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.

Reading Edge: Anime and Cartoons, the End of Cultural Quarantine?

With the shambolic response of tRump’s insane clown posse to the coronavirus, I think the virus restrictions will be lasting all Fall ( til November 3?), so I broke down and got a new TV. Now I’m able to stream and binge-watch a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen for years, such as Adult Swim cartoons. Given my recent reading list, it was no surprise that I wound up spending time with Anime classics, as well as Anime-influenced American cartoons.

Cowboy Bebop: I watched this on my brother’s videos in the early 90’s then saw quite a few episodes replayed on Adult Swim. They are very stylish though characteristic 80’s anime with a creative musical soundtrack. The backstory is of bounty hunters in the farthest reaches of the solar system in the 2060’s, but as the episodes go on, a more developed romantic backstory featuring two rivals for the same woman emerges. Characters are added along the way, and their backstory is explored as well. 

Thus, a fairly typical retro futurist genre pastiche takes on a bit of emotional heft. There’s humor and violence, but the surprising twists in the back story keep things fresh. Nonetheless, the overall concept is genre, and much of the backstory feels a little grafted on. There’s a lot of violence, in the mode of the ‘stylish’ violence of the 90’s.

In constructing this clever pastiche of popular genre tropes ( sci-fi, detective noir, western, with a strong dash of very 60’s Hollywood action thriller), the Japanese/ American creators seem to be borrowing a page from Sugiera’s 70’s/80’s Gekiga manga style. Pop Culture influences are mixed and matched in an almost off hand way. As with Sugiera, the American cultural appropriation is very prevalent, but the series retains its eastern flavor. The music helps to keep things fresh, provides a thematic glue between disparate styles and time periods, and seems to inform the pacing of the visuals, also reminiscent of Garo-era gekiga, such as Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. The series held up well after a long lapse in watching it, and seems to fit in with its place in Japanese Manga/Anime. 

Samurai Jack, Genndy Tarkovsky: This was a turn of the century Adult Swim staple, but one I did not get to spend a lot of time with owing to schedule and other priorities ( Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, Space Ghost Coast to Coast). It was always unique and intiguing, and never easy to just drop in in the middle of. This differs from those above in every way. It’s neither cartoon brut nor Hanna Barbera mash-up rescued from the vaults. It was a true original cinema-style cartoon series conceived by Tarkovsky and others and was clearly intended to advance the animation art stylistically. It’s certainly one of the most visually beautiful animation series ever, combining Oyvind Earle-style mid century modernism and landscape design with a color sense that borrows from cubism and 50’s advertising art, but also Japanese folk art and 60’s psychedelia. It really is a treat for the eyes, and won many awards for its visuals. 

This is not to say that the story doesn’t ascend to compelling heights at times, though it doesn’t always attempt to transcend its home genre, a bushido action series with many fight scenes. But Jack, the hero, must make difficult choices and this often redeems the regular violence, along with the pure stylistic energy of its animation. A class in color theory could be taught around its schemes, with their minimal elegance, ranging from complex tonalities to eye opening complements with rich secondaries a linch pin for its almost literally surreal naturalism. I’ve always extolled thoughtful secondary colors, balanced with hot primaries, and well considered neutrals in my work and in my classes. I enjoy Samurai Jack as a delicious bit of eye candy.

The stories are minimal as well. Jack has been banished to a dystopian retro future that is both medieval and coldly metallic by a demon, Aku, he has defeated in battle. In order to administer the coup-de-grace, and set his people, as well as future generations free, he must find a way back to the past. So he travels on a quest for a way back, helping peoples he meets, and battling demon monsters and robots. All in the rich chameleon colors and anime-influenced stylizations. An evocative simplicity rules.

The show is not really anime, but in its stripped down but elegant animation and nods to bushido and eastern martial arts, it feels that way at times. The pacing is patient and the cartoon enjoys the ride. There’s a joie de vivre in the half hour increments of Jack’s journey. The series went through 4 full seasons during the aughts before it was cancelled without reaching a conclusion. A movie was vetted before it finally returned in 2017 for a concluding 5th season. The wait was worth it, as the final season includes many masterful segments before reaching its stirring, even delicate, conclusion. Unlike the earlier seasons which meandered without any real momentum at times, the final season accelerates without sacrificing its evocative visuals and contemplative pacing. 

I haven’t seen all the episodes (101!), but this would be one well worth owning a collection, as even now, I watched rapt as episodes replayed. They really are that gorgeous. I think Akira is probably an influence ( another anime I haven’t seen in a long while) and of course, peak-era Disney. But this is a very original series and really has set the bar for a modern cartoon. Its vision speaks to the art of animation, as few cartoons do. 

Sherlock Hound, Hayao Miyazaki: Miyazaki is the ‘Japanese Disney’ to some, though others insist on Osamu Tezuka. The appellation itself may be a bit racist, as neither is really derivative of the House of Mouse, though Tezuka was definitely influenced in his early years, before Astro Boy. At that time, of course, Japan was awash in American pop culture such as comic books and movies, during the occupation from the mid-40’s to mid 50’s. It’s fascinating to see how they processed and appropriated these influences in Manga and Anime ( e.g, Sugiera’s pop Nansensu- nonsense) And my discovery of Sugiera’s freewheelin’ mash-ups got me curious about the roots of manga and anime. Miyazaki came later, and this series, which was an Italian-Japanese collaboration dubbed into English for British, and then American audiences bears his unique stamp at times. 

Sherlock Hound is an adaptation of Holmes, of course, with anthropomorphic dogs. It’s a fairly run-of the-mill Saturday morning concept, but the 6 episodes that Miyazaki directed bear his signature pastoral steam-punk stylings. Some of the same giddy panoramas are here, depthless blue skies, and the love of retro-futurist machines. There was some sort of interruption in production, and by the time the series came back, Miyazaki had launched Nauusica of the Valley of the Wind, and did not return to it. 

These are available on the Open Culture web site, where you can see anime from as far back as the 20’s, including a 30’s Fleischer Brothers- influenced short about a haunted temple. As an aside, there are classics from Jan Svankmeier, The Brothers Quay, and also Lotte Reiniger, for those who read my review of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly: The Rat.

If anything, the return influence of these early Japanese pop culture inventions on American creators is probably underrated. The American stubbornness on infantilizing cartoons ‘ for the sake of the children’ stunted creators until well into the late 70’s, and in Tartovsky and Adult Swim, Raw Magazine and Watchmen, more recently, Pretty Deadly and Jimmy Corrigan, you can see American creators beginning to rise above the weight of censorship. (Not all of those titles are completely American productions, of course.) Garo magazine revolutionized manga and anime in the 70’s. Alternative comics and Adult Swim followed in the 80’s and 90’s.

So it’s a very exciting time to explore cartooning, which cannot at all be separated from earlier innovations by Japanese and European creators. I was excited to receive a copy of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy in the mail this week. It’s a beautiful book I’ve read before from the library, that I’m excited to re-read in the context of these later landmarks. Exploring this history is a counterpoint to the American exceptionalism that has stunted all forms of American culture. We’ve proven that exceptionalism is a recipe for disaster in health policy. Let’s not make the same mistake in our readings of pop culture.