Fall Forward

August 17, 2017

I’m finalizing what seems like a very busy schedule for fall workshops, and I’ll post complete details with links on my “Workshops” page soon. They’re all available for registration now, with “Monotype Portfolio”, my newly re-named workshop for advanced beginners and beyond, up first.

Monotype Portfolio, which is intended for those who’ve had a basic printmaking course, or perhaps some college experience back in the day, begins Monday, Sept 11, and continues for four weeks after that, making it very affordable and a nice fit for those glorious early fall evenings. Quick refreshers on color and using the press are given to start, then we jump into Chine Colle’, layered prints and advanced registration techniques, and framing, if the class is interested. It is intended for those who might like to execute a series, or perhaps enter a show.

After that, there are both daytime and evening sessions of Monotype Starter, my re-named beginner’s basics workshop, and then back to Portfolio after the Holidays.There is a Saturday Monotype Blast, and a Moxie U sampler as well.

Denver Public Library workshops are back, too, with free 1 1/2 hour drop-in workshops for the family beginning in September and running at various branches all fall, ending just before the Holidays. Other events may be added.

I’m also going to have a rarely-seen large piece in a show at the State Capitol, though I don’t have details on that yet. Click on “Contact Me” if you have questions about any of these, or come back for updates

“Ice Storm” Monotype, 15×11″, 2016. It’s been a very pleasant summer, and I’m not trying to rush it away, but perhaps a bit of creativity and good conversation in the big bright ASLD print room might warm up the chilly days to come?


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A Place For Us

July 09, 2017

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.

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I Hope You All Enjoyed The Show.

June 16, 2017

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.


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Walk Right In?

June 02, 2017

Textures and graphic effects are a way of bringing energy to a print composition. A highly detailed texture will attract the eye and demand attention, a subtle one will invite mental rest and contemplation. A heavier, darker texture or a very transparent one will tend to create depth by playing off what’s behind or underneath it. In this three staged monotype, I had some fairly unique coloring and a balanced, if plain image, and I put it aside with a vague feeling of disappointment as it really didn’t have a lot of intrigue. Intrigue can be defined in prints, probably in all art, as something, a bit of mystery or surprise that might keep the eye exploring the picture, possibly to extract meaning ( or determine if meaning is indeed there), or to solve the puzzle of its composition, or simply to bring the visual exploration to a fairly logical stopping point.

In this case, I didn’t want to give up on the print because I liked the sense of calm, or is it desolation? which I think comes from the pink light and the fairly empty expanse on the left side. So I wanted to heighten that distance and light, without cluttering the picture.

I did this print last year, and while I loved the strange colors and stylized interplay between positive and negative elements, it seemed too sparse to call finished.

The picture was also a bit sparse though, lacked a real focal point and featured mostly hard edges. I wanted to add a bit of visual richness and narrative movement while maintaining the graphic simplicity.

First I added in some more visual elements in the foreground which enhanced the designerly, modernist look of the first layer, and although these are also hard-edged shapes (created with mylar overlays), I think the addition of more complexity in the foreground makes the emptiness in the background more pronounced.

I added some foreground darks to create a focal point in opposition to the rather empty background.

Then I thickened the glade at the right avoiding too much clutter, by adding some trace monotype lines.

I rediscoverd trace monotype, a favorite from Paul Klee’s early work in my art history class days, and decided to experiment with it to see if it might add to these pictures I’d never finished. It has a fairly spontaneous and softer-edged feel to it as opposed to the hard edge of the mylar stencilling, which might, given the subject ( strangely lit glade) add some visual balance. The softer-edged elements were placed in front of the earlier graphic elements, not usually how you do it, but as in photography, the depth of field is being manipulated to sharpen and highlight middle ground elements, an example of what I mean by visual intrigue. When you highlight or sharpen the middle ground, you are, in effect, asking the viewer to “enter” past the foreground elements. Like pushing to the front of the crowd for a street busker, say, it asks for a bit of commitment.

It added a bit of “dirty” look to the print, which adds an edgy but also timeless feel to the modernist hard edges. Blacks ( not too heavy) always add depth by bringing out color and balancing tones, which here were sitting mostly in the middle-light to middle-dark range except the ghostly whites. I used the trace mainly for spindly forest brush (plant) images and ground debris which adds a bit of suggested perspective and realistic “bottom” to the pic, but also a kind of synaesthesia in that one can imagine the crackling of twigs, which draws one in to the place depicted. It’s also somewhat calligraphic and hints at a story in the scene. The second layer of leafy designs in mylar  plays off the twigs to create a sort of diversity of textures and heightens the original play of positive negative space in the pic. I like that the imagery is denser, but the two image sets are now in a bit of visual tension with each other in a sort of necker cube shift of dark and light. Is the white log stencil some sort of border treatment, or is it a log that has shifted to another dimension. A ghost log? I always enjoy signal-to-noise problems, and this one suggests information degradation or decay, since it exists at the edge of the picture plane, where an image might be expected to fade anyway.

Whether this all works is of course for the viewer to decide, but as the “first” viewer, it made me happier.  This was a print which seemingly had no chance of ever being seen by the public, until I decided that other textures might make it just intriguing enough to show ( Yes, I have to see intrigue, or at least stylistic interplay in something before I can bring myself to show it). It seemed to lack any sort of visual grace or interior dialog beyond the pink and brown coloring, which I always loved, and which probably kept it near the top of the stack of unfinished items, rather than buried in a flat file. It seems to have a fair amount of depth and “placeness” in it now. It’s a place I would like to go to and walk around in, so I went there.

You can see it and judge for yourself at the Art Students League Summer Art Market, June 10-11, Booth #96, where I’ll be showing it along with work by my booth mate, Taiko Chandler.

The finished piece has quite a bit more texture, including rub marks from the trace monotype.

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When They Go High…

April 30, 2017

“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.

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Workshop Update for Summer

April 14, 2017

I’ve updated my workshop page (click at the top) with Summer workshop information and links. The registration for these opened up this week and most have already had enrollees, so don’t wait too long. The first, Monotypes for Advanced Beginners is intended for those who have been printing in recent years, and want to explore a more intermediate level- finished, frame-able work for a show or portfolio perhaps; larger, multi-layered work, or those who need only a minimal refresher in print room technique who want to execute a project or series. There are still openings for this one, which begins June 20, 6-9:30 PM. It runs  5 weeks, excluding July 4.

I’m adding more workshops, and alternating more between morning and evening sessions, so if you don’t see a time slot that works for you, check back for Fall, and it’ll probably be offered.

I’m preparing a long post on the intersection of comics and fine art, but it’s been busy, so I’m not sure when I’ll have it ready. I’m finishing new work in the studio, and I’ll have some new photos to post in mid-May. Summer Art Market is coming June 10-11!

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Group Love

March 18, 2017

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.




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Counting On The Arts

February 14, 2017

The most recent biennial Colorado Business Committee for the Arts Economic Activity Study has been released. It uses Scientific and Cultural Facilities District raw numbers in a statistical model developed by Deloitte Consulting using U.S. Department of Commerce multiplier data. In short,  “quantifying the economic and social relevance of arts, cultural and scientific organizations in the metro area.” I’m a geek for this because I live it everyday. Sort of, anyway.

The study can’t measure how much individual artists pump into the economy when they take your $500 dollar check downtown to buy art supplies (and maybe a beer or two), but it can give a hint. It measures numbers reported by organizations, such as the SCFD-supported Art Students League of Denver, which pays me to teach your children- and you- art in the 21st Century economy, which is screaming for workers with creative skills.

I keep it handy and quote from it often, not only to shut up the troglodytes who think art is an indulgence not relevant in the “real world” of business and NFL football, but to reinforce those of us who encounter art every day, and think it matters, but can’t really describe why. You can get one, too, it’s published for free distribution thanks to business sponsors. There’s more info about the CBCA at cbca.org. But I’ll be posting nuggets from it, along with some of the striking graphics, periodically here.

A reminder: The deadline for my next “Monotypes for Advanced Beginners is less than a week away. You can register here: https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

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Color in Monotypes

February 06, 2017

Most printmakers use a somewhat limited color palette. Editions of hand-pulled prints often require a separate plate for each color- which can lead to a fair amount of time and expense. This has lead to a tradition of very strategic and inventive color use in printing, and its growth as an advertising medium since the Industrial Revolution has reinforced this. Advertising’s need for bold, simple visual form and messaging dovetails with this, too, and it’s no accident that printmaking is very often- not always- on the leading edge of modernist visual style.

Monotype prints- not technically printmaking, we are reminded by an educational poster in the Art Students League Denver print room, since there is no repeatable matrix from which to make identical prints- is not technically bound by the problem of multiple plates, but there are other reasons why the impetus towards simple color schemes pertains. The tradition of bold, clean-edged design is only one of them.

Artists encounter special challenges in using color inks, which are formulated to withstand the roller of a press, bond with different kinds of paper, and create vibrant results when dry whether applied with brayer or brush. Different ink formulations are used with screen printing, wiping etching plates or rolling onto litho plates and wood blocks (though most of these are fine for monotypes). And while oils, for example, are fairly consistent in texture (subject to modification) and are usually intended to be applied with brush or knife to canvas, inks tend to vary a lot in stiffness and viscosity, transparency and covering power. This makes predicting how they will interact with the more and less delicate types of paper used a learning process.

In monotype, ink can be mixed right on the plate, but delicate final effects can be hard predict after a ride through the 5K psi pressure a typical press generates. Textures, brush strokes and glazing are wiped out, so planning often becomes essential, even when trying for expressionistic or “spontaneous” effects. But these strategies work well with graphic, hard-edged modernist imagery too.

Layering is a good strategy for putting down a spontaneous effect in one color that will retain its integrity when another color is laid down next. Transparency in inks or modifying mediums allow different textures and hues to shine through while creating new tonalities and blends. A good understating of positive and negative space and how the (often) white paper will interact with these allows for light to shine from within, like glazing in oil, or watercolor. And printmakers will often pick a limited selection of colors and make a given color perform multiple roles, as in “process” color (CMYK).

A fairly simple image that actually stretches every rule of color usage in composition to create a compelling, dramatic visual message.

The example I’ve included here, which I’ve often used in classes, uses not a “somewhat” limited palette, but an extremely limited one. Its visual elements also are simple and separate themselves very straightforwardly into five elements; two in the foreground, two in the middle ground and a background. It’s in the colors assigned to these elements that we get a sense of creative transgression, and a feel for why the image is so arresting to the eye.

The first foreground element is the press, done in near silhouette, which provides a deep black field to highlight the second  element, the printer’s address. Clever way to deliver crucial advertising info, yes, but for this discussion the important fact is that we are used to seeing black as a background, as in the prints of Rembrandt, or Castiglione (monotype’s inventor), who use it to convey transcendent mystery, or to highlight bright foregrounds. Here it’s used as a visual tease of sorts, with the darkened foreground obstacle challenging us to peek at what’s going on behind.

The middle ground also has two elements- The printer, done in a simplified chiaroscuro to impart the drama of what he’s doing, ala Rembrandt; and the print he’s inspecting.  This is the most important info in the poster, the printer’s solitary quest for perfection, his attention to detail; and it is substantively done all in white, or to be precise, no color at all, since it is the white of the paper that is generally used by printmakers to get the brightest highlights. There is black, of course, to outline the intensity of the expression on his face, and to set his business-like suit off from the background. We are given to understand, both literally and figuratively, that this print shop owner stands out.

The background is the background, naturally. They often suggest distance, a void, an infinity; restful to the wandering eye, open to contemplation on what has been seen in the fore- and middle ground, but not often a hot, in-your-face foreground-type color like red. It is so insistent that it pushes the middle ground out toward us, adding to the intensity of the message.

Almost every color decision is the opposite of how our instincts tell us color should behave in a realistic image. The foreground is an obstacle to entry into the picture. The most important information is done in no color at all. White is the color most often used to denote negative space, but here used to denote the most positive elements in the composition, printer, press and print.The background is a hot, insistent, almost bludgeoning primary. But these visual transgressions grab us and lock us in instantly to a simple, powerful message (presumably, about printmaking’s power to deliver simple, powerful messages).

Again, bold, graphic, advertising is not necessarily fine art printmaking, which often needs to convey complex messages. But the two have developed hand in hand since the dawn of the printing press, and there is much to learn from it. Thoughtful, unique color use can really make your monotypes stand out.

My next workshop is Monotypes for Advanced Beginners, a studio class for people with some past printmaking experience who want a dialogue about developing their ideas in unique ways. Register by February 21 here:https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

Source of the picture is The Poster in History, Max Gallo, NAL, 1975. I’ve left the photo credit on the scan, at the top. I could find no further info on the artist, Ming.



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Coming Out of the Refrigerators

January 05, 2017

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.


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