My experiment with mainstream comics is over, for now, and I’m returning to my favorite category of graphics- the alternative comics. My tour through the mainstream publishers’ offerings- the superhero genre of DC and Marvel, and the sci-fi and action thriller books of creator-owned Image, was rewarding in some ways, and continued much longer than I anticipated. It will continue still- I just last week bought Volume 5 of the Saga series ( comic book chapters 24-30), which is still holding my interest as a space-borne pot boiler. So, though I encountered on the racks much darkly imagined, muddily hued dreck, done in the over-rendered house style, there were some very fresh things, too. I’m counting on my favorite comics blogs and infrequent visits to the store to keep me relatively updated.
Most of these mainstream experiments were influenced by the alternative auteurs like Chris Ware and Paul Pope and the cutting edge illustrators of Blab and NoBrow magazines or even by the superhero movies they originally spawned. The simplified, gestural art and minimalist, muted color schemes can certainly be attributed to the alternatives. Their most identifiable color scheme from the early 80’s was black and white, of course. But as publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly began to move to the euro-style album format, the artists experimented more often with monotone or duotone color schemes to get depth and mood without soaring production costs.
A good example of a mainstream superhero book that adopted this look as creative strategy is Hawkeye. That acclaimed book during its Matt Fraction-David Aja run combined Fraction’s zippy cinematic storytelling with Aja’s gritty urban sketches in moody purples and oranges. It helped enliven a moribund genre by melding the pacing, humor and gritty irony of movies with the muted colors, raw, punk/DIY aesthetic(“do it yourself”, a reference to the self-produced records and zines that kept Rock and Roll alive during the bland, AOR-dominated 70’s and 80’s), and bandes dessines’ inkpot-verite .
While the mainstreams were appropiating their look, however, alternative auteurs have not been sitting still. Marvel, DC and Image cherry-picked their visual style, colors and narrative experimentation. But alternatives have lately been experimenting in the form of the comics.
I’ll explore four publications from recent years here. Chris Ware, Building Stories, 2012; Richard McGuire, Here, 2014 ; Alvin Buenaventura and Sammy Harkham, editors, and company in Kramer’s Ergot number seven, 2008. And Dash Shaw in The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century, 2009. All of these projects push the form in more than stylistic ways, aided by the liberties that bookstore market and high end production they have pioneered provide. Some don’t even look like comics in the way that Hawkeye, which I chose to try in the traditional pamphlet form, does.
It’s conventional wisdom to say that book publishing is dying in the internet age. It’s certainly changing, but dying? Probably not for a while. One category that is actually expanding is graphics and comics, where digital forms are becoming more popular, but not eclipsing the sensual and user friendly appeal of the traditional bound book. Ricard McGuire’s Here differs from traditional comics in the sense that it is not the expected grid of panels in sequential time. Instead McGuire uses full page illustrations with inset panels to highlight different times within the same place, where over thousands of years past and future, people and their houses and personal dramas come and go.
This is a larger derivation of a black and white eight page cartoon first published in the innovative alternative comics mag Raw in 1986. Most of the action takes place in one room, furnished in different eras’ tastes and inhabited by various, mostly anonymous families. There is no attempt to connect these disparate fragmented narratives and thus the reader forms his own themes and narrative resolutions, if any.
The concept is elegant but ultimately abstract and emotionally unfulfilling. We wonder what happens to the man who has a heart attack over coffee with his friends. But like life itself, loose ends are not always tied up and a more coherent narrative might have been too pat and subverted the simple elegance of the concept. This is a quandary that McGuire never solves. The paintings are wonderful, though, and the concept, though more suited to the piece’s shorter, more schematic beginnings, dazzles.
Chris Ware, in Building Stories takes a similarly non linear approach to narrative. His solution is to publish a box- something tried in literature and poetry, but never to my knowledge with a single theme. In this case, Ware, like McGuire, chooses a single place, the eponymous building, as his subject. Around this conceptual framing device he presents many continuing stories in a variety of formats, all boxed up for browsing. There is a hard back graphic novel, a Golden Books style children’s book and even a bee newspaper. The building is sometimes allowed its own viewpoint, with brief bursts of sentient observation. One can enter the narrative from many different angles and attitudes.
Ware does connect his vignettes with a running cast of characters, primarily a woman whom he tracks from art school through her marriage and move to a tony section of Chicago. There is also the old woman who owns the building and a troubled couple upstairs. And Branford the Bee, a kind of every-bug, droning his way through life and trying to define his place in it. There’s no set beginning or end, and some of these segments become fugue-like: no words or dialogue, just silently repeated movements and camera angles, all contributing to an unsettledness, a sense of time passing without resolution of larger questions of life. But where McGuire’s narrative is too fragmented to create real emotional tension and his illustrations too limited in scope to provide perspective, Ware’s is drenched in irony and bathos. Even the bee provides a ground level view of the psychological dramas and perils even a single day on a single city block can hold.
For sampling a broad variety of new approaches to comics, Kramer’s Ergot is the go-to. It is to the recent era what the aforementioned Raw Magazine was to the 80’s, though most of the artists featured in this anthology are now coming from a fine art or cutting-edge illustration background rather than the underground punk DIY scene of Raw’s 80’s heyday.
The most obvious formal innovation here is actually a very old one- size. At 15×21″, Kramer’s Ergot #7 harkens to the birth of comics in America- the Sunday funnies published in turn of the century broadsheets. Raw published work in a large, 11×17″ format, and one of its founders, Francoise Mouly went on to showcasing comics artists in magazine illustration as art director of the New Yorker.
Then and now, these artists can be expected to try new media, subject, and writing forms.
But the artists who epitomized the vibrancy and creative élan of the funnies at their dawning- Windsor McCay, George Herriman, Cliff Sterrett- might be somewhat unimpressed by many of these efforts. In too many cases, these are simply standard pamphlet-style grids writ large, or worse, standard-sized panels stretched across one large page, rather than several standard-sized ones. Enjoyable enough, but one wishes for more of the sort of fanciful fairy tale panoramas of a Lionel Feininger, or the desert dreamscapes of Herriman. With notable exceptions, such as a two page spread by Ware, who has often worked in a large formats with a designed narrative scheme before, the artists seem not to have tried or had time to execute new forms. Harkham and Buenaventura should have demanded or allowed for more, but 50 intervening years of shrinking, narratively stunted comics may be more than one year’s anthology can overcome.
Dash Shaw hews closest of all these auteurs to a familiar GN format, though his book is actually a splicing together of unpublished comics with storyboards for an animated movie, a formal cousin to comics. Shaw’s comics push the boundaries of illustrated graphics though, by divorcing his raw brushwork from his unaligned colors and by balancing his paranoid psychedelic sci fi story lines with his self contained, sometimes credulous characters. Thus we get a mix of the imposed innocence and directness of Golden Age comics with the creepy distopianism of a David Lynch. At first glance, Shaw’s work seems crude and slapdash but it sticks with you in a vaguely disturbing way.
Comics have just begun to enter a new renaissance, inspired by more creator-friendly publishing (all of these artists hold copyright to their work; the innovators of the past I mentioned did not), access to a broader and more literary and artistic audience through the traditional bookseller market, and more critical attention- the New York Times has both published, and reviewed, Ware, for example. There’s little doubt there will be more experimentation forthcoming.
Reading List: The Young Romantics, Daisy Hay: Group bio of England’s Late Romantic poets; their radical lifestyles, chaotic relationships and influential writings at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Impossible to put down for the account of their unwitting invention of, and simultaneous challenge to, the myth of the artist as romantic genius that still haunts us. They may be precursors to the pop culture stars of today. I’ll return to this one when I’ve finished it, I’m sure.
The Wasteland and Other Writings, T.S. Eliot: I blitzed through this modernist milestone in college English courses and needed to revisit it, but was also drawn to Eliot’s ‘other writings’, including critical essays on poets such as Blake. Apparently I’m on a English Romantic/American Romantic/Early Modernist poetry binge, which often happens when working my bookstore temp job.
Break, Blow Burn, Camille Paglia: “Libertarian feminist” bad girl and Post Structuralist/academic feminism’s bete noir, Paglia is a fresh, if pugnacious voice in Romantic/Early Modernist era writing, and plays it uncharacteristically straight here, sticking to close readings of poems from throughout history, a sort of mini-anthology. After making room on my shelves for my college-age Norton Anthology of English and American poetry through numerous moves, I finally relinquished it after moving to my present, small apartment, in the name of uncluttered living. Mostly, this is a good thing, but I really regret that decision.