Gebbie to Genzken

Here are some capsule reviews of comics I read during a year spent in day to day close proximity to my books. 

San Francisco Comic Book #6 edited by Gary Arlington, Last Gasp, 1981. 

From 'Underground Heaven' by Melinda Gebbie, appearing in San Francisco Comic Book #6, 1981

On the endpapers of this anthology, we see the following: Roger Brand draws a woman undressing. She says ‘I sure wish I was with Joel, John, Justin, Hank, Chris, Larry, Barry, Bruce, Spain, Gary, or Ron…’ meaning ‘I wish I was undressing for any of the 8 male contributors to this anthology OR its editor OR its publisher.’ On the following endpaper, Brand draws a man undressing. His list is, of course, shorter. ‘I wish I was with Melinda…but, this’ll do.’ Yes, he’d rather be with the sole female contributor to this anthology, Melinda Gebbie, but you know what? This drawing of a woman is just as good (an equivalency not offered for the male contributors). 

Endpapers by Roger Brand for San Francisco Comic Book #6, 1981

This might be simply standard fare underground era sexism (from an artist capable of at least unique sexism), but is especially more irritating when we read Gebbie’s story in the book. It is, easily, several eons of creativity beyond what Joel, John, Justin, Hank, Chris, Larry, Barry, Bruce or Spain happened to offer up. She begins her contribution, Underground Heaven, with an elite grouping of California cartoonists (Crumb, Trina, Spain, S. Clay, herself) all enjoying themselves at a party.

Panel by Melinda Gebbie from San Francisco Comic Book #6, 1981

These San Francisco comics scene personalities are lightly mocked, but rather than the usual ‘what a bunch of silly eccentric geniuses!’ hagiography, Gebbie gets at the stomach churning ridiculousness of the era. As breaking news of a nuclear bomb reaches the celebration, the artists discuss what to do in the afterlife. Last Gasp publisher Ron Turner remarks that his idea of heaven would be ‘ice cream trucks with unlocked doors, free rent, multiple wives, multiple orgasms, being able to eat anything and be skinny.’ Gebbie’s stance here isn’t cruel or censorious, but captures the childishness of the underground ‘philosophy’ with more precision than the era’s more famous ‘social critics’ usually attempt. 

The most interesting part of the comic is what follows though. As the nuke approaches, our cartoonists shun the impending harsh reality with drugs and alcohol. Again, I find Gebbie doing everything her household name peers are famous for (depicting the drug experience), but with a sophistication I rarely see (but constantly search for) in any underground comics. Personalities at the party are now depicted as disturbing insects, but Gebbie refrains from telling you she is out to disturb. The bugs transform into quotes from iconic moments in art history, then again into a mosaic of profiles and shapes. Finally, inferno encompasses the community of artists. Looking at these pages, my unguarded thinking was a combination of how authentically scary these images were, and how much more upsetting I found them than Rory Hayes’ work, which is always stood up on a pedestal as the most extremely visceral art of the underground. Hayes is brilliant, of course, but people who read comics (and define its history) seem to require experimental narrative to have a base in genre. Gebbie’s interests diverge from this, and thus so does cult reverence for her. 

Marvel Tales #144, 1982 (reprinting Amazing Spider Man #7, 1963) by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Art Simek. 1981/1963

From Marvel Tales #144 (reprinting Amazing Spider Man #7) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, 1982/1963

Jack Kirby got into fights as a young man, and understood something about violence. His art reflects that. Steve Ditko had an obsession with justice and morality. This is imbedded into all of Peter Parker’s actions, seen most plainly in the sincere way Ditko draws him (Romita Sr.’s Parker is repugnant, though enjoyable in a way, when contrasted with the original). Heroism, right or wrong to we the reader, is something to Ditko, a thing he cares about. People like Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil and [insert your own choice] grew up reading Ditko and Kirby with no real burning ideas regarding violence or morality within them, but an affection (or affectation) for costumes and secret identities. This is where things start to get very bad and become meaningless.

Immortal Hulk, various issues, Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, rotating colorists. 2018 to present. 

I’ve read every one of these, and I don’t understand how it’s being made. Floppy mainstream comics are all but dead, in sales and/or any sense of them mattering beyond whatever small cash yield they deposit into the media conglomerates who still, for some reason, publish them (my best guess is that big business cartels are unaware that they’re even producing these things, and, if they are aware, view them as free giveaway promotions of some sort). 

The Immortal Hulk #23, written by Al Ewing, pencils by Joe Bennett, inks by Roy José, colors by Paul Monts, 2019

Somehow, Ewing and Bennett are being paid well enough to actually focus on making a comic, something most other creative teams are not granted (and if they’re not being paid well, this books shows some truly admirable month to month discipline). The most unique part of this book, when contrasted with how most contemporary comics seem required to behave themselves, is the color. So often with corporate comics, I’ll treat a mediocre drawing as on par with Rembrandt, because if anything decent is still visible once a swath of arbitrary neon hues are dumped all over the lines, what was there at the start must have been terrific. The rotating group of colorists who work on this series (Paul Monts seems to get the most assignments) eschew such excuses: their color amplifies the deeply creepy vibe at play here, painting layers of toxic fleshy/modern roided out texture onto Bennett’s pencils. These colors reek of detergent mixed with urine in an uncomfortable modern restaurant bathroom, which fits the medical grease feeling that Immortal Hulk gets at every issue: the implication’s of amping up your brawn so much that you actually open up a doorway into hell. 

Each issue starts off with some over the top ‘smart’ quote from Sartre or, yes, The Bible . Issue #23, page 1: ‘Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night -Sun Tzu, The Art of War.’ While this is stupid, the comic as a whole is so well made that page 1 of every single issue can be ridiculous and it just does not matter.  

The Best of Gluyas Williams: 100 Drawings, 1971. 

Cartoon by Gluyas Williams, reprinted in The Best of Gluyas Williams, 1971

Williams draws a crowded room at a posh social club. People are ladling punch, gleefully singling along to piano music, carrying on in general. Dead center, a non descript magician offers up a deck: ‘Will somebody pick a card, any card?’ 

If we look at this cartoon as a drawing printed in the 1930s within the pages of the same The New Yorker magazine we are familiar with today, some concern might palpitate within. Questions are now at code red: ’Why is this so well drawn? Why is this so pleasurable to look at? What happened to this magazine? Williams isn’t even in the top 5 most iconic New Yorker artists, this is how good the non marquee names were? This was the standard?’ That’s a deserved and earned reaction, but I’m not so invested in the supremacy of craft. The deeper tragedy is how The New Yorker used to attack its own readership/demographic/ideology with the cartoons they printed. That rarely happens anymore. 

Williams draws the club scene as if it was hell. You can hear how loud the voices of the guests are, how shrill the fun being had here is. Those singing along to the pianist are clearly off key, I feel extremely irritated by simply looking at a drawing of them. All of this would amount to ‘it’s a party, so what?’ if not for Williams' magician, who confirms to us that these people are not exactly having a joyous time, but rather a time that is intolerable if your presence amongst them is required.

Cover for The New Yorker, 'Love Life' December 7th, 2020 by Adrian Tomine

Publishing work like this showed the maturity of the class that read The New Yorker in the 1930s. ‘Yes, we are irritating, I understand this. Correct.’ The New Yorker cartoons and imagery of today are instead invested in self congratulation. A recent Tomine cover depicts a young professional showing a tidy facade for the ubiquitous zoom camera, while outside of the camera’s view, charming ‘squalor.’ As observers, the days of critiquing all of this from the dead center of a drawing are gone, edited out. 

National Lampoon Presents Claire Bretécher, 1978. 

Strip by Claire Bretécher, reprinted in National Lampoon Presents Claire Bretécher, 1978

Top notch comics published, at the time, in a magazine with real distribution across the country. These strips feel very prescient and completely out of place in todays world of cartooning. Bretécher's drawing is, to my eye, impeccable. These are the kind of cartoony drawings that you might assume people who only understand ‘good’ art as having something to do with Norman Rockwell could still manage to grasp as skilled. No self conscious frills, never showboating, just assuredly solid. However, when large publishers try to do graphic novels for adults (they still do this!), they can’t seem to differentiate the work of a neo-Bretécher with that of…well, just anyone who happens to draw a little bit. But readers and obsessives can tell, and while published and printed work in this vein seems non existent—magazines don’t publish full page cartoons anymore, or even the 1/4th of the page variety, as alt weeklies are now completely defunct—-we see variants of Bretécher style cartooning all over social media. This kind of drawing, and the strip format itself (whether four panel or twelve) was made extinct in print, but shows how durable it really is as it rises again on whatever technology people happened to be glued to (see Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits on Instagram). Mass market print has become so corporatized (interestingly, without much of a profit incentive anymore) that it doesn’t even know how to print things that are popular, things that people like.

X-Men Essential v. 3 by Claremont and Cockrum. 1998, reprinting stories from 1979-81.

I’ve been reading these a few at a pop. Claremont, at his core, is about emotion becoming more powerful than one’s fists (right?). With the famous Byrne run that comes before Cockrum returns, all of that reaches its apotheosis. 

Page from Uncanny X-Men #153 (reprinted in Essential X-Men v. 3) written by Chris Claremont, pencils by Dave Cockrum, inks by Josef Rubinstein, 1982

Cockrum’s second run offers a counterpoint and are more honest entertainment comics, giving us episodic adventure rather than weighted saga. His drawings look like toys: it’s all very cute and one of the clearer examples I’ve seen of how unconsciously lonely comic making becomes for people. Every drawing here is infused with an obsession of making these characters into dolls, whom Cockrum is moving around on the page and investing with life at the expense of melodrama or the possibility that anything bad could happen to such benign actors. The drawings here just look pretty in a way that mainstream comics are rarely allowed to be. Yes, it’s all muscular men and women fighting each other in space jets, but phrased at a deliriously gentle volume. 

Theth: Tomorrow Forever by Josh Bayer.

From Theth: Tomorrow Forever by Josh Bayer, 2020

Are most comics moving or are they mere style 90% of the time, with the excuse being ‘well, it’s really hard to a) draw, b) tell a story, c) want to push yourself to do both, let alone, my god, d) communicate some kind of new emotion to the reader. That’s too much to ask’? I think if you read a lot of comics, something like Bayer's Theth is hard work because your heart (pardon the word) actually gets involved, rather than your eyes discernment. So much cartooning is successful gestalt of various line weights or cultural touchstones that are on the lips (and phones) of people within a certain circuit. This is not that.

There was some heated discussion 5 years ago on this website about Bayer’s side project, All Time Comics, which features current art/indie cartoonists working with (being inked by, written for) bronze age superstars on Neo-bronze age stories. But it's within his Theth series that Bayer's manifesto about cartooning is realized. We follow Seth (referred to by others with the cruel slurred nickname 'Theth'), an outsider who is both aware of his plight and constantly trying to justify it, fearing the stigma of how he lives the most (the central fear of most who are on the margins, I think). Seth's central focus in life is to make something, specifically to make a comic. Our hero is not unintelligent, although people wonder if he is. He is extremely isolated, but not filled with anger or resentment exactly. Almost every interaction he has, someone condescends to him, specifically teachers or would be teachers. For much of the book, he lies under the covers in his room (he can't afford to keep the heat on) agonizing over the choice to go and sit at his desk to draw. His thoughts during these times are about how when he does draw a comic, it will be a total break from everything else, from every comic the world has seen before.

To Seth, a comic can be anything. In fact, it shouldn't be narrative and it shouldn't be easy to understand. Comics----which Seth remarks are 'the only thing he has,' which hold a huge magnetic power over him----should be made in defiance of everyone who reads them.

From Theth: Tomorrow Forever by Josh Bayer, 2020

Or...they shouldn't be. Seth debates, refutes and affirms all his thoughts over and over again, in an endless loop to himself. These observations are never repetitive but at times very sad and at others quite perceptive. His desire to draw a comic exists on the edge of confronting his own dire situation. In one panel, what a comic should contain is passionately argued. On the next: 'I've never been this close to oblivion.'

This is not an austere work, or one withdrawing anything that might contain nerd smell. It freely falls on its face, like Seth himself. It understands falling down...and then getting up to say something worthwhile. At times, this feels like the only comic that isn't pretending.

Mach dis hubsch! by Isa Genzken

I felt real enjoyment looking at this sequence of images by Genzken, a passage (composed in a visual diary/book of collages made by the artist in Berlin) that felt more exciting than stories full of cataclysm or pathos. I try to (and sometimes do) become invested in high stakes genre drama for the pay off: something big, a well deserved slap in the face…but I’m rarely properly compensated. With these four sequential spreads of imagery, I was paid in full:

Sequence from Mach dich hübsch! by Isa Genzken, 2016