An extended period of downtime following a very successful Summer Art Market, and the end of my part time day job in a college bookstore is to blame for a lengthy lack of posts. This list of abbreviated book blurbs is a pretty good summary of what I’ve been up to as I emptied out my days with a view to building a new routine.
Classes and studio work have continued, of course. And with MoPrint ’22 fast approaching, a bit more urgency will be needed there. But for now, the order of the day for the last few weeks has been coffee and books- with excursions to bookstores to stack literature, non fiction, comics and art like cordwood against the bitter winds building.
Here’s a downpayment, culled from a diary I keep where often these thoughts first appear. There’s no theme, to the blurbs at least- the daybook includes a lot of rumination on what time and work actually are- and perhaps I should try to bring those deeper contemplations here sometime, but for now, just the books.
Bradley of Him, Connor Willumsen’s newest, was a bit too complex for just one reading. This is the downside to library books. Like Antigone, about slackers in a vaguely post-apocalyptic beach town, it was palpably brilliant, but hard to describe why. Extreme protagonist meets slightly dystopian hyper-capitalist paradise in Las Vegas. In both books, art that is watery and a tinge neurotic with narcissistic characters seemingly unaware of the strangeness they are immersed in.
Stroppy, Marc Bell: Again, I originally read it from the library, and decided when finances loosened up, to reread and add it to my shelf. Stroppy is an oafish schlemiel in a dystopian urban oligarchy, where even art is in service to the powers that be. Bell invokes E.C. Segar (Popeye) and mini-golf to tell the tale of a song contest that perpetuates a pop culture kleptocracy.
Bell is a central figure in the ongoing mini-comics/zine subculture, which small websites make it easier to experience. However, he’s long since broken through into mainstream publishing, not to mention gallery sales and this is just one of his highly entertaining hardcover albums. I also picked up Pure Pajamas, a collection of his alternative press weekly strips.His artistic lineage, after Segar, stretches through Crumb and even Phillip Guston, before looping back around to Rube Goldberg. An amazing talent, whose deadpan protagonists are always being imposed upon, and even physically occupied, by other characters.
S! #32 Kus: A pocket sized anthology, published in Latvia, of alt comics auteurs from around the world, in this case, Japan. They are available from online sellers such as Copacetic, or John Porcellino’s Spit-and-a-Half. This one, however, I found at Matter, the letterpress/bookshop on Market St. It’s well worth the trip on a Rockies away day. They also publish single-artist mini comics as Mini Kus.
The artists featured here belong to a later era of Garo magazine and other current publications, and thus provide a view of the current state of alt comics in Japan. Here, and in AX, a collection of alt manga published in 2010, the interchange with American styles seems more apparent, than in Garo’s earlier days, which took cues from pop art and French Nouvelle cinema. Fort Thunder influences are visible and Heta Uma (bad/good) styles the equivalent of the comics brut of Johhny Ryan, et al, are prominent. Who influenced who I can’t say, but these comics lack the sense of Japanese cultural ferment that the early manga pioneers like Hayashi and Sugiera drip with. Not that there aren’t some very intriguing short pieces here, and the internationalization of comics is sort of implicit in the Kus! project to begin with, but the downside of anthologies is you get only a quick glance at a given artist. The small format may also inhibit real engagement, but there are definitely artists here I intend to look for. One, Yuichi Yokoyama, I already found and sent for from the Copacetic site, and it’s in a stack of things I’m saving for when the flurries fly.
Bad Ball, Samplerman: Samplerman is a French comics artist who cuts up and reassembles old comics to create surreal adventures. Again the small format in this Mini Kus may not be optimal, as I’ve seen him play in a piece in Scratches with intricately shaped panels to bring the negative space of the gutters ( space between panels) into play, and here he limits himself to a 6 panel grid. Thus, the vibe is sort of constrained surrealism, like the early Dr. Strange comics by Ditko, or even the cluttered strangeness of Ogden Whitney’s Herbie.
Gold Pollen, Seiichi Hayashi: This is also a reread after I got it from the library a couple of years ago, then found the book online for a decent price. It’s rare to find it under $75, partially because it’s a beautiful book published by the sadly departed PictureBox of Dan Nadel, with a very interesting essay by Ryan Holmberg.
Nadel was an apparently huge part of the re-discovery of Garo Magazine-era manga of the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve become a bit obsessed with these artists and Holmberg is part of the reason, as he explicates Japanese culture both pre-WWII, and in the turbulent years of Garo‘s establishment as the first magazine devoted to alternative, avant garde comics in the world, in 1964. Our ingrained American exceptionalism makes this massive contribution to the art of comics easy to ignore, but at the time, Marvel’s angsty but violent superheroes were about it in this country for those looking for comics for an adult sensibility. Even Undergrounds and the often adolescent boob-a-licious sci-fi of Heavy Metal were still in the future. Not so in Japan, where dramatic gekiga manga led to a real avant garde.
Hayashi and others, such as Tsuge, Sugiera and Tezuka were experimenting with Pop Art and avant garde Carnaby Street graphics and French New Wave cinema as inspiration for their charged stories of relationships and change in Japan.
Hayashi is not easy to find here. I’ve tracked down 3 of the 4 collections that have been published in English. Red Colored Elegy, about doomed, disaffected lovers is his masterpiece, but one will want the title story in this collection as well, a tensely constructed minimalist visual symphony. Mike Mignola’s measured cinematic pacing and love of folklore in Hellboy might offer a hint of what Hayashi was doing while Marvel’s The Thing was immersed in clobberin’ time, but that would not do justice to Hayashi’s sense of ordinary people caught between a fascist past and a hyper capitalist occupier.
Valley, GG: Ordered this Mini Kus from Copacetic after running across She’s Not There at the library. Misty images, disturbing implications, and ambiguous plot lines in both.
Comic Arf, Craig Yoe: This is an odd project; a bit of an ego trip, but not without merit.On one hand, it’s over designed, with not much to say about the artists it presents, and is editorially dodgy as it attempts to shoehorn Yoe’s own mediocre work as an equal to the accomplished past professionals. Those artists, however, are very interesting, and some I’d never heard of. He employs current illustrators as part of his design, which adds to the jumble, but certainly leads to some nice individual pieces. There’s a great Milt Gross feature, “Draw Your Own Conclusions” in which current cartoonists complete Gross cartoons originally offered for readers to finish. There’s nothing wrong with having Gross and other classic cartoonists on one’s bookshelf. But it lacks the editorial/design unity of Scratches or Blab.
Cola Madnes, Gary Panter: which gets too much credit in the afterword for being a masterpiece, but which is an early, fairly improvisatory Panter romp that features the mutually disaffected characters and post industrial wasteland of his Daltokyo and other classic punk comics. The graphics are amazingly… graphic. “Ratty line” is a common descriptive for Panter’s slashing, textural ink work, but his rich blacks are always well placed and add depth and detail to his dystopian suburbia. It’s mostly hyper grungy, hyper violent slapstick, and I keep wanting to assign manga influences to it that may not really be there, but it was originally intended for Japanese publication before being shelved for 20 years so the urge is irresistible. Very interesting item, and I want to re-read other Jimbo I have.
Comics vs. Art, Bart Beatty: Always a fascinating subject, and ambivalence is of course high- I’m not one to denigrate Pop Art, or to deride its superficiality, which is actually a big part of its complex point. This is a facile trap that “Team Comics” often falls into, though thankfully not Beatty. Nor do I consider war and romance comics of the 50’s to be under appreciated artistic gems. I have a respect for Kirby, Heath, even Novick, from the pulp escapes of my youth, but for the most part, I do not attempt to elevate them as high art.
Nonetheless, the appropriation of the imagery in all the great museums is a bit troubling. Russ Heath gives it a wry reflection in a one pager about his image Whaam!, appearing at MOMA ( the painting is actually a mash-up of panels from Heath, Novick, and Jerry Grandinetti, from two comics that Liechtenstein undoubtedly bought at the same time from the same newsstand. One imagines an unknown but soon to be wealthy artist being regarded a loser as he buys comics on the street. Or one does if one is an unknown artist who often buy comics on the street.) “Quotidian” is about the most complementary term I’ve seen applied to the original work in several sources, including Comics vs, and Wikipedia. Nonetheless, the original imagery was conceived by these artists, took time and effort, and often displayed a level of compositional creativity that clearly places it above the sort of mundane disposable image Liechtenstein and co. implies it is. This is a common stereotype in all graphics. While the irony in “Whaam!’ Is all Liechtenstein’s, Heath was certainly no stranger to camp and irony, having executed Michael O’Donahue’s hilariously arousing bondage/romance/war/western comics parody Cowgirls At War in National Lampoon. Buxom dommes and subs, viewed through binoculars in blasted landscapes. We don’t know how much of that is in O’Donaghue’s script, and how much Heath’s imagination, but what is suppressed in pop culture is often telling. While Ditko struggled to realize comics’ creative potential on Dr Strange in the work-for-hire sweatshops of Marvel, he was also inking Eric Stanton’s luscious underground kink across the studio they shared. In the case of war comics, the industry was not interested in irony, and with the exception of Kurtzman and co., rarely even questioned the morality of war.
Collectors certainly have always valued these originals, to an extent, but they never approached the cultural cache of Kirby’s superheroes, let alone Liechtenstein’s appropriations. My search on ebay for All American Men of War #89 ( the “first appearance” of the “Whaam!” image) brought up a listing at $325 in nice condition with Liectenstein’s name in the heading (not Novick’s, as would be the case in most comics listings). Another comic in similar condition from the same era, same Johnny Cloud character, AAMW #100, Heath’s name in the heading, is asking $30. However, for whatever reason, interest in these books is higher than I recall, whether Roy gets credit, or not.
This is an interesting book, very readable ( like most comics critics, excepting Thierry Groensteen, Beatty proudly eschews the lit theory jargon) and raising ponderables about both high and low arts.
Worst.President.Ever. Robert Strauss: Not about who one would think, published in early 2016, with a title that was outdated by the end of that year. James Buchanan, the last president to have a chance at avoiding the Civil War, provides a parallel lesson to today in what happens when personal ambition *trumps* civic responsibility. While 15 was not as corrupt as 45, he apparently was just as willing to adopt a racist stance to further his career. Sometimes a bit frothy, sometimes a bit sketchy on the research, but certainly timely, in a weird sort of way.
Robinson, Muriel Spark: Robinson is a recluse on a small island, onto which our heroine’s plane crashes. With a controlling hermit and 3 marooned strangers, suspicion is high, and human nature being what it is, there is tension. Spark, like Hemingway, packs a lot of meaning into the simplest of sentences.
Trots and Bonnie, Shary Flenniken: NYRB resurrects this unfairly forgotten 70’s gem from the pages of National Lampoon. Flenniken wields the subversive power of second wave feminism combined with utter, tits out horniness and narrative anarchy to come up with an authentic statement about growing up during the war of the sexes and the necessity of comics and other pop culture for social change. In other words, it’s hard to believe that voices like Flenniken’s, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s and Julie Doucet’s would have been heard without the relatively accessible medium of comics to provide a platform.
The back material, including interview, sketches and annotations, is a real plus. Many of these cartoons, especially the earliest, are laugh out loud funny. Like many at this time, Flenniken brilliantly reprises, then revivifies early newspaper comics’ styles to move the medium back into its rightful place as pop cultural touchstone. This was America’s reply to Garo Magazine’s creative experimentation, and a precursor to Raw. The rise of female cartoonists is one of the Underground era’s most redemptive features. How about some new material, Ms Flenniken?