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Recent Reading

I am long overdue for writing of any kind, really, for this here site. So here goes… a journey through the piles of books and mini comics and sites that have accumulated for a while now. In no real order, here goes.

Lagon

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I was one of the lucky 400 who got this limited edition risograph comics anthology. I was excited. It is ironic then, that it would appear at same time as Mould Map 4, which makes Lagon irrelevant. For all its bluster (from the intro: “In the depths of the ocean, under the blue Lagon, an island was waiting to rise to the surface.” Guess what’s on the island guys? Comics!) and preciousness the book is basically a rehash of Mould Map #3 and various issues of Kramer’s Ergot, right down to the obligatory historical piece (Fletcher Hanks, guys!). What’s odd about this lavish production is that it’s filled with imitators of other people in the actual book. CF, Negron, Yokoyama — their influences dominate to an almost hysterical degree. Like, what the fuck? Or as Jeff the Drunk would say, Chelllllllo?! I guess what I’m looking for now in a comic (since you asked) is strangeness or authenticity. Give me one or the other or both (Koch, Benjamin, Davidson, Marra, Chandler below all have it in spades). In any case, Lagon is not strange or even unusual. It feels like a luxury good and thus like the end of something. It’s co-sponsored by by Agnes B., whose other offenses include Harmony Korine’s career. I don’t want art that has been digested already. Obviously I’m not being fair to it. Everyone worked hard, etc. But if you’re gonna do it, don’t fuck around with bullshit. On the other hand, man, this one contributor, Alexis Beauclair, is really excellent. He or she has taken the lessons of Yokoyama and Schrauwen and made a lot of fascinating comics in which you kind of activate them by touch. It’s hard to explain. Check it out. Better than you think.

Heather Benjamin: Romantic Story

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Heather Benjamin had a show up for the weekend and released a new book, too. Both mark a departure for her. For the last few years she’s been powerfully drawing sex and sexuality. Her work is direct drawing. Now, after looking at the raw physical and experiential stuff of sex, we are looking with her into strange spaces that contain the conventions of sex (1950s romance images) before she or I were ever born, and yet a man-woman convention that only now is deteriorating. Benjamin's brick walls and windows into those scenarios seem to envelope and bombard the convention.  Are we also looking at what pop art has done? The spaces where these images are enacted are open and fairly deep, nodding at metaphysical spaces a la De Chirico, without ever becoming “fantastical”.

11875591_175327622802062_1133343929_nWhat she does that’s believable is transpose it into her world, which is so much about drawing. Familiar objects become new again through her lines. Like Dorothy Iannone and Carol Rama before her, possessed of a graceful, indelibly alive line. Yet with the precision of the tattoo or sign painter. The grotesqueries of it all can be exhausting, but it’s deeply felt.

tumblr_nolpx9CI9v1qzrqero1_500The relationship to comics is tangential — more about the company she keeps and certain distribution outlets than anything else. Also, drawing is somehow distrusted in the world of artists books, which until recently has been trapped in a conceptual art whirlpool of self-regard. Anyhow, she’s an important artist and like Ben Marra, someone who somehow seems to be channeling America right now. Important.

Aidan Koch: Glass Surfaces and Still Pools

Glass_coverAh, this one really got me. As we know, Aidan’s been releasing a steady stream of work these last few years. This book, along with her recent work in The Paris Review, really chrysalises her narrative approach. A woman finds herself in a place. Asks questions about it. Attempts to talk to it. She plays. And Aidan plays. Her lines have thickened here, and the compositions are less ethereal, more grounded and more bold, too. I do love the use of color blocks to advance narrative, and the sub-panels imply both deeper space and time. She treads a line… this work could be precious, but it’s not. I like what I feel when I read these comics. I want to feel these feelings. So in a way, reading these comics is an aspirational act — wanting to feel the flow.

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Jon Chandler: Another Blue World and John’s Worth

another-blue-worldI like Jon’s savage comics very much. They are unlikely. They are British like Ballard — the poetry and spaciousness around brutality. Human relations, the transitive property. Another Blue World nicely collects Jon’s very best work starring “Primitive Man”, “Rival Man”, “Animal”, et al. Each plays their respective roles in a series of interconnected vignettes.

chandler1 No panel borders here, just figures in space rendered in Jon’s scratchy hand. The new book, John’s Worth, is the first installment of a longer story about an alien spore of some kind. There’s some very nice business about carrying boxes and bosses — like a diversion into a Kinks song. Jon’s comics just have character is all. They have gravity.

Anya Davidson: Head Shrinka

HScover_400wDid I write about this already? Lord I love Anya’s work. Hers is the best frantic cartooning this side of Harvey Kurtzman and her writing is funny, daffy, touching. And it all often takes place in perfectly drawn SF or fantasy environments. It’s also gloriously external — like every character in an Anya comic is just running around trying to deal. This risograph masterpiece is about a young woman, accompanied by a pet robot, who decides to build herself a therapist. Hilarity ensues. Anya is the contemporary cartoonist who I most look forward to laughing with.

Julien Ceccaldi: Less Than Dust

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This contains one story with a loaded title: Silence Equals Death. This is up there with my favorite comic books of the last year or so. Using the languages of Yayoi manga and, uh, the Internet, Ceccaldi crafted a torrid melodrama with fully formed characters that enact a body-image drama of epic and brutal proportions. There is a deeper level of gender and sexuality-based concern here that is foregrounded by the non-traditional male/female roles and uncertain gender of certain characters. The cartooning is sure and confident. I was very, very affected by this work — it’s moving as the best melodramas are. Alert the Sirk fans. Also, Ceccaldi was the cover artist of the otherwise execrable Artforum comics issue. So, that's something.

Demons and Angels: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson vol. 2

sclay2My respect for Wilson and for his biographer, Patrick Rosenkranz, is immense. Wilson was a great and important artist. A master of what he did. Rosenkranz, aside from Bob Levin, is literally our only serious chronicler of underground comics. Has been since before I was born.

That said, this book suffers from some confusion. It is filled with great art, much of it from Wilson’s finest venue, Zap. And Rosencranz’s text, in which he has assiduously (he’s stated that as an intention) avoided critical evaluation and speculation, is filled with important stories and deep level facts about Wilson’s life. But there is no context. It’s just the facts. We get a long anecdote about the process of Wilson signing up to illustrate a book by William S. Burroughs but very little about the work itself, and about how that job might’ve fit with Burroughs’ activities at the time. In 2015 we just need more — the work needs to be understood, not just published.

There’s a lot of verbiage from the author and various commenters about Wilson’s taboo-busting, which is true in the comics world, but not so true when compared to his contemporaries Peter Saul and Jim Nutt, not to mention the long tradition of Tijuana Bibles and, later, Robert Mapplethorpe and the gay underground. And there’s something unsaid about Wilson’s primary existence in the comics world. He was, after all, shown at The Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967 and later was offered a show at Allan Frumkin Gallery in 1969 or 1970, which he blew off in a drunken fit. Robert Williams and R. Crumb took the art world on their terms — Wilson could’ve done the same, but didn’t, and that goes unexplored. Was he just too alcoholic? Rosenkranz loves the man too much to challenge him at his word and to probe deeper. Wilson was a great artist. But his is also a sad story. Something went wrong, no matter how much we may love his work.

Maybe the largest problem is that this series of books wants to be both biography and monograph. It’s structured thematically like a monograph but the images rarely actually coincide with the text, and entire bodies of work are written about but not illustrated (his show at Psychedelic Solution, for instance). Moreover, like the previous volume, there are far too many pixelated images — nearly 10 by count. That just shouldn’t happen.

Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T.) by Benjamin Marra

9781606998830My fondest wish for this comic is that it somehow tilts into the wider culture and remains undigestable. Like Ed Piskor, he’s drawing his authentic interests, and those interests are seamlessly intermingled with a subculture that he addresses without any irony or distance. It’s a beautiful thing. This book details a super-agent’s journey through a culture in which everyone just says only what is about to happen or happening. Just factual declarations. I’m waiting for the layers to pile up, a la Tarantino, but right now it’s damn weird art he’s making — ripe for misinterpretation. And yet the work is getting more popular. Weirder and more popular. Something is afoot here.  I like it.

Bravo for Adventure by Alex Toth

936344eb-6e64-4a8c-9635-c3da6eaa2f55A friend asked me to write this so “we can stop thinking about him and move on”, but I don’t think we should stop thinking about Toth — maybe just keep him in perspective. This book collects Toth’s 1970s and '80s “personal” work, Bravo for Adventure. Personal for Toth meant writing his own swashbuckling stories, rather than drawing someone else’s. That’s fine by me. What’s interesting here is that Toth has very little to say on his own. He is one of the best panel designers to ever work in comic books — each one is a mid-century modern (no matter when it was drawn) snapshot — as though Alvin Lustig drew comics. But his pages in this book are impossibly busy — basically unreadable due to the overwhelming amount of text. Like Steve Canyon on mescaline. Toth is so enamored of the panel space and of cinema that each panel is like a film still, but seemingly unconnected to the next one, and without a sense of the overall page design.

rook0328His finest work is the last complete story in the book — a 1982 dream sequence that let’s him use shape associations to flow from one panel to the next. No story to weigh him down. Here it’s all flashing images, and those images never move past, oh, 1960 or so: here a Calder triangle, there an expressionist ladder, cocktail napkin stars; A Steinberg squiggle. It’s a flashbulb encapsulation of 1950s graphic culture, drawn in 1982. How odd. Whatever, anyway, I still think Toth was great. But his greatness is limited. Whose isn’t?

Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn

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Ironically, what Toth was after (a personal approach to Caniff-ian genre tales) was perfectly achieved by Hugo Pratt in Corto Maltese. Pratt knew that comics are not the same as film, and composed his panels, like good comics. Airy, spacious, minimal backgrounds. Everything on the page is obviously a pen-mark — there’s no illusion. In his use of both air and ennui, Pratt reminds me most of Charles Schulz. It’s all consistency and real cartoon-drawing. No realism here. Anyhow, I haven’t seen much written about these reissues from IDW, and this is to say they’re superb. Ignore the blurbs on the back (separate it from Frank Miller, at least) and go into it cold. Relax into the work and it’ll show you around.Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 5.49.58 PM


7 Responses to Recent Reading

  1. SumDumGuy says:

    This is good, really good. But it also reminds of the gaping hole left in comics writing by the likes of Matt Seneca and Tucker Stone. These broad, thoughtful, random surveys into the world of comics are handy, and no one is putting them out anymore. And I don’t have time to spend an hour or more on Tumblr every day to approximate the effect.

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    “Like Steve Canyon on mescaline.” Steve Canyon on mescaline was actually pretty rad when I tried it :)

  3. Frank Santoro says:

    The thing about Toth which everyone forgets is – that when he was working at Hanna Barbera – he was ‘writing’ these episodes and making personal animated cartoons – at the time – this is off the top of my head timeline-wise: he was going to do Bravo as a French album and it fell thru – exactly right when he needed money cuz his second wife Guyla got sick – thats why he did all those Warrens and weird hot rod comics in early 70s – Hanna Babera was over and he was just cranking on work for hire trying to pay hospital bills from 70 to 76 or so and then she died in like early ’80s. So I think it’s more about his age – like he was too smart and too late to be a strip guy like Caniff – and too old to be an auteur like younger guys in 70s and then by 80s he’s done. It is sad.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ve heard about Corto Maltese for years, so I picked up the first IDW book. For the first 30 or so pages, I was pretty confused. About halfway through I was hooked. By the end, I was in love with Pratt. Brilliant stuff. I’ll be picking up the whole series for sure.

  5. Steve Canyon (the character) is an insufferable douchebag (at least in the years I’ve read); the prospect of the strip on mescaline is horrifying

  6. Ian Harker says:

    Liking Dan’s comments about art that is already digested, also terrified about them.

  7. John says:

    As if I couldn’t enjoy your reviews more, you go and drop a Jeff Curro Chello reference in the opening paragraph. “Nice!”

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