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 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.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Comics That Will Never Smell

Geoff's love letter to newsprint (this is after all a writer with a blog called "Pulp Ink") left me fondly recalling my teenage stint as a comic shop clerk up in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1970's. The place where I worked ("Doug Sulipa's Comic World") was a big business as Canadian comics shops go, and part of my job was filling mail orders from all over the continent at a basement warehouse in the suburbs. There were endless rooms and halls filled floor to ceiling with stacks of moldering old comics, and you can be sure I squandered lots of time leafing through them when I should've been working. Needless to say, the experience left me with a Proustian response to the aroma of decaying newsprint: I get weak-kneed with nostalgic pleasure.

(Doug Sulipa)

But this is another century, and as we all know by now, everything is moving to the Internet, where nothing smells. In my last post, I got glum as I worried that the postmodern explosion of styles and schools of comics would lead us to a dystopia where artists outnumbered readers, and I laid at least part of the blame on digital delivery via the Web. So this time, in all fairness to the internet, I'd like to offer the optimistic side of the coin.

As Geoff pointed out in his post, music's move to digital distribution, via the CD and then the MP3 has had a pretty drastic effect on the aesthetics of what used to get called "album art". I happen to work in that very field, and I can tell you from long experience that everyone in the music business is acutely aware of what a shadow of its former self music packaging has become.

But what digitization taketh away, it can sometimes also restore - the new buzz is all about a project called "Cocktail" being cooked up between Apple and the major labels. Cocktail is supposed to be an attempt to revive the concept of "albums", which have withered away in the era of iTunes, by allowing listeners to download an elaborate package of liner notes, art, photos and even videos. The kicker is that Apple will (as the rumors have it) be releasing a new "tablet" computer - a sort of giant iPod - for listening, watching and reading it all.

Obviously, this sounds like the perfect platform for digital comics - a big portable e-reader with a color display. Whether it's really going to go according to rumor is an open question, but unquestionably devices like this are starting to pop up and will become ubiquitous soon enough. Still, what makes me optimistic that digital comics will even work, given their spotty track record up until now? Two things:

1. The embarrassment factor: I am a middle aged man, and I find it very difficult to go into comics shops. Something about them makes me feel a bit icky, like I'm shopping for porn videos. Frankly, I use my 9 year-old son as a "beard" when I want to go pick up some new altcomics treats: "Hah hah! Sure son, I'll take you to see the funny books". And when I read comics, it's in the privacy of my home. On the commute to work, it's the New York Times all the way.

But if I could read comics without having to flash them around... well, fuck the grey lady!

(Besides, it's already happening with little bitty cell phones.)

2. The convenience factor: I used to own thousands of comic books, but I got rid of them some time during my bachelor years because they were too much trouble to lug from pad to pad whenever I moved (also, they got embarrassing - see above). Lots of things get less convenient as your life gets more complicated - I owned hundreds of vinyl LPs too (which I kept - not quite as embarrassing), but I went through a period of about - jesus - fifteen years where I stopped buying new music and barely bothered listening to the CDs and tapes I had lying around. Too busy!

Then the whole iTunes thing happened. And within the last five years, I somehow managed to amass a collection of ... (goes and checks iTunes) ... 14,147 songs. Which is about 1400 LPs' worth, or about five times as much music as I owned when I was a 20 year old punk rock fanatic with no mortgage and no kids to feed.

This is the digital logic of it all. I'm already saving PDFs of old scanned comics I find around the web, stuff I'd never buy as books or floppies for any price because I have no where to put it. But would I spend money for say, the complete works of Carl Barks for an e-reader? You bet I would - even without the smell.