The Pandemonium Shadow Show

Welcome to the working week. The rolling wave of previews from our long-awaited issue 301 continue this morning, with an excerpt from a conversation between the legendary Mad and Humbug artist Al Jaffee and the Tales to Thrizzle cartoonist and funniest man on Twitter Michael Kupperman. Gary Groth moderates.

Also on tap this morning,'s Star Reporter Sean Rogers reviews the new Jim Woodring graphic novel, Congress of the Animals. Here's the first paragraph:

Have we ever been asked to actually root for Frank before? As the star attraction in Jim Woodring’s oddball menagerie, the purple-furred, minstrel-gloved naïf is usually just a little shit. Whether he’s stabbing the craven Manhog in the ear or apprenticing himself to the diabolical Whim, Frank is often little more than a dastard, a rogue, a loafer with a blank stare. Despite the occasional glimmer of fellow-feeling, Frank pursues his desires and exacts his revenge with few pangs of conscience and little concern for the future. Strange, then, that with Congress of the Animals, Frank has for once become our hero, our champion, our semblable.

If you were on the site this weekend, then you already saw Frank Santoro turned in one of his inimitable and highly entertaining travel reports, this time documenting his time visiting Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, Ted May, and Sacha Mardou in St. Louis. As is Frank's wont, the piece also includes an elegy to the pre-internet minicomics world, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at art methods behind Huizenga's new Ganges issue, and a seemingly unending stream of recommendations for comics and art tools. In other words, it's a good one.

Last Friday, we invited 4CP's John "The Scan Master" Hilgart to provide our daily blog post—you read that, right?—and so it falls to me to make sure you didn't miss the fifth entry of Michael DeForge's Cartoonist's Diary, this time with Risograph images. Thanks, Michael!

Also on Friday, in easily one of the best essays I've read on Chester Brown's Paying for It written thus far—well worth checking out even if you're sick of hearing about that book—Ken Parille splits himself into three and argues amongst himselves. You kind of have to read it to understand.


Superman’s Face

Superman’s problem is that no one can see him. Trapped in the premise of secret identity without a disguise, he becomes by necessity the invisible man, unrecognizable to his closest friends, all of whom he has held close on countless occasions as both Superman and Clark. He is the world’s most generic man, unidentifiable as himself.

It’s no wonder he’s fought so hard, for so long, to foil plots aimed at discovering him. He’s waiting for Lois or Lana or Jimmy or Lex to look into his eyes one day and say, “Jesus, Superman, you’re Clark,” or vice versa.

The Superman comic book is the visual paradox of Magritte’s “ceci n’est pas une pipe” turned into an identity crisis that never ends. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, the problem metastasizes into narrative fixation, with countless panels containing both Clark and Superman, or two Supermen, or two Clarks, or a dozen identical Superman robots.

Like a Warhol series out of control, Superman’s face is a single photograph iterated into infinity, until it is no longer individual or even iconic, but instead a cipher that is wholly without visual interest. Lois Lane can’t really see that face, and neither do we, except perhaps when it is defaced.

Superman was a perfect superhero for exactly as long as he was the only superhero. He created the category - it's named after him - and in doing so, he rendered himself generic, redundant: He's the super superhero man. He went from being unique, to being the Platonic form, to being the boring one. Batman is a super man, but with more bat. The purity of Superman's conception meant that every subsequent superhero was Superman with an interesting twist, or at least some additional visual interest.

And then there are the things that could only be learned after 100 stories and the birth of 100 more superheroes. Masks are really cool, and very handy in a secret identity scenario that is going to continue for 70 years, especially if it’s going to revolve around a love triangle in which the superhero plays two of the three roles.

It’s an Archie scenario in a superhero comic, a whole world that springs from and depends almost completely on a single, absurd suspension of disbelief. Archie can’t decide. Clark and Superman are different people. Archie’s version burns with the power of a million yellow suns; I can buy his comics in my grocery store checkout line. Superman, however, lost his struggle against the narrative kryptonite inherent in his original conception.

Having your superhero's head look less interesting than that of his boring civilian alter-ego probably isn't the best idea. Creatively and conceptually, undressing to become a superhero is brilliant. It’s sexy, for one thing, but putting on a different face has proved to be the most convincing way to “change an identity” – in both the reader’s and the character’s minds. Imagine Batman without a mask, or The Hulk with Bruce Banner’s face. Batbruce (The Dark Playboy) is a joke, whereas Superclark is an apt summary of the problem around which Superman revolves. You can see it written all over his face.

And this is why Superman actually remains unique. He is the unfinished and irresolvable superhero. There have been debates about which of his aspects is the ego, and which is the alter ego, but really it’s a chicken and egg scenario; neither had priority. He arrived as an infant, tabula rasa, and the very first time his adoptive parents concealed his super-baby traits, he was split in two by a super-secret concerning his identity. He was always both Superman and Clark, or he is forever neither of them, two possibilities that are equally chilling.

As an adult reading those mid-century comic books, I am torn between campy amusement and a horrified sympathy for the poor guy. When I encounter all those stories that turn out to be “what ifs,” dreams, imaginary weddings, and events that might actually have happened in an alternate reality, I should see generations of comic book writers struggling to overcome the inherent narrative kryptonite. Instead, I like to imagine that these stories are Superclarkmankent’s desperate, blissful, and surely inevitable fantasies of a self who can finally come to rest.


A Pack of Them!

Michael DeForge is back again this morning (or the Michael DeForge from March is, anyway), this time with a look at a Toronto-based psychoanalytic group, the kind they don't make 'em like anymore.

Also, the indefatigable Rob Clough reviews the latest volume of Joann Sfar and Louis Trondheim's Dungeon Monstres.


*When I saw who was involved with the Paying for It critical roundtable over at the Savage Critics (part one, part two), I got pretty excited. Up to this point, it's been a lot more dismissive of Brown's work than most reviews have been, and the participants are perhaps just a bit too in sync in their views (at least so far) for this to be quite as much fun as roundtables sometimes can be.

Based solely on the subject matter, I expected there to be a lot more angry denunciations of this book than have appeared so far. Responses have been unusually measured in general. I also expected at least a few reviews to be entirely positive, extolling Brown's politics as obviously correct, and so far I haven't read any at all. They've got to be somewhere right? On a libertarian blog somewhere, or a prostitution website?

*Seth's father, who wrote the memoir Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea, has passed away, and the cartoonist wrote a tribute to him on the D&Q site.

*You should really look at these excerpts from Roy Crane's scrapbook, which also includes working notes and layouts for a strip he was developing in 1977.

*The great Arnold Roth has started a blog.

*Kim Thompson and translator Jenna Allen talk Gil Jordan, Private Detective. I am very interested in reading this book.

*Via Tom Spurgeon, a pretty great message-board appearance from Walt Simonson, who shows up to respond to a poster's complaints about his Thor run.

*Matt Thorn does some tour-guide work regarding Takako Shimura’s new web comic.

*For lettering and design obsessives: D. B. Dowd talks wordmarks.


Biking with the Stars

On the site today:

-Patrick Rosenkranz returns with a rare profile of Diana Schutz, who has had a fascinating career in comics and, as Patricks susses out, an also intriguing career as a teacher.

-TCJ Talkies gets the great cartoonist Howard Cruse on the line. I've admired Cruse's comics for a long time. I remember going to a signing for Stuck Rubber Baby in St. Louis many years ago and still think of that book as a landmark in ambition and execution. Cruse is a true trailblazer, and I greatly enjoyed and heartily recommend his recent book from Rizzoli, The Complete Wendel, which collects his longtime comic strip, Wendel, which was published in the Advocate. Besides featuring Cruse's excellent, lush cartooning, the book is one of the only records of the gay community in the 1980s in comics form. Don't miss it.

-And Michael DeForge's week in March continues.

Elsewhere: Things I've seen and enjoyed lately:

* A Raymond Pettibon film.

* I loved Richard Merkin's wonky, heartfelt artwork. It used to appear in the New Yorker before his death. Evocative, blurry images. He was also a prolific collector, and some of his fabled accumulation is now up for auction. Here is a 1910 Tad Dorgan advertisement up for auction. Beauty itself.

* Tom Spurgeon on the late Lee Ames.

* Via Will Sweeney: Hawkwind on the Marc Bolan TV show. And no, I didn't know such a thing existed.

What did Hawkwind have to do with comics? Barney Bubbles, man! What did Barney Bubbles have to do with comics? Well, he did some good Druillet swipes and...Uhhh, I'd hazard a guess that the future 2000 A.D. blokes kinda liked this:

and this:

Not to mention this:

* Oh, and don't forget about Forcefield. Seriously.


What Gives?

Michael DeForge returns, with another diary entry from back in March. This is his punishment for being punctual.

And Joe "Jog" McCulloch offers his usual Tuesday morning installment covering the week in new comics. This time around, he also takes the time to slaver over an obscure manga find he stole at a church-basement sale.

In our Archive section, we've resurrected Michael Dean's cogent 2002 report on the battle for Jack Kirby's Marvel art. This is important history, and important context for the interview we published a couple weeks ago.

*Elsewhere, since I indulged in a bit of doom n' gloom on the blog last week regarding DC's digital-strategy announcement, it probably behooves me to mention that DC has since announced the price point they will be setting for new comics. (The DCU Source site seems to be down for some reason this morning, but you can read about it secondhand here.) Basically, they plan to sell digital comics for $2 or $3, the same prices as their print comics. Last week, I suggested that same-day digital sales would likely cannibalize the direct market, but I doubt too much of that will go on at this price point. I also doubt that DC will maintain this price point forever, but until they change it, this isn't quite as apocalyptic a deal as I made it out to be.

*Fan favorite comics blog Dial B for Blog returned this week.

*Paging Joe "World's Biggest Smurfs Fan" McCulloch: Your little blue friends are being attacked by French academics for their political system.

[Antoine Buéno] points out that the Smurfs live in a world where private initiative is rarely rewarded, where meals are all taken together in a communal room, where there is one leader and where the Smurfs rarely leave their small country.

"Does that not remind you of anything? A political dictatorship, for example?" asks Buéno, going on to compare the Smurfs' world to a totalitarian utopia reminiscent of Stalinist communism (Papa wears a red outfit and resembles Stalin, while Brainy is similar to Trotsky) and nazism (the character of the Smurfs' enemy Gargamel is an antisemitic caricature of a Jew, he proposes).

Actually, as that link in Jog's name will indicate, some of this analysis is old news, but you've got to generate media hype for a new movie somehow...

*Finally, Grant Morrison obsessives will garner much material for future comic-book annotations in this genuinely fascinating biography of his late political activist father, Walter Morrison. [via]


Taking Things Too Seriously

Hi there,

On the site today:

* Frank Santoro's latest Color Workbook focuses on the use of gray and color layering:

The reason for studying gray and how it relates to color is rooted in grisaille painting. Most traditional oil paintings before the 20th century were painted in gray first – then the colors were glazed over in very thin, transparent layers.

* Hayley Campbell reviews Even The Giants and finds it a mixed, but mostly good bag.

* Michael DeForge begins our cartoonist diary challenge! Well, he took it on early, and so we present a week in this whipper-snapper's life back in March.

* And finally, did you hear that TCJ 301 is coming out? I bet you did. It's been having what we like to call a "rolling release." You can pre-order it here. Should be in all stores in early July. And it's a doozy. So anyway, throughout June we'll be posting excerpts from the issue, starting today with a selection from Gary Groth's Joe Sacco interview.

On another subject... Harry Mendryk posted a response to James Van Hise's comment on our Fighting American post, and it kind of triggered some thoughts of my own. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Harry's dedication and am thrilled that the Titan Simon & Kirby Library even exists in the first place. These books are really the best reprints ever done of this seminal material. But something struck me about Harry's post. He writes:

Readers of my previous posts on the subject of restoration should know that I do not recreate line art (a process that Marvel still continues to use for their reprints of golden age material). However the end result of my restorations is by no means just a scan. I have no problems with describing what I do as “touch ups” only not in the manner that the TCJ commenter uses the term. Frankly the original printing used in these comics was pretty poor. Now as far as I am concerned reprints of just scans is far superior to art recreation however I prefer to try to correct some of the printing flaws.

What's interesting here is the notion of "printing flaws." He's undoubtedly right that the printing was hardly technically precise, and could obscure the line work. But nevertheless, there is real beauty in those "flaws," and character, too. The old hand-cut separations and absorbent newsprint was the form for which these comics were made. The final art was not the line art on board, but rather the comic book itself. I know, this is basic stuff, but somehow we get lost trying to find the "perfect" form for things when, really, the form itself exists.

I should be clear that I'm not arguing against Harry's process: It's one of the best options for this work, and and in terms of showing us crisp linework with an approximation of the intended color, it's by far the best, and it is historically invaluable because it allows us to really see the mix of line and color by a master, as rendered now, in a world of technical precision.

But we also lose a lot with this process: We lose the essence of the object itself, and all the unintentional, accidental information that object contains. And the fact is, that information was a big part of how these comics were read and absorbed. It is a kind of ghostly soul...  Over the last year or so John Hilgart has made a pretty convincing for this information, this soul, particularly in his "In Defense of Dots: The Lost Art of Comics Books":

In the mid-20th century comic book, millions of details undermined sequential art time by making readerly time infinitely variable. Details – along with the color process – provided textures, way stations, and destinations for the eye. Choose your own adventure. Find your personal fetishes in the nooks and crannies. Comic book art’s backwater of purely instrumental and often arbitrary visual information was the horizon of meaning, the place where the reading experience became most individual. The tightly controlled wish fulfillment strategies of plot were unhinged by free-floating objects of desire – the details just out of reach, gazing back at us through the electrical field of process printing.

More recently, in an FAQ, he writes:

I believe that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jack Kirby developed an opposing meta-aesthetic of comic books. He embraced the underlying chaotic, radioactive dots and force fields of the printed page, and he enlarged them into entire galaxies and negative zones. When the Fantastic Four dove into another dimension, they were diving into comic books themselves, shooting past four-color planetoids and through the wavy energy of bleedy black ink. Kirby’s cosmic crackles are benday dots that have gone supernova and collapsed into black holes.

I can leave the theory there, as John nails it better than I can. I'm not posing this as the "right" way, just another way, and a way to remember. I respect what Harry is doing -- it beats anything else out there for restoration work, but there is this other thing, which is being done well in the Fletcher Hanks and Ditko books published by Fantagraphics, or the John Stanley Library by D&Q. Those pages, noise and all, are more alive and more representative of the comic book itself. It may not be representative of the art as it left the drawing board, though, and that's where Harry comes in.

I should note that this is a thing apart from the IDW "Artist's Editions" and recent Toth book, which present the original art as drawings first, rather than comic-book pages. Or even the old Russ Cochran E.C. and Stanley editions, which were shot from stats and presented the cleanest view possible of the line art -- not the comic books, but the line art itself. And there's much to be said for both of these approaches. The former allows us to view the work as the artist did, and to understand more about the process, marks, smudged and erasures and all. It's invaluable to deepening our understanding of what drawing consists of in comics. And the latter can be crucial to getting at the formal properties of comic book storytelling: Stanley's rigorously structured stories and meticulous layouts are best understood this way. Likewise, Wally Wood and Graham Ingel's horror vacui approach to drawing made color an intrusion, rather than a companion, and their work really is best seen with the color removed.

That's the beauty of all these options: There's no Platonic ideal for this work -- just choices (some, of course, are flat out misguided, like the Marvel "restoration" process, which involves re-drawing) along a continuum populated, at last, by people intent on achieving one goal or another. Harry has his very noble, highly informed goal, Hilgart has his, I have mine, etc., but where they all intersect is a deep respect for the art and the artists rather than the properties or the merchandise. It's this "art first" (however you define it) approach that's made the last 6 or 7 years so exciting for comics scholarship.


Dapper Dan’s SuperMovies Column

That's right, I'm continuing my pointless quest to see every super hero movie this summer. So no links today. And anyway, what would you want to know? The sky is falling, so let's go watch the real reason Marvel and DC keep publishing comics. Tuesday night I made Tim come with me to see a preview of X-Men: First Class because Dapper Dan sees these movies so you won't have to!

As you may know, this installment in the X saga is a prequel. Or a pre-boot. Whatever, it takes places in the early 1960s and shows us young Magneto and Professor X becoming the mutants that they are later on. It also introduces a ton of characters for, I assume, future sequels. What at first seems like it might be a kinda cute movie about two opposing mutants set in the groovy 1960s (by the way, the '60s stuff is done so badly that you gotta wonder if anyone even bothered to try google images or something. It's all mini-skirts and turtlenecks, but none of the visual inspiration, which is kind of a shame. In other words, there's no style in this thing.) just expands and expands like a checklist: The Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis; go-go dancing; the CIA; The origin of Cerebro; the origin of the fancy plane; the origin of the Mansion; the origin of Magneto's helmet; the origin of the costumes. I'm almost surprised they didn't throw in a quick lesson on human reproduction ... wait, they basically do! And then all around these bits there are submarines and planes and missiles and Russian hideouts and even a scene in a bar in Argentina that seems like a direct homage (too soon?) to Inglourious Basterds. Oh man, it's endless.

It balloons so much that we even get an A-Team-esque (lord of prose forgive me for that) split screens of mutants training and high-fiving, frequent cuts to an enormous map of the world with cute little missile and tank symbols assembled to show the Cold War positions, and even this scene, which reminds me of the 1960s Batman TV show:

Yes, that's a guy in red make-up named Azazel, a la the TV show Angel, and poor January Jones, absolutely wooden as Emma Frost, steering a submarine. There are lots of shots of them steering a submarine. Hilarious. Couldn't Sebastian Shaw hire qualified submarine people? Like so much of the movie, it's incredibly goofy, but not intentionally. I mean, I wish it had been goofy and fun, but there's too much "Mutant and proud" talk and all together too much on the "tragic" bro-mance between Professor X and Magneto to really make it all together tongue-in-cheek.

There are some requisite crises, but there's no time to actually focus on anything because the director, Matthew Vaughn, keeps moving us from origin/set-piece/set-up to another. For example, the three images below, all shot the same way, recur throughout the film: Two people talking earnestly to each other. This gets old, since the dialogue is so cheesy.

Matthew Vaughn and co. just couldn't decide where to focus, and so the focus is nil. Couch talking to missile launching to beer drinking, all played the same, with no sense hierarchy. Just endless stuff thrown at us.

It's funny, at least the Iron Man-model films, including Thor, as well as the first two X-Men films, have a clear dramatic arc and a central narrative, but here there's just factoids. X-Men: First Class might be fun for trivia buffs, or if you have a macabre interest in "spot the swipes" but for the rest of us it's a bit of a chore. But, I will say I was relieved to note that I didn't spot a Stan Lee appearance. Tim says he will probably pop up in Green Lantern. Here's hoping! See you next time, faithful readers.


From a Point Between Rage & Serenity

Good morning, boys and girls. I'm filling in for Dapper Dan this morning, as he's busy prepping a review of the latest superhero movie extravaganza. I guess he's doing to do this all summer...

Today on the site, Chris Mautner interviews Leslie Stein, the young cartoonist behind the recently released Eye of the Majestic Creature.

In other news, I don't think I can bear to read or write any more about the DC renumbering/digital announcement, but it's probably worth noting that Dark Horse has released a few details of their new digital strategy, which is clearly intended to appear more direct-market-friendly.

Other than that, there are a lot of artist interviews and profiles this week.

First, a Gary Panter video interview with French Vogue! contributor Matthias Wivel has posted a 2004 Louis Riel-era interview with Chester Brown, which has never previously appeared in English.

There are two recent Ivan Brunetti pieces going around, one an excellent profile from the Chicago Tribune, the other an audio interview with someone named "Mr. Media."

I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but Tom Spurgeon posted a long, sure-to-be-worthwhile conversation with Ed Brubaker on Sunday.

Also, in big news that didn't make as much of a splash as I would have expected (maybe some magic spell fogged the public consciousness): The real life alter ego of Doctor Strange was revealed last week.

Finally, the 2011 Reuben Award winners were announced this weekend. Congratulations to diarist Joyce Farmer for winning the graphic novel award. Alan Gardner rounds up info on the event here.