“Whaam”, “Blam”, Thank You, Ma’am

Roy Lichtenstein's "Blam" which along with other Pop Art paintings by Rosenquist, Warhol, et al, introduced the idea of appropiation into modern art.
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Blam” which along with other Pop Art paintings by Rosenquist, Warhol, et al, introduced the idea of appropiation into modern art.

I’m done teaching workshops till January. I’m mostly done showing work this year, too, though I am available for appointments, just click “Contact”.

I am also sending some images to G44 Gallery, where they will be available for online purchase soon. I’ll link to the site when it’s up. My own online sales gallery is coming, but slowly- after Christmas looks like a good bet.

I’m also trying to keep up with routine tasks and especially, sketching, but mostly right now, ’tis the season for relaxing with friends or reading. In order to keep this blog somewhat timely and diverse, I’ll be posting about books and comics for a while, until the art happenings ramp back up. I love comics, and I make art. I often considered comics as a career, and have dabbled in comics over the years. But it’s a labor-intensive and lonely career. I’ve always loved the social aspect of fine art.

Here’s a subject that struck my fancy. It combines the two loves- one of the classic Silver Age comics artists who was “reinterpreted” for Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art masterpieces, such as “Blam”. It struck others’ fancy, too. When I googled “Russ Heath on Roy Lichtenstein”, it turned out there was quite a bit of commentary. Most of which was inspired by Heath’s own views, expressed humorously and in typically stylish fashion in this one page comic about his experience, which oddly depicts “Whaam”, a Lichtenstein appropriation of a different artist’s illo from the same comic. It’s a plug for Hero Initiative, a non-profit which aids comics artists, like Heath, who toiled during the days when publishers and the reading public treated them like hacks, and the medium like infantile tripe. Non-profits are work horses in the arts, for the simple reason that most artists- in any medium- have stories more similar to Heath’s than to Lichtenstein’s.

Heath, in the lingo of comics artists, would have called Lichtenstein’s use of his image a “swipe”. Lichtenstein, in the slightly more “elevated” lingo of Pop Art, said: “I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms.” Either way, the purpose of Lichtenstein’s use of Heath’s illustration was to ask questions about what constitutes “art”. However, neither Lichtenstein nor his estate has never recognized Heath’s work as anything except anonymous, generic source material. When I googled “Roy Lichtenstein on Russ Heath” I found no unique quotes. In other words, it was a one-way conversation.

This panel, from DC Comics' All American Men of War No. 89, is by Russ Heath.
This panel, from DC Comics’ All American Men of War No. 89, is by Russ Heath.

I enjoyed a lot of Heath’s work as a kid reading war comics. Even now I still admire his contribution to the sublimely surreal Western/War/Romance/50’s Ruiz bondage comics mash-up (with writer Michael O’Donahue) “Cowgirls at War” in National Lampoon. His turn of the century comics forebears launched mass market newspapers and gave voice to a new demographic in American cities, but his own generation of creators was subject to crass commercialization and censorship in the xenophobic 50’s. As his modern successors find success in movies, The New Yorker, and mainstream book publishing, his is an interesting tale that mirrors comics’ struggle for respect as an art form.

Russ Heath did this strip about his experience with "Blam" and Hero Initiative, a non-profit that aids Comics Artists. For some reason, the strip features "Wham", also appropriated from All American Men of War #89, but by Irv Novick.
Russ Heath did this strip about his experience with “Blam” and Hero Initiative, a non-profit that aids Comics Artists. For some reason, the strip features “Wham”, also appropriated from All American Men of War #89, but by Irv Novick.
Books, Comics, Music

Of Hacks and Boobs

I promised a quick finish to my last books and pop culture post with an installment about current comics. I also promised shorter posts. One out of two ain’t bad.

Comics: There has been very little need to marginalize comics over the years;  they’ve done a great job of doing that for themselves. This has been their curse, and part of their appeal.

They started in the margins, a new medium in a new medium, newspapers; their appeal was to new Americans, immigrants. Nonetheless, they grew wildly popular. I won’t wonder here what happened to the newspaper strips, their own self-marginalization and hence vanishing relevance is a whole ‘nother tale. This is about their even more marginalized cousin the comic book, which was also once wildly popular, but never respected, least of all by the greedy publishers making money from them.

When the censorship hysteria of the xenophobic 50’s hit, the publishers self-imposed a drastic self-censorship regime, the Comics Code Authority, which had the effect of institutionalizing the infantilism of this once very creative medium. This is because the rich hacks who published them had always seen them as hack work anyway, paying accordingly.

Later, the rise of the underground inspired the Direct Market, which liberated comics from the Code, but also spawned the fan boy culture of over-muscled and over-boobed heroes and heroines in over-wrought alternate universes sold in dingy, pimply fan-boy warrens, thus substituting a different kind of self-marginalization. The big publishers, and many of the new, small ones went along, hackishly, for the ride. It was here, just out of college and new to the city, in these direct market ratholes, that I parted ways with mainstream comics, and here that I discovered the world of alternate comics, an outgrowth of punk/new wave fanzine culture and its DIY ethic. These artists, e.g. Los Bros. Hernandez (Love and Rockets), Dan Clowes ) Ghost World), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) eventually made their way out of the dingy holes and into the pages of The New Yorker, etc, and spiffy, Euro-style hardback albums sold in independent bookstores- and I followed.

So I stopped going to the comic store. A residual effect of the hack era(s) is that comics don’t often get the respect that mainstream books get, making it harder to fight censorship when it comes, as it often has. Alison Bechdel, another alternative auteur who was recently awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant has been subject to censorship herself.

“Graphic novels and cartoons have been catching more and more of the spotlight in recent years, with serious, realistic comic books such as Bechdel’s memoirs, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets helping push the form further into the literary mainstream. Not all attention is positive, however; the American Library Association has made graphic novels the theme of 2014’s Banned Books Week (Sept. 21-27), because “despite their literary merit and popularity as a format, they are often subject to censorship.”

I spoke about my curiousity prompting my return to a comic shop in this post. I hadn’t left comics, they’d left me. But I grew curious as to whether the new light shining on the medium as content provider to Disney and Time-Warner, now the owners of Marvel and DC, the largest publishers and holdovers from the censorship era had had any affect on the offerings, so I returned. As you can see in the original post, I was more than a little dissappointed. But I hadn’t had time or budget to do a comprehensive survey, and things have been changing since that post, anyway. So a year later, here’s an update. As a preface, most of the real exciting stuff happening in comics ( and there is suddenly quite a bit) is happening in creator-owned titles, put out by medium-sized publishers such as Image and Dark Horse. The big houses’ main “franchises” such as Spiderman, Superman and Avengers remain work for hire, with creative stricture imposed not only by history, but by the movie productions, which are now driving the bus, or in superhero cinema terms, the runaway train, creatively. It is in the secondary characters, that Marvel Now, especially, is allowing quite a bit of innovation.

Enough introduction, though. I’ve already violated my ‘shorter post’ dictum. Here are some titles I’ve tried:

Wonder Woman, DC. I spoke positively of this title’s potential last time, but that has changed. She is to be relaunched (comics jargon for a creative reconfiguration that follows declining sales) as a boob-a-licious super babe. Still, there’s hope. Her history is very unique (After all, this is the character that graced the first issue of Ms Magazine). And the movie version cast Gal Gadot, who immediately drew fan-boy criticism for failing to “fill the bustier” of their dingy dreams, so it’s clear that DC, like every other cultural player except the Tea Bagger rape caucus, understands that they’ve got a feminist issue on their hands. So stay tuned.

As for the former iteration of WW, it sort of fizzled. Being based on the Greek mythos, it kind of needed a little sexual tension to go along with the hyper violence. But this wasn’t possible as the editors in another narrative universe had hooked her up as Superman’s GF, so it really wouldn’t do to have her canoodling with a bunch of Greek gods, would it?

Hawkeye, Marvel Now. A rare treat. A long time secondary character that got a second wind from the Avengers movie. Now in the hands of Matt Fraction, responsible for the very lively writing on a number of these titles I’ve noted here. The art is loose and gestural in the way of comics’ early days, via the alternative renaissance of the 80’s. Hawkeye, a chastened, pizza- eating, beer drinking bro, on his days off from the Avengers, trying to save his Brooklyn tenement and neighbors from a bumbling, violent gang of Eastern Euro track-suit wearing thugs.

I bought the collection of the first few issues. It features a very instructive contrast with an earlier, boob-a-licious, bustier-wearing other version of Hawkeye ( who returns in the current series) to show you how quickly things are changing in fan-boy land.

Secret Avengers. This the Marvel Comics’ answer to ABC’s Agents of SHIELD series, with a few of the same characters. It aspires to the series’ same action/humor, slow/fast plotting and characterization dynamic. But it is more successful at it than the perpetually meandering ( though fun) series, because (and if I actually have a theme hiding in this bloated mess, THIS IS IT) it’s a comic! And comics can do that. The stunted terrorist android who joins the good guys, either for his own nefarious ends or because he realizes he’s become a parody of his own evil. The ‘smart bomb’ that has fallen in love with one of the heroes and become depressed and has to be talked out of committing suicide. An escaped weaponized lab rat with a hypodermic syringe full of poison strapped to its back. The crazed poet who does for post modern dialectics what Hitler did for Wagnerian Romanticism. This is comics gold, and it cannot possibly continue, though the heroines are really, quite boob-a-licious, in a loose, gestural sort of way. Expect a relaunch.

Pretty Deadly, Image. Not EXACTLY coincidental with comics’ high-heeled and boob-a-licious female character failures is their lack of female writers and artists. Creator-owned comics may be a solution there, as Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios have created something in this spaghetti western/ folktale/ pulp fiction bloodbath/ magic realist feminist revenge story that could never be made into a movie- though it ought to be- because it embodies an essential otherness about the comics medium itself.

Spiderman and Batman have become iconic characters, so can thus be tailored to the mass market, but no movie will ever capture the pen-scratched angst of Ditko’s original Spidey, or the noir Freudianism of a 50’s Batman comic. Steranko’s sci-fi pop art mannerism on 70‘s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, and Mike Mignola’s dry, cubist schematics on Hellboy escape Joss Whedon and Benicio Del Toro, respectively, because comics, the marriage of word and line, exist  as a hybrid medium-  real time, but not. We compose the story- narrative, metaphor and even exegesis as we read. It is, unlike movies, not a passive medium. One becomes the director in a sense, if not the auteur, and in this instance, as in all the best comics, a perfect blend of authorial obsession and detailed craft has been achieved. Think The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but in Rios’ well textured high plains vistas and swirling kinetic pen strokes plus Jordy Bellaire’s subversive pinks, ochres and tortured, crepuscular blues, but with a sword-wielding anti-hero aptly named Ginny Skullface, a river of blood, and a half-headless jack rabbit as narrator. Like many of these creator-driven titles I’ve mentioned, deadlines are sometimes hit and miss. a first collection is out, but new episodes haven’t appeared yet. Fingers crossed.

Also: The Massive, which I spoke of in the previous post, but stopped buying single issues. The story remains strong, but with comics’ marketing in a very transitional state, I’ve decided to wait for the TPB collection, rather than what the wags are now calling “floppies”. This is a calculation every fan must make now: read it now, or wait for a more durable, bookshelf version. I’m also intrigued by a few other Image titles, Trees, Zero, and Supreme Blue Rose. I’ll return to those next time.


Books, Comics, Music Uncategorized

Cultured Pop

Shorter, darker days. There’s actually time for reading, and the cat settles in for a lap snooze as I actually watch entire movies on DVD. I get my  exercise on trips to the Library, and I’m combing through the PBS listings.

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which is as thought provoking as you’d expect, and another book, also on ways of thinking called The Black Swan by Nicolas Taleb. I bought and started Bleeding Edge, by Pynchon, which like all Pynchon requires time and space for total immersion, so it’s awaiting the first snowy weekend. There’s any number of old movies, interesting documentaries and strange sitcoms on TV, too.

Oh yeah, I’ve also rediscovered the comic store. So now seems a good time for one of my periodic Pop Culture digressions: the State of the Comics.

I haven’t made regular trips to a comic store in years. Not because I don’t like comics anymore, but because most of the artists I follow, alternative auteurs who emerged in the 80’s from the punk/underground movement that encompassed music, fashion, urban culture and art during the Reagan years, had been discovered by mainstream, upscale publishers such as The New Yorker, and have made the switch from the traditional comic book magazine format to the European-style hardbound album format. They’re now available at good indy bookstores such as Tattered Cover and on Amazon. There was no need to enter the somewhat ratty and obsessive environment of the comic shop anymore. But I got curious as to what was still there and popped in on Free Comic Book Day in May. The answer: not much. To be sure, to someone like me, there’s always something worth a browse. I have a life long obsession with comics and graphics, which may have led me into printmaking. I grew up with the infantilized, post-Wertham-censorship-crusade, spandex-clad sci fi of the 60’s DC books. I then was galvanized by the Marvel “Pop Art” era, with its tormented urban superheroes and fantastical universes in bright dot-screen colors. When Marvel degenerated into pure bombast ( where it mostly remains now), I started picking up undergrounds. That led me to Raw Magazine and its cadre of punk/intellectual/autobiographical euro-style auteurs, typified by Gary Panter and Los Bros. Hernandez. Here’s an earlier discussion of Los Bros., and the LA barrio/punk world they turned into one of the more unique graphic literary efforts ever seen.

The comic store I chose for my survey field trip was Mile High Comics a huge, warehouse/mega store that had never demonstrated much interest in the alternative comics scene, preferring to stick with the over-muscled and overdrawn spandex-clad,  pneumatically endowed bimbos and himbos of DC and Marvel’s many, densely overwrought multi-verses. Not much has changed there, though there’s been a bit of reduction in exaggerated cleavage and other visual tics of comics’ “Mannerist” age. Progress! The two giants have embarked on reboots, cleaning up their tangled back-stories while concentrating on their strongest heroes/brands in a rapidly shrinking market place. Marvel and DC villains became so addicted to bombastic evil doers delivering long monologues that Pixar made a gag of it in The Incredibles. Pages were subdivided into minute panels and choked with dialogue. They lost sight of the visual power they’d had with such artists as Kirby and Steranko as hack writers took over.

That began to change with Allen Moore and Frank Miller. But however innovative their plots ( Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns ), Moore and Miller brought a dystopian gloom and now a different sort of visual poverty afflicts comics. The Marvel/DC Universes, possibly reflecting their apocalyptic sales figures, have become very dark places. I refer not just to the panel after panel of ultra violence and carnage, but literally. The covers and interior art are steeped in stygian tonalities of blacks, dusky browns and violets, with a sanguinary red, naturally, being the brightest the palette ever gets. Zombies, the muddy, gray-green warhorses of cheap horror, are everywhere. This possibly reflects cinematic fads, as both companies are now owned by larger media conglomerates and have become feeders of Hollywood’s need for more action/horror movies. But white space, that heavenly refuge for the eye in any graphic endeavor, that airy infinity that allows an artist’s “hand” to breathe free, is so rare, that in browsing the endless racks of Bat– books and X-mags, one is almost compelled to pick it up the rare times it appears. And freshly limned pencils and inks drowned in computer color screens and apocalyptic chiaroscuro are not the only thing suffocating comics. Unreflective violence and faux-libertarian/anarchist paranoia pervades every corner. Even Wonder Woman, last I saw a fashion designer in go-go boots in swinging London, has now been returned to her Greek mythological roots and felt compelled in a recent issue to run her mentor War (the Greek God) through with a spear in order to dispose of the psychotically evil “super villain” First Born.

There is a full line of “undead” Archie comics, too. I’ll pass.

In short, it’s even harder to find a light-hearted (and still reasonably thoughtful) tale in the comic shop than it is in the multi plex. For an antidote, I recommend Tintin or John Stanley-era Little Lulu comics ( I’m serious. They’ll brighten your day, and make you laugh out loud, because they’re… “comic”). And I will return to the alternative artists, such as Los Bros., Chris Ware, Dash Shaw and Gabrielle Bell in a future post.

My budget and schedule make an exhaustive survey impossible. But here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found, the good, the potentially good and the icky:

Recommended, After Several Issues:

The Massive (Dark Horse Comics): A thus far unspecified environmental collapse has taken place. This story follows the small crew of a Greenpeace-type activists’ vessel which is searching for its much larger partner ship (the mysterious Massive) and trying to determine what their mission has become and where it might be safe to land for fuel. It’s episodic, with short story arcs concerning a school of sharks driven mad by surface noise penetrating the depths; and a rogue anarchist who has hijacked a nuclear sub. The art is open, evocative, filled with misty, oceanic light; and the characters seethe with complex motives.

FF (Marvel Comics): This spin-off of one of Marvel’s superhero mags, Fantastic Four, revives characters and the style of the title from when it was created by Jack Kirby, a comic book legend from Marvel’s seminal “Pop Art” era. Its present creator, Mike Allred, is one of the few of the 80’s alternative comics auteurs (Madman Comics) to move into big corporate comics. In this title, a replacement group of superheroes takes over for the regular group, lost in a time warp. This includes care taking a group of precocious, super-powered children being mentored by the original FF. Allred injects humor and pathos in all his titles, and while the book is still finding its stride with a rather large cast, its straightforward, attractive art and candy colors make it fun to read. One child has recently come out as transgendered, an example of the book’s edgy, yet inclusive wit. This title is often laugh-out-loud funny while still tapping into the pure fantasy of 60’s Marvel.

Growing On Me, after one or more issues:

Wonder Woman (DC Comics): WW doesn’t hurt to look at, natch. But she is realistically proportioned, at least in her own intriguing title, illustrated by the graphically savvy Cliff Chiang. She does appear in other titles in significantly more hooter-licious form (She’s also started a relationship with Superman, which brings up the question whether Supes’ fans just wanted a little, you know …more;  but I’d better not go there). What’s also intriguing about this title is the decision to return her to her original, faux-Olympian roots, minus the overtones of lesbian bondage and dominance & submission so beloved of her 1940‘s creator, the exceedingly fascinating psychologist William Moulton Marston. Again, the art is straightforward in that the artist’s “hand” is allowed to show through- avoiding the mannerist, photo-shopped sameness of other titles. The coloring by Matt Wilson is also sophisticated, airy and light when called for, returning to the crepuscular only when WW hoists her petard. “You will make an interesting God of War”, the book’s Hades-figure notes when WW, uncharacteristically in the comics universe, calls a halt to the carnage. He could be right.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC TV): This spin-off of the Avengers movie “franchise” dates to another title of Marvel’s “Pop’ era, now long gone. I couldn’t resist because I miss that comic, a real ground-breaker by legendary Jim Steranko, whose innovative, collaged, candy-colored sci-fi panels were inspired by Kirby.  I was hoping for a bit of that childhood magic. What I GOT was a fast talking, fast-paced cinematic small screen action drama by Josh Whedon’s crew, not a bad thing. A larger context needs to emerge, but it’s far more fun and exciting to watch than the usual cop show dreck on TV (I don’t have cable). And it beats the pants off DC’s offering, Arrow, which looks primitive, dour, under-budgeted and routine by comparison.

Marvel's "Pop Art" era featured garish colors, bombastic villains and Sci-Fi  gimmickry, and escaped Nazis instead of Zombies. Strange Tales #157
Marvel’s “Pop Art” era featured garish colors, bombastic villains and Sci-Fi gimmickry, and escaped Nazis instead of Zombies. Brilliant! Strange Tales #157. 

Hawkeye (Marvel): Marvel’s version of above-mentioned Green Arrow is a second-tier character, a sometime Avenger. Here, he gets a second-tier life ( like us!) and a graphically simple and appealing illustration, reminiscent of alternative artist Adrian Tomine. Ick, One’s Enough:

 Poison Ivy (DC) The Batman titles pretty much invented the “dark hero” genre back in the 70’s and started the rush to Hollywood with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. They remain interesting, albeit gloomy. Not so this “Villains Month” spin-off, which takes the botanically-obsessed redhead and tries to explain her psychopathy ( with domestic abuse and muddy, Earth-First style ideology) while still retaining her boobalicious adolescent appeal.
Miss Fury (Dynamite Comics): Like Wonder Woman, a veteran of comics’ quirky and unrestrained Golden Age. Unlike WW, poorly drawn and awash in murky air-brushed  tones. Like Poison Ivy, this is a morally confused hero, who steals museum-quality jewels for thrills, but is then hurled into an alternative future where America is still fighting off the Nazi invasion of New York. It could have been interesting with better writing and art. She does have great tits, though.
Books, Comics, Music

Hey Kids! Comics!

Blustery and frigid winter has made February its home here. We got a mild November and December, January could not make up its mind, but the last 2 weeks have been definitive, lock down winter.

We even have snow, of which the Squish approves. I feel cheated when it’s frigid and brown. I love the kind of minimalist landscape and diffuse light that the snow brings, and would probably be distilling the bleached gray blues and fat yellowy whites in ink on paper right now, if I hadn’t committed to some part time work to pay some bills.

That will come. Right now I’m bunkered in, fiddling with my rabbit ears to pick up al Jazeera reports on Egypt; peeking in on the yearly cultural car wreck of the Helmet Bowl, the epitome of American Sporting Exceptionalism (one team wearing garish satin capri pants will be declared “World” Champion, but I’ve usually forgotten which one it is by May).

Mostly I’ve been reading. I have a small stack of Atlantic Monthly, featuring the usual blend of abstract speculations, mixed with hard nosed, iconoclastic bubble-bursting (After expounding on Tea-Baggers’ inherent self absorption, one recent issue advised that coal is the key to our energy future.)

The latest McSweeney’s is always a good read, if you can ignore their bizarre, almost perverse, love affair with Roddy Doyle. OK, I actually read the latest thing for once, and it was a sort of a departure, meaning, not quite as “Commitments”-like. You also have to indulge them in a typical, gratuitously silly short story about a Pontiac Sunfire that enrolls in high school. But I like that they’re not afraid to try different things.

But this here bloggy-blog is going to be about comics.

There are several graphic novels out in the last few months that are worth a peek. I’ve been playing catch-up on these, as the outlay has gone up, and all the big names get a release date near Christmas.

For those who don’t indulge in this far corner of the literary universe (including those who don’t consider it even a part of the literary universe), a bit of recent history: As the alternative comics movement, which traces its lineage back to R. Crumb and Mad magazine, has made a progressively larger impression on the mainstream, with some of the bigger names appearing in the Times and New Yorker etc, the publishing strategy has transitioned from traditional comic book format to a more European “album” format. This means top artists are being seen in nicely bound, even hardback Tintin-style books which appear about once a year. This makes for attractive, more easily accessible complete stories that appeal to the adult they’re written for, rather than the booklet form, which adult readers still associate with adolescent entertainment. it also makes for prices in the 15-$25 range, rather than 3-$5, but perhaps I’m getting bitter.

I’ll start with a title I’ve spoken of before, Love and Rockets, which is a continuing story (30 years, now!), but which contains semi-complete episodes within the larger whole. Love and Rockets New Stories #3 is such a jumping on point. There are several stories written by two brothers, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert’s stories tend to be bizarre, cinematic and hyper violent. They have their rabid fans and are interesting to me, but I’ll concentrate on my favorite of Los Bros, Jaime. He presents three separate but subtly interconnected tales here, and looks to have returned to his “Locas” ( “Crazy Women”) storyline after a diversion into a tangentially connected space fantasy.

Two of the tales take place in modern day suburban L.A. and concern his primary heroine, Maggie Chascarillo, and one takes place in 50’s Oxnard, CA, and fills in details about Maggie’s youth. They’re worth reading for their cleanly written dialogue and simple graphic power. You sense the vast backstory underlying the characters, but the subtly interacting narratives here are perfectly functional as independent tales.

“Wilson” , by “Ghost World” auteur Dan Clowes is a completely self contained book , which actually features a series of blackly humorous one-page gags. There is a complex set of influences in the shifting styles, including “Peanuts” and Mad Magazine, and as we follow the main character, we realize that these gags are interconnected, too, and a satiric narrative on the notion of “family” emerges.

“Wally Gropius”, by Tim Hensley, a newcomer, satirizes 60’s comics such as Richie Rich and John Stanley teen comics with a visually kinetic and subversive, sometimes even surreal, sight-gag type humor.

Comics superstar Chris Ware has also published a new episode in his ongoing Acme Novelty Library (#20), and though interconnected with other ongoing characters, this story is actually a stand-alone tale of one person’s life and struggle to find meaningful connection. Ware can be a real mope, but his quiet depiction of aging, and his hugely influential design sense which has expanded well beyond the borders of comics and into popular culture at large, make him the first name in modern graphic narrative. Though he will probably never equal his breakthrough masterpiece, “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth”.

X’ed Out is the latest opus of Raw Magazine veteran Charles Burns. This may be the most intriguing new book on the list. Raw, which kept the flag flying for cutting edge, adult oriented graphics during the 70’s and 80’s, has given us many breakthrough artists over the years, such as Art Spiegelman (Maus); Gary Panter (Jimbo, Peewee’s Playhouse, and countless Zappa LP covers) and David Sandlin (Land of a Thousand Beers).

Burns has been contributing to The Believer magazine, and has now released a hardback album format graphic novel, which is not complete, but this is the first segment, so it’s a good time to jump in. Burns traffics in the horror that lurks just behind the mundane, and seems to be on his game here. We enter immediately a dream-like mise en scene which carries over even after the main character has “woken up”, as if the whole story was the kind of lucid, cyclic dream in which you believe you’ve awoken, only to realize you are dreaming still. The art is clean and depthlessly noir. We’ll have to see if Burns can keep the narrative moving as briskly as the first segment; his last major work, Black Hole, did seem to bog down a bit.

You can get a nice, inexpensive overview of current efforts by these and other artists by seeking out The Anthology of Graphic Fiction by Ivan Brunetti, which seems to have entered the close out market. Brunetti, with out getting didactic, tries to link all the diverse strands of this movement toward comics’ artistic maturity, and even throws in a few of the lesser known classics of the newspaper era.

Ultimately, the recent history of graphic fiction and humor is one of censorship and marginalization. Creative magnificence abounds, as well as truly affecting characterization, but as with 80’s and 90’s Rock, there’s no way to see what you’ve been denied until you just jump in.