Sunday, October 28, 2007

Comics Comics reader Brian Nicholson made a comment about my SPX post which got me thinking. Brian took note that the same words I used to describe the “new” mini-comics at SPX — “long on craft and short on narrative” — could also be used to describe some of my own comics like Chimera and Incanto. He also wrote that “not being at SPX this year, I just associated the type of new comics you’re talking about with some Souther Salazar comics, like Please Don’t Give Up“, and added that “maybe people were selling some pretty fucking out there comics that are nothing like the work I’m using as a reference point.”

Souther’s work is, I think, a little tame next to some of the pulsating color zines I saw at SPX. And I always found Souther’s work pretty narrative-based, even at its most dense and notebook-like. Chimera and Incanto are also, to me, totally narrative. And they too are pretty tame next to a lot of this “new” work I’m loosely describing.

One of the amazingly beautiful “out there” comics I bought at SPX was PANRAY by Raymond Sohn and Panayiotis Terzis. It is a remarkable, mountain-climbing achievement in terms of drawing, color, printing, and presentation. Like some spectral black-and-white silent movie that is interrupted by searing color patterns and abstractions, the book goes in and out of focus, organically and structurally. It’s beautiful. How do I even begin to describe it? And that’s what I want to get at or at least try to approach: a new way in which to discuss the purely visual elements of comics. There’s often too much emphasis on reading a comic like a novel when really it should be discussed like a painting or a sculpture. Far from dismissing these “out there” comics in my original post, I found myself simply hoping to discuss them and appreciate them better, and to do that I think a broader approach has to be encouraged, towards a less conservative definition of comics.

What I was looking for, or at least curious to find at this SPX, was something of both. I lament the fact that narrative comics, of all types, but specifically strong character-driven stories that are also beautifully drawn like, oh, Gilbert Hernandez’s Speak of the Devil unfortunately don’t seem to exist, or at least not in the embryonic form of new, well-executed mini-comics. That particular example might be a lot to ask — but where is the experimentation and growth in straight-ahead narrative alt mini-comics? Most straight-ahead narrative small press comics (read black-and-white autobio/cutesy big-head) don’t have a quarter of the energy and enthusiasm that the “nonobjective”, “abstract” mini comics have.

I was looking for a little of both and that combo was in short supply. There were, for the most part, silk-screened color out-there “art comics” and black-and-white variations on the same type of alternative mini-comic you’ve seen many times before. The “art” stuff looked and felt fresh. Yet they are, generally, not wholly engaging in comics language or structure. (However loose and arty Chimera and Incanto may be, they are rigorously structured to unfold as a comic narrative.) The “arty” minis from SPX are more interested, it seems, in image-making. And that’s awesome. But as a comics fan who reads a lot of older “mainstream” stuff, I would like to see “literary,” straight-ahead alternative comics-makers take a page from the “art” comics play book and try to adopt different approaches towards storytelling and narrative. And vice versa. I think the “new” crafty mini-comics took a lot of Fort Thunder to heart visually but don’t truck in the same “narrative strategies” as BC, CF, BJ, BR, LG and MB — who all tell stories, however visually challenging or stunning they may be.

And let me say this — I’ve always felt that all comics are inherently narrative because of the form that the book takes. For that matter a single image, an abstract painting, for example, is often narrative. Jackson Pollock‘s paintings are narrative — you can follow him, the story of him working by the lassos of color — and the same is true even with the color field abstractionists like Frankenthaler. It’s just a broader range, a greater bandwidth for inventing narrative.

Using this definition, PANRAY is narrative, too. It has characters that appear to repeat, settings where they interact, and even occasional panel structures. It is a miraculously hewn jewel of a comic. Do I lament that there are no obvious narrator type characters to guide me through the book like a Maggie or Hopey? Not at all.

I simply see this end of the comics spectrum flowering at a lightning-fast rate, absorbing SO much and spitting it back, drawing their asses off year after year. But, and I’m really overgeneralizing here, on the other side of mini-comics world is the umpteenth generation of the Ware/Clowes school, who seem to stay firmly planted in straightforward narrative, “literary” comics. With a few exceptions, nothing’s really changed here in 15 years, kinda like superhero comics. There are very few inventive, straight-ahead narrative “alternative” comics for my taste. I think Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch are the heirs to this evolving school. They both made (and continue to make) beautiful mini-comics that grew easily into their “professional” work.

But I don’t see work of that par so often these days. Most new minis in this school over the last few years are standard fare. The drawing and production values are weak, and the stories are usually slice o’ life snoozers. If I were to name names I probably couldn’t, because nothing from this camp stood out to me at this SPX. Generally, they make black-and-white minis with maybe a color card stock cover. I’ve talked to a lot of kids who do “alternative” comics, who read mostly “alternative” comics, and who know next to nothing about the history of comics before 1999 (or the history of art). They have this weird attitude towards “art” comics. I see them come up to the PictureBox table and literally sneer at the work displayed. They would be doing themselves a huge favor if they could get over their ingrained distrust for the more “arty” aspect of comics.

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14 Responses to “pan-Narrative”
  1. jtm says:

    What do people mean when they use these terms: “literary comics” or “art comics?”

    Are these terms used to sell books?
    Are they meant to infer a style or fashion?

    From my perspective, “art comics,” a term prescribed to Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo, operate more like literature than “literary comics,” such as it’s prescribed to Gabrielle Bell’s Lucky.

    Frank, I appreciate your investigation into the fog of terms used to define comics today.


  2. AustinEnglish says:

    Hey Frank-

    I read your original SPX post with some interest since I just wrote an essay about similar issues. That essay is in the forthcoming TCJ as a letter—I’ll post it here as a response to your thoughts:

    Notes on Expressive Comics

    * A well-known comics critic recently said to me that in comics today, there are a couple of people doing masterful work, and a sea of others doing merely “good” work. In other words, there’s Clowes and Ware standing above the rest. I love Clowes and Ware, but I don’t see them standing above the teeming mass of young artists working today. The standard for what makes up a “masterful” comic is very conservative. Clowes and Ware do their type of comic better than anyone else. But there are myriad ways of making comics — a lot of work being done today proves the validity of different approaches.

    * For years, art comics answered the question “What if Alfred Hitchcock made comics?” Now we’re getting closer to answering the question “What if Matisse made comics?”

    * Over and over again, people will say that they loved the Kevin Huizenga story in Kramers Ergot, but the rest of the work in that anthology “just isn’t comics. There’s no story.” Huizenga is a wonderful cartoonist, but even artists doing very poor narrative comics get attention for their efforts. Artistically, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a mess. If it was simply published as a mass-edition prose paperback, most people with taste would avoid it. But because it’s a comic, it gets attention for successfully “telling a story.” Making “readable” narrative comics is enough for a lot of people who wouldn’t even think of looking at something as “crazy” as Brian Chippendale. But Chippendale is making mature, unique art while Bechdel is making clumsy comics.

    * “There’s no story.” I think the gold standard for a lot of people is still Jaime Hernandez. That’s how you do a perfect comic. And Jaime does make wonderful comics. But that’s not the only way to do it. You can make valid comics without a story. For a lot of young artists, I think the narrative aspect of comics serves as an engine for image creation. The standard mantra for cartooning has long been “Let’s focus more on telling good stories and having real writing in comics.” I’m an advocate for serious writing in comics as much as anyone else. But a lack of serious writing doesn’t mean we should dismiss serious visual work either.

    * A complaint about some younger artists is that they simply want to draw odd-looking characters wandering around cool-looking landscapes. But if you look at the tone of the figures they’re drawing or the line weight they use to draw the trees in the background, we are usually quite moved in the way we are when we look at a poetic painting. So then why do these young artists become cartoonists instead of painters? Because a narrative engine (no matter how sparse) drives the imagination toward unexpected imagery in a way that painting does not.

    * A lot of old rules about what must go into an art comic no longer apply. Comics don’t need to be penciled first on a certain type of paper and then inked with the right type of ink. Suddenly, we’re caught up with other art forms that fought the battle of what is allowed. The standard way of making comics still produces amazing results, of course. Clowes is making the best comics of his career and there are many narrative cartoonists doing incredibly, forward-thinking work. But we can veer off that path now and still arrive at the same point of artistic achievement.

    * The majority of young artists entering into cartooning today no longer owe anything to Kirby and Ditko. I get just as much enjoyment out of Kirby and Ditko as I do from any other cartoonist… but how wonderful it is to finally be free of them.

    * Crosshatching has always been used to create tone and help the reader view a scene more clearly. “That’s the background of the house.” Drawing in comics, for the most part, has been about allowing the audience to “read” information through drawing. Clowes work is so flawless because you forget you’re looking at a drawing sometimes — you’re completely caught up in his narrative and the stove he drew in the background tells you “stove” not “someone drew that stove.” Clowes somehow makes beautiful drawings that you can read with a quick glance. But comics can now use crosshatching to the reverse effect. Hatching can be used for expressive ends instead of narrative ends. Your reading of the narrative can be completely interrupted by the boldness of the drawing.
    Image Image

    From Teratoid Heights, ©2003 Mat Brinkman.

    * Ivan Brunetti’s recent Yale anthology is an interesting thing to consider. On the one hand, it’s an impressive tome that bears out a pleasing aesthetic history of comics. Reading it, I almost felt like it was a near-perfect overview of the current cartooning scene (and what lead up to it). It’s not. And it’s not supposed to be — its Brunetti’s aesthetic and not everyone else’s. I like his aesthetic just fine (every artist in that anthology is wonderful). But why must a major overview of cartooning published this year focus on narrative cartooning so much to the exclusion of expressive cartooning? Mat Brinkman’s inclusion is an anomaly, and in the context of the anthology, his work looks like it is completely without artistic sympathizers. Of course, there are countless artists doing work that is close in spirit to Brinkman, many of whom merit inclusion in Brunetti’s anthology.

    * The Yale anthology, as good as it is, just reinforces that idea that the visuals of comics are subservient to storytelling. This is true for one mode of cartooning but doesn’t have to be true for the medium as a whole.

    * In the mid ’90s, incredibly skillful and exciting narrative comics were done by Jon Lewis, Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, Megan Kelso and many others. The work these artists did and continue to do is some of the best that comics have to offer. But the work of young artists in comics has changed radically in the last decade. For Brunetti’s anthology to come out in 2006 and ignore that change is odd.

    * Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006 commits the same omissions as Brunetti’s anthology (only more blatantly) but for some reason it seems more forgivable. The prose and poetry lines in the Best American series are similarly conservative. Still, it’s disheartening to see work like Justin Hall’s long entry into BAC 2006 touted as the best comics have to offer. The piece tells a competent narrative, but visually, it seems unfinished and forgettable. The drawings don’t get in the way of the narrative, but they don’t enrich it either. The visual side of Hall’s piece seems like an afterthought, as if drawing pictures were simply the price of telling the story. For something like this to be touted as “the best” instead of ‘a very promising beginning” makes it seem like many people still see competent narrative as the ultimate goal.

    * I recently got into a debate about Karl Stevens’ comic Guilty. Stevens uses photo-reference in every panel. Aesthetically, I didn’t love the comic, but I did take note of it, since it deviated from the “cartoony” mold that art-comic aficionados love so much. I love cartoony comics, too, and think the liveliest comics come out of working in a cartoony style — but part of me thinks this is because we (art-comic’s creators) only focus on making cartoony comics. Stevens’ comic was a mess (although I am curious to see what he does next), but the reaction that most cartoonists had to it (“This isn’t how you do comics. Photo reference is a bad idea.”) is further grist for the mill, to me. Just because our best comics happen to be cartoony doesn’t mean that Popeye style is the only way that works. It’s hard making good art in a totally new style, but we have to separate saying something is “bad art” from saying “that approach is inherently flawed.”

    * In the Tom Devlin-edited issue of The Comics Journal, an anonymous cartoonist was quoted as saying, “Comics should try to be less like film and more like poetry.” I couldn’t have agreed more when I read that statement, and I tried to imagine what “poetic” comics would be like. I don’t have to imagine it any more — today, we’re in the full flowering of comics as poetry.z

  3. Brian says:

    Okay, thanks Frank. For my part, I view the stuff you’re talking about here as being closer to artist’s books or zines than comics, which is arguably conservative of me, but I just think of as a way of defining terms. The stuff I cited in my original comment that you quoted here I totally consider comics, though, and I largely agree with Austin’s post. (I’d disagree inasmuch as I’d say that all, or at least most, cartooning is expressive cartooning, and I think the Brunetti book highlights that)

  4. Frank Santoro says:

    You know whats crazy is that some time in the future all of these separate “categories” of comics will collapse into a broad label like “early 21st century graphic novels.” Painters such as Rothko and Pollock fought bitterly with each other over what was “proper” for painting. No brushstrokes must show! Flat color only! And now? They are lumped together in history books as “Abstract Expressionist.” To most people looking at the works now they are from the same school of thought, when in reality at the time they were very particular and insistent that there was a distinction between their different styles.

  5. Alex Holden says:

    Frank, you seem to be dismissive about comics that have B/W interiors and a card stock cover as being boring, and yet you also lament the fact that there were no “embryonic Speak of the Devil” type comics as SPX. What would these comics look like to you? I imagine that (if they existed) they would come off just fine in that format.

    I have some old Low Tides, and their covers are really nice multi-colored screenprints, but it’s the content that has me returning to them again and again.

    “Panray” is an amazing object to look at, and it was marked DOWN to $40 for SPX. I’m not saying that it’s not worth it. There is a lot of labor put into that book.
    Would “Panray” be as amazing to you if it were color xeroxed and $20? Is the value in the production or the content? You make it clear that both have value, but I think it’s a tricky example to bring up because you are pitting a really meticulous hand made limited edition comic/art object against an abstract cheaper object.

    One thing that I love about making comics is that I can give them to all of my friends and that they are affordable. I know I’m taking (and twisting) your words way out of context here, but from this perspective, I want comics to be MORE like books and LESS like sculpture and painting. I bought the new Speak of the Devil and literally had it folded up in my back pocket. And I liked that I could do that and not give a shit about it. It read just as well on the train ride home.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    Alex, you write: “Would “Panray” be as amazing to you if it were color xeroxed and $20? Is the value in the production or the content? You make it clear that both have value, but I think it’s a tricky example to bring up because you are pitting a really meticulous hand made limited edition comic/art object against an abstract cheaper object.”

    I was not really pitting the two against each other, I think you’re doing that a little bit. I repeatedly admit that I’m overgeneralizing in my post.

    As someone who’s made both meticulous art object style handmade comics and quick minis I think you can relate to the dilemma of HOW to best “experiment” with form and content. This is what I’m trying to get at in my post.

  7. Alex Holden says:

    I guess I am pitting the two against each other, but I mean to more in the sense of accessibility to the book in the end.

    How much of what is awesome about Panray (super high end production in a small edition) also limits the audience in the end? I mean limits the amount of people who will literally see the book.

    A xeroxed pamphlet is not the ideal format to express every idea. Sometimes high-end production is what you need to say what you want to say.

    My point is just that physical accessibility is another factor that should be considered when making a book.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    word up, Alex. I think all small press comics makers have had the experience of how to best make a book that is affodable and retains solid production values.

  9. Luke Pski says:

    Hmmm. I dunno. I’m not sure why “conservative” always carries a negative. At its’ core, I think the conservative position is to be weary of change for the sake of it and an attempt to uphold certain sets of values. I think if you apply that set desire to uphold value in comics it can be good or bad, but at its base I think its about trying to preserve the things that you love about comics and a weariness of standards or values that might de-value what you love.
    So I think if you come at all this with the argument that “A” is as good as “B”, you’re making a conservative argument.
    And just to be perfectly honest, I don’t think that the more overtly arty comics out there are generally as “good” as a lot of the more traditional stuff, my basic argument being that they don’t carry enough information- or it’s not the kind of information I have come to want out of comics.
    Honestly, I can look at Mat Lienes and people like Trenton Doyle Hancock and feel no real need to read them as comics, but they satisfy in ways a lot of the more visual/pure drawing based comics can’t even come close to- and these guys don’t even call what they do comics, necessarily.
    So I don’t really get this need to square away the more visual stuff with what more traditional comics fans seem to like- Isn’t that kind of part of the deal? It seems like having cake and eating in that proponents of the “just as good as” want us to follow specific ways of looking at what the art kids do taht will lead us to believe they are “just as good”, but they don’t want any kind of solid hierarchical approach to what they do artistically.
    And I honestly do think there is a real dearth of actual content in a lot of these comics, generally speaking, if you define content as ideas you can actually translate into logical statements.
    So I think a lot of them are not spoken of in glowing terms because there is very little to say- you just kinda have to look at them.
    Sorry for being so convoluted.

  10. Sam Gaskin says:

    Austin: “A complaint about some younger artists is that they simply want to draw odd-looking characters wandering around cool-looking landscapes.”

    Jeez, I don’t know anyone like that… (tugs collar) Haha!

    Seriously though, I guess as all subjects are subjects and are prone to discussion (as is the way of the internet), then these things are bound to be debated upon. Personally, I’m not concerned about the trend of anything. Maybe I’m looking at too broad of a spectrum, but all kinds of comics will always be made, and “good” and “bad” will always be relative terms prior to reading. Most often, if it’s worth reading, it’s going to stick around, no matter what style it embodies.
    In my experience, you just can’t turn 99% of people on their opinion. A close friend of mine refused to even read any books released by Drawn & Quarterly and can be quoted as saying to me “oh, that’s right, you only like bad things”.
    I guess it’s kind of a stretch as a comparison, but just as we can be colorblind to race, it’d be nice if we could think the same with the way comics are drawn. In a perfect world, right? I mean, I’m sure some of us pick up the newest DC comics and sneer too, but that same comic means the world to some person who’s sneering at Cold Heat. But what are you going to do, shake them until they change their mind? The way of the world, I guess.
    Am I getting too metaphysical for you? Am I in your head?


  11. Brian says:

    It occurs to me that maybe the reason a lot of the new work seems so impressive in terms of production value is because, if you go to an arts college, it’s pretty easy to do multi-color silkscreen. “Easy” is a relative term, certainly a lot of labor- but for a developing artist, it might be easier to do stuff that’s really impressive than do a kick-ass drawing. Or, more important relative to comics, a series of kick-ass drawings that follow each other to tell a story and make a page work as a unified design. Or write something.

    Production values are easier to learn than how to be an artist.

    Certainly there are compositional elements that go into color separation, but- I think this goes a way to explaining why a lot of the new work excels in this area.

    The response to this- if it’s so easy, why don’t the people doing autobio do it? Probably has something to do with weird false binaries and preconceptions about literary comics due to lack of predecessors at this point in time.

  12. Brian says:

    Should’ve reread that before posting- when I say “easy to do impressive stuff” I mean specifically in terms of multi-color silkscreening being pretty impressive once a certain number of layers is reached. It’s impressive in terms of the work that went into it, which is easily graspable, compared to drawings that create their own world, or something equally esoteric and hard to define.

    And again, the latter, in comics, is something that goes hand in hand with a developed writing voice, which is hard to come by and is worked out over time.

  13. Frank Santoro says:

    Brian, I think I see what you’re getting at – and I agree somewhat. I think, definitely, some of the “arty” silkscreen stuff simply looks better – and compared to nuts and bolts comics composition that isn’t as flashy, it might seem “easier” to accomplish, a quick fix approach to style.

    Nuts and bolts comics composition is a very subtle and difficult craft to learn and develop. There are many talented minicomics artists who aren’t so concerned about having a silkscreen cover or anything flashy. They are interested in what happens within the pages, the panels, more than the overall presentation. That is totally cool by me. I don’t need a mini to have a silkscreen cover in order for me to buy it and enjoy it. (I actually ran into Ron Rege the other day and he expressed the same sentiment to me. He said “Have you ever seen a Love and Rockets comic with a really great, perfectly colored cover? You don’t – because they spend all their time on the guts!”)

    My original post, I hope, is about wishing there was a wider, more open field of play that all of these “new” directions in comics could co-exist and learn from each other. I might sound dismissive about straight ahead narrative comics – I’m not – I’m just nostalgic for a time when the more straight ahead folks were still really excited about minicomics, but maybe the golden age of minis is over. The web and the glut “professional” comics anthologies these days has sort of toned down the urgency of it all I think. It appears to be a wiser career choice to focus on trying to get into a good anthology than to hone one’s craft in mini after mini, year after year. And that’s a good thing, really. It’s good that there are more venues for developing work. I just miss the type of inventiveness seen in Kevin H’s Glorianna mini back in ’03 or ’04 – but, hey, talents like that only come around so often…

  14. D Pop Tart says:

    Hi Frank, You stopped at my blog and left a comment (re: my pondering comics, the ‘manga mind’ and autism) and I wanted to ask you a question… Would you mind emailing me? I can’t seem to find your email address anywhere… It’s Thanks!

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