Tuesday, December 1, 2009

less than Corben, more than zero

Man I love Richard Corben, don't you? the First time I saw his stuff was in Heavy Metal in the late seventies--and I was just blown away.
Seeing Corben for the first time was like stumbling into some kind of adolescent comics paradise---all color and naked women-naked purple women! and realism-so volumetric, so tangible, so much space and atmosphere! More real than Neal Adams! NEAL ADAMS!!! (any comics geek growing up in the seventies was irrevocably impacted by Adams, right? He was like the Clapton of comics--& Clapton was God. Well-when he was in Cream, anyway. & the same when Adams was on Batman--or Conan--hmmm..maybe I ought to save this for a post on Adams--yeh, I think I will)
At the time I was sure that one couldn't aspire to any better embodiment of great comics illustration. This was it! Corben was the pinnacle! (& I'm so glad Kevin brought him up--particularly in relation to the discussion of color)

But even then--even when I was in awe of Corben's verisimilitude, I had this impulse for something else---something...less. While I stood in abject subjugation before Corben's neo-pyschedelic interplanetary elseworlds, more often than not I found myself thinking about Alex Toth, about Milton Caniff, Harvey Kurtzman and Walt Simonson. Later on I was thinking about George Herriman, Charles Schulz, Johnny Hart, Garry Trudeau.
Today I admire Alex Ross's technique, but I'm a fan of Jaime Hernandez, of Darwyn Cooke, Seth, of David Mazzuchelli, Jason and Patrick McDonnell.

Corben, like Ross, speaks to desire--a desire to see fantasy fulfilled in three dimensions--the equivalent of the Iron Man movie, the dioramas at Museum of Natural History, a Robert Zemeckis film; the same desire we have for hot fudge sundaes and blueberry pancakes doused with butter, maple syrup and whip cream at IHOP. (!#$!!??*&$ and doesn't everyone seem happy at IHOP ? at least --the last time I was there--oh, but that was years ago.)

Hernandez, Toth-they play upon our understanding that the comics page is first and foremost a work of design, of pacing, of communication. They speak to the intellect. They do so not by bravura demonstrations of illustrative skill(although skill is surely evident)-but via their restraint. By holding back-they force the reader to work the imagination and to acknowledge the page. While representational illusionism is in evidence, it is firmly in the service of design.
In a Corben page-we are seduced by his mastery of illusion--the page falls away, and we enter into a dream state before his exquisitely rendered vistas. This is not to say that we are not also aware of craft in his work--we are. But as with any great magic act, the wonder is in not knowing how the trick is done- and in the face of great illusion we sublimate our need to know to our desire to believe.

There are some who argue for one approach over the other--that one provides a "truer" comics experience than the other*. I could easily fall into that pattern-I do have my prejudices--but my experience as a reader trumps aesthetic dogma. There are times when I want my comics lean, and then there are times when I want the works; butter, syrup, whip cream--oh hell! I'm a big fan of IHOP, of magic--and Richard Corben too.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Black Metal Comics or If It Ain't Baroque, Don't Fix It!

As Geoff mentioned in his last post, we're moving to a more conversational format, where we'll be responding to each other's posts (and to your comments of course) as a dialogue rather than creating standalone essays. So, in that spirit, here are some loose responses to Geoff's thoughts about the centrality of drawing to comics:

(Quoting Geoff:) "it crosses my mind that our (I mean "our" as in comics-making people) reluctance to fully exploit appropriation, collage or other means of image-making may in part be the result of a deep commitment to drawing, rather than any distaste for alternatives."

Hmmm, yes, although I think that "deep commitment" might be another way of saying "heavily invested". Learning to draw comics is difficult and (super) time consuming, so it's no surprise that once people get good at it they tend to get a bit conservative about the whole undertaking - "I don't need photo reference like these kids today - I memorized the way every single thing in the world looks! From every angle!"

(Quoth Geoff:) "The more corporate comics trend to the de-personalized, mechanized look of digital photo-realism, the more I turn away." I sort of know what you mean about this, Geoff - I say "sort of" because I haven't actually read a "corporate comic" since 1980, except Watchmen (which I finally read a couple of months ago) and the first four Wednesday Comics. But I go to comics shops with my kids and I see a page spread or two (and the covers, of course) and I think "Yeesh, this shit is really baroque! Too much fussy detail everywhere! My eyes are bouncing off the page! Ouch!"

(Above: notice any resemblance? Some superhero thing or other and The Fall of Phaeton by Rubens)

But I honestly don't think it's "digital photo-realism" (or even photo reference per se) at fault here - nor the use of computers to color the comics into dense gaudy confections. I think the problem comes down to how we organize and read comics as stories (and by we, I guess I mean old codgers like Geoff and myself - my 9 year old son gobbles new corporate comics up like, well, "dense gaudy confections").

Comics, like music, and books, and paintings - any other art - make use of various kinds of "dynamic range" - typically via variations within the work between, say, dark areas and light areas, or action and dialogue. One way artists use these differences in the densities of parts of the work is to organize them structurally, to help readers grasp the entirety of the piece and keep them interested.

But sometimes - especially with a form that's specialized itself into a tiny niche for hardcore fans - that larger, structural "dynamic range" becomes unnecessary. The fans are so immersed in the particulars of the form that they don't need them. Instead we get dense, thick virtuoso barrages of technique. Think about the relationship between older "heavy metal" music and its newer sub-genre "black metal". Heavy metal employed structural dynamic range - verse/chorus/break, loud/quiet, even melody - but "black metal" just goes for an unremitting wall of metal noize.

This situation may be the result of historical trends (things always get more complicated, don't try to keep up with your kids you stupid nostalgic old fossils) or it could be cyclical (new technologies lead to enthusiastic abuses, which eventually correct themselves, like what happened with the use of fonts in "desktop publishing" in the 80's/90's) - but either way, it's created an over-ripe type of comics that could reasonably be called "digital mannerism".

Personally, I like structural dynamic range - I still want to be able to pull back and appreciate the overarching organization of a panel, or a page or a story, and "flat" color and simplified, "cartoony" drawings certainly lend themselves to that - but I think it's just as possible to do it with photo-realistic drawing (or photographs!) and digital color. I think it boils down to a certain discretion or restraint on the artist's part, and a willingness to work with the reader - to allow for the possibility they may need a little coaxing to come along on this particular trip, and a little breather here and there.

I've got more I want to say (about color in particular), but I'll hold off until next time and see what Geoff (and everyone else) have to say. In the meantime, here's a couple of examples of my all-time favorite photo-realist cartoonist, using every goddam speck of structural dynamic range. He's the Ozzy Osbourne of comics, ladies and gentlemen: Richard Fucking Corben!!!

(Above: Pages from Den)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Musings and Meanderings, mental doodles

This post represents a little twist on our usual format--Rather than put up an essay as we usually do, Kevin and I will more or less put out some mental doodles, topics for conversation, initiating a little back and forth between us --and you--we hope. Join where it suits you!

***** Yeh--so my mind hasn't been good for much lately--but I've been thinking about Kevin's recent posts about appropriation. And it crosses my mind that our (I mean "our" as in comics-making people)reluctance to fully exploit appropriation, collage or other means of image-making may in part be the result of a deep commitment to drawing, rather than any distaste for alternatives. And I know that in my case, when I conceive of a project visually, my automatic response is to think in terms of drawing. I'm deeply invested in drawing, as are most of us--I'd go so far as to say that it's central to my self-image. And my love of comics--and art- is in no small part due to the love of drawing-in all its manifestations.

Yet drawing has not been central to contemporary art practices for a long time. Arthur Danto once asked a colleague of mine..."Why do you continue to teach drawing?" And indeed, more than a few art schools are trending away from the traditional emphasis on drawing in the foundation curriculum.

But comics has been a refuge for those of us devoted to pencil and pen. We respond to the simplicity of means, the direct connection to another human being, the warmth and immediacy of the line on a page. The more corporate comics trend to the de-personalized, mechanized look of digital photo-realism, the more I turn away. I feel this way intuitively yet I'm curious about alternative means, intrigued by the potential for a new means of visualizing narrative( or non-narrative, as the case may be). But when I've got an idea, I still pick up the pencil.

* **********************************************************************
In reference to graphic novels/comics collections and trades- someone in publishing circles told me the other day that a current trend among a good many publishers is to shy away from original material in favor of re-packaging older, proven materials. I have no idea whether that's true or not--I have no idea what the economics of that position are, I can guess of course--but I do know that there are so many terrific collections out there that I can't keep up--and I have less free cash to experiment with. I know that Diamond has increased their minimums, killing a good many books before they get out of the gate, and all of that says this environment is more difficult for original material.

So--when publishers do go out on a limb--what kind of new stuff are they printing? Is there a trend, is there a sign of where things are going? Or will we all just cozy up and dig back into "Prince Valiant" , "Melvin the Monster" and "Peanuts" for the next few years?

(well, worse things can happen)

************Of all of the many attractions comics have held for me since childhood, the one I cherish most but speak least of is color. The bold, flat, saturated color on the glossy cover of a comic book. I'm a sucker for it. Less so for the highly rendered, computerized color of many contemporary comics. I'll take flat color every time. (Well-"All Star Superman" is an exception. ) Is it any wonder I love Ellsworth Kelly?

How many contemporary cartoonists/creators think in terms of color when they begin a project? And who are they? Certainly Chris Ware, David Mazzuchelli, Seth, maybe Frank Santoro.

Cartoonists have traditionally thought in terms of line and --maybe- chiaroscuro. Color--if a consideration at all-has been secondary. And for obvious reasons--both the prohibitive cost and the assembly-line production of the comic book encourage that mode of thinking. I'm never less than dismayed when comic credits are divided as "Words by.... Art by.....Color by.........." as if color is somehow separate from "Art".

The great Sunday comic strips of the past certainly offered a cartoonist a full visual playing field--and while I don't know the division of labor (my history isn't that good) my guess is that the best made the color choices themselves; Hal Foster, George Herriman, Roy Crane, Frank King-- took full advantage of the opportunity. Playboy, first among a number of magazines, offered a good many cartooonists the opportunity to play with color, and Harvey Kurtzman's marvelous preliminary paintings for "Little Annie Fannie" show an artist making the most of that chance . But --in print anyway-- that chance has been all too rare.

In contemporary terms-the web offers cartoonists that opportunity again.
As does the mini-comic--wherein a great many younger cartoonists are exploiting silkscreen in limited print runs. Are we seeing a new way of interacting with color among those who have this opportunity? Rather than as a secondary consideration-has color become primary? Or is color being used as just something to fill-in the spaces between the lines and hatchmarks?

thoughts, anyone?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Swiper! No Swiping!

Aaron Dumin kindly came up with several more examples of comics artists using appropriation, all excellent:

Art Spiegelman's "Malpractice Suite":

Shane Simmons' "Money Talks":

And Joshua Hale Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain's "Punks: The Comic"

Thanks Aaron!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Monster Mash-ups

In my last post I started a little exploration of "appropriation" (to use the art world term) in art comics on the theory that work made in such a spirit falls closer to a conceptualist tradition than, say, a lot of the sturm and drang we see in currently fashionable art comics circles. To start with, I focused on "stylistic appropriation" such as Robert Sikoryak's work in Masterpiece Comics. This time, I'm going to grasp a thornier nettle - flat out swipes, or what we might call "collage narratives".

I say thornier because, whereas stylistic appropriation has a long and honorable history in comics in the form of parody (see Mad magazine and many others), full fledged image (or text) appropriation is much less common. Unlike the contemporary art scene, where it's a longstanding and uncontroversial mainstream practice, appropriation in comics is mostly seen in moralistic terms, as something sneaky and dishonest - check out this long-running thread on the Comics Journal website dedicated to discussing (and exposing) the practice.

We're all familiar with the use of appropriated comics images to make fine art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton's seminal collage Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, so Appealing? with its Kirby romance comic swipe - see above) but I'd like to turn that around and look instead at the use of appropriated images to make comics, as narratives. I'll muddy the water, though, by starting with a couple of examples that straddle the line between art and comics but are generally considered in the context of art.

First, there's surrealist Max Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté from 1934. Ernst cut up Victorian illustrations to create this (quasi) narrative which has had a tremendous, albeit underground influence in contemporary art.

Next, there's the use of comics in Situationist art, mostly from the 1960's and 70's, in a practice termed "détournement" where comics panels and other imagery were recontextualized (often with new texts superimposed on the old word balloons) to make fractured "comics" stories. This example is from Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti by Andre Bertrand from 1966.

Next, here's the only example I can think of where a comics artist regulary employed appropriation, at least in his early work: Chester Brown, who used to redraw found comics panels and use them as (typically absurdist) points of departure in his own stories. If you know of others, please add a comment...

(Above, an example of Chester Brown's narrative collage and his description of the process involved)

And finally, here's an example of an entire comic book (inspired by Brown's example) which was created by collaging found comics panels together to make a new story. Although it was created in a fine art context (it was funded by an experimental art gallery) it was distributed through the "direct market" network of comics shops back in 1993. I won't mention the artist except to say that he's Canadian and sort of old.

(above: a page from Captain Adam and the collaged panels it was based on)


Paul Dwyer was kind enough to comment with some terrific additional examples (see his comment below for links), including Jess's highly influential Tricky Cad:

Dan Walsh's brilliantly minimal Garfield Minus Garfield:

David Malki !'s (that's how he spells it) Wondermark (which I was completely unfamiliar with, betraying my lamentable ignorance of most webcomics):

And of course Paul's own terrific collage narratives, such as The Beginning (which we published recently at Blurredbooks.com):

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Swipe File Addendum

Geoff is taking this week off so we'll be back next week with part two of my post about appropriation in comics. Meanwhile, Jim Rugg emailed me to suggest another example of stylistic appropriation: certain stories in Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey's Action Philosophers.

Thanks Jim!

(JOHN STUART MILL in the style of Charles Shulz from ACTION PHILOSOPHERS vol. 3)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Swipe File

Cowed by the howls of outrage that greeted my last post (about "ambience" and "abstract comics") I've decided to play it safer this time around by focusing on something much less controversial - stealing. Or, as we artistes prefer to term it: appropriation.

Geoff and I have both bellyached here about the mysterious sway that expressionism and its related styles (symbolism, art brut, wild style, romanticism... stupidism) have had over "art comics" of the last, oh, 40 or 50 years. I wrote a post digging up Kenneth Clark's hoary old dualism between Apollonian and Dionysian forms of art, and lumped most art comics under the Dionysian (dark, raw, primitive, emotional) rubric. I came up with a couple of examples of work that I thought was more "Apollonian", but didn't really explore that side of the fence very thoroughly. So this time I'm going to gingerly hop over there and grab some low hanging fruit: comics that employ the Conceptualist (and therefore Apollonian) strategy par excellence of appropriating "readymade" cultural artifacts (objects, images, texts, entire styles) and redeploying them in a different context so as to problematize their presumed meanings. What could be more fun?

Since this is just a first stab at examining the use of appropriation in comics I won't pretend it'll be exhaustive - in fact, I'd be delighted if anyone can suggest more examples. I'll tell you what - any good ones that come up in the comments will get added to the post with a little credit for the finder. I also won't pretend that I have any clearly worked out organizing principles behind these choices, just some initial thoughts, so I'd be indebted to anyone who cares to add to the conversation with comments.

So, off the top of my head, I can think of two basic types of appropriation in comics: style and collage. They overlap in various ways even on first inspection, but I'm going to split them for now so as to break the discussion in half (and get two posts out of it). I'll address the collage stuff next time - this week: style!

By stylistic appropriation, I'm referring to comics that self-consciously use a style or genre of drawing or writing so as to call attention to it. I don't mean the way Bill Sienkiewicz used to "use" Neal Adams' style - I mean the way Robert Sikoryak deliberately uses different cartoonists' styles to create bizarre new versions of stories from classic literature. His new collection of these mash-ups, Masterpiece Comics, is so good that I have trouble reading it - I keep stopping to think about how good it is.

Unlike, say, a Mad Magazine parody that employs the same basic strategy to easy comic effect (see Goodman Starchie for example), Sikoryak's work pushes collision between idioms so far that something substantial and new starts to emerge. His version of Wuthering Heights in the style of an EC horror comic doesn't even need to be funny (although it's hysterical): after a while I found myself forgetting the underlying joke and just reading it as a strange, strong compelling piece in its own terms.

Another artist mining similar territory is Matt Madden, whose 99 Ways to Tell a Story is subtitled, appropriately, "Exercises in Style". As the title implies, Madden restages a single, short narrative in a wide variety of comic book (and fine art, and even cartographic) styles. This is fascinating stuff - not just because Madden deploys these styles so expertly and imaginatively, but also because of the way his process underscores the central claim of Conceptualism: that "styles"- far from being immanent phenomena that mysteriously arise in our individual artistic selves - are actually cultural constructions. Or, to paraphrase one of the Art and Language artists (I forget which one):

The Expressionist says "I feel X!", whereas the Conceptualist says: "what would be the consequence of saying 'I feel X!'?"

(two examples of Matt Madden's Exercises in Style: the same story told in the "ligne claire" style of Tintin artist Hergé and in a classic superhero style.)

One final example of a comics artist employing stylistic appropriation (again, please feel free to suggest others): Jim Rugg in his art for Afrodisiac, his Blaxploitation themed comic collaboration with Brian Maruca. Rugg goes to incredible lengths to get the details right, not just in his evocation of Blaxploitation as a genre (both of comics and movies), but the textures and patinas of early 70's comics. Then, just in case this wasn't enough of a tour de force, he shuttles between early 70's comics styles, giving us Vampire Afrodisiac, Young Romance Afrodisiac, and even Funny Animal Afrodisiac. And they're all perfect.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

bArt Comics

I like Bart Simpson's "Treehouse of Horror". That's a pretty good comic book.
I like where Portlius Maximus, great god of chubbiness, drops giant onion ring creatures and
evil skysauce on Homer and Bart. That's pretty good. I laughed 'til I started to choke on Honey-nut Cheerios. I also like clone Simpsons and poison bootleg candy. Also, John Kerschbaum draws a pretty awesome Homer. I also like where Bart says "You will all be consumed" in"the Call of the Vegulu"--it's like the title of the next Fletcher Hanks book or something.
those are the things I like. there are some things I don't care one way or another about. But there's not really anything I don't like. Except that last bit-it looks like something I did in a notebook in 7th grade.

So, if you like Simpsons, and you like Art, then this is the comic for you.
p.s. I bought this comic with my own money.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ambient Comics

Emboldened by Geoff's merciless attack last week on shibboleth-in-the-making Asterios Polyp, I've decided this time around to have a poke at the whole idea of "abstract comics", which is currently receiving a similarly warm reception from comics critics thanks to Andrei Molotiu's new Abstract Comics anthology from Fantagraphics. I'm going to do this despite the fact that:

A: Geoff is in the book

B: Andrei is also a friend of mine, as is his contributor Henrik Rehr, and I've published their abstract comics in an anthology I co-edit and also shown them at a gallery I co-curate in Brooklyn.

C: I haven't (properly) read the Abstract Comics anthology yet - although I did see the related show at The James Gallery at CUNY in NYC.

Fair enough? Well, anyway, here goes:

In an earlier incarnation, I used to write art criticism for magazines up in Canada - which, unlike blogging, actually paid some (admittedly modest) cash money - and one time I was asked to review a show of "video art" in Vancouver. Now, I went to art schools that were pretty steeped in Conceptualism, so I've had to develop lots of patience for obtuse and difficult art: I know better than to expect to actually, you know... enjoy myself in an art gallery. But Jesus Christ, these were some boring-ass videos I had to watch! Had to, because I was being paid.

To be fair to the artist (I can't even remember his name after all this time*), the videos were gorgeous. They consisted of various snippets of footage - most of it quite compelling - strung together in a, well, abstract fashion. The problem - for me at least - was that after about a minute of watching these various disconnected sequences I started to zone out. Without something to tie them together - a narrative, or even some sort of clear theme - they got really, really boring.

And let me the first to admit - I said as much in the review - that other viewers might have had longer attention spans. But isn't it also true that people used to go suffer through the entirety of Matthew Barney's marathon video installations because it became some sort of art world badge of honor to have survived them? Like going to a sweat lodge or something? Art as endurance test.

(Image by Matthew Barney)

So for me, and I suspect for lots of other earnest artlovers, the problem with video art boils down to its relationship to time. Video art, like performance art, is what gets called a "time-based" medium. It expects you to sit (or worse, stand) there and pay attention, for whatever the duration of the piece is. Whereas pretty much all other forms of western visual art have, traditionally, been ambient.

I mean this in the same sense that Brian Eno applied the term to music (for airports!): work that doesn't care when you come or go. You can take it in in little sips, obliquely, whenever it suits you. The ideal ambient art experience might be a painting in your house that you gradually come to know intimately, through a thousand little glances out of the corner of your eye. A very different experience of art than shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot waiting for an interminable video to finish.

Now comics - as always, a hybrid special case - are both time-based and ambient. For starters, although they unfold in a (typically) specific sequence, the panels co-exist in pictorial space, beside and on top of each other, not at all like a film or performance or video. You can experience a group of them simultaneously as a page or spread. You can flip back and forth through the book, etc, etc. More importantly, each panel can be considered in isolation, a condition so obviously ambient that art schools to this day are rife with Pop art paintings of blown-up comics panels.

Comic book panels also have a narrative order, a path between them that entails a necessary duration - however much the reader might care to bend or interrupt it. But in abstract comics most of the elements used to create this path - characters, settings, texts in balloons, plots and subplots, etc. - are absent. What's left tends to be the naked organizing structures of comics (panels, grids, pages) and the formal relationships between the ambient elements contained by the panels - and this minimal narrative apparatus is expected to engage us for the duration of the piece. That's where I have a problem - I pretty much zone out after four or five pages.

Of course, your attention span may be more robust: check out this review on Jog the Blog to see just how involved it's possible to become with an abstract comic (please feel free to skip over his disparaging remarks about my own work). But let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that this level of engagement is rather more the exception than the rule for abstract comics. If so, does this make them an esoteric waste of time, doomed to be confined to the margins (or gutters) of art comics history?

Not at all. First of all, most abstract comics tend to be fairly short - I suspect their authors are well aware of the limits of their audience's patience. But more to the point, I don't think these comics really belong in books**. I think they're more suited to ambient display, by which I mean either on computer monitors or a good old fashioned wall - places where the experience of the work requires less of an appointment or commitment. Let me just make this quick point, based on my peculiar position of having both published and exhibited abstract comics:

When my co-editor, Alex Rader and I put experimental or "difficult" work into Blurred Vision, we take a certain perverse pleasure in it. "Suck on this, bitches" is a phrase that gets used as we lay out the books, knowing that many readers will lack the fortitude to make their way through, for example, all 32 pages of Doug Harvey's Captain Eelbegone. And so it's been with the abstract comics we've published - we don't expect them to be a walk in the park for most readers, but we think the work is strong and important and needs to be seen - so in it goes... heh, heh.

But we've shown some of the same work in ArtLexis, our gallery space, as prints hung in sequence, and the experience is very, very different. Once I'm excused from the responsibility of "reading" them all at once - once the experience of the work is ambient - it's possible to return to the piece many times and gradually build up a sense of the relationships between panels and pages, to see the larger abstract forms that emerge from the confluences of the smaller ones and to absorb a sense of the "narrative" while seeing the work as a whole. All of this happens both slowly and quickly, while you're talking or thinking about something else or walking by on your way somewhere - outside of any particular time. These are ambient comics.

(installation view of Andrei Molotiu's work)

*okay, okay, it was Bill Viola.

**I'll grant an exception for beautifully produced "coffee table" books like Andrei's anthology - which are meant to be experienced in sips, after all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Throat Polyps

Look, I like Asterios Polyp but enough already. Has anybody written an unkind or critical word about this book? Honestly-any cursory examination of reviews across the web reveals unanimous praise-really, seriously, unanimous praise- for David Mazzuchelli's graphic novel about an arrogant architect with relationship issues. Look for reviews about any other book of 2009 and tally positive and negatives. How many receive one hundred percent positives? How 'bout books from any year receiving unanimous praise? The Ghost Writer or Zuckerman Bound or any of the other Philip Roth novels that seem to have inspired "Polyp" haven't received raves on this scale. Nor has War and Peace for that matter.

What 's the deal? There are two possibilities (to argue on Polyp's own terms): either Asterios Polyp is the greatest novel of this -or any year--or-- there is some serious flaw in the critical discourse growing around the graphic novel.

I vote number two.

This is not to say that I don't like Asterios Polyp. I do. I enjoyed reading it. and more than that, I admire it. There is a great deal to admire in Mazzuchelli's work, he is a consummate craftsman. Nevertheless, I don't love Asterios Polyp. and I've tried. I really have. We've gone out several times now, but it just hasn't clicked. I had to cut him loose.

And to my surprise, I'm not alone in this assessment. I saw AP sitting on a colleague's bookshelf at work, the ensuing discussion revealed that she also "liked it", but didn't love it. And I know of at least two similar responses in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues.(Yes, I know everyday people who read graphic novels-amazing!) So-despite my neuroses -it's not just me. But I have to ask, where is that kind of ambivalence among comics critics and reviewers? Where are the critical chops?

A preponderance of the reviews seem to be caught up in illustrating the sheer number of Mazzuchelli's formal devices, literary references and repeating motifs-as though this were an undergraduate course in post-modern lit--and as if the sheer number of such will overwhelm any potential misgivings --about the book, the characters, the story. (imaginary book club meeting: Reader 1:" I didn't really care about Asterios" Reader 2 "But you don't understand! he's like Orpheus! You know-in mythology! And there's duality! and look at how everyone is drawn different! according to the way they perceive the world! get it?! get it??") As if this were a mechanism defending against some imagined threat to the seriousness of the graphic novel. As if a ton formal devices were equivalent to passion for a character and a story.

Among the few caveats expressed by critics, this ( largely ignored)observation in Douglas Wolk's NYTimes review of AP:
"...The result is as overdetermined as any graphic novel has ever been — formalist to its core. And if the core seems to be empty, Mazzucchelli has anticipated that, too: at the precise center of the book is a two-page image of an enormous crater, about which our hero quips: “Now, that’s a hole.”

A point that strikes me as fairly damning, yet Wolk glosses over it as if he were looking past a spot on the carpet, a smudge on a window. There is a hole in the center of the book. Wolk very nearly turns that observation into a complement---suggesting that Mazzuchelli is detached enough to perceive that he is not only constructing an empty shell of a narrative, but that he contrived to do so. And that is somehow a good thing.

A number of reviews note some weakness in the story, but most choose to underplay this in lieu of Mazzuchelli's dazzling array of formal devices. Yet formal techniques, no matter how ingenious, do not necessarily add up to a great narrative, and AP's narrative seems to exist primarily to provide Mazzuchelli the opportunity to explore ideas, concepts and formal tricks-rather than out of any inner necessity. Asterios Polyp is such a modest tale-an intimate tale--told not with the touch of the miniaturist (which would be appropriate for a story of this scale) but with the detached air of the academic-devising characters as allegorical stand-ins, personifications of abstract ideas. Mazzuchelli doesn't convey passion for his characters and his story so much as cool detachment; a little more of the former and he might have created a less ambitious but more heartfelt work.

Despite this rather general complaint, there are some absolutely exquisite passages in Asterios Polyp where one glimpses the poetry in the poet; a sequence of intimate moments featuring Asterios' estranged wife Hana is beautiful, poignant, ultimately heart-breaking-but that kind of direct, emotional engagement doesn't last. The fire sequence at the beginning of the book is as good as anything in contemporary comics, but the sense of urgency that propels it dissipates with the flames. There are others, but too often one feels the artist peering over one's shoulder, pointing out the intricate details and references in every panel.

That Mazzuchelli ultimately cares more about concept than character is revealed in the book's ending-a blunder of massive proportions in which he obliterates his protagonist and displays a complete disregard for the small, but potentially meaningful journey Asterios has travelled--in effect trivializing the entire narrative--all in the hope of making some grand DeLillo-esque statement.
One recent analysis of the ending finds justification for it (not surprisingly) in the formal techniques that Mazzuchelli is so adept at, and in the very structure of the narrative; the ending functioning as bookend with the narrowly avoided disaster that begins the book. The suggestion is that such an end was inevitable-built into the foundation of Asterios' story. And yet the book's conclusion feels so coolly dismissive, so overblown and contrived. An ending seemingly about the intrusion of the unexpected and random in life is nonetheless the most pre-determined and controlled of events.
Again-it indicates that the artist is more in love with the grand gesture than with the small pleasures his story affords. One never gets the sense that the author is carried away with his characters so completely that he's lost in them-that they may be steering the narrative somewhere unexpected, somewhere off the map--not for a moment does he trust enough in his characters to let that happen, to risk losing control—and despite all of my admiration for his craft, technique and inventiveness- I think that's where the book loses me--and thus lands on my bookshelf -to be admired from afar. Not dog-eared and next to the drawing board-when I look to something for inspiration. For that- I'll turn to Rubber Blanket.

Too often the critical reaction simply has echoed the formalist stance and ambition of the author- perhaps demonstrating a collective desire that this book, and thus the graphic novel, be taken seriously as literature, as art, once and for all. I, too, had lined up to buy Asterios Polyp hoping for the graphic novel of the century. (high expectations sure-but it is David Mazzuchelli, after all. ) That I didn't get it is no sweat off my nose, I'm sure he's got another in him- whatever he does next I'll be in line for it, he's that kind of artist's artist. But somehow, I think when the next great graphic novel arrives, whether its by David Mazzuchelli or someone else –it won't be quite so tidy. No, it’s likely to be a far messier affair…like life.

(Despite my premise-there are indeed some reviews of the work that are truly illuminating:
Matthias Wivel at Metabunker

and the afore-mentioned discussion of the ending:

Derik Badman at Madinkbeard

and I'm sure there are others I missed-- but I read enough that I wanted to toss my laptop out of the window)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Art for Comics' Sake

Geoff's post about the persistence of a print-based esthetic in comics despite the advent of digital imaging and the web left me guiltily pondering my own "practice", as we contemporary artist types (especially the MFAs) like to call it. In my case it hits home pretty hard -- my ongoing comic Fantastic Life couldn't look more conservative: simple cartoony drawings in a clear black line with flat colors - no fancy gradients or painterly effects for me!

(image from Fantastic Life)

And yet I'm no Luddite: I've been making my living as a photoshop artist for the last 15 years, I curated a web-gallery for experimental digital art for seven years, and I've got a background in the sort of experimental/conceptual visual art that positively fetishizes formal novelty ("You made your new piece out of circuit boards? Fabulous!"). So why no hint of that in my comic?

Well, let me just dodge my own question for a second while I look at the broader picture. I think that one of the main differences between the use of images in comics and "fine art" is function. Western fine art (which I'll just confine to easel painting for the sake of simplicity and laziness) evolved to fulfill a particular "use value": representing perceived or imaginary visual experience. Oil painters got really good at this, as many a Luddite will tell you, but the invention of photography pretty much put them out of business. The few that stuck it out had to go looking for other reasons to paint, and started making paintings that did things photographs couldn't (at least not easily, not until photoshop) -- so since then we've had abstraction, surrealism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, etc, etc.

Today, if you're going to set out to be an accomplished "figurative" painter you'd better have a damn good explanation (irony still works best: see John Currin), or else you'll be treated to withering scorn in the "serious" art world. But if you're setting out to be a comics artist and you've got, say, Hal Foster-level drawing chops, that world can still be your oyster.

(images by John Currin and Hal Foster)

This is because comics has never undergone the same functional upheaval that beset painting. Whereas painting fulfilled a specific need for representation that could be easily replaced by a technology that was faster, better and above all cheaper, comic book art is illustration (or, as Art Spiegelman put it, a type of "diagramming") in the service of something else: a narrative. In other words, once painting stopped being "useful" it was - in the classic Duchampian sense - reduced to being "art for art's sake". But comic book art still retains its use value: art for narrative's sake.

Granted, this is small comfort in the face of the marginalization of comics by other narrative forms - television most obviously, which helped wipe out 90% of the comics market in the 1950's - but comics retain a key advantage: as Geoff pointed out, they can be made by individuals with few resources, unlike TV shows, films or video games. And the internet is leveling the playing field by making TV shows, films and video games too expensive to produce relative to the size of the audiences they're able to attract: as audiences shrink, scripted (narrative) shows go out the window and "reality" programming takes over. Comics may have a brighter future than we think.

So, getting back to my question about my own comics: being a digital artist, I've tried making CGI comics and I agree with Geoff that they're unlikely to replace drawing soon - it still takes far too much work per panel to get anything remotely nice looking. That level of time/expense might be fine for Pixar (for now), but comics panels need to be ridiculously cheap and quick by comparison. This was already true 45 years ago, when Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder were pouring crazy amounts of time and effort into Little Annie Fanny - the technology and talent to make every panel a beautiful little painting existed, but it only made sense to do it in the context of a slick magazine selling millions of copies every month.

(images from Finding Nemo - top- and Little Annie Fanny)

So, until I see a better alternative, I'll keep making comics that would look at home on any cheap piece of newsprint, and hide all of the gee whiz digital legerdemain that goes into them. Speaking of which, just for fun, here's a peek at a CGI panel I've been working on, showing the digital image (which looked too harsh to me) and the "hand drawn" (in Photoshop) final version I made from it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Post-Nasal Comics

Comics that don't smell ? Well - I once told my wife I loved her because she smelled like old comics. (ahem - not a line I would encourage anyone to use - not that anyone else is that stupid - and no, she doesn't really smell like an old comic book and I'll slug anyone who suggest she does. So there. nyaah.)

Ok - so I am - admittedly - "mired in the past" (I won't say "hopelessly") and devoted to paper. My personal blog is "Pulp Ink", what does that tell you? Nevertheless, it would be absurd to quarrel with the digitization of books, of newspapers, of comics -- it's a tsunami, an asteroid, an earthquake... indifferent to the pleas of those in its path; the players, bystanders, critics, small press comics geeks. And what's not to welcome with the new developments in presentation, in the Kindle and the Apple "Cocktail"? (*see K's last post)

While it's obvious that the advent of "Cocktail" (or something similar) is a game-changer, it will not be the end of print comics. Print will continue - whether for those of us stuck in the past- or those who simply love the aesthetics of the book - yet print is likely to become something altogether more "precious" -- and expensive -- dare I say marginal? (an evolution already underway - see assorted posts here and elsewhere) The question arises, aside from marginalizing print, (hmmm) what impact will the "Cocktail" (or a more graphics friendly Kindle) have on comics? Not economically -- although the economic issues are paramount and will impact all others -- but aesthetically.

Comics - or the sequential art that we identify as comics - developed in the forms we know largely in response to the demands of economics and technology. The daily comic strip had its roots in the broadsheet, was codified in the newspapers of Pulitzer, Hearst and Patterson and became a daily event, serialized-as an economic imperative. Later on, the newspaper broad sheet was folded over twice and... yadda yadda yadda...staple staple.. yadda yadda yadda... Max Gaines.

Ok - we all know that story. But just as interesting -- the technology not only impacted the format but form of the imagery as well. Brush, pen and ink, cross-hatching, spotting blacks, zip-a-tone, ligne-claire, audacious and flat primary colors, etc. - the entire approach to comics' graphic imaging - derives from its final form in print (or newsprint) -- that is, the state of the technology at their inception. Printing on newsprint was perhaps the most economical option available - as well as the least trustworthy. The dependence on a strong linear approach to drawing - one that emphasizes simplicity and clean, bold, solid contours is a direct response to the unreliable characteristics of the early 20th century printing process.

Entire schools of comics art have been built upon this foundation - which is now so obscured under layers of history and evolution that it's as remote as Grant beneath that tomb. Whether one is talking Kirby, Toth or Barks, the success of their highly personalized styles was dependant upon their realization in four-color newsprint. 20th century printing -- or rather, economical 20th century printing, could not accommodate the vagaries of charcoal drawing, pencil drawing-any gestural approach in which media plays an expressive role. So 20th century comics do not have a Kathe Kollwitz, an Edvard Munch - a Georges Seurat (love those charcoals).

Comics developed its own standards for good drawing that have been - until recently - quite distinct from "good drawing" as it is practiced in other media (and this is not to say that comics drawing necessarily suffered for being distinct - see Kirby, Toth, Barks, DeCarlo, Rogers, Bushmiller, Wiseman, et al).

21st century printing - or printing since the mid-late 1990's - the digital age, is something quite different. Digital technology has offered comics' artists an enormously expanded playing field-multiplying their expressive capabilities exponentially. For example, a book such as Gipi's
"Notes for a War Story" - with all of its subtle shadings of watercolor and ink wash -- would be difficult to capture in print in the 1960's.

What will new technology such as Cocktail bring forth? Who knows? But as yet, a look over the ACT-I-VATE website - one of the premier webcomics sites around - indicates that most webcomics artists continue to think in terms of print. Much of the imagery is still black line and color -- a process steeped in tradition -- but not necessitated by the computer screen (and I admit to same - my serialized graphic novel Nice Work at ModernTales.com is conceived of in traditional terms).

Of course, amidst the relatively traditional approaches on view at ACT-I-VATE there are a multiplicity of variations - and Joe Infurnari's "The Transmigration of ULTRA-Lad" is certainly among the best of them - one that might be difficult to recreate in print, given Infurnari's attempts at digital verisimilitude. Infurnari displays a good many of his pages on faux-yellowed and torn newsprint signaling that "Ultra-Lad" is a product of the Silver Age of comics, recently uncovered at the bottom of a bin of smelly old newsprint. Except that "Ultra-Lad" doesn't smell -- it's a webcomic.

Oh well - verisimilitude only goes so far.

Nevertheless - in lieu of our discussion, a more enlightening example is Infurnari's own "The Process" - an altogether more experimental and daring approach to visualization-enabled by current technologies and not so deeply indebted to print (see page 18 of chapter 2).

Of course, where does one look for insight into the future of comics in the digital age? Our very own Marshall Mcluhan; Mr. Scott McCloud: philosopher-guru of all things web-comics-y and otherwise. I have to admit-I loved Understanding Comics , used it as a text (but didn't commit it to memory) - still, I haven't bothered with Reinventing Comics so I'm behind the curve on this - (HEY!Gimme a break!-"Pulp Ink" remember?) -- but even McCloud's own webcomic "The Right Number" - while its format is ostensibly more web-based, its imagery is nonetheless beholden to print comics.

Well the language is iconic now, isn't it? All these years post- Lichtenstein, to use bold lines, flat color, benday dots, etc. - is a sign, a signal, of "comics-i-ness", of pop, of flash, of a certain now or some re-imagined now -both of this now and of some undefinable, unattainable "now" long past.

As comics artists move from bristol to graphics tablets and drawing directly on the screen, those "signs of comics" become increasingly detached from their original function and meaning. (How to "read" a Lichtenstein in 20 years? and why would anyone use ben-day dots in 2029?)

I don't think comics will mimic corporate animation's seismic shift from the hand-drawn to CGI. Comics are as much the territory of individualists, cranks and crackpots (lovable crackpots, of course) as corporations (how's that for alliteration?) - and they can be constructed by one creator, laboring alone (with difficulty) over a dank and dismal drawing board (in Canada), whereas animation is (not always-of course) most frequently a collaborative effort. (*except in Canada-where last I heard they had a terrific National Film Board supporting equally terrific independent animators).

So we can keep our drawing boards, we can keep our bristol , but the
Wacom--and the Cocktail- beckon.

Images: I admit to using this essay as a shameless excuse to put up images by Rudolph Dirks, Kathe Kollwitz, Al Wiseman, Gipi and Joe Infurnari.