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)


  1. "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"
    --actually, that exactly defines "Nemo" too.

  2. I think it has one less awareness.

  3. Forgive me if this is overly pedantic...

    Modernism in art is clearly defined. It was the break from the Classical traditions (i.e. ancient Greek and Roman) that began in the 19th century with Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists. By the time the rest of the world caught up with it, it had evolved into 20th century Western abstraction, and so is overly identified with it's formal language.

    Comics, as we know them, are a graphic medium that employs photographic processes for reproduction and dissemenation. Photography was the single most important technological influence on modernism. Comics were modern to begin with. The useful shift, it would seem, is to figure out when comics began to explicitly broaden from purely market-driven concerns in a general way. If you have to correlate it along side fine art history, I would say, in America this began in the 50's, with EC comics, a time when the center of the modern art world re-centered in America.

  4. "I think it has one less awareness."

    I would probably argue exactly the opposite--and also that Nemo does much more with that awareness, formally, than C&H ever does... But I realize that it just sounds like I keep disagreeing with you--sorry! It's your blog, so I probably should just stop commenting.

  5. Kevin!!! Andrei's picking on me!

  6. Andrei - keep on disagreeing by all means! - the official policy here is to have a real discourse and try to avoid the "echo chamber" effect.

  7. Geoff - don't worry, I'll kick his ass in my next post.

  8. Jason - not pedantic at all, a nice concise point. I think a broader historicism is helpful for these sorts of discussions, which can easily get bogged down in specific examples - forests and trees.

  9. Hey Kevin--keep on dreamin'!

  10. Mattias-Fausse-MonnaieJuly 29, 2009 at 1:18 PM


    A real modernist author of comics ? Lyonel Feininger, and his kin-der-kids, maybe ?
    His sunday strip is modern au sens greenbergien (as Greenberg defins it) : Feininger breaks the classical perspective by large "aplats" (sorry, the english word escapes me...) of color, his drawing's style looks in the direction of german cubo-futurism "à venir" (Der Blaue Reiter movement)and his panel design is more art deco than "art nouveau" (modern style, but his case : jugendstil) "court-circuitant" the borning cubism.
    You quote others as Bernie Kriegstein's Master Race. But I like well this obscur 50's comics'horror story "the fourth dimension is a many splattereo thing" published in alarming tales number 1 : a guy (realist drawing) is trapped in the 4th dimension, which a modern abstract art land !

    ps : sorry for my approximative english (my french words), I'm french.

  11. wow!
    goodshit here, why am i ambling on angle to discuss this?

    it is interesting,of course.

    i must say that i agree w/ Jason:
    "Comics were modern to begin with"
    simple as that, one of my faves from the early days, the Happy Hooligan (i miss all the tramps, howcumz nobody draws good homeless comics nowadayz? everyday is an adventure when one is homeless, like for real), but back on point, comics achieved modernism right from the get-go, taking advantage of a new medium & existing outside of the proper art-world... so much so, that "fine artists" would re-circle on this & take advantage of the 'ol "bait 'n switch", transposing comics into the high fine artworld, but somehow still lacking the overall immediacy & direct impact that comics has ingrained within them, from the get-go.

    just one stroll thru Lambiek will solidify indeed how modernist comics were, just offhand, reaching for a copy of nemo, the classic comics library, a magazine that should still be published, i find S.J. Perelman, yet another unknown from way back when, but he was operating on profoundly modernist impulses & the media venue inwhich his work was distributed only buttress this fact...

    I have Bright's Disease and he has mine, sobbed the panting palooka. Pull in your beak, Durante, or some housewife'll be stealing it to stamp cookies with. "Does this parrot swear, my good man?" prattled a female poison in a pet-shop. "A little bit, mum," parried Mr. Pickerboom, "but he never shoots craps or goes out with chippies!" Just shot through and through with quiet wit, and you're probably hoping the same for the author.

    through & thru,

  12. Geeze, Geoff, you forgot one of the most obvious "modernist strips" of them all: Polly and Her Pals!

  13. Hey, afdumin-
    thanks for bringing it up! I love "Polly"!!! Polly is true modernist awesomeness at its most awesome. ness. Hail Cliff Sterret!

  14. P.S.-is there a "Polly and her Pals" collection ? I only know the few things I've seen here and there (in the Smithsonian collection, etc.)

  15. Geoff -Kitchen Sink/Remco put out a slim hardcover volume in 1990 in the same oversized format as their Complete Color Krazy Kat series. You might be able to find a copy on if you look around.