Monday, August 17, 2009

The Aesthetics of Crap*

For my money, as elaborate and informative as some cd collections can be, there hasn't been a boxed set that tops the aesthetic merit of a vinyl lp in a gatefold cardboard sleeve. As an art-object, the record album has a presence and significance that cds, in all their permutations, have aspired to but rarely (if ever) achieve. And this- despite the stellar work of world-class designers. The flaw is not theirs, but in the object itself. The cd simply does not have the significance, the scale, the mass of the lp, and its packaging cannot help but reflect that. Even at its most elaborate, the cd and its package are playing against a stacked deck.

One cannot compare the experience of purchasing, opening, holding, examining and finally listening to the lp version of "Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (or "the White Album" or "Physical Graffiti" or "Sinatra at the Sands"-- whatever) with the experience of the cd of the same material-despite whatever aural improvements there may(or may not) have been. And as its been pointed out elsewhere-we no longer find a moment,put on an album and listen-in the way once encouraged by the record album and its packaging.

Has the diminishment of the object meant an equivalent reduction in cultural importance? Has the transformation of the vehicle of music had an impact on the manner in which we listen to it , and how deeply we appreciate it?

How tightly bound is the music with its packaging?

Well, if popular music is no longer an agent of social change, as it may have been decades ago, it's for any number of reasons; the minimizing ( or near disappearance) of the lp/object notwithstanding. But Kevin's last post, "Troubles with Tribbles" (great title), has me thinking, not only about the business of "art-comics", but about some of the cultural and aesthetic ripples induced by the packages that deliver those comics.

Which is a roundabout way of asking-which is more important, the comics or the package? And is the experience of the one inexorably bound with the other?

Today comics come to us in any number of ways, but 30 years ago (in the U.S.) that was not the case. There were newspaper strips and comic books. Every now and again there would be the odd collection of a daily newspaper strip-"Doonesbury", "Peanuts" or "Far Side"; very rarely one might stumble across a collected edition of material first presented in comic books. ( "Superman: (or Batman) from the 30's to the 70's" or "Origins of Marvel Comics") More often, an important comic book story-arc might be collected by DC or Marvel in giant-size in "Treasury Editions"; really just oversized comic books printed on larger sheets of newsprint with the addition of cardstock covers. And of course, more adult-oriented material was printed black and white and magazine size.

Package design, such as it was, was generic, simple--and while the variety of packages served a purpose-that purpose was primarily for easy identification on the magazine rack, rather than any aesthetic imperative. The cost of these books(in the late 70's) ran from .25 cents for a traditional "floppy", $1.00 to $1.50 for b & w magazine comics and Treasury-size editions - up to $6-$9.00 for ultra-deluxe hard-cover comic strip collections. Which is to say-they were all affordable -to the general comic-book buying public.

Obviously we live in a different world, a different market- or rather markets-which Kevin addressed in his last post. And package design has evolved as the markets and technology have. But the technology for good book design has always been there-it is the shared sense that this material (comics) is deserving of consideration as something more than a throw-away, along with the growth of a supportive market, that has driven the aestheticization of the comic "book" (and I use book in the broadest sense).

It is right then to acknowledge, that the aesthetics of the comics package-have been driven by a need for cultural legitimacy --and are bound up with the evolution of a specific marketplace. These aesthetics are not only "formal"(in the traditional art-school application of the term) but ideological-and economic, with the latter frequently serving the purposes of the former.

Not to beat a dead horse(as it were) but --Kramer's Ergot no.7, which is 16" x 21" and retailed for $125. when first released, is likely the apotheosis of this evolution. Its not likely that we will see anything like it again--at least until the economy climbs out of the gutter. Its size and ambition are unparalleled. The inclusion of so many of the creme de la creme of contemporary cartoonists in one anthology is likely a unique event. Its scope and design assure its consideration as an authentic art -object, and its price tag, no doubt an economic necessity,--serves its larger ideological purpose-which is to lay claim to the status of "Art" --for the anthology, for the cartoonists, for alternative comics, for all of us in the field.

pretty friggin' awesome.

I haven't read it.

In fact-outside of the small-press conventions I do...

I haven't even seen it.

(Ok-that's hyperbole. But I barely had time to flip a page or two at the cons--I'm working here, dammit!--and honestly, I was afraid of doing damage to the pages. No, I'm being serious.)

That I have not read it is not because I object to the enterprise--far from it. As an artist, I salivate at the thought of working at that scale--c'mon! who we kidding? I admire the hell out of the ambition, the guts-the sheer chutzpah of this project. Man-I only wish I had the bucks, the imagination , not to mention the temerity to put it together.

But I haven't read it. and I'm not likely to anytime in the near future. But I have read a lot about it.

Listen-I live in upstate NY now. At my local comics shop they've never even heard of Kramer's (what the f&*k you call it? what's an)Ergot. The local B & N doesn't have it either. And if I ever spend $125. on one comic my wife won't just kill me-she'll do something else to me first. But if I ever did spend that kind of dough on a single comic it'd be "Little Nemo" first, right? Right.

The fact that KE7 is unavailable to someone such as myself is not a failing of the book-or the publisher-or of the marketplace-or even me.( well, partly me.) In fact-its inaccessibility works to the publisher's advantage. (no- I don't think they planned it-they want to sell billions, zillions!-we all do.) Its scarcity-or rarity-lends mystery and authority to its larger than life status-to its aura of art. You may not have seen it, but you've heard of it-like the Abominable Snowman... or Bigfoot.

And as we all know-in the age of digital reproduction-art lives and dies with its aura. That's why Mary Boone or Gagosian galleries are the neo-fascist tombs they are, and why that imposing neo-SS officer sits silently behind that judge's bench in the back of Boone(what has he been doing all these years?*)-the whole enterprise creates an atmosphere of money, power and significance.

And it works. Seeing a crappy painting at a premier Chelsea gallery is not like seeing a crappy painting downtown or in upstate New York. Art has aura--crap doesn't.

Which brings me to Wednesday Comics.

There ain't no aura about this, baby. (well-- there's a different odor surrounding this project, but more on that if we have time). This is newsprint-big and cheap and ready for packing dishes---and super-heroes, bold and colorful and as stupid as they ever were.

And I love it. I have no idea what anyone has been saying about this project-so I'm likely to be off the wall here in my opinion-but I think it's terrific-the most exciting comics package since-well, Kramers Ergot no.7.

But unlike the big book- it is everywhere-and I can actually buy it. It's four bucks. And it's BIG--comics big and beautiful and ready to be splashed on the wall-they way they were meant to be. Eye-candy for the soul of the working stiff.

Does it have problems? You bet. Do I like every strip? No. Are some better than others? Definitely. Would I have preferred to see more diversity, imagination in the genres, styles, etc. etc. yadda, yadda,yadda-of course-but this is DC corporate comics- fer chrissakes!

Is it art?

%6#@^&&!!!! F*&K man! I don't know! And what's more -I don't give a sh*t! I just love turning--and snapping back the pages-enveloping myself in the images; being caught up in a pulpy adventure story once a week. The tension between the bold, colorful imagery, the density of the ink and the frail weight of newsprint. These are the pleasures it affords.

Wednesday Comics makes no claims to art. In fact -its package moves in the opposite direction, away from art and towards the disposable. And the format celebrates the disposable, it revels in its nature as cultural detritus-it's crap. It'll rot your teeth and eat up your insides. And therein lies its joy--its life--its rewards. Comics are deeply invested in crap(or is it the other way around?)--and it is the discovery of something--inexplicably wondrous --within crap-that is so unexpected, so revelatory, so subversive and so central to the nature of the medium. It is the genie in the bottle--and the adults, the authorities, the so-called experts-- are blind to it. F*%k 'em--it's ours.

Have we really improved on the .10 or .12 cent comic book? Or the Sunday Funnies? Are the comics that much better? Or have we gotten so caught up in the imprimatur of art --and cultural legitimacy-- that we risk losing something less tangible but more --felt? Something more authentic?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I know the direct market makes demands on its publishers-and in order to survive they have to use whatever tools are at their disposal-aura, mystique, whatever you got. But I do know that the next time I print a book, I'm going to think long and hard about its package, about its aura--about the genie in the bottle.

some notes:

* I mean "crap" in the best possible sense of the word

* alternative title: or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cheez Doodles"

this essay deals with print comics--still the predominant arena for those of us working in "art-comics"-and so webcomics, and other digital manifestations are left for another discussion.

* I know someone out there is going to feel the need to write and tell me who that guy at Mary Boone is and what he does. thanks in advance.

Sgt.Pepper cost $5.49 in 1967. But you could probably pick it up for $3.99

Conversely-or perversely-the change in direction from high art to low-(or perhaps more accurately from art to entertainment)-exemplified in Wednesday Comics--imbues the rather generic offerings in its pages with a life they may not otherwise have in other circumstances. (the novelty of the format also impacts the work) Might one suggest then that weaker comics are more susceptible to the influence of context? I'm throwing that one out there without thinking about it.

****there is something in the tension between the bold color and illusionistic imagery, the density of the ink and the weight of newsprint, the paper's frailty and the saturation of the ink in the paper. Newsprint is a deeply under-appreciated support.

this is the last time I use Kramer's Ergot as a whipping post-I swear.*


  1. I agree - newsprint is a great surface, warm and friendly and the way ink soaks into makes the page itself real. most (but not all) semi-gloss full color comics look slick and cheap even though they cost more.

  2. Oh-some of the first DC Archive Editions-or some hardcover Marvel collections- on that (super)high gloss stock-- I find it painful to look at them. No matter how you view the page, reflections interfere with the artwork. And this paper stock was supposedly an improvement.
    But you're right-that isn't always the case. (altho' examples aren't exactly springing to mind just yet)

  3. I think the value of homogeneity in design is undervalued in alternative comics.

    Design can be an important part of a book's overall package, but American comics would be wise to take a few lessons from the Japanese model. I mean, just look at how much more aesthetically inviting the manga shelves at the the Barnes & Noble are compared to the American comics shelves. Not to say that American comics need to have the exact same format/size/length (something like Ware's Acme thrives on variation in format/design), but I think this is one area where the old collections you mentioned were on the right track.

    Something like Kramers 7 is more along the lines of the European model, where comics are more of an art object and $20 for a 48 page hardcover is the "mainstream" format. As nice as that market might be, I don't think it will ever exist in the US, which is why a book like Kramers will always be kind of marginal (although you're right that this marginalitiy helps add to the book's mystique). Actually, I'd be curious if there is, say, a French edition of Kramers 7, and if so, how it has sold.

  4. I'm curious to know how well its sold both there --and here!

    Re: my own experiecne with packaging-while I modeled "Monsters" on a tabloid daily newspaper--and it wasn't far from the old "Treasury-size" editions I cite-
    you wouldn't beleive how often I heard-"it's too big", "can't stack it on the shelves"-can't bag it and collect it.

  5. ok-I'm awake now. just a follow-up-

    I wasn' t thinking about homogeniety
    so much(altho' point taken) as that one can be innovative in package design and still aim low. (so to speak)

    but in regard to alternative 6 x 9 floppies--"Angry Youth Comics" and "Tales to Thrizzle" fit the bill nicely.