BLOG

Uh Oh

Today on the site, Frank Young reviews Sunday Press's new Rube Goldberg collection, Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919.

American wit has the furrowed brow and cautious stance of a boxer. Its affect may be dry, ironic or absurd, but its goal is to lay us among the posies—to cause that ker-plop moment as we absorb its blunt impact.

This hasn’t changed much in the last century. The assault has become harder, fiercer. TV sitcoms, stand-up and mainstream movies pelt us with brute force as they bruise the boundaries of what’s shocking, startling and amusing. Alas, the American comic strip, which has been on life-support for decades, barely manages a feeble swat anymore.

As shown by this, the latest in Sunday Press Books’ vintage American comics reprints, we’re not far removed from the earthy thump of Rube Goldberg. Goldberg is forever linked to his invention cartoons, which still inspire young creators to design what Wikipedia dryly calls “…deliberately complex contraption[s] in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect.” They’re one facet of a long and ambitious comics career that spanned slapstick and melodrama, social commentary and a big Bronx cheer.

The set-up of Foolish Questions, Goldberg’s first successful comic strip series, is familiar to anyone who’s read Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” a longtime feature of Mad magazine. Formula: well-meaning person asks painfully obvious question; gets smart-ass reply by deadpan recipient.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—News. The Eisner Awards were announced, with some solid winners and plenty of head-scratchers. Most gratifying, possibly, is the induction of both Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez into the Hall of Fame.

Flo Steinberg, Stan Lee's secretary and a key presence at Marvel during its most culturally vibrant period, died yesterday morning at the age of 78. Her replacement at Marvel, Robin Green, wrote a story about her in a story about Marvel for Rolling Stone in 1971.

Hundreds of letters came in every week from fans, and Flo was the one who opened them. One time there was a letter addressed to Sergeant Fury from a man in Texas, a real rightwinger, who said, "I notice in Sergeant Fury that you're anti-Nazi. Well, if you're anti-Nazi, that must mean you're pro-Commie, and you're all a bunch of no-good dirty kikey commie pinko people, and I have a gun and I'm going to come to New York and shoot you." It was addressed to Stan Lee and the Marvel Comic Group.

Flo passed the letter around the office, and everyone got hysterical because this guy was going to come and machine-gun everybody. Flo didn't know what they were hysterical about because she was the one who went out to meet the people. Flo was loyal, but for a hundred bucks a week you don't get shot. So they called the FBI and a man came down. He said, "Wilkins, FBI," and Flo said, "Steinberg, Marvel."

—Reviews & Commentary. Hillary Brown writes about Andrea Pazienza's Zanardi.

Zanardi is a book that inspires surprisingly complicated feelings. Usually, when I don’t like a comic, I put it in a pile of things destined to leave my house, and I don’t look back. Zanardi has been sitting in a box for weeks, mostly because I hated it, and yet it’s still here. These comics, focused on the titular character, appeared in Italy between 1981 and 1988, after creator Andrea Pazienza died of a heroin overdose. They are foul and rude and nihilistic, full of drug use, misogyny, casual violence, crime, manipulation and general rotten behavior. Zanardi screws over his friends because it amuses him. The attitudes demonstrated throughout are decidedly retrograde. The stories also don’t hang together particularly well; instead, they have a vaguely pornographic feel, with panels strung on the most basic whiffs of narrative—but each plot thread leads to a simple obsession with debauchery.

Megan Liberty writes about the "Something Unusual is Happening" exhibition at Printed Matter.

Other comics in the show contain more traditional plot elements, including text bubbles and characters. Lale Westvind’s Joan the Drone Pilot & Mary the Drone (2017), printed with blue ink on pink pages (except the cover which is red ink on cream), is the story of a world that exists in several dimensions, with those in charge controlling those trapped in the lesser plane for profit, until Mary arrives and attempts to escape. A heavy-handed metaphor for our use of technology, or technology’s use of us when in the hands of advertisers, it has a more traditional structure, with spreads divided into panels and text in word bubbles and boxes. But its dense imagery, heavy lines, and block shading, reminiscent of ‘70s and ‘80s pulp comics, make it at times visually dizzying and challenging.

An anonymous writer has begun a site called Reading Doonesbury, going back through the strip's whole history and connecting it to current events.

What set Doonesbury apart from virtually every other mass-market comic strip in 1970 was that it roots were firmly planted in the youth and campus culture of the time. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo before it, Doonesbury brought pointed political and cultural satire to the funny pages. What was different about Doonesbury, however, was that its style, as much as its content, reflected contemporary values of youth rebellion. Trudeau jokingly referred to the “urgent scrawl” that defined his early strips as evidence that he was producing “cartoon vérité.” [1] Trudeau sees his early work as not merely a commentary on its times, but a product of them: “If Doonesbury looked like it had been created in a stoned frenzy,” he maintains, “then that was evidence of its authenticity. The strips were dispatches from the front.”

HiLobrow has been running a series of short posts by Jacob Covey, who has designed many of the best-looking comics of recent years, as he discusses book design.

Barcodes exist in service to commerce and if not in opposition to art then certainly with disregard of it. 99% of publishing’s barcodes are unnecessarily large, positioned in the lower right corner, and printed on a white field to maximize efficiency for human checkers. Distributors say they must be on white to read correctly but the red light scanners of barcodes read white the same as red.


—Interviews & Profiles.
Dana Jenning at The New York Times profiles Gary Panter.

Mr. Panter, 66, is creatively footloose and has never been content to just draw comics and paint. (He’s represented by the Chelsea gallery Fredericks & Freiser, and his art has been shown worldwide.) He’s done light shows, puppetry, design, printmaking, sculpture, and plays rock music. He honed his early hack-slash style of punk pen-and-ink on posters and album covers for bands like the Screamers, the Germs and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oh, and there were three Emmys in the late 1980s for his set design on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” (“I’ll talk about anything — except Pee-wee,” he said, laughing.)

Explaining his jack-of-all-trades attitude, Mr. Panter, who grew up mostly in rural Sulphur Springs, Tex., wrote in an email: “I am wired to make stuff. Life is short and these various mediums have different things to offer, so I am seeing what I can do.”

 

Let’s Fan

Today on the site: Robert Kirby on Tom Van Deusen's  I Wish I Was Joking.

I Wish I Was Joking is a short collection of Tom Van Deusen comics that originally appeared in publications and series such as Intruder, The Seattle Weekly, and Sam Henderson’s The Magic Whistle. Van Deusen describes these strips as “nonfiction, autobiographical” comics, but each story is clearly a tall tale of escalating absurdity. A few describe Van Deusen’s creepy encounters with famous people and reality television contestants that clearly never happened. But that’s the fun: Van Deusen’s keen sense of the ridiculous and wise-guy comic timing create stories that are over before you want them to be.

Elsewhere:

It's Comic-Con right now, so here's a pretty good history of the event from Rolling Stone. 

There's a very fine looking Quentin Blake exhibition up in London.

 

 

Door Mat

Today on the website, RJ Casey interviews Jason Murphy about violence, abstract art, narrative incoherence, kids' comics and his recent story, "The Character".


Is The Character a child?

No, but I feel like I was connecting with the design because of some of those childhood cartoon emblems like the Odie ears, the Mickey feet, and the Dopey butt. His design is a symbol of my childhood, but much of his story is based on my present reality. Does that make sense?

Sure. Was it easy for your kids to connect with it then? Do they read your work?

They do enjoy it, and they are very supportive. They’re both seven, so they are at a great age for making art. I probably get more inspiration from them than they do from me. I feel like they connected with my work more when they were three or four though. Much of my narrative work is silent, so I would flip through the pages with them and we would make up sound effects together.

You feel like they’ve aged out of it somehow?

[Laughter] Yes, they are much too sophisticated for it now. Three to four is my wheelhouse. I don’t know, they like it. They just don’t connect with it the way they did at a younger age. They’re making their own work now.


Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Interviews & Profiles. Sam Thielman profiles Gary Panter on the occasion of Songy of Paradise.

Panter, who spent a year-long fellowship at the New York Public Library studying Milton in preparation, has put a lot of himself into it as well. He describes himself as “Christian-damaged” but admits that religion does obsess him.

In fact, Panter says that he experienced his own formative vision, in a manner of speaking. Back in 1972, he “took a shitload of bad acid”, an experience that disturbed him so badly he had to leave school for a year. The memory of it still haunts him: “There’d be composite creatures made of vacuum cleaners, all kinds of devices,” he says of his trip. “And then they’d be covered with thousands of roach clips each holding a butterfly wing or a playing card, and they’d all be stop-motion animated, and going, ‘Come with us!’” This was not the organic and spiritual experience he’d hoped for.

Alexandra Alter talks to Junot Diáz about his new picture book, which should be very interesting. Diáz is one of the most comics-fluent novelists around.

A year and a half ago, Mr. Díaz was driving in Miami with a friend and her young daughter, when the little girl became restless and demanded a story. Mr. Díaz obliged and began telling her a tale he made up on the spot.

As the story grew more elaborate and detailed, Mr. Díaz’s partner, the author Marjorie Liu, who was also in the car, recorded a video on her cellphone. She later wrote out a transcript of the story and urged him to publish it, but Mr. Díaz didn’t think it was good enough. “I was my typical curmudgeonly self,” he said.

It might have ended there. But Ms. Liu sent the video to his agent, Nicole Aragi, who encouraged him to revise it and develop it into a children’s book.

The most recent guest on Comics Alternative is Gabrielle Bell.

The New York Times has published its obituary for Sam Glanzman.

 

Tuning Up

Today on the site we have a roundtable about the best comic released thus far in 2017, and easily one of the best of the last few years: Songy of Paradise. We convened critics Rachel Davies, Craig Fischer, and Nicole Rudick, along with cartoonist Sammy Harkham, to discuss it with me and Tim by email. 

NICOLE RUDICK

In his interview with Dash, Panter says, “I don’t want to be a person that’s just nailing the same nail in over and over.” This is partly why I never feel disappointed by his work. He’s always approaching it from different perspectives, but it remains of a piece. If he feels he’s exhausted the approach he took in earlier books, it’s great to see him tackle this text in a way that makes sense in relation to its particular complexities. Later in the interview, he talks about artists’ early work frequently being the most intense of their career, the kind that “blows your brains out.” Adventures in Paradise was that book for me—I never saw comics or art the same way again. It was for me, as Panter puts it, a way out of a cage (one I didn’t even know I was in). But that sort of experimentalism is unsustainable over the course of a long career, and at some point, you’re just spinning your wheels. This new book is sophistication of a different sort. It feels textual in a way his other comics don’t. I went back and read parts of Milton’s poem and was reminded that it’s not only a dialectic—in which Jesus, having a vision in which he argues with Satan, comes to realize a truth—but that but that there’s a conceptual textuality too. For instance, in the first part of Milton’s poem, God tells Gabriel that he has begun “To verifie that solemn message late, / On which I sent thee to the Virgin pure / in Galilee, that she should bear a Son.” That message resulted in Mary’s conception, so that Jesus is himself the message, the words or text that were relayed—he was conceived by language. And later, Milton describes the “great duel” between Jesus’s vanquishing of Satan “not of arms” but “by wisdom.”

That dialectic comes through in the way Panter has simplified the narrative and the art, in comparion to his Inferno and Purgatory, as well as the language, as he explains on the book’s title page: “Hewing to John Milton’s Epic Poem Paradise Regained but Without Milton’s Verbosity.” So he’s not only toned down Milton’s more circuitous linguistic style, he has also, as Rachel pointed out, tweaked the classical verbiage with hillbilly slang (which is as expressive as anything Milton came up with). I’ll admit that I haven’t completely reasoned this through—and some of it may sound rather obvious—but I think that part of Panter’s “translation” of Milton’s language is done by putting the story into comics (as opposed to, say, retelling it in prose). Pictures are language, too, and images work on two levels here: as symbols of a metaphysical language (the Assyrian, biblical, and Javanese stuff, for instance) and as narrative language (i.e., storytelling). Craig, this is the same stuff you’ve identified in the earlier books, but here it’s honed to fewer sources yet is, to my mind, equally ambitious.

 

Elsewhere:

Over at Inkstuds two of our favorite contributors, Joe McCulloch and Katie Skelly, talk about the latter's new book, My Favorite Vampire.

Wonder Woman artist Nicola Scott discusses her work on the character with W Magazine.

The latest guest on Virtual Memories is writer-about-comics Ben Schwartz.

 

 

We’ve Got to Remain Logical

Joe McCulloch is here as usual with his indispensable guide to the Week in Comics (spotlight picks this week include new books by Gary Panter and Gou Tanabe), along with a short essay on the latest from Seth:

Ridiculous as it may seem to refer to an artist of Seth's success and renown as underestimated in some sense -- and, actually, I'm of the type who considers success and renown to encourage the use of shorthand to summarize a notable artist's traits, often leading to discreet underestimations -- few have discussed how careful he is in preparing books of unfinished parts so that they read as coherent statements of ideas. He is like Chris Ware in this way, and it's not only a consequence of book design. Clyde Fans: Book One, for example, balances its two Parts as directly opposed in terms of narrative presentation and character motivation. Part One is a veritable one-man show in which Abraham Matchcard, aged air circulation mini-magnate, caught extraordinarily post hoc, walks us through his neighborhood in the then-present of '97, detailing his own life story as a good-not-great salesman while expounding upon local haunts, household knickknacks, and all the things that come to summarize your footprint on this world. Part Two shifts the scene to 1957, finding Abe's timid brother Simon absolutely failing to live up to each and every virtue of his brother's worldview, as just described to us at length. Abe talks directly to the reader; Simon is viewed from omniscience as we follow his disastrous sales tour of bustling Dominion, images from inside his head often interrupting panel sequence, so that his nervous pondering suffuses and frustrates the objective of connecting with customers and the world at large, i.e. customers.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Interviews & Profiles.
Maya Barzilai interviews James Sturm about the reprint of his Golem's Mighty Swing.

The golem story resonates with most artists and writers as it is at the core of what we do: creating something and hoping it goes on to have a life of its own.

I encountered the golem story in the pages of the Marvel comics that I read as a kid in the 1970s. In addition to the short-lived “Golem” character from a run of Strange Tales, The Hulk was mistaken for a golem in a 1970 issue. The golem was also one of the few explicitly Jewish characters that I encountered in comics. Later I became aware that almost all of Marvel’s foundational characters have Jewish roots. It’s obvious now, but as a 10-year-old you don’t see it.

Nicholas Eskey talks to Jason Shiga.

I assumed out of the gate that Demon would likely never be published. But instead of trying to make it “more-friendly” to publishers, I wanted to double down and make something even more unpublishable in both form and content. This includes varying issue sizes, from 4 pages to 60 pages, having an all-black issue and of course the depraved content which we’ll talk about later. The plan was that I’d release it as a series of self-printed minicomics over the course of 2 years, then call it a day.

Rob Clough is expanding to include other contributors to his High-Low blog, starting with Whit Taylor, who interviews Miranda Harmon.

But when I sit down and spend time making something with more intent, it can be difficult because I don’t want to hurt anyone with my work. In one journal comic, I show myself explaining to a therapist that I feel, “rotten.” After I made this comic and put it online, a friend who almost never reads any comics at all sat me down and, crying, told me I’m not rotten and that she was worried about me. I was surprised because I nearly forgot that when I put a comic online, it can be read by anyone! I still think that when I make something it’s only for me and a handful of my friends to see, but the reality is different.

New New Yorker cartoon editor Emma Allen talks parenting with cartoonist Emily Flake (video).

The most recent guest on Process Party is Eric Haven.


—Reviews & Commentary.
Toni Bentley writes about the mysterious painter and quasi-cartoonist Charlotte Salomon.

In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the mid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a thirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light. “I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her, from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his voluminous beard—survives.

Mike Lynch remembers the late Martin Landau's short career as a cartoonist.

Martin Landau was a staff cartoonist at the New York Daily News in the 1940s. He was just a kid, assisting other cartoonists (the Daily News' theatrical caricaturist Horace Knight and, later on, THE GUMPS cartoonist Gus Edson). He was seriously thinking that he would maybe be a pro cartoonist one day. Actually, he was; he assisted Edson for several years in the late 1940s, graduating from drawing backgrounds and lettering to drawing THE GUMPS Sunday pages.

Finally, RIP George Romero.

 

Garg of Course

Today:

On the twenty-first episode of Comic Book Decalogue, Greg Hunter and Michel Fiffe (CopraZegas) talk Hellen JoLarry HamaErnie Colón, and more.

Elsewhere:

It looks like the Valerian movie is coming out this week and, I know, there are lots of comic book movies, but I really like Luc Besson and Valerian, so, uh, here's a look at the comics.

And maybe this was known already, but Galaxy Magazine, home of great illustrations and SF, is now archived online.

 

Setting In

Today on the site, Alex Wong interviews the cartoonist Hellen Jo, primarily about her translation work on Yeon-sik Hong’s recently published Uncomfortably Happily.

Alex Wong: As a cartoonist yourself, how did you relate to Hong’s personal experiences?

Hellen Jo: I can’t tell you how many times I’d stop translating, simply to shiver in a moment of are you kidding me right now? The parallels between the book and my life were ridiculous and uncanny. I’d translate a page about the main character avoiding his editor’s pleading calls, and literally within the hour, I’d get an urgent email from an animation director where my revisions were, which I would then ignore. I’d spend a few hours having a spiraling panic attack, then attack the weeds in my yard to de-stress, and then I’d sit down to translate a chapter where Hong did the exact same thing.

Hong and I also had similar reactions to stressful situations: panic, indignant anger, complete avoidance. The translation work ended up becoming a mental and emotional echo chamber as well, which I had never expected. As the first person to translate the book into English, I felt very much like Uncomfortably Happily was destined to land in my hands so that it could pat me on the back and say, “Hey, you’re not alone. We’re all freaking out together!”


Meanwhile, elsewhere:

There seems to be a real pre-Comic-Con lull on the comics internet lately, with the only thing I find many people discussing NPR's recently released list of 100 "favorite" comics. In the introduction, they claim the list is "personal and idiosyncratic," but to me it reads as anything but. The older material on the list is pretty solid, if generally unsurprising (Mary Perkins on Stage is one pleasant exception to this rule), but a huge percentage of recent material is just well-liked but unremarkable milktoast. I guess that's what's popular, but it's kind of sad for critics to give junk like this cachet. NPR would never fill a 100 best books list with so many James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer novels, even if they are what sell...

 

Meaning Translation

Today on the site: 

Longtime cartoonist Sam Glanzman has passed away at age of 93. Here is our obituary. He was best known for one of my favorite comic books of the 1960s, Kona, and various war comics for DC, most prominently his U.S.S. Stevens series of stories. His autobiographical graphic novel, A Sailor's Story, was released in 1987 and remains beloved by many. Mark Evanier remembers him here. There is a gofundme campaign to defray his medical costs here.

Here's an excerpt from my text on Glanzman and Kona for my book, Art in Time.

Ostensibly the story of a family—Dr. Henry Dodd, his daughter, Mary, and her two children—who are marooned on a fantastic island, Glanzman turned the title into a study of the white-haired Kona, a somewhat anguished and highly moral Neanderthal. Working first with writer Segal, then with legendary Harry Smith-collaborator, the beatnik Lower East Side Rabbi Lionel Ziprin, and then with his editor, the artist L. B. Cole (who also edited John Stanley’s Tales from the Tomb), Glanzman created visceral, gripping stories of near constant danger marked by Kona’s attempts to protect the Dodds from the mythical beasts that rule the island. Glanzman created pages, he noted, “that would hold the reader’s eye as single compositions; I didn’t want the reader to ever glance off the page.” This translated into page designs that usually neglected a panel grid in favor of panels or scenarios inset in larger drawings. Glanzman’s figures are in constant motion, running, fighting, falling—there is hardly room for a reader to take a breath. Working from “stick figure” pencils, Glanzman rendered his illustrations mostly in ink, which further increased the urgency of the imagery. Glanzman’s dialogue here and in his later war stories is marked by lyrical passages such as “Nobody wins wars . . . like these!” and “What guarantee do we have that to the animal kingdom . . . ‘Man’ is not regarded as the most hideous of all forms? The most bestial?” This pulp philosophizing in concert with frequent full-page drawings amplifies the drama, making the action and danger palpable. With Kona, Glanzman imbued real life into a hackneyed genre, and gave comics an unforgettable protagonist.

And still more:

This is a good piece of writing about Gengoroh Tagame. 

Finally, here is a very enjoyable look at the Moomin museum in Finland.