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Digitalis

Ryan Holmberg has some questions for you.

And today we republish Gary Groth’s 1996 interview with Barry Windsor-Smith, from TCJ 190. Here’s a sample:

GROTH: I don’t read mainstream comics much but we get piles of them in the office and I look at them once in a while. And because I read them as a kid and I can go back to that Kirby and Ditko and Stan Lee stuff and so on, I have this morbid curiosity about why they look like such unadulterated shit these days. I read interviews with contemporary creators who write and draw them and they seem to be very excited about what they’re doing. And I wonder about why the stuff is so wretched. I wonder if it’s just the Zeitgeist or if it’s just the creators themselves or if it’s me.

WINDSOR-SMITH: I know exactly what you’re saying. I have the very same wonders myself. You and I can just sit around and scratch our heads over the phone, because I don’t have any answer either. Yeah: is it the Zeitgeist? Are we missing something? Is it the same now as it was then but we just didn’t know because we were in a different position then? This sort of questioning comes to us all. It has been the standard cliché for decades now, from the ’60s with rock ’n’ roll, or at least the British invasion style rock ’n’ roll, where people would say, ‘They can’t play, they’re only playing banjo chords. Whatever happened to Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo and hey, Frank Sinatra — now there’s a voice!” And all this sort of shit that I went through when I was a teenager, absolutely adoring everything I was hearing, from the Beatles to the Stones… Well, actually I was extremely judgmental even then: I fuckin’ hated the Dave Clark Five because I could see them for the no-talent copyists that they were! But I loved anything that I thought was quality, and I certainly thought Lennon and McCartney were.

I actually have this strong memory of an uncle of mine whom I greatly admired. He was a musician, played jazz. I was over at his house one day, I was only about 15 or 16, the Beatles had been around for about a year or so — at least in Britain; they hadn’t hit America yet — and he was sitting there just trashing them. Saying, “They can’t play any notes. You call that singing?” And I really disliked my uncle from that moment onward. I’ve never liked him since. Because he seemed to totally sell out himself as a musician. In other words, he wasn’t broad-minded enough to see that there is always new music. And he insulted one of my favorite things. So I’m dreadfully afraid that I’m doing exactly the same thing now!

GROTH: [Laughs.] You’re turning into your uncle.

WINDSOR-SMITH: Yeah, I’m turning into an old complaining fart. There are so many people, I hear it all the time: “Oh my God, I’m beginning to sound like my dad!” It’s a standard routine for stand-up comedians nowadays.

GROTH: But seriously, there is a maturing process, and some people go through it and some people don’t. And I think in some ways you do start sounding if not like your dad, at least like people you remember as having antiquated attitudes.

WINDSOR-SMITH: Somebody you don’t like. I can remember a long time ago, you did a major interview with Jim Steranko.

GROTH: Whew—you’re talking 25 years ago.

WINDSOR-SMITH: Yeah. And you seemed absolutely in awe of Jim at the time.

GROTH: I was.

WINDSOR-SMITH: And you were young. And Jim was lapping it up because we know what an egoist he is. But in recent times, or at least within the last eight or five years, I can remember when you totally trashed him in print for some reason. It wasn’t out of hand, there was some purpose behind it; I forget what it was. I was thinking, “Gee, what happened to Gary in the meantime?” Yeah, we’ve all changed our taste — I guess. And now, Steranko was pretty damn good at what he did. We know it was derivative to a degree, but some of it wasn’t. So for the people who were working at that time in that heyday of Marvel comics, Steranko certainly gave far more energy to his books than your average guy. Certainly he was no genius on the level of Jack Kirby, but who the hell was? So Jim’s material was innovative to a degree, exciting to a degree, good for what it was. So why do you not see Jim’s work in that perspective? Or do you?

GROTH: Looking at his Marvel work, I can’t help but see it as thin and anemic. Whereas Kirby was genuinely original, and Ditko was too, Steranko was a compendium of graphic tricks and gimmicks picked up from various sources inside and outside of comics. So I don’t think he’s… If you look at it closely it tends to fall apart. It doesn’t hold up to very close scrutiny.

WINDSOR-SMITH: I agree with you. I was thinking that way back when.

GROTH: Yeah. Well you were probably ahead of me because as you say, I was in —

WINDSOR-SMITH: I was right in the thick of it and I was functioning in the same capacity as a storyteller. So I could certainly see through Steranko.

Elsewhere:

—The much-missed-around-these-parts Jeet Heer wrote a review of Ben Katchor’s new Hand-Drying in America for the Globe & Mail.

—Jonathan Clements has a tribute to his friend, Toren Smith.

—William Blake scholar Mark Crosby has a great post analyzing Maurice Sendak’s use of Blake imagery in his last book.

—CBR talks to Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson about writing for Marvel.

—Domingos Isabelinho writes about OuBaPo founding member Jochen Gerner.

ARTnews has a piece on a 1950s mural Saul Steinberg made for the World’s Fair.

—That B. Kliban guy was funny.


7 Responses to Digitalis

  1. Jeremy Holstein says:

    I miss Windsor-Smith’s work.

    • Tony says:

      Totally. I always compare him with Corben, who’s 10 years older but keeps producing more prolifically than ever. I’m sure BWS has good reasons for his self-imposed exile, but as a selfish fan all I can think is “yeah, I know they’ve screwed you over and over again, but c’mon, it’s just comics, we need our fix! and it’s not like nowadays you don’t have plenty of options to publish whatever you want at your own pace and convenience…”

      • Jeremy Holstein says:

        From his website it sure sounds like BWS is still doing comics here and there; just not publishing them.

        I’d love to see Monster.

  2. patrick ford says:

    Yes, where is the comprehensive Kliban? Particularly odd in the case of a cartoonist with well established commercial viability in the past. I suppose the “Cat stuff” is possibly contracted or tied-up, but there are plenty of other things by him including many full colour cartoons done for PLAYBOY.
    “I know! Let’s wreak vengeance on the forces of evil!”

  3. patrick ford says:

    BTW, Did Groth do a “major interview” with Steranko? All I recall is a shortish one in an old copy of FANTASTIC FANZINE I found in a warehouse.

  4. patrick ford says:

    Re. BWS’s comments on Lee.
    Darcy Sullivan, TCJ contributor and the liner notes editor for Rhino Records laid this out in TCJ #152.
    “Lee made comic books “hip” with a casual language which approximated the slang of the era. This language showed up everywhere in Marvel comics; in it’s in-clubbish letters sections, and house ads, in the credit boxes, in the footnotes which explained previous events, and most importantly in the speech of the characters themselves. …everything in a Marvel comic book sounded like the manic persona Lee assumed.
    Lee addressed the reader as a smart consumer, generating brand awareness and promoting the idea one book’s success ought to rub off on another. The reader was told that appreciation of (read purchase of) this comic book placed him/her in an in-group of hip cognoscenti. The direct address of the line implied that the reader was a member of the group. A “pilgrim” Flattery like this got Marvel everywhere.
    Lee suggested the reader was a part of a club of connoisseurs who were too intelligent for comics.
    This massive denial helped Lee court a literate young audience, who historically gave up on comics some time during puberty. He sold his inherently pre-adolescent product. Marvel constantly noted that college students read comics. Despite Lee’s protestations, most creators—and certainly Kirby—knew they were making kid’s comics. Stan Lee says in the introduction to the Les Daniels book, “We fashion stories for adults which can be read and enjoyed by younger readers.” This is just part of Lee’s canny hype. Marvel stories respected the readers intelligence if the reader was 6-13; anyone else was just along for the cheap high. Lee drew the story into the realm of advertising. Nothing was allowed to speak to the reader outside of this address of the promoter (Lee) to the buyer. Marvel comics themselves became advertisements.

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