Lately there has been an attempt to flesh out what constitutes good comics criticism. There was a Hooded Utilitarian roundtable on the topic and Ben Schwartz has edited a soon-to-be-released book titled Best American Comics Criticism. But it is worth remembering that there is a lot of bad criticism out there, which is also worth describing and demarcating. For me, one of the worst pieces of comics criticism I’ve ever read was Harold Bloom’s review of Crumb’s Genesis in the December 3, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Perhaps wisely, the New York Review hasn’t made more than a snippet of this idiotic review available. But some early sentences are telling: “Staring at the women and men of Crumb’s Genesis, I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine. To my untutored view the work of Crumb recalls that publication yet somehow also is touched with what I remember as the doughty proletarian style of Ben Shahn.” As this makes clear, Bloom doesn’t have the background or equipment to say anything useful about Crumb as a visual artist. For most of the rest of the review he talks not about Crumb but about other things that spring to his mind like Thomas Mann’s Joseph books. For a more thorough examination of Bloom’s review, with some choice quotes, see here.
1. Modernism came to America in 1913 via the Armory Show. One early response was this Mamma’s Little Angel page by Penny Ross , circa 1913 or 1914, where the lead character has “a cubist nightmare in the studio of Monsieur Paul Vincetn Cezanne Van Gogen Ganguin.” (The page can be found in the great Smithsonian book edited by Blackbeard and Williams.) This page is an early example of a common joke, later repeated by Frank King and Cliff Sterrett, where American domesticity and “normality” is turned upside down by modern art.
CC reader and my new pal Michel Fiffe (who has a great blog) sent me an email about a comic near and dear to my heart. Outsiders Annual #1 is a great color comic that I’ve written about and pushed on True Believers for years.
The artist behind the book, Kevin Nowlan, has posted some versions of page one of the comic. It’s interesting to see how he composes the pages for the balloons and text. There’s so much text! American comics are so…dense.
I just think adding superheroes to something instantly makes it more interesting. I have a friend who says every movie should either be a Spider-Man movie, or at least have Spider-Man in it. [Laughs.] I thought it was such a brilliant quote. It kind of is true, in a weird way. Have you watched a low-budget British movie, you know, about a guy who’s unemployed trying to make ends meet, and how does he feed his family now that the coal mine’s closed? If you suddenly had Spider-Man in it, you’d be a little more interested. [Laughs.] If that guy had super powers or a costume or something. On some craft level, I think there’s an element of truth to that. I just find that superheroes instantly make a story more interesting.
This happened once. From 1966, the year of Batmania and The Monkees, I give you:
That’s right, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. It’s real, it’s here, you can Netflix it. One hour and twelve minutes. And if you don’t nod your head a little bit when the guitar line kicks in as he swings that cape around toward the camera then buddy, you know a different Silver Age than I.
And yes, according to legend, director Ray Dennis Steckler — best known for 1964′s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, but prior to that a cinematographer on legendary writer/producer/director/star Timothy Carey’s brain-searing, Frank Zappa-scored The World’s Greatest Sinner — was supposed to be making a perfectly normal ultra-low budget suspense picture, except after a while he got bored/panicked with the project’s development and, as I’d hope we’d all do in that situation, put together a pair of superhero costumes from stuff off the rack at Sears and finished the shoot in style. Someone has a gorilla suit? BOOM – action scene. A parade scheduled that week? They crashed the parade in costume and stole the footage for a set piece. However, the corollary legend, that Steckler didn’t want to pay to fix a fairly evident grammatical error in the title, is apparently not true – it was a little chant one of his kids started saying, so damn it, that was title.
Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a lot like Kick-Ass, in that they’re both about superheroes in a ‘real’ world that obviously a total fake. But Steckler’s picture accomplishes this by purely cinematic and almost certainly accidental means, in that it ‘answers’ the completed footage of the crime movie it was supposed to be with acutely improvised capes ‘n tights antics, sprinkled with barely-relevant home movie footage cut A Hard Day’s Night-style to songs by leading man Ron Haydock, a rockabilly crooner supporting himself by writing scores of disreputable adult novels (and a few comics scripts for Warren magazines on the side, under the pseudonym Arnold Hayes). All boundaries between reality and fiction and art and assemblage are obliterated by the movie’s frantic lunge toward saleability, and by its effort it exhausts itself into a shambling heap of genre suggestion – if the Batman show was a slickly professional, comparatively desexualized variant cover of, say, Mike & George Kuchar, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo doubles right back to source material, the old Batman serials, transmitted in the form of a child’s daydream, half-understood real world anxieties careening into romper room escapades set to whatever’s on the radio nearby, pretty much. Like, there’s no sync sound or anything.
Wasn’t that last shot the end of The Warriors? I don’t think this has quite the same appeal – actually I suspect most people will find it to be lethally inane if not completely unwatchable, but there’s something to be said for a hard-headed exploitation film that does literally everything wrong, to the point where its very commercial intent is called into question. Pair it up with straight-arrow bullshit like Jerry Warren’s The Wild World of Batwoman from the same year and the difference is plain – Steckler is coming from a deeply goofy, weirdly personal place, committing to film the most inexplicable longbox find of your entire convention season.
Anyway, I’m confident that any of the fine artists listed below would be proud to have their work deemed the Rat Pfink a Boo Boo of comics of 2010. Immortality isn’t pretty, but it lasts.
So, Dan has asked me to write something about “Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964-1973.” Since I don’t want to completely rehash what’s in the exhibition catalogue, I think I will approach this from what I think the exhibition offers as a corrective to the dominant North American image of Garo—a venue for highly inventive and very funny, but supremely crass material, with lots of deskilled drawing, gross body humor, and non-sequitur narratives—an image informed by anthologies like Comics Underground Japan and PictureBox’s Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby that have translated work from the 1980s and ’90s. This standard image—I will call it “hetauma” (lit. “bad good,” i.e. deskilled, punk, et cetera) Garo for short—fits fairly well with contemporary ’70s-’80s underground comics in North America. The mutually adoring relationship between Gary Panter and Japan in the early ’80s is a good example of how there is a certain trans-national convergence of taste in alternative comics-making in that period which did not exist in the ’60s: Garo and Zap had little in common.
Ben “Bonzo Jr.” Jones recently opened an exhibition at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. See, that’s him, just below Andy. How is this related to comics? Well, only just barely, but PictureBox is releasing a book of work related to this show, and the book will include a new, substantial comic by Jonesy. Anyhow, here are some pix from the show. Next stop Lucerne with me and Jack Kirby.