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Simplify, Stupid

Robert Crumb, A Short History of America, 1979, published in CoEvolution Quarterly

Robert Crumb's "A Short History of America" has always made me roll my eyes, despite the fact that I am largely in agreement with its conclusions. A brief summary of the strip: we start with an untouched landscape, with the implication that there is a great deal of beauty in its simplicity, although only received ideas would lead us to this thought, as the drawing here is less charged and interesting than what comes next. Clearly, Crumb's own feelings are muddy, as the strip advances the argument that we've sullied our world even as the artist's visual interest awakens in the depiction of our present and fallen situation.

Muddled or not, Crumb is correct. Few (if we are focusing on the readership of this publication) would argue against the idea that we've committed an irreversible crime upon the nature of this continent, and talking about this transgression in an eco-political magazine like CoEvolution Quarterly (where this now iconic strip was first published) makes perfect sense. "Short History" is regarded as a classic, an example of the heights that comic art can achieve, occupying a key place in the 1995 Terry Zwigoff Crumb documentary. What is implied for comics when a simplistic but extremely well-executed piece of political propaganda is seen as what the medium does best?

Crumb ends the strip with the only text to appear within it: 'What next?!!' What came next in comics of this ilk was a continued turning away from the present. Lesser artists like Seth took Crumb's lived-in and well-worn disgust and further simplified it, transforming it into an aesthetic argument against the reality we live in, but with even less search for proof. In a parallel-universe version of Crumb's strip, where environmental decline is substituted for the slackening of cartoonists' engagement with the world, Crumb's clear thought occupies panel 1: 'We've taken natural beauty and made it ugly.' The aesthetics of Palookaville reside in the hell of the panel 12: 'It was better when people wore suits all the time!'

Albuquerque, New Mexico by Lee Friedlander, 1972

Lee Friedlander's Albuquerque, New Mexico exists in the same moment in time as Crumb's strip, and confronts the same dilemma: the arbitrary sprawl that we've created and choose to live in. But unlike the Crumb of "A Short History", Friedlander decides to open his eyes to a wider landscape, and there is genuine pleasure to be had in what he perceives. This composition of stoplights, crude wire, and harsh foliage unnerves you with its lack of perfection and unity (which nature itself always has); Friedlander presents the image as its own type of nature. There's a thrill to how it all looks, an exhilaration in all the directions and angels this still moment suggests. More importantly, the human creativity that went into constructing this small corner of the world is acknowledged, while not offering an endorsement of the construction. This twin impulse (criticism and embrace)  cuts deeper than Crumb because richer thinking and feeling are elicited, even allowing for negative thought, by perceiving things head on. Both Friedlander and Crumb edit and manipulate, but with Albuquerque the template allows for more freedom within the editing. Crumb offers a closed system. Art that moves people in a way that actually matters contains a rich tapestry of emotions and thoughts that the artist tries to congeal within the works chosen parameters. Why do comics so often spurn this approach, instead embracing the one-sided, or more often, the sentimental?

Sequence from Green Lantern #70, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, DC Comics, 1970

Most Crumb fans probably consider themselves opposed on principle to the aesthetics of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, but I don't find this famous sequence from Green Lantern #70 to be that different than "Short History". A well-intentioned moral lesson becomes meaningless when processed through O'Neil and Adams' hammy storytelling and beats. Like Crumb on the environment, the complexity of the issue at hand here (why a superhero ignores racial injustice within his own country) is too much to bear for the structure that the artists have built to discuss it. Green Lantern turns away from the stark injustice presented to him in the same way he'd turn away from a made up planet being sucked into a black hole: like a bad actor with no actual feeling or depth. Even if Adams bothered to draw Green Lantern with the human emotion he seems to think this story contains, you'd need a refutation (or a backbreakingly ridiculousness justification) of  Green Lantern's accepted galactic police role to even begin a serious attempt at discussing all this. One wing of comics praises "A Short History of America" as containing actual social critique, while another praises Adams and O'Neil's run on Green Lantern as an important step in bringing 'adult ideas' into comics. They were both important, but not as actual revelations about how the world is constructed. Instead, their importance is in glorifying the artists that made them, so as to indicate that they think about deep stuff. But are they significant in moving our minds beyond cliché? Comics seem to suffer from a confusion that merely attempting to discuss something serious makes it serious. 

Enter: Will Eisner, still considered an intellectual force in cartooning. The most respected award in comics is named after him and his work receives breathless praise from almost all corners. Significantly though, aside from technique, it's rarely discussed what, exactly, Eisner is so beloved for. I think people have a vague notion that he was 'serious' despite the lack of proof of this in his work. In fact, the counter proof is what exists. When you are confronted with his thoughts and ideas, a lot of the dysfunction of comics crystalizes.

Will Eisner, The Story of Gerhard Schnobble, 1948

One of Eisner's acknowledged classic works is "The Story of Gerhard Schnobble", a Spirit yarn from 1948. Eisner said this was his favorite all-time Spirit tale, remarking, 'It was the first time I could do a story that I had great personal feelings about.' The Smithsonian Collection of Comic Book Comics selected "Schnobble" to represent Eisner within its authoritative pages.

A shame, then, that this is perhaps one of the most appallingly corny comics you'll probably ever read, genuinely creepy in its gross sentimentality. 'THIS IS NOT A FUNNY STORY!!" Eisner warns on page 1. Yeah, it's not funny, but it is laughable. The plot: a sweet nebbish (his name is Schnobble, if you didn't get the message from how he's drawn) is fired from his job. He has the ability to fly but has kept it a secret. After losing his job, to prove his self-worth, he decides to finally reveal this ability. As he jets around the city, he is 'tragically' caught in a stream of bullets that resulted from a conflict the Spirit was engaged in. But don't worry, Schnobble can still fly... as an angel!

Will Eisner, The Story of Gerhard Schnobble, 1948

What great personal feelings can Eisner have actually felt he was imparting us with here? I really have no idea. I can't even guess, that's how empty it feels. Even more mysterious, the world of comics continues to maintain that this story holds something mature within it. Comics self-caricatures itself as barren of thought, and then elevates attempts at complexity to the forefront. Of course, to accomplish this sleight of hand, actual expression must be either misunderstood or discarded.

Carl Burgos, cover to Strange Tales of the Unusual #7, Atlas Comics 1956

The standard equation is still: Eisner = serious practitioner, '50s horror comics that didn't come from EC = schlock. But when I look at the above Carl Burgos cover, the opposite seems so obvious. Put aside that Burgos doesn't showboat his technique like Eisner, preferring a quieter expression. The real story here is how creative this image is. Atlas Comics were drawn on tight deadline with no cultural respect or significant financial reward in sight for the artists. Burgos, of course, isn't even credited on his cover. And yet here is an image unlike any other I've seen. It communicates its idea clearly (supernatural menace threatens populace) but also suggests something beyond its stated intention of 'spookiness': a hollow outline of a dangerous entity, without any indulgence of a socially relevant zombie schtick. The drawing itself horrifies because it's creative, an original image that suggests a deeper vein of thought that we begin to confront in our own minds. Hollowed out people, merging together, no expression: it makes cliched sense in the abstract, stark and moving sense in the specific. Poetry.

I imagine Burgos came up with this drawing on the fly, fighting against time to make something effective. Rather than weighing his ingredients to make a 'serious statement' recipe, he improvised and expressed himself. The backwards structure of the Golden Age did a lot of damage to artists, but it also created an environment where images like this could come about and meet the eyes of thousands of readers on the newstand. Actual horrific imagery speaking to a reality that only the image itself can truly define, devoid of cliché (save a whiff or two), on display for the world to see. And Burgos made countless images like this, every month, for years.

Carl Burgos, cover to Astonishing #42, Atlas Comics 1955

This is creativity and Eisner's "Gerhard Schobble" is the imitation. Comics culture seems to lack the language to define the difference. Burgos has never received his due, but a deserving artist like Don Martin has, in a way. And yet we still don't know exactly how to talk about Martin.

Don Martin, from Don Martin Steps Out!, Signet 1971

Is Martin simply a wacky goofball who loved to draw 'funny' stuff and use as many sound effects as possible? A meat and potatoes cartoonist who loved to draw people with big silly noses, inflicting comical physical pain on each other? Yeah, of course, and he did that extremely well. But what about the rest of it? What about the meticulous process of taking the world as it is and translating it into a system of drawing that had its own properties and proportions and making that world function on paper seamlessly, so that the jokes would exist on a different plane from reality itself? People love Don Martin without being told to, and I think the admiration people have for his work outshines how people feel about The Spirit on any possible measure. Maybe a healthier comics eco-system would grapple with all of what Martin was up to, rather then falling over itself to assign credit to things that Eisner didn't accomplish but instead suggested that he did.

Dave Berg, Mad's Dave Berg Looks at our Sick World, Signet 1971

There is a desire to accept the stated importance of unimaginative art, and believe in the simplicity of works that don't assert themselves. This confusion comes to a head when considering the work of Dave Berg, who even when remembered fondly is assigned a role as a fussy and light satirist of suburban life. To me, Berg's work is far more biting in its critique of yuppie existence in the final fifty years of the 20th century then we've been led to believe. Berg's characters grin with sickening expressions, and hold themselves in extremely uncomfortable and uptight poses. They appear constipated and on the verge of tears even when at rest. Berg doesn't point this out to you, he just draws it, contributing to the emotion of his critique. But as an artist of taste with a true mission beyond self-congratulation, he would never have a character say to another, 'Your face is filled with hate and rage at the life you've chosen!' Eisner or O'Neil would, of course, write those words, and they'd receive the appropriate accolades. Berg just draws it within his unified translation of life into his strips, creating a stifling, deeply scary world. His work chilled me as a child, as it did many others. Martin and Berg used comics to present a vision and a statement, and they didn't necessarily hide it. It's there in plain sight. All it lacks is self-importance, which the comics world seems to need to feel secure in proclaiming something as remarkable.

Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This, Pantheon, 2017

These attitudes persist today. Comics (again, insecurely) followed Eisner's bombastic lead and embraced the idea of graphic novels as the appropriate medium of expression for cartooning. With this imbedded within them, comics enter the book market in a big way in the early '00s. But cartooning, on this continent at least, lacks the organic history with long-form work that the novel spent a century and a half nurturing as a coherent anchor for a medium now littered with memoir, pop psychology, self-help books, and the flimsy intellectualism of otherwise formulaic pop fiction. Comics immediately ties itself to this terrain as it 'becomes' literature (never mind that it already was and is, just with different, and perhaps opposing, properties). Literature can suffer a handful of fools, because it has a deep history to weather it. Cartooning, given the already shaky self-conception is has, is on more dubious ground as it confronts the general reader and tries to explain itself.

Now, of course, memoir and essay can be done with beauty and wit, in both literature and cartooning. In comics, Maus and Persepolis are worthy of the praise they earn and the genuine admiration they inspire in readers. There is much to love in those books and they are explicitly cartoony, using the medium itself as much as possible. But with their success folded into what bookstores crave, and the hollowness that we've laid out with the likes of Eisner and O'Neil, comics backs itself into a corner, at least publicly: graphic novels aren't space operas... no, they are lightly illustrated representations of tragic events. By deemphasizing the likes of Burgos, Martin, or Berg, and instead asserting the idea of importance rather than the thing itself, we head into choppy waters, guaranteed to yield bizarre creations. Simultaneously, long-gestating works by Doucet, Clowes, and Ware are packaged for bookstores, rejecting Eisner's pap and instead looking inward. But 'serious' cartooning in the public eye asserts itself not as fully in the image of Doucet or Lynda Barry or Deitch as one might assume, given the decades of artistic concentration those artists were involved in. Instead, cartooning in 2018 in the popular imagination is more in the tradition of Eisner than Clowes, as is revealed when we pick up a work like Kristen Radtke's Imagine Wanting Only This.

Imagine Wanting Only This is concerned with an obsession for decay, a tourism of abandoned places. On the face of it, this is a topic that sounds fascinating for cartooning to tackle. And yet we are instead left with merely that idea, not the execution, not a journey with that idea to anywhere remotely coherent.

Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This, Pantheon, 2017

When I think of this book, I can't get past the way characters feeling are presented. There is so much emoting in this pages, every page has characters staring at us in sadness, anguish, excitement or happiness  (which of these emotions we are supposed to come away with in any given scene is, strangely, hard to discern). Yet for all of indication of emotion, there isn't one expression that feels human--and, if that wasn't the intent at all, there isn't a moment that even feels inhuman. Radtke's drawing fits with her limited exploration of decay: the idea that she's 'on to something' is enough. Radtke's book says it's about 'ruined places' and her characters show... some... sort... of... emotion, kinda sorta? With the standards that comics has laid out for itself, that is more than adequate. The book indicates that it is involved in serious things and so it is, officially.

Anke Feuchtenberger with Katrin De Vries, W The Whore Makes Her Tracks, Bries 2007

As far as I can tell, Imagine Wanting Only This is Radtke's first long-form work, so the ambition of the project deserves some consideration. Cartooning is complicated and the amount of time Radtke put into the book suggests an artist who may soon bring us something closer to what her work presents itself as. But this is also a piece of art that has received glowing praise in serious literary publications, including The New York Times, which stated that Radtke's drawings 'depict contemporary reality with uncanny precision' and likened her work to 'grandmasters like Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware.' Personally, I don't think either of those people are (ugh) grandmasters, but I do think they are conscious of what they are doing and continue to refine their art, in the earnest attempt to one day become (ick) grandmasters. Confusing Radtke's inchoate expression with the extremely refined (for better or for worse) work of Tomine and Ware indicates a mistake that the regular world often makes when it confronts comics: a graphic novel is successful if it's a simplistic exploration of complexity, and all variations of simplistic execution are equal. That's, according to the standards comics insists on defining for itself, how the world has received this art form. How, then, does an artist like Anke Feuchtenberger fit into all of this?

Anke Feuchtenberger with Katrin De Vries, W The Whore Makes Her Tracks, Bries 2007

Feuchtenberger, in my view, makes images that surpass the emotion and ambiguity of Friedlander's photography. She draws solid figures, with a degree of expertise that even those who yearn to dismiss her as artsy experimentation can't diminish. These figures are used to make thoughts by the artist into narrative. Rarely is a back story of the characters offered. The world they inhabit exists not as a real place, but as a stage for them to speak and push against each other so as to express the author's (often in collaboration with Katrin De Vires) heart and mind.

Anke Feuchtenberger with Katrin De Vries, W The Whore Makes Her Tracks, Bries 2007

In one book, an entity asks the character W the Whore 'what does your body feel. It will only be shown this way today.' W responds: 'I do not feel the body.'

Here, we have a thought, something for us as readers to consider, something to feel. Sequence, the caricature of the human body into a repeating character, and word balloons (in other words, the simple, non-experimental mechanics of comics) are all used to express this set of phrases and thoughts. A concept of Feuchtenberger and De Vries mind is made into a figure of expression, an honest and comprehensible one, and yet still somehow void of concessions. Comics, as the lucky few know, is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to works like this. Barry, Clowes, and Doucet all practice in this vein alongside Feuchtenberger. However, when presented with Eisner and Radtke, one might assume the task of comics is so complicated that expressing a unique worldview is far too much to ask.

Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying, New York Review of Comics, 2017

There may be something to that. Simply, (1) drawing competently is an out of the ordinary achievement people instantly recognize. The ability to (2) tell a story with drawing? Even rarer. The most elusive seems to be (3) having something unique to say with a picture story. Most of comics seems to be content with varying combinations of (1) and (2). Artists like Feuchtenberger give us (3) every time they draw something. Why work like hers is considered an aquired taste still seems odd to me, and involves a condescending attitude to readers in general. Who doesn't (if we limit ourselves to those who care about narrative in even the most limited way) want to be engaged by a picture story that is genuinely felt and mindfully arranged? When we consider a masterpiece like Dominique Goblet's Pretending is Lying, which is firmly in the (1) + (2) + (3) camp, we know this is a work that readers will refer to in their lives over and over again. Goblet might simplify faces in service of telling her story within the medium of comics, but to simplify her ideas would be anathema to the artist. The richness of what she has to say is, itself, the point. Her statement, a composition of relationships that fade in an out if view, isn't grafted on to her storytelling ability, it isn't in service of a need to finish pages to fufill a pre-existing belief that her style requires an important statement to validate it. When Goblet's father character sways and monlogues to promote himself, his personality impresses itself upon the reader with a shrieking force, because Goblet has something specific to say (3) about a man like this.

Even a comics story that is modest in scope is made up of hundreds of drawings, thousands of faces rendered in pencil, then redrawn in ink. To tell a story, some simplification may be required. But the works that animate the medium are not the ones that use simplification as an excuse to blight out any complexity hiding in the corners, to etch caricature onto ideas themselves. Instead, the medium proves itself oddly capable when it takes a simplified face and allows it to exist in, and to amplify, a realm of actual thought and feeling. Many of the cartoonists discussed here seem to fall back on a half-belief in cartooning: 'The form is lacking, but I'll impress my mind on it and that will be enough.' Those artists are either in embryo or not worthy of our full attention (yet), despite the pressure that is impressed upon us to consider them. Instead, our hearts go to the artists that bring themselves to cartooning with the outlook of the medium as an equal, as a peer capable of perceiving the most complicated puzzles of the artists and readers lives.


32 Responses to Simplify, Stupid

  1. Great article, lots to chew on. Austin have you read Seth’s more recent work? I used to share the more common dismissal of him as a nostalgist above all else, but his work over the last 10-15 years, especially George Sprott and forward, has really come into its own. I say this in case your (light) condemnation of him is informed mainly by It’s A Good Life.

  2. It’s informed by his design work

  3. Adam says:

    While I’m in entire agreement with your assessment, I do wonder about the material motivations that underlay this shift, both historically and in the present.

    For example, to what degree does is the contemporary mainstream American “graphic novel boom” driven by the illustration community flooding into comics post 2000s, chasing animation deals or whatever else? There’s always been overlap between the two groups of artists, but the illustrators have tended to put comics aside the moment there’s no money on the table/they’re not “useful.” And of course on the flipside, cartoonists have always been easily seduced by anything resembling material success, willing to play along with whatever they think might make them a little money (even though it usually doesn’t).

  4. Jon says:

    Love this! Well-informed, clear writing on a gripe that, for me at least, is hard to put into words. This is far more astute than just saying that this or that “sucks”. I especially like that you are willing to criticize members of the pantheon, without arguing they need to be thrown away completely. More of this kind of writing, TCJ, please!

  5. Michael Heath Pecorino says:

    My response to your essay entitled, “Simplify, Stupid”, is “Cram it, Pretentious”.

    While I have no qualms with celebrating Berg or Martin or any of the other creators you’ve mentioned herein, there’s more than enough room in the pantheon for all of the creators who have contributed within this medium for the past 100 years. You don’t need to tear down anyone’s work to make room for other artists, and to imply that audiences lack the intelligence or cultural sophistication to properly appreciate a work is the height of snobbery.

    Moreover, your criticism is poorly observed and reasoned. If you want to go after Crumb because his work is racist or sexist, go for it, but don’t just flatly complain that a 16-panel piece from the late ’70’s isn’t as nuanced as compared to the setting in a serial comic from the ’90’s or worse, a series of photographs in an entirely different medium.

    And you’re complaints of Eisner? “Significantly though, aside from technique, it’s rarely discussed what, exactly, Eisner is so beloved for.”

    Really?

    Would you also like to just ignore the fact that many of those same techniques are the basis of the language of visual storytelling used by artists and creators for the past 50 years? Or maybe you’d like to ignore how he’s consistently cited by other creators as being a leader within the industry itself because he demanded creators’ rights to his own work?

    And then you have the audacity to criticize O’Neill and Adams’ work as “hammy”? Why don’t you try meta-textualizing a critique in-story about the inherent racism in a character and the racism in the industry at large in a 1980’s era DC comic being sold to 10-year-olds and tell me how far you get.

    What elitist garbage.

  6. Greg Hunter says:

    With the Eisner piece, do you really take that introductory text, demanding to be taken seriously, at face value? I’ve always read irony into it, and a bit of cheek. With Eisner’s larger legacy, too—I’m sure some critics are guilty of reducing him to some great forerunner of sophistication in comics, in a way that doesn’t square with the content of his work. But others do a fine job of contextualizing Eisner the same way you’ve contextualized Burgos: as someone who pushed at the strictures around him (and while on a deadline etc) and made modest innovations. (In that, there’s a crucial difference between Eisner’s context and Radtke’s—whether or not Eisner’s work succeeds, he was resisting precedent in a way Imagine… does not.)

    With “Gerhard Schnobble,” for instance—maybe there’s a cohort of critics who praise Eisner’s specific storytelling choices in that comic. I always understood its acclaim to have more to do with the context of the piece. That is, Eisner departing from blood-and-thunder crime storytelling to do a character piece, or to do some approximation of a literary short story without actually leaving his typical setting, conventions, etc. behind. That, for better or for worse, it was the ambition more so than execution that people recognize in recognizing that comic. Even this is kind of a dubious critical ethic, I’d agree, and my ideal comics canon is probably closer to yours—but I’d like to think there’s a way to properly credit that kind of resolve without praising the work out of proportion.

  7. RJ Casey says:

    Hey Mike, was Eisner being a “leader within the industry” and championing creators’ rights before or after he operated a comics sweatshop?

  8. Great article.

    I find it interesting that the two older examples of well-regarded (but not very good) comics you’ve brought up here have one major thing in common: They are basically maudlin, sentimental attempts at doing Hollywood melodramas. And I don’t want to defend either the Eisner or the O’Neill/Adams pieces (because they’re both awful), but, let’s face it, a successful sentimental Hollywood melodrama would have been a breath of fresh air in 70s world of super-hero comics, so I don’t think it’s odd that the O’Neill/Adams work is fondly remembered by many.

    Eisner comes from an era where that stuff wasn’t hard to come by, and better executed. I found myself reading the Eclipse mid-80s collection of Simon/Kirby romance comics last week (for a blogging project), and I went in with very low expectations. I was thinking that if it even had a hint of the Douglas Sirk weepies, I’d be satisfied…

    And I was. They stories were (for the most part) less ridiculous than the EC “relevant” stories were, and with way less trite stories. While the Eisner story is embarrassing to read (well, at least I thought so when I read it a decade or so ago), these stories were intelligent and entertaining.

    Er, I guess I went off on a tangent, but what I wanted to say is: Melodramas rule.

  9. Marc Sobel says:

    I like the way you think about comics and I enjoy these meandering essays, but I think you use a lot of arbitrary comparisons that undermine some of your valid points. For example, “The standard equation is still: “Eisner = serious practitioner, ’50s horror comics that didn’t come from EC = schlock.” I don’t understand this. I’ve never read this equation anywhere, nor do I agree with it. Both Eisner’s and Burgos’s works have value that deserves consideration on their own. You haven’t made a clear case for why you’re comparing the two.

    Similarly, using one short story of Eisner’s to devalue his entire body of work is a big leap. Skizz was a pretty uninspired rip-off of E.T. but it’s ridiculous to hold that up and say that Alan Moore is overrated. Putting personal tastes aside, maybe an argument could be made that Eisner’s work is overvalued in some critical appraisals, but this single example is hardly convincing.

    Also, I think you’re overselling the originality of that Burgos cover. “Poetry”? Come on! It’s fine, but it seems like a fairly typical and uninspired ghost cover from the era. I spent about five minutes on GCD to see if I could find a better example and came up with Bill Everett’s “Vanishing Men” cover from Strange Tales #45, released just a few months earlier.

  10. Rob Clough says:

    I’m with Dustin that your appraisal of Seth’s work is way off the mark, especially if you are trying to lump him in the same aesthetic category as Crumb. It also seems to me that judging Seth by his design work–that is, what he does to make money and not his personal work–is as nonsensical as judging the entire careers of Charles Burns for those ads that appeared in mainstream comics, Dan Clowes for his OK Cola design or Peter Bagge for an album cover.

    Crumb’s work is inherently nostalgic in a reactionary sense. He does wish time had stood still in many aspects of culture. Whereas Seth’s work is not nostalgic for a particular time; rather, he has created an aesthetic alternate reality that never really existed and uses it as his personal refuge. He has been specifically quoted that he has no desire to actually live in the past or to have the social conditions of the past return.

    There’s no question that no one promoted Eisner more than Eisner did, and he was certainly fond of rewriting his own personal history in a way that made him look good. His problem as a writer is that he didn’t have a vernacular for expressing himself that wasn’t inherently steeped in melodrama. That said, devaluing not just his skill as a draftsman but his ingenuity in finding new and clever ways to solve problems on the basis of one story seems silly. Especially when you’re comparing a Burgos cover (which he clearly spent more time in making distinctive) vs his interior work (which often looked like it was hacked out in five minutes, because it probably was because of deadlines).

    Regarding Berg and Martin: I have never derived much pleasure out of reading either of them, as they seem to be at opposite poles of cartooning that simply don’t appeal to me. That said, I like your point about Berg’s figures taking on grotesque poses as a way of really selling his dull-dad observational humor. Also, he’s influential in a way that a lot of people don’t talk about: he basically wrote page after page of people interacting with each other, in space, with strong use of gesture and completely ordinary conversations. (A lot of what he wrote barely registered as “jokes.”) Jenny Zervakis told me seeing that put that kind of comic into her mind when she started her career.

  11. Greg- if there’s irony there, I don’t see Eisner honoring it anywhere else in the story. The actual words and pages that follow the intro are all in sync: ridiculous. And…ok, if Eisner went on to say anything of merit in his decades of making comics, this would be a youthful folly. But I’ve read 1000s of pages of Eisner and i can’t recall a piece thats better then this one (except the ‘Eisner’ stories that should be signed by Powell or Feiffer—those are beautiful). I liked Last Day in Vietnam, because it breaks with his tight control and reveals something (almost) human.

    Lars- Sirk BELIEVED in melodrama, Eisner and O’neil…thought it was a nice shirt to try on? Comics loved looking at them in that shirt! As you note, Kirby isnt like this. His melodrama is a natural extension of his art, as is everything he does.

    Marc- but what’s the Eisner story that redeems this one? I’ve (mindlessly) read so much Eisner and Schnobble *might* be one of the better ones (again, Feiffer, Powell not included). I read Schnobble in the kitchen sink reprint, where Eisner goes on and on in an intro about how this is the ‘best’ Spirit story. And…he’s not wrong? Because as bad as it is, what is the classic Spirit story that’s better than it? Alan Moore’s body if work has unmatchable highs, 20 stories competing for first place. I dont think that’s true of Eisner (i like how he arranges characters on the page like an over-acted play, that IS genuinely beautiful).

    Where are the archives and hardcovers and industry awards and the complete works in print, bound in solo editions, for Burgos? I compare the two because one makes images that move me, that I love looking at, whose drawings have a magnetic power (for me at least). And, like 99% of the practioners of his age, he’s completley anonymous within his own culture, let alone the world beyond his culture. Eisner is almost universal, ALL his work in print, and yet he leaves me 100% cold. So, there’s the reason for comparing them. It’s an odd choice that comics culture has made, to go out of its way to honor junk and discard something evocative.

    Everett I love more than anyone, I’m not gonna argue that he’s better or worse than Burgos. BOTH of them have a vague expression that is undervalued in the official comics canon. Their expression is seething beneath the surface of the template they were provided (again: poetry). I love Everett too much to use him as a counter to someone as opposed to his artistry as Eisner. He deserves better than that.

    Rob- wait, is Clowes still doing OK Cola ads???

  12. Marc Sobel says:

    I’ve posted dozens of Eisner pages and stories at The Bristol Board over the years. Here’s a link: http://thebristolboard.tumblr.com/tagged/will%20eisner I would argue that all of these are more skillfully rendered in terms of the composition, graphic design, mise en scène, etc. (not to mention Eisner’s excellent lettering) than anything Burgos created (though, to be fair, I have not studied his body of work closely). Eisner’s Spirit stories and his graphic novels may not hold up in this age of ubiquitous graphic novels, but they were ahead of their time when they were originally published, and his Spirit stories remain compelling to look at, if not to actually read. If it comes down to simple tastes, then I have no issue with you preferring one to the other, we can agree to disagree. Both have skill, for sure. It’s your inclination to devalue Eisner (and Seth) through forced and illogical comparisons that I take exception with.

  13. Ibrahim says:

    Despite the claim often made that comics, having both language and image at its disposal, has infinite potential, there is of course also, because of that, a greater risk of overstatement or redundancy.

    I found this by chance today in an old review of Robert Stone’s 1998 novel Damascus Gate ( the reviewer is talking about ‘contemporary realism’ in literature, but it is curiously applicable here) : “…only a series of techniques and conventions aimed at the management of simplicity.”

    Anyway, great article.

  14. Ibrahim says:

    & re:Eisner; an example of an actual game-changing take on sentimentality would be Coltrane’s performance of My Favourite Things at the Olatunji concert, not so distant in time from his first recording of it, yet miles ( universes) ahead…

  15. Robin says:

    Gotta say I agree with some of the critical sentiments to your critical review. I don’t really get the crux of the argument (maybe I’m not erudite enough to catch it) – I feel like you are picking/pitting sides, with the purpose of pointing out artists (not all comic artists) that you like, those that you don’t, and making some statements about cheesiness in comics. And comics often are cheesy, not sure anyone would refute that. If you are a fan of superhero comics, that comes with the territory (uh, Chris Claremont being one of the most popular X-Men writers?).

    I love Don Martin, of course (just picked up some used books of his in Denver), but I don’t really see how you can compare him to Green Lantern or Eisner. They are both sequential art, but I don’t see the genre comparison at all. Would you compare historical fiction to science fiction? Humor to mystery? They both use words written in sentences in paragraphs and chapters bound in a book, so why not? Have at Agatha Christie vs. Steinbeck vs. Asimov.

    Also, I’m no comics historian, but I’ve always been struck by the creative layouts and designs Eisner used. Feel free to disabuse me of that.

    Let me be clear, I’m not bothered by your critical perspective on this aspect of cartooning – it’s good to recognize and emphasize, to hopefully push artists and writers, and readers as well. So not trying to dissuade you from this line of thought. Clearly from the comments, you have provoked engagement, which in and of itself is fruitful.

  16. I notice that nobody has leapt to the defense of Imagine Wanting Only This, even if it seemed to be pretty well-liked at the time… And I’m not really going to, either: It’s a stridently middle-brow book that’s hard to love. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to be held up as the example of what’s wrong with the state of the current “serious” comics these days. It’s got some good elements.

    I mean, it’s not as bad as the book that’s going to be on top of all the “best comics of 2018” lists (excluding the ones from the super-hero fans): Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, which is as exciting as reading an illustrated dramatisation of a Salon article about Sandy Hook/Alex Jones.

  17. Don’t think I argued anywhere that Eisner is lacking in skill, much less that Burgos is MORE skilled. The reason that Eisner/Burgos are side by side (or Martin/O’neil) is that I’m trying to get at the ideas these people express, not their ‘style.’ The ideas of O’Neil/Eisner are seen as well thought out, while the ideas of Martin are treated as secondary to his style. I think the opposite is true.

    The choices may seem arbitrary, but that’s only because I think we are too used to discussing cartoonists in terms of their line weight, page layout, etc. and not their intellectual/emotional viewpoint. The idea that Burgos makes no sense in comparison to Eisner is part of the point: to me, his expression is deeper and more emotional than Eisner’s, but we focus on Eisner as an artist of depth and not Burgos. If we are only focused on craft, the comparison makes no sense. But if we treat these people as artists with things to say, involved in eliciting emotion, they are all in conversation with each other.

    As I said in the article: “Significantly though, aside from technique, it’s rarely discussed what, exactly, Eisner is so beloved for.”

    Ibrahim’s comment gets my full endorsement, both comments are a more elegant summary of what I’m trying to get across.

  18. William Johnson says:

    You depict one of the most superficial pieces Eisner ever did, as though it were somehow typical of his work. Yes, I know you didn’t actually say that, but that’s the impression you leave.

    Most of Eisner’s work, while certainly not profound, was far more sophisticated psychologically than the melodramatic schlock you seem to love.

    Admittedly, as an illustrator, I may be somewhat biased, as Eisner and Crumb are the only artists in your article whose drawing skills (what you sneeringly call “style”, as in “mere style”) stand out as masterful. Some of us care a lot about beautiful drawing.

  19. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    Ha, rehabilitating Dave Berg, good one. (Or we can lose the “re”, really, since he was never habilitated in the first place) The last time almost anyone thought about Berg was probably that line when Bart Simpson was reading MAD: “The Lighter Side of Hippies…ha ha they don’t care whose toes they step on”. But that image is a good one — strong shades of Tim Kreider

    Also: kudos for dissing Eisner’s kitsch sentimentality without even getting into his “graphic novel” phase. But that’s a very common complaint among the more rarefied comics cognoscenti; most hipper-than-thou types would probably agree with your take and rate Eisner much lower than the standard estimation (which in turn means that we’re due for a renewed appreciation from even-hipper-than-hipper-than-thou types, as has happened with Rob Liefeld)

  20. Ibrahim says:

    “Masterful drawing skills?” Eisner’s brushwork has undeniable flair, but it’s like Chandler ( to stay in the pulps ) has Marlowe say of someone in The Big Sleep: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” It’s all shortcuts and tricks and unlived-in caricatures.
    All clothing looks like plastic; clouds, birds, hands only have the tiresome illusion of specificity.
    Look at that second Spirit page posted here: in the first panel, notice that gun laying flat against a vertical surface?
    In the second panel, the hand that held that gun emerges from what appears to be an empty jacket. The man higher up receiving a blow to the face has three fingers on his left hand. It’s all terribly lazy.

    Feuchtenberger’s work, by contrast, may not sport such a facile surface rendering, but her images are certainly more striking, and they have a core of conviction that makes them examples of ‘good drawing’ too.

    Related: it strikes me how Eisner’s contemporary, Krigstein, is often praised for his layouts, while what he was in fact far more remarkable for, was daring to go against the grain of visual overstatement and facile surface rendering: his lines can be thick where you’d expect them thin and vice versa; there are ungainly body postures and oddly-tilted heads; spotted blacks for atmospher, not drama &c &c… Also the suggestion of viewing through a camera ( lens flares ) but otherwise leaning more towards a theatrical ( stage-like ) approach to scenes, composing not with a downward thrust towards the bottom of the page but always towards the right, pointing to the next panel. Like Paul Gillon much later on, he knew how to keep his distance from a scene. ( showing feet, keeping Eddie Campbell happy). By which convoluted and ungrammatical piling-on i mean to say it is indeed fascinatingly counterintuitive how artists ( and with/for what contribution) end up in the canon.

  21. Kit says:

    (not to mention Eisner’s excellent lettering)

    Would that be Sam Rosen’s lettering, or Abe Kanegson’s lettering, or Ben Oda’s lettering, or Martin deMuth’s lettering, or Sam Schwartz’ lettering, or…

    The cascade of tedious whataboutery failing to rebut Austin’s personal reaction and deliberate contextualisations in these comments detracts slightly from the pleasure of reading it. Eisner was good in many ways, terrible in very many ways, breaking news for 2018! there’s no need to fire up the appeal-to-authority siren when we could pick apart his performance with an unexpected perspective or three, for the sheer fun of considering art and what it communicates.

    Or I might go into a gallery and start a fight with a curator who chose to hang two pieces on the same wall.

    It’s true that that Strange Tales cover is great, thanks for that. It doesn’t mean that the Strange Tales Of The Unusal cover isn’t both compelling and a useful hook for Austin to frame an examination of Eisner’s alleged landmark blending of realism and fantasy elements, though.

  22. Patrick McCuen says:

    This article reminds me why I quit grad school.

  23. Sweaty 420 says:

    There are like five articles in the same article here, so it feels hopeless to try and respond with what I think is wrong here. That said, I like the writing and point of view even if I mostly disagree and would love to see more of it. Always good to see Don Martin getting props.

    My one thing would be that I think it is a mistake to lump Seth and Crumb into the same pile. Seth’s work is so incredibly close in tone and form to the people I would consider to be what our current auto bio form that I am surprised that people don’t know him when we talk. That said, I would bet most younger people don’t actually know any of these people, Eisner included. Do an article about Dragon Ball and webcomics grandpa.

    <3

  24. zak sally says:

    there’s this Don Martin comic where a husband and wife are silently sitting around– he’s watching TV while she clips her toenails and one by one they go flying across the room; the final one lands in the husband’s beer can and he yells, “damn it Harriet, you’ll never win with that aim!” and she sadly leaves the room, revealing the back of her robe which reads “National Champion Toenail Clipper” or something (probably funnier). none of this is verbatim because i only saw the strip once when I was 9 and i still think about it at least once a month and laugh out loud. IT IS PURE COMICS GENIUS, just like Otto Dix.

  25. Paul Slade says:

    Oh well, if we’re going to trade favourite Don Martin strips…

    Three or four doctors are mid-way through a heart transplant. They’re gathered round a prone figure on the operating table, placing the new heart inside his chest cavity.

    Suddenly, this replacement organ leaps high in the air and lands with a “splat” on the floor. Using its arteries as legs, it runs out the door of the operating theatre at top speed.

    The doctors look on in astonishment. Finally, one of them speaks: “Worst case of rejection I’ve ever seen.”

  26. Darryl Ayo says:

    Seth isn’t “lesser” than crumb

  27. Roman Muradov says:

    The author’s keyboard is covered in foam.

  28. Roman- untrue. I write these columns at the library, and there’s no shenanigans there.

  29. Roman Muradov says:

    In earnest–I agree with a lot of your points, particularly regarding Eisner, whose godlike status always baffled me. But Seth is really much more than his ‘design work,’ and I feel it’s unfair to judge an artist on one part of their artistic output.
    Feels like it’s going back to the old debate of pure and impure poetry and whatnot–if Seth chose to make a living as an illustrator, it doesn’t detract from his writing. He can go into aspirational lettering for all I care (could just recycle the title of the first book and stick it on a postcard), as long as his personal work doesn’t suffer from it.

  30. Conrad G says:

    I really liked the breakdown of 1) 2) and 3), because it acknowledges just how much time and effort goes into making even the most pedestrian comics. Number 3 is often frustratingly missing from a lot of comics I wanted to like going into them.

  31. Conrad-
    Yeah, that’s one of the big reasons I’m so invested in comics: even something I don’t like or enjoy, I still have true respect for and/or interest in, because 1) and 2) are so involved. My heart goes out to anyone who sits down to finish a comics story, and I don’t feel that way about mediocre art in other mediums. Something about cartooning reveals so much about the artist, no matter what.

  32. Jarret Cooper says:

    Loved this — reminds me of the golden age (decidedly MY golden age that is) of TCJ shit-stirring, late 80’s/early 90’s. Complete with “why do you have to be so negative” and “let’s see YOU do etc.” responses. Well done Mr. English. I love Eisner but you’re absolutely right: he draws gorgeous little melodramas.

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