Reading List: First World Problems

This is a real grab bag, partly because in the rush to finish up some deadlines this fall my reading was very fragmented. It’s very unjust when life upsets my reading schedule, I just want to be on record with that.

For a brief while, I wasn’t really reading much at all. Some of these are also leftovers from earlier readings this year that I’d never put down impressions for. This is mostly comics, as that’s something that fit my frantic pace of life, but I did return to prose eventually, and there are a couple of those here as well.

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso: a critical fave that I’d alluded to in my Besties list as needing to read. It got nominated for a Booker prize and attracted attention. I read a rather rambling and contrarian review of it in the Longbox Coffin blog, and it sparked my memory. 

It delineates the spirit of our post 9-11, post-truth world (fear, rage, conspiracy and misguided, even corrupt, populism seem to rule our discourse, whether Right or Left). Thus the book is rather bleak, mostly. The art mirrors that social entropy in simplified, almost emotionless cartooning and flat color. Everything looks fluorescent-lit.

Though the book’s not fun to read, it stays with you. I almost put it down, and did avoid it a couple of nights where its creepy atmosphere of fascist media bullying hit far too close to home in Trumplandia. The current conservative trope of infested, dangerous cities, lifted from 60’s conservatism, and dating back to the anti-immigrant politics of the early days of the GOP’s turn toward fascist politics in 1912, are proof of that. It’s hard to see positive human interaction in our venomous, twitter-fied online dialogue, but the book ultimately does offer for one main character, at least, a way out. Fear of change, an armadillo like interiority, are the gateways for the numbing negative populism ranging through our public dialogue. Interpersonal contact is the exit strategy. As always, love is the answer.

I also got Kramer’s Ergot #10 and Now #6 in the mail. They are the two preeminent comics anthologies now, and it’s interesting to compare them. They’re both published by Fantagraphics, a long-time pioneer in alternative comics, but are edited by different people. There is much intersect, but they are not identical.

Now is the latest in a long line of Fanta anthologies, meant to test drive new creators, or promote company stalwarts. The company, led by Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson, has debuted so many of today’s comics stars that it’s easy to lose count, and foolish to not keep up with their latest discoveries. Now, edited by Eric Reynolds, features international artists and has increasingly showcased very abstract comics. Kramer’s has never been afraid of abstract or expressionist comics and has returned often to its favorites. That’s because Kramer’s, a franchise edited and originated by Sammy Harkham in the 90’s and self-published before being published by the legendary and now deceased Alvin Buenaventura before ultimately landing with FB, has developed a kind of stable.

Both these most recent issues feature Steven Weissman, an artist whose hyper charged ‘kids’ comics FB first published in the 80’s, but who now brings a surreal humor and a real zest for fabulism to many other traditional genres including the western, or the fairytale.

Both also are prime promoters of the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad/ ‘cartoon brut’ schools of comics as exemplified by Marc Bell, Helga Reumann, C.F., and Mat Brinkman, etc. These 20-oughts era movements constitute a revival or continuation of the zine subculture that grew out of punk rock in the 80’s and earlier, the comics subculture of the 50’s and 60’s, especially undergrounds. Some, like Bell, trace their roots ultimately back to the ‘big foot’ style of the turn of the century newspaper comics. Many of those were expressions of marginalized cultures, often Jewish.

So while FB (Now) has always sought out and attracted young innovators looking to get published, Kramer’s may possibly have the deeper roots in self publishing. Either way, or both, one can get a nice overview of cutting edge comics, especially if periodic visits to Spit and a Half.com, John Porcellino’s online mini-comics clearing house, are added in.

These are clearly a world apart from the fan-boy oriented mainstream publishers of superhero fantasy found in the direct market shops; but also the newer, burgeoning young adult genres advocated by libraries and school reading programs. Comics are an expanding medium, and in exploring their relationship to the art, design and literary worlds, these two titles are essential.

Songy of Paradise, Gary Panter: Panter also got his start in the punk rock era, and is best known for a series of LP covers he did for Frank Zappa in the 80’s; and the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on TV. He was a Raw Magazine mainstay. Here he takes on Milton’s Medieval biblical fantasy, Paradise Regained, which I haven’t read. The Temptation of Jesus in the desert is here enacted with Panter’s hillbilly character Songy. It’s a large format comic, and Panter is able to really stretch out, proving that his punk/expressionist style is in no way incompatible with great design and a sense of place, which his post apocalyptic comics have always had. Panter’s thick, unrefined, but very precise and evocative line must have been an inspiration for the cartoon brut comics creators but his dry humor masks a genius for Candide-like satire that sets him apart.

Comics Journal #304: Simon Hanselmann Interview: I was delighted to see this feisty little mag ( also Fantagraphics) available at Tattered Cover for the first time in a while. Gary Groth doing his Gary Groth thing, long form interviews of comics creators, that in the strictest sense usually need an editor, but in the long view, now after roughly 35 years of them, form an irreplaceable study archive of some of the greatest creators of the 20th and 21st Centuries. ” Moving on to your Kindergarten years… ,” I swear I read in a Patsy Simmonds interview once. That gives you an idea of what to expect.

But who else was ever going to do such a complete job of documenting ignored cartoonists and writers, with many of the earliest ones now dead? I really doubt there’s a lot of critical source material on Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, for example. TCJ is comics’ magazine of record.

This is a very timely interview, in that it touches on issues that are hot topics in comics, and indeed in many pop cultures; such as #metoo, transgender issues, and queer identity as pertains to satire and biography in comics. Hanselmann raises some interesting questions in regard to the comics subculture, in which snap judgement and the ‘cancellation’ phenom of say, Twitter are very definitely in force, as in all pop culture. This is a very complex set of questions, as he points out, and may not always be compatible with creative freedom.

I’m also reading a radical feminist survey of Julie Doucet’s work from the 80’s/90’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but sometimes creative work- however ground breaking a feminist vision Doucet’s work was- viewed through that prism can suffer from a lack of balance and perspective in understanding what the artist’s vision and motivations actually are. I haven’t finished it, so it’s premature to say more, but I’d like to return to the topic soon.

Paul Gravett’s overview Comics Art, which seeks to touch on but not comprehensively examine, current and historical issues in a refreshing survey of international comics, is his best book. He had real flashes of insight in Escape Magazine, a British publication that featured comics and criticism from both sides of the Atlantic in the 80’s, but his Graphic Novel was too much a coffee table dog and pony show intended for newbies during the first blush of comics’ entry into the mainstream to be of much use to the serious student of the medium.

This one explores issues surrounding comics’ history as a marginalized medium, its use by marginalized populations, and its structural development to examine its nature as a unique art form. There are copious examples and Gravett does not always go to the usual suspects from American or British newspaper and comic book publishing, instead taking the opportunity to introduce lesser known artists worldwide.

While I do not always agree with his choices, he uses them well to explicate his ideas in a compendium of short essays on various topics. I’ll return to it again in a comparative sense, I’m sure.

I wanted to sample the new volume of Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, and Jordie Bellaire without having to wait for the ‘graphic novel’ album in March. I’ll still buy that, I’m sure. The only place to get a ‘floppie’ of the first issue is the comic book store, so I did one of my periodic ‘State of the Comic Shop’ visits and spent an hour sifting through the various titles on offer. I have my thoughts on that; it’s also a separate post, that ties into the current transition of alternative/ literary comics from comic shop direct market to the bookstore market. But I did enjoy the first installment of the new arc, which takes place in 30’s Hollywood.

I have hopes that I’ll be bewitched by it as much as the first volume, a sort of goth spaghetti western, that I discuss here. I was a little disappointed by the second, a World War I narrative that did not attain the same heights of fabulist synergy. As you may have guessed, it’s one of the oddest series out there. I discovered it during my first survey of mainstream comics, just after I left my day job and had time on my hands. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to mainstream comics now, but again, I’ll try to work up some impressions before the year is out.

And that brings me to my “Besties”, which when I wrote them for the first time last year I just assumed would be the typical yearly survey. But I’m not the type of reader who tries to keep up with current releases, so I have to get on Amazon or Goodreads or something and try to figure out how many of this year’s releases I’ve actually read. I promised myself I would make note of 2019 reads as I read them, but now the holidays are crowding in and I obviously haven’t done that. Reading Listing is hard! But I’m determined to have my Besties, even if it has to include leftovers from last year, such as Sabrina, or Coyote Doggirl, a sort of feminist “Lonely Are the Brave” in bubblegum colors by Lisa Hanawalt that I finally got to this year.

Civilizations, by Armesto-Diaz: a big survey of world history from the perspective of how civilizations interact with and modify their natural environments. It eschews the traditional ‘progressive’ history of flood plain civs to sea/trade/colonialism to ‘modern’. It advocates against a top-down hierarchy of ‘advanced’ v. ‘primitive’. It’s somewhat provocative and interesting, well written and highly readable. But I dawdled, had to take it back, as it was due. I got just over halfway through it, and was enjoying the lively almost bantering tone, and some pretty fresh thoughts on how to judge social and civic innovation through the centuries.

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende: from the freebie pile at work ( it’s not been released yet). My bucket list of South American writers continues, and this one has two, really- Allende, and Pablo Neruda, whose social conscience and poetry inform the story of a couple who span two eras of socialist experimentation, from Republican Spain through Allende’s father’s brief, doomed Chilean reign. The omniscient narration and dreamy factuality of S.A. lit is here, though the realism is far from ‘magic’. Highly readable, certainly sad at times, but ultimately hopeful.

I don’t call myself a socialist, but we certainly need a lot more of the democratic kind right now, as the proponents of unregulated capitalism have failed and are becoming more corrupt. This book is thought provoking about leftist agendas, their pitfalls, and the obstacles they face.



Summer Comics for Lazy Daze

I’ve reached a point in this summer that can be considered both blessing and curse: My last full workshop of the summer session has been cancelled so I have lots of time for reading and projects (yay!), but of course, I’m completely broke.

I should define terms. By ‘broke’, I mean each first of the month, I pay critical bills and trek to the grocery to assemble a decent store of food, and whatever’s left ( in this case, nothing) is used on clothes, books, restaurants, etc. Trips to the library for books, dvd’s and lately a Spanish conversation group, are my entertainment. Inventorying and scanning youthful ‘collectibles’ for sale is for beer money. And of course, there’s time for ongoing studio work. Whether I eat steak or lentil curry pretty much depends on what’s on sale. I enjoy both, and cooking in general, so all in all, it’s not a bad life. Writing for my blog helps me to process this, and also to promote the next workshops.

So here’s a description of some additional Fall workshop offerings, namely, two Denver Public Library drop-in classes at Hampden Branch in September. I’m still waiting on a full Fall Library schedule.

And below is a recent partial reading list.

(In a Sense) Lost and Found, Roman Muradov: This is the second GN, and the third story overall, I’ve read by this very appealing artist, who I think comes from an illustration background. His stories are rich in innovative visual design and textures, and as art, are glorious to look at. His stories are not that engaging, and can in fact be obscure and precious, because he foregrounds the illustrative concerns and his pictures, sometimes constrained by a too-rigid 9-panel grid,  become too clever by half. 

In many panels, for instance, he  has decided to experiment with a very muted, low-value color scheme, and I think a veteran comics person would intuitively know that with the limitations of printing, one must include a generous amount of highlighted contours, or the action gets murky. A lesson imparted in the noir films of the 40‘s, or also in Milton Caniff’s classic newspaper daily adventures, and which Muradov thinks doesn’t apply to his somewhat bland fable of a young woman searching a  dark city for her lost innocence. Long segments would be gorgeous visually, if a few highlights or even mid-values were included to provide a way into the action.

Similarly, however attractive the drawing, his uniformly hard-edged images contradict the air of mystery and depth he is trying to evoke. They would be fine in a simpler, more minimal illustration, but Muradov aspires to a comics tour-de-force, sprinkled liberally with Joycean word play, only without having done the homework. Its superficiality overwhelms its ambition. Eisner is another comics great who evokes the mist and mystery of urban alleys with well modulated color and minimalist ink effects. And Maria and Peter Hoey (below), who also come from an illustration background, source the evocative lighting of 50’s Hollywood or the welcoming secondary colors of mid century advertising to make sure the story remains front and center. 

Muradov has great potential, and is improving. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art, a subsequent GN ( this is his first) features a lively retro futurist noir tale with gorgeous ink effects, and a recent story in Now #4 simplifies and hones his unique visuals even further, though the narrative  in both remains obscure at times. They both include scenes in rain, Lovingly rendered, as is all his work. As they say, there is a very important difference between drawing and cartooning. 

On A Sunbeam, Tillie Walden: I got this from the Young Adult section in the library, where if one is seeking to keep caught up with current trends in comics, one must sometimes go. The category is rapidly expanding, thanks to libraries and school reading programs, and the publishers and writers are paying attention, since that is definitely where the money is. The current Comics Journal (303), has an article about its history and current state, if that interests you. 

The book is a lesbian romance at its heart. I’m sure it’s on some Red State Trumpster’s hate list somewhere already. Yes, I’m looking at you, Alabama. There are in fact, no male-identifying characters in the story, as far as I can tell, a somewhat incidental fact that will undoubtedly lead to Twitter-pated outrage over what messages about love’s untamable diversity the book imparts. It is a lovely book that is much more than that. 

The main characters are engaged in restoring old buildings in far flung space.  A separate narrative explores a somewhat Harry Potter-like private school for girls. One character, a troubled, very restless and impulsive girl named Mia, links the two threads, past and present. This provides ample opportunity for both adventure and school girl drama, and Walden, with subtle pacing, is good at both. The art is both intimate and panoramic at times, and the facts on the ground unfold slowly, and -rare in Sci-Fi, many conflicts are solved without violence. It’s a great read for either young, or older, adult, in short. 

What’s a Paintoonist?, Jerry Moriarty: Moriarty’s latest work lacks the fine balance of memoir, surrealism and quiescent expressionism of his earliest work. There are some great images here, but others seem thin and loosely formed. The overall premise, of Moriarty exploring his life through the eyes of himself as a teenage girl, seems not to arouse the same wry, loving humor as Jack Survives, his groundbreaking and rather brilliant early work in Raw Magazine of the 80’s that views the world through his father’s eyes. 

The girl character, Sally, seems to be an attempt to know his older sister, but the character gets bound up in adolescent sexuality, mostly that of a young boy, and only rarely demonstrates any girlishness. A shop woman’s large breasts are glimpsed tumbling onto the counter as Sally buys a soda. Is it an adolescent boy’s memory, or a girl’s? More convincing is a scene where she climbs a tree to impishly urinate on a passing adult. There are scenes filled with Hopper-esque mystery, such as the girl taking refuge on the porch of an abandoned house in a sudden rain, but the linking, interview style black and white panels lbetween never approach the dense, voyeuristic, claustrophobic yet somehow nostalgic atmosphere of Jack Survives. Nor its wry humor. A loose central narrative of leaving/ return ( Moriarty frames the images around leaving his NYC loft to return to his parents’ upstate NY home.) similarly fails to generate any real emotional tension, showing spare images of his studio, intended to be ghostly, but here, just simply empty. It’s a shame, as the one artist one would trust to properly evoke the haunted vacancy of lived-in spaces would BE Moriarty.

One wishing to acquaint oneself with Moriarty’s special genius for linking American idioms, would be better served by going to the earlier work. 

The Customer Is Always Wrong, Mimi Pond: Mimi Pond appeared in old National Lampoon Funnies Pages issues during the 70’s. This is a memoir of her day job during the run-up to that gig. Many who lived through that period will recognize the milieu, when drugs infused every corner of youth experience, and restaurant gigs provided a family- and party-like background to unsettled lives. 

This is Pond’s story of those strange times, and she sticks to the events and characters that affected her in her youth, without trying to over-dramatize or universalize them. So the story almost became my own memories. A neat trick, but not enough to make this more than a voyeuristic peek into the past.

Worn Tuff Elbow #2, Marc Bell: This follows from #1, 14 years ago. I recently re- read earlier collections, such as Stroppy, and Pure Pajamas, that delineate Bell’s surreal dystopian class-ridden world of rich, entitled bureaucrats, blank faced robot factotums and tubelike proles, with non-plussed humanoids between. It’s funny and bewitching, with the antics and endeavors mostly centered around low-gain working class striving for free lunch, or poetry contests. It’s a very retro cartooning style with E.C. Segar and R. Crumb the obvious reference points, but other more far-flung affinities pertain. The angst level being turned up to 11, Phillip Guston is an immediate association. For instance. I did abstract over a creative/aesthetic/cultural lineage from Segar ( Popeye, a ‘big foot’ everyman, with agency) to Crumb ( neurotic, id-obsessed everyman with agency) to Guston (neurotic, surreal, KKK-beset everyman, without agency) to Bell (passive, beset by dystopian forces, no agency). A more succinct, yet concise, history of comics in the 20th/21st C. one would struggle to find. At its terminus, dense and beguiling world building meets funny, relatable characters, and cannibalised human relations are the norm. 

Coin-Op #7, Peter and Maria Hoey: I made a trip down to the Denver Independent Comics Expo (DINK) in Spring, and had a nice conversation with Maria, whom I’d met before. I haven’t met her brother Peter. They alternate appearances, and apparently, so do I. 

I regret not asking more questions about their method of collaboration, but the convo took a nice turn into printmaking, so was wonderful anyway. I picked up a silkscreened  Illustration and The latest issue of Coin Op. I don’t think I even spent $40, so they could probably charge more for a very limited edition hand-pulled silk screen and a pretty much full-sized GN, but on the other hand, I know from experience that it’s in the nature of these festival-type shows, that you often have to compromise on price to keep sales up. Still, many there were selling giclees and other commercial reproductions at close to the same price, and there is a major difference there in quality and provenance. So on the one hand, I was pleased with scooping up a deal, but also mindful of the fact that the task of educating the general public on what constitutes an original print versus a reproduction continues. 

Coin Op is their ongoing comics series which I first encountered in Blab! magazine, which was the first I know of to collect work from both the comics and graphic illustration worlds that it turns out, many artists ( such as the Hoeys) inhabit. Nobrow is another, later magazine that performs this function in Europe. 

So as you can imagine, Coin Op affects a clean, cool, retro commercial style, but with a very unique, incisive intellectualism that comments on varied topics such as M.C.Escher’s spatial experiments, old R&B music, and even, often through collaboration  with writer C.P. Fruend, film history and iconography. A quiet irony abounds. This issue has a wordless visual oddysey featuring their ongoing characters Saltz and Pepz, a romantic epic that seems to have its ancestry in one of those grade school film strips about The Making of Paper, and two of their engrossing filmographies, one on 50’s Sci Fi movies with a vaguelt dystopian conspiracy theory thread, and one that explores the life of proto-Noir producer Val Lewton. 

They are dense with looping allusions and visual hijinks (in each issue, there is always an ‘exploded view’ sequence, ala Frank King’s classic Gasoline Alley Sunday strips), and in my house they get read over and over. They recently collected the previous six issues of Coin Op, along with some of the earlier Blab! material, a steal at $30. 

The Hoeys, perhaps becuase they probably earn their living from illustration, haven’t received a lot of attention from the alt comics world, but that may be changing, as they were just nominated for an Eisner Award for the above-mentioned romantic ‘pulp’ tale “Supply Chains” from this issue. They occupy a rarified space between the angst-ridden, expressionistic  scrawls of the more punk cartoonists, and the disturbing cartoon brut displacements of the Fort Thunder school, a place where advertising art and marginal cinema goes when we’re through ignoring it. 

A Western World, Michael DeForge: These are collected stories, and take various approaches to DeForge’s continual search for innovation, both visual and narrative. Example: A story about idyllic reincarnation on Saturn begins in media res, with an unseen factotum explaining to the ashen, newly elevated vice president just why he’s acceded to the highest office.

DeForge has been adding softer visual textures to his backgrounds behind his attenuated, harder-edged figures. A sort of chiaroscuro develops, which matches and heightens the subtle emotional longings of his characters. He’s got a unique voice and style, which is as responsible as any for refining the Fort Thunder-style cartoon brut into a sort of sci-fi fabulism that will probably define the next phase of avant grade comics.

Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael DeForge: DeForge’s latest full length work is a melodrama of masochistic longing and toxic attachment, played out in a post industrial Eden made alluring with its smudged grays and Hello Kitty-style smiley-faced denizens. It is Manga’s cute creepiness, elevated to quasi-biblical epic.

And it all began as a four panel web toon. A subtle mirroring of Peanuts’ wry punchlines propels us into its dark human drama. In this, it recalls Jillian Tamaki’s brilliant( and hilarious) Super Mutant Magic Academy, which also began as a web toon, and which achieved a sort of unitary dramatic power. There is real poetic, even diegetic, alchemy in these sorts of unassuming cartoons, as if someone had taken episodes of a sitcom, say, That 70’s Show and turned it into an opera ( have they?). Tamaki’s Academy is about a young girl’s coming out; DeForge’s Valley is about the moral boundaries of friendship and love. DeForge doesn’t reach the power of Tamaki’s narrative climax, but he is not afraid to break faith with the punchline in service to psychological inquiry ( I cried until I laughed?) He is again, always- a visual innovator here, and if the book flags a bit as it ends, it will -again- probably be very influential.

Last minute update: It’s been announced that Kelly Sue DeConnick’s, Emma Rios’, and Jordie Bellaire’s very intriguing Folk/Western/Apocalyptic epic Pretty Deadly will return in September. Already re-reading the first two volumes in preparation. Expect more in this space on that.




In Media Res

Show’s over, It certainly was a good one, and I may have stories and pix to share about the Summer Art Market 2019 after I sort through the post-show jumble. Few will match this one, from my second post, just after SAM 2009.

That’s right- a few extended silences notwithstanding, This blog is now 10 years old! It calls for a post of some sort. The 16th, the actual date of my first post is Bloomsday, the day of Leopold Bloom’s Odyssean wanderings through Dublin. But after what is usually one of my busiest periods of the year, thoughts turn to lighter fare. Comics and videos are definitely part of that. This Squishtoid blog, originally an attempt to document my creative life after leaving my day job, also functions as an outlet for my reading and pop culture musings. So while I dig out, and prepare for summer’s workshops, here are some thoughts about Marvel, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Earlier in spring reduced class time and social life during a fairly cold winter led to more reading and quiet time. I do enjoy reading up on ideas, and the most recent post for that is here, but sometimes, especially after a long hard day wrestling with those ideas in the studio, some comics are in order. While there are many literary and artistic comics out there, I think what most people first think when you say ‘comics’, is superheroes. This simplistic confusion of genre with medium dogs serious discussion of what comics are capable of, but on the other hand, superheroes remain, at least sometimes, a unique and vital genre.

It really makes no sense commenting on Marvel’s comics without having at least a passing knowledge of its movies, which have mined its long comics mythology to create one of the great Hollywood, or pop culture franchises. I’ll never really be a mainstream superhero guy, as far as comics go. But the movies are certainly hard to ignore. I’ve probably seen just over half of them now, and I’ve seen some major links in their ongoing narrative as the culmination comes in the release of Avengers: Endgame.

But it also makes sense to bone up on the source: the long history of the comics mainstream’s major superhero innovator :

Marvel: The Untold Story, Sean Howe : A book I’d been meaning to read and inhaled when I finally did. Marvel Comics had been the one of the formative pop cultural epiphanies of my youth, as I grew into them about the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were hitting their stride with angst-ridden characters on real urban streets. 

I was mostly done with them by ’75, and having returned to university, completely abandoned them for the alternative comics revolution of the mid 80’s, which tapped into the twin themes of high art and punk culture informing my life. Interestingly, this was in Laramie, Wyoming. If there were any doubts about the reach of the punk/alternative revolution that came in reaction to the Reagan repression of the 80’s, I’m here to tell you that it was alive and vibrant even in the red states.

The book fills in the gaps of my experience of superhero comics, describing the editorial turn to dope-fueled space-opera ( and the advent of movie mega-villain Thanos), then X-mutant melodrama- not a part of the movie universe, as another company owns the franchise. All leading to the 90’s hype years of foil covered ‘collectables’ and dark mannerist heroes in impenetrably convoluted crossover plot lines.

Each was the product of editorial office drama, which lead to bankruptcy, creative defections and the beginning of Image Comics, which failed to challenge Marvel’s dominance in super heroes, but eventually transformed the industry with royatlies and creator-owned properties. Eventually a lot of these characters and story elements popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, about which, more below.

The book, transitioning smoothly between the creative innovations and eccentricities, and the board room maneouvers to control and exploit them, tells a compelling story well. It seems well researched and avoids fan boy platitudes, along with emotionally charged revisionism. The story of Lee and Kirby’s now controversial collaborations and subsequent break takes center stage early and often. Who invented Spiderman? Thor? The Fantastic Four? It’s difficult for me to imagine that Thor would ever be grossing billions in cinemas without both Kirby’s myth-making artistic dynamism, and Lee’s corny but engaging faux-Shakespearean patois, and gift for making highly relatable characters, all of which have been liberally mined for the movies. 

These characters from a highly marginalized medium have resonated as much as any Hollywood ever came up with, as tacitly acknowledged by Disney when they shelled out billions in the 90’s to acquire them. This book, paced like a four-color thriller from the early days, helps to explicate the genius and the strife that spawned them.

 But the name of the game for the movies, as it has always been for the comics, is ‘crossover’. Marvel has always tried to get one to try different superheroes with different storylines, by linking their exploits in one great ‘Marvel Universe’. In the comics, by the 80’s, this had led to needlessly tangled plot lines running across multiple titles, which has created a geeky insularity that has ultimately hurt direct market comics outlets. But the movies have proven that it can be very compelling, narratively.

The movies have managed their affairs rather well. This is mainly because, as an economic juggernaut, Hollywood has felt free to make different sorts of movies out of different characters. Each flick that finds its way to the theaters has focused on a different niche of the broader public. Guardians of the Galaxy were C-list heroes played for laughs, for example. They date from the 70’s, when stoned writers wandered the halls at Marvel’s offices, inventing characters like Howard the Duck. This strange creation, by Steve Gerber, made one of the all-time bombs early in the MCU, but also enabled the fourth wall-shattering irony that more successful efforts, like Thor: Ragnarok have used to mainstream camp in the cineplex.

It was up to Marvel, notably producer Kevin Feige, to enforce a continuity on the franchise, which they did an excellent job of with the now famous ‘end-credit’ scenes. This encouraged movie-goers of the ultra serious Captain America movies to try goofier characters like Ant Man, and allowed directors latitude in how they presented the material. The apotheosis of this approach came with Thor: Ragnarok, which appalled older fans of the Lee-Kirby canon of my youth by applying the silliness of Guardians to an A-list character. It’s as though whole movies were being made of the Star Wars ‘cantina scene’. The movies I’ve recently seen epitomize this blending of sub-genre, with A-list, B-list, and C-list characters from the comics all playing their parts in the oncoming Endgame.

Ant Man and the Wasp: Because it taps so wonderfully into the humor and absurdity of super heroes ( especially ‘B’ or ‘C’-list characters like these two, who haven’t gotten so much as a phone call from Marvel since 1965, recent revivals for the YA market excepted), and yet does not fuck with sacrosanct Lee/Kirby texts of my youth, as does Ragnarok, this is probably my current fave MCU movie. The directors have a real feel for the comedic potential behind comic book fantasies such as instantly shrinking and enlarging objects, which also provides lots of thrilling sfx. 

And in a brilliant and highly underrated creative choice, this flick resembles in its plotting nothing so much as one of those madcap ‘caper’ movies of the Rat-Pack 60’s, such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where diverse groups quest maniacally after the same prize. Rather than money, in this case, it’s the technology to enter sub atomic space. There are subplots galore, all deftly interwoven ( well organized plotting is an MCU hallmark), and each more uproarious than the last. A few examples: a prolix security system sales crew debating the efficacy of ‘truth serum’, a shrink/expand suit with a fidgety control, an entire shrunken office building that is stolen and continually popping up in expanded form in multiple convenient/inconvenient times/places, and numerous running gags about actual ants. 

I underestimated how much the movie ties in to previous installments in the ongoing Avengers storyline, such as Captain America: Civil War, which I haven’t seen. So I was a bit flummoxed at the beginning, but the movie doesn’t require that knowledge to enjoy its antic charm, and stands with Gaurdians of the Galaxy, and yes, Thor: Ragnarok as MCU flicks that are probably friendliest to Marvel Cinematic Universe outsiders. Again, the MCU genius for blending lively expository with propulsive action erases any need for a fan boy guide book/litmus test. And the visual humor passes the eye test . Despite the accelerated pacing, Jacques Tati would approve of the subversive cinematic non sequiturs, which include a Bullit-like (shrinking, expanding…) car chase on San Francisco’s serpentine Lombard St. Tati, who made suburban garden hoses into dragons, and rondel windows into peeping eyes, would also approve of the flick’s transforming animism.

I’m amazed by how often MCU movies that that stretch the bounds of suspended disbelief at first have me on the edge of my seat by the middle. Nor can this really be described as a formula, because each film and set of characters engenders its own unique solutions. As has been pointed out, different directors have felt free to make radically different movies, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier as a libertarianism-tinged political thriller; Ant Man and the Wasp as caper comedy; Guardians as prison flick/space opera, etc. 

Captain America: Winter Soldier: More of a traditional action-political thriller than Ant Man and the Wasp, but it is not afraid to foreground serious contemporary issues, in this case the very relevant dichotomy between security and government control. Along with contemporaneous S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes from 2011, when it was released, Cap, Nick Fury et al, must fight their own government, making for a very timely but painless exploration of the libertarian strain now in our political dialogue.

The body count, had these events with their 9/11-style SFX destruction happened in real life, would have been catastrophic. Here it’s just another well-paced shoot-em-up, a larger, more expensive version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Unlike the paranoid anti-government fantasies of America’s right wing, Winter Soldier at least, admits it’s a fairytale. 

Doctor Strange: The hubris/redemption tale is relatively hackneyed, the ‘mystic arts’ turn out to be a punch-up with arcane spells, and the ending feels more like a prelude than climax, but this was definitely enjoyable, if mostly for the hallucinatory special SFX.

When B-lister Dr. Strange started in the 60’s, he was a vehicle for the oriental mysticism enjoying a vogue with the hippie crowd on campuses, and also for the unique autodidactic artistic visions and philosophies of Steve Ditko, who was the third, and most reclusively embittered, of the creative triumvirate that started Marvel’s 60’s renaissance.

More than Kirby, Ditko blamed Lee for taking too much credit for characters like Spiderman and Dr. Strange he felt he’d developed. And even more than Kirby, his post-Marvel creations, done without Lee’s promotional flare, tended to be wooden and dull. He was given to expressing Ayn Rand’s objectivism in comic book form- yecch!, and gradually made himself impossible to work with.

His Dr. Strange was a milestone in visual storytelling, however, and the movie takes off from there, with mind bending cityscapes and strange universes. And wormholes- lots of wormholes.

Three different movies, three very different directorial visions. Yet each advanced the overall Avengers storyline in their own way (warning: no spoilers ahead). I may see Black Panther soon, another movie with a very different take on what a superhero might be, and another with a meta-narrative (of racial achievement) that transcends its place in the MCU.

Marvel’s superhero franchise, which took my entire youth to finally make it to the big screen, has become somewhat of an epic must-see. And whether Kirby, or Ditko would ever have admitted it, Lee’s sense of playing to the crowd was all over these movies. Many people contributed to the making of this historically successful franchise for sure, but Lee’s wit, persistence and personality- his vision, however superficial many might see that to be- were essential to its existence.

I also recently watched Wonder Woman, from Marvel’s staid rival DC: I need to see it again, it was too suspenseful during the first view to really analyze. 1st impression was very positive. It was an eccentric choice, placing it during WWI, but it makes sense in the execution. Director Patty Jenkins was able to make a myth/fable of the origin of WW, much as William Moulton Marston, the pioneering pop psychologist/feminist who wrote her early adventures did when he created her. It’s set in a time of great existential crisis for the western world, and not coincidentally, at the climax of first wave feminism. Yet by distancing the setting, Jenkins and Gal Gadot are able to forge a fable about women’s power and peace and justice without heavy didactic symbolism. Gadot projects both a steeliness, and a young girl’s naivete, while Jenkins builds in combat/action vignettes to a climactic battle that blurs the line between comic book slugfest and allegorical battle between peace and war, thus allowing the viewer the psychic space to judge it in his own terms. I’ll definitely watch it again, and it expands the potential for comic book movies.

Revenge of the B-List: Marvel Now!

Matt Fraction’s innovative Hawkeye, from Marvel Comics

I’ve spoken of a current comics renaissance, but as with the actual Renaissance, it’s not a single movement but a series of interrelated developments. These have often been seen in small press comics in opposition to an ossified ‘mainstream’ comics establishment embodied by “The Big Two”, Marvel and DC. The quote marks are an acknowledgement that, as I’ve mentioned, and as the latest revival of The Comics Journal’s print edition examines in depth, the mainstream is in flux. Bookstore-market stars like Hartley Lin, Alison Bechdel, YA queens Noelle Stevenson and Raina Telgemeier and others might be the new ‘mainstream’ in terms of numbers sold.

DC was once the mainstream that Marvel, with the innovations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al, were reacting against as the Silver Age dawned, but lately both have struggled to define what their role is in an era of change: shrinking direct market sales and expanding movie and TV licensing.

DC’s ongoing creative paucity seems to derive from the same corporate ills that characterized their wholehearted embrace of the 50’s censorship: a complete lack of respect for the care and feeding of creative energy in comics. Marvel, on the other hand, was birthed, depending on whose version of history you subscribe to, in a 60‘s reaction to the corporate blandness of DC and others, such as Dell. Lee and Kirby really did intend to make great comics (I’m going to ignore the ongoing controversy over which of the two contributed more- my view is that it couldn’t have happened without both). Most of the comics discussed below are mentioned in the context of what might attract a longtime comics reader back to the Big Two, or into the odd, famously insular world of the comic shop.

Both corporations are trying to parlay licensing of properties, whether ill-gotten or not, into billions in media licensing deals. Real imagination is rare in either camp, though Marvel has managed their cinematic ‘universe’ quite well. Their comics, not so much. Few have escaped the general sales attrition afflicting the mainstream industry. We don’t know how much of this is due to shifting formats, such as digital comics and ‘graphic novel’ collections, which are cracking into or even buoying the bookstore market. But certainly there is change in how the medium reaches readers, and the Big Two, along with their ‘direct market’ retail network, are not handling it well.

Overall, there’s a general atmosphere of creative desperation, even as the movies and TV shows mine past storylines and continue to set records. The comics now are often ‘ret-conned’ (retro-conceived, to establish a retroactive narrative continuity) to match movie tropes. This explains why there are two Nick Fury’s- the white one from the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos from the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby comics of Marvel’s youth; and the black one, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movies. The tail is wagging the dog.

There have been exceptions, though, and they are well worth looking into. Marvel seems to have gotten into an experimental frame of mind during the Marvel Now! retcon/marketing campaign of 2012-2016, and several titles featured imaginative re-boots featuring the work of fresh, vibrant artists, many obviously influenced by the alternative comics revolution.

From ‘Grim and Gritty’ to Feminist Noir: Jessica Jones

The whole Marvel Now! push seems to have been inspired a few years earlier with the Marvel Max adult themed titles that included Jessica Jones. Brian Bendis invented the character, a failed former superhero and does pretty well with his spot on the margins of the Marvel Universe, including the obligatory preposterous origin story, but Jessica Jones had already disappeared from print when the success of the Netflix series engendered a series of GN collections, then a revival. The revived series serves up creepy, gritty, bone chilling thrillers of Jones, now a PI, raising her interracial kid with another c-list Marvel superhero, and trying to stay in one piece between whisky benders. In The Secrets of Maria Hill, Bendis hits his stride, with the superheroes thankfully being downplayed.  Hill, from Marvel’s 60’s James Bond rip-off S.H.I.E.L.D., pivots the series into hard boiled spy/crime fiction. S.H.I.E.L.D has been a linchpin in the interplay between Marvel’s cinematic and TV offerings and the comics. This instance makes for an exciting fusion rarely seen since Jim Steranko integrated it into the mod 60’s spy fiction genre.

Understand, I’m not generally a crime fic guy, though I’ve had my binges with Marlow and The Thin Man in college, and more recently, Darwyn Cook’s excellent Parker adaptations. Still, this is good crime fiction, channeling Chandler and Westlake’s ambiguous moral landscapes to use in this tale of  a near-dysfunctional detective/a failed superhero helping a troubled spy with her PI skills. A ret-con of a faux ret-con, inspired, in typical Marvel fashion, by the TV versions (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Jessica Jones) the comics inspired.

The fact that both main characters are women cannot be ignored. It is mind boggling in what it attempts to say and the very understated way in which it says it. And- first things first- both characters, Jones (essentially, in the “Purple Man” episodes, a rape victim) and Maria Hill (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suffering from a bullet-proof glass ceiling?), are very much victims, but only in the best noir tradition- of a corrupt reality, and of the complex moral code they live by, and of their own self betrayals of that code.

Exquisite writing, really; the book communicates its agenda through the lips of its characters without ever getting in the way of their right to make bad decisions. Bendis sometimes overplays the stuttering, conversational mash-ups he employs to keep the pacing brisk, but the incomplete sentences also convey very well at times the incomplete lives in extremis and real existential fears of its two main protagonists. True noir, in that sense, and a bright ray that is completely the opposite of the ‘grim and gritty’, women-in-refrigerators world of the superhero genre in the 90’s. When the genre speaks forthrightly to female power and its price, it has much to say still.

Many mainstream comics are only now starting to update their pacing and dialogue, usually by copying the faux-expository colloquy of TV’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the revved up narratives of the MCU. This is fresh and dynamic writing, much like Brian K. Vaughn’s in Saga.

Often, in my infrequent mainstream explorations, I have to ask: when did Wikipedia become such an essential tool to understanding comics? The convoluted backstories, the changing marketing imperatives, and the fact that one rarely reads these in order, because who has time for a weekly trip to the comics store, makes it necessary. I have a copy of Silver Surfer #9 with “#1” emblazoned across the top. Huh? The months-long arcs across multiple titles are hard to follow, another obstacle to good writing, but here Bendis keeps it simple with breathless pacing, gut punch twists, and small, redemptive epiphanies. If one must write in five-chapter story arcs, then this is probably the way to do it.

This, with Hawkeye(s), is why I can’t write off the superhero ‘mainstream’ altogether.

My Life as a Trick Arrow: Fraction’s Hawkeye

Matt Fraction’s brilliant 2011-2015 Hawkeye run got a lot of critical exposure (here’s a thorough examination in The Comics Journal) and won several industry awards. It was plagued by delivery date issues due to the artist, David Aja’s deadline problems, which didn’t help sales, and it ended after only 22 issues.  I hunted these obsessively after coming in in the middle. It concerns a tenement in New York, bought by Hawkeye with money he’s earned with the Avengers, and that stands in the way of developers. Clint defends his building to give his tenants a place to live, but a Russian-ish gang appears, first comically threatening, and gradually more violent. The series is funny and innovative but also emotionally rich. One issue is told in American Sign Language, after the hero temporarily loses his hearing after a fight, but it calls up memories of a similar occurrence as a child, after being beaten by his father. The episode intersects with another, told from the point of view of Lucky, a dog Hawkeye has rescued from the abusive Eastern European gangsters, who knows only a few English words, and thus, must also understand signs. When he does this correctly, during a fight with his former masters, he is able to make a crucial intervention, and the moment is glorious.

Fraction engineered many such glorious moments during this series, a miracle due to the irregular publishing schedule (again, the deadline problems) which caused a major shuffling of storylines, and finally a split storyline. In it, Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye- a Clint Barton protege, strikes out on her own across the country for alternating adventures in LA. This is in addition to challenges relating to shifting formats alluded to above, in which stories are offered in the episodic, cliff-hanging monthly pamphlets sold in the comic shops, then collected into somewhat resolved ‘graphic novels’ for the bookstore/Amazon market. Hanging over the creators’ heads after all of that, is the need to maintain a certain sales level, even as the direct market seepage continues. Yet despite that, perhaps because of it, the series holds together, without feeling like ‘infinite crises on gold foil variant earths’. Fraction decamped to Image Comics, where he owns the rights to his own stories. These are good, but nothing so far (that I’ve read) has matched the pathos, bathos and sheer car-chasing, plate-glass-window-shattering energy of this series. And Aja’s simple, muted but expressive art has been worth the lengthy wait times.

I did patch together, with GN’s and fill-in issues from the comic store, most of a run of a subsequent Hawkeye arc. Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye, illustrated by Leonardo Romero, follows the further LA adventures of Kate, and while it didn’t get the attention that the Fraction/Aja run did, it’s surprisingly strong. It also ended after 16 issues this year.  This is sort of Jessica Jones light; she starts a private eye office and must scrounge for jobs to feed her dog and cat. Running gags accumulate as Kate blunders her way through capers, but the storyline escalates when it becomes about her father, whom Kate suspects of murdering her mom. The art by Romero, straightforward and chromatic, eschewing the over-rendered, muddy, mannerist posing of most mainstream comics, and not coincidentally reminiscent of Aja’s, is dead on. Comic-y enough to convey humor and irony, not so much to counteract the tension. Marvel recognized what made the first series so unique, and against all odds, was able to do something almost as compelling. But at some point, declining sales caught up with them, too. It’s been a continuing problem with all comics, not just the innovators.

Scrapyard Pulp: Revenge of the B-List Heroes

Several other titles from this period also pushed stylistic and narrative boundaries: Black Widow also mined the spy/crime fiction vein, and also featured punchy, stylish art. She Hulk, by Soule and Pulido, about a giant green attorney at law; and Secret Avengers, another S.H.I.E.L.D.-based meta comic that pokes fun at superhero angst, not to mention Post Modern dialectics. The funny and endearing FF took Marvel’s iconic group, Fantastic Four, and re-imagined it as a gifted (super) child academy, guided by b-list heroes (She Hulk, Ant Man, etc.) with Fraction and Madman alt-comics auteur Mike Allred.

Dan Slott and Allred’s visually ambitious Silver Surfer fared less well, dragged down by specious plotting and the character’s inherently limited range of emotions, a longstanding problem since his invention by Kirby. It could have been a classic with just a bit of focus on character and storyline, but came far short as it fell into a puerile romance and easy answers to cosmic questions.  The spectacular art became sort of a superficial space-born travelogue. It reminded me of DC’s mawkishly teen-centered Legion of Superheroes of the 60’s. Is this a case of Kirby and Lee’s ‘Marvel Method’ going all wrong?

Most of these were ‘B-‘ or ‘C-‘ list characters, or even one (FF) fallen from the A-list, and the alchemy of turning scrapyard pulp into genre gold was part of their thrill. Marvel had little to lose. They all lasted about 16-20 issues, getting cancelled around the time they dipped beneath 25k in sales. These titles often sold 200k or more in the early days of Marvel; now they seem satisfied with 30-40k. But feminist noir and ironic, ret-conned superheroes don’t seem to do so well in the fan boy enclave of a direct market comics shop. In the ones I visit, these titles seemed to be there simply because they appeared in the catalog, not because they shone a light out of the grim and gritty comic shop past and into the bookstore market. At Mile High Comics, one of the country’s oldest and largest direct market stores, you’d be hard pressed to know that the new, bookstore-oriented mainstream even exists, though comics (the bookstore market calls them ‘graphic novels’) have been credited with being one of the fastest growing categories in publishing. Mile High simply is not interested in what is driving the renaissance.

Marvel’s undergone yet another re-boot, re-emphasizing ‘core’ (A-list, movie-tested) characters in order to cash in on the cinematic success. Company marketing now talks in terms of TV seasons; the usual series running 13-16 episodes per season. That’s something like three standard format ‘graphic novel’ collections, then onto the next creative team, the next ret-con.

I hope things like Hawkeye and Jessica Jones can hold steady sales in the TPB format, so Marvel might be tempted to try other adventurous projects. Stepping away, occasionally, from the restrictive 5-floppies-then-a-GN marketing format and trying euro-style album format might work with the more mature, and thus bookstore-friendly content. I don’t really blame writers, or even editors for this failure to innovate. It’s another case of corporate micro-management, I’m pretty sure. Fraction’s Hawkeye and Bendis’ Jones have been steady presences in bookstores and libraries that I visit, so there’s hope. However, a new vision of Jessica Jones by Kelly Thompson suffered from mundane art and a weak, superhero-centered story. Perhaps give it time.

These books proved that superheroes are not devoid of creative potential. After all, that’s kind of how the comic book industry (paperbacks, too!) got started; selling the odd, pulpy vigilantes of marginalized imaginations. Comics were humble, transgressive, and not audience-tested. They were never really meant to be a feedback loop. If Marvel and DC can’t figure out how to use this vibrant medium for something other than cineplex content creation, then there certainly appears to be others who can.

Reading List: The Art of Reading

Stories and transformation; these are elements to all successful art, whether realist, abstract or conceptual. It’s ironic that art often involves very non-verbal narratives and transformations, yet we persistently try to describe and understand it in words. We have to- if it’s compelling enough, we feel the need to communicate its transcendent glories and vain failures to others. Any truly successful work is a teachable moment- but how to teach it? That question is often on my mind, but in pondering it, one is fortunately standing in the shadows of giants.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger:  A sociological, and sometimes, overtly marxist take on art’s role in propping up the higher echelons of the class system, and attitudes toward gender, power and possession.  It’s based on a BBC series from the early days of cultural studies’ slow seep into popular discourse and is presented as a series of essays both literary and visual on aspects of art and advertising as they relate to each other and to the conventional wisdom. As such, it goes well beyond interpretation of composition, iconography and metaphor and into cultural theory and structuralism. How do society’s truisms affect the way an image is created, viewed, interpreted and consumed? Who is it for, and who does it exploit, or exclude, or perhaps more cogently, gaze at?

The images presented mostly span the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Romantic/Surrealist movements and the Advertising Age, excluding the Medieval and Modernist (the Modernist era having its own fraught, and possibly post-structural relationship with the materialist/imperialist impulse, of course). Thought provoking and compellingly readable, it becomes a sort of reference to the semiotics of privilege in art .

Picasso the Printmaker, Dallas Museum of Art: Catalogue of an 1983 exhibition of the Marina Picasso Collection that I sadly never saw ( it appeared at the DAM before I arrived here). It very much has a cataloguer’s approach to fitting the prints into Picasso’s main body of painting work, so most of the actual process of printmaking is glossed over, except what can be seen in the reproductions. Which is enough- these are rich images. A history of Picasso’s various Master Printers and graphics publishing over the decades is nice, but not nearly as interesting as the revelation that Picasso did not merely show up at their print shops to doodle on pre-prepared plates; he actually bought a small press for his studio to pull his own (gloriously sloppy) proofs. Whether Picasso intended this as a way to access less wealthy collectors, or simply loved the medium would be something I’d like to see studied. Mostly readable.

The Genesis of a Painting, Rudolf Arnheim: A reconstructed history of one painting, Picasso’s Guernica. It is very engaged in the examination of the creative process. How many of us have seen the famous film of Picasso at work- the cigarette smoke in the backlight, the shirtless and barrel-chested artist, the time-lapse transformations, painted on a see through surface. This is a more academic, less romanticized version, using the artist’s sketches and preceding iconography- much of it found in prints, by the way ( see above). Much less visually dramatic than the film of course- many of the records of the process are faint squiggles on scrap paper, but one must always wonder how much of the film is exhibitionistic posing.

Reading, and the slow visual mining of images both complex and improvisational leaves us the mental space to absorb and contemplate the creative process. We are following in the footsteps of genius, and Arnheim’s accompanying observations add much food for thought. This is especially true in a long first chapter in which he gives more general thoughts on the subconscious processes at work. I’ve been writing on this subject, and these passages were red meat.

Literary TheoryA Brief Insight, Jonathon Culler: I’ve made numerous snarky comments about academic theory, but if one reads a lot of lit and art criticism, as I do, one is bound to run into it. I’ve found it creeping into comics criticism. A basic understanding of it is quite helpful, in fact, and I admit that one of my major frustrations (beyond the clotted academic jargon) with it is that I can’t just bluff my way through a given passage on context; my lazy reading habits are exposed. Still, its multiple contexts and arcane canon are confusing to the recreational reader. Regular readers of this blog ( Hi, Mom!) may be surprised that I didn’t search out the Classics Illustrated version of The Foucault Reader, but it’s hard to find in Very Fine or better.

Instead, I ran across this little volume in my favorite used book shop. It seemed very readable and concise, yet didn’t soft pedal the subject, or end in “For Dummies”. At eight bucks, it was thousands of dollars less than a Masters Degree in English.

It turns out to be very useful. Not a page-turner, by any means, but organized well into basic concepts in separate chapters such as “Language, Meaning and Interpretation” and “Rhetoric, Poetics and Poetry”. These introduce major figures, and an appendix tries to sort out significant movements within theory. I still can’t claim to fully understand literary theory after having read it, but it’s very handy to have around to crib from.

As Culler points out, literary theory actually spends relatively little of its time on books. Linguistics, psychoanalysis and philosophy are often part of the analyses, and the objects  of study are often images or pop cultural ‘texts’, with tweets noticeably being more avidly deconstructed since 2016. It seems as though theory and cultural studies are here to stay, and bluffing one’s way through this critical landscape is not an option. At less than 200 pages of fairly limpid explication, this seems like the sort of volume one might pack if one is trying to travel light.

Besties

In looking back over 2018 posts, I found that I’d kept up with new comics releases much better than I’d thought, and probably better than most years. It’s not easy, there’s a ton of worthy material coming out each year now, and my budget is small, while the library can be slow to have available copies, especially with the critical attention some of these things are getting. Comics’ first Man-Booker prize short-listed graphic novel appeared this year (Sabrina). There are several must-reads I’ve not gotten ahold of yet, such as Sabrina. I don’t count my favorites down, like a lot of the media lists. Some are very different from others, so I try to characterize and categorize, rather than rank.

Bestiest:

New World, Mauretania Comics, Chris Reynolds: Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story in a vaguely dystopian England.  I  found just three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative. But its brooding air of mist and mystery was palpable, and its thick dark inks bathed in Norman light were seductive.

Incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in context in this collection by cartoonist Seth. In episodical snatches, characters drift in and out, small mysteries proliferate; aliens, detectives and disciples of a mystery religion wander blasted, yet pastoral landscapes, mostly unpeopled (Reynolds hails from Wales and Sussex). Yet nothing really resolves in a narrative sense, and the stories haunt.

Rest of the Besties, No Particular Order:

Young Frances, Hartley Lin: We’re used to referring to superhero comics from big companies like DC and Marvel as ‘mainstream’. But with their shrinking sales- Saga, hardly mainstream, is outselling Superman-do they deserve that? This true graphic novel (as opposed to collected story arc) is emblematic of ‘mainstream’ in a literary sense: its heroine navigates the corporate politics of her job, while yearning for the authenticity of her bohemian friends. Its roots are in the Chick Lit or socially conscious novels of the publishing mainstream, rather than the hippie- or punk-inflected undergrounds and alternatives of 80’s self publishers and zinesters. It’s well written and cartooned, an absolute page-turner.

Mean Girls Club, Ryan Heshka: Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed; and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in dry brushed blacks, grays and lascivious pinks, it’s laugh out loud funny, and a comics masterwork. Heshka channels Golden Age Batman and Dick Tracy, along with a healthy dose of Thelma and Louise, and a soupcon of S&M.

Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez : Always. It never is less than one of the best, but we take it for granted because it never slackens. Not sure how many issues came out this year, but #’s 4-6 included a Locas reunion/punk rock show.

Love That Bunch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb: I’ve mentioned that she’s pioneered in both the underground comics, and the transition to the alternative comics as artist and/or editor of the first feminist UG comics; and then the early alt-comics anthology Weirdo. These are autobiographical comics about a suburban, sex and drug loving Jewish teen who moves west to make art, marries an underground comics legend, and moves to France. Obsessive and raw.

Coin-Op Comics Anthology, Peter and Maria Hoey: The writing is lively and unique. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere illustrative nostalgia. Their subject matter ranges from classic 50’s movies and Rock music, to modern alienation.

Somnambulance, Fiona Smyth: bawdy, urban primitive, 1980’s third wave feminist Nocturnal Emissions comics collected by Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sexy and sex crazed punkerettes, sexualized mannikins, transgendered goddesses, are perpetually emergent. They slide from asses, mouths and cunts to float in an atmospheric scrawl of tribal squiggles, dots and hatchings, as if the very world they inhabit is tattooed. A “Complete Twisted Sisters” collection of ground breaking feminist comics also came out recently, and along with Kominsky-Crumb’s overdue reprinting (above), I think people are beginning to realize the role of the humble comic book in providing a pioneering venue for female voices in pop culture.

Honorable Mentions:

Hawkeye, Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero: A surprisingly strong follow-up to Matt Fraction’s acclaimed masterpiece Marvel Now!- era run with David Aja (and Kate Bishop, Hawkeye’s protege in episodes by Annie Wu). Thompson doesn’t stray too far from a successful formula- struggling, marginal superheroes, bruised and bantering. But Kate must face the question of whether her father murdered her mother. Romero never overworks the art, a rarity in superheroes.

Saga V.9, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Bit of a warning sign, perhaps, as some of the bizarre humor has flattened out a bit. The honest sex, ultraviolence and family values are still there though, as Hazel, lovechild of a forbidden marriage between two warring cultures, narrates their flight from prejudice across galaxies.

Sex Crimes V. 5: Fraction’s satiric tale of the power of sexual outsiderness started meandering, so he ended it at the right time. Funny and relatively forthright on America’s squeamishness about sex.

Monstress V. 3: Horror fantasy with fairly complex LOTR-style plot and great, art noveau tinged illustration. Too soon to call a classic, but fun to read so far.

A Clunker:

Jessica Jones: Blind Spot, Kelly Thompson and Mattia DeIulis: This is an example of how things can go way wrong in ‘mainstream’ (superhero) comics. The character was created by, but of course not owned by, Brian Bendis and Gaydos as a PI/failed superhero working the margins of the superhero world. After a promising but uneven early series, Bendis pretty much ditched the superheroes for a second series emphasizing a straight up hard-boiled crime fiction and spy thriller hybrid and really hit his stride. The Secrets of Maria Hill aspires to stand with Chandler and Westlake, with the eye opening proviso that both its hero and its villain are women (they are both, like Marlow and Parker, both hero and anti hero). An edgy, neurotic single mom trying to survive a violent career, Jessica takes her failures and rare victories straight, with a side of Jameson. I will note here that comics fan sites take the opposite view, with the issues that emphasize costumed heroes rating higher.

After Bendis left Marvel, they brought in Thompson to do the character. She’d done well with the superhero/PI parody Hawkeye (above), but here, showing no real understanding of the character, she tries to bluff her way through with a weak plot and standard issue superhero antics complete with banter. Here we get a suddenly very domesticated Jessica lecturing her client on how to be a woman, exactly her most compelling failing in Bendis. She winds up in a latex superhero kit, a bit of attempted irony that only highlights that her scruffy charm has gone missing. In combination with DeIulis’ very routine illustrations and bubblegum colors, this was a huge disappointment. Perhaps Thompson will ‘grow into’ the character.

Still Need to Read. These absolutely might change this list:

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I have actually read this ambitious, 20-year project about Weimar Berlin  in three intermittent collections, but not the whole thing at once.

Blammo #10, Noah Van Sciver

Why Art?, Eleanor Davis

Coyote Dog Girl, Lisa Hanawalt

Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, Ken Krimstein

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso

Fall Into Books

I cherry picked quotes from Rodolf Arnheim, The Genesis of a Painting; Douglas Hostetler, and an article by James Geary to put together my relatively abstract post speculating on the formation of ideas. It was neccessary to do that as I’m not that confident in my own thoughts about ideas, and I called in reinforcements. I haven’t finished Genesis  (about “Guernica”) yet, nor have I finished Picasso the Printmaker, another rich text on art and printmaking. It’s getting dark and cold, so I hope to finish them and write a post on them, and other art related readings soon, if the wine holds out. But some other, lighter reading from the Fall is blurbed below:

Herge, Son of Tintin, Benoit Peeters: A microscopic examination of the life of Tintin cartoonist Herge. His conservative yet humanist attitudes, his love affairs, his dreams, and importantly, his relationship to the collaboration during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the war are all examined in depth. This is not unusual in Europe, where Herge occupies a place akin to Disney here, though he never mechanized, nor monetized, to that extent. 

I discovered Herge, who began appearing in this country in the early 60’s, in the late 70’s in my college bookstore. It was my first real introduction to Euro comics. I later developed a bit of an obsession with Asterix, and read Heavy Metal regularly, but my Tintin reading has alway been incomplete. I enjoyed the well constructed plots, and the colorful details, along with the slapstick humor. But Tintin was always sort of a cipher, without context. I read some of the most well regarded tales, then never sought out the rest, unlike Asterix, whose context  in the Roman Empire and the fun loving characters seemed to have appeal. 

This book places all the adventures in the context of historical and biographical events in Herge’s life and thus enriches the stories on the page. I pulled out the few remaining copies I still had and re-read them. I had early stories such as Tintin in America, filled with stereotypes about Native Americans and a lot frenetic action. Also, I had an unexpurgated reprint of the original Tintin in the Congo, replete with racist caricature and a fairly appalling attitude toward hunting animals. 

Later adventures, such as the breakthrough The Blue Lotus, exhibited a much more humanist attitude, as well as more concise storytelling, but with the coming of World War II, Herge made the unfortunate choice to ally with his right wing friends and join the collaborationist staff at a Nazi-fied Le Soir  daily during the occupation. Anti-semitic caricatures popped up in one book, then were later edited out when Herge went back to his early black and white work to add color. The popularity of his character, not to mention its commercial potential, insulated him to an extent from the legal backlash after the liberation, but he remained close to many of his friends who served prison sentences for collaboration. This led to later complications, both legal and psychological.

His own work took a turn toward fantasy that resulted in some of his best work, including the Robert Louis Stevenson-esque The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, and the two-part Destination Moon, with Explorers on the Moon. These books occasioned, and benefitted from, the expansion of his cast of characters, as he added  Capt. Haddock and Professor Calculus. Secret and Red Rackham still provide laughs and entertaining reading. I haven’t read either Moon book, but may have to revisit Herge’s middle period, which has been re-released, albeit in a smaller format, in recent years.

The book makes a minute examination of his transitional life events during the 50’s, which culminate in his separation from his wife, and the psychologically complex tale Tintin in Tibet, which examines what we owe to friends and others, not to mention the creatures of the natural world. Some may find Peeters’ interpretation of this period perhaps too detailed, but it’s hard to discount his ultimate conclusions on the relationship between Herge’s life and work. Even in comics ostensibly for children, artists draw on their own experiences.

But then, is Herge’s work only for children? Herge never domesticated his characters, as Disney did; nor did he dumb down his humor, which even in its most slapstick moments, always carried a bit of Monsieur Hulot’s sophistication. His modernist obsession with speed and movement, as well as his famous ligne claire (clear line) style influenced many  later cartoonists, for example, Joost Swarte, who used it to both pay homage to a master, and satirize Herge’s racial tropes.

Tintin remained a cipher, without family or lovers, and his creator’s politics remained naive and ham-handed at best. But his humor and humanism showed through, and was ultimately redemptive.

Berlin, Jason Lutes: I rushed through the final six chapters of this 23 year old epic of the rise of Nazis seen from street level in Berlin. I had recently re-read the earliest chapters after reading the middle chapters for the first time. So like a lot of these long term GN projects, I feel the need to reread the whole thing in proper sequence. The entire finished work has just been published, so I’ll tackle that later this winter, perhaps. The final chapters are, as one would expect, bitter and depressing, much like our current politics.

Super Mutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki: Another re-read after I found a beat up copy at the library used book sale for a couple of bucks. It’s still brilliant compared to the highly praised, but somewhat calculated Boundless, partly because its humor adds to its pathos. It holds together quite well as an entire narrative, despite its origins as a single page web comic. Its main character, a lesbian who eventually comes out to her boarding school roommate, grows in maturity and self realization, and begins the process of accepting herself, and thus, accepting her friends. It’s underrated, though both this and Boundless seem like attempts to escape her ‘Award Winning Young Adult Illustrator’ shackles. They are clearly, two different responses, but the latter book could benefit from some of the hilarious, subversive humor of Super Mutant.

Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk: an unexpected find at my favorite used book store. I’d never heard of it. This 2007 book is constructed as a five chapter introduction to what Wolk calls a ‘golden age’ of comics, followed by reviews of specific works, mostly mainstream works of the 80’s and 90’s; or early stars of alternative comics.

The beginning chapters function as essays on various cogent topics, such as a general speculation on “What Comics Are and What They Aren’t”; a survey of the alt (“art”) comics of the 80’s and early 90’s; and the complex history of “Superheroes and Superreaders”, or why superheroes continue to dominate mainstream comics publishing. These are all worthy subjects, examined not in the laughably faux-academic style often seen in these early days of comics criticism; but in a personalized yet uncompromising vision of comics as a transcendent yet flawed art form.

The reviews that follow the overview exhibit some of the most clear-headed looks at the 80’s-90’s renaissance (there are a few later examples) in both mainstream and alternative comics that I’ve read. I didn’t read everything- one hallmark of the renaissance is that there suddenly became far too much interesting stuff to keep up with- but enjoyed several on artists I was never able to clear time or money for, Chester Brown and Grant Morrison, for example. I read many that I was very familiar with- Alan Moore, Los Bros Hernandez , Jim Starlin, etc, and Wolk had some very bright fresh takes.

The book will stay on my shelf, and be returned to. It’s subjective, and can’t be counted a comprehensive survey even for its time, as Wolk admits. It’s not dated, per se, but it’s amazing how much has happened in comics since this book. He strives to represent female artists, Hope Larson and Allison Bechdel for example, and predicts a flowering to come (and has been proven right), though Lisa Hanawalt, Eleanor Davis, Gabrielle Bell, et al, are all later stars. Julie Doucet and Fiona Smythe might’ve been a bit too far off the beaten track for him, though their influence will only grow. One wonders why Aline Kominsky-Crumb isn’t here, but so too with her husband, Robert, and many others such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.

It’s not often that both mainstream, and alt comics get examined together. It’s a compare and contrast that highlights their strengths and weaknesses, while explicating the universal appeal of the medium. Wolk is nothing if not versatile, and this book, instructing with out pretension, matches the medium’s spirit of creative fun.

Collective Wisdom

I’ve always collected books and comics. As a kid I amassed a pile in the closet of Superman and Fantastic Four comics along with others. My brother and I stretched our comics budget by teaming up on purchases. He’d buy Batman and Spiderman, and we’d trade. One day, we came home from school and found our extensive closet floor library emptied out in some sort of Spring cleaning catastrophe. Such are the injustices of youth.

When I got a job bussing tables at a restaurant and started commuting into the city for school, I discovered the direct market. This was the transition of comics sales from the drug store spinner racks of youth to dedicated (and often dingy) urban comic shops, spurred by the growth in the collector subculture. During my freshman and sophomore years, I began collecting again, searching out the Silver Age classics of my childhood.

I came out west, where the occasional bookstore carried only current, not-very-classic Bronze age issues. My interest waned, but fortunately, European humor and Sci-fi comics were beginning to appear in Heavy Metal Magazine, and the college bookstore began to carry classic Euro comics such as Tintin and Asterix. The Sci-fi trend began to carry over into obscure mainstream titles, such as Jim Starlin’s delightfully weird Warlock series, and the passion was back, though frustratingly hard to satisfy.

My return to the city in the mid-eighties changed all that. The direct market had led to a flowering of small publisher and independent or self-published “alternative”comics which inspired by the  undergrounds of the urban 60’s and 70’s, explored more sophisticated themes, but without the drug references and sexist imagery. The renaissance had begun, and I was back to collecting in a big way, with the medium growing up along with my tastes.

I’ve said that the alt comics that led to the comics renaissance we currently enjoy grew out of the Punk zines. This is partially true, in that the Punk movement in music caused a sudden profusion of music zines, and cartoonists, like Los Bros Hernandez for example, punk music fans, naturally began to emulate self publishers in their own medium. Early Love and Rockets is often centered around the punk scene in L.A.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as comics fans were publishing zines long before punk, and made a major contribution to the collector culture which later led to the direct market. Squatront, a zine about EC Comics, which had been essentially censored out of existence in the 50’s by the Comics Code, a comics industry self censorship agency, was publishing by the early 60’s, along with a few others. The first mini comics seem to have popped up around the same time, if you don’t count the Tijuana bibles of the 30’s. Even Siegel and Shuster self-published an early version of Superman, before (to their eternal regret) shopping the character around to the nascent comic book industry.

The minis seem to have really begun to flourish with the alt comics of the 80’s. With that, mini comics broadened as a category, from the tiny photocopied, hand-stapled, self published and frankly amateurish efforts one spied in music stores and small bookstores, to fairly sophisticated small press numbers. Some well known artists got their start in minis, and for what ever reasons, have continued to put them out. Even after securing contracts with established publishers, some artists have emulated mini comics formats in their major publisher output. Chris Ware, Jessica Abel and Gabrielle Bell are examples. I recently posted a brief review of one newer artist, Sophia Foster-Dimino whose mini comics relate to the current conversations on sexual ethics. I’ve mentioned recently that comics, a fairly accessible publishing medium, can offer opportunities for expression for marginalized creators, such as women. Mini comics are at the frontline of that battle. A Frontier Comics mini by alt comics star Eleanor Davis, for example, is one of the few sensitive, un-sensationalized treatment of S&M sex that can be seen in any pop culture medium.

Smaller presses have sprung up to specialize mainly in minis and in the emerging artists who make them, and an ad hoc network  of distributors and web sites can now be found that carry a wide variety. It’s become easier to access minis from all over, and in that sense, collecting minis can be pretty fun, as you’re getting in on the ground floor creatively, and can also access rarities by well regarded artists. They certainly don’t take up much space, and with their mostly small print runs and relative rarity, and with alt comics very definitely beginning to be a presence in the secondary market, you can tap into the quintessential collector’s high: owning breakthrough early work that you can brag about when it gets popular, or sell on to latecomers when the artist becomes popular.

Standard disclaimer: although early independents (80’s and 90’s) are beginning to pop up on secondary markets such as Ebay and Amazon at solid prices (30-$50 is not uncommon for significant artists, and breakthrough comics can get up to 400-$500), this is not usually a good way to get rich, though it can help support your reading habit, while clearing space on your shelves! You are of course, required to plow the profits back into obscure comics, or lose your street cred. As I’ve said, the alternative and small press stars of the 80’s are now best found in traditional hardbacks, with impressive print runs, in good bookstores, and sometimes on the short list for the Mann-Booker Prize. But inexpensive comics can still be found. Here are some good minis I’ve found lately, and after that, some good places to find minis and indies.

Lovers in the Garden, Anya Davidson: featuring the same raw, choppy brushwork, fractured perspective and garish colors as School Spirits, her 2013 Small press debut with  Dan Nadel’s PictureBox. This is a crime tale, modeled on the blaxploitation narratives of 70’s B-movie Hollywood.  Its characters all have aspirations, even the drug lord who wishes to open an asian art gallery. It has a fairly arbitrary, though open ended conclusion, and doesn’t match up to School Spirits, but is a worthy read by this rising star. I found this on John Porcellino’s web site (below).

Coin Op Comics 1997-2017, Peter and Maria Hoey: This anthology collects the mini comics of this brother/sister pair. There are seven issues collected here, along with some of their older work from the Blab anthology, where they were regulars. They got their start in illustration ( Blab mined both comics and illustration for its yearly collections), but have become interested in comics and printmaking. They seem to love the freelancer’s life, and self-publishing. This hardback was put out by Top Shelf, a fairly small comics publisher. Their other output, including Coin Op’s 1-7, are available on their website in small print runs, and includes hand-pulled items such as accordion books and silkscreen posters, which taps into another love of mine, printmaking. 

The writing is lively and unique as well as the visuals. And though the Hoeys deploy a retro 40’s-50’s commercial style, updated with computer graphics, the stories are not mere nostalgia. Along with collaborator C. Freund, stories cover a wide range of formal and topical subjects, including an ongoing series, Saltz and Pepz about vagabond dogs, one white and one black, that touches on, without indulging in, 40’s racial stereotypes. Other subjects: Jazz, Blues, and movies, including a fairly brilliant mash-up of Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and a biography of Nicolas Ray. All are rich with historical and stylistic allusion, comics for intellectuals- but still laugh out loud funny!

Your Smile at the Top of the Dial, Peter and Maria Hoey: This mini , formatted like a 45 rpm single, features a hand silkscreened cover and a somewhat retro, slightly surreal tale of cross country radio stations. The Hoeys dedication to the small press model means it may never really be a collectible, but like many of these comics, it’s certainly unique.

Vulture City Stories, Sam Spina: Kilgore Books product that I got at DINK, it features the zany, over-the-top misadventures of the characters that live in an anachronistic old west town where a Saguaro cactus has been appointed sheriff.

Here in Denver, the DINK Expo, a yearly mini-con for mini- and indie comics comes around in April. It’s cheap, $20 (early bird tix) for a whole weekend, and the line up is strong, with small press stars like Dash Shaw, Sammy Harkham and Los Bros Hernandez, along with lesser known talents, such as Peter and Maria Hoey, and Sam Spina. It’s still small enough to have nice chats with creators, and you can get a small pile of (signed) comics for $50. A personal treasure: a silk screened accordion book in an edition of 350 by Peter and Maria Hoey, signed by Maria.

Kilgore Books and Comics on the Wax Trax block carries a nice selection of minis, including some that their associates at Kilgore Books publish. The Denver mini-comics scene has always been fairly strong, with well knowns Noah Van Sciver and John Porcellino having spent time here.

These connections remain strong, and Porcellino’s website, Spit and a Half, provides a source for mini-comics by up-and-comers and indie projects by bigger names. They’re packed well and most are under $20.

Coin-Op Books is really one of the few places to get work by the Hoeys, though they do a lot of small press expos like DINK. Other websites to visit: Retrofit Comics, Youth in Decline, publishers of Frontier, a series of minis by cutting edge authors both new and established, Uncivilized Books, and  Kilgore Comics.

 

Summer Reading

A small monotype can often suggest larger concepts to pursue. I was experimenting with the idea of bramble patches when it dawned on me the creative process often resembles being in one. “Bramble”, Monotype, 11×15″, 2018

 

As promised, I’m trying to catch up on my reading list. Then, I must knuckle down and finish my three-parter on starting, transforming and finishing idea, with possible related theme of Story in Art, which I will eventually convert to a Keynote presentation, for a possible standalone lecture.

I have first drafts of all these posts, but have been procrastinating/ wimping out on finishing them up. Eventually, they’ll go into a downloadable section on this site, also a much postponed project.

But I have been enjoying a lot of reading time, and in view of my irregular posting schedule, it seems a shame not to share it. One part of this list seemed to tie in with my World Cup/American exceptionalism observations from last week, which included observations from England’s surprising run. While I jettisoned the precious little segue I’d dreamed up for that (Yes! I DO edit these things), I’m re-boarding that train of thought now.

I think we tend to regard one part of the outside world, England, with a comfortable familiarity. We speak the same language (hah! sort of), read their literature in high school, adopt laughably poor fake accents to evoke sophistication or eccentricity. Even the high-fat, low information voters adore their fish ‘n’ chips! When we examine Ol’ Blighty more closely, however, we begin to see a place that’s alien, and not just in high quality of medical care. 

When I came to this city in 1985, having been starved on the Wyoming High Plains of anything interesting in comics besides the occasional sci-fi or eurocomics gem in Heavy Metal Magazine, I immediately began to haunt the comics shops on Colfax. 

My timing was pretty good. The Alternative/Punk/Zine scene was burgeoning, and I was able to locate back issues of the legendary Raw Magazine, along with new discoveries in the exploding black and white indy comics then beginning to appear. Each week I would go down on delivery day to a shop that regularly ordered one or two copies of the new comics to pick up the latest Love and Rockets, Hate, or Eightball. I’d grab any other interesting new titles I saw as well. These included more and more, comics from across the pond. One was Mauretania Comics, from England, an oddly titled and -produced number that fit right in with my punker’s sensibility for avoid-the-mainstream. 

Mauretania was an anthology featuring most often, three cartoonists of similar, unique mood, working in stark black and white, or drizzly grays. Paul Harvey and Chris Reynolds worked in thick murky b&w, and Carol Swain in her exquisite graphite crayon grays. Swain had been appearing in early Fantagraphics anthologies, and her comics were the reason I picked it up.

New York Review Comics, published by the New York Review of Books, has recently been publishing avant garde gems from the past, such as Mark Beyer’s exquisitely neurotic Agony, first published by Raw. Their latest project is a thick collection of Reynold’s eerie “Monitor” stories from Mauretania Comics, edited and designed by cartoonist Seth.

Monitor is a strangely earthbound superhero in a helmet and visor, with no discernible powers, but an urge to piece together his story. I only found three issues of Mauretania in the 80’s, and was unable to get a sense of an over arching narrative, though its brooding air of mystery was palpable, and I saved them.

A sense of incompleteness and floating anxiety turn out to be characteristic of the series as a whole, even when placed in the context of a 275 page collection. Episodically, in snatches, characters drift in and out, small mysteries proliferate; aliens, detectives and disciples of a mystery religion wander blasted, yet pastoral landscapes, mostly unpeopled (Reynolds hails from Wales and Sussex); yet nothing really resolves in a narrative sense. 

It makes for compelling reading with the emotional distance implied by the sometime third person narration countered by the immediacy of Reynold’s thick brush work. There are few comparisons I can make to this unique body of work, though Swain and Harvey fit in quite well in the original issues, which I re-read. Mario Hernandez of early Love and Rockets also comes to mind. Though not really similar in either narrative or graphic sensibilities, Eddie Campbell’s The King Canute Crowd body of work is also emblematic of the appeal of these mid-late 80’s alternative comics from England. Alan Moore and others had already begun to make a mark on mainstream American comics. Those troubled by the libertarian violence of V For Vendetta might find these comics a more subtly poetic evocation of England’s Thatcher-era dystopianism.

Reynolds and Swain continue to publish, in print and on the web, but we may not see Mauretania’s quiet, slow-paced angst again. Seth himself comes closest.

Lately the torch of British alternative comics has been carried by NoBrow, with their occasional anthology NoBrow Magazine, and other published work. A new NoBrow (#10) is out and I recommend it highly, though I haven’t seen it. I’m going on issues 6-9. 

Their esthetic hews more closely to mainland eurocomics artists such as Blexbolex, or America’s Fort Thunder ( cartoon brut) style cartoonists. These are characterized by expressionistic color, retro-big foot-style or neo cubistic images, transgressive or even picaresque characters and situations.  Nobrow also publish cutting edge illustration, much like Monte Beauchamp’s Blab Magazine. Another aspect of American exceptionalism is to gloss over English contributions to the advent of the comics, which Americans like to say we invented (Wrong! It was a Swiss guy, Rodolphe Topffer). Nobrow and the Mauretania collection  bring needed focus to British and European artists.

Nobrow has also just released Mean Girls Club: Pink Dawn, by Canadian artist Ryan Heshka. Doubling as outrageous, ultra violent feminist screed and retro 40’s tough chick noir, all in luscious dry brushed blacks, grays and lascivious pinks, it’s laugh out loud funny, and a comics masterwork. Heshka channels Golden Age Batman and Dick Tracy, along with a healthy dose of Thelma and Louise with a soupcon of S&M. All in a fast paced story that delivers arson, cigarettes, gunplay and booze along with a Sweet Gwendolyne type submissive heroine who sees the light, gets herself a leather jacket and becomes a femme fatale. It’s all good fun until someone loses an eye; which they do, along with other body parts in a tale that delivers a “stiletto-stab to the crotch of the patriarchy”. 

A lesser noticed aspect of the 80’s punk/zine-inspired alt comics renaissance is the role that it played in giving a voice to female artists. At the time, largely due to the cost and old boys connections required of producing movies, television and books, second wave feminist artists were shut out of pop culture. Black and white comics changed that. Trina Robbins pioneered cheap to produce, easily distributed feminist underground comics as early as the 70’s, and the punkers and zinesters of the 80’s did not slack the pace. 

Fiona Smyth, another cartoonist I discovered at the shops through her stylishly executed Nocturnal Emissions mag, has just released a collection of her bawdy, urban primitive, third wave feminist comics with Koyama Press. Her subjects- tattooed, sex crazed and sexy punkerettes, sexualized mannikins, transgendered goddesses, are perpetually emergent. They slide from asses, mouths and cunts to float in an atmospheric scrawl of tribal squiggles, dots and hatchings, as if the very world they inhabit is tattooed.

This is no didactic screed, more a hallucinogenic trip through alternative sexuality and punk tribal lifestyles. Like many documents of subcultures, it’s very in-your-face. Her heroines meet injustice and disrespect positively and forthrightly with unabashed sexuality and compulsive art making, two very related impulses in the war against American Puritanism. Or in the famous (unattributed) dictum: “Everything in the world is about sex. Except sex; sex is about power.”

It’s important to give these 80’s artists (I’ll add Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Carol Lay, Debbie Drechsler and Phoebe Gloeckner, to name a very few of many) their due in the gradual inclusion of female voices in pop culture, which in the USA, is an important source of cultural power. I really don’t think it could have happened without them. 

The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing as a Way of Thinking; Ball and Kuhlman, editors: French Situationists! Oedipal superheroes! “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams”! And, at least one Roland Barthes citation. It will not be easy to explain to my grandchildren why I was reading stuff like this when I should have been earning money for their college funds, or at least,  enough cash to ask someone on a date, so that I might consider even having them (grandchildren!).

Chris Ware, the somewhat misanthropic cartoonist ( Building Stories, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth) who, as much as anyone, spearheaded the comics’ charge into the book market and critical significance, garnered his own collection of critical essays in 2010, which I’m now reading.

The interpretations in this wide-ranging set of academic papers are very thought provoking in terms of all art and ideas, very validating in that I’ve collected everything from Ware I could afford, and a very pleasant way to escape the grind of Trump’s new feudalism for an hour. Surprisingly readable as these things go, and for someone who’s new to the medium’s ongoing renaissance, but past the Buzzfeed listicles of “Graphic Novels You Must Read” phase, it just might serve as an intro to the unique aesthetic advantages and challenges comics are now posing.

I’ve also been reading some novels and books on art and printmaking. I’ll post those, along with my own thoughts on art soon.

Between the World and We

I’m working on new work for the Summer Art Market, June 9th and 10th. I’ll finish in studio in a couple of weeks, then shift to framing and prepping for it. A couple of days after the show the World Cup starts. In theory, I’ll have lots of money from the show, and I’ll spend many afternoons in downtown bars, starting my day with eggs and beer and football. That’s the theory.

The USA isn’t in the Finals this year. Since making a relatively strong run in Brazil 2014, they’d sputtered under two coaches, Juergen Klinsman and Bruce Arena, before an unlikely but mostly well deserved combination of results eliminated them on the last day of qualification. The team had a certain amount of talent, but never any real consistency in play.

There was a real howl from the fans, many of whom were 20-somethings who’d bought their first USA shirts in June, 2014. It’s heartening to see such a failure evoke  an indignant reaction to those of us who remember decades when not reaching the World Cup Finals meant…crickets. But youth is not given to reflection,  and many of the reactions were simplistic and not very well informed:

The US should NEVER fail to qualify, they howled, ignoring the fact that some far more consistent performers, e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, had failed to qualify, and the quality of play in the US’ confederation has been rapidly improving. Getting into the World Cup is hard, no matter who you are.

The US Soccer Association leadership is corrupt and only interested in selling rights fees, they wailed, ignoring the fact that the leadership has been actively campaigning against FIFA corruption for years now, and the rights fees they’re selling are World Cup rights fees, which went down in value by millions when the US did not qualify. There is corruption in football, yes, but applying a blanket stereotype to an organization working for reform is ignorant.

Other, even more preposterous pronouncements followed: The USA will never challenge for the World Cup unless a laundry list of “reforms” meant to mimic the structure of their favorite ‘proper’ football league, the British Premier League, were immediately instituted in our own domestic league, MLS, they screeched. These include promotion and relegation, and a 20-team ‘balanced schedule.’

This ignores the fact that though Major League Soccer, formed in 1996 as a condition of having the World Cup here in ’94, is making solid growth, with four well established major leagues ahead of it, it is unlikely to match the BPL’s position in Britain very soon. It’s likely that BPL is more popular in THIS country, in fact, if we are to judge by TV ratings and the expensive English kits collected by adoring twenty-somethings. Because of that, MLS has had to find its own formula.

MLS has stretched the level of corporatism already rampant in world football with a single entity league structure and salary caps. This has made investment in the still fragile league attractive to the types of oligarchs that tend to own big teams around the world, but those billionaires are unlikely to welcome relegation to a lower league, especially as infrastructure in the lower leagues remains spotty. And TV networks see no profit in imposing the 20-team footprint of a country of 50 million onto this vast land of 300 million. Euro-snobbery is when you unreflectively expect all leagues to operate exactly like the Premier League. This is textbook euro-snobbery.

Nonetheless, some reforms are definitely needed, particularly in youth development, which tends to serve suburban white kids while ignoring Hispanic and African kids. Soccer is now ranked number two (behind NFL) in popularity in certain prized demographic groups, and the fact that the new fans see it as something worth agitating about, however magical their thinking, is a great sign.  Football, and the World Cup, are kind of about magical thinking, anyway. After the USA crashed out, many fatuously vowed to not watch the Cup this year, or to become permanent fans of other nations. Fat chance. But millennials are not the only football fans who lack logic.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors: As in the 2006 World Cup. This is a book about how football affects entire nations in ways that defy common sense. I got this during the run up to the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, USA run in the Germany World Cup. The US was ranked number five in the world that year, in complete defiance of common sense, as was proven on the pitch.

It was to go in the bag of culled books to take to the used book store for trade and for shelf space. But as sometimes happens, in scanning it, I got hooked again. Though it sounds outdated, the editors’ approach, much like Franklin Foer’s in How Soccer Explains the World, (highly recommended) is not to concentrate on what the world says about football, but on what football says about the countries who play it. In this case, many of the national teams are the same ones back for the current World Cup, and the observations here are still quite relevant to the cultural landscape, as football tends to be.  

As great change and the frustrations of progressives shakes the country, we acknowledge  that American exceptionalism in sports and in other areas is a real obstacle to American progress, but even liberals might not realize how steeped in it we are. After all, even liberals wear shirts that proudly proclaim their home city’s league team “World Champions”, when the only teams they’ve beaten come from suburbs outside of Boston or Atlanta. The essays here form a travelogue of footballing nations and bring their own failures and triumphs, baked into their cultures, into relief. The millennials who howl do value the power of travel and football to bring nations together. They distrust the spread of global corporatism. Their complaints about Team USA are simplistic, but they are not xenophobic. In them, we hear hope for real change.

There is a weird sort of justice in football. Thomas Jones talks about the justice of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal vs. England in Mexico ’86 (One of the first WC games I can remember watching on American TV) in the context of the fall of the Argentinian junta after the Falklands War of 1982. He is not the only one to mention that war, with the posturing of a conservative government in England that the dispossessed hooligans in England instinctively lashed out against.

Tom Vanderbilt and Eric Schlosser write about exceptionalism in other white, progressive societies, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. And Sayid Sayrafezadeh and Binyavanga Wainaina wrestle with the complexities and culture shock of leaving more anglicized societies to visit ancestral nations (Iran and Togo). Strong men, ayatollahs, and juntas use football no less than corporate oligarchs. Supporter culture often stands in opposition to these forces, and that’s why, in the world, football is the only game that matters.

Other favorites: Robert Coover in post-Franco Spain, watching the 1982 WC in an immigrant neighborhood, in the stadium of the OTHER Barcelona football club, and Wendell Steavenson on the political currents surrounding football in Tunisia under Ben Ali, later deposed in the Arab Spring, along with James Surowiecki, who writes about disillusionment in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain. 

Dave Eggers writes the USA segment (surplus to requirements this year!) with an exaggerated humor that manages to both highlight and embody American sports exceptionalism. Foer himself contributes an afterword on which political system is more likely to win the Cup. Fascist dictatorships and military juntas have gotten a large share, but social democracy is still the best system. Proto-fascist, post-truth oligarchies are not mentioned, and perhaps we can get a more winning approach at the voting booth soon; by relegating the oligarchs, and promoting someone less a buffoon. Here is the real corruption.

All of the essays are interesting, even the second time through; some barely touch on soccer at all. All in all, this is a hard book to put in the trade bag, and I would welcome something like this for each World Cup, but sales were probably never impressive. The millennials, who are way ahead of most Americans in their understanding of why the world is so passionate about ‘proper’ football, will change that, and sooner than we think.