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:
"..style 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...
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" ...is(m)) 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 space...it'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)