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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books, Comics, Music Culture wars Politics Reading List Uncategorized

Reading List: First World Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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