Here are some thoughts on a cross section of comics I’ve been reading, old and new.
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American Splendour: TransAtlantic Comics by Harvey Pekar, Colin Warneford and Frank Stack, with Joe Sacco. Published by Dark Horse Comics, 1998.
The late '90s and early to mid '00s were probably the most successful moments in Harvey Pekar’s life. A relatively acclaimed movie based largely around his art and, at last, some financial stability. However, I think there was a tendency in those years among the audience of [the magazine you’re reading these words in] to not simply take Pekar for granted, but to drift into ‘maybe he's not very good work at all’ territory. During this time, as Pekar was probably enjoying a media conversation around his work that he felt was well-deserved, in his chosen corner of his chosen medium, American Splendor seemed very much apart from the earth-shattering project that cartoonists like Ware, Clowes, Gloeckner or others had begun to be associated with: comics as art at the highest visual and literary levels. Including an artist of Pekar's generation like Robert Crumb in cutting edge anthologies like Kramers Ergot was of course a necessity for how that publication viewed itself, but even if he’d been asked, Pekar would have been an oddity in those pages.
Now that (to me, regrettably; to you, perhaps rightfully) no one seems to care about comics in that rarefied way anymore, it’s interesting to focus on Pekar again. In contrast with the haute literary/art comics moment, his work was not coming from a midwestern meticulous craft concern or the Charles Schulz goy depressive angle. American Splendor is, at its core, neurotic, but Pekar is alive in a way Schulz positively understood he wasn’t, and his successors negatively mistook as a mode of total life cosplay (often mixed with weak Crumbisms). Perhaps more telling than the frankly Jewish nature of his work, in a medium that was increasingly defining itself as the regretful gospel of Schulz-style Christianity, is how casually made Pekar's comics were. While the Hernandez brothers and their followers wouldn't allow a mediocre panel to exist beyond the thumbnail stage, Pekar and his artists greenlit hundreds of poorly-composed drawings to publication. His tendency to work with artists of varying skills (from the best in the business to those that signaled a potential towards competency some day or other) was, in retrospect, a misdirection that aesthetic values of the time allowed many to fall into. Comics as an airtight aesthetic edifice didn’t seem to concern him. Instead, ordinary thoughts and unnoteworthy drawings sitting comfortably alongside thoughts and marks that had a little more spin on them is what he was after.
It shouldn’t have been that hard to miss. While the endless Toby and Mr. Boats stories felt like repetitive space-fillers that annoyingly popped up in almost every Pekar publication, they point at an oddly underdiscussed aspect of Pekar’s art: American Splendor as a receptor for working peoples' attitudes and ideas. We focus so much on American Splendor as autobiography that we forget how much of it is often about other people in Pekar’s life, without much of Pekar’s voice imposing itself on them aside from mere transcription. This is an important part of American Splendor as a working class project, and it’s revealing that his work is rarely discussed in class terms. Is American Splendor a memoir project? It’s not about Pekar’s childhood or his parents, or really looking back all. It’s about working at the Veterans Affairs hospital, crucially in the present. The people Pekar works alongside or encounters through his reality as a working person are as important as family members in the larger scope of his comic, and they’re there with him in the trenches as he writes - not as a boyhood remembrance of work long abandoned for a literary life. The pages of American Splendor were made while working with these people 9-5, not after. Unassailable craft isn’t much of a concern when this is what your project is about.
The best document of all these tendencies is the 1998 release TransAtlantic Comics (importantly a comic; the American Splendor movie was released during a boom period for the 'comic made for bookstores' market, forever associating Pekar, for casual readers, as a graphic novelist, but he published and thought as a pamphlet comics writer for much of his career). It begins with an eight-page story drawn by Frank Stack (arguably Pekar’s best artist, who often understood his beats and concerns far better than Crumb) where Pekar gets in a minor car accident. Worrying about the insurance costs of all this, Pekar goes to his PO box for a moment's distraction, and finds a lengthy letter from an artist named Colin Warneford. The comic immediately shifts to a retelling of Warneford’s letter, adapted into a comic by Warneford himself. Warneford, a fan of American Splendor, has written to Pekar out of the blue, and immediately launches into an account of his own day-to-day struggles with severe Asperger syndrome.
Pekar offers no explanation for why he’s presenting this to us. Warneford’s voice is enough of a justification. Pekar, without saying as much, seems to naturally assume that this is what comics are for: an unknown person's story, published without much fanfare.
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Heavy Penalties by Vanessa Conte. Published by Random Man Editions, 2020.
The solicitation copy for this comic defines what goes on as: "[t]en ladies face the consequences of just being themselves in Heavy Penalties, a collection of erotic, corporal punishment comics." That's certainly part of it, and while I wouldn't deny that there are (possibly) subverted noir/snuff/pulp elements to what Conte is working with and against here, such language also describes a lot of mediocre and forgettable comics. Conte's allusions to eroticism or sadism seem inconsequential in regards to her larger project: that of using the human body as an improvisatory actor meant to be contorted as much as possible through drawing.
There is narrative and even pathos to what Conte's women go through. But the real focus here is on stretching the human form to a wild degree while avoiding abstraction, and how it feels to look at the result of that. The underground comics practitioner's defense—that no matter how heinous the content, it's all just 'lines on paper'—is actually given some poetic follow-through with Conte's comics, as what the line itself can accomplish is finally given its proper due. Sex isn't depicted here, but women's bodies as shapes whose structural limits are explored through the act of drawing is.
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Beta Ray Bill #1-5 by Daniel Warren Johnson, with color by Mike Spicer and lettering by VC's Joe Sabino (with Johnson). Published by Marvel Comics, 2021.
This is a comic about Beta Ray Bill in search of a new hammer; not much more complicated than that. Such a concise concept, of course, brings to mind the labyrinthian dysfunctional complexity of the books in which Bill occupies the same ‘universe’ and shelf space.
Daniel Warren Johnson’s Wonder Woman: Dead Earth effort was one of the few legitimately well-made superhero comics I’ve read in ages, and this series has similar pleasures: page after page of Johnson drawing the hell out of a legacy character. But Johnson is no mere stylist, he’s a (these days, extremely rare) patient storyteller. His work suggests a potential direction for American Corporate Genre pamphlets and trades: action-heavy artwork (stopping short of anything lurid) with just enough violence to satisfy the kids that the market pretends to cater to. This art is in the employ of slightly sensitive adventure stories: there are a lot of drawings in this particular comic of Beta Ray Bill holding back tears, though crucially in a cartoony tone that pulls it apart from Geoff Johns' smarmy grounded-in-‘realism’ waterworks. When Bill, who cannot revert to human form since Thor broke his original hammer, explains his current quest as one to ‘make myself beautiful again’, you are hopefully laughing pretty heartily instead of righteously mistaking this for Neo-expressionist poetry (which comic fans tend to do when the Thing is eating a sandwich or something, underlining it in red as proof that it isn’t all biff bang pow after all). Still: when you’re trying to commit to slogging through many more issues of this, it’s appreciated that Johnson does the work to add minimal depth. The impulse I have to write endless paragraphs about a barely-successful character beat points to how rare such a thing is lately, even though without it you essentially have 22 pages of unpleasant concepts.
Johnson makes commercial comics that are legitimately commercial - you’d understand someone getting a thrill from this. Well-made action and an effectively fabricated container of genre emotion (bad things happen/dedication from our hero/high stakes fisticuffs where each punch makes sense/resolution) is more or less how shōnen manga works, and American mainstream comics didn’t used to be so different. Now they most certainly are, and the market reflects this. Could someone like Johnson make a series of trades that are affordable, ship on time, and feature a famous character while not carrying a whiff of endless continuity? A series of adventure stories about, uh, Wolverine, that are numbered 1-12 on a bookshelf and drawn by Johnson with crowd-pleasing artwork? You’d think such a thing would be where money was invested these days, but the inertia of denying American genre cartoonists any autonomy seems to have yielded its own results.
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The Spectre #5 by Doug Moench, Gene Colan and Steve Mitchell, colored by Adrienne Roy and lettered by John Costanza. Published by DC Comics, 1987.
I bought this comic for a quarter and read it as I fell asleep on and off for a week, and I never finished. It didn't seem important to complete - not because the comic was of low quality (the reverse was true in my eyes), but because my enjoyment for what it offers wasn't about the larger narrative Moench and Colan were constructing in 1987. The Spectre's human host is alive... or dead? Murdered? And out for revenge, or truth, or something.
I can't imagine a Gene Colan scholar calling this his best period, but I also wouldn't be surprised if someone out there actually feels that way. It's very well made in a non-showboat fashion; the vague boredom of everything he's given to drawn is a testament to how solid Colan is, always.
It's very easy for a reader to project their own strange, peculiar aesthetic preferences onto virtually any work of art, even if there really isn't much common ground between what exists in the reader's mind and the thing itself. This seems to happen with comics in particular a lot (the phenomenon of buying a comic you've lost interest in years ago for months and months, not because of your attachment to the idea of the comic, but your attachment to the idea of liking the comic), and it certainly happened to me with this issue. This moment in comics publishing: the low-grade but not horrible paper stock used; the downbeat Adrienne Roy color palette; the dense story of pulp clichés turned into something with tons of talking - this is the opposite of the overly bombastic Image comics that formed my initial perceptions of what a monthly comic is. But, as I entered comics through that angle, comics like this were lingering around the stands, extremely available in sale bins, and suggested a reality of monthly comics that had something (but what?) to them, as opposed to the not very much of the comics I was familiar with. Reading this comic is like looking dead-on at the world that might have been. Years later, here it is. Still: it's impenetrable, as the vague sense of it also containing 'not a lot' is crouching around every panel. This becomes exhausting. You can't finish a comic like this - what would the point be?
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Blood on the Tracks by Shūzō Oshimi, volumes 1-3, translated by Daniel Komen. Published by Vertical Comics, 2020.
All I can think about when reading Blood on the Tracks is that I don't want to turn the page, because of what might happen on the next spread. With a scary novel, a page turn just reveals more letters that you'll still have to consciously choose to decipher. With a story that's drawn, you'll see the horrible thing instantly. Unlike a movie, you make the decision to keep going every few seconds, and your fingers might actually come into physical contact with the potentially gruesome moment and/or thing.
This isn't that noteworthy of an observation; it's clear to anyone who has ever experienced a truly scary comic. But, despite reading probably thousands of pages of horror comics in my life, I don't think I've ever read a comic that actually frightened me. This one might be the first.
The story itself isn't grisly. It concerns a child's slow manipulation by those closest to him, and, in the volumes I've read so far, minimal violence is depicted. There is also nothing as of yet supernatural to contend with. The most disturbing actions make sense and have a clear motive to them. There's very little waiting to be revealed, or any sense that some secret knowledge needs to be imparted to us to make sense of the perversion depicted here.
Most of the transgressions in Blood on the Tracks are through speech and phrases, though none of them blue. I'd previously read Oshimi's Happiness, which was nicely drawn and very bloody, but more or less a breezy read. Blood on the Tracks is not easy, even if the worst parts are the way Oshimi draws someone slightly tilting their head.
Even with these constraints in place, this is a disgusting comic - a transgressive comic that isn't pretending.
The only comic that's come close to making me as uncomfortable as this one was a reprinted Reed Crandall EC story I read as a kid called "From Here to Insanity". Crandall's drawing felt crueler than the other EC artists. Jack Davis was all comedy, impossible to be scary, and even Wood's work felt based in some kind of campy cartooniness. Ghastly's stories prepared you from the first panel for scary stuff, so you were adequately warned of whatever narrative letdown was waiting seven pages away (the panels in between could feel scary if you really wanted them to be, though you had to choose to do so). This Crandall story felt shocking to a young reader's eye because it was so sharp; almost as if Crandall had printed and collaged cheap photos onto the page. When you read the conversation around the fervor EC caused, and then you read the actual comics, it really doesn't make much sense. What were people afraid of? A nicely drawn mummy? But with Crandall, I can see it.
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Jade and Her Schizophrenia by Jade Webster and drawn by J. Webster Sharp. Self-published, 2021.
I've been closely following the comics of J. Webster Sharp through two stunning publications so far: Pretty Flavours and Fondant, both released in the last few months. These comics feature psychologically charged imagery: Barbie-like figures contorting their bodies into provocative poses; black liquid pouring from people's eyes; genitals turning into reptiles; arson carried out by strange cherubic entities; etc.
Sharp's work isn't necessarily non-narrative. The panels begin to build up relationships the more you focus on them. And, like any true cartoonist, Sharp's comics are imbued with righteous intention that unites her images and pages together even if literal meaning is illusive at first glance. Comics like Fondant, with a logic all its own, communicate a worldview that has more value to contend with than a nicely-told Steve Canyon strip will ever approach.
This latest comic from Sharp appears to made in collaboration with a family member, but it's hard to say for sure, since the only context available is the comic itself. The writer, Jade Webster—if we are to judge from the story told here—seems to be Sharp's sister. It's a marked turn from the earlier comics drawn by Sharp, where the associations are obscure and highly visceral. Here we have a straightforward narrative, made for a specific reason. In this work, Webster narrates a history with schizophrenia, including an episode of venturing into London, partly motivated by obsessions with both Julian Assange and Piers Morgan. Sharp illustrates these passages with frightening drawings and collage, reminiscent of her earlier nightmare comics, but now with a poignancy that isn't imbedded in artistic creation alone but instead a rendering of someone else's reality. In this way, this comic is best experienced after reading Sharp's earlier comics. The predominance of menacing reptile figures in Fondant and Pretty Flavours now have a grounding in this new narrative from Webster, as part of the narrator's experience with schizophrenia involved reading David Icke reptilian conspiracy theories. It's a bit of a whiplash, following an artist whose work consisted of seemingly improvised and impressionistic details, and wondering if something deeper was imbedded in it, even as the work was compelling regardless of what the psychological origins were. To then read this, where the base for that imagery potentially takes on a heartbreaking and real context, is quite moving.
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The Jam Urban Adventure #4 by Bernie Mireault. Published by Tundra, 1992.
I have no idea what Bernie Mireault is up to these days, but reading The Jam closely for this first time, it's clear that he deserved better: his comics— and that includes pages, panels, figures, etc.—suggests a person way too talented and cool for what comics tends to offer. People talk about Krazy Kat having something to do with music, as having a lot in common with jazz. This always sounds wrong to me. It makes a basic kind of sense, but a more basic kind of reduction is inherent. How then to justify talking about The Jam this way, since this comic does in fact feel musical? I think Herriman and Mireault make comics that actually feel free - though not in the sense of stabbing at the page without a plan. No, these are highly constructed comics where very little is excluded from their theater of expression. I don't mean that the characters themselves can perform any action and the cartooning is so assured that you'll accept it; more that any kind of note can be plopped into a page that otherwise contains a contrasting tone, and a emotionally explosive reaction will occur in the reader. Music, sure, although maybe Magic is more correct, but only if we're talking unapologetically in private. For the record: Art!
The Jam appeared around the time that there were a lot of independent 'commentaries' on the superhero genre. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Tick, Marshal Law, etc. All of them missed what The Jam understood: the ultimate indictment of most comics isn't calling attention to their compromised subject matter, but instead to their lack of beauty.