A vacancy of purpose takes hold. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a creative sense; I’ve alluded to large empty landscapes in my work and in my creative process. An idea, I’ve said, might be compared to a single rider appearing on a dark plain.
It becomes a bit disconcerting, doesn’t it, when vacancy overtakes your daily routine. It’s an issue I’ve seen coming but delayed addressing, but as I reach official retirement age next spring, it’s been a subtext to my lockdown activities. What to do to keep everyday fresh. I’ve got projects, like everyone, there’s the slow reorganization of life around the idea of staying home. I’ve made a teaching video, applied for economic relief, attended to chores both bureaucratic and domestic. Odd that enrolling in Medicare came at the same time as the virus exposed the weakness of the American health infrastructure.
I had set aside creative production with the closing of my normal workspace, but now I’m looking to return to sketching and studio tasks in anticipation of its eventual reopening. I’ve kept busy. But a creative response was always going to be a must going forward.
But what’s the response? What is the meaning of this newly recovered time? That’s not as easy to resolve as painting the bedroom or as simple to unlock as a studio door. I’ve always turned to art and pop culture in my resting hours to inform that investigation, but now, in a sort of free floating anxiety, I found it hard to pursue new, complex projects. So I returned to older revelations to see them in a new context. Creative flipping, I’ve called it- like a monkey with a stick, I’m turning things over to see if there’s some important function I’ve missed. It can feel repetitive. But in repetition is motion, in motion there can be found rhythm and in rhythm can be found music (art).
And that is -of course! -what led me to Thomas Pynchon and Neil Young. I won’t try to link them- a process that would certainly fill time, but also condemn this blog to the farthest, and very vacant reaches of SEO exile. But I will post separate speculations as evidence of something I consider an essential truth: art’s rarely great, without first being weird. Both Pynchon and Young have had long successful, honored careers. Neither ever foreswore their insistence on being weird.
Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pynchon: In the void that opened up between daily creative purpose (what to do?), and mindfully spent days (what to make of this?), my full docket of readings collapsed. I’m a browser. With the library closed, limited budget and shelf space for online purchases, and the strange, vacant days having tracked us down, I searched my shelf and found a reliable poltergeist to fit the zeitgeist. This is the third time I’ve read it. Why?
Pynchon, like America- and let’s be honest, we didn’t need a pandemic shutting down The Cheesecake Factory to show us this, it’s been right there in front of our faces all the while- is weird and more than a little scary. Pynchon happens to be much better at dressing up the existential paranoia with humor, with robust sentences and images, with the sort of literary parallax that post modernism specializes in, than the country, especially as represented by the incomprehensible word salad of its titular spokesman. We wish America was funny-weird-scary right now, rather than scary-weird-scary. As soon as I pulled the book from my shelf, hefting the 865 pages of funny weird creepy improvisations on the very heavily loaded line drawn in 1863 between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and a host of very American histories they stand for, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same when I look out my front window.
Novels having flown their arcs, this is a very simple tale. Straight line, east to west, actually. To complicate it: some monarch ( James II and VII, but who’s counting) has botched the math in awarding proprietorship in colonies to Penn and Calvert, and borders must be surveyed to fit the authoritarian ignorance. Mason and Dixon, between gigs sighting Transits of Venus, a measurement of solar parallax that was a landmark in determining astronomic distances, are hired. The line surveyed took 4 years of hacking their way through the wilderness and triangulating it with the stars. It eventually wound up becoming a political-cultural touchstone when Americans could not triangulate their way around the question of owning human beings and how much the darkness of their skin devalues them. It sits there invisibly in the pleasant rolling Middle Atlantic landscape, having become as much scar as inscribed line.
That’s where Pynchon comes in. His genius is exploring the dark dreamlike wilderness between science and storytelling. Apocalyptic rainbows etched by erectile weaponry, capital “V” vectors between identity and desire, that sort of thing. The astronomers/ surveyors survive sea battles to get to slave states, pick up chicks with Franklin, smoke pot with Washington. Then they get out their instruments, and the weirdness really kicks in.
This is not beach reading, though it is at times hilarious. It puts the lie to the Rousseauan Arcadia of pre-revolutionary America, and includes Indian massacres, professional-grade geometry and robot ducks. This is an America that is unmapped, and thus dreamlike. “Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?” There is a long section in which a character lives through the 11 days that everyone else skipped over when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. It immediately came to mind when the reality of the shelter-in-place was fresh, and weird.
I set myself up on the couch in the hours formerly known as morning rush hour, or the now perfect silence that settles after dark, with my beverage ( coffee, the official drink of Enlightenment era political ferment, now the drug of choice for essential workers, gets a starring role in the book) and my Pynchon Wiki, a pioneering internet lit crit innovation that TRP can justly claim indirect credit for. The wiki helps one to negotiate the myriad historical and scientific allusions, the coffee opens one’s eyes to Pynchon’s rich imaginings, faux Early Modern English patois and robust syntax, the quiet streets remind us that however strange and frightening our history, we are still a work in progress, a nation that can be about the future. Who, after all, writes a book about 18th Century surveyors; unless he thinks it can tell us something about how our lines are drawn now?
Familiar, and yet strange. That is the textbook definition of the surreal, and not to overuse a very overused term, a perfect description of what passes for our daily lives right now. A bit of a horror show, really, though not without its irony, humor and possibility. These days, like all days, once we see them, for all their weirdness, approach the sublime. We’re going to need artists like Pynchon, who in this book says, through the voice of a framing character:
“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.
The tiny hands of corruption are all over the narrative of the present day; the poets and artists- essential workers, by Pynchon’s lights- are on the back heel. In casting about restlessly in my quarantined space I found, on my shelf, the perfect book for this eerie, vacant lost world. Fabulist, counterfeiter, ballad-monger, crank- which am I? In a time when society tends to put people like me, older, poorer, marginalized by choice of profession- on a shelf; in a nation that has never prioritized the health of its people, it’s a healthy question to ask.
And here is your reminder that whatever you read, listen to, or do to get you through this bizarre period, to remember to vote on November 3, as the health of a nation depends upon it.
I made a video about hand rolling monotypes using water-soluble non toxic ink. You can watch it here, and let me know if you like it. I intend to make more, and I’m planning on a series of follow-ups before Fall. I’m also exploring Zoom-based online classes. The catch is that printing in a studio with a press doesn’t translate easily to home-based learning, so I’m basically designing whole new classes, based somewhat on my experience teaching classes through the Plaza program at Denver Public Library. Just like the video, in other words. What I know on the status of my in-studio workshops has been posted on my ‘Workshops’ page, here.
There are stirrings that may lead to limited studio and class access in June or July. Check back for more info. I really wonder whether we’ll see a Summer Art Market this year, but, the school is working with the city to see what might be possible. There’s an incentive to work on online alternatives, naturally, and the school is exploring that, as am I. As we settle in to the new normal, I hope to develop more online presence, which I’ve always felt to be important.
I also opened up a Zoom account to get familiar with that, as it’s bound to be a growing factor at the school and elsewhere. What follows is a ‘making of’ account, for those who are interested, of the video in the link above.
Making a video is a challenge. You have to organize in your head what you plan to talk about, all while paying attention to details of light, composition, clarity and originality. So essentially, talk about light, composition, etc, in art while being mindful of its light and composition in presentation.
I took about 12 hours to plan, set-up, shoot and edit the 30 minute video, which can’t be that bad of a ratio for the medium ( I had worked in video during my Public Access TV days, so I was under no illusions that it would be a 1-day project), yet, at what I was paid, reduced my hourly to well under minimum. I’m not complaining, it was more of an opportunity to make a demo than any sort of payday. I thought of it as a minimally paid internship. I learned a lot by doing it, in other words, and it’s now a resume piece in case someone offers better money.
I outlined the vid right in iMovie by creating title cards for the various subjects I intended to touch on. This created a structure and allowed me to familiarize myself with the program’s controls, which I hadn’t used since 2010. At that time I created a short video for my soccer group, and later, I began to experiment with art video at Open Press, using a fellow artist as my camera guy. I even started a YouTube channel to collect my videos, and posted one that Joshua Hassel of Channel 12 made for me there as well. It still exists. I was planning on making a series of vids to promote my work and classes, but time gets in the way, and as one can see, it is time consuming.
The virus closures brought the issue to the fore. Even then, I was still working in my ‘essential’ ( a new synonym for poorly paid?) day job, and it was difficult to make time for shooting. Only after being let go at the bookstore, and with the school’s deadline forcing the issue, did I get into my spare bedroom/video studio and complete the thing. Even after 12 hours it is a bit rough around the edges, but the perfect being the enemy of the good, and all, I went ahead and uploaded it.
Lighting was a bugaboo, I remember from my old Public Access days. Getting it to look halfway natural is very time consuming, and I got as close as I could, and moved on. But before setting up, collect your painter’s lights and floods and experiment with a multi directional set-up, which will fill in shadows. Blend in diffused bulbs and natural light if you have those, too.
You can see the simple format I used. Intro-title card- set up, title card, etc. You can save time and file size by using dissolves or even jump cuts. I get distracted on camera, as mentioned, and there were goofs and awkward moments as I tried to stick to a mental script without sounding wooden or nervous. Segmenting the creative process helped me to focus, and reduced the amount of re-shooting if I screwed up ( I screwed up).
Camera angles were also time consuming. Reserve a day for set-up and test footage if you can. And one for fixing errors. Other glitches are inevitable- the phone ran out of power in the middle of a crucial long segment for example. I re-enacted what was a live to tape action in a minimal way, and edited it in. But recall that monotypes are a one of a kind print. If you lose a shot just as you are printing, the final piece will be different. Finally I added a couple of informational or personal touches to give it character. Such as a studio shot or web site info with illustration. I’m looking forward to doing a follow up soon. I’ll see about sharing both here going forward.
I’ll be making more, that’s the whole idea- to use the extensive set-up time and the experience of it to make future productions smoother and faster- and will be seeking to get more money for them, but certainly to get the promotional value too. First up will be a movie trailer-style promo of about 2-3 minutes that I can post on my media platforms to drive traffic to them, as well as the full video. I can have real fun with that, and will probably explore all the toys in the tool box.
The basic light and camera set-up I’ll leave available for further deadline work, and the lessons learned will be more productive if I go right back in and use them. So a rough, once-a-month shooting schedule would seem to be a good goal.
I haven’t touched the TV. I worry about myself sometimes when I do that. How culturally out of touch does that make me? I did sign up for the library’s Kanopy movie streaming service. But after reading a magazine article about him, the first film I searched for was Jacques Tati’s “M. Hulot’s Holiday. I think you can see why I don’t watch TV. But cabin fever sets in when I’m cooped up at home, and restlessness is not conducive to large reading projects. My solution is brevity.
Magazines were what I’d read while working full time, or fiction and nonfiction in small bites. A large book I’d put down before the quarantine explores cultural historical vignettes in aid of a larger history of Britain’s wars with Napoleon. It has short chapters, each one on a different aspect of life, industrialization, navy, press, politics and is just the ticket right now, with the added benefit of drowning in others’ distant sorrows, rather than my free floating anxiety.
If the reading list seems fragmentary and unfocussed, I’m going to put it down to plague living. It- and not my inherent laziness is the driver behind the various trivial home improvements, online Scrabble games, puttering on eBay, and popcorn dinners that have interspersed the exercising, business promotion and mind improvement I intended would fill my days.
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: I’m on his second cycle of stories, The Garden of Forking Paths from 1941, after starting with 1935’s a A Universal History of Iniquity. I started with “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote”, spectacularly meta-fictional and funny, but thought provoking for sure. The conceptual labyrinths are profuse, and there is, at the ends of his bright surrealist hallways carefully hung with curiosities, the dream-like mystery of empty rooms.
Pierre Menard is a man who wants to write Cervante’s Don Quijote, word for word. Not transcribe, mind you, but create it by becoming alive to its necessity, and erasing from his mind anything not integral to its creation, such as the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In a way, isn’t this what we do when we read it? ( I read Part One.) It’s what I’m currently trying to do preparatory to trying Tristram Shandy, and I suppose, Ullysses.
A bright, warm, vaguely deserted spring morning is the right time for this type of mind game, and I think a dark roast, with just a touch of milk. My cup was black with a matte finish, contrasting with the blonde veneer on the end table. The cat was chasing a toy lobster around, had gotten a treat, and then climbed up onto the couch to settle in next to my thigh. These plague days at times create their own sort of clarity.
The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham: This is an inspiring read about the censorship battle surrounding the greatest novel in the English language, Ulysses. Spoiler alert, love- and art- wins. Birmingham does not cheat for drama, adding in rich detail about the conception and writing of the book, and the people who risked it all to see the book in print. In a measured, but uncompromising way, he also introduces us to the (spoiler alert) men (yes mostly men, and the defenders were often, not always, women) who made a moralistic crusade of keeping it from the eyes of Americans and Britons. It is part literary critique, part smuggling adventure, and part courtroom drama, and when the final triumph comes, in 1933, after 12 years of government overreach and harangue, there were tears in my eyes.
Like any book about this dense, challenging, earthy but ultimately uplifting book, the final result is to make one want to read it (again, in my case). And Birmingham provides loads of context for first or second-time readers, or perhaps any reader. I devoured this book, and I’m anxious to use the enforced downtime to get back to the original. We’ll see.
Fantastic Four #37, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: I sold this artifact from my teen age collection on eBay and read it one last time before shipping it off. It dates from ’65, when the Marvel phenomenon -snarky, angsty superheroes, existentially grasping supervillains- was just reaching its peak. A few months later Kirby, who did the storytelling, and Lee, who supplied the flippant dialogue- the ‘Marvel Method’, would hit their stride on this title, with a long run of sci-fi fantasy gems by Stan and Jack, with later series by Jim Steranko, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, et al that helped form the underpinnings for the now famous- and lucrative, Marvel Universe.
But this one is a patched together mess, verging on pure hackwork, with the FF sending themselves rather arbitrarily off to a distant galaxy to deal justice to a Skrull murderer (of a protagonist’s father, a bit of a nasty edge to this business) left over from a previous issue. Everything about this story is off hand- The journey through a time warp, the revenge killing thinly disguised as justice, the conveniently conceived weaponry and the fairly preposterous victory scheme.
Kirby and Lee were never strong on female characters- Marvel heroines tend to be solicitous of male superheroes and often in need of rescue. Here, there’s a bit of sisterly solidarity as one rescues another conflicted woman from a codependent relationship with a supervillain. That’s about as good as it gets for this era- later, we see a typical Marvel resolution, as the Invisible Girl, having made a bold decisive move to tip the battle, then frets about her capabilities and defers to the boys to mop up. As a 15-year old I had no perspective on this embedded sexism. It, like many things from the era, all gets internalized. What internalized mental hackwork is still clogging American progress, in politics and pop culture even now? At the time these Kirby/Lee comics were being published, Japan’s Garo magazine was already pioneering a more mature vision of comics, and women such as Moto Hagio were a part of that.
Kirby was pretty overworked at this point, in order to capitalize on Marvel’s sudden popularity, and the drawn perspectives are jumbled, the faces rushed and inconsistent. Lee is not really in sync either. He did add a lot to Kirby’s more ponderous characters and situations, but here seems to never settle in to the rushed plot, whipsawing between quips and bombast. There are hints of what was to come: a 1-page photo spread, a brief abstract starscape, some leavening domestic humor. Despite what the fan letters in the back say, a fairly forgettable episode from Mighty Marvel. I did get a little cash for it- more books, incoming!
…Almost certainly including a trusty comics anthology, or two. Anthologies are a living history of a real renaissance in current comics, and a great way to keep up while spending small chunks of time or money. My tribute to those of my past is here, but it’s time to update with the two issues of European mag Scratches ( #’s 1, 2, Joost Swarte) that I was finally able to locate domestically and had delivered just as the lockdown was beginning.
Scratches is a showcase of Euro cartoonists for American eyes, and vice versa. It’s edited by Swarte, the man credited with helping to start the Ligne Claire revival in the 70’s (he coined the term) and bringing it to America, and to the essential Raw magazine. Neo-Ligne Claire naturally has a strong presence here, especially #1. Ligne Claire, (clear line) one of the essential stylistic movements in 20th century comics, is modernism in narrative pen and ink, with all that entails, including Herge’s proto-fascist racial stereotypes of the 30’s and 40’s. The revival, dripping with PostModern irony, implicitly comments on this history. Of course, other issues are inherent in 70’s and 80’s comics as well (see below).
Scratches, like its inspiration, the groundbreaking Raw magazine of early 80’s NYC downtown, presents subtle stylistic differences from its American counterparts, Karamers Ergot, and Now, which also have recent issues out. I enjoyed the opportunity to compare in real time the sensibilities of this Euro/NYC hybrid with the West Coast-originating American anthologies. I leafed through Kramers #9, and Now #6 from my shelf, to even up the samples.
A stylistic common that links all of these is a comics brutalism. This can take many forms, and is a direct reaction to the literary comics of the 80’s and early 90’s which espoused a sort of punk/DIY Neorealism, often autobiographical. Comics brutalism- cartoon brut? ‘cute brut’ Dan Nadel, editor of the art/comics journal The Ganzfeld calls it- expresses a love of the medium’s material qualities and tropes, in some cases drawing on comics’ roots in the googly eyes, sausage noses, and big foot look of the early newspaper strips, but also the scratched-out inking and spare dystopian noir of Golden Age comic books. These are beloved of our era’s punk, ‘ratty line’ artists such as Gary Panter. Its earliest antecedent, as far as I can tell, is oddly, Phillip Guston, who appropriated R. Crumb’s underground comics style for his signature, existential, politically charged paintings of big-foot neurotics, unblinking eyeballs and Klansmen in the 70’s.
Its most recent influencers, however, are the Paper Rad and Fort Thunder collectives of the late 90’s and early Oughts. They were part of a second zine and mini-comics explosion that began in the late 80’s with notably, feminist icon Julie Doucet. Their impact has been huge, and has also invaded animation and fine art.
Kramers Ergot has been a leader in showcasing these artists, such as C.F., Lale Westvind, and Anna Haifisch, who comments directly on art world hierarchies in #10’s acidly chromatic “Hall of the Bright Carvings” an adaptation of Mervyn Peake.
Scratches tends to look at these trends through the filter of cutting edge design as seen in Brecht Evens’ untitled sequences in both #’s 1 and 2, where water media fantasy figures evoke children’s book illustrations, but undergo sometimes vaguely disturbing transformation. Also a strong presence is the riotously iconoclastic Brecht VandenBroucke, who got the ‘Bestiest’ pick of the decade in my tragically under-coveted ‘Besties’ awards posted this year.
Now #7, which has been finding its way under Eric Reynolds, highlights a very literate and subtly constructed tale of a mother and daughter exploring mom’s sexual history by Kurt Ankeny. There is a slow peeling back of life’s narratives and falsities in a simple yet wistful colored pencil sketchiness. There is a never heavy-handed juxtaposition of interracial relationships and a frozen lake. There is much to find in comics right now, and in a new decade’s fever dreams, brief epiphanies abound. Neither does Now ignore cartoon brut.
Since we’ve already broached the subject, and since this post has dragged on almost as long as one of the Insane Clown President’s wack medical advisories anyway, let’s close by doing the numbers: my best count of the gender representation in these anthologies, for what it is worth to the reader, is: Kramers #10, 5 women/out of 30 artists; Kramers #9, 6/37; Scratches #1, 5/39; Scratches #2, 4/31; There is a “Scratches Academy” listed on the editorial page, with 2 women listed among 11; and Now #7, 2/14; Now #6, 6/15.
A strikingly consistent percentage, and the question is, why? We touched on the individual editorial visions; that is a variable. And comics, especially the solitary time-intensive, very low paying alternatives, seem tailor-made for socially, um distant, males. At any rate, they have not over the years, attracted a lot of women, and the audience has been mostly male, though those things are changing. Are these editors ( all male) pushing the boundaries only in a stylistic sense? I won’t presume to judge that. But only by being mindful of these problematic raw numbers can one expect to have a voice in their solution.
In this strange, dreamy plague limbo, I guess I thought that my blog would emerge from its own. There’s plenty of time to write, after all. A bit of restlessness has infected my reading, and that’s carried over to writing, I guess.
There’s a lot of both happening, actually, but short pieces seem to be the mode. I’m actually tackling long term tasks- house projects, aid applications, financial tidying, with steady success, but if I thought I’d re-read Ullysses during the shut down that’s not what’s happening. Yet.
We don’t know what will happen this summer as political leaders and medical experts wrangle over when and how to open the country up, and I can’t really tell you much on my various art projects. I did compose a reading list post along with this one, separated out to make it more searchable, and I’ll post that in the next couple of days. This is intended to update my art doings since the lockdown cancelled all of my MoPrint shows.
The Summer Art Market, like everything else, is in limbo. It won’t happen during its regular early June slot, we were informed of that. The League is consulting with the city about a later date this summer, but a city official quoted on Denverite.com has already made remarks discounting a normal schedule of festivals and events this summer, so I don’t know how much faith to place in a postponed SAM. If it does happen, much studio time has been lost, so it would probably involve less new work, and perhaps filling in with older work from the flat files.
I still have quite of work in quarantine, however, at least 16 pieces. This includes 2 prospective sales, which I can only hope are still consummated after this all ends. If they don’t, I’m not sure how I might describe that lost income on an unemployment app. I think it will all work out, but here’s a reminder to spare a thought for the self employed as you make your way through the post-virus political landscape. Our bureaucratic infrastructure is designed to ignore them.
One of my cancelled shows, quarantined in a closed gallery, in a weird limbo of its own- the house section in To The Lighthouse is the unavoidable mental image every time I think of this- may be extended through early summer. This is assuming there is a citywide opening of some form this summer I haven’t been good with the social media, but I will try to post updates. It all depends on what the world looks like if people stop dying, but a gallery might seem to be a place a brave socially distant new world could tentatively open up to.
I did complete a video about Making Monotypes At Home, which is here. It’s my first longer art video, a medium I’ve been intending to explore. As you might expect, it’s kind of a mess. The pay was not glorious, though welcome, of course, so I took it in the spirit of an internship in making art videos. I’ll get back to that sooner than later. Last time I did a (short) video around 2010, I didn’t make time for advancing my craft so I never made more. Like many things it requires repetition to learn, and I want to pursue it.
More than ever, I’m rueing the dysfunctional Woo Commerce freeware on which I wasted my time this winter. It verges on a scam- they have paid software which you can install, and which is supported, I’m sure. The freeware comes with WordPress and was obviously mailed in to fulfill a community promise, and definitely not supported. I have a couple of choices- cave into the scam and just get the paid version, or go on the discussion boards and see if there’s a work around to the crappy freeware. But I will probably have lots of time to do that. Another virus project to keep me occupied.
What does happen after the quarantine ends? Hmm. I’m trying to see this time as a reset, a chance to look at everything I’ve been doing, and how it could be done better. I hope people will see that as a good way to approach the quarantine as a whole. The way we work and commute, the way we protect our planet, the way we treat our ‘essential’ workers ( the word ‘essential’ now exposed as a synonym for low paid and powerless), and from my perspective, the social net as it applies to self employed creatives. Do we really benefit from going ‘back to normal’?
Haven’t done a reading list all year. First obstacle was a very busy beginning to #MoPrint2020, then a frantic round of cancellations. For a while, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, perhaps from burnout? Then, there was a family visit back east, and a short staffed day job creating long hours. Through those, I’ve been reading, and now as the quarantine stretches into long weeks or even months, it will continue to be a major activity. It’s cheap, it’s peaceful and safe, it’s… socially distant.
The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson: Covers the first two years of the War for Independence; roughly, Concord through Trenton. Two more volumes are planned. I’d read 1776, by David McCullough, but this book, in addition to being more granular, was more of a cultural history, with the experiences of the common foot soldier, farmer, and wife given a central role. Even the Tories, those loyal to the King, get some coverage here, which can be rare. It was compelling in that way, and of course, the words and movements of the politicians and generals was fascinating, too. This was an ARC, (bound galley) from work, so I have a long wait for the second volume, but will watch carefully for it.
Endeavour, Peter Moore: I savored this book from Xmas through March, and if I ever have a Besties for prose, this will be on it. Another hybrid history, with cultural and scientific events and a general examination of the Enlightenment all bound in with what traditional histories see as the dawn of global colonialism. A very complex and thrilling tale of Captain Cook’s first South Seas voyage, that takes as its protagonist the ship itself, with Cook, Royal Society scientist Joseph Banks and naturalist painter/ illustrator Sydney Parkinson as co-stars.
The book begins in the oak forests of Yorkshire and bounces back and forth between day-to-day accounts of English coastal coal trade, descriptions of Tahitian society, and sea faring adventure on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It ends with the American War for Independence, where Endeavour, having been renamed, then recruited for transporting Hessian mercenaries, meets an ignominious end, ironically within yards of where Captain Cook’s second ship also ended up. I couldn’t help recalling Rocket Men, the account of Apollo missions to the moon, which carried fragments of one of those ships.
It’s now an indicator of a book’s impression on me that it finds a rare and precious spot on my crowded shelves, awaiting my return to it. This one did.
The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson: Yet another cultural history. They are becoming popular, and I really can’t get enough of them. Is this indicative as some sort of academic/historiographical populism? This one takes a close look at Churchill and family during the first year of World War II. Though aristocrats, they had much contact with ordinary Brits during this period, thus giving a close-in picture of life during the blitz.He also skips across the channel to give a picture of members of the Nazi elite for contrast.
I haven’t read that much about Churchill, so it was a real fascinating look at how he galvanized British resistance to the Nazis, with an eye to doing the same for the American public, too. I read it on my visit back East, and it went fast.
Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway: my second Hemingway obsession started with Hemingway’s Boat, a fresh look at the author’s middle and end years by Paul Hendrickson, which I read in 2018. I am culling my shelves to clear space, and often, part of the process of selling a book such as this one, that I haven’t read since my college days, is to re-read it.
I remember my first impression, which was of a fragmented, second-rate book, by the standards of his earlier classics. Hemingway’s literary reputation had suffered since those early books ( The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms ), monuments to the man’s man modernism of the early 20th Century. His later, callous behavior as a hard drinking celeb author -especially to women, and his spotty creative output ran afoul of the rise of academic feminism and post modern critical theory in the 70’s.
My sophomore (-ic?) college reading binge was thus already outdated by the late 70’s, but my decision to buy and keep the book, a Book Club first edition, was undoubtedly colored by the fact that Middle American manhood of that period was inextricably bound in with Hemingway, by then enshrined as the great Middle American modernist. All of my drinking binges, skiing and hiking years in Wyoming, and creative excess, along with that of many of my friends, was inspired by the image of Hemingway, not so much a hipster saint, like Kerouac, but a god.
Hendrickson’s book is part of a revival of sorts, which drew heavily on his later and posthumous work, such as this, and The Garden of Eden, to examine the author’s history of head injury, mental problems and gender issues ( as examined inGarden) to forge a more sympathetic portrait.
Upon re-reading, the book remains fragmented. It was started in the early 50’s as a grand trilogy of earth, air and sea; and a reply to the critical disaster of Across the River and Into the Trees, which I haven’t read. As often happened in his hard drinking, head-trauma-ravaged 50’s, it was set aside. A small part was extracted and became The Old Man and the Sea. The rest was found after his suicide, and cobbled together under this title.
It reads as three novellas, all centered on a single protagonist, Thomas Hudson, a story of a summer on Bimini with his three children; then a grief stricken drinking binge in Cuba after the death of his fictional oldest son, and finally, a taut war time chase off the coast of Cuba. This last is an imaginative embellishment of Hemingway’s wartime activities hunting for Nazi subs after he’d badgered the U.S. and Cuban governments for extra gas rations and equipment to equip his boat, which in real life, came to nothing much.
It’s one of the best action sequences he ever wrote, and if the book doesn’t always hold together as well as the precise and focussed Sun and Farewell, neither is it as mawkish, at times, as his wartime romance For Whom the Bell Tolls. It contains some very affecting writing on family, love and loss, along with much self examination by his narrative stand-in, Hudson, despite the writer’s rep for macho posturing. That’s here, too, as well as a grief/mercy fuck from his much longed-for first (fictional) wife, a dramatic deep sea fishing scene, and a penchant for arbitrarily killing off some characters as he became estranged from their real-life counter parts. Does this include, as joy and adventure give way inexorably to loss and regret, himself?
So, Hemingway, for all of the violence and pathos of his last years, in this book does examine his own role in the disappointments of his family life. The narrative reactions do seem arbitrary and reflexive- ex-wife dies; must drink, go fight Nazis- but the interior struggle of his protagonist is real, and affecting. The book seems somewhat essential to understanding his life and art, and also, fun to read. I’m still selling it, but I’m glad I’ve given Hemingway a second look.
Hemingway in Love, A.E.Hotchner: Also somewhat essential to understanding facts about Hemingway’s late years, but aside from that, a disappointment. This is because the story, about E.H’s regret over the dissolution of his first marriage, might have been an embarrassment to his surviving fourth wife ( also a possible reason for setting aside Islands) and is necessarily told second hand. Hotchner, despite a long career writing, is no where near the writer Hemingway was, and cannot replicate the author’s powerful, concise voice in what are apparently, reconstructed quotations. Thus the tale, though inherently interesting, seems maundering and (doubly so, given Hemingway’s penchant for paranoia and self pity during the time it was narrated) self-serving.
The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: Far from a fluffy tribute to our precious little predators, Tucker, self professed cat lover, provides a wake-up call for her fellow fanciers. She explores Felis Silvestris as an invasive, parasitical species, and not just on Facebook! Kittehs as bold interlopers that ” domesticated themselves” and have a major impact on the environment.
What, in fact, did humans get from allowing them to spread into households around the world? Precious little, science tells us, the psychological comfort in their blank, Hello Kitty faces aside. And they may, in a very real biological way, be controlling our minds. Heavens to Murgatroyd! This book provides a cautionary tale to those of us who are tempted to anthropomorphize our pets.
While I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords, there is one easy conclusion to report: for your health, sanity, and the sake of threatened species everywhere, keep the adorable little monsters inside.
The pre-virus activities were so exciting to me that it’s hard to let them go, though they may in some ways be gone forever. One thing I had planned here was a discussion of my contribution to the In Process show at the Metro State University of Denver Center for Visual Art.
I took some quick snapshots at the opening for social media purposes, intending to come back in a quieter time and spend some time with the display and take better pictures and more notes.
Then the crisis hit, and like everything else, the show shut down, so it is certainly a quieter time. But now I’m glad I grabbed what photos I did. I also have the statement on process that I sent to the gallery, and which is posted with the work, in the now very quiet gallery. The ‘House’ passage in To the Lighthouse comes to mind.
So I’ll reconstruct the show in a mini-virtual form here, with expanded notes. This is as much for my benefit as anyone’s, but if you missed the show and are curious, well, here it is.
From the statement:
“My process, in general, involves working through a progression of prints ( usually , not always, smaller to larger) until I feel I have worked out my uncertainties about a given idea and “refined” it to its essentials.”
Monotype printmaking is a process that does not result in multiple prints. Part of the Mo’Print mission is to educate the public on what fine art printmaking is. At times, e.g. The Northern Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, printmaking has fulfilled the need for commercial reproduction. That is no longer the case, and now, unlike Giclees or other reproduced images, each print is considered an original. This is absolutely true of monotype. Here’s a shot of most of the display.
First things first: The largest piece, in the center in blue and black, has been displayed in the wrong orientation. The show was organized last minute, there was limited time to plan for installation, and somehow the fact that all the prelims are in vertical orientation was not noticed. C’est la vie. They should have asked, and I should have attached a note to make sure. Lesson learned.
“Some of these “studies” or “preliminary works” or whatever you may call them become frame-able pieces themselves, and others disappear into the flat files. But by the end of the process, I’m usually exploring various ways forward from the original idea, with a view toward coming up with a finished piece(s) of a given size, as it’s a one-of-a-kind process, so building a portfolio can be time consuming.”
“It’s important to note that “ghost prints” or secondary impressions made from the residue of ink left on the plate after the first impression is printed, are a integral part of my creative process. They can be modified by adding different colors or imagery, and thus, provide a way forward from simple binary judgements of whether a print is successful, or not. Variations on the original subject matter crop up quickly, and sometimes come to dominate my thinking over the first “idea”. It’s a very suggestive, and valuable way of working.”
“The sketchbook provides a place to mull ideas in raw form; most do not ever see a printing press.” The sketchbook, oh yes- the sketchbook, #OMG #LOL. It’s not actually a sketchbook. It’s a little, outdated Star Wars datebook that my part time job was giving away free, and which fit into my pocket. It was the first appearance of this imagery in summer ’19, so I sent it along. It wound up sitting there regally in a vitrine, where it resides still, until quarantine is over. My friends and I had a few snickers about this, back when snickering- and art shows- were still allowed. An artist friend once breathlessly informed me “You have to have to have a Moleskine sketchbook!” but I’ve always scribbled on anything handy. I guess I get it, now. The main question is: will I be allowed to put it back in my pocket after this?
“The small (typically 8×10”) studies are mostly about getting comfortable about how to execute the imagery in ink. They often lack real compositional tension, and most disappear from the public, but sometimes there is a simple elegance, so I show them.
“Medium sized prints (typically 11×15”) are where I work out relationships of color and compositional elements. It’s a great time to ad new elements to test meanings within compositions. I love visual non sequiturs for their expressive potential, so I might play with these and their ghost images for more than one session. Nothing is set in stone, but some half of these never see the light of day.
“Larger full sheet (22×30”) prints are intended to bring in balance and finish and be ready to frame. I do work yet larger, but this size is often where I stop, and over half of these get framed or sold. Interestingly ( to me anyway), I often take elements back out at this stage, to take advantage of the expansive white space. ” This one is unfinished and thus, unsigned, and so the confusion on orientation. Don’t know when I’ll get it back to finish it, and in what *viral* way the idea may change along the way. It’s displayed under the Plexiglas plate (with guide drawing) that I used to print it.
“It is the curse of the monotype artist that sometimes the newsprint slip sheets used to cover the layered-up print elements and protect the press blankets are more attractive-seeming than the actual fine art prints. They get used for multiple layers, and thus may accrue a very unique composition of their own. Many of us cut them up and collage them onto different prints. The process goes on…”
Well that’s my virtual tour, and I thank the Metro CVA and Emily Moyer for this great idea, and the chance to be involved in it. Normally IRL, this is the time when I invite you to walk across the street to the Aztlan Bar for some cheap beer and good live blues. Don’t know if it’s possible to create virtual dive bar experiences, but I’m missing it already.
The [plague’s] the thing; Will it catch the conscience of a ( wanna-be) king? While America waits to see if the corrupt sham of the current presidential administration can survive its bumbling response to the virus, the virus is changing the way we live.
This post was intended for at least a week ago, and of course, things were changing so quickly that it was often outdated hours after I wrote it. My unstated strategy of keeping a lower political profile while exploring the joys of printmaking and the Month of Printmaking, a biennial festival of fine art prints here in Colorado, has come crashing up against the reality of the virus, which as everyone knows, shutdown everything, causing cancelled shows and events just midway through.
My plan for the original post was to discuss the then current In Process show at Metro State University Center for Visual Art as it pertains to my own process in making monotypes. That show is of course cancelled, though I’m grateful that it did, indeed get to open at all, unlike some MoPrint shows. During the opening I took some photos and can certainly patch together some thoughts about the show.. I’ll enjoy doing that with the time freed up by other now cancelled events, and I’ll post it soon.
Before that, some updates:
The Open Portfolio at Redline was cancelled at the last minute.
The Rhythm and Balance show at Niza Knoll Gallery is now effectively closed, with the proprietor in a high risk pool, and other galleries on Santa Fe Dr. suspending operations. You can see some of this work at their website, http://www.nizaknollgallery.com. It was a reasonably successful show for me thus far, with one small sale, and some good crowds, pre-‘social distancing’.
The Arvada Center show “Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado”, conversely, was extended to early May, as the following show was cancelled, but the gallery is now closed, and it seems doubtful it will open again before May.
Access Gallery I have not heard from, assuming it’s closed?
My Library workshops have been cancelled. I’ll try to update my ‘Workshops’ page soon. Shout out to the alliance of grantors, Art Students League and DPL, as they are paying us for previously scheduled dates, thus eliminating some of the financial trauma of this crazy Spring.
The Art Students League of Denver classes themselves are now cancelled, probably through April. Online may be the best way to get more info (ASLD.org), as they are working from home.
Another show, which the #ASLDPrintmakers and I had been working on, to include a Monotype-A-Thon and Pop Up Portfolio show, set for March 28th during the #MoPrint Studio Tour, is of course cancelled and will not be re-scheduled at least till next year. That was fun working with the other ASLD printmakers, and some good things may come out of that in the future.
All of this is unfortunate, of course. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to show in so many great places, and I think the MoPrint Committee did a nice job putting the 4th Month of Printmaking together. I hope everyone is staying healthy and enjoying their self quarantine. I think we’ll get through this eventually.
And on November 3, we have direct control of the health of the nation.
I have a couple more things to add or update in my last post. I’m also going to do my regular post of my Winter/Spring class schedule, for those curious about the details of making monotypes. This will be another short one. I do have longer drafts queued up, but this is not the time for that. Do stop at some of these show openings (most will be on the same night, February 21, if you catch a glimpse of me walking fast) and tell me what’s going on with you.
New show added: Process Show at Metro CVA on Santa Fe Drive. I’m assembling a series of recent work with an eye toward highlighting the progression of that idea for this show, a last minute addition to the #MoPrint2020 schedule. I’m pleased to be invited, mostly because in working on other projects, I had generated several variations on a theme suggested by a quick sketch I did last fall for future works. All of these materials will be in the show, in raw form, an idea that was much too intriguing to pass up, made possible by not needing to provide framing.
Work progresses on Monotype-A-Thon: we have a good committee assembled, and some details are being hammered out:
You’ll see a Call for Entry soon. It’s incredibly cheap, and a nice way to dip your toe in the water for showing and selling, if that’s your ultimate goal. Collectors, I’m imagining that these will be some of the cheapest work you’ll see in a while, and yet 13 (!) of the League’s artists and instructors were represented in the 528.0 and Imprint: Print Educators show at Arvada Center.
ASLD Workshops for Winter/ Spring are here, and I guess the newer additions such as Non Toxic etching have to be considered the highlights, though I’m enjoying the old stalwarts such as Monotype Portfolio. I haven’t gotten sick of being present when the eyes open, and the alchemy of ink under pressure is first discovered. The creative process does require a bit of openness to new ideas; a beautiful room in a historic building, among new friends, turns out to be a congenial atmosphere for new ideas. Put your dreams to the test.
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.