The holiday break was brief, as #MoPrint2020is upon us and I’m up to my neck in the sort of events that that 3-month fiesta of the pressure arts brings us. Call it over commitment, call it opportunism, call it giving in to ‘pressure’. I’m calling it a great source of material for a blog that is supposed to be about my so-called printmaking career.
The official Month of Printmaking 2020 will be, as always, March of this even-numbered, biennial year. But MoPrint has always had a way of spreading through the first four months, and the first shows kick off this month, with a juried show at D’art last week and the two signature shows at Arvada Center beginning this Thursday, January 16, 6-9 PM.
I’m in the Arvada Center’s “Imprint: Print Educators” invitational show which is concurrent with the “528.0” juried show. IFine art prints are becoming more popular as affordable collection starters. If that interests you, it’d be hard to top this night as a place to jump in.
You can pick up a schedule-flyer for all MoPrint events there, or any of the events I’m about to list. If you make it to every #MoPrint2020 event, I’m thinking there ought to be some sort of cultural “Ironman” medal waiting for you. I’m exhausted just thinking about only the events I’m involved with.
“Rhythm in Balance: Five Contemporary Printmakers” is a show assembled by Patricia Branstead a fellow Art Students League instructor. I’m in it with Judith Bennett, Austin Buckingham, and Charles Woolridge. It’s at Niza Knoll gallery on Santa Fe. Opening night is February 21, and there will be a First Friday event as well.
That same night there will also be work of mine, along with student work at the nearby Very Special Arts Colorado’s Access Gallery. This is a celebration of a class I co-taught with Javier Flores from VSA with special needs young adults. Two shows in one place! They are also planning a First Friday event.
I’ll again be a part of the Artma Benefit Auction for Childhood Cancer, February 8. They do put on a good party, and they treat donating artists well , something I emphasize is an important consideration when I’m donating. My piece has sold each time, so get there early.
Teen Mad Science Monoprint workshop, March 14. The idea is to offer MoPrint2020 events for kids, too.Go to ASLD.org to register online. If this doesn’t fill, you’ll see me at:
The Open Potrfolio event at Redline March 14 is a very casual affair with artists simply showing prints on a table. I generally show things that are too old for my other shows, which means I can offer some bargain prices. If I can’t do this ( because of teen class, above) you can still see my bargain portfolio at:
Pop-up Print Sale and Show at ASLD March 28. Yes, same thing as the Redline event, but with Art Students League printmakers. There will also be framed work for sale, and the Monotype-A-Thon will be going on during the same time. A can’t -miss event.
That’s it so far, I suppose there may be more, and I’ll be posting about my DPL workshops soon, which are always open to the curious public. I’ll post my regular Adult classes at ASLD, also. Stay warm and hope to see you at one of these events.
It’s about time I posted. This blog is now over 10 years old, and long gaps between posts have been a regular feature, which never fail to shame me, not to mention obliterate my minuscule SEO, so as soon as I got some holiday downtime, I brewed an extra pot of coffee and sat down to catch up.
I’ll post about what the new year holds as far as classes and exhibitions soon, but after a frantic year end I’m ready for an escape, and comics have always been my escape. They actually do somewhat relate to graphics as a commercial print medium. But I first started these reading lists as a way of breaking up non-stop posts about me and my work, a sort of ‘Sunday features’ section for the blog that would also up the content for the blog, and take advantage of a perceived niche for comics criticism that explicates the power of this ancient but misunderstood medium to a more general audience. That’s the theory. I patterned my contributions somewhat after Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree column from the Believer.
This year turns out to be end-of-the-decade, of course, so my second ever Besties list is now, grandiosely, Besties of the Decade. There will be no klieg lights, no red carpet. I do have most of a bottle of decent Rye whiskey and some antipasti left over from Christmas; c’mon over.
The metric for inclusion is innovation and unique vision, but clarity in both design and narrative is also a huge factor. Still, stuff that makes me wonder just what the hell the author is on about is not necessarily a bad thing, if there’s some richness or intrigue to the vision. There’s a fair amount of diversity here, mostly in gender, but there are creators from Europe and England and America, comics intended for kids and many others that have been challenged in libraries, and many different genres. Reminder: comics are not themselves a genre, as the more ignorant and denigrating observers would have you believe. They are a medium. I’ve always been attracted to comics’ ability to offer expression to marginalized creators, so I don’t think the amount of women here is a surprise. There’s stylistic diversity, too, with clear line-type projects probably predominant, but more expressive, and even cartoon brut type of styles definitely included, especially in the catch-all of the anthology.
If I was to predict it before I sat down to make the list, I wouldn’t have expected so many ‘mainstream’ projects to make the list. This is defined fuzzily as output of large publishers with fairly high sales numbers, though increasingly, the lines blur. Most here is from the creator-owned Image line, not surprisingly, and it’s probably best to point out that the Marvel Now re-boot that that spawned a lot of brave interpretations of mostly B-list Marvel characters ( such as the Hawkeyes) is long gone. With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tail is now definitely wagging the dog, as far as I can tell. It’s also worth noting that to make any even minimal effort to keep up with that stuff, you need to visit the off-the-beaten-track Direct Market shops, and I just don’t do that so much. I keep my eyes peeled for worthy efforts, but I still think most of it is dreck. I don’t apologize for sticking mainly to the small press, bookstore-oriented things.
Still, about a third of the top ten and over 25% of the list when including Honorable Mentions is ‘mainstream’ product, which just goes to show you what can happen when the giants think outside of the long box, because those numbers in no way accurately represent the total out put on a month-to-month basis.
I’m going to milk this by going bottom to top, with the Honorable Mentions ( Resties) first, in no particular order, then the #9-2 Besties and ending with the coveted “Bestiest”. Roughly, the 10 Besties are in order of when they popped into my mind, so the last ones came to me first, and thus have a certain amount of memorability attached to them, a valid attribute in a top 10-type list.
Kramer’s Ergot #8, 2011; #9, 2016 #10, 2019; Sammy Harkham, Editor: Cheating here by including all the issues of the decade, but they’re never disappointing, and include nice samples of many current trends such as Cartoon Brut which I define as a concern for an essential graphic truth and the material properties of ink along with highly personalized interpretation of timeless comics tropes; and Fort Thunder School, a group that came out of a Providence R.I. art collective; mixed in with giants of the earlier alt-comics, such as Steven Weissman; and also Harkham’s own work, striking in its unrelenting camera eye and quiet, charged backgrounds. Now, Mome and other anthologies are worthy things to search out as well.
Supreme, Blue Rose , Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay: Meta-fictional re-boot of a meta-fictional Alan Moore reboot of a typically Marvel-esque original Image superheroby Rob Liefeld in the 90’s. In which, interestingly, the super hero never appears. Yes, like many mainstream comics, the backstory is complex and nearly impenetrable, but Tula Lotay’s lush charismatic graphics, and Warren Ellis’s antic storytelling make this an obscure work of genius, worth going onto Wikipedia to research the past iterations, as I had to. In a comic book store, it is sometimes rewarding to let your eyes lead you.
Super Mutant Magic Academy 2015: Jillian Tamaki forged an award-winning career in YA with her cousin Mariko starting in the Oughts with the exquisite coming-of-age/ coming out tale Skim. Lately she’s appeared to be interested in crossing over into a traditional general adult bookstore market, and published Boundless, which was critically well received but which I confess, seemed a bit precious and over wrought to me. I prefer this simple, hilarious web comic about interspecies gifted youth at a Harry Potter-like private academy, which coalesces very organically into ( again) a coming out tale.
How to Be Happy, 2014 and Frontier #7, Eleanor Davis: A simple, fleshy tangibility to her drawings; a provocative moral insistence in her tales. The first, a collection of post- and pre-apocalyptic short stories, the second, a small press one-off exploration of alternative sexuality.
Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley: Antic send up of Archie/Richie Rich Harvey Comics of the 60’s with satiric implications of today’s celebrity and mega-rich obsessed pop culture. Also did a Tubby ( Little Lulu’s frenemy)/ Alfred Hitchcock mash-up to satirize the petulant, entitled white male auteurs of 50’s cinema.
Leaving Richard’s Valley 2019: Prolific Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has at least 6 books that I considered, all of them innovative in their ways, and very provocative. He explores modern narcissism, among other things, with one story featuring a scene where the implied main human character asks for, and receives, a blow job from his computer’s operating system. This one is about friendship, emotional manipulation and betrayal, and is graphically the most original work on this list, seamlessly blending childish funny animal abstractions with computer graphic/photographic textures.
Sex Fantasy Sophia Foster-Dimino 2017: Originally published as mini-comics ( yes the zine/DIY scene is alive and well in modern comics, along with its web comic offspring). These are simple but highly affecting speculations on what people want from sex and relationships, and how the two often conflict.
On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden, 2018: Young Adult masterpiece that proves how surprisingly cogent that rapidly growing category can be. A young girl wrestles with professional and sexual identity in a beautiful sci fi universe. No male-identifying character appears, innovative in itself.
Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, 2013 : A candidate for Bestiest though the writer and cartoonist have taken a year long break, mid-saga ( a return is rumored to be soon). A young, mixed-species couple and their child battle prejudice and violence in a universe of never ending war. Humor, sex and Staples’ very original character designs distinguish this from your everyday space opera. The creative team say that it was designed to be a comic book only, but someone will eventually make a movie of this one, and you should read it first.
Hawkeye, Matt Fraction and David Aja, 2012. The only true super hero comic on these lists, but one that very convincingly and very affectingly explores what a super hero’s off-time hours might be like, in a hilarious and graphically concise and innovative way. Turns out Clint (Hawkeye) is somewhat of a slacker/wastrel. Fraction makes use of running gags to highlight complex, humanistic psychologies better than any writer in comics. He’s married to Kelly Sue DeConnick ( below). What I’d give to sit in for the weekend, after-studio unwinding after their kids are in bed and their many unique projects wrapped for the week. Funny, heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and again, something that only one medium can deliver. A sequel by Kelly Thompson featured a second Hawkeye character from this series, Kate Bishop, and did not fall too far adrift of the Resties.
Building Stories 2012: Chris Ware designs a box of comics in various, allusive formats (e.g: a Little Golden Book knock-off, A newspaper broad sheet about a bee who lives in a discarded Coke can in a vacant lot next to the titular building, a game board) that form a complete narrative in time and space of a Victorian-era apartment building and its inhabitants in a Chicago neighborhood.
Stroppy, Marc Bell, 2015: Very appealing comedy of a class-strictured future world where Stroppy, a Candide-like workingman, becomes a somewhat passive victim of control systems that benefit the rich and famous. With one (Big) Foot planted firmly in the roots of comics ( E.C. Segar, as channeled through Crumb) and another in the nihilism and dystopian vision of the Fort Thunder movement, Bell comes across as a sort of Carl Barks on acid, with Stroppy a man-child in a cartoon world he never made.
Coyote Doggirl, Lisa Hanawalt 2018: this deceptively candy-colored cartoon brut adventure reads like a feminist Lonely Are The Brave, by Abbey. To preserve her independence from victim hood after a rape, Coyote Doggirl escapes into the essential girlhood sexual fantasy of a girl and her horse in the wilderness.
Beverly, Nick Drnaso, 2016: Preternaturally quiescent and unsettling stories of families and youth in extremis, and yet trying to preserve normality, these gem-like stories reminded me of nothing so much as Salinger’s. The washed out pastels and deadpan line work adds to the chill. I have nothing against his second book Sabrina, nominated for the Mann-Booker prize, but this was my first encounter with Drnaso who seems to share with me and others a love of the short story format in comics, which belies the commercial format/ categorical catch all term ‘graphic novel.’
Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, 2013. 2015, 2019: Would have been on this list in any case, even if this Fall’s volume, The Rat, still incomplete, had not breathed fresh fire into DeConnick’s multi part poetic apocalypse. If I felt Volume 2 ( The Bear), set in WWI, flagged a bit after the startling and allusive Volume 1 ( The Shrike), kicked things off with its violent and compelling goth/ spaghetti western/ medicine show fabulism, The Rat proves there is nothing in mainstream comics like Pretty Deadly, by a mile. Emma Rios makes visual narrative subordinate to the double paged spread/montage, rather than the panel grid. Jordie Bellaire, not one of the copyright holders, but clearly a full creative partner in the enterprise, channels the subdued pinks and violets of Western landscapes and suppressed feminine yearnings; the acidic greens of poison gas and the lurid yellows and oranges of Hollywood puppet animation to DeConnick’s vision. Death’s Garden unleashes ambiguously motivated Reapers to call home various members of a black family from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. There really is no tidy summary of all the plot threads possible because DeConnick refuses to be limited to one interpretation. Suffice to say that feminine archetypes rich in the violence and striving of their agency, abound. This comic may be the first to warrant the reader’s guide to allusions ala Pynchon and Wallace; I predict the critical literature will be extensive when the epic ( 2 more parts are planned) finally ends. Don’t know if it’s even possible to make a movie of this. One of the entries on this list that can really, only be done with comics. Those who believe that the cultural ‘future is female’ are fools to ignore the comics medium, Where KSD, as the blogosphere calls her, weaves a tale that even she, one suspects, is not sure of all the implications. I, for one, am happy to watch her resolve it on the fly.
That leads us to the:
Bestiest : This is meant to highlight a book that had real impact on me both at the time I first read it, and sustained relevance as the decade has gone by, through multiple re-readings. Once I’d been reminded of White Cube, Brecht Vanden Broucke, 2014, which I’d read in the middle of the decade, there really was no challenger for Bestiest. I read it for the 3rd time recently and it is still finely poised between punk nihilism and artistic conceptual subtlety, in a painterly style that nods both to cartoon brut and Little Lulu. It’s funny, highly transgressive, yet strangely thoughtful in its explorations about how art enters our daily lives. The pink-skinned twins who star in this collection of mostly ‘silent’ strips, single panel vignettes and double page tableaus insist upon their own artistic vision as they wage their 2-man war against the aesthetic authority of the White Cube gallery world. They paint large blue thumb’s up “Like” symbols on the gallery masterpieces and are chased from the White Cube, but they always return. They are every newspaper and comic book anti hero, from Bushmiller’s Sluggo, to Herge’s Thomson and Thompson, to Bart Simpson.
Comics, the marginalized, censored step child of pop culture, also have a difficult and complex relationship with the authorities of the art world, as exemplified in this Russ Manning mini-memoir on Liechtenstein’s uncredited ‘appropriation‘ of his images for his paintings. White Cube is the first comic to fully address this relationship which is ground-breaking in itself, but it also comfortably inhabits both worlds, those of challenging art and reflexive anarchy, which is an essential feature of modern comics’ renaissance.
I’m going to include a separate list on books about comics, and I’m going to exclude retrospective collections from the first list, and include them in the second. This mini adjunct to the Besties separates important collections of forgotten or ignored past work and also needed exegeses on comics history from contemporary fictional projects. It expands the number of books listed to 22, but is fully justified in this historically significant decade, when comics expanded into the bookstore market (being credited with giving bookstores a rare area to expand sales) and innovation was rampant. This is where we see, in no particular order:
JohnStanley: Giving Life to LIttle Lulu by Bill Schelley, 2018: Died this year and will be missed. He recognized that John Stanley, a frustrated genius of the anonymous, marginalized ‘hack’ era of comics in the 50’s was one of the funniest and most relevant writers of his time. He explicates Lulu’s surprising verisimilitude to the actions of children (not to mention her status as one of the few authentic feminist voices of the time).
The Comics Journal #302 , Gary Groth, Editor, 2013: This 300-page issue of the comics magazine of record was probably a marketing fiasco, as the magazine disappeared from print for several years after that, having only and thankfully being revived last year. But it’s a comics fan’s feast with its many and diverse articles on such intriguing and little-covered subjects as Mort Weisinger, R. Crumb’s copyright lawyer, and Maurice Sendak. Comic Art magazine is much lamented after disappearing in the Oughts, but TCJ soldiers on with the recent Simon Hanselman interview an example of comics journalism addressing such relevant topics as gender fluidity and political correctness in the comics blogosphere.
Mauretania: Comics From a New World, Chris Reynolds, 2018 : Words cannot express how besotted I’ve always been with this obscure 80’s/90’s British comic replete with unresolved narratives; evocative inks and somehow infused with the thick light of Wales and Southern England. Its hero, Monitor, quests after meaning in a vaguely dystopian near future. Another character, a detective, dies but mysteriously reappears and doesn’t recognize her family. A quixotic visual tone poem curated by Seth, whose own title, Palookaville, was also a viable contender for this list.
Somnambulance Fiona Smyth, 2018: Again, a forgotten fave from the first explosion of alternative black and whites from the 80’s. Here again a distinctly feminist vision first finds voice in comics, and Smyth’s luscious sensual inks also foreground transgender and gender queer imagery and narrative, a real ground breaker in that area.
Drawn Together 2012: Aline Kominsky-Crumb pioneered feminist self-published comics ( along with Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, et al) in the underground era, then embarked on a brilliant lifelong collaboration with husband R. Crumb, with each illustrating one half of each panel of an autobiographical comic series about their lives, sex lives and marriage. The unlikely combination of her scratchy primitivism with his classic big-foot style, along with their decidedly unapologetic politically incorrect narrative (feminists hated Crumb’s sexualized women, and her unabashed masochism) was far more than the sum of its parts, as this 30 year retrospective brilliantly proves. Kominsky-Crumb, like other women of the 80’s comics scene, is finally getting her due as a pioneer cartoonist and editor who advanced female creative agency.
The Origins of Comics Thierry Smolderen, 2014 : A somewhat academic endeavor, but after a false start with one literary theory-clotted excerpt published in Comic Art magazine in the Oughts, Smolderen cleaned up and focussed his rhetoric and published this important survey of the (mostly European, sorry, American exceptionalists) roots of comics. In it, he argues convincingly for the early proto-comics of those such as Topfer as dynamic precursors to modernist art and cinema, rather than outgrowths of the academic, moralizing tableaus of such popular image-makers as Hogarth.
Comics: A Global History Dan Mazur and R. Alexander Danner, 2014 : Indispensable and ground breaking in its scope which includes Europe and Japan, as well as England and America. A real eye-opener as to the interweaving threads of the development of comics as a medium in the current period. I do regret that it doesn’t cover comics from the Golden Age on; but that would have been a different and much more expensive project to publish, and we need this sort of critical vision right now. Wonderfully illustrated and researched. If like me, you’ve regretted your ignorance of Manga, which was first to advance self-expression as a legitimate function of comics in the 60’s, then the chapters on the Japanese scene are very welcome.
There is a Clunker this year, a work that should have been much better than it was, not necessarily bad, or unreadable in this case, but a real drop off from past work. Jerry Moriarty is a massive figure in the NYC school of alternative cartoonists of the punk-inflected 80’s RawMagazine crowd. His first book, Jack Survives straddles very purposefully the line between comics and art, with its lush colors and Hopper-esque sense of place and time. But his newest project, What’s a Paintoonist? a speculation on himself as a little girl, married to an account of moving his studio upstate, has an unfinished and deflective, even detached, feel to it as if he just couldn’t buy into the concept. It has its moments, but was ultimately pretty meh.
So there you have it. The sample size was huge, not to mention the worthy contenders that I never got to read, or simply forgot. I surprised myself by leaving long-time favorites such as Los Bros Hernandez, Gabrielle Bell, and Peter and Maria Hoey off the list, as well as striking newish cartoonists such as Anya Davidson and Dash Shaw. All these cartoonists are innovative and important in their own right; I tried to sneak in enough mentions to exemplify just how hard this list was to compose.
Most are under $30, or available at the library. It’s an extremely vibrant medium, with many genres available within, such as Darwin Cooke’s very entertaining Parker adaptations of Donald E. Westlake crime novels. In a time-pressed world, it’s nice to have something quick to escape to, and now you can have the bestiest.
My Mad Science Monoprint workshop is this close to filling up. It’s my last publicly available class this year and runs for five Monday evenings, ending in time for Holidays.
I’m also co-teaching a class in large monoprints for Very Special Arts Colorado students with Javier Flores, of VSA and Metro State. It’s been fun, with the side benefit that I am working on a Lino cut for the first time in decades.
I’ll have two pieces in the Arvada Center’s January show Print Educators. It will be one of the signature shows for #Moprint2020. The opening is January 16.
The winter-spring catalog is now open for registration online at Art Students League of Denver. My first workshop availability in 2020 will be Jan 7. That will be my Monotype Starter beginner’s class, which prepares you for my other classes, and also certifies you to use our big airy print room independently ( for a reasonable fee per month). I don’t know whether it will fill up, but it can’t hurt to register now.
My last library workshop of the season, at Green Valley Ranch branch, has once again been re-scheduled for November 20 at 5:30-7 PM.
I’m going to do my Besties top ten book list for comics and graphic novels again this year. I can’t say I’ve kept up on this year’s releases that well- mostly because of still catching up on last year’s releases, but I realized that this is a decade-turning year and I have lots of opinions on this decade’s batch of comics, some of which will be noted for a long time. So I’ll have plenty of candidates. I’m adding a link to last year’s version, my first attempt at this holiday staple.
My webstore is again making progress after upgrading my website programming and security to hopefully accommodate the finicky Woo Commerce plug-in. I’m taking a few days’ break after a busy fall, but will return to it within days. Still hoping for a Thanksgiving launch.
This is a real grab bag, partly because in the rush to finish up some deadlines this fall my reading was very fragmented. It’s very unjust when life upsets my reading schedule, I just want to be on record with that.
For a brief while, I wasn’t really reading much at all. Some of these are also leftovers from earlier readings this year that I’d never put down impressions for. This is mostly comics, as that’s something that fit my frantic pace of life, but I did return to prose eventually, and there are a couple of those here as well.
Sabrina, Nick Drnaso: a critical fave that I’d alluded to in my Besties list as needing to read. It got nominated for a Booker prize and attracted attention. I read a rather rambling and contrarian review of it in the Longbox Coffin blog, and it sparked my memory.
It delineates the spirit of our post 9-11, post-truth world (fear, rage, conspiracy and misguided, even corrupt, populism seem to rule our discourse, whether Right or Left). Thus the book is rather bleak, mostly. The art mirrors that social entropy in simplified, almost emotionless cartooning and flat color. Everything looks fluorescent-lit.
Though the book’s not fun to read, it stays with you. I almost put it down, and did avoid it a couple of nights where its creepy atmosphere of fascist media bullying hit far too close to home in Trumplandia. The current conservative trope of infested, dangerous cities, lifted from 60’s conservatism, and dating back to the anti-immigrant politics of the early days of the GOP’s turn toward fascist politics in 1912, are proof of that. It’s hard to see positive human interaction in our venomous, twitter-fied online dialogue, but the book ultimately does offer for one main character, at least, a way out. Fear of change, an armadillo like interiority, are the gateways for the numbing negative populism ranging through our public dialogue. Interpersonal contact is the exit strategy. As always, love is the answer.
I also got Kramer’s Ergot #10 and Now #6 in the mail. They are the two preeminent comics anthologies now, and it’s interesting to compare them. They’re both published by Fantagraphics, a long-time pioneer in alternative comics, but are edited by different people. There is much intersect, but they are not identical.
Now is the latest in a long line of Fanta anthologies, meant to test drive new creators, or promote company stalwarts. The company, led by Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson, has debuted so many of today’s comics stars that it’s easy to lose count, and foolish to not keep up with their latest discoveries. Now, edited by Eric Reynolds, features international artists and has increasingly showcased very abstract comics. Kramer’s has never been afraid of abstract or expressionist comics and has returned often to its favorites. That’s because Kramer’s, a franchise edited and originated by Sammy Harkham in the 90’s and self-published before being published by the legendary and now deceased Alvin Buenaventura before ultimately landing with FB, has developed a kind of stable.
Both these most recent issues feature Steven Weissman, an artist whose hyper charged ‘kids’ comics FB first published in the 80’s, but who now brings a surreal humor and a real zest for fabulism to many other traditional genres including the western, or the fairytale.
Both also are prime promoters of the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad/ ‘cartoon brut’ schools of comics as exemplified by Marc Bell, Helga Reumann, C.F., and Mat Brinkman, etc. These 20-oughts era movements constitute a revival or continuation of the zine subculture that grew out of punk rock in the 80’s and earlier, the comics subculture of the 50’s and 60’s, especially undergrounds. Some, like Bell, trace their roots ultimately back to the ‘big foot’ style of the turn of the century newspaper comics. Many of those were expressions of marginalized cultures, often Jewish.
So while FB (Now) has always sought out and attracted young innovators looking to get published, Kramer’s may possibly have the deeper roots in self publishing. Either way, or both, one can get a nice overview of cutting edge comics, especially if periodic visits to Spit and a Half.com, John Porcellino’s online mini-comics clearing house, are added in.
These are clearly a world apart from the fan-boy oriented mainstream publishers of superhero fantasy found in the direct market shops; but also the newer, burgeoning young adult genres advocated by libraries and school reading programs. Comics are an expanding medium, and in exploring their relationship to the art, design and literary worlds, these two titles are essential.
Songy of Paradise, Gary Panter: Panter also got his start in the punk rock era, and is best known for a series of LP covers he did for Frank Zappa in the 80’s; and the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on TV. He was a Raw Magazine mainstay. Here he takes on Milton’s Medieval biblical fantasy, Paradise Regained, which I haven’t read. The Temptation of Jesus in the desert is here enacted with Panter’s hillbilly character Songy. It’s a large format comic, and Panter is able to really stretch out, proving that his punk/expressionist style is in no way incompatible with great design and a sense of place, which his post apocalyptic comics have always had. Panter’s thick, unrefined, but very precise and evocative line must have been an inspiration for the cartoon brut comics creators but his dry humor masks a genius for Candide-like satire that sets him apart.
Comics Journal #304: Simon Hanselmann Interview: I was delighted to see this feisty little mag ( also Fantagraphics) available at Tattered Cover for the first time in a while. Gary Groth doing his Gary Groth thing, long form interviews of comics creators, that in the strictest sense usually need an editor, but in the long view, now after roughly 35 years of them, form an irreplaceable study archive of some of the greatest creators of the 20th and 21st Centuries. ” Moving on to your Kindergarten years… ,” I swear I read in a Patsy Simmonds interview once. That gives you an idea of what to expect.
But who else was ever going to do such a complete job of documenting ignored cartoonists and writers, with many of the earliest ones now dead? I really doubt there’s a lot of critical source material on Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, for example. TCJ is comics’ magazine of record.
This is a very timely interview, in that it touches on issues that are hot topics in comics, and indeed in many pop cultures; such as #metoo, transgender issues, and queer identity as pertains to satire and biography in comics. Hanselmann raises some interesting questions in regard to the comics subculture, in which snap judgement and the ‘cancellation’ phenom of say, Twitter are very definitely in force, as in all pop culture. This is a very complex set of questions, as he points out, and may not always be compatible with creative freedom.
I’m also reading a radical feminist survey of Julie Doucet’s work from the 80’s/90’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but sometimes creative work- however ground breaking a feminist vision Doucet’s work was- viewed through that prism can suffer from a lack of balance and perspective in understanding what the artist’s vision and motivations actually are. I haven’t finished it, so it’s premature to say more, but I’d like to return to the topic soon.
Paul Gravett’s overview Comics Art, which seeks to touch on but not comprehensively examine, current and historical issues in a refreshing survey of international comics, is his best book. He had real flashes of insight in Escape Magazine, a British publication that featured comics and criticism from both sides of the Atlantic in the 80’s, but his Graphic Novel was too much a coffee table dog and pony show intended for newbies during the first blush of comics’ entry into the mainstream to be of much use to the serious student of the medium.
This one explores issues surrounding comics’ history as a marginalized medium, its use by marginalized populations, and its structural development to examine its nature as a unique art form. There are copious examples and Gravett does not always go to the usual suspects from American or British newspaper and comic book publishing, instead taking the opportunity to introduce lesser known artists worldwide.
While I do not always agree with his choices, he uses them well to explicate his ideas in a compendium of short essays on various topics. I’ll return to it again in a comparative sense, I’m sure.
I wanted to sample the new volume of Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, and Jordie Bellaire without having to wait for the ‘graphic novel’ album in March. I’ll still buy that, I’m sure. The only place to get a ‘floppie’ of the first issue is the comic book store, so I did one of my periodic ‘State of the Comic Shop’ visits and spent an hour sifting through the various titles on offer. I have my thoughts on that; it’s also a separate post, that ties into the current transition of alternative/ literary comics from comic shop direct market to the bookstore market. But I did enjoy the first installment of the new arc, which takes place in 30’s Hollywood.
I have hopes that I’ll be bewitched by it as much as the first volume, a sort of goth spaghetti western, that I discuss here. I was a little disappointed by the second, a World War I narrative that did not attain the same heights of fabulist synergy. As you may have guessed, it’s one of the oddest series out there. I discovered it during my first survey of mainstream comics, just after I left my day job and had time on my hands. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to mainstream comics now, but again, I’ll try to work up some impressions before the year is out.
And that brings me to my “Besties”, which when I wrote them for the first time last year I just assumed would be the typical yearly survey. But I’m not the type of reader who tries to keep up with current releases, so I have to get on Amazon or Goodreads or something and try to figure out how many of this year’s releases I’ve actually read. I promised myself I would make note of 2019 reads as I read them, but now the holidays are crowding in and I obviously haven’t done that. Reading Listing is hard! But I’m determined to have my Besties, even if it has to include leftovers from last year, such as Sabrina, or Coyote Doggirl, a sort of feminist “Lonely Are the Brave” in bubblegum colors by Lisa Hanawalt that I finally got to this year.
Civilizations, by Armesto-Diaz: a big survey of world history from the perspective of how civilizations interact with and modify their natural environments. It eschews the traditional ‘progressive’ history of flood plain civs to sea/trade/colonialism to ‘modern’. It advocates against a top-down hierarchy of ‘advanced’ v. ‘primitive’. It’s somewhat provocative and interesting, well written and highly readable. But I dawdled, had to take it back, as it was due. I got just over halfway through it, and was enjoying the lively almost bantering tone, and some pretty fresh thoughts on how to judge social and civic innovation through the centuries.
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende: from the freebie pile at work ( it’s not been released yet). My bucket list of South American writers continues, and this one has two, really- Allende, and Pablo Neruda, whose social conscience and poetry inform the story of a couple who span two eras of socialist experimentation, from Republican Spain through Allende’s father’s brief, doomed Chilean reign. The omniscient narration and dreamy factuality of S.A. lit is here, though the realism is far from ‘magic’. Highly readable, certainly sad at times, but ultimately hopeful.
I don’t call myself a socialist, but we certainly need a lot more of the democratic kind right now, as the proponents of unregulated capitalism have failed and are becoming more corrupt. This book is thought provoking about leftist agendas, their pitfalls, and the obstacles they face.
Yes! A somewhat vulgar pop cultural reference to describe the dregs of my high art musings and literary pretensions. I think I’ll make it a regular feature. This, after I was just thinking to myself while walking to the grocery, ‘I should try posting some long form pieces’. And maybe I will ( when I have time to write one), but don’t worry- I’ll skip the suggestive titles.
I posted the rest of my Fall Denver Public Library workshop schedule on the ‘Workshops’ page, find it on the top menu bar. It’s really only two additional dates; October 17 at Green Valley Ranch, and November 7 at Ross-Barnum. They’re free and open to the public, and one of the nice things about them is you can come and try out the Akua water-based inks, and/or explore the concept of hand-rolling monotypes, which I know from questions in classes that many of you are curious about.
Yes, there are kids there. Sometimes, many kids. But look, if I can survive working with kids kidding about for over 5 years now, you can make it for an hour and a half. Click on the contact page or message me on social media if you have questions about this, I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
I also posted some new images in the ‘Portfolio’ section and will soon post more. These are larger monotypes I’ve been doing to fulfill upcoming show and jury deadlines, and I’ll be back in studio to do more soon. I’m going to try to start posting brief blurbs about older pieces to explicate concepts I’ve been discussing in the longer posts, too. In most cases, these will be much older, say from before this blog existed (2009).
I think I alluded to working on a web store ( for the millionth time) in a recent post. I had to put that aside when the software wouldn’t work, and I needed to concentrate on deadlines and classes. It’s freeware, and glitches, along with piss-poor documentation comes with the territory. They are trying to sell their product to developers and are probably required to offer a free version and helping some poor shrub with a WordPress.org site is far down the list of priorities.
I’ll take it back up when things settle down a little- maybe as early as this weekend. In the interval, I discovered an upgrade I can make to the actual WordPress software that might help the freeware work better. WordPress.org usually has much better documentation, too. I’m optimistic I can still have it ready by Xmas/Black Monday sales opportunity season, fa la, and will certainly offer discounts and premiums to get it rolling, probably right through Spring, so if you’ve been wanting to creatively fill a blank space in your walls, hang on, help is coming. I should be able to offer gift certificates, too. I apologize for maundering on about this since who tied the pup*, but hey- internetsing is hard.
I’ll put up a new reading list soon too. Mostly, I’ve been wrapping up odds and ends from Summer, but I feel a new long project coming on. I did buy a used copy of Tristram Shandy a few months ago, because since I read Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, I’ve wanted to read it. To which sentiment one friend asked pointedly: Why?
Well, now how can I answer that, until I’ve read it, hmm? And with that, a blog that thought SEO stands for ‘Still Expressing Oddstuff’ barrels into its 11th year.
*Strange expression my late mother used often. I don’t have any idea what it means either, and she always refused to explain it. But I’ve been thinking of her lately, so- Hi Mom!
The next workshop I’ll teach this fall is Monotype Portfolio. It’s intended to go beyond the basic techniques of one of a kind prints and explore harnessing of acquired skills in service to an artist’s creative vision. Less about how to make a competent print, and more about making one that tells your story. So here’s some speculation about stories in art: all art tells a story, whether the artist intends an overt narrative or not.
I reviewed Women of Abstract Expression at DAM in 2016 in terms of its inherent drama- Ab Ex is always about drama, with its reliance on gesture and scale- and in the context of its backstory, of women against a repressive art scene in a sexist society.
Lee Krasner made obvious use of pinks and browns in this show to declare artistic independence and feminine creative power. “No one was surprised more than I when the breasts appeared,” she says of a pink-dominated piece in the catalog. Pink and brown ( as seen in a couple of pieces in that show), not pink and blue, are the colors of feminine sex. In asserting the dominant colors of the flesh of the vulva and the earth with power, gesture and scale, Krasner must have known she was using color in a transgressive way, to break assumptions and conventions. Pink had already been associated strongly at this time with a demeaning view of femininity, whether in the pink triangles for gays in the Nazi camps, or its prevalence in stereotyped domesticity. She returned later to this combination in “Gaea”. Her generative colors wind up being the story of her will to create art .
Krasner finds a rich, assertive pink and her browns are straightforward and do not recede. There is tension here, and much to ponder no matter what your superficial reactions to the terms ‘brown’ and ‘pink’. Here, they cannot be separated from her suppressed rage, her earthborn desire to create, her need to assert animal power. Her story, in other words, though through its raw aggressive assertion it becomes ours, too, as recognized by the curator of the show. Colors thus can tell a story in the tension between complements, hues, transparent/opaque, light/dark, warm/cool. Colors are a component of light, of course.
And light has its own story to tell.
As it travels across a pictorial plane, light creates an inherent story. It reveals, hides, blasts and suggests. It’s movement, which creates interest, and even in an abstract picture, one is well served to be aware of the source of the light, as viewers will almost certainly do that, and follow its path, whether unconsciously or not. In pictorial arts, eye movement can certainly be analogous to emotional involvement or interest. It’s an obvious source of drama, Let there be light. The light at the end of the tunnel. Every picture is a lighted stage-something is about to happen. It is the white space that makes the advertisement more powerful on a page, separating out noise to let the signal through. Chances are, if you are surrounded by black, you are dead, or asleep and dreaming. Surrounded by white, you are in heaven ( blessed , transcendent), or in a blizzard (lost and near death). Black and white are never neutral.
Composition also tells a story even when not attached to a specific literary narrative. Diagonals are important because they imply movement. Molly Bangs in her innovative Picture This speaks of a diagonal as a tree about to fall, and that’s a form of movement, even an implied danger. But even ‘static’ or stable diagonals in perspective imply movement into space. A repeating series of simple vertical shapes, especially strokes, imply rhythm or music, and in this, as in physics, distance= rate x time. Every one of these concepts is somewhat synesthetic; they blend sensory information, which does for the interest level in a picture, what eye movement does.
Along implied diagonal axes in a picture, other dichotomies come into play as dramatic elements. For example, hard edges versus soft edges: soft =mystery, distance. Hard = surety, obstacle. The eye gives us definition up close, and indistinction far away, so it is a natural thing to see hard edged shapes as closer or more important. In realism, these cues get used pretty straightforwardly. In abstract or expressionistic art, they get jumbled, and become part of a picture’s mystery. This too can be manipulated. Too close, and objects become mysteriously indistinct or vaguely threatening.
The final story a picture tells is not at all under an artist’s control. Not so much in a gallery setting, but in a street fair show, where artists are spending long hours absorbing the diverse reactions from a large sample of viewers, one is struck by how much a viewer’s interpretation can differ from the one intended by the artist. I actually encourage that with schematic, open ended imagery, but you don’t ultimately control what another tells themselves about a scene. I maintain that this is part of the natural narrative process in art.
When several people interpreted my large monotype, “Man With Torch”, as an environmental statement, I couldn’t really disagree. An indistinct figure wielding elemental power strides across a denuded plain (top).
However, I intended it clearly in my mind when composing it, as a metaphor for memory. One razes the past in memory, even as one marches confidently toward new experience, oblivious of past failure.
Both interpretations seem valid now. I don’t argue that some interpretations of an image may seem more valid than others; this sort of visual relativism can go too far. But narrative IS organic, and the oldest story is transformation.
Thus, no matter how specific the imagery, ambiguity results, and working to make the image more specific often leads to overworking it, which tells its own story, of obsession or neurosis. Visually, this can be a form of stasis, not necessarily a bad thing if balanced against movement or transformation.
Movement of light across a plane and suggested movement of diagonals comes under the general heading of transformation: all art is transformation of a sort, and anything that shows an artist’s hand, such as transitions from black into white, or blended colors, bring that idea to the fore. Transformation is already in your process, but preconception can sometimes render it awkward or graceless. Transformation IS the story, and it should be built into your process, your composition, and your colors. A recognition of the transformation that inevitably informs a successful piece as it’s being made makes it easier to deal with the fact that the story of a given work of art often doesn’t end when it goes into a frame and onto a gallery wall.
I’ve reached a point in this summer that can be considered both blessing and curse: My last full workshop of the summer session has been cancelled so I have lots of time for reading and projects (yay!), but of course, I’m completely broke.
I should define terms. By ‘broke’, I mean each first of the month, I pay critical bills and trek to the grocery to assemble a decent store of food, and whatever’s left ( in this case, nothing) is used on clothes, books, restaurants, etc. Trips to the library for books, dvd’s and lately a Spanish conversation group, are my entertainment. Inventorying and scanning youthful ‘collectibles’ for sale is for beer money. And of course, there’s time for ongoing studio work. Whether I eat steak or lentil curry pretty much depends on what’s on sale. I enjoy both, and cooking in general, so all in all, it’s not a bad life. Writing for my blog helps me to process this, and also to promote the next workshops.
(In a Sense) Lost and Found, Roman Muradov: This is the second GN, and the third story overall, I’ve read by this very appealing artist, who I think comes from an illustration background. His stories are rich in innovative visual design and textures, and as art, are glorious to look at. His stories are not that engaging, and can in fact be obscure and precious, because he foregrounds the illustrative concerns and his pictures, sometimes constrained by a too-rigid 9-panel grid, become too clever by half.
In many panels, for instance, he has decided to experiment with a very muted, low-value color scheme, and I think a veteran comics person would intuitively know that with the limitations of printing, one must include a generous amount of highlighted contours, or the action gets murky. A lesson imparted in the noir films of the 40‘s, or also in Milton Caniff’s classic newspaper daily adventures, and which Muradov thinks doesn’t apply to his somewhat bland fable of a young woman searching a dark city for her lost innocence. Long segments would be gorgeous visually, if a few highlights or even mid-values were included to provide a way into the action.
Similarly, however attractive the drawing, his uniformly hard-edged images contradict the air of mystery and depth he is trying to evoke. They would be fine in a simpler, more minimal illustration, but Muradov aspires to a comics tour-de-force, sprinkled liberally with Joycean word play, only without having done the homework. Its superficiality overwhelms its ambition. Eisner is another comics great who evokes the mist and mystery of urban alleys with well modulated color and minimalist ink effects. And Maria and Peter Hoey (below), who also come from an illustration background, source the evocative lighting of 50’s Hollywood or the welcoming secondary colors of mid century advertising to make sure the story remains front and center.
Muradov has great potential, and is improving. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art, a subsequent GN ( this is his first) features a lively retro futurist noir tale with gorgeous ink effects, and a recent story in Now #4 simplifies and hones his unique visuals even further, though the narrative in both remains obscure at times. They both include scenes in rain, Lovingly rendered, as is all his work. As they say, there is a very important difference between drawing and cartooning.
On A Sunbeam, Tillie Walden: I got this from the Young Adult section in the library, where if one is seeking to keep caught up with current trends in comics, one must sometimes go. The category is rapidly expanding, thanks to libraries and school reading programs, and the publishers and writers are paying attention, since that is definitely where the money is. The current Comics Journal (303), has an article about its history and current state, if that interests you.
The book is a lesbian romance at its heart. I’m sure it’s on some Red State Trumpster’s hate list somewhere already. Yes, I’m looking at you, Alabama. There are in fact, no male-identifying characters in the story, as far as I can tell, a somewhat incidental fact that will undoubtedly lead to Twitter-pated outrage over what messages about love’s untamable diversity the book imparts. It is a lovely book that is much more than that.
The main characters are engaged in restoring old buildings in far flung space. A separate narrative explores a somewhat Harry Potter-like private school for girls. One character, a troubled, very restless and impulsive girl named Mia, links the two threads, past and present. This provides ample opportunity for both adventure and school girl drama, and Walden, with subtle pacing, is good at both. The art is both intimate and panoramic at times, and the facts on the ground unfold slowly, and -rare in Sci-Fi, many conflicts are solved without violence. It’s a great read for either young, or older, adult, in short.
What’s a Paintoonist?, Jerry Moriarty: Moriarty’s latest work lacks the fine balance of memoir, surrealism and quiescent expressionism of his earliest work. There are some great images here, but others seem thin and loosely formed. The overall premise, of Moriarty exploring his life through the eyes of himself as a teenage girl, seems not to arouse the same wry, loving humor as Jack Survives, his groundbreaking and rather brilliant early work in Raw Magazine of the 80’s that views the world through his father’s eyes.
The girl character, Sally, seems to be an attempt to know his older sister, but the character gets bound up in adolescent sexuality, mostly that of a young boy, and only rarely demonstrates any girlishness. A shop woman’s large breasts are glimpsed tumbling onto the counter as Sally buys a soda. Is it an adolescent boy’s memory, or a girl’s? More convincing is a scene where she climbs a tree to impishly urinate on a passing adult. There are scenes filled with Hopper-esque mystery, such as the girl taking refuge on the porch of an abandoned house in a sudden rain, but the linking, interview style black and white panels lbetween never approach the dense, voyeuristic, claustrophobic yet somehow nostalgic atmosphere of Jack Survives. Nor its wry humor. A loose central narrative of leaving/ return ( Moriarty frames the images around leaving his NYC loft to return to his parents’ upstate NY home.) similarly fails to generate any real emotional tension, showing spare images of his studio, intended to be ghostly, but here, just simply empty. It’s a shame, as the one artist one would trust to properly evoke the haunted vacancy of lived-in spaces would BE Moriarty.
One wishing to acquaint oneself with Moriarty’s special genius for linking American idioms, would be better served by going to the earlier work.
The Customer Is Always Wrong, Mimi Pond: Mimi Pond appeared in old National Lampoon Funnies Pages issues during the 70’s. This is a memoir of her day job during the run-up to that gig. Many who lived through that period will recognize the milieu, when drugs infused every corner of youth experience, and restaurant gigs provided a family- and party-like background to unsettled lives.
This is Pond’s story of those strange times, and she sticks to the events and characters that affected her in her youth, without trying to over-dramatize or universalize them. So the story almost became my own memories. A neat trick, but not enough to make this more than a voyeuristic peek into the past.
Worn Tuff Elbow #2, Marc Bell: This follows from #1, 14 years ago. I recently re- read earlier collections, such as Stroppy, and Pure Pajamas, that delineate Bell’s surreal dystopian class-ridden world of rich, entitled bureaucrats, blank faced robot factotums and tubelike proles, with non-plussed humanoids between. It’s funny and bewitching, with the antics and endeavors mostly centered around low-gain working class striving for free lunch, or poetry contests. It’s a very retro cartooning style with E.C. Segar and R. Crumb the obvious reference points, but other more far-flung affinities pertain. The angst level being turned up to 11, Phillip Guston is an immediate association. For instance. I did abstract over a creative/aesthetic/cultural lineage from Segar ( Popeye, a ‘big foot’ everyman, with agency) to Crumb ( neurotic, id-obsessed everyman with agency) to Guston (neurotic, surreal, KKK-beset everyman, without agency) to Bell (passive, beset by dystopian forces, no agency). A more succinct, yet concise, history of comics in the 20th/21st C. one would struggle to find. At its terminus, dense and beguiling world building meets funny, relatable characters, and cannibalised human relations are the norm.
Coin-Op #7, Peter and Maria Hoey: I made a trip down to the Denver Independent Comics Expo (DINK) in Spring, and had a nice conversation with Maria, whom I’d met before. I haven’t met her brother Peter. They alternate appearances, and apparently, so do I.
I regret not asking more questions about their method of collaboration, but the convo took a nice turn into printmaking, so was wonderful anyway. I picked up a silkscreened Illustration and The latest issue of Coin Op. I don’t think I even spent $40, so they could probably charge more for a very limited edition hand-pulled silk screen and a pretty much full-sized GN, but on the other hand, I know from experience that it’s in the nature of these festival-type shows, that you often have to compromise on price to keep sales up. Still, many there were selling giclees and other commercial reproductions at close to the same price, and there is a major difference there in quality and provenance. So on the one hand, I was pleased with scooping up a deal, but also mindful of the fact that the task of educating the general public on what constitutes an original print versus a reproduction continues.
Coin Op is their ongoing comics series which I first encountered in Blab! magazine, which was the first I know of to collect work from both the comics and graphic illustration worlds that it turns out, many artists ( such as the Hoeys) inhabit. Nobrow is another, later magazine that performs this function in Europe.
So as you can imagine, Coin Op affects a clean, cool, retro commercial style, but with a very unique, incisive intellectualism that comments on varied topics such as M.C.Escher’s spatial experiments, old R&B music, and even, often through collaboration with writer C.P. Fruend, film history and iconography. A quiet irony abounds. This issue has a wordless visual oddysey featuring their ongoing characters Saltz and Pepz, a romantic epic that seems to have its ancestry in one of those grade school film strips about The Making of Paper, and two of their engrossing filmographies, one on 50’s Sci Fi movies with a vaguelt dystopian conspiracy theory thread, and one that explores the life of proto-Noir producer Val Lewton.
They are dense with looping allusions and visual hijinks (in each issue, there is always an ‘exploded view’ sequence, ala Frank King’s classic Gasoline Alley Sunday strips), and in my house they get read over and over. They recently collected the previous six issues of Coin Op, along with some of the earlier Blab! material, a steal at $30.
The Hoeys, perhaps becuase they probably earn their living from illustration, haven’t received a lot of attention from the alt comics world, but that may be changing, as they were just nominated for an Eisner Award for the above-mentioned romantic ‘pulp’ tale “Supply Chains” from this issue. They occupy a rarified space between the angst-ridden, expressionistic scrawls of the more punk cartoonists, and the disturbing cartoon brut displacements of the Fort Thunder school, a place where advertising art and marginal cinema goes when we’re through ignoring it.
A Western World, Michael DeForge: These are collected stories, and take various approaches to DeForge’s continual search for innovation, both visual and narrative. Example: A story about idyllic reincarnation on Saturn begins in media res, with an unseen factotum explaining to the ashen, newly elevated vice president just why he’s acceded to the highest office.
DeForge has been adding softer visual textures to his backgrounds behind his attenuated, harder-edged figures. A sort of chiaroscuro develops, which matches and heightens the subtle emotional longings of his characters. He’s got a unique voice and style, which is as responsible as any for refining the Fort Thunder-style cartoon brut into a sort of sci-fi fabulism that will probably define the next phase of avant grade comics.
Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael DeForge: DeForge’s latest full length work is a melodrama of masochistic longing and toxic attachment, played out in a post industrial Eden made alluring with its smudged grays and Hello Kitty-style smiley-faced denizens. It is Manga’s cute creepiness, elevated to quasi-biblical epic.
And it all began as a four panel web toon. A subtle mirroring of Peanuts’ wry punchlines propels us into its dark human drama. In this, it recalls Jillian Tamaki’s brilliant( and hilarious) Super Mutant Magic Academy, which also began as a web toon, and which achieved a sort of unitary dramatic power. There is real poetic, even diegetic, alchemy in these sorts of unassuming cartoons, as if someone had taken episodes of a sitcom, say, That 70’s Show and turned it into an opera ( have they?). Tamaki’s Academy is about a young girl’s coming out; DeForge’s Valley is about the moral boundaries of friendship and love. DeForge doesn’t reach the power of Tamaki’s narrative climax, but he is not afraid to break faith with the punchline in service to psychological inquiry ( I cried until I laughed?) He is again, always- a visual innovator here, and if the book flags a bit as it ends, it will -again- probably be very influential.
Last minute update: It’s been announced that Kelly Sue DeConnick’s, Emma Rios’, and Jordie Bellaire’s very intriguing Folk/Western/Apocalyptic epic Pretty Deadlywill return in September. Already re-reading the first two volumes in preparation. Expect more in this space on that.
I’ve updated my ‘Workshops’ page to reflect my fall schedule at the Art Students League of Denver. You’ll find info about beginner classes, weekend sampler, and my more intermediate-friendly classes. I don’t have info on DPL Plaza Program workshops yet. Those are still being scheduled, and I’ll update when I have them. There is also a video, and some brief essays on why monotypes might appeal to an artist.
I’m still working slowly on my web store. I’m using freeware and open source software for all of this, including the web site itself, and they’re glitchy as hell, and poorly documented. I know, what do I expect for free? I’m not a programmer, damn it! But I’m slowly working through the issues. There will definitely be some Grand Opening and Holiday specials , so watch this space.
I have plenty of book posts, and another creativity post in the editing queue. So there should be plenty to see here soon. Thanks for dropping by!
I started a blog in 2009, with the stated intention of documenting my transition from working class day job to full time artist. I quickly discovered there were challenges to this- running up the credit cards on unprofitable shows, for example, with severely reduced cash flow as a result. Another consequence was trying to keep a steady presence on the web, with the distraction of the cash scramble. Part of the difficulty in keeping a steady schedule of posts, for me anyway, was the reluctance to write every post about me, it seemed monotonous. But many of the interesting related activities that informed my conversation with the day job- travel, important shows in other cities, even arthouse cinema- were out of my price range now. The low cost entertainment that I now enjoyed were trips to the library for classic novels, art books, dvd’s and alternative comics. At the same time, I picked up a copy of Nick Hornby’s collection of book blurbs, The Polysyllabic Spree. I enjoyed his casual, almost flippant approach to reading. I didn’t adopt his format- books bought, books read- but I did start a Reading List (word cloud at right) category on my own blog.
Of the various categories, comics seemed the most promising, since they are a commercial form of printed graphics, but also not covered by many writers, relatively speaking. A good niche for me, though of course, I continue to write blurbs about novels and art books too. It offers a nice way to process what I’ve been reading, with the immediate notes I jot down when I finish a book placing my reactions in a more concrete form.
But I haven’t really explored in any definitive way the relationship between art and comics, though it’s alway on my mind.
Raw magazine took an approach to comics that was undoubtedly informed by the proto-punk avante garde art rock movement of Television and Patti Smith in downtown NYC during the mid-70’s. “Raw seems to confuse a lot of people. Is it a comic book? Is it an art magazine?”, Co-editor Art Spiegelman wrote in Read Yourself Raw, a compilation of the best of early Raw issues, in 1987.
“Raw: The Graphic Magazine That Lost its Faith in Nihilism” The subtitle to #3 teased. “The Graphix Magazine for Damned Intellectuals” collected from diverse sources: refugees from the Underground Comix, yes, but also people from The School of Visual Arts in NYC, such as the Hopper-esque Jerry Moriarty, punk expressionists like Gary Panter, and Eurocomics Ligne Claire revivalists such as Jooste Swarte, whom Spegelman perceptively identifies as inheritors of Deco/De Stijl sensibilities in the same intro to Read Yourself Raw. In short, the intention was always to meld comix with high art.
Raw defined comics-as-art into the early 90’s, before co-editor Francoise Mouly moved on to the art editorship of the New Yorker, bringing the Raw sensibility, and many of the artists, now names in literary and illustration circles, with her.
Other magazines ( Buzzbomb, Bad News, Exit, Nozone) tried to copy the format and iconoclasm (don’t forget the witty tag lines!) but didn’t last.
By the turn of the century, however, another magazine was mining the intersect between narrative graphics and high art, which Phillip Guston and Raymond Pettibon, not to mention Adam Gopnik in the catalogue for High Art, Low Art at MOMA, were already exploring from the fine art side. Dan Nadel, often in collaboration with Tim Hodler, had started The Ganzfeld, like Raw, an infrequent anthology of comics, in this case mixed in with essays and graphic illustration from across the spectrum of illustration and gallery art. The art school influence was there as well, in this case with the Fort Thunder school of comics artists that came out of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design.
While Raw celebrated comics’ outsiderness with ironic tag lines and by drawing parallels with newspaper comics’ rowdy past with reprints of Herriman, Boody Rogers and actual art outsiders such as Henry Darger, Nadel emphasized the connectivity of comics with New York gallery art and the design world, and the shelving designation for Ganzfeld #3 reads: Art and Design. Lawrence Wechsler commented on Bruegel, The comics-adjacent pop art of the Hairy Who is examined. Nonetheless, many of the pioneering Raw artists, such as Mark Newgarden and Richard McGuire are here. Euro comics are less in evidence, though Blexbolex is an exception.
Raw cheekily asserted comics’ otherness while advocating for their legitimacy as an art form, The Ganzfeld placed them side-by-side with other hard to categorize art forms to integrate them into the critical landscape. These are both interesting strategies, one growing out of a punk/DIY sensibility, the other leveraging design/publishing elites to elevate by association.
A more recent anthology, Black Eye, makes the comics/art connection but more implicitly, focussing mostly on comics, perhaps because coming out of Detroit, they can’t really access the design/ illustration world as easily as Ganzfeld. They sometimes feature comics criticism, and like The Ganzfeld, often feature printmakers, natural allies. Issue #2 features a strong underlying Posada theme, not only in the graphic styles presented, but also in its undeniable skew toward black humor, which pervades all three issues of Black Eye. Again, Raw alumni, as well as Fort Thunder artists are published frequently.
The editor, Ryan Standfest, draws explicit connections to Raw Magazine, i.e. taglines! But he also returns to the savage black humor that the undergrounds inherited from EC’s Mad and Panic. However, a knowing sophistication accompanies the gleeful savagery. Jeet Heer, for example, points out in #1 the divide in the Undergrounds between the narrative comix (Crumb, Shelton) and the very visual psychedelia of Griffin and Moscoso, who liberally adapt contemporaneous Op Art tropes. Black Eye, even more than Raw and The Ganzfeld, wants it both ways, and this dichotomy between the serious and mockery characterizes much of more recent comics as a whole. This places a lot of cutting edge comics into a high art/pop culture art form that dates back to Oscar Wilde and continues through Stonewall ( as Heer points out): the weaponization of irony, as camp.
All of this would have been impossible in the repressive 50’s, when comics writers and artists sought to escape the low pay, grueling work conditions and censorship to find ‘respectable’ employment as illustrators or syndicated newspaper cartoonists. Comics deserve critical attention for their own unique aesthetic qualities, of course, but more and more the line between them and art and literature is blurring. This creates a healthy critical dialogue, and also expectations and opportunity. These anthologies offer all three.
Mention here is appropriate for the euro-centric Nobrow Magazine and the yearly Blab series, both of whom pair cartoonists with illustrators and graphic arts designers. Nobrow usually features work in both fields by artists who work in both. Even comics-exclusive anthologies such as the excellent Kramer’s Ergot make a case for comics as art, though by consistent quality, rather than by overt editorial agenda.The Comics Journal pursues essentially the same tack, but WITH the editorial agenda. Still, their inborn irreverence betrays their fanzine roots. It appears succinctly in the title of their own oral history, Comics as Art: the voices of Groth, Spiegelman and Heer proclaim. In the subtitle, comes the nose-thumbing rejoinder, seemingly straight from the mouths of Kurtzman, Feldstein and Crumb- We Told You So.
Raw, Blab and The Ganzfeld can still be found on the second hand back issues market, though Raw, like many of the alternative comics pioneers of the 80’s, is beginning to get quite pricey. Black Eye is still available from the publisher, Rotland Press, along with their many intriguing chapbooks, though print runs are small and probably dwindling. The same is true of Nobrow.
Ideas are far from static entities. I mentioned in another post that like the particles in Maxwell’s Demon, they will usually gain energy or significance only by colliding with other ideas, and thus are born of a process of synthesis or transformation anyway. But even an idea born whole -assuming that really exists- will benefit from different approaches to it. Transforming an idea puts you in the driver’s seat, even when you are not sure where you are going- especially when you are not sure. Taking ownership of an idea sometimes means taking it apart and putting it back together again. If you find you have parts left over, perhaps they didn’t belong there in the first place.
There are different strategies for transformation, and some are additive, and some are subtractive. It’s become a convention to speak of Picasso, for example, as a ‘creator/destroyer’ as Arrian Huffington once put it, and apart from the implications in an artist’s personal life, the famous time-lapse film of Picasso painting onto a clear panel, erasing whole areas and putting new elements in their place is an extreme (and possibly self-dramatized) example of the way process can be far from linear. A good book on Picasso’s creative process that I’ve enjoyed recently is The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, by Rudolf Arnheim.
It is a bit of a self-drama, for me, anyway. I’m sure other artists might agree. One gets one’s favorite studio soundtrack going- let’s see, Pixies, or Phillip Glass? A stimulant can be added; now, it’s usually coffee, though I admit that wine or beer was more common in the early days. There is a certain choreography that pertains: anything from organizing the studio, to a restless pacing back and forth from close-ups to long view, a sort of rhythmic dance might even break out.
And then the adding and subtracting. This has a real metaphoric weight- it’s not just a surface arrangement. Questions of positive and negative space, visual weight and color messaging impact the meaning of an idea, the way it blossoms from pure visual immanence to a more objective literal object. No artwork can escape this fluid dynamic.
So what can be added? Especially in printmaking, which is subject to the technical limitations on effects and processes that can be changed after they are once applied, and a general bias toward simplified graphic forms? The short answer is: distance and movement. There are many ways to add depth to a print, which by nature and design, can sometimes be flat. These range from the traditional, such as perspective, to other more abstract strategies.
Visual and metaphoric distancing strategies affect our reactions to a picture emotionally and analytically. This often takes place in terms of creating eye movement, which is the physical manifestation of ‘interest’ in looking at an artwork. Something detailed, heavily textured or just very hard-edged often gets our most immediate attention because of how the eye works. Something fuzzier, and less distinct feels ‘farther away’, less of an immediate question or challenge. Distance is the essence of ‘depth’ in an artwork. It also creates musicality when we consider that distance=rate x time. Similar objects, varied in size, and placed at regular intervals, create a rhythm and depth that becomes harmonizing. We follow the ‘beat’, moving into the space and time of a picture.
Textures can add energy and attract the eye, things such as “noise”, a word I use to refer to ‘accidental’ by-products of ink manipulation- debris, extruded strokes, distressed color forms, and scratched-in forms, such as in clouds or dark areas. Textures impart important cues into an artist’s attitudes toward the basic shapes in a composition, and are not to be ignored. Texture sounds like a decorative detail, but two shapes, treated in a soft, fuzzy, mystery suggesting way; or in a hard-edged, definite, foregrounding way, can say different things about meaning. Literally and figuratively, texture provides definition.
Edges and contours work the same way. A hard edge will physically ‘foreground’ an element, owing to the way the eye works; and in combination with a darker color can also create a sort of silhouette, a neat trick of adding both proximity and mystery to an object, a very basic and challenging question to the viewer’s eye: Do I stay here, or move around this, into what has by implication become a distance. Thus movement is created.
Contours bring softer, more reticent shapes forward. Contours can be textured to add intrigue or expressive notes, or faded to add mystery and metaphoric movement. Contours can be found in shapes that already exist in the image, or imposed on top of textures or patterns beneath. They can be somewhat arbitrary or even contrary, or harmonious and integral.
Textures can be stylized (semi-abstract), or realistic and sort of gritty or tonal. In monoprints, texture can also include different printmaking techniques such as relief, dry point, and collograph, among others; each offering a new ‘window’ into a separate reality, upping the way meta narrative can be incorporated. Whatever one’s opinion of Andy Warhol, his genius was to prove finally, conclusively, that art can never be wholly a matter of physical gesture. Ideas are born, live, and die in the mind. While his art is obviously about much more than printmaking, the surrealist juxtapositions of process color and deliberate mis-registrations inject the ultimate distancing effect of all- irony. Viewed in these lights, texture and color, especially in printmaking, is anything but decorative.
Bright, warm colors bring the underlying elements forward; dark, subdued colors can make the overlapped elements recede. In printmaking, where color schemes are often simplified, accents can attract the eye to important areas, add irony or balance, or a visual counterpoint. When complementary colors are used, they can demonstrate visually the adage that “opposites attract”.
Positive/negative elements can foreground detail, or create visual reversals, which are energizing and add intrigue. As in famous optical illusions such as Necker Cubes, positive/negative elements in art can be both additive and subtractive, foregrounding and backgrounding, at the same time. A splash of textures or small shapes can lead from positive (dark) areas, in color on light areas and segue immediately into negative (light) shapes in a dark area. This is a cubist trick that leads the eye and breaks visual planes. Again, eye movement trumps surface illusion.
As for the subtractive side of the creative process, As an idea becomes more developed it often becomes more complex. Other ideas and nuances accrete, leading to a signal to noise disjunct that can obscure a simple first idea. It can be liberating and freeing, in a creative sense, to simply take something out. Let the idea suggest itself, rather than spelling it out. If an idea isn’t strong enough to survive this at least you know that now.
And white space is well known, in printmaking’s cousin, advertising, to create places for the eye to enter a picture, or to rest briefly while considering a next move. Monotypes or prints without sufficient white space can sometimes feel heavy, or busy. With an often limited color palette, and no way to reclaim the resplendent whites once they’ve been printed over, this is not surprising. But balance in darks and lights doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 mix. A small, very bright white area of the original sheet showing through a mass of black ink can be very compelling.
When do the transformations end? It’s a question I get a lot in classes- when is it finished? Do I keep going and risk irreversible change, or stop and risk Superficiality and incompleteness? Transformations have consequences. Do I dare to eat a peach? is T.S. Eliot’s sublime, elegant and wholly understated version of this existential dilemma.
And it is very much existential. Change will happen anyway. Embracing change places you in the very engine room of the creative process. What to do there? I wish I had a simple answer for that in my own studio work. Be present. Open yourself to the movement and the music.