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Caniff in the 21st Century

Milton Caniff draws himself as a young man, speaking with his mentor Billy Ireland. From the book Meanwhile..., 2007

"When you see a film with friends, the divergent commentaries are surprising. Sometimes it seems that each person has seen a different film." -Luis Buñuel, Objects of Desire, 1986

The product labored over in the mind of someone who views a film, looks at a painting, or reads a novel is, if considered at all, highly devalued. We dissect the artistic process itself until simple expression becomes cliche and we base most of our encounter with works themselves around a teaching moment, whether it be High School English, Graduate Studies or wall text in an institution. The creative work that is made in the mind of the audience, the artful leaps of faith that do not simply explain away a works inconsistencies or deficiencies, but in fact create new moments of poetry, remain a curiosity, a theory to fiddle with. Experiencing a work of art is a private act. A private act, though, slides into a secretive one, a confusion that one often feels embarrassment over. Hierarchical explanation of a given works function, a systematic decoding of it's perceived secrets, is a dominant and repressive force in all our lives. Why give voice to a personal experience of a a painting when you are no doubt wrong? A stroll through any museum will allow for many an overheard heartfelt phrase, full of real thought, dying on well meaning tongues out of embarrassment.

Most mediums have, organically or not, resolved this by splitting themselves in two. Blockbuster films explain themselves to you, the art you 'create' while watching them is excitement and pleasure or tedium and disappointment. Cinema, whatever the terms means to most people, asserts itself as (for the most part) non-commercial and open to befuddlement. If the spontaneous workings of a viewers mind during a Chantal Ackerman film is not valued for its 'artistic' quality, it is at least tacitly respected, offered some room to breath. A war of varying opinions on 'what it all means' exists, although cloistered in journals written and read by professionals. The moment Buñuel observes, that of friends plainly describing different reactions to each other, remains hidden or marginalized, even to those having the reaction. It is hard to escape from the internal assumption that a reading of a film must congeal around a purpose, not a simple feeling. However, it is of great importance to consider that invisible or not, film still invites these 'divergent commentaries,' still allows a passing feeling as acceptable. Similarly, museum goers are invited, by the art work itself, to formulate a strange emotion before stifling it. Despite layers of imposed control, these reactions swell up, as the artists (for the most part) intended.

Drawing from Terry and The Pirates by Milton Caniff

One art form that resists sending out any such invitations (even of the most subdued or backwards nature) is comics, especially in their birthplace, North America. Comics, in the 21st Century, insists on itself as an art form where information is expressed succinctly, clearly, and with as few moments for ambiguity as possible. Simplification, towards a goal of clarity, dominates. And, to be sure, this accounts for many thrilling moments in the mediums young history, as exacting practitioners were attracted to the form for precisely these constraining attitudes. Artists like Milton Caniff treat comics with a particularly American eye: the medium as a deliciously served Root Beer Float. This is not said to belittle: sugar as a sincerely expressed art form can be beautiful if made with limitless ambition. The expression of artists like Caniff (and that of his peer Noel Sickles) is, without a doubt, innovative. I like Caniff very, very much, he brought a clarity to the medium that was hard fought. And yet, Caniff and Sickles project was so successful, so elegantly argued in their stories and drawings, that comics as a soda (in regards to Caniff specifically, a baroque soda), seems hopelessly tied to it's DNA.

A 1936 Scorchy Smith sequence by Noel Sickles

Clarity, without much significant challenge over the last 80 years, declares itself as the soy sauce and yeast of the medium. Where a sincere, precocious viewer might wonder what, exactly, they are to make of an Isa Genzen sculpture, there is little such pondering with Terry and The Pirates. There is no embarrassment in discussing a given strip, Terry punches someone, and we are all in agreement that this, in fact, happened. Caniff makes the moment into law by drawing the punch flawlessly.

Flash Gordon strip by Alex Raymond

We think of comics this way, as a medium that explains itself to us as we read it. Comics anticipate any confusion by providing more information, especially information that exists only to support the dominant message, mostly unseen or unperceived by the viewer. To suggest that the artform is not based on these foundations borders on heresy. And yet, prior to Caniff's emergence, alongside Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, the medium presents itself in radically different clothing. Caniff and Raymond's innovation, half a century later, is seen as an origin rather than a new path, Prince Valiant as Genesis rather than Sermon On The Mount. But even a cursory study of Caniff readily asserts that his most obvious contribution to comics was an articulate phrasing of cinematic and commercial illustration techniques within the medium of cartooning. Silent film explored itself, but when talkies emerged, cinema began to focus most of its time compressing literature and pulp, on negotiating a translation from one medium to another. Prior to Caniff, comics largely worked within their own increasingly complex and exciting logic. After Raymond and Foster, they mirror film in general and genre film in particular. Caniff often outdoes film, just approaching crossing over from cartooning to film back to pure cartooning. But the path through film is undeniable. Charting this course, then, excludes so many readily available tools and modes of expression that are inherent in the mediums raw material: pictures in some kind of arrangement, be it specific or not at all.

A 1938 Krazy Kat Sunday page by George Herriman

When we look at a page of work by George Herriman, there is much to be discussed within ourselves and with our friends (or enemies, of course) who we might share the page with. How the characters pose, think, talk, the placement of certain colors, where ink is employed heavily and where it is not, the way the simple act of walking is depicted, what walking even means in Herriman's world, etc. We will find painful moments expressed here for some, while for others the feeling might be light, or vice versa. Importantly, Herriman's intentions remain non arbitrary, specific to himself. What we have, in the decades leading up to and following comics birth, is an open medium. And this open medium remains with us today, though obscured and on the fringes. It still retains a great potential to be used by artists and by people in general, to express themselves and to communicate. The invisible bar of entry into working with comics makes this potential especially significant. In a moment where artistic expression in other arenas flirts with total corporate and high money domination, a consideration of openness in the last democratic art form might yield a future golden moment.

This is part 1 of a longer work, which will be serialized by the author in the magazine 'But is it....Comic Aht?' beginning in issue 3, out this Fall. 


27 Responses to Caniff in the 21st Century

  1. Dan Nadel says:

    I can’t figure out why you’re making this argument. It’s been made and settled, starting, I think, in the 1970s with Spiegelman and more or less ending c. 2000-2006.. No one who is not now either (a) dead or (b) a longstanding member of AARP is arguing for the primacy of Caniff and Foster over Herriman. It’s over. George won. Options (a) and (b) are both totally fine. I long for (b) followed by (a).

    Anyhow, it seems like you’re setting up an argument about an alternative when that “alternative” is in fact the dominant mode of comics making today. Herriman to Tsuge to CF to Fake to Davis to Hernandez to Ware to Santoro (himself a Caniff-ite) — all are about an “open” medium rooted in plural interpretations, poetics… not film or pulp.

    I guess I’m curious as to who you are referring to here: “We think of comics this way, as a medium that explains itself to us as we read it. Comics anticipate any confusion by providing more information, especially information that exists only to support the dominant message, mostly unseen or unperceived by the viewer. To suggest that the artform is not based on these foundations borders on heresy.”
    Who is we? Who is it that will find this notion heretical? RC Harvey? Ron Goulart? Both great historians of the medium but neither keep up with it as an ongoing activity. Which is actually a healthy way to be after a certain point.

    And, who do you think believes this: “Clarity, without much significant challenge over the last 80 years, declares itself as the soy sauce and yeast of the medium.”?
    Again, is there someone you can point to that actually believes that kinda junk?

    I want to think this is leading up to something larger, but it’s starting off with a bunch of straw men.


  2. Franklin Alabast says:

    It’s a horrible article, but at least it’s not RC Harvey on Caniff, again, because it would be 500,000 words, again

  3. Dan,

    2006 is a interesting as the year the battle ended and was ‘settled’ in Herriman’s favor. That’s the same year Diamond rejected some books you published through Picturebox, including work by many of the artists you mention here as representing the ‘dominant mode of comics making today.’ The reasons Diamond gave, as I recall, was that the format of one of the books was unacceptable to readers and collectors. The book in question, though, was standard comic book size, the implication then being that it was in fact the contents/style of the book that Diamond was opposed to. At the time, The Beat ran a headline ‘Picturebox: Good Enough for The Tate, but not for Diamond.’ None of the work in question was particularly radical (though it was, correctly, held in high regard) in terms of centuries of art history, but within comics it was heretical enough to merit exclusion in the only comic store distribution catalog.

    That hardly seems ‘dominant’ to me at all, despite you and I (and people we hold dear) enjoying said work a lot. Of the artists you mention, maybe Hernandez’ mode of storytelling approaches a standard idea of what comics are to most people, but grouping him with Herriman rather than Caniff feels odd. I pretty much ‘get’ what’s happening in Bob Boiling comics.

    To look at a Feininger Sunday page, and to declare that that’s what most comics are like right now takes quite a leap of faith (such a leap would guarantee an interesting life but one with quite a few nasty collisions with reality). I think Raina Telgemeier, the worlds most popular cartoonist, is top notch…but her books are painstakingly clear in telling the reader what’s happening in every drawing, ala Caniff. We don’t need hagiography of Caniff from AARP members (we have Alter Ego Magazine already!), most work right now reflects his lessons and values, whether it’s aware of it or not. Every interview in Alter Ego with a member of the generation that built mainstream comics (and, you could argue, gave birth to Schoolastic’s line of comics with Jeff Smith’s Bone as the bridge) cites Caniff, Foster, B. Hogarth and Raymond as the the Gods to emulate. If not them, than Barks, who is obviously on the Caniff side. I doubt many young artists today look at Caniff, but they certainly looked at Buscema or Toriyama or Mazzuchelli or any number of people who made comics very much with clarity and simplicity in mind. When Diamond rejected the Picturebox line, they were selling a lot of Civil War comics: pulp, adventure, (attempted) clarity…Caniff in spirit, if a degraded one.

    Let’s expand it beyond 2006…in a 2020 comic book shop, I rarely find a Herrirman shelf with his name printed on it (let alone one for Edward Gorey or Shel Silverstein) , but most of them have a Warren Ellis section. Let’s forget superheroes, let’s look at sophisticated institutions…is The Nib a Topffer inspired outfit or is the work it publishes more like diluted Trudeau? Is The New Yorker using the political capital of ‘the victory of 2006’ to push their Steinberg legacy, or is its long form work very much of the same tone lately as we see in The Nib or current Believer comics section? Where are the examples of Herriman as the standard playing out, besides NYRC?

    We can say that Raw won a victory for total Herriman hegemony in the 80s, but unfortunately it was a small skirmish. The real war ended in 1986 when Batman was crowned the most sophisticated comic of all time.

  4. Dan Nadel says:

    I was seriously asking who the “we” and the “they” are in the essay. You switched topics entirely and didn’t answer. But maybe both are personifications of the market itself? You’re reading contemporary sales figures and comic book shop talk as somehow indicative of a philosophical divide in the medium represented by Caniff and Herriman? But the neither is relevant to your argument. If you’re looking for a discussion about comics aesthetics in a place with a “Warren Ellis” shelf then you’re in the wrong place. The kind of approach to comics you’re advocating will never win over someone who thinks Dark Knight Returns is the greatest. So what? So Smile is not “art” — so what? My kid likes it, and he also likes Melvin Monster. He’ll be fine.

    Since when in American culture did your notion of quality coincide with best-seller status in any medium? You think Isa Genzken is a crowd pleaser? That show at MoMA is a notorious commercial failure. Anyhow, Diamond’s initial rejection of Cold Heat and some other things I published was a blip. Comic book stores never made up more than 20% of PictureBox’s business. I had traction in the few usual wonderful stores and that’s it. It shouldn’t be taken as some sort of historical “moment.”

    I didn’t realize that we’re coming at this from such different places. To my mind the “cultural conversation” is mostly made up of the Herriman side of things. No, not all the comics are good. What else is new? And while that conversation is not, of course, as lucrative or mass-appeal as Batman, its mere existence and proliferation in the last 20 years is the “win” if there is such a thing. Lynda Barry won a MacArthur, the primary teaching and critical texts and anthologies are by Ivan Brunetti, Hillary Chute, and Chris Ware, among others. Cartoonists routinely win the Cullman Fellowship and attend literary residencies. Harper Collins published a serious biography of George Herriman!
    That’s all, really. I guess I have lower standards than you. You wanna troll me on Twitter some more, go for it.

  5. Drew Lerman says:

    Re: Dan and Austin’s debate. It seems like the winner of the Caniff vs Herriman competition for primacy is a question of who you’re talking about. For readers of this website, Dan is probably right, that Herriman’s legacy is valued higher. For the wider community including everyone (in North America, let’s say) who considers themselves to be comics readers, probably Caniff’s legacy is dominant.

    But this argument seems to mirror just about any other artistic field. There is a more “specialized” group, often composed of critics and artists and aesthetes and obsessives, who tends to value a more challenging and ambiguous approach, and a more mainstream group who tends to value a more sugary and unambiguous approach. Just look at the bestselling poets today and the poets who tend to be prized by academia — as well as novelists, movie directors, musicians, etc. In one sphere Herriman always wins, in the other Caniff always wins.

    (Not that art should be a boxing match or anything, but I guess that’s just sort of how we’re framing it for argument’s sake.)

  6. Adam says:

    I interpret Austin’s argument as more along the lines of Caniff as a Tezuka-like figure, who collapses a mainstream, pre-war aesthetic diversity (embodied by Herriman) into a more reductive, dominant mode. I don’t know enough about Caniff’s impact to argue one side or the other, but do think the historical context of whether aesthetic diversity is a commercially viable and part of mass culture is important to observe. Of course the “better” work will always embrace this diversity, but whether material and cultural conditions allow for it to flourish and further develop is also always at issue. This is even apparent in the career of someone like Tsuge, who couldn’t really survive in any meaningful sense as a cartoonist with a style derived from prewar modes, but was critically lauded for it. And its hard to argue that the material or cultural conditions of comics favored his work over Tezuka and his descendants.

  7. Matt Seneca says:

    Especially in a place like the Journal, I think making the kind of case Austin does here is still a really, even vitally important pursuit. The Journal having the rep and history it does makes it one of a vanishingly few places where one can mount this kind of theoretical, aesthetics-focused argument, and still have it actually reach a couple people who think Frank Miller is the greatest shit ever. Some of those guys read this website! And so do plenty of people who don’t view comics’ aesthetic gestures and history as a settled question, but a constant, dynamic debate. (Me)

    I also thought the first paragraph was quite beautiful. This article has plenty of value.

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    Matt, I don’t view “comics’ aesthetic gestures and history as a settled question.” But it’s safe to say that most scholarly activity and institutional initiatives are built around the Herriman POV (i.e. “art comics”, “literary comics,” etc.) not Caniff. I listed plenty of other examples above. Even the place named for Caniff’s mentor, Billy Ireland, houses BN Duncan’s archive. BN Duncan! Austin’s essay is based entirely on arguing against something that that is not, as far as I can tell, happening and being recorded in any public forum. Responding with sales figures when someone challenges your aesthetic argument isn’t really just shows that the argument isn’t about aesthetics at all. It’s about wanting commercial realities to reflect your taste, and that’s a sucker’s game. If this is about wanting a Steinberg shelf at Forbidden Planet or talking to Frank Miller fans, I guess I just don’t care. Life is too short. I’d rather try and convince someone to fund my “Complete BN Duncan,” “Unseen Rory Hayes,” “Steranko Cosmetic Products,” and “Sketches from Wally Wood’s Garbage” books.

  9. Adam says:

    Dan – why place primacy on “scholarly activity and institutional initiatives” over what’s able to sell and sustain artists? The former has almost no impact on whether avant-garde, even mainstream artists, have an audience for their work. If the majority of outré cartoonists have no meaningful perch or appreciation in mass culture (far different than Herriman’s era, even the 1980s, by contrast), what purpose do these boutique economies of attention serve?

  10. JTM says:

    Where’s Raymond Pettibon, bytchs?
    Is your taste a virtue?
    Your good is the enemy of my free
    Or are we conditioned the same way?
    Your taste is (not) a virtue to (me) you
    “Psychological methods to sell should be destroyed”

  11. Dan Nadel says:

    Ok, I can feel the point of no-return coming, so I’ll just answer Adam and then kinda leave off… It’s not poverty or great sales. This should be obvious: scholarly and institutional activity have an impact on how people make a living in the arts. They are part of an eco-system and help propel grants, fellowships, and residencies. Those activities are related to the last few remaining cultural magazines covering experimental non-Batman comics (there was a 3 page review if Simon Hanselmann in the New York Review of Books two weeks ago; an essay on Screwball comics a few weeks before that), and that kinda activity in turn encourages bookstores to carry those kind of books. I feel silly explaining this. The view of comics as art (not commerce, but art) also means that universities hire and pay cartoonists to teach comics. It’s an ecosystem, and one that’s new to relatively new to comics. Also, newsflash, some “art comics” sell pretty well. Ware, Barry, Tamaki… thank heavens. It means that other artists have more chances to be published. Like contemporary art and literature, standards of living, income, etc. in comics is hugely variable. Is it perfect? No, not at all, but it’s significantly better than it was 15-20 years ago, and it’s driven by what Austin might call the Herriman point of view. That’s why the insistence on Frank Miller, Diamond, and Batman is so baffling to me. Anyhow, that’s it, really. It’s been an exercise in futility! But hey, that’s comics.
    Jason Miles, I hope you’re OK.

  12. Matt Seneca says:

    Dan – if you’re still reading, haha – I guess I see inquiries like this article as comments on/explorations of why scholarly discussion and the market are as separate as they are. I don’t really see the argument here as being “against” anyone in particular so much as “for” a way of approaching the form. I can see what you mean about sales figures, but you can’t seriously posit that the vast majority of what gets MADE – and thus published, consumed, and discussed, whether or not in a scholarly setting – in this medium isn’t done in the mode that Austin uses Caniff to code for here. If this article isn’t the first to argue for the value of a less common approach to comics, it’s still, I think, an interestingly written and thought through piece of work that advocates for something that can still use the advocacy. And the Journal is a useful venue for such work – precisely because it exists in the ever-shrinking overlap between discussions of these two different kinds of comics.

    BUT I can feel myself doing the thing I hate most of all in comments on this site, which is explaining to everyone what Austin REALLY means, so I’m gonna say bye too. I still love you Dan! Good article Austin!

  13. Dan,

    I’m not sure how Ware’s art and Brunetti’s critical text are in any way aligned with Herriman, besides maybe a shared enjoyment of his work by both artists. Brunetti’s text, at times, advocates for simplified direct communication. That shows the ingrained Caniff lessons without Caniff needing to be invoked, as does Ware’s art (a drawing as a symbol or a note). Comics that explain themselves to you as you read them sounds like Brunetti to me.

    And as a reader, I enjoy that. I love Ware and Brunetti, they make beautiful art. Smile is good art in my book as well. I don’t understand the qualitative associations you’re connecting to all this. It’s a tendency in storytelling that is being debated. Caniff is an artist, I almost like him more than Herriman, but I don’t understand how my preferences or yours are relevant to noting the predominant tendency in comics towards simplification and a dislike of dissonance.

    You list a lot of elite institutions who like good comics, mostly comics that tell good simple stories. I don’t understand how this applies, at all. Comics with Topffer and through McCay have much different goals than comics post Caniff/Foster/Raymond. Spiegelman and Moore believe that comics future is their past, yes, but we aren’t living in that reality yet.

    Don’t recall saying Genzen was a crowd pleaser or vice versa. My point throughout is that art in other media predominantly invites viewers to form an independent response, even if elite opinion forces them to stifle this. Comics, for the most part, stifle this before it reaches the viewer.

  14. Adam says:

    >It’s not poverty or great sales. This should be obvious: scholarly and institutional activity have an impact on how people make a living in the arts. They are part of an eco-system and help propel grants, fellowships, and residencies.

    Perhaps for a small cadre who know how to work these angles, but the vast majority of “Herriman” cartoonists get nowhere near any of this. More of them launch GoFundMe’s in a year than receive grants, fellowships, or residencies.

    >Those activities are related to the last few remaining cultural magazines covering experimental non-Batman comics (there was a 3 page review if Simon Hanselmann in the New York Review of Books two weeks ago; an essay on Screwball comics a few weeks before that), and that kinda activity in turn encourages bookstores to carry those kind of books. I feel silly explaining this.

    While I absolutely love the NYRB, Hanselmann makes more money from his own genius marketing ability and direct sales on social media than are driven to him by these kinds reviews. I think all the artists in Screwball are dead. I also feel silly explaining this.

    >The view of comics as art (not commerce, but art) also means that universities hire and pay cartoonists to teach comics. It’s an ecosystem, and one that’s new to relatively new to comics.

    The amount of sustainable teaching opportunities in comics is so small as to almost be irrelevant. The second-order academic consumption of comics dwarfs them, such that you’d be better off writing a master thesis or filing them away in libraries than drawing them. But it’s also becoming wildly unpopular for young people to be used as a debt sop to fund any of this, so altogether doesn’t seem like a good long term proposition or appeal in the US.

    >Also, newsflash, some “art comics” sell pretty well. Ware, Barry, Tamaki… thank heavens. It means that other artists have more chances to be published. Like contemporary art and literature, standards of living, income, etc. in comics is hugely variable. Is it perfect? No, not at all, but it’s significantly better than it was 15-20 years ago, and it’s driven by what Austin might call the Herriman point of view.

    I’d be willing to wager that the artists you mention have made more from illustration, teaching, etc than they do from book sales. Now obviously, their “success” in comics shapes these opportunities, but still undermines the “newsflash” or how meaningful the publishing is as an end unto itself (both for them, but especially for other cartoonists). It’s more a massive amount of labor invested for the chance at a potential, exterior return.

    >It’s been an exercise in futility! But hey, that’s comics.

    Imagine how the people who actually draw them feel!

  15. Tom K says:

    Not taking any sides in this enjoyable debate. A couple of observations:

    The vast majority of ‘scholarly activity and institutional initiatives’ are built around the Caniff model. Only the most elite institutions build around the Herriman POV. Rhetorically many institutions talk like Herriman, but actively support Caniff as if there was no difference between the two approaches. Libraries are really good examples of this.

    Austin’s observations are general and are looking at the general perception of comics (the good and the bad). Dan on the other hand has ‘curated his timeline’ (so to speak) and jettisoned all the crap. There’s value to both approaches. They’re not necessarily at odds… more like parallel tracks.

  16. Jones says:

    The evaluative trend in the comments seems, to me, to be underrating Caniff’s skills and peculiarities. He’s not an artist like Swan whose style is that there is no style. (I don’t mean that as a diss of Swan; on the contrary!) He has his own idiosyncrasies and obsessions, along with the noted focus on clear action.

    (Drew Lerman’s comparison with film studies seems inapposite here. The last Sight and Sound poll had Vertigo as #1; some more recent poll had Seven Samurai — both of them very mainstream entertainments, far removed from say Stan Brakhage or whoever you want to make analogous to Herriman for personal expression or whatever. Of course they have their own auteurial identity, 100% — but they are first and foremost entertainments. Or look at a film critic like David Bordwell, who was championing Hong Kong action cinema way before that was respectable; or what the Cahiers guys wrote about Hawks, Aldrich et al. The point being that I don’t think there is that split in film culture, or not to the same extent)

    In any case, Austin is spot on when he says that Caniff was so successful that his influence became invisible.

  17. Tom K very articulately gets at something I was trying to say: Herriman may be generally appreciated, but elite institutions that praise him aren’t necessarily assuming a radical Herriman approach in their practices. In fact, as he states, quite the opposite. That’s why Dan’s insistence on a straw men argument feels particularly baffling to me. ‘Comics as art’ in ascendancy is on the dubious and unprovable ground.

    Again, picking up from Tom, libraries. You can find the hard stuff with some work, but collections are built around Saga, serialized Image pulp and commercial manga. And why not? That is comics to most readers.

    I’m also puzzled that elite media is invoked as a positive, when the article goes out of its way to stress audience reaction to art, unmediated through what hierarchical institutions advocate, as wrongly marginalized. Also, Hanselmann (again, another cartoonist I enjoy a lot!) doesn’t make sense to me at all as a representative of the tendency Dan believes is inarguably ’winning’. Simon makes very clear comics that people relate to, I don’t see the connection to Herriman beyond—-again—-that they are both good artists. Herriman’s importance in this argument is that there are layers of obstruction in his art. I don’t see any artists listed that embody this. Charlotte Salomon would be a good one and she’s embraced by academia…but of course her style of art making is singular and not represented within contemporary comics culture.

  18. Adam says:

    The conservatism of libraries and museums in how they engage with comics is odd, if not surprising to me, as someone who has worked inside these places my whole life. There among the few institutions in America with the insulation and resources to make a case for avant-garde work, but almost universally embrace the “safest” comics.

    And this is true even though the outré comics share a greater kinship with the fine artists they normally celebrate and enshrine! Mark Connery is closer to Ray Johnson than most “Caniffite” work, Margot Ferrick is deeply influenced by early Christian art and medieval illumination, and Alex Degen draws more from ukiyo-e and Tadanori Yokoo than anything else. Why the single-minded focus (and paid vacations) for artists like Ware and Seth who, while masters of their craft, draw transparently from more limited influences and primarily concern themselves with reinventing the postwar American novel? I guess I reiterate: what’s the point of comics having a perch inside elite institutions if the work that’s tolerable and useful for them isn’t even as risky as their other art? If the extent of their taste is what appears in the Times or New Yorker, what’s even the point of their being “elite” at all?

  19. Danny Ceballos says:

    He dint say red,
    He dint say grin,
    He dint say ping –
    He said BLUE …
    Bee – Ell – oo-oo-oo,

  20. Drew Lerman says:

    Austin, I’m glad you mentioned that “Herriman’s importance in this argument is that there are layers of obstruction in his art.” Seems worth unpacking what exactly you mean by “layers of obstruction.” Does it simply mean material within a given strip that might make the reader pause and wonder what to make of this or that? Is obstruction just ambiguity, things not neatly resolved on the page? Like: Krazy’s slippery gender pronouns are rarely remarked upon within the strip (though occasionally they are), leaving this to the reader to interpret. Same with the shifting of background landmarks and objects, behind a conversation which seems to be happening in a fixed point in space. Some of the jokes seem pretty peculiar (though a lot of the time I wonder how much of that is a 100-year-old reference I don’t get). What about the drawing itself? It’s usually pretty clear what’s going on, choreographically, though the characters’ faces are usually pretty inscrutable. Would a strip that’s rendered with more abstract drawings, or for that matter less-accomplished drawings, be a better example of this type of work than Krazy itself? Of course, it’s also easy to imagine a strip whose drawings have illustratorly Caniffian mastery but whose meaning is obstructed and withheld at every turn. (Is Ding Dong Circus like this? I haven’t read it.)

    Maybe it’s more useful to think of the ways in which various of the artists mentioned in the comments above fall in different loci on the Herriman-Caniff spectrum/matrix, rather than being firmly on this or that team.

    For example, in the Krazy strip you present here, I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Ignatz told Krazy to meet Ignatz at this appointed spot, and that Ignatz would appear when the blue moon rises. Officer Pupp doubts a blue moon will come, and when he sees moon “rising all agold,” that settles the matter for him and he leaves, satisfied that Krazy will be safe from Ignatz’s brick. Thus Ignatz is able to cut his blue balloon from its thread: the blue moon he promised Krazy rises after all. Presumably Krazy will see it and then Ignatz will hit him with a brick. So on some level it’s clear. (That is: clear to people who have read a few Krazy strips and understand the simple goals of each character.) Now, WHY all of this should be happening is of course another matter, and is certainly rooted in dream logic and silliness, which isn’t at all “clear.” But the events of the strip seem to me to be. But is the extent to which I was able to extract that order of events a product of the strip’s Caniffianness?

    Well, anyway!

  21. Erik Nebel says:

    Adam says, ‘The conservatism of libraries and museums in how they engage with comics is odd… among the few institutions in America with the insulation and resources to make a case for avant-garde work, but almost universally embrace the “safest” comics.’

    i love the idea behind this statement. it points to the idea that libraries and museums could be institutions that someday engage with avant-garde comics.

    problem i see is that we don’t have a cohesive avant-garde movement in the cartoonist community.

    so, if elite institutions asked, “who are the avant-garde cartoonists of today?” there is no obvious place they could go to find the answer to that question.

  22. Adam says:

    @Erik Nebel

    Agreed about the cohesive avant-garde, but also think that’s reflective of a broader artistic trend away from these collectives/formations (i.e. not specific to comics).

    As to knowing where to find these artists, again, having worked for these places, I would say that many of the curators and librarians are actually more “in the know” than you would imagine. The problem is that it’s always a safer bet (as far as your resume is concerned) to push “known quantities” over taking any kind of risk. “No one gets fired for hosting a Chris Ware talk” could be the adage here. This is of course reinforced by the current critical infrastructure of comics, which mostly hems toward the same approach (celebrating the safest work with superficial engagement). At least we still have TCJ.

    But the possibilties are exciting. Imagine Ron Rege up on the wall with Hilma af Klint!

  23. Erik Nebel says:


    i think you’re right about the tendency for people to play it safe. that includes curators, librarians, and also college professors and journalists.
    people in these positions aren’t going to advocate for the avant-garde in comics.

    you point out the broader artistic trend away from collectives, but i actually see the cartoonist community as split up into collectives. for example, austin has his domino group of cartoonists. dan nadel had his picturebox people. tom k has his uncivilized. (i name them because they are part of this discussion.)

    what i’d love to see is some sort of unification of all these small press publishers, even if there is a difference in ideology or aesthetics, for the sake of announcing their presence to the world. otherwise they will generally continue to be ignored by both commercial and elite institutions.

  24. BradC says:

    @Drew Lerman

    I’ve spent more time than is healthy thinking about “layers of obstruction” tonight.

    I was also wondering “is that Krazy Kat strip THAT opaque?” It certainly feels clear to me.

    Then I thought “What would Milton Caniff (Or Simon Hanselmann) do?”

    Imagine if Milt didn’t bolt for the door after you pitch the words “anthropomorphic cat with a scarf and a dog in a police officer onesie”. Clearly Hanselmann would be okay with this. Anyway they both go to illustrate the argument. Milt would give you some alternating over the shoulder shots, a close up or two and maybe an aerial shot. Hanselmann mostly close-ups.

    What neither of them would do is unmoor the scene from time and space.

    If this was a play or movie and the background changed every two lines while the characters barely moved, we’d rightly wonder “What is the director trying to get at?”

    Is it a feature or a bug of comics that in Herriman’s hands it goes down rather smoothly? It doesn’t really matter. As Austin points out, it’s something that’s available to exploit and we tend to forget it’s a possibility.

    Beyond the backgrounds, that pose that Pupp makes when he takes off his hat is baffling and feels like a grandfather of some of John Hankiewicz’s comics. I can’t imagine Caniff doing that.

    Just have to put this in some how. Hanselmann told The Fader “[Comics are] very simple, people, it’s just cinema on paper.” The fact that he’s the one that’s one of Fantagraphics’ stars and Hankiewicz is in the F.U. subimprint is telling regarding which modes of comic expression have visibility. [I know F.U. is kind of more distributor than publisher, but why not publish and push more Hankiewicz?]

  25. Drew Lerman says:


    I think trying to figure out what another cartoonist would do with this material is really instructive and smart. Maybe part of it comes down to character psychology and motivation. Like in Krazy Kat, it’s clear enough what each member of this trio wants, but why they want it is one of the strip’s deep mysteries, and maybe the heart of the ambiguity we’re talking about. In a more conventional story, one could imagine getting a backstory — a kat ate Ignatz’s parents and he has sworn revenge, e.g. — that helps naturalize these actions through explicable motives. This type of accounting, which feels so urgent to many storytellers, would ruin the logic of Krazy Kat. (Unless we were given a new contradictory backstory each week or something I guess…?)

  26. Austin English says:

    With underground comics, what approach dominates? Crumbs, of course, which might appear experimental compared to John Byrne, but is rooted in a Carl Barks approach…as traditional as possible. His contemporary, Melinda Gebbie, makes comics that start with one dominant tone and end with another, a story about a party suddenly becomes a collage of images. There’s a sequence to the images but…what do they mean? The logic of the sequence is not explained to us, but it doesnt deny the potential for as deep (or, as I think, far deeper) a reaction than Crumbs most praised work allows. Gebbie’s work is truly open in its storytelling, and her relative lack of followers in comics speaks to how powerfully outside the norm her approach is, and how poorer comics are for this absence.

  27. Oliver C says:

    What is the last panel of that Krazy Kat page but cinematic? Herriman emphasizes the geography of the scene with two ‘master shots’ (panels 1 and 4) in which the tree may strangely change, but the strange U-shaped mound in the background *doesn’t*, so that when he finally and wordlessly cuts to behind it, we can immediately realise where we are. Indeed the entire punchline would fail if we didn’t.

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