Friday, October 30, 2009

Monster Mash-ups

In my last post I started a little exploration of "appropriation" (to use the art world term) in art comics on the theory that work made in such a spirit falls closer to a conceptualist tradition than, say, a lot of the sturm and drang we see in currently fashionable art comics circles. To start with, I focused on "stylistic appropriation" such as Robert Sikoryak's work in Masterpiece Comics. This time, I'm going to grasp a thornier nettle - flat out swipes, or what we might call "collage narratives".

I say thornier because, whereas stylistic appropriation has a long and honorable history in comics in the form of parody (see Mad magazine and many others), full fledged image (or text) appropriation is much less common. Unlike the contemporary art scene, where it's a longstanding and uncontroversial mainstream practice, appropriation in comics is mostly seen in moralistic terms, as something sneaky and dishonest - check out this long-running thread on the Comics Journal website dedicated to discussing (and exposing) the practice.

We're all familiar with the use of appropriated comics images to make fine art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton's seminal collage Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, so Appealing? with its Kirby romance comic swipe - see above) but I'd like to turn that around and look instead at the use of appropriated images to make comics, as narratives. I'll muddy the water, though, by starting with a couple of examples that straddle the line between art and comics but are generally considered in the context of art.

First, there's surrealist Max Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté from 1934. Ernst cut up Victorian illustrations to create this (quasi) narrative which has had a tremendous, albeit underground influence in contemporary art.

Next, there's the use of comics in Situationist art, mostly from the 1960's and 70's, in a practice termed "détournement" where comics panels and other imagery were recontextualized (often with new texts superimposed on the old word balloons) to make fractured "comics" stories. This example is from Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti by Andre Bertrand from 1966.

Next, here's the only example I can think of where a comics artist regulary employed appropriation, at least in his early work: Chester Brown, who used to redraw found comics panels and use them as (typically absurdist) points of departure in his own stories. If you know of others, please add a comment...

(Above, an example of Chester Brown's narrative collage and his description of the process involved)

And finally, here's an example of an entire comic book (inspired by Brown's example) which was created by collaging found comics panels together to make a new story. Although it was created in a fine art context (it was funded by an experimental art gallery) it was distributed through the "direct market" network of comics shops back in 1993. I won't mention the artist except to say that he's Canadian and sort of old.

(above: a page from Captain Adam and the collaged panels it was based on)


Paul Dwyer was kind enough to comment with some terrific additional examples (see his comment below for links), including Jess's highly influential Tricky Cad:

Dan Walsh's brilliantly minimal Garfield Minus Garfield:

David Malki !'s (that's how he spells it) Wondermark (which I was completely unfamiliar with, betraying my lamentable ignorance of most webcomics):

And of course Paul's own terrific collage narratives, such as The Beginning (which we published recently at

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Swipe File Addendum

Geoff is taking this week off so we'll be back next week with part two of my post about appropriation in comics. Meanwhile, Jim Rugg emailed me to suggest another example of stylistic appropriation: certain stories in Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey's Action Philosophers.

Thanks Jim!

(JOHN STUART MILL in the style of Charles Shulz from ACTION PHILOSOPHERS vol. 3)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Swipe File

Cowed by the howls of outrage that greeted my last post (about "ambience" and "abstract comics") I've decided to play it safer this time around by focusing on something much less controversial - stealing. Or, as we artistes prefer to term it: appropriation.

Geoff and I have both bellyached here about the mysterious sway that expressionism and its related styles (symbolism, art brut, wild style, romanticism... stupidism) have had over "art comics" of the last, oh, 40 or 50 years. I wrote a post digging up Kenneth Clark's hoary old dualism between Apollonian and Dionysian forms of art, and lumped most art comics under the Dionysian (dark, raw, primitive, emotional) rubric. I came up with a couple of examples of work that I thought was more "Apollonian", but didn't really explore that side of the fence very thoroughly. So this time I'm going to gingerly hop over there and grab some low hanging fruit: comics that employ the Conceptualist (and therefore Apollonian) strategy par excellence of appropriating "readymade" cultural artifacts (objects, images, texts, entire styles) and redeploying them in a different context so as to problematize their presumed meanings. What could be more fun?

Since this is just a first stab at examining the use of appropriation in comics I won't pretend it'll be exhaustive - in fact, I'd be delighted if anyone can suggest more examples. I'll tell you what - any good ones that come up in the comments will get added to the post with a little credit for the finder. I also won't pretend that I have any clearly worked out organizing principles behind these choices, just some initial thoughts, so I'd be indebted to anyone who cares to add to the conversation with comments.

So, off the top of my head, I can think of two basic types of appropriation in comics: style and collage. They overlap in various ways even on first inspection, but I'm going to split them for now so as to break the discussion in half (and get two posts out of it). I'll address the collage stuff next time - this week: style!

By stylistic appropriation, I'm referring to comics that self-consciously use a style or genre of drawing or writing so as to call attention to it. I don't mean the way Bill Sienkiewicz used to "use" Neal Adams' style - I mean the way Robert Sikoryak deliberately uses different cartoonists' styles to create bizarre new versions of stories from classic literature. His new collection of these mash-ups, Masterpiece Comics, is so good that I have trouble reading it - I keep stopping to think about how good it is.

Unlike, say, a Mad Magazine parody that employs the same basic strategy to easy comic effect (see Goodman Starchie for example), Sikoryak's work pushes collision between idioms so far that something substantial and new starts to emerge. His version of Wuthering Heights in the style of an EC horror comic doesn't even need to be funny (although it's hysterical): after a while I found myself forgetting the underlying joke and just reading it as a strange, strong compelling piece in its own terms.

Another artist mining similar territory is Matt Madden, whose 99 Ways to Tell a Story is subtitled, appropriately, "Exercises in Style". As the title implies, Madden restages a single, short narrative in a wide variety of comic book (and fine art, and even cartographic) styles. This is fascinating stuff - not just because Madden deploys these styles so expertly and imaginatively, but also because of the way his process underscores the central claim of Conceptualism: that "styles"- far from being immanent phenomena that mysteriously arise in our individual artistic selves - are actually cultural constructions. Or, to paraphrase one of the Art and Language artists (I forget which one):

The Expressionist says "I feel X!", whereas the Conceptualist says: "what would be the consequence of saying 'I feel X!'?"

(two examples of Matt Madden's Exercises in Style: the same story told in the "ligne claire" style of Tintin artist Hergé and in a classic superhero style.)

One final example of a comics artist employing stylistic appropriation (again, please feel free to suggest others): Jim Rugg in his art for Afrodisiac, his Blaxploitation themed comic collaboration with Brian Maruca. Rugg goes to incredible lengths to get the details right, not just in his evocation of Blaxploitation as a genre (both of comics and movies), but the textures and patinas of early 70's comics. Then, just in case this wasn't enough of a tour de force, he shuttles between early 70's comics styles, giving us Vampire Afrodisiac, Young Romance Afrodisiac, and even Funny Animal Afrodisiac. And they're all perfect.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

bArt Comics

I like Bart Simpson's "Treehouse of Horror". That's a pretty good comic book.
I like where Portlius Maximus, great god of chubbiness, drops giant onion ring creatures and
evil skysauce on Homer and Bart. That's pretty good. I laughed 'til I started to choke on Honey-nut Cheerios. I also like clone Simpsons and poison bootleg candy. Also, John Kerschbaum draws a pretty awesome Homer. I also like where Bart says "You will all be consumed" in"the Call of the Vegulu"--it's like the title of the next Fletcher Hanks book or something.
those are the things I like. there are some things I don't care one way or another about. But there's not really anything I don't like. Except that last bit-it looks like something I did in a notebook in 7th grade.

So, if you like Simpsons, and you like Art, then this is the comic for you.
p.s. I bought this comic with my own money.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ambient Comics

Emboldened by Geoff's merciless attack last week on shibboleth-in-the-making Asterios Polyp, I've decided this time around to have a poke at the whole idea of "abstract comics", which is currently receiving a similarly warm reception from comics critics thanks to Andrei Molotiu's new Abstract Comics anthology from Fantagraphics. I'm going to do this despite the fact that:

A: Geoff is in the book

B: Andrei is also a friend of mine, as is his contributor Henrik Rehr, and I've published their abstract comics in an anthology I co-edit and also shown them at a gallery I co-curate in Brooklyn.

C: I haven't (properly) read the Abstract Comics anthology yet - although I did see the related show at The James Gallery at CUNY in NYC.

Fair enough? Well, anyway, here goes:

In an earlier incarnation, I used to write art criticism for magazines up in Canada - which, unlike blogging, actually paid some (admittedly modest) cash money - and one time I was asked to review a show of "video art" in Vancouver. Now, I went to art schools that were pretty steeped in Conceptualism, so I've had to develop lots of patience for obtuse and difficult art: I know better than to expect to actually, you know... enjoy myself in an art gallery. But Jesus Christ, these were some boring-ass videos I had to watch! Had to, because I was being paid.

To be fair to the artist (I can't even remember his name after all this time*), the videos were gorgeous. They consisted of various snippets of footage - most of it quite compelling - strung together in a, well, abstract fashion. The problem - for me at least - was that after about a minute of watching these various disconnected sequences I started to zone out. Without something to tie them together - a narrative, or even some sort of clear theme - they got really, really boring.

And let me the first to admit - I said as much in the review - that other viewers might have had longer attention spans. But isn't it also true that people used to go suffer through the entirety of Matthew Barney's marathon video installations because it became some sort of art world badge of honor to have survived them? Like going to a sweat lodge or something? Art as endurance test.

(Image by Matthew Barney)

So for me, and I suspect for lots of other earnest artlovers, the problem with video art boils down to its relationship to time. Video art, like performance art, is what gets called a "time-based" medium. It expects you to sit (or worse, stand) there and pay attention, for whatever the duration of the piece is. Whereas pretty much all other forms of western visual art have, traditionally, been ambient.

I mean this in the same sense that Brian Eno applied the term to music (for airports!): work that doesn't care when you come or go. You can take it in in little sips, obliquely, whenever it suits you. The ideal ambient art experience might be a painting in your house that you gradually come to know intimately, through a thousand little glances out of the corner of your eye. A very different experience of art than shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot waiting for an interminable video to finish.

Now comics - as always, a hybrid special case - are both time-based and ambient. For starters, although they unfold in a (typically) specific sequence, the panels co-exist in pictorial space, beside and on top of each other, not at all like a film or performance or video. You can experience a group of them simultaneously as a page or spread. You can flip back and forth through the book, etc, etc. More importantly, each panel can be considered in isolation, a condition so obviously ambient that art schools to this day are rife with Pop art paintings of blown-up comics panels.

Comic book panels also have a narrative order, a path between them that entails a necessary duration - however much the reader might care to bend or interrupt it. But in abstract comics most of the elements used to create this path - characters, settings, texts in balloons, plots and subplots, etc. - are absent. What's left tends to be the naked organizing structures of comics (panels, grids, pages) and the formal relationships between the ambient elements contained by the panels - and this minimal narrative apparatus is expected to engage us for the duration of the piece. That's where I have a problem - I pretty much zone out after four or five pages.

Of course, your attention span may be more robust: check out this review on Jog the Blog to see just how involved it's possible to become with an abstract comic (please feel free to skip over his disparaging remarks about my own work). But let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that this level of engagement is rather more the exception than the rule for abstract comics. If so, does this make them an esoteric waste of time, doomed to be confined to the margins (or gutters) of art comics history?

Not at all. First of all, most abstract comics tend to be fairly short - I suspect their authors are well aware of the limits of their audience's patience. But more to the point, I don't think these comics really belong in books**. I think they're more suited to ambient display, by which I mean either on computer monitors or a good old fashioned wall - places where the experience of the work requires less of an appointment or commitment. Let me just make this quick point, based on my peculiar position of having both published and exhibited abstract comics:

When my co-editor, Alex Rader and I put experimental or "difficult" work into Blurred Vision, we take a certain perverse pleasure in it. "Suck on this, bitches" is a phrase that gets used as we lay out the books, knowing that many readers will lack the fortitude to make their way through, for example, all 32 pages of Doug Harvey's Captain Eelbegone. And so it's been with the abstract comics we've published - we don't expect them to be a walk in the park for most readers, but we think the work is strong and important and needs to be seen - so in it goes... heh, heh.

But we've shown some of the same work in ArtLexis, our gallery space, as prints hung in sequence, and the experience is very, very different. Once I'm excused from the responsibility of "reading" them all at once - once the experience of the work is ambient - it's possible to return to the piece many times and gradually build up a sense of the relationships between panels and pages, to see the larger abstract forms that emerge from the confluences of the smaller ones and to absorb a sense of the "narrative" while seeing the work as a whole. All of this happens both slowly and quickly, while you're talking or thinking about something else or walking by on your way somewhere - outside of any particular time. These are ambient comics.

(installation view of Andrei Molotiu's work)

*okay, okay, it was Bill Viola.

**I'll grant an exception for beautifully produced "coffee table" books like Andrei's anthology - which are meant to be experienced in sips, after all.