Thursday, July 30, 2009

Postmodernism Reflux

Geoff's last post speaks to the difficulty of applying (let alone agreeing on) a definition of Modernism to comics. Add in the complicating factor of the shift to Postmodernism and you've got Hobbes by the tail. I think that the problem with this discussion is that comics produced during the heyday of Modernism were still almost entirely a popular ("low") form. Other, older media - the novel for example - already had a well developed spectrum of production ranging from popular (pulp magazines) to modernist/experimental (the Bloomsbury Group) - and it's the latter type of work which the particular definitions of Modernism getting discussed in the last thread were developed for.

So - instead of weighing in on Geoff and Andrei's back-and-forth about the Ur-text of Modernist comics, I'm going to take my cue from commenter Jason Ramos and look at the larger picture historically and structurally - to try and articulate definitions of Modernism/Postmodernism broad enough to apply to early comics as well as other media.

(Occasionally I'm going to make use of a pair of loaded terms: "high" and "low" culture. I don't mean these in the irritating heirarchical sense of "high" being better than "low" (I tend to like the "low" stuff myself - just ask my wife) but I'm using them anyway because of their handy old Modernist associations: with experimentally inclined artists working for a smaller, critically engaged audience on the one hand ("high") and craft oriented artists working for a larger audience disinterested in experiment ("low") on the other. Please bear in mind that it's just for the sake of convenience. Agreed? Okay, here goes:)

From a very broad perspective, Modernism seems to me to be mostly about the technologically-driven erosion of geographically-based difference. The rise of industrialization demanded the rise of standardization, so that widgets produced in Birmingham would be interchangeable with widgets produced in Chicago. This also applied to labor - instead of extended families rooted to local village traditions of craft, Modernity wanted the "nuclear" family, headed by an "individual" worker who could be shuttled from place to place as capital dictated.

At the same time, new communication technologies were making the rise of national and international popular culture possible for the first time. Decoration and embellishment were stripped away so things could be mass produced and as cheap as possible. For instance, by midcentury people had so many clothes that for the first time most new homes included closets to put them in (too late for my World War I row house in Jersey, sadly). The high water mark for this process was sometime in the 50's/60's, when it seemed for a while as though the whole world would be speaking English, watching Milton Berle on television, and eating McDonald's hamburgers.

(images collected by Roadsidepictures)

Then, to just about everyone's surprise, it all started to shatter. New differences appeared, but this time they weren't based on geography. Instead, they resulted from overproduction: once industrial abstraction had triumphantly delivered TV sets and too much food into every home in the western world, new indiosyncracies could (had to) emerge. Three TV networks became three hundred channels, and eventually three million websites. Rock music became punk, heavy metal, prog, emo and on and on. Coca-Cola became New Coke, and Coke Classic, and then Diet Cherry Caffeine-Free Crystal Coke - you get the idea.

None of these new micro forms ever seems to go away - they just splinter into tinier and tinier sub-genres, each with its own increasingly narrow demographic. That's Postmodernism in its broadest sense - the abandonment of the single abstract Truth around which we could all rally (or be herded) in favor of millions of lifestyles we can mix and match. Instead of being defined by your town or neighborhood as in premodernity, or belonging to a global monoculture as in moderism, postmodernity allows us to form borderless tribes - the Goth kid from Montreal recognizes his tribemates in San Francisco without ever having been there before.

(Bangkok punk gig. Image by Cedric Arnold)

Mostly this is a familiar point: trends in culture are driven by trends in technology and economics. But these forces express themselves differently in different media: in architecture and industrial design it's easy to see how a loss of ornamentation could be driven by a need for standardization, but in visual art it's more complicated. Painting was forced into abstraction by the invention of photography - it had to reinvent itself once its traditional role as the recorder of visual reality was usurped. Comics, as Jason Ramos points out, are themselves the product of a typically Modernist set of technologies of mass reproduction and had no need to reinvent themselves until television starting killing their market.

So does that make early-to-mid 20th century comics Modernist? In the broad sense I described above - sure, why not... they mass produced 'em, right? Are they Postmodernist now? In that same sense, yes - the million selling pop comics of 1950 (see: Walt Disney's Comics and Stories) have been reduced to the 100,000 selling "fanboy" comics of today. Moving down the spectrum of popularity, hundreds (thousands?) of increasingly niche-y titles are produced for ever smaller audiences connected not by geography but through comic book shops and websites (and blogs).

But this hardly satisfies the problem of relating comics - especially "art comics" - to trends in "high" culture. Prior to the 1960's, comics had genres like the rest of mass culture but not yet a real axis of "high" to "low". Suppose painting never had an avant garde, only a populist mainstream. Was Norman Rockwell more "abstract" than Howard Pyle? Does it really matter?

(top image by Howard Pyle, bottom image by Norman Rockwell)

Only after "underground" comics emerged - right as Modernism ruptured! - and provided American comics with its first deep break from mainstream populism did these questions start to make sense. That break multiplied in a typically Postmodern way: underground comics begat "ground level" comics and "art comics" and "indie comics" and "literary comics" and "abstract comics" and on and on. These forms, produced in the context of a real engagement with "high" culture, finally bear direct comparison with it.

So, when Andrei (Molotiu) says, in one of his comments on Geoff's first post:

"The problem is that from the chronological standpoint that sees modernism as somehow surpassed by postmodernism, my own interest--abstract comics--could be seen as old hat. I don't think it is (obviously!), but I also don't think it could comfortably fit into a specific pomo section of art history..."

-- I think he has nothing to worry about. Abstract comics are entirely Postmodern in a way that abstract painting - because of its history - never could be.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Modernism redux

In last Sunday's NYTimesBookReview, Douglas Wolk opens his review of David Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp with the following assertion:
"Modernism came late to comics."
A convenient opening line for an examination of a book Wolk describes as "formalist to its core", but a declaration so final that it stopped me in my reading, and ever since, in my idle moments- brushing my teeth, waiting for the kettle to boil, standing at the urinal-I've been trying to compose a list of "modernist" comics. Ok, not a great imagination, I admit, but then, there it is.
Now, this is, of course, in light of my exchange with Andrei last week, after which I also find myself asking (myself, mostly) what the hell is modernism, exactly? (and this is after umpteen zillion years in art school, two master's degrees, thousands of dollars in student loans, teaching, tenure, the whole shebang) So I looked to Mr. Wolk for some assistance-and he throws us a few lines suggesting his definition:
" as content..."
"...formal and stylistic exploration the chief focus of ... work..."

Ok-I'm not going to make too much of that--it's only a book review for gosh sakes, conciseness is indeed an art, and well, ok,---it'll do for the moment. But--that does seem to characterize an awful lot of stuff--doesn't it? comics included? Old and new?
Okok---it's overly broad. Let's try and focus, narrow our definition a bit---Modernism is a term that can be applied to a specific historical period, correct? Perhaps we can identify a period and comics produced in that period--but wait...there is the argument that Modernism has not ended, that it continues into the present, and...
Screw it.
I don't know what it is. But like pornography, I know it when I see it. How's that?So, Modernist comics? Well---sure. Three guesses the first one on the list.and if you don't get it- you have to go back and read my first post and all the comments again, so there.
C'mon--speak up, don't be shy---
you got it!-the one with the Kat, the Pup and the mouse-what the hell is his name? Oh yeh, Irwin-or Ipschwitz or something like that.
Now-why is it Modernist? hmmm--well, (nevermind that I don't know what "modern" with or without the "ist" ...or "ism" uhm--cos it's got all those "art deco" patterns and stuff, and the mouse keeps hitting the Kat on the head with the brick. and the backgrounds change. when they aren't going anywhere. awesome! that is soo cool. I wish that happened in real life.
Ok--now we're getting somewhere.
Second on the list: this one is harder.
Uhmmm... I give up. Do they have to come in any specific order, or can I just make 'em up as I go?
doesn't matter-as long as you've got the one with the Kat and Pup and Mouse it doesn't matter what the hell else you say--you can make 'em all fit.
Ok then--what about the one with the kid and the dreams? the "Nemo" one? Nice lines. great buildings. awesome dreams. Can't read it for shit. But pretty awesome anyway. Oh--but wait. Modernism is flat. that's one thing--it's definitely flat. Ask Mondrian. and that other guy--Malevich? No--Clem. Clem Greenberg. He knows. (big comics fan)
Ok-so we figure out it's flat---no windows! No picture windows like Raphael or those guys--so "Nemo"? lotsa space-lotsa buildings in space. But
it's not like...real's like picture space. Like dream space. Like a space that's conscious of itself being a picture space-it's not trying to be a real space-so because it's obviously an illusion of an illusionistic space it's a 2-d space--and therefore a flat space and so therefore a modernist comic. AND therefore I win a million bucks just because I said so. Excellent.

This is an excellent list.

What is number three? (We will stop at number three because three is a good number and because.)
this is the toughest one of all.
It is the toughest one because I can't remember any other comics right now. I wish I had a book. A book with a list of comics. What about the one with the kid with the round head and the dog with the bulb-ish nose? that's pretty flat. And it repeats --kites and footballs and baseballs and doghouses and vultures and things--and...(yeh-repeats--and repeating--that's modernist. I say so so you'd better believe it. believe it. believe it. believe it. a rose is arose isarose) no? too easy? Ok-what about the caveman? Before he got all religious. That's pretty flat--

or wait!!---the philosopher kid and the tiger.-- I love that one!
Uhuh--nope. Not flat. and definitely space --altho' it is a space that is not a "real" space --it's an imagined space that they know and we know is an imagined space-a space in a comic strip and definitely a comic strip that is aware that it is a comic strip and aware that you are aware that you are reading a comic strip about a comic strip boy and his comic strip tiger named after philosphers.
What do we call that?
I couldn't begin to guess.

*(consciousness is indeed an art)

Friday, July 24, 2009

and Speaking of Apollo...

I think Geoff hits several nails on the head with his first post, which might as well serve as a manifesto for this blog. There does seem to be a dawning recognition that the dominant model for "art comics" is too straightjacketed, but even when when this is explicitly discussed it's striking how close to the expressionist/symbolist/romantic pole everyone sticks:

(image captures from

Given this, I want to expand on Geoff's comment about the "few exceptions" he sees to the reliance on notably older modes of art in art comics by looking at some artists who venture farther afield and which directions they take.

When I was in art school (this was in the early 1980's) we used to throw around various glib ways to categorize art, mostly as a way to get our own bearings and reassure ourselves that we had a handle on all this weird shit. One term we liked was "stupidism": a type of art characterized by bright colors, "looseness" in execution, obsessive patterning and repetition, and childish (or infantile) subject matter often drawn from pop culture.

Stupidism as we defined it was very countercultural and opposed mainstream art dogmas like formalist abstraction, minimalism, conceptualism, and postmodern "critical theory" in general. Chicago's "Hairy Who" were the only artists we applied the label to that made much of a splash, but it seemed like every art school in the 80's harbored some young guys attracted to this style - usually they smoked a lot of pot and skateboarded in the parking lot.

The reason I bring this label up is that most of the few "art comics" I've seen that bear a clear relationship to contemporary, postwar art - Paper Rad, CF, Matthew Thurber, Brian Chippendale and so on - strike me as "Stupidist".

(image by Matthew Thurber)

(image by Paper Rad)

(image by Brian Chippendale)

These cartoonists belong to a broader generation of artists who came up in the 90's and reacted against the triumph of the "Pictures Generation" brand of 70's/80's conceptualism. It's a large and interesting group - I guess you could include Raymond Pettibon in there as an early member, and "Beautiful Losers" like Chris Johanson, and my fellow ex-Winnipegger Marcel Dzama, and hundreds of others.

On the whole, these artists are clearly much less interested in the sort of systematic "readings" the Pictures Generation artists (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, etc) brought to bear on art and all its academic reliance on poststructuralism and related critical theories.

(sculpture by Sherrie Levine)

(image by Richard Prince)

(image by Barbara Kruger)

I'm on board as far as all that goes. I've always felt that the rise of "critical theory" was made possible by a weakness in art at the time: theory should be chasing after the work, trying to catch up and describe it - not serving as art's basis. And I've always enjoyed a lot of this type of "anti-intellectual" work - up to a point. It's just that all its avoidance of logic and rigor and coherence can start to make for pretty thin gruel after a while. As someone (I think it was artist/critic Doug Harvey - something of a Stupidist himself) said: "once you've seen 10,000 Raymond Pettibon drawings, you've seen them all".

(Raymond Pettibon at work)

At any rate, my point is not to critique the relative merits of these styles - it's to emphasize their relationship to that expressionist/symbolist/romantic pole that Geoff brought up. The art - and the comics - coming out of this group is overwhelmingly oriented towards what Kenneth Clark, way back in the day, used to call the "Dionysian" side of art.

This is half of the old split that always gets made between the two supposed main currents of culture, the other being "Apollonian" (other distillations of this same dichotomy get played up too: expressionist/conceptualist and romantic/classic for example). The Dionysian side of culture is seen as dark, raw and primitive, while the Apollonian side is said to be light, ordered and civilized.

In art as a whole, these two poles act as the extremes between which the zeitgeist tends to swing, but in comics - especially "art comics" - the Apollonian side is little in evidence. Without wanting to advocate for one deity or the other (honestly! I like both), I think it's fair to argue the creative benefits of a little balance. So - just for balance - here are a few examples of comics artists working the other side of the fence, with nary an emotional outburst, a lurid color or an expressive mark between them:

(image by Icecreamlandia)

(image by Paul Dwyer)

(image by Ethan Persoff)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Art Comics Supreme!

For all of the promise of daring and innovation implied by the sobriquet "art"comics (as its been applied to a handful of comics creators and publishers in recent years), anyone familiar with developments in contemporary art of the last 60 years and undertaking a sampling of recent "art comics" must surely feel as though they've unearthed a time capsule from an era pre-1960, if not pre-WWII. For with few exceptions, the dominant visual modes seem to be stuck in some version of the modernist-past, and a relatively distant past at that. Jumping into the art comics scene today is rather like finding oneself transported to a moment where expressionism and surrealism were still radical and new.

There is, across the spectrum of contemporary(post-Ware) art-comics, particularly American art-comics, the preponderance of a pre-WWII aesthetic characterized most blatantly by a naive primitivism rooted in expressionist and symbolist models.
If these sources seem a bit distant, a more contemporary touchstone can be found in Neo-Expressionist painting from the 1980's; Basquiat, Guston and Baselitz as distilled through the work of cartoonist/painter Gary Panter. Even so, the sardonic stance of Neo-Expressionist image -making is all but absent from contemporary art-comics, steeped (as some are) in an affected fin-de-siecle innocence and signaling a closer connection to the earnestness of late 19th century/early 20th century sources rather than the irony-infused post-modernism of the current day and age. While there are would-be Munchs, Redons and Dargers at work in contemporary art comics, at present there doesn't yet seem to be a Cindy Sherman, an Andy Warhol, a Jeff Koons or even a Takashi Murakami.

Given the peculiar history of comics in the United States, the oppressive nature of the comics code authority,the resultant infantilazation and denigration of the art-form, it's not surprising that a reactionary expressionism would rise in response to the highly polished illustration that currently dominates the major outlets for the form. As the avant-garde of the modernist era took a position in opposition to academic standards and bourgeois tastes of the day, so too does the comics "avant-garde" situate itself in opposition to the restrictions of the mainstream--(in visualizations, high-polish has been replaced with improvisatory expressionism; in narrative, melodrama has given way to the memoir; in packaging, the slickness of corporate mass-production has been replaced with the preciousness of the hand-bound, limited -edition mini-comic)-- a strategy useful for a young movement seeking to define itself to the broader culture at large.
Yet it is also a strategy mired in the past, for in a post-modern world(or post-post-modern as it may be) alienation from the culture is both the norm and an impossibility, and the avant-garde a shibboleth. Like it or not, nearly half-a- century later we still live in Andy Warhol's world.

So a reactionary primitivism, celebrated in some circles as the vanguard of the progressive comics movement-is actually its opposite, a conservative and regressive approach to art-making, disdainful( or oblivious) of the cultural shift from modern to post-modern, from alienation to assimilation.
What then would a truly contemporary art-comics movement consist of ?
In contemporary art, the dominant conceptual strategies of the last 40 years have been Duchamp-ian in origin: appropriation, pastiche and the disruption/exploitation of context . From Warhol to Johns to Basquiat to Barney to Hirst...on and on.
Examples of these contemporary strategies exist within comics-but oddly enough they're as likely to be found in the mainstream as anywhere else. Alan Moore, in particular, has been responsible for a number of works that are uniquely post-modern: his pastiche of the Superman mythos in "Supreme" ; the appropriation and re-definition of classic literary heroes in " The League of Extraordinary Gentleman"; the re-contextualization of pulp adventure in "Tom Strong" and the re-creation of the "historical" past in "From Hell" are all post-modern in their conceptualization and execution. That is to say they are works aware of their context and conceptualization-they explore fiction as a construct , not as a reality, and the comic book as context, not "universe"- inviting their audience to do the same. The concept behind each is at least as important as its execution.
Even "Lost Girls", which is a deconstruction of the erotic mode as art more than an actual work of pornography, is totally post-modern in its construction. In very concrete ways, Moore's work is a good deal more in tune with contemporary art and literature and therefore more progressive in its nature than a good many art comics of the recent past.

Among creators who continue to work along these lines, Seth and Darwyn Cooke have produced artfully post-modern works of depth and sophistication that do not resort to primitivism in order to distinguish themselves. More importantly (from a post-modern perspective) they don't differentiate between "art" and comics. The rejection of the more traditional or "professional" elements of craft (for ex: panel borders, de-personalized lettering) by some creators working within the new tradition implies a distinction between low-art and high art, the re-establishment of old hierarchies between popular culture and fine art. As though Greenberg's high-brow modernist culture had never been supplanted by Danto's pluralism.

The suggestion is then that for those of us engaged in the making of "art comics"- there is much to be gained via the embrace (and appropriation) of popular comics' idioms and genres-via the exploration of a broad array of mediums, techniques and conceptualizations- -and a good deal lost in reactionary posturing.

images: C.F. "Powr Mastrs vol. 1"Picturebox c. 2007; Cindy Sherman; Untitled Film Still, 1978. Alan Moore and Jerry Ordway; "Supreme", Image Comics.
all images copyrights to the respective copyright holders.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Welcome to "Next Issue!" a place for the discussion of comics, art and ideas - in particular the ways in which comics and art weave in and out of larger cultural trends and contexts. This is not a review site - in the usual sense of the term. Criticism will naturally play a role in the discussion, but rather than critiquing specific books and their creators (there are plenty of excellent review sites for that) we'll be focussing on broader issues and ideas relating to works (new or old) that we are seeing, reading or otherwise encountering - with the intent of initiating critical dialogue.

We're hoping "Next Issue" will be a forum to turn ideas around, look them over, and consider them from different points of view. A place to argue a position - a place for debate. So please feel free to agree or disagree - and to offer your thoughts. Consensus is not necessary - or even desirable. But interesting and provocative dialogue is.

We're your hosts: Geoff Grogan-artist, creator and self-publisher of Look Out! Monsters, an over-size Xeric-winning collage comic, and Kevin Mutch, comics creator, painter, and co-editor/publisher of Blurred Vision, an anthology of experimental and alternative comics.

We'll be following a format in which one of us offers an opinion piece and the other responds -- and after the inital volley we'll open the discussion up to interested commentary. Please join us - it promises to be an engaging discussion!