by Dan Nadel
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Our own Tim talks In the Shadow of No Towers over at Comics Reporter. It’s a great read.
Our own Tim talks In the Shadow of No Towers over at Comics Reporter. It’s a great read.
The Comics Journal 300 carries a conversation between Kevin Huizenga and Art Spiegelman. During the course of the interview, Kevin brings up the idea of a Midwester school of cartooning, something that I’ve discussed in various essays on Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley. The conversation goes like this:
Huizenga:In one of the recent Annie reprints, Jeet Heer talks in the introduction about this idea of a Midwestern, or Chicago school of cartooning that was more preoccupied with everyday life and the quiet rhythms of everyday life. The style was quieter and more repetitive. I think you can definitely see how Ware fits in that tradition, and also he’s called more attention to that kind of cartooning. Visually, it might look boring, at first, to some people, but it’s a form that’s fitted to content. What they’re doing is comics about mundane things like talking to your wife, or whatever — the “little things.”
Spiegelman:I guess. But I think rather than just Midwest, I would make it Protestant, you know. Like they don’t have those ornate crucifixions.
Huizenga:I have those two strikes against me, I guess, here. [Laughter.]
Spiegelman:It’s definitely suspicious of ornament and exuberance…
A few points can be added to this discussion. I elaborate one what I mean by the Midwestern comics tradition in an interview with Tom Spurgeon in the Comics Reporter, where I talk about this school of art and how it links together Harold Gray and Chester Brown. Here’s a relevant part of that interview:
The geography of rural Illinois left a strong mark on Gray’s imagination, as can be seen if he’s compared to his Wisconsin-born colleague Frank King. In King’s work, the country-side is always rolling and sloping, with cars constantly sputtering up hills or flowing down valleys. In the early Little Orphan Annie strips, by contrast, once our heroine leaves the city, the countryside is as flat as a quilt spread out on a bed, each acre of farmland its own perfect square, with stacks of hay and isolated silos the only protrusions on the land. The flatness of the prairies, the prostrate manner in which the horizon spreads out as far as the eye can see, spoke to something deep in Gray’s imagination: it perhaps explains his sense of the isolation of human existence, the persistent feeling of loneliness his characters complain of, and their commensurate need to reach out to Annie and create strong (although temporary) families, with the orphan as their child.
Brown of course didn’t grow up in the prairies, which are the setting for Louis Riel. His childhood was spent in the very different landscape of Quebec. But I do think that appropriating Gray’s style helped Chester capture the landscape of western Canada, especially the flatness and isolation of the region. I do think there is a tradition of mid-western cartooning, a family tree that is rooted in John T. McCutcheon and extends to Clare Briggs, Harold Gray, Frank King (with a crazy branch that includes the grotesque approach of Chester Gould and Boody Rodgers). The latest branch of this tree is the alternative comics of Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, and Kevin Huizenga. Brown is interesting because he’s not from the mid-west at all, in fact is not even an American, but has absorbed the aesthetics of this
A few other points:
1. Spiegelman is on to something when he says that this is a Protestant tradition. What I’d say is that the tradition of Midwestern comics brings together various strands: partially regional tradition of vernacular, low-key literature (the line of George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner) with its focus on small town life, partially from the low church Protestant tradition of plainness, partially out of the Chicago Tribune’s populist stance. So I prefer the more expansive term Midwestern cartooning, which seems to bring most of these things together. But perhaps we could also say that this is Midwestern Wasp cartooning?
2. If we were doing a genealogy of ideas, credit for the concept of Midwestern catooning should go to Gilbert Seldes, who talked about the “Chicago school” in his 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts. In the 1980s, Richard Marschall revived the idea of Midwestern cartooning in a few scattered essays in Nemo magazine. I’ve tried to give a third life to the idea by linking up the great Chicago Tribune cartoonists of the 1920s with their modern counterparts like Ware and Huizenga.
Dan’s comments on the Toon Treasury got me thinking about anthology-making, an underappreciated craft. In the entire history of comics, there have only been a handful of great anthologies. Off the top of my head the following come to mind:
1. The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. A really great anthology, collecting the best strip comics from the early 20th century: Opper, McCay, Herriman, Sterrett, Gray, Segar, Crane, Gottfredson. This book is the foundation stone of the reprint renaissance we’re living through right now. There is no way, for example, that the Walt and Skeezix books would exist if the Smithsonian volume hadn’t published choice examples of King’s Sunday pages, which led Joe Matt and Chris Ware to collect Gasoline Alley strips. The book is particularly strong on the great long and rousing continuities of the 1930s that Blackbeard grew up reading: giving readers an extended sample of Wash Tubbs, Mickey Mouse, and Popeye at their violently exuberant best. It took me many years to figure out that the book has some limitations. The editors had no taste for adult observational humour panels, so there is no Clare Briggs or Gluyas Williams in the book. And because Blackbeard’s taste was so nostalgically oriented, the book peters out after 1945 or so. Still, this is an essential volume that anyone interested in comics should own.
2. The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. Dan has already said what needs to be said about the book. The one point I’d add is that it does a useful job in sorting out a canon of the really great kids cartoonists (Barks, Stanley, Kelly, Mayer) while providing enough material from other artists who did solid work so that readers get a sense of the scope of the genre.
3. Art Out of Time edited by Dan Nadel. This is probably too incestuous but I have to say this book looks better every time I return to it. This is especially true now that we have more books reprinting some of the artists from this anthology: what distinguishes the book is the fact that the stories Dan selected were both striking and emblematic of the cartoonists being displayed. About the only critique I’d make is that the comic book pages looked better than the newspaper Sunday pages reprinted. It might have been better to have two volumes, one devoted to the comic book stories and a larger book to the Sunday pages.
4. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, two volumes, edited by Ivan Brunetti. There is so much that could be said about these books. I love the connections they draw between classic cartoonists (notably Bushmiller, Kurtzman and Schulz) and alternative comics. Like Spiegelman and Mouly, and Dan as well, Brunetti is very smart about how he’s organized the book: the unexpected juxtaposition of certain artists (Forbell and Regé, Teal and Burns) ignites a new understanding of familiar material. And I like that the Crumb material is from his underrated middle period, and not the overly reprinted 1960s stuff. More subtly, Brunetti has a knack for picking out stories that stick in your mind. Much of this book was déjà vu for me, but that’s because so much of it is from the very stories that I’ve constantly been re-reading for the last twenty years.
5. McSweeney’s 13 edited by Chris Ware. All the praise of Brunetti’s book applies to this volume.
Aside from these books, there are a few near great anthologies: books that are very strong but more flawed, including A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams) and The Apex Treasury of Underground Comics (edited by Don Donahue and Susan Goodrick). The Smithsonian book suffers mainly from its half-hearted selection of superhero and action material (which either should have been more comprehensive or entirely left out), and the dull coloring of the reproduction. The Apex book gives a good selection of the main underground artists but many of them would go on to do stronger work (notably Spiegelman, Spain, and Deitch; actually also Crumb, now that I think of it). So it’s crying out to be republished in an expanded edition. Or perhaps someone can start from scratch and do an anthology of “The Essential Underground Comics”.
One interesting thing about good anthologies is how autobiographical they are. It’s no accident, I think, that the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics is strongest on those comics Blackbeard and Williams read when they were boys in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Toon Treasury is an outgrowth of the experience Spiegelman and Mouly had as parents, sharing Barks and Stanley with their kids. And some of the selections in the Toon Treasury are either personal interests of Spiegelman (Jack Cole), influences on his work (Gross, Kurtzman) or in one case his mentor (Woody Gelman). The Yale anthologies are really a record of the comics that shaped Brunetti’s own development as a cartoonist.
Anthology-making can thus be seen as a form of autobiography. A good anthologist is moved not just by objective considerations (who are the masters of the genre?) but also personal concerns (what are the works that speak to me?). This personal dimension of anthology-making extends outside of comics: consider Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, or John Metcalf’s many collections of Canadian short fiction, or Hugh Kenner’s volume of Seventeenth Century Poetry or the Subtreasury of American Humor edited by E.B. and Katharine White. All of these are anthologies that bear the impress of particular personalities, with items selected and organized to sharpen taste and perception.
PS: I should add that there are some very attractive-looking recent anthologies which I haven’t read yet: notably Abstract Comics by Andrei Molotiu. So if there are books that I missed, feel free to list them below in the comments section.
I imagine Makoto Aida being a kid who wanted to draw manga like Suehiro Maruo, and then the kid grew up to become a gallery artist. I don’t think he’s that well known in American comics circles, maybe because his work is so explicitly about Japan or because comics is a very small part of what he does. Like a lot of contemporary artists, he works across mediums: sculptures, paintings, performances, videos, plans for housing projects, whatever. He painted a quick Fuji watercolor image over his BFA diploma and sold it for the price of the university entrance fee. (After selling it he said: “Though I am not supposed to say, art is so strange.”) And he doesn’t make dividing the works easy; his (beautiful) monograph Monument for Nothing catalogs his works by color, as opposed to chronologically or by medium or theme. All of the mostly blue works are grouped together, the mostly white works, etc. He’ll break up a series of works if the colors of the individual parts are different.
His main comics effort, Mutant Hanako, is actually a continuation of his “War Picture Returns” series of paintings. Here’s how Aida describes the story, from Monument for Nothing: “With the setting of the Pacific War, it is a mixture of elements of extreme nationalism, brutal erotic depiction, and airheaded adventurous action, which as a whole is closer to simply ridiculous absurdity than a crazy constructed air castle.” There’s a good plot summary of the book here: http://everything2.com/title/Mutant+Hanako
In his more cartoony work, he alternates between very immediate drawings (Mutant Hanako is an example of that, and his “Minna to Issho” series) sort of like Takashi Nemoto and heta-uma (he’s described heta-uma as “a style of illustration and graphic design which was hot [in the eighties]”), and more illustrative, detailed images that resemble Suehiro Maruo. I like how it’s common among mangaka to draw in such a similar way to other mangaka. It’s like the drawings are just about functioning to create a story. The story/storytelling is where the individual is. But, in Aida’s case, he’s somewhere between being a regular fan mangaka and a pop artist. He’s using something that he likes, as Takashi Murakami does. But Aida’s much warmer than Murakami. Aida’s more like underground comics. It’s all very hand-done.
A side note:
I have the Japanese printing of Mutant Hanako and there’s an English translation of the work in the back of it. That’s rare among manga and more common among art books, so I don’t know if it’s because they thought of it as an art book more, or it could possibly be in reference to the crazy American/Japanese relationships in the Mutant Hanako story. Anyway, I’d like to see more of these limited-audience manga be translated on separate pamphlets (by an English publisher/distributor) that would then be inserted into the original printing of the book, and then distributed online through the English publisher. Obviously it isn’t as ideal as a fully translated new book, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to manga translations with such a small potential audience.