Some thoughts on a few noteworthy comics I've read lately...
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Time Zone J by Julie Doucet. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, 2022.
Time Zone J begins: Doucet is filtering through thoughts, hitting on nothing and doing so passively. Then, suddenly, things comes into focus, she remembers someone, a fan, 'a hussar', writing her obsessively. She connects with the writing, and in turn reveals herself to him. She stresses, repeatedly, that she stumbles in connecting with people but there is something here, an actual intellectual correspondence, with touches of passion on both sides. The interaction increases, and then a meeting. Immediately, she's disappointed by the site of the hussar, but decides to keep going. There is a physical encounter, which Doucet describes as important and honest, one of a kind. There is no discussion of happiness here, let alone ecstasy, and—defiantly—nothing is depicted visually. Doucet continues to draw whatever she pleases on every page, and the hussar is depicted only as a bird, constantly monologuing. The meeting itself is a moment of genuine connection, perhaps the richest Doucet has so far experienced, but there is no steady ground or feeling of triumph. Then, immediately, touches of menace, things erode.
Doucet gives us a memoir which, consciously or not, defies what comic memoirs have come to traffic in: epiphanies; learned lessons; the author spiritually confident; trauma with a resolution. Instead, we have emotion that hits a dead end, incoherent pain, action taken passively, coherence with another person hand in hand with revulsion, all of which stops on a dime, as Doucet's thinking loops out and onward. The comic is drawn from the bottom of the page to the top, which is what most people will either insult or praise, but it's the most unremarkable aspect of the book. For those reading with any degree of respect, the searing emotion—which cannot be reduced or rationalized or explained outside of the poetry of this book—is what will be remembered. Many memoirs try to assign a hard won feeling of 'confidence' as a resolution to a narrative of struggle. Doucet's book can only laugh at all this. Life as depicted here has no forward momentum and deep feeling arises from failure. This is a comic that's actually for adults, unlike most comics for adults.
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The [Uncanny] X-Men, various issues written by Chris Claremont. Published by Marvel Comics in the 1970s and 1980s.
I've been reading a lot of these, simply because they are enjoyable. Post Dave Cockrum's run (which was heavy on the swashbuckling) it's not exactly an action comic anymore, but neither is it philosophical (beyond its sometimes-there-sometimes-not civil rights commentary). It's barely-imaginative sci-fi, a mode which normally attracts an impassioned cult, but not at this low a frequency. It's a soap opera more than anything else (I think this really takes the spotlight under Paul Smith), but not exactly either. Why are people so connected to this comic, what does it have? As I read it closely, I have no idea why I'm following along, though I clearly care about it. I do like seeing these specifically colorful people use their equally colorful abilities as drawn to me on the page, in a way that I don't care about as much in any other pamphlet. When I follow superheroes on other titles, I'm usually there for an artist, looking at what Romita Sr. did in comparison with Ditko, or something like that. The main show, a weird human doing something extraordinary, never matters much to me. With this comic, though, it does.
I wrote previously about how Cockrum drew the characters as if they were dolls that he was obsessively moving around on the page. This tendency underlines a lot about how comics work, especially the pungent loneliness emanating from a lot of people who made (or read) them, this sense of control over people packaged as colorful shapes. And that ties into what I think draws people to this comic overall: this is the most unashamedly emotional superhero series, a fact that seems so obvious reading it that I'm surprised it's not a cliché discussion point of the series. Paul Smith seems mostly interested in drawing people's hair, emphasizing that there are things of interest in the world besides power plays in a fight for the universe. Again, low frequency, let's not get ahead of ourselves... but it's there.
Claremont seems like one of the only people working in genre comics that wasn't trying to be a clear storyteller, but instead a creative one. 'Powers' here aren't used only as plot points, but instead as excuses for blasts of color and lines and reactions and thrills, and re-arranging all those thrills in combination with new and varying hairdos, with an anchor of Sirkian mellow drama (diluted to an ludicrous degree, of course) to ground things. It feels good. These comics feel like expressions of something other than a super-cop policing things in a coherent manner, because a lot of these sagas are frankly incoherent. Flip through a page at random and you won't find Don Rosa-style clarity or a pro-authority worldview. Instead, you'll most likely hit a page with impassioned purple prose and some sensitive fantasy graffiti, in service of some kind of cartoony ability, with 'cartoony' being used here both counter-intuitively and highlighted in red. Every professional, in interviews, talks about: story, story, story... but I don't think that's what made things work here. If there is a corporate genre comic that gets close to the highs of early newspaper strips (there isn't), this is the one.
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The Strange Death of Alex Raymond by Dave Sim & Carson Grubaugh. Published by Living the Line Books, 2021.
The most telling part of this book is how Alex Raymond is discussed in as much depth as is humanly possible, but the plots of his strips are barely mentioned at all. And, it follows, there is no discussion of what (if anything) may or may not have been communicated emotionally or intellectually story-wise in the thousands and thousands of strips Raymond drew and wrote. A total non-issue, to the point where, as Sim sees it, emotional implication is happening solely in the metaphysics of how someone inks. People die, go mad, have affairs due to the care Alex Raymond puts into his inking technique.
Somewhere within this book is a thesis of how cartooning is not literature or painting or anything else that works in a particular tradition of revealing truth (realism this century, a reaction to it the next), but rather an art where deep feeling can be communicated in someone's unexpressive detail work. What would be throwaway atmosphere elsewhere is the heart of the matter in comics. When you (choose to) look at it that way, the question of comics' frustrated grasps towards explicit self-expression is neatly solved: the question should never have been asked, according to this metaphysics.
There are the standard-issue reasons to not want to engage with this book (they're valid), but its strength gets at these very prejudices. At one point, Sim draws himself drowning in water a couple of pages after a swath of text about the crushing monotony of comics making.
Sim smiles at us here, as if to say 'nothing too confessional'. And yet, I found the moment chilling, and I assume Sim engineered the sequence to read this way. It appears at the center of a book that, however you may feel about it, took obvious skill to make, skill that took decades to refine to this degree. Sim makes no case for or against his own (much-discussed) state of affairs. As with his discussion of Raymond, emotional content or impulsive hot-blooded feeling aren't perceivable native agents to the world of this book. Instead, they are seething ghosts within every line.
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Giant-Size Defenders #3 Facsimile Edition by Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin. Published by Marvel Comics, 2020.
Marvel reprinted this 1975 Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin comic to promote their (at the time) new Defenders series helmed by Al Ewing and Javier Rodríguez. I bought the first few issues of that relaunch, even though I could feel the corporate logic being worked on me the customer: "You like The Defenders, right? A comic known for having smarter-than-average work by Steve Gerber? So, you'll like this, because Ewing and Rodríguez are the ones doing that smart kooky stuff now! This comic is for you specifically, someone who goes to the shop on new comic day, searching for something... anything... halfway decent." And... yes, I like both Ewing and Rodríguez because they are a cut above the rest and the idea to have them work on this title is smart. And yet...
...the cards just seem so stacked against how corporate comics function these days. Here are two very thoughtful comic professionals, working on a property I assume they love, given (it appears) a rather wide creative berth in terms of how to tell their stories. With a gun to my head, I'd say I respect the above page, I know how hard it is to draw that, and I applaud any job well done. But, gun removed, even saying 'well done' to the above makes me queasy because I can't say it with a straight face, though no one is to blame. Something in the template (the color? the paper? the overall way comics must be made if they're going to hit the shelves that matter—or, increasingly, very much do not matter—in this century?) just peels away the thrill of wild creativity that is the shrilly telegraphed goal.
The anti-climatic conclusion is that, in 1975, anyone thinking clearly would have said something similarly unhyperbolic about Giant-Size Defenders #3. Reading it today, though, was a genuine thrill, and I wanted to read it again. The story, about two cosmic masters who are addicted to game play, will not make or break you - but if you want to believe in it as art (and I do), you can do so. Is that because certain shapes and color choices and modes of pacing become more impactful the farther away they are? To be fair to Ewing and Rodríguez, let's keep that window open. In my heart, though, I think Giant-Size Defenders is actually wildly creative in a low-rent sleaze kind of way, which is a more trusty partner for corporate art than the shrill telegraphing it would be required to wear today.
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Keeping Two by Jordan Crane. Published by Fantagraphics Books, 2022.
Here it is, the best book from a certain micro generation of cartoonists that began to emerge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. General statements should always be discouraged, but here's one: around this time, you saw in alternative comics circles a de-emphasis of Kurtzman, replaced with an adherence to Schulz (consciously or not, in so far as Schulz' sensibility had, at this juncture, reached a point of saturation where you might argue that he was in the air, even if you didn't read him). Less clutter, maybe, but more precisely: nothing wasted, every line thought over and rendered with precision, draining the 'funk' that a Kurtzman approach might elicit.
I thought about Schulz a lot while reading this book, specifically how you are pulled through Schulz' visual vocabulary without any hiccups. You can appreciate how beautiful his lines are while also darting your eye across them as quickly as possible, processing the information. I also thought about how, if you change one Schulz line on Charlie Brown's face (maybe you invert the nose or add a dangly piece of hair), the image will shock you. It will become almost nauseating. Schulz didn't indulge in this, he kept the world of his strips intact, day after day. The shakiness comes in later, but floods the entire strip and in so doing, resolves itself. The shakiness is not a proudly defiant mark.
Keeping Two is a blistering 316 pages of intactness. If you know anything about cartooning, the first few pages will impress you as the work of someone at the absolute highest level of visual storytelling. There is no 'chicken fat', every line is essential information.
And then Crane explodes things. He doesn't just invert Charlie Brown's nose, he very precisely gouges it off. This, in the hands of most everyone else, might be cheap. With Crane, it's done with such care and such assurance that it is genuinely upsetting. We follow these characters, perfect cartoon images, without thinking about what we are doing. We enter into them or observe them or do whatever we normally do when a cartoon story takes over our brain and we are immersed in it less by choice then by the cartoonists clarity. Then, suddenly (and repeatedly throughout this work) Crane will violently gash at his figures and at us the reader. We are effectively hypnotized, so the gash isn't something to be escaped, but rather felt.
I once talked in these pages about how the way to read Feininger. I see Feininger's barely there 'narrative' as a way to whip you through some very potent imagery, and the experience of the strip is whatever feelings that may bubble up as you slam through Feininger's shapes. Crane, though, is no Feininger. He discards ambiguity in narrative for imagery that is unmistakable. And yet, driving us head on into certain phrases of images is still the goal, as it is in Feininger. They're just doing so at very different tempos (it takes me a long time to read one Feiniger strip, whereas with Keeping Two I found myself loudly slamming the pages down, going through its 300+ pages at breakneck speed). There are also markedly different concerns about how they want you to collide with their imagery. In Feininger, you fall into a mass of shapes resembling a building. Once you decipher if it is, in fact, a building, you have a sensation resulting from visual pleasure or repulsion. Or maybe the sensation is piecing together whether it's a building or not. With Crane, the sensation is the collision, falling into a drawing of someone that was once a comfortable caricature of a face and is now a horribly disfigured body.
This is, let's be clear, a triumph. I liked this book a great deal and I think it's one of the more noteworthy comics with absolutely pure storytelling that I've ever read. I also felt very frustrated by it. The story involves a couple who have lost contact while running errands and then imagine catastrophe befalling each other. The maimed bodies that provide the dynamite in Keeping Two often come from these imaginings. To bring us as close as possible to feeling the shocks, Crane keeps everything in how this couple interacts as 'relatable' as possible. After all, the 'horror' of the book will be viewed as relatable too (we all have these kind of catastrophic fantasies), so the bridge to the destruction must be consistent if the whiplash is to be played for all its worth. However, the whiplash is most thrilling if the reader decides against relatability, instead favoring a stance that what is comprised here consists of completely unique happenings, sensations experienced exclusively while reading this book. Reading a comic where someone gets in a car crash and really feeling it is a pretty noteworthy experience, but of course not at all like being in an actual car that is struck. Keeping Two is at its strongest when it's a world of impact unique to itself. The (purposefully, I believe) cliche relationship serves as an essential bridge for the amped up crescendos of the book. The couples 'relatablity' isn't something you can draw on as a person yourself, so much as it is a tool. This tool is used quite well, and if I believe in it as a tool, this is a flawless book, a container of bombastic thrills.
But one begins to wonders. Cartooning at this level is where a lot of cartoonists spend a lifetime getting to. Once you're there, what can be done? This kind of language, if blown apart and subverted, can (in the hands of a thoughtful artist) produce shocks, and with the right precision, those shocks can produce some degree of feeling. Can this language, though, get at sensations beyond explosions (or the relief at an explosions resolution)? Can it get at contradictory ways in which people behave, or transgressive ways of thinking...the kinds of things film and literature have spent a couple centuries facing? If we look above, and consider Sim's book, the contrast in achievement couldn't be more stark. Crane's book is (and I say this with admiration) without fault, while Sim's book is wildly uneven. In that unevenness, though, there are passages that affected me, that made me feel for and think about the people involved to a higher degree than that of a minefield I must cross over. Crane's book is a historic achievement of even cartooning and, on its own terms, produces spectacular fireworks. It suggests that this kind of cartooning, at its highest levels, cannot be read as literature, or as philosophy or in the way we have come to experience most traditional narrative arts. Instead, it must be experienced.
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Blah Blah Blah #2 by Juliette Collet. Self-published, 2022.
This is simply an excellent self-published photocopied comic. I mention it here after listing several works made for large publishers or by industry heavyweights that, while all successful and worthwhile in their own way, give off a scent of awkward laboriousness (Doucet exempted). I'm a fan (the biggest?) of vague and contradictory comics, but Collet's comics come off effortlessly, and that deserves notice. Enjoy this sequence: