Posts Tagged ‘Cage Match’

Round Table #1: Pim & Francie


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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[TIM: After coming to the uncomfortable realization that it has been more than a year since our last Cage Match, Dan, Frank, and I decided it was time to get back in the pen and fight it out over some recently released comic book. Unfortunately for the format, the book we chose as a topic, Al Columbia‘s Pim & Francie, turned out to be a bad subject for a no-holds-barred, drag-out fight, mostly because we all really enjoyed it. But giving up would be too easy.

So here is the first installment of a new, buttoned up, and possibly less exciting feature, the Round Table, wherein we discuss a comic without coming to blows, though with any luck, we will still find a few things to disagree about to at least somewhat interesting effect. No strict rules here, just an online discussion taking place over real time. Readers should please feel free to participate in the comments section. This is a first time thing, and we haven’t really thought it through, so maybe the event will turn out to be a joyless affair, quickly sputtering into sad banalities. But maybe it won’t! If you believe, clap your hands!

In any case, welcome to the Round Table. Dan is starting the conversation, and will take the lectern shortly.]

DAN: I suspect each of us will have a very different interest in Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days. Rather than attempt a comprehensive statement, I’m going to look at it from a couple of different angles.

A one line explanation of this book is: Pim & Francie is a book of drawings and stories about two cartoon children. What is resembles is a stack of fragments, sequenced to indicate a few suggestive narrative threads. But its surface is deceptive.

If I didn’t know the back story of Columbia’s career (the starts and stops, the destroyed work, etc.) I would assume that the book looks the way it does intentionally. That the artist’s intent is to convey disintegration and ennui through the physicality of the drawings themselves. Images are torn, taped together, burnt, wrinkled, and water damaged. When a character disappears into pencil lines, or is obscured by ink blots; when a scene is interrupted by white drafting tape or a massive tear, the characters seem to come to life. That is, the imperfection of the page, the process of the drawing, drives the characters. So, I don’t read these pages as “sketches” but rather as full blown drawings akin to something like Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning” in which absence animates the page.

The distress is so thorough and consistent that simple coincidence seems impossible. But, then, maybe it’s just unbelievably good editing. And then I got to thinking, what if Columbia is so aware of his mythology and such a good cartoonist—such a master of surface effects to indicate sub-basement meanings—that he wants us to believe the P&F is “just” a collection of scraps so that it quietly engulfs us? What if this doubt, this underestimation, is part of his intent? Then I happened on Sam Anderson’s review of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura in which he suggests much the same thing about that just published fragment. It’s wishful thinking, of course—but it speaks to the power of the author to even make us long for some over-arching master plan.

I am also reminded of a much younger cartoonist’s new book: Josh Cotter’s Driven by Lemons. Lemons is a very different animal, though it also is a brilliant, virtuosic work, and one that needs repeated reads. It as well allows a look at the marks and tones that comprise a cartoon drawing—wiping away the cleanliness of cartoon reality to foreground the process. It’s also a young man’s book by a cartoonist who still has faith in the kinetics of cartooning—in motion, enthusiasm, and outlandish physics. Cotter may be investing in process, but he’s also building his cartoon language, adding new tools and new ideas as he goes.

Columbia, however, has been through it all. This is a book only an older artist could create. His process is up front and part of it is destructive. Reading Pim & Francie is an apocalyptic experience—as if Columbia is demolishing both his own work and the idea of “cartooning” in general. I found it exhilarating and terrifying.

A word about the subject matter: A lot of cartoonists have trod the “inverted comics” general territory. Most brilliantly, Chris Ware used Quimby to convey despair, anxiety, and grief by employing the lyricism of 1920s cartoons. Other, more recent cartoonists have had a lot less success. It’s rather easy to use the form or characters and then blow their brains out. It’s much harder to create something that is empathetic. Columbia isn’t aping an old style—he’s taken the building blocks of 1920s cartoons and rearranged them entirely (in some places I am reminded of the frightening clown of Monkey Shines of Marseleen.) His static figures, sepia backgrounds and faux-happy waltzes are thoroughly redesigned and made his own. There are also no easy pratfalls here. Nothing is predictable. As I watched knives glint and faces warp into horrific grins the furthest thing from my mind was nostalgia. Instead, as with Ware, I was deeply moved by the experience.

And that’s where I’ll stop for now. Next?


TIM: Well if I knew this was going to be that kind of party…

Huh. That’s a nice idea, Dan, that Pim & Francie only looks like a collection of unfinished stories and pieces, but I don’t know if I quite buy it. (I definitely don’t buy the New York magazine Nabokov theory you linked.) But I also don’t know that it matters, because Columbia makes the “unfinishedness” work for the story, just as you and previous critics have indicated, and the resulting book has its own otherwise perhaps unattainable power. It’s difficult to know whether or not these stories would have worked better if Columbia had completed them more traditionally, just as it is to conclude whether or not David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive would have worked better as the television series he had originally intended. In the end, you have to read the book you hold in your hands.

It’s definitely interesting, and telling, that the text of the book itself draws almost no attention to its own raw state, other than in the spine’s parenthetical “Artifacts and Bone Fragments.” As you said, Dan, knowing Columbia’s career history inevitably shapes the reader’s response, and it’s fun and fruitful to (attempt to) read the book as if you aren’t aware of it.

In either case, the fact that so many of these grotesque stories and vignettes don’t really resolve contributes to the reader’s growing sense of unease. It’s almost like a 12-bar blues song (or an intensifying series of songs) that never returns to the tonic chord: your nerves get a real work out.

Of course, in another way, the fact that so many of these funny-animal-like characters are horribly mutilated only to be resurrected, seemingly unharmed, a few pages later only points back to traditional cartoon tropes of endlessly recurring death, dismemberment, and escape. As if Wile E. Coyote’s tortured existence wasn’t played for laughs. (Grant Morrison’s celebrated attempt to capture something similar looks lame and obvious compared to Columbia’s infinitely more subtle work.)

I’ve said it before in another context, but I’m really beginning to believe it: “In a way, every comic depicts a phantasmagoric dreamscape: Squint just right, and everyone from Spider-Man to Dilbert is revealed as a nightmarish figure.” When I was a child, for reasons I can’t even now articulate, I remember feeling a irrational fear looking at Minnie Mouse’s oversize high heels engulfing her strangely shaped feet. Francie wears the same shoes in this book, and now I find them scary as an adult. That’s a big part of what I get out of Al Columbia’s comics in general: they really bring out the surreal terror already buried within cartoon imagery.

That’s it for me for now. You got anything, Frank? And Dan, I guess there’s nothing stopping you (or anyone) from jumping in again at any time, either.

TIM: Also, is it my imagination, or does Cinnamon Jack remind anyone else of Alfred E. Neuman?


DAN: You’re wrong, Tim! Cinnamon Jack looks NOTHING like Alfred E. Neuman. Phew. Had to get that one bit of Cage Match energy out of my system. Sadly, yes, Hodler, you’re right, they do look alike. Which means I’ll never look at either the same way. Tim’s blues analogy is a good one: I’m reminded of John Fahey or something like that—ultra tense, repeating patterns that don’t allow for a satisfying payoff. But, I have to say, the life & death cycle of cartoon characters, as well as their lurking grotesques don’t interest me that much on their own. I almost take it for granted. It’s more like what Columbia does with subtly “off-model” versions, like his repeating Goofy/Lena the Hyena figure. It’s more than bringing out the horror in an extant design, it’s taking components of that design and refashioning them all together. The highly individual result is the scary thing. It’s not like I’m arguing, dear Tim, just expanding.

Also, one thing I forgot to mention before: P&F is also a wonderful demonstration of the cartooning and animation process: The insane amount of drawings produced that have just subtle differences or mistakes. The maddening repetition. Ironically, I have to sign off until late this evening as I have to go teach comics at SVA! I should just have a group reading of P&F, I suppose. Below: A version of the Phantom Blot?


TIM: Well, I take Robert Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning for granted, so we’re even! (It’s probably unwise of me to admit that.)

And I knew that image reminded me of something, and you’re right: The Phantom Blot! So many memories just opened up. Time Regained.


I read straight through like a narrative. Like a detective, I put the clues together and read the images attentively as they sped by. I could feel the collage of all these fragments, clues assemble and tell a very clear story to me. I’ve read this story before, have felt the same emotions. Pim and Francie’s adventure struck a chord in me that’s been dormant for a long time. A haunting wonder, perhaps? A curiosity of the unknown that, when found, rattles one to the core?

Does that all sound too heavy? Insincere? Not to me. Like Dan, I felt really moved by the book. I don’t feel the need to explain the “unfinished-ness” of the book at all because I see it as “finished.” Notes, fragments, whatever. I read it slowly, turning each page like I was watching a film that had me riveted. Does that make sense? And then I would go back to certain section I wanted to re-read and watch that unfold again and again.

I also wanted to find a way to gauge the “timing” of the author’s delivery. Columbia’s progression of two-page spreads and how the spreads folded into the next in sequence is truly beautiful. I read each spread as a pairing of the left and right pages. And as I would turn the pages I could feel the changes in tone and how it affected the “loose” narrative. I wanted to be able to feel the changes and mark them so I could return to these transitions and re-read them like chapters.

The way I did this was to determine the first spread in the book, which is this:

Spread #1

The page on the left is, technically, not the first image in the book. That would be this image which is very important:

First Image

The above image of the sun and the torn curtain is, to me, the beginning of the “play” as it were. It feels like it’s part of a proscenium stage.

I numbered the remaining spreads as “Spread #2, #3,” etc. I then would put a post-it every ten spreads to mark the “time” for me. I could see the rhythm of the images, watch how they played off each other. And most importantly it let me appreciate it as a whole even though I was inserting breaks. But these breaks were just so I could get my bearings, a sort of time code for this world outside of time.

Spread #10

Spread #20

There are 118 spreads by my count. To me, the fragments are expertly pieced together and a sort of “hyper-text” is created. I read it up, down, and sideways, using the symbols of the characters as links to other spots within the story fragments.

I would like the reader to enjoy the first twenty spreads without my description. It’s a marvelous fable, a poetic onslaught of images that will deposit you, the reader, into the rabbit hole. And you will find yourself with Pim and Francie, lost in the haunted forest.

And then Grandma appears. She finds you, and all is well. And then, at Grandma’s house, we know real fear. A succession of images terrorize our heroes, and like a nightmare, they find themselves on a dream street in a bad part of town. A cartooned detective appears chasing a killer. On the opposing page, a smiling, long-snouted, gap-toothed visage of fear with piercing eyes is depicted. Turn the page and there are severed limbs on the left hand side of the spread. And on the right hand side is an old man smoking a cigar. The words in the balloon are difficult to make out because there is tape and corrections. The one phrase that is readable is, “They enjoy killing! It makes them happy!”

When we turn to the next spread, we see Pim speaking to this older gentleman. Pim refers to him as Grandpa. This is the first time we understand within the order of the images that this character is Grandpa. The representation of Grandpa, like Pim and Francie, is reduced to a symbol, so when we encounter this symbol, we, the reader, bring so much to the table already. Just the word Grandpa and any cartooned image of a pleasant-looking gentleman, fused together, evoke a very particular feeling in me as a reader.

Spread #25

Spread #26

So when Grandpa reveals to Pim what the murderer does, it also sets up the reader to feel for Pim as he goes down the rabbit hole. On the opposing page, the grotesque, exaggerated visage of a few pages ago is replaced with it’s “flipped image” double. Only now it is hacked to pieces, dead or dying and still smiling. A haunting mad image that bears the text, “Sonny Blackfire had returned.”

When we turn the page again to spread #28 we meet “the Bloody Bloody Killer.” His face, the angle of how it is drawn, all match the “grotesque visage” of the previous spread which of course, rhymes with the original spread. It is this phrasing that interests me a great deal. Spread to spread, Columbia directs my eye to see, in succession, more than the images reveal singularly. It reminds me of how a musical chord progression is built out of single notes, played together in time.



TIM: Good one, Frank. I feel like we’ve barely begun to get anywhere, but I have to bow out for the rest of the evening, and do some stupid parenting. Maybe you and Dan will come up with more tonight—either way I’ll rejoin the conversation tomorrow morning.


DAN: Top of the morning to ya! A few responses: To the anonymous comment below: The reference to Wolverton’s MAD cover is mentioned above: Columbia merges Lena Hyena with Goofy. And, I’m not pulling art from the book, necessarily. Comics Comics HQ doesn’t have little helpers scanning books so I just grabbed stuff from the vast internet. So, you can stop searching for these images in the book (except for Frank’s spreads. Those ARE in the book). Finally, I wanted to add to Tim’s thoughts on the object-ness of, say, Minnie’s shoes. If, as in a previous post, one could make a list of invented comic strips within fictional narratives, one could also perhaps make a list of invented comics museums within stories. There is a brilliant and haunting spread of a ballroom filled with cracked cartoon visages frozen in song. P&F enter the space wearing their Mickey hats—fresh blood in a toon graveyard. It’s the only literal depiction of these old icons (Snow White, Mickey, the Ducks, et al) and it’s a great disruptive moment. Two other cartoon museums come to mind immediately (and there must be a ton more): Francis Masse’s brilliant “The Museum of Natural History” in Raw Vol. 2 #3 and Spiegelman’s own satirical museum drawn as a poster to benefit Danny Hellman.


I think Columbia’s approach points the way to a more intimate reading of the text. The fragments, the feel of the paper, grant us access to the material in a way that is more tactile than we get from most who employ this “style;” there is an almost uncomfortable intimacy. Partly because of the violent imagery but also because of the torn and shredded pieces of paper themselves. The humor and the horror and the presentation do not feel contrived at all, but authentic, sincere—REAL in every sense. The approach, the style of drawing interests me but I don’t feel repelled by the treatment. Meaning that it could be read as “cold” somehow. There’s a seduction to the drawing, the style, the pencil, the stages of development. The “behind the scenes” look can be startling.

I must sound like a broken record to those who know me but here goes: This book makes me think of Be-Bop. Notes, chords but skirting the melody. Playing up and down the scale. There’s a beat (page spreads, rhythm of turning pages, the architecture of the spread—two fixed pages—and the architecture of the page; how it’s presented as illustration, as symbol, as comic strip, as movement, as march), and there are notes, chords, but the melody line comes in and out like Charlie Parker playing a standard from The Great American Songbook.

I listen to Charlie Parker everyday on WKCR in NYC. While writing the above paragraph I heard a live recording of Parker where he riffed on the theme from Popeye. I forget the song but the band is chugging along and Parker is playing up and down and around the melody and slips in “Popeye the Sailor Man” without loss of tempo or control or anything—incredible. And to me, that’s akin to what Columbia is able to do in the way he sequences the notes and fragments together in Pim & Francie. (The above Parker video isn’t the song with the Popeye riff, FYI. Just an example of playing with intention and focus and still finding room to “play”)

Columbia’s style of drawing doesn’t evoke a nostalgia in me; I don’t feel he is drawing in an “affected” way. Hokey it ain’t. It’s very REAL. And his take on this American symbolism is strikingly elegant in its delivery. It’s through this elegant delivery that we connect to the fable, the song which somewhere we have all heard before.


TIM: Frank, your musical comparison seems pretty apt to me.

Dan, have you read Michael DeForge‘s Lose yet? Because there’s a bar in hell there that you really need to see. (I should review that issue—it’s really a great debut. Go order a copy, people.) It’s not exactly the same kind of thing you’re talking about, but it’s close enough for blogonet work.

Also, it’s funny that you began this Round Table by saying that you thought we’d all have “very different interests” in the book, but in fact, our responses seem to have been very similar. Maybe that’s indicative of the power of Columbia’s art, that a book so ostensibly “obscure” and “difficult” can provoke such strong, unified responses. (Or maybe its says more about our own limitations as critics, but that’s too depressing to contemplate.) The relationships and situations seem to shift from “story” to “story” and page to page (are Pim and Francie siblings or spouses? children or adults? dead or alive? etc.), yet always make strong emotional sense (for lack of a better phrase), even as they avoid more traditional, “logical” closures.

One other small effect I don’t think has yet been mentioned: I really enjoy the sense you get (through book covers, logos, film stills, etc.) of an alternate universe full of Pim & Francie books, cartoons, and merchandise. That so many of the characters and images mirror those from real (and often long-forgotten) commercial culture only increases the effect.

I don’t know how much more there is to say about this book, without going into the kind of close analysis that Frank began to attempt yesterday, but maybe you guys will prove me wrong. Or actually do some of that close analysis! Like, I mean, what does it mean when they poke their eyes out? Whose “revelation” is it near the end, and what causes it? And what about that final scene in the meadow? What does it mean, man? Actually, those kind of analytical questions appear to me to be largely pointless. But am I wrong? Is that just lazy thinking?


DAN: I have only flipped through Lose but am looking forward to getting my hands on it. Looks amazing. His Cold Heat special is genius. As for the rest, well, man, I think we’ve run out of steam. Those major questions of yours will have to wait until we next meet for beers. Or at least, me and Frank won’t be answering them. Perhaps some kind souls in the comments will help you through this ontological quandary. If not, you can call me up until midnight tonight. Just kidding.

I think that about does it, folks! Thanks for reading. Now back to your regularly scheduled Comics Comics programming.


TIM: Aw, you guys are chicken.

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Final Bell


Thursday, October 30, 2008

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FRANK: When Comics Comics conceived of the Cage Match concept, it was our goal to get our readers riled up enough about comics to switch from passive readers to active writers. It was—and remains—our hope that people care enough about comics to take a stand, one way or the other. To get involved, to build a dialogue that will help create an emotional as well as intellectual foundation for the comics of the future. Sometimes it’s too easy to talk about formal elements in comics—page layout, technical proficiency, inking technique, character creation, fluency of language, narrative strategy, etc.—and avoid the content at its core.

Comics is what we’re about here at Comics Comics, and I, for one, think it’s a good thing to talk these things out. Okay, argue, yell, curse—but all in the hopes of pushing the “discussion” along. I might not have the words or patience at times, but Tim Hodler does and usually Dan Nadel does too—and so together we can all pitch in and build a framework for us, and for the reader, the commentator, the fan. THEN, it really gets interesting. It’s not just print on a page, it’s LIVE, it’s new comics day and people are hangin’ out, talkin’ shop, and talkin’ shit. It’s FUN.

I think it’s safe to say that Cage Match #3 has fulfilled (well, to be honest—exceeded) our goal. The discussions this time around have clearly generated much heat, and, I think, some light as well.

I’ve received quite a few private emails addressing this particular Cage Match. Some thanking me for bringing this out, others admonishing me for my tone. It’s ALL appreciated. Sometimes I get emails from other cartoonists that are basically lectures about why what I wrote on the blog was wrong. (Hello! It’s called a Cage Match for a reason.) I appreciate that they took the time write me, ha. I don’t really mind being lectured. I’m just glad to know they’re reading along too.

So, in that spirit, I want to thank Mr. Heatley and everyone who slacked off at work or at home to chime in on this Comics Comics Cage Match.

TIM: Frank asked me to add a few words to his post, but I’m not sure I have too much to say, other than that I agree with him.

I think the Cage Match itself, while it got a little heated at times, both in the main post and in the comments, was basically a success, and stayed more or less in bounds. I was less happy with some of the responses to David Heatley yesterday, but I guess that’s what happens sometimes, and I have to take responsibility for it as one of the blog’s moderators.

Passions sometimes run high, and I think that’s a good thing overall. Art needs passion, and argument, and maybe even hurt feelings now and again. But I don’t want this blog to degenerate into a forum for two-minute-hate sessions, and, I have to say, it came too close to that yesterday. I want to apologize to David Heatley and our readers; it shouldn’t have happened.

Umm. I don’t want sappy music to start playing in the background, so I’ll leave it at that. Thanks.

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Reading People Reading “My Brain”


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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The following post was written by David Heatley, in response to last week’s Cage Match:

I’ve been checking out some of the reviews of my book floating around on the web, including here on good ol’ Comics Comics, and I wanted to take the time to articulate some of the intentions I had with My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and respond to some of the criticism.

First off, I’m really proud of this book. I spent almost five years on it. It’s not perfect by any stretch and I’m sure it will be a maddening read for some people, but it’s my baby and I stand behind it. I think of it as a catalog or a ledger accounting book. It’s an inventory of my life. It doesn’t have a traditional novelistic arc to it. It doesn’t follow the rules of usual literature and might not look like your run-of-the-mill comic book.

My Brain is a series of fractured vignettes that approximate a self-portrait, clearly incomplete— a record of who I was and what mattered to me most while writing it. More than that, it’s the best way I know to talk about my country. There’s an amazing amount of personal and cultural baggage I was bombarded with as a kid and teenager and it’s my job to sort it out and make sense of it and decide what’s worth keeping (and passing on). The risk I took was in betting that readers would find that process entertaining or moving or helpful in some way. It seems the jury’s still out, over here at least.

I used to do this a lot, but I no longer spend time wishing works of art were something they’re not. I don’t wish Stan Brakhage made commercial Hollywood films. Or that Kanye West would do something more stripped down, personal and emotionally revealing. I try to accept art for what it is and decide if it has anything of value to offer me. If I take a stance against it, especially if it’s accompanied by a righteous feeling of being sure of my opinion, I’ve found that I’m using someone’s work to further my own unhappiness, discontent and irritability and ultimately it has nothing to do with the artist on whom I’ve fixed my angry gaze.

Frank Santoro leads the discussion here with a lot of emotionally charged accusations, which for me, mostly amount to this: “Your book (of which I read bits and pieces in the bookstore) stirred up a lot of feelings in me and I’m angry at you that I have to feel these things, so I’ll pretend that it’s actually boring and that I don’t care about it.” This was disappointing since my hope is that people will actually read the book, in all its complexity, before commenting on it (I’m reminded of Catholic nuns protesting Last Temptation of Christ). But also because I’m a big fan of Frank’s work and like him personally. He has a simultaneously painterly and cinematic approach to comics that I find enlightening and educational. He was a big inspiration for me in working on the “Family History” strip of my book, in particular his book Incanto, which is a gorgeous series of drawings done at an inhuman velocity. I’ll continue to admire and seek out all his new work. No hard feelings, Frank! For real, yo.

Tim Hodler articulated some excellent points of criticism and was generous with his praise. He’s of the mind that the asides in the book, written in the present tense while I was working on it (including the “shout outs” in “Black History”, or the epilogue of “Sex History”) don’t belong and are too jarring to be included in this volume. I’m not objective and I’m sure I have a distorted view of how they come across. I think they add a further wrinkle of complexity to the story. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from several readers that they loved reading the asides in the midst of the otherwise heavy narrative. It was like a comic relief or a moment of decompression.

I don’t have much to say to people who don’t like the way my art looks. I certainly have my own preferences and tastes and you’re entitled to yours. Hopefully I’m getting better at it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there if you’re mostly looking for traditionally beautiful comic book artwork. I think Overpeck will look a little more “fully baked.” This one was like editing together the work of 5 different people under a single pseudonym.

I want to clarify Heidi MacDonald’s comment about a panel I recently did at Barnes & Noble. She states, “Heatley was very frank about being a narcissist and how that informs his work. I got the impression that the effect on the audience is a secondary motivation for him.” What I actually said was that there’s something narcissistic about all writing. We’re people who are traumatized into thinking that the most incredible thing in the world is what’s happening inside our heads at any given time. And we constantly think about how we can use what we’re experiencing in our own work, sometimes at the expense of being present with the people around us. I went on to say that I hope that what may look like narcissism could be seen as a desire to look deeply into myself and share what I find. I don’t feel a lot of attachment to my story as something that defines me. I’m done with it. And if I’ve done my job with this book, my readers will find something useful or illuminating or entertaining in it.

Noah Berlatsky, an acquaintance of mine, and a talented, but bitter writer living in Chicago, wrote about my “Sex History” strip on a site called comiXology. The highlights of his career so far have included well-written, but scathing attacks on Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman with titles like “In the Shadow of No Talent”. For the record, back in 2002 I almost illustrated one of his poems as a comic strip, but had to abandon it because it seemed too similar to a Marc Bell strip at the time. He also contributed to an incoherent failure of an anthology I produced while living in Chicago called The New Graphics Revival. I stand behind the idea of that book, which was that given the time and materials, most anyone could produce an interesting comic strip. But I’m embarrassed by almost all of the work that was sent to us, mostly by a middling, call-for-entry gen-x set. I’m not saying that my failing to promote an anthology that contained work by him or my inability to finish a strip based on his writing could have led him to write this line: “Whether through pointlessly tangled continuity, repetitive autobio dreck, aggressively ugly art, or reflexively irrelevant literariness, [Heatley’s] comics seem determined to find some way, any way, to keep out all those readers and creators who might otherwise, and naturally, see comics as their own.” But anything’s possible!

More to the point, he claims that in the anecdotes about bad sex, longing and one night stands that make up “Sex History”, I’m depicting ciphers, not real women. “He occasionally wonders what is up with one of them — why is she behaving so oddly? Why didn’t she get me off? But he never really cares enough to find out — or, at least, not enough to waste one of his tiny panels telling the reader about it.” Unfortunately, he missed the fundamental idea behind the piece and took the work at face value. The “me” character is something of an unreliable narrator. I’m asking the reader to imagine an alternate universe where the details of falling in love and getting married deserve a single panel and where obsessive thinking about a meaningless crush or one-night stand deserve dozens. I’m certainly not defending the behavior or even the thinking shown, quite the opposite. Something I tried to expound on in the strip’s new epilogue.

The pink bars, by the way, are pretty much a non-issue outside comics circles. I think previous readers feel like I gave them something and then took it away. So now they’re angry. One plausible theory, at least.

A few words about “open ambition”, which seems to be popping up on the comments section here. I’ve never felt at home in the “indie” comics world, where authenticity is judged by how few books are sold and ultimate hipster cred is dealt to artists who are selfless enough to leave their name off their piece entirely. It’s true I’m a self-promoter. I want my book to sell. I want to make lots of money. I want to have a house and give my kids a college education. I used to think that making art and making money were incompatible. It took shedding a lot of my own self-loathing and shame to get to a place where I believe in what I do and get excited about sharing it with as many people as possible. Maybe I’ve tipped a little too far in my excitement. I’m cool with that. I’m not sure what “careerist” means. It must be the sexiest word a surly 25-year-old can muster to put a “successful” artist like me in my place. “He’s just in it for the career!” I don’t really make those distinctions. The business side of art isn’t evil. It’s interesting. If all that turns you off, there’s plenty of other work out there by sad, lonely, misunderstood artists to fetishize and worship. They need your attention more than me.

It was heartening to hear some excitement even among My Brain‘s detractors for my next book Overpeck. I think of it as the polar opposite of what I was going for with My Brain, so there’s a good chance all my fans and critics will switch sides when it’s published. Or maybe not. It should be out from Pantheon by 2010 or so. It will have a more-or-less novelistic structure with a traditional story arc and will feature the best, non-cramped art I can deliver. Yours for $24.95, if not less.

Sincere thanks for reading. And for all your comments, even the viciously nasty ones. Peace out.

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Cage Match #3: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (2008)


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

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[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues on which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Frank puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, I will respond (though it’s likely that this particular match will proceed a bit more leisurely than past conflicts). We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this book yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

FRANK: I’m too lazy to write a full review of David Heatley‘s “new” book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, so we’re gonna have a Cage Match. I should take a scalpel to it and slice it up precisely, turn it inside out. I could easily show how there is really nothing there, that once the “shock” of his work wears off, the lines, the forms, the cartooning is all clearly sub-par.

But Heatley’s new book just makes me angry. And I think that’s what he wants. He wants to provoke reactions like mine so that he can “work out” his insecurities, his racism and his issues with women on the page. And be forgiven.

I’ve been waiting to see this cartoonist take the next step and I think his new book is incredibly disappointing.

Since Heatley keeps re-printing the same material over and over again, should I consider this the Heatley I’ve been hoping will emerge? I mean, I liked the sexual history story when it first came out. Five years ago. It was funny. But I feel like I’ve seen it in at least three different collections since then. And now it’s in his hideously ugly new book, replete with self-censorship and no explanation as to why. (He famously placed pink bars over all the genitalia for this new version and added an epilogue of sorts—more on that later)

The book is broken up into sections that are labeled as parts of Heatley’s brain. The “Race” section starts off with a dream comic of David fucking a Black woman from behind and her asking, “Did you stick it in yet?” O the humanity!

“Sambo” is up next, a dream comic about protecting himself and family from “Sambo.” (The last image is of David hitting “Sambo” over the head with a bat.)

A dream comic about the “Projects.”

Then “Black History” begins. The bulk of the new material in this book.

Y’know, it’s not like he grows as a cartoonist. This big new story about “every Black person he’s ever known” looks and reads exactly like 2003-4 Heatley. There’s little measurable growth. (Insert dick joke here.)

And as someone who’s godfather was Black, I gotta say, you’re a fucking asshole for even doing this story, Heatley. My godfather used to say, “I love it when someone says they got lots of ‘Black friends’ like they gotta say ‘Black’ just to impress me. If they your friends, why you gotta say ‘Black’? You think that same person says, ‘I got a lot of White friends’?”

And that’s sort of what Heatley does by inserting “Shout Outs” to his homies within the narrative itself. There are larger panels within the dense page design of the story that include a drawing of a figure, of a real Black person like his childhood friend Winton, with dedications like, “Dude, you were the coolest, stoney-eyed artist around!” To me, these come off as really demeaning.

There are also large sidebars and whole pages of handwritten text that are “Record Reviews” of Black music that David loves. It’s the “voice” Heatley uses to describe getting, say, a Jungle Brothers tape that makes me just shake my head. All that “Yo wassup” white-boy lingo that he spits? Give me a fucking break. Just read it, look at in the store. I don’t have the patience to describe it.

I think it’s the pairing of the two things—the narrative, the comic, these fragments of memory with the “Record Reviews/Shout Out” music-zine stuff—that really puts me off. It’s as though he’s trying so hard to prove that he really loves Black people by listing the music and art made by Black people that he enjoys—just as he lists the trespasses and aggression he feels from Black people or towards Black people. It doesn’t ring true. For me.

(Bell: end of round one)

DAN: OK, I guess I will jump in. I think what riles people up about this book is precisely the public/personal nature of it: That is, it’s a book explicitly about coming to grips with some notion of morality or a way of accepting one’s own behavior. Unlike the demonstrative fantasies of Crumb or meandering auto-bio of Joe Matt, this is direct, speaking to the reader kinda stuff. It’s specifically drawn as, in a sense, therapy. That such a process becomes so public is what, I think, some people find alternately compelling or repulsive about it. I am, of late, on the compelling side, but that is less the “critic” in me talking and more the human being — that is, I suppose, in terms of the “journey” being undertaken: I relate; I empathize. One question worth asking is: How does one judge such a work: Is it reasonable for David to expect moral outrage like Frank’s? Does such a story, and the obvious implications for one’s moral well-being, elicit a like-minded response, as it did from Frank? Is that fair? I mean, David isn’t offering a prescription for how to live — just describing his own journey. But it’s the tone and content, I guess, that Frank is reacting against. Just some stray thoughts here. Tim?

TIM: Wow. Okay, that’s a lot to chew on. This particular Cage Match might take a while, though I have a feeling neither one of us is going to emerge a clear winner, at least not in the sense of convincing the other to change his mind.

Anyway, first of all: I like David’s comics a lot more than you do, Frank. They aren’t flawless by any means, and I have extremely mixed feelings about many of his artistic choices, but they do provoke extraordinarily rich reactions and thoughts. Basically, I can imagine a really full discussion of his work lasting up to a week without exhausting a lot of what’s going on, and that’s something I couldn’t say for very many contemporary young(ish) cartoonists.

But maybe it’s best for now just to respond to the points you raise. First, you’re right: this is the umpteenth appearance of the “Sex History” story, which has been re-packaged a dozen times. Except for a one-page coda to this story, the epic new “Black History”, “Kin” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve seen this before), and I believe at least part of the portrait of his mother, nearly all of the contents of this book have appeared in previous David Heatley projects. This doesn’t bother me much personally—I like how this all reads when put together. Many of these pieces, which seem too open-ended and inconclusive on their own, gain power and cogency through their juxtaposition. I think, at least.

Second: I’m not a fan of the pink censor bars David has added to his “Sex History” strip, either. And I don’t find the explanation he provided in his Time Out New York interview to be very convincing: “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind. It’s really about longing and bad sex and lack of connection.” Mostly because, uh, while David has a pretty cute drawing style, I don’t think they’re particularly erotic as images. If readers were getting “boners”, it probably had more to do with the mental images and memories provoked by the narrative itself than with crudely drawn genitals. I also think that the censor bars make the story feel less honest, less sincere: two of the story’s greatest apparent strengths, previously.

And the coda he’s added! It’s simply bizarre, and a huge disappointment, reading almost like a repudiation of the entire point of the story that precedes it. For those who haven’t picked up the book yet, in the last page, David comes to believe that he spends far too much time masturbating to pornography, to the point where he believes he is a sex addict and enters treatment for it. This really calls into question the original story’s veracity and clashes hugely with its tone, because there’s really just no hint that this has been such a serious issue for him, and coming out of the blue as it does in a single page at the end raises a huge number of questions. I really don’t know what to make of it, but if this topic was something he wanted to explore in his comics, I think it should have been treated at greater length, or at least in a comic more clearly separate from the original.

I don’t want to go on forever, so I’ll tackle your “Black History” argument briefly, and then turn it back over to you. Basically, I don’t think your characterization of it is very fair at all. He doesn’t present himself just as having a lot of black friends, but also includes many interactions with black people who dislike him, or whom he dislikes. And even the vast bulk of his black friendships seem to either peter out or end in anger. He’s obviously playing with inflammatory material here, but it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be self-congratulatory in that particular way.

As far as the record reviews go, I think you have much more of a solid point. Their tone really feels odd next to the comparatively heavy stuff going on in the larger story, and the “critiques” in them are so shallow and clichéd that they don’t seem to really add anything to the story, either. If the effect of black culture on David’s feelings about race were to be included, he really should have gone into it more, I think. As it is, the only value they add is the presumably unintentional one of revealing the shallowness of his actual thinking about race relations, and specifically his [unacknowledged] white privilege. One of the most unusual qualities of David’s stories is their very conspicuous lack of analysis, of summing up. The record reviews are an atypical aberration in that regard, and I don’t think they add enough context to be worth sacrificing one of David’s strongest and most compelling effects.

And Dan, I wrote this before seeing your post, but I basically think I agree with you, or at least think that it’s a fruitful way to start thinking about his work.

TIM: Don’t neglect the comments section on this one, by the way. Lots of good stuff down there.

TIM: Okay. I guess while we’re waiting for Frank to respond, and now that I’ve taken more time to actually digest Dan’s post and some of the comments, I’ll take another quick turn at bat. As far as whether or not David creates his art as therapy, I guess I’m not really interested. I’ve never really bought the idea of art as therapy, but I don’t really care if David uses it that way as long as the story on the page works for me. (I also think that the therapy bit is probably more of an interview shtick than the actual truth, but there’s no way to know that for sure.) As Dash Shaw says in the comments, “If this book really is play therapy, as Heatley says and as it would suggest, it is beyond criticism and (really) a not-for-print book that happened to find publication, which is an extremely romantic/ideal situation.” But obviously it is meant for print, and obviously David does care how readers respond to it, because otherwise: why the new pink censor bars boner-blockers?

TIM: Also, just to add fuel to the fire, I thought I’d highlight a few possibly relevant quotes from the interview with David in Comics Comics 3.

DAVID HEATLEY: I’m a big believer in psychology and therapy and all that stuff. I don’t feel that what I’m making is art therapy—it’s not that kind of thing—but it’s related to self-discovery and trying to be a better person, and it’s definitely an extension of the rest of your life, too. And most of my time is spent trying to be better in some way, and it’s an extension of that. I don’t think it changes me, but it’s a driving force to make new work.

Here’s another:

TIM HODLER: Do you ever do anything similar in your autobiographical work? I mean, try to make yourself look worse or better to make it more interesting to people? Or other people look worse or better? Or events?

DH: I don’t think I do. Let me put it this way. Chris Ware and I have been writing each other, and one time he said that I was one of the very few autobiographical cartoonists who doesn’t make himself into a character and I don’t know how you do that, but that’s true. I don’t make myself into a shticky Woody Allen/Joe Matt kind of character. I’m not—somehow there’s just a blankness to the “me” in those stories. I didn’t know I was striving for that, but I think I am striving for that. So I don’t think I’m trying to change myself one way or the other….

TH: It sounds like you’re more interested in the atmosphere or feeling of the story than you are in the plot or the characterization.

DH: Yeah. How would a person feel when confronted with this situation or that? How would this feel? [then, self-mockingly] I have feelings!

TIM: Frank gets back at four, so prepare for a late-afternoon explosion. In the meantime, to answer Alex Holden’s question in the comments: yes, I think the crudeness of David’s art is clearly deliberate. And I actually think it works really well with his stories. His drawings are child-like, which reinforces their primal, almost solipsistic tone; his stories read as if created by David’s “inner child”. (It may be a cliché, but it’s true all the same.) Of course, as in the case of the self-censorship mentioned above, this effect is sometimes blunted by David’s other formal choices.

FRANK: Round two: This is what I got. I read through Tim’s parts and Dan’s parts and the comments and I’ll add more soon.

Sigh. It just really makes me angry. Parts like where he says, “I can’t remember if my babysitter used the word ‘nigger’ but…” simply give him such an easy opportunity to “investigate” these “injustices”. He’s so full of bullshit righteousness. He always eventually shows himself doing the right thing, he’s always absolved.

And that’s okay, you know, because he’s an honest to god auto-bio cartoonist and it’s cool, y’know, for comics to be EDGY and REAL. So what that it underscores an incredible hostility and disrespect to others. “It’s like Crumb, man, c’mon…” I can hear some feeble defense of it all… What-fucking-ever is all I say.

And lastly, most clearly, he’s a hack of a cartoonist. Ever notice when he draws panels larger than an inch square you can truly see how shitty his line work is?

My God, look at the last story in the book. It is literally hacked out of the Bristol. It’s unbearable.

Whether his style is “intentional” or not, I don’t care. Sure there are deliberate choices. Those choices, to me, illustrate the limitations of his skill and vision. Line is line. Gary Panter’s line is strong, subtle; there are ebbs and flows. Same with R. Crumb and Mark Beyer (to use an example from the comments section)—there are discernible modulations of line that indicate a craftsman in control. I don’t get that with Heatley.

So what that he’s got the guts to show these sides of himself? There’s little craft, no narrative—just memory fragments arranged like a list. A brilliant strategy for a Truffaut movie but it doesn’t work in this comic. Or any of his comics, come to think of it. Dreams, lists of sexcapades, lists of people. Nothing adds up into a satisfying read. I’m sure to David it’s fascinating. But these anemic story arcs coupled with the Matt Feazell-like wizardry in the art department make for a profoundly disappointing “debut.”

TIM: The weird thing is, in a lot of ways I agree with you, Frank. There’s no question that David’s work so far is limited—to say the least—both in terms of craft and theme. I happen to think his drawing style works really well for those themes, but I hear you. I also agree with you (and disagree with Dan) about a lot of his storytelling. That “Black History” story in particular, as you point out, is far more meandering than anything Joe Matt has ever done, and ends kind of anti-climatically. As you imply, it’s just one thing after another. The “Kin” story, too, ends abruptly (and that’s one story where I agree that David’s drawings are simply not up-to-snuff). But…

But at the same time, I still find his work compelling, often despite myself. Somehow, as David put it in that CC3 interview, “content [leaks] in almost from the outside” despite the fact that he leaves out so much. All the little anecdotes (most of which are actually pretty mundane) trigger half-buried memories and emotions when I read them, evoke barely remembered events in my own life (usually quite different from David’s), and create a reading experience I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from any other auto-bio cartoonist, even those who I think are far superior in terms of craft and artistic ability, and whose work I probably value more highly in the end: Chester Brown, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, Crumb, etc. All the same, I can’t deny that Heatley’s work seems unique to me. (Though sometimes I wonder if the taboo nature of much of his material may make me overvalue them… I don’t know.)

And also, as I said before, I do think that somehow by putting all these stories together, as inconclusive and unsatisfying as they can be when set apart, they combine in context into something more nuanced and “whole”. The portraits of his mother and father in particular seem almost revelatory after reading the sex and race stories—suddenly a lot of weird, unexplained things in those stories spring into focus.

Finally, I really don’t think that Heatley always shows himself doing the right thing. Did you read the part where he was a camp counselor, urinating on a young child? Did you read the part where he freaked out and yelled at the medical workers in the maternity ward? There’s something there in your criticism, maybe, but it’s a lot more complicated than you’re admitting. I think, anyway. Over to you for now.

FRANK: (Round three—jab, jab, jab.) Look, I’m going on my “gut” reaction to his work. I don’t like it. And the more people try and “convince” me that his choices are artful and inventive, the more I feel indifferent to his work.

When Crumb creates a narrative of riding a woman’s shoe when he was a child and getting off on it, it’s a beautiful, repulsive, remarkable expression of lines and forms.

David’s typical choice: to use small, rhythmic panels that quickly build the scene like notes to one’s self–just do not satisfy me as a reader. There is little arc building and narrative give and take, or even a beginning and end. It’s like being told an anecdote.

These anecdotes, in the “Sex History” for example, can sometimes unite the narrative. But in “Black History”, the thread that binds it all is simply “race” and that just leaves me cold. There’s little cohesion. It’s a catalog. It’s not interesting to me. Not challenging.

“Black History” is a totally boring, list-like collection of stories, that begin and end abruptly. There’s no real narrative thread like in the “Sex History” story. That story “works” because the sexual act is the thread. That’s what connects the stories, the memories. The thread of “race” is not enough to sustain the narrative. And that might be fine for a two- or three-page comic with fifty panels per page, but for a comic of this density to go on and on and on is borderline torture for the reader.

I do agree with you that his work creates associations of long dormant memories, and that is different from “the Browns” (Chester and Jeffrey), but again, SO WHAT?

It’s totally boring. And right when I thought, “this is Black History story is totally boring”, David provides an “Interlude” where his Dad says the magic words, “Goddamn Nigger Bitch”, which will haunt David until the end of this insanely long and tedious story. (More on that later when we have the scanner. Wait ’til you see the end of “Black History”!)

TIM: Okay. Well like I just said, I agree with you on the “Black History” piece! At least on its general formlessness.

As far as “SO WHAT?”, I don’t know, I guess I do think that evoking an emotional response is a valid artistic goal. Do you really disagree? If so, you should say why! I’m interested.

Eric Reynolds weighs in with a pretty amazing comment, which everyone should read for themselves in full. But I wanted to respond to a few bits from it, because it brought up a few things I eventually wanted to get around to talking about, anyway.

First: “I liked “Sexual History” when I first read it. At the very least, it indulged my voyeuristic tendencies enough to enjoy the ride. But I also wondered if I was enjoying it in spite of David, because my armchair psychologizing/reading often seemed at odds with the author’s own conclusions (or my own interpretation of them, anyway).”

That really rings true for me, because I think that on the few times David includes his conclusions (such as the new ending to the sex story, the record reviews and shout-outs in “Black History”, etc.), they almost always seem to be at least somewhat wrong-headed, and to undercut, or to be undercut by, the story itself. For me, that kind of paradoxically adds to the whole experience, though yeah, it’s kind of a similar fascination to that which I sometimes get from reading Dave Sim (not that I’m accusing David of being Sim!) or even from the Dick Ayers autobiography. There are more layers to the comics than the cartoonist seems to realize or understand.

Second: “One thing I tend to agree with Frank about is that although I consider myself pretty thick-skinned when it comes to political incorrectness, I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself.”

[UPDATE: Eric modified his thoughts on this a bit later.]

Here I want to be really clear that I agree that the story is at the very least kind of questionable in terms of its approach to race. When I disagreed with Frank over this story, I was disagreeing with how Frank characterized the way Heatley presents himself in the story. I think he intentionally implicates himself several times. That being said, the more I think about the story, the more I wonder if the whole conception of it wasn’t flawed, as Eric suggests. The approach that successfully worked with sex doesn’t seem nuanced enough to deal with a topic this complicated.

I get the feeling that Heatley must’ve realized this himself, at least subconsciously, which may be why he included the really weird record reviews and shout-outs (to which, too, yeah, I agree with Frank: they come off as condescending). The weirdest of all may be his review of the TV show The Wire on the last page (I don’t know if this is what you’re referring to, Frank), where Heatley writes, “It’s certainly the only TV show to alter my race consciousness. I notice certain young black men who would have been invisible to me before, hidden behind the screen of my own ignorance and fear. I’d like to think I know something of their stories now. … Did you know it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, too?” Now The Wire is a great show, don’t get me wrong, but this bone-headed, totally self-unaware statement, coming after some dozens of pages of pretty intense racial encounters, is a real WTF moment.

FRANK: Round four. Rope-a-dope.

The “SO WHAT” factor is large for me. It’s too easy. I’ve seen so many students, amateurs, AND professionals use “provocation” as an artistic stance. These creators are calculating (to a degree) what the readers’ emotional response will be, and I feel manipulated by the creator’s choices. I don’t like having my buttons pushed in art just for the sake of it. Generally, I think this masks the artist’s shortcomings.

From the comments section: “Is the motivation to make a good comic, or is it just picking a taboo subject so people talk about and buy the book?”

Dreams, sex stories, “Darkies”, and Dad. Heatley’s subject matter in a nut-sack, er, shell. Nut-shell.

(I have to make one last comment about the “Black History” story. It’s when the “Mumia Abu-Jamal” section starts (he went to some rallies). There’s a largish panel at the bottom of the page where the Mumia rallies begin that is like a record review. It begins, “Mumia, blah, blah, blah, I read his book, blah, blah”, and concludes with, “My wife and I joined his movement in mid-summer 1995.” Bully for you, David. Thanks for sharing.)

And then there’s David and Women.

It is interesting that the first depiction of a woman in the book is being punched in the face by David. And the first story in the “race” section contains the scene described above where David is fucking a Black woman from behind. Curious. What IS his intention in these stories? Wait. Forget it. I DON’T CARE!!

TIM: Okaay. And I don’t really have the energy right now, so I’m probably done for tonight, and won’t respond with final thoughts until tomorrow. Anyway, feel free to keep arguing in the comments ’til then.

TIM: All right. I’ve gotten some sleep, and maybe a little second wind. Though I have to say, I think my initial prediction about neither of us convincing the other seems like it’s going to come true. Basically, I don’t know where we can go from here, really, seeing as you “don’t care” what Heatley’s intentions are. That’s kind of a brick wall in terms of discussion.

But, a few quick final(?) thoughts:

First, I don’t think the charge that Heatley is manipulating his audience really rings true to me. He certainly does provoke emotional responses, but he also, I think, engages the reader’s intellect as well. To bring up the Dave Sim comparison again: Sim’s a guy who tries to manipulate his readers, by using various rhetorical tricks, and jerry-rigging his evidence and arguments. Heatley generally does the opposite; he usually presents events without analysis or comment, leaving it up to the reader to make sense of them. (In the few occasions where he does provide analysis, such as the new final page of the sex story, or in the “record reviews” of his race story, I think they weaken his work, as mentioned earlier. But those are relatively rare occasions.)

Second, I don’t think there’s any way to be sure about Heatley’s motivations in tackling these taboo subjects. Are they exploitative, or courageous? Or both? I don’t know, and while I understand why people would suspect bad faith on Heatley’s part, I don’t think I ultimately agree. Despite what you have said, he simply does portray himself in an often unflattering light. I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the “truth” as well as he can, at least most of the time. And I don’t think it makes sense to say first that he tries to make himself always look good, and then once you admit that he doesn’t, say that it doesn’t matter. Either it matters, or it doesn’t!

Third, and I realize this is only my opinion, and can’t really be argued, but despite the many failings I think can be attributed to “Black History”, I really didn’t find it boring. Exhausting? Sure. (Kind of like this Cage Match, maybe.) But not boring. And I think that the fact that you read the story, which is quite long, under less than ideal conditions—standing in a bookstore (please correct me if I am mistaken—rather than in a comfortable chair, at leisure, with time to digest the content, might have made it more difficult to engage with the story I get the impression from reading your comments that you haven’t really fully engaged with Heatley’s story, or given it the time and thought it deserves to be fair to it. I think that whatever Heatley may get wrong, his stories more or less demand strong engagement if the reader is going to do them justice. He doesn’t spoon feed you; you have to decide for yourself. (And yes, I acknowledge that Heatley’s choice of subject matter is going to cause a lot of people not to want to engage just on principle. But I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction isn’t a very fair or fruitful way to think about his work.)

Fourth, I want to second Eric’s opinion in the comments about David’s design sense, which I think is indeed strong. I also think that we haven’t acknowledged just how good David is at isolating evocative, resonant, telling moments, which greatly enhances his storytelling.

Finally, I think Heatley’s weaknesses and virtues as an artist are tightly interwoven. You have to work out for yourself whether it’s worth the effort to read him. For myself, I have to say that for all my problems with his work, I find it unique, memorable, and occasionally powerful. I’m glad I’ve read him; his stories, warts and all, have expanded my concept of what comics can do.

Over to you.

TIM: Oh, and this isn’t really a good place to put it, but I did want to highlight part of a comment from Tom Spurgeon that I thought was particularly smart, and made a point I hadn’t considered, but which seems obvious in retrospect:

“The thing I don’t like about the pink bars in the sex story is that it changes the context by which he refused to treat his wife the same way as the rest of the people in the book, which I thought was hilarious and somehow meaningful in ways other than the obvious ways.”

Okay, I’m done.

FRANK: Round five (circle, keep feet moving.)

All strong arguments, Tim.

I agree that Heatley’s work is complicated. And that my “knee-jerk” reaction (“I don’t like it, it’s boring.”—I still say it’s boring, no matter how many wacky things happen in the story) is not a sufficient counter-argument, but what else can I say? Even when I totally love something, I often don’t have that much to say about it. Formally, it’s interesting, but not overly so. Deadening and repetitive is a more apt description. If I were to dissect it page by page, I’m sure I’d find some surprises, but it just leaves me cold. I look at stuff like Fun Home and think the same thing: “It’s good, but it doesn’t do anything for me.” Totally different styles, approaches, goals, but still in the “I don’t care” category. When someone says they think Brian Chippendale is boring, and that they don’t like it, what am I supposed to say to them? I say, “OK, that’s cool.” I don’t try and convince people that they need to investigate that further. That’s what the TCJ message board is for. I don’t do that. And while the point of this Cage Match may be to convince each other of the work’s merits or its failings, I just don’t have much else to say.

And if I talk about why it makes me angry, or that I think Heatley is a self-centered careerist, then it just sounds like sour grapes.

When I learned that the original sub-title for “Black History” was “To All My Niggas”, it made me angry. Do I have to qualify that feeling I had/have? Why? Why is the onus on me, the reader?

You write, “I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the ‘truth’ as well as he can, at least most of the time.” Funny how his “White privilege” is never really discussed. He doesn’t pull back like in the record reviews and provide a context for his actions/thoughts. He’ll show his Dad using racial slurs, but not much else in the way of “background” or a lucid self-analysis, except within the spare narrative. There are plenty of occasions where he shows himself “looking bad”, but I think that’s just part of the endless list of anecdotes. I don’t feel that it balances out the “looking good”. It’s a self-serving narrative device.

To me, he “gets away” with a lot because the work is sort of beyond reproach because it’s auto-biographical. In a work of fiction, there would be an artifice that would act as a filter. Here the rawness is unsettling. That’s its strength, but it’s also a crutch. He’s always free to expose, expose, expose. He’s “beyond criticism” as someone wrote in the comments section. It’s extremely difficult to pin down why it pisses me off, but it does. He’s a good person in his comics, he’s a bad person. So what. We all are in real life. Heatley “investigates” this. So what. Is it good art? To some, sure. To me, it sucks, I don’t like it. I have problems with it. Obviously.

And lastly: I wonder what his rock star buddy Tunde from TV on the Radio has to say about his “Shout-Out” in the book?

TIM: I wonder about that, too. It would be interesting to know; maybe he likes it? In any case, it looks like we’ve reached an impasse here. You’ve raised some good points, even if I ultimately mostly disagree with you. But I don’t want to keep rehearsing the same arguments, and it may be that we are (finally) coming to a kind of natural close here for the Cage Match. Dan wants to weigh in one more time, but probably won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow, due to the New York Art Book Fair. Until then, everyone should feel free to keep arguing in the comments.

TIM: Dan? Are you out there?

DAN: Well, for now, I’ll bow out. Seems like all has been said that could be said. I would like to weigh in again at some point, mostly in defense of the book as a book, and my own feeling that it’s largely successful on its own terms. I suppose I come down with Tim on most things, but frankly I am also too burnt out on this ongoing book fair and other pressing work to be able to post anything nearly as thoughtful or cogent as what Tim has done, not to mention many others. I think this has been by and large a really fascinating discussion. Thanks.

TIM: That’s it, folks. Thanks, and good night.

UPDATE: David Heatley responds.

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Two Links and an Announcement


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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Here’s two kinda old links that I never got around to putting up here, but I thought I’d do it now, before I forget:

1. A pretty amazing reflection on Charles Crumb by Spurious.

2. Richard O’Connor on animating with Kim Deitch.

And here’s the announcement: Cage Match 3 is about to begin! Probably tomorrow morning (or Thursday at the latest). Topic: David Heatley‘s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down. Dan’s probably sitting this one out, so your participation will be appreciated. Stay tuned.

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Cage Match #2: Heavy Liquid (1999-2000)


Monday, February 18, 2008

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[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues about which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Dan puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, Frank and I will respond. We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this series yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

DAN: Put on your masks and pull up your tights, because, as advertised, our second cage match is about Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope. (1999-2000, DC Comics).

I should note, before this gets bloody, that on most days I really admire Paul Pope’s sheer rendering skill. He makes exciting comic book pages. His Batman was incredibly fun. So, I like Paul Pope the action cartoonist. He gets the visceral pleasures of fight scenes and running and humping and going fast and etc. That’s not easy to do. I am not so much an admirer, however, of Paul Pope the artiste. I think his single image work is, at best, a goofy kitschy pastiche of good girl and pulp imagery. At worst, it’s just humorless advertising art, not so dissimilar to this guy. What bothers me about both of these guys, and Pope in particular, is that the work exudes “attitude”, like a model’s sneer. It signifies something, but has absolutely nothing else going for it. So, when I note that I like Paul Pope as an action cartoonist I mean I like him in a utilitarian way — like, I wish he’d drawn Batman for 20 years. I like him in a similar way as liking Gene Colan or even Alex Toth (though both are more interesting artists) — I just want to look at the comics and try not to read them. If you read them, for the most part, you’re sunk.

So that brings me to Heavy Liquid, which is about a disaffected male model’s (ok, maybe not, but basically) adventurous journey to find his disaffected artist ex-girlfriend and learn about the mysterious new substance, Heavy Liquid, which can be used as a drug or made into a weapon or even — gasp! — art! Sound familiar somehow? Well, it’s basically like P.K. Dick with a dash of D. Hammet thrown in and some liberal use of “downtown” art references like Rita Ackermann (misspelled once, but who’s counting, and an obvious influence on Pope’s rendering style and general artistic pose). The material is so slim that is just slips by. Everyone smokes. There’s coffee brewing all the time. And shit is always hazy. Oh yeah, and then there’s narration like this: “The artist’s city. More like hamburger city. Besides, they killed art years ago. They killed it, then replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation.” I mean, are you kidding? This is the sort of thing I tried to pass off as “deep” at age 14, holding a bong in one hand and an issue of X-Men in another. It’s so dumb that I actually feel guilty pointing it out. I could look past all of this and just enjoy it if I bought into the attitude behind the work. Or rather, the attitude, period. Because besides the art, the whole thing is attitude: it’s one big trashy leer. It’s about being world weary, skinny, jaded, romantically paranoid, romantically tough and romantically romantic. It’s also completely humorless and un-selfconscious, which is surprising considering how brazenly it’s drawn from other sources (name your film noir or crime novel, your Fellini film, your late 80s/early 90s indie rock, etc etc.).

Which brings me to Nick Cave. The only comparable thing I can think of is Nick Cave. Like Pope, he makes competent, sometimes exciting genre material (though, unlike Pope, he did have a glory period with The Birthday Party). And like Pope, he depends a lot on buying into a kind of shaved-chest/copious hairdo/smokey/sexy/wounded/bad boy/asshole thing that I know someone finds interesting, but I’m still not sure why. I don’t like Nick Cave either. He’s boring, too. So maybe that’s just it: I don’t like this particular attitude. Other attitudes I suppose I like, or at least have more patience with. Just not this one. I need something more than pithy cliches about love lost and finding authenticity and smoking, and wearing little t-shirts and stuff. And, for me, Heavy Liquid pretty much ends at the attitude. I’m sure Frank and Tim will come up with something awesome, though, especially since Frank secretly loves Nick Cave. Just kidding, Frank.

TIM: Jeez, Dan. You were smoking out of a bong at 14? You matured faster than I did, I guess. I’ve got to do some scanning before I respond at greater length, but I do think that Dustin in the comments has a point. A lot of this seems more like an ad hominem argument (what does Nick Cave have to do with anything?) than it does a critique of the book per se. Outside of that bit you quote from the Paris scene in issue four, anyway. That monologue really is one of the worst parts of the book, though you cut it off before it got semi-interesting (in a revealing way) — when the protagonist starts musing about “the Romantics”:

People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it all. They’d just stitch it on a screen. A picture of a picture on a screen. A knowing, tired nudge and wink saying, we’ve seen it all. It’s all been done. Don’t try anything new. We’ve used up “new.”

…the Romantics never believed that, though. They’d say, maybe you’ve heard it and said it all — but I haven’t. So art isn’t dead. It’s just holed up in some second-floor studio…

All the same, I say to Hell with the Romantics. They were never a sensible bunch to begin with.

Leaving aside the grammatical issues here, considering that there’s no real reason for “S” (the protag) to care much about art, it’s hard to see this is as anything other than a statement from Pope himself. But what that statement means is beyond me, at least for the moment.

FRANK: I don’t like Nick Cave, I’m more of a Reid Paley kind of guy.

Shit, I haven’t even had a chance to breathe, Dan’s been smashing my face against the turnbuckle and then the cage’s fence. The referee is calling for a break. Okay, here goes:

So everyone knows about THB, right? THB was a big free-wheelin’ indie hit in the mid ’90s. After that, if I remember correctly, Pope did stories for Dark Horse Presents (and famously worked for a Japanese publisher around then, too), and after that, Heavy Liquid was his first book for the majors. I think on his Dark Horse stories they had someone else lettering. The idea was to polish Pope up. You can imagine the meetings at DC: “So, we’ve got to get him to tighten up the way the balloons are placed — and don’t let him letter the book himself–” So Pope agrees (I’m imagining all this) and uses a circle template for the balloons. And DC gets workhouse John Workman to letter it in a “futuristic” style.

Well, it worked! I remember not liking this constraint put on Escapo himself (Pope) and maybe I shied away from the book at first because of this, mostly because I was a real THB fan and thought it looked “off” compared to his black-and-white work. I liked the color of Heavy Liquid and appreciated the way it created a different depth compared to the black-and-white, but I liked how I “immersed” myself in the B&W work and how the whole reading experience was about this connection to shapes, positive and negative, blah, blah, blah. So despite thinking it looked cool Heavy Liquid looked too busy for me, too complicated to follow. I just wanted HR Watson and THB jumping around the page, crazy easy-to-follow action scenes, and also a storyline that was like, oh I dunno Sub-Mariner vs Iron Man. Action! Then I could just skip the talking heads parts. So that’s why I didn’t read this when it came out. Now when I look at the color and the default circle word balloons and the non-Pope lettering, I kind of like it.

But this is going to be “tough love” because while I think this book is good, it’s not great. And forgive the “notes” like quality of my comments. I don’t have the patience to flesh out all my observations or arguments:

— Love the opening with the parade, the elephant, the lighting, the airiness of it all, reflecting the drug, the swirling steam from the kettle.
— It feels like a concentrated effort, a “try-out” for the majors. Symbols reinforced strongly — a little “stagey” — and that’s not helped by the clunky, noir-ish dialogue. As the story goes on, the lead character’s interior narration becomes annoying and I found myself only reading it for information when I didn’t understand a passage by action alone. The bath scene in issue 2 is particularly exhausting.

— NYC feels impenetrable. Downtown, Chinatown, pre-9/11 take on the “future.” We don’t know much about S’s life before they cook up the stuff (heavy liquid as drug) in #1. Inherently noir approach and narrative propulsion, but also familiar entry point in NYC: drug experience, shared experience, portal inside — as soon as heavy liquid arrives there is this access, this feels real, like NYC.

— Hard to identify with lead (classic cypher), yet he’s almost too defined, not “blank” enough for the reader to project upon. A Bogie/Mitchum type with none of the weaknesses that make them so likable. Yet the character is believable. You gotta have balls to navigate the part of NYC I feel he is depicting.

— Beautiful scenes of NYC life. The vibe, the “background”, really informs the action, but S doesn’t really engage the setting. (He’s in his own world understood, yes, but it feels like a missed opportunity.)

— Poor transition in issue one at key scene, with Guernica horse-head-mask-wearing Clown. This scene in number one is awesome where at one point a bad guy is gonna catch up with the good guy main character but when the action unfolds a very important transition is fumbled, I’d scan all three pages in here but it’ll take forever. Beginning with page 21 in issue one the Clown Gang sees S in a cab and chases him down, they get stuck in traffic so the clown wearing a horse-head mask that looks like the horse from Guernica walks between cars and approaches S’s cab. There is a striking image of the masked clown, half a page that sets up the page-turning action which … FALLS IMMEDIATELY APART when the page is turned because it is unclear if the car is speeding away from the clown or towards him, at first I thought the clown was getting run over and then I looked closely and the cab was simply pulling away. Hmmm. I mean, it’s beautifully drawn and when I examine it closely, I see that, okay, it’s not that muffed a transition, but really this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter and whatever momentum was building was thwarted by a simple transition. I appreciate his action sequences, but details like this are of paramount importance, I think. Like a beautiful thrilling, dazzling, stick-handling display by a hockey team on an offensive rush, a mighty slap shot is unleashed and OH! He MISSED the NET! Bummer.

— But then a few pages later, a moment like this one with the red curtain just overpowers me and I stare at it for awhile.

— Motivation beyond lost love and addiction?

— Issue 2 screeches to a halt — the beginning “explains” the first issue. A plodding, barely tolerable pace sets in. S takes a bath, reflects on the fix he’s in. While I enjoy the counterpoint of the action (bath) to the narration (long-winded explanation over 2 pages), it interrupts the flow considerably.

— For someone on the run — or at least in danger of being found, S is very languid. Besides the bath, he lounges around while “stitched in”, searching for Rodan. Then real world art star Rita Ackermann is introduced, except she’s old now, it’s the future. This all seems like a romantic sci-fi interpretation of Pope’s life.

— By the middle of issue 3 (there’s only 5 in the series), even though I know exactly what’s going on, nothing is going on; the dominoes that Pope sets up never seem to drop. There’s little in the way of real tension, or real motivation or empathy on my part for any of the characters. I have no emotional connection with them, or the narrative. It takes me along on the ride and I thoroughly enjoy looking at the faces and composition and everything, but it’s almost worse because I DO like the art and the storytelling so much. There are so many narrative side streets that Pope sets up (the Forked Tung gang) that feel very genuine and interesting, but add very little to the overall narrative thrust. I really like the bar scene with the handcuffs, but the whole set-up of the Forked Tung gang feels like Pope got bored with the non-story and began making a more exciting one within..

— Info not conveyed in the fight scene in issue 3. Does he have the briefcase in his hand on the previous page? Oh, so that’s what he whacks the guy with… It stops me. Have to go back..

— End of 3 is soooo bad. Builds tension then typical cliffhanger but feels ‘off’.

— Wait, did S “discover” using heavy liquid as a drug? If so, then why are the Clowns after him? He never explains what it’s for in issue one, and because he shows it being used as a drug twice in issue one, it’s assumed that it is valuable for that reason. When it is revealed that S invented the method, then it feels as though Pope had to add that the Clowns use it for explosives, and while I’m at it the Clowns feels like an Akira sample. Or The Warriors, your pick. Their role diminishes as the series goes on, and their threat feels canned when this info is revealed in the fourth issue. If the Clowns used it like S uses it, then I can see the motivation for finding him and it. If it’s just for explosives then big deal.

— End of 4 has no drama. The implied drama — Rodan saying she never wants to see “S” again — feels as though it’s supposed to be dramatic and instead comes off stale. That’s the cliffhanger for the penultimate chapter? These flourishes weren’t so common in THB and unhinged from serialization (most THB stories are modular but also self-contained — look THB is fighting someone, saving HR!) Pope’s emotional interpersonal dialogue in that series is a little more naively endearing.

— The “emotional” exchanges are really clunky, and while the body language, drawing, lighting, composition, etc., is impeccable, I feel nothing for the lead character and only a slight “something” for the mysterious Rodan who’s been getting the buildup for 100 pages. Sigh. Old lovers re-united. A dime-a-dozen type scene handled without any real originality.

— It’s really a shame. The art is so good, but the story is so muddy. Like some series of events in one’s life that are all connected and deeply intriguing to the person in question, but a story which to another person is like a confusing anecdote told in a loud bar that comes in snatches. Wait, what happened? Tell me that part about the Forked Tung Gang, I like that part. If S would have ditched everyone and made a left turn in the narrative with the girl he was handcuffed to, that would have been great. In the end it feels unnecessary to the overall story.

— Oh, he conveniently wraps it up in a nice little package, literally, at the beginning of issue 5. And then as the train rolls away into the sunset, makes a grocery list of loose ends that he needs to tie up.

Trust, drug addiction, the “other”, the secret sharer, NYC anonymity that leads to “After Hours-like” adventures. The drug sharing is the bond and the blade. It’s a smart story, and I enjoy the topic. It’s so much better than most comics, but I think Pope either tries to do too much or too little. It’s weird, for the first half of it, 100 pages in, I feel like I’m enjoying myself despite nothing really “gelling.”

— Action framework and trying to shoehorn “feelings” into it. Would have preferred it the other way around.

Okay, there’s my round. I might lose this one fans, I can’t defend this work so well, and I really like Paul’s comics.

DAN: I’ll have to respond to Frank later — that’s a lot of text! But first I’ll respond to Tim: I think the rest of that “romantics” passage is just as bad — the bit about Mona Lisa is the kinda thing you hear at midnight in a youth hostel from that guy you met during the day but now really want to get away from. Basically S/Pope is trying to find a way to re-engage with the world but at the same time won’t commit to any actual philosophy, thus maintaining the devil-may-care/disaffected stance. I mentioned Nick Cave because he seems, like Pope, to be creating proficient, pulp genre-based stuff that also substitutes a posture/attitude for real content. There’re no real characters here — just “feels” or moods. That’s a real problem. There’s no there, there.

TIM: Oh of course, Dan. I wasn’t trying to say that the rest of that passage was any better, just that it seemed to reveal a little bit more about Pope’s art philosophy. But you’re right.

We may have already scared a lot of readers a way with this kind of impenetrable commentary, so maybe we should explain the basic plot of Heavy Liquid for anyone who’s left.

It’s the year 2075. S seems to be a former cop/fed/private eye who lives in New York, and is now involved in hazily defined semi-criminal activities to support his addiction to “heavy liquid”, a substance that apparently fell to earth in an asteroid. He uses it as a drug that he pours into his ear, but (as Frank points out) no one besides his small circle of friends seems to be aware of this use for the substance. (We learn late in the series that it can also be used as an explosive.) A mysterious collector hires him to search for a missing sculptor named Rodan, who is also S’s ex-girlfriend. (The collector wants Rodan to make a sculpture using the strange heavy liquid.) S and a friend named Luis have recently stolen a bunch of heavy liquid from some gangsters (the mask-wearing “Clowns”), who kill Luis and come looking for S. A federal agent with strange electric powers is also looking for S and the heavy liquid, and after a series of fights and escapes, S meets the 103-year-old Rita Ackermann (!) who tells him that Rodan is in Paris. S meets her there, and hooks Rodan up with the collector. Then S takes a train, reminisces, meets the electric agent on the train, and escapes once more. Finally, he takes the heavy liquid one more time, and discovers that it is really a kind of alien life form, who he sort of wants to be friends with. The end.

I’ll be back later with some actual thoughts, but this kind of plot summary seemed like a good idea to put in somewhere.

FRANK: Wait, you met some guy at a youth hostel, Dan? When was this?

TIM: Unfortunately, it looks like (just like last time) we may be arguing about a comic that we don’t actually disagree about that much. But since we’ve already started, let’s see if we can’t draw out a few more points in detail.

First, I think we’re giving Pope a little bit of short shrift. As commenter Dustin points out, Pope occupies a fairly peculiar place in American comics: he’s got feet in both the indie and big-publisher worlds, he creates genre science fiction of a kind more often seen in Europe than here in the States, and he has a very idiosyncratic drawing style (which, partly because of his own influence, doesn’t seem nearly as idiosyncratic now as it did a decade ago). If Heavy Liquid is ultimately a failure, at least it’s an interesting one, and in 1999, most of Vertigo’s output was anything but interesting. Pope deserves credit for that.

Secondly, despite the book’s narrative flaws (I agree with both of you that there are many of them), the atmosphere of the book is really kind of incredible. Nearly all of the characters are stock genre types (world-weary anti-hero, criminal goon, female friend who doesn’t understand why men have to be such “cowboys”, wealthy and opaquely motivated client, etc.), but the world Pope creates is vivid and intense. In that way, Heavy Liquid isn’t all that dissimilar to Blade Runner, a film with revolutionary mise-en-scène but featuring a plot and cardboard characters that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

But therein lies part of the problem, because in 1982, Blade Runner‘s weird meld of science fiction and noir, and its junky, ultra-cool, multicultural setting was excitingly fresh and new (at least in terms of film), whereas seventeen years later, Heavy Liquid feels like a bit of a retread.

Throughout the 1980s, “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and many others wrote dozens of novels and stories like this: Dashiell Hammett updated to the 21st century, with a drug-, crime-, and media-saturated milieu of street-level hustlers (and artists) navigating a corrupt near-future world of mysterious corporations and government agencies. At the time, cyberpunk felt new, and writers like Gibson and Sterling brought more than style to the table: the environments they depicted seemed more plausible than the default robots-and-spaceships future of science fiction past. And their fictional worlds were thought-out — the details mattered.

Heavy Liquid doesn’t look thought-through at all. In one issue, Pope includes a map of 2075 Manhattan, and every neighborhood (Chinatown, Tribeca, etc.) is exactly the same size and shape as in 1999. At first, the front-buckled “Colonial” boots that S wears seem like a brilliant note, just the kind of thing that people would be wearing when the United States nears its Tricentennial. But later on, we learn that S has been wearing the same boots for many years, and the note suddenly strikes false. Finally, in another issue, Pope describes one of the most popular entertainments of the day, a prime-time show called “The Goose” that features “51 minutes of rapid digi-splice images of exploding battleships interspersed with close-ups of engorged human genitalia, followed by 9 minutes of white noise accompanied by a blank, pink color field.” This is the kind of idea you might find in a J.G. Ballard story, and it’s kind of interesting (how would a society that found such things entertaining come about?), but nothing else in the comic really backs it up. From all indications, people in 2075 act exactly like people in 1999. It’s just a cool detail that doesn’t connect up with anything else in the story.

At other times, this kind of detailing works a lot better. Pope includes several pages featuring the clothing and products people wear (along with their prices and wear to buy them), and it effectively sets up the designer youth culture he depicts. When S steps out of the bathtub and wraps his long, wet hair (style: “The Jagger”) in a towel, it’s funny. You rarely see a male action protagonist so vain about his appearance. But aside from that vanity, S has no discernible personality traits at all. He’s just a standard-issue dime-store detective in designer leather pants.

That’s probably the biggest problem one of the biggest disappointments for me: the second-hand nature of it all. When Moebius created sf comics, the planets and people he drew were strange and otherworldly, like nothing readers had seen before. Moebius was influenced (and adapted stories by) obscure cult writers like Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance. Heavy Liquid is just Blade Runner and Neuromancer all over again, the two most familiar sf settings of the day.

I also agree with Frank about some of the action staging; the two sequences he points out (the taxi chase and the fight in the elevator) were places I too had problems following the sequence of events. I’ll point out another once I do some scanning.

Oh, but on a more positive note: Pope’s drawings are beautiful, and that shouldn’t be understated. And the sequences where S does heavy liquid are among the best depictions of drug use I’ve ever seen in a comic. You have to give Pope that.

TIM: Okay. Man, scanning takes a long time. I guess I should’ve done this yesterday.

First, I want to highlight a passage that Frank already commented on, the section in the first issue when one of the Clowns, Kip, has just spotted S in a taxi, and gets out of his car to creep up on him.

Pope ran a contest asking readers to pick their favorite panel from the first issue, and the top panel from this page apparently got a lot of votes. It’s pretty easy to see why:

That’s a great page, evocative and thrilling. There’s some nice detail work, too. A reader who is paying attention will notice Kip creeping up in the rear-view mirror in the bottom-right panel.

Which pays off in the page that follows:

This one was a little more difficult for me to follow. I had to read the page a couple of times to get my bearings, and to understand why S was leaning forward and gasping, and basically, just how the POV works here in general. But in the end, it all makes sense, and I don’t mind the initial awkwardness at all. Others might disagree, but this seems like a pretty clever way to build tension.

But then, just as Frank claimed earlier, it all falls apart:

It’s certainly a striking series of images, but I must have read this page (and the ones preceding and following it) a dozen times, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Is the taxi going forwards or backwards? It’s obvious from what follows that the taxi is simply pulling away, but you sure couldn’t tell it from this.

This and similar poorly-told action sequences are frustrating, because at other times, Pope does a great job with them. Blogger seems to have started giving me trouble uploading images, so I can’t show them right now, but some pages, such as Luna’s escape from the Clowns, or the part where S barges into the hotel room full of girl-gang members, are very compelling, and display a rare kinetic energy. It’s a shame that he doesn’t pull it off more often, because he’s definitely got the chops. And like Frank said, “this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter … details like this are of paramount importance.”

TIM: All right, Blogger helped me out on one more image.

This is from the fourth issue, after S sneaks onto Rodan’s Paris apartment roof.

Am I the only one who can’t figure out how he fell through that window?

Okay. Over to Frank and Dan.

For me, the packaging of the book is totally what I wanted to do with Cold Heat and it’s really funny to me to see the issues of HL now like some long lost artifact before the “war years” in NYC. (P.S. See comments section for color commentary from me.)

It really sings at issue-length, and I’m glad that I read it this way, in individual issues. Also, the color “works”. Consistently. It’s all about the tonal range and it’s perfect for the world that’s being depicted. And it’s still really awesome all around, despite everything in the story that goes off-base. I really don’t mind the stagey-ness of it because the art is so “on”, but it just underscores how good THB really is…

What? Who said that in the third row? You don’t like THB? Thats it, I’m going after you–

Well, Dan’s allowed to bring in “image” and P.P. “the artiste” and whatever, but the thing is we’re reviewing a comic book. So I tried to check my assumptions at the door. It is hard to separate P.P. the person from his work, especially when he puts himself into the story (more or less), but the hope is that the work will transcend the “attitude.” So yeah, I get it, but sometimes, for example, I hear a cool country song that I like and then I’m aghast that it’s played by a band that I hate. Or that I am supposed to hate. (This happened to me when my metal-head friend made fun of me for singing along to the Grateful Dead in the car. “I didn’t know!”(Insert Nelson Muntz laff.))

So Dan, I figure you’ll say that this book doesn’t cut it and you might be right. However, it’s a cheap shot to roll this out as your main argument. If you don’t like the book, fine, but do the work first, review it, give a little, take a little.

The art and P.P.’s comic, Heavy Liquid, is on review here, not the person. And if you’re gonna gripe about what you’ve already griped about, don’t bother.

There, that ought to rile him up!

TIM: Body blow!

FRANK: It’s the bar scenes and the “landscape” around the action that take on a real “presence.” What about that, Nadel? What’s that got to do with attitude?

DAN: Sorry, I had to take a break to run my elitist publishing company for a little while. Anyhow, I don’t think I was reviewing the person at all. What I was saying was that the work itself is about attitude. This has little to do with the person, and is really just about the feel and ultimate content (or lack thereof). Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I dunno. I was just bored silly by it. There are no discernible characters, and the setting, once you take away the, as I’ve said, gorgeous linework, etc., is, as Tim noted, completely bland. Frank, I think the landscape takes on a nice presence because of the linework and colors, but I guess in this case it’s not enough to sustain my interest. Pope is an exciting stylist, but to my mind the best stylists, like Moebius, as Tim astutely noted, invent, and there’s nothing here invented. And, like I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with that — I liked his Batman because he didn’t have to invent — he could just lay his style over ready-made content and, presto, instant entertainment. But that sort of does it for me. On some level it’s hard to write about this book because besides getting into the nitty gritty, as Tim admirably does (but which I’m not inspired enough/too lazy to do), there’s not much to say.

TIM: You know, I kind of wish we’d picked a different Paul Pope comic for this debate, because it might have been more interesting/fair to argue about either an early, more wholly independent comic like THB or a later title that reflected Pope’s more mature storytelling ability. But what’s done is done, so here are a few final thoughts.

First, in some ways, I think it looks like I dislike Heavy Liquid here a lot more than I actually do. I don’t want to repeat myself, but Pope does get a lot of things right here. The imagery is consistently stunning, the setting is dense and vivid, and his layouts and composition are excellent. I think his visual storytelling stumbles far too often (there are several more examples than the ones I already posted above), which is a big problem, but at other times, he handles action and movement with real and unusual grace. These are not small things, and if it seems like I’m dwelling more on the flaws than I am on what works, well … the flaws really stand out in context. But flaws and all, I have to say that I wish there were more artists like Paul Pope in comics, not less.

Someone in the comments mentioned the ending, and I have to agree that yes, it’s one of the best moments in the book, a transcendent sequence that might have just worked as a slingshot effect if it didn’t feel so disconnected from the rest of the book. Earlier, Frank mentioned how late in the series we learn that heavy liquid can be used as an explosive, and that really does kind of capture in a nutshell the missed opportunities here: how can you present a concept like that and never let the reader actually see it in action? (The much-quoted line by Chekhov comes to mind: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”) All the elements of a potentially great adventure/mystery story (minus interesting characters — another big problem) are here — they just got bungled in the storytelling. Maybe a big part of this stems, as Frank semi-implied, from the fact that this was Pope’s first real comic for a big publisher. In any case, reading this again has definitely made me interested in checking out 100% and some of Pope’s other work. If he figures out how to iron out some of the narrative and visual wrinkles (and maybe he already has in comics I haven’t read), I think he could pull off something really valuable and unique.

So I think that’s it for me. Any final words, Frank?

FRANK: In my post-match press conference, I’m gonna call this one a draw. Mostly because Dan came out swinging but then wouldn’t really review the thing, and while that is kinda fair, I guess — it is his personal taste after all — it makes for a dull match. We’ve just wound up with a book that we all don’t really, uh, disagree on, wanna fight over.

There are tons of books out there like that. Dan knows I like Bob Layton‘s Iron Man run and has made fun of me for keeping them ’round the office, but so what? Bob Layton rulez!

Anyways, fans, I say it’s a draw. (Though check out the comments section for a few more of my thoughts that I wasn’t able to squeeze in up here.)

The landscape, the feeling of New York in the ’90s, YOUTH, this futurepastpresent that dominated the pop culture then: Pope did a great job with these signs. The narrative fumbles, ultimately, are forgivable. It’s a comic book for cryin’ out loud! And it was a fun read, so there.

The fun was the night life and the lighting and the otherworldliness to it. The ending with the alien life form was surprising and it made me think of THB, like I said, but really it was a comic book ending. At the end of the day, I’d rather read this than Fun Home. Sorry. Or Persepolis. Okay, or Blankets.

TIM: And on that auspicious note (a hat trick of cheap shots), I think this Cage Match comes to an end. (At least for us. Please feel free to keep arguing in the comments.) I hope all bruised feelings will eventually heal. Good night, fight fans!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

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We present a special President’s Day Cage Match.

You have been warned.

[If you want to familiarize yourself with the rules, you can see how it went last time here.]

[Oh, and thanks to Frank and Alex Holden for providing me with replacements for the issues of Heavy Liquid I own but can not find.]

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And the Winner Is…


Friday, February 8, 2008

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Sorry for the recent radio silence. As you no doubt have already noticed, the great Cage Match topic vote ended a while back, and it was a neck-and-neck race all the way to the end. In a surprise photo finish, Paul Pope’s Heavy Liquid ended up beating Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis by two votes.

For posterity, here’s the final tally:

All Star Batman and Robin: 9 votes (6%)
Army@Love: 7 (4%)
Bête Noire: 8 (5%)
Gilbert Hernandez’s more mainstream work (Grip, Girl Crazy): 5 (3%)
Heavy Liquid: 41 (28%)
Late-period Kirby (Captain Victory, Silver Star): 9 (6%)
Marvel Zombies 2: 6 (4%)
Middle-late period Kirby (Kamandi, The Eternals): 17 (11%)
Persepolis: 39 (26%)
Ultra Gash Inferno: 5 (3%)

146 votes were cast in all.

Next time around, we probably won’t include quite so many books on the ballot, as it appears that so many choices may have split the votes to an unhealthy degree. But a lot of the also-rans will probably return in future polls.

As soon as we all read (or re-read) the book, we’ll get the Cage Match started. (I’ve been turning my apartment inside out for the past week looking for my copy, and have so far been unable to find it. This will surprise anyone who’s ever seen the meticulous state in which the Hodler/Weinstein household keeps its comics organized.)

So thanks for your patience and stay tuned. And thanks to all of you who voted.

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One More Day


Monday, January 28, 2008

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Today’s your last day to cast or change your vote in the Cage Match poll over in the sidebar, so if you haven’t done it yet, now’s the time. The race is pretty incredibly tight — Persepolis and Heavy Liquid have been running neck and neck all week — but it’s still not impossible for any of the books to win, if enough people organized or something. (I doubt that will happen, but I kind of like imagining that people care enough about this to canvas for votes.) In any case, this is the last chance for those of you who haven’t voted yet to make your voice heard.

Also, in a daring move that you may not have noticed because it was buried in the comments, Frank (CC‘s resident fashion director) has proposed special Cage Match-related headgear. You won’t be able to see us, but during the competition, we’ll all be wearing masks:

We encourage you to locate a Comics Comics t-shirt and a pair of scissors.

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The Nominations Are In


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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Thanks to everyone who submitted nominations for our next Cage Match debate topic. (If you aren’t familiar with the concept, check out the first one here.) Over the weekend, we whittled your suggestions down to ten possibilities, and have now put a poll up in the sidebar. Please vote for your favorite argument-starter.

Don’t be too devastated if your horse doesn’t win, by the way; these are all good choices, and if we keep doing Cage Matches, many of these (as well as some nominations that didn’t quite make it this time around) will more than likely return for later rounds.

Sorry for the dragged-out, too-many-early-primaries nature of this process. We’re still experimenting, but next time around this will be a streamlined super-train.

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