Categories
Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music

Besties Be On My Way

I had a lot more time than usual to read this year, and I took it, sometimes ignoring my TV for days into weeks. I read quite a bit of prose this year ( finally finishing The Sot-Weed Factor), but there are reams and megapixels devoted to that, and so I return to my niche, the lowly comic, and yet niche-ier, literary and art comics, sometimes called alternative comics. I probably could’ve put down the reading of them to begin the writing of them a bit earlier, but here they are, just in time for the Oscars.

Alt comics have, since the 90s, made the journey out of the “direct market” comic book stores into bookstores and public libraries, so some will be familiar to prose readers. Others were searched and scoured for, from obscure web sites or persistent Ebay searches. Most, but not all, of the newer ones can be found at Tattered Cover, but the older or more experimental ones are often out of print, and pricey, because of their low print runs.

I do read mainstream Marvels and DCs, though it’s rare. I quit them, for the most part, in the early 70s, when I discovered Art Spiegelman’s (Maus) Raw magazine. I keep tabs on them for the sporadic bursts of creativity they include, and I’m glad I do. Some of the best get mentioned here, and one, Pretty Deadly, has won top Bestieness before. The rise of creator-owned works and royalty participation has shaken the trees for excellent ideas. Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda continues to be a standout.

Lately, I’ve been monitoring editor’s choices, including my own, for representative diversity, and there is some here, though choices remain few on the shelves, especially in such a limited sample. I don’t think publishers are the problem, after all, many publishers and editors are women now. But the social environment on which a lot of geek culture depends ( for creators, bloggers, etc ) was not that friendly to women for a long time, even into the teens (see below). So choosing comics as a career has only recently become a thing for women.

There is one woman, one POC, and a gender queer artist, are on the top list, with another four women, and four foreign creators if you count the Resties, which is my Honorable Mention category. Another woman was in the stack, waiting to be read, but goes into next year’s list, probably near the top. This does not include the anthology on the list, a 2004 publication where the breakdown is also sparse, about 20 male, to 5 female.

There are thrillers, satire, horror, a Victorian social realist novel adaptation, and gross-out humor, all of them uniquely suited to their medium, a bastard child of cave-wall storytelling, European satire, and American commercial chutzpah. The top choices happened to be the most original and innovative, A French all ages objet d’art that would have made Gutenberg proud, a Japanese spectacle of ideographic motion and onomatopoeia, and a self published L.A. based anthology of zine and mini comics rebels.

Born of the same creative/destructive impulse as graffiti, as Adam Gopnik points out in MOMA’s High and Low catalog ( 1990), most comics here can trace their roots to Rudolph Topfer’s Obadiah Oldbuck from the 1850s, Thomas Nast’s Yellow Kid, for whom “Yellow Journalism” was named, or Harvey Kurtzman’s revolutionary Mad Magazine. All of these predated Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s invention of current pop culture juggernaut Marvel Comics, and were equally influential. All pioneered new ways of storytelling.

The Besties:

Crisis Zone, Simon Hanselman, 2021: At number 5 is this over the top look at how a circle of slacker friends, many of them gender queer or otherwise marginalized, deal with the utter strangeness of the first year of COVID. Three roommates- a witch, her cat boyfriend, and an owl, find themselves forming a quarantine pod with other friends, a werewolf, a vampire, et al. A moneymaking scheme involving doing butt stuff on web cam evolves and is taken to hilarious, cringemaking extremes.

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to binge read Hanselman’s gross out humor, but when you’re in the mood, his sense for social satire is relentless. I assume the only reason this hasn’t been adapted for animation is all of the drugs and you know, butt stuff.

Olympia, Jerome Mulot, Florent Ruppert, 2022: Following up from their first heist thriller The Grand Odalisque, about three female art thieves, here the women attempt to steal Manet’s Olympia. Again the action is heart pounding, and the art gestural and suggestive enough to not bog you down. There is a unique twist to make you wonder if the women will survive, and as in all great caper stories, you cannot help rooting for them against great odds, which include their own womanhood, every step of the way.

The Magicians, Blexbolex, 2023: Blexbolex has been bouncing back and forth between comics and children’s books for years, and now has seemingly decided that there is no point discriminating between the two. This is an art object, printed on uncut leaves of paper to enhance its layered colors and silkscreened delicacy of composition. The story refers to the magic of storytelling as much as to its characters actions. This has become bit of a theme of this year’s Besties.

Detention #2, Tim Hensley, 2023: Henseley is a genius for conflating Golden Age comics stylings with pop culture pastiche, having done Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood career as a Tubby and Little Lulu comic previously. Here he goes after 50’s Classics Illustrated, adapting Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane. While I can’t compare it to the original Crane, the telling of the story is rich, with characters and styles from across comics history engaged to be the actors, including The Yellow Kid, Reggie from Archie Comics, a Manga cutie, Mad’s Don Martin, etc. A cultural stew is created, reminiscent Sugiura’s 70’s manga adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, in which American cultural appropriation of indigenous culture is ironically grafted onto ‘nansensu’ manga for children in occupation-era Japan. Hensley is saying something about comics’ limitless ability to tell a story here, with a phantasmagoria of debased cartoon images being deployed to tell a social realist tale of socially debased youth. And the appeal, as well as the message here is that we should be mindful of stereotyping comics as simply illustrated prose fiction.

In reading comics, we are often told that we have the option of reading the whole page- or two pages in the case of a centerfold spread, at once. One takes in the entire grid before choosing to linger, or zip through. The reader is the ‘director’. Here one enjoys the ability to read the entire history of comics, in one sweep. From _ to Sailor Moon, from “Notary Sojac” to Kirby photo montage ( yep, they’re all in there, and more), it’s all here, stuffed (ironically?) into a literary ghetto. Whether I read Crane’s Maggie, or not ( early money: ‘not’. My social realism days may be over. I did garner an ‘A’ for a tenth grade term paper on Zola’s Germinal, so there’s that.), this comic has its own story to tell.

And the 2023 Bestiest:

Plaza, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2022: A comics spectacle that is in constant motion, and incorporates deafening sound into its design through the use of onomatopoeia. There is an even more minimal story than some of his previous manga ( a parade ) and Plaza foregrounds comics’ potential as an art form by emphasizing its formal elements. It’s in black and white with textured screens (it really doesn’t need color ), and its Kirby-esque dynamism is just as compelling and propulsive as the King’s, at his peak. It’s quite possible that this will be one of the more influential comics to come along in years.

I’m midway through Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. It’s my Post Modern Brick du jour, succeeding Sot Weed Factor. I have to be a bit dialed in to read it- there’s a lot of classical philosophy allusions, and medieval fortification allusions, so I block out some time so I can google the terms, and don’t consider it a fail to get through 5 pages a sitting. Plaza is much the same. One gets in the mood for its spectacle of crashing, rolling, thrumming sound effects which one must actually peer through to get to the visual action. There, exotically costumed humanoids march and cavort in front of a cheering crowd, transforming themselves before out eyes.

Since there’s no plot, one is not in a hurry to get anywhere ( I average 10 pages ) The manga is itself, ink and abstraction and symbol, and not a series of illustrations of ‘writing’, or source material.

This is relatively unusual, and again the reference point is Kirby. He was not afraid to let the stylized ink marks tell the story, and wound up helping to launch a multibillion dollar film franchise. Manga is big money in Japan, not so much, here, but if it ever gets there, we may put Yokoyama up there with Tezuka and Otomo as a reason why. To paraphrase, Plaza is comics for comics’ sake.


The Resties: This is my catch-all honorable mention category for comic book critical analysis, history, and older titles I’m just now catching up on, in no particular order:


Goddess of War, Lauren Weinstein, 2006: Weinstein tell a story of a woman disaffected with her job as the Goddess of War, who falls in love with Geronimo as he battles the U.S. Cavalry in the 19th Century Southwest. She apparently never finished it, or I might have ranked it higher. She later wrote a graphic novel about motherhood during COVID, but I haven’t read it, and we already have one COVID-addled family on this list.
Jimbo’s Inferno, Gary Panter, 2006: Again, I cannot compare it to the original, but Panter warns us right off not to base our term papers on it. The vision of hell as a giant mall is just too rich to resist. It’s not as searing as Jimbo In Paradise, or as visually exquisite as Daltokyo, but Panter rarely disappoints. Again, his invention is dependent on source material. These works exemplify why comics must be treated as their own art form, and not derivative of a source in prose.
Black Hole, Charles Burns, 1999: Burns’ dark vision of a teen plague probably draws from David Lynch’s work, especially Blue Velvet, with its sexual overtones and horrifying weirdness. And it sparked a revival of horror comics, though few were able to match its Lynchian blend of bland suburban creepiness and hyperreal visuals.

All of the Marvels, Douglas Wolk, 2023: I mostly quit reading Marvel Comics in 1978, when I discovered Euro comics, and then, Love and Rockets. This book isn’t nearly as tedious as it sounds, and summarizes a lot of the major threads, including much of the source material for the movies, in a lively way. As with Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, and Dante’s Inferno, reading this in no way commits me to reading all of the Marvels.

Kramer’s Ergot#4, Sammy Harkham, ed. 2004: The break through publication of both the best comics anthology of the 21st Century, and the influential comics art brut of the Fort Thunder group. Its rarity and significance made it hard to find for under $250, but lately as people realize what they have, the market has softened, and I found it for under $100 after years of searching.

As comics finds its artistic niche and its intellectual defenders, landmark publications such as this, and many of Panter’s masterpieces, often self published, or with small print runs, continue to be out of print collector’s items on the secondary market. I don’t know how that will affect Hanselman, Blexbolex and Hensley, though the latter two show signs of being hard to find already. Anthologies such as Kramer’s allow one to explore new, innovative artists without too much guesswork. They can often be found fairly cheaply in used bookstores- for a while at least.

I usually include a “Clunker”, but I’m not sure about the name, as many of them are very readable books. That’s true here, and there are two of them this year, but I recommend these books because they’re actually excellent reads, but with glaring flaws.

Jews in American Comics, Paul Buhle, 2008: The fact that Jewish people were essential in the development of American Comics, and indeed, American humor as a whole, has been an open secret for decades. This book explores that truth in depth, offering fascinating, if perhaps a bit muddy, accounts of seminal Yiddish comics in the early 20th Century Jewish press, solid accounts of EC comics and the undergrounds, and alternative press innovators such as Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. It remains on my shelf, to be read again.

But how on Earth you can write a book about Jews in American comics, and mention, only in passing, Jacob Kurtzburg and Stanley Leiber, is beyond me. Lee’s Yiddishisms seem essential to the humanizing spirit of Marvel, and what is Spider-Man but a classic schlemiel with an insect bite? As to Kirby, this is a man who portrayed a character punching Hitler in the jaw, long before Pearl Harbor made the rest of the ‘Greatest generation’ feel comfortable in saying Der Fuhrer must go. And forgive my gentile’s vagueness on the details, but those stoneware husks, fizzing and crackling with light and energy, from which Kirby’s super beings often emerge- do they not seem familiar? [ Fantastic Four #61 for one citation ) Ben Grimm, The Thing in Fantastic Four, is later portrayed as definitively Jewish. We are all wearied by the sheer volume of schlock Marvel has put out over the years, but Marvel definitely belongs in a history of Jewish comics.

There is, I’m guessing, the issue of assimilation, but that haunts all of Jewish pop culture, from Superman onward, as Buhle discusses at length. Buhle is a fan of alternatives, as am I, and that lineage leads pretty directly from EC to Undergrounds and then on. But that’s not what the title suggests, is it? The omission is puzzling to me.

Comic Book Women, Peyton Brunet and Blair Davis, 2023: As with Jews, I was excited to see this title. It is indeed necessary and worthy as a corrective to the male-centric histories of comics’ Golden Age, 1938-1955. These narratives, a precursor to the boy’s club of comics fandom in the 70’s and 80’s, did a lot to close off comics to women and girls, after they’d been a huge part of the audience. Brunet and Davis explore women’s roles as creators and characters, and among the many intriguing assertions made is that it was a woman editor at Fiction House who actually invented the vaunted ‘Marvel Method’ of Lee, Kirby and Ditko. The book is, again, well worth a second read. Its scope is limited, and it does not deal with the slow struggle of women for a place in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, in the U.S. and Japan.

However, it, too, is plagued by editorial error. The book unfailingly gives credit to female creators, but none to males, in its illustrations. This sounds like a quibble, I admit. But it is academically sloppy and projects pettiness, in the sense that male creators at the time were only somewhat less marginalized than women. This calls into question the professionalism of not only feminist pop culture scholarship, but comics scholarship as a whole, something the still nascent disciplines can ill afford.

This is published by University of Texas press. University presses exist to a large degree to publish tenure-track research, and doctoral theses, and are undoubtedly mostly staffed by poorly paid interns. But someone needed to call bullshit. As for Jews, it’s published by New Press, a non profit that I think, seeks to fulfill a similar mission as a university press. This seems a problem of vision, and the definitive book on Jews in comics doesn’t seem to exist yet.

That’s the Besties for this year. I read over 40 books that qualified, and really, enjoyed most, on some level. This list is intended to alert art-minded readers that very creative work is out there, along with interpretive materials.

It’s a busy year, so I don’t know when I’ll post on comics again, but I certainly have a mind to do a post on Shigeru Sugiura, a mid century alt-manga genius who helped set me on the road to enjoying Japanese artists, such as our Bestiest. If you are in the 303, nice places to shop alt comics are Kilgore Book and Comics, and Fahrenheit’s Books. If you prefer the web, check out Copacetic Comics. Comment below if you think I may have missed a recent book on this list.

#comics #alternativecomics #besties

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Summer Art Market

Twigs and Berries: Life’s Been Berry Good

I have the luxury of time lately, which is very good for art. A regular studio routine is great for following up on ideas, and midweek days to work on framing, etc, without feeling rushed or stressed by deadlines, makes one feel more professional.

The weather has been vivid. I’m taking more walks, looking at birds, watching the clouds roll in. Of course, I’ve always believed that an appreciation of ‘now’, a certain presence in the moment, is valuable in the studio. It’s wonderful in daily life as well.

Nights have been mostly about reading, and I’ve chided myself for ‘wasting’ my streaming subscriptions by not flipping on the TV and catching up on my odd series, such as Dickinson ( a Hip-Hop-infused mash up of Puritan retro futurist takes on the poet’s life ), and Upstart Crow ( Shakespeare gets the Black Adder treatment). You can see the problem here- my favorite TV shows only remind me of how much there is to read!

I’ve been organizing my studio/workroom to make a more pleasant place to frame art and work on the computer. It’s less like a storage/ creative dumping ground, and there’s more room to work on projects, which can then remain out until the next time I’m ready to work on them. I wound up with a better set up for quick photos, too:

Illustration of blog post
Homestead, Monotype, 2023 15×11″. From my series of boxes, exploring all a box could be.

#MoPrint24 is bubbling into existence as we speak. The main organizers are working on not just next year’s event, which looks better than ever, but serious organizational issues that will strengthen it for years to come. I’m not as involved in that as I used to be.

I am trying to contribute, in my own way, by helping to organize the ASLD Print Fair event at the school. That is also in process already, and will accelerate in Fall, after the 800-pound gorilla that is SAM is fed.

I have several classes going on, mostly for kids. My next adult class starts July 11, and is registering now. It’s called Monotype Portfolio, for people with a bit of printmaking experience and is registering now. Here’s the link: https://reg135.imperisoft.com/asld/ProgramDetail/3239303238/Registration.aspx

The demos often reflect what I’m currently working on myself, which is certainly valuable dialog for me, and I hope others craving those kinds of conversation- hard to find- will feel free to join us. If you are curious about MoPrint, or just want to talk about books, there’s plenty of time for that as well.

What I’ve been reading is a wider range of fiction, non-fiction, as always, modern and older comics. I’m thinking of starting a separate, pop culture-oriented blog for my reading and bookstore adventures, and converting this one to all art. I perceive this as more professional, although posting regularly is always a challenge. Also, diverse readings certainly inform my creative explorations, and would certainly continue to pop up here.

Examples of things I’m reading lately: The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth, a hilarious picaresque that skewers the essential venality at the heart of Puritan America, and led directly to one of my all time favorite novels, Mason & Dixon, by Pynchon. Jews In American Comics, which explores the ethnic, European roots of this historically repressed medium, which naturally goes a long way toward explaining why the repression. I also finally located an affordable copy of the seminal Kramers Ergot #4, a landmark publication for the Fort Thunder group, as well as other avant grade cartoonists. Until Fall, after the Summer Art Market, I won’t really have time to launch a new blog, so I may go into a bit more depth about these books here later.

On a related note, my dictum that ‘a good walk ends in a used bookstore‘ ( it used to be ‘bar’, of course, and there was a “Bookbar” in my neighborhood, a great idea which failed of incompetent management ), has become a mantra. In that vein, I’m inserting a mini-review here of the recently relocated Fahrenheit’s Books.

The new one, several blocks farther down South Broadway, on Antique Row, is larger and less dingy. It’s still cluttered, which some people like, and why not? -it allows them to display more books, and the selection was superior even before. As an example, I quickly found Jews In American Comics and a William Gaddis novel, A Frolic of His Own, in clean copies for great prices. It goes along with my obsession with obscure comics criticism, and Post Modern Brick fiction ( see: Barth and Pynchon, above ). You can’t find these in most bookstores.

There is a sort of simpatico curatorial consciousness to stores like this, and Kilgore, On 13th. There, I found But Is It Art?, a book I’ve been wanting to read. I don’t read as many art books as I used to, partly because I can find plenty of germane concepts in PMBs, where I don’t feel as derivative. Sot-Weed is one of the early PMBs, and Gaddis also was a pioneer, though Frolic comes much later. A store across the street form Fahrenheit’s specializes in nice clean, collectible copies of mysteries and histories, etc. It’s less about the reading, although, I like clean copies, and I collect some of them. There’s such a thing as not enough clutter!

By comparison, another cluttered store, Westside Books, caps off a lot of walks, as it’s near me, and I like to support neighborhood business. But it’s dusty, poorly laid out, and choked with outdated redundancies, which make browsing a chore. Fahrenheit’s is much more mindful in their selection, and user friendly.

I can’t go there every week, as I would just buy 2 or three books every time. But here’s a shout out to a wonderful place to finish a bus ride/walk.

#Artclasses #Bookstores #ASLDprintmakers

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Monotypes

A Library of Ideas

“Library of Babel”, Monotype, 42×30, 2022. Inspired by a Borges short story.

Library of Babel is a Jorge Luis Borges short fiction that clearly inspired the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s a delightful story, and the themes of infinity and mathematical abstraction appealed to me at a time when I was beginning a cycle of work so I put it to the test as subject matter.

I’ve mentioned that I have a process that involves working up ideas from small sketches to larger, ‘finished’ works. Each size level may yield satisfying results, however, so I’ll post a condensed history.

“Library”, Monotype, 12×9″, 2022. Ghost of a larger study

This is a ghost detail from a preliminary print. When I refer to a “study”, it can function as a finished monotype, but it alludes to a larger monotype I have in mind. Thus, there may be several versions, and this is an example.

“Library of Babel” Monotype, 21×15″ 2022. It actually came before the smaller study, as indicated by the first impression of the top inset circle image.

This is a larger monotype from the same “thread”, though it does include the exact source of the top inset circle. So it The threads can often intersect partially in the form of ghost images to which I add new imagery. I don’t religiously document these various stages, so I can’t always describe the order of their making. As you can see, it is a related but slightly different image, which includes my interpretation of the hexagonal imagery in the original story. The leaf imagery relates to the idea of replication, the letter imagery to the book themes in Library, and other abstract imagery such as the dot/branch motif; and the threads, to the rhythms of Borges’ narrative. The colors I’ve flippantly referred to as my “Summer of Love” theme, bright combos of secondaries and primaries.

It led to the one I began the post with. Brighter colors, more letters and hexagons, a larger stack of tables; and the addition of the star/asterisk motif with connecting threads. Asterisks are sometimes referred to as stars, asterisks signify: additional info available. So I felt they fit thematically. The question of when to stop layering additional imagery is always a prickly one; I chose to simplify, partially because of the technical challenges of working so large, and partially because some ideas lend them selves to white space.

The entire sequence taking something like 3-4 months, with possibly 6-7 studio sessions. I’m happy with it, and thus have moved on to other images and themes. And I owe it all to Borges, with his rich imagery, thought provoking themes and the overall wit of his invention. As I’ve noted, Borges is great to pick up sporadically, not just for inspiration, but for the sheer pleasure of his intriguing imagination.

Current info and links about my classes: https://www.joehigginsmonotypes.com/monotype-workshops/

#monotypes #wip #borges

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Culture wars Monotypes Politics

Chillin’

Illustration of post on monotypes
A secondary stage of a study for “Library of Babel”, monotype

As the news of the world continues to get worse, the urge to escape, into making art, reading, domestic tasks, grows. I create space for these essential tasks by blocking out politics during election off-years, but now the election is here and it’s hard to engage as the fascist politicians grub for money and votes so they can ride the gravy train. The Supreme Court’s Christian Ayatollahs announced their plan to roll back reproductive rights, and the corrupt thug who started the whole movement remains out of jail and living lavishly from the donations of his ignorant and rage filled sycophants. The slouching beast with the orange fright wig is moving toward Bethlehem. Hearings about the January 6 coup attempt are under way, but it’s clear that the white power faction will continue to sow the big lies even as the truth of corruption is revealed. Action is needed, and I’ve picked up a book (or two).

It can be hard to justify escape into the magic realism of a Borges, the delicate perversities of metaphor and language of a Dickinson, and colorful landscapes of the mind in the studio, but those don’t become suddenly irrelevant simply because the brute realities of greed, racism and willful ignorance are ascendant. As a matter of fact, they complete, and redeem the declarative mottoes of activism: ‘bans off my body’ -in this Information Age. What do these slogans mean? They are of immediate urgency to the bodies directly affected, but to the rest of us, ‘bans off my mind’ is equally relevant.

The activists are correct: a declaration has to be made at some point. Just ‘keeping keeping on’ is admirable, but can seem inadequate when the solid ground of democratic society is slipping from beneath your feet.

“I’ve always envisioned Paradise as a sort of library”, Borges is quoted as saying and the library is often a refuge from the assaults of ignorance. Not always, though; the same fascists who seek to control women’s bodies often target the corpus of great works on the shelves of the local library. Meanwhile the thugs have turned the Supreme Court into a corrupted theocratic hideout, destroying rights rather than protecting them. It’s hard to be an optimist these days, and making or enjoying art that is not sloganeering ( not that there’s anything inherently wrong, or un-creative with that, see: Banksy) often requires optimism.

Borges’ Library of Babel provides the sort of thoughtful magic realism that can act as a tonic to the cynical power mongering happening in the news daily. I’ve adopted it as a theme for new work, and as a metaphor for creative possibility.

In Umberto Eco’s version of the medieval library, apparently lifted almost wholly in homage to the author whose brief, fantastic stories inspired postmodernist giants such as Eco himself and Thomas Pynchon, etc. the library burns to the ground. In Borges’ library, the sublime is shelved side-by-side with gobbledygook. Every combination of letters is there, in infinite proliferation. Just like the internetses!

In my own small ‘library’, Borges is shelved next to my bed with some other small collections of quick reads, such as some Nick Hornby book blurbs from Believer Magazine, some Granta and McSweeney’s short stories, and a collection of C.F.’s zines, etc, to provide bedtime escape from anxiety-producing blue screen realities.

I do donate to important candidates and causes, and have often been active on the streets in various campaigns, but the culture of disinformation promoted by the Republican Party has supplanted actual debate. Their lies are intended to devalue honest, searching political debate in favor of their memes of fear and bigotry. It’s hard to feel your voice counts against these unhearing oligarchs, some of whom pretend to work for democratic causes, while aiding the rich, white zombies of control.

Authentic voices these days can be found in books, art and music, but the oligarchs seek to control the means of production there as well. It seems to me that authentic ideas, no matter how small, and no matter how distant from topical issues, can be very empowering. I try to make as many as I can.

Thus, I trundle off to the studio on a weekly schedule to putter around with my abstractions. I suppose it seems trivial, but independent thinking is exactly what most scares the fear mongers. This year’s studio projects are not intended to fill frames in shows. I use very simple images, such as tables, chairs, trees, trestles, etc. to explore formal solutions, but also to free my anxious mind for new ideas.

Given my escape into reading during quarantine (I’d recently read The Name of the Rose, for example, only coincidentally picking up my bedside Borges to discover the library homage) it was probably inevitable that Borges would leak into my interior scenes, which are all about finding metaphor in generic imagery. Borges’ Fictions, aren’t that complex either- except in their conceptual richness, are intended to add the ‘magic’ to my very schematic ‘realism’.

These are studies on a half sheets of the basic idea, which will be worked on in large format this Summer. I’m taking my time, as there’s no show deadline upcoming. So I’m focusing on the details which are intended to tell the tale in a thematic, rather than a literal sense.

I’m reminding myself to take pictures at various stages and will probably do some video at some point when I have a good idea of where I’m going. In addition to Borges, I’m reading a biography of Emily Dickinson ( My Wars Are Laid Away In Books ). There’s a rather surreal retrofuturist TV series about Dickinson on Apple TV, too. I’m working my way through Harold Bloom on Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human ( with BBC productions of the plays I haven’t seen), David Goldblatt on The Age of Football ( because, World Cup!), and various magazines on Printmaking and Comics.

It’s not political activism, but I do consider it to be active and engaged. It’s a ‘retreat’ in the sense of contemplation and ideas of the human, rather than a retreat from humanism. It’s a refuge, but I’m not a refugee. It’s an activism of the mind, which could go a long way toward inventing some newer, better humans.

Illustration of post
Finished study for “Library of Babel” Monotype, 21×15″ 2022

I’ve noticed that some comics creators like to cite the music they listen while creating their projects. This sounds like great fun. Among others: Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia and Be-In; Lush, Gala and Spooky; and Wilco, Sky Blue Sky and Whole Love.

#Monotypes #Resist

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Ideas Reading List

Matters of Style: Small ‘p’ Pop

I don’t often write about art books, which often for me, take the form of technical research, and is thus not as much of an ‘escape’ from the day-to-day grind of what is, after all, a business. The ways in which technique translates to expression are naturally of a major concern, make no mistake, but they’re hard to process, and then write about as general interest topics. I much prefer writing about other people’s graphic solutions, whether as art or comics.

Here’s a nice middle ground: Pressing Matters magazine. It’s a beautifully produced celebration of creative solutions in the graphic arts. Interesting design in magazines is part of what attracted me to alternative comics- Raw magazine sought to highlight the expressive potential of comics by placing them in an attractively formatted magazine, and Pressing Matters does the same for printmakers, by putting them in a coffee table showpiece type of publication. It’s expensive, with shipping placing it in the higher end that international design magazines inhabit, but it understands the appeal of printmaking to artists, designers and collectors.

The magazine is published in England, which has a strong contemporary printmaking scene, but it features artists from around the world as well. It’s diverse and progressive- as in many out of the way areas of the creative economy, women seem to have more access to positions of leadership in printmaking, for example- and it downplays purely technical reportage in favor of a lively and very visual presentation of the final result, the textures, bold color schemes, and spirit of innovative graphic simplicity that forward looking prints communicate. In printmaking, the proof is in the pudding; rarely do pundits and experts extoll it for conceptual leaps, rarely do its practitioners seek to wholly reject the past. It inhabits the gray area between mass communication and stripped down visual syntax. It requires no manifesto, the medium truly is the message.

This is no screed against the loftier aims of painting. Pop art is still, even now, misunderstood because people, even Pop art lovers, almost willfully downplay its conceptual brilliance. Warhol made a complete break from the idea of craft in both printmaking and painting with his deliberate mis-registrations and advertorial iconography. Campbell’s soup cans are camp, not kitsch, and as such, are powerful commentaries on the construction of taste. This must be a huge contributor to the rise of printmaking since abstract expressionist days, and the liberation of printmaking from subsidiary roles as advertising and bourgeois decoration. The prints in Pressing Matters hew most often toward the Mid-Century Modern in style and spirit. Like comics, film posters and Warhol himself, they are a distillation of High Modernism for popular (populist?) tastes, but merely a step from expressionism, or even a Neo-Fauvism, as in zines, mini-comics and punk posters.

The art in Pressing Matters is of a working class, rather than academic, discipline. Pictures of ink-stained wretches are common. There is no Ingres in printmaking. Toulouse-Latrec advertised cabarets; his acolytes, booze and bicycles. Russian Constructivism is a high water mark, and Bauhaus its holy center. Red and black are the colors of revolution, and still hold an honored place in printmaking. The magazine celebrates those colors often, along with the generative void of white space.

There is a transparency of process, rather than transcendent technique, in most images here. It is in modern printmaking’s almost necessary disassembling of illusion and gesture, its ever so slight displacement from craft and perfection, that allows it to seduce the eye, and simultaneously to vaguely disturb assumptions about art, not to mention the means of its production. Pressing Matters zeroes in on this disjunct. Pictures of brayers, talismanic and dripping with candy colors, and presses, the machinery of free expression, often cooperatively owned or shared, symbolize printmakers’ close relationship to the nuts and bolts of creativity and to work. At the same time, making multiples, while it began as a way to make art more accessible, is, as Warhol so succinctly demonstrated, a basic commoditization of it.

Printmakers, art collectors, and fans of popular arts- not to mention magazine design- will see in Pressing Matters a loving and lavish home for one of the humblest of art forms, and the complex histories and aspirations it encompasses.

Illustration of Subject Matter
You can subscribe or order bundles of back issues at pressingmattersmag.com

#pressingmatters #printmaking

Categories
Besties Books, Comics, Music Ideas Reading List

Fast NonFiction

It’s in the nature of comics to feel like light reading. I’m not sure that’s true- I have a Yoshiharu Tsuge book of seminal manga stories that is still waiting for me to settle into a slower routine after MoPrint, as I just don’t feel I can give it the focus it needs. Manga is a bit tricky as the format is backwards, not a natural flow for western eyes, and these early, alt-manga classics are very subtle in construction.

The lightest reading is often non-fiction, especially with an old, familiar subject matter. I put down my medieval histories and picked up a few books on the dark ages in comics themselves: the 70’s and early 80’s, when the Marvel Comics renaissance of Kirby and Lee had slackened, and the alt-comics explosion not yet started. Manga was not widely translated yet.

Undergrounds, widely known, were killed by the Supreme Court’s ‘local standards’ ruling, which led to a crack down on head shops (their distribution network) and raids on bookstores. This is a point made by multiple authors here, notably Roger Sabin. There were stirrings in the mainstream with Heavy Metal bringing Euro-comics to these shores for the first time, and Marvel experimenting with Sci-Fi, and there was Arcade, an attempt to mainstream the UG’s, which failed with the antiquated newsstand network. The direct market (comics shops) was still getting started.

I was embedded in the reddest of states at the time, and non-mainstream comics were literally a distant idea to me. When I got to the city just as the alternative boom was beginning, I caught up quickly. Now the internet makes finding obscure publications easy, but at the time, as disenchantment with mainstream offerings took hold, I figured I’d ‘outgrown’ comics. I was wrong, of course, and eventually became curious about those pre-renaissance years. It’s easy to assume there was a gap, but as always in art, there were things bubbling, half noticed, below the surface.

Adult Comics, An Introduction, by Roger Sabin: I found this, partially unread, 1999 Routledge chestnut on my bookshelf. Sabin is a very insightful writer, with a lot of quirks. One is his desire to elevate the British comics industry’s role in the history of comics history. There was a publishing phenomenon in Victorian England known as ‘comics’, but they were more akin to a humor magazine, with prose features and captioned picture stories. He utilizes this semantic glitch to claim the British invented comics, but I see this as equally chauvinistic as the claim that the Americans did. In the broad perspective, comics seem to have developed along a long continuum from Northern Europe through Britain and then to the US, with each commercializing and advancing the medium (and often, infantilizing it) in greater numbers. The Japanese get ignored in this timeline, I agree, but with few translations available, their rich and somewhat belated innovations had little influence until the 1980’s.

I’d of course ignored the European history narrative that begins the book, in favor of the American half when I first read it. Big mistake. Though the repressed 50’s-60’s were largely irrelevant in Brit comics, the 70’s began a Sci-Fi resurgence that led to the ‘British Invasion’, referring to the appearance of Alan Moore (Watchmen) and numerous others in the American mainstream, which finally killed the Comics Code censorship regime and dragged the Marvel/DC mainstream superhero schtick into more adult territory.

Sabin does detailed research, does not ignore minorities, especially women creators, and provides a vital link between the undergrounds and the coming of the alternatives, a punk fanzine-inspired movement in both Britain and America. He demonstrates clearly how Moore, et al’s desire for creative freedom and creator rights brought them- and those issues- to the US. That, and the concurrent emergence of Raw magazine and others such as Weirdo, were to revolutionize the comics form here.

He is over-reliant on reflexive filler phrases such as ‘It should be noted’. These are empty calories in the literary sense, and annoying as hell. The book is quirky but informative.

Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels, Roger Sabin: Sabin does better with this Phaidon publication from 2004. The larger format, better editing and longer timeline make his case for Brit comics a bit stronger. He puts the undergrounds and punk/alternatives into context with the mainstream, with strong sections on feminist and European (and even Japanese) voices. I’d love to see an update, but he’s put the alternative revolution into an international context here, a valuable statement that I’m sure I’ll go back to often. It sits next to Mazur and Danner’s Comics: A Global History 1968-Present on my shelf, along with Gravett’s Comics Art, as antidotes for the poison of American comics exceptionalism.

Profusely illustrated and intelligently argued, it draws a clear line between the Marvel superhero resurgence, the undergrounds, and the British/Euro revival that led to what he calls “The New Mainstream” and the alt comics renaissance in the US. It does a lot to illuminate the foggy yet significant era of creative and market diversification in the 70’s.

Comix, Dez Skinn: This book drills down deep into the underground comix movement and includes sections on the Brit comics resurgence, and the American alternatives, which it treats as linear outgrowths of the UGs, despite being quite obviously more influenced by the punk/DIY aesthetic of the Thatcher/Reagan years, rather than the hippie movement, as were the undergrounds. But it’s interestingly written and nicely researched, with the glaring exception of the illustrations, which are often shambolic. This is the reason I can’t recommend the book.

It appears to have been self-published, but in any case, no attempt was seemingly made to access publishable images and it’s quite possible that many of them are simply lo-res images skiped from the internet, then blown up to unsustainable size. It’s lazy, unprofessional and distracting. The Phaidon Sabin book is a much better overview if, unlike me, you are interested in just one comprehensive look at the era.

The Book of Weirdo, Jon B. Cooke: Again, this is possibly far more detail on this transitional era than most will want. But Weirdo, 28 issues of underground holdovers, alt-comics future stars and primitive/outsider weirdness, really does do more than any other publication to bridge the gap between the undergrounds and the alternatives now plumping book sales everywhere.

The book is arranged as a quasi-scrapbook of history, interesting sidelights, and then a compendium of contributor memoirs, which forms a fairly compelling, if long-ish oral history of sorts. Robert Crumb founded the magazine, deliberately choosing outsiders and unknowns to go alongside his gorgeous and innovative post-underground autobiography comics and Mad mag style covers. Here, we see just how revered Crumb is among the early alt comics pioneers, his generous and egalitarian nature forming a magazine part incubator, part call-to-action, noted in numerous testimonials. His dark side is not glossed over. The misogynism of Crumb and the undergrounds is mentioned often, especially by female creators. And it was in this periodical that Crumb published the deadpan parody “When the Niggers Take Over America”, which fell decidedly flat among more conscientious artists, and was in fact (illegally) appropriated by Neo-Nazi publications.

Peter Bagge took over editing with #10, moving Weirdo more toward the Punk/zine movement, then Aline Kominsky-Crumb finished up 10 issues later, making an important effort to continue offering a place for female artists, as she had with Twisted Sisters in the 70’s. All three were important threads in what alternative comics were to become: a place for unheard voices.

I’ll add here one of my occasional raw counts of creator gender, from the earliest available (to me) issue by each editor: Crumb, issue #3: 12 male, 1 female; Bagge, #14: 13 m, 2 f; Kominsky-Crumb, #18: 6 m, 5 f. This is regardless of page count, which in the first two might heighten the disparity, and in the last, might tip toward the female. Weirdo‘s ground-level editorial spirit was often compared to Spiegelman and Mouly’s much-lauded and artsier Raw magazine. I’ll include a count for my earliest Raw, #3: 19 m, 3 f. Comics were an area where motivated feminists could make a real difference in pop culture.

So for a confessed comics geek/historian, this is an essential read. There are plenty of illustrations, valuable, as a Weirdo reprint collection does not exist, though copies of the original are pretty moderately priced on the internet. Especially in Kominsky-Crumb’s run, it’s a very important pop culture artifact.

Categories
Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Close Your Eyes and Think of Besties

Over their long rich, history, the Besties have established a tradition of… um, being 3 years old and changing in format every time. Of ignoring SEO-building topics such as best-selling novels and important prose non-fiction to concentrate on the best comics. Of not always focussing on the past year’s comics and being mostly about what my limited budget and the public library gets around to offering. Not even counting down, like a proper, click-bait, end-of-year list, and sometimes starting with the Bestiest. I see no reason to change a winning formula.

A little history: I have honestly always tried to start with books published in the last year or two. Mauretania, Comics From a New World, Chris Reynold’s haunting, dystopian 80’s comics in a new collection by Seth won the first; White Cube, by Brett VandeBroucke, a very penetrating and hilarious satire of the fine arts world, the second, and Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s noir mystery about 30’s Hollywood, last year.

I have been known to count (known) gender representation in anthologies; So I’ll give a rough count here (excluding anthologies), of white males, versus non-white male, in the 4 years I’ve named names: 30 and 33, respectively. I’ve been known to mention rampant American exceptionalism in comics history; so I’ll give an estimate of North Americans v. European/Japanese: 35 and 19. It looks relatively balanced, though of course, not an exact study.

I’ll add some Resties (honorable mentions), which include things I’ve rediscovered or newly discovered, critical writings and surveys. There will be a Bestiest of the Resties: There was none the first year; the second was Dan Mazur’s and Alexander Danner’s Comics: A Global History, 1968-Present, a much needed, non-American exceptionalist survey of comics from leading producers which opened my eyes to Japan as the first to explore comics’ potential for creative self-expression; and none the third year. I’m bringing it back.

The rules, looking suspiciously like no rules, having been murkily defined, the envelope, please:

Besties: This was a tough one this year. I eliminated a few very good ones, including Coin-Op #8, by Peter and Maria Hoey, that is actually from 2019, but I ordered it this year. The winner is also from 2019, and one of the Resties is from 2017, I just forgot to include it last year. I never got to current books by Tillie Walden and others that will undoubtedly be seen next year. I only now ordered a Tsuge collection that will almost certainly skew next year’s list. There should be an investigation:

Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, 2021: Matt Fraction wrote the 2011 Marvel series being referenced by Disney+’ Hawkeye series. He brought buddy-movie thrills and spills to that, and now takes on the uber absurd Comics Code era DC comics featuring “Superman’s Pal” and a whole bunch of gorillas and aliens and monstrous transformations that Jimmy went through. So maybe you have to have grown up in the era of the 12-centers to appreciate the humor and the in jokes, but it’s a comic book, for gosh sakes, and Fraction, with all his meta narratives, gets that.

Bradley of Him, Conor Willumsen, 2021: I liked the post-apocalyptic hedonism of Antigone better. Willumsen is always edgy, disturbingly so, and the protagonist here is obsessed, like many of our current public figures, politicians, media figures, celebrities. The setting is Las Vegas, capital of narcissistic obsession. The soft, rubbery pencils only add to the tension, which is of course left unresolved at the end.

Monstress Volume 6, Charlotte Liu and Sana Takeda 2021: These types of ongoing series are tough to judge in installments, as I’ve mentioned before. This horror/fantasy tale is not ended yet, and I never did track down Volume 4 with the library closed for shutdown. But rereading Volume 1 did not dissipate its skin-crawling intrigue and its world-building grandeur, all its steam punk glory and dark tangled relationships. This volume was no different, and if it sometimes felt a bit pot boiler-ish, I’m not ready to make that assessment yet. So did Lord of the Rings, and that’s the echelon this tale aspires to, though it is much more violent and racially charged.

Le Grande Odalisque, Jerome’ Mulot and Florent Ruppert 2021: Three luscious, lusty, bisexually hedonistic women decide to steal an Ingres, arousing all the fire power the police can muster; and I’m sure, the scorn of the cultural guardians, both right and left. But reasonable readers will see these as action heroes with brains, wit and verve. And above all, agency- they drive the spectacular action and the loose limbed art allows for a sexy physicality without the static airbrushed obsessiveness of most action comics. This is a caper movie waiting to happen, with a subtext of revenge sex bringing a tinge of melancholy to the almost non-stop thrills. Traditional, Euro-comics genre with a modern twist.

Bestiest:

Press Enter to Continue, Ana Galvan, 2019: In candy colors, faux offset textures and simple, cipher-like drawings, this Spanish artist offers vaguely surreal stories of people who don’t quite trust their own realities. This is precision paranoia, where tigers appear to feed on the workaday masses, and people dive into pools only to run up into the inside of a TV screen. There is no rhyme or reason to these tales, only a feeling of alienation and dread.

Galvan’s style is evolving quickly. An earlier appearance in Now anthology featured a Steven Weismann-influenced short about two adolescent girl ponies lying to each other as one steals the other’s boyfriend. The pony imagery heightens the sense of loss of innocence. There is the realization that it would be nearly impossible to do this sort of story in TV or film. She has a new book out this month. The drawings are emblematic, almost ideographic, and the combination of words, colors and drawings reads like a new language. You can read it in a half hour ( though it demands to be returned to) and it costs less than $20 and is in fact, art. It’s why I like to do these Besties.

Resties:

Everything is Flammable, Gabrielle Bell: 2017. I don’t seem to have included it when I read it, probably in 2019-20, and I haven’t had the occasion to include any of Bell’s work, which is wry, subtly compelling and quietly hilarious autobiographical diary/memoir comics about her own life. The Voyeurs and Truth is Fragmentary cover her earlier years as an introverted but driven comics artist appearing at comics festivals worldwide.

This is her first full length memoir and tells of her off-the-grid mother’s struggles after losing her house to a fire in Northern California’s notorious Humboldt County. It deals with Bell’s strange ‘feral’ childhood and her fraught relationship with her mom, in light of her stepfather’s abusive behavior. All in simple yet very evocative caricature and subdued color. Again, the quality that I think makes almost all of these comics here appeal to me is that their stories can really only be told in pen and ink.

World Map Room, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2013: A quirky, recondite story of three men traveling into and thru a sprawling city to a mysterious appointment. There is a graphic unity in the way the angular black and white buildings, planes and people interact with the copious (Japanese) sound effects as if Onomatopoeia (sounds) were a player in the strange drama. Remember when Lynch parlayed ambient machine sounds into a sort of subtle steampunk horror in Eraserhead? The whole effect is unease, as if violence were imminent. However, the story remains open ended, with other chapters promised in the author’s notes, which I haven’t found. I found this on CopaceticComics.com, my go-to for catching up on the manga translations of the much lamented PictureBox books, now deceased. I became obsessed with their revivals of Garo-era alt-manga pioneers such as Hayashi and Sugiera, so I’ve been exploring modern Japanese alternatives. Japan, which has the largest comics industry in the world, has been easy to ignore because there are so few canonical translations, but that is ending, and we should pay attention.

Art vs Comics, Bart Beaty, 2012: As revealing about modern art as it is about comics. Understanding Liechtenstein’s appropriation of 50’s juvenile comics is not easy for comics fans, who often see a copyist who made millions. Incorporating pop culture innovations into fine arts is not easy for ‘high’ art aficionados, who often willfully ignore, e.g., Crumb’s obvious influence on Phillip Guston’s best work. These are essays without jargon, and without the reverse snobbery of ‘Team Comics’ that examine important visual truths about comics and art in a balanced way. I’ll be reading it again soon.

Trots and Bonnie, Shari Flenniken, 2021: Underground comics epitomized the underlying sexism of the 60’s ‘free love’ movement, but also provided a voice for the second wave feminist rebuttal. Shari Flenniken’s was a forgotten voice among those of Trina Robbins’, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s, and others’, but no more. Her 70’s National Lampoon series has finally been collected, along with extra material and her comments. Her dark, yet very non puritanical sexual satire satisfies a need for sexual truth to counterbalance the programatic puritanism of both right and left, as evidenced by the fact that they consistently pass the laugh test. She published a new comic ( hilarious!) in a 2020 Rotland Press “Dreadfuls” anthology that was under consideration for this list. We can only hope that means her return to the fray is imminent.

Bestiest of the Resties:

Dal Tokyo, Gary Panter, 2011: I’ve gotten myself on a another Gary Panter jag. This was originally started with my Raw magazine obsession during the punk years, and revived by a purchase of Cola Madnes on the Copacetic site, from their ‘Deals’ section, which I plunder regularly, looking for gems that escaped my attention or budget first time around. Panter filters American pop culture through his own experience, separating signal from noise in dense, punk-inflected images.

Dal Tokyo is a 4 panel comic strip, first serialized in the L.A. Reader in the mid-80’s, then in Japan’s Riddim magazine in the mid-90’s through the oughts. It takes place on Mars, in a colony populated by Japanese and Texan immigrants (‘Dal’), but the original storyline peters out during its second run.

What’s fascinating about Dal Tokyo is the ways it pushes the the then dying strip medium forward at a time when other formats were beginning to emerge to stretch comics’ legs creatively. This was post-underground comics and in the middle of the punk/zine/ DIY wave of the late 70’s early 80’s.

Panter’s ‘ratty line’, an ironic, expressionistic commentary on Herge’s ‘clear line’ and classic strip masters such as Caniff, rather than a repudiation of those things, is emblematic of his punk roots. It sometimes obscures the real innovations he brought, and his relation to classic masters, such as even Winsor McKay, whose fantastic world-building Panter equals in this noir sci-fi. It relates to his harrowing Jimbo Adventures in Paradise (1988, recently re-released by New York Review Books), and the punk slapstick Cola Madnes (early 80’s, unpublished until PictureBox rescued it in 2000).

This Fantagraphics edition is 6 1/4” high, a big improvement over previous collections. But these are not the only innovations that a larger edition is good for. Panter, in Dal Tokyo, has also revived the lost art of page design in comic strips. While 3-4 panel dailies have not featured this in decades, since Milton Caniff, few explore its potential like Panter, who creates kinetic 4-panel vistas on dynamic diagonals with cross-hatched grays vying with blacks and whites.

I doubt it’s an aesthetic reach to ascribe his layered darks and lights to Japanese Edo printmaking, as Panter is a) a printmaker, and b) clearly interested in Japanese culture. At the same time, it’s arguable that this is the last of the great comic strips. Paradise and Madnes were conceived as graphic novels, however segmented and fragmentary they are. Dal Tokyo was always a strip, four panels put out at regular intervals (first weekly, then monthly).

By the second run, Panter had changed his style, working with nibs instead of Rapidograph, and his narrative approach, from sci-fi noir to abstract free association words and pictures. Yet the first two (-ish) years of Dal Tokyo, which is not part of the Jimbo stories, but features Okupant X, a kindred soul, continues Panter’s exploration of the everyman’s search for meaning in a dystopian society.

We who are passionate about the music of the era have often failed to see the fragmented poetry of Panter’s punk comics art, and how it tread a pioneering path between high and low art, as John Carlin so well described in Masters of American Comics. Dal Tokyo’s spotty publishing history shouldn’t obscure its achievement.

Note: I would provide an image here, as it would definitely be fair use, but both Besties are published by Fantagraphics, which has an extremely restrictive excerpt policy.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List Uncategorized

Reading Edge:

Place With Stars and Dragonflies, Monotype, 2021, 21×15″. This image combines trace monotype with relief elements, and kicked off a series of existential chair images I used to explore presence and objective reality.

An extended period of downtime following a very successful Summer Art Market, and the end of my part time day job in a college bookstore is to blame for a lengthy lack of posts. This list of abbreviated book blurbs is a pretty good summary of what I’ve been up to as I emptied out my days with a view to building a new routine.

Classes and studio work have continued, of course. And with MoPrint ’22 fast approaching, a bit more urgency will be needed there. But for now, the order of the day for the last few weeks has been coffee and books- with excursions to bookstores to stack literature, non fiction, comics and art like cordwood against the bitter winds building.

Here’s a downpayment, culled from a diary I keep where often these thoughts first appear. There’s no theme, to the blurbs at least- the daybook includes a lot of rumination on what time and work actually are- and perhaps I should try to bring those deeper contemplations here sometime, but for now, just the books.

Bradley of Him, Connor Willumsen’s newest, was a bit too complex for just one reading. This is the downside to library books. Like Antigone, about slackers in a vaguely post-apocalyptic beach town, it was palpably brilliant, but hard to describe why. Extreme protagonist meets slightly dystopian hyper-capitalist paradise in Las Vegas. In both books, art that is watery and a tinge neurotic with narcissistic characters seemingly unaware of the strangeness they are immersed in.

Stroppy, Marc Bell: Again, I originally read it from the library, and decided when finances loosened up, to reread and add it to my shelf. Stroppy is an oafish schlemiel in a dystopian urban oligarchy, where even art is in service to the powers that be. Bell invokes E.C. Segar (Popeye) and mini-golf to tell the tale of a song contest that perpetuates a pop culture kleptocracy.

Bell is a central figure in the ongoing mini-comics/zine subculture, which small websites make it easier to experience. However, he’s long since broken through into mainstream publishing, not to mention gallery sales and this is just one of his highly entertaining hardcover albums. I also picked up Pure Pajamas, a collection of his alternative press weekly strips.His artistic lineage, after Segar, stretches through Crumb and even Phillip Guston, before looping back around to Rube Goldberg. An amazing talent, whose deadpan protagonists are always being imposed upon, and even physically occupied, by other characters.

S! #32 Kus: A pocket sized anthology, published in Latvia, of alt comics auteurs from around the world, in this case, Japan. They are available from online sellers such as Copacetic, or John Porcellino’s Spit-and-a-Half. This one, however, I found at Matter, the letterpress/bookshop on Market St. It’s well worth the trip on a Rockies away day. They also publish single-artist mini comics as Mini Kus.

The artists featured here belong to a later era of Garo magazine and other current publications, and thus provide a view of the current state of alt comics in Japan. Here, and in AX, a collection of alt manga published in 2010, the interchange with American styles seems more apparent, than in Garo’s earlier days, which took cues from pop art and French Nouvelle cinema. Fort Thunder influences are visible and Heta Uma (bad/good) styles the equivalent of the comics brut of Johhny Ryan, et al, are prominent. Who influenced who I can’t say, but these comics lack the sense of Japanese cultural ferment that the early manga pioneers like Hayashi and Sugiera drip with. Not that there aren’t some very intriguing short pieces here, and the internationalization of comics is sort of implicit in the Kus! project to begin with, but the downside of anthologies is you get only a quick glance at a given artist. The small format may also inhibit real engagement, but there are definitely artists here I intend to look for. One, Yuichi Yokoyama, I already found and sent for from the Copacetic site, and it’s in a stack of things I’m saving for when the flurries fly.

Bad Ball, Samplerman: Samplerman is a French comics artist who cuts up and reassembles old comics to create surreal adventures. Again the small format in this Mini Kus may not be optimal, as I’ve seen him play in a piece in Scratches with intricately shaped panels to bring the negative space of the gutters ( space between panels) into play, and here he limits himself to a 6 panel grid. Thus, the vibe is sort of constrained surrealism, like the early Dr. Strange comics by Ditko, or even the cluttered strangeness of Ogden Whitney’s Herbie.

Gold Pollen, Seiichi Hayashi: This is also a reread after I got it from the library a couple of years ago, then found the book online for a decent price. It’s rare to find it under $75, partially because it’s a beautiful book published by the sadly departed PictureBox of Dan Nadel, with a very interesting essay by Ryan Holmberg.

Nadel was an apparently huge part of the re-discovery of Garo Magazine-era manga of the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve become a bit obsessed with these artists and Holmberg is part of the reason, as he explicates Japanese culture both pre-WWII, and in the turbulent years of Garo‘s establishment as the first magazine devoted to alternative, avant garde comics in the world, in 1964. Our ingrained American exceptionalism makes this massive contribution to the art of comics easy to ignore, but at the time, Marvel’s angsty but violent superheroes were about it in this country for those looking for comics for an adult sensibility. Even Undergrounds and the often adolescent boob-a-licious sci-fi of Heavy Metal were still in the future. Not so in Japan, where dramatic gekiga manga led to a real avant garde.

Hayashi and others, such as Tsuge, Sugiera and Tezuka were experimenting with Pop Art and avant garde Carnaby Street graphics and French New Wave cinema as inspiration for their charged stories of relationships and change in Japan.

Hayashi is not easy to find here. I’ve tracked down 3 of the 4 collections that have been published in English. Red Colored Elegy, about doomed, disaffected lovers is his masterpiece, but one will want the title story in this collection as well, a tensely constructed minimalist visual symphony. Mike Mignola’s measured cinematic pacing and love of folklore in Hellboy might offer a hint of what Hayashi was doing while Marvel’s The Thing was immersed in clobberin’ time, but that would not do justice to Hayashi’s sense of ordinary people caught between a fascist past and a hyper capitalist occupier.

Valley, GG: Ordered this Mini Kus from Copacetic after running across She’s Not There at the library. Misty images, disturbing implications, and ambiguous plot lines in both.

Comic Arf, Craig Yoe: This is an odd project; a bit of an ego trip, but not without merit.On one hand, it’s over designed, with not much to say about the artists it presents, and is editorially dodgy as it attempts to shoehorn Yoe’s own mediocre work as an equal to the accomplished past professionals. Those artists, however, are very interesting, and some I’d never heard of. He employs current illustrators as part of his design, which adds to the jumble, but certainly leads to some nice individual pieces. There’s a great Milt Gross feature, “Draw Your Own Conclusions” in which current cartoonists complete Gross cartoons originally offered for readers to finish. There’s nothing wrong with having Gross and other classic cartoonists on one’s bookshelf. But it lacks the editorial/design unity of Scratches or Blab.

Cola Madnes, Gary Panter: which gets too much credit in the afterword for being a masterpiece, but which is an early, fairly improvisatory Panter romp that features the mutually disaffected characters and post industrial wasteland of his Daltokyo and other classic punk comics. The graphics are amazingly… graphic. “Ratty line” is a common descriptive for Panter’s slashing, textural ink work, but his rich blacks are always well placed and add depth and detail to his dystopian suburbia. It’s mostly hyper grungy, hyper violent slapstick, and I keep wanting to assign manga influences to it that may not really be there, but it was originally intended for Japanese publication before being shelved for 20 years so the urge is irresistible. Very interesting item, and I want to re-read other Jimbo I have.

Comics vs. Art, Bart Beatty: Always a fascinating subject, and ambivalence is of course high- I’m not one to denigrate Pop Art, or to deride its superficiality, which is actually a big part of its complex point. This is a facile trap that “Team Comics” often falls into, though thankfully not Beatty. Nor do I consider war and romance comics of the 50’s to be under appreciated artistic gems. I have a respect for Kirby, Heath, even Novick, from the pulp escapes of my youth, but for the most part, I do not attempt to elevate them as high art.

Nonetheless, the appropriation of the imagery in all the great museums is a bit troubling. Russ Heath gives it a wry reflection in a one pager about his image Whaam!, appearing at MOMA ( the painting is actually a mash-up of panels from Heath, Novick, and Jerry Grandinetti, from two comics that Liechtenstein undoubtedly bought at the same time from the same newsstand. One imagines an unknown but soon to be wealthy artist being regarded a loser as he buys comics on the street. Or one does if one is an unknown artist who often buy comics on the street.) “Quotidian” is about the most complementary term I’ve seen applied to the original work in several sources, including Comics vs, and Wikipedia. Nonetheless, the original imagery was conceived by these artists, took time and effort, and often displayed a level of compositional creativity that clearly places it above the sort of mundane disposable image Liechtenstein and co. implies it is. This is a common stereotype in all graphics. While the irony in “Whaam!’ Is all Liechtenstein’s, Heath was certainly no stranger to camp and irony, having executed Michael O’Donahue’s hilariously arousing bondage/romance/war/western comics parody Cowgirls At War in National Lampoon. Buxom dommes and subs, viewed through binoculars in blasted landscapes. We don’t know how much of that is in O’Donaghue’s script, and how much Heath’s imagination, but what is suppressed in pop culture is often telling. While Ditko struggled to realize comics’ creative potential on Dr Strange in the work-for-hire sweatshops of Marvel, he was also inking Eric Stanton’s luscious underground kink across the studio they shared. In the case of war comics, the industry was not interested in irony, and with the exception of Kurtzman and co., rarely even questioned the morality of war.

Collectors certainly have always valued these originals, to an extent, but they never approached the cultural cache of Kirby’s superheroes, let alone Liechtenstein’s appropriations. My search on ebay for All American Men of War #89 ( the “first appearance” of the “Whaam!” image) brought up a listing at $325 in nice condition with Liectenstein’s name in the heading (not Novick’s, as would be the case in most comics listings). Another comic in similar condition from the same era, same Johnny Cloud character, AAMW #100, Heath’s name in the heading, is asking $30. However, for whatever reason, interest in these books is higher than I recall, whether Roy gets credit, or not.

This is an interesting book, very readable ( like most comics critics, excepting Thierry Groensteen, Beatty proudly eschews the lit theory jargon) and raising ponderables about both high and low arts.

Worst.President.Ever. Robert Strauss: Not about who one would think, published in early 2016, with a title that was outdated by the end of that year. James Buchanan, the last president to have a chance at avoiding the Civil War, provides a parallel lesson to today in what happens when personal ambition *trumps* civic responsibility. While 15 was not as corrupt as 45, he apparently was just as willing to adopt a racist stance to further his career. Sometimes a bit frothy, sometimes a bit sketchy on the research, but certainly timely, in a weird sort of way.

Robinson, Muriel Spark: Robinson is a recluse on a small island, onto which our heroine’s plane crashes. With a controlling hermit and 3 marooned strangers, suspicion is high, and human nature being what it is, there is tension. Spark, like Hemingway, packs a lot of meaning into the simplest of sentences.

Trots and Bonnie, Shary Flenniken: NYRB resurrects this unfairly forgotten 70’s gem from the pages of National Lampoon. Flenniken wields the subversive power of second wave feminism combined with utter, tits out horniness and narrative anarchy to come up with an authentic statement about growing up during the war of the sexes and the necessity of comics and other pop culture for social change. In other words, it’s hard to believe that voices like Flenniken’s, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s and Julie Doucet’s would have been heard without the relatively accessible medium of comics to provide a platform.

The back material, including interview, sketches and annotations, is a real plus. Many of these cartoons, especially the earliest, are laugh out loud funny. Like many at this time, Flenniken brilliantly reprises, then revivifies early newspaper comics’ styles to move the medium back into its rightful place as pop cultural touchstone. This was America’s reply to Garo Magazine’s creative experimentation, and a precursor to Raw. The rise of female cartoonists is one of the Underground era’s most redemptive features. How about some new material, Ms Flenniken?

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Reading Edge:

The promised end of quarantine is just as slow to arrive as the sun. Snow and rain, which we’ve had a lot of, means movies and books. Mostly movies, these days, but that leaves room for larger book reviews. This post has sort of a theme, but begins with a personal weakness of my always associative reading agenda, a book on books.

The Book, Keith Houston: I get geeked out about books. That’s the point of this column. Books on books? Better not get me started. Oops- too late. The Book, with its cute diagrammatic design and very definitive-sounding subtitle: “A Cover-To-Cover Exploration Of The Most Powerful Object Of Our Time”, was always going to be a must-read.

However, this isn’t the book that I hoped, or fantasized, that it would be: a wholistic examination of books’ development, including the intellectual matter of their effect on culture. Despite the subtitle, little was really said about what makes books powerful.


Instead the narrative stuck close to the nuts and bolts of how the physical item developed, interesting, but not really as powerful as the ideas therein. It made for what is properly speaking, historical trivia- highly readable, take my word for it- but not essential to the understanding of just how books came to be so entrenched in our intellectual landscapes.


To be fair, at 325 pages of mostly fascinating details, there was little room to stop and contemplate the insistent whisper of the flipping leaves. But a discussion of Audobon’s The Birds of North America left one aching for at least some acknowledgement of the sweeping changes in ordinary life that the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible, or science tomes and maps, and maybe even the appearance of the novel, brought.


On the other hand, a fairly concise history of printmaking is found here, a real joy for a printmaker. Paper, we forget, is one of the great innovations in human invention, and here we are reminded. The internet- an earthshaking development in our own lifetimes- but can it compare with the only slightly more distant inception of mechanical presses- mass media? Again, the relationship between commercial printing and the spread of images and info among a rapidly expanding middle class is not touched on. The Book needs context, something that the object itself helped invent. That book is out there, I’m sure, or will be. This book provides diversion for bibliophiles, but only points out the need for something that gives books a bit more their due, culturally speaking.

Red Red Rock and Other Stories, 1967-70, Seichi Hayashi: An elegant trade paperback, published by Breakdown Press in England (2016), It is still available at cover price, unlike others of Hayashi’s work in English. It contains one of Ryan Holmberg’s excellent essays on the history and influences of manga which really add to the richness of Hayashi’s topical, Pop Art-influenced short stories. There are 4 collections of Hayashi’s pioneering early alt manga that have been published, including Red Colored Elegy, a moody, impressionistic tale of a relationship smothered by ennui, and Gold Pollen and Other Stories, which I’ve read, but which is impossible to buy for a reasonable price. I attribute this to Hayashi’s status as a landmark creator in the history of comics, but also to the sheer beauty and attention to detail of Picture Box’s publications before they went out of business.

This one makes for a great overview of Hayashi starting with early efforts in a sort of Euro/satirical leftist journal style, and gradually progressing to his peak style, which incorporates elements of Warhol’s Pop Art, Carnaby Street commercial animation, and even French New Wave cinema. Hayashi is to be considered integral with the Japanese Angura (underground) of the late 60’s, as Holmberg demonstrates.

Remember, all that American comics at this time had to offer to those interested in comics as a creative medium were the innovative but bombastic Marvels, and the raunchy, rowdy undergrounds. Europe was beginning to explore adult genre, such as sci-fi and crime, but the Japanese were the first to truly push the boundaries of the medium, through Hayashi, Sugiera, and and others associated with Garo magazine. Manga is impossible to ignore now, and these spare and thoughtful comics are part of the reason why.

Mysterious Underground Men, Osamu Tezuka: Another Picture Box product that is hard to find at a reasonable price. Again, it’s well designed, contains a Holmberg essay, and is a seminal manga artifact, being published in this country for the first time since its 1947 appearance in Japan.

Unlike the Hayashi and Tsuge works mentioned here, it is clearly aimed at children, and heavily influenced by Disney’s Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, not to mention Flash Gordon serials. But in it, as Holmberg explains, we see a first departure from Nansensu (nonsense) manga for children and toward Gekiga, the ‘dramatic pictures’ that paved the way for Japan’s groundbreaking Garo magazine in the 60’s. Tezuka himself, after starting the equally influential Astro Boy, embraced alternative visions, and started his own similar magazine, Com.

Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge.: This title story is probably the first manga I ever read, tipped into the pages of Raw Magazine Number Seven ( 1985), the infamous “Torn Again” issue, which also included a small section of alternative manga ( my first encounter with the wondrous strange Shigeru Sugiera). I was impressed by the story, a lush, bittersweet tale of children growing up in rural Japan, but didn’t see enough things like it to place it into context until I read an overview of alternative manga in the very excellent Comics: A Global History, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner. I began seeing collections pop up on the lists of fave publishers Picture Box and D&Q. This is the importance of good criticism and book editing; it is a form of curation, and the medium needs that. I recommend those above-mentioned starting points for sorting through the vast befuddling landscape of manga, but I’m sure there are others.

I mention all this because the complete original collection is about to be released for the first time in English in the Fall as part of a series of Tsuge collections by Drawn and Quarterly. I’m not saying that this, too, will shoot up into hundreds of dollars on the secondary market, but it’s clear that the pioneers of alternative manga are starting to finally attract attention. They went a long way to making the medium appropriate for adult reading around the world, and they certainly deserve it.

Manga- Japanese comic books, simply put, are another aspect of how ideas and culture spread themselves to all corners through a simple codex of sheaves of paper.

Categories
Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Besties! I’m Going Off the Rails On a Crazy Train ( of Thought)

It’s been quite a year already, obviously. It hasn’t always seemed appealing to spend time on book blurbs, but the book blurbs must go on. They provide a bit of needed stability in a chaotic world.

End of year means: Besties! My own small contribution to listomania, postponed while the Qnazis blew off steam and the GOP felt comfortable enough to get back to white supremacist apologetics. Besties are limited, by design, to comics, allowing me to avoid the traffic jam with mainstream prose. They are now, officially, a ‘tradition’, meaning I’ve done it a few times, and a couple of them have even come out similar. That sort of intimates that there are parameters: 1. There is a list of stuff that came out this year, or close enough. In this case, Rusty Brown, which I wouldn’t have been able to finish before last year’s end, to squeeze it onto a 10 year list. So it got bumped back. 2. A list of stuff that came out in collections or critical/bibliographical works, to which I’m adding past works I discovered this year. 3. Honorables ( Resties) will include both categories this year. 4. They’re comics, of course. I read a bunch of good prose, but everybody does prose, and those are in the month to month Reading Edge lists, yes, but I style comics as my niche, as they touch on both graphics and literature, thus fitting into the blog’s manifesto ( I fancy). 5. A Clunker, a woulda coulda shoulda been bestie that wasn’t necessarily awful, just disappointing.

As one expects, this is a mainstream (Here, DC), but did include an alt title, What’s a Paintoonist? last year. Besties are of course biased, as I tend to choose alt titles to read or take home from the library anyway. Especially during lockdown, with the library closed, and trips to the mainstream/fan boy store limited, most acquisitions were through my cadre of small press web sites and specialty shops. I try new things, of course, but it’s still mostly all about my tastes and expectations. Nonetheless, mainstream titles such as Hawkeye have made the list each year, and did again this year.

My Reading Edge posts are meant to track a stream of conscious reading program, that expands according to my curiosity and day to day musings. They’re meant to track my train of thought. I can’t be the only one whose train of thought went off the rails this year, whether from virus anxiety, or election anxiety? There was presumably less output from publishers both large and small, and more time to search the nooks and crannies of the internet for obscure stuff. Here it is:

The Angriest Dog In the World, David Lynch, Rotland Press: A rather dunder-headed review in The Comics Journal tried to pass off its lazy thinking on this little gem as an expose of this as a ‘ celebrity vanity project’. A massive critical howler. The print run was 500 @ $10, hardly enough to pay for a nice wicker basket to hold the residual checks from Blue Velvet, and thus, not in the same neighborhood as vanity, coming closer to the zip code assigned to charity, as Rotland Press, the small Detroit publisher that marries the subversive wit of the comics with the craft and social urgency of printmaking, must have thanked their lucky stars to even have David Lynch read their proposal. There was also the suggestion that its static repetitions and arid ironies disqualified it from real consideration as a comic, when it is really, the newspaper comic to end all newspaper comics, as Lynch brilliantly intended. And anyone who doesn’t think Lynch has a sense of humor, hasn’t really understood Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. There is more humor in the Julie Cruise/sawmill opening credits in Twin Peaks than a pound of Nancy strips, whose minimalist aesthetic Lynch only amplifies in Dog, and which are lionized by critics.

I first saw this comic in Westword alternative weekly in the 80’s and immediately understood that 1. I really didn’t need to even read it regularly to get its subversive humor and elegant message ( which in fact IS its humor and message), and 2. My days of scooping up the Living section in the break room at work and flipping to the comics section were nearly over. I mean, why? Even Mutts is more tribute than triumph.

The Angriest Dog strains at the end of its chain in an industrial wasteland of art history, paralyzed by the formulaic expectation of newspaper comics ( Goodbye, Garfield) and the toxic irony of modern humor ( Hello, Zippy). The only thing it’s missing is the T.J. Eckleburg billboard from Gatsby. To paraphrase and expand the famous line about Bushmiller’s Nancy: It’s easier to read it, than it is to explain to yourself why you shouldn’t bother to read it. And this slender volume is no chore to read, anyway. It really didn’t need to be that large to point out Americans’ crippling fear of conceptual art, or even (see: 2020 election results) critical thinking.

David, Bianca Bagnarelli, McSweeney’s (57): A very quiet and elegant story about the tragedy and ubiquity of missed connections published as a separate comic in McSweeney’s. After McS #13, curated and MC’ed by Chris Ware, I was hoping for a real steady presence of McS in the comics world, but it never really happened. Publishing sibling Believer did curate a steady comics page, though. This belongs to the Adrian Tomine/ Jillian Tamaki school of understated, somewhat autobiographical literary comics that blazed a trail into the bookstore market in the 90’s and which now seems to have taken up residence in the YA explosion. This makes it hard to track, as not all YA comics appeal to, or are marketed to adults, yet not all are exclusively rewarding for young adults (whatever that is- like the term ‘graphic novel’ it seems to describe a sales opportunity, rather than a real demographic). An essay in The Comics of Chris Ware describes the pitfalls of trying to summarize the rapidly exploding renaissance in comics. For one thing, this is a medium that many still equate with the genre of superhero science fiction, and communicating its diversity to those who labor under that stereotype is hard, in a few sentences, at least. This lovely little psychological drama will go a long way toward that end.

Los Angeles Times, anthology: One person who’s put a lot of time and thought into how to present that renaissance is Sammy Harkham, the editor of the estimable, yet still rowdy, Kramer’s Ergot anthology, still the best single publication to find out what’s going on in modern comics. Kramer’s is the opposite of the YA category, in that it’s probably the first place young adult comics readers go when they chafe at being categorized as young adults. KE has its roots in the alt comics and minis and zines of the 80’s and onward, but it knows its comics history and it gets that Gary Panter can be punk/zine icon, yet still be an influential creator today.

Anyhoo, not The L.A. Times. Harkham edits this tabloid supplement, so it’s like a newsprint Kramers with a very representative selection of vets and newbies. It may still be available (for a penny!) from CopaceticComics.com. And it’ll help cure the lengthy itch until the next Kramers comes out.

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware: Though this is only the first part, and most of it was previously published since a while now, its emergent themes of emotional distance, intersection, and personal fantasy, though not resolved here, make this another Ware work to keep an eye on. Its inherent structure is fragmented, so it’s not productive to speculate on how the eventual whole may stack up to his others, such as Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories. Its narrative schema, such as diagrammatic layouts, exploded time and cinematic pacing, do not always seem as incisive as in previous works, but he’s come up with a more diverse cast of disaffected losers than ever. The implied theme of fantasy as a substitute for love holds real intrigue and is given a more central place than his previous work.

It’s sort of a must read if you want to understand the big picture that is the comics medium right now.

And the Bestiest of the Besties is: Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios with Jordy Bellaire: Which started in late ’19, but which did not finish till early ’20, thus pushing it onto this year’s list ( I bought it, impatiently, in the traditional ‘floppy’ form, the ‘graphic novel’ compilation should be out by now). As teased in the intro, the Bestiest this year, is indeed, a mainstream book by Image, though Image is of course, the company that changed mainstream comics publishing forever by offering creator owned comics.

This could, back in its first volume, The Shrike, be pinned into a genre or two ( let’s go with Goth Folk Feminist Western), but now mostly inhabits its own mythology. The Rat does touch down in noir mystery and also on the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger, and the decadence of 30’s Hollywood infuses it like opium. Here, as in all 3 volumes (The Shrike; The Bear; now, The Rat) we follow members of one family, and they must find meaning in death. Kelly Sue DeConnick, fresh from a consultancy and cameo with Captain Marvel of the MCU offers a strange, complex mythology that encompasses feminist, racial and artistic-folkloric allusion and there are two more volumes to go. It gives up its secrets reticently. If it existed only to offer a venue for Emma Rios’ swirling, shadowy double page spreads, and Jordy Bellaire’s acidic and “acid”-tinged colors it wouldn’t fall much on this list.

It’s a defining principle of this list and really, most of my reading that art doesn’t really exist or succeed until inscrutable concepts have been invoked. Pretty Deadly builds a world where the inscrutable is part of the landscape, as is war, murder, sexual betrayal and art and love. Only DeConnick knows where it’s headed, but comics may be headed there with it.

The Resties: These are my Honorable Mentions, and I’m including older stuff that I have just now gotten to, compilations just published, and critical works in this category as well.

Scratches #1, 2 ,Scratch Books, 2016-18: A European anthology; a natural successor to Raw Magazine, edited by one of its European alums. I had a hard time tracking these down, especially with limited funds for shipping and the cover price of its large trade book format. I finally found #1 through a British seller on Abe Books, and #2 through Canada’s Conundrum Press. And they’re both definitely worthy of the trouble and expense.

They differ from Kramers, the go-to anthology for cutting edge comics in the USA, in that they naturally focus on Euro cartoonists, though not exclusively. In this way, they do resemble Raw Mag more than Kramers, though there is some overlap. Ligne Clair (think Tintin’s successors) is the dominant style here, unsurprisingly. Joost Swarte, editor/publisher was at the vanguard of the clear line revival, which was propelled in this country by his and others’ appearances in Raw. However, we also see plenty of what I’ve called Cartoon Brut, always filtered through a Euro sensibility rather than the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad, style, e.g.: Bret Vanderbroucke, last year’s Bestiest. And Euro comics, like Manga, have their own unique threads to follow, such as Brecht Evens’ watercolor surrealism, a vaguely disquieting transposition of traditional children’s book imagery into sexual suggestion.

I guess we’re due for a #3, but who knows what virusworld has done to their scheduling.

Pig Tales/Cartoon Workshop, Paper Rad, Picture Box, 2007: I found this at the CopaceticComics.com store, always a useful site, see above. Big haired pigs party down in a garish materialistic world, with a flip book of Hanna-Barbera look-a-likes and Chuck Norris. Paper Rad/Paper Radio/ Paper Rodeo were early pioneers of Cartoon Brut, but also multimedia art and performance. They have existed where art and comics merge. So too, Picture Box, a much lamented publisher that closed in 2011, who also put out the gloriously eclectic Ganzfeld Magazine, and strange Manga artifacts (below).

The Last of the Mohicans, Shigeru Sugiera; Cigarette Girl, Masahiko Matsumoto; Red Colored Elegy, Seiichi Hayashi; Picture Box, 2011; Top Shelf, and D&Q, 2013: Strange Manga artifacts from the Garo Magazine era. I’m cheating here; these do not really relate to each other, except for being part of a creative explosion in Manga ca. 1964-79, while the alternatives in Europe and America were barely beginning to stir. It was predictable that when I finally made time for Manga, it would expand exponentially in my personal canon. I continue to obsessively haunt obscure websites for more classic Manga.

Mohicans actually predates Garo, the world’s first alternative comics anthology from 1964 onward. It was published as part of the nansensu (nonsense) style for kids in the 50’s and was re-done for the 70’s Garo-inspired comics boom in Japan. It brings the occupation-era Japanese fascination with America culture to a creative fever with Sugiera’s genius for pastiche. Here the James Fenimore Cooper plot serves as a scaffold for swipes from American westerns and superhero tropes in the big-eye manga style.

Later, The Ganzfeld, in their “Japanada” issue published a Sugiera story that conflated Rasputin’s Russian Revolution legends, faux Japanese folk art figures, and Utrillo village scapes that has to be seen to be believed.

Cigarette Girl tells quotidian tales of 60’s Japanese working class strivers dealing with traditional stricture in romance and love. They are quiet stories told in simple drawings, and would be easy to pass over in the hectic publishing world of pre pandemic comics. But during the lockdown, with DPL closed I was unable to return it, and read it twice, as it grew and grew on me. It captures an atmosphere of self repression accompanying the economic miracle, and prior to the youth quake of ’68, of which Garo would have been part.

Red Colored Elegy had been on my reading list for months until I could find bandwidth for it with the virus, election and Klown Koup raging. Its masterful use of inked textures and white space, along with commercial images and nouveau cinematic pacing make it a landmark in comics, comparable with Krazy Kat and Segar’s Popeye, Superman and Batman, and the Marvel heroes before it; and Raw Magazine, Love and Rockets and the alternatives after it. It aspires to high art, like all the best popular media.

There’s a clunker– there will probably always be a clunker, something not necessarily unreadable-though this year’s comes close- but something that could have been much, much better:

Harleen, Stepan Sejic, DC: Ugh. Sejic’s juicy computer assisted art and clever plot twists redeemed Sunstone, an overlong series plagued with plot churn and a didactic approach to its subject, bondage and S&M sex. In that, an insecure blonde finds romantic joy by channeling her creative energies, and making emotional connection, albeit while tied up in latex outfits. A creative woman making positive change in her life without betraying her fondness for sexual submission, a nice breath of fresh air in the BDSM stereotyping so prevalent in pop culture, which often sees sexual fantasy as inseparable from sickness.

Here, the insecure blonde is back, but we all know how the story ends: Harleen falls under the Joker’s psychotic spell to become the fan boys’ fave manic pixie, Harley Quinn. I can’t really judge it fairly, but only because I couldn’t bear to finish it. I read Volume I, that’ll have to do. Perhaps there is an attempt at a redemptive twist later. Harleen, who suffers a cartoonish amount of slights to her abilities, is somehow placed in charge of the DC Universe’s most dangerous criminal. There is no hint of agency or consent here, only an implicit equation of psychopathology with sexual bliss, which surely must allude to primitive origins of the word hysteria? There must be a less pathetic woman than this somewhere in the DCU to star in a comic? Someone who is able to separate fantasy from professional relationships? Someone who is in charge of both her career and her love life.

I’ll go on record right now: I see nothing wrong about a cartoon with nice tits. A nice fantasy, and fantasy is necessary to a healthy inner life. But this is a cartoon with nice tits masquerading as an empowered woman, which makes a complete mockery of any real world issues that cartoon might touch on, which in this gritty crime tale, are many and complex. Fantasy sometimes can’t negotiate those complexities, which is why it’s fantasy. Let’s not pretend it’s realism. This story’s attempt at psychological nuance is clumsy, to say the least.

Sometimes the most impassioned feminists lack the subtlety and nuance to address the complexities of fantasy life, but I can see why they might see a character like this as a threat to progressive, healthy thinking.

That’s Besties for a 2020 of turmoil. I’m having a blast in the studio lately, and will put up a #WorkinProgress post soon.

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