A vacancy of purpose takes hold. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a creative sense; I’ve alluded to large empty landscapes in my work and in my creative process. An idea, I’ve said, might be compared to a single rider appearing on a dark plain.
It becomes a bit disconcerting, doesn’t it, when vacancy overtakes your daily routine. It’s an issue I’ve seen coming but delayed addressing, but as I reach official retirement age next spring, it’s been a subtext to my lockdown activities. What to do to keep everyday fresh. I’ve got projects, like everyone, there’s the slow reorganization of life around the idea of staying home. I’ve made a teaching video, applied for economic relief, attended to chores both bureaucratic and domestic. Odd that enrolling in Medicare came at the same time as the virus exposed the weakness of the American health infrastructure.
I had set aside creative production with the closing of my normal workspace, but now I’m looking to return to sketching and studio tasks in anticipation of its eventual reopening. I’ve kept busy. But a creative response was always going to be a must going forward.
But what’s the response? What is the meaning of this newly recovered time? That’s not as easy to resolve as painting the bedroom or as simple to unlock as a studio door. I’ve always turned to art and pop culture in my resting hours to inform that investigation, but now, in a sort of free floating anxiety, I found it hard to pursue new, complex projects. So I returned to older revelations to see them in a new context. Creative flipping, I’ve called it- like a monkey with a stick, I’m turning things over to see if there’s some important function I’ve missed. It can feel repetitive. But in repetition is motion, in motion there can be found rhythm and in rhythm can be found music (art).
And that is -of course! -what led me to Thomas Pynchon and Neil Young. I won’t try to link them- a process that would certainly fill time, but also condemn this blog to the farthest, and very vacant reaches of SEO exile. But I will post separate speculations as evidence of something I consider an essential truth: art’s rarely great, without first being weird. Both Pynchon and Young have had long successful, honored careers. Neither ever foreswore their insistence on being weird.
Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pynchon: In the void that opened up between daily creative purpose (what to do?), and mindfully spent days (what to make of this?), my full docket of readings collapsed. I’m a browser. With the library closed, limited budget and shelf space for online purchases, and the strange, vacant days having tracked us down, I searched my shelf and found a reliable poltergeist to fit the zeitgeist. This is the third time I’ve read it. Why?
Pynchon, like America- and let’s be honest, we didn’t need a pandemic shutting down The Cheesecake Factory to show us this, it’s been right there in front of our faces all the while- is weird and more than a little scary. Pynchon happens to be much better at dressing up the existential paranoia with humor, with robust sentences and images, with the sort of literary parallax that post modernism specializes in, than the country, especially as represented by the incomprehensible word salad of its titular spokesman. We wish America was funny-weird-scary right now, rather than scary-weird-scary. As soon as I pulled the book from my shelf, hefting the 865 pages of funny weird creepy improvisations on the very heavily loaded line drawn in 1863 between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and a host of very American histories they stand for, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same when I look out my front window.
Novels having flown their arcs, this is a very simple tale. Straight line, east to west, actually. To complicate it: some monarch ( James II and VII, but who’s counting) has botched the math in awarding proprietorship in colonies to Penn and Calvert, and borders must be surveyed to fit the authoritarian ignorance. Mason and Dixon, between gigs sighting Transits of Venus, a measurement of solar parallax that was a landmark in determining astronomic distances, are hired. The line surveyed took 4 years of hacking their way through the wilderness and triangulating it with the stars. It eventually wound up becoming a political-cultural touchstone when Americans could not triangulate their way around the question of owning human beings and how much the darkness of their skin devalues them. It sits there invisibly in the pleasant rolling Middle Atlantic landscape, having become as much scar as inscribed line.
That’s where Pynchon comes in. His genius is exploring the dark dreamlike wilderness between science and storytelling. Apocalyptic rainbows etched by erectile weaponry, capital “V” vectors between identity and desire, that sort of thing. The astronomers/ surveyors survive sea battles to get to slave states, pick up chicks with Franklin, smoke pot with Washington. Then they get out their instruments, and the weirdness really kicks in.
This is not beach reading, though it is at times hilarious. It puts the lie to the Rousseauan Arcadia of pre-revolutionary America, and includes Indian massacres, professional-grade geometry and robot ducks. This is an America that is unmapped, and thus dreamlike. “Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?” There is a long section in which a character lives through the 11 days that everyone else skipped over when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. It immediately came to mind when the reality of the shelter-in-place was fresh, and weird.
I set myself up on the couch in the hours formerly known as morning rush hour, or the now perfect silence that settles after dark, with my beverage ( coffee, the official drink of Enlightenment era political ferment, now the drug of choice for essential workers, gets a starring role in the book) and my Pynchon Wiki, a pioneering internet lit crit innovation that TRP can justly claim indirect credit for. The wiki helps one to negotiate the myriad historical and scientific allusions, the coffee opens one’s eyes to Pynchon’s rich imaginings, faux Early Modern English patois and robust syntax, the quiet streets remind us that however strange and frightening our history, we are still a work in progress, a nation that can be about the future. Who, after all, writes a book about 18th Century surveyors; unless he thinks it can tell us something about how our lines are drawn now?
Familiar, and yet strange. That is the textbook definition of the surreal, and not to overuse a very overused term, a perfect description of what passes for our daily lives right now. A bit of a horror show, really, though not without its irony, humor and possibility. These days, like all days, once we see them, for all their weirdness, approach the sublime. We’re going to need artists like Pynchon, who in this book says, through the voice of a framing character:
“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.
The tiny hands of corruption are all over the narrative of the present day; the poets and artists- essential workers, by Pynchon’s lights- are on the back heel. In casting about restlessly in my quarantined space I found, on my shelf, the perfect book for this eerie, vacant lost world. Fabulist, counterfeiter, ballad-monger, crank- which am I? In a time when society tends to put people like me, older, poorer, marginalized by choice of profession- on a shelf; in a nation that has never prioritized the health of its people, it’s a healthy question to ask.
And here is your reminder that whatever you read, listen to, or do to get you through this bizarre period, to remember to vote on November 3, as the health of a nation depends upon it.
I haven’t touched the TV. I worry about myself sometimes when I do that. How culturally out of touch does that make me? I did sign up for the library’s Kanopy movie streaming service. But after reading a magazine article about him, the first film I searched for was Jacques Tati’s “M. Hulot’s Holiday. I think you can see why I don’t watch TV. But cabin fever sets in when I’m cooped up at home, and restlessness is not conducive to large reading projects. My solution is brevity.
Magazines were what I’d read while working full time, or fiction and nonfiction in small bites. A large book I’d put down before the quarantine explores cultural historical vignettes in aid of a larger history of Britain’s wars with Napoleon. It has short chapters, each one on a different aspect of life, industrialization, navy, press, politics and is just the ticket right now, with the added benefit of drowning in others’ distant sorrows, rather than my free floating anxiety.
If the reading list seems fragmentary and unfocussed, I’m going to put it down to plague living. It- and not my inherent laziness is the driver behind the various trivial home improvements, online Scrabble games, puttering on eBay, and popcorn dinners that have interspersed the exercising, business promotion and mind improvement I intended would fill my days.
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: I’m on his second cycle of stories, The Garden of Forking Paths from 1941, after starting with 1935’s a A Universal History of Iniquity. I started with “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote”, spectacularly meta-fictional and funny, but thought provoking for sure. The conceptual labyrinths are profuse, and there is, at the ends of his bright surrealist hallways carefully hung with curiosities, the dream-like mystery of empty rooms.
Pierre Menard is a man who wants to write Cervante’s Don Quijote, word for word. Not transcribe, mind you, but create it by becoming alive to its necessity, and erasing from his mind anything not integral to its creation, such as the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In a way, isn’t this what we do when we read it? ( I read Part One.) It’s what I’m currently trying to do preparatory to trying Tristram Shandy, and I suppose, Ullysses.
A bright, warm, vaguely deserted spring morning is the right time for this type of mind game, and I think a dark roast, with just a touch of milk. My cup was black with a matte finish, contrasting with the blonde veneer on the end table. The cat was chasing a toy lobster around, had gotten a treat, and then climbed up onto the couch to settle in next to my thigh. These plague days at times create their own sort of clarity.
The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham: This is an inspiring read about the censorship battle surrounding the greatest novel in the English language, Ulysses. Spoiler alert, love- and art- wins. Birmingham does not cheat for drama, adding in rich detail about the conception and writing of the book, and the people who risked it all to see the book in print. In a measured, but uncompromising way, he also introduces us to the (spoiler alert) men (yes mostly men, and the defenders were often, not always, women) who made a moralistic crusade of keeping it from the eyes of Americans and Britons. It is part literary critique, part smuggling adventure, and part courtroom drama, and when the final triumph comes, in 1933, after 12 years of government overreach and harangue, there were tears in my eyes.
Like any book about this dense, challenging, earthy but ultimately uplifting book, the final result is to make one want to read it (again, in my case). And Birmingham provides loads of context for first or second-time readers, or perhaps any reader. I devoured this book, and I’m anxious to use the enforced downtime to get back to the original. We’ll see.
Fantastic Four #37, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: I sold this artifact from my teen age collection on eBay and read it one last time before shipping it off. It dates from ’65, when the Marvel phenomenon -snarky, angsty superheroes, existentially grasping supervillains- was just reaching its peak. A few months later Kirby, who did the storytelling, and Lee, who supplied the flippant dialogue- the ‘Marvel Method’, would hit their stride on this title, with a long run of sci-fi fantasy gems by Stan and Jack, with later series by Jim Steranko, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, et al that helped form the underpinnings for the now famous- and lucrative, Marvel Universe.
But this one is a patched together mess, verging on pure hackwork, with the FF sending themselves rather arbitrarily off to a distant galaxy to deal justice to a Skrull murderer (of a protagonist’s father, a bit of a nasty edge to this business) left over from a previous issue. Everything about this story is off hand- The journey through a time warp, the revenge killing thinly disguised as justice, the conveniently conceived weaponry and the fairly preposterous victory scheme.
Kirby and Lee were never strong on female characters- Marvel heroines tend to be solicitous of male superheroes and often in need of rescue. Here, there’s a bit of sisterly solidarity as one rescues another conflicted woman from a codependent relationship with a supervillain. That’s about as good as it gets for this era- later, we see a typical Marvel resolution, as the Invisible Girl, having made a bold decisive move to tip the battle, then frets about her capabilities and defers to the boys to mop up. As a 15-year old I had no perspective on this embedded sexism. It, like many things from the era, all gets internalized. What internalized mental hackwork is still clogging American progress, in politics and pop culture even now? At the time these Kirby/Lee comics were being published, Japan’s Garo magazine was already pioneering a more mature vision of comics, and women such as Moto Hagio were a part of that.
Kirby was pretty overworked at this point, in order to capitalize on Marvel’s sudden popularity, and the drawn perspectives are jumbled, the faces rushed and inconsistent. Lee is not really in sync either. He did add a lot to Kirby’s more ponderous characters and situations, but here seems to never settle in to the rushed plot, whipsawing between quips and bombast. There are hints of what was to come: a 1-page photo spread, a brief abstract starscape, some leavening domestic humor. Despite what the fan letters in the back say, a fairly forgettable episode from Mighty Marvel. I did get a little cash for it- more books, incoming!
…Almost certainly including a trusty comics anthology, or two. Anthologies are a living history of a real renaissance in current comics, and a great way to keep up while spending small chunks of time or money. My tribute to those of my past is here, but it’s time to update with the two issues of European mag Scratches ( #’s 1, 2, Joost Swarte) that I was finally able to locate domestically and had delivered just as the lockdown was beginning.
Scratches is a showcase of Euro cartoonists for American eyes, and vice versa. It’s edited by Swarte, the man credited with helping to start the Ligne Claire revival in the 70’s (he coined the term) and bringing it to America, and to the essential Raw magazine. Neo-Ligne Claire naturally has a strong presence here, especially #1. Ligne Claire, (clear line) one of the essential stylistic movements in 20th century comics, is modernism in narrative pen and ink, with all that entails, including Herge’s proto-fascist racial stereotypes of the 30’s and 40’s. The revival, dripping with PostModern irony, implicitly comments on this history. Of course, other issues are inherent in 70’s and 80’s comics as well (see below).
Scratches, like its inspiration, the groundbreaking Raw magazine of early 80’s NYC downtown, presents subtle stylistic differences from its American counterparts, Karamers Ergot, and Now, which also have recent issues out. I enjoyed the opportunity to compare in real time the sensibilities of this Euro/NYC hybrid with the West Coast-originating American anthologies. I leafed through Kramers #9, and Now #6 from my shelf, to even up the samples.
A stylistic common that links all of these is a comics brutalism. This can take many forms, and is a direct reaction to the literary comics of the 80’s and early 90’s which espoused a sort of punk/DIY Neorealism, often autobiographical. Comics brutalism- cartoon brut? ‘cute brut’ Dan Nadel, editor of the art/comics journal The Ganzfeld calls it- expresses a love of the medium’s material qualities and tropes, in some cases drawing on comics’ roots in the googly eyes, sausage noses, and big foot look of the early newspaper strips, but also the scratched-out inking and spare dystopian noir of Golden Age comic books. These are beloved of our era’s punk, ‘ratty line’ artists such as Gary Panter. Its earliest antecedent, as far as I can tell, is oddly, Phillip Guston, who appropriated R. Crumb’s underground comics style for his signature, existential, politically charged paintings of big-foot neurotics, unblinking eyeballs and Klansmen in the 70’s.
Its most recent influencers, however, are the Paper Rad and Fort Thunder collectives of the late 90’s and early Oughts. They were part of a second zine and mini-comics explosion that began in the late 80’s with notably, feminist icon Julie Doucet. Their impact has been huge, and has also invaded animation and fine art.
Kramers Ergot has been a leader in showcasing these artists, such as C.F., Lale Westvind, and Anna Haifisch, who comments directly on art world hierarchies in #10’s acidly chromatic “Hall of the Bright Carvings” an adaptation of Mervyn Peake.
Scratches tends to look at these trends through the filter of cutting edge design as seen in Brecht Evens’ untitled sequences in both #’s 1 and 2, where water media fantasy figures evoke children’s book illustrations, but undergo sometimes vaguely disturbing transformation. Also a strong presence is the riotously iconoclastic Brecht VandenBroucke, who got the ‘Bestiest’ pick of the decade in my tragically under-coveted ‘Besties’ awards posted this year.
Now #7, which has been finding its way under Eric Reynolds, highlights a very literate and subtly constructed tale of a mother and daughter exploring mom’s sexual history by Kurt Ankeny. There is a slow peeling back of life’s narratives and falsities in a simple yet wistful colored pencil sketchiness. There is a never heavy-handed juxtaposition of interracial relationships and a frozen lake. There is much to find in comics right now, and in a new decade’s fever dreams, brief epiphanies abound. Neither does Now ignore cartoon brut.
Since we’ve already broached the subject, and since this post has dragged on almost as long as one of the Insane Clown President’s wack medical advisories anyway, let’s close by doing the numbers: my best count of the gender representation in these anthologies, for what it is worth to the reader, is: Kramers #10, 5 women/out of 30 artists; Kramers #9, 6/37; Scratches #1, 5/39; Scratches #2, 4/31; There is a “Scratches Academy” listed on the editorial page, with 2 women listed among 11; and Now #7, 2/14; Now #6, 6/15.
A strikingly consistent percentage, and the question is, why? We touched on the individual editorial visions; that is a variable. And comics, especially the solitary time-intensive, very low paying alternatives, seem tailor-made for socially, um distant, males. At any rate, they have not over the years, attracted a lot of women, and the audience has been mostly male, though those things are changing. Are these editors ( all male) pushing the boundaries only in a stylistic sense? I won’t presume to judge that. But only by being mindful of these problematic raw numbers can one expect to have a voice in their solution.
Haven’t done a reading list all year. First obstacle was a very busy beginning to #MoPrint2020, then a frantic round of cancellations. For a while, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, perhaps from burnout? Then, there was a family visit back east, and a short staffed day job creating long hours. Through those, I’ve been reading, and now as the quarantine stretches into long weeks or even months, it will continue to be a major activity. It’s cheap, it’s peaceful and safe, it’s… socially distant.
The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson: Covers the first two years of the War for Independence; roughly, Concord through Trenton. Two more volumes are planned. I’d read 1776, by David McCullough, but this book, in addition to being more granular, was more of a cultural history, with the experiences of the common foot soldier, farmer, and wife given a central role. Even the Tories, those loyal to the King, get some coverage here, which can be rare. It was compelling in that way, and of course, the words and movements of the politicians and generals was fascinating, too. This was an ARC, (bound galley) from work, so I have a long wait for the second volume, but will watch carefully for it.
Endeavour, Peter Moore: I savored this book from Xmas through March, and if I ever have a Besties for prose, this will be on it. Another hybrid history, with cultural and scientific events and a general examination of the Enlightenment all bound in with what traditional histories see as the dawn of global colonialism. A very complex and thrilling tale of Captain Cook’s first South Seas voyage, that takes as its protagonist the ship itself, with Cook, Royal Society scientist Joseph Banks and naturalist painter/ illustrator Sydney Parkinson as co-stars.
The book begins in the oak forests of Yorkshire and bounces back and forth between day-to-day accounts of English coastal coal trade, descriptions of Tahitian society, and sea faring adventure on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It ends with the American War for Independence, where Endeavour, having been renamed, then recruited for transporting Hessian mercenaries, meets an ignominious end, ironically within yards of where Captain Cook’s second ship also ended up. I couldn’t help recalling Rocket Men, the account of Apollo missions to the moon, which carried fragments of one of those ships.
It’s now an indicator of a book’s impression on me that it finds a rare and precious spot on my crowded shelves, awaiting my return to it. This one did.
The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson: Yet another cultural history. They are becoming popular, and I really can’t get enough of them. Is this indicative as some sort of academic/historiographical populism? This one takes a close look at Churchill and family during the first year of World War II. Though aristocrats, they had much contact with ordinary Brits during this period, thus giving a close-in picture of life during the blitz.He also skips across the channel to give a picture of members of the Nazi elite for contrast.
I haven’t read that much about Churchill, so it was a real fascinating look at how he galvanized British resistance to the Nazis, with an eye to doing the same for the American public, too. I read it on my visit back East, and it went fast.
Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway: my second Hemingway obsession started with Hemingway’s Boat, a fresh look at the author’s middle and end years by Paul Hendrickson, which I read in 2018. I am culling my shelves to clear space, and often, part of the process of selling a book such as this one, that I haven’t read since my college days, is to re-read it.
I remember my first impression, which was of a fragmented, second-rate book, by the standards of his earlier classics. Hemingway’s literary reputation had suffered since those early books ( The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms ), monuments to the man’s man modernism of the early 20th Century. His later, callous behavior as a hard drinking celeb author -especially to women, and his spotty creative output ran afoul of the rise of academic feminism and post modern critical theory in the 70’s.
My sophomore (-ic?) college reading binge was thus already outdated by the late 70’s, but my decision to buy and keep the book, a Book Club first edition, was undoubtedly colored by the fact that Middle American manhood of that period was inextricably bound in with Hemingway, by then enshrined as the great Middle American modernist. All of my drinking binges, skiing and hiking years in Wyoming, and creative excess, along with that of many of my friends, was inspired by the image of Hemingway, not so much a hipster saint, like Kerouac, but a god.
Hendrickson’s book is part of a revival of sorts, which drew heavily on his later and posthumous work, such as this, and The Garden of Eden, to examine the author’s history of head injury, mental problems and gender issues ( as examined inGarden) to forge a more sympathetic portrait.
Upon re-reading, the book remains fragmented. It was started in the early 50’s as a grand trilogy of earth, air and sea; and a reply to the critical disaster of Across the River and Into the Trees, which I haven’t read. As often happened in his hard drinking, head-trauma-ravaged 50’s, it was set aside. A small part was extracted and became The Old Man and the Sea. The rest was found after his suicide, and cobbled together under this title.
It reads as three novellas, all centered on a single protagonist, Thomas Hudson, a story of a summer on Bimini with his three children; then a grief stricken drinking binge in Cuba after the death of his fictional oldest son, and finally, a taut war time chase off the coast of Cuba. This last is an imaginative embellishment of Hemingway’s wartime activities hunting for Nazi subs after he’d badgered the U.S. and Cuban governments for extra gas rations and equipment to equip his boat, which in real life, came to nothing much.
It’s one of the best action sequences he ever wrote, and if the book doesn’t always hold together as well as the precise and focussed Sun and Farewell, neither is it as mawkish, at times, as his wartime romance For Whom the Bell Tolls. It contains some very affecting writing on family, love and loss, along with much self examination by his narrative stand-in, Hudson, despite the writer’s rep for macho posturing. That’s here, too, as well as a grief/mercy fuck from his much longed-for first (fictional) wife, a dramatic deep sea fishing scene, and a penchant for arbitrarily killing off some characters as he became estranged from their real-life counter parts. Does this include, as joy and adventure give way inexorably to loss and regret, himself?
So, Hemingway, for all of the violence and pathos of his last years, in this book does examine his own role in the disappointments of his family life. The narrative reactions do seem arbitrary and reflexive- ex-wife dies; must drink, go fight Nazis- but the interior struggle of his protagonist is real, and affecting. The book seems somewhat essential to understanding his life and art, and also, fun to read. I’m still selling it, but I’m glad I’ve given Hemingway a second look.
Hemingway in Love, A.E.Hotchner: Also somewhat essential to understanding facts about Hemingway’s late years, but aside from that, a disappointment. This is because the story, about E.H’s regret over the dissolution of his first marriage, might have been an embarrassment to his surviving fourth wife ( also a possible reason for setting aside Islands) and is necessarily told second hand. Hotchner, despite a long career writing, is no where near the writer Hemingway was, and cannot replicate the author’s powerful, concise voice in what are apparently, reconstructed quotations. Thus the tale, though inherently interesting, seems maundering and (doubly so, given Hemingway’s penchant for paranoia and self pity during the time it was narrated) self-serving.
The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: Far from a fluffy tribute to our precious little predators, Tucker, self professed cat lover, provides a wake-up call for her fellow fanciers. She explores Felis Silvestris as an invasive, parasitical species, and not just on Facebook! Kittehs as bold interlopers that ” domesticated themselves” and have a major impact on the environment.
What, in fact, did humans get from allowing them to spread into households around the world? Precious little, science tells us, the psychological comfort in their blank, Hello Kitty faces aside. And they may, in a very real biological way, be controlling our minds. Heavens to Murgatroyd! This book provides a cautionary tale to those of us who are tempted to anthropomorphize our pets.
While I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords, there is one easy conclusion to report: for your health, sanity, and the sake of threatened species everywhere, keep the adorable little monsters inside.
It’s about time I posted. This blog is now over 10 years old, and long gaps between posts have been a regular feature, which never fail to shame me, not to mention obliterate my minuscule SEO, so as soon as I got some holiday downtime, I brewed an extra pot of coffee and sat down to catch up.
I’ll post about what the new year holds as far as classes and exhibitions soon, but after a frantic year end I’m ready for an escape, and comics have always been my escape. They actually do somewhat relate to graphics as a commercial print medium. But I first started these reading lists as a way of breaking up non-stop posts about me and my work, a sort of ‘Sunday features’ section for the blog that would also up the content for the blog, and take advantage of a perceived niche for comics criticism that explicates the power of this ancient but misunderstood medium to a more general audience. That’s the theory. I patterned my contributions somewhat after Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree column from the Believer.
This year turns out to be end-of-the-decade, of course, so my second ever Besties list is now, grandiosely, Besties of the Decade. There will be no klieg lights, no red carpet. I do have most of a bottle of decent Rye whiskey and some antipasti left over from Christmas; c’mon over.
The metric for inclusion is innovation and unique vision, but clarity in both design and narrative is also a huge factor. Still, stuff that makes me wonder just what the hell the author is on about is not necessarily a bad thing, if there’s some richness or intrigue to the vision. There’s a fair amount of diversity here, mostly in gender, but there are creators from Europe and England and America, comics intended for kids and many others that have been challenged in libraries, and many different genres. Reminder: comics are not themselves a genre, as the more ignorant and denigrating observers would have you believe. They are a medium. I’ve always been attracted to comics’ ability to offer expression to marginalized creators, so I don’t think the amount of women here is a surprise. There’s stylistic diversity, too, with clear line-type projects probably predominant, but more expressive, and even cartoon brut type of styles definitely included, especially in the catch-all of the anthology.
If I was to predict it before I sat down to make the list, I wouldn’t have expected so many ‘mainstream’ projects to make the list. This is defined fuzzily as output of large publishers with fairly high sales numbers, though increasingly, the lines blur. Most here is from the creator-owned Image line, not surprisingly, and it’s probably best to point out that the Marvel Now re-boot that that spawned a lot of brave interpretations of mostly B-list Marvel characters ( such as the Hawkeyes) is long gone. With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tail is now definitely wagging the dog, as far as I can tell. It’s also worth noting that to make any even minimal effort to keep up with that stuff, you need to visit the off-the-beaten-track Direct Market shops, and I just don’t do that so much. I keep my eyes peeled for worthy efforts, but I still think most of it is dreck. I don’t apologize for sticking mainly to the small press, bookstore-oriented things.
Still, about a third of the top ten and over 25% of the list when including Honorable Mentions is ‘mainstream’ product, which just goes to show you what can happen when the giants think outside of the long box, because those numbers in no way accurately represent the total out put on a month-to-month basis.
I’m going to milk this by going bottom to top, with the Honorable Mentions ( Resties) first, in no particular order, then the #9-2 Besties and ending with the coveted “Bestiest”. Roughly, the 10 Besties are in order of when they popped into my mind, so the last ones came to me first, and thus have a certain amount of memorability attached to them, a valid attribute in a top 10-type list.
Kramer’s Ergot #8, 2011; #9, 2016 #10, 2019; Sammy Harkham, Editor: Cheating here by including all the issues of the decade, but they’re never disappointing, and include nice samples of many current trends such as Cartoon Brut which I define as a concern for an essential graphic truth and the material properties of ink along with highly personalized interpretation of timeless comics tropes; and Fort Thunder School, a group that came out of a Providence R.I. art collective; mixed in with giants of the earlier alt-comics, such as Steven Weissman; and also Harkham’s own work, striking in its unrelenting camera eye and quiet, charged backgrounds. Now, Mome and other anthologies are worthy things to search out as well.
Supreme, Blue Rose , Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay: Meta-fictional re-boot of a meta-fictional Alan Moore reboot of a typically Marvel-esque original Image superheroby Rob Liefeld in the 90’s. In which, interestingly, the super hero never appears. Yes, like many mainstream comics, the backstory is complex and nearly impenetrable, but Tula Lotay’s lush charismatic graphics, and Warren Ellis’s antic storytelling make this an obscure work of genius, worth going onto Wikipedia to research the past iterations, as I had to. In a comic book store, it is sometimes rewarding to let your eyes lead you.
Super Mutant Magic Academy 2015: Jillian Tamaki forged an award-winning career in YA with her cousin Mariko starting in the Oughts with the exquisite coming-of-age/ coming out tale Skim. Lately she’s appeared to be interested in crossing over into a traditional general adult bookstore market, and published Boundless, which was critically well received but which I confess, seemed a bit precious and over wrought to me. I prefer this simple, hilarious web comic about interspecies gifted youth at a Harry Potter-like private academy, which coalesces very organically into ( again) a coming out tale.
How to Be Happy, 2014 and Frontier #7, Eleanor Davis: A simple, fleshy tangibility to her drawings; a provocative moral insistence in her tales. The first, a collection of post- and pre-apocalyptic short stories, the second, a small press one-off exploration of alternative sexuality.
Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley: Antic send up of Archie/Richie Rich Harvey Comics of the 60’s with satiric implications of today’s celebrity and mega-rich obsessed pop culture. Also did a Tubby ( Little Lulu’s frenemy)/ Alfred Hitchcock mash-up to satirize the petulant, entitled white male auteurs of 50’s cinema.
Leaving Richard’s Valley 2019: Prolific Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has at least 6 books that I considered, all of them innovative in their ways, and very provocative. He explores modern narcissism, among other things, with one story featuring a scene where the implied main human character asks for, and receives, a blow job from his computer’s operating system. This one is about friendship, emotional manipulation and betrayal, and is graphically the most original work on this list, seamlessly blending childish funny animal abstractions with computer graphic/photographic textures.
Sex Fantasy Sophia Foster-Dimino 2017: Originally published as mini-comics ( yes the zine/DIY scene is alive and well in modern comics, along with its web comic offspring). These are simple but highly affecting speculations on what people want from sex and relationships, and how the two often conflict.
On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden, 2018: Young Adult masterpiece that proves how surprisingly cogent that rapidly growing category can be. A young girl wrestles with professional and sexual identity in a beautiful sci fi universe. No male-identifying character appears, innovative in itself.
Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, 2013 : A candidate for Bestiest though the writer and cartoonist have taken a year long break, mid-saga ( a return is rumored to be soon). A young, mixed-species couple and their child battle prejudice and violence in a universe of never ending war. Humor, sex and Staples’ very original character designs distinguish this from your everyday space opera. The creative team say that it was designed to be a comic book only, but someone will eventually make a movie of this one, and you should read it first.
Hawkeye, Matt Fraction and David Aja, 2012. The only true super hero comic on these lists, but one that very convincingly and very affectingly explores what a super hero’s off-time hours might be like, in a hilarious and graphically concise and innovative way. Turns out Clint (Hawkeye) is somewhat of a slacker/wastrel. Fraction makes use of running gags to highlight complex, humanistic psychologies better than any writer in comics. He’s married to Kelly Sue DeConnick ( below). What I’d give to sit in for the weekend, after-studio unwinding after their kids are in bed and their many unique projects wrapped for the week. Funny, heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and again, something that only one medium can deliver. A sequel by Kelly Thompson featured a second Hawkeye character from this series, Kate Bishop, and did not fall too far adrift of the Resties.
Building Stories 2012: Chris Ware designs a box of comics in various, allusive formats (e.g: a Little Golden Book knock-off, A newspaper broad sheet about a bee who lives in a discarded Coke can in a vacant lot next to the titular building, a game board) that form a complete narrative in time and space of a Victorian-era apartment building and its inhabitants in a Chicago neighborhood.
Stroppy, Marc Bell, 2015: Very appealing comedy of a class-strictured future world where Stroppy, a Candide-like workingman, becomes a somewhat passive victim of control systems that benefit the rich and famous. With one (Big) Foot planted firmly in the roots of comics ( E.C. Segar, as channeled through Crumb) and another in the nihilism and dystopian vision of the Fort Thunder movement, Bell comes across as a sort of Carl Barks on acid, with Stroppy a man-child in a cartoon world he never made.
Coyote Doggirl, Lisa Hanawalt 2018: this deceptively candy-colored cartoon brut adventure reads like a feminist Lonely Are The Brave, by Abbey. To preserve her independence from victim hood after a rape, Coyote Doggirl escapes into the essential girlhood sexual fantasy of a girl and her horse in the wilderness.
Beverly, Nick Drnaso, 2016: Preternaturally quiescent and unsettling stories of families and youth in extremis, and yet trying to preserve normality, these gem-like stories reminded me of nothing so much as Salinger’s. The washed out pastels and deadpan line work adds to the chill. I have nothing against his second book Sabrina, nominated for the Mann-Booker prize, but this was my first encounter with Drnaso who seems to share with me and others a love of the short story format in comics, which belies the commercial format/ categorical catch all term ‘graphic novel.’
Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, 2013. 2015, 2019: Would have been on this list in any case, even if this Fall’s volume, The Rat, still incomplete, had not breathed fresh fire into DeConnick’s multi part poetic apocalypse. If I felt Volume 2 ( The Bear), set in WWI, flagged a bit after the startling and allusive Volume 1 ( The Shrike), kicked things off with its violent and compelling goth/ spaghetti western/ medicine show fabulism, The Rat proves there is nothing in mainstream comics like Pretty Deadly, by a mile. Emma Rios makes visual narrative subordinate to the double paged spread/montage, rather than the panel grid. Jordie Bellaire, not one of the copyright holders, but clearly a full creative partner in the enterprise, channels the subdued pinks and violets of Western landscapes and suppressed feminine yearnings; the acidic greens of poison gas and the lurid yellows and oranges of Hollywood puppet animation to DeConnick’s vision. Death’s Garden unleashes ambiguously motivated Reapers to call home various members of a black family from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. There really is no tidy summary of all the plot threads possible because DeConnick refuses to be limited to one interpretation. Suffice to say that feminine archetypes rich in the violence and striving of their agency, abound. This comic may be the first to warrant the reader’s guide to allusions ala Pynchon and Wallace; I predict the critical literature will be extensive when the epic ( 2 more parts are planned) finally ends. Don’t know if it’s even possible to make a movie of this. One of the entries on this list that can really, only be done with comics. Those who believe that the cultural ‘future is female’ are fools to ignore the comics medium, Where KSD, as the blogosphere calls her, weaves a tale that even she, one suspects, is not sure of all the implications. I, for one, am happy to watch her resolve it on the fly.
That leads us to the:
Bestiest : This is meant to highlight a book that had real impact on me both at the time I first read it, and sustained relevance as the decade has gone by, through multiple re-readings. Once I’d been reminded of White Cube, Brecht Vanden Broucke, 2014, which I’d read in the middle of the decade, there really was no challenger for Bestiest. I read it for the 3rd time recently and it is still finely poised between punk nihilism and artistic conceptual subtlety, in a painterly style that nods both to cartoon brut and Little Lulu. It’s funny, highly transgressive, yet strangely thoughtful in its explorations about how art enters our daily lives. The pink-skinned twins who star in this collection of mostly ‘silent’ strips, single panel vignettes and double page tableaus insist upon their own artistic vision as they wage their 2-man war against the aesthetic authority of the White Cube gallery world. They paint large blue thumb’s up “Like” symbols on the gallery masterpieces and are chased from the White Cube, but they always return. They are every newspaper and comic book anti hero, from Bushmiller’s Sluggo, to Herge’s Thomson and Thompson, to Bart Simpson.
Comics, the marginalized, censored step child of pop culture, also have a difficult and complex relationship with the authorities of the art world, as exemplified in this Russ Manning mini-memoir on Liechtenstein’s uncredited ‘appropriation‘ of his images for his paintings. White Cube is the first comic to fully address this relationship which is ground-breaking in itself, but it also comfortably inhabits both worlds, those of challenging art and reflexive anarchy, which is an essential feature of modern comics’ renaissance.
I’m going to include a separate list on books about comics, and I’m going to exclude retrospective collections from the first list, and include them in the second. This mini adjunct to the Besties separates important collections of forgotten or ignored past work and also needed exegeses on comics history from contemporary fictional projects. It expands the number of books listed to 22, but is fully justified in this historically significant decade, when comics expanded into the bookstore market (being credited with giving bookstores a rare area to expand sales) and innovation was rampant. This is where we see, in no particular order:
JohnStanley: Giving Life to LIttle Lulu by Bill Schelley, 2018: Died this year and will be missed. He recognized that John Stanley, a frustrated genius of the anonymous, marginalized ‘hack’ era of comics in the 50’s was one of the funniest and most relevant writers of his time. He explicates Lulu’s surprising verisimilitude to the actions of children (not to mention her status as one of the few authentic feminist voices of the time).
The Comics Journal #302 , Gary Groth, Editor, 2013: This 300-page issue of the comics magazine of record was probably a marketing fiasco, as the magazine disappeared from print for several years after that, having only and thankfully being revived last year. But it’s a comics fan’s feast with its many and diverse articles on such intriguing and little-covered subjects as Mort Weisinger, R. Crumb’s copyright lawyer, and Maurice Sendak. Comic Art magazine is much lamented after disappearing in the Oughts, but TCJ soldiers on with the recent Simon Hanselman interview an example of comics journalism addressing such relevant topics as gender fluidity and political correctness in the comics blogosphere.
Mauretania: Comics From a New World, Chris Reynolds, 2018 : Words cannot express how besotted I’ve always been with this obscure 80’s/90’s British comic replete with unresolved narratives; evocative inks and somehow infused with the thick light of Wales and Southern England. Its hero, Monitor, quests after meaning in a vaguely dystopian near future. Another character, a detective, dies but mysteriously reappears and doesn’t recognize her family. A quixotic visual tone poem curated by Seth, whose own title, Palookaville, was also a viable contender for this list.
Somnambulance Fiona Smyth, 2018: Again, a forgotten fave from the first explosion of alternative black and whites from the 80’s. Here again a distinctly feminist vision first finds voice in comics, and Smyth’s luscious sensual inks also foreground transgender and gender queer imagery and narrative, a real ground breaker in that area.
Drawn Together 2012: Aline Kominsky-Crumb pioneered feminist self-published comics ( along with Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, et al) in the underground era, then embarked on a brilliant lifelong collaboration with husband R. Crumb, with each illustrating one half of each panel of an autobiographical comic series about their lives, sex lives and marriage. The unlikely combination of her scratchy primitivism with his classic big-foot style, along with their decidedly unapologetic politically incorrect narrative (feminists hated Crumb’s sexualized women, and her unabashed masochism) was far more than the sum of its parts, as this 30 year retrospective brilliantly proves. Kominsky-Crumb, like other women of the 80’s comics scene, is finally getting her due as a pioneer cartoonist and editor who advanced female creative agency.
The Origins of Comics Thierry Smolderen, 2014 : A somewhat academic endeavor, but after a false start with one literary theory-clotted excerpt published in Comic Art magazine in the Oughts, Smolderen cleaned up and focussed his rhetoric and published this important survey of the (mostly European, sorry, American exceptionalists) roots of comics. In it, he argues convincingly for the early proto-comics of those such as Topfer as dynamic precursors to modernist art and cinema, rather than outgrowths of the academic, moralizing tableaus of such popular image-makers as Hogarth.
Comics: A Global History Dan Mazur and R. Alexander Danner, 2014 : Indispensable and ground breaking in its scope which includes Europe and Japan, as well as England and America. A real eye-opener as to the interweaving threads of the development of comics as a medium in the current period. I do regret that it doesn’t cover comics from the Golden Age on; but that would have been a different and much more expensive project to publish, and we need this sort of critical vision right now. Wonderfully illustrated and researched. If like me, you’ve regretted your ignorance of Manga, which was first to advance self-expression as a legitimate function of comics in the 60’s, then the chapters on the Japanese scene are very welcome.
There is a Clunker this year, a work that should have been much better than it was, not necessarily bad, or unreadable in this case, but a real drop off from past work. Jerry Moriarty is a massive figure in the NYC school of alternative cartoonists of the punk-inflected 80’s RawMagazine crowd. His first book, Jack Survives straddles very purposefully the line between comics and art, with its lush colors and Hopper-esque sense of place and time. But his newest project, What’s a Paintoonist? a speculation on himself as a little girl, married to an account of moving his studio upstate, has an unfinished and deflective, even detached, feel to it as if he just couldn’t buy into the concept. It has its moments, but was ultimately pretty meh.
So there you have it. The sample size was huge, not to mention the worthy contenders that I never got to read, or simply forgot. I surprised myself by leaving long-time favorites such as Los Bros Hernandez, Gabrielle Bell, and Peter and Maria Hoey off the list, as well as striking newish cartoonists such as Anya Davidson and Dash Shaw. All these cartoonists are innovative and important in their own right; I tried to sneak in enough mentions to exemplify just how hard this list was to compose.
Most are under $30, or available at the library. It’s an extremely vibrant medium, with many genres available within, such as Darwin Cooke’s very entertaining Parker adaptations of Donald E. Westlake crime novels. In a time-pressed world, it’s nice to have something quick to escape to, and now you can have the bestiest.
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.
I’ve reached a point in this summer that can be considered both blessing and curse: My last full workshop of the summer session has been cancelled so I have lots of time for reading and projects (yay!), but of course, I’m completely broke.
I should define terms. By ‘broke’, I mean each first of the month, I pay critical bills and trek to the grocery to assemble a decent store of food, and whatever’s left ( in this case, nothing) is used on clothes, books, restaurants, etc. Trips to the library for books, dvd’s and lately a Spanish conversation group, are my entertainment. Inventorying and scanning youthful ‘collectibles’ for sale is for beer money. And of course, there’s time for ongoing studio work. Whether I eat steak or lentil curry pretty much depends on what’s on sale. I enjoy both, and cooking in general, so all in all, it’s not a bad life. Writing for my blog helps me to process this, and also to promote the next workshops.
(In a Sense) Lost and Found, Roman Muradov: This is the second GN, and the third story overall, I’ve read by this very appealing artist, who I think comes from an illustration background. His stories are rich in innovative visual design and textures, and as art, are glorious to look at. His stories are not that engaging, and can in fact be obscure and precious, because he foregrounds the illustrative concerns and his pictures, sometimes constrained by a too-rigid 9-panel grid, become too clever by half.
In many panels, for instance, he has decided to experiment with a very muted, low-value color scheme, and I think a veteran comics person would intuitively know that with the limitations of printing, one must include a generous amount of highlighted contours, or the action gets murky. A lesson imparted in the noir films of the 40‘s, or also in Milton Caniff’s classic newspaper daily adventures, and which Muradov thinks doesn’t apply to his somewhat bland fable of a young woman searching a dark city for her lost innocence. Long segments would be gorgeous visually, if a few highlights or even mid-values were included to provide a way into the action.
Similarly, however attractive the drawing, his uniformly hard-edged images contradict the air of mystery and depth he is trying to evoke. They would be fine in a simpler, more minimal illustration, but Muradov aspires to a comics tour-de-force, sprinkled liberally with Joycean word play, only without having done the homework. Its superficiality overwhelms its ambition. Eisner is another comics great who evokes the mist and mystery of urban alleys with well modulated color and minimalist ink effects. And Maria and Peter Hoey (below), who also come from an illustration background, source the evocative lighting of 50’s Hollywood or the welcoming secondary colors of mid century advertising to make sure the story remains front and center.
Muradov has great potential, and is improving. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art, a subsequent GN ( this is his first) features a lively retro futurist noir tale with gorgeous ink effects, and a recent story in Now #4 simplifies and hones his unique visuals even further, though the narrative in both remains obscure at times. They both include scenes in rain, Lovingly rendered, as is all his work. As they say, there is a very important difference between drawing and cartooning.
On A Sunbeam, Tillie Walden: I got this from the Young Adult section in the library, where if one is seeking to keep caught up with current trends in comics, one must sometimes go. The category is rapidly expanding, thanks to libraries and school reading programs, and the publishers and writers are paying attention, since that is definitely where the money is. The current Comics Journal (303), has an article about its history and current state, if that interests you.
The book is a lesbian romance at its heart. I’m sure it’s on some Red State Trumpster’s hate list somewhere already. Yes, I’m looking at you, Alabama. There are in fact, no male-identifying characters in the story, as far as I can tell, a somewhat incidental fact that will undoubtedly lead to Twitter-pated outrage over what messages about love’s untamable diversity the book imparts. It is a lovely book that is much more than that.
The main characters are engaged in restoring old buildings in far flung space. A separate narrative explores a somewhat Harry Potter-like private school for girls. One character, a troubled, very restless and impulsive girl named Mia, links the two threads, past and present. This provides ample opportunity for both adventure and school girl drama, and Walden, with subtle pacing, is good at both. The art is both intimate and panoramic at times, and the facts on the ground unfold slowly, and -rare in Sci-Fi, many conflicts are solved without violence. It’s a great read for either young, or older, adult, in short.
What’s a Paintoonist?, Jerry Moriarty: Moriarty’s latest work lacks the fine balance of memoir, surrealism and quiescent expressionism of his earliest work. There are some great images here, but others seem thin and loosely formed. The overall premise, of Moriarty exploring his life through the eyes of himself as a teenage girl, seems not to arouse the same wry, loving humor as Jack Survives, his groundbreaking and rather brilliant early work in Raw Magazine of the 80’s that views the world through his father’s eyes.
The girl character, Sally, seems to be an attempt to know his older sister, but the character gets bound up in adolescent sexuality, mostly that of a young boy, and only rarely demonstrates any girlishness. A shop woman’s large breasts are glimpsed tumbling onto the counter as Sally buys a soda. Is it an adolescent boy’s memory, or a girl’s? More convincing is a scene where she climbs a tree to impishly urinate on a passing adult. There are scenes filled with Hopper-esque mystery, such as the girl taking refuge on the porch of an abandoned house in a sudden rain, but the linking, interview style black and white panels lbetween never approach the dense, voyeuristic, claustrophobic yet somehow nostalgic atmosphere of Jack Survives. Nor its wry humor. A loose central narrative of leaving/ return ( Moriarty frames the images around leaving his NYC loft to return to his parents’ upstate NY home.) similarly fails to generate any real emotional tension, showing spare images of his studio, intended to be ghostly, but here, just simply empty. It’s a shame, as the one artist one would trust to properly evoke the haunted vacancy of lived-in spaces would BE Moriarty.
One wishing to acquaint oneself with Moriarty’s special genius for linking American idioms, would be better served by going to the earlier work.
The Customer Is Always Wrong, Mimi Pond: Mimi Pond appeared in old National Lampoon Funnies Pages issues during the 70’s. This is a memoir of her day job during the run-up to that gig. Many who lived through that period will recognize the milieu, when drugs infused every corner of youth experience, and restaurant gigs provided a family- and party-like background to unsettled lives.
This is Pond’s story of those strange times, and she sticks to the events and characters that affected her in her youth, without trying to over-dramatize or universalize them. So the story almost became my own memories. A neat trick, but not enough to make this more than a voyeuristic peek into the past.
Worn Tuff Elbow #2, Marc Bell: This follows from #1, 14 years ago. I recently re- read earlier collections, such as Stroppy, and Pure Pajamas, that delineate Bell’s surreal dystopian class-ridden world of rich, entitled bureaucrats, blank faced robot factotums and tubelike proles, with non-plussed humanoids between. It’s funny and bewitching, with the antics and endeavors mostly centered around low-gain working class striving for free lunch, or poetry contests. It’s a very retro cartooning style with E.C. Segar and R. Crumb the obvious reference points, but other more far-flung affinities pertain. The angst level being turned up to 11, Phillip Guston is an immediate association. For instance. I did abstract over a creative/aesthetic/cultural lineage from Segar ( Popeye, a ‘big foot’ everyman, with agency) to Crumb ( neurotic, id-obsessed everyman with agency) to Guston (neurotic, surreal, KKK-beset everyman, without agency) to Bell (passive, beset by dystopian forces, no agency). A more succinct, yet concise, history of comics in the 20th/21st C. one would struggle to find. At its terminus, dense and beguiling world building meets funny, relatable characters, and cannibalised human relations are the norm.
Coin-Op #7, Peter and Maria Hoey: I made a trip down to the Denver Independent Comics Expo (DINK) in Spring, and had a nice conversation with Maria, whom I’d met before. I haven’t met her brother Peter. They alternate appearances, and apparently, so do I.
I regret not asking more questions about their method of collaboration, but the convo took a nice turn into printmaking, so was wonderful anyway. I picked up a silkscreened Illustration and The latest issue of Coin Op. I don’t think I even spent $40, so they could probably charge more for a very limited edition hand-pulled silk screen and a pretty much full-sized GN, but on the other hand, I know from experience that it’s in the nature of these festival-type shows, that you often have to compromise on price to keep sales up. Still, many there were selling giclees and other commercial reproductions at close to the same price, and there is a major difference there in quality and provenance. So on the one hand, I was pleased with scooping up a deal, but also mindful of the fact that the task of educating the general public on what constitutes an original print versus a reproduction continues.
Coin Op is their ongoing comics series which I first encountered in Blab! magazine, which was the first I know of to collect work from both the comics and graphic illustration worlds that it turns out, many artists ( such as the Hoeys) inhabit. Nobrow is another, later magazine that performs this function in Europe.
So as you can imagine, Coin Op affects a clean, cool, retro commercial style, but with a very unique, incisive intellectualism that comments on varied topics such as M.C.Escher’s spatial experiments, old R&B music, and even, often through collaboration with writer C.P. Fruend, film history and iconography. A quiet irony abounds. This issue has a wordless visual oddysey featuring their ongoing characters Saltz and Pepz, a romantic epic that seems to have its ancestry in one of those grade school film strips about The Making of Paper, and two of their engrossing filmographies, one on 50’s Sci Fi movies with a vaguelt dystopian conspiracy theory thread, and one that explores the life of proto-Noir producer Val Lewton.
They are dense with looping allusions and visual hijinks (in each issue, there is always an ‘exploded view’ sequence, ala Frank King’s classic Gasoline Alley Sunday strips), and in my house they get read over and over. They recently collected the previous six issues of Coin Op, along with some of the earlier Blab! material, a steal at $30.
The Hoeys, perhaps becuase they probably earn their living from illustration, haven’t received a lot of attention from the alt comics world, but that may be changing, as they were just nominated for an Eisner Award for the above-mentioned romantic ‘pulp’ tale “Supply Chains” from this issue. They occupy a rarified space between the angst-ridden, expressionistic scrawls of the more punk cartoonists, and the disturbing cartoon brut displacements of the Fort Thunder school, a place where advertising art and marginal cinema goes when we’re through ignoring it.
A Western World, Michael DeForge: These are collected stories, and take various approaches to DeForge’s continual search for innovation, both visual and narrative. Example: A story about idyllic reincarnation on Saturn begins in media res, with an unseen factotum explaining to the ashen, newly elevated vice president just why he’s acceded to the highest office.
DeForge has been adding softer visual textures to his backgrounds behind his attenuated, harder-edged figures. A sort of chiaroscuro develops, which matches and heightens the subtle emotional longings of his characters. He’s got a unique voice and style, which is as responsible as any for refining the Fort Thunder-style cartoon brut into a sort of sci-fi fabulism that will probably define the next phase of avant grade comics.
Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael DeForge: DeForge’s latest full length work is a melodrama of masochistic longing and toxic attachment, played out in a post industrial Eden made alluring with its smudged grays and Hello Kitty-style smiley-faced denizens. It is Manga’s cute creepiness, elevated to quasi-biblical epic.
And it all began as a four panel web toon. A subtle mirroring of Peanuts’ wry punchlines propels us into its dark human drama. In this, it recalls Jillian Tamaki’s brilliant( and hilarious) Super Mutant Magic Academy, which also began as a web toon, and which achieved a sort of unitary dramatic power. There is real poetic, even diegetic, alchemy in these sorts of unassuming cartoons, as if someone had taken episodes of a sitcom, say, That 70’s Show and turned it into an opera ( have they?). Tamaki’s Academy is about a young girl’s coming out; DeForge’s Valley is about the moral boundaries of friendship and love. DeForge doesn’t reach the power of Tamaki’s narrative climax, but he is not afraid to break faith with the punchline in service to psychological inquiry ( I cried until I laughed?) He is again, always- a visual innovator here, and if the book flags a bit as it ends, it will -again- probably be very influential.
Last minute update: It’s been announced that Kelly Sue DeConnick’s, Emma Rios’, and Jordie Bellaire’s very intriguing Folk/Western/Apocalyptic epic Pretty Deadlywill return in September. Already re-reading the first two volumes in preparation. Expect more in this space on that.
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.
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’sHawkeye
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.
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 Theory, A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.