Today on the site we have Katie Haegele profiling Leanne Shapton, an artist who has made multiple picture-story books, worked with tons of cartoonists, and published innumerable illustrations, but somehow remains little known in most comics worlds.
Like good character actors, some artists are everywhere and nowhere, consistently putting out high quality work but not drawing particular attention to themselves. A Canadian artist who lives in New York, Leanne Shapton is one of the more interesting artists working in the U.S. right now, and though you may well have seen her stuff—if you watched Spike Jonze’s exercise in awkwardness, Her, for instance, you’ve seen the artist’s rendering of what two people having armpit sex might look like—you may not yet know her name.
For an artist her age—Shapton is 41—she has already had a large and tremendously varied output. She paints lettering and patterns for book covers by Harper, New Directions, and Vintage Classics, and runs J&L Books, a small art book press, with the photographer Jason Fulford. She has seven books to her credit, some of which are almost purely visual and contain little or no text, while others (well, one, anyway) is a good old-fashioned prose piece with a few paintings thrown in.
Though she’s not really a comics artist herself, Shapton has also had a hand in putting the work of many cartoonists in front of a mainstream audience. As the art director of the Op Ed page at the New York Times from 2008-2009—and before that, for the Avenue section of Canada’s National Post—she hired visual artists with from a variety of backgrounds, from Blexbolex to Jillian Tamaki.
James Romberger has a nice review round-up of comics that mostly flew under my radar.
SHELTON:I don’t suppose you have a copy of Zap #1 printed by Charles Plymell, do you? ROSENKRANZ:No I sure don’t. SHELTON: You know the underground comix price guide says that’s worth $10,000. ROSENKRANZ:A friend of mine sold one recently for $12,000 to the CEO of Nike. SHELTON: That’s amazing. ROSENKRANZ:One time I was in [Don] Donahue’s office in 1972 and he had a whole box of Plymell Zaps and I asked him how much are you selling those for? He said 10 bucks apiece and I remember thinking at the time, “Who would pay 10 bucks for that?” I should have bought all 30 of them, if I had 300 bucks. SHELTON: You’d be wealthy today. If you tried to sell all 30 at once, it would probably bring the price down. ROSENKRANZ:There are some that were damaged in the fire at the Opera House that have also become highly prized collector’s items now. SHELTON: Because they’re damaged? ROSENKRANZ:Yeah, because they’re charred. SHELTON: That was a busy day at Mowry’s Opera House.
The first week of strips was light on Wonder Woman. They were set in a newspaper office, with an editor keen to get the scoop on the new female phenom. Wonder Woman popped up briefly in each strip, saving a baby from a fire or stopping a runaway car, but most of the space was devoted to the increasingly frazzled editor.
It was an odd beginning to a strip that had a very specific purpose. Before becoming a comic book writer, Marston was a psychologist whose research led him to believe not only that women were superior to men, but that a matriarchal revolution was inevitable. He created Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” She was a way to get young readers used to the idea of a powerful woman, and thus pave the way for this revolution.
Giving Wonder Woman only two lines in the first week of strips seems like an ineffective way for Marston to further his cause, but week two launched into a detailed account of her origins that was chock full of matriarchal messages. The strips were an almost exact recreation of Wonder Woman #1. At first glance, it appears that Peter had simply reused the art, but almost every panel was actually an entirely new drawing based on, and often superior to, a panel from Wonder Woman #1. After years of drawing Wonder Woman and her world, Peter’s comfort with the material showed in his more confident and detailed artwork.
Matisse lived in the south of France during the second world war and painted nudes and still life subjects. Maybe it’s best to just ignore the world outside. It’s pretty mellow around here where I live. Well, it depends on where you go, but you aren’t gonna get fucked with too bad. Michael DeForge wanted to go jogging around here when he was in town on tour. I drove him to the park instead of letting him just figure it out. There are these roving packs of scary white “yinzer” teenager boys who hangout across the street in the shopping center. They remind me of the roving packs of wild dogs that patrolled Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back in the early ’90s. Often I’d have to run for it on the way to the subway. Once, one of the dogs followed me into the subway and up on the platform and then got on the train when the doors opened and went to Manhattan. I wonder if he ever made it home to Brooklyn. It was like a Disney movie, I thought. The dog gets a whole new life and new friends but he misses his old neighborhood and wanders the waterfront staring at Brooklyn across the river and sniffing the air. Sorry. What was I saying about Matisse? Maybe just be like him and ignore the dogs of war?
I gotta admire the sheer stubbornness of whoever is giving the green light to these Dover books, none of which have even the slightest chance of making a dent in the marketplace. I do love Sam Glanzman’s work, though, and now his finest war comics are being reissued.
R.C. Harvey is here with another foray into buried comic-strip history, this time with a profile of Napoleon creator Clifford McBride. Reading Harvey is always an education, and a pleasant one. Here’s a sample:
Back in those dear, dead days of yesteryear, cartoonists drew comic strips; they didn’t rule them with a straight-edge. And one of the best examples of the truth of this freshly brewed axiom is Clifford McBride’s dog strip, Napoleon. McBride drew with great verve and an exuberant pen, producing such a ferociously kinetic line that even when depicted in repose, his subjects seemed vitally energetic. And the style suited the subject (in fact, given the low-key humor of the strip, the style may have been the subject).
The strip focused on a stout bachelor and his giant pet—Uncle Elby and Napoleon—achieving, as art critic Dennis Wepman once wrote in Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics,, a “beautifully balanced team—the fat man, all stasis and order, and the lean dog, all motion and chaos.” It is Elby’s fate (and the flywheel of the strip’s punchline, daily and Sunday) to be forever dogged (pun intended) by misfortune of a minor dimension: if his own bumbling doesn’t frustrate his plans that day, then the clumsy albeit good-hearted meddling of his affectionate, over-sized hound does.
Funnybooks meets Michael Barrier’s exacting critical standards through a compelling narrative on what made Dell Comics tick. A wealth of unknown information is made entirely readable as we learn about important figures as flesh-and-blood active characters. Jeet Heer left a comment on his own review of The Secret History of Wonder Women that I thought was spot on: “Countless comics studies are paper thin in terms of historical research.” With the well of firsthand interviews, personal correspondence and surviving documentation Michael Barrier draws from, no one will ever make that charge against Funnybooks.
In some respects, the book is heartbreaking, as the end notes make it clear there was a profound lack of existing hard data from Western itself. This isn’t Barrier’s fault. Western’s careless disposal of its archives and the fact that no one thought it was important enough to write these things down when the records were still available have created an obstacle for every comics historian.
Yet Barrier was still able to overcome that obstacle with more than enough fresh material, a testament to his skill as a historian. The most illuminating parts of the book deal with the corporate history: how Western negotiated its various licenses with Walt Disney, Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger and Marge Buell; the marketing and printing costs; the life of Oskar Lebeck, the smartest Dell editor who hired the best people and shaped the best books; how the Comic Code that Western never adopted impacted its books regardless. Over a half-century later, none of this has been written about at any serious length or depth until now, and that alone makes Barrier’s book indispensable.
Jed Perl is a great art writer, and here he is on Picasso. Read and learn. I could learn a lot. Perl’s new book, Art in America, is a pretty astounding gathering of writing about art that everyone should check out.
Your most important link is naturally to a review of my book, Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream in the New York Times Book Review.
And: This Bill Everett artwork, circa 1940, when the artist was figuring out what his comic book world might look like, is the damndest thing. It popped up on Heritage auctions yesterday, which lately has been auctioning material from the Everett family, most unpublished and easily enough to make a fine little art publication (hint hint, email me if interested, har har) Here is a man in mysterious garb, somewhat SF, somewhat aquatic, halfway mythic. All primary colors. He appear to be controlling some kind of gear-related machine. The woman (in red dress, natch) is holding a helmet as well. It’s rendered in the Alex Raymond-influenced style that Everett would refine for the next 30 years, here still loose and sketchy. To me this drawing communicates so much of the invention and excitement these young artists must’ve felt when giving life to a new form, despite the shitty business conditions, etc. What a clear and ebullient vision he had.
Today, we have two new reviews for you. First, Hazel Cills writes about Inés Estrada’s Sindicalismo 89, a short comic documenting the lives of the residents of an apartment complex in Mexico City:
The story focuses on three very different types of city dwellers who inhabit the building. There’s Mecha and her roommate Pau, two young stoner women. Across the way live the loud Lopez family made up of Paco, Yoni, and their impatient mother. And then there’s the little old lady who lives alone with her yippy lap dog companion, just trying to live peacefully among the youthful hustle and bustle that build up outside her blinded windows.
This idea of comfortable, natural chaos reverberates through out the stories of Sindicalismo 89’s characters as they go about their days and deal with problems that range from the inane (“I want mojitos!”) to the more serious (the building is flooding.) Most of the comic centers around Mecha and Pau, the free-wheeling girls who seem to spend more of their time looking for boys to bone, throwing parties, and getting high. The privilege of their carefree fun is laid bare later in the comic when the darker, dangerous realities of Sindicalismo 89’s city setting come to light.
Then we have the return of Matt Seneca, whose encounter with the graphic-novel-length expanded version of Richard McGuire’s Herehas forced him out of retirement. Here’s Matt:
I never really rated the original “Here”, having seen it alongside the more advanced work that Ware, along with Frank Quitely and Olivier Schrauwen (among others) produced after being shown the way by McGuire’s example. For me, anyway, “Here” the anthology short belongs with things like “A Trip to the Moon” and Naked Lunch – formally audacious, narratively light works of serious historical import that were inevitably superseded as the new ideas they brought to the table were absorbed into the mainstream. So when I learned a few years ago that Here the book was in the offing, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded like a cash-in, or maybe a failure of imagination – 300 pages of that old thing? Especially given that McGuire had made far more interesting work since 1989, it seemed a waste, so I wrote it off.
It took one look at a single spread from the new book to convince me I might have made a mistake – in the past twenty-five years, McGuire’s presentation of his concept has managed to expand as much as the comics form itself has.
—News. The prominent retailer organization ComicsPRO has announced it is investigating possible embezzlement of funds by one of its members. ICv2 is reporting that the director Gary Dills has been removed from his position with the group.
Brumsic Brandon, Jr., creator of the comic strip Luther, has passed away. The Times has an obituary.
Tom Spurgeon muses publicly about his new role as a convention organizer, and hints at potential changes at his Comics Reporter site.
There’s no question that webcomics can change your life for the better. For example, you can read my webcomic and have your life filled with brilliance and joy. Or you could turn to the small but increasing number of webcomics dedicated to self-improvement. Because who knows how to live better than a webcartoonist?
Given that the current trend in online comics—or, hell, online anything—is toward bite-size viral material designed for sharing on social media, I’m surprised there aren’t more webcomics built around daily (or weekly) affirmations and inspiring messages. Nobody has page-a-day desktop calenders anymore, and something has to fill the void. But the inspirational webcomic market seems currently sewn up by Gavin Aung Than’s enormously popular Zen Pencils, which illustrates inspirational quotations in comics form. It’s a clever idea that gives Than a surprising amount of creative flexibility; as long as people keep writing and saying stuff, he could conceivably draw Zen Pencils forever.
And Simon Hanselmann closes out our week together in a deep haze…