Archive for June, 2006

Tintin in Academia


Thursday, June 29, 2006

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Due to some perversion of my taste (and too much exposure to English literature grad students in college), I’m kind of partial to satires of tortured academic theory, like Frederick Crews’s The Pooh Perplex and its sequel Postmodern Pooh. (It’s an acquired taste, and I certainly don’t recommend it.)

Yesterday, on the Literary Saloon, I came across mention of a book that seems to be of the same kind, only tackling comics criticism instead of literary theory, at least if this review in The Economist is accurate. (It’s hard to tell for sure, since the publisher’s page doesn’t appear to indicate any satirical intent, and I’m not familiar with the author’s previous work.)

From the Economist review:

[T]he Castafiore Emerald, the author argues with sweeping confidence, is not just the oft-misplaced bauble belonging to a forceful but absent-minded opera singer: it is her clitoris. Switch on the “sexual sub-filter”, he explains, and the jewel’s real nature is clear. … Poor Captain Haddock’s plaster-covered leg, meanwhile, is “a sign of both castration and an erection”.

The book is sprinkled with enough pretentious jargon, factual error and illogicality to infuriate and baffle the unwary. But the result is a satire of which Hergé, himself the creator of a cast of immortal parodies, would indeed have been proud.

In any case, this book seems right up my alley, and whether genuine or parody, it’s probably a harbinger of things to come for comics. As graphic novels continue to garner attention in high-brow journals and universities institute more comics programs and departments, it’s only a matter of time before the medium gets the full Roland Barthes treatment on a regular basis.

This will inevitably lead to a lot of grumbling and hostility from longtime comics fans, who are unlikely to cut some English professor (whose familiarity with the medium begins and ends with the Fantagraphics catalog circa 2006 Spiegelman and Satrapi) any more slack than they give Scott McCloud. (This is not meant to imply that McCloud and the professors don’t deserve to be criticized.)

I, for one, though, welcome the wrong-headed, jargon-ridden, and pretentious comics scholarship of the near future with welcome arms. No matter how popular a particular work or artist may be, cultural oblivion is unavoidable without a legion of eggheads scrambling for tenure and over-examining an artwork’s every nuance in search of “subversive” intent and hidden signifiers.

Mistakes will inevitably be made, and dumb judgments will abound, but it also may keep Harvey Kurtzman in print for posterity. Comics fans won’t be able to do it alone, no matter how many variant covers they buy.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth mentioning that as far as I can tell, Tom McCarthy’s book has not been published in the United States, and I have no idea if it ever will be. FYI, for all five of you who may be interested.

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Dirty Laundry


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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I’m not usually one for airing my dirty laundry in public, but since this is a blog about comics, and this particular issue affects Comics Comics, I thought I’d write a bit about it. It could also be instructive for other publishers and artists.

As you may know, I recently published a comic book called Cold Heat by Ben Jones and Frank Santoro, so I went ahead and submitted it, along with my other recent publications, to Diamond Comics, the largest and essentially only, comic book store distributor. The package included Paper Rad, BJ and da Dogs by Ben Jones/Paper Rad, Me a Mound by Trenton Doyle Hancock and Incanto by Frank Santoro. I should note that Paper Rad has exhibited work in museums and galleries internationally, including the Tate, Britain, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Pace Wildenstein, New York. Hancock, meanwhile, was featured in two Whitney Biennials as well as the documentary Art: 21, and his work was recently featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He’s one of the most important young artists in North America. Santoro is the creator of Storeyville, generally considered as one of the five best comic books of the 1990s, and a well-regarded painter himself. PictureBox, meanwhile, won a Grammy last year for our package design of Wilco’s A Ghost is Born. Oh, and both myself and company have recently been profiled in LA Weekly and The Washington Post. All of this is not to puff up my chest, but to note that it’s not exactly amateur night over here. Anyhow, our other books are distributed to museums and stores worldwide by the most prestigious art book distributor in the country, DAP. Just not to comic book stores.

Yesterday I received a slim envelope from Diamond containing form letters detailing their reasons for rejecting each and every one of my titles: Cold Heat, which is a standard comic book, was rejected because “The format you have chosen for your title is unpopular with collectors and retailers.” Let me repeat that: Cold Heat is a standard sized comic book. Huh.

Paper Rad BJ and da Dogs was rejected because, again, the format, and also “The writing is not up to comic industry standards”. Fascinating.

Me a Mound was rejected for the same reasons.

And Incanto was rejected because the “artwork is too rough.” Incanto is the work of a master cartoonist at the top of his game. I shudder to think what they would’ve made of George Herriman in the 1920s.

Now, I’m aware that every company has a bottom line, and perhaps Diamond’s just doesn’t allow it to take chances on new titles. But on the other hand, as the holder of a virtual monopoloy on the market, it would be nice (though in true biz terms, not necessary) if Diamond also considered itself responsible not just for the economic, but also the artistic health of the market. I’m aware that the books I’m releasing are not for everyone, but I can safely argue as both a publisher and a historian, that they are working to advance the medium. By denying the marketplace access to these books, Diamond is stunting the growth of the medium. And that’s just a shame. Now, needless to say I can get some of these into comic book stores through other means–I already have–but tons of stores don’t want to deal that way, and it’s a huge amount of work for a one-man operation to undertake.

So, that’s the story. Comics is a such a funny business. It is, of course, always a business before it’s an art, and this is a prime example. But, honestly, I have to wonder: if it’s good enough for MoMA, why not for Diamond?


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Odds and Ends


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

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Sorry we missed a day blogging. I ate too many burgers this weekend, and kind of needed a break. (Green-chile cheeseburgers are amazing things, but should be eaten in moderation.

Anyway, I still haven’t come up with the energy for a really well-considered post, so here are a few random things I thought worth noting.

1. The week before last in the New York Times, John Hodgman wrote a really nice review of recent comics, including MOME, Ganges, et cetera. (Most of you probably saw it.) I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but it’s thoughtful, informed, and it isn’t patronizing. This isn’t the first smart comics review Hodgman’s written in the Times, and with any luck, it won’t be the last. Maybe other writers for big-time newspapers and magazines will even follow his example.

2. Last week, on his invaluable Comics Reporter blog, Tom Spurgeon advanced an argument about superhero comics addressing hot-button political issues that happens to more or less, kinda-sorta parallel one of my own recent posts, albeit in a much more focused and coherent manner. Marvel Comics’ own Aubrey Sitterson wrote in to disagree, mostly using straw-man tactics.

I was going to write more about all of this, but ultimately decided against it, as I don’t want to bore readers by talking about superheroes too much. But suffice it to say that Sitterson is only able to think of one modern superhero comic that actually supports his argument, and it’s Watchmen. As usual.

I forgot to mention it earlier, but maybe the fact that none of the characters in that book are used to sell Pez dispensers has something to do with Watchmen‘s artistic success.

3. Many of you may already be aware of Big Fun magazine, but if you’re not, and you’re a fan of classic adventure strips, I highly recommend that you seek it out. The included strips are fairly hard-to-find elsewhere, and they’ve been extremely well-reproduced. Leslie Turner’s Captain Easy, Noel SicklesScorchy Smith, and Warren Tufts’ Lance are all currently being serialized, and the artwork is simply fantastic.

More, and better, entries later in the week.

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Recounting Old Ground


Friday, June 23, 2006

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I collect and love comics history books. Each of them is as much about the author’s taste as it is about the subject itself. Despite whatever claims to the contrary, comics history has been an affair of taste above all else. Thus the emphasis on superheroes, the industry, etc., over the years and the suspicion towards anything “artsy”.

That said, here are some history books I’ve really enjoyed (and this list is inspired by Tim’s recent purchase of Maurice Horn’s Encyclopedia):

Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (1947): A wonderful, often anecdotal account of what was happening in comics at the time.

Martin Sheridan’s The Comics and their Creators (1942): This is a good one. Sheridan was around the artists and, in brief chapters on all of the major comics strip artists up to that time, gives a sometimes salty flavor of the times.

Rene Clair’s I Primi Eroi (1962): A still unmatched international survey of comics with an eye towards feats of aesthetic wonderment. This Italian volume includes comics I still haven’t seen printed anywhere else, including early manga by Haneko and Doncia, not to mention great Italian cartoonists like Gipi.

Ron Goulart’s The Encyclopedia of America (1990): Goulart’s best book and a pretty eccentric take on the medium. Here are entries on “Frankie Doodle”, Boody Rogers and other out of the way corners of comics.

And two books sneak in under a special dispensation for “How To” books that also say something about the medium:

Reg’lar Fellers cartoonist Gene Byrnes’ The Complete Guide to Cartooning (1950) includes chapters by Milton Caniff, “Jeff” Machamer, Sam Cobean, and many others. It’s practically an anthology, and an excellent snapshot of comics and illustration in 1950.

Finally, New Yorker cartoonist R. Taylor’s Introduction to Cartooning (1947) is a great volume notable for Taylor’s glass half-full conclusion: “To those who try really hard to develop, and who possess all the requirements, I wish success, and say that when next you look upon the drawings of a famous cartoonist in the pages of the press, just remember that there is the work of someone like yourself who experienced the same discouragements, when through exactly the same growing pains and, many times perhaps, wished he’d taken up plumbing instead.

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Captain Strangelove


Thursday, June 22, 2006

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All messy, unsatisfying theory aside, sometimes a superhero comic really delivers the goods, even without providing ten pages of burly men wrestling and making wisecracks.

Like, for example, one of my favorite superhero stories ever, “Captain Marvel and the Atomic War!” It was originally published in Captain Marvel Adventures #66 in 1946, and recently reprinted in DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, an anthology that’s recommended for those who enjoy wondering how the world might be different if Bruce Wayne’s parents had never been murdered. (Not to give it away, but it turns out Bruce still would have dressed up as Batman and fought crime — so take that, defenders of psychological “realism” in superhero comics!)

Written by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck, it’s a simple, fable-like story, and also just about the grimmest depiction of atomic war I’ve ever seen in comics (certainly in those meant for children). It’s a lot more realistic about the consequences of such a war than 1983’s lauded television movie The Day After.

Beck and Binder’s Captain Marvel, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is actually a pleasant, wholesome young boy named Billy Batson who, by speaking aloud the magic word “Shazam!”, is transformed into a nearly omnipotent Superman-like hero who looks a lot like the actor Fred MacMurray. As Jules Feiffer memorably put it: “A friendly fullback of a fellow with apple cheeks and dimples, [Captain Marvel] could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels. A perfect fantasy figure for, say, Charlie Brown.”

The character’s usual white-bread innocuousness makes this particular story all the more effective and shocking. It begins when Billy Batson, working as a newsreader at local radio station WHIZ, is given a flash report that the city of Chicago has just been destroyed by an atomic bomb. Billy quickly says the magic word, and flies off to help. But it’s already too late.

In one burning home, he finds a woman and her child. Captain Marvel swoops in to the rescue, but radiation poisoning has already done them in. Shaken, Captain Marvel laments, “It’ll be the same all over! Not one soul is alive in Chicago! Four million people—wiped out like flies! It’s horrible–horrible—HORRIBLE!”

Not long after, a whole slew of atomic “rocket-bombs” are headed towards the U.S. Captain Marvel stops a few, but others get by, destroying Washington, D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Detroit. The American military finally gets things together and starts shooting off atomic bombs of its own, at an unnamed “enemy” country. Captain Marvel escorts the rockets, and finds that the enemy country is sending out atomic bombs, willy-nilly, all around the world.

Pretty soon, with mass confuson reigning everywhere, each attacked country blindly sends out more atomic bombs, without knowing for sure who the enemy is, until every nation in the world finds itself under attack. Captain Marvel does what he can to help stop the damage, but it’s beyond even his powers.

It doesn’t take long for the war to end, and Captain Marvel realizes the awful truth: all of humanity has been destroyed, and he is “the only man left alive on earth!”

At a time when government officials were assuring Americans that bomb shelters would allow citizens to ride out a nuclear war in safety, and children were being given “duck-and-cover” drills, this story is remarkably honest about a pretty terrifying situation. And Beck’s simple drawings give the horrific imagery a startling power, somewhat similar to the effect Art Spiegelman achieved with his simple art in Maus. (And no, I’m not saying this story rises to the same level, so don’t get on my case, please.)

This is one way for a superhero story to deal with a political or social issue successfully, by straightforwardly and honestly depicting the effects, not souping it up with a lot of hystrionic theatrics and claiming to be “grown-up.” This story doesn’t even bother trying to justify itself, it simply depicts the problem dramatically. In the end, it may not be high art, but it doesn’t degrade itself and the reader by pandering, either.

So far on this blog, I’ve been writing a lot more about old, mainstream children’s comics than I would’ve expected, especially since that’s not my usual reading material. Not that it really matters much, I guess, but next week, I’ll try to write about something that came out less than thirty years ago.

Goodbye, now!

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Sweet Clarity


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

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Because we got a little off-schedule this week, I’m not going to make the big Shazam reveal until tomorrow (sorry, I know). But since my last post may have come off as a little more strident than I intended, a little brief clarification may be in order.

First, I wrote that only one superheroes-grown-up story has ever worked, but to be fair, I might well have missed something or other. (I’ve never read Rick Veitch‘s Bratpack or its sequels, for example, and for all I know, they’re brilliant. And Alan Moore’s early Miracleman comics worked to at least some extent.) And once you’ve got more than one “exception that proves the rule”, maybe the exceptions don’t actually prove the rule so much as they disprove it. So there’s that.

Second, I also kind of gave the game away when I brought in Ursula K. Le Guin. Once you take away the capes and underwear, there’s really no reason that a story with super-powers can’t be successful (and “adult”). Books ranging from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination to the New Testament have proved that a super-powered protagonist isn’t necessarily a liability. It’s the costumes that cause most of the problems. (But they’re big problems. Green Arrow yelling, “My ward is a junkie!” is bad all enough on its own, but when he’s dressed like Robin Hood while he’s doing it, it’s all over. Wearing that outfit, reading the 9/11 Commission Report would seem ridiculous.)

That’s all, I think, since I don’t want to get too deep into the nerd weeds. I still think my general point was valid, but consider adding these grains of salt, please.

Unrelated bonus: Since Dan brought up Jerry Lewis comics, here’s a memorable comic book moment that’s been making the internet rounds lately, for those who haven’t already seen it: When Jerry Met Kal-El.

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Sometimes and Something


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

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I stumbled on Kevin Huizenga’s blog this morning and was glad to take it all in. I’ve enjoyed Kevin’s comics for a while now, and his recent issue of Or Else, number 4, was absolutely thrilling. It struck me as a humble attempt to explain the entire world in just under a hundred pages. Kevin digs deep spiritual holes and then lets the rest of us peer in. He reminds me a lot of Ben Jones in his philosophical concerns…it’s just that they each exited through a different door or something. I’m glad he’s able to communicate what he does, because it’s the kind of exploration so often lacking in comics. Kevin is after the universe, I think, but through a macro lense.

Anyhow, onto the meat of this post. Seems as though Tim is covering this week’s historical business, so, hey, have you ever seen the Royal Trux comic book? It’s pretty amazing. It was published by the band’s record label, Drag City, in 2001 but I only just got a copy today. The band itself, meanwhile, is long gone. So there’s a time lag. Maybe this is history today after all. Well, the Trux comic is written by guitarist (and occassional writer on comics) Neil Michael Hagerty and drawn by Doreen Kirchner. It’s like a metaphysical stroll through the Royal Trux universe. I like a bunch of things about it: one, the idea of a band as a universe that could produce a comic book. Two, Kirchner’s art is all coloring book-bold outlines, and unexpectedly off kilter compositions. And three, Hagerty is wonderfully verbose, maxing-out speech balloons on nearly every page. It’s an unassuming comic in the same way, say, a Jerry Lewis comic from 1960 (one of my finds last weekend) is unassuming. It’s yarn-spinning without any goal besides a certain kind of entertainment. Check it out if you happen upon it.

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