Archive for the ‘Fantagraphics’ Category

Kim Thompson is dead

June 20, 2013

Shit. 56 years old. Too young.

First Thought: Does this mean I’ll see fewer awesome Euro comics from Fantagraphics?

Second Thought: Christ, I’m an entitled arsehole, the guy just died ffs

Third Thought: Actually, isn’t that a sign of how good he was at his job — actually, his calling? RIP, Mr Thompson, one of the all-time greatest advocates that comics has ever seen. Here’s to all the great comics you never had a chance to show us.

This is why we can’t have nice things

August 5, 2012

This is what happens when you view the entire history of comics through the lens of one very small genre which has, thanks to various accidents of history, become the dominant entry-point for a particular type of reader. You get asinine questions like this, about Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse:

One of the things that blew my mind was how those strips feel so much more modern than your average Golden Age super-hero comic, even though they started eight years before Action Comics #1.

That’s right, kids. We’re in a decade that had, inter alia, Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat, Terry and the Pirates, Popeye in Thimble Theatre, Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy, Alley Oop, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner…and we’re asking why another canon-level comic strip seems modern compared with Action fucking Comics #1.

Comics!

Racism in the Funny Pages, Episode 51,822

June 26, 2012

Et tu, Micke?

(detail from Mickey Mouse 10 February 1932, by the great Floyd Gottfredson — even Homer nods ; inks by Al Taliaferro)

I don’t just hate comics…

April 3, 2008

…I hate criticism too. Two sentences from the introduction to Fantagraphics’ Popeye Vol. II, by Donald Phelps:

1) It is extraordinary to reflect that in this comic strip, which calls to mind Gilbert Seldes’s dour reflection on The Katzenjammer Kids — they looked the way people who never read comic strips thought they all looked — what appear to be drawing conventions, and the most rudimentary at that, turn out, on close and serial scrutiny, not to be conventions in the generally acknowledged sense at all; nor the “style” to be any acknowledgeable style, even a bad one; least of all, the sense of any authority, any fanfaring of the strip’s personality, its worthiness and beaming future intentions, in terms of a visual plumage, such as the daft elegance of Bringing Up Father, the jaunty scurry of Jerry on the Job, and the slapstick swank of Polly and Her Pals alike convey.

Hey, I like asides and semi-colons, but you can have too much of a good thing. And, worse, the sentence is so long that, by the time he gets to the final clause, the author himself has forgotten to give it a verb. Seriously, parse that last clause–what is being predicated of “the sense of authority”?

2) He [Segar] evidently acquired early on in the Popeye sequences not only the grand operatic gravity which he imparted to the lovely little businesses, like the one with the pillow described above, or Olive Oyl’s kittenish-wistful tilting of Popeye’s sailor hat in the Skullyville adventure; but of Segar’s apprehension and general deployment (at once “primitive”, i.e. in its literalness, and sophisticated beyond most of his contemporaries) of “actual” time-space, his use of both attenuation (the longueurs, the off-stage sequences of action, chronicled in the characters’ reactions); the use of pause and double-take (in which I do not believe he was matched until the advent of intimate-toned comic strips like Johnny Hart’s B.C., Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and Mell Lazarus’s Miss Peach, and later, Momma); and, on the other hand, the excited jamming of conversations, interjected comments, hasty summaries of relevant information, or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.

…I’m sorry, what were we talking about again? First of all, something has gone wrong with the expression “he evidently acquired … not only [blah] … but of Segar’s apprehension”. He acquired of Segar’s apprehension? What? Second, “his use of both attenuation”…and what? Both blah and blah, right? What’s the second “blah”? Third, something has gone seriously wrong with this phrase: “or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.” Huh?

These aren’t cherrypicked examples. They are two of the particularly egregious sentences, but they’re far from the only frankensteins in the introduction. There seems to be lots of interesting stuff in the introduction. But I’ll be damned if I can get through the syntax.

I’m not just being an arsehole here (emphasis on just). I literally cannot parse these sentences; they do not make syntactic sense to me as English sentences. If it was just some blog-post, then the reaction would be “whatever” — god knows I live in a glass house, a glass house made of over-long sentences. And, uh, glass. But this should have been proof-read at least once, preferably by somebody concerned with whether the sentences, you know, actually made any goddamn sense whatsoever.

The strips themselves, of course, are the shit. Not least because: first appearance of the real Jones.

Tempted out of the wilderness by a good old-fashioned fist-fight

September 14, 2007

That kooky firebrand, Noah Berlatsky, is once again taking potshots at comix’ sacred cows. Now, I should say that I agree with some of this comics comics critique of Berlatsky’s approach. In his criticism Berlatsky often seems to be trying to raise his arbitrary preferences to objective aesthetic standards by the force of sheer rhetoric alone (but, hell, doesn’t everyone?). It’s an exceedingly thin line between “Modern art comics suck!” and “Marvel is better than DC!”.

On the other hand, Berlatsky’s brief take on Clowes and Ware, in the comments section, is pretty spot-on:

“[Clowes’] visual sense seems very pedestrian to me; his layouts tend to be pretty boring, that monochrome color thing he often does strikes me as drab and ugly; his drawing is blandly half-assed in a way I don’t find charming at all. His stories seem magical-realist in a really perfunctory way that seems completely New Yorker ready. I don’t see much in his work that seems to use the comics medium impressively. Without his literariness, I don’t think he’d really exist, so yeah, it doesn’t make sense to suggest he’d be better without it.

Chris Ware’s another story; obviously he’s an amazing artist with a unique visual sense. Unfortunately, I think he’s been abandoning much of that in recent years in favor of…a drabber, more literary approach. His layouts are moving more towards grids, for example, his stories heading more towards New Yorker territory, rather than some of the absurdist or (really excellent) satiric stances he took in his early days. I think Ware has done less literary comics, and I liked them more, at least. “

Indeed, on both counts. Both artists have stultified as they’ve grown all respectable and stuff.

Take Jimmy Corrigan, for instance. A lot of the crazy Superman/Smartest-boy-in-the-world stuff from the original comics was left out of the book, and I think that was an artistic mistake. That material was far superior to the interminable but oh-so-respectable 19C flashback (“It’s a generational saga!”) that bogs down the second half. At any rate, I enjoyed it a lot more. I also find Quimby and the Big Tex/God/Robot Sam et al. collection far more appealing than the latter parts of Jimmy Corrigan, or his most recent Rusty Brown stuff.

Even so, what saves Ware’s recent work from falling too far down the New Yorker hole is that it’s still fairly unrelentingly bleak. I can’t imagine the New Yorker, or any other bastion of middlebrow literary respectability, publishing work that is as routinely vicious in its black humour as Ware’s work remains.

As for Clowes, I suspect I have more time for his earlier work than Berlatsky does. For instance, strips like Needledick, Suicide, Desert Island, etc were funny, startling bits that could only be done in comics. Even some parts of Like a Velvet Glove pack a strong visceral punch–not an effect often associated with Clowes’ work today. But I thought the quality of the Eightball back-ups declined markedly, starting with #10 or so. And once Ghost World was finished, Clowes’ stories all seemed to me like J. D. Salinger fanfic, at least in their tone and thematic content. David Boring was so well-named that I didn’t make it past the first chapter.

(Speaking of Ghost World, wasn’t the insertion into the movie of Steve Buscemi as a Thora Birch-screwing mary-sue just utterly creepy? I’m sure there was no squicky wish-fulfilment at all in Terry Zwigoff’s and Clowes’ decision to turn a physically ugly, anachronistic, older man and social misfit, dissatisfied with modern culture, into the obscure object of desire for a spunky, quirky teenager. No doubt they did it to make the story more commercially appealing; which may help explain why Art School Confidential didn’t exactly set the box office alight)

But Clowes’ worst flaws can be summed up in two words:

Adrian Tomine.

‘Nuff said, true believer.

Obviously, I hate comics

July 2, 2007

I never really went away.

That stretch of one set of footprints? That’s where I was carrying you!

The Three Paradoxes, Paul Hornschmeier. Fantagraphics, 2007. $14.95, 84 pages.

There’s a scene in Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix where long-suffering character Sinus O’Gynus gets sent to Hell. The devil leads Sinus to a well-stocked library where he is to spend the rest of eternity. Oh well, thinks Sinus, this isn’t too bad–and then he realizes it’s not a library. It’s a graphic novel library.

Naturally, he’s horrified. I know just how he feels.

As comics have gentrified over the last five years, they’ve drifted toward the sensibilities of their new, middlebrow readership. They’ve done this largely by imitating the worst tendencies in the modern non-graphic novels familiar to that same new readership. The worst tendency of all being their myopic focus on the minor travails of the middle-class (economic and intellectual), and the most banal of everyday epiphanies.

Exhibit 1,213 for the prosecution: The Three Paradoxes.

Hornschmeier’s last book, Let Us Perfectly Clear, was a collection of his earlier, shorter work. Some might say that book was strongly influenced by Chris Ware, but let’s not mince words. It might as well have been called Schmacme Shmovelty Smibrary, only it fell far short of Ware’s originality, or his savage gallows humour. Still, at least Hornschmeier was aping one of the five best cartoonists of his generation and not, say, Michael Turner. Or Art Spiegelman or Marianne Satrapi, for that matter.

The Three Paradoxes represents a definite step backward in Hornschmeier’s artistic development. For the Ware influence has attenuated, to be replaced by an equally heavy Dan Clowes influence. Visually, that’s troubling but not the end of the world. Thematically, it’s just disastrous. For it’s the trite, “literary” Clowes post-Ghost World that Hornschmeier has now applied the tracing paper to, and not the earlier, funnier Clowes.

Thus the book’s barely-there plot: Paul, a cartoonist, is back home visiting his parents. He has trouble finishing a strip, takes a walk, reminisces about his childhood, free associates about the check-out guy at the service station, frets about an upcoming meeting with an internet pen-pal, and thinks about Zeno’s paradoxes. The End.

A couple of factors mitigate The Three Paradoxes‘ overall slightness. First, Hornschmeier at least avoids the unearned self-pity that so often clogs the new “graphic novels”. His autobiographical proxy doesn’t feel sorry for himself, nor does he offers apologiae for making comics. This latter may reflect a generational difference between the young Hornschmeier and his older peers like Ware, Clowes, et al. Comics are so respectable now that you don’t even have to apologize for making them!

Second, even though his line remains derivative, Hornschmeier is still a visually appealing draughtsman, with an especially gentle use of colour here. The section recounting Zeno’s paradoxes is a treat, a pastiche of Dell Comics (home of Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge, among others). Extra kudos for his ugly-cute depiction of Socrates, notorious for his bad head.

In fact, the Zeno section is far and away the best part of the book, precisely because it wrests the book momentarily from (semi?) autobiography and thereby allows it to flourish. It flourishes by becoming something quite different, something we might call popular philosophy–explaining philosophy to the layperson.

Popular philosophy has a long and respectable tradition in the West, starting well before the current publishing craze for popular science, popular economics, popular cultural history and popular phrenology. Cicero wrote popular philosophy, as did Lewis Carroll (while cleverly alluding to Zeno, too) and Bertrand Russell, and the tradition is carried on by modern philosophers like Dan Dennett and Ian Hacking.

But popularizing anything is a tricky business, as shown by all the lousy pop books out there. Hornschmeier acquits himself admirably in the all-too brief pages where he discusses the paradoxes in question. Devised by the Greek philosopher Zeno, the paradoxes purport to show that our everyday notions of physical motion are incoherent. Hornschmeier, himself trained in philosophy, presents them succinctly and entertainingly, an object lesson to all would-be popularisers and educators.

By contrast, his attempts to connect the paradoxes with his navel-gazing ruminations in the rest of the book are unconvincing and half-baked. This isn’t so much a novel of ideas as a (dull) novel with some (very well explained) ideas tacked on.

In short, The Three Paradoxes is one of the most frustrating comics of the year. Hornschmeier is clearly talented and intelligent, and may have great work in him. But not yet. Visually, he would do well to develop his own style and get out from the shadow of his influences–no easy matter. Thematically, at least, the solution is clearer: get out of the generic cul-de-sac of autobiography and jump right into the real ideas. For the few pages when he does this here, The Three Paradoxes soars.

Or, to put it another way: less whining, more opining.

Recommended?Maybe in ten years’ time, when we can look back at the early promise shown in this book. Until then, not so much.

IYL Graphic novels. You know who you are.

Love in the time of zombies

March 27, 2007

So it turns out that my real work is more important than this blog.

But not to worry, internetters! I still love you–here’s a review to prove it.

Even if it’s only nominally a review of the book it’s supposed to be about.

***

The living and the dead, Jason. Fantagraphics, 2006. $9.95, 48 pages.

Everybody knows the story of how Sigmund Freud was asked about the deep psychological meaning of his (ultimately fatal) smoking habit. The story goes that Freud replied: “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar”.*

What everybody doesn’t know is what Freud went on to say: “But a zombie is never just a zombie”.

For once, Freud was right. The horror genre as a whole is rife with symbolic subtext, but it’s never rifer than in the disreputable subgenre of zombie fiction. Zombies aren’t just shambling living dead monstrosities in search of the nearest brain to chomp on. They can also, like, mean stuff too.

And they can mean a lot of different stuff. Zombies are symbolic chameleons, able take on any number of meanings, depending on the whims of the creator. Nowhere is this symbolic range on clearer display than in Romero’s “Living Dead” series, the closest thing there is to a zombie canon. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies represent American xenophobia and racism. In Dawn of the Dead, mindless consumerism. And in the most recent entry in the series, Land of the Dead, they represent an oppressed and vengeful underclass.**

This symbolic range has made the humble zombie a versatile monster, more so than other creatures tied to more specific meanings. Given their range, it was not terribly surprising when, a year or two ago, zombies become the hot new thing in comic books. For a while it seemed like you couldn’t pick up a funnybook without tripping over a zombie. Zombie horror! Zombie comedy! Zombie romance! Zombie yaoi!

Okay, I made that last one up.***

Two things drove this fad: the then-recent appearance of a couple of popular zombie movies; and the growing popularity of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman’s obnoxious right-wing fantasy cunningly disguised as a comic about post-apocalyptic zombie survival horror. But all things come to an end, and the surest sign that this particular trend was on its last, rotten legs was the appearance in early 2006 of the mini-series Marvel Zombies. Hardcore fanservice, this series featured Marvel’s stable of beloved underwearmen (like Spider-Man and Captain America) turned into, you guessed it, ravenous, slavering zombies.

A few things worth noting about this mini-series. Back in the day, “Marvel zombie” was a derogatory term for folks who would only buy comics published by Marvel, no matter how bad they were compared with books from other publishers. No doubt the creators behind Marvel Zombies (including Mr Kirkman again) thought it very “ironic” to turn this term of abuse into the punning premise of a series. As identity theorists might say, they’d reclaimed the term “Marvel zombie” into a badge of pride.

But it’s doubtful the creators saw the deeper irony inherent in the very premise of that series: a stable of once colourful characters, now turned into an undead mockery of their former selves, forced to feed insatiably upon one another in a nihilistic spectacle of violence. They might as well have published a series called Flogging the Dead Horse, featuring unspeakable things done to a horse called Ditkirby.

The second thing to note about the Marvel Zombies series? If perennially late to the party Marvel was doing zombies, then the zombie fad was officially over.****

So what better time than now for Norwegian alternative cartoonist Jason to release a zombie comedy/romance?

But then, Jason has long pursued his creative muse in some unlikely directions. For those unfamiliar with his schtick, all of Jason’s work features anthropomorphic critters drawn like hipster rock kids, i.e. skinny and morose. His short graphic albums, mostly in black and white, put these scrawny creatures through a variety of genre paces: Hey, Wait…, the work that introduced him to English audiences (which many consider his best work), was a poignant slice-of-life look at childhood memory and getting old. The Iron Wagon adapted a mystery novel. The Left Bank Gang was a heist-gone-wrong story featuring James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald (as “funny animals”). You Can’t Get There From Here was a romantic comedy about the cast of Bride of Frankenstein.

Jason’s style is often described as deadpan which is, if anything, a dramatic understatement. His gawky, inhuman characters and prosaic, even mundane framing tend to leech his stories of almost any affect, like an Uncle Scrooge story drawn by an autistic savant. In The Living and the Dead, Jason quite effectively uses these distancing techniques for laughs.

Plot: boy meets girl, girl is street-walker, boy saves enough money to buy a night with her, meanwhile a meteor lands, zombies appear and spread like a plague, boy and girl must fight to survive. In most hands, this would be lurid, pulse-pounding stuff, but Jason plays it as deadpan slapstick visual comedy. Hence we get scenes like the following: the hero fights his zombiefied boss, sticks a knife in his chest, then looks at him still standing there, leaves and comes back with a big machete. Or the Keystone Kops bit with a zombie police officer. Or the throw-away baby-eating joke.

It’s okay, see, because they’re only funny animals! Besides, the protagonists take it all in their stride. In fact, Jason’s characters are uniquely well-placed to survive the apocalypse. The devil himself could appear on the page, rape a thousand schoolchildren and destroy the universe. At most, Jason’s characters might show a few flying sweat beads in alarm; the final panel would matter-of-factly show the earth exploding, seen from outer space. Dealing with a horde of zombies out for their flesh? Child’s play.

Except for a handful of sound effects and half a dozen panels of dialogue (presented as silent film intertitles), the book is completely silent. Luckily, Jason’s clear, minimalist line and straightforward design are more than strong enough to carry a story on their own.

So if a zombie is never just a zombie, what are the zombies in The Living and The Dead? It’s hard to say too much without giving away the (oddly sweet) ending, but I’d say they represent the creeping conformity of middle age.

That, plus an excuse for some flesh-eating gags.

Recommended? Jason’s style is increasingly looking like a limitation, but it works well here. A amusing bit of light entertainment.

IYL: Zombies, silent film comedies, macabre humour/adventure cartoonists like Gorey, Addams or Sala.

* The story is probably apocryphal, which is quite apt for Freud.

** Yeah, I haven’t seen Day of the Dead, but I guess the zombies there symbolise Wall Street brokers and faulty cuisinarts, or something.

*** And a google image search gives me nothing. But the Combinatorial Law of Fetishes predicts that somewhere out there, someone has a jones for zombie yaoi.

**** That said, I would have eaten that shit right up when I was eleven years old. Zombie Spider-Man versus, I don’t know, zombie Hypno-Hustler? Sign me up!

Don’t buy this book: Monologues for the coming plague

March 11, 2007

Post-script to my last, super-“ironic” post: I swiped the original image from another “parody” online. I didn’t actually buy, or read any of, Civil War.

That’s for those of you keeping track of my credibility. It’s important that you keep track, because I’m about to destroy it anyway by suddenly coming over all philistine.

***

Monologues for the coming plague, Anders Nilsen. Fantagraphics, 2006. $18.95, 260 pages.

In general, art can be evaluated along two dimensions: on the one hand, its purely aesthetic qualities, how it looks, feels or sounds; on the other, its conceptual elements, what it is about or represents, the thoughts it is meant to evoke. One of the most sustained developments throughout the twentieth century, across a range of media, was the detachment of these two dimensions from one another. Take visual art, for instance. In one direction, artists began to abandon traditional “realist” modes of representation and present art as pure visual experience, form without object. Flourishing at various historical moments as cubism, abstract expressionism etc., this trend reached its kitschy apogee in the (now badly-dated) op art movement.

In the other direction, we get conceptual art*, art with little to no aesthetic value whose function is instead to be all object and no form, as it were. The point of conceptual art lies not in experiencing it, but in seeing what it “means”. And often it has meant little more than subverting the very notions of “art” or “meaning”. For mine, conceptual art peaked early–once Duchamp has stuck a bicycle wheel upside-down on a stool, anything else  looks lame and unoriginal–but it’s still going strong in contemporary art galleries around the world.

Both kinds of art, the purely conceptual and purely aesthetic, have tended to evoke a philistine response from the person on the street (typified by Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word).** My favourite example of this reaction, and the art world’s reasoned counter-reaction, occurred on an old TV arts show. A viewer had written to the program complaining, of some artwork or other, that she (the viewer) could have done better with one hand tied behind her back. Having read the letter aloud, the host turned to the camera and deadpanned:

“Imagine what this modern Prometheus could do with both hands free.”

In other words: fuck you too, and ha-ha, ain’t it grand to épater les bourgeois?

Visually speaking, Anders Nilsen’s Monologues for the coming plague is a pure one-hander. There’s nothing to recommend it visually, or formally, as comics. The art is (I assume deliberately) crude, with a range so limited it makes Michael Turner or Rob Liefeld look like Winsor McCay. But Nilsen also treats us with an insight into his process, leaving word balloons with words scratched out, and free-floating dialogue which has also been scratched out because he decided to put the word balloon in a different place. At last, an artist so conceptually outré that he doesn’t use white-out, an artist whose very mistakes have such merit that they are worth our studied attention. Not to mention our $18.95.

Or maybe not.

But it’s pointless to complain about the minimal visual talent on display, when aesthetic pleasure is so clearly not Nilsen’s intent here. No, Nilsen obviously wants us to appreciate Monologues on an entirely conceptual level.

Which is a pity, because the actual content of Monologues is similarly devoid of much interest or worth either. Sequences here include the sophomoric Semiotics, in which two figures (one of them with a smudge for a head) jokingly discuss semiotics; a recurring series of pages with a woman feeding a pigeon, with one or the other speaking sub-New Yorker gags, only they’re not incisive enough to count as ironic commentary on gag panel conventions; a handful of non-figurative doodles; and the aptly named Mediocrity Principle. Some of this stuff is slightly amusing (the story with Buddha is good for a wry chuckle), but it’s ultimately no more insightful or interesting than the typical blog of a fine arts or English major.

There’s a joke academics like to tell about philosophers and mathematicians. Mathematicians are the second cheapest academic for a university to hire, because all they need is paper, pencils and a wastepaper basket. Philosophers are the cheapest because they don’t need the basket. Perhaps in the future, Nilsen could prove himself even cheaper by forgoing the paper and pencils as well. He’s already done away with the basket, and with panels, transitions, visual skill and conceptual interest. The only place to go from there is to abandon the physical comic entirely and create a comic of pure being.

The best part? A comic of pure being wouldn’t cost $18.95.

* I’m using “conceptual art” in a broader sense than would some art historians, I suspect.

** Aesthetic reactionaries are often assumed to be political reactionaries as well. But, apart from some famous figures who were both aesthetic and political reactionaries (like Wolfe himself), I don’t see why. In general, there are better ways of helping the comrades than avant-garde art; so one can dislike the latter while valuing the former.

Recommended? Um, no.

IYL: The worst of conceptual art’s pretentious excess; or if you read that one issue of Eightball with the Dan Pussey story about modern artcomix–each issue with coffee stains, random pages torn out, etc.–and wished the comic actually existed.