The internet tells us that comics criticism and reviews typically ignore a comic’s art, focusing only on the story. Even if this is true (and I’m not sure it is), I see even less talk about words. This neglect should surprise us given that definitions of ‘comics’ almost universally grant text and image equal billing: e.g., ‘comics is a medium of words and pictures.’ The great cartoonists — George Herriman, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and many others — have been masters of language. So why give words short shrift? Are plot and pictures truly King?
In Part I of this review survey, I look at twelve comics, most of which were published in 2013. Many are great, a few are not, and several are included because they use words in interesting, if not always successful ways. Though I often discuss the comic’s text (i.e. narration and dialogue), I also consider drawings, plots, characters, color, productions methods, text/image interaction, and anything else that seems worthwhile.
It was SPX last weekend, and our own Joe McCulloch was there, on assignment from the Library of Congress. He's got a report on his progress for you, plus notes on the week's most interesting-sounding new releases.
The suggestion had been made some time prior to SPX that I would succeed Rob Clough as guest curator for the Library of Congress, in accordance with a partnership facilitated between the entities in 2011, "where representatives from that institution would comb the floor and select minicomics, self-published comics, original art, flyers, Ignatz Award nominees and other publications that otherwise would skip the LOC and be lost forever after their initial print run." I greatly admired this impulse, the idea of preservation - for a long time, that was a stated goal of scanlators, of pirates, of varied unscrupulous types on the internet who'd 'curate' selections of lost, gone comics, without permission, for the edification of all. Now, of course, everyone excerpts images on Tumblr and reblogs them all over, the process having gained legitimacy by honing itself down to details tiny enough to curl within some community understanding of fair use.
In contrast, I can scarcely imagine anything more legitimate than the Library of Congress. So legitimate, in fact, that the first time I entered the LoC's hotel suite, I (not literally) (mercifully) ran into an interview in progress with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Congress itself was right there!
Her work is an exemplar of a style of cartooning that's dense, dark, scratchy, and unflinching in its willingness to confront pain, trauma and horror. The obvious comparison for Bongiovanni is Julia Gfrorer, who in fact blurbed this book. They tap into different emotional and psychological veins in their work, even if their styles and rawness are similar. Both frequently make comics set in a timeless, nameless forest environment where darkness and the supernatural are real, lurking concerns; it's just that the two set their comics in different parts of that same, primal forest.
Out of Hollow Water explicitly deals with the trauma of violation, as well as the reality of surviving that trauma, in each of its three stories. While Bongiovanni has noted that these comics are personal and a way of working through her own issues, she's also careful to make the stories vague enough that one can fill in any number of blanks as to both precisely what happened and what each person is doing as a result. That's why using a fantasy/mythological setting makes so much sense, because it provides a buffer between real life while simultaneously creating a larger-than-life sense of dread and even suffocation on the page.
—Interviews. Just before SPX, Mike Rhode interviewed local cartoonist Michael Wenthe. Tom Spurgeon talked to show attendee Warren Craghead. The National Post talked to our own Jeet Heer about his new book on Françoise Mouly. NPR talked to Art Spiegelman about his new book. Steven Heller talks to Randall Enos. And James Sturm did one of his CCS "exit interviews" with outgoing Fellow Connor Willumsen.
—And the Rest. Lynda Barry did a comic on reading for the Washington Post. (Warning: An annoying commercial may automatically start playing when you hit that link.) The New York Times did a lengthy profile of the popular children's book artist Sandra Boynton. HiLobrow did an extremely short profile of Seth. And Dave Sim once wrote in to The New Yorker to take issue with an Art Spiegelman piece pitting Bernie Krigstein against Will Eisner. (FYI, as many Cerebus fans maybe already know, Sim's co-artist Gerhard is currently selling prints.)
I'm just back from SPX and that ate my comics brain. So, to commemorate this weekend of good vibes and collegiality we present the classic Blood & Thunder letter column war, "I Am Not Terry Beatty's Girlfriend". See you Wednesday.
Today, Brandon Soderberg interviews Raw Power creator Josh Bayer about covering ROM Spaceknight, this spring's Tumblr controversy, Retrofit, working with his music-video director brother, and the overrated nature of originality. Here's a sample:
SODERBERG: Basically, covering Rom allows you to do autobiographical comics that don't suck? Issue one has a frame of Seth reading Rom, and issue two has a back-up story that focuses on Seth at school.
BAYER: Yeah, doing the Rom cover comics is just some weird device that measures how uncomfortable I am with telling a real autobiographical story. Each time I do a Rom story, I let whatever fragments I remember from around that time enter the story. But not like an episode of Seinfeld where everything ties together. More like an Italian neorealist movie, where it’s just two pieces standing side by side – the comic and life during that time periods – and readers can make the connections. So, if I did an issue from 1985, I'd probably write about something that happened when I was 15 years old. Originally, when I was working on this issue of Rom, I wanted to write about December 1980 when John Lennon was killed, because that was a really weird period of my childhood. But the longer I worked on issues #31 and #32, the more I felt like I needed the whole thing to come together on every level. Even that conceptual level of having the fact and fiction match up chronologically. And the issues I was covering came out in 1983. I couldn't have "Seth" reading that issue in 1980. Even though most people wouldn't know or care, it would bother me.
We also have Robert Kirby's review of the crowd-funded anthology The Big Feminist BUT!, which features Gabrielle Bell, Vanessa Davis, Barry Deutsch, Justin Hall, Angie Wang, and Lauren Weinstein. Here's a bit of that:
The Big Feminist BUT: Comics About Women, Men, and the Ifs, Ands and Buts of Feminism features comics touching on a wide spectrum of contemporary feminist issues. The title is a clever play on two familiar caveats: “I’m not a feminist, BUT…” and “I’m a feminist, BUT…” Editors Shannon O'Leary and Joan Reillymake it clear that feminism isn't solely concerned with women’s issues, but rather promoting and embracing gender equality for all. The comics here take on gender roles, sexual identities, body image, marriage vs. singlehood, polyamory, motherhood and parenting, domestic responsibilities, and self-defense and safety, among other subjects. Some creators take a subtle, naturalistic approach (Barry Deutch, Vanessa Davis with Trevor Alixopulos, Joan Reilly w/ Suzanne Kleid), while others are direct, even polemical, addressing feminism head on with all its gender and identity complexities (MariNaomi, Angie Wang, and Andrice Arp with Jesse Reklaw).
—Festivals. While I was away, I missed Rob Clough's report from the first Autoptic festival. Lilli Carré writes about her experiences at the Helsinki Comics Festival. Chris Butcher has a lengthy wrap-up of TCAF 2013 and announcements for next year's festival.
—Interviews. Inkstuds welcomes back Josh Simmons. One of the all-time great interviewees Daniel Clowes does it again in a short one with Cotton Candy Magazine. And Frank interviews Wowee Zonk member Chris Kuzma.
Today we bring you Adam Smith's interview with Wally Fawkes (a/k/a Trog), the British cartoonist behind the long-running strip Flook, and who had a parallel career as a jazz clarinetist. Here's an excerpt:
Did you find it a challenge to draw a week’s worth of Flook strips while regularly playing jazz gigs?
Keeping the playing and the drawing together, that really became more difficult. There was a time in ’54 when I had an offer to go to Geneva to play with Sidney Bechet with a Swiss band, and to produce a stockpile, because that was about three or four weeks, everybody was filling in--I was doing the outlines, and everybody was filling in, like Neb, [Ronald Niebour]. They all got together and supplied me with a stockpile of strips so I could go away to Geneva and play with Bechet. Then from about ‘55, our band became more and more successful, the touring increased, there were continental tours, and I was heading towards a nervous breakdown, the strain of it all was just too much, and I knew what I had to do. I knew I wouldn’t make any money out of playing; unless you’re a bandleader, you just don’t. And to keep the music, which I loved, safely on one side and really concentrate on the drawing. Which was a very good decision. So I left Humph in ’56.
The sleeve of The Troglodytes’ 1960 EP “Flook Digs Jazz”
Have you toured since then?
For a while I had a band called the Troglodytes. We did the occasional tour up north; it wasn’t really touring, just the occasional weekend, like a Saturday night gig. The Trad Jazz of Chris Barber was sweeping, and you had to have banjo. We got a bit tired of that noise, and we were trying to move away from that painting-by-numbers school of music. Gradually it came back to the pub, and I’ve spent the rest of the time playing in pubs. The occasional concert, but now I’m not really playing at all--I decided to quit while I was still at the bottom!
Then we get to George Melly, who took over from Humphrey Lyttleton...
The different writers brought different things to it. Well, Flook became George.
If there’s something serious on display here, it’s Millar’s critique of superheroes themselves. The challenge he’s chosen to throw at his band of costumed adventurers is one that nobody on earth has managed to figure out, and given that none of these characters is being presented as much more than a low-watt bulb, there isn’t a lot for our heroes to do once they figure out their interpersonal drama but lose. That alone is reason to keep reading, given the extreme rarity of seeing the heroes of a big event comic go down in defeat, and the generally more-interesting stories that happen when they do (see Watchmen, The Winter Men, et cetera). Millar’s no Alan Moore as far as any question of craft or quality is concerned, but Jupiter’s Legacy has a hint of Watchmen’s timeliness, showing the impotence of superheroes as they take another step down the intra-comics popularity ladder. There’s a very fun metafictional layer to this stuff for all you elitist asshole Comics Journal readers out there: after 75 years of reigning supreme in the wake of the Great Depression, the clock’s run out for the cape and cowl crowd, whose kids would rather party and do drugs and have bed-ruining sex, like they do in (shudder) alternative comics. Millar might be going for an obvious metaphor in linking the fall of superhero sales to the waning of market capitalism’s successes, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch the dominant powers of our lifetimes dither as they wither. Here more than anywhere else, superheroes are revealed as an outmoded idea, one whose time has well and truly passed.
—I'm still catching up to some things I missed while away, so excuse the few links that may seem old or familiar, please.
—Sort of Comics: The New York Times has a story about Jeffrey Babbitt, a New York-based longtime comics fan who was apparently randomly killed last week, and who had strong ties to Forbidden Planet on Broadway.
Today, Ryan Holmberg continues his exploration of comics in India with an interview with Kailash Iyer, co-founder of Comix.India, an independent comics anthology.
Issue six came out last year. Will there be a seventh?
I don’t think so. The books aren’t selling well. Indie comics in general in India don’t have much of a market, and even within that context, Comix.India hasn’t sold much. We are not seeing a return on the investment of even the effort put into getting the books out. Secondly, we are having a problem with Pothi. The first two issues are out of print. Despite being a print-on-demand, you can’t order them anymore. I am not sure if it’s a printer issue or whether Pothi is no longer interested. If there is going to be another issue, my plan is to put it up as a free download. Since it’s not selling, you might as well give it away for free, so at least the contributors get exposure. I will check with Pothi again whether there is a chance that the books will be made available again. If there’s not, I want to release them as free pdfs, if the contributors are willing.
It seems that today, unlike when I first came to India five years ago, or even three years ago when I first read Comix.India, there are a number of groups doing indie comics, like Manta Ray in Bangalore, or the Pao Collective in Delhi. New artists potentially have other venues now.
Yes, artists and writers do have more options, but most of the Indian labels are still rather small, so they only have limited openings for unproven talent. I also believe most publishers source out and invite people to collaborate, rather than having open submissions, because most of them have a specific focus.
—The 2013 Harvey Award winners were announced this Saturday in Baltimore. Saga continues its streak this year. Robot 6, with which we share several writers, won an award, too. For some reason, the Harvey site hasn't yet published an official list of the recipients, but you can find them on their Twitter page.
—Sorta Comics. Edward Carey lists his ten favorite writer/illustrators, including such as Tove Jansson, William Blake, Maurice Sendak, and Edward Gorey, most of whom are cartoonists by one definition or another.
—Penny Arcade is obviously a comic strip, but I'm not sure it makes sense to say that its regular Penny Arcade Expo is a comics convention. Still, this editorial by Rachel Edidin explaining why she will never return to the event is worth pointing out here. Really, some of the worst aspects of internet, video game, and comics culture all rolled up into one ball.
—History. Frank M. Young has another excellent post up on his Stanley Stories blog, this time exploring early work by Stan Lee which seems to be heavily influenced by John Stanley. Michael Vassallo has his own excellent post on Noel Sickles.