smut and politics and feminism as well. A recent upsurge in reports of sexual misconduct in public life makes this timely. Though calling out politicians and entertainers for past misdeeds may clear the air for real conversation about women’s opportunity or lack thereof, it may also harden attitudes and postpone real dialog indefinitely. It may do both at once, creating further polarization. In these repressive times, outrage can be weaponized to the detriment of thoughtful dialogue.

All social change entails risk of course, and it’s no reason to postpone an accounting of these deplorable attitudes toward women and girls. It’s always necessary to point out that much of what happens to women and girls does not fall into the category of healthy sex at all. But prudery and squeamishness about sex allows Trumpists  to eviscerate logic and stifle activism by stifling real conversation. Our attitudes about women and girls are unhealthy because our attitude about sex is unhealthy. America is not a well country, and won’t be until this conversation happens. Yet these are fraught conversations, which demand subtlety and restraint, which is difficult to master in the press of public pressure. There are many women writers, such as Rebecca Solnit, Laura Kipnis, and Hannah Rosin who have written forthrightly and with subtlety about sexual-social matters. There has been a real surge of women using the medium of comics for this purpose. This is one of them:

Sex Fantasy, Sophia Foster-Dimino: Not really about sex, so much as the attitudes surrounding sex. I ran across this randomly at the library and picked it up mostly for its very transparent stylistic blend of Manga and clear line cartoon brut; but also for its testimonial blurb from Gabrielle Bell, one of the most restrained, inventive and intelligent of the memoir-style of comics artists that grew out of the zine/mini comics sub culture. Sex Fantasy is formatted like a mini comic; small, square pages, short segments numbered 1-10, though no previous publication data is seen in the indicia. It has recently popped up in several “Best Of” lists, along with recent works by Jillian Tamaki, Bell, and Eleanor Davis.

Actual sex fantasies are rare in the early segments, which favor a sort of vaguely sexual, synaptic word/image association that in light of the provocative title, seems a bit arbitrary, even deflective. Beginning with #4, however, Sex Fantasy begins to grow into its title’s complex implications. Sex fantasies (and narrative) do appear, though often as subtext behind all the emotional and spiritual complications they entail. Foster-Dimino thus begins to parse the title phrase- sexfantasy; sex,fantasy; sex:fantasy- and as she does, the small surreal details she assigns to characters and situations become less arbitrary and more meaningful, though still quite open-ended. The dialog becomes richer- we’re talking about sex! Or at least, the things that keep us from talking about sex.

Sex Fantasy is about the conversations, fantasies and deflections that surround our fantasies. A woman goes to visit an internet lover for the first time, seeming to shrink and to require help from strangers as obstacles to communion proliferate. It is vaguely reminiscent of “Sex Coven”, Jillian Tamaki’s recent story where internet fantasy and “IRL” realities intersect.

Another character must contend with her own ambivalence as a married friend confesses a long time attraction. The watery cave and the subsequent dinner party where the action takes place calls to mind Virginia Woolf, and a restaurant meeting between two women in another story makes us wonder if we’ve witnessed a seduction or a counseling session. Confusion, control, style and power all vie for predominance in this conversation, just as they do in Hollywood. These are the complexities of sexual relationships that cannot be codified in Rules of Conduct, though of course, we must try, especially in the business place. Bell’s blurb: “Sophia Foster-Dimino has a masterful command of the language of comics.” And, I would add: the American Puritan pidgin English of sex. Foster-Dimino is someone whose continued growth in this visual/verbal dialog on sex I look forward to.

This brings us back to the current trend of women speaking out bravely about sexual harrassment. Though in a way, I dread it, because its long suppression lends itself to extremes of thought and action on both sides, I also welcome it, and intelligent voices  in comics such as Foster-Dimino, Davis, Bell and Jillian Tamaki are there to lend a thoughtful tone to a conversation that increasingly, tends toward blind anger.

Westering

Gun ownership is inevitably in the news again. For most who defend its increase in the wake of the carnage it creates, it is a power fantasy. In a country where the long term trend is downward in crime, and where terrorism hasn’t gotten the foothold it has in Europe and other places, the actual need for firearms is quite low, and the fetish of gun ownership is mostly about a male cowboy/crime fiction fantasy scenario where problems (including psychotic rage) are easily solved with the correct ordnance.

The proven fact that the opposite is the actual result of unlimited ownership of weaponry- the society becomes less secure, more regimented, less just- hasn’t intruded in any meaningful way into the NRA-sponsored fantasy. Where did it come from?

“Westering”, 2009, Monotype, 32×44″

Westering: When I got the invitation to show with other ASL instructors at the state capitol, I thought immediately of this piece, which is older, but has been seen only in a couple of small shows. It is ostensibly a landscape, one of many, I’m sure, that have hung under Colorado’s golden dome, but its theme is much more complex, as it alludes to the American push westward. Though the print hasn’t been a centerpiece in my exhibition history, I’d like to explicate the thinking behind it which holds a very central place in my landscape years, roughly 1999-2009.

The association in the American spirit/mind of heading west with individual freedom and opportunity dates back to the Puritans. It is now expressed in xenophobic ultra right wing politics of survivalists and gun fetishists, but other subcultures, such as environmentalists have also  drawn inspiration from the American move westward. Artists such as Moran, Twain and Bierstadt have made both poetry and cash from selling this vision back to the populace. And the Arcadian/Rousseau myth of humans at peace in nature’s solitude relates in a complex way with the gun totin’ loner.These Right and Left fantasies are inextricably linked. I myself left my decaying Great Lakes region rust belt childhood home to escape the decay and drug fueled lassitude there as a teen, and spent time in transcendently beautiful and stubbornly racist Wyoming,

I’m quite vocal about my politics elsewhere, but in my artwork, this is about as political as it often gets. One of the last elements added to the print was the small enclosure next to the windowless structure, symbolizing isolation, aggressive aquisitiveness and the closed mind of the typical “home on the range”, now a fortified compound in many minds. This bunker mentality has had a big effect on American politics of late, and certainly is intrinsic to the gun fantasy.

This isn’t a criticism of rural living per se, or even gun ownership. We could all use a little dialogue with our neighbors, and our poisonous politics proves how the urge to ‘head west’, rather than learn to live with each other, is one of the country’s greatest threats. It derives from the Puritan notion of the individual’s right to ‘treat with God’ in his own way. It reaches horrifying apotheosis in the ‘lone wolf’- style shooting spree, one against the hordes.

In an age where ‘compromise’ is a dirty word (sometimes on both sides of the aisle), an understanding of this complex psychological, and very American impulse can get lost. I was always very satisfied with what I was able to say in this picture, and now through December, I’ll have my ‘say’ in the halls of government. If only the majority wishing for an end to carnage had theirs.

This image relates to memory and the way we move through it.
“Man With Torch”, Monotype, 30×42″, 2004.

Carrying a Torch: While I’m glorying in the exhibition, I’ll mention that I’ve had work hanging in both the state and nation’s capitol complexes. This print, entitled “Man with Torch” hung in Senator Bennet’s office in DC for a year as part of a juried program to showcase Colorado’s artists. Many also consider this one pretty political, and while I don’t argue with the obvious ecological interpretation, it was actually concieved of as a commentary upon memory and our human urge to destroy and remake the past constantly, in the process endangering our future relations. I quickly realized how apropos it was to the environment, but that’s not how my mind was working as I made it, as a reaction to an earlier smaller piece, “Woman With Torch”, which really isn’t political or even existential commentary at all, but as often happens with early, smaller pieces of mine, made simply as a compelling image. But a picture’s allusive qualities often creates great appeal for the viewer, I’ve learned, through many conversations in my booth at the Summer Art Market.

There’s always more than the surface intention to the story of a work’s creation of course, but I try to honestly convey what I was thinking at the time, for what it’s worth. The viewer often gives me a -valuable- different story. John Lennon always maintained that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was inspired by the innocent words of his five year old son, but most of us who lived through its  popularity always considered it a song about hallucinogens. It’s disingenuous to believe Lennon was unaware of this, and art creates a meaning of its own. The artist is often not in control of this process.

Please comment with your own take if you have seen “Westering”.

America Goes Low: Art, Culture, and Political Healing

I’ve got some news about workshops and shows to post, but first, a little commentary on the current political regression:

I don’t make a lot of political commentary on this page, as it’s a bit counter- productive to what I’m trying to do here. My art isn’t demonstratively political, I can at least provide a haven from my political opinions for the people who come here to enjoy it. But art, culture and politics cannot be completely separated, as my early post on the importance of access to health care to the arts makes clear.

So in trying to come to terms with what most mainstream commentators recognize as a president-elect with fascist tendencies, I’ve had to ask myself how the art can help us reverse this disturbing trend.

Waves of anger and nausea, stress and distraction are to be expected, but I do not intend to add my anger to the bonfire of rage, ignorance and intolerance that the dumbfucks have lit. Resistance is a good thing: well organized and thought out, especially in the areas of health care and Medicare, environmental issues and immigration, which will be under siege in these reactionary times. There are many ways to protest and resist, and I will continue to use them. But in the meantime, art, books and friends will be my refuge. I’ll try to stay off social media for a while, do some more writing and sketching, and let the darkness do what it does, which is to prepare for the light.

First of all it’s polarizing to post too much about it. While anger is a natural human reaction to the travesty of intolerance we witnessed on Election Day, and a time-tested motivator to the type of activism that will be needed to rescue the country from incipient fascism, I don’t wish to add mine to the raging bonfire of entitled grievance that has been started out in the ideological hinterlands. My hot air, however righteous, can only fuel that inferno of ignorance. The proto-fascist backlash has a momentum of its own in this country, and must be met with real contemplation, not reflexive confrontation, lest it feed on itself.

Second, though I haven’t articulated this very well over the years; as I’m sometimes guilty of indulging my own anger- I feel real empathy for those who’ve chosen this path of fear, anger and scape-goating of minorities, though of course without endorsing their rather self- destructive solution. Some of the grievances are real, though whom they have chosen to blame are ghosts and strawmen, planted in the path of their blind rage by the authoritarians and oligarchs who have successfully manipulated them.

Third, anger is destructive to my own personal growth and creative energy. It creates actual physical stress, for one thing, to which many we saw on social media on the night of the election can attest. If we could have done a word search on Facebook and Twitter, I’m sure the word “nausea” would rank very high. It’s distracting and self reflexive, not good companions to personal  reflection and contemplation, which aid in thoughtful creativity.

And of course it doesn’t work. We’ve seen an entire reactionary political backlash fueled by anger, and what they got for all their self-consuming rage was… that. It’s unlikely to make them feel better about their lives, or about their country. After abuse and bullying comes self loathing. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a massive, red-state-wide temper tantrum, and it can’t be solved with more anger. However, we can’t put Michigan and Wisconsin in “time-out”.  We are, much as we hate to admit, not parents, we’re peers. As abhorrent as these people’s views are, they must be addressed as equals.

So it’s time to breathe, count to ten and listen to the grievance, without endorsing the ignorance. Somewhere between the lines of  the ugliness, the anti-gay screeds, the religious intolerance, and the deep seated hatred of women, there are real  issues that could be addressed without buying into the hate, to defuse the bitter anger these people have given into:

Educational opportunities must be increased. The rather pathetic cry to “bring our jobs back” (newsflash, demagogue voters: they’re not coming back, no matter which orange tin-pot you install in the oval office) would be greatly reduced by simply getting more people in rural areas and depressed suburbs into higher ed, even community colleges or computer schools.  Equally at risk with the redneck crowd are the immigrants whose votes are depended on for the Democrats’ coalition, so it’s a win-win.

Infrastructure needs to be repaired. This degradation is the GOP’s own fault of course, but it will provide jobs for the aggrieved and strengthen the country for the future. Again, emphasis must be placed on rural areas, who often  have overcome their distrust of schools, art centers and public transit when real, decent jobs are provided.

Arts, culture, religion are potential allies, not necessarily enemies. Bush’s plan to fund faith-based charities could be revived and converted  to enlist more moderate religious orgs to counteract the poisonous mega-churches where right wing intolerance incubates.  Yes, we’ll wind up funding kitsch like ten commandments sculptures and youth centers with abstinence programs,  but the trade-off could be meth education and occupational training, with opportunities in senior care and home health care in areas where they are desperately needed.

Many rural areas truly are depressed and deserve our attention. This is also true of immigrant suburbs too. The almighty free market has fattened the cities at the expense of outlying areas, and to that extent, the rage is justified. The orange buffoon who rode this wave of ignorance will have little interest in these things, of course, except as a sop to his massive ego. Yes, we could wind up with a brand new hospital or two named after a certifiable member of the rape caucus. But the Republican Congress might be amenable to sliding some relief for their incredibly Gerrymandered districts into the coming care package for billionaires their corrupt colleagues are sure to demand. The demagogues used to sneer at this as “throwing money at the problem”, but the poor whites who actually do the voting are in fact the biggest consumers of welfare, and won’t complain about money flowing to their small towns, as long you don’t call it that. Similarly, The deficit issue was co-opted by Dems from Clinton on, and is a dead issue with the GOP.  Rural economic relief was how FDR sold the New Deal to Congress, thus marginalizing the radical ultra conservatives for two decades. What matter if we drive up the debt to defuse the vindictive rage of the white power crowd. It must be insisted to include black and immigrant areas, too, and when possible to include the more traditional arts as a tourism attractor to depressed areas.

It could lead to a lessening of fear and rage in the boonies. This is the real driver of the dysfunctional  GOP, the demagogues who intentionally fan the flames of hatred only look to profit from it. Jobs and tourism might pave the way for a stronger economy and a more temperate political dialogue.  This could eventually lessen the impact of social change on psychologically threatened white males and loosen the grip of rape culture, bigotry and gun fetishes on the fragile ego of the uneducated white male.  A few more social moderates in the GOP caucus might result, balancing out the political opportunists who prey on these red state insecurities.

Yes, it’s incremental, a real dirty word with the far left dreamers. Yes, the representatives who might sign on to solidify their districts will hypocritically continue to provide lip service during campaigns on “wasteful government programs” for the benefit of the gullible, but they will not vote against it as they are in the White House now and will need to bring something home and is it not better to see them profit politically in this way, than to accept Koch brothers’ money to foment  anti-immigrant hatred?

And it can’t hurt to try. Our own propensity for outrage at every cultural failing, every pipeline, and every moralizing dickhead, hasn’t really solved much, as we found out November 8. We should save our energies for the truly important battles: women’s choice, environmental treaties,  immigration reform  and reducing militarism, which are feeding this incipient domestic terrorism and hardened hatred. We must cop to our own sometimes extremism and admit that we are equal partners in the race to vilify honest political compromise, incremental social change, and the large amount of hard working politicians who still want to do things together but are stranded between the loudmouthed blowhards on both sides. It doesn’t mean compromising our values, it means rewarding honest intentions, whether we agree with them or not.

As a culture, we’ve grown fat slow and angry, swinging for the fences of political absolutism, rather than playing the small ball and manufacturing compromises. It opens the field for manipulators to play a cheater’s game with the lesser angels of our social media and leads to real corruption, as we are about to see, not the kind the conspiracy theorists on both sides screech about.

Neither side is reacting well to seismic social changes, whether the side that desires their undeniable benefits, or the side that fears the insecurities it inevitably brings.  It leads to a failed state. While honorable resistance to the very real threat to democracy that demagoguery brings is needed, so is a recognition  of, and concern for the very real needs of these victims of a rapacious political culture. We can work together without sacrificing our principles.

Ab Expression: First Impressions

"Epic", Judith Godwin (Detail)
“Epic”, Judith Godwin (Detail)

I took a preliminary stroll through “Women of Abstract Expressionism”, the new and ground-breaking show of “under reported and undervalued” artists from the NYC and SF art scenes of the 40’s-60’s.I wanted to leave all pronounciness at the door, and let the show simply wash over me.

After an initial wide-eyed cruise through the show to take in the lay of the land, the groupings of multiple and various works by each artist, the rich colors, broad or frenzied strokes and gooped-on paint so characteristic of Ab Ex, I began to entertain myself with more ancillary aspects of the show, as outlined in the title cards.

There are 12 artists in the show, most of them now dead. I will not speculate on the role the omnipresent cigarettes dangling from their lips in contemporary photos may have played in this.

Frankenthaler, Krasner, Mitchell and DeKooning have, honestly, long been heavyweights, at least among the cognoscenti. Undervalued, perhaps (out of my league), but certainly not as under reported as several others that I, at least, have never heard of. This provides its own sort of pleasure, as the “bucket list” aspect of the viewing, the anticipated “wow” of seeing the male superstars of Ab Ex is washed away, and a freshness of first impressions takes its place.

A Joy DeFeo in blacks, grays and distressed whites is now on my bucket list for destination viewing in future visits. Mary Abbott shows a diversity of ideas; Pearl Fine’s use of non-traditional materials in painting anticipates Anselm Kiefer’s.

The design of the show, with its generous samplings of each artist, gives perspective. The artists’ own words and work defeats any lingering temptation to typecast along gender lines. For example, it’s hard to miss a large signature Krasner piece at the entrance in defiantly “pretty” pinks; and another later in the show which is awash in a lucsious magenta paired with a spring green. Yet a superficial impulse to judge these in terms of “feminine” qualities is quickly defeated by two nearby stunners executed in a potent, slashing brown/black, their insomniac beiges,drips and spatters palpably all her own, despite the famous “action” of her husband’s multi-million dollar canvasses. Krasner must have known by then that she was fated to become recognized primarily as Jackson Pollack’s wife. In this grouping, we can detect irony, resistance, anxiety and disappointment. And the ever present cigarettes in the photos perhaps speak to a jaded resignation, as they were wont to do in movies of the period.

Similarly, Elaine DeKooning shows an explosively chromatic “Bullfight”, which must certainly be related in many minds to her husband Willem’s work. But across the way are two portraits (of Willem) that in their measured flowing gesture and dark contemplative atmospherics of tone and color, must also qualify as two of the most unique in the show.

The exception that perhaps proves the rule is found in the opening vistas of the show, in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, whose soft pastel colors and abstract, misty riverine washes suggest flowery effusions and vulva-like redoubts in direct lineage to the delicate, so-designated cunts and petals of Georgia O’Keefe. But as the show notes steadfastly maintain, they primarily attest to her innovative and influential discovery of a staining process which spawned an entire movement, color field painting. So the scholarship behind the show is strong, and revelatory, and clearly not afraid to address the inevitable gender issues head-on and straightforwardly.

Nor is Krasner the only artist to allude, if only subconsciously, to the gender gap and its connotations. In a time when Freudian interpretation was still very influential, Judith Godwin, in “Epic”, situates a vaguely erectile swath of black and purple in a field of warming whites. Positive and negative space, good and evil, figure and ground, hidden grotto or towering monument, they are in a state of eternal flux in this show stopping canvas. And so might have Godwin’s ambivalence about her station in the art world expressed itself as well. But for the most part, the women of Ab Ex did their jobs for years despite the iniquities of the art market.

One interesting title card revelation: the testimonial evidence that San Francisco, as an American art scene outlier, was not afflicted with the sexist repressions of the well-monied NY city scene. This is a perspective especially appropriate to a place like Denver, where almost every artist, male or female, is “undervalued and under reported.” It speaks to the balance and thoughtfulness of the show’s curation, by DAM’s Dr. Gwen Chanzit.

Several of the works, by the way, are now in the collection of the DAM itself. This show is not a hasty band wagon leaping-on, a middle American museum calling desperately for attention. The museum clearly intended to find a niche for itself in this area for a while now and will continue to make this type of inquiry in the future. A previously installed, but related exhibition on the level below provides context for this show in a brief but well balanced look at Ab Ex as a whole. You shouldn’t miss it, because it supplies sketches and smaller works by some of the artists in the feature show.

There is much to be said for solitary and spontaneous wanderings through a show like this. It allows one to “listen” to what the show has to say. This show, though it attempts to set the historical record straight, also gives ear to these artists, as artists. I suspect that this show will become one of the more significant conversation starters in Denver- and the nation’s- cultural history.

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”.

 

 

The Wonder of It All

Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.
Wonder Woman contemplates the war of the sexes.

When Gloria Steinem needed a powerful feminine icon to put on the cover of her new magazine for and about self-empowered women, she chose Wonder Woman. The first Ms. Magazine even published a companion volume of WW stories from her Golden Age, when she often lectured young girls about the importance of letting no man get the upper hand. These were eight or so stories, carefully chosen for one important reason: Wonder Woman, invented by feminist psychologist William Moulton Marston, and modeled after his assistant/companion Olive Byrne, was like her creator, a bit of a freak, and WAY into bondage. Steinem wanted a figure that fit neatly into her narrative of empowered womanhood, and wanted no part of the bondage.

Wonder Woman’s star spangled hot pants, magic lasso (more bondage!) and surprising feminist history- Olive Byrne’s aunt was none other than birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, her mother, suffragist Ethel Higgins Bryne- make her fascinating. Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill LePore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman tells the tale well, with detailed research and tempered language, despite the story’s more sensationalistic elements. Comics don’t always get respectful treatment when they step into the reflected glare of the ivory tower. And it’s no different here. LePore approaches the tale from the perspective of “first wave” feminism’s long transition into “second wave”, and is clearly out of her element in the subject of comics history-as a later foray into comics and feminism proves. More on that later. But in trying to place Wonder Woman within the context of a medium that once featured plenty of female characters and creators, then suddenly didn’t- as my previous post outlines- I sought out two other books from a growing list of critical literature about comics.

Wonder Woman was born of feminism and fetish. Her creator, a relentlessly self-promoting psychologist with three Harvard degrees and four kids by two different women, had a belief in women’s superiority as civilizing leaders, and a fondness for the trappings of kink. He lived and raised children with both his legal wife, also a dedicated feminist, and Byrne, who wore cuff-like bracelets similar to Wonder Woman’s. The language of bondage and submission infused the comic, where women including Wonder Woman often fell into heavy bondage as a reminder of the folly of letting men rule them. Lepore treats this quirky history somewhat dispassionately though she sniffs prudishly at WW’s “kinky boots”. And she never really explains how Wonder Woman links first- and second wave feminism, though WW’s ignominious descent into a domesticated limbo during the repressive 50’s exactly mirrors feminism’s disappearance from the front pages.

Bondage remains the unspoken 800 pound gorilla in the room, in all of these books. LePore and Trina Robbins (see last post) ignore it as much as possible, reporting, but not analyzing it. Steinem tiptoed around it. Daniels gives an excellent history of reactions to it, and DC’s struggle to reel it under control while not upsetting the applecart- WW was selling well, even better than Superman and Batman some months. Tim Hanley, in Wonder Woman Unbound cooly quantifies it, counting and graphing each panel to prove that, yes, the least kinky WW comic had more bondage scenes than the most kinky of any other comic. Only Hanley passes any sort of judgement: the bondage, especially in concert with Marston’s strongly feminist rhetoric, was “problematic.” He confronts the controversy: where some have maintained that her (Marston’s) fetish imagery disqualifies her as a feminist icon, Hanley concludes “Wonder Woman was both feminist and fetishist.”

After Marston’s early death in 1949, DC , the company that bullied Siegel and Schuster into giving up the rights to Superman, showed Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Hollaway Marston the door, despite their role as Marston’s assistants, and took the opportunity to reconfigure the character. Les Daniels tells this story without sugar coating in A Complete History of Wonder Woman. Robert Kanigher presumably had a mandate to eliminate the problematic bondage and submission elements as the censorship movement gathered steam. He never had any affection for the character (He is known mainly for his work on DCs iconic war comics, many images from which were swiped by Roy Lichtenstein for such irony laden pop art masterpieces as “Blam!”, which I credit with starting two complex conversations- about both appropriation in art and creator’s rights in comics, here.)

His work on WW however can best be described as Comics Code Authoity- era hack work, and under him the character sank into complete irrelevance, even as the girls who’d loved her during Marston’s didactic feminism grew up to initiate second-wave feminism.

The CCA was created by scared publishers, seeking not to protect creative expression from censorship, but to protect corporate profits from Wertham style crusades. It, along with the general paranoia of conformist, 50’s America, led to a period in comics when crime must not pay, and a bland, stereotyped vision of family life as the ultimate good must always triumph. Since superheroes, the dominant genre in comic books, were usually lone, pulp-style vigilantes written by lone, underpaid hacks as the censorship shrank the industry, the family narrative was difficult to fit in. This led to a bizarre phenomenon in 50’s and 60’s DC comics, noted in Hanley and others, which can be described as the pseudo, or faux family. Thus did Batman and Robin, after insinuations about their sexuality arose acquire a rival/wife/mom figure, Batwoman; and Wonder Woman, in Kanigher’s ad hoc style, become a mother figure to her own teen and toddler selves (through time travel). She also allowed puppy-like Steve Trevor  to turn the tables, in direct disobedience to the Amazon code- she was now pathetically desperate to marry him. This was a bondage of a far different, and more insidious sort.

Worse was to come, as in the late 60s, post Kanigher, DC sought to revamp the character. They chose a stylish yet retrograde solution, given the times: WW was stripped of her powers and her mythological roots and became a swinging London clothes horse.

Enter Gloria Steinem. Steinem, a reader of WW as a girl, was a friend of Warner’s Steve Ross, who’d just bought DC. Steinem was outraged that WW had been stripped of her powers. As abruptly as it appeared, the new WW was gone, and the old appeared on the cover of (the Steve Ross-supported) first issue of Ms. Magazine. It was a return, of sorts to her feminist roots, though DC was very slow to catch up. A plan to install one of Marston’s assistants as editor of the character in the heyday of second-wave feminism fizzled, even as the ERA itself died. The always available, ever-hackneyed Kanigher was brought back. The character drifted through different iterations, retcons and reboots, never re-finding her feminist soul, even as the role of women in comics, as outlined in Mike Madrid’s useful Supergirls, slowly grew. Meanwhile, A radical backlash led by Ellen Wills against Steinem’s self-improvement-as-empowerment style of rhetoric led to Steinem’s bizarrely being accused of working for the CIA.

Since then, both Wonder Woman and feminism have struggled to define themselves. WW has haltingly revisited her mythological roots in the 80s George Perez era, and after a detour as a well-hootered sword and sorcery hero during the 90’s “Bad Girl” style that fueled the fanboy/ speculator boom, has returned to it, as well as the idea of family in a recent Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang epic as she protects an earthling’s child by Zeus . It was a refreshing take, though Azzarello was not able to add much of the Greek Canon’s characteristic sexual tension because Wonder Woman had already hooked up with Superman in another book, and DC’s marketing strategy, as always, trumped the esthetic requirements of graphic art.

WW is now being authored by a husband and wife team in the stereotypically boob-a-licious DC house style. There will soon be a movie released, though fanboys on the web were quick to criticise the lead actor, Gal Gadot for being “too skinny”, fanboy code-speak for too flat chested. Whatever the proper bust metrics the character requires, there is a lot riding on this movie. the big screen has a tendency to define a character, for better or worse.

Wonder Woman’s relation to family, men, and her role as a feminist icon have never been resolved to this day, and like feminism itself, hasn’t resolved a role for men in the ongoing struggle for equality, yet hasn’t really defined women’s role either.

LePore got herself dragged into this ongoing schism when the New Yorker, having apparently decided she was now the resident comics expert at the magazine, handed her a copy of A-Force, an alternate universe tale of an all female superhero team written by the well-regarded G. Willow Wilson, who’d gained a name for herself in feminist circles of the comics blogosphere for Ms. Marvel, a fresh superhero tale featuring a teenaged girl superhero who also dealt with the uncertainties that teen aged girlhood entails, as well as being a Muslim in Tea Bag America.

Abandoning the assiduous research and restrained, non-sensationalistic narrative of Wonder Woman for the arch flippancy of the New Yorker’s lead-off commentary section, LePore promptly handed it off to her pre-adolescent sons, an odd and somewhat stereotyped choice, given that mainstream comics haven’t primarily targeted children in well over 40 years, when the direct market took over from corner drug store newsstands. Predictably, Lepore reports the youngsters loved it, because… boobs. However, LePore again sniffed at the “pervy” costumes. But A-Force, when I checked, was fairly restrained in its costuming by comic book, or even athletic wear, standards. “If Dr. Lepore is categorically opposed to latex, she should consider trolling a different genre.”G Willow sensibly advises.

Wilson posted a very passionate response (here) to LePore’s “perplexingly shallow, even snarky” non-review, and the internets had a good larf about a comic book writer taking on the imperviously high brow New Yorker’s Midtown snark. But in fact, G. Willow, (who has, after all, been herself published in The Atlantic and in the New York Times Magazine) lands not a few haymakers. She closes:

“I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.”

And neither do I.

What the perpetually marginalized medium of comics has to say about feminism, what feminism says about comics may not be of import to Jill Lepore. But it has become a force in pop culture is where society’s murmurings become custom. WW is bound (heh) in various author attitudes toward women and family and has never developed a clear voice of her own. Rebels, lovers and hacks created her, their vision shifting like mis-registered color on a comic page. Now their their creation hits the big screen. What tales they might tell if bound in her wondrous magic lasso and forced to confess the truth: unsure of their own direction, they created a character both supremely powerful yet oddly powerless, dreaming a kaleidoscopic picture of the perfect woman. She floats, star spangled golden, bound in our hopes and dreams.

Women and Comics: Coming in from the Cold

Pop culture is often where small battles play out in the larger culture war. Libraries have discovered comics -as a way to spur reading in young people and English second language readers- but so have the censors who see not a revival of creativity, but a challenge to the established bland infantility of the 50’s. Comics are often attacked, even some of the ones mentioned here, where I’ve tried to pick out the most progressive titles.

Comics are the offspring of a rapacious corporate culture and a free wheeling creative spirit. Their vitality continues to appeal to the marginalized in society despite, or perhaps because of, their function as a platform for marginal imaginings. Like weeds, they have found a way into the light.

Academics and pop historians have discovered this subject. I’ve especially been looking forward to The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by a top rank cultural historian, Jill LePore. After spending quite a while on the DPL waiting list to receive a copy, I’ve read her book. But I’ve discovered one thing while waiting: the subject is too large for one book. Delving into the history of women in comics led to a surprising amount of reading. LePore is actually weak in the history of comics; she limits her scope to a feminist history that includes WW. It’s a compelling tale, but all of the surprisingly large literature of comics history is needed to fill in a complete picture. It IS 70 years of pop culture history, after all.

I like posting about comics here for a few different reasons:

It allows me to post regularly about something not related to me and my own work, so there are usually more regular posts.

It taps me into a larger conversation about pop culture which is related to the culture wars, and thus to my experience in art.

It allows me to “think out loud” about the things I’m reading, which in turn helps me to process them.

And it forces me to get better at writerly skills such as citation, summarization, finding and organizing different sources, and editing.

It’s fun, of course- a nice escape from reading academic art theory and history, which I enjoy, but which is often intended for other academics, and clotted with jargon. I want to remain topical. Comics and graphics are related to the history of printmaking. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading about the medium’s history:

Comic Books and America, 1945-54, William W. Savage, Jr, University of Oklahoma Press. This is a lively academic reading of comics’ treatment of race, gender, and war in the cold war era, including the censorship movement. America’s paranoid, conformist post-war years are a watershed in every aspect of comics history: censorship movements infantilized comics and reinforced the cultural pressure on women to adopt “traditional” consumerist housewife roles that had, in fact, never existed before. Mighty Wonder Woman stopped fighting for democracy and women’s superiority, and was shoehorned into a bizarre pseudo-family. Only Little Lulu fought back.

From Girls to Grrrlz, and Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013, Trina Robbins, Chronicle Books and Fantagraphics: Curious hybrids that double as coffee table surveys and memoirs of Robbins’ own story of her role in the 2nd wave feminist efforts in comics’ underground/small press alternative publishing era in the 70’s and 80’s. There’s a nice overview of women’s long history both on and off the page, starting with the sentimental humor of turn of the century newspaper strips, then the sassy flapper era and war era adventures of female characters and their creators ( Pretty), and in her discussion of the teen and romance comics boom of the post war era ( Grrrlz), the inevitable domestication of women and their characters. Interestingly, this is about the time that women disappeared from the mainstream comics “bullpen”.

This is wrapped around a personal memoir of Robbins’ role in the alternative/underground comics movement of the 70’s-80’s. She played a significant role in the dawning of comics as a vehicle for personal/political expression for women (as they were for gays and other groups as well). It’s a good story, which she tells in both books, using many of the same examples. But Robbins is not big on interpretation; she lumps the giants who challenged assigned roles both on and off the page-Such as Tarpe Mills and Lily Renee-in with commercially successful, but ultimately sentimental figures as Grace Drayton. She also tends to ignore the mainstream houses after 1970. It lends the impression that the alternative comics are the apotheosis of the medium, a pretty thought- the alternatives certainly played a large role in opening up mainstream comics for different types of expression and creators beyond the usual adolescent power fantasy superhero tale told in the DC or Marvel house style. Their influence is celebrated in many posts here, and I made the same transition Robbins does as a reader. But given the small print runs, they don’t have much impact in the public at large, thus marring Robbins’ value as historical survey.

To get that story, one must refer to others, such as Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls. Madrid provides the only overview of women creators and characters from beginning to end in comic book history, centering mostly on mainstream publishers. While LePore and others focus on Wonder Woman’s roots in feminism, and Robbins on the feminist self-publishing and mini-comics of the underground/alternative years, only he links them all together, both on and off the pages. There is the excruciating, slow movement of the mass market comic book publishers toward less sexist characters, and more diverse creative teams, complete with much backsliding, e.g. the 90’s “bad girl” era of violent but hooter-licious superheroines intended for fan-boys, which even subsumed ( originally feminist) Wonder Woman.

These dark years also included the practice of “fridging”, or disposing of strong central female characters, often WAGs of central male characters, in a violent manner to facilitate cheap drama and plot transition. This is named after writer Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators blog which asked questions about “violence against fictional females” of male-dominated publishers and editorial teams for this heinous and sleazy fabulism. I happened across an interview of Simone in an old copy of The Comics Journal. It covered WIR, as well as her work as one of the first female writers at Marvel and DC, where she wrote iconic characters such as Wonder Woman and Superman.

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Les Daniels, Bonanza. Helpful for his very hard hitting assessment of the Wertham anti-comics crusade that led to the mainstream publishers’ rather craven and mercenary establishment of the Comics Code Authority censorship program. This, and one presumes, the sudden absence of women in the creative sphere, led to a bizarre phenomenon in which characters became grouped into pseudo-families to alleviate the censorship pressures. Superman acquired a cousin/daughter figure in Supergirl, who had a super cat as well, and Wonder Woman bizarrely acted as mother/sister/grandmother to her OWN younger selves during the Kanigher years after her creator, feminist William Moulton Marston died. Her teen and toddler selves were transported through time to provide domestic plot ideas when popping bad guys, enjoying bondage and dominating her simpering boy friend, Steve, was no longer considered a good marketing strategy by DC.

Superman’s rather sadistic habit of “teaching” the nuptially-obsessed Lois Lane “a lesson” by humiliating her with elaborate ruses to counteract her even more elaborate ruses to prove her marriageability were mentioned by multiple authors here. His icy Closet- er, Fortress of Solitude predated Simone’s refrigerator as a way of dealing with inconvenient female characters. And Wertham noted that Batman, in order to “protect his secret identity”, lived only with his athletic young ward Robin.

Eventually, through the efforts of Robbins, Simone and many others, and in concert with the fresh ideas and greater creative power that the direct market brought to the industry, women have found an increasingly prominent place in comics. Alison Bechdel’s and Marianne Satrapi’s tales of personal struggles were a big part of comics’ entry into the bookstore market. This, and creator-owned publishers such as Image Comics has opened opportunities for female (and male) creators in the mainstream. I’ve reviewed comics here by fresh faces such as Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. I’ve also pointed out female characters, such as She Hulk, once slut-shamed mercilessly by her own writers, that transcend the super-babe-waiting-to-be-stuffed-into-a-refrigerator model.

 Many women (and men) in the burgeoning comics blogosphere have called out the industry on these issues. Here’s a  writer who challenges the long held assumptions about comics.   Gloria Steinem thought enough of her girlhood memories reading Wonder Woman to put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine.

I mentioned Jill LePore’s take on that iconic character I’ll post a second part of this piece separately.  The record-setting cinematic releases of iconic characters indicates they are relevant to our cultural narrative. It’s time to take the other half of these dreams and visions out of the deep freeze.

Healthy Future

I’m mailing a small check to Kaiser today. It’s a two-block walk to the mailbox; weather, H75/L43, P/C, no chance of showers. A slight bit of exercise, but essentially, it’s a very bland-seeming denouement to a tale that started, for me, about 5 years ago.

I’m updating it now, in the interest of writing a resolution to the tale and preparing for the next steps.

The health care reform drama kicked into high gear in my life when I left my prototypically “soul-crushing” day job in one of those conservative mega corporations for a gig as an artist. For seed money, I had a small pension, which held no hope of covering both my basic expenses and the rather exorbitant COBRA premiums I was being offered. Medical insurance instantly became a major obstacle to success and security.

I write about this issue and how it applies to small-time artists and America as a whole, in a very early post on this Squishtoid Blog, here. No, I never did write that manifesto. But when one has health, and common sense in government, who needs monkeys?

As I mail my first premium check, I’m “signed up” for Obamacare, though not yet, as its bitter, still spitting enemies like to somewhat desperately point out, “enrolled”. However, as The New Yorker cover artist Barry Blitt points out in gleeful, puckish pen strokes, the Affordable Care Act battle is now over, though the Tea Bag haven’t realized it yet.

As for me, the victory comes a bit late. I am now actively looking for another day job. There’ve been ups and downs in my struggle to make free-lancing work, but the financial part, born in Bush’s recession and maturing in a down-sized America, has sloped steadily down.

Let’s compare the aspirations with the reality:

I did start this blog and later a website (though I’ve not had time to grow them), established a social media presence, attracted a steady following for workshops, was in a lot of shows, grew my artwork in both vision and inventory, and most important, had fun and felt healthier.

On the downside, I did not sell enough major work (Denver does buy art, but prefers it small, mostly) to grow the business or create financial stability, and racked up a fair-sized amount of debt.

My upside remains positive, but my downside is beginning to send me warning notices. Hmmm, need cash flow.

This is where ACA comes in and why it is, by all accounts, useful, necessary, and working.

Obamacare was easy to get and far cheaper than I expected. There were glitches, yes (The biggest: a strangely designed search engine that did not, at first give me all the choices at my disposal). But computer glitches are very fixable, and were never going to determine the success or failure of America’s first-ever attempt at a comprehensive health care program. In fact the major obstacle now preventing coverage is not software, but Tea Bagger political spite: millions are going without health care in GOP-controlled Red States, locked out of medicare expansion simply because the Tea Bag wants them to blame Obama ( who SHOULD they blame? The Supreme Court).

But, as I predicted in my previous post, health care reform has made my situation, and that of millions of other independent, enterprising Americans a whole lot better.

It’s flipped the part-time job situation on its head.

I don’t really need a “career”,  as the Walmart shills like to call their shit jobs. I just need some steady cash flow to get out of debt and finance  my real business which is creating art. I can now look for a job that offers more flexibility (read: studio time). Even if I do wind up back inside the corporate machine (believe me, I’m trying to avoid that!) I don’t need to grovel through ignominious “huddles”; or worry that if I can’t make my drudge schedule fit my show schedule, I risk my health coverage. I simply make some credit card payments, then walk out and leave the work to those whom the jobs were originally designed for: 16 year old kids. No, I won’t feel a bit guilty. If big corporate want a more loyal work force, they can start offering better jobs.

Thanks, Obama!

The effect is starting to be noticed in articles, commentary and statistically. The GOP propaganda machine calls this “destroying jobs” but as usual, their definition of “job” is looser than the lips in the Rape Caucus’ Caucus room.  And for most of us, anything that shifts the balance of power in the economy even slightly away from the entrenched, paneled boardrooms and toward the ever-creative, ever-industrious Main Street is a huge victory for American independence and possibility.