A lot of “graphic novels” coming out from major publishers these days really seem to be variations on the graphic memoir. A cynic might say that many of them derive their hook from being about death, illness, abuse, tragedy, etc. An alarming number of them have come from first-time long-form cartoonists and are aimed squarely at the sort of mainstream reader who enjoys this sort of confessional, miserabilist but ultimately triumphant story about tragedy and unfortunate circumstances. I’ll rattle off a few titles in this vein: Cancer Vixen,Stitches, The Impostor’s Daughter (perhaps the most egregiously manipulative example of this sub-genre). As someone who has long found autobiographical comics to be rewarding on any number of levels, some of these books feel like a distressingly cynical way to make money on the part of the publishers. Life and death is big business, after all.
That’s why it was so refreshing to read Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me. It’s less a story than it is a therapy journal comic, but Forney’s instincts as an entertainer kick in even on the dreariest of pages.
I know this is classically “TCJ” of me, but “Will Eisner Week” seems silly. I like Eisner’s work very much, particularly The Spirit and the near-hysterical melodrama (that’s a good thing) of A Contract with God, the gauzy false history of The Dreamer, etc. But the ongoing deification of the man does his actual achievements a disservice. As Gary Groth has written many times (that it’s never sunk in is a testament to the unique mix of self-love and self-hatred that is comic book culture for men over the age of 40. What my generation does with all this stuff is up for grabs. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’ll be “Fletcher Hanks Hangover Day” in 30 years. Or “Rory Hayes Mondayz”.) the best way to appreciate an artist is to be realistic about what he did. I’m all for appreciations and weeks and blah blah. Couldn’t it just be Will Eisner Day: A guy who managed to make a buncha good comics and inspire people? Or Will Eisner Weekend: Read comics by his assistants! Or Will Eisner Hour: Read Hawks of the Seas!
Eisner is neither the father of the “the graphic novel” nor is said “graphic novel” even a “uniquely American art form”. He was a popularizer and an advocate. This has all been written about ad infinitum over the last decade or so. But! Writing this kind of thing is more or less pissing in the wind. This precise little blog post will not convince anyone. No argument can, actually. There’s a kind of calcified fandom in place rooted in a striving emotional attachment to a father figure and the hopes for acceptance of the idols of one’s youth. Kind of like the terrible “nerd culture” that’s sprung up. It just won’t budge. It’s not disingenuous: I think that whoever wrote those taglines actually believes them, and all that takes is a certain passivity and (maybe) willful blindness. I suppose the irritation on my end is that obscures the facts and pushes what limited resources there are in this medium onto something both false and unnecessary. Telling someone to read a graphic novel is like saying “Watch some TV” or “Read a Poem”. Why in the world would that matter? Well, anyway, another ranty aside down the hatch.
GROTH:Do you think all the arts have essentially the same creative process: writing, painting, making music?
MORIARTY: I think that they share. I think collaborative arts are different. I recognize certain tricks when I see Actor’s Studio guys on TV talking about their process. Christopher Walken, on one of the shows, he said something about, they’d all get their scripts, and he would go through his script and take all the punctuation out, so he wouldn’t know if it was a question or whatever. And so he delivered a line without any knowledge of whether it’s a question or exclamation, so the actor he’s playing to would freak. And I just love that, because it’d make the other actor improvise, somewhat. Of course, he’s in the dark himself, because he took all the punctuation out. I think that’s nice.
Another actor said that, on the stage before an audience, if you got to the point in the part where he’s supposed to cry, he doesn’t cry, because he wants the audience to cry — because if he did cry, then the audience wouldn’t have to cry, because he fulfilled what the need was. I love that, so when I hear these things, I find connections. But I think the real distinction is collaboration, because they have to work with someone else in that moment, whereas writers and artists generally don’t. So, it’s like a tightrope, there’s no support at all. No net at all. You survive the fall, but you know the fall exists. There’s no support structure for you. It could be a lifelong thing, like the Henry Darger life — I don’t know if he sensed that. I think there are differences. Jazz comes the closest to my sensibilities.
Steven Heller writes about the new Al Capp bio over at The Atlantic. That book, which I just finished, is long on gnarly anecdotes about Capp (which I’m all for) and very short on any kind of aesthetic analysis or coverage of the process of making that strip. Kinda like author’s bio of Will Eisner. If you’re gonna write one of these books it seems odd to be disinterested in the visual aspect of what your subject did.
Two recent tributes to the late Spain Rodriguez. One from Artforum and another, an absolutely essential memoir by the great Ed Sanders. Don’t miss it, at the very least for Sander’s description and accompanying photos of an art show he mounted at his space, Peace Eye, in 1968. If this reaches Ed Sanders somehow: We’d love to see more of those photos! Was this the first gallery exhibition of underground comic art?
More underground: A little bit on a previous iteration of Robert Crumb’s published sketchbooks. Click around for a nice cover gallery.
And finally, Gavin Lees reports on an Elfquest panel at this past weekend’s Emerald City Comicon.
After a short break, Tucker Stone is back with Comics of the Weak, along with his compatriot Abhay Khosla. Tucker takes on the latest big moves in superhero comics, and Abhay talks about Orson Scott Card.
—Robot 6 talks to First Second editor Calista Brill and designer Colleen AF Venable.
—Garry Wills namesDoonesbury the best political writing of our time, and picks a Garry Trudeau title as the one book he wishes Obama would read.
—Have we mentioned yet that TCJ contributor Sean T. Collins is spotlighting different webcomics every Wednesday? He is.
He realized he had achieved most of those things, but he also found that as time went by, he had to work harder to maintain the image—“not only my public image, but my own image of myself. I found that I didn’t dare look back over my life too closely because I didn’t like what I saw there. The failures, the excesses, the broken marriages, the people I had hurt and disappointed—these were all swept under the rug, but that old rug was getting pretty lumpy, and I knew what was under there—and I didn’t like it.”
Although he didn’t actively consider doing another comic strip, he realized, deep down, he still wanted to do one, but didn’t quite know how to get there.
“My god had failed,” he wrote, “because my god was myself—and it was the only one I’d ever really known. This self-god, the Great Ego, the Almighty Me, had led me through divorce to booze, to attempted suicide, and to most of the known sins. I still couldn’t recite the Ten Commandments, but I had broken most of them at one time or another. And I had done a pretty thorough job of breaking myself, as well.
“I realize that all this doesn’t sound like anybody’s finest hour, but it was for me. I had encountered, at age 46, a brick wall, both personally and professionally; I stopped running, surrendered, and turned to Jesus. Like all those people I used to deride, I became Born Again. And Jesus did more than change my life: he restored it. He enhanced it. And He began the process of repairing the lifetime of damage I had done to it.”
Then in the late spring of 1978, Lynde’s agent phoned him and told him that Dick Sherry, president of Field Newspaper Syndicate, had expressed an interest in Lynde’s creating a new strip.
And we conclude our preview of TCJ 302 with an excerpt from Warren Bernard’s look at Wertham and the 1950s Congressional Hearings.
The artist and DJ Magnus Johnstone has passed away. I know very little about his life and not much shows up online. I think Ben Jones or C.F. turned me onto to Johnstone’s zines maybe 10 years back. Those zines are stirring collections of drawings, sometimes narrative, most often not, but certainly of a piece with what goes on in New England. Most recently I was pleasantly surprised to see his drawings in Alan Licht’s book Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Artists like Johnstone kind of hover on the periphery… I never quite knew where to place his work, but I liked it very much.
One of the great misconceptions people had was to quickly judge the drawings of Magnus without thinking. If you didn’t consider the intention Magnus wanted to express then you lost a key element in the greater realm his drawings could deliver. Maybe his work was harder to ingest because you had to think. His work had an eerily consistent motif that appeared as if Magnus was channeling a precisely and detailed vision of our primal future. Humans were reduced to infantile adults, surrounded by strange new toys, and entitlements of royalty with all the trappings of our base foundations revealed. Deciding not to apply a little scrutiny to his Manga zines would leave one lacking at seeing reoccurring themes of ironic humor, social psychology, erotic hypocrisy, and political protest evident, to name a few.
From my understanding, I think some artists were shocked by the honesty of his work, and maybe their offhand rejection of his value was more a scorn of their own artistic failing. The craft of his Manga drawings were as true as their expression, and exhibited small signs of any other recognizable inking style. His vision was always on point and well-conceived, delineated in fly-on-the-wall perspectives that were addictive to the eyeballs and the mind.
Here are a few drawings from his site:
There’s a bit about Johnstone’s role in Boston hip hop here. My condolences to his family.
R. Fiore helps February come to a close with a typically excellent end-of-2012 column that will gladden winter-hardened hearts. He apologizes for the tardiness, but speaking personally, I prefer reading these kind of things nearly any time besides December and early January, when my eyes are most likely to glaze over at the sight of a top-ten list. Here’s a bit:
[Skippy‘s] full-scale revival had to wait until the Crosby estate got over its preoccupation a trademark infringement case against the makers of Skippy peanut butter. This was a real life Rocky story, in that it featured a dauntless but hopelessly overmatched underdog motivated by principles meaningful only to itself subjecting itself to round after round of merciless beating before succumbing to inevitable defeat. With this crusade lost beyond the hopes of the most determined Quixote, they have finally been prevailed upon to authorize a comprehensive reprint of the cartoonist’s masterpiece.
The positive side of all this is that it held Skippy back until the comics publishing industry was ready for it, and the LOAC collection is absolutely gorgeous. However poorly they may have chosen their battles, the Crosby family proved to be admirable custodians of the archives. The lengthy introduction takes us through Crosby’s 20-year apprenticeship, starting as a teenager, and illustrates how he took the tropes of early newspaper cartooning and developed them into something that was simultaneously completely conventional and completely original.
In other news:
—Chris “Achewood” Onstad is attempting to transition his well-loved strip into the world of TV animation.
—Reviews of Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen’s biography of Al Capp are beginning to spring up. Here’s one in the Boston Globe. The Al Capp story provides some pretty rich material for a great book if the right biographers get hold of it…
—Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins) has been named the winner of this year’s Herblock Prize. (Perkins was the first cartoonist (& nearly the first person) I ever interviewed, a million years ago. I remember him being very gracious to a young and clueless idiot who didn’t know the first thing about how to do the job.)
—MoCCA has announced the formation of a juried prize, picked by a panel including Karen Berger, Gary Groth, Nora Krug, David Mazzucchelli, and Paul Pope.
—Stephen Bissette makes an interesting comparison between the treatment of superhero comic-book artists of the past with the SFX artists behind the superhero movies of today.
—HiLobrow recently began publishing a serializedversion of Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon—2419 A.D., more or less the dry run for Nowlan’s Buck Rogers strip.
Joe McCulloch brings us the week’s releases, as well as some thoughts on Richard Kyle and early fandom. Kyle is a fascinating figure whose magazine Graphic Story World remains a touchstone in early comic book history. He also famously commissioned Jack Kirby’s “Street Code.” I interviewed him a few years ago and have yet to transcribe it, but one of the days…
Still, from this excerpt, we can glimpse the true thesis of Kyle’s essay. He is fascinated by that most second-half-of-the-20th-century of all aesthetic preoccupations: the division between “art” and “trash,” which we might rephrase to ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. “Art,” to Kyle, appeals to the emotions and the intellect, while “trash” appeals only to one, yet because trash is embodied in “the spirit of the thing,” it can evade the scrutiny of art’s critical practice, and, sometimes, in its perennial success, prove itself more important. Specifically, “costume heroes” of the Golden Age disregard personal interest in favor of “idealistic beliefs of justice and right,” their dual identities emphasizing the capacity for the ordinary within the extraordinary, the simple humanity latent in the liberation of joyous power – “the hearts of these paper dolls.”
Thus, the “[e]ducation” of Victor Fox — “blue jeans gaping at the knees, being drummed out of kindergarten” — was that his eventual darkening of the superhero milieu in Blue Beetle, amping up sexualized peril for the heroines and stripping down the villainesses’ attire as the vogue for crime comics crept forward, only led to his rejection by a public given to “a mean streak of decency.” On first blush, this seems patently absurd – the (adolescent) public quite obviously loved pre-Code crime and horror comics; that’s why the Senate held hearings for a fast-crashing Bill Gaines to melt down over. But then, Kyle himself was a writer of adult-targeted crime novels, and perhaps saw a distinction between superhero comics and other types, the former appealing bang-on to impressionable children through the unique traits of the comics form, “where symbols can artistically replace representative realism more easily and convincingly than any other story-telling medium,” allowing idealism to flower.
This morning marks the return of Charles Hatfield and his column on children’s comics. This time around, he writes about a frankly awful-sounding Fairy Quest: Outlaws, a title that has very representative flaws. Here’s part of the column:
The premise leans hard in the direction of Fables, complete with a setting called Fablewood “where all of the stories that have ever been told live together” (compare Fables’s Fabletown—or, for that matter, Once Upon a Time’s Storybrooke, though, to be fair, work on Fairy Quest predates the launch of that show). The twist here, besides the fact that Fairy Quest aims to avoid the barefaced adultness of Fables, is that, instead of familiar characters being run out of their Homelands by an evil Adversary, this book has familiar characters trying to get out of their homeworld for freedom’s sake. Fablewood is a dystopia, suffering under the despotic bureaucracy of a “Mister Grimm,” a narrative traditionalist whose mantra is “Keep your story straight—do not deviate!” Grimm runs the storybook world like a police state, issuing penalties and punishments for every departure from the conventional narrative logic. As the oft-invoked words “straight” and “deviancy” suggest, there’s potential for social commentary here (recalling, perhaps, Pleasantville, with its conflict between “black and white” and “colored” citizens). The authors, however, don’t rise to their own bait, and the implications of the premise remain unexplored.
Perhaps I should be grateful for that, given the number of formulaically “dark,” dystopic takes on fairy tales and old storybooks that comics have offered up (lately we all seem to be living in a world designed by American McGee). But Fairy Quest is generic in the most tiring way. Reading it reminded me of Underwhere, another deluxe yet underwhelming fantasy comic Paul Jenkins was involved in some years ago: all the expected pieces are there, but nothing new leaps out. There is beautiful cartooning on display, but nothing makes extraordinary demands of authors or readers.
The writer-artist (or artist-writer) is a problematic figure for many reasons. A hybrid figure in either medium, literature or drawing, he or she is suspect. The literary world, for its part, often displays an almost aniconic idolatry in its repudiation of image in favor of language; while the visual world, compelled to reject figurative renderings as mere “illustration” in its promulgation of the extremes of abstraction, often dismisses out of hand the writer-artist, who actually dares to combine figurative images with the additional blasphemy of the written word. But whether they are called pictorial writings, as they were by Austin Osman Spare, or American hieroglyphics, as they were by Vachel Lindsay, or Illuminated Books or stereoscopic printing, as they were by William Blake, the time has come for us to finally recognize it as cartooning and be done with it, and allow the cartoonist to assume a proper place in literary and artistic history.
—Sam Sacks ventures into somewhat similar territory in his post on The New Yorker‘s blog praising the illustrated book.