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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting posts you have here ... I can see that you put a lot of hard work on your blog. I'm sure I'd visit here more often. George from Afrodisiac.