Tag Archives: Comics

The World Is a Funny (Book) Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

 

 

A Good Used Bookstore, For the Love of God

Size does matter. Mine is a bit small by most people’s standards I’m sure, but honestly, I’d rather it be a bit small than too large. Because really, it’s what you do with it. And mine does a lot. I don’t often brag about it because I don’t want to attract a crowd, but it’s time people knew.

I left the house a bit later than I intended on a radiant fall Sunday- cerulean blue sky with mare’s tails stretching above the skyscrapers, rattling papery gold leaves helicoptering languidly down, a slight breeze eliciting chatter and whisperings from the already fallen ones. After getting off the bus, I tunneled the remaining four blocks through dappled sun and golden, leafy arcades. I was in no hurry.

Kilgore’s is a cramped little storefront among all the various Wax Trax storefronts on that cramped part of 13th near Washington in Capitol Hill. Inside, there is barely enough room for two to pass in its aisles, and there are only three aisles, connected by a passageway in the back, and a bit of an open area where the counter is in the front. If there’s been an influx of books, there are un-processed piles and you must stifle your rush to the stacks and pause to let another get by. There’s no sense hurrying anyway. There is plenty for all.

A tiny used bookstore like Kilgore’s must balance the discrete buying of books to avoid an unwieldy, energy sapping selection, with the need for an almost curatorial concision and intellectual focus in order to stock a good selection of the type of books a certain kind of buyer will come back to week after week, not just in golden autumn but in slushy, leaden winter. The reason I keep coming back here is because I know that with a few extra bucks in my pocket and an hour to kill, I will be able to circle the sections that interest me, without getting bogged down in some one else’s offloaded dreck, and find something interesting and unique for a reasonable price. A good used book store must give the impression of a selection of books and journals only reluctantly parted with by their previous owners, and Kilgore’s does this better than any of the larger stores I’ve haunted.

I almost always find something I can’t bear to pass over, and which gets immediately read. Today: The Ganzfeld #2, a 2002 anthology of graphics, comics, design and articles on same, a little used and banged up but certainly quite solid, for under $10. I’d scooped up the #4 edition of this strange yet compelling magazine when it was published back in 2005. I’m a lover of odd and intermittent magazines, especially the type marrying cutting edge comics with good layout and interesting articles, so this find really made for a good visit, but that’s the point: you want a book store that buys enough weird, ephemeral books and magazines to make the trip worth your while more often than not. Kilgore’s also offers a good selection in good condition of (their specialty,) used and new graphic novels and comics that shade toward the alternative press side of things, a small section of literary criticism and essays, including comics criticism, art books, and some of the good fiction anthologies. Their large fiction section is restrained yet timeless (or soon to be), though they also offer quite a bit of genre.

Mostly what they offer is informed good taste. Someone there knew enough to buy this obscure well thought-out magazine from someone, who knew it would both find a good home and bring a couple of bucks (for more books!)

In the Ganzfeld, I’m reading an article relating early English novelist Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) with modernist Science Fiction (!) such as J.G. Ballard. This relationship between the early imperial picaresque and the post-imperial dystopian is something I didn’t know existed or that I’d need to read about until I walked into Kilgore’s on a fine fall day. I’m not sure the article successfully proves the connection, though in mentioning Pynchon, Vonnegut, Huxley and Attwood and others as “serious” fiction inspired both by Sci-Fi’s spirit of dystopian possibility and Fielding’s subversive satire, it certainly comes close.

The issue also features sketchbook pages from Chris Ware and a wildly abstract take on Popeye and Olive Oyl by Here auteur Richard McGuire, the only other work I’ve found by him outside The New Yorker and Raw Magazine. At Kilgore’s, I’ve also recently picked up albums of comics by Seth, Dash Shaw and Mike Allred, an old issue of McSweeney’s, and several old copies of The Comics Journal.

I’m betting they have a copy of Tom Jones with my name on it, or at least, Henry Fielding’s.

Reading List:

Bound and Gagged, Laura Kipnis: an examination of the issues surrounding pornography, organized around a central question: does it benefit us to censor people’s fantasies?

Heads or Tails, Lilli Carre: Lyrically surreal narratives in shifting, allusive tonalities that are filled with the sort of subliminal psychological non sequiturs that feel both dreamlike and gut-punchingly real. A guy’s roof leaks, he drives to another town, meets a woman , gets stuck on a Ferris wheel with her and has sexual fantasies of her, but when they go to his room, they don’t quite have sex. A woman meets, and is subsequently replaced by, her own double. I found it in the shelves at a library where I was giving a workshop. I’ll undoubtedly search for my own copy the next time at Kilgore’s.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano: I’m reading it slowly, since its compact passages make excellent reading on the bus or train. I thumbed through it last year during my habitual World Cup Soccer book-buying binge, but read Golazo! instead, because I felt that that more traditional social history would provide background to the many short poetic, almost fabulistic vignettes that Galeano weaves together in his book.

The book is surprisingly cynical about the beautiful game, which is refreshing in a way, since the figures in the game, and the game itself can be brutally cynical. See: Blatter, Platini, et al. The game is universal enough to touch all of the deepest dreams and failings of people across the globe, and it needs no propagandist. The haters and throwball fantasy zombies can never know how much of soccer’s humanity and populist aspiration can be found in just one quote from a man who calls himself

“… a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: A pretty move, for the love of God.”

"Valley 149" is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers.
“Valley 149” is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view beneath the ridge to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers. This one is one of three now in the collection at the new COBank location in the Tech Center.

 

 

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.

Tales of Futures Past

From February’s snow days to nights in March spent on the couch after working my temporary job, I’ve had a bit of reading time. As I’ve mentioned, I read a lot of different stuff, but lately, my obsession has been comics. Not only for escapist reasons. There is a lot that’s interesting about comics right now. I’m breaking my resolution to make shorter posts to catch up on what’s been on my stacks.

They are a major pop culture content generator, I’m sure you’ve noticed. New projects are introduced  monthly for TV and Hollywood. They are also one of the fastest (and rare) growing categories in bookstore sales. And libraries have been expanding their “Graphic Novel”sections daily, having adopted them in their mission to introduce younger and English Second Language patrons to reading.

And, as I’ve tried to point out, they tend to model, as pop culture often does, America’s attitudes toward cultural expression, in this case, that of a fairly marginalized segment. But creativity, when turned loose, can transform an industry, not to mention a nation. Comics have done both at different times during their long history.

There’s a great ferment in comics right now. It’s long overdue. The roots of it are in the changing economics of intellectual property and creators rights. I’ve mentioned before the history of comics’ beginnings in the immigrant-filled big city newspaper wars of the Gilded Age, to the post WWII censorship craze of the 50’s, made possible by an industry that treated its most talented creators like the low paid hacks who churned out most of its product. The creative anarchy of the underground comics was not so much a growth in comics’ creative vitality as a return to it.  This in turn led to the alternative/punk comics renaissance of the 80’s.

At the same time, collectors and lovers of the medium were transforming the comics market itself. Now came the direct market, or what we know as those often dingy and fan boy-infested, but also often magical, comics shops in cities and suburbs. The big companies, Marvel and DC, faced with declining sales from the juvenilia they peddled at newstands and drugstores, went along for the ride.

The market freedom led to new creators, such as Alan Moore, ( Watchmen) and new approaches to long-moribund characters, e.g. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. And the newly innovative characters and stories led to something completely unexpected: Hollywood interest. The implications of this were little understood when Tim Burton made his first Batman movie, but creativity goes hand in hand with creator freedom and intellectual property rights, and though the big companies, now owned by media conglomerates Warner Brothers (DC), and Disney (Marvel) fought hard to resist it, the old hackwork-for-hire system slowly crumbled. Older creators such as Jerry Siegel (Superman) and Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, X-Men) won back some intellectual property rights in courts. Younger writers and artists learned to retain control of their inventions.

A major breakthrough came when several big name artists formed Image Comics in the 90’s. At first, Image simply presented the same adolescent power fantasies and sexualized genre cliches of the “Big 2”, only with more creator-friendly contracts. But slowly, this has led to more freedom for creators in both creator-owned, and traditional, licensed properties, and not coincidentally, a more imaginative use of the medium. The publishers, now in competition with the creators themselves to fill the movies’ and TV’s insatiable need for fantasy/action content, have granted more freedom, credit and royalties to the artists. Image Comics is now the leader in publishing diverse, well-written and often very edgy comics by some of the industry’s top creators. But others are are starting to encourage creators to experiment as well.

I’ll briefly review some of my favorite titles as examples of this burgeoning maturity in both mainstream and alternative comics. I’ve reviewed several very exciting Image projects here already (Pretty Deadly, Supreme), and mentioned the bleed-over effect they’ve had in the Big 2 ( Hawkeye, Wonder Woman). This is in addition to my long-time favorite auteurs, (Chris Ware, Los Bros. Hernandez, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki) who have cracked the now rapidly expanding bookstore market. I’m going to separate this post into two parts for length. First, the mainstream:

Saga, Image: I noticed this one immediately, with its bright but well-modulated colors and fresh gestural rendering, but a perpetually tight budget prevented me from picking it up. I guess I didn’t trust it as much as the dark goth western Pretty Deadly or the black comedy sexual paranoia of Sex Crimes. When the new Gonzales Branch opened across the lake from me, with its shiny and very well-stocked “Graphic Novel” section, I was able to scoop up all 3 then existing compilations, and I devoured them. I’m now slowly buying them up, laying them in for the time soon when I’ll want to re-read them and move on to the 4th, just released.

Saga is a tale of an endless interplanetary and interspecies war that has become an article of faith to its combatants, except for two of them, who run away and start a famiy. Whatever allegorical power this has, and it’s a lot- it’s not neccessary to parse it here, because the story is rich with the kind of quirky endearing detail that only well drawn characters can provide. Thus the fantasy of organic tree rocket ships is played off against the of horror being trapped inside one with one’s in-laws of another, sworn enemy species. And the real pathos- not to mention bathos- of having a teen babysitter who is a (half) ghost, because she has had her bottom half blown off by a landmine is magnified when she out-truths a magical “lying cat”.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan sticks close to his central theme: what makes a family is not genetics or beliefs, but love. And artist Fiona Staples continually teases out the simple truth about beauty and love: it exists hand in hand with the grotesque. Her babysitter, Izabel, hovers in pinkish ethereality, somehow projecting the earnest brattiness of a teen age girl, despite her entrails still hanging from her gamine, truncated torso. Vaughan’s characterization, with teen brat pronouncements spewing, until… truth comes; spot on.

Saga is a best- seller and one of the most challenged titles of 2014, the American Library Association informs us. So you may as well save yourself the annoyance of having someone spoil it for you at a party and read it now.

Unwritten, Vertigo: I read two volumes (about 12 chapters) of this then stopped. It’s intelligently enough written, with serviceable, though somewhat graceless, art. But its narrative of a son and namesake of a fantasy author’s Harry Potter-like character/franchise wanders into a brutal murder, a worldwide conspiracy, and then into Joseph Goebbels’ film room. It’s Alan Moore-style meta-narrative, but without the deeper, pointed questions Moore brought to comics: Who watches the Watchmen (Watchmen)? Who weaves the underlying fabric of our most timeless stories (Promethea)?

Vertigo has mostly been eclipsed by Image and others, partly because they offer more generous intellectual property contracts. Moore was pretty much the godfather of DC’s pioneering, creator-driven Vertigo imprint with his legendary 80‘s Swamp Thing run.  His occasional penchant for didactic rambling and over the top plot turns was redeemed by his elegant inquiry into the nature of heroes and storytelling. Not so with Unwritten.

Zero, Image: This is the rather hyper violent and and graphically innovative tale of an orphan who is trained ( brainwashed?) as a spy/lethal weapon and is now questioning his role in life. Like one of Tarantino’s better flicks, it is both appalling and compelling at the same time. I’ve read several chapters, and don’t know whether I will pursue it, but it certainly points out the diversity and potential in creator-driven comics. Writer Ales Kot and artist Michael Walsh also appear in Marvel’s pop-y superhero/spy pastiche Secret Avengers, which seemingly refuses to take itself seriously. This project, however, is dead serious.

Hawkeye, Marvel: I’ve now obtained and read most of all 5 volumes ( it’s been plagued with schedule delays and its final installment has not yet been released). If, like me, you long ago gave up on superhero genre as retrograde adolescent power fantasy from dark airless “universes” replete with strangely sexless uber-babes and monologizing empire builders, then welcome to Hawkguy’s world, where slacker superheroes battle big-city developers and drink too much beer while dealing with ex-es, euro-thugs, and the delightfully refreshing Pizza Dog. Funny and meaningful, sometimes thrilling, occasionally all three. Breathe in the air.

Supreme: Blue Rose, Image: The problem with leaving superhero genre comics behind in the 70’s, as I’ve mostly done, is that it’s hard to suddenly jump back in because of the volumous backstory, or what fan boys and those who market to fan boys refer to as the “Universe” of a given company or title. “Superman was rocketed from the dying planet Krypton as a boy… blah, blah”. Styles, editors, entire cultures change and before you know it, you’ve got a Super Dog, a Super Horse, and a few paunchy Super Cousins hanging out interminably in tacky spandex costumes in your green room. You’d like to invite in your arty friends, but your “family” keeps wolfing down the canapes. It’s a “Crisis”- of infinite backstory. You wage a “Secret War” to clean out the dead weight, but sometimes burden the character even more with retroactive plot fixes and ballooning exposition.

I picked this title up because of its stylish Tula Lotay artwork, not knowing it’s a hold over from the early days of Image. Creator Rob Liefeld, one of the breakaway stars who founded the company gave the character to multiple other writers and artists. It eventually wound up in the hands of the aforementioned Alan Moore, who turned it into a meta-fictional commentary on Superman. Complete with the Super Dog. This iteration of the title, written by another writer star, Warren Ellis, makes sly references to earlier metafictional meanderings of the story, all the while presenting a stylish narrative about time travel and alternate realities. Yes, it’s a metafiction about metafictions, folks. Is it any wonder most people treat comic stores as they would Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop?

But Ellis and Lotay make a nice offering of this material simply by- like Mrs Lovett- not making a big issue of where it comes from. It’s a wispy, dream-like story ( about the search for missing pieces of an “arch”- story arc? Get it?) done in wispily oneiric lines and colors, in which some of the characters always seem to know more than we do. Or not: one character says “I feel like a story that the Universe didn’t finish writing.” It only ran 7 issues, so less than $20, when the compilation comes out, for this melt-in-your mouth meta-metafictional candy floss. You decide.

Oh dear, I’ve burbled on. And I’ve still got more, about recent efforts by Indie creators Chris Ware and Richard McGuire, who’ve fired comics’ bookstore renaissance with form-busting projects. I’ll save that for another post, and I’ve already started notes on a future post about women in comics, both on- and off the page.

 

 

 

 

 

Lipstick Librarians on Top, Down There at the Bottom

I’m busy tying up loose ends as I return to a normal routine. So this post is a grab bag of abstract musings from both my winter couch diversions, and my spring projects.

I am on the committee for MoPrint 2016, a city-wide printmaking festival which is entering its second scheduled biennial and had its first meeting this week.  I’m on the Publicity Committee for MoPrint in my now-accustomed social media role, so I’m sure you’ll be getting news from that front as well. I’ve also joined an ongoing Faculty Advisory Committee at the League.

I’m trying to make larger work in the studio, both for inventory- I need to sell larger work, and to do that, I need a large selection of bigger work, and to enter a juried show in March. I’m making a series of monotypes in which I’ll visually express personal musings on love, sex and dreams, as well as teaching myself new methods in the printmaking craft. I’ll be posting soon, and two-three times subsequently about the new prints, which will of course feature poppies and thistles- what else? I’ve already started in the form of small studies. I just need to flatten the work and take photos before I post.

I’m busy putting up flyers and trying to fill my upcoming workshop. For me it provides, besides needed cash, a real social opportunity to get out and converse about art and making with peers (mostly middle-aged folks, a large percentage of them women, take my Tuesday morning class). I’m completing a series of quick-study cheat sheets about planned class sessions that I hope will help those who take the class absorb the welter of information, but will also help to promote the class in a more detailed way to those who are considering it. I’m going to find a .pdf downloader plug-in widget-thingie to make them available here.

I also need to install the long-promised web-store plug-in. I enjoy teaching myself to do these things, but it goes slow. Rather than pay someone to teach me- quickly- how to do it, I fiddle around endlessly, as if it’s a series of monotypes in which I’m projecting personal thoughts to the world at the same time I’m learning a craft. I recognize that this is less business-like than simply eccentric. I now feel that eccentricity is instead of a vaguely amusing, stylistic feature of old age, rather, its essence.

And, as during most winters, I’m entertaining myself with a stack of books and DVDs before the soccer/art show season starts.

So I’m going to post about books today, as I have a backlog of thoughts from the Holidays. Many of them will be comics and graphics-related, which I intend to continue with periodically, as it’s something which still doesn’t get a lot of attention. So I feel like it’s my niche as I’ve been reading them all my life and have a certain perspective as they lately enter a sort of renaissance in both publishing and TV/Film.

I’m reading Gold Pollen and Other Stories, by Seiichi Hayashi. I’m probably long overdue for an examination of Manga. Besides garden-variety xenophobia owing to its right-to-left pagination, strange art styles and often bizarre subjects, there’s another reason I’ve sidestepped it. It’s just so big, and a linchpin of managing my reading/collecting jones has been to limit the areas I spend time and money on. But Ryan Holmberg, who edited this series on Masters of Alternative Manga for publishers Picture Box, who also put out The Ganzfeld and several issues of Kramer’s Ergot, makes an irresistible appeal to my attention by including introductory essays which place the artists he covers in context. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the context in which comics are created. Just as the American comics were indelibly influenced by 50’s censorship, 60’s drug culture and the punk/DIY movement of the 80’s; so post war Japanese artists were early influenced by American Disney and newspaper comics that came with occupation, and the inherent irony of American superheroes fighting for “freedom” during the Vietnam war. Hayashi navigates these social touchstones creatively incorporating comics iconography, Edo-period woodcuts and his own war-torn life to come up with innovative pop graphics.

The Mystery of the Underground Men, by Osamu Tesuka. This earlier ( late 40’s) manga shows the influence of turn-of-the-century Victorian science fantasy, Mickey Mouse, Milt Gross, Popeye and other American comics in a very compelling sort of steam punk tale of a tunnel through the center of the earth.  Also includes a loving essay by Holmberg concisely tracing Tesuka’s influences.

Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel ressurected several c-list characters, mostly from the 70’s and 80’s ( e.g. Gamora from Starlin’s sci-fi groundbreaker “Warlock”), in this effects-drenched buddy movie that does not take itself too seriously. Its a refreshing change from the bombastic superhero movies, while still offering lots of opportunity for spectacular CGI.

Agent Carter This prequel to TV’s Agents of SHIELD features a kick-ass heroine, a genius scientist/weapons developer, Captain America’s DNA, American post war sexism, and hadn’t even begun to stop manufacturing plot twists when I missed the last two episodes owing to meetings and workshops. Is it a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma; or just comic book-y plot holes you could drive a Packard through, wrapped in unresolved loose ends? Who cares? It’s fun to watch. The fan-boys writing on my favorite comics blog love it, though it fails to generate half of the suspense and dramatic tension of SHIELD, which the fan boys revile.

The Spanish American War and President McKinley, Lewis L. Gould. Those who wonder why I would read something on this tawdry little exercise in colonialistic jingoism, engineered by one of America’s ignored presidents, obviously are unaware that I’ve already read a biography of McKinley’s predecessor, the even more obscure Grover Cleveland. And that I’m about to start on a major new study of his successor, Roosevelt, and his adventures with fin-de siecle journalism ( The same sensationalistic press that launched the comics). So it fits a twisted logic. And- a ginned-up war in a marginalized third world country, in aid of overly empowered American corporate interests. Sound familiar?

Petty Theft, Pascal Girard.  A graphic novelist in the midst of a bad break up witnesses a woman shoplifting his own book from a small book store in this very odd mash up of cringeworthy Seinfeld-ian self-involvement and cartoonists behaving neurotically, all told in jittery Jules Feiffer-like drawings. That pushes all my buttons. Like this:

"Nympho Librarian" by Les Tucker (Jake  Moskovitz) New York: Bee-Line Press, [1970] Cover by Paul Rader: I think this is the stereotypical bookworm's fantasy; don't forget the glasses! It's a BOOK about a bookworm's fantasy- levels upon levels of metaphor- on the floor!
“Nympho Librarian” by Les Tucker (Jake Moskovitz) New York: Bee-Line Press, [1970] Cover by Paul Rader: I think this is the stereotypical bookworm’s fantasy; don’t forget the glasses! It’s a BOOK about a bookworm’s fantasy- levels upon levels of metaphor- on the floor!

Can I Take My Books to Heaven?

Comics go to the Art Gallery- with very Katzenjammer Kid-like results
Comics go to the Art Gallery- with very Katzenjammer Kid-like results

I’ve spent the last few weeks either working long hours at my temp job at DU, or on the couch reading under a blanket in the frigid, dark days. I got a lot of reading done, so I’m posting more mini-reviews today. Now it’s getting noticeably brighter, the job is done, and I’m getting back into a creative routine.

Free Workshops at Denver Public Library

I’m catching up on the blog and posting my next few free DPL workshops, including the first, this week at Ross-Barnum Branch, 3570 W. 1st Ave from 6-7:30 PM. These are open to the public, with children above 8 yo to adult probably getting the most benefit. They are drop-in style, so don’t worry if you are not there at the start, though that’s when I demo the process. The schedule confirmed so far is posted here.

8-Week full Workshop at the Art Students League

Still haven’t found a part time job, but will push on with the workshops and making larger work. My regular Spring 8-week workshop begins February 24, so don’t miss out. This is a far more comprehensive class, intended to walk you through not only basic technical processes, but the creative process as well. You can avoid dead ends and find fresh ideas through the use of multiple variations of “ghost” prints, second impressions of the remaining ink on a monotype plate- it’s like getting a free print and another shot at your original idea.  You can get a small preview and ask me questions at one of the free DPL sessions. Or register here.

On to the books:

You’ll notice quite a few comics in here. First, the DPL has really upped its game on carrying interesting, literary comics, so one can catch up on intriguing titles without busting one’s budget. Browse when you come to the monotype workshop! There’s been a lot of publishing activity in this category, and it’s hard to find cash for anything but my absolute must-haves. When I do buy, I find Kilgore’s Books on 13th Avenue to be my go-to stop (at the risk of ruining my ‘favorit fishin’ hole’, but they really do deserve credit for knowing and buying the best publishers and authors!) Some of my thoughts on comics history in general are here, and I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of Richard McGuire’s Here, which looks to be another breakthrough for comics into the publishing mainstream. I’ll review it next month along with some other items which didn’t fit here.

New School by Dash Shaw

Few artists in any visual medium are pushing boundaries like Shaw. His raw brush work is often superimposed on acidic, free-range color fields, untethered to any specific imagery; or even photos of clouds, flowers, etc. This has the effect of creating unexpected emotional vistas in a story that hovers surreally between sci-fi thriller and teen sexual awakening drama. If this one just looks too odd for your taste, try the earlier BodyWorld.

Golazo!
by Andreas Campomar

This book, like “The Ball is Round”, seeks to explicate a cultural history of a people ( in this case, South Americans) through the story of their football. To a lover of both football and cultural histories, this story is meat and potatoes, and well told here. To casual footy fans, there may be a bit too much of the various tournament summaries, though the tale of tiny Uruguay’s supremacy in early World Cups and before that, in Olympics, which then served as football’s world championship, is essential.

Nor can these stylish triumphs be separated, Campomar argues convincingly, from Uruguay’s prosperous democracy of the time. Similarly, the advent of brutal military dictatorships in Latin America often went hand in hand with the continent’s dark turn toward cynical, negative “anti-football”.

Read it before the Centenario tournament ( celebrating the 100th year of South American championship), to be held in the US in 2016. At some point, the two Americas may merge, in a football sense; and this is yet another book to explain why football is really the only game that matters in the world.

V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore, David Lloyd

Hacker collective Anonymous’ appropriation of the Guy Fawkes imagery, plus Alan Moore’s complex legacy as comics’ greatest auteur, made this early 80’s graphic novel essential reading for me. I had waited far too long to pick it up, and wondered how coherently it dovetailed with Anonymous’ libertarian/anarchist representation, and how well it fit in with Moore’s own very original, often metafictional ouevre. It does not disappoint, in the same way that “Watchmen”, “From Hell” and “Promethea” do not disappoint: they are all brilliant, though eccentric, examinations of the relationship of man/woman to the State.

The difference in this early effort is in the pacing. It was mostly completed in Britain before Moore arrived on these shores to begin his ground breaking Swamp Thing run at DC, and prior to “Watchmen”, where a fascination with metafictional storytelling (i.e, “Superheroes as government-regulated vigilantes”, “Super heroine as goddess of storytelling”, etc) set in. This sometimes has lead to overwrought, didactic story lines, and over-designed illustration. Here, though, the story is direct and driving, with David Lloyd’s stark, stripped down panels, awash in blacks and crepuscular violets giving the whole thing a noir-ish Golden Age Batman sort of air. Moore’s crank-ish comic book libertarianism is here too, but tidily contained in a near-future fascist England, though an Orwellian computer system has jumped the pages and can definitely be seen as an inspiration for real world Anonymous.

Convoluted politics aside, it’s a great read.

Why Read Moby-Dick?
by Nathaniel Philbrick

A nice little book of short ruminations on various aspects of Moby-Dick. There are nuggets about Melville’s career, including a running discussion of his friendship with Hawthorne. Themes of the book are raised, and though not an exhaustive examination in the manner of a critical essay, they are thought provoking enough, and free of the academic/critical jargon that sometimes clots discussion of literary landmarks such as this. It’s hard to resist a book like this.

White Cube by Brecht Vandenbroucke

I had completely missed this early 2014 release and was glad I spied it on the coldest night of the year when no one (wisely) attended a workshop I was hosting at Ross-Barnum Library. These faux-primitive 1- and 2-page cartoons concern two guys coming to terms with, or sometimes cleverly modifying, even hilariously destroying, the modern art they encounter at the White Cube, a typical modernist gallery. Very witty, even conceptual gags about the art, but also about social media. The pair are seen running from the security guard after painting a Facebook-style thumb’s up ‘Like’ sign on a critically-approved White Cube acquisition.

The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution & Revenge
by Eileen Welsome

A book that gets to the heart of the long-running enmity between Mexico and the USA. It is all here- the violence and savagery that seems to plague the Mexican people, and the prejudice and high-handedness of Americans and their government. The story is grippingly told. Pancho Villa’s campaign against Mexico’s military government found favor in US circles until pre WWI exigencies compelled Woodrow Wilson to recognize Carranza, the dictator. Betrayed, Villa vowed to take his forces against US citizens. The result was a brutal attack on Columbus, NM, and a punitive expedition into Mexico led by John Pershing, later to lead US forces in WWI Europe.

Conceived as a face-saving gesture by Wilson, but as a prelude to US expansion into Northern Mexico by Pershing and the Manifest Destiny adherents, the invasion into Chihuahua quickly turned into a misadventure. Porfirio Diaz, whom the revolution supplanted as Mexico’s leader, once said “Poor Mexico- so far from God, so close to the USA.” Pancho Villa seemed to embody this tragic irony, though it was not Pershing or the US that finally defeated him.