Archive for October, 2009

Quick One #2


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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My hero.

Oh, this a good one. NBM, as part of its Forever Nuts series of reprints (by the way, I like how NBM has carved out a niche doing books like this that are not obvious but have immense scholarly value — the early Bringing Up Father being another wonderful project) recently released Happy Hooligan, which collects a bunch of Opper’s comic strip from 1902-1913. This is stupid art at its best.
Opper was 42 when invented Happy, and unlike a lot of his comic strip peers, an accomplished illustrator. But he seemed taken with grungy new medium and designed a comic strip that is literally knock-kneed and hobbled — a real roustabout — to fit into the century. Nothing so graceful as Nemo for Opper. Nope, it is rough drawing and tumbling antics all the way. Opper seems to have intuited that a handful of wonky lines could add up to a character and that character business and action was the best thing going for mass appeal. But coming to it mature, the man knew how to delineate form, no matter how simply: Each figure is distinctly distressed.

As a storyteller Opper’s gaze never wavers. It’s always that head-on, unmoving view of the action. Poor, good-hearted Happy Hooligan — he gets jobs, tries to help people, attempts transactions, but all for naught. Or at least, all for just our entertainment. He stumbles, falls, and breaks, but never badly. Like a stilted ragdoll, HH always comes back.

The book itself is good. I’m grateful to have a color collection of these strips, even if I’m not always clear on why these particular strips were chosen for publication. The supplementary essays do add up to a solid portrait of the man and where the strip fits in comics history, and include a truly bizarre 1934 photo of Opper and Alex Raymond; the older man was lauding this new young star. Two more different approaches to comics could hardly be found.

The best part is just how entertaining these strips are. They feel contemporary in that Opper went for both nonsense and physical (and often both simultaneously!) gags. In their static staging and reliance on full figured action, some of these strips remind me of Gary Panter’s recent work. Plus, HH is just such an odd looking character with his round head and soup can hat. I mean, just look at some of the non-Opper merch this strip inspired. It couldn’t be any more bad/good if King Terry himself designed it.

Needless to say, I’m starting a HH fanclub. Who’s with me?

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The Proto-Graphic Novel: Notes on a Form


Monday, October 19, 2009

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Artistic innovation always outruns the vocabulary of critics. Artistic forms and genres are created long before there are words to describe them. Cervantes didn’t know he was working on a great novel when he wrote Don Quixote; he couldn’t have: the novel as a distinct form didn’t exist then, nor would it exist for centuries. If you had asked Cervantes what he was up to, he might have said he was writing a burlesque of courtly romances.

On the same principle, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells didn’t know they were writing science fiction novels. Wells might have had some idea late in life when science fiction as a genre emerged and his earlier work, which he might have thought of as scientific romances, were co-opted as pioneering examples of the genre.

The same principal is true of the graphic novel: now that the form exist, we can see all sorts of ancestors of the form. Books that previously existed as isolated oddities can now be seen as precursors of a form.

In the previous post, Dan mentioned that R.O. Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady (1953) can be considered as a proto-graphic novel. True. The same can be said of the many woodcut novels of the early 20th century, as well as the much earlier work of Rodolphe Töpffer. Other candidates for the form include Myron Waldman’s Eve (1943), the 1950 thriller It Rhymes with Lust (done by the team of Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, Matt Baker, and Ray Osrin), Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong (1930), Don Freeman’s Skitzy (1955), as well as a number of works from the early 1970s by Martin Vaughn-James. Raymond Briggs probably belongs on this list.

Just today a publisher sent me Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip, a proto-graphic novel originally published in Italy in 1969, and now available in English thanks to the good offices of the New York Review of Books. I’ll have more to say about the book in another post, but it is an interesting example of Magritte-inflicted surrealism not dissimilar to the contemporaneous work of Vaughn-James.

As more and more proto-graphic novels come to light, we can start seeing some commonalities in the form.

Here are a few things these books tend to have in common (although there are exceptions to every rule):

1. The cartoonists who work on them tend to come from a background outside of commercial comic strips or comic books, either from the fine arts, from children’s literature, or from avant-garde literature. The exceptions here are He Done Her Wrong and It Rhymes with Lust.

2. The works tend to be allegorical or dream-like rather than realistic; that is to say the characters and stories tend to be emblematic rather than follow any of the rules of verisimilitude or psychological realism.

3. In their time, some of these works were very popular and successful. That’s certainly true of Töpffer, some of the woodcut novels, and The Juggler of Our Lady. But there is little sense that they belong to a tradition or are created by a communal context (the woodcut novels might be the exception). Often the cartoonist involved only did one or two such books (Vaughn-James seems to have been more persistent than most).

Most of these books in there time were sports, isolated mutations, freaks of nature. But when we bring all these books together, they do seem to form a sort of tradition: not perhaps a strong tradition like the novel but a quirky, wayward and at times prophetic tradition, like 19th century science fiction.

PS: Someone should make a list of all the proto-graphic novels. That would be a worthwhile resource.

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Quick One #1


Sunday, October 18, 2009

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I’m going to try to sneak out some quick little thoughts on some recent books and ideas knocking around my brain.

I want to begin with Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman. A longtime favorite of mine, Blechman is a master of the shaky line school of cartooning, his mark as unmistakable as, say, Herriman’s. Coming into his own in the 1950s, Blechman absorbed the lessons of linear cartoonists like Steinberg and just kept refining and refining so that each mark actually means something. You won’t find anything extraneous in a Blechman drawing. When combined with a judicious use of spot colors, his delicate images pop to life, becoming communicative graphics on a page. As a cartoonist, he’s unusual these days: he’s a yarn-spinner and a moralist. These tales are subtle examinations of a theme or subject. This, as well as use of the page, rather than the panel, as a storytelling device, seem to bring him in line with 19th century cartoonists like Caran d’Ache. But his urbane concern with current events, social mores, and city life make him resolutely modern. Blechman resolutely looks outward and at the world around him: No moody ruminating or action adventure here. More clear eyed commentary on life. I think of him like I might think of the writer Joseph Epstein: a bemused observer whose wit always surprises.

And Blechman, of course, has had one of the great modern careers (the kind it’s sorta impossible to have anymore) in graphic communication, covering animation, illustration, design, and comics. His other essential book, The Juggler of Our Lady is, as Seth notes in his introduction, one of those inbetween tomes that seems to be a proto-graphic novel.

So, go out and get this fine book. It, like D&Q’s other recent essential archive project, Melvin Monster, is one of those volumes that knocks my vision of the medium slightly askew and reminds why I’m bothering in the first place.

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Time Flies


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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There’s an extensive and entertaining new interview with Benjamin Marra on the computers right now. It feels like only yesterday that I dug the first xeroxed issue of Night Business out of my bag of SPX junk, and read it in astonishment, wondering if Marra was a genyuwine idiot. Turns out he’s not! I’m surprised Paul Gulacy never came up, though… Come on, Ben! You used to admit it. Instead you name Piero della Francesca? Really? Just joking around, of course. All CC readers already know about Night Business. Fun stuff. I’m getting a little punchy lately.

Which brings me to this sorry strategy: I’ve bought and read some new comics worth reviewing recently and I’m just going to announce it online now so I won’t be able to talk myself out of writing about them later. And some seriously provocative “think pieces.” (Actually, I don’t have any of those in mind, but it shouldn’t be too hard to fake.) Really, I would most like to just get a good Cage Match going, but don’t think I’ll be able to dodge crying babies long enough for an all-day event any time soon.

(Note to self: Maybe the others can be shamed into doing one without me. Yeah, this time, I’ll play the Dan role…)

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Gutter Connections


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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There’s one of those weird gutter connections on the Apple Movie Trailers site right now. Watch two advertisements make love through time and space. It’s an animation so it’s not always there.

There should be a blog documenting this stuff. Get to it, bloggers!

Aw, probably one already exists.

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So Who is Noah?


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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Comics Comics Correspondent Paul Karasik wrote in to note that he has discovered a startling relationship between one Biblical family, one group of knuckleheads, and a certain cartoonist. Watch this space for more revelations.

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Hayao Miyazaki Talks about Gekiga


Monday, October 12, 2009

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In Starting Point: 1979-1996, Miyazaki talks about how influential the gekiga movement was, and how he moved away from drawing gekiga. It’s interesting if you’re a fan of Miyazaki and gekiga, or just Miyazaki’s mangaka years.

These gekiga presented the message that things don’t go well in this world. Drawn by manga artists who had suffered through misfortune — in particular those who hung out around Osaka (though I must apologize to people in Osaka for saying this) — gekiga were filled with their grudges and feelings of spite, so there were no happy endings. The artists made every effort to provide cynical endings. For a student in examination hell, this disillusioned perspective seemed totally refreshing.

I had already decided to spend my future drawing pictures, so I was trying to draw ones filled with grudges and spite. Yet, as I didn’t have a concrete blueprint for my future I was filled with anxiety.

As we grow from childhood into youth, this anxiety grows exponentially, and we worry about how on earth we should live our lives. Our anxiety forces us to look for an antidote that will rid us of this feeling as quickly as possible. We want to find that something will help us grab our own chair in this world and sit in it.

I chose manga as a weapon to fight against anxiety, and, as I mentioned, at first I drew gekiga, story-oriented manga. Just about that time I saw Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent.) For me, it was a kind of culture shock. I began to have doubts about gekiga…

From a section titled “Manga-style thought is dramatically influencing Japanese culture:”

So why are manga now influencing so many areas of culture? I would say one of the biggest reasons is because with manga it’s not necessary to read what you don’t want to read…

People take a completely different approach with other forms of entertainment. I really don’t think, for example, that many people would leave a theater after watching only five minutes of a boring film. And it’s probably why people have such strong opinions about films. They often sit through films even while feeling angry and wondering why the heck anyone made the thing in the first place. People don’t get angry about manga because if they don’t like the stories they won’t finish reading them. I think we can say this is one of the biggest cultural characteristics of manga. It’s no wonder that manga criticism is such a barren field.

Another hallmark of manga is that an almost limitless deformation is possible. To give a somewhat dated example, in Kyojin no hoshi (Star of the Giants), an entire episode concludes while the character Hyuma is throwing a pitch. Everything about life is encapsulated in that one pitch, and the artist depicts a whirl of recollections in the time it takes for the ball to travel. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the Japanese pulling off something like this.

(skipping ahead…)

When works created in this fashion are taken to places like Europe, where people have no exposure to what I have been discussing, they tend to go crazy over it. It was true of the Japanese manga and anime Candy Candy, which really took off in West Germany, Italy, and even France. Of course, now it’s Sailor Moon, and they say that in Spain everyone is nuts about the work, with even adults watching the show, enthralled. [laughter] This sort of thing is actually happening.

There’s a reason shojo are interesting. They depict the inner workings of the mind, so no one draws anything they don’t want to see. And in the images depicted, what we see is not the character, but what the character is looking at. And the stories become interesting because they deform thoughts and psychological states in a more pure fashion.

Anyway, it’s hard to slice out passages like this. Check out the book if you’re interested.

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Portrait of the Comics Critic as a Young Man


Monday, October 12, 2009

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What sort of boy grows up to be a comic critic? In the case of Gary Groth, we have some idea, since the journalist Aileen Jacobson wrote a fascinating profile of the future Fantagraphics honcho in 1972, when he was all of 17 years old. The profile ran in the Washington Post on August 13, 1972, and can be read by clicking on the image above.

Here is the opening:

A gentle comicmania is its own reward. Often at three in the morning Gary Groth pastes up the new editions of Fantastic Fanzine. The smell of glue tinges the air, and Groth’s slender hands, pale even in midsummer, glide lovingly over his layouts. If the glues isn’t dry, he swings his blue-jeaned desert-booted legs around 90 degrees to face the typewriter by his side. A huge monster of a thing, IBM electric.

He types rapid-fire, with two fingers, adding a few words to the pages that he often retypes two or three times to get the margin a perfect flush right. Some nights that rapid tap-tap reassures his parents, briefly awakens them: At least we know where he is tonight.

Then Gary Groth’s mind – 17 years on this planet, nine of them fascinated by technicolor comics – clicks through new plans.


Corben’s Cage


Thursday, October 8, 2009

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I went over to Jim Rugg’s house today to hang out. He just finished his Afrodisiac collection for AdHouse Books and I wanted to take a look. I must say that this book blew me away. It’s going to KILL. Jimmy is a master stylist. He and his co-creator Brian Maruca have crafted something that’s, for me, beyond description right now. I’m in shock. Just wait. You’ll see.

Jim also dragged out his “Blaxploitation comics” collection. A longbox of gems from different eras. There was one that really fascinated me though and I can’t put it down. It’s Richard Corben’s take on Luke Cage from 2002. Great colors by Jose Villarrubia. Check out the easy “realism” above.

I really don’t have anything to say about it except: HOLY CRAP, is it beautiful. There’s something about the odd pairing of Corben and Cage that just works for me. I’m in shock. I’d never heard of it or seen it before. Has anyone out there read it? Or at least just gawked at the artwork?

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It’s Bushmiller Time


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

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It’s a good time to be a Nancy-boy. Fantagraphics is about to launch a comprehensive reprinting of Ernie Bushmiler’s strip, along with Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy, which promises to be a revelatory look at the language of comics. Coupled with this is Drawn and Quarterly’s great new reprint of the Nancy comic books, done by John Stanley and Dan Gormley. Although slightly different in spirit from the Nancy comic strip – less formalist and gaggy, with longer stories and more sharply defined characters – the comic book is a fine read.

The Cult of Bushmiller, has, of course, long been at the core of art comics. It’s hard to think of a major cartoonist who hasn’t paid homage to Nancy and Sluggo: aside from the aforementioned Newgarden and Karasik, the cult includes Art Spiegelman, Seth, Gary Panter, Ivan Brunetti (Bushmiller’s influence runs like a thread through the first of his Yale anthologies), Jerry Moriarty, Bill Griffith, among many others. Newgarden once sat on Bushmiller’s wheelchair, a veritable cartooning throne.

Perhaps the original Nancy-boy was the painter and film-critic Manny Farber (1917-2008). Farber penned a smart analysis of comics that appeared in the New Republic issue September 4, 1944. That article (along with another sharp Farber piece on comics, and many other valuable essays) is available in a book Kent Worcester and I co-edited, Arguing Comics. Here’s what Farber had to say about Nancy:

It is probable that Nancy is the best comic today, principally because it combines a very strong, independent imagination with a simplification of best tradition of comic drawing. Nancy is daily concerned with making a pictorial gag either about or on the affairs of a group of bright, unsentimental children who have identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names (Sluggo, Winky, Tilly, Nancy) and genial self-powered temperaments. This comic has a remarkable, brave, vital energy that its artist, Ernie Bushmiller, gets partly from seeing landscape in large clear forms and then walking his kids, whom he sees in the same way, with great strength and well being, through them. Bushmiller’s kids have wonderfully integrated personalities combining smart sociability with tough independence. They also have wonderful heads of hair – Sluggo hasn’t any and calls his a “baldy bean,” Nancy’s is a round black cap with prickles, Tilly has an upsweep tied around the middle like a shock of wheat.

(Incidentally, Farber’s whole engagement with comics and cartooning is worthy of study. He was a very early appreciator of Chuck Jones and close friends with Donald Phelps, whose own essays on comics are very Farber-esque.)

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