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The Ballad of Axe-Faced Anne: Comics, Criticism, Contexts

11.

As should be clear by now, I wasn’t impressed by Scream #5, and maybe for good reason. In Ghastly Terror, Sennitt argues that 1973 was Skywald’s creative apex, but that by the end of that year “the rot had already begun to get in” (164), fueled by the company’s increased reliance on cheap foreign artists and increased competition from Marvel’s line of black-and-white monster magazines. Maybe I should give Skywald another chance. Maybe I should spring for the comic at the very top of Sennitt’s “Ten Best Horror-Mood Magazines,” Psycho #8, and review Skywald at its best. And I should definitely note that one story—“The Black Orchids and the Tale of Anne,” written by Hewetson under the pseudonym of “Stuart Williams” and drawn by José Cardona—is better and more complex than the other contents of Scream #5. Thanks to the miracle of poor copyright filing, “Black Orchids” is presented in its entirety below.

12.

When I first read “Black Orchids,” I was again unimpressed, since Hewetson’s writing stuck to the same “tell, don’t show” aesthetic I disliked in other Scream #5 stories. The doctor’s exposition-heavy captions on pages four and five are too wordy for my tastes (which bend more towards Kurtzman than Feldstein), and Hewetson’s dialogue is stuttering, weird, non-idiomatic. Visually, I like how Cardona draws the woods as a swirl of wash, silhouette and negative space, and I also like the last panel of the story, as Anne’s psychosis rubs out the panel grid even while Cardona presents Anne’s suicide in a sequence of four images. It initially seems, though, that Cardona missed the point of the story, which hinges on the fact that sister Mary is homely but has a pure and noble soul: as John says to Mary (and, unwittingly, to Anne) at the top of page six, “Anne is beautiful only on the OUTSIDE—a surface beauty…but you I love because of your inner beauty…” But throughout the story, Cardona persists in drawing Mary equally as attractive as Anne. On page three, Mary looks out at us with a glamorous, symmetrical face, in a pose that Cardona might’ve cribbed from fashion photography:

In a close-up on page five, Anne claims to be ugly, and Cardona again draws her as gorgeous:

It’s tempting to read this confusion between word and image in “Black Orchids” as another example of Skywald hamfistedness, but wait. The story of Anne’s psychosis is transmitted to us through at least two filters: Anne herself—who must’ve told the police and her doctors at the sanatorium some version of the events—and through Anne’s doctor, the narrator of much of “Black Orchids.” So why do we trust the version of the story related to us by the doctor, who’s only learned about the crime second hand, and possibly only from a madwoman? Does Hewetson take inspiration for “Black Orchids” from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), with its tales-within-tales and unreliable narrator? Perhaps Hewetson’s words present a distorted, incomplete version of the events, even while Cardona’s art reveals that Mary was not the ugly homunculus Anne claims she was? Does “Black Orchids” itself twin into opposites? Are we reading a pulpy, low-down, unintentionally provocative American spin on Moto Hagio’s “Hanshin”?

13.

In a landfill in Western New York are decomposed scraps of paper that used to be a comic book, and before its pictures were mildewed out of legibility, that comic told a story about a leopard-woman in love with a normal man. I’d like to read that comic again today. I might like it better, and I also could learn from it—about a comics company I’ve never heard of, about the broader history of horror comics, about the wonky gender dynamics inherent in the figure of a leopard woman. When I think of that rotting comic, I remind myself that as a critic I’d like to make fewer snap judgments, and strive for more understanding, more contextualizing, more Jauss and axe-faced Anne.


60 Responses to The Ballad of Axe-Faced Anne: Comics, Criticism, Contexts

  1. Andrew Mansell says:

    Terrific article Craig

    Homegrown Funnies and Kramer’s Ergot #4 WOW–in addition to those gems, I’d be interested to know what films and prose novels you feel were responsible for expanding your perceptions

    Personal aside: –I’ve always associated the old universal horror films and the Comics together.
    My all-time favorite memories of youth were the Winter Saturday nights when my father would spring for snacks, all four Sunday papers and after a night of comic strips and noshing (that’s Mr. Salty to you!), I would get to stay up late to watch Creature Features on WGN.

    And once again– terrific article

  2. Good article, Craig. Some of the “stylistic tics” you note seem to be the result of a heavy Alberto Breccia influence, especially in the page by Alfonso Font.

    • Joe McCulloch says:

      Reading any of the Spanish-powered b&w horror mags is kind of a trip in that way; suddenly you’re in a world where Breccia is Jack Kirby…

    • patrick ford says:

      Anyone know what kind of page rates the Spanish artists were paid in the ’70s?
      It’s well known the artists from the Philippines were getting really low page rates, at least at the start.
      I recall Mike Kaluta mentioning in an interview he was told by DC he could finish the ERB story he’d been working on, but only if he accepted the same page rate being paid for the stuff being packaged in the Philippines.

  3. Craig Fischer says:

    …and of course Breccia is one of those “blind spots” I talked about in the essay. Time to read more…

    Pat, I wonder what the wages were too–pitifully low, no doubt, and I’ve seen references here and there (mostly in COMIC BOOK ARTIST) that the middlemen who brokered the transactions between Spanish artists and American publishers took an immorally large cut.

  4. patrick ford says:

    It wouldn’t seem possible the Spanish artists were working for the same low rates as the artists in the Philippines.
    This is just a guess based on Spain being a Western European country.
    Several of the most prominent artists from the Philippines moved to the United States in short order, and continued to get work, but did any of the Spanish artists move here?

    • Jeet Heer says:

      Spain in the early 1970s was a relatively poor country, although not as poor as the The Philippines. It was definitely not up to Western European living standards and wouldn’t in fact be integrated into the European economic system until Franco died. So I can imagine these artists getting a lower page rate. The whole outsourcing of cartooning jobs in the early 1970s is interesting and worth exploring in greater detail. Carmine Infantino really pushed this during his tenure at DC.

      • patrick ford says:

        Several of the Spanish artists who worked for Warren had already been working for French and English publishers. José (Pepe) González did a lot of work for English publishers including the comics version of the AVENGERS television show. It’s just hard to imagine they were working for the same crap page rates being paid for the packaged stuff from the Philippines. Mike Kaluta said he was told the rate for a penciled, inked, and lettered page was twenty-six dollars.

  5. Mike Rhode says:

    Exellent essay, Craig. Although I enjoyed hanging w/ you and Toney at that HeroesCon, I’m GLAD I didn’t get any Skywald comics for myself.

  6. Briany Najar says:

    Blog about Spanish comic artists:
    http://deskartesmil.blogspot.com/

  7. patrick ford says:

    Tom Spurgeon pointed out today Craig’s piece is less about Skywald than it is about what Jeet called “readerly expectations.”
    A person’s formative experience always leaves deep marks, and an interest in comics is something almost always rooted in childhood.
    One example of expectations I’ve seen expressed quite a few times is: “Frank Robbins wasn’t right for superheroes.”
    Enid Coleslaw: “What does that even mean.”
    One expectation is it means, “This doesn’t look like the rest of the houses on my block.”
    Another expectation would be, “Yes, it’s a shame the adventure strip market in newspapers is drying up, and Robbins has to go write and draw for the “Big Two.”

  8. Chance Fiveash says:

    Nice article, I agree with most of what you’ve written. Saying that, I’ve always had a softspot for Skywald magazines. Jeff Jones drew one of his best stories there imo (Psycho #9). Also, just a minor correction, but Bill DuBay was the editor at Warren from 1974-1976 and Simonson from 1976-1980. Both did a great job and I actually prefer the stories under their tenure than the Goodwin era.

    Again, very nice article.

  9. ryanholmberg says:

    Why is “tell, don’t show” a bad thing? Is it because you find the writing poor? Or there something else?

    Working on Japanese comics from the 50s and 60s, in which so much of the narration is conducted through visuals and speech balloons, and visuals that are often totally instrumentalized for the purpose of pushing the narrative forward, I have to say I find the format you are talking about here a joy and relief. The drawing for me is detailed enough with its own internal “events” (pen flourishes, added emotional expressions, eros) that there is a nice balance, like I am getting a story in a picture and a story in writing, back and forth. The entire story (Black Orchids) is, after all, like you say, being told by someone inside the story, so the format seems appropriate.

    Anyway, I feel like I hear this criticism a lot, also in Japan, that a comic relies too much on the words to tell the story. It seems like a legitimate criticism to me only if either the artist’s intention was to tell the story primarily through pictures (which doesn’t seem to be the case here) or the pictures add nothing to the aesthetic experience beyond what has already been imparted by the words (which also is not the case). It seems to me that if the reasons for aesthetic judgments like this “anti-verbal bias” (which may be putting it too heavily, if it’s just an anti-bad writing bias) are made clearer, you might be able to move beyond the good/bad impasse you mention at the beginning, but then I think you end up repeating through much of your essay with like/don’t like.

    • DerikB says:

      I agree with Ryan in general, there is often a great strain of “anti-verbal” bias in comics. Too many words and it’s not good comics or it’s not comics at all.

      That said, it is often a case that the writing (the actual language, not the plotting/story/etc) is bad in comics, so it’s certainly understandable where the bias comes from.

  10. Craig Fischer says:

    @Chance: Thanks for the Bill DuBay correction. I think I got confused because Jones Simonson was DuBay’s assistant editor during the 1974-76 period. (What did you think about DuBay’s second tenure as editor?)

    @Ryan, Derik: I’ll definitely admit to a personal “show, don’t tell” bias, though I can appreciate what Ryan says about the pen-and-ink aesthetics of the Skywald images providing a nice counterpoint to Hewetson’s prose style. (In fact, in an earlier draft of this essay, I acknowledged an explicit “Kurtzman over Feldstein” prejudice—and now I’m sorry I took that line out.)

    I do think that Hewetson is a bad writer—hence my comment about his “pile-up of adjectives”—but my antipathy to SCREAM #5 is a combination of my personal tastes and my perceived limitations of Hewetson’s writing.

    That said, there are many comics works I love that are more prose- than picture-focused. The first example that comes to mind is Eddie Campbell’s GRAFITTI KITCHEN, where the captions move the story forward and express the interiority of the central character (“Alec,” Eddie), even while in several places the images are indiscriminate sketches, vibrant pen lines and little else. So the quality of the writing certainly matters to me.

    About the like/dislike issue: my essay does wallow in judgments, but I hope it’s also clear that I greatly prefer criticism that goes beyond simple judgment. I’m not crazy about SCREAM #5, but I can learn from it. I can use it to probe the difference between film and comic-book horror in the 1970s, and I can talk about how captions and pictures clash to create unsettling, innovative uncertainty. Using individual comics–bad or good–to broach larger questions about the medium and the industry is what I’d like to read more of–more essays, in fact, like Ryan’s great piece on the Shitgrin Mask manga.

    • Chance Fiveash says:

      I’ll be honest with you, my interest with Warren post Simonson is limited. I DO think that Vampirella was good toward the end, that title was reprinting a few European strips such as Torpedo and others was good. Overall, DuBay’s second tenure was cut short. I DO think that, overall, his last run was very flawed.

  11. ryanholmberg says:

    Another question, this one based on my ignorance of everything non-Japanese. I think you only mention two examples of “New Horror” in these comics (maybe three if you include Black Orchid). Is there a Cronenberg of horror comics, a De Palma? Or did these directors really emerge too late (late 70s) to have an impact on the publishers you are talking about.

    I ask because if they exist I want to read them.

    • Dan Nadel says:

      @Ryan: I think Joe McCulloch might know this better than I do, but I don’t think that there are equivalents to Cronenberg and De Palma… that might be happening now (maybe) via anthologies like “Weird”, which just came out. But certainly comics didn’t have that kind of contemporaneous sophistication in the horror genre in America.

  12. patrick ford says:

    I don’t know anything about De Palma or Cronenberg, but maybe Ryan would be interested in things like Slow Death, Insect Fear, and Skull, Thrilling Murder, Up From the Deep, Fantagor, Real Pulp, Tales of Sex and Death, Tales From the Plague, Deviant Slice, Death Rattle, Brain Fantasy, Bogeyman, Anomaly, Grim Wit, and Philip Jose Farmer’s The Image of the Beast.
    In mainstream comics many people are high on several things published by Warren. In particular JENNIFER written by Bruce Jones with art by Wrightson.

    • Chance Fiveash says:

      I own pretty much most of the comics you listed…and yet, you really know nothing about Cronenberg?

    • Tim Hodler says:

      Oh yeah, some of the Greg Irons/Tom Veitch stuff probably qualifies.

      • Dan Nadel says:

        Of course, Charles Burns. I was thinking more 1970s. I dunno if Irons/Veitch qualifies, though I like it a whole lot. When I think of Cronenberg and De Palma I think of conceptual and technical sophistication, which you don’t see much of in American comic book horror until… someone will correct me here, but Tim, Charles Burns seems about right. R. Hayes is a whole different thing, as is Corben, et al.

      • Tim Hodler says:

        Right. Well, “New Horror” doesn’t include just technical masters like Cronenberg and De Palma. Generally, it’s considered to start with Romero and Night of the Living Dead (which is amazing in many ways, but not particularly polished) and then to continue through Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wes Craven, etc. Irons/Veitch’s Too Many Charlies seems pretty Romero-esque to me…

  13. patrick ford says:

    Here’s an adults only bit of Tim Boxwell’s adaptation of PJF’s IMAGE Of THE BEAST.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctor_noe/6599058275/in/photostream/

  14. patrick ford says:

    This is a nice story which was published in a Warren magazine.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20071009234526/http://www.ulster.net/~jonesart/coldcuts1.html

  15. ryanholmberg says:

    Checked out the links. Both Jennifer and Cold Cuts are stupendous. Especially Cold Cuts. The ellipses inside the writing (the dots, the slip between panels) and drawing (the slip between positive and negative space, between characters) and also between the writing and drawing, totally heightens the horror and suspense. The inability to distinguish between characters (which Craig talked about in a different way for Black Orchids) seems to me a plus not a minus – in a general way given the genre, not just because they work for the motif of the love triangle. Good horror works on anxiety rather than fear, on disturbed emotional states around the unknown rather than the known. Someone might want to see the ellipses as “poetic,” creating an “open text” et cetera, but for me they are strong mainly because of how they heighten anxiety.

    It’s really telling and unfortunate that North America needed the “graphic novel” and its sentimental I Love My Main Street (whether it’s the Upper East Side tenements, Chicago, or some small town in between) and narcissistic Listen to My Absolutely Common Life Story obsessions for the “literary” merits of English-language comics to be recognized. It’s likewise telling that you needed Raw or Kramer’s Ergot – both of which I like, but basically Comics After Abstraction – for them to accepted as art in the mainstream. The tastes of the New York Times book review and arts page have really won the day.

    So you North American “guys” need to fight back and stop writing about this stuff through the lens of your childhood or in a Tarentino vein as crazy fk’d-up genre material. The material is worth much more than that. Hitchcock, Kubrick ala Shining, Argento, Cronenberg: these are the master artists of the second half of the 20th century. Looking around photography and video art these days – not just American or European, but also Chinese, Korean, and Japanese – they have also clearly become major reference points for Contemporary High Art. No one else is going to write about this stuff seriously. The world needs a good antidote to the Graphic Novel and Art Comics camps.

    That said, here I will indulge myself in some comics autobiography, which I don’t like doing. This material reminds of something I loved as a kid: Savage Sword of Conan. Soft porn for kids is exactly how I read it when I was ten. When I turned sixteen or so, my dad gave me a couple of carefully preserved copies of early Zap he had hidden in his dresser since whenever, saying something like “Son, I think now you are old enough to . . .” I was like “What is this? Joe Blow? Plugging your dick into the electric socket? Is this supposed to be racy?” Dad, check out at THIS medieval babe and Conan’s muscles. That baby boomer generation obsession with Uh-Oh, Sex in the American Dream, still does nothing for me. Underground comix look so dated and conservative against 70s comics magazines. Because of the bodies and emotions involved, Sex and Horror are meant for one another.

    • DerikB says:

      “stop writing about this stuff through the lens of your childhood or in a Tarentino vein as crazy fk’d-up genre material”

      But, Ryan, without those two styles there’d be almost no comics criticism at all!

      • ryanholmberg says:

        I know you are being sarcastic. And what I said was a cliche. But I really think comics critics need to learn how to leave their selves at the door, like critics in all other fields. After all, there is art criticism without reference to finger painting Cezannes in first grade, movie criticism without sitting on dad’s shoulders at the back of the theatre, and literary criticism without flashlights under the bedsheets. I understand that since comics are directed (traditionally) mainly at kids and adolescents, there might be a natural tendency to think about that fact through the lens of our own childhood, but even that can be de-personalized.

        The “crazy comics” part doesn’t really apply to the present post or discussion.

      • DerikB says:

        I wasn’t being sarcastic.

      • Craig Fischer says:

        I agree that autobiographical criticism dominates comics criticism, and sure, “Axe-Faced Anne” is one example, though I went personal for what I thought were good reasons: to chronicle my journey from Marvel zombie to a (hopefully) more eclectic reader, and to establish the preconceptions and ideas I brought to my first Skywald magazine. Maybe it worked in my essay, maybe not. I’m too close to tell.

        I do think, though, that every example of criticism should be evaluated on its own merits, and not dismissed because it’s “fannish” or “autobiographical.” I teach Film History, and when I talk about the rise of the auteur-driven Art Cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s (the “Golden Age” of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, the French New Wave, etc.), we read academic, “professional” dissections of the Art Cinema (David Bordwell’s article defining the mode is one) but we also read Philip Lopate’s introductory essay to his collection TOTALLY, TENDERLY, TRAGICALLY, because it’s written in the first-person by someone whose life was changed by NYU film societies and visits to the Thalia theater. Bordwell tells us what Art Cinema is; Lopate tells us why it matters.

        That said, I’m hard pressed to list autobiographical criticism of comics that run as deeply (for me) as Lopate’s essay. I like the way Bob Levin brings subjective elements into everything he writes, and I found Tom Spurgeon’s “Comics Made Me Fat” touching…other examples?

        Incidentally, Ryan, if Scarlet Fever kills me, I’ll still post replies to this thread. What could be more appropriate to the spirit of EC/Warren/Skywald?

      • patrick ford says:

        “crazy fk’d-up”
        I see that all the time associated with Kirby. Even most people who like his work think they need to add the “crazy” tag, or some limp variation of it like “exuberant.”
        My thought is always “compared to what?”
        The same thing on a slightly different level infects much of the commentary I’ve seen on the Gilbert Hernandez goes to the Drive-In material he’s been creating over the past few years.
        I have the sense of people who are ashamed of comics, what they really want is for people to take their hobby seriously.
        ”This super hero is serious. You can tell because he sounds like a guy on a TV show you’ve seen, and he looks serious. Plus he kills people, and can split in half and get into a three-way. So you see this stuff has “adult content” and it’s serious. This other stuff, it’s just goofy, weird, I like it because it’s like some crazy outsider art.”

      • James says:

        Kirby used the lateral expansive storytelling he learned from Caniff to make comic books that interconnected. He wasn’t overmuch of a stickler for details, though—half the time he couldn’t be bothered to make the costumes exactly the same on every page—but who cares? I had a bit of a problem with Marvel at the time: as a kid I lived in a rural area and had no consistent access to comics, so what I had was a lot of Marvel comics where I didn’t have the last part or several parts of a multi-issue storyline—frustrating and off-putting. Then, a bunch of semi-literate fans got jobs in comics as writers and took that interconnected “continuity” to the extreme, they made it be the most important element in mainstream comics and thusly made it so one couldn’t read a single issue and have any idea of what was going on. There was now hardly ever any single-issue stories, complete in themselves, no entry point for casual readers—and in my opinion this is where comics lost the larger part of their audience.

      • James says:

        Anyway, the connection here is that when I lost interest in regular comics because of their impenetrable continuity obsession, I would buy things like the Warren mags which had complete short stories, by a lot of artists who were obviously putting their best efforts in. Unfortunately, though I prefer anthologies, everyone in comics publishing has determined that they don’t sell and if they are done, they are often edited by committee, so cohesive anthology titles are rare birds indeed. That said, I recall that there was something sleazy and unpleasant about Skywald’s publications, so I avoided them.

  16. Craig Fischer says:

    Sorry I’ve been out of the discussion for a bit. I’m on heavy medication for (of all things) Scarlet Fever, an experience that’s a bit Cronenbergian itself…

    Anyway, thanks to everybody for answering Ryan’s question. I’d agree that it’s underground material (Irons, Veitch, Jackson, etc.) that’s much closer to “New Horror” than what appeared in the B & W magazines. On occasion, Warren could traffic in disturbing “New Horror”—we’ve listed “Cold Cuts,” “Jenifer” and “Thrillkill,” to which I’d add “Excerpts from the Year Five” (CREEPY #67), Corben’s JAWS riff “In Deep” (CREEPY #83), and others—but since Warren was unstable during the ascension of “New Horror,” I personally don’t see so much overlap. (That’s not to say that the Warren material was bad, though—note Chance’s fondness for it above.)

    Incidentally, here’s a link to “Thrillkill”:
    http://grantbridgestreet.blogspot.com/2010/08/thrillkill-by-jim-stenstrum-and-neal.html?zx=5b7165336bc31e09

    I question, though, Ryan’s argument that an arid division between Graphic Novel and Art Comix sensibilities has “carried the day.” There’s a segment of American comics fandom that’s still interested in (for instance) the black-and-white magazines, and has done excellent work on them in the Warren issue (#4, 1999) of COMIC BOOK ARTIST and Jon Cooke’s subsequent WARREN COMPANION. TCJ has devoted some attention to the B & Ws too, including an article about Skywald in issue #127 and interviews with some of the major B & W contributors. And if we’re looking for comics that carry a pulp charge and illustrative excellence, what about the E.C.s—and all the E.C. scholarship that’s followed since, most notably in the pages of SQUA TRONT? We can always do more, we can always dig deeper, but these comics haven’t been ignored. (Case in point: Sennitt’s book.)

    Funny you should mention SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, Ryan. I’ve been thinking about writing a column about issue #200, which features Robert E. Howard himself, a giant sombrero, and a giant bat. My visceral response to #200 is, I confess, something like “This is so fucked up…!” but if I do write about it, I’ll try to express something beyond nostalgia and incredulity.

    And unrelated, but I have to say it: is there a contemporary North American director with a more diverse and artistically accomplished career than David Cronenberg?

  17. patrick ford says:

    Ryan for the mix of heightened sexuality and horror you’ll find plenty of it looking through the undergrounds above.
    Your mention of Savage Sword causes me to think of Corben’s Rowlf:
    http://cloud-109.blogspot.com/2010/02/rowlf-corbens-mini-epic.html
    and also his graphic novel Bloodstar published by Russ Cochran in 1976.
    Do look into Boxell’s adaptation of Farmer’s “The Image of the Beast.”
    That particular story isn’t just taking the fact sex and horror were made for each other (Browning’s DRACULA), and heightening the sexuality as you would see maybe in a modern horror film which is “R” rated; it’s a story which couldn’t be told without Johnny Ryan-like transformations of X-Rated body parts.
    http://www.pjfarmer.com/boxell.htm
    I don’t know how current that link is but it mentions Boxell has all 33 pages of original art for sale.
    http://comixjoint.com/imageofthebeast-sample1.html

  18. ryanholmberg says:

    Scarlet fever, yipes! But the internet is such a physically undemanding activity, only death should keep you from keeping in touch.

    I know comic fandom has supported this material, as has the market. I am wondering about its presence now in criticism — as part of the core of how we judge and understand comics — and in new art “pushing the envelope.” Like, can you imagine if autobiographical graphic novels took Warren as their departure point? Or if political graphic novels approached their subjects with the impact of Thrillkill? Correct me if I am wrong, but recent graphic novelists dealing with social issues of a personal or historical sort don’t generally call this sort of material home. And I think that’s too bad, and I think it has something to do with what sorts of styles that are acceptable as “literary” or “artistic” in the narrow senses, and the priorities of today’s graphic novelists and their critics. Today, “self expression” is a matter of showing-the-self or saying-whatever-I-feel-like before it is one of I-have-mastery-and-am-capable-of-achieving-whatever-I-wish (the latter seems to be the case for the horror comics in question). Even many of the graphic novelists today who do have technical mastery still seem to get caught up in prizing skills for their ability to cultivate their own little worldviews and personal signatures.

    I think less obsession with the self would be good for everyone, comics artists and critics alike. The content and technical level of the Warren and Skywald material really ask for a different approach. They are not saying hi it’s me the artist what do you think of my drawing and life, tell me about yours. They offer only their professionalism, and we should respond in kind, like beginning with the sorts of questions that you did Craig regarding voice and face in Black Orchids. There’s a system in these comics, and it’s really smart.

    • Dan Nadel says:

      @Tim: Good call. I don’t know enough about horror, etc., to really be commenting. But the mention of De Palma means (I hope) that Kim Thompson will magically appear to school us.

      @Ryan, over the last few years there’s been a sharp uptick in the kinds of comics you’re asking for, and I’d say Sean T. Collins and Joe McCulloch have probably chronicled them the most. Kramers Ergot 8 is deeply embedded in those non-self (or whatever) forms.

    • Joe McCulloch says:

      If you’re asking about the critical standing of the b&w horror magazine era, I’d say it’s virtually non-existent, and the reason for that is because Warren and Skywald “lost” history. By which I mean they were very mainstream comics that unfortunately existed in exactly as ephemeral a manner that used to be presumed of all comics; they never built up the never ending soap opera that’s been the continued engine of superheroes for the last 30 years, and they weren’t, in general, of the type of distinction that early ‘alternative’ comics were interested in promoting. After a few years, it had all vanished into the bins, and most of it’s still only accessible today by finding original copies or buying into expensive comprehensive collections – I don’t even know if anyone’s scanned these things to pirate.

      It’s funny, in a way, because the Warren magazines in particular were grown from the same soil as the ’60s underground; the Archie Goodwin issues were direct continuations of the pre-Code genre style, specifically EC-derived horror comics and (for a short while) Kurtzmanian war comics. Truthfully, I find a lot of these issues boring, with the often lovely art carrying around slavish, off-the-shelf imitations of a style from years prior. Yet just as the undergrounds built up from EC’s influence — and indeed, how Warren itself intersected directly at times with the underground, be it through several underground artists’ appearances in Kurtzman’s own pre-Creepy Warren project Help!, or the horror line’s early adoption of Richard Corben, who himself was arguably part of a schism in the underground between the Greg Irons-ish genre-y guys and the more humor/satire-based confrontation of Zap and later Arcade and later Raw — the Warren magazines under DuBay and Jones developed into an odd, adventuresome scene for violent adventure serials and random acts of darkness informed by a horror genre heart; this was the true, active division between Warren and Skywald to me, as the latter pursued the grimy, lingering horror-mood, while Warren sought to become a darker counter-mainstream to comics at large. I know Dark Horse is going to start putting out serial-based collections of the Warren stuff soon, so maybe the understanding of them will shift a bit.

      There was a lot of crap, though. There always is. I don’t think anyone was quite approaching the better horror movies of the time; one of the reasons Taboo started, if I’m remembering correctly, was to try to put the genre-in-comics on the level of other media formats, though when I think ‘horror’ comics I mostly see literary influences, like Clive Barker or the ‘splatterpunk’ wave of a while back (which is kind of still where publishers like Avatar are at, although there’re always the odd exception like Ennis’ & Burrows’ 303, which actually is a screaming political tract in the Thrillkill mold, if not nearly as compressed as Stenstrum would make it)…

  19. patrick ford says:

    Ryan really should look into Gilbert’s KING VAMPIRE.
    Gilbert is doing, and has been for some time, maybe what Ryan is looking for.
    Roy Crane said (paraphrased): “A cartoonist who doesn’t use caricature isn’t using the best tool in his bag.”

    • ryanholmberg says:

      I will do my best to dig through your mountain of recommendations.

      But about your last comment. Coming from art history myself, I only recently learned that people in comics oftentimes use the word “cartoonist” to mean “someone who draws comics.” So you want to avoid the word “artist.” I sympathize. But is every who draws comics really a “cartoonist,” considering what “cartoon” suggests since animation? And therefore, is caricature really the best tool for every job? I feel like you are talking about a different tradition and different set of aesthetic concerns than the horror comics Craig introduced . . . or at least the linked Warren comics. I thought that part of Craig’s initial point (or maybe this is just my feeling for the fumetti and goofy Poe panel) was that Skywald comics generally fail because there is too much caricature and 60s-early 70s camp in an age in which new horror movies redefined the genre.

      • patrick ford says:

        Ryan, No it’s not the best tool for every job. I do think cartooning is the thing comics has to it’s advantage. As you know much of Manga fully embraces cartooning, even in the midst of otherwise “formal” content. Tezuka does that constantly in his work, I’m not so much talking about his cartoonized figures as the many “out of the blue” cartoon asides and interjections in his work. Of course abstacted (cartooned) reality is deeply rooted in Japanese Art forms like Prints, and the Noh Play.
        I’ve read when “realist” Western art was first introduced into Japan one of the reactions was it was seen as vain, or disrespectful to try and capture reality.
        I like all different kinds or art from Hans Holbein and Alex Kotzky to Pieter Bruegel and S. Clay Wilson, but I do favor late period Picasso over the stuff he was doing when he was 16 years old.

        http://home.comcast.net/~the.idea.orchard/Firstcommunion_picasso4by6.jpg
        http://cache2.allpostersimages.com/p/LRG/21/2148/APGCD00Z/posters/picasso-pablo-figure-by-the-sea-c-1931.jpg

        Diversity is always good.

      • patrick ford says:

        Oh, and as to using the word cartoonist rather than artist. I like to use the word cartoonist because it implies (I hope) a writer/artist. If you use the word artist in a comics conversation it can be confusing, and many people will take it that “artist” isn’t being used in the same way Bergman could be described as a “Film Artist.” In comics if you call someone like Jack Kirby an “artist” most people read that as “penciler.”

      • James says:

        “Cartoonist” is a valuable term to distinguish the comics artist from the illustrator, who, as I have had to tiresomely reiterate, is somone who provides a visual accompaniment to a text that that stands as complete in and of itself, a text which can function completely without the presence of the illustration. By contrast, a cartoonist provides visuals that are integral to the narrative, most often in the form of multiple sequential panels, that contain narrative information that is not in the text on the page, nor redundant with the text, and often far in excess to that which is explicitly demanded by the script. In comics, the text and art interweave to provide a complete narrative experience; they are a true collaboration where neither writer nor artist is the predominant creative force, although since the art often takes more time and effort than the text, artists have traditionally been paid more for their part. Writer and artist are thusly co-authors of any given comic in question, even when the artist is bringing more to the table than the writer, as was the case in most of the comics drawn by Alex Toth, for example, or if the writer is more famous, like Neil Gaiman, for example. And so, any books done by Toth with a writer, even a shitty one, should be credited as co-authored by Toth and the given writer, in case anyone is wondering.

      • james says:

        Another thing, the usage of the word “cartoon” did not always denote Bugs Bunny and caricatures. Maybe someone will have other examples, but “cartoon” referred much less recently to a part of the process of the ancient art of fresco. The painter would make a linear contour drawing of a given composition and then poke holes along the lines and blow or rub charcoal or a similar medium through it to transfer the drawing onto the wet plaster to be painted. The difficulties involved in the Sistine Chapel come to mind. The use of similar linear contour drawings in comics was originally done to facilitate printing; thick holding lines were intended to contain the badly registered color of high-volume newsprint presses. Of course, now we have extremely tight registration so such thick lines are not really needed, but I prefer the look of comics where line contains color—and I am also at this point quite comfortable with “cartoonist” as a descriptive of what comic artists do.

  20. patrick ford says:

    Not only frescos, but tapestries. Here is Sarasota the Ringling Museum has five cartoons created by Titian’s workshop, and the tapestry based on one of them.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/arts/artsspecial/18RINGLING.html
    It seems “cartoonists” were always getting the short end of the stick.
    Wiki:
    “The Raphael Cartoons are seven large cartoons for tapestries, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, painted by the High Renaissance painter Raphael…
    Tapestries were enormously prestigious; the Sistine set cost at least five times as much as Michelangelo’s ceiling. Most of the expense was in the manufacture: although the creation of the tapestries in Brussels cost 15,000 ducats, Raphael was paid only 1,000.”

    • ryanholmberg says:

      C’mon, this is getting way off point. What “cartoon” meant in the Renaissance is hardly relevant to what it came to mean in the twentieth-century. I will accept that it’s a convention — like “comics” for things that aren’t funny — and leave it at that.

      My question was the relevance of the Roy Thomas quote to the specific topic of 70s horror comics, and the status of “caricature” in the work Craig introduced in his essay and the Warren comics linked early on. Obviously, forms of stereotypical facial deformation is happening in a work like “Jennifer” to accentuate the horror the male character is feeling. In “Cold Cuts,” however, the effects of suspense are achieved through different means, forms of abstraction that are not caricature, like the use of the snow setting — vast areas of white — to create a world in which identities are unclear and bearings are slipping — which to me is really smart . . . it’s like flipping the old “danger lurks in the shadows” to show that white and negative space can create a much more direct and fresher effect.

      For something like “Black Orchid,” I feel like it might be useful to differentiate between caricature and stereotyping — these beautiful women who look just one like the other even if their personalities are opposite. The point of Craig’s reading was that we cannot read the differences of personality through their faces, which seems to me to argue against reading that work through caricature, since a basic principle of caricature is the legibility of personality (or social status, or moral character) through exaggerations of external physical features. That was one of the contributions of Freud, no? That nineteenth century physiognomical science was bunk, that you cannot tell criminals and degenerates and the insane from the shapes of their skulls. Not knowing the material well, I cannot say for sure, but maybe one can make an argument that horror comics for a long time depended on caricature for its meanings and effects, and thereby remained committed for artistic economy to a pre-Freudian worldview. Maybe those better Warren or Skywald works can be used to mark a turning point to something finally more “modern.”

      • patrick ford says:

        Yet in fine art it was the turn away from the representational which is identifuied with “Modern.” Even people like Duchamp, Pollock, and Modrian began as “representational” artists. Photo-realism began in comics long before the “Spanish Invasion” and can hardly be seen as modern even in the comics context. Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, Angelo Torres, and on occasion Russ Heath were already masters of photo-realism in the ’60s.
        The roots of photo-realism are even deeper in comic strips.
        http://web.archive.org/web/20070720184845/http://profmendez.tripod.com/
        It’s interesting that during the ’60s you had popular photo-realist commerical artists like Bernie Fuchs and James Bama along side cartoonists like Frank Frazetta, and Jack Davis. In fact Fuchs, Bama, Frazetta, and Davis are possibly the four most prominent commercial illustrators of the late ’60s early ’70s.
        BTW? Has there ever been a single Manga artist who was oriented towards photo-realism?

      • Thales says:

        Well, it comes to my mind the works of Takehiko Inoue, Hiroya Oku and Jiro Taniguchi.(http://www.tcj.com/this-week-in-comics-92111-cant-miss/)

  21. Jeet Heer says:

    “That said, I’m hard pressed to list autobiographical criticism of comics that run as deeply (for me) as Lopate’s essay. I like the way Bob Levin brings subjective elements into everything he writes, and I found Tom Spurgeon’s “Comics Made Me Fat” touching…other examples?”
    Craig: a lot of the essays in “Give Our Regards to the Atom-Smashers!” book edited by Sean Howe are autobiographical. It’s an uneven collection but has some outstanding pieces, notably the Lethem piece. And Lethem and Chabon have had done autobio comics criticism elsewhere.
    Having said that, I’m not so sure that the autobiographical strain in comics criticism is so strong, as against say pop music criticism or film criticism. Having co-edited two anthologies of comics criticism and been part of a third such volume, my sense is that most of the worthwhile comics criticism out there is formalist or historical/sociological in method and not autobiographical.

  22. Shaenon Garrity’s piece about her mother and Cathy is pretty great, I think. Dirk Deppey’s piece about Boy’s Love manga is amazing. Tom Crippen’s piece about being a superhero fan is really good.

    There’s a ton of autobiographical comics criticism out there; whether it’s the most important or the best depends on who you ask, I suppose. Formalist criticism and historical criticism are also well-represented. Theory-based approaches probably less so.

    The greatest autobiographical film criticism is James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work.” Damn it.

    • Jeet Heer says:

      @Noah. Those are all good examples of autobiographical comics criticism. But by comparison there are many more examples in pop music and film criticism. Virtually every rock critic of the 1970s and 1980s was writing his or her autobiography. Pauline Kael once said that she was asked to write her memoirs but realized that her film criticism was her true autobiography. As Robert Warshow once wrote, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” The language (from the early 1950s) is a bit dated in its gender assumptions but the larger point remains that autobiographical honesty seems to be a precondition for a great deal of film criticism.

  23. Well, there’s more of every type of criticism than there is of comics criticism, surely? There’s just not that much comics criticism in general.

    Kael’s stuff never struck me as super-autobiographical..? Maybe I’m forgetting pieces, but she didn’t usually talk about her childhood watching films that I remember…. It seems like that comment may have been more metaphorical than to be taken quite literally…?

    There’s certainly a fair bit of autobiographical music criticism. I really like Ellen Willis’.

  24. ryanholmberg says:

    There’s a few, kind of. They are mainly ero-gekiga artists from the 70s. Try Ishii Takashi, but I don’t know what you will find online. But it’s different, not really “photorealistic.” The printing of Japanese magazines doesn’t allow for the kind of grey tones you see in Jennifer or Thrillkill. I think mainly because of the paper. So it’s flatter, and more dependent on line. Then again I would only use the term photorealistic for certain panels in Thrillkill, not for anything else shown here.

    No horror comics of this sort exist in Japan as far as I know . . . but am sure something will come to mind as soon as I push “post comment.”

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