George Freeman always comes to mind when I think of comic book powerhouses who can do it all. Freeman's got the goods: killer drawing chops, excellent timing, a sharp sense of design, and he gives his work enough of a cartoon shine to make it look fun and alive. He's like Michael Golden as inked by P. Craig Russell. It's exceptional work, but due to his erratic résumé, Freeman's never been closely associated with any one major title or character and thus, his work is easy to miss.
Our review of the day is also a dip into super-hero obsession: Noah Berlatsky, who remains on brand by shaking his head at the latest attempt by DC Comics to get Wonder Woman right.
Usually when people discuss "adult content", they mean sex. But the original Wonder Woman comics by were saturated with themes of lesbianism, bondage,and cheerful eroticism intended to thrill and entertain children of all ages. Marston, who in his personal life lived in a polyamorous relationsip with two bisexual women, believed that loving submission to eroticized female authority led adults and children of every gender to peace, happiness, and matriarchal utopia.
Morrison and Paquette aren't quite true believers, but they obviously enjoy pretending. Volume 2 kicks off with Nazi superwoman (and Marston creation) Paula Von Gunther invading Paradise Island with a battalion of storm troopers during World War II. She's quickly subdued (in various senses) by Queen Hippolyta and her warriors, who fire orgone blasts that convert Nazi soldiers to love as each cries out with an ecstatic "yes!" Paula herself realizes that she should submit to the love of women, rather than to the hate of man, and falls in infatuation in quick succession with Hippolyta and with Diana, aka Wonder Woman. Paquette's drawing of Paula's moment of transformation— eyes wide, expression rapturous—would please Marston mightily. That's exactly how he wanted his readers, girls and boys, to look at Wonder Woman—as a love leader who will restrain us, retrain us and lead us all to kink and virtue.
Much of the story takes place in Colorado, occasionally flickering back to Chicago, where Sandra, equally listless and confused with the grief of Sabrina’s disappearance, spends most of her days indoors. Drnaso’s storytelling style excavates his characters context; his illustrations, reminiscent of airport security pamphlets from the early 2000s, scrub faces of expressiveness. The physical spaces, too, are equally nondescript: most rooms are under-furnished; beds lack frames; not a picture-frame in sight; and the only words that appear on the page are pieces of dialogue in speech balloons.
As for a possible return to comics, she doesn’t rule it out. Nor does she seem especially bothered either way.
“Who knows? Not me. It would have to be something completely different from what I used to do, and right now I don’t feel I have any stories to tell. Besides, you go to a store like Drawn & Quarterly now and you open a few books … there are just so many amazing things being done. I tend to get discouraged when I see stuff like that.”
In his own account of his life, Fisher was profuse in thanking “a good and gracious God for letting me be on my way at last.” He produced a daily column (“Cousin Ham’s Corner”) with caricatures of local celebrities and drew a cartoon or two, sports or political. After a year, he left the Record to join the staff of the city’s other paper, the Times-Leader, because, he explained, “they let me put my name bigger on the cartoon. That’s a fact. All we cartoonists are hams and my name especially fits me. But boy, it was great. I was a personage in our city. If I hadn’t been a cartoonist do you think that judges, mayors, the governor — well, in fact everybody — would have sought me out? I had a position of influence and power, but not too much affluence. Soon I was toast-mastering at banquets, getting good money as an after dinner speaker with nice little political plums thrown my way."
He confessed that he even drew political cartoons for both the Democratic and Republican parties. And then, he said, “came a mistake.” He joined a friend in launching a new newspaper. It lasted only about a year, but its collapse (due to the effects of a strike in the local industry, coal mining) was undoubtedly a blessing in disguise for Fisher. A couple of years before, in about 1920, he had been smitten with an idea for a comic strip, and if the newspaper had succeeded, his comic strip might never have germinated, and the pugilistic world would have been poorer.
The Vagabond Valise, just out from Conundrum Press, is a new entrant for admission into the canon of very sad nonfiction graphic novels. It follows Chick-o, a stand-in for Canadian author Siris, through a long, disparate series of grievances and injustices in and out of the foster system in 1960s and ‘70s Quebec. There’s no question that it is sad: gross food, emotional and physical abuse, losing an adolescent crush when her house burns down. There is some rough stuff. But even though the contents sufficiently sad, I’m not sure that’s enough to make Valise good.
Siris has a scratchy line, likely from a nib pen, but it’s not super variable. There are few small details (forks on the dinner table are little tridents, backgrounds are sparse) and a loose hatching permeates nearly ever panel. This wobbliness can be endearing, and the art is on the more cartoony end of the spectrum, like Rocko’s Modern Life. There is a low-simmering magic realism a la Pee-wee’s Playhouse — Chick-o is a Lewis Trondheim-esque bird boy.
I did the interview with Jim intending to make it the main focus of the 3rd issue of a comics zine that Marguerite Van Cook and I were doing for fun, Comic Art Forum. But then it felt like it was so significant, and presented such a good opportunity to establish language for comics scholarship to be able to talk about the dovetailing relationship of art and text in comics, that I thought I’d try to get it done by a major publisher as a book. It seemed to need a biographical intro, which at the time I didn’t have the writing chops to do properly. At that point, one thing led to another and I returned to college at BMCC, then Columbia and CUNY Graduate Center. I spent a decade and a half completing my masters because I drew five books worth of comics and a few gallery shows in that time. Drafts of both of the essays in the book were originally done as papers for classes. The critical analysis training I got led me to writing for Publishers Weekly, The Comics Journal, etc. – and to teaching. So it has been a journey that took me to some unexpected places.
Just to note, I had originally counted 200 unique graphic and storytelling devices for our “Innovations” list that runs through the interview, but between Jim and I, we weeded out around a quarter of those as having been previously done by others – so Steranko was quite active in trying to not take undue credit for himself. And I retained my independence in writing the essays and assembling the book so it would have critical validity, rather than being an “approved” publication.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about that… what would have happened if my folks had sent me to a late 50’s-style child behaviorist? Christ. I’m sure they thought about it. Probably the stigma of having a certified nut for a kid prevented it. But the truth is that these visions and things were peripheral to an innate and intense metaphysical longing, that well-known nostalgia for the infinite that drives so many of us, which was and still is at the forefront of my consciousness. So I’m glad I didn’t get diagnosed, held back, drugged, shocked or subjected to whatever other barbarous rehabilitation techniques they used on wayward children in the Beaver Cleaver era.
Paste: Is it hard for you to be so open about your life or does it come naturally? Has it gotten easier or harder over time?
Schrag: As a teen, I mostly wrote whatever I wanted to about myself and other people, which was freeing, but led to a lot of personal complications. Now, I’m more careful about not exposing others, which is its own relief, but can make the writing more difficult. Disguising people or fictionalizing autobio is just another layer of work. There is a sweet spot where you say what you want and it feels like the truth and no one gets hurt or feels exposed, but that spot is hard to come by.
—Reviews & Commentary. The Paris Review has published Harold Rosenbeg's essay from the new NYRC collection of Saul Steinberg's The Labyrinth.
Both because of his superb penmanship and the complex intellectual nature of his assertions, I think of Steinberg as a kind of writer, though there is only one of his kind. He has worked out an exchange between the verbal and the visual that makes possible all kinds of revelations. For instance, there is a drawing in which a triangle on one end of a scale weighs down an old, patched-up, decrepit question mark on the other. Axiom: A NEAT FORMULA OUTWEIGHS A BANGED-UP PROBLEM.
To build his labyrinth, Steinberg had only to draw a line from A to B on the principle that the truth is the longest distance between two points: the result is an enormous scrawl within which the original two dots appear as the eyes of the Minotaur.
As if the relations between words and objects weren’t complicated enough, Steinberg has thrust between them the illusions of the drawing paper. “There is perhaps no artist alive,” E. H. Gombrich testifies in Art and Illusion, “who knows more about the philosophy of representation.” A long straight line keeps changing its pictorial functions—first it represents a table edge, then a railroad trestle, then a laundry line, until it ends up in an abstract flourish. Steinberg is the Houdini of multiple meanings: the line with which he creates his labyrinth and entangles himself in it is also the string that leads him out of it.
The much-missed podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell (featuring TCJ all-stars Chris Mautner, Joe McCulloch, Matt Seneca, and Tucker Stone) has finally dropped a new episode.
—Misc. Courtesy of Sean Howe, I recently learned about two YouTube videos of interest to old-school fans. First, an interview with Jack Kirby:
And then a "debate" between Todd McFarlane and Peter David.
Last week, some adjustments to the TCJ website made the backend of the site unusable for a time, which is why you did not see a blog post. Previously scheduled posts did appear that day. Since then, we've worked with the website programmers so that we'll be able to return to regular posting, and it is our hope that the upgrades we were in the process of setting up will appear without issue in the coming weeks.
On Friday, we featured Greg Hunter's most recent episode of Comic Book Decalogue, this month featuring Ben Passmore. In it, the BTTM FDRS creator discusses the impact of Prince of Cats, shelving a post-collegiate magnum opus, and when leather jackets and moshing came to hip-hop. (As observant readers will note, Greg refers to this as the podcast's penultimate episode. More about that later...)
Today's feature comes to us from the sorely missed Ng Suat Tong, who goes into great detail to refute recent criticisms of Mort Cinder that have focused on the book's plot and narrative mechanics.
There have been suggestions that Oesterheld dragged out and improvised the introduction of Cinder because of Breccia’s difficulties with finding the right look for the character—hence the strangely meandering first chapter (“Lead Eyes”). Yet whether this forced discursion truly affects the narrative as a whole is difficult to determine.
While the construction of Mort Cinder has been noted to be a flexible and collaborative effort between Breccia and Oesterheld, there are distinct and recurrent motifs in it which suggests it was not put together for reasons of mere entertainment or with little forethought. If anything, there is a coherence and depth in its plotting which suggests a steady hand at the tiller.
Robert Dayton's The Empty Bed is a long howl and a laugh up his own sleeve. This is the multidisciplinary artist's first long-form comic, and its mixture of word and image has more in common with Ray Fenwick's typographical comics than anything else. This is a dense, splotchy pen-and-ink affair about a devastating breakup. Actually, it's not so much about the breakup as it is the long, long aftermath. That aftermath, featuring the dreaded "I love you but I'm not in love with you" rejection, is interminable, self-indulgent, self-pitying, and frequently hilarious.
Today's review comes to us from Tom McHenry, and it's of one of 2017's more inventive works, Sophia Foster-Dimino's Sex Fantasy.
Foster-Dimino excels at taking the fantastic and anchoring it to earth with well chosen details and physical stuff. Too much whimsy and nothing connects, but too much reality and nothing delights. With the right mix, though, the emotional stakes of every mode get raised for the reader: the comic, the tragic, the erotic.
The past week saw a flurry of action involving DC Comics, sexual harassment and online activism. As covered by comics websites like Bleeding Cool & The Beat, the general story followed what is now becoming standard operating procedure: a victim's public proclamation of harm, support from major industry figures boosting the story's profile, websites & social media users deducing and publicly declaring the name of the alleged predator, and then the firing of the individual. It took less than a week for this situation to reach that conclusion. One would hope that kind of pace will eventually find its way towards curtailing the abuses described in the first place.
In America, filling in a comic store's worth of shelves with anything besides every Batman trade inevitably becomes both a guessing game and a referendum on a proprietor's personal taste; the American comics industry just hasn't produced enough books that can be relied upon to sell over the long term for it to be anything else. France doesn't have the same problem, which is awesome! But the cloud hiding underneath the dazzling silver lining is that retail backed by a successful industry can become classic rock radio: a predictable parade of solid selections.
What France has is better than what we have here (BD Fugue in Nice is an incredible store, FYI), but my meanderings on the Riviera felt a bit like a negative image of the shitty retail experiences I wrote about earlier this year. Shopping for comics is fun, and one of the reasons why is how variable and random the experience is. It's not like going out to get office supplies! The same-y feeling I got from comic shopping in France wasn’t unpleasant - it was nice to see books that had something to recommend them enjoying unambiguous commercial success - but it was there. Nothing’s perfect, man - not when you’re engaging in late capitalism, but especially not when you’re buying comic books.
Our review of the day comes to us from industry stalwart, Ryan Carey. I couldn't remember the last time we reviewed some yaoi, and Ryan was happy to oblige. Coyote: how is that thing?
The tone Zariya establishes here is basically one of “YA minus the Y,” as we are introduced not so much to a pair of characters as caricatures, titular protagonist Coyote being shy, nervous, stand-offish, perhaps not entirely comfortable with his emerging sexuality, while the object of his affections from afar, piano player Marleen (I guess Coyote isn’t too introverted to avoid spending most of his nights hanging out in bars), is the stereotypical “dreamy” sort, all smooth confidence with just enough sensitivity to make him less out of reach than he at first appears. He’s Edward, only human, while Coyote is a lycanthrope Bella.
The best of list season is truly upon us, with a whole bunch of sites getting into the action. Meanwhile PW is shouting out the big books of Spring 2019, three of which are definitely pulsing with great Satanic power. But when it comes to best of lists, I, like Dominic Umile before me, have long since reserved my greatest excitement for this one: Adrian Curry's. It ain't comics (even if cartoonists do occasionally show up), but hey--we got a lot of those already.
A collection of minicomics by M.S. Harkness, D*P* D**L*R is aggressive, confident work by a cartoonist whose obvious affection for boldness and speed conceals a methodical structure and pacing. Comics that in other hands would have allowed for an exercise in crude mark-making so as to complement narrative tempo here play out with an eye towards broader legibility--this, more than other comics playing in the here-is-some-gnarly-shit-I'm-into genre, is a comic that won't seem foreign to a broader audience less willing to engage with obfuscation.
The three stories here all seem to be drawn from Harkness's life, or at least, from how Harkness chooses to present her life to others. (Harkness uses the same stand-in throughout, an angular character who also served as lead in her previous book, Tinderella.) Opening with a fast paced karaoke take on SZA that sees its protagonist tearing through enough life experiences to fill a whole shelf of comics from more sedate storytellers, this first tale features a bukkake sequence, a boot-removing assault as response to street-side cat-calling, a jail-bound musical, and a monster truck rally that makes it to outer space. Harkness shows no loyalty to any particular layout, going from one-page splashes to jam-packed micropanels, often toying with the style in which she depicts her lead. The flexibility allows for odd flourishes that give the story a wry humor that might not otherwise come across with the song lyrics that stand in for actual text.
Professional wrestling's relationship to the truth has long been a part of its appeal. Performers play heightened versions of themselves; matches have predetermined outcomes but take legitimate physical tolls; and the pleasure of suspended disbelief accompanies the thrill of an in-ring comeback or betrayal. Documenting the tradition’s history means contending with its layers of artifice—not just the competing accounts of various musclebound egomaniacs but also wrestling's stake in an embellished understanding of itself. So it's perhaps not just for brevity's sake that Aubrey Sitterson and Chris Moreno's new book settles for something short of history in its title. Their Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling recognizes wrestling’s complications but isn’t always a match for them, offering critical insights and fannish boosterism in equal parts.
Sitterson, the book's scripter, locates pro wrestling's origins in carnival athletic shows that crossed the country following the American Civil War, then follows its transformation into a worldwide phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century. Here and elsewhere, Sitterson has a weakness for excessive bolding ("Catch wrestling allowed holds below the waist, mitigating the Russian Lion's power, but he proved indomitable and was soon recognized as the world champion in England"), and his constructions are often clunky ("Much like in the carnival days, it would seem there was too much money on the table not to start at least partially compromising legitimacy for entertainment."). Even so, he makes these pages count, exploring the shady inheritances of wrestling's carnival pedigree and explaining how the tradition came to optimize its entertainment value.
Any credible understanding of wrestling is an international understanding of wrestling, and here too, the book delivers. Before surveying more recent figures and trends, Sitterson devotes a chapter to Japan's wrestling culture, from its growth after World War II to the divergent histories of storied promotions All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling. For the curious but uninitiated, Sitterson also clearly defines terms common to Japanese pro wrestling, e.g. "strong style" (a martial-arts-influenced tradition favoring strikes and kicks), and explains Japanese wrestling's less rigid face-heel (good guy-bad guy) binary.
Ryall will step into his new position on December 10. Earlier this year Ryall left IDW, after 14 years, eventually taking a position at Skybound Entertainment, a comics and graphic novel imprint at Image Comics founded by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
In a press release, Ryall said IDW is "where I’ve spent the majority of my career and I consider the company and its employees like family, so I am grateful for this amazing opportunity to return.”
You’ve drawn a lot of different kinds of work, but are those the kinds of stories you like reading and watching? Or just the ones you’re drawn to telling?
It depends. I usually don’t watch or read a lot of slice-of-life stories, I watch mostly horror movies and for shows my favorites are Grey’s Anatomy and The Flash, and when I read prose it’s almost always nonfiction (I read a lot of true crime stuff), and when it comes to comics I don’t see a lot of stories similar to how I write but I’d like to read more like that. I can’t think of any truly plotless slice-of-life comics off the top of my head.
Maybe Ariel Schrag’s old books, like Potential and Likewise, which I love, they’re slice-of-life-ish but also autobio so it’s not quite the same. So I guess to answer your question it’s for the most part the type of stories I’m drawn to telling, rather than the types I read or watch. Mostly I just like stuff with monsters and serial killers in it. [laughs]
One of my points in Marbles is (the discovery) that I am more creative stable. Stability is good for my creativity. Self-care and balance is a way to be more creative and innovative. Creativity is not necessarily fueled by mood swings. Passion doesn’t necessarily come from being off balance.
Today at The Comics Journal, R.C. Harvey returns to with the first in a series of columns looking at the relationship, the careers, and the fall of Al Capp and Ham Fisher. We hope you'll join us for the duration! It's rip-snorting--and here's how it starts:
The story of Al Capp and Ham Fisher, two cartooning geniuses, their rise to celebrity and their furious interactions with each other, is the stuff of epic adventure fiction, but here, it is fact.
At the peak of their careers, in the 1950s, they were superstars: Capp reached 90 million readers and earned $500,000 a year ($4 million in today’s dollars); Fisher, 100 million readers and $550,000 (over $4.5 million in today’s dollars).
Their creations were in movies and on stage.
Shamed by his colleagues at the height of his career, Fisher died by his own hand; Capp died in obscurity, disgraced by sensational news of his sexual scandals.
Today's review comes to us from Leonard Pierce, who leapt back into the trenches to review one of the multiple comics that Noah Van Sciver put out this year. It's One Dirty Tree, from Uncivilized Books.
When you’re dealing with biographical comics, anything goes, as long as it feeds the story. Noah Van Sciver, probably best known for his sharp Fante Bukowski: Struggling Writer series, was raised Mormon in suburban New Jersey, a fact which, standing alone, gives his new book, One Dirty Tree, a strange cultural frisson to me. While intellectually, I’m aware that Mormons exist in every county, city, and practically every country, it’s hard for me to square the idea of this reserved, rule-bound, exceptionally fertile religion existing outside of my low desert youth, marked as it was there by a uniquely Western libertarianism and almost entirely absent of any kind of bohemianism. Such was not the case with Van Sciver’s family; his father was a temperamental but curiously artsy man who encouraged his kids to develop their individual talents and himself forsook the money he might have otherwise made as an attorney frittering away his time on an epic poem about his religion.
Today on the site, Frank M. Young completes his two-part examination of the unfairly obscure midcentury cartoonist Cecil Jensen. This time, he focuses on the cartoonist's post-Elmo career, particularly in his Little Debbie strip.
With this change, Little Debbie became Bizarro Peanuts, or Little Debbie Minus Little Debbie. The adult Debbie teaches a quartet of preschoolers who bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Charles Schulz's mega-popular characters. Unlike Linus, Lucy or Schroeder, these kids are so out-there that it might be a willful satire. Jensen was entitled to say “what the hell?” and try anything at this point.
In place of Charlie Brown is George Green, a ball of neurotic uncertainty with huge glasses. Standing in for Lucy, Violet and Patty is the brutally frank and aggressive Matilda Jones. In the most out-there twist, twin boys collectively named Barney Jones speak and act as one.
Jensen had, arguably, been doing a Peanuts-like strip before Charles Schulz. By the time of Peanuts' October 2, 1950 debut, Little Debbie had been in all-kid mode for two years. Both strips show children acting unlike children and exposing the foibles of adult life. Where Schulz's strip feels restrained and college-educated, Jensen's seems the work of an autodidact—a man who has been exposed to the same intellectual ideas, but through his own study and observation rather than university courses.
Jensen's humor is brainy and earthy. Like E. C. Segar, he seems at home in a rowdier world. Thus, this late Peanuts homage/satire is darker, harsher, and wackier than Schulz ever was in his work. This was a fitting end-game for the strip. It started as a sort-of knock-off/parody of Li'l Abner, which went places Al Capp avoided. So why not bring down the curtain as it first rose? This 11th-hour new direction is bracingly funny, once the reader readjusts their expectations.
Elmo was an odd fit for the Register and Tribune Syndicate, an Iowa-based concern that trafficked in America’s dullest strips. Jane Arden, Jack Armstrong, Ned Brant, Off the Record and other R&T features were popular—Arden was in hundreds of American papers. The syndicate was commercially successful, if artistically bankrupt, before Jensen showed up.
Bubbling over with eccentric characters and dialogue, Elmo also presages the laugh-out-loud novels of Charles Portis. Jensen would’ve been the perfect artist to illustrate Portis’ low-key novels such as The Dog of the South (1979) and Masters of Atlantis (1986), had time and space permitted. Jensen and Portis heed this golden rule: the nuttier the situation, the more deadpan the delivery.
Unlike Portis or Bob & Ray, Jensen’s comedic vision is quite dark. Elmois a strip without one heroic character. Elmo is troubling. He’s too cheerful. Perhaps all those years of washing diapers at the orphanage, where he was raised, made something snap in his head. He is civil, polite and obliging, but he doesn’t function in a reassuring way. He may occasionally frown, or display anger, but most of the world’s good and bad bounces off him. He is a challenging choice for a protagonist.
It’s a canny take on the required immortality of corporate superheroes, making sense of all the deaths that never stick in ongoing continuity. Continuity that’s mostly dismissed here, with Banner’s casual narration saying “It was a complex situation. I'll spare you the fine details”. The Hulk’s status quo suits these kind of shifts. He has transformation in his gamma-infused DNA: man into monster, yeah, but also grey to green, dumb to smart, lone force of destruction to cuddly, collectable superhero. Ewing has fun with the last when one witness refuses to believe the Hulk’s all that bad. “Monster? Ol’ Jade Jaws? Come on, lady. He's a founding Avenger. He's been in movies.”
Over at Tumblr, the exodus of what made Tumblr exciting continues, with Liar Town USA posting their own "see ya later", which includes a mention of their next print publication. One hopes that many of the goodbye posts to come will include that kind of bittersweet conclusion.
Over at Image Comics, they're hosting their own piece of comics history. It's one of those oral history kind of articles, focused on the old Warren Ellis Forum, a place on the web where a whole bunch of people "got their start" as comics internet personalities, and where then able to see that turn into various kinds of careers. Hey!