Toth’s Phallic-Sensitive Staging & Other Notes
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Toth’s phallic-sensitive staging. A 1950s romance comic, one that features a stereotypically weepy woman crying over her love life, is normally not where you would expect to see a commentary on erectile dysfunction. Yet take a look at “Man of My Heart,” (New Romance #16, June 1953 and illustrated by Alex Toth, author unknown). The story is about Pris, a young woman torn between two lovers: Jim Foster who is a long time friend her own age and the much older Dan London, a distinguished gent and friend of her deceased father. Like the knights of old, Dan and Jim compete for Pris’s love by trying to best each other in an athletic competition. Take a look at the key climatic tier on the final page where Dan gallantly explains why he’s bowing out of the competition. “”There’s no compensation for real youth … or the complete sharing of the things you two alone can have!” Dan says in the last panel of the tier. Toth has carefully cropped the panel so that we don’t see Dan’s face, only his torso. He’s wearing a bathrobe with the cords dangling down. Off in the bottom right-hand corner of the panel we see the outline of Pris’s face with an eye lash, an eye brow and part of her hair and an earring. But we can’t see her eyes and have no sense of what she is thinking. Dan’s incompletely viewed body is contrasted with Pris’s incompletely viewed face. The discordance between body and face underscores the theme of sexual incompatibility. Is there any doubt that Toth is underscoring the point that as an older man Dan won’t be able to sexually satisfy Pris? Aside from this, the story is overloaded with phallic symbols: a cane, swords, tennis rackets, a long cigarette holder. The story is both post-Freud and pre-Viagra. Derik Badman offers another reading of the story and more excerpts here. The whole story was also reprinted in Alex Toth: Edge of Genius Vol. 2.
The Eisners and the Shop System. Will Eisner helped create the shop system whereby the making of comics was broken down into industrial parts – writing, drawing, inking, coloring, et cetera. So it is appropriate that the award named after Eisner should be predicated on the logic of the shop system. By giving awards to each component part of the creative process (best writer, best artist, etc.) the Eisners assume that the division of labour is an inextricable part of comics. The Eisners honour the creator of the Spirit in more ways than one.
Post underground, pre-alternative. Gary Panter and Mark Beyer were both born in 1950, Charles Burns in 1955, Lynda Barry in 1956, Matt Groening in 1959. Is it possible to see these five as a coherent generation, a cohort with shared artistic concerns that distinguish them (however slightly) from the older underground generation of the late 1960s and the alternative comics generation of the 1980s. The connections are manifold: Barry and Burns went to high school together and later at college met Groening. Aside from Burns’ ultra-polished style, the other four often draw with a scratchy, ratty line. All of them (even Burns in an odd sort of way) have explored the two-dimensionality of comics images, and designed panels and pages with an eye for decorative effect. All five are interested in making things as well as making comics: dolls, toys, knick-knacks. Monsters and ghouls are a common theme in their work, and they cherish the pop culture debris of the monster craze of the 1960s. Lacking a foothold in either head-shops or comic books shops, they’ve all had to find outlets apart from the regular comics world, often in weekly alternative newspapers. If they are a generation we need a name for them.
What are you working on? I’m sometimes asked what I’m up to. So here is a quick reference for the curious. In the coming year I’ll have long, substantive essays in the following books: 1. “Walt and Skeezix,” in Best American Comics Criticism of the 21st Century (Ben Schwartz editor, Fantagraphics) – this is an expanded version of the introduction to the first Walt and Skeezix volume. 2. “Inventing Cartooning Ancestors: Ware and the Comics Canon” in The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (Martha B. Kuhlman and David M. Ball, editors, University Press of Mississippi). 3. Introduction to Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, volume 1 (Rick Norwood editor, Fantagraphics). 4. Introduction to Frank King’s Walt and Skeezix, volume 4 (Chris Ware, Jeet Heer, and Chris Oliveros editors, Drawn and Quarterly) 5. Introduction to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, volume 5 (Dean Mullaney editor, IDW). 6. Introduction to Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer, volume 1 (Rick Norwood editor, Fantagraphics). If the gods are favourable, there might be one or two other books in the coming year.
The Graveyard of mediocre anthologies. During the 1980s and 1990s, Fantagraphics published lots of good comics but also more than a few undistinguished, run-of-the-mill anthologies. I have a box full of them: Prime Cuts, Graphic Story Monthly, Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, Honk, Itchy Planet, Street Music, Real Girl, Pictopia. I call this box the graveyard of mediocre anthologies. The problem with these books wasn’t that they were bad, but that they were half-good. They’d have one or two good stories but they would be diluted by filler material: the good stories were “grapes in a barrel of sawdust” to use Ezra Pound’s words. In the era of Raw and Weirdo, both edited with strong (indeed overpowering) agendas, the Fantagraphics anthologies were curiously tepid and aimless. It took Fantagraphics a fair bit of time to figure out that anthology-making requires editorial vision. Snake Eyes, assembled by Glenn Head and Kaz, was the first Fantagraphics collection where all the stories jelled to so that the total package was more than the sum of the parts. Blab is also part of this story but it always only had one foot in the comics world. Since then, there has been a steady improvement with Zero Zero, Dirty Stories, Beasts, and Mome, which are almost all grapes with only a sprinkling of sawdust. And of course I’ve already praised Hotwire, which is a continuation in some ways of Snake Eyes. Any complete history of Fantagraphics will have to tell the story of how they slowly learned to put together interesting anthologies.
Paging Humbert Humbert. Back in the Mort Weisinger era, Superman was bedeviled by the LL curse. He kept coming across people with the initials LL: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor. In the same manner, the world of comics seems full of guys with the initials BB. A rundown: 1. Bob Bolling – Little Archie’s cartoonist. 2. Bart Beaty – European comics expert. 3. Bill Blackbeard – collector and editor extraordinaire. 4. Blake Bell – Ditko biographer. 5. The late Bob Bindig, comics collector and cartoonist. 6. Brian Boyd, the great Nabokov biographer and explicator, who turns out to have an interest in comics as well. Boyd is especially appropriate because Nabokov loved alliteration (remember Humbert Humbert). Has any noticed how appropriately named two of the great Nabokov scholars are. In addition to Brian Boyd there is Alfred Appel, Jr.