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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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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The Bunk Starts Here, or, Ground Well Trod, Trod Once More


Sunday, June 18, 2006

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Superheroes and social issues usually don’t mix well. Whether it’s Superman crying because he’s unable to prevent famine in Africa (which actually seems like the kind of problem he could solve if he really wanted to), or the Justice League coming face to face with the fact that being raped by a supervillain can turn a woman into a psychopathic killer (for those who don’t follow superhero comics, that story was actually published, just last year, as DC’s flagship title), their engagement with complicated “adult” problems is generally puerile, hystrionic, and more likely to belittle the issues involved than to clarify them.

This kind of superficial treatment of complicated ideas in superhero comics saw its apotheosis in the 1970s, when writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams (who currently moonlights as a plate tectonics skeptic) teamed up for a series of Green Arrow/Green Lantern adventures, with the heroes joining forces to confront such social ills as racism and drug addiction.

These stories are still celebrated in some circles today as somehow breaking important ground, though they are basically the embarrasingly dated equivalents to the “very special episodes” of bad sitcoms.

Basically, the quest to depict superheroes as “all grown up” is just a bad idea at the outset—so far, to my knowledge, this artistic strategy has worked exactly once. (And no, I don’t consider The Dark Knight Returns to be “grown-up”; that book works best when the reader is fifteen years old. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.) Superheroes are the vehicle for adolescent power fantasies, more or less by definition.

Which is not to say that the superhero story is a bankrupt genre or that its tropes are incapable of being used to great effect; it’s just that like any other genre, superhero stories have built-in limitations. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s early Spider-Man stories do a remarkable job within those limits, as do Frank Miller’s later Daredevil comics, at a slightly more sophisticated level.

(More obliquely, Chris Ware has shown that the iconic value of Superman can be used quite effectively to very different purposes in his early Jimmy Corrigan stories, and more obliquely still, Ursula K. Le Guin has shown the very complicated and profound ramifications of power fantasy in her original Earthsea trilogy, despite the fact that it features wizards instead of super-powered aliens. (Anyone interested in the potential triumphs and pitfalls inherent to fantasy for young adults should pick up a copy of her essay collection The Language of the Night posthaste.))

I’ve rambled on far too long already, so I’m going to end this here for now. So far I’ve just been leading up to what I really want to talk about, a sixty-year-old superhero comic that deals extremely successfully with a grave political problem. On Wednesday, I’ll reveal the masterpiece in question. If you can’t wait (and I’m sure most of you can’t, this is so exciting), I’ll leave you with a one-word hint: Shazam.

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Some Recent Finds (MoCCA edition)


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

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Ok, there were some real material benefits of MoCCA besides the aches and pains described below. I picked up two excellent comics (and some other really good ones, but these stand out).

First, Knitting For Whitsun by John Bagnall. Bagnall is a British cartoonist who has been around since the ’80s. He tells particularly English stories with a smooth, sinewy line that’s somewhere between psychedelic and, as he puts it, ‘musty’. His attention to the particularities of Englishness brings to mind vintage Kinks songs; it’s all in the carefully chosen details and dry, bemused wit. He has some fine features, like “Disappearing Phrases”, about exactly that in British culture, as well as reprints of weekly comic strips that, Ben Katchor-like, examine Bagnall’s urban English terrain. Bagnall has something to say and a lived-in voice that makes these tales a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

And second, Kim Deitch was sitting down the row from the PictureBox booth selling his wares and dispensing wisdom. I picked up a copy of BANZAI!, a 1978 title by Deitch and underground peers Roger Brand and Joel Beck. Kim wryly told me that he’s the only living artist of the three; Brand and Beck apparently both lived a bit too hard for their own good and passed away in 1985 and 1999 respecitvely. Anyhow, this comic book contains a couple of stories by each artist. Deitch’s central piece is a hilarious romp about a porn store robbery and features one of his more arresting images (it involves a bullet and a blow up doll). Beck’s stories are amusing anecdotal yarns, but the real surprise here are Roger Brand’s two stories. Brand was an assistant to Wally Wood and it shows. One story, “In More Innocent Times” documents Brand’s youthful excesses in Berkeley in fine lined Wood detail. Another story, “The Longstain Taint”, is a Faust-like story of compromise rendered in thick brushstrokes reminiscent of (that other icon of comics) Harvey Kurtzman’s best 1950s work. It’s compelling reading and Brand seems engulfed by it. The stories are verbose and densely rendered, reeking of a kind of desperation you don’t feel much anymore. They read like stories that had to come out. I never thought much of Brand, but these two tales make me want to explore him a bit more. I often forget that much of the underground was about telling stories of all kinds and packing as much into a short story as possible. It’s a ’50s comic book model, rather than than a literary one; constrained by the boundaries of the comic book genre at the time. The ambition was in the work at hand, not the career. BONZAI! is a great glimpse at some fine work by the still-top-of-his-game Deitch and two underground talents that never quite made it.

Finally, I got to spend some time with PShaw, the Boston-based cartooning enigma. I highly recommend all of PShaw’s comics (particularly his Strings book), and was lucky enough to have a look at his original art as well. His meticulous lines and ink washes are miracles of cartoon imagery. We hope to feature him further in an upcoming issue of our little mag.

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Our Invasion of the Nation’s Cultural Consciousness Begins


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

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In this week’s issue of the trade newspaper Advertising Age, “Media Guy” Simon Dumenco has astutely chosen this publication as his current “Pop Pick”.

‘Comics Comics’ ($5 by Internet order) is a new mini-mag that “aims to document contemporary and past comics, from a pluralistic, affectionate, but critical standpoint.” If that sounds a little heady, well, it is–and things get equally quasi-scholarly at, where you can find loving meditations on the artistry of greats such as Scrooge McDuck father Carl Banks [sic]. But you don’t have to be a comics nerd to get inspired by the beautiful art. … Comics Comics shares creators and contributors with The Ganzfeld, an art annual … that shares a similar passion for thinky illustration. Check out and roll your mouse over the letters of the logo to view a supercool animation by Flash genius Patrick Smith. And then amuse yourself further by visiting his web site,

Now we just sit back and wait for the flood of advertising requests from Courvoisier and Aston Martin, anxious to get in on this whole “graphic novel” craze everyone’s talking about. (Actually, come to think of it, if we were really that smart and marketing-savvy, we should have called the magazine Graphic Novels Graphic Novels.)

Also, sometime soon we will begin presenting actual, not just self-promoting material again. We felt like we needed to give you a chance to catch your breath and rest your mind a little first. We’ll start learning you again but soon.

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In the News


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

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Dan hit the big time this weekend, finally recognized for his “comic book guru” status by that noted cartooning periodical, The Washington Post.