BLOG

Following a Thread

On the site today: Leslie Stein brings it with Day 2 of her diary; Joe McCulloch takes us into the Week in Comics; and Sean T. Collins reviews Kramers Ergot 8.

No links today, just blathering:

If I was going to pinpoint something I’ve been interested in comics lately it’s something along the lines of sensuality and regularity. This is not a category of thing I’m looking to fill, but rather a tendentious link between different books. Last month I read, for the first time, Milo Manara (The Manara Library 1: Indian Summer and Other Stories, Dark Horse, 2011). Manara, as written by Hugo Pratt in “Indian Summer” is a kind exploitation fetish cartooning monster. He is both filmic in his attention to elemental detail (grass, dunes, fire) and some sort of classicist in his staging (Piero della Francesca with a sense of humor). Everything important seems to play out across a wide expanse, figures posed just-so to convey maximum narrative per panel. But it’s Manara’s line that counts the most It’s erotic in and of itself. There’s a frisson to it that is unmistakable – it functions like the literal air in a film, enhancing the mood. Everything in a Manara drawings is fluttering ever so much. This also extends to the ugliness of violence, sexual or otherwise. The women being raped by lithe youths or decrepit old men are always in some state of ecstasy. There’s no consequence, no horror at work underneath that shimmering beauty. And that’s where Manara and Pratt perform a kind of tripling. On the one hand, they are inviting you to participate in the crime, to get off on it and implicate yourself. On another they’re satirizing your revulsion at being aroused, and on another they’re simply tweaking 1970s Italian Catholic culture, fitting in just right with Dario Argento on the “Ok, just how serious is this” scale. Manara’s almost uncannily beautiful artwork raises it up to such an immaculate level of craft that it confuses the matter even further. It’s all so perfect, so un-comic book like, in the American sense.

Speaking of which, I’ve also been spending some with Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, 1934 to 1936 (IDW, 2011), which arrives with an introduction by Bruce Canwell that takes a startling weird turn very early on; he rightly assumes that most readers can do with just a gloss on Raymond’s life, which has been extensively detailed elsewhere. So instead he goes in depth on the life, writings, and contributions of Don Moore, who wrote Flash Gordon (usually uncredited) from sometime in the 1930s through the 1950s. Moore is one of those pulp-era characters about whom the more your read the shakier your standing might seem. Canwell does a great job of sussing out the very murky origins of comics, showing all the various factors at work, from genre-popularity to syndicate edicts to artistic ambition. It’s a great and holistic examination. Canwell also gets at one of the primary frustrations of studying this stuff: For a lot of it we simply don’t know, and probably never will, for reasons of records, relative egos, and the status of the material itself.

The book begins with the first Flash strip, with Raymond still in a more standard adventure-comics mode: crude, muscular, a little cramped. We watch Raymond learn quickly  on the job as he figures out how to make the fantasy work for him. During 1934 he goes from a cramped 12 panel grid, packing in far too much information per panel, to a 9 panel grid in which he seems to find his scale. By autumn he stops going for big scenes in each panel, and instead opens up the panel to focusing on figures alone. And in 1935 he’s using dynamic figures offset by well-composed plays of shadows and shapes; then in the summer the famously sensual Raymond lines come in (As an aside, I wonder what triggered all those lines? A chance discovery of William Blake? Virgil Finlay is more likely. Maybe Franklin Booth?) By the end of the year he’s down to as few as five panels per strip, each a full-fledged narrative illustration, and by 1936 he’s there, in his prime. The lines stand in for water, shadow, air, fire… anything elemental. There are few concretely delineated shapes – just forms described by swirling lines. Raymond can’t put a line down on the page without sexing it up. All those swooping lines, long, vivacious strokes.

No one would ever accuse him of subtlety, but more than anyone else he understood the sheer fleshiness of fantasy. Buck Rogers was more graphically inventive and schematically precise, but Raymond had sex on his side. He kinda had to make it that way, because he wasn’t much of a designer. The costumes, guns, creatures and planets are generic pulp stuff, with none of the sophistication of Calkins and later Keaton on Buck Rogers. Raymond’s Flash is the idea that it’s basically space-age Tarzan, or medieval space-age. Our hero is usually just in a swimsuit and a cape. Raymond makes no real attempt to invent – it’s all in the drawing. I like that, of course, and I can see why so many others did, too. In a lot of ways, Raymond is the crude version of Hal Foster, who was all restraint and, even when cutting loose, is classy. Not Raymond. When a damsel collapses at the villain’s feet, she falls into a vulnerable pose. She awaits ravishing. Every figure in a Raymond comic is doing something to another. No one just stands there. And in these strips lurks most of Frank Frazetta, all of Al Williamson, a chunk of Wally Wood, Bill Everett, and so many others.

This particular edition of Raymond’s Flash is not my first, but I would call it the best, short of seeing isolated black and white proofs reproduced in a few 1970s Russ Cochran tabloids. The repro here is superb, and having the topper strip, Jungle Jim, just above Flash is instructive. It foreshadows the close-quarters action Raymond would work with in Rip Kirby.

Y’know, there’s something to be said for these professionals. Manara is one of them, cranking out his stuff year in, year out (to the point of hack-dom, really). Raymond certainly did over there in Connecticut. So did Milton Caniff. I’m thinking about these guys these days maybe because they offer such solidity. They created complete bodies of work that, sure, contain pockets of mysteries, but mostly progress along fairly neat lines. Neither lived to see themselves displaced or forgotten (though Caniff’s politics embarrassingly fell out of step with his times). And that’s reassuring. There’s a finite quality there. McCay, Herriman… these guys died before they could be fully known. Not these others. It spills from the subject matter, too: Adventure – the dominent fan-supported comic book/strip genre from the late-1920s onwards. And why not? Deep in the depression it makes perfect sense to go for a ride, man. There’s been a spate of Caniff books lately, not least the complete Terry and the Pirates and, last year, Caniff: A Visual Biography (IDW, 2010). This was one of my, as the saying goes, favorite books of the year, because his visual autobiography is not so much what you might think — paintings, diaries, secret stuff — but rather his career, en toto. Caniff’s art really is his comic strip work, and by extension the work that happens around the art: Ads, promotions, endorsements, etc. It’s the stuff I always liked in Cartoonist PROfiles, the stuff the was necessary to be a good comic strip man. Caniff doesn’t stretch out or, to use a Santoro-ism, “riff”. His non-strip drawings are scenes of characters interacting, or gathering of characters, but it’s not like he’s telling you something new. You won’t learn something new about Caniff in the book, and that’s why I like it. Instead you have a perfect encapsulation of an immensely popular cartoonist’s career work: It’s the other stuff, and in sifting through 50 years of it one can see the artist and the world and industry change, all reflected in an imaginary teetering pile of paper.

Some of that other stuff is also contained in Male Call (Hermes Press, 2011), which collects the entire strip Caniff drew from 1942-1946, distributed to military papers for stations all over the world. It’s odd to see this most macho of artists – all thick line and shadow and chunks of shape, take on sex. With Raymond it’s all in the contours and the organic lines of bodies. For Caniff it’s all “tee-hee” oopsy poses (Miss Lace fixing her garter; a waitress leaning forward with a drink), facial expressions and “whoah nelly” reaction shots. It’s unsubtle, sanctioned sexy. That’s not to say it’s not great cartooning. It actually really is, reminding me a ton of Harry Lucey’s 1950s Archie work, when Betty and Veronica were acting at their sexiest. This is a looser line than Terry, less grave, maybe faster.

The other thing Caniff: A Visual Biography made me think of is that, like Raymond, no one gets hip points for liking Caniff. It’s not like Crumb was going on about the poetry of the 1940s Caniff line. No way. By the time the 1960s rolled around, younger artists were getting Caniff via EC Comics or, for that matter, the Lee Elias and Mort Meskin of DC SF titles. I also found the book curiously sad in a sense, because Caniff and his creation are so forgotten by the culture (non-comics) now. It’s not like other great cartoonists whose work at least lives on through their characters (Popeye, Prince Valiant, Annie, et al), even if the protagonist obscures the artistry. Nope, Caniff’s story, and his character’s, is over. That’s a strange thing. It’s sealed in a way — you can still see Snoopy, even if it signifies something else now. But Caniff and his tribe are frozen.

And for my last act, I have to pay homage to Richard Sala’s incredible and overlooked book, The Hidden (Fantagraphics, 2011). Sure we reviewed it here on the site, but I only just read it, and it’s really quite incredible. Sala’s kind of a pro himself, turning out at least a book a year (much like another visionary, Gilbert Hernandez), and this twist on Frankenstein reads, not unlike that gothic romance, as an allegory for artistic ambition gone wrong, or, maybe because I’m currently reading Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, like a tale of collector psychosis. Victor collects and then creates a monster out of various parts, that monster does the same, and, in the end, after killing his creation, Victor can’t help himself, and saves just one last specimen — collecting just one more thing to work on. Just one more project… It read to me like a story about making something that does harm, and perpetuates that harm, but taking such pleasure in the process of the making that it borders on self (or in this case, species) destruction. Yep, it’s a gothic romance all right, and all the better for it. Sala’s tale could not be any further from the mentality of the artists above, but somehow, Sala’s lush visuals and perfect sense of pacing seems to dovetail with that work. It is a fully formed professional statement, even as it splits off into another comics world all together. It’s there, I guess, that my thread really unravels.

 

A New Week Begins

In honor of today’s U.S. holiday, we aren’t presenting a full blog post this morning. However, I did want to quickly alert readers to Frank Santoro’s recent review of Eddie Campbell’s How to Be an Artist (which he created in the form of a comic), Jeet Heer’s review of Gahan Wilson’s Nuts, and the first day of Leslie Stein’s week as a guest columnist for our Cartoonist’s Diary series.

Chris Marshall at Collected Comics Library has found links to two online Martin Luther King comics. If you’re up to a prose book, today’s a good day to get started with Taylor Branch.

 

Froday

Today on the site: Rob Clough on two relatively new London-based publishing houses: Blank Slate and Nobrow.

And: Yes Dorothy the Jack Davis audio is a little wonky. We’re trying to pinpoint why. No, it’s not that simple and no, you don’t know the answer. Yes, we’re trying.

Elsewhere, the internet is aflame with excitement. There is the excitement of Damien Hirst’s 11-gallery multi-country show of his spot paintings, detailed & reviewed by a bemused Roberta Smith at the NY Times. I kinda wish an artist in comics had his combination of ruthless business acumen and shamelessness. Plus, he makes pretty and hollow things. It’s bad form to be too amused by the epic, almost apocalyptic cynicism at work in this enormo money-grab, but man, what a grab. In comics, we only have epic fuck ups and epically evil corporations. We need more cynical market-manipulating artists to balance it out.

Speaking of grandiosity, Matt Seneca has found the Next Big Thing. If Matt is Simon Cowell, I wanna know who Paula and the other guy are. Oh wait, it’s Steven Tyler. Obviously played by Jog. And squaking about going for it, Marc Sobel will be publishing not one, but two books on Love and Rockets with our corporate masters, Fantagraphics. More publishing news: Titan will release Sci Fi and Horror compilations as part of its Simon and Kirby Library line.

And finally, on a more serious note, Tom Spurgeon posted some well-reasoned thoughts on SOPA, and we should note that Fantagraphics has also issued a statement against it.

Have a good weekend.

 

Thorsday

Morning, friends and readers. Today we are proud to present audio from the great Jack Davis’s conversation with Gary Groth and Drew Friedman at past December’s BCGF (along with links to the online supplements to the conversation Friedman has posted since).

Also on the site, Rob Clough reviews Jennifer Hayden’s Underwire.

And elsewhere, I’m not coming up with much. There’s a Dan Clowes interview in BOMB from December that I missed, as well as a nice short gallery of anti-revolutionary Gillray and Cruikshank cartoons at the Comics Grid. Otherwise, there seems to be a lot of the usual nonsense, log-rolling promotional links, and let’s-pretend-this-matters mock controversy. Maybe it’s just a fallow period at the beginning of the year.

 

Knock Knock

Today on the site we have Shaenon Garrity’s latest column, this time on reader-based comics.

And:

I enjoyed Tim’s post yesterday, all the more because on Monday I went to see the Maurizio Cattelan show at The Guggenheim. Cattelan, according to the Gugg is “Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times.” Well, in art magazines at least. Outside of that context he was little known until this big show. And his pranks and provocations exist as such only within a particular contemporary art world. Cattelan makes sculptures and situations that are generically well crafted and slightly surreal. Think of a less imaginative B. Kliban. Or Gary Larson gone undergrad. The Pope is struck by a meteor. Hitler kneeling in prayer. Various self-portrats as a hung-man. These are sight gags that are as readable as a gag cartoon. And it’s interesting (why, you ask) because it says something about the way both function. He, more than almost anyone else (well, not as much as Richard Prince, who literally put gag cartoons on canvases), has figured out the art-as-gag cartoon formula. That is: Glance, read, grin. There’s not meant to be any subtlety, no deeper level — none created and none intuited. Certain artists, of course, made it into something more than that — your Arnos, Steigs, Addams, et al — but the vast majority of gag cartoons are merely functional. That’s about the best you can say for Cattelan — his art functions to give its viewers a laugh in an otherwise supposedly humor-free zone: The Museum. So in that sense it’s a crowd pleaser, and of course because of the somewhat blinkered curatorial practices of contemporary art, most curators don’t even know what easy gags (the pope, Hitler, suicide) Cattelan is trafficking in. In fact, I bet he doesn’t even know. And I’m leaving the best part out: The entire show is hung from the Gugg’s rotunda — all the art suspended, meant to confound institutional expectations. What it does instead is just another adolescent gag: Emphasizing the “show” in art show and making the objects (if possible) even less interesting.

OK, obviously I didn’t like the show much. Maybe I’m lame that way — I like my gags as gags — I don’t need them rendered into three dimensions. But I did think Tim was painting “conceptual art” with a thick brush. It’s almost as big as “the graphic novel” and contains a lot of different strains. I happen to like some of the work Dutton dismisses, thought I wouldn’t argue with the “easy” nature of it pinpointed by Barthelme. That’s part of the point — the ease on display (whether it’s just a sentence hung on a wall, or a painting that says “painting”) was meant, way back in the late 1960s, to be a critique of macho Ab-Ex and commodified Pop. It was saying: “Look, Duchamp was right, knock it off, it’s just art. Let’s have fun with it.” Of course, that initial anti-commercial attitude was eventually commercialized, the critique handily absorbed without too much fuss from the artists (and who can blame them — ya gotta make a living somehow). But I find a certain sublimity in work by Joseph Kosuth and John Baldessari (another one with good, though in his case profound, gags),  and a satisfying sense of space and scale in Lawrence Weiner and Sol Lewitt, and I could go on and on. What’s annoying about Cattelan, and others, like the hugely overhyped Christian Marclay, is that the work depends on the audience’s ignorance to get over. It just uses and recycles without even a nod towards anything outside the product. I can relate to Dutton’s frustrations, but not really his conclusion that the stuff might fade away: Given our continued interest in Cubism and so many other “isms” borne of pretty insular dialogues, I suspect we’ll be looking at this work for a while. It, like art in general, is less a part of the culture than it used to be, but it will be around.

Anyhow, the point of all this was to say something like: Yep, a lot of art functions like gag cartoons, and that points, I think, to a certain impoverished sense of visual culture and meaning among institutions and galleries (not because gag cartoons are so shitty, but because the corresponding art has to shoulder a lot of heavy claims for importance) as well as to notions of how meaning works, how much can be communicated by a set-up and delivery. That’s territory I’d like to see mined a bit more. Guys like Kliban could deliver more meaning the someone like Cattelan (whose schtick, before anyone calls me on it, is modesty and self-deprecation, but believe me, that Gugg show is not modest) could dream of, but it’s not in the context required to allow for it. And, needless to say, for the gag-cartoon-as-critique-of-itself-while-still-being-hilarious, one can look to Mark Newgarden, whose numerous meta-examinations of the gag cartoon are unsurpassed.

Right, so that’s what I have. Oh, you want some links, too? Fine: All-time great underground comic book artist Frank Stack is opening a retrospective exhibition on January 20th in Kansas City, MO. I love Stack’s work unreservedly — Matthew Thurber recently turned me on to his early ’70s classic Amazon Comics. Check it out. Here’s the Publishers Weekly Critics Poll. And here’s an interview with Sammy Harkham by James Romberger.

 

I Say It’s Spinach, and I Say the Hell With It

Joe McCulloch’s got the Week in Comics covered again this morning, along with a short essay on an obscure example of bande desinée.

Laura Hudson interviews Achewood creator Chris Onstaad about his recent return to webcomics. In it, Onstaad talks a bit about Jim Woodring:

Jim Woodring is great, and is one of those people who will honestly admit to you that, “Yeah, my brain’s a little f**ked up.” His comics are sort of a manifestation of his brain. It works for him. He’s a really wonderful guy. He has this big three-story place with big, gothic abbey rope hanging in front of the front door. The rope rings a little bell to let you know that someone’s at the door. One time it rings in the foyer so his wife opens the door, and there’s this little cat there that came in from the road. So they let the cat in, shut the door, and we all go about our night. Then we watched Popeye for two hours. That’s Jim.

Chris Mautner puts together a solid list of six books from 2011 that deserved more attention.

The A.V. Club has their own list of fifteen comic strips that were adapted into “forgotten” television shows. Not all of them are equally forgotten, though. The Far Side, I’ll grant you, but Garfield?

Robert Boyd doesn’t seem to write much about comics these days, but I check in to his blog now and again all the same just to make sure he hasn’t tried to slip something through unnoticed. Last week, he pulled out an excerpt from the late short-story writer Donald Barthelme talking about conceptual art:

BARTHELME: Conceptual art isn’t something I’m overly fond of. It seems to me entirely too easy…

RUAS: Why would you say it’s easy?

BARTHELME: Well, because it is easy.

RUAS: To be able to delineate concepts and have people understand the concept?

BARTHELME: Yes. I think as art it is entirely too easy. [...] Had I decided to go into the conceptual-art business I could turn out railroad cars full of that stuff every day.

There’s a bit more at the link. I’m not personally acquainted with how easy it is to turn out conceptual art, but knowing Barthelme’s work, I tend to believe his claim about his own facility for it. (I assume it goes without saying that people tend to devalue whatever comes naturally to them.)

For some reason (perhaps because of Barthelme’s frequent pseudo-comics use of extensive illustrations?), this reminded me of my long-time privately held theory that conceptual artists do more or less the same kind of thing that gag cartoonists do, only without using paper and ink, and without necessarily going for laughs—though a fair amount of conceptual art doesn’t attempt much more than that. The title or artist’s statement is frequently used as something equivalent to a cartoon’s caption. Light amusement to refresh the tired gallery-goer, I guess. This is not a comparison meant to reflect poorly on either genre; there are at least as many bad gag cartoons as there are bad conceptual art pieces. (And of course, not even gag cartoons are always meant to be humorous, as witness Abner Dean.)

Marcel Duchamp, who is of course usually credited with starting the whole conceptualism business off, began his career as a gag cartoonist submitting panels to Parisian literary journals (have his cartoons ever been collected into a book? I’d love to read them), and comics historian M. Thomas Inge has suggested that the “R. Mutt” signature Duchamp scrawled at the bottom of his most famous “readymade” was an explicit reference to Bud Fisher’s A. Mutt from Mutt and Jeff.

This connection between gag cartooning and conceptual art seems too obvious to be genuinely original to me, and I assume I must have gotten it from some now forgotten source. So I poked around online seeing if I could find anyone else saying the same thing, and the best thing I could come up with was a 2009 New York Times op-ed by Dennis Dutton that I’m pretty certain I’d never seen before. In it, Dutton says:

The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

This is another interesting point of comparison, but as Dutton’s implicit admission that at least Duchamp’s work hasn’t dated too much makes clear, some concepts are sturdier than others. And of course many New Yorker cartoon gags are as funny now as they’ve ever been.

But not necessarily the best gag cartoons. Cartoons, like many pieces of conceptual art, are meant to be ephemeral—amusement or provocation for a particular cultural moment. There’s nothing wrong with that—amusement and provocation are as necessary now as they will be in the future. But because of that ephemeral nature, there is usually something small-seeming and limited about them. In that sense, even Jeff Koons’ forty-three-foot sculpture of a puppy is a miniature.

 

Inspired By…

There’s goodies about… yesterday Edie Fake gave us the rundown on the Chicago scene. And today we present Gary Groth’s remembrance of a bygone dinner with Christopher Hitchens, along with his thoughts on the writer’s legacy.

Elsewhere on the internet there’s a random jumble of points of interest. These are some fine looking drawings by Lorenzo Matotti, inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. And these are some unexpectedly… tender? … drawings by the late Joe Simon. On the Alan Moore beat, here’s a well-informed article he wrote in 1983 (!) on women in comics, championing some really great cartoonists. Following the old fanzine hole, here’s cartoonist David Hine on our fearless leader’s late, lamented Fantastic Fanzine. And the creators on comics dept. might also include this lengthy post by artist Ross Campbell on the 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. This, my friends, you need in your life.

And on the interview front, here’s Tom Spurgeon talking to Chester Brown. And here’s an interview with Forming cartoonist Jesse Moynihan.

Finally, just for fun, hey, The Guggenheim has digitized a ton of its publications. This is a ton of fun to browse through.

 

One Down

Today we bring you Warren Bernard‘s obituary of the late, great Ronald Searle.

Elsewhere on the comics-sphere, things seem to be a bit quiet.

Vanessa Davis has a new comic strip about dancercize up on the Tablet site. Which couldn’t help but remind me of the Cartoonist’s Diary entry she did for us last March.

Vice has posted the letter of a retired prostitute who objects to a recent Johnny Ryan comic strip mocking Chester Brown’s Paying for It, as well as Ryan’s reply.

And finally, Warren Ellis has made some very plausible sounding predictions about the comics business in 2012, mostly involving digital publication.