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Words and Pictures

I try to communicate just what it is about comics that has carried my interest across decades, from my years as a thrilled kid and enthralled teen to my dotage as a book blurb blogger. I have never stopped searching for the thrill that only the synthesis of words and pictures can provide, and the search has taken me around the world, metaphorically, anyway.

It’s ironic to me that my personal experience of comics syncs pretty exactly with their heavy handed censorship. The cultural ghettoization of comics as a children’s medium ( some add insult by ignorantly calling it a ‘genre’) is part of a larger prejudice against communicating with pictures. This is an aspect of America’s puritan/fascist underpinnings. A capitalist/anti-art strain in the country’s cultural life has also contributed. Comic books emerged from pulp publishing in the 30’s, and any artistic or auteurist concerns left over from their newspaper strip cousins, only got in the way of raking in profit. Their popularity brought them under suspicion. (Comic) book burnings were a feature of the censorship crusade in the decade I was born, and it has never really disappeared, as the recent upsurge in library censorship, often targeting the popular graphic novels of the burgeoning Young Adult category, shows.

The still all-too-common assertion that getting one’s content from a medium that privileges art as much as words somehow warps literacy is idiotic and offensive to basic intelligence. It’s the inherent power and creativity of the medium that the censors fear. For one thing, it’s a straw man argument, meant to obscure the censors’ attacks on basic intelligence, which in YA reading, often includes learning about homosexuality, transgender issues, and other cultural differences.

For another, it denies kids- and adults their best opportunity to learn visual intelligence, the poetics of seeing, the almost magical synthesis of right and left brain, an act that is a formative exercise for creative genius. Americans, exceptionalists on both the left and the right, have traditionally undervalued the learning of other languages, and the language of cartoon art is as ‘other’ as they come. Chief censor Frederick Wortham of the 50’s comic book hysteria, for example, was actually a liberal psychologist who lent his voice to the preposterous fascist theory that comics lead to juvenile delinquency.

The prejudice has been persistent, not least in progressive academic circles, which is why comics such as Tillie Walden’s exquisite On A Sunbeam, which is often shelved in the YA section and which deals with, among other things, a coming of age lesbian romance, are so vulnerable to the howling mobs that seek to cripple our libraries. There are few to defend this vibrant art form.

On A Sunbeam is in a broader sense, sci fi. Its characters travel the universe, restoring architectural gems on other planets. Comics grew out of genre (pulp) fiction, though comics themselves are obviously a medium, encompassing many genres, such as sci fi, horror, autobiographical, and of course, superheroes. People who ignorantly or sometimes, deliberately, call comics a genre are doing it to demean the medium, which makes it easier to repress. They’ve always feared comics’ popularity with kids and immigrants, and they fear art.

Part of the thrill of comics is the ability to linger over the art -as long as you want; you’re the director- and to decide for yourself the importance of the art, and how it relates to the words. In the case of the often censored On A Sunbeam, the pictures are of exquisitely detailed, exotic architecture, the artistic passions of ancient alien cultures, which mirror the alien passions of the young women protagonists. Here’s my original review. I’m due for a re-read, and I’m sure I’ll have further thoughts then. By the way, Walden gets shelved in the YA section for her obvious affinity with young women, but there is nothing about her books that would disappoint an adult reader. The synthesis of futuristic sci fi genre with universal themes of love and belonging, along with the echos of the past architecture make for a lovely read.

In the meantime, here is a side by side comparison of two action thrillers I recently read. I like reading genre in comics, because it actually frees up time for literary pursuits in prose. Genre is wide open to various interpretations, and it was a more adult treatment of genre that launched alternative comics in Japan and Europe, before the mercenaries who controlled publishing in the United States dreamed of the possibilities.

Olympia, Vives, Ruppert and Mulot: This may be more audacious than Le Grande Odalisque, where these vibrant characters, 3 women who steal art masterpieces, were introduced. This time, Manet is the target. Not ones to panic when things go wrong, the appeal is in how they triumph over their failures, which include excess partying, overconfidence, violent escapes, and a professional killer who is assigned to oversee a spectacular theft, then eliminate them. Not to mention that one is 9 months pregnant.

There is a nice interplay between the casual attitude of the women as they case their targets, and the action of the actual capers, where the sense of danger is visceral. An essential of this type of thriller is a comfort level with violence and death, and these thieves are as cool as it comes, yet loving and concerned for each other. It’s a good formula, and one would expect to see more of these, as they seem cinema-ready.

In comics, the panel and the page layout are the camera eye. The ink work and colors provide the cinematography. In Olympia, it all seems so offhand. Spacious, uncluttered panels, favoring medium distance shots. Loose pen lines, as sensual as a lace dress, and soft aqueous colors. Euro comics have always benefitted from generous formats, from their album length page counts to their airy page sizes ( 9×12″), and this is a beautiful comic.

Its sophistication and wit override its relatively preposterous plot, and like all good thrillers, your identification with its engaging characters makes it impossible to forget.

Black Widow, Thompson, Casagrande, Bellaire: Like many mainstream American comics lately, this is a screen play wannabe, using cinematic tropes to grab the same fans that never miss a Marvel movie. There is, however, the simple fact that a good screenplay is a good screenplay, and this is one of the recent best. It follows in the same spirit as the slightly under the radar Black Widow movie, which mixed physics-defying action and pyrotechnics to make a surprising point about families: they don’t require blood relations to form strong bonds and provide emotional support.

Its author, Kelly Thompson, made a hash of her run on Jessica Jones with an over reliance on super hero tropes. She does the same thing here, and knocks the thing out of the ballpark. Go figure. I won’t try to analyze whether she’s learned her craft, or if Jessica Jones was just the wrong character for her formula.

With all its action thriller trappings, the underlying conflict here is the eye-rollingly hackneyed script of super villains teaming up to exact revenge on a super hero, seen every Wednesday on new comics day at your local geek infested comics shoppe since before Ditko’s Spider-Man. If you don’t ( or refuse to ) like Marvel movies, then you probably won’t like this. The far more subtle and whimsical characterizations of Olympia ( above ) may be your best bet. But this is certainly as punchy and well paced as any movie, and with comics, you get to slow the plot down to your own pace if you feel like lingering.

For someone who has no family, Black Widow sure has been forming them a lot. In the comics, she is an orphan, abducted as a child and trained in deadly arts in Soviet Russia to be a spy/hit girl. This made for an unapproachable character, who struggled to sustain sales in many various titles.

The movie solved this shortcoming by re-writing her back story to create a ‘family’ around her. In this book, she again forms her own family on her own Island of Misfit Superheroes, in the process tapping into other 2nd tier Marvel characters and thus, into some of their strongest recent storylines.

This is nothing new. The MCU has only succeeded so well because Marvel has, in the last decade and indeed, since the beginning, been unerringly on message- every writer, editor and character. This allows them to get max value from second- and third-tier characters, which aren’t so dialed into the overall mythology that they can’t be given to innovative new artists and writers for a bit of retcon. In this process, we get to drill down into the characters, and Marvel, whose first superhero hit, in 1961, was about a near dysfunctional, yet tight knit and indomitable family ( pull out your copies of Fantastic Four #1, and turn to page one ), turns out to be often all about family.

Stan Lee, who has his detractors in the comics sub culture, got his position at the publishing company that would become Marvel Comics from his wife’s cousin. Make of that what you will. But as much as Lee’s bombast and self promotion made him a pop culture demi god, his humanizing influence made for epically memorable characters. Here, it saves the story from the over-the-top superhero tropes that clog most American mainstream comics.

Clean, excellent art, snappy dialog, a fast paced story with killer action scenes does not hurt, of course. The standard, and relatively cramped 7×10″ format is well served by simple, imaginative breakdowns. But let’s talk about the colors, or rather the colorist. I’ve mentioned this before -It’s the Bellaire Rule: If I see a comic book with Jordie Bellaire’s name on the cover, I buy it. Yes, it would be unusual to buy a comic based solely on who does the colors, but Bellaire is the top color artist in comics, and presumably, has the clout to pick up only the projects she really likes to do, and it turns out she has excellent taste in comics. Pretty Deadly, Zero, Hawkeye, are all groundbreaking comics that benefitted from her colors.

Two very different approaches to the comic book thriller: the breathless, soft focus emotional terror of Olympia, and the snarky buddy movie patter and concise jump cuts of Widow. Like all thrillers these days, they are somewhat over the top, but they provide engaging characters and tense action nonetheless. Taken together, a short course in why comics are very definitely in a golden age right now. Comics are not a genre; they are a camera eye into all the things genre can be.

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The Resties

Each year end, to join in the fun of year end book lists, but also to sort of process what I’ve read, I put out a favorites list I call Besties. It’s actually two lists; one features recent or recently discovered books, with a Bestiest as top title; and the second dwells mostly on collections or reprints of past comics or comics critique or history.

You can read my favorite graphic novels and new work here; this is Part 2.

Penguin Classics: The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee and Ditko: Penguin announced that it was adding Marvel Comics (who they now distribute) to their well respected Classics line, and I’m sure the cultural guardians had heart attacks. But they are a first real examination of what made the Marvel revolution so important. This is early work, in the scheming jewel thieves era, before the fate of the universe hinged on every month’s pamphlet.

But the step up from the formulaic and very Freudian hack work of the 50s comics is clear. Peter Parker worries about money and family and romance, yet obviously enjoys the emotional release his adventures bring him. There are essays exploring the genesis of the title, and tensions between creators Stan Lee, a liberal humanist glad hander who breathed life into the characters and their fans, and Steve Ditko, a brooding, Randian Objectivist who liked his good and evil, if not his 4-color comics, in stark black and white. In a pop cultural sense, these precursors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe do qualify as classics. They exemplify a fairly simplistic society’s struggles for the hearts and minds of its children; as well as the creators’ struggle to prove it wasn’t a children’s medium to begin with.

Tom Strong Deluxe Edition 2, Alan Moore: Moore’s very intriguing Oughties attempt to rescue genre comics from infantility and the dustbin of history. Tom Strong is a Doc Savage type, brainy and muscular. He lives in a retro futurist Steam Punk version of our own world, and encounters monsters, Nazis and lost civilizations. So far, so Harlan Ellisonian.

Moore however, never misses a chance to satirize, lampoon or offer homage to well established pulp fiction tropes. This he accomplishes brilliantly with a team of illustrators skilled at mimicking earlier styles such as EC, Funny Animal and western comics and pulps. The plots are clever and intriguing on their own terms, but Moore’s love of meta-fictional context adds extra interest. He’s left comics now, disillusioned but unique in the canon.

Give My Regards to the Atom Smashers, Sean Howe: An early attempt to recruit top writers to define what childhood comics mean, this time read mostly for 60s Marvels, though there are explorations of European clear line, alternatives and classic newspaper strips. These are mostly childhood memories from established writers such as Lethem and Marcus and as such, not critical analysis, but impressions of what comics and storytelling mean. These are clearly the children Stan Lee was targeting when he flipped superheroes on their ears.

Strips, Tunes, and Bluesies, D.B.Dowd, Todd Hignite: Comics criticism comes piecemeal. There is no Harold Bloom to put their long history in perspective ( so far ). If this collection of essays on various topics has the feel of cleaning out the drawers, it may very well be, I didn’t see the exhibits they were companions to.

However, most are very readable and often, very necessary. A speculation on comics’ and animation’s mutual influence is thinly supported but intriguing, another that adds Tijuana Bibles to the historic lineage of underground comics feels incomplete ( why not 50’s fetish comics? ). But a survey of black imagery in comics is groundbreaking ( though it, too, could stand to lengthened). A timeline linking the histories of comics, graphic arts and printing technologies is very welcome.

The Bestiest of the Resties:

Why Comics? Hilary Chute: And why not? Chute explores comics, especially 80’s comics, a marginalized medium, in terms of marginalized people. This is an underreported aspect of comics: they give voice to groups that are often frozen out from more capital-intensive mediums such as TV and Movies, and are a huge part of popular history. As they always have been: early newspaper strips helped translate ethnic humor into mainstream entertainment.

Recently Aline Kaminsky-Crumb died. She was a good example of a feminist auteur who would have never been given opportunity in more mainstream media, but who had a huge creative impact in the ignored medium of comics. Alison Bechdel, who popularized the ‘Bechdel Rule’ about female representation in movies, would never have found a public voice without comics. Chute discusses theirs, and others’ importance in simple, never didactic terms within chapters dedicated to various themes: Sex, Queers, Cities, Superheroes, etc. 

This enables a far-ranging discussion on the potentials of the medium, with getting bogged down in the need to explain comics histories or pay tribute to genres. The book moves smartly, and the illustrations are very cogent. Lee and Kirby, the stars of Penguin Marvel Classics, are mentioned in passing, and creators’ reactions to comic books’ long history of caped demigods, such as Moore’s ground breaking Watchmen, give us a real sense of how far the medium has come since Spider-Man first swung.

Next week, I’ll post an update on my Winter/Spring class offerings, and I’ll later this Spring have news on studio doings and MoPrint ’24.

#besties #comics #graphicnovels #Marvel

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It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Besties

Besties, if you’ve been living in a MAGA echo chamber, are my breathlessly anticipated yearly list of best comics. Or, as Marvel called their comics for a brief moment during the Stan Lee fever dream of superhero magic that jump started the Marvel Cinematic Universe many decades ago when bell bottoms were wide, and colors 4-, and garish: “Pop Art Productions”.

The Marvel Bullpen bombast of the previous graph being highly apropos. For me, it was a year when there was allowance money to spend, and time to fill with the end of my part time job, and the relentless persistence of covid. So the early Marvels are a recurring theme. Specifically, the Marvels predating my youthful discovery of Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Romita’s Spider-Man, when I was still quite beguiled by Barks’ Donald Duck and Stanley’s Little Lulu. A testament to my superior taste in four color graphic fiction even then ( we won’t mention the reams of Harvey and Archie dreck I ingested then, or the forgettable Classics Comics my parents brought home for us in the probably unnecessary project of steering us toward ‘real’ books).

Filling in the gaps of comics history was overall, a sort of a theme this year, whether it be the constrained glories of Silver Age mainstream DCs and Marvels newly enshrined by Penguin Classics, the newly published innovations of Garo magazine mangas, or the burgeoning critical literature surrounding comics new and old. I did read several newer creations as well, but as the year ended, I was immersed retrospectively in Europe’s “Clear Line” revival of the 80’s.

All our lives, we’ve been steered away from an entire unique medium ( not a ‘genre’, unless you want to sound like a moron ) by well-intentioned parents or self-appointed moral guardians. What were they afraid of? As if the presence of Benday dots, newsprint, and hack writers imposed by rapacious publishers was proof that the ancient and elemental creative combo of words and pictures were harmful to curious readers. Even when the DCs and Marvels started to leave me wanting more, I somehow found the more ambitious Euros and DIY indies that could satisfy my fascination with comics. And this year, apparently, I needed to know why.

As always, there are two loose categories: newly created, or sometimes, newly discovered productions ( The Besties); and older collections, reprints and critical surveys (The Resties). For ease of reading, I’ve separated the two into two separate posts.

Besties

Alone In Space, Tillie Walden: A newly published collection of early work, new to me. Contains End Of Summer, exquisite long story/novella that anticipates her sublime On A Sunbeam, and is beautiful in its own right.

These are subtle hybrids; existential teen dramas and grand space operas where the emotional distances and drifting allegiances of adolescence are stretched across the void. Her ink work is architectural, using empty space, rather than obsessive detail to focus us on important moments in time. This does not mean, however, that there is not richly rendered illustration, often, of architecture.

I wonder how many adults miss her exquisite books because they are routinely shelved in the Young Adult section? Not that the MAGA thugs haven’t worked diligently to keep her in the public eye (Oh no! Lesbians!) Oh- to be a teen again and come across these magical things in the library.

Are You Even Listening? Walden: Down to Earth coming-of-age road story with magical realist elements that perhaps suffers in comparison to her others, but is certainly strong. Included here because it demonstrates the broad range of this important young creator.

Crickets #7, 8, Sammy Harkham: Conclusion to the epic Blood of the Virgin tale of ‘C’ grade movie making in 70’s LA. Without going back and rereading the whole arc in one go yet, I’m not sure I place it higher than his fabulist Poor Sailor arc, but it’s unique and rich in characterization.

Saga V. 10, Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Back from a 3-year hiatus and following a dramatic conclusion to V. 9, it was hotly anticipated and possibly that’s a set-up for some transitional hiccups. It’s clear that the narrative driver is shifting from Alanna to her hunted, interracial ( interspecies?) child Hazel, which might occasion some writerly uncertainty or slowing. New elements (Rock and Roll!) are introduced, but some of the complications we’ve visited before (drugs). And episodic comics, with their almost obligatory end-of-chapter reveal, are hard to sustain ( So no, not sex).

But it only begs the question of the emotional impact of V.9’s concluding death (no spoilers) which is glossed over with the story skipping ahead a couple of years. And this detracts a bit from the story’s real treasure: how love trumps war.

Yeah, Saga‘s never gonna not be on the Besties. Staples’ art is still eye-popping and twists and turns are everywhere. With 8 chapters to go, there’s time to regain the propulsive energy of the earlier segments, at least until they start billing it as ‘Pop Art’.

Red Flowers, Yoshiharu Tsuge: In casting about, in the late 70’s and early 80’s for a truly artistic use of this amazing medium after an adolescence of superhero fantasy, I first discovered the title story of this newly published collection of pioneering 60’s manga as a pull out supplement to an early issue of Raw Magazine. It stuck with me, but not enough to include the vast amounts of dystopian Sci-Fi mangas of the 80’s in my limited budget. This is far more down to Earth.

It took the discovery of Garo Magazine’s innovative mangaka of the 60’s, untranslated into English until very recently, to get me hooked. Hayashi, Sugiera, Matsumoto and now finally Tsuge’s pioneering alt comics, influenced by Pop Art, Poetry, French New Wave films and Japanese folklore are now being translated and seeing the light. These quiet, delicate semi autobiographical shorts of sometimes humorous, sometimes troubled characters in the Japanese countryside are lent context by the estimable Ryan Holmberg, scholar of Japanese pop culture.

And the Bestiest:

The Bloody Streets of Paris, Jacques Tardi: I did not see this one coming. I ran across it in the cluttered warrens of Westside books, where one is required to dig for one’s treasures. A 1996 adaptation of a Leo Malet noir, with a twist: it takes place in Vichy France.

I’d read Tardi before, part of the Clear Line revivalists I’d also encountered with other Euro cartoonists in the 80’s Heavy Metal mag ( also, Raw). And Fantagraphics translated another Malet adaptation of his, Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, mid-decade (also worth a read, though seemingly set later, in the 50s). Tardi, with his dense, fluid, eccentric take on Clear Line, the French/Belgian/Dutch revival of Herge’s Tintin style, brought to Malet’s mysteries a real feel for hard boiled genre fiction. He seems to have adapted several, but whether they’ve all been translated is unclear to me.

I haven’t read Malet. He has apparently been translated, but they are hard to find, and very pricy when available ( $289 for a mass market PB!), according to a quick Google search. My noir murder thriller phase passed long ago. I can’t judge his novel from this adaptation, but I can point out that this story is really kind of a set piece, with its grasping, small time bureaucrats and quotidian Vichy corruptions ( oh, and cigarettes! Has anyone written a history of cigarettes in literature?) Like most genre, chance can be relied on to supply narrative motion when logic becomes lazy, and coincidences abound. Almost everyone who appears plays a role in the mystery, and a wildly improbable gathering of all of them in one room feels inevitable. And funny.

This book is rich with obsession and characters who are drunk with it, and its Vichy setting and complex schemes along with its Bogart-like protagonist, Nestor Burma, put it squarely in league with classics such as Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, though it inhabits its own world without a hint of pandering or poseur-ing. The climactic scene, though, is as cliche as any in the noir tradition can be, and is hilarious for that, relieving the heaviness of what Tardi makes the book’s central metaphor: black ink as blood. A metaphor, I might add, that can only be executed in comics.

One follows Nestor Burma around the city streets under grey skies as he follows the black trails of wet pavement beneath a thin dusting of snow. The whites are parsed out like the skimpy nuggets of facts Burma allows us, and the police: pale faces, dustings of morning snow (never pretty, Christmas Eve-style mounds, always thin and contingent with the blacks bleeding through), and in every panel, between sardonic lips and grasping fingers, the cigarettes.

And that brings up the reasons for adapting a tale like this to comics, and what is gained. How Malet might’ve traced those black trails in the Paris streets, or did he at all? The fleshy, corrupt faces, the effervescing matches, the dwindling butt ends. Tardi aspires to the visual alchemy of Huston’s Maltese Falcon, which Crowther of the New York Times called “a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos”. He has blended the agreeable clear line of Herge’s Tintin, the rich spot blacks of Terry and the Pirates‘ Milton Caniff, and the patient eye of Huston, including a 7-minute single take while Bogie, slowly losing consciousness, talks with Greenstreet, into an intoxicating, spiked drink. This was Huston’s first film. Coincidentally, his last, The Dead, similarly lingers on snow to express the fragility of emotional connection. Tardi is in very good company with his inks and paper.

Film is a visual time art, with Huston it’s poetry in motion, with the director in complete control. Comics are also a time art, also visual, but it is we the reader who control the motion and the poetry. Tardi knows this- his Paris street scenes could be picturesque documentary sketches of a city during a bleak winter of occupation, but the black inky trails invite us to be mindful of the corruption and violence that bleeds through human nature like ink through tissue. The process, the slow graceful creep and melt, the blotchy palimpsest of the Paris street- Tardi understands the interaction of white with black, and in this way, he has made something as poetic as Huston, as it is entirely of its genre, not dependent of any source except our fears and imaginings.

Genre is a word that critics often (and ignorantly) apply as an insult to comics (spoiler: it’s a medium, not a genre). But like many artists from Huston on, Tardi sees genre -and ink on blank paper- as liberating and revealing, rather than confining.

The translators made a clumsy choice of a title, seizing on Tardi’s metaphor as a cover for the grisly crime of disposing of Leo Malet’s original one, 120 Rue de la Gare, an homage to Poe, who is invoked several times in the story. If every positive review must contain a negative, there it is. Everything else is pitch-perfect. The only times the story drags is when the reader deliberately slows to take in the Paris and Lyons street scenes and interiors.

Tardi makes Malet’s Nestor Burma his own, and demonstrates the power of the comics medium as an interpreter of literary art.

Next week: The Resties.

#comics #bestof2022 #booklists #bestcomics

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Books, Comics, Music Monotypes

A Library of Ideas

“Library of Babel”, Monotype, 42×30, 2022. Inspired by a Borges short story.

Library of Babel is a Jorge Luis Borges short fiction that clearly inspired the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s a delightful story, and the themes of infinity and mathematical abstraction appealed to me at a time when I was beginning a cycle of work so I put it to the test as subject matter.

I’ve mentioned that I have a process that involves working up ideas from small sketches to larger, ‘finished’ works. Each size level may yield satisfying results, however, so I’ll post a condensed history.

“Library”, Monotype, 12×9″, 2022. Ghost of a larger study

This is a ghost detail from a preliminary print. When I refer to a “study”, it can function as a finished monotype, but it alludes to a larger monotype I have in mind. Thus, there may be several versions, and this is an example.

“Library of Babel” Monotype, 21×15″ 2022. It actually came before the smaller study, as indicated by the first impression of the top inset circle image.

This is a larger monotype from the same “thread”, though it does include the exact source of the top inset circle. So it The threads can often intersect partially in the form of ghost images to which I add new imagery. I don’t religiously document these various stages, so I can’t always describe the order of their making. As you can see, it is a related but slightly different image, which includes my interpretation of the hexagonal imagery in the original story. The leaf imagery relates to the idea of replication, the letter imagery to the book themes in Library, and other abstract imagery such as the dot/branch motif; and the threads, to the rhythms of Borges’ narrative. The colors I’ve flippantly referred to as my “Summer of Love” theme, bright combos of secondaries and primaries.

It led to the one I began the post with. Brighter colors, more letters and hexagons, a larger stack of tables; and the addition of the star/asterisk motif with connecting threads. Asterisks are sometimes referred to as stars, asterisks signify: additional info available. So I felt they fit thematically. The question of when to stop layering additional imagery is always a prickly one; I chose to simplify, partially because of the technical challenges of working so large, and partially because some ideas lend them selves to white space.

The entire sequence taking something like 3-4 months, with possibly 6-7 studio sessions. I’m happy with it, and thus have moved on to other images and themes. And I owe it all to Borges, with his rich imagery, thought provoking themes and the overall wit of his invention. As I’ve noted, Borges is great to pick up sporadically, not just for inspiration, but for the sheer pleasure of his intriguing imagination.

Current info and links about my classes: https://www.joehigginsmonotypes.com/monotype-workshops/

#monotypes #wip #borges

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Whereas:

Whereas: I’m having a good Summer, drinking coffee and reading in the cool mornings, and when the afternoons get blazing hot, I simply pour a gin and tonic or a white wine and sit under the ceiling fan, reading any number of various diverse books that have piled up, until it cools enough to venture back into the living room and watch TV, and

Whereas: Whether from a pandemic defense mechanism of shopping online for books, or from nice long walks around the city that always seem to end in a bookstore, resulting in any number of various diverse books that have piled up, and

Whereas: I’ve purged number of previous and similarly various and diverse books to make room for the new books, which is necessitated by my limited shelf space, but which I also suspect to be a sort of finicky churn rather than the brilliant, incisive “curation” I flatter myself to be my overarching goal in collecting various diverse titles, and

Whereas: I’m nibbling away at these diverse piles (see what I did there- having implied an amorphous, single pile in previous ‘whereases’, I’ve now sneakily revealed the existence of several piles, the rhetorical diversity of my scene-setting having now expanded from individual titles to various placements around my small apartment, and

Whereas: I don’t mean to imply by this ( the previous ‘whereas:’) that I am awash in teetering piles of books like some sort of doddering, reclusive hoarder. To be clear: the bookses are in their proper places on a shelf or a side table, not encroaching on floor space or seating; I can see the TV, and out the window; I can find my keys. And

Whereas: I think I owe you people [and by ‘people’, I do in fact realize that I’m probably a couple of ‘whereases’ past the point where anyone but me is still reading this] a close parentheses), and

Whereas: I also never really finished the ‘whereas’ a couple of whereases ago, in the fever dream of my parenthetical diversion; and meant to point out that despite spending entire mornings reading many of the various and diverse titles I have not, as of yet finished a single one, a pathetic failure of focus which I document in great detail (oh, good!) here, and

Whereas: I heretofore, forsooth, have probably had enough fun with compound Anglo-Saxonisms for the day and should probably get to the ‘Hereby’ part, a call to action of sorts-really, a call to inaction, when the gin and tonic and the couch are factored in- in which I would like to actually finish a book, I

Hereby: Do declare August to be “The Month of Finishing a Book”, any book, even if it is only:

Bluets, Maggie Nelson: a marvelous little volume of sequential thought events, mini-essays connected by rich allusion and intra-textual poesy, epiphanic nuggets of shame and regret built around a single thematic hue. It’s the kind of book that, in reading it on a very non-July-like cool morning in the shade by the lake, causes one to pause and stare off toward the mist and mountains, lost in pleasant digression that probably has the joggers wondering: what the hell is that doddering fool doing sitting there, staring into space? To which, I reply, to myself: ‘Where are these young fools running to? Or ‘from?’, a dear friend added, one night over the phone.

Bluets is simple enough, and yet rich enough, to merit a second read. But that’s a different Whereas.

Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd: I’d put it down because I was about to read about the Wars of the Roses for about the 3rd or 4th time, and the fear was, I’d go through all of the English hyper violence for a 4th time, and yet still not be able to summarize the Wars of the Roses. Bingo! But it’s not Ackroyd’s fault. He condenses the narrative nicely enough, and provides lots of cultural perspective, though not enough to explain the constant chopping up of people. I’ll pick up the second volume dealing with the Tudors and the Stuarts next. Not to mention the Puritans- more hyper violence.

That leaves several unfinished books from last month, a task I’ve complicated by… buying more books. There was a stretch of pleasant days in August, and after doing my best to patronize small online booksellers during the pandemic, the idea of getting out and spending in local brick-and-mortars appealed. I found:

Why Comics? From Underground To Everywhere, Hillary Chute: a very engaging and fresh look at the Alt Comics renaissance of the 80s, 90s and Oughties that I found at Kilgore, who have a separate small section for comics criticism and history, which is burgeoning. The question becomes, do these now regular books by big publishing houses just tick a box, or are they original scholarship? This one is.

New Essays On The Crying of Lot 49, Patrick O’Donnell, editor: The last of the early Pynchon novels I haven’t yet re-read, I found this 1990 gem at Westside Books, North Denver’s trippingly abundant shop, on a too high shelf behind a short overstuffed shelf unit, next to a chair piled teeteringly with un-shelved books. Finding stuff is a whole afternoon’s project here, but find it, I did. It has an essay comparing Pynchon with Borges, and was never NOT going home with me.

The Amazing Spider-man, by Lee! and Ditko!: RepubliQans who think nothing of storming the Capitol are undoubtedly clutching the pearls That Penguin Classics now has a Marvel Collection. Overstuffed, but not stuffy, Westside had this new. There are essays, cultural context, and the comics themselves, an odd and utterly compelling blend of Lee’s Liberal hucksterism, and Ditko’s incipient Rand-ian Libertarianism. These pre-date my discovery of what Lee called “The Marvel Revolution”, and are fascinating to me. They are the roots of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there had been nothing like them before.

None of which advances the prospect of actually finishing the other books. But I’ve got all Fall for that, and fulfilled the proclamation, so ‘Theresthat’, withal. Howbeit.

#Reading Edge #Bookstores #Summer Reading

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Uncategorized

Postponed Bliss

There’s a rhythm to this blog thing. Twice a week studio schedule means there will be projects to talk about, but they will naturally involve writing incessantly about me.

Nick Hornby-style book blurbs provide topical diversity, and a never depleting pile of subjects to write about. But there’s a catch: One has to finish the books in the pile. An unanticipated obstacle to finishing lots of books, then firing off witty blurbs about them, leaving aside the always tricky question of where the wit is to come from, is not finishing a lot of them. It’s not indolence, boredom born of crap books. I just like them too much.

My living room pile is as fulsome and alluring and edifying as it’s ever been. From printmaking to Shakespeare to Maggie Nelsen, it’s a cornucopia of choice and aspiration. My bed room pile, typically about indulgence and dreamy flights of fantasy with comics and soccer, history and literary essays, is a bower of unrestrained geekdom. An Emily Dickinson bio floats between both.

Half of them, with pride of place in the theoretically public pile in the LR, are half done. The rest, trapped in my BR torture chamber, are being nibbled to death. My mentor, Nick Hornby from the Believer’s Polysyllabic Spree column, is very decisive about the books he lists in his blurbs: he either loves them, and finishes them and their entertaining blurbs by deadline; or he decides ‘they’re not for me’. I’ve spurned books, yes, but mostly I’m good at choosing ones I’ll like. And don’t finish, fickle, besotted page-flipper. And I can’t write a post about books I haven’t finished, can I?

Books I Haven’t Finished

Part of it is, I have more time. Cool mornings without time clock deadlines, afternoons to browse bookstores and the Gonzalez branch library, or obscure web sites specializing in rarified exegeses. I like to think of them as rare treats, to be savored. So I save them for later, then pick up another intoxicating tome.

Also, I’m a general reader. And publishers and writers have our number now. From breezy, conversational sentences, thick with implication, to perfectly sized chapters or sections timed unerringly to a cup of coffee or glass of wine, it’s like they’ve read ME (are they reading this blog? They’d be the only ones). I can plow grumblingly through something addressed to academics, thinking, it’s good for me, then trundle it back to the library-off you go! But whisper sweet, declarative nothings in a soothing authorial voice, and it’s like you become a part of the furniture.

Why I haven’t Finished Them

Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd: I’ve been reading English History for years, heaven help me. On the one hand, it’s very seductive, the endless and obscure royal successions, and the incestuous relations with France, both literal and geographical/cultural. And while the genre has long understood that its audience is far larger than academia, the endless detail of ducal ambition and the twists and turns of fortunes in the shires often leads to an unhealthy fascination with the venal schemes of aristocracy, which defeats engaging narration.

Ackroyd keeps it pacy and readable by gliding lightly over the interminable venality of the upper crust, and stopping to dig deep into the lives in the lanes. There is not a lot of documentation about lower class lives, to be fair. But he’s hit on a way to make medieval history engaging- make it at least partly about us working stiffs. And he’s written a series of English histories, divided into eras, so there’s no reason to set this one aside.

Why I Set This One Aside

The English are continually chopping people up. Or sticking hot pokers up one another’s asses. It’s pleasant to take a break from that. Also, I’d finished the Saxons and Plantagenets, and had reached the Wars of the Roses ( Lancasters and Yorks), about which I’ve read extensively, so the time was right to take a break. I am very excited to get Ackroyd’s refreshing perspective on that, so I will be returning, however.

My Wars Are Laid Away In Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, Alfred Habegger: This poet is emblematic of my struggles with academic writing. A few years back, I drifted into the deep end with a book by Cynthia Griffin Wolf about Dickinson, replete with lots of close reading and oblique psychological interpretation. All (interesting) books address other books, to a certain extent, and it’s natural for an academic to pose innovative theories addressing the complex motivations of artists.

But Dickinson’s obscure life and homespun phrasing, ambiguous syntax and backyard infinities cry out for a commonsense guide for a general reader. I’m hoping this is it. It’s certainly effortless reading, and the amount of detail seems right. Unlike Wolf, the close reading has mostly been reserved for the years she actually wrote the poems, and Habegger has been critical of writers, notably Wolf, who read too much into poems written decades after formative years.

Why I Laid This One Away

I’d reached the very formative Mount Holyoke Academy years of her early adulthood, just prior to the beginning of her writing years, and I want to give it full attention. Some of the books go back to the library, or have just arrived in the door, bright and shiny, and this was always a book meant to brighten the Fall and Winter gloom or the quiet Summer late nights with a soft glow.

This is preciousness, I get that. I shouldn’t be precious in the studio, in conversation, or even in largely ignored blog posts ( especially in largely ignored blogs?). But books- I’mma go ahead and let myself be precious.

Dickinson, Apple TV: Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way at the get go: DO NOT let your children write their class essays based on this layered cocktail of magic realism, indie/hip hop music video, and Buzzfeed lifestyle porn, dressed up in designer calico. Our educational system is not set up to see the humor in this, and they will flunk. But this odd show is surprisingly sensitive to the issues surrounding ED’s most un-hip hop puritanical world, and that, in a way is very appropriate to Dickinson’s legacy. Once resigned to rustic nature writing, then elevated to late Romantic repressed striver, and now subject to all manner of academic fabulations, including Camille Paglia’s anti-academic Amherst’s Madame De Sade. So the boob tube is not the first to use a cypher who stayed in her room and wrote on scraps of paper as dress up doll. Sweet, mousy Emily as feminist, lesbian, dominatrix, and now, woke party girl. Don’t touch that dial!

Why I Touched That Dial

I watch a couple of episodes, then I return to the book. It’s like going back to class after a spring break acid trip. Because who really is to say what belongs in the syllabus? ED, on ‘poetic feet’ of unassigned, syntaxqueer phrasings, dead-legging her way, dashes dashing, through a dime package of academic ‘line packers’ and into the open field. Hoo-Rah! People say poetry is boring.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom: First, here’s more advice. DO NOT go into blogging if you want to appear smart. As in the famous aphorism, it is a perfect way to ‘remove all doubt’. Harold Bloom is actually one of the more general-reader-friendly academics. This book posits a thesis, indicated clearly in the subtitle and intro, that is provocative and interesting. Then develops it as a chronological survey of all of the Bard’s plays. It seems superficial to read it without going back to at least some of the actual source material, and my plan was to start with some of the plays I’d never actually seen. Taming of the Shrew amazingly being one. I searched Kanopy, and found a BBC version with John Cleese as Petruchio (!)

John Cleese, and British actors, and Shakespeare, and all British people, actually, and the Early Modern English language have thick, impenetrable accents and bizarre phrasings. I decided that flipping on the captioning on my TV would be wise. This was stupid.

Shakespeare is (not was) a master of witty dialog, mise-en-scene pacing and exposition. Early Shakespeare, when he may have been concerned about holding a raucous London audience (and here, possibly beholden to rigid BBC scheduling), is a machine gun spray of thickly accented, Elizabethan lingo. In the theatre, one trusts in the interpretive body dynamics of live actors, and ‘lets the early modern Elizabethan patois wash over you.’ Generally, by the end of the first act, you are doing fine. Here, my main instinct was to duck and cover.

The Bard is far too nimble of verse and quick witted for the BBC’s fat fingered character generator operators to keep up, and now I had two impenetrable Elizabethan scripts to follow, a good 5 seconds out of sync. Was I reading, or watching? Time to drop back and punt.

Why I Punted

Harold Bloom is very readable and his proposition, that Shakespeare invented what it is to be a modern human, is beguiling. But all interesting books address other books, and Bloom himself is clearly at the center of an academic power struggle between those who trust that canonical works traffic in universal truths, and those who insist that they are merely products of the prejudices of their eras, albeit, burnished by time and repeated readings. And Bloom very much does challenge the post structuralists directly at times. One can’t accuse him of not being transparent. It’s really hard to judge these subtleties of language, inflection and theatrical body language necessary to deriving meaning from a play when at the mercy of a character generator.

Traditionally, studying Shakespeare’s language is done by reading the scripts, and I’m sure that’s what Bloom has done. But for the general reader, what fun is that? It is after all, not the original intention. The play’s the thing.

So, possibly a later, more familiar play to begin with. I’ll finish Taming, and re-read the commentary by Bloom on it. But unless you’re someone living on academic grant money, watching Kate, and critiquing her feminist credentials, are two separate tasks.

The Age of Football: Soccer in the 21st Century, David Goldblatt: Goldblatt wrote the definitive history of the game, The Ball Is Round, and this is a sequel of sorts. Readers who have just discovered their passion for Man City or their grandfather’s Italian National Team, should be warned: world football goes back decades before the NFL was even paid attention too, and is of course, the world’s favorite game. Meaning, there are many many stories about football in many different lands, and in both books, Goldblatt tells them all.

“Tell me how you play, and I will tell you who you are”, Eduardo Galeano said. The Uruguayan writer, social activist and fanatico understood the cultural implications in the game’s alternating beauties and uglinesses. Goldblatt follows this plan to the letter. He does not generalize about each separate country’s history in the beautiful game, understanding e.g., that the social divisions that motivate the glories and the corruption of Brazilian football ( black, white) are different than those that animate neighbor Argentina (city, country).

A litany develops: each country gets a railroad and a weekend, and soon after, each country gets football. Then football gets money, and goes industrial (Goldblatt is very good in explaining the anomalies, Australia, Japan and the U.S., and how their resistance is inevitably weakening). Ball is the best 900-page analysis/history of a game from a Marxian, means of production, perspective you’ll ever read. But for the newbie, who just discovered why the ball is deliberately kicked to the opposing team after an injury, it may all be a bit much. Poor newbie.

This book raises the ante another notch, because globalization, natch. There is less on-field lore about big games at the inflection point of social change, and more about the social upheavals (racism) related to football themselves. And of course, as the money in the game explodes, more corruption. It’s more a hard tackle than a thrilling romp down the touchline.

Why I Put It Over The Touchline

As mentioned, the book flirts with a repetitive drone. Goldblatt is careful to examine the subtle differences in each region, and many countries. It’s easier to digest in segments, and besides, I worry that with the World Cup looming, I won’t have something interesting to read about football as the unbearable anticipation builds. I think this is demonstrably foolish. For one thing, it occurs to me that I could simply re-read Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow. But running out of books is one of my few worries these days, so I worry it like crazy.

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: The final wonderful book I CAN put down. I wrote about the generative power of Borges’ amazing little fables in a post about recent studio doings, here. But why in hell would I put such a fascinating book down?

Why In Hell I Put Such A Fascinating Book Down

I always put it down. It’s perfect to put down. It’s quite possible its author wrote it to be put down. Each of these 8-10 page little gems get my mind churning with the conceptual, metafictional magic and ultra realism they embody. I ponder it for a few days, then sometimes I wind up in the studio, starting another project. I’ve had it for a couple of years now and I’m only on the 3rd of the nine original volumes it collects. So I keep it by the bed for when I can’t think of a thing to read. Which evidently is not now.

There are several comics-related books I’m also reading, then ignoring, but that’s a separate post.

#books #readingedge #readinglist

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Ideas Reading List

Matters of Style: Small ‘p’ Pop

I don’t often write about art books, which often for me, take the form of technical research, and is thus not as much of an ‘escape’ from the day-to-day grind of what is, after all, a business. The ways in which technique translates to expression are naturally of a major concern, make no mistake, but they’re hard to process, and then write about as general interest topics. I much prefer writing about other people’s graphic solutions, whether as art or comics.

Here’s a nice middle ground: Pressing Matters magazine. It’s a beautifully produced celebration of creative solutions in the graphic arts. Interesting design in magazines is part of what attracted me to alternative comics- Raw magazine sought to highlight the expressive potential of comics by placing them in an attractively formatted magazine, and Pressing Matters does the same for printmakers, by putting them in a coffee table showpiece type of publication. It’s expensive, with shipping placing it in the higher end that international design magazines inhabit, but it understands the appeal of printmaking to artists, designers and collectors.

The magazine is published in England, which has a strong contemporary printmaking scene, but it features artists from around the world as well. It’s diverse and progressive- as in many out of the way areas of the creative economy, women seem to have more access to positions of leadership in printmaking, for example- and it downplays purely technical reportage in favor of a lively and very visual presentation of the final result, the textures, bold color schemes, and spirit of innovative graphic simplicity that forward looking prints communicate. In printmaking, the proof is in the pudding; rarely do pundits and experts extoll it for conceptual leaps, rarely do its practitioners seek to wholly reject the past. It inhabits the gray area between mass communication and stripped down visual syntax. It requires no manifesto, the medium truly is the message.

This is no screed against the loftier aims of painting. Pop art is still, even now, misunderstood because people, even Pop art lovers, almost willfully downplay its conceptual brilliance. Warhol made a complete break from the idea of craft in both printmaking and painting with his deliberate mis-registrations and advertorial iconography. Campbell’s soup cans are camp, not kitsch, and as such, are powerful commentaries on the construction of taste. This must be a huge contributor to the rise of printmaking since abstract expressionist days, and the liberation of printmaking from subsidiary roles as advertising and bourgeois decoration. The prints in Pressing Matters hew most often toward the Mid-Century Modern in style and spirit. Like comics, film posters and Warhol himself, they are a distillation of High Modernism for popular (populist?) tastes, but merely a step from expressionism, or even a Neo-Fauvism, as in zines, mini-comics and punk posters.

The art in Pressing Matters is of a working class, rather than academic, discipline. Pictures of ink-stained wretches are common. There is no Ingres in printmaking. Toulouse-Latrec advertised cabarets; his acolytes, booze and bicycles. Russian Constructivism is a high water mark, and Bauhaus its holy center. Red and black are the colors of revolution, and still hold an honored place in printmaking. The magazine celebrates those colors often, along with the generative void of white space.

There is a transparency of process, rather than transcendent technique, in most images here. It is in modern printmaking’s almost necessary disassembling of illusion and gesture, its ever so slight displacement from craft and perfection, that allows it to seduce the eye, and simultaneously to vaguely disturb assumptions about art, not to mention the means of its production. Pressing Matters zeroes in on this disjunct. Pictures of brayers, talismanic and dripping with candy colors, and presses, the machinery of free expression, often cooperatively owned or shared, symbolize printmakers’ close relationship to the nuts and bolts of creativity and to work. At the same time, making multiples, while it began as a way to make art more accessible, is, as Warhol so succinctly demonstrated, a basic commoditization of it.

Printmakers, art collectors, and fans of popular arts- not to mention magazine design- will see in Pressing Matters a loving and lavish home for one of the humblest of art forms, and the complex histories and aspirations it encompasses.

Illustration of Subject Matter
You can subscribe or order bundles of back issues at pressingmattersmag.com

#pressingmatters #printmaking

Categories
Besties Besties Books, Comics, Music Reading List

Close Your Eyes and Think of Besties

Over their long rich, history, the Besties have established a tradition of… um, being 3 years old and changing in format every time. Of ignoring SEO-building topics such as best-selling novels and important prose non-fiction to concentrate on the best comics. Of not always focussing on the past year’s comics and being mostly about what my limited budget and the public library gets around to offering. Not even counting down, like a proper, click-bait, end-of-year list, and sometimes starting with the Bestiest. I see no reason to change a winning formula.

A little history: I have honestly always tried to start with books published in the last year or two. Mauretania, Comics From a New World, Chris Reynold’s haunting, dystopian 80’s comics in a new collection by Seth won the first; White Cube, by Brett VandeBroucke, a very penetrating and hilarious satire of the fine arts world, the second, and Pretty Deadly: The Rat, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s noir mystery about 30’s Hollywood, last year.

I have been known to count (known) gender representation in anthologies; So I’ll give a rough count here (excluding anthologies), of white males, versus non-white male, in the 4 years I’ve named names: 30 and 33, respectively. I’ve been known to mention rampant American exceptionalism in comics history; so I’ll give an estimate of North Americans v. European/Japanese: 35 and 19. It looks relatively balanced, though of course, not an exact study.

I’ll add some Resties (honorable mentions), which include things I’ve rediscovered or newly discovered, critical writings and surveys. There will be a Bestiest of the Resties: There was none the first year; the second was Dan Mazur’s and Alexander Danner’s Comics: A Global History, 1968-Present, a much needed, non-American exceptionalist survey of comics from leading producers which opened my eyes to Japan as the first to explore comics’ potential for creative self-expression; and none the third year. I’m bringing it back.

The rules, looking suspiciously like no rules, having been murkily defined, the envelope, please:

Besties: This was a tough one this year. I eliminated a few very good ones, including Coin-Op #8, by Peter and Maria Hoey, that is actually from 2019, but I ordered it this year. The winner is also from 2019, and one of the Resties is from 2017, I just forgot to include it last year. I never got to current books by Tillie Walden and others that will undoubtedly be seen next year. I only now ordered a Tsuge collection that will almost certainly skew next year’s list. There should be an investigation:

Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, 2021: Matt Fraction wrote the 2011 Marvel series being referenced by Disney+’ Hawkeye series. He brought buddy-movie thrills and spills to that, and now takes on the uber absurd Comics Code era DC comics featuring “Superman’s Pal” and a whole bunch of gorillas and aliens and monstrous transformations that Jimmy went through. So maybe you have to have grown up in the era of the 12-centers to appreciate the humor and the in jokes, but it’s a comic book, for gosh sakes, and Fraction, with all his meta narratives, gets that.

Bradley of Him, Conor Willumsen, 2021: I liked the post-apocalyptic hedonism of Antigone better. Willumsen is always edgy, disturbingly so, and the protagonist here is obsessed, like many of our current public figures, politicians, media figures, celebrities. The setting is Las Vegas, capital of narcissistic obsession. The soft, rubbery pencils only add to the tension, which is of course left unresolved at the end.

Monstress Volume 6, Charlotte Liu and Sana Takeda 2021: These types of ongoing series are tough to judge in installments, as I’ve mentioned before. This horror/fantasy tale is not ended yet, and I never did track down Volume 4 with the library closed for shutdown. But rereading Volume 1 did not dissipate its skin-crawling intrigue and its world-building grandeur, all its steam punk glory and dark tangled relationships. This volume was no different, and if it sometimes felt a bit pot boiler-ish, I’m not ready to make that assessment yet. So did Lord of the Rings, and that’s the echelon this tale aspires to, though it is much more violent and racially charged.

Le Grande Odalisque, Jerome’ Mulot and Florent Ruppert 2021: Three luscious, lusty, bisexually hedonistic women decide to steal an Ingres, arousing all the fire power the police can muster; and I’m sure, the scorn of the cultural guardians, both right and left. But reasonable readers will see these as action heroes with brains, wit and verve. And above all, agency- they drive the spectacular action and the loose limbed art allows for a sexy physicality without the static airbrushed obsessiveness of most action comics. This is a caper movie waiting to happen, with a subtext of revenge sex bringing a tinge of melancholy to the almost non-stop thrills. Traditional, Euro-comics genre with a modern twist.

Bestiest:

Press Enter to Continue, Ana Galvan, 2019: In candy colors, faux offset textures and simple, cipher-like drawings, this Spanish artist offers vaguely surreal stories of people who don’t quite trust their own realities. This is precision paranoia, where tigers appear to feed on the workaday masses, and people dive into pools only to run up into the inside of a TV screen. There is no rhyme or reason to these tales, only a feeling of alienation and dread.

Galvan’s style is evolving quickly. An earlier appearance in Now anthology featured a Steven Weismann-influenced short about two adolescent girl ponies lying to each other as one steals the other’s boyfriend. The pony imagery heightens the sense of loss of innocence. There is the realization that it would be nearly impossible to do this sort of story in TV or film. She has a new book out this month. The drawings are emblematic, almost ideographic, and the combination of words, colors and drawings reads like a new language. You can read it in a half hour ( though it demands to be returned to) and it costs less than $20 and is in fact, art. It’s why I like to do these Besties.

Resties:

Everything is Flammable, Gabrielle Bell: 2017. I don’t seem to have included it when I read it, probably in 2019-20, and I haven’t had the occasion to include any of Bell’s work, which is wry, subtly compelling and quietly hilarious autobiographical diary/memoir comics about her own life. The Voyeurs and Truth is Fragmentary cover her earlier years as an introverted but driven comics artist appearing at comics festivals worldwide.

This is her first full length memoir and tells of her off-the-grid mother’s struggles after losing her house to a fire in Northern California’s notorious Humboldt County. It deals with Bell’s strange ‘feral’ childhood and her fraught relationship with her mom, in light of her stepfather’s abusive behavior. All in simple yet very evocative caricature and subdued color. Again, the quality that I think makes almost all of these comics here appeal to me is that their stories can really only be told in pen and ink.

World Map Room, Yuichi Yokoyama, 2013: A quirky, recondite story of three men traveling into and thru a sprawling city to a mysterious appointment. There is a graphic unity in the way the angular black and white buildings, planes and people interact with the copious (Japanese) sound effects as if Onomatopoeia (sounds) were a player in the strange drama. Remember when Lynch parlayed ambient machine sounds into a sort of subtle steampunk horror in Eraserhead? The whole effect is unease, as if violence were imminent. However, the story remains open ended, with other chapters promised in the author’s notes, which I haven’t found. I found this on CopaceticComics.com, my go-to for catching up on the manga translations of the much lamented PictureBox books, now deceased. I became obsessed with their revivals of Garo-era alt-manga pioneers such as Hayashi and Sugiera, so I’ve been exploring modern Japanese alternatives. Japan, which has the largest comics industry in the world, has been easy to ignore because there are so few canonical translations, but that is ending, and we should pay attention.

Art vs Comics, Bart Beaty, 2012: As revealing about modern art as it is about comics. Understanding Liechtenstein’s appropriation of 50’s juvenile comics is not easy for comics fans, who often see a copyist who made millions. Incorporating pop culture innovations into fine arts is not easy for ‘high’ art aficionados, who often willfully ignore, e.g., Crumb’s obvious influence on Phillip Guston’s best work. These are essays without jargon, and without the reverse snobbery of ‘Team Comics’ that examine important visual truths about comics and art in a balanced way. I’ll be reading it again soon.

Trots and Bonnie, Shari Flenniken, 2021: Underground comics epitomized the underlying sexism of the 60’s ‘free love’ movement, but also provided a voice for the second wave feminist rebuttal. Shari Flenniken’s was a forgotten voice among those of Trina Robbins’, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s, and others’, but no more. Her 70’s National Lampoon series has finally been collected, along with extra material and her comments. Her dark, yet very non puritanical sexual satire satisfies a need for sexual truth to counterbalance the programatic puritanism of both right and left, as evidenced by the fact that they consistently pass the laugh test. She published a new comic ( hilarious!) in a 2020 Rotland Press “Dreadfuls” anthology that was under consideration for this list. We can only hope that means her return to the fray is imminent.

Bestiest of the Resties:

Dal Tokyo, Gary Panter, 2011: I’ve gotten myself on a another Gary Panter jag. This was originally started with my Raw magazine obsession during the punk years, and revived by a purchase of Cola Madnes on the Copacetic site, from their ‘Deals’ section, which I plunder regularly, looking for gems that escaped my attention or budget first time around. Panter filters American pop culture through his own experience, separating signal from noise in dense, punk-inflected images.

Dal Tokyo is a 4 panel comic strip, first serialized in the L.A. Reader in the mid-80’s, then in Japan’s Riddim magazine in the mid-90’s through the oughts. It takes place on Mars, in a colony populated by Japanese and Texan immigrants (‘Dal’), but the original storyline peters out during its second run.

What’s fascinating about Dal Tokyo is the ways it pushes the the then dying strip medium forward at a time when other formats were beginning to emerge to stretch comics’ legs creatively. This was post-underground comics and in the middle of the punk/zine/ DIY wave of the late 70’s early 80’s.

Panter’s ‘ratty line’, an ironic, expressionistic commentary on Herge’s ‘clear line’ and classic strip masters such as Caniff, rather than a repudiation of those things, is emblematic of his punk roots. It sometimes obscures the real innovations he brought, and his relation to classic masters, such as even Winsor McKay, whose fantastic world-building Panter equals in this noir sci-fi. It relates to his harrowing Jimbo Adventures in Paradise (1988, recently re-released by New York Review Books), and the punk slapstick Cola Madnes (early 80’s, unpublished until PictureBox rescued it in 2000).

This Fantagraphics edition is 6 1/4” high, a big improvement over previous collections. But these are not the only innovations that a larger edition is good for. Panter, in Dal Tokyo, has also revived the lost art of page design in comic strips. While 3-4 panel dailies have not featured this in decades, since Milton Caniff, few explore its potential like Panter, who creates kinetic 4-panel vistas on dynamic diagonals with cross-hatched grays vying with blacks and whites.

I doubt it’s an aesthetic reach to ascribe his layered darks and lights to Japanese Edo printmaking, as Panter is a) a printmaker, and b) clearly interested in Japanese culture. At the same time, it’s arguable that this is the last of the great comic strips. Paradise and Madnes were conceived as graphic novels, however segmented and fragmentary they are. Dal Tokyo was always a strip, four panels put out at regular intervals (first weekly, then monthly).

By the second run, Panter had changed his style, working with nibs instead of Rapidograph, and his narrative approach, from sci-fi noir to abstract free association words and pictures. Yet the first two (-ish) years of Dal Tokyo, which is not part of the Jimbo stories, but features Okupant X, a kindred soul, continues Panter’s exploration of the everyman’s search for meaning in a dystopian society.

We who are passionate about the music of the era have often failed to see the fragmented poetry of Panter’s punk comics art, and how it tread a pioneering path between high and low art, as John Carlin so well described in Masters of American Comics. Dal Tokyo’s spotty publishing history shouldn’t obscure its achievement.

Note: I would provide an image here, as it would definitely be fair use, but both Besties are published by Fantagraphics, which has an extremely restrictive excerpt policy.

Categories
Books, Comics, Music Reading List Uncategorized

Reading Edge:

Place With Stars and Dragonflies, Monotype, 2021, 21×15″. This image combines trace monotype with relief elements, and kicked off a series of existential chair images I used to explore presence and objective reality.

An extended period of downtime following a very successful Summer Art Market, and the end of my part time day job in a college bookstore is to blame for a lengthy lack of posts. This list of abbreviated book blurbs is a pretty good summary of what I’ve been up to as I emptied out my days with a view to building a new routine.

Classes and studio work have continued, of course. And with MoPrint ’22 fast approaching, a bit more urgency will be needed there. But for now, the order of the day for the last few weeks has been coffee and books- with excursions to bookstores to stack literature, non fiction, comics and art like cordwood against the bitter winds building.

Here’s a downpayment, culled from a diary I keep where often these thoughts first appear. There’s no theme, to the blurbs at least- the daybook includes a lot of rumination on what time and work actually are- and perhaps I should try to bring those deeper contemplations here sometime, but for now, just the books.

Bradley of Him, Connor Willumsen’s newest, was a bit too complex for just one reading. This is the downside to library books. Like Antigone, about slackers in a vaguely post-apocalyptic beach town, it was palpably brilliant, but hard to describe why. Extreme protagonist meets slightly dystopian hyper-capitalist paradise in Las Vegas. In both books, art that is watery and a tinge neurotic with narcissistic characters seemingly unaware of the strangeness they are immersed in.

Stroppy, Marc Bell: Again, I originally read it from the library, and decided when finances loosened up, to reread and add it to my shelf. Stroppy is an oafish schlemiel in a dystopian urban oligarchy, where even art is in service to the powers that be. Bell invokes E.C. Segar (Popeye) and mini-golf to tell the tale of a song contest that perpetuates a pop culture kleptocracy.

Bell is a central figure in the ongoing mini-comics/zine subculture, which small websites make it easier to experience. However, he’s long since broken through into mainstream publishing, not to mention gallery sales and this is just one of his highly entertaining hardcover albums. I also picked up Pure Pajamas, a collection of his alternative press weekly strips.His artistic lineage, after Segar, stretches through Crumb and even Phillip Guston, before looping back around to Rube Goldberg. An amazing talent, whose deadpan protagonists are always being imposed upon, and even physically occupied, by other characters.

S! #32 Kus: A pocket sized anthology, published in Latvia, of alt comics auteurs from around the world, in this case, Japan. They are available from online sellers such as Copacetic, or John Porcellino’s Spit-and-a-Half. This one, however, I found at Matter, the letterpress/bookshop on Market St. It’s well worth the trip on a Rockies away day. They also publish single-artist mini comics as Mini Kus.

The artists featured here belong to a later era of Garo magazine and other current publications, and thus provide a view of the current state of alt comics in Japan. Here, and in AX, a collection of alt manga published in 2010, the interchange with American styles seems more apparent, than in Garo’s earlier days, which took cues from pop art and French Nouvelle cinema. Fort Thunder influences are visible and Heta Uma (bad/good) styles the equivalent of the comics brut of Johhny Ryan, et al, are prominent. Who influenced who I can’t say, but these comics lack the sense of Japanese cultural ferment that the early manga pioneers like Hayashi and Sugiera drip with. Not that there aren’t some very intriguing short pieces here, and the internationalization of comics is sort of implicit in the Kus! project to begin with, but the downside of anthologies is you get only a quick glance at a given artist. The small format may also inhibit real engagement, but there are definitely artists here I intend to look for. One, Yuichi Yokoyama, I already found and sent for from the Copacetic site, and it’s in a stack of things I’m saving for when the flurries fly.

Bad Ball, Samplerman: Samplerman is a French comics artist who cuts up and reassembles old comics to create surreal adventures. Again the small format in this Mini Kus may not be optimal, as I’ve seen him play in a piece in Scratches with intricately shaped panels to bring the negative space of the gutters ( space between panels) into play, and here he limits himself to a 6 panel grid. Thus, the vibe is sort of constrained surrealism, like the early Dr. Strange comics by Ditko, or even the cluttered strangeness of Ogden Whitney’s Herbie.

Gold Pollen, Seiichi Hayashi: This is also a reread after I got it from the library a couple of years ago, then found the book online for a decent price. It’s rare to find it under $75, partially because it’s a beautiful book published by the sadly departed PictureBox of Dan Nadel, with a very interesting essay by Ryan Holmberg.

Nadel was an apparently huge part of the re-discovery of Garo Magazine-era manga of the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve become a bit obsessed with these artists and Holmberg is part of the reason, as he explicates Japanese culture both pre-WWII, and in the turbulent years of Garo‘s establishment as the first magazine devoted to alternative, avant garde comics in the world, in 1964. Our ingrained American exceptionalism makes this massive contribution to the art of comics easy to ignore, but at the time, Marvel’s angsty but violent superheroes were about it in this country for those looking for comics for an adult sensibility. Even Undergrounds and the often adolescent boob-a-licious sci-fi of Heavy Metal were still in the future. Not so in Japan, where dramatic gekiga manga led to a real avant garde.

Hayashi and others, such as Tsuge, Sugiera and Tezuka were experimenting with Pop Art and avant garde Carnaby Street graphics and French New Wave cinema as inspiration for their charged stories of relationships and change in Japan.

Hayashi is not easy to find here. I’ve tracked down 3 of the 4 collections that have been published in English. Red Colored Elegy, about doomed, disaffected lovers is his masterpiece, but one will want the title story in this collection as well, a tensely constructed minimalist visual symphony. Mike Mignola’s measured cinematic pacing and love of folklore in Hellboy might offer a hint of what Hayashi was doing while Marvel’s The Thing was immersed in clobberin’ time, but that would not do justice to Hayashi’s sense of ordinary people caught between a fascist past and a hyper capitalist occupier.

Valley, GG: Ordered this Mini Kus from Copacetic after running across She’s Not There at the library. Misty images, disturbing implications, and ambiguous plot lines in both.

Comic Arf, Craig Yoe: This is an odd project; a bit of an ego trip, but not without merit.On one hand, it’s over designed, with not much to say about the artists it presents, and is editorially dodgy as it attempts to shoehorn Yoe’s own mediocre work as an equal to the accomplished past professionals. Those artists, however, are very interesting, and some I’d never heard of. He employs current illustrators as part of his design, which adds to the jumble, but certainly leads to some nice individual pieces. There’s a great Milt Gross feature, “Draw Your Own Conclusions” in which current cartoonists complete Gross cartoons originally offered for readers to finish. There’s nothing wrong with having Gross and other classic cartoonists on one’s bookshelf. But it lacks the editorial/design unity of Scratches or Blab.

Cola Madnes, Gary Panter: which gets too much credit in the afterword for being a masterpiece, but which is an early, fairly improvisatory Panter romp that features the mutually disaffected characters and post industrial wasteland of his Daltokyo and other classic punk comics. The graphics are amazingly… graphic. “Ratty line” is a common descriptive for Panter’s slashing, textural ink work, but his rich blacks are always well placed and add depth and detail to his dystopian suburbia. It’s mostly hyper grungy, hyper violent slapstick, and I keep wanting to assign manga influences to it that may not really be there, but it was originally intended for Japanese publication before being shelved for 20 years so the urge is irresistible. Very interesting item, and I want to re-read other Jimbo I have.

Comics vs. Art, Bart Beatty: Always a fascinating subject, and ambivalence is of course high- I’m not one to denigrate Pop Art, or to deride its superficiality, which is actually a big part of its complex point. This is a facile trap that “Team Comics” often falls into, though thankfully not Beatty. Nor do I consider war and romance comics of the 50’s to be under appreciated artistic gems. I have a respect for Kirby, Heath, even Novick, from the pulp escapes of my youth, but for the most part, I do not attempt to elevate them as high art.

Nonetheless, the appropriation of the imagery in all the great museums is a bit troubling. Russ Heath gives it a wry reflection in a one pager about his image Whaam!, appearing at MOMA ( the painting is actually a mash-up of panels from Heath, Novick, and Jerry Grandinetti, from two comics that Liechtenstein undoubtedly bought at the same time from the same newsstand. One imagines an unknown but soon to be wealthy artist being regarded a loser as he buys comics on the street. Or one does if one is an unknown artist who often buy comics on the street.) “Quotidian” is about the most complementary term I’ve seen applied to the original work in several sources, including Comics vs, and Wikipedia. Nonetheless, the original imagery was conceived by these artists, took time and effort, and often displayed a level of compositional creativity that clearly places it above the sort of mundane disposable image Liechtenstein and co. implies it is. This is a common stereotype in all graphics. While the irony in “Whaam!’ Is all Liechtenstein’s, Heath was certainly no stranger to camp and irony, having executed Michael O’Donahue’s hilariously arousing bondage/romance/war/western comics parody Cowgirls At War in National Lampoon. Buxom dommes and subs, viewed through binoculars in blasted landscapes. We don’t know how much of that is in O’Donaghue’s script, and how much Heath’s imagination, but what is suppressed in pop culture is often telling. While Ditko struggled to realize comics’ creative potential on Dr Strange in the work-for-hire sweatshops of Marvel, he was also inking Eric Stanton’s luscious underground kink across the studio they shared. In the case of war comics, the industry was not interested in irony, and with the exception of Kurtzman and co., rarely even questioned the morality of war.

Collectors certainly have always valued these originals, to an extent, but they never approached the cultural cache of Kirby’s superheroes, let alone Liechtenstein’s appropriations. My search on ebay for All American Men of War #89 ( the “first appearance” of the “Whaam!” image) brought up a listing at $325 in nice condition with Liectenstein’s name in the heading (not Novick’s, as would be the case in most comics listings). Another comic in similar condition from the same era, same Johnny Cloud character, AAMW #100, Heath’s name in the heading, is asking $30. However, for whatever reason, interest in these books is higher than I recall, whether Roy gets credit, or not.

This is an interesting book, very readable ( like most comics critics, excepting Thierry Groensteen, Beatty proudly eschews the lit theory jargon) and raising ponderables about both high and low arts.

Worst.President.Ever. Robert Strauss: Not about who one would think, published in early 2016, with a title that was outdated by the end of that year. James Buchanan, the last president to have a chance at avoiding the Civil War, provides a parallel lesson to today in what happens when personal ambition *trumps* civic responsibility. While 15 was not as corrupt as 45, he apparently was just as willing to adopt a racist stance to further his career. Sometimes a bit frothy, sometimes a bit sketchy on the research, but certainly timely, in a weird sort of way.

Robinson, Muriel Spark: Robinson is a recluse on a small island, onto which our heroine’s plane crashes. With a controlling hermit and 3 marooned strangers, suspicion is high, and human nature being what it is, there is tension. Spark, like Hemingway, packs a lot of meaning into the simplest of sentences.

Trots and Bonnie, Shary Flenniken: NYRB resurrects this unfairly forgotten 70’s gem from the pages of National Lampoon. Flenniken wields the subversive power of second wave feminism combined with utter, tits out horniness and narrative anarchy to come up with an authentic statement about growing up during the war of the sexes and the necessity of comics and other pop culture for social change. In other words, it’s hard to believe that voices like Flenniken’s, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s and Julie Doucet’s would have been heard without the relatively accessible medium of comics to provide a platform.

The back material, including interview, sketches and annotations, is a real plus. Many of these cartoons, especially the earliest, are laugh out loud funny. Like many at this time, Flenniken brilliantly reprises, then revivifies early newspaper comics’ styles to move the medium back into its rightful place as pop cultural touchstone. This was America’s reply to Garo Magazine’s creative experimentation, and a precursor to Raw. The rise of female cartoonists is one of the Underground era’s most redemptive features. How about some new material, Ms Flenniken?

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Books, Comics, Music Culture wars Reading List

Reading List: A Short Detour

I haven’t touched the TV. I worry about myself sometimes when I do that. How culturally out of touch does that make me? I did sign up for the library’s Kanopy movie streaming service. But after reading a magazine article about him, the first film I searched for was Jacques Tati’s “M. Hulot’s Holiday. I think you can see why I don’t watch TV. But cabin fever sets in when I’m cooped up at home, and restlessness is not conducive to large reading projects. My solution is brevity.

Magazines were what I’d read while working full time, or fiction and nonfiction in small bites. A large book I’d put down before the quarantine explores cultural historical vignettes in aid of a larger history of Britain’s wars with Napoleon. It has short chapters, each one on a different aspect of life, industrialization, navy, press, politics and is just the ticket right now, with the added benefit of drowning in others’ distant sorrows, rather than my free floating anxiety.

If the reading list seems fragmentary and unfocussed, I’m going to put it down to plague living. It- and not my inherent laziness is the driver behind the various trivial home improvements, online Scrabble games, puttering on eBay, and popcorn dinners that have interspersed the exercising, business promotion and mind improvement I intended would fill my days.

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: I’m on his second cycle of stories, The Garden of Forking Paths from 1941, after starting with 1935’s a A Universal History of Iniquity. I started with “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote”, spectacularly meta-fictional and funny, but thought provoking for sure. The conceptual labyrinths are profuse, and there is, at the ends of his bright surrealist hallways carefully hung with curiosities, the dream-like mystery of empty rooms.

Pierre Menard is a man who wants to write Cervante’s Don Quijote, word for word. Not transcribe, mind you, but create it by becoming alive to its necessity, and erasing from his mind anything not integral to its creation, such as the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In a way, isn’t this what we do when we read it? ( I read Part One.) It’s what I’m currently trying to do preparatory to trying Tristram Shandy, and I suppose, Ullysses.

 A bright, warm, vaguely deserted spring morning is the right time for this type of mind game, and I think a dark roast, with just a touch of milk. My cup was black with a matte finish, contrasting with the blonde veneer on the end table. The cat was chasing a toy lobster around, had gotten a treat, and then climbed up onto the couch to settle in next to my thigh. These plague days at times create their own sort of clarity.

The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham: This is an inspiring read about the censorship battle surrounding the greatest novel in the English language, Ulysses. Spoiler alert, love- and art- wins. Birmingham does not cheat for drama, adding in rich detail about the conception and writing of the book, and the people who risked it all to see the book in print. In a measured, but uncompromising way, he also introduces us to the (spoiler alert) men (yes mostly men, and the defenders were often, not always, women) who made a moralistic crusade of keeping it from the eyes of Americans and Britons. It is part literary critique, part smuggling adventure, and part courtroom drama, and when the final triumph comes, in 1933, after 12 years of government overreach and harangue, there were tears in my eyes.

Like any book about this dense, challenging, earthy but ultimately uplifting book, the final result is to make one want to read it (again, in my case). And Birmingham provides loads of context for first or second-time readers, or perhaps any reader. I devoured this book, and I’m anxious to use the enforced downtime to get back to the original. We’ll see.

Fantastic Four #37, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: I sold this artifact from my teen age collection on eBay and read it one last time before shipping it off. It dates from ’65, when the Marvel phenomenon -snarky, angsty superheroes, existentially grasping supervillains- was just reaching its peak. A few months later Kirby, who did the storytelling, and Lee, who supplied the flippant dialogue- the ‘Marvel Method’, would hit their stride on this title, with a long run of sci-fi fantasy gems by Stan and Jack, with later series by Jim Steranko, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, et al that helped form the underpinnings for the now famous- and lucrative, Marvel Universe. 

But this one is a patched together mess, verging on pure hackwork, with the FF sending themselves rather arbitrarily off to a distant galaxy to deal justice to a Skrull murderer (of a protagonist’s father, a bit of a nasty edge to this business) left over from a previous issue. Everything about this story is off hand- The journey through a time warp, the revenge killing thinly disguised as justice, the conveniently conceived weaponry and the fairly preposterous victory scheme.

Kirby and Lee were never strong on female characters- Marvel heroines tend to be solicitous of male superheroes and often in need of rescue. Here, there’s a bit of sisterly solidarity as one rescues another conflicted woman from a codependent relationship with a supervillain. That’s about as good as it gets for this era- later, we see a typical Marvel resolution, as the Invisible Girl, having made a bold decisive move to tip the battle, then frets about her capabilities and defers to the boys to mop up. As a 15-year old I had no perspective on this embedded sexism. It, like many things from the era, all gets internalized. What internalized mental hackwork is still clogging American progress, in politics and pop culture even now? At the time these Kirby/Lee comics were being published, Japan’s Garo magazine was already pioneering a more mature vision of comics, and women such as Moto Hagio were a part of that.

Kirby was pretty overworked at this point, in order to capitalize on Marvel’s sudden popularity, and the drawn perspectives are jumbled, the faces rushed and inconsistent. Lee is not really in sync either. He did add a lot to Kirby’s more ponderous characters and situations, but here seems to never settle in to the rushed plot, whipsawing between quips and bombast. There are hints of what was to come: a 1-page photo spread, a brief abstract starscape, some leavening domestic humor. Despite what the fan letters in the back say, a fairly forgettable episode from Mighty Marvel. I did get a little cash for it- more books, incoming!

…Almost certainly including a trusty comics anthology, or two. Anthologies are a living history of a real renaissance in current comics, and a great way to keep up while spending small chunks of time or money. My tribute to those of my past is here, but it’s time to update with the two issues of European mag Scratches ( #’s 1, 2, Joost Swarte) that I was finally able to locate domestically and had delivered just as the lockdown was beginning.

Scratches is a showcase of Euro cartoonists for American eyes, and vice versa. It’s edited by Swarte, the man credited with helping to start the Ligne Claire revival in the 70’s (he coined the term) and bringing it to America, and to the essential Raw magazine. Neo-Ligne Claire naturally has a strong presence here, especially #1. Ligne Claire, (clear line) one of the essential stylistic movements in 20th century comics, is modernism in narrative pen and ink, with all that entails, including Herge’s proto-fascist racial stereotypes of the 30’s and 40’s. The revival, dripping with PostModern irony, implicitly comments on this history. Of course, other issues are inherent in 70’s and 80’s comics as well (see below).

Scratches, like its inspiration, the groundbreaking Raw magazine of early 80’s NYC downtown, presents subtle stylistic differences from its American counterparts, Karamers Ergot, and Now, which also have recent issues out. I enjoyed the opportunity to compare in real time the sensibilities of this Euro/NYC hybrid with the West Coast-originating American anthologies. I leafed through Kramers #9, and Now #6 from my shelf, to even up the samples.

A stylistic common that links all of these is a comics brutalism. This can take many forms, and is a direct reaction to the literary comics of the 80’s and early 90’s which espoused a sort of punk/DIY Neorealism, often autobiographical. Comics brutalism- cartoon brut? ‘cute brut’ Dan Nadel, editor of the art/comics journal The Ganzfeld calls it- expresses a love of the medium’s material qualities and tropes, in some cases drawing on comics’ roots in the googly eyes, sausage noses, and big foot look of the early newspaper strips, but also the scratched-out inking and spare dystopian noir of Golden Age comic books. These are beloved of our era’s punk, ‘ratty line’ artists such as Gary Panter. Its earliest antecedent, as far as I can tell, is oddly, Phillip Guston, who appropriated R. Crumb’s underground comics style for his signature, existential, politically charged paintings of big-foot neurotics, unblinking eyeballs and Klansmen in the 70’s.

Its most recent influencers, however, are the Paper Rad and Fort Thunder collectives of the late 90’s and early Oughts. They were part of a second zine and mini-comics explosion that began in the late 80’s with notably, feminist icon Julie Doucet. Their impact has been huge, and has also invaded animation and fine art.

Kramers Ergot has been a leader in showcasing these artists, such as C.F., Lale Westvind, and Anna Haifisch, who comments directly on art world hierarchies in #10’s acidly chromatic “Hall of the Bright Carvings” an adaptation of Mervyn Peake.

Scratches tends to look at these trends through the filter of cutting edge design as seen in Brecht Evens’ untitled sequences in both #’s 1 and 2, where water media fantasy figures evoke children’s book illustrations, but undergo sometimes vaguely disturbing transformation. Also a strong presence is the riotously iconoclastic Brecht VandenBroucke, who got the ‘Bestiest’ pick of the decade in my tragically under-coveted ‘Besties’ awards posted this year.

Now #7, which has been finding its way under Eric Reynolds, highlights a very literate and subtly constructed tale of a mother and daughter exploring mom’s sexual history by Kurt Ankeny. There is a slow peeling back of life’s narratives and falsities in a simple yet wistful colored pencil sketchiness. There is a never heavy-handed juxtaposition of interracial relationships and a frozen lake. There is much to find in comics right now, and in a new decade’s fever dreams, brief epiphanies abound. Neither does Now ignore cartoon brut.

Since we’ve already broached the subject, and since this post has dragged on almost as long as one of the Insane Clown President’s wack medical advisories anyway, let’s close by doing the numbers: my best count of the gender representation in these anthologies, for what it is worth to the reader, is: Kramers #10, 5 women/out of 30 artists; Kramers #9, 6/37; Scratches #1, 5/39; Scratches #2, 4/31; There is a “Scratches Academy” listed on the editorial page, with 2 women listed among 11; and Now #7, 2/14; Now #6, 6/15.

A strikingly consistent percentage, and the question is, why? We touched on the individual editorial visions; that is a variable. And comics, especially the solitary time-intensive, very low paying alternatives, seem tailor-made for socially, um distant, males. At any rate, they have not over the years, attracted a lot of women, and the audience has been mostly male, though those things are changing. Are these editors ( all male) pushing the boundaries only in a stylistic sense? I won’t presume to judge that. But only by being mindful of these problematic raw numbers can one expect to have a voice in their solution.

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