Arguing with Art In Time


Monday, June 21, 2010

Buy this book already!

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Art in Time not just for the obvious reason (a glaring conflict-of-interest!) but also because like the best anthologies it is a book that I feel I have to live with for many months before I can properly appraise its value. I’ve talked before about the anthologies that have meant the most to me and one common trait they have is that I keep going back to them, keep learning from them, and have gained a deeper appreciation of the way they were put together from my 5th or 6th reading rather than my initial impression.

Having said that, I’m pretty confident that Art in Time belongs in the small pantheon of great comics anthologies. Art Out of Time was a distinguished book but the companion volume is an improvement in almost every way: the artists and the excerpts are more thoughtfully selected and hang together better, and Dan’s writing on them displays a new level of engagement and insight.

There is one quality of Art in Time that really sets it apart. Rather like Ben Schwartz’s recent Best American Comics Criticism anthology, Art in Time is a fun book to argue with because the some of the editorial decisions are counter-intuitive. Provoking arguments is a sign of an important book, one that challenges your preconceptions.

For me, the most important argument-provoking decision Dan made was to include four underground cartoonists   (Sharon Rudahl, Michael McMillan, Willy Mendes, and John Thompson) in a book largely devoted to commercial adventure cartoonists. I have to say, if I were the editor I would done it something much more conservative: two books, one devoted to the commercial cartoonists (Marsh, Morisi, etc.) and one devoted to unjustly ignored cartoonists from the classic underground age (say from 1968-1980).

But Dan wants to shake up our sense of history. I’ve taken the issue up with him during a panel in TCAF and he’s made the point elsewhere as well but in essence he’s challenging the view of old fogeys like me who see a major epistemological break between the world of commercial comic books and the world of the undergrounds. For Dan, it is all comics, and the formal properties that unite Marsh and Sharon Rudahl (for example) outweigh the social, cultural and economic divide.

There is obviously an element of truth to this. Robert Crumb, to pick one example among many, learned how to draw comics by reading and imitating the works of Carl Barks and John Stanley. And some of the commercial cartoonists were interacted, socially and aesthetically, with the counterculture. Wally Wood is the best example but even someone as straight-laced as Will Eisner, who was doing comics for the Pentagon, re-thought his career when he saw the undergrounds. Eisner’s whole return to comics came about because he was impressed by the new freedoms won by underground cartoonists. Or to pick an even more unexpected example, Barks praised Crumb’s work.

Still, and this might be a testimony to my age and the extent that I was formed intellectually in the 1980s when the divide between commercial comics and the alternative press was especially large, I’m not sure I fully buy the argument Dan is making in Art In Time. It seems to me that the undergrounds did represent a fundamental break with the past. I’m not sure if I can define it in words, but the best underground comics (Crumb, Deitch, Spiegelman, Justin Green) cut deeper into human experience than any of the commercial cartoonists, no matter how good they were, ever did. The experience of reading an underground comic is different from reading a commercial comic book. Even with the best commercial comics, you have to make allowances or read between the lines to find the spark of individuality.

As I said before, though, the mark of a good book is that it makes you argue with it. By that criteria, Art In Time is a very good book indeed.

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9 Responses to “Arguing with Art In Time”
  1. Matt Seneca says:

    “You have to make allowances or read between the lines to find the spark of individuality.”

    That’s pretty interesting. The work of the undergrounders displayed in Art In Time is definitely something that seems more individual in the context of the mainstream-centered book, but in the general ’60s psych-art context that those stories also engage they are much less unique and much more a part of the greater culture. One of the best things about Art In Time — to my mind, anyway — is its presentation of what the average reader would probably code as typical “old action comics” in an elevated format that demands the reader take a much closer look at their uniqueness. (As opposed to Art Out Of Time, which presented material of a type that is given the deluxe-reprint, this-is-essential-work treatment much more often.)

    Anyway, while the underground stories do seem pretty unique in the context of all those Glanzman/Morisi slam-bangers, their psychedelic adventuring is certainly much less so in the context of the wider ’60s culture they were a vital part of. Like the commercial action stories, the underground stories struck me as work that might have seemed part of a homogeneous whole if they hadn’t been presented for re-appraisal as unique artifacts. Maybe that’s the rationale behind their inclusion as much as the common “adventure” thread? A rescue from the critical/cultural morass of “yesteryear’s genre work”? I dunno for sure… just a thought from someone who wasn’t alive yet in the ’80s…

  2. Matt: “As opposed to Art Out Of Time, which presented material of a type that is given the deluxe-reprint, this-is-essential-work treatment much more often.”

    But prior to the release of Art Out of Time, none of it had been!

    Razzafrazza, my trackbacks don’t work. I hate to keep doing this, but here are some thoughts on this:

  3. Matt Seneca says:

    I don’t know about none — not any of the specific stories in the book, but turn-of-the-century newspaper strips have been getting high-end reprints for decades, and stuff like White Boy and Boody Rogers’ work had been anthologized in rarefied contexts prior to Art Out Of Time. (Raw counts as a rarefied context, right?)

    But let me clarify real fast. My point was that Out Of Time was lighter on commercial pamphlet comics than In Time, which utterly swims in them; and that while stuff like classic newspaper comics and… uh, Boody Rogers comics… had been seen in an explicitly “artful” context before, that definitely wasn’t the case with the Art In Time material. In fact, besides the still-recent Spiegelman/Mouly kids’ comics collection, I’m hard pressed to think of another place where non-superhero midcentury commercial pamphlets had been presented with an overt nod to the idea that they were historically essential material. (I’m not counting stuff like the Marvel/DC Archives series since that presentation is more in line with notions of product than those of art or history. Nor the Smithsonian Comicbook Comics book since to my mind that was mostly a superhero anthology and Art in Time isn’t.)

    Not to say that Art Out Of Time wasn’t a hugely important reprint book, or to disavow its place in the subsequent Rogers/Hayes/Gene Deitch/Milt Gross resurrections. Does anyone else really really hope White Boy is next?

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    @Matt Seneca. There is a very good chance that White Boy (the most unfortunately named of all the great strips) will be reprinted soon (or soon-ish).

    @ Sean T. Collins. “In large part, the task of the ’00s in both critical and comics-making terms was reclaiming commercial and genre comics as subjects worthy of investigation and capable of holding their own with the art/lit/underground end of things.” I agree with the first part of the sentence (“reclaiming commercial and genre comics as subjects worthy of investigation”) but not the second (“capable of holding their own with the art/lit/underground end of things”). It’s not a question of quality. Jack Kirby (or Carl Barks or John Stanley or many others) had much more talent than most art/lit/underground cartoonists. Rather it’s a question of intent and context. The intent and context of art/lit/underground comics is so different that they have to be read in a different spirit, with different expectations and a different aesthetic sensiblity. That’s why I said that if I were editing Art in Time I might have aimed to make 2 books, not one. That was a daring decision on Dan’s part, and one that is forcing me (and others, I think) to reconsider the relationship between the undergrounds and commercial comics.

  5. Right, and I get what you’re saying, but it seems to me that Dan’s argument with Art Out of Time is that the strips he was running were as different from the strips in (for want of a better word) the reprint canon as is the comic-book material in Art In Time from the usual comic-book classics you see. I don’t suppose I know enough to say which of all this stuff had been treated as “art” before–I always saw the project as being as much one of simple exposure as one of contextualizing, though it’s obviously that too.

  6. Whoops! That was a) directed at Matt, not Jeet, and b) clumsily phrased. My point was that in AOOT, the fact that “turn-of-the-century newspaper strips have been getting high-end reprints for decades” was sort of the idea–yes, that’s true, but not THESE strips.

  7. Jeet: I’m still used to seeing intent/content/context as potentially proscriptive of quality from my days of rumbling on the messageboard. These were days when Domingoses roamed the Earth in huge hordes.

  8. patrick ford says:

    Jeet: ” White Boy (the most unfortunately named of all the great strips) will be reprinted soon (or soon-ish).”

    Not a problem, you just call the book Skull Valley.

  9. Dan Nadel says:

    Well gee, I’d like to say it’s the blushing that’s kept me away from responding, but it’s been far more mundane business.

    @ Matt: Thanks for commenting. I agree with Sean on this one, and it might be a matter of age — we’ve both seen the before reprint boom and after/during reprint boom landscape. I don’t see any real difference in how the artists in each book might be treated archively. While Hanks and Rogers had been printed before (20 years before) none of the artists in AOOT seemed at all destined for any kind of deluxe treatment and 70% are probably just as lost now as then. I could be wrong but I don’t see books by Jensen, MacGovern, Dart, Jennett, et al coming down the pike unless I win the lottery, while Meskin and Everett, both in AIT, have books forthcoming. So that’s not really an accurate description. And yes, I chose those particular undergrounds partly because they represent the underground/psych-comic-as-genre, as opposed to being more singular, like Bogeyman or something.

    @ Jeet: That’s way too kind. Thanks. Here’s my latest take on the “divide” — and I gotta say, it changes — Right now I can find as much in Kirby as I can in Crumb and as much in Ditko as Shelton. But jeez man, bringing up Binky Brown is like bringing a bazooka to a knife fight, so I’m at a loss there. As a complete book it has few, if any equals. But why can’t we stack Binky next to Kamandi, next to Stardust, next to Maus, next to Krazy Kat next to Cannon? If we go by a measure of greatness constricted by the conditions under which these things were made we’re not going to get very far. I’m not suggesting, by any means, a lowering of standards — just a broadening. I don’t think a Morisi is a Crumb but I think we need to reconsider how we see a Morisi and let that kind of work into the conversation, and vice versa. I think, if anything, a broader approach needs to be more sophisticated and attuned to what makes a comic worthwhile and less about genre-aversions on the one hand and fannish reverse-snobbery on the other. And maybe lists and such go out the window. Also, frankly, I’m not for the depths of human experience .. I’m looking got a visceral experience that works as drawing and storytelling. And I take it as it comes, without making divisions. So… that’s where I am for now.

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