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.