Thursday, November 12, 2009

Black Metal Comics or If It Ain't Baroque, Don't Fix It!

As Geoff mentioned in his last post, we're moving to a more conversational format, where we'll be responding to each other's posts (and to your comments of course) as a dialogue rather than creating standalone essays. So, in that spirit, here are some loose responses to Geoff's thoughts about the centrality of drawing to comics:

(Quoting Geoff:) "it crosses my mind that our (I mean "our" as in comics-making people) reluctance to fully exploit appropriation, collage or other means of image-making may in part be the result of a deep commitment to drawing, rather than any distaste for alternatives."

Hmmm, yes, although I think that "deep commitment" might be another way of saying "heavily invested". Learning to draw comics is difficult and (super) time consuming, so it's no surprise that once people get good at it they tend to get a bit conservative about the whole undertaking - "I don't need photo reference like these kids today - I memorized the way every single thing in the world looks! From every angle!"

(Quoth Geoff:) "The more corporate comics trend to the de-personalized, mechanized look of digital photo-realism, the more I turn away." I sort of know what you mean about this, Geoff - I say "sort of" because I haven't actually read a "corporate comic" since 1980, except Watchmen (which I finally read a couple of months ago) and the first four Wednesday Comics. But I go to comics shops with my kids and I see a page spread or two (and the covers, of course) and I think "Yeesh, this shit is really baroque! Too much fussy detail everywhere! My eyes are bouncing off the page! Ouch!"

(Above: notice any resemblance? Some superhero thing or other and The Fall of Phaeton by Rubens)

But I honestly don't think it's "digital photo-realism" (or even photo reference per se) at fault here - nor the use of computers to color the comics into dense gaudy confections. I think the problem comes down to how we organize and read comics as stories (and by we, I guess I mean old codgers like Geoff and myself - my 9 year old son gobbles new corporate comics up like, well, "dense gaudy confections").

Comics, like music, and books, and paintings - any other art - make use of various kinds of "dynamic range" - typically via variations within the work between, say, dark areas and light areas, or action and dialogue. One way artists use these differences in the densities of parts of the work is to organize them structurally, to help readers grasp the entirety of the piece and keep them interested.

But sometimes - especially with a form that's specialized itself into a tiny niche for hardcore fans - that larger, structural "dynamic range" becomes unnecessary. The fans are so immersed in the particulars of the form that they don't need them. Instead we get dense, thick virtuoso barrages of technique. Think about the relationship between older "heavy metal" music and its newer sub-genre "black metal". Heavy metal employed structural dynamic range - verse/chorus/break, loud/quiet, even melody - but "black metal" just goes for an unremitting wall of metal noize.

This situation may be the result of historical trends (things always get more complicated, don't try to keep up with your kids you stupid nostalgic old fossils) or it could be cyclical (new technologies lead to enthusiastic abuses, which eventually correct themselves, like what happened with the use of fonts in "desktop publishing" in the 80's/90's) - but either way, it's created an over-ripe type of comics that could reasonably be called "digital mannerism".

Personally, I like structural dynamic range - I still want to be able to pull back and appreciate the overarching organization of a panel, or a page or a story, and "flat" color and simplified, "cartoony" drawings certainly lend themselves to that - but I think it's just as possible to do it with photo-realistic drawing (or photographs!) and digital color. I think it boils down to a certain discretion or restraint on the artist's part, and a willingness to work with the reader - to allow for the possibility they may need a little coaxing to come along on this particular trip, and a little breather here and there.

I've got more I want to say (about color in particular), but I'll hold off until next time and see what Geoff (and everyone else) have to say. In the meantime, here's a couple of examples of my all-time favorite photo-realist cartoonist, using every goddam speck of structural dynamic range. He's the Ozzy Osbourne of comics, ladies and gentlemen: Richard Fucking Corben!!!

(Above: Pages from Den)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Musings and Meanderings, mental doodles

This post represents a little twist on our usual format--Rather than put up an essay as we usually do, Kevin and I will more or less put out some mental doodles, topics for conversation, initiating a little back and forth between us --and you--we hope. Join where it suits you!

***** Yeh--so my mind hasn't been good for much lately--but I've been thinking about Kevin's recent posts about appropriation. And it crosses my mind that our (I mean "our" as in comics-making people)reluctance to fully exploit appropriation, collage or other means of image-making may in part be the result of a deep commitment to drawing, rather than any distaste for alternatives. And I know that in my case, when I conceive of a project visually, my automatic response is to think in terms of drawing. I'm deeply invested in drawing, as are most of us--I'd go so far as to say that it's central to my self-image. And my love of comics--and art- is in no small part due to the love of drawing-in all its manifestations.

Yet drawing has not been central to contemporary art practices for a long time. Arthur Danto once asked a colleague of mine..."Why do you continue to teach drawing?" And indeed, more than a few art schools are trending away from the traditional emphasis on drawing in the foundation curriculum.

But comics has been a refuge for those of us devoted to pencil and pen. We respond to the simplicity of means, the direct connection to another human being, the warmth and immediacy of the line on a page. The more corporate comics trend to the de-personalized, mechanized look of digital photo-realism, the more I turn away. I feel this way intuitively yet I'm curious about alternative means, intrigued by the potential for a new means of visualizing narrative( or non-narrative, as the case may be). But when I've got an idea, I still pick up the pencil.

* **********************************************************************
In reference to graphic novels/comics collections and trades- someone in publishing circles told me the other day that a current trend among a good many publishers is to shy away from original material in favor of re-packaging older, proven materials. I have no idea whether that's true or not--I have no idea what the economics of that position are, I can guess of course--but I do know that there are so many terrific collections out there that I can't keep up--and I have less free cash to experiment with. I know that Diamond has increased their minimums, killing a good many books before they get out of the gate, and all of that says this environment is more difficult for original material.

So--when publishers do go out on a limb--what kind of new stuff are they printing? Is there a trend, is there a sign of where things are going? Or will we all just cozy up and dig back into "Prince Valiant" , "Melvin the Monster" and "Peanuts" for the next few years?

(well, worse things can happen)

************Of all of the many attractions comics have held for me since childhood, the one I cherish most but speak least of is color. The bold, flat, saturated color on the glossy cover of a comic book. I'm a sucker for it. Less so for the highly rendered, computerized color of many contemporary comics. I'll take flat color every time. (Well-"All Star Superman" is an exception. ) Is it any wonder I love Ellsworth Kelly?

How many contemporary cartoonists/creators think in terms of color when they begin a project? And who are they? Certainly Chris Ware, David Mazzuchelli, Seth, maybe Frank Santoro.

Cartoonists have traditionally thought in terms of line and --maybe- chiaroscuro. Color--if a consideration at all-has been secondary. And for obvious reasons--both the prohibitive cost and the assembly-line production of the comic book encourage that mode of thinking. I'm never less than dismayed when comic credits are divided as "Words by.... Art by.....Color by.........." as if color is somehow separate from "Art".

The great Sunday comic strips of the past certainly offered a cartoonist a full visual playing field--and while I don't know the division of labor (my history isn't that good) my guess is that the best made the color choices themselves; Hal Foster, George Herriman, Roy Crane, Frank King-- took full advantage of the opportunity. Playboy, first among a number of magazines, offered a good many cartooonists the opportunity to play with color, and Harvey Kurtzman's marvelous preliminary paintings for "Little Annie Fannie" show an artist making the most of that chance . But --in print anyway-- that chance has been all too rare.

In contemporary terms-the web offers cartoonists that opportunity again.
As does the mini-comic--wherein a great many younger cartoonists are exploiting silkscreen in limited print runs. Are we seeing a new way of interacting with color among those who have this opportunity? Rather than as a secondary consideration-has color become primary? Or is color being used as just something to fill-in the spaces between the lines and hatchmarks?

thoughts, anyone?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Swiper! No Swiping!

Aaron Dumin kindly came up with several more examples of comics artists using appropriation, all excellent:

Art Spiegelman's "Malpractice Suite":

Shane Simmons' "Money Talks":

And Joshua Hale Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain's "Punks: The Comic"

Thanks Aaron!