Archive for August, 2009

Tim Hensley


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

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Warning: This is a light post. I just thought it’d be a good time to appreciate Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius saga since it’s now completed serialization in vol. 15 of Mome and Frank recently posted an appreciation of Tom K’s stories, which appear in the same anthology. (Disclosure: I’m a contributor to Mome too, so it’s possible I’m biased, although that has never prevented me from disliking work in Mome so if I am biased I’m not consciously aware of it.)

Tim Hensley’s a hard cartoonist to write about. He’s divisive. The two camps are: (1) he’s not funny and (2) he’s funny. I’m in the latter camp, since I think he’s fucking funny as shit. In the climactic episode, Wally is caught in an R.D. Laing Knot as he prepares to marry The Saddest Girl in the World. This monologue is especially moving if you’ve ever been in a long relationship with a clinically depressed person.

If you don’t think his idiosyncratic dialogue and melodramatic “cartoony” performances are funny, you probably think the writing is overdone and the drawing is just a throw-back to some Archie/teen comic house style. But teen comics never looked like this:

The characters move through minimal rooms with immaculately placed objects. It’s like what he chooses to draw in the environment (and what he chooses not to draw) is determined by some graphic Feng Shui.

When his comics are at their most beautiful, these environments function both as the story’s world and abstractly.

His writing is a continuation of his earlier mini-comics (Ticket Stub) that were collage-like transcriptions of movie summaries and dialogue. If you get an opportunity to look at any of these, don’t miss it. They contain some of his best work, and it’s interesting to see the wide range of graphic languages he employed with his writing. He’s one of the few cartoonists who arrived with a writing language before a drawing one. He did these while working as a closed-captioning editor. In his Mome interview with Gary Groth, he talks a bit about how this job improved his comics formally:

I think in a way the experience of that job really improved my comics, because it’s almost like captioning is comics but they’re upside down, because you’re sort of taking an image and you’re putting a balloon underneath, and you have to position it. So you’re constantly, over the course of 10 years, making these immediate decisions like, you find a shot change in a movie, and you have to say, OK, this person’s on the left, or this person’s walking through a crowd of people, how do I make sure that you can assign the words to the person.

I think it intuitively made me think more about how the eye moves through an image in time and space.

At the same time, this probably contributed to his language sensibilities, as well as…

(from a totally random interview on an message board🙂

Maybe growing up in a family with a sibling who is learning disabled and sometimes mentally ill internalized a general scrambling of language in me or at least an interest in that direction.

These are hints at what’s behind this dialogue, but it doesn’t matter how he arrived at this. It’s clearly completely logical in its own way. They reward repeated readings. With his best dialogue, a line that you first read as being surreally disconnected on a second reading is funny and on a third reading reveals a wider scope of the story.

It’s incredible that he can pull this off in such a seemingly intuitive way. It feels like this dialogue, and these comics, just pour out of him. It’s like you’re reading a complete personality on a page. All of the characters speak in the same “voice” because there’s really only one character: the comic.

On top of all this, it’s worth noting that this highly evolved, specific personality exists inside of the guise of a personality-less “house style.” It’s a balancing act between the generic and the specific.

Now that Wally is done, I’m curious to see where he goes next. Ticket Stub sketched out many unexplored directions. It’s possible that Wally Gropius wasn’t an arrival to his final resting place, but just one path from his previous work; he could pick up where some of his past work left off and spin in a new graphic direction. Whatever happens, I can’t wait to see.

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Inventors & Refiners


Monday, August 17, 2009

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The Onion’s AV Club did a list of the 21 most influential mainstream comics artists (mainstream being a slightly inadequate term to designate contemporary commercial superhero comics).

It’s not a bad list, as these things go:

1. Jack Kirby 2. Steve Ditko 3. George Pérez 4. Alex Ross 5. Mike Mignola . 6. Carmine Infantino 7. Greg Land 8. George Tuska 9. Jim Lee 10. Carl Barks 11. Dan DeCarlo 12. Steve Rude 13. Will Eisner 14. Joe Kubert 15. Rob Liefeld 16. Todd McFarlane 17. Chris Ware 18. Basil Wolverton 19. Harvey Kurtzman 20. Neal Adams 21. Bill Sienkiewicz.

The people who did this list are much better versed in contemporary mainstream comics than I am, so I think they have a fair sense of who the large, living influences are right now. Even so, I think they made a mistake not to include Alex Toth, who continues to shape all sorts of artists (like Darwyn Cooke, Mazzuchelli, Michael Cho).

And I’m not sure that Chris Ware belongs on the list: I wish he did have a big impact on mainstream comics art but I don’t see it, aside from a few design licks that get stolen time and again. Nobody in the mainstream has learned to copy Ware’s delicate color sense or his ability to think freshly about inherited cartooning conventions, not to mention the emotional range and sensitivity of his work.

Aside from Toth, who else should be on the list bud didn’t make it? I’d say (for a start): 1. Jesse Marsh 2. Bernie Krigstein. 3. Wally Wood 4. Russ Manning. 5. Jack Cole. 6. Gil Kane. 7. Bernie Wrightson 8. Johnny Craig. 6. Al Williamson. 7. Gene Colan. 8. Reed Crandall. 9. Lou Fine. 9. John Romita.

What’s interesting about the artists that didn’t make the AV Club list (Toth to Romita on my list) is that they tend to come out of the illustrational tradition. They’re not, for the most part, master-innovators like Kirby, Kurtzman, or Eisner. Rather, their skill was in refining and extending already existing styles. It’s like the difference between Buster Keaton and Sergei Eisenstein (on the one hand) compared to Howard Hawks and John Ford on the other. The question is, are artists of this sort – refiners rather than inventors – worth remembering? Or are they simply part of the flotsam of history?

We could also have an interesting list of people who should be influential but aren’t: 1. Fletcher Hanks 2. Milt Gross. 3. Boody Rodgers. 4. John Stanley.

What all these lists demonstrate, I think, is the narrow artistic range of the mainstream. The gene-pool here is shallow and hasn’t been replenished by outside influences for a long time. To find a more inbred group, you’d have to go back to ancient Egypt when Pharaohs often married their own sisters.

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notes on Tom K’s short stories


Sunday, August 16, 2009

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This isn’t a review or anything that attempts to cast a truly critical eye on the comics work of Tom Kaczynski. It’s more of an appreciation. For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics. Is it any surprise that many of his stories have to to with architecture or that he went to architecture school?

I’m purposely composing these notes without any of his stories in front of me. I just read all of his MOME stories in order, one after another. And now all those volumes are back on the shelf. I chose the images for this post as randomly as possible before I wrote what follows below. The idea is to let the stories “work” on me like a half-remembered dream and to try a decode what it is that’s successful about them. Also, I’m focusing on their construction rather than the stories themselves.

Sense of space/place
I feel firmly rooted in Tom’s stories. I understand where the characters are, where I am as a reader. Never a bottle-necked area of the page or spread. It’s all very clear and airy, like walking through some Beaux-Arts 19th century library building. There are clear sight lines and strong centers on every page.

-The “Highway Story” (100,000 miles) is interesting because it balances a certain sense of movement along with a realistic, believable sense of scale. Cars packed on a highway in slow motion, car crashes, cars lined up in a parking lot. Close-ups of the protagonist in his car and long shots of endless highway ribbons. It’s a short story, maybe only 8 or 9 pages—yet within the first couple pages a world is defined by the landscape itself. Also worthy of note is a remarkable transition in which a suburban tract of houses (replete with countless cul-de-sacs) sort of fades into a drawing of a pair of lungs.

-The “Condo Story” (976 sq ft) in contrast is less about balancing movement & scale as it is about scale itself. It opens with a couple on a rooftop looking down on to the street where a woman is walking a dog. So immediately here is the set-up: Seeing the world, or more specifically a neighborhood as a scale model. There is also a wonderful transition where the condo in real life fades into an architectural scale model of the same building.
There’s a mirroring here too of the condo itself and the panels on the page. The story begins with a six-panel grid and ends with a nine panel grid; there’s a crowding of space that reflects the characters feelings towards the building. The new condo being built in the neighborhood is taking away the sky and the crowded pages in the latter half of the story reinforce this anxiety. There’s a great vertical panel in the middle of a page that is taller than the rest; it breaks the grid. Fittingly, it’s the moment when the new tenants of the condo move in (directly across the way from the couple’s window, so it looks like the scale model. Just perfect framing.)

-The “Corporation Story” (Million Year Boom). I can clearly see in my mind how perspectives & sight lines carry the reader across panels and the spreads of this story. There are very strong “horizontals” in this story (almost in counterpoint to the strong “verticals” present in the “condo story”). The corporation headquarters is low & wide, and the page compositions are tailored to convey the sense of open yet contained space. There’s a great scene when the protagonist dives into a long rectangular pool that spans two panels. Another beautiful coupling of panels illustrates the top of a parking garage. And I can clearly see one of the characters standing near a grove of trees and while gesturing to the trees, his motion rhymes with the sweep of the trees themselves. Characters change scale rapidly. Simply by walking around the corporation grounds is an exercise in alternating camera angles. This strengthens the narrative which is pregnant with a particular kind of corporate anxiety & alienation.

Figures in landscape
The solidity of the figures in Kaczynski’s stories is also worth noting. The figures are rendered objects, as “real” as the landscape they inhabit. This is important. It’s clear to me that the pages are composed to allow, to facilitate a smooth transition between “figure” and “ground.” There is no rift, no schism between the two. Whether simply sitting on a couch, walking down a street, or standing before a wide vista—the characters do not dominate the page design (as they do in most comics). There is a very strikingly ordered balance. Again, this strengthens the narrative.

Kaczynski’s use of tone/color is very helpful in this regard. Strong lights & darks, and strong “modeling” of forms both of the figures & of the forms within the landscape creates a pleasing depth. The figures stand out from the landscape rather than blending in or disappearing into the background.

Also, Kaczynski creates depth by often pulling the camera back & up slightly. The reader is positioned above the action and different sight lines are created because of it; it’s less of a “flat” angle. Add to that his seemingly innate feel for “airy” panel and page compositions. He only draws what is necessary for each panel, each scene—there appears to be a lot of room to breathe in the pages themselves. By doing so he can add details and important elements without ever crowding the frame or the page (unless, like in the “condo story”, he wants to).

Writing and Drawing
I really enjoy his writing and drawing. He definitely owes a debt to the works of J.G. Ballard and Daniel Clowes. This is not a bad thing. Ballard was a surgeon with his words and the same could be said for Clowes with his drawing. Kaczynski has incorporated both masters’ approaches into his own work in a way that I find inspirational. He went through his influences and came out on the other side with something new, something his own. Like some hauntingly familiar “house style,” the approach fits the subject matter like a glove.

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Frank’s soapbox #1 (he’s lost it this time)


Friday, August 14, 2009

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The new Archie sucks. And the people who publish Archie have got to be mentally challenged. I mean, c’mon, Archie married Veronica? Archie would never marry Veronica! He’d, of course, marry Betty. And, of course, Veronica would marry Reggie. (Archie’s own creator, John L. Goldwater, said as much, and if I can find the quote, I’ll add it here later.) And now, Archie and Veronica are having twins? What?

And I haven’t even mentioned the “dynamic new look” drawing style it’s all drawn in. Archie Comics has one of the most recognizable house styles in existence and they choose to go “realistic?” That’s just retarded. I’m sure they sold a few extra thousand copies and they are a happy little corporation because of it, but to fans of the franchise this is just the last straw.

With all the reprints being issued in recent years, one would think the geniuses over at Archie would publish The Collected Archie Comics of Harry Lucey or collect all of Dan DeCarlo’s Archie comics, but no, the closest thing we get is Best of the Sixties, which has at least some classics. (And yet they still do not credit the artists, can you believe it?!) The publishers are sitting on a goldmine and they don’t even know it. There are literally hundreds of Archie issues with awesome art by the likes of Lucey and DeCarlo, but unless you’re willing to track down the original issues, or dig through the reprints, you are shit out of luck.

UPDATE 8/15: I must’ve been on a particular wavelength because a story about Archie appeared over the AP wire this morning. It makes me think that the whole story arc about the marriage will turn out to be a dream sequence. The article notes that after the six issue arc “the gang returns to high school.” Oy vey.

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Comics Enriched Their Lives! #12


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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My good friend, Spahr Schmitt, forwarded me this quote from Star Wars creator George Lucas. It was originally published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1977.

“Yeah. Star Wars is designed with the international market in mind. The French are very much into this genre. They understand it more than Americans do, and it is the same with the Japanese. I own a comic gallery, an art gallery in New York that sells comic art and stuff; the guy that runs the art gallery also runs a comic store and we do a lot of business in France. They understand Alex Raymond, they understand that he was a great artist, they understand Hal Foster and they understand comic art as real art and as a sort of interesting, goofy thing. And I am very much into comic art, and its place in society as a real art, because it is something that expresses the culture as strongly as any other art. What Uncle Scrooge McDuck says about America, about me when I was a kid, is phenomenal. It is one of the greatest explorations of capitalism in the American mystique that has ever been written or done anywhere. Uncle Scrooge swimming around in that money bin is a key to our culture. [Laughs] Hal Foster was a huge influence in comic art and, I think, art in general. Some of the Prince Valiants are as beautiful and expressive as anything you are going to find anywhere. It is a form of narrative art but because it is in comic it has never been looked at as art. I look at art, all of art, as graffiti. That’s how the Italians describe the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian tombs, they were just pictures of a past culture. That is all art is, a way of expressing emotions that come out of a certain culture at a certain time. That’s what cartoons are, and that’s what comics are. They are expressing a certain cultural manifestation on a vaguely adolescent level but because of it, it is much more pure because it is dealing with real basic human drives that more sophisticated art sometimes obscures.”

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The Dark Vision of Carl Barks


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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“Human beings are a bunch of maggots consuming the body of the earth.” – Carl Barks.

You can talk all you want about the misanthropy of R. Crumb, the bleakness of Chris Ware, or the flesh-crawling creepiness of Charles Burns but if you want to read a cartoonist who really has a dark vision of life go no further than Carl Barks.

“What the hell!?” Readers may ask. “Didn’t Barks do bouncy and buoyant adventure stories featuring talking ducks? He was a Disney artist wasn’t he? How could he have a dark vision?”

“I think of death as total peace – you’re beyond the clutches of all those who would crush you.” – Carl Barks.

It’s true that Barks drew stories about Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. But read those stories. As Art Spiegelman has noted, they reveal that Barks had a fundamentally “flinty” view of life. All his characters are at heart selfish: profit-maximizers to use the language of economics. Scrooge is a successful, hard-working profit-maximizer, Donald a would-be profit-maximizer whose plans all go blooey, and Gladstone Gander is so lucky profit comes his way without the will to maximize. Being young, Huey, Dewey and Louie are maximizers not of money but of Junior Woodchuck merit badges.

“We’re like a weed – you see it and trample it to the ground and don’t think anything about it. We’re like that weed – we have our little life and when we’re gone, we’re gone.” – Carl Barks.

Barks’ world is an affectionless one. It’s hard to recall a moment where one character feels any genuine friendship or fellowship for another. Huey, Dewey and Louie, it could be argued, work as a team but they are not really separate personalities: They seem like clones. It’s a Darwinian universe where everyone is looking out for number 1 (and Scrooge for his number one dime).

The most harrowing comics-related reading I know is Donald Ault’s Carl Barks: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2003). That’s the source of the quotes used above. The final interview in the book was conducted just two months before Barks death in 2000. The cartoonist had lived nearly a century and it showed. This interview reads like a Samuel Beckett play, a pure distillation of despair. After reading it, you want to pick up Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to get some good cheer.

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The Hunter


Monday, August 10, 2009

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Darwyn Cooke‘s graphic adaptation of the late Richard (actually Donald Westlake) Stark‘s The Hunter is one of those books that I wanted to like: An adaptation of a novel I love, obviously the work of a dedicated artist, respectful, well crafted, and nicely put together. So it’s with some regret that I have to report I found it oddly lifeless, a storyboard in the guise of a comic book.

The Hunter, published in 1962, is the story of a criminal named Parker who, after being betrayed and left for dead, makes his way to New York City to take revenge and claim his stolen money. It is the first in a series of crime novels that follow the anti-hero Parker as he first takes his life back, then fights for it, and finally goes about living it (which means more crime). I’ve read about a half dozen of Westlake’s Parker books, including The Hunter. They are precisely constructed suspense stories told in surprisingly minimal and propulsive prose. This isn’t the hard-boiled-yet-baroque language of Chandler, but something closer to Hammett or even Hemingway. The books are so well written and so disciplined that I sometimes wonder if Westlake/Stark invented Parker partly as a way to experiment with pauses and silences in his writing.

So, I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that Cooke fundamentally misread Stark: Though nearly all of the action and dialogue of his adaptation mimics the source, he somehow took a minimalist novel and over-visualized it as a maximalist, over-the-top orgy of genre cliches.

Parker’s entrance into New York City, vividly written as an unstoppable dark march by Stark, he is rendered by Cooke as a grandiose overture, logos a-swirling and dames a-swooning. It’s so hokey and so mannered that I expected a baritone to appear and belt out “New York New York”.

For example, here’s Stark:

He walked north till he came to a leather goods shop. He bought a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of good luggage, a matched set of four pieces. He showed the driver’s license for identification, and they didn’t even call the bank. Two blocks he carried the luggage, and then he got thirty-five dollars for it at a pawn shop. He went crosstown, and did it twice more–luggage to a pawn shop–and got another eighty dollars.

And here’s Cooke:

From the start every room Parker walks into has an Eames chair and a Noguchi table. Every clock is by George Nelson. All the women are outfitted like cheesecake “dames.” And none of it tells the reader a thing about the story or the characters. I’m all for establishing a sense of place—it’s just that all of Cooke’s places appear to be mid-century modern catalog photos. I’ve seen reviews likening Cooke’s set pieces to the use of period detail in Mad Men, but on that show those material goods are not only symbols of status, power, and sophistication, but also objects that suffocate, reduce, and entrap the characters. In The Hunter they just seem extraneous. The absence of such clutter from Stark’s prose is partly why it works; writing that lean allows the reader to fall into the creator’s rhythm. Cooke just piles it on, bogging down the action in a mess of suits and ashtrays.

It strikes me that what Cooke has done here is basically understandable: He overlayed his ideas of crime fiction on top of Stark’s. The beauty of Stark’s work is that it’s elusive and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It’s modest and seductive in that way. But where another artist might have retained that simplicity of form and language, Cooke seemed to want to fill in the gaps and transform it into a grand production. I can see how he got there, but I don’t think it works.

Even if I’m wrong and Cooke’s reading is utterly faithful, this adaptation doesn’t work very well as a comic book. Cooke’s character design is strangely generic, his storytelling is often unclear, and his drawing, while polished and stylish, is dull. Parker looks like a generic sort of Bruce Wayne, with a face and body language that betrays not a hint of an inner-life. Panel-to-panel and particularly page-to-page Cooke has a difficult time clearly conveying where a scene is occurring and what, precisely, the action and emotions are that he’s trying to draw.

The spread below is a perfect example. Like a noir film director Cooke wants to move the reader around Wanda’s room with variously sized panels to enliven a couple pages of dialogue. But this isn’t film; another cartoonist might have just used body language and facial expressions, along with a concrete sense of place to do the same job. Cooke shifts his p.o.v. multiple times on a single page, and I can’t get any fixed idea of where the two characters are in the room, what the scale is, and what the atmosphere might be like. This would be a little less disorienting if only there was a compositional scheme tying the panels together. Add to that the fact that figure and ground have the same fuzzed out line-weight and you have a very confusing spread.

On the rare occasions that Cooke keeps his p.o.v. and his panel size steady, allowing his characters to carry the narrative load, he’s seems unable to imbue his drawings with life. Below we see Parker killing his first target, his figure abstracted and repeated to heighten the drama. But the abstraction is limp and lifeless: There is no tension in the figures and no sense of the force and weight of this struggle, so what should have been a climactic moment is just another page.

And when Cooke does go in for some form of inky expressionism I wish he’d stuck with more genericized forms. This spread fails on a lot of levels: The figures are stiff, the brushwork tentative at best, and the composition decidedly not dramatic.

When I think of this work I think of what Mort Meskin would have done, with his vibrant, almost ecstatic brush marks; what Toth might have done with his sense of page design and the figure in space; or what the younger Mazzucchelli might have done with his figures weighted in space and rooted in fully imagined environments. I think of all that and wonder at such a missed opportunity. Those guys used cinematic set-ups, but they never allowed style to overtake content. Krigstein, for example, was a master of adapting filmic rhythms into comics. But at the heart of his experimentalism is a drive for clarity.

Oddly, I like the idea of Darwyn Cooke’s work, particularly the notion that he’s some sort of standard bearer of the great action cartoonists of the 1950s. He clearly loves what he does, and his graphic novel is obviously a thoroughly planned and executed book (however wrongheaded). But the trouble is that I never actually enjoy reading him. A stray image here or there is attractive in the same way I like looking at a drawing by his closest aesthetic relative: Bruce Timm. But for me there’s never been any sense of character underneath all that style, and no particular interest in the surface marks either.

I read The Hunter within a few weeks of reading Melvin Monster by John Stanley. Granted, this is a very odd comparison, but stay with me. The material in Melvin Monster was drawn around the same time as The Hunter was written, and Stanley’s verve and control are not unlike Stark’s. Stanley’s storytelling is clear but never didactic, his drawing has a palpable flourish to it, and his stories are consistently funny and surprising. What more do you want from a comic that has to play within certain genre rules? On a formal level seems to have done everything Cooke is trying to do, and with a light touch, too. Cooke wants to make classic, mid-century comics, but seems too rooted in the trappings of storyboards and animation short-hand to allow himself to pare down, simplify, and let the story tell itself.

Stanley, a master of multi-layered storytelling in a variety of genres, makes it all look so easy (though it’s obviously very very difficult). In a way, Stanley would have been ideal for Stark: Each was a master of concise storytelling and rhythmic language. Cooke, while surely talented as stylist and animator, just isn’t capable of that kind if hard-earned comic book simplicity. Not yet at least.

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Delphine review


Saturday, August 8, 2009

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Delphine, issues 1-4, by Richard Sala, published by Coconino Press, Fantagraphics.

The fourth and final volume of this series was published recently, so I thought it would be an appropriate time to pull out the other issues and review the whole thing. There are some “spoilers” at the end, so beware.

A young man (who’s name is never revealed) meets a young woman named Delphine. We’re introduced to these two in a flashback while the young man is looking for her in a strange town. The couple had met at school, spent time together, and then at the beginning of the summer break, the girl had to go visit her sick father. Delphine asks the young man not to forget her. She doesn’t come back, so the nameless young man goes looking for her.

Flash-forward back to the present. The young man inquires about Delphine at 13-31 Hood street, the address he has for her. He’s told by the old woman there that he has the wrong address. An old man offers the young man a ride to the correct address across town. The young man accepts and this is where the adventure truly begins.

They take a detour to pick up the old man’s mother. They then go to a “meeting” in a graveyard that turns out to be a funeral attended by a dozen wrinkly old women. The young man is left behind by his ride. He gets another ride from a different old man and shares the back seat with three scary looking old ladies. They stop to stretch their legs after taking a short-cut through a dark, wooded area. The young man is then promptly beaten to a pulp by the old ladies who wield big tree branches. He saved by yet another old man with a beard who wields a knife and chases off the young man’s attackers.

Got it? Good. That’s the first issue in a nut shell. And the set-up for what’s to come. It reads like a some kind of familiar ghost story. It’s all paced out, lay’d out perfectly. Sala deftly strings these sequences together and each scene works on me like a symbol. The dark woods, the old women, the lost love: They all act like symbols and build on each other to further the narrative. More importantly, these symbols rhyme with my own feelings about the symbols themselves. So, in this way Sala plays with genre conventions in a fashion that I find very enjoyable as a reader. There are certain plot points that feel like references to classical mythology such as the three headed dog or “sleeping beauty.” Yet, they don’t come off as ham-fisted injections or seem like they are attempts at making the story “weird” for the sake of atmosphere.
The story surrounded me and carried me away to a very real world. It’s a cartooned, exaggerated world, but a real world nonetheless. In addition, Sala marries a sort of slapstick physical humor with real horror. What I mean is, sometimes a truly frightening moment is amplified because the scene leading up to it is funny. It’s something that threw me off balance as a reader (in a good way). One minute I’m laughing at the absurdity of the situation and the way that a scary looking witch of an old lady is drawn—and then I’m actually really scared on the next page because this seemingly harmless (drawing of an) old lady is beating the shit out the main character.

Sala’s drawing style in this work is also well suited to the narrative. Black containment lines and umber-y washes create a stark mood. There isn’t much “feathering” of the lines, it’s less of a baroque ornamental style than I’ve seen from him in the past. The layouts are impeccable: very clear and superbly paced. Sometimes it’s like watching dominoes drop. Scene to scene, symbol to symbol, Sala adjusts his style to best suit the story. There were times when I wished that some of the “monsters” were drawn scarier than they appeared but then it would all sort of balance out because the truly frightening passage would come on the following page. I’d go back and look at the funny looking scary monster and think to myself that it was actually drawn perfectly for that scene.

Another aspect of the presentation of the story that I find intriguing is how the covers and endpaper flaps (in color) add to my understanding of the story even though the scenes depicted do not necessarily reflect something we see happen in the story. The front covers all illustrate particular story points (each show the young man) but the endpapers and back covers are more symbolic. The back covers are all images of Delphine that are loaded with symbolism: Delphine combing her hair before a mirror, Delphine standing beneath a haunted tree, walking on a lonely path; being offered an apple by an old woman. It’s a clever choice and a powerful addition to the overall narrative.
The young man continues his search for Delphine through issues two and three, spending all of issue three fumbling through the dark woods until he comes upon a castle. There he finds Delphine’s stepmother, a gaunt old queen of a woman, gazing into a mirror. Again, the symbols here take over. I know I’m reading THIS particular narrative but I can’t help but think of other, similar stories that utilize the same symbols. So something happens in my brain, and the story WIDENS somehow in a way that is difficult to describe. I noticed that the story GREW in my mind when I took breaks from reading, allowing me to immerse myself in the story like a dream.

When the young man awakes in a house, not in a castle, the address is, of course, 13-31. He’s finally found the correct address. He thinks he’s finally figured it out. He finds his beloved Delphine at last but she’s asleep, a prisoner of the step-mother. But who’s really trapped Delphine, or the young man? Trapped by his own desire, he falls into a sleep of his own. Who has forgotten who? Has the young man forgotten himself? The end is in the beginning.

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Comic Scans on the Internet


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

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Probably like many CC readers, I read a lot of scans of comics on the internet. Unlike webcomics, where the cartoonist is conscious of the fact that people will read it online, these poor, often dead cartoonists have been hijacked (stolen, really) and forced into a formatting that they didn’t intend, and often didn’t know would ever exist. Their labored-over page turns and splash pages have been forced into click-throughs and scroll-downs. They’ve been completely screwed. Still, I’m sitting there waiting for my scanner to finish doing its thing, a stack of unread “real” books weighing the scanner bed down, and I’ll click over to to read some Bernie Wrightson. While I’m waiting for music to illegally download, I’ll go illegally read a manga scanlation. It’s too easy.

Obviously, I prefer reading these comics in their original, intended, print versions. But, again, it’s right there. Free. And I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

I’m going to write about this experience a little. Just three random topics.

1. Large Documents
You click on a link expecting a small, web-friendly jpg image and the browser window slowly (“uh-oh”) loads, opens, and you find yourself staring at a quarter-inch of yellowed paper texture enlarged over your entire monitor. You scroll down and to the right, seeing a single brushstroke—what is that? The top of someone’s head? A branch? Or you’re looking at a couple of letters of each word as you read (“nu”…”ff”…”sa”…). Or you think you’re looking at the main character of a panel until you scroll around to discover that the person was actually in the far background and the central character can only be seen one facial feature at a time.

This reminds me of how little the human eye actually sees in focus at any moment. In middle school a teacher illustrated this fact by writing a word on the chalkboard. He told everyone to stare only at this one word. Then he wrote another word six inches above the first word. Nobody could see the second word if their eyes remained fixed on the first word. Like, try reading something at the top of this post while staring at this word. Maybe in seeing these comic scans enlarged, this is like seeing what the inside of my eye is seeing at a single moment as it darts around a comic page.

What comic pages work well in this unnatural view? Dense splash pages. Decorative design elements. Landscapes. I briefly looked around for something to scan that would look interesting this way and picked up a Blueberry book. This is actually only half of a printed page, so it doesn’t take long to load.

Holy crap—it looks great this way. In print, this page feels really dense and claustrophobic. Here, it’s a more spacious, but active, environment. The splattering of colors translates really well too. And, somehow, I think it captures the adventurousness of the Blueberry story. Click on the image and scroll around inside the page. It’s fun!

2. Bad scanning/pixelation

I spent a few years doing illustrations for a health services website where I’d have to (quickly) integrate drawings and photos in one piece. I’d use the “eyedropper” Photoshop tool to pick up colors from the photos that I would then use in the drawings so that the colors matched. The eyedropper tool could never find the right color. Is that guy’s shirt really so dark? Is that kid’s blonde hair so grey? The eyedropper was only picking up a single solid pixel color. It’d be as if you eyedropper-tooled a scan of a comic and were shocked that someone’s skin tone was either bright red or solid white.

Comics have moved from one format with famously awkward small units of color that optically combine to a new version of the same thing.

There are probably a lot of comparisons that could be made between this either/or visual information and other mediums. I was struck by how much a detail of a tapestry looks like a low-resolution jpg:

Also, there are wide variations of scanner qualities and preferences. I wanted to send an image of a “Classics Illustrated” page to a friend and I didn’t feel like scanning it myself so I found it online:

But this page looked nothing like the comic I owned. The colors are so washed out. Is this how this person scanned it? Or did their copy actually look this way? Maybe it looked correct on their computer and my computer was calibrated differently. Here’s my scan of the same page:

It’s possible that lots of scans I’ve read online look nothing like what the original reproductions (ha ha) do.

3. Coincidental Marriages
Most comic pages are hard to read on the computer. You scroll across and then down and realize you missed half of a conversation that was in word balloons hugging the bottom of the panels. You were just zipping away on the top 2/3rds of the panel. Or you have to laboriously scroll up and down to figure out how you’re supposed to read a page. Or you can only understand a spread by clicking back and forth to try and imagine what two pages look like next to each-other. But sometimes a page, coincidentally, feels really intuitive on the web.

Here’s just one example, a BWS Uncanny X-men page hosted by (a site that provides a radio soundtrack for your comic reading!):

This page reads great on the web. I love how, as you scroll down, the hands become bigger and then it moves back to a wide view. The floating colors seem to drift around on the screen as you scroll.

Television’s changed the way movies are made. Generations of filmmakers raised on watching television now favor TV-informed traits. A close-up natural for the small screen has led to billboard-sized close-ups in the theater. It isn’t unusual to be sitting in the movie theater examining the enormous pores on Brad Pitt’s nose.

Maybe in the future, generations of cartoonists raised on reading comics on the internet will change the way they make print comics, unconsciously favoring stand-alone pages, long horizontal panels and “scroll-down” style vertical reveals.

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The Original of Cheepy


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

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Brian Boyd, the man who wrote the book on Vladimir Nabokov (literally), checked in this morning to solve our Cheepy the guinea pig problem. This post is intended to ensure that his excellent comment—which includes much more of interest regarding Nabokov, comics, Art Spiegelman, and Dr. Seuss—doesn’t get lost in the eddies of the internet.

(He also weighs in on the recent terminology conundrum. Unfortunately, I am forced to respectfully disagree with his suggestion, which I think sounds too much like “colicky,” and evokes unpleasant physical sensations.)

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you readers. In the last month, this blog seems to have reached new heights. Particularly in the comments threads. Every time I log in, I know I’m in for a series of surprises and insights. You guys are really bringing it. Thanks for participating, and for helping to build this site into something exciting and unique.

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