by Dan Nadel
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Your Pshaw! for the day is brought to you by Comics Comics 4, which features yet more of the above gag series.
Your Pshaw! for the day is brought to you by Comics Comics 4, which features yet more of the above gag series.
It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to try and keep the hype for Lauren R. Weinstein‘s amazing new The Goddess of War to a minimum on this blog, even though it’s clearly the best adventure/science fantasy/romance/Western comic book released in years, if not ever. (I’m not biased.)
But just this once, here’s some TGoW-related news:
1. New York magazine presents a special preview excerpt!
2. Lauren has started a blog. (We’ll see how long that lasts. Enjoy it while you can.)
3. There will be a signing/release party for the book from 4 to 7 pm this Sunday, at Desert Island in Brooklyn, which will also feature the debut of a brand-new silkscreen print and a new window installation Lauren (& friends) created for the store.
6. And finally, as mentioned once before, the PictureBox site is currently featuring a photographic tour of her studio.
* A cover story and interview with the mysterious Shaky Kane
* An editorial on the declining profile of traditional comic books by Sammy Harkham
* Brian Chippendale on all the latest superhero comics
* A list from an anonymous but highly regarded cartoonist
Gilbert Hernandez has just released the last issue of one of the most exciting and enjoyable comics mini-series in years. Why hasn’t this been seriously reviewed? Maybe the critics are all waiting for the trade paperback to come out. Isn’t that always the way? I can’t tell you how many people revealed to me that they haven’t been reading this series, that they are “waiting for the trade”.
Well, their loss. Cuz, for me, this was a series that got me back into the comic store, looking for it every month. When I guessed right and checked the stands on the day the last issue was released, it was a thrill. A thrill to spy it on the shelf, and a thrill to race home and read it under lamplight, and a thrill to have the shit scared out of me during the finale. Isn’t this part of the experience of being a fan of a series, of a periodical? How could “waiting for the trade” beat the ratcheting up of suspense from month to month, as I wait for the next issue? It couldn’t. But unfortunately that’s the world comics are released in these days. It’s as though the issues are just an advertisement for the trade paperback collection.
I can’t bring myself to really review the last issue of Speak of the Devil. My Beto fix and the high I got from this series are too out there to really explain. I’m in love with his layouts. They are incredibly sophisticated and have an architecture all their own. Gilbert knows what he’s doing, trust me. You might not dig the style he’s employing but you can’t NOT see how Beto uses rhythm and tone like a musician. His comics are a complex code of directions and signs, symbols, minor and major keys.
The drum I keep beating with this comic is that, for me, it’s really like some obscure late night TV noir directed by Fritz Lang that at first glance is campy, has awkward dialogue, is in black and white: most viewers flip past it, miss it, miss the purposeful staging, “blocking” of each scene, maybe watch a bizarre fight scene or a wooden kiss, but usually discard the lot as pulp, genre, formula. Yet that Fritz Lang movie and this Beto comic are equal in INTENT. They are genuinely artful, terrifying and strange, playful almost, and these poems go unnoticed by most because they’re not really LOOKING. It’s incredible. I feel like the attentive geeky fan going LOOK! Look at what he’s doing! Triple backflip and he nailed the landing! It’s the Beto Olympics!
And I then I ask around and no one’s read it yet, and I think, You’ve gotta be kidding! You didn’t see that as it happened? And that’s the bummer of this post comics pamphlet era for alt and art comics. But that’s another story …
Oh boy, Comics Comics 4 will debut at Comic-Con! This one’s got Shaky Kane, Dan Zettwoch, Woody Gelman, Brian Chippendale, Sammy Harkham, Joe McCulloch, Mike Reddy, PShaw!, Eamon Espey, Benjamin Marra, Berserk, and much much more (well, just a little more). Come by and grab one and argue about Alex Ross with us! PictureBox — booth 1630.
The July issue of Harper’s magazine includes a long review (subscription required) of David Kunzle’s two recent and indispensable books on Rodolphe Töpffer. Written by art critic Jed Perl, it’s generally a smart, thoughtful piece, and displays none of the condescension you commonly find in articles like this printed in the mainstream press. He still gets comic books wrong, of course, but it’s kind of interesting (to me) just how he goes astray.
Most of the review is about Töpffer and the books themselves, and Perl only addresses Töpffer’s relationship with comic books in general near the end of his article. First, he takes issue with Kunzle’s speculation that Töpffer’s work has been neglected by American comics fans because of “a narrowness of vision, a chauvinism that cannot bear to see the invention of so fertile, popular, and American a genre conceded to a European master.” Perl disagrees:
I’m not sure that the problem with Töpffer is that he is European so much as that his work is nearly two hundred years old. After all, much of the comic illustration done in nineteenth-century America can feel equally anachronistic to cartoon aficionados of our day. It is in the very nature of the popular arts, which are overwhelmingly oriented toward the present, that even their most powerful traditions will be reformulated with a vengeance that crushes the sort of art-historical niceties that quite naturally interest a scholar such as David Kunzle. Intellectually, I can see that Töpffer is on a continuum with the contemporary graphic novel, just as I can see that the silent movies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are on a continuum with the comedies now playing at the multiplex. But viscerally, what I feel very strongly, perhaps most strongly, are the differences. What is most striking in contemporary graphic novels is the dizzying overlay of influences, the thickening stew of twentieth-century allusions. Graphic novelists like to mix elements of earlier comics and noir movies and potboiler mysteries and art deco and art moderne and create a contemporary brew, a brew that’s frequently laced with irony. And when I turn back from this work to Töpffer’s picture books, I find that I’m face to face with an unself-consciousness that feels alien, strangely and wonderfully so.
First of all, on the question of why Töpffer’s neglected, I favor Kunzle slightly more than Perl, though both of them are basically right. (The fact that good, readily available English translations of the strips didn’t previously exist probably hasn’t helped.) What’s more interesting to me, though, is just how alien and anachronistic Perl thinks Töppfer’s work is. The most surprising thing about reading Töpffer, in fact, is just how contemporary and of-the-moment his comics seem. (Incidentally, I also think Perl’s wrong about Keaton and Chaplin, whose films haven’t aged poorly at all; there are still plenty of people who watch their silent movies for fun today, far more than watch dramatic silent films such as, say Intolerance. They aren’t as alien as all that. I wonder if humor ages better than drama?) Barring the clothing styles, and the occasional reference to politics, culture, and then-current events, Töpffer’s strips aren’t that different (except in terms of quality and skill) from many of the mini-comics you can find sold at MoCCA or SPX.
Perl goes on:
The aggressiveness of so much comic art is fueled, at least in part, by a need to compete in the commercial world. I sense that pressure in the work of Hogarth and Daumier, whose caricatures can be fearsomely real, with evil and folly solidly evoked. Even Winsor McCay’s magnificent early-twentieth-century Surrealist dream-worlds have a sharp punch to them; they are meant to stand up to all the other news in the Sunday papers. Töpffer is a very different case. He approaches even the least sympathetic of his imperious professors and self-indulgent young men with a certain gentleness of spirit. It’s significant, I believe, the Töpffer originally conceived of his picture books as entertainments for his family and friends; he was, at least initially, remote from the commercial world, and could afford to affectionately embrace his nutty subjects.
Perl’s kind of right here, and a lot wrong, in totally charming ways. First, while I take his point about commercial concerns, that argument cuts both ways; there’s a reason for the cliché that satire closes on Saturday night. Daniel Clowes’s “Why I Hate Christians” wasn’t exactly a blockbuster money-making idea, for example. And, you know, Ziggy and The Family Circus seem to have done pretty well. Secondly, I think it’s kind of wonderful that he thinks that “graphic novelists” are actually competing in the commercial marketplace. Outside of a few superstars and flukes, the newspaper strip world, and the DC/Marvel axis, comics has to be one of the least profitable media businesses in
the world North America. It would be kind of great if this misconception spread around, though. And third, I think a trip to the USS Catastrophe site is in order for Perl. Töpffer’s not the only artist making minimalist, gently humorous picture-books primarily “for his family and friends” and “remote from the commercial world.” Signing himself up for a subscription to King-Cat wouldn’t be a bad start, either.
I’m really not trying to pick on Perl here, because in the main, this is actually a fine, smart article. His errors of interpretation are only worth highlighting for the way they suggest that the public conception of the form may be changing (and the ways it definitely isn’t). It would be kind of hilarious if this idea of the aggressive, wealthy, alpha-male cartoonist really caught on.
Astute readers of Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter will be “wowed” to find out that RC Harvey has “discovered” that Samuel Beckett and Ernie Bushmiller once corresponded, according to Editor & Publisher. Harvey writes:
“Another of Nancy’s most famous fans was Samuel Beckett, author of the supremely existential and endlessly impenetrable play “Waiting for Godot.” Beckett initiated a correspondence with Bushmiller that lasted for several months in late 1952 and early 1953. The exchange between the two, published in 1999 in Hermenaut No. 15 with an introduction by A.S. Hamrah, is a majestic example of two people talking past each other, neither understanding quite what the other is about but each assuming he understands perfectly. The existentialist Beckett assumed from what he saw in Nancy that he could write gags for Bushmiller, that his existential comedy would be in perfect sinc with the strip. But Bushmiller simply couldn’t comprehend what Beckett’s gags were; he saw no humor in them.”
Hey, wow Harv! Maybe comics really aren’t just for kids! That 1999 Hermenaut article was a pretty well known (and beautifully executed) joke. The drawings are by R. Sikoryak. Good to see E&P putting its reporting skills to use. This reminds me of the time Print magazine published their exciting discovery of “Telegraphic Art”, as seen in The Ganzfeld 1. I was working like 3 desks away at the time, and the crack fact checking team there never bothered to ask if it was real. Tom rightly wonders if it’s “too good to be true”. It certainly is.
(And there’s a bonus Gilbert Shelton connection!)