Archive for October, 2008

Final Bell


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Thursday, October 30, 2008


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FRANK: When Comics Comics conceived of the Cage Match concept, it was our goal to get our readers riled up enough about comics to switch from passive readers to active writers. It was—and remains—our hope that people care enough about comics to take a stand, one way or the other. To get involved, to build a dialogue that will help create an emotional as well as intellectual foundation for the comics of the future. Sometimes it’s too easy to talk about formal elements in comics—page layout, technical proficiency, inking technique, character creation, fluency of language, narrative strategy, etc.—and avoid the content at its core.

Comics is what we’re about here at Comics Comics, and I, for one, think it’s a good thing to talk these things out. Okay, argue, yell, curse—but all in the hopes of pushing the “discussion” along. I might not have the words or patience at times, but Tim Hodler does and usually Dan Nadel does too—and so together we can all pitch in and build a framework for us, and for the reader, the commentator, the fan. THEN, it really gets interesting. It’s not just print on a page, it’s LIVE, it’s new comics day and people are hangin’ out, talkin’ shop, and talkin’ shit. It’s FUN.

I think it’s safe to say that Cage Match #3 has fulfilled (well, to be honest—exceeded) our goal. The discussions this time around have clearly generated much heat, and, I think, some light as well.

I’ve received quite a few private emails addressing this particular Cage Match. Some thanking me for bringing this out, others admonishing me for my tone. It’s ALL appreciated. Sometimes I get emails from other cartoonists that are basically lectures about why what I wrote on the blog was wrong. (Hello! It’s called a Cage Match for a reason.) I appreciate that they took the time write me, ha. I don’t really mind being lectured. I’m just glad to know they’re reading along too.

So, in that spirit, I want to thank Mr. Heatley and everyone who slacked off at work or at home to chime in on this Comics Comics Cage Match.

TIM: Frank asked me to add a few words to his post, but I’m not sure I have too much to say, other than that I agree with him.

I think the Cage Match itself, while it got a little heated at times, both in the main post and in the comments, was basically a success, and stayed more or less in bounds. I was less happy with some of the responses to David Heatley yesterday, but I guess that’s what happens sometimes, and I have to take responsibility for it as one of the blog’s moderators.

Passions sometimes run high, and I think that’s a good thing overall. Art needs passion, and argument, and maybe even hurt feelings now and again. But I don’t want this blog to degenerate into a forum for two-minute-hate sessions, and, I have to say, it came too close to that yesterday. I want to apologize to David Heatley and our readers; it shouldn’t have happened.

Umm. I don’t want sappy music to start playing in the background, so I’ll leave it at that. Thanks.

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Reading People Reading "My Brain"


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Wednesday, October 29, 2008


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The following post was written by David Heatley, in response to last week’s Cage Match:

I’ve been checking out some of the reviews of my book floating around on the web, including here on good ol’ Comics Comics, and I wanted to take the time to articulate some of the intentions I had with My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and respond to some of the criticism.

First off, I’m really proud of this book. I spent almost five years on it. It’s not perfect by any stretch and I’m sure it will be a maddening read for some people, but it’s my baby and I stand behind it. I think of it as a catalog or a ledger accounting book. It’s an inventory of my life. It doesn’t have a traditional novelistic arc to it. It doesn’t follow the rules of usual literature and might not look like your run-of-the-mill comic book.

My Brain is a series of fractured vignettes that approximate a self-portrait, clearly incomplete— a record of who I was and what mattered to me most while writing it. More than that, it’s the best way I know to talk about my country. There’s an amazing amount of personal and cultural baggage I was bombarded with as a kid and teenager and it’s my job to sort it out and make sense of it and decide what’s worth keeping (and passing on). The risk I took was in betting that readers would find that process entertaining or moving or helpful in some way. It seems the jury’s still out, over here at least.

I used to do this a lot, but I no longer spend time wishing works of art were something they’re not. I don’t wish Stan Brakhage made commercial Hollywood films. Or that Kanye West would do something more stripped down, personal and emotionally revealing. I try to accept art for what it is and decide if it has anything of value to offer me. If I take a stance against it, especially if it’s accompanied by a righteous feeling of being sure of my opinion, I’ve found that I’m using someone’s work to further my own unhappiness, discontent and irritability and ultimately it has nothing to do with the artist on whom I’ve fixed my angry gaze.

Frank Santoro leads the discussion here with a lot of emotionally charged accusations, which for me, mostly amount to this: “Your book (of which I read bits and pieces in the bookstore) stirred up a lot of feelings in me and I’m angry at you that I have to feel these things, so I’ll pretend that it’s actually boring and that I don’t care about it.” This was disappointing since my hope is that people will actually read the book, in all its complexity, before commenting on it (I’m reminded of Catholic nuns protesting Last Temptation of Christ). But also because I’m a big fan of Frank’s work and like him personally. He has a simultaneously painterly and cinematic approach to comics that I find enlightening and educational. He was a big inspiration for me in working on the “Family History” strip of my book, in particular his book Incanto, which is a gorgeous series of drawings done at an inhuman velocity. I’ll continue to admire and seek out all his new work. No hard feelings, Frank! For real, yo.

Tim Hodler articulated some excellent points of criticism and was generous with his praise. He’s of the mind that the asides in the book, written in the present tense while I was working on it (including the “shout outs” in “Black History”, or the epilogue of “Sex History”) don’t belong and are too jarring to be included in this volume. I’m not objective and I’m sure I have a distorted view of how they come across. I think they add a further wrinkle of complexity to the story. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from several readers that they loved reading the asides in the midst of the otherwise heavy narrative. It was like a comic relief or a moment of decompression.

I don’t have much to say to people who don’t like the way my art looks. I certainly have my own preferences and tastes and you’re entitled to yours. Hopefully I’m getting better at it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there if you’re mostly looking for traditionally beautiful comic book artwork. I think Overpeck will look a little more “fully baked.” This one was like editing together the work of 5 different people under a single pseudonym.

I want to clarify Heidi MacDonald’s comment about a panel I recently did at Barnes & Noble. She states, “Heatley was very frank about being a narcissist and how that informs his work. I got the impression that the effect on the audience is a secondary motivation for him.” What I actually said was that there’s something narcissistic about all writing. We’re people who are traumatized into thinking that the most incredible thing in the world is what’s happening inside our heads at any given time. And we constantly think about how we can use what we’re experiencing in our own work, sometimes at the expense of being present with the people around us. I went on to say that I hope that what may look like narcissism could be seen as a desire to look deeply into myself and share what I find. I don’t feel a lot of attachment to my story as something that defines me. I’m done with it. And if I’ve done my job with this book, my readers will find something useful or illuminating or entertaining in it.

Noah Berlatsky, an acquaintance of mine, and a talented, but bitter writer living in Chicago, wrote about my “Sex History” strip on a site called comiXology. The highlights of his career so far have included well-written, but scathing attacks on Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman with titles like “In the Shadow of No Talent”. For the record, back in 2002 I almost illustrated one of his poems as a comic strip, but had to abandon it because it seemed too similar to a Marc Bell strip at the time. He also contributed to an incoherent failure of an anthology I produced while living in Chicago called The New Graphics Revival. I stand behind the idea of that book, which was that given the time and materials, most anyone could produce an interesting comic strip. But I’m embarrassed by almost all of the work that was sent to us, mostly by a middling, call-for-entry gen-x set. I’m not saying that my failing to promote an anthology that contained work by him or my inability to finish a strip based on his writing could have led him to write this line: “Whether through pointlessly tangled continuity, repetitive autobio dreck, aggressively ugly art, or reflexively irrelevant literariness, [Heatley's] comics seem determined to find some way, any way, to keep out all those readers and creators who might otherwise, and naturally, see comics as their own.” But anything’s possible!

More to the point, he claims that in the anecdotes about bad sex, longing and one night stands that make up “Sex History”, I’m depicting ciphers, not real women. “He occasionally wonders what is up with one of them — why is she behaving so oddly? Why didn’t she get me off? But he never really cares enough to find out — or, at least, not enough to waste one of his tiny panels telling the reader about it.” Unfortunately, he missed the fundamental idea behind the piece and took the work at face value. The “me” character is something of an unreliable narrator. I’m asking the reader to imagine an alternate universe where the details of falling in love and getting married deserve a single panel and where obsessive thinking about a meaningless crush or one-night stand deserve dozens. I’m certainly not defending the behavior or even the thinking shown, quite the opposite. Something I tried to expound on in the strip’s new epilogue.

The pink bars, by the way, are pretty much a non-issue outside comics circles. I think previous readers feel like I gave them something and then took it away. So now they’re angry. One plausible theory, at least.

A few words about “open ambition”, which seems to be popping up on the comments section here. I’ve never felt at home in the “indie” comics world, where authenticity is judged by how few books are sold and ultimate hipster cred is dealt to artists who are selfless enough to leave their name off their piece entirely. It’s true I’m a self-promoter. I want my book to sell. I want to make lots of money. I want to have a house and give my kids a college education. I used to think that making art and making money were incompatible. It took shedding a lot of my own self-loathing and shame to get to a place where I believe in what I do and get excited about sharing it with as many people as possible. Maybe I’ve tipped a little too far in my excitement. I’m cool with that. I’m not sure what “careerist” means. It must be the sexiest word a surly 25-year-old can muster to put a “successful” artist like me in my place. “He’s just in it for the career!” I don’t really make those distinctions. The business side of art isn’t evil. It’s interesting. If all that turns you off, there’s plenty of other work out there by sad, lonely, misunderstood artists to fetishize and worship. They need your attention more than me.

It was heartening to hear some excitement even among My Brain‘s detractors for my next book Overpeck. I think of it as the polar opposite of what I was going for with My Brain, so there’s a good chance all my fans and critics will switch sides when it’s published. Or maybe not. It should be out from Pantheon by 2010 or so. It will have a more-or-less novelistic structure with a traditional story arc and will feature the best, non-cramped art I can deliver. Yours for $24.95, if not less.

Sincere thanks for reading. And for all your comments, even the viciously nasty ones. Peace out.

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Frank Gets Bat-Manga-Mania


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Tuesday, October 28, 2008


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For those of you who don’t already know, Frank’s begun writing occasionally for Publishers Weekly. His latest piece is a review of the Chip Kidd-co-edited collection of Jiro Kuwata superhero comics, Bat-Manga! I wish I hadn’t read it myself, because now I have another stupid book I need to buy, but check it out if you have money to spare (or better impulse control).

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New Blog


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Tuesday, October 28, 2008


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Oh look, PictureBox has a new blog! PictureBox Auctions. We are selling a buncha stuff to clear out the office. Not to worry, many are duplicates, so the “archive” remains intact. We will be posting things daily, so check back and dig in to some groovy-ass stuff.

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Cage Match #3: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (2008)


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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


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[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it's basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues on which we don't quite see eye to eye. Rules: Frank puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, I will respond (though it's likely that this particular match will proceed a bit more leisurely than past conflicts). We'll keep going back and forth until it feels like we're done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven't read this book yet and don't like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

FRANK: I’m too lazy to write a full review of David Heatley‘s “new” book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, so we’re gonna have a Cage Match. I should take a scalpel to it and slice it up precisely, turn it inside out. I could easily show how there is really nothing there, that once the “shock” of his work wears off, the lines, the forms, the cartooning is all clearly sub-par.

But Heatley’s new book just makes me angry. And I think that’s what he wants. He wants to provoke reactions like mine so that he can “work out” his insecurities, his racism and his issues with women on the page. And be forgiven.

I’ve been waiting to see this cartoonist take the next step and I think his new book is incredibly disappointing.

Since Heatley keeps re-printing the same material over and over again, should I consider this the Heatley I’ve been hoping will emerge? I mean, I liked the sexual history story when it first came out. Five years ago. It was funny. But I feel like I’ve seen it in at least three different collections since then. And now it’s in his hideously ugly new book, replete with self-censorship and no explanation as to why. (He famously placed pink bars over all the genitalia for this new version and added an epilogue of sorts—more on that later)

The book is broken up into sections that are labeled as parts of Heatley’s brain. The “Race” section starts off with a dream comic of David fucking a Black woman from behind and her asking, “Did you stick it in yet?” O the humanity!

“Sambo” is up next, a dream comic about protecting himself and family from “Sambo.” (The last image is of David hitting “Sambo” over the head with a bat.)


A dream comic about the “Projects.”

Then “Black History” begins. The bulk of the new material in this book.

Y’know, it’s not like he grows as a cartoonist. This big new story about “every Black person he’s ever known” looks and reads exactly like 2003-4 Heatley. There’s little measurable growth. (Insert dick joke here.)

And as someone who’s godfather was Black, I gotta say, you’re a fucking asshole for even doing this story, Heatley. My godfather used to say, “I love it when someone says they got lots of ‘Black friends’ like they gotta say ‘Black’ just to impress me. If they your friends, why you gotta say ‘Black’? You think that same person says, ‘I got a lot of White friends’?”

And that’s sort of what Heatley does by inserting “Shout Outs” to his homies within the narrative itself. There are larger panels within the dense page design of the story that include a drawing of a figure, of a real Black person like his childhood friend Winton, with dedications like, “Dude, you were the coolest, stoney-eyed artist around!” To me, these come off as really demeaning.

There are also large sidebars and whole pages of handwritten text that are “Record Reviews” of Black music that David loves. It’s the “voice” Heatley uses to describe getting, say, a Jungle Brothers tape that makes me just shake my head. All that “Yo wassup” white-boy lingo that he spits? Give me a fucking break. Just read it, look at in the store. I don’t have the patience to describe it.

I think it’s the pairing of the two things—the narrative, the comic, these fragments of memory with the “Record Reviews/Shout Out” music-zine stuff—that really puts me off. It’s as though he’s trying so hard to prove that he really loves Black people by listing the music and art made by Black people that he enjoys—just as he lists the trespasses and aggression he feels from Black people or towards Black people. It doesn’t ring true. For me.

(Bell: end of round one)

DAN: OK, I guess I will jump in. I think what riles people up about this book is precisely the public/personal nature of it: That is, it’s a book explicitly about coming to grips with some notion of morality or a way of accepting one’s own behavior. Unlike the demonstrative fantasies of Crumb or meandering auto-bio of Joe Matt, this is direct, speaking to the reader kinda stuff. It’s specifically drawn as, in a sense, therapy. That such a process becomes so public is what, I think, some people find alternately compelling or repulsive about it. I am, of late, on the compelling side, but that is less the “critic” in me talking and more the human being — that is, I suppose, in terms of the “journey” being undertaken: I relate; I empathize. One question worth asking is: How does one judge such a work: Is it reasonable for David to expect moral outrage like Frank’s? Does such a story, and the obvious implications for one’s moral well-being, elicit a like-minded response, as it did from Frank? Is that fair? I mean, David isn’t offering a prescription for how to live — just describing his own journey. But it’s the tone and content, I guess, that Frank is reacting against. Just some stray thoughts here. Tim?

TIM: Wow. Okay, that’s a lot to chew on. This particular Cage Match might take a while, though I have a feeling neither one of us is going to emerge a clear winner, at least not in the sense of convincing the other to change his mind.

Anyway, first of all: I like David’s comics a lot more than you do, Frank. They aren’t flawless by any means, and I have extremely mixed feelings about many of his artistic choices, but they do provoke extraordinarily rich reactions and thoughts. Basically, I can imagine a really full discussion of his work lasting up to a week without exhausting a lot of what’s going on, and that’s something I couldn’t say for very many contemporary young(ish) cartoonists.

But maybe it’s best for now just to respond to the points you raise. First, you’re right: this is the umpteenth appearance of the “Sex History” story, which has been re-packaged a dozen times. Except for a one-page coda to this story, the epic new “Black History”, “Kin” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve seen this before), and I believe at least part of the portrait of his mother, nearly all of the contents of this book have appeared in previous David Heatley projects. This doesn’t bother me much personally—I like how this all reads when put together. Many of these pieces, which seem too open-ended and inconclusive on their own, gain power and cogency through their juxtaposition. I think, at least.

Second: I’m not a fan of the pink censor bars David has added to his “Sex History” strip, either. And I don’t find the explanation he provided in his Time Out New York interview to be very convincing: “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind. It’s really about longing and bad sex and lack of connection.” Mostly because, uh, while David has a pretty cute drawing style, I don’t think they’re particularly erotic as images. If readers were getting “boners”, it probably had more to do with the mental images and memories provoked by the narrative itself than with crudely drawn genitals. I also think that the censor bars make the story feel less honest, less sincere: two of the story’s greatest apparent strengths, previously.

And the coda he’s added! It’s simply bizarre, and a huge disappointment, reading almost like a repudiation of the entire point of the story that precedes it. For those who haven’t picked up the book yet, in the last page, David comes to believe that he spends far too much time masturbating to pornography, to the point where he believes he is a sex addict and enters treatment for it. This really calls into question the original story’s veracity and clashes hugely with its tone, because there’s really just no hint that this has been such a serious issue for him, and coming out of the blue as it does in a single page at the end raises a huge number of questions. I really don’t know what to make of it, but if this topic was something he wanted to explore in his comics, I think it should have been treated at greater length, or at least in a comic more clearly separate from the original.


I don’t want to go on forever, so I’ll tackle your “Black History” argument briefly, and then turn it back over to you. Basically, I don’t think your characterization of it is very fair at all. He doesn’t present himself just as having a lot of black friends, but also includes many interactions with black people who dislike him, or whom he dislikes. And even the vast bulk of his black friendships seem to either peter out or end in anger. He’s obviously playing with inflammatory material here, but it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be self-congratulatory in that particular way.

As far as the record reviews go, I think you have much more of a solid point. Their tone really feels odd next to the comparatively heavy stuff going on in the larger story, and the “critiques” in them are so shallow and clichéd that they don’t seem to really add anything to the story, either. If the effect of black culture on David’s feelings about race were to be included, he really should have gone into it more, I think. As it is, the only value they add is the presumably unintentional one of revealing the shallowness of his actual thinking about race relations, and specifically his [unacknowledged] white privilege. One of the most unusual qualities of David’s stories is their very conspicuous lack of analysis, of summing up. The record reviews are an atypical aberration in that regard, and I don’t think they add enough context to be worth sacrificing one of David’s strongest and most compelling effects.

And Dan, I wrote this before seeing your post, but I basically think I agree with you, or at least think that it’s a fruitful way to start thinking about his work.

TIM: Don’t neglect the comments section on this one, by the way. Lots of good stuff down there.

TIM: Okay. I guess while we’re waiting for Frank to respond, and now that I’ve taken more time to actually digest Dan’s post and some of the comments, I’ll take another quick turn at bat. As far as whether or not David creates his art as therapy, I guess I’m not really interested. I’ve never really bought the idea of art as therapy, but I don’t really care if David uses it that way as long as the story on the page works for me. (I also think that the therapy bit is probably more of an interview shtick than the actual truth, but there’s no way to know that for sure.) As Dash Shaw says in the comments, “If this book really is play therapy, as Heatley says and as it would suggest, it is beyond criticism and (really) a not-for-print book that happened to find publication, which is an extremely romantic/ideal situation.” But obviously it is meant for print, and obviously David does care how readers respond to it, because otherwise: why the new pink censor bars boner-blockers?

TIM: Also, just to add fuel to the fire, I thought I’d highlight a few possibly relevant quotes from the interview with David in Comics Comics 3.

DAVID HEATLEY: I’m a big believer in psychology and therapy and all that stuff. I don’t feel that what I’m making is art therapy—it’s not that kind of thing—but it’s related to self-discovery and trying to be a better person, and it’s definitely an extension of the rest of your life, too. And most of my time is spent trying to be better in some way, and it’s an extension of that. I don’t think it changes me, but it’s a driving force to make new work.

Here’s another:

TIM HODLER: Do you ever do anything similar in your autobiographical work? I mean, try to make yourself look worse or better to make it more interesting to people? Or other people look worse or better? Or events?

DH: I don’t think I do. Let me put it this way. Chris Ware and I have been writing each other, and one time he said that I was one of the very few autobiographical cartoonists who doesn’t make himself into a character and I don’t know how you do that, but that’s true. I don’t make myself into a shticky Woody Allen/Joe Matt kind of character. I’m not—somehow there’s just a blankness to the “me” in those stories. I didn’t know I was striving for that, but I think I am striving for that. So I don’t think I’m trying to change myself one way or the other….

TH: It sounds like you’re more interested in the atmosphere or feeling of the story than you are in the plot or the characterization.

DH: Yeah. How would a person feel when confronted with this situation or that? How would this feel? [then, self-mockingly] I have feelings!

TIM: Frank gets back at four, so prepare for a late-afternoon explosion. In the meantime, to answer Alex Holden’s question in the comments: yes, I think the crudeness of David’s art is clearly deliberate. And I actually think it works really well with his stories. His drawings are child-like, which reinforces their primal, almost solipsistic tone; his stories read as if created by David’s “inner child”. (It may be a cliché, but it’s true all the same.) Of course, as in the case of the self-censorship mentioned above, this effect is sometimes blunted by David’s other formal choices.

FRANK: Round two: This is what I got. I read through Tim’s parts and Dan’s parts and the comments and I’ll add more soon.

Sigh. It just really makes me angry. Parts like where he says, “I can’t remember if my babysitter used the word ‘nigger’ but…” simply give him such an easy opportunity to “investigate” these “injustices”. He’s so full of bullshit righteousness. He always eventually shows himself doing the right thing, he’s always absolved.

And that’s okay, you know, because he’s an honest to god auto-bio cartoonist and it’s cool, y’know, for comics to be EDGY and REAL. So what that it underscores an incredible hostility and disrespect to others. “It’s like Crumb, man, c’mon…” I can hear some feeble defense of it all… What-fucking-ever is all I say.

And lastly, most clearly, he’s a hack of a cartoonist. Ever notice when he draws panels larger than an inch square you can truly see how shitty his line work is?

My God, look at the last story in the book. It is literally hacked out of the Bristol. It’s unbearable.


Whether his style is “intentional” or not, I don’t care. Sure there are deliberate choices. Those choices, to me, illustrate the limitations of his skill and vision. Line is line. Gary Panter’s line is strong, subtle; there are ebbs and flows. Same with R. Crumb and Mark Beyer (to use an example from the comments section)—there are discernible modulations of line that indicate a craftsman in control. I don’t get that with Heatley.

So what that he’s got the guts to show these sides of himself? There’s little craft, no narrative—just memory fragments arranged like a list. A brilliant strategy for a Truffaut movie but it doesn’t work in this comic. Or any of his comics, come to think of it. Dreams, lists of sexcapades, lists of people. Nothing adds up into a satisfying read. I’m sure to David it’s fascinating. But these anemic story arcs coupled with the Matt Feazell-like wizardry in the art department make for a profoundly disappointing “debut.”

TIM: The weird thing is, in a lot of ways I agree with you, Frank. There’s no question that David’s work so far is limited—to say the least—both in terms of craft and theme. I happen to think his drawing style works really well for those themes, but I hear you. I also agree with you (and disagree with Dan) about a lot of his storytelling. That “Black History” story in particular, as you point out, is far more meandering than anything Joe Matt has ever done, and ends kind of anti-climatically. As you imply, it’s just one thing after another. The “Kin” story, too, ends abruptly (and that’s one story where I agree that David’s drawings are simply not up-to-snuff). But…

But at the same time, I still find his work compelling, often despite myself. Somehow, as David put it in that CC3 interview, “content [leaks] in almost from the outside” despite the fact that he leaves out so much. All the little anecdotes (most of which are actually pretty mundane) trigger half-buried memories and emotions when I read them, evoke barely remembered events in my own life (usually quite different from David’s), and create a reading experience I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from any other auto-bio cartoonist, even those who I think are far superior in terms of craft and artistic ability, and whose work I probably value more highly in the end: Chester Brown, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, Crumb, etc. All the same, I can’t deny that Heatley’s work seems unique to me. (Though sometimes I wonder if the taboo nature of much of his material may make me overvalue them… I don’t know.)

And also, as I said before, I do think that somehow by putting all these stories together, as inconclusive and unsatisfying as they can be when set apart, they combine in context into something more nuanced and “whole”. The portraits of his mother and father in particular seem almost revelatory after reading the sex and race stories—suddenly a lot of weird, unexplained things in those stories spring into focus.

Finally, I really don’t think that Heatley always shows himself doing the right thing. Did you read the part where he was a camp counselor, urinating on a young child? Did you read the part where he freaked out and yelled at the medical workers in the maternity ward? There’s something there in your criticism, maybe, but it’s a lot more complicated than you’re admitting. I think, anyway. Over to you for now.

FRANK: (Round three—jab, jab, jab.) Look, I’m going on my “gut” reaction to his work. I don’t like it. And the more people try and “convince” me that his choices are artful and inventive, the more I feel indifferent to his work.

When Crumb creates a narrative of riding a woman’s shoe when he was a child and getting off on it, it’s a beautiful, repulsive, remarkable expression of lines and forms.

David’s typical choice: to use small, rhythmic panels that quickly build the scene like notes to one’s self–just do not satisfy me as a reader. There is little arc building and narrative give and take, or even a beginning and end. It’s like being told an anecdote.

These anecdotes, in the “Sex History” for example, can sometimes unite the narrative. But in “Black History”, the thread that binds it all is simply “race” and that just leaves me cold. There’s little cohesion. It’s a catalog. It’s not interesting to me. Not challenging.

“Black History” is a totally boring, list-like collection of stories, that begin and end abruptly. There’s no real narrative thread like in the “Sex History” story. That story “works” because the sexual act is the thread. That’s what connects the stories, the memories. The thread of “race” is not enough to sustain the narrative. And that might be fine for a two- or three-page comic with fifty panels per page, but for a comic of this density to go on and on and on is borderline torture for the reader.

I do agree with you that his work creates associations of long dormant memories, and that is different from “the Browns” (Chester and Jeffrey), but again, SO WHAT?


It’s totally boring. And right when I thought, “this is Black History story is totally boring”, David provides an “Interlude” where his Dad says the magic words, “Goddamn Nigger Bitch”, which will haunt David until the end of this insanely long and tedious story. (More on that later when we have the scanner. Wait ’til you see the end of “Black History”!)

TIM: Okay. Well like I just said, I agree with you on the “Black History” piece! At least on its general formlessness.

As far as “SO WHAT?”, I don’t know, I guess I do think that evoking an emotional response is a valid artistic goal. Do you really disagree? If so, you should say why! I’m interested.

Eric Reynolds weighs in with a pretty amazing comment, which everyone should read for themselves in full. But I wanted to respond to a few bits from it, because it brought up a few things I eventually wanted to get around to talking about, anyway.

First: “I liked “Sexual History” when I first read it. At the very least, it indulged my voyeuristic tendencies enough to enjoy the ride. But I also wondered if I was enjoying it in spite of David, because my armchair psychologizing/reading often seemed at odds with the author’s own conclusions (or my own interpretation of them, anyway).”

That really rings true for me, because I think that on the few times David includes his conclusions (such as the new ending to the sex story, the record reviews and shout-outs in “Black History”, etc.), they almost always seem to be at least somewhat wrong-headed, and to undercut, or to be undercut by, the story itself. For me, that kind of paradoxically adds to the whole experience, though yeah, it’s kind of a similar fascination to that which I sometimes get from reading Dave Sim (not that I’m accusing David of being Sim!) or even from the Dick Ayers autobiography. There are more layers to the comics than the cartoonist seems to realize or understand.

Second: “One thing I tend to agree with Frank about is that although I consider myself pretty thick-skinned when it comes to political incorrectness, I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself.”

[UPDATE: Eric modified his thoughts on this a bit later.]

Here I want to be really clear that I agree that the story is at the very least kind of questionable in terms of its approach to race. When I disagreed with Frank over this story, I was disagreeing with how Frank characterized the way Heatley presents himself in the story. I think he intentionally implicates himself several times. That being said, the more I think about the story, the more I wonder if the whole conception of it wasn’t flawed, as Eric suggests. The approach that successfully worked with sex doesn’t seem nuanced enough to deal with a topic this complicated.

I get the feeling that Heatley must’ve realized this himself, at least subconsciously, which may be why he included the really weird record reviews and shout-outs (to which, too, yeah, I agree with Frank: they come off as condescending). The weirdest of all may be his review of the TV show The Wire on the last page (I don’t know if this is what you’re referring to, Frank), where Heatley writes, “It’s certainly the only TV show to alter my race consciousness. I notice certain young black men who would have been invisible to me before, hidden behind the screen of my own ignorance and fear. I’d like to think I know something of their stories now. … Did you know it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, too?” Now The Wire is a great show, don’t get me wrong, but this bone-headed, totally self-unaware statement, coming after some dozens of pages of pretty intense racial encounters, is a real WTF moment.

FRANK: Round four. Rope-a-dope.

The “SO WHAT” factor is large for me. It’s too easy. I’ve seen so many students, amateurs, AND professionals use “provocation” as an artistic stance. These creators are calculating (to a degree) what the readers’ emotional response will be, and I feel manipulated by the creator’s choices. I don’t like having my buttons pushed in art just for the sake of it. Generally, I think this masks the artist’s shortcomings.

From the comments section: “Is the motivation to make a good comic, or is it just picking a taboo subject so people talk about and buy the book?”

Dreams, sex stories, “Darkies”, and Dad. Heatley’s subject matter in a nut-sack, er, shell. Nut-shell.

(I have to make one last comment about the “Black History” story. It’s when the “Mumia Abu-Jamal” section starts (he went to some rallies). There’s a largish panel at the bottom of the page where the Mumia rallies begin that is like a record review. It begins, “Mumia, blah, blah, blah, I read his book, blah, blah”, and concludes with, “My wife and I joined his movement in mid-summer 1995.” Bully for you, David. Thanks for sharing.)

And then there’s David and Women.

It is interesting that the first depiction of a woman in the book is being punched in the face by David. And the first story in the “race” section contains the scene described above where David is fucking a Black woman from behind. Curious. What IS his intention in these stories? Wait. Forget it. I DON’T CARE!!

TIM: Okaay. And I don’t really have the energy right now, so I’m probably done for tonight, and won’t respond with final thoughts until tomorrow. Anyway, feel free to keep arguing in the comments ’til then.

TIM: All right. I’ve gotten some sleep, and maybe a little second wind. Though I have to say, I think my initial prediction about neither of us convincing the other seems like it’s going to come true. Basically, I don’t know where we can go from here, really, seeing as you “don’t care” what Heatley’s intentions are. That’s kind of a brick wall in terms of discussion.

But, a few quick final(?) thoughts:

First, I don’t think the charge that Heatley is manipulating his audience really rings true to me. He certainly does provoke emotional responses, but he also, I think, engages the reader’s intellect as well. To bring up the Dave Sim comparison again: Sim’s a guy who tries to manipulate his readers, by using various rhetorical tricks, and jerry-rigging his evidence and arguments. Heatley generally does the opposite; he usually presents events without analysis or comment, leaving it up to the reader to make sense of them. (In the few occasions where he does provide analysis, such as the new final page of the sex story, or in the “record reviews” of his race story, I think they weaken his work, as mentioned earlier. But those are relatively rare occasions.)

Second, I don’t think there’s any way to be sure about Heatley’s motivations in tackling these taboo subjects. Are they exploitative, or courageous? Or both? I don’t know, and while I understand why people would suspect bad faith on Heatley’s part, I don’t think I ultimately agree. Despite what you have said, he simply does portray himself in an often unflattering light. I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the “truth” as well as he can, at least most of the time. And I don’t think it makes sense to say first that he tries to make himself always look good, and then once you admit that he doesn’t, say that it doesn’t matter. Either it matters, or it doesn’t!

Third, and I realize this is only my opinion, and can’t really be argued, but despite the many failings I think can be attributed to “Black History”, I really didn’t find it boring. Exhausting? Sure. (Kind of like this Cage Match, maybe.) But not boring. And I think that the fact that you read the story, which is quite long, under less than ideal conditions—standing in a bookstore (please correct me if I am mistaken—rather than in a comfortable chair, at leisure, with time to digest the content, might have made it more difficult to engage with the story I get the impression from reading your comments that you haven’t really fully engaged with Heatley’s story, or given it the time and thought it deserves to be fair to it. I think that whatever Heatley may get wrong, his stories more or less demand strong engagement if the reader is going to do them justice. He doesn’t spoon feed you; you have to decide for yourself. (And yes, I acknowledge that Heatley’s choice of subject matter is going to cause a lot of people not to want to engage just on principle. But I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction isn’t a very fair or fruitful way to think about his work.)

Fourth, I want to second Eric’s opinion in the comments about David’s design sense, which I think is indeed strong. I also think that we haven’t acknowledged just how good David is at isolating evocative, resonant, telling moments, which greatly enhances his storytelling.

Finally, I think Heatley’s weaknesses and virtues as an artist are tightly interwoven. You have to work out for yourself whether it’s worth the effort to read him. For myself, I have to say that for all my problems with his work, I find it unique, memorable, and occasionally powerful. I’m glad I’ve read him; his stories, warts and all, have expanded my concept of what comics can do.

Over to you.

TIM: Oh, and this isn’t really a good place to put it, but I did want to highlight part of a comment from Tom Spurgeon that I thought was particularly smart, and made a point I hadn’t considered, but which seems obvious in retrospect:

“The thing I don’t like about the pink bars in the sex story is that it changes the context by which he refused to treat his wife the same way as the rest of the people in the book, which I thought was hilarious and somehow meaningful in ways other than the obvious ways.”

Okay, I’m done.

FRANK: Round five (circle, keep feet moving.)

All strong arguments, Tim.

I agree that Heatley’s work is complicated. And that my “knee-jerk” reaction (“I don’t like it, it’s boring.”—I still say it’s boring, no matter how many wacky things happen in the story) is not a sufficient counter-argument, but what else can I say? Even when I totally love something, I often don’t have that much to say about it. Formally, it’s interesting, but not overly so. Deadening and repetitive is a more apt description. If I were to dissect it page by page, I’m sure I’d find some surprises, but it just leaves me cold. I look at stuff like Fun Home and think the same thing: “It’s good, but it doesn’t do anything for me.” Totally different styles, approaches, goals, but still in the “I don’t care” category. When someone says they think Brian Chippendale is boring, and that they don’t like it, what am I supposed to say to them? I say, “OK, that’s cool.” I don’t try and convince people that they need to investigate that further. That’s what the TCJ message board is for. I don’t do that. And while the point of this Cage Match may be to convince each other of the work’s merits or its failings, I just don’t have much else to say.

And if I talk about why it makes me angry, or that I think Heatley is a self-centered careerist, then it just sounds like sour grapes.

When I learned that the original sub-title for “Black History” was “To All My Niggas”, it made me angry. Do I have to qualify that feeling I had/have? Why? Why is the onus on me, the reader?

You write, “I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the ‘truth’ as well as he can, at least most of the time.” Funny how his “White privilege” is never really discussed. He doesn’t pull back like in the record reviews and provide a context for his actions/thoughts. He’ll show his Dad using racial slurs, but not much else in the way of “background” or a lucid self-analysis, except within the spare narrative. There are plenty of occasions where he shows himself “looking bad”, but I think that’s just part of the endless list of anecdotes. I don’t feel that it balances out the “looking good”. It’s a self-serving narrative device.

To me, he “gets away” with a lot because the work is sort of beyond reproach because it’s auto-biographical. In a work of fiction, there would be an artifice that would act as a filter. Here the rawness is unsettling. That’s its strength, but it’s also a crutch. He’s always free to expose, expose, expose. He’s “beyond criticism” as someone wrote in the comments section. It’s extremely difficult to pin down why it pisses me off, but it does. He’s a good person in his comics, he’s a bad person. So what. We all are in real life. Heatley “investigates” this. So what. Is it good art? To some, sure. To me, it sucks, I don’t like it. I have problems with it. Obviously.

And lastly: I wonder what his rock star buddy Tunde from TV on the Radio has to say about his “Shout-Out” in the book?

TIM: I wonder about that, too. It would be interesting to know; maybe he likes it? In any case, it looks like we’ve reached an impasse here. You’ve raised some good points, even if I ultimately mostly disagree with you. But I don’t want to keep rehearsing the same arguments, and it may be that we are (finally) coming to a kind of natural close here for the Cage Match. Dan wants to weigh in one more time, but probably won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow, due to the New York Art Book Fair. Until then, everyone should feel free to keep arguing in the comments.

TIM: Dan? Are you out there?

DAN: Well, for now, I’ll bow out. Seems like all has been said that could be said. I would like to weigh in again at some point, mostly in defense of the book as a book, and my own feeling that it’s largely successful on its own terms. I suppose I come down with Tim on most things, but frankly I am also too burnt out on this ongoing book fair and other pressing work to be able to post anything nearly as thoughtful or cogent as what Tim has done, not to mention many others. I think this has been by and large a really fascinating discussion. Thanks.

TIM: That’s it, folks. Thanks, and good night.

UPDATE: David Heatley responds.

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On a Roll


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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


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Here are some things on my desktop. Things that will take action shortly. Or remind me of something I did before and would like to do again. Or are otherwise somewhat relevant to CC.

(Finally!) This masterpiece will be in stores in a couple weeks.
This is a whole other book.


Nice Blexbolex painting, circa 2007.


This will be on ebay soon.

Bob Zoell is a genius.


Some cover roughs for our edition of Storeyville.


I do love Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings.


Entryway to King Terry’s office, circa 2006.

This may or may not have happened in Greece last month.


This guy will be in the next Art Out of Time

So will this guy.

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Two Links and an Announcement


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Tuesday, October 21, 2008


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Here’s two kinda old links that I never got around to putting up here, but I thought I’d do it now, before I forget:

1. A pretty amazing reflection on Charles Crumb by Spurious.

2. Richard O’Connor on animating with Kim Deitch.

And here’s the announcement: Cage Match 3 is about to begin! Probably tomorrow morning (or Thursday at the latest). Topic: David Heatley‘s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down. Dan’s probably sitting this one out, so your participation will be appreciated. Stay tuned.

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