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Feininger’s Grandkids

Lyonel Charles Feininger, The Kin-der-Kids, 1906

What is "cartooning?" It means different things in different milieus of the comic-book world. Comics published by large companies seem unconcerned with the term, preferring writer, penciler, inker. If an employee combines the last two terms into their practice, they are designated simply as "artist."

I think it's safe to assume that for readers of this website, and for the artists of the past that shaped the aesthetics that this publication champions, "cartooning" means combining all three practices (with "inking" being either assumed or not applicable). This would, in theory, provide a rather wide tent for what this art form can mean. Words and pictures in some degree of cooperation.

But the discussion of cartooning is, of course, far more conservative than that. While all approaches are encouraged or paid lip service to, a "true cartoonist" is defined rather narrowly, even in our pushing-the-boundaries corner of the form.

What always surprises me about any out-of-left field comic receiving the "that's interesting, but it's not cartooning" or "pretty experimental!" response is that the beginnings of comics resemble the contemporary avant-garde very closely. Lyonel Feininger's The Kin-der-Kids has no relation to John Romita Sr., but doesn't look totally foreign to work seen in an underground zine. What's more, The Kin-der-Kids was not a lost and forgotten piece of comics history---it was widely circulated upon publication and has been discussed with admiration ever since.

Importantly, work that has similarities to Feininger today is not done in tribute or homage to The Kin-der-Kids---rather, work like this is made naturally, often by people unaware of (or with non-worshipful attitudes toward) early comic-strip history, suggesting that this approach is a natural part of cartooning's DNA.

But this leads us to a question: what is this generally agreed on notion of orthodox cartooning and how does Feininger differ from it?

Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four #51, 1966

If you want orthodox, I think Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #51, which contains the story "This Man... This Monster!" might be a good place to start.

The obvious pitfall of using this particular comic as a definition of pure cartooning is that one person, Stan Lee, is listed as the writer, while Kirby handles the penciling. However, I think we can argue that this fits the base level definition of cartooning in that, by this time in the Fantastic Four's history, Lee's "writing" contribution barely exists. Different views on the accuracy of this viewpoint have been debated for close to half a century now, but we are going to proceed with the assumption that this comic is as much written by Kirby as it is drawn.

I should note that for years I resisted Kirby as a reader---his work was so influential that it felt stifling to engage with. But Kirby can't be easily dismissed or ignored (when I look at a Kirby page, it's hard to resist reading it), and over the years, I've allowed myself to engage with more of his work. The pleasures of his comics are undeniable. He is worthy of the vast respect he commands. His work is beautiful, exciting, unique, and made with the utmost care. But for our purposes today he is a foil.

"This Man... This Monster!" is an airtight masterpiece, created at almost the midpoint of Kirby's career and representing a peak of achievement. A self-contained story, it begins with a disillusioned Thing lamenting his non-human status. An evil scientist exploits the Thing's vulnerability in order to assume his powers and act as an impostor, returning the Thing to his natural Ben Grimm state. The Fantastic Four believes the fake Thing to be real, and Reed Richards entrusts him with his life for a mission in "the negative zone." Impressed with his selfless nature, the impostor sacrifices himself to save Reed. As the impostor dies, Ben Grimm returns to his form as the Thing.

All of this action (and lightly moral melodrama) almost reads itself to you. Every gesture, emotion, plot point is unambiguous. Nothing is left to (mis)interpretation. This is done, I believe, in two major ways: first, Kirby doesn't just draw anything required of him, he knows how reduce it to a coherent world of icons. A table, a man, the cosmos, anger, depression: they all have a correct way of being rendered and communicated within Kirby's visual world---a world he worked on refining and developing tirelessly for close to sixty years. Everything is reduced to a certain level of visual complexity so as to achieve a reality that synthesizes from top to bottom. Imagine something, imagine anything... it's easy to conjure up in your mind how Kirby would draw it. Does this equal cartooning? Possibly.

Second, Kirby knew how to borrow cinematic techniques without showboating. He crops his characters, sets up "shots," and establishes location for maximum clear storytelling, all while preferring not to communicate to the sophisticated reader that he "understands" the tools of cinematic storytelling. The interest here is telling a story solidly and clearly, using whatever effective methods exist. All "mainstream" cartoonists of the day used cinematic shorthand in their comics, and I'd never argue that Kirby was the most concerned with this approach or the most influential (Caniff and Sickles come to mind first). But his comics probably merge the two mediums the most seamlessly. None of this makes Kirby subservient to film---the fact that one artist can do the work of a director, actors, cinematographers, a costumes department, and more is one of the amazing potentials of orthodox cartooning---a potential that Kirby realized and fulfilled many times over. Kirby's comics read like a big-budget film that is highly personal: a blockbuster with the undertone of one man's emotion beating through every moment.

So... why wouldn't such an approach be endlessly influential? Why shouldn't most cartoonists work in such a mode? In telling a story visually, Kirby's synthetic visual approach is highly effective. It's also a meaty gauntlet that Kirby set down, meaning there's plenty for generations upon generations to explore and build on. And even if that bombast that the cinema elements provide are removed, and you're a Dan DeCarlo-type cartoonist who draws everything as an icon that gels with everything else on the page, there's much to admire and refine. Cue a perfect spread of Jamie Hernandez art:

Jamie Hernandez, Love and Rockets #48, 1995

Now, we exist in a moment where Feininger, Kirby, and Hernandez are all beloved. None of their approaches has been debunked or shunned. And yet, when we look at the above Feininger page, it doesn't necessarily seem part of the medium in the same obvious way that Kirby's "This Man... This Monster!" page does. If you think of painting, an Impressionist canvas doesn't seem like a pleasing anomaly within the current hegemony of abstraction. It appears as an established fact of painting history, and one that is in constant dialogue with the art of today: built upon, reacted to, rejected, or newly embraced, but still an integral part of what a young painter will reconcile with as the potential that their medium offers. Early newspaper cartooning, on the other hand, takes everyone's breath away, but feels like a medium from a different universe. There's no grid, the cartoons lack strict "cartoon integrity" (meaning they look exactly the same from the first panel to the last), and the narrative drive is off-kilter at best, non-existent at worse. Why is this, the conservative crowd yells, cartooning? And why bother with it?

Here's a reason why: Feininger's characters aren't engaged in a simulation of reality, and their purpose isn't to tell you a clear story. Instead, they offer a different view of what cartooning could have been. Movement, exploring environments, sounds, color are what's happening here. And the loose narrative whips you around a world to confront you with these sensations. A static image or painting would bring you one arrangement of these experiences. But a comic with these elements in play allows for a richer template (more and more sensations without descending into sloppy overload) and for the experiences to be controlled through time and space. Sound familiar?

Dearraindrop, Paper Rodeo #17, 2004

The promise and visual exuberance of early comics has been explored now for decades within cartooning, but mostly regulated to the underground, especially in publications like Paper Rodeo---a free giveaway newspaper featuring contributors like Matt Brinkman, Brian Chippendale, and Joe Grillo (among many others).

Kirby's influence is so great, though, that most of the discussion around Paper Rodeo at the time (and to this day) decided to focus on how the publication could be viewed as a continuation of Kirby's creative sci-fi. This alone was enough to deem the Fort Thunder generation as a break from the norm of the alternative/underground: young artists who embraced Kirby's orthodox cartooning rather than the more cartoony (but still traditional) heroes (Schulz, Stanley, Kurtzman) of Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, and Chris Ware. Focusing on an embrace of genre and world-building rather than the break from the shared priorities of Kirby AND Schulz seems to miss the forest for the trees. Paper Rodeo's format, whether or not intentionally chosen to honor the beginnings of comics, should have served as an obvious lead-in. The beauty and visceral punch of early newspaper strips was very much part of the publication. Just because cinema happens to exist when these comics are made doesn't mean film needs to be a concern for cartooning. The free-of-cinema work of Feininger feels more relevant within these pages.

The comics and zines from this era and movement are considered fringe in terms of what the medium "is." Some readers even considered them offensive affronts against the very idea of cartooning, rolling their eyes at self-indulgent experimentation. This points to how conservative "alternative comics" was even in the last decade, and continues to be. Art cartooning is still judged successful when most of the things Kirby did in "This Man...This Monster!" are applied to non-genre topics. Emotional and intellectual themes are where a serious cartoonist should apply themselves, as long as grids and clear storytelling are adhered to. In fact, Clowes, Burns, and Hernandez took the model of storytelling set down by Kirby and refined it to heights most '50s and '60s artists probably wouldn't have anticipated. Without an oppressive monthly schedule to adhere to, replaced instead with the empowering mindset that comics are really and truly art (something that might have been a more hard-won concept for Kirby), refining craft comes to the forefront for these artists. But it's craft largely within the Kirby (or Schulz or Johnny Craig) model.

Now, again, it's hard to critique this. Kirby and Schulz are artists of great merit and the alternative generation's processing of them yielded (and continues to yield!) rich artistic results. And yet, even as the divide has dramatically lessened in recent years, the power of cartooning as a medium still remains very unclear to the public at large. Part of this, in my view, lies with focusing too closely on this specific mode of cartooning as the only worthwhile path. The view of Fort Thunder as "noteworthy but experimental (at best) cartooning" is not an anomaly. All too often, people who makes comics that resonate with the public at large are hardly ever discussed as cartoonists.

Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp, 1953

Edward Gorey could arguably be the most read cartoonist of all time. Comic-book stores know to carry his books because people read them and buy them. His work is rightly held in high esteem by children, proving that it fulfills at least one of the Kirby standards: clear storytelling. But Gorey's surrealism (not surrealism in the "weird" sense but in the truer meaning of the term: "there is another world within this on"') qualifies him as of the select few artists who use words and pictures in as intellectually and emotionally expansive way as possible. And for this, the world embraces Gorey, an undeniable treasure of American arts. Comics, of course, omits him from the Eisner Hall of Fame (Roy Thomas being a more important figure, clearly) because... he didn't work with a grid? The text is... on the other page? The argument cannot be made that Gorey's text and images can be separated, thus making him a true blue cartoonist. And yet... Roy Thomas (let the record show that I cherish Alter Ego magazine).

Shel Silverstein, A Light in The Attic, 1981

Shel Silverstein might be a possible rival to Gorey for the "most widely read" cartoonist title---what parent hasn't read at least one of Silverstein's books to their children? They're ubiquitous and hugely successful. Like Gorey's, they're also wildly creative. Even the most conservative comics person can see the skill in a Silverstein drawing (the above example does essentially what Kirby does: reduce the human figure to a caricature so as to appropriately intertwine with the tone of the text). Still, not only is Silverstein absent alongside Gorey from the Eisner Hall of Fame, he didn't make the far more progressively minded Comics Journal Top 100 list in 1999.

Now, of course Silverstein and Gorey don't care about either the Hall or the List. They are universally acclaimed artists whose work will last for some time. But why does comics shy away from them?

Does it matter? Great work in the mode of Gorey will be produced to varying degrees of success whether or not "comics" certifies it. But if we often wonder why even great comics feel so marginal alongside film or painting, our obsession with one type of cartooning above all others might be part of the reason.

Todd McFarlane, Spawn #12, 1993

Comics seems to react in an extremely hostile way to people who break with the unwritten rules. Within this magazine, cartoonists like Todd McFarlane have received many words of derision. Yet artists and fans loved these artists in their heyday, and continue to stand by their work. McFarlane, like Gorey and Silverstein, made extremely commercially successful work. Yet McFarlane's characters breaking the grid, the overly expressive facial expressions of his characters, the "how many lines can I fit in this drawing" aesthetic, and the sheer wildness of it all made him a joke to any connoisseur. "Yeah he can draw and the kids love it, but he's no JACK KIRBY."

But McFarlane and his ilk loved Kirby. They correctly viewed Kirby as an artist, and as artists themselves, they wanted to express themselves as uniquely as he did. With the general harrummph that McFarlane's work elicited from all corners of the comics world (except the fans of course), it seemed as if he missed exactly what you're supposed to get from Kirby: you're supposed to emulate him. By this logic, John Byrne is doing everything the right way and all-out self-expression is not a trait of true cartooning.

Julie Doucet, Dirty Plotte #1, 1991

Julie Doucet oddly connects to McFarlane on this point. Doucet has remained my personal favorite cartoonist from the minute I saw her work and that's no doubt true for many others. Doucet's stories are often short explorations of highly specific emotions, fears, or strands of thought. Fantasies are portrayed, but not as poetic expressions. Still, figure drawing and loose grids are employed: it's comics.

I have a personal theory as to why Doucet abandoned comics, one that relates to the context of this column but might not bear out factually. Anyone who wants to correct me should do so. But bear with me: Doucet, being a extremely sophisticated artist, continued to sharpen and evolve. Her mature comics work, My New York Diary, is as sharp a piece of traditional cartooning as one can find in the alternative era. But after that story, Doucet leaves comics. My theory is that Doucet looks at what people define "real" comics as, pushes her work in that direction, and thinks, "Well... why bother with all this if this is what people want?" Her early and later work are, to me, without flaw. But I'd argue that the comics community's view of what a serious artist must apply themselves to is a pressure that doesn't need to be grafted on to every artist. And yet the view is so dominant that it's hard to avoid. Someone like Doucet can master the ins and outs of traditional cartoon integrity but probably notices quicker than most what a closed system it is, how much feeling it excludes and how much one gives up to offer one's entire art up to it.

Dorothy Iannone, An Icelandic Saga, 1986

Someone like Dorothy Iannone, working completely outside of the comics community or the influence of its idols, is free from this pressure. Iannone tells autobiographical stories about her life with words and pictures that cannot be separated. Why is her work not a part of comics culture in the same breath as Seth? The situations in her work are far more heartbreaking, the emotions they illicit cut deeper. Auto-bio cartoonists like Joe Matt are constantly celebrated for their "honesty," but when we look at Iannone's An Icelandic Journey, we see real emotional honesty as the collapse of one relationship and the beginning of another is chronicled. Comics associates honestly with cringe-worthy shock, Iannone with awareness of the complexity of feeling. Which makes more sense to people in general? The one that uses panel grids and loves the simplicity of Charles Schulz? Or the one that doesn't emulate any master but instead uses words and pictures in the way that they must be used for this specific narrative.

If Feininger demonstrates to us the freedom inherent in cartooning, Iannone and Doucet bear it out, as do countless other artists working within comics today. In 2017, most young artists will approach cartoning with a very free idea of what is permitted. Raina Telgemeier and Allie Brosh both blazed paths that will be explored with gusto. Does allegiance to any set of rules affect anyone anymore?

I think advocating for approaches that don't cohere with Kirby or Schulz or DeCarlo is important in building a commitment within developing artists to outdo themselves within the set of rules that they have established for themselves. Iannone's system is her own, and her commitment to it builds up to a masterpiece like An Icelandic Journey. A belief in the lessons of Johnny Craig  gave Clowes a reason to focus on refining his skills in that tradition and build upon the masterpieces of those that came before. Craig is legitimate, so what can be done with his approach? Similarly, with a growing community of artists making comics completely on their own terms, an acknowledgement that in the tree of cartooning, Kirby and Iannone are equally strong branches might be a good start. These days, we often talk about encouraging artists with the logistical support of comics shows, community, and payment. But proclaiming the open promise of cartooning loudly and passionately might be just as important in keeping some people who belong here committed to their project. Being acknowledged within the context of cartooning mattered for those who built on the lessons of Schulz and his ilk. Let's see what masterpieces those outside a particular sphere of influence will do when we greet them with the same welcoming eye that we've kept so long on Kirby.

21 Responses to Feininger’s Grandkids

  1. Frank Santoro says:

    that was a good one

  2. Thanks Frank! I wrote about this same stuff, more or less, for TCJ 10 years ago in a kind of incoherent essay. Have been thinking about it ever since and I hope I got closer to what I mean.

  3. Thank you for this piece. What you have to say is important, and mirrors thoughts I’ve had over the years about comics. The Feininger page you picked is one of his more cinematic efforts. Actions are broken into clearly defined panels (some lovely octagonals); the last two tiers, with their impeccable depiction of movement and speed (and the constantly shifting “camera”), anticipate developments in movies–this feels like a blend of UFA thriller and D. W. Griffith, with a touch of Chaplin (the moving “camera” that accelerates the action from blip to blip). Movies were nowhere near this visual sophistication in 1906. Nor had their basic visual vocabulary been thought out. It is powerful to realize that this page “moves” in a way that the tableau of motion pictures couldn’t yet do.

    I’d never have thought to compare Jack Kirby and Lyonel Feininger. The two artists, leagues apart in their discipline and inspiration, have the ability to create well-formed worlds that look like no other work. The same basic creative impulse is there–but refracted through each artist’s eye. Feininger had the luxury to do it all himself, with a grand canvas of the bedsheet-sized Sunday comics. Kirby was part of the comic book conveyor belt process, where it took will to rise above the piecework.

    And I agree that young cartoonists seem to be circling back to the infancy-of-comics format of the page as a visual playground. As mainstream movies stagnate, comics once again have the chance to overtake that medium as a visual-textual container for ideas, emotions and narratives. My middle-school comics students respond warmly to Feininger and seem lukewarm to Kirby. I think LF’s work suggests a wider range of possibilities, and this, I’m sure, is what older emerging cartoonists seek–an escape from the grid and from piecework.

  4. Ian Harker says:

    Good thoughts Austin! This reminds me of a conversation we had before about Curt Swan. The thing I love about Swan is the sense of pulsating instability in the world he creates. Superman can do anything, thus anything in the world CAN happen and does. Totally unpredictable, irrational, dreamlike. Like a great Matt Thurber comic! Superman comics fail when you make them into cinematic Kirby-language comics but thrive when you acknowledge that Superman is a CARTOON character. I think you’re alluding to something here, a cartoon narrative. Open ended, unstable, the same language as our imaginations and dreams. Pure art!!

  5. Frank: glad you enjoyed! Part of comparing the two problem comes in part of my own petty need to reconcile my love for bith of them (ditto the Doucet/McFarlane side by side). But bringing them both into focus revealed some long held suspicions I’ve had about peoples attitudes on cartooning.

    The bit you say about your students and Kirby is interesting. I wrote a different, (more) confused version of this essay for TCJ 10 years ago…things have definetley changed for the better I think!

    Ian: yeah…Swan being maligned for years and Neal Adams getting praised as ‘serious’ fits in to the theory.

  6. Kim O'Connor says:

    Hey Austin, I really love your column. It’s interesting where these lines are thin and where they’re more enduring. You’re focusing on form and style and canon, I guess, but a variable that feels missing to me is identity. I mean this both in terms of who the artist is (their sensibility, influences) and who they know (socially). Edward Gorey, for ex, ran in literary circles. He was tight with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. He was an illustrator by profession for many years, on staff with a publisher, often illustrating classic works for adult audiences. Tonally, he had that whole eccentric Victorian thing going on. So yes, comics doesn’t really claim Edward Gorey…but surely part of that is because Edward Gorey never identified as a cartoonist. Like…contrast his whole career trajectory and reputation with Maurice Sendak, who had an early career in comics, knew a lot of comics people, etc., and seems to be embraced by the comics world, so far as I can tell?

    I know identity factored into Julie Doucet’s decision to leave comics back in the day. She’s interviewed many times about how she felt like comics was a boys’ club then, and it’s easy to see why when you think about who her contemporaries in autobio were at Drawn & Quarterly. I’m not sure that was The Reason she quit…I think she’s talked about it being too much work for too little reward, for instance, too, but anyway that was part of it.

    All to say the ‘welcoming attitude’ you’re talking about is not just about form and style. I think you sort of dance around the edges of that when you’re talking about Joe Matt vs. Dorothy Ianonne. You hint at it too when you talk about Raina Telgemeier and Allie Brosh. Like…their innovation wasn’t that they were, stylistically, a departure from Kirby. It was that they found an audience for traditional(-ish) comics outside of traditional comics channels/publishers. That strikes me as more of a marketing or publishing innovation than a matter of form? Derisive attitudes towards work that’s by women or geared towards children seems like a big part of what you’re talking about.

  7. Kim- I think attitudes towards work made by women plays into it in a big way, yes….just imagining some old cranky Justice League fan grappling with the idea that there’s more emotional depth to Iannone than Kirby feels like something that will never happen. But…I think that same fan probably likes Emma Rios (who I also like). So it’s tricky. I think if you play the game of doing things in a certain way, people with conservative attitudes will be into what you do, no matter who you are. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who disagree, but I do think that’s true. And, again, I LIKE conservatively made comics a whole lot.

    I think what I’m saying is more ‘hey, let’s us comics people embrace Gorey and Charlotte Salomon as much as we embrace Sal Buscema.’ Or, more succintly: Iannone doesnt need comics, but maybe we need to think about what she does,

  8. Alex says:

    It’s odd not to see Lynda Barry mentioned in this context. I immediately thought of her work upon seeing that Iannone page. Barry is somebody who is definitely acclaimed as a cartoonist without being confined to a Schulz-derived “panel” orthodoxy.

  9. Alex: except, Barry’s work was loudly critiqued for years by stars in the ‘alternative’ comics scene, the most frequent complaint being ‘I just cant get past the drawing.’ Barry proved those people wrong, of course, but it took a long time for her to get the acclaim she deserved all along.

  10. Uland says:

    Jesus Christ

  11. Uland: I know, this is the same stuff we argued over 5 years ago. Does feel like attitudes in general have changed since the Comets Comets days.

  12. Kim O'Connor says:

    Austin, it’s really not that tricky when you realize the gender lines go by genre. It’s more about content than form. The thing you mentioned with Emma Rios…I’m not sure that’s about attitudes towards traditional vs. avant garde approaches so much as it is about fiction vs. autobio…?

  13. Kim- not trying to be difficult but not sure exactly what you mean. I’m probably misunderstanding, but im not sure I grasp exactly what you mean by ‘gender lines go by genre.’ Rio’s makes western comics, sci fi comics—action! I work at a comic shop one day a week….and by a mile, our most popular comic is Saga. Nothing comes close in popularity/sales. Its a genre comic where every issue is drawn by Fiona Staples. Rios’ work I personally love. Staples isnt exactly my cup of tea but a ton of people love what she does and it’s very solid ‘traditional’ cartooning by any measure.

    Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales, on the other hand, IS my cup of tea. One of the mos brilliant comics of the last decade by a master of the auto bio form (though Carpet isnt auto bio). And yet the book was largely ignored—it couldnt be less orthodox, of course.

  14. Uland says:

    I was just joking Austin.Im seeing all these old familiar names & wanted to make an appearance.All the best

  15. I’m curious . . . what innovations do you find in Raina Telgemeier’s work? I’m a Telgemeier fan, but mostly because I like her stories. She seems to me to be a solid craftsman of comics, whose craft does not obtrude onto the story. What am I missing? What is the innovation? Am I stupid? (Don’t answer that.)
    Thank you for a very well-thought-out and insightful essay. As a major aficionado of the very early strips, I am pleased to see them brought back into consideration alongside today’s orthodoxy of admiration for “hero” comics. There’s a wide world of possibilities for comics out there. Or maybe it’s a wide universe — why be limited to the world?

  16. Hey Katherine- first, if this is THE Katherine Collins, I have to say I’m a huge fan of your cartooning. Honored that you enjoyed this column even a little bit!

    The bit about Telgemeier is just inarticulateness on my part. Yes, she is a solid craftsman and I don’t mean to allign her with the Iannone and Feininger camp. Instead, for a young cartoonist entering the field in 2017, for ‘traditional’ cartooning, Telgemeier is probably a far more relevant artist than Kirby. I love both artists but Telgemeier’s sensibility is so different than Kirby or Schulz and I felt like I had to be fair to my argument and acknowledge that the love people have her work challenges some of the things I’m saying. At the same time, the traditional nature of her work and its wide acceptance in the comics world also confirms some arguments in the essay.

  17. Christopher Adams says:

    Austin: Thanks for thinking, thanks for writing! I probably think about thinking about comics more than I make or read comics so I always appreciate a good “think piece”! That said while reading I had a few thoughts or reminders of previous thoughts. Uh oh. So here are a few:

    1. Surface and structure: a lot of times the surface gets taken for the structure especially when the surface looks a lot like a structure. But then the actual underlying structure – which might not be “on the page” – gets lost and things that are the same don’t seem the same or vice versa.

    2. Which means I think a lot of things are more or less the same. Or not!

    3. Chris Ware is sorta THE guy for the 80’s-90’s generation of cartoony cartoonists who liked comic strips more than comic books and then made very good comic books based on those other principles but about divorce instead of bricks.

    4. Not one but two – at least – blurbs on Jimmy Corrigan make comparisons to Ulysses. Probably because of the hyper-detail normality of “uninteresting” or non-avenging people. And all the “experimentation”.

    5. Ware is super-slick, super-professional, super-tasteful. Hits each button square in the middle.

    6. Virginia Woolf said Joyce was “uneducated”. Which if you read him you kind of see despite the “erudition”. It’s pretty raw clumpy frenzied stuff.

    7. And if I think of Ware or Kirby I’d go with Kirby for that description too.

    8. But the reality! But the EMOTION!

    9. There’s a page of O.M.A.C. that shows a special room in an office building where employees can smash furniture and equipment and maybe dolls (?) out of frustration and aimless rage.

    10. I don’t think there’s one of these anywhere in the ACME Novelty Library. (Could use one!)

    11. Comics (…art…) can be exciting and vigorous and sensitive and life-inducing while also displaying awareness of the sad and horrible stuff. Obviously though! But instead of a wistful spider web why not a volcano that happens to have a wistful spider web on it somewhere along with a lot of other things too?

    12. Finnegans Wake is very Jack Kirby.

    13. I think anything you voluntary spend time with should make you excited about spending more time with more things. And so I think a lot of the changes in what younger cartoonist like or who they might like to riff on or whatever are probably based on a creeping ennui seeping from honorable stacks of hardback graphic novels rather than structural constraints. That might just be surface anyway. And this also goes for content and style.

    14. So I don’t think there’s a Kirby/Kin-der-Kids dichotomy so much as one between them and all the dorks. Even if the dorks have authentic punk credentials. (Ahem…. Hernandezes…)

    15. I like the work of all the above mentioned folks. But Ware should probably stop it with the hangdog stuff and hang loose and make a comic about snowboarding.

    16. I think there’s a photo of Kirby in a bathing suit standing on a diving board.

    17. Last real thought: independent movies used to refer to a financial structure and then quickly came to refer to a story/aesthetic genre regardless of finances. A.K.A. dysfunctional families and divorce witnessed by adult children. Comics in the underground and in the mainstream each got sidetracked into a version of this pit too.

    (18. [Very Un-Finnegans Wake] No matter how few panels you draw if it’s in a book the page is a panel.)



  18. Chris: Ware…likes Krazy Kat…but wants to be…Flaubert/Cornell…but also says hes ‘no good’…and also: Frank King. Lots of agendas going on. I adore a lot of what he does, he’s hard to critique angrily with a straight face…ive spent so much time reading and enjoying his work. But when I try to really love it, i wish he’d just be himself a bit more—i dont need to be told by his work that he ‘gets’ flaubert which is all I feel when I read stuff like ‘lint.’ oddly when he lets himself be truly experimental (quimby strips, the acme where jimmy is in the island that is done up like a golden age comic puzzle), there’s much more ‘feeling’—unlike his new yorker pieces where he’s so preoccupied with telling you how nuanced the emotion is. For someone who is so concerned with if his cartooning is ’emotional’ he should relax a little. It IS when he’s not mimicing other mediums ideas of melodrama.

    So…if i understand you, you are putting kirby and feininger TOGETHER against everyone else? Cant say youre wrong. KIrby played a lot of wrong notes with glee, a notion which the 90s alt comic masters seemed to really form themselves in opposition to.

  19. Christopher Adams says:


    [Haha WAY longer again than I intended but I got nothing going on this morning anyway….]

    I picked Ware as an example since he DOES come from the origins of comics lineage of Feininger and King and Herriman rather than from Kirby and that strand. And since in addition he DOES get compared to fancy stuff outside of comics. And so it is interesting to see what he arrived at and in terms of being “conservative” or not. But again he is just being used as a representative of a larger group. And so if you can stand more numbers here’s what I was also getting at:

    1. There’s the wild no rules yet origins group. (Feininger/King/Herriman, etc.)

    2. There’s the establishing the rules to come mid-century and beyond “superheroes” group. (Kirby/Ditko, etc.)

    3. There’s the “Cartoonist” minimal black and white strip a day humor group. (Bushmiller/Schulz, etc.)

    4. There’s the “Comix” group. (Crumb, etc.)

    5. There’s the 90’s alt-comics/graphic novel/comics aren’t for kids group. (Spiegelman/Ware/Hernandez Bros./Clowes)

    6. And now there’s the Zine/RISD/MICA/Chicago/Risograph/And Beyond group. (Say everything between punk zines to Fort Thunder and now something like Breakdown Press: all basically refinements of having no money and no real audience)

    And that’s just AMERICAN comics. And to me the only anomaly in there is the alt-90’s group. Every other group understands that comics are either garbage or treated as garbage or in the 6th group case are an escape from something too fancy. And that even if you make something very thoughtful and refined it still functions in a garbage system and that gives a great deal of freedom. It’s like if the Sistine Chapel were rebuilt and destroyed every day and Michelangelo got to repaint that ceiling over and over a different way each time for as many days as he could stand it.

    The 90’s group was basically the first to have an audience, respect, steady money, no real deadlines and total artistic freedom. And in addition they are considered THE pinnacle of the medium. By themselves and EVERYBODY. And yet. What do they make? It’s like none of them ever farted but they’ve read about farts in The New Yorker. Or they farted once and wear it like a badge and talk about it every chance they get. In contrast I think one person who gets lumped in with them – even if different human-age-wise – but who to my mind “gets it” and has NON-DESPERATE real “fine art” credentials is Panter.

    So again it’s not so much two unlike-but-like strands against everyone else and more that I don’t see an inherent difference in most things that could be considered comics and I think most people who made comics or are currently making them see or feel that similarity and so like pretty much everything and their work shows that. And I think that 90’s group got a lot of people interested in what you COULD do with comics or how you could go about being a person who makes comics but in any “good” or “with it” work now I don’t think I see as much from them in it as I see something from all of the other groups listed. So maybe at some point all the 90’s heroes – with their scholarship and taste – will go off in their marble spaceship and into orbit forever and all the fine men and women (and non-binary folks) making comics now can get on with being the freaks they were meant to be and not have the true natures of all their freak grandparents skewed by their OK Soda drinking parents.


  20. Kim O'Connor says:

    Austin, just meant that gender plays into the way autobio is classed/received/critiqued more so than it does with fiction-y comics. Like…if Emma Rios were working with the same “conservative attitude,” but doing autobio instead of action, those Kirby fans would maybe be less impressed. By the same token, if Joe Matt had done action comics instead of autobio, I seriously doubt anyone would respect his work. The reason he’s celebrated for his “honesty” doesn’t have much to do with form or style. Autobio was itself built on a fairly avant-garde comic about mental illness and masturbation, and while Justin Green hasn’t achieved mainstream success, I see a lot of critical acclaim within comics circles for his work. So it seems to me a lot of the work you’re marking as rejected on grounds of approach is maybe more so rejected on grounds of identity (of the cartoonist or of target audience). It’s not totally cut and dry, and sometimes stuff overlaps…but if we’re talking about big reasons why a given artist is embraced by Comics or not, it seems to me that identity plays into it as much, and maybe more, than the degree to which the work feels conventional.

    I mean, do you really think Raina Telgemeier has been embraced by Comics? Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s not my own impression at all. She has a huge audience, obviously…but did she not take comics to those people? It seems to me they are reading Raina Telgemeier first, comics second. Meanwhile, within Comics circles, I see a condescending attitude towards her with some frequency. Like…you think she’s canon to most people reading the comics journal?

    Chris & Austin: Chris Ware’s an interesting case. I don’t think it’s quite right to say he comes from a lineage of Herriman rather than Kirby though. (Ware was obsessed with superheroes as a kid.) He’s such a weird combination of totally accessible and willfully obscure, but he sort of came from a pop culture moment (DFW, Dave Eggers, etc) where formal experimentation was being blended with more conventional high pathos stories. The pathos sort of offsets the formal inventiveness, for better or for worse.

  21. Christopher Adams says:


    I’d say I agree with your idea that the various combinations of gender and genre have a real effect on how different work has been received by different groups. And without those and other additional contexts it can be hard to understand why some work is liked by a particular group and other work not.

    It’s also interesting that you bring up the idea of “honesty”. I think a lot of the work that Austin brings up as being of the weirder or unconventional lineage is definitely work that regardless of style or genre could be considered “honest”. But maybe more in terms of “true to themselves” than “these are actual things that happened” or “this is a true picture of the world”. And in that case I’d say stuff like Kirby’s seems very “honest” to me. The drawing itself has the world in it even if it isn’t about something “real”. Which is also why I’m a bit suspect of anyone whose work rests on the merits of more literal notions of honesty. Especially cartoonists whose drawings might as well be inked with NyQuil.

    One reason I brought up the 90’s folks is that they essentially have tried to impose their own vision of themselves and their own context on how others receive their work. Which is very much a technique unique to that overall 90’s cultural group you mention with DFW, etc. They are both very knowledgeable and very “knowing”. But whether more so than their own heroes is questionable. It is also interesting to see the current trend of these same comics folks designing the collected editions of their own adopted predecessors. While Ware might come from more than just the Herriman and King camp he is placing himself in it and also more or less trying to create a new context through his work and his packaging of their work of how we see their work and in turn his work ad infinitum. Very meta! Very 90’s!

    But again I DO like his work. I just think his and his contemporaries’ work and cultural hoarding have created a sort of distorting lens for anyone now looking back at the rest of comics history prior to them. And it can make work like Feininger’s and Kirby’s seem much farther apart than I think it actually is. And so because of that – the idea that a lot of comics throughout history actually share a lot of the same DNA despite style or content differences, which Austin does point out, but maybe for different reasons – because of that I think your point about gender and genre could indeed explain a lot about what goes on.


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