In the Context of No Context

Today we say goodbye to Leslie Stein, with her fifth contribution to the Cartoonist's Diary column. We also present Ken Parille's newest GRID, in which he evaluates many of the comics of 2011, including Habibi, Holy Terror, The Death-Ray, and many others.

One of the comics Parille discusses is Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve 12, which I happened to finally read just a few days ago, though I purchased it the day of its release. (Not until this past year, after making a sincere effort to read as many comics of interest as possible, have I realized just how many solid comics there actually are being published, and how easy it is to fall behind. I read comics every day, and still haven't gotten to several of the books on Parille's list, for example.) Anyway, this is a very strong issue of Optic Nerve, which I enjoyed enough that it makes me want to go back and re-examine some of his earlier work—his earliest minicomics were raw and very funny, but somewhere along the way, his comics stopped clicking with me on a regular basis. Despite Tomine's obvious artistic command, his characters, plots, and situations seemed so low-stakes, yet were apparently taken so seriously, that I found it hard to relate to what was going on. I wonder now, after enjoying this last issue so much, as well as large portions of Shortcomings, if I was simply misreading him—the story I like best here, "Hortisculpture", is also sort of slight, but the character interplay and dramatic situations are handled so lightly, and his storytelling displays a subtlety so far beyond most of what's being published at the current moment, that the parts end up seeming strong enough to redeem the whole. (Of course, I've only read it once so far, and new facets may reveal themselves on a second or third go-round.)

Parille makes it a point in his column to focus on the key formal aspect of "Hortisculpture": the way its scenes are planned to resemble individual episodes of a daily newspaper strip. This is becoming an increasingly popular strategy -- Clowes did something similar in Wilson, Tim Hensley in Wally Gropius, Seth, Ivan Brunetti, David Heatley, etc. -- and it produces an interesting effect. In Wilson, portraying the title character's life in discreet strips not only allowed Clowes a formal excuse to experiment with different drawing styles at appropriate moments, but also served to recast the often disturbing incidents of Wilson's life as temporary and humorous situations. A character being sentenced to prison reads differently in the context of a long-running comic strip than it does as the middle section of a more traditional graphic novel. (Is it too early to apply the term "traditional" to graphic novels?) In Wally Gropius, it makes the often perverse goings-on even more unsettling. And in "Hortisculpture" it somehow manages to add a melancholy tone to what is an essential comedic storyline -- exploiting not only the reader's natural inclination to fill in the narrative gaps "between the gutters," but also his or her tendency (trained by exposure to so many decades-long strips) to imaginatively extend a comic strip's storyline in all directions. A more traditionally organized story would seem more settled, more complete.

These effects are everywhere in comics these days, and not always created consciously. In their most recent collected editions, Prince Valiant and Gasoline Alley and Little Nemo read differently than they used to--and we see their creators differently because of it. Frank King is revealed as an early graphic novelist; for the first time in decades, readers can begin to experience the wonders inspired by properly printed strips from Foster and McCay, published at or close to their originally intended size.

Of course, we are still not reading these strips as the original readers did. Simply being collected into books changes the strips' context dramatically. When Fantagraphics divides the constantly reprinted EC stories into artist-specific books later this year, it will undoubtedly similarly change our understanding of the work, whether we notice it consciously or not. Sometimes reading the lavish new collections of Terry and the Pirates or Popeye or Dick Tracy or Little Orphan Annie, I wonder what it would have been like to experience these strips as they were published, one daily installment at a time. All of these great proclaimed masterpieces were not intended to be read in large gulps, but in daily sips over decades. Barring accident or disease, I've probably got five or so decades of good vision left, so if I want to try out one of our classics the "real way," I need to get started soon.


22 Responses to In the Context of No Context

  1. Michael Grabowski says:

    I’ve found that the only effective way for me to enjoy the Krazy & Ignatz books is to read no more than two pages any time I sit down with it, and to read them lazily, going back and forth, re-eading them. Herriman’s poetry becomes more apparent that way. But to try to read it as a “book” with a goal of turning several pages in a sitting, even if I have the time to read them all slowly, just doesn’t work for me. The effect is diminished rather than reinforced. This need to read slowly varies from strip to strip–it’s easier to enjoy longer stretches in Prince Valiant or Captain Easy but I can’t read more than one page of Nemo at a time. It’s similar with the daily collections of Pogo, Annie, and Mickey, where usually two weeks’ worth of strips is about as far as I can go with any single book at a time.

    Which makes the gradual accrual of these volumes on my shelf a daunting prospect! I hope I have time enough left to read them all.

  2. DerikB says:

    In re: daily strips and reading rhythm, reminded me of something I wrote years ago, a bit of a digital dream: “In an ideal digital world, I could make my own daily comic strip section with all these reprints. A morning digital comics page that could mix different strips from different years into a new anthology.” I still wish that could happen, because some of these old strips really don’t read well if you take in too many at once.

    In re: the fragmented strip format (in contemporary comics), Charles Hatfield and Craig Fischer wrote about this a few years ago. It’s worth reading their comments. Started on a Crickets review by Craig: then Charles replied and Craig again

    They bring in a bunch of other examples.

  3. patrick ford says:

    Krazy Kat is the only strip I prefer to dip into often as opposed to reading large chunks. It’s particularly true of the Sunday pages. The dailies I’ll read good swaths of, and the rare narrative like “Tiger-Tea” (the two thirds of it Yoe left in the book) I’ve read a few times, and always in one sitting.
    The new Frank King I read in a couple of days, I start reading late after the house is quiet, and am up till two in the morning.

  4. Tim Hodler says:

    I know what you mean. Some strips really do read better in large chunks, though. Gasoline Alley does, as Patrick mentions below. Also Zippy the Pinhead — when I read just a strip or two, I find it very difficult to latch onto; only when I read it in bulk am I able to get on Griffith’s wavelength and really start enjoying it. It’s a difficult frequency to tune into (for me), but there’s nothing else like it when I finally get it.

  5. Tim Hodler says:

    A few more quick thoughts:

    1. Although most of the examples of changing context I gave were linked to physical reproduction, social context makes a huge difference, too. It’s not just that Gasoline Alley is in print now that has changed our perceptions of Frank King, it is also the fact that Drawn & Quarterly (the anthology) published King pages next to Seth and Ware and made us see the connections. And more importantly, it is that bodies of work from artists like Seth and Ware now exist to make King’s legacy more clear. He’s not an outlier anymore. No longer an exception that proves the rule.

    2. Choices about which comics are reprinted also affect and are affected by the general climate. We tend to think that the comics that have been reprinted in archival format are quite naturally the best comics that have so far been created. But Dan’s Art Out of Time showed how many gems had in fact gone unnoticed, and changed our perceptions of Fletcher Hanks, Ogden Whitney, etc. And even Art Out of Time was affected by Dan’s own digging in the forgotten fanzines and essays of previous comics scholars. Taste shapes taste.

    3. Tomine tackles reading context elsewhere in Optic Nerve 12, too, particularly in the final autobiographical story in which he portrays himself worrying about being one of the few cartoonists still releasing his work in the pamphlet-like comic book format, and continuing to work on short stories in the era of the lengthy graphic novel. The old (unfair, in my opinion) conventional wisdom amongst Tomine detractors was that he was nothing more than a Daniel Clowes clone, trying as hard as possible to make his comics “respectable” and “literary.” So it is funny to see him here listening to Clowes talk about how dumb it would be to keep publishing comic books. In fact, Tomine seems to be far more attached to (at least some of) the comic book’s ostensibly disreputable roots than Clowes is. The context has shifted.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    I wrote a bit about “reading speed” in my review of the latest Ben Katchor book. It seems relevant to this discussion:

    “Along with Krazy Kat’s George Herriman, Katchor is the only cartoonist whose language achieves the pitch of high artifice that deserves the name of poetry. As with Herriman, you have to read Katchor’s strips slowly, savoring every word and also that constant layered interplay between the art and text. And like Herriman, Katchor is emphatically not a graphic novelist: his strips shouldn’t be read from beginning to end as a continuous narrative, but rather in small doses of about four or five pages a time. You can overdose on Katchor’s richness if you don’t pace your reading.”

    In general, the dense Sunday pages of Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, and even Thimble Theatre need to be read in small batches. But I find most daily strips (like the Gasoline Alley dailies) or Sunday/Daily continuities (like Dick Tracy or Orphan Annie) can be read in large gulps.

  7. The other aspect of format–I just really dislike having to read giant hardback books. I like to be able to take things with me in my backpack to read outside or on the subway or in a coffee shop, and there’s no way I’m lugging any classic strip reprint bricks around with me as a giant brick. I don’t even like reading them sitting down because they are so heavy. I don’t even know HOW I am supposed to read the Sunday Press hardbacks, as much as I drool over them. Do people read them lying down on the floor on their bellies? And I really like reading things at their original size. Also, I really like the effect of having a bunch of different strips of different content and style next to each other.

    I guess, what I’m saying is that I think the Sunday comics section of a newspaper represents an ideal for many reasons. Sad that I will never get to read the great strips that way.

  8. BVS says:

    I know what you mean. I want to casually read those classic strips in small chunks on my lunch break.but i’m a goof ball who rides a bike so it’s got to comfortably fit in my bag. due to size or weight thats not going to work for certain collections. thankfully the krazy cats and mickey mouse books are more manageable sized tomes. as for sunday press books or any other super jumbo sized books, like kramers 7,captain easy, popeye, or ninja. I have to lay the thing out on the kitchen table, pull up a chair and get lost in them. thats kind of a very deliberate and not casual reading process, makes me feel a little like kid doing homework.

  9. patrick ford says:

    I read Katchor fast and slow. What happens is I read something like ten pages, and have a really strong urge to go back and reread what I’ve just read, simply because it’s so damn good. “The Jew in New York” “The Cardboard Valise” I couldn’t put those down for days. And his stuff really stays with me, bits of it surface in all kinds of contexts, his voice is a touchstone.

  10. Michael Grabowski says:

    Russ Cochran has a new Sunday-section-style publication reprinting classics strips. I haven’t seen it but I would like to.

    I made the mistake of buying the giant complete Far Side books and getting rid of the (incomplete) paperbacks I had gathered. The paperbacks were far far better! Even the more manageable Calvin & Hobbes hardcovers aren’t as fun to pull out as the individual books and treasuries.

  11. Alek Trencz says:

    I love that idea about the personally collated online funnies page. Reminds me a bit of John Kricfalusi pos(i)ting his ideal kids’ TV schedule, jammed full of Tex Avery cartoons, etc, it was a fun read until the heartache set in.
    The Library of American Comics was posting daily Dick Tracy strips a few months ago, a pretty sweet vibe but it’s stopped now.

    This thing with fragmented comics – I find that, if they’re not on a contiguous storyline tip, I witness them as examples, rather than episodes. Facets, if you will, of some ideal, multi-dimensional object. Something which is never fully made phenomenal.
    Hence, in most typical strips, there is no aging, no death. The moving hand is there only to turn the object, or to re-orient the view-finder.

  12. Alek Trencz says:

    BTW: I was thinking more of yr classic gag strips, and yr little kids’ comic-books, not the stuff in Clowes’ arena.

  13. Leigh Walton says:

    Another vote agreeing that different strips require different paces. AMERICAN ELF in daily doses is nice — several months of AMERICAN ELF read in one sitting is a profoundly moving experience. Funny how both Herriman and Kochalka are visually spare, but one requires contemplation of each page in isolation, while the other has an effortless flow that pulls you along.

  14. Michael Grabowski says:

    “A character being sentenced to prison reads differently in the context of a long-running comic strip than it does as the middle section of a more traditional graphic novel. (Is it too early to apply the term “traditional” to graphic novels?) In Wally Gropius, it makes the often perverse goings-on even more unsettling. And in “Hortisculpture” it somehow manages to add a melancholy tone to what is an essential humorous storyline — exploiting not only the reader’s natural inclination to fill in the narrative gaps “between the gutters,” but also, his or her tendency (trained by exposure to so many decades-long strips) to imaginatively extend a comic strip’s storyline in all directions. A more traditionally organized story would seem more settled, more complete.”

    This brings up the conflicting experience of reading a continuing work in periodic serial form vs. reading it in its collection over a much shorter time period. I’d argue that there’s an artificial dramatic weight that builds up and magnifies significant plot events when reading a serial work over a long period of time. That significance may all but disappear once that work is collected and compacted. Between the daily or weekly installments we live in that imagined world for a long while but if we only do that for a few days it doesn’t seem so important. Compare reading”Mr. Wonderful” in the New York Times to reading the book. Quite honestly, I loved the weekly pages but as a book it seems rather slight to me. (On the other hand, I like Wilson but I wish I had thought to read it at a page or two per week.) I suspect the experience of reading the end of “Love Bunglers” is significantly different for those who have read all of Jaime’s Maggie stories only over the last few years in their collections as opposed to over the last 2-3 decades in the various comics. (Granted, the more compact reading experience probably pays off in having a more effective reading of the grand work’s structure and themes.)

    Back to the newspaper strips, I expect that certain well-crafted adventure serials provided quite the reading experience “back in the day” that is difficult to recapture in the books we’re getting now when there is nothing to force you to wait for the next installment. Or even in the humor strips, I suppose–isn’t there a story about how people around the US were in suspense waiting for Blondie to give birth to Cookie?

  15. When reading collections of daily strips, I find myself treating each week (six consecutive dailies) as a distinct storytelling unit. It makes sense to me to read them in this manner (batches of six), since it tends to match the way how many strip creators had to work (plotting/drawing the six strips at the same time, figuring out how to spread the story beats through each daily), particularly those who had to worry about the continuity being comprehensible to those daily readers who didn’t read the Sunday page (and vice-versa). This has become a habit, even when reading non-continuity strips.

    Sunday pages I tend to read in batches of four (a whole month), but I don’t have a good explanation for that. Just me being anal, I guess.

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  17. You probably already know this, but some portions of “Tiger Tea” not in the Yoe book were published in RAW volume 2 number 3 (High Culture for Lowbrows).

  18. Kim Thompson says:

    It’s worth noting that because of their extensive circulation, all three of the (great) second volume of RAW can be found on from second-hand retailers for ten bucks or less. Even if quite a bit of the work has since been collected in other venues (including of course MAUS), the books are stuffed with gems, including a substantial Tardi story that hasn’t been published anywhere else.

  19. James says:

    It is definitely a different experience to read daily strips in huge thick books. No doubt the people who followd the strip as it originally came out had their own take on them and it was resonating strongly with current events, in the case of the people on the home front in the later military -themed strips, it was giving them a semblance of what their family members were experiencing overseas. I only referred to Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates in my own earlier comments about this particular point, because those are the only d/s strips I have read in their entirety….but as far as I know, the earlier Caniff collections didn’t have the b&w dailies with gorgeous color Sundays. Caniff’s color work is particularly impressive. And, Caniff designed his continuity so one could read the dailies alone and follow the story, and also read the Sundays alone and grasp the narrative. But, those two alternate versions are significantly different. But one can read all together very effectively and be fully immersed in the books. With many humor strips they operate as independent gags so one can look at a lone Peanuts or Krazy Kat strip and “get” it. Well, except for Tiger Tea.

  20. patrick ford says:

    The Tiger Tea strips presented in Raw cover the period May 15, 1936 through July 16, 1936 and the same strips missing from the Yoe book are missing from Raw, plus a few more, so there are no strips in the Raw presentation which aren’t in the Yoe book.
    The Yoe book is missing around a third of the strips which would have made up the complete Tiger Tea.
    Missing are.
    5/17/36-5/24/36 (also not in Raw).
    7/17/36-7/26/36 (Raw’s sample ended with 7/16)
    7/30/36-8/18/36 (more than two weeks)
    8/20/36-9/13/36 (more than three week)
    9/27/36-12/13/36 (more than two weeks)
    12/27/36-2/21/37 (almost two months).
    There are well over 100 strips missing.

  21. Kim Thompson says:

    I had our files checked, and we have every single one of the KRAZY KAT dailies from those years scanned, so when we get around to the dailies books (in 2013 or 2014 — there’s a LOT of strips to retouch!) those gaps will be filled.

  22. patrick ford says:

    What I wonder is if the Tiger Tea narrative ends where the Yoe edit ends? I assume the Yoe edit ends with 3/20/37, but it’s hard to say because the dates on the last four strips in the books are cut off, along with all but the upper case “H” in Herriman. Was 3/20/37 the last strip which mentions “Tea?”
    In the 1969 Krazy Kat book published by Madison Square (designed by Woody Gelman) it’s mentioned the The Tale of Tiger Tea” went on for two years. While this probably means the long tale stretched out over parts of two years, seeing how many strips are missing from the Yoe book makes me wonder if maybe 3/20/37 was not the tip of the “tail.”
    BTW it may be worth investigating to see if Woody Gelman had acquired proofs to use as the basis for the 1969 Krazy Kat book.

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