Days of Yesteryear

Remember last month? Those were the days when people were doing Best of 2012 columns. What a time that was, a time of proud reassessment of the achievements of the year past and optimistic anticipation of the year to come. Now that all our fond hopes for 2013 have been dashed and our memories of 2012 rendered into a whited sepulcher, wouldn't it be wonderful to relive those innocent times? Well, then, I've got the column for you, filled with things I'd never gotten around to discussing last year and planned to use an end-of-the-year column to pass off.

I honestly don't read widely enough in the medium to come up with a best of the year list, but I can pick out a couple of milestones. My book of the year was the Library of American Comics' Percy Crosby's Skippy Daily Comics Volume 1: 1925-1927. To me it's the arrival of the comic strip millennium. In the slow but rapidly accelerating process of the inaccessible become accessible, the toughest nut has cracked. It is the last of the ten greatest newspaper comic strips to get a comprehensive reprinting. (Why, yes I can name them, and in an order that satisfies me: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Peanuts, Thimble Theater, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Wash Tubbs, Skippy, Pogo and Li'l Abner.)

Its full-scale revival had to wait until the Crosby estate got over its preoccupation a trademark infringement case against the makers of Skippy peanut butter. This was a real life Rocky story, in that it featured a dauntless but hopelessly overmatched underdog motivated by principles meaningful only to itself subjecting itself to round after round of merciless beating before succumbing to inevitable defeat. With this crusade lost beyond the hopes of the most determined Quixote, they have finally been prevailed upon to authorize a comprehensive reprint of the cartoonist's masterpiece.

The positive side of all this is that it held Skippy back until the comics publishing industry was ready for it, and the LOAC collection is absolutely gorgeous. However poorly they may have chosen their battles, the Crosby family proved to be admirable custodians of the archives. The lengthy introduction takes us through Crosby's 20-year apprenticeship, starting as a teenager, and illustrates how he took the tropes of early newspaper cartooning and developed them into something that was simultaneously completely conventional and completely original.

Skippy Skinner is in his essentials Dennis the Menace. He engages in mischief, propounds preposterous excuses for the destruction he's caused, and embarrasses his parents with inopportune frankness in front of guests. And yet the manner of it lifts it completely above the realm of cliché. It is, to begin with, the most beautiful comic strip ever drawn, but it's a beauty that does nothing to compromise the humor. It has got to be one of the greatest feats of sustained humorous illustration in history. While it's not quite so inventive, Skippy's characters speak in a patois every bit as distinctive as George Herriman's. To give you some of the flavor of it:

Though not entirely characteristic the following couple of panels are indicative of Crosby on a number of levels.

As I say, not typical in that I believe these are the only non-white characters depicted in this two-and-half year run of the strip, and not without an element of condescension (the child's name is Sambo), but it does illustrate how Skippy relates to characters of all races and religions on terms of complete equality. It also illustrates a quality that makes Skippy's milieu hard to place socially at first. The adults in Skippy (with the exception of the odd greengrocer or other tradesman) are like the gentleman pictured above impeccably dressed at all times. As for the children, well, let's put it this way -- there is no way on earth these parents would allow them to leave the house looking like this. Every article of their clothing appears to have been handed down from an older relative, to be strapped, tied or otherwise affixed to the youngster by any means that can be improvised. For a reality check of how children of Crosby's social standing would actually dress, you need look no farther than the photograph of Crosby's grade school class in the introduction. Moreover, their outer borough New York habitat has enough wild places to be an urbanized version of Tom Sawyer's Hannibal, Missouri. Whether this was still the case in the 1920s or is a holdover from Crosby's boyhood I couldn't say.

It took me a while to realize what's going on here. What Crosby has done in Skippy is to take the poor children of the New York streets and granted them middle class homes. Thereby they can retain all their individuality and freedom from social constraint without the darkness that goes along with it, and that will enfold them when they have to make their own way, which wouldn't be long. To be sure, this puts Skippy pretty solidly in the realm of escapism, but it's an escape that runs both ways. To lift these children out of poverty is necessarily to deprive them of the anarchic qualities Skippy celebrates; they would after all have to learn those habits that keep you out of the gutter. Besides, the subject of suffering would only enflame Crosby's tendency to the maudlin. When he gets onto the subject of puppy love or the death of children you're in for some heavy going.

Crosby's was the saddest fate of any of the great comic strip cartoonists. Like the pure product of America he was he spent the last 16 years of his life committed to a mental institution. The last volumes of this series will doubtless afford us much melancholy speculation on how much his mental state contributed to the loss of his livelihood. Crosby had been engaged in a running rhetorical battle with the Roosevelt administration since the 1930s. It should be understood that in the 1930s you weren't allowed to criticize Hitler in a comic strip, much less any more respectable public figure. Furthermore, then as now the public was not much interested in a cartoonist's philosophy except as it regards subjects such as warm puppies. Therefore this campaign was conducted primarily at Crosby's own expense, in self-published books and pamphlets. By the 1940s his hobbyhorses had broken out of their stall, and began to kick about the comic strip, sometimes filling panels from top to bottom. This was not the childhood idyll subscribing papers had signed on for. Ultimately Crosby and the syndicate could not agree on a contract, and Skippy ceased publication in 1945. When you consider the popularity of the strip at its peak and the lengths to which syndicates will go to keep strips alive, you can only imagine how Crosby must have worn out his welcome. Until we see the later strips themselves, anyway.

In 1948, despondent and penniless, he attempted suicide and was ultimately diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. His descendants like to believe he was the victim of a campaign of government persecution. He was to be sure persecuted to the extent and in the way that anyone who resists the income tax gets persecuted, and a man without money is going to have a harder time staying out of the madhouse than a man with plenty of it. Certainly it does not speak well for the mental health profession at the time that it could do no more for someone so valuable than to keep him locked up.

The peanut butter controversy was a sordid little business all its own. In 1933 Rosefield Packing Co. adopted Skippy as the trademark for its peanut butter, with a logo design that recalled the comic strip. The brand currently belongs to Unilever. In 1934 Crosby successfully opposed an attempt by Rosefield to obtain a federal registration for the trademark. From what I can gather, at this point Crosby made the trademark owner's mistake of believing he had won his case. In fact, into the 21st century the Crosby estate continued to believe that the denial of the federal trademark was an injunction against use. To get that you have to go to civil court. Rosefield continued to use the trademark and obtaining state trademark registrations for it. When Crosby's own federal trademark registration for Skippy lapsed in 1945, Rosefield applied for a federal registration again, and Crosby was too busy having his life fall apart around him to do anything about it. By the time Crosby's estate attempted to press the case in the 1980s the peanut butter company's hold on the rights were so strong that the estate could never have broken it, though this didn't keep them from trying for 20 years. Though it was a waste it's not hard to see what motivated Crosby's family. Surely they must have seen it as a way to reclaim some portion of the life Crosby had lost.

The book of the year for the art comics world in general was of course Building Stories. I would say that it's made the biggest across-the-board critical splash of any comics publication since Maus if it weren't begging the question of whether it made a bigger splash than Persepolis. Or Fun Home. (Amongst the comics Building Stories has made the biggest splash since are such diverse titles as Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home . . .) Critics have fallen on this Duchampian boxful of objets d'art comics like wolves on a pork chop. Indeed, you could call Chris Ware the Duchampian of the world. By now many of you do not want to read any more about Building Stories until they come out with Arson Stories. Therefore, I make only a handful of observations.

First, it is striking how many male cartoonists of Ware's generation have gravitated to female identification characters. Of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez I need not elaborate, Dan Clowes had his Enid Coleslaw, and in Building Stories we have Ware's nameless protagonist who, because I am wicked in my heart, I am tempted to dub "Gimpy" but will for the sake of common decency refer to as "Christina." Several possible reasons for this phenomenon present themselves. A recent group photograph of art comics luminaries including Ware, Clowes and Chester Brown had me wondering if this cohort weren't inexorably drawn to the concept of alter egos who don't go bald. (Also present was Seth, who wears a hat all the time.) A less facetious possibility is that they do not relish the thought of male responsibility, both in the sense of being expected to be captains of their own fate, and the sense of being responsible for the way things are. (Not that this generational tendency is universal. Peter Bagge's characters generally tend to be captains of their respective fates. Hell, Buddy Bradley even has the hat.) A further possibility is that, particularly as non-commercial cartoonists, they can't readily see themselves as part of a dominant faction in society.

I wouldn't claim that Building Stories was some kind of emotional autobiography. Rather, I see two possibilities. One is that he felt the need to urge to his feelings about parenthood, and looking over his repertoire he found that the one ongoing premise that had a baby-sized hole in it was Building Stories. I can't recall offhand any comic book story twist that surprised me more than seeing Christina in bed with a baby.

The more intriguing possibility is that parenthood made him realize that keeping Christina perpetually suspended in her bleakest emotional moment was a copout. After all, the story already had one spinster, the landlady whose personality the eponymous building has assumed. Beyond being a copout, it was emotionally incomplete. To long for something is to idealize it. To be granted what you'd longed for is not to have your ideals fulfilled but to have to deal with the mundane reality and small oppressions that come with answered prayers. I was reminded of Alejo Carpentier's observation that ultimately everyone is unhappy because everyone wants more happiness than life metes out to them.

If Christina's deliverance (via delivery) was a surprise what is not at all surprising is that a Chris Ware story should have a building for a character. After all a building can have as much personality as a human being, and god knows it can have more personality than the potato-headed creatures Ware tenants them with. When Ware undertook sketchbooks in the manner of Robert Crumb they don't really take off until he stops filling the pages with drawings of people the way Crumb would and begins drawing buildings instead. One page that sticks with me is a drawing he makes of a building across from where he's staying that shows infinitely more insight into Los Angeles than the received notions about the city he scribbles alongside it. The non-structure of Building Stories reminds me of the kit house Buster Keaton attempts to construct in the movie 7 Days, the part numbers of which have been scrambled by his rival. I see this as a reflection of Ware's sense of mortality. Just as Chester Brown thought better of the idea of adapting all four gospels, I suspect Ware realized that working Building Stories into a coherent whole as he's done with Jimmy Corrigan and is doing with Rusty Brown could consume the remainder of his creative life. Instead he throws up his hands, puts each self-contained section into the format that best suits it, tossed it into a box and said "You figure it out."

Building Stories had me once again thinking about what I call the Experience of Comics. The Experience of Comics is a notion I half-baked some time ago to account for why comics strips can have a far greater aesthetic impact than their subject matter would imply. For example, at least five of those ten greatest newspaper comics strips cited above hardly ever expressed an idea that wasn't trite, absurd or patently false. The outlandish coincidences of Dick Tracy, the utter escapism of Wash Tubbs, the cracker barrel philosophy of Little Orphan Annie, these are elements that in prose would not have gotten past the lowliest hack pulp editor. What sustains this substance is the experience of inhabiting the subjective world the cartoonist creates. The writer of poetry or prose however vivid his imagery must depend on the reader's internal image of the things he describes. The cartoonist doesn't merely describe a tree, he determines what trees look like. And so with every person and object in the cartoonist's world. While a painter also creates a subjective world, a painting or drawing is not a narrative. Where a painting or drawing begins and ends in one image, by implication one comic strip panel could follow another into infinity. If the cartoonist's subjective world is vivid enough all the narrative really has to do is be engaging enough to draw the reader into it. This is why bad writing will defeat even the most accomplished comic art. Rather than drawing you into the comic strip, bad writing pushes you out.

Implicit in the Experience of Comics concept was the belief that it was merely an alibi for a stage of comics development where even the greatest cartoonists were bound by the strictures of commerce. The implication was that in our brave new world where the bonds were broken the content of the comic strip could be as profound as any work of art, and comics could simply be judged by normal artistic standards. I find for myself that Building Stories calls this implication into doubt. As artistic mimesis Building Stories is hard to fault. You appear to be presented with life in all its dimensions. It rings true. And yet, when you summarize the matter of it you have to wonder what you have learned that you didn't know before. Imagine Christina's story as a bus conversation: I got my MFA but my artistic career just didn't go anywhere. I was a house sitter for a while and I really got involved in this family. At first I thought the father was having an affair but it turned out it was really the mother, can you believe it? Then I got this job as a florist and I moved into this old apartment building downtown and God, I thought I was going to be alone for the rest of my life. A leaky toilet was a major event. Then I met Phil, and the next thing you know I'm a suburban stay-at-home mom, like I swore I'd never be, but really I love it. Just recently, I'd rather not go into why, I did some work with flowers again, and though I never thought of it as anything but a dead end job I really think I have a talent for it. And now with Lucy in school I'm thinking maybe I'll start my own business . . . It's not exactly Anna Karenina. But what draws you into Christina's drab existence, what keeps you digging to the bottom of the box as if there was a prize in it, is the experience of comics. Ware throws comics at it every which way. It brings to mind a passage I once read from Norman Mailer about how he learned to write by trying to learn how to write every kind of sentence there is. Chris Ware seems to have taught himself how to draw every kind of comic strip there is. Honestly I've never thought of Ware as the kind of artist who needed validation from critics. Straight out of the box.

The controversy over the Before Watchmen series and Sean Howe's history of Marvel Comics got me to thinking of the creative socialism of Marvel and DC, a phenomenon I find more interesting than the comics. Under the benevolent state which controls the means of production the intellectual property becomes a common pool from which the comrades draw from (and draw) to recombine or revise from each according to their abilities to each according to their incentive arrangements. That these socialist states are actually divisions of two of the largest corporations in the world is ironic, but unlike a true socialist state you're allowed to leave whenever you want. To the loyal subjects of the state someone like Alan Moore becomes a revanchist counterrevolutionary trying to reclaim his now collectivized property. The system is flawed insofar as it inhibits its citizens from creating new characters who will become property of the state, which would be improved if the comrades felt they could create freely without being played for chumps. Then again, when you see them creating new identities and personalities for characters who remain property of the company because they have the same costumes and powers, you wonder to what extent this isn't creating a new character for the company.

One bit of creative socialism I read rather than observed was Fury: My War Gone By, the work of comrades Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov. I have to wonder if my lukewarmth towards this project is an observation effect. It may well be that a reader who didn't live with the Cold War for more than half his life would find the material new and fascinating enough to carry him through. Such a reader might be willing to overlook the Letters to Penthouse sex scenes that make you want to say "that's okay, I know where to find porn when I need it." He might overlook the sex object who's been taught by the mean streets of Chicago how to beat up men three times her size, objectionable not so much because it's unreal -- comic books have their privileges -- as because it's now a cliché. The biggest flaw, however, is the reason the book exists, the presence of Nick Fury.

In My War Gone By Nick Fury is your guide on a tour of the great fiascoes of the Cold War, in this volume the fall of French Indochina and the Bay of Pigs invasion. My first thought was that putting a character who has to be a hero in an anti-heroic scenario was a wrong note, but I soon realized I was being silly. Or more specifically, I was being the silly old fart comics reader who gets put out when he finds out they're not doing the comic book when he was a kid. In fact, such wholesale revisions are characteristic of the form, and apt to happen any time trends shift. You have only to think of the transformation of Dick Briefer's Frankenstein from a monster comic to a humor comic, Plastic Man's transformation from humor to horror in the 1950s, to name a couple. Besides, it's not as if Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandoes was ever anything but a crappy comic book that might suck you in with good art (Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and John Severin) only to confirm how crappy it is once you read it. When he created it as a pure bullshit war comic Kirby was perfectly capable of telling you what actually happened. It could be that he treated bullshit as a convention of the genre, just as in a romance comic you are going to see blondes, but I see a certain wisdom in it. It is as much as saying, "Believe me, there is nothing edifying about being knocked down by the flying body parts of a friend. The best thing I did for you over there was to spare you from it, and I'd just as soon go on doing that. Why don't I just give you the bullshit instead?"

But that's beside the point. The real problem with having a hero in a book where everything is going wrong is that a hero has to do things right. The title could have just as easily been Fury: Everyone's a Fuck-Up But Me. It's like the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show's recreation of Custer's Last Stand, which finishes with Buffalo Bill arriving at the scene of carnage as a banner drops reading "Too Late!" Why, you might rhetorically ask, do you base your comic book series about the failures and fiascoes of the Cold War? Because the successes of the Cold War had, to borrow Raymond Chandler's mellifluous phrase, all the old-fashioned charm of a cop beating up a drunk. The U.S. begins the conflict looking for a "third way" between colonialism and communism only to find that communism has cornered the market on anti-colonialism. Thus it was relegated to defending the blessings of normal dictatorship against totalitarianism. In this humanitarian endeavor it could at times be hard to distinguish from a freelance goon squad for commercial interests. One moment I recall from back in those days was reading in Ramparts or something like that an expose on one of the thugocracies we were more or less sponsoring at the time -- Argentina, I think it was, though it could have been half a dozen others. And I'm brought up short by this part about how this government is censoring the opposition newspapers, because I have to ask myself, "How many opposition newspapers do they have in Russia?" If you were a socialist then you were telling yourself that the ultimate evil is capitalism and however oppressive it appears to be now, so long as the regime is not capitalist then the evil will ultimately go away. So we were all joined in this jolly merry-go-round of being cruel to be kind. Communism was a black cloud that spread its mephitic stink over everything and was never going to go away. There are things I'd rather read a comic book about.

For the story Ennis is telling the protagonist shouldn't have been Nick Fury but Congressman Pug McCuskey, the Quiet American/Charlie Wilson character who is Fury's foil and romantic rival. He's supposed to represent craven opportunism in contrast to Fury's integrity and honor, but this was a war that was won by the men of expedience, not the men of honor. If any party in the conflict is practicing the comic book-approved martial virtues it's the Viet Minh, and what they win for all their gallantry is a dreary police state-cum-sweatshop that continues to this day.

By the by, off the subject of comics but close to the subject we were just talking about, I have a word to say about the selection of Argo as Best Picture over Zero Dark Thirty (among others) at the Oscars earlier this week. It is said Zero Dark Thirty lost its Oscar privileges by advocating torture, and you can certainly read it that way if you come to it with the assumption that the United States can do no wrong. What the proverbial Man from Mars would have seen in that movie, however, is what looks like nothing so much as the security apparatus of a totalitarian regime sending what looks like nothing so much as a gang of hoodlums on a mission that looks like nothing so much as butchery and burglary. Costa-Gavras made the Greek junta look better in Z. (He might have made the Nazis look better in Music Box.) Argo on the other hand has the Americans looking like plucky, resourceful underdogs overcoming superior forces through wit and guile. It does this by making everything up. It may have been the politically correct choice, but it was also the Hollywood choice. Me, I would have voted for Moonrise Kingdom, which wasn't nominated.