Posts Tagged ‘Gil Kane’

Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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Gil Kane, an artist whose interviews are always worth reading.

A notebook on comics interviews and autodidacts:

Autodidacts. I often think William Blake is the prototype for many modern cartoonists. Blake was a working class visionary who taught himself Greek and Hebrew, an autodidact who created his own cosmology which went against the grain of the dominant Newtonian/Lockean worldview of his epoch. The world of comics has had many such ad hoc theorists and degree-less philosophers: Burne Hogarth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Lynda Barry, Howard Chaykin, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Alan Moore. These are all freelance scholars who are willing to challenge expert opinion with elaborately developed alternative ideas. The results of their theorizing are mixed. On the plus side: you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman talk than from reading a shelf-full of academic books; Robert Crumb’s Genesis deserves to be seen not just as an important work of art but also a significant commentary on the Bible; Lynda Barry’s ideas about creativity strike me as not just true but also profound and life-enhancing. On the negative side: Dave Sim’s forays into gender analysis have not, um, ah, been, um, very fruitful; and while Neal Adams drew a wicked cool Batman, I’m not willing to give credence to his theories of an expanding earth if it means rejecting the mainstream physics of the last few centuries. Sorry Neal!


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The Mid-Life Crisis of the Great Commercial Cartoonists


Saturday, February 20, 2010

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Further to Dan’s excellent post on Wally Wood, one way to think about Wood’s career is to realize that he followed a pattern common to commercial comic book artists of his era. Think of Kirby, Ditko, Kane, and Eisner (and maybe also John Stanley). All these cartoonists started off as journeymen artists, had a mid-life crisis which made them try do more artistically ambitious work, but ended up being thwarted either by the limits of their talent or the constraints of marketplace.

Jack Kirby had his midlife crisis in the late 1960s. He already had a formidable body of work, arguably the best adventure cartooning ever done in the comic book form, running from the explosive patriotic bombast of the early Captain America to the mind-stretching cosmic adventures of the Fantastic Four and Thor. But by the late 1960s he was tired of playing second fiddle that blowhardy glory-hound Stan Lee. So Kirby made is big break for DC and became the auteur behind the hugely ambitious Fourth World series. I’m very fond of the Fourth World series, and even enjoy the aspect of them that is most often mocked, Kirby’s peculiar writing style, which to my ears at least has a kind of vatic poetry. Be that as it may, DC comics wasn’t willing to give the series the support they deserved and the books were canceled mid-storyline, leaving us with the fragments of a promising epic. Kirby would go on doing fascinating work, but he never really got over the sting of losing the Fourth World. None of his subsequent work had the same crazy ambition as the Fourth World.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

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The only thing I’m really obsessive about is trying to find the real worth of something and my relation to it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s comics or anything else, you know. So that’s an ongoing process. It’s a matter of possibly trying to find, to develop, what I know so that I can grasp things that I’m only seeing in an overt way. You never get to the essence of anything. What you do is just peel back layers. I just wanted to pass the first couple of layers. I feel like my whole life is wasted if somehow or other I respond to a lifetime of work exactly the same as the fucking fans.

—Gil Kane, 1977 conversation with Gary Groth included in his tribute “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Remembering Gil Kane”, The Comics Journal #222, April 2000

The first comic book I remember getting my hands on was Superman Special 1983 #1, written and drawn by Gil Kane. I obsessed over this comic book. The chunky drawing composed of spindly, coarse lines and bold, slanted hatch marks gave everything a tactile and chiseled look that made the unreal seem real to my young, impressionable eyes. I must’ve spent hours studying the cover alone: An angry Superman shoving his fist in the air, lines radiating out from under his cape, a giant flash of fire and smoke echoing his rage … A large, disembodied head hovers behind the man of steel … nervous hands reel, anticipating what might happen … and what happens is lurid, colorful, intense, over the top … an oratorio of a comic book, full of bubbly slime, furrowed brows, sweat bullets, clenched fists, tornadoes, tsunamis, an erupting volcano and Superman. Lots and lots of Superman as he navigates the silly world of mere mortals … and it’s the “mere mortals” part, which today makes me find Gil Kane’s frustration, smoldering and pinched between Superman’s black eyes.

Tonight I made the rounds; visiting several different quarter and dollar bins. I came home with a nice haul. I used to do this with more regularity but too often I found myself revisiting the same bins with the same shit, so now I go less often giving the retailers time to replenish their stock of cheap, unwanted comic books. For me, these bins are where it’s at. Flipping through thousands of grimy, moldy, water-damaged comic books in one night can be a heavy trip. It’s not out of the ordinary for a prismatic range of emotions to move through me as I spend hours digging through what seems to be the world’s supply of Image comics. But more often than not, by the second or third hour, I’ve settled into an undulating balancing act, sliding back and forth from cosmic excitement to common existential dread.

Gil Kane’s work on Superman Special 1983 #1 is fucking awesome. But it’s not enough.

It’s over! He’s gone … destroyed by his own ambitions! His mind and body couldn’t endure the trauma of endless accelerated mutation! Ambition pursuing its own ends, indifferent to the world about it … corrupts all! No matter how well-intentioned, ambition without compassion makes us … not more … but less than human!

—Superman’s thoughts from panels 1 and 2 from page 43 of Superman Special 1983 #1, written and drawn by Gil Kane.

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Recent Obsessions


Thursday, September 10, 2009

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(As sort of related to Comics Comics)

Doug Johnson (A King)

Richard Powers (Great book on him from a few years back)

Russ Manning (via GP)

Kona (L.B. Cole, ed.)

Jean-Paul Goude (because)

Lou Fine (Because of Gil Kane)

Gil Kane (via Gary Groth)

Carter Scholz (Best prose writer on comics. Ever? And no damn image)
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Hal Foster, Cartoonist


Sunday, September 6, 2009

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At 29, Hal Foster bicycled from Winnipeg to Chicago. He was in search of a new market, having already achieved the dubious title of most popular illustrator in Winnipeg. Seems like the stuff of a Guy Maddin film, but, nope, it was just Foster, one of our sportier cartoonists (there are apocryphal stories of the artist shooting wildlife out his studio window.) That was in 1921. Ten years later he became the regular artist on the Tarzan comic strip, and six years after that began publishing his masterpiece, Prince Valiant.

I came to Foster and Prince Valiant just recently via Wally Wood. Wood’s trees, the artist long maintained, were Foster’s trees, and Wood’s sense of composition and figures in motion was heavily influenced by Foster’s balanced and graceful panels. Sure I’d read Foster before, but I’d never found a way in. Fortunately, Fantagraphics recently released Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-38, and I was able to absorb the material in a wholly new way. After doing some reading I dug up a copy of The Comics Journal 102 (1985), which features a fascinating interview by Arn Saba (also look for her Caniff and Gottfredson interviews in other issues) with a then-retired Foster. He comes across as a melancholy man but confident man, as humble about his work as he was sure of his abilities. Asked about his inspirations, Foster replies, “I would say inspired by the beauty of my own work, and the loveliness of the stories that I stole from better authors. I always worked alone.” On more cartoony strips: “I don’t know why it is that some fellows can draw a little kid like, what’s his name, Charlie Brown, with just a round head, a round nose, and no particular body, and yet give the thing a personality. I still can’t understand that, and where the little things he says, and the funny little illustrations, are more real than some of the best drawn strips, the adventure strips.” Yes, that’s the master of comic strip realism talking about the virtues of a simpler approach. Or at least the virtues of Schulz. Intangible authenticity and emotional “reality” are not the first things one thinks of when approaching Foster, but as Saba so eloquently explains in her long introduction to the interview, in many ways they are the crux of what his work. In Prince Valiant, “Foster created the quintessentially American interpretations of the King Arthur legends, complete with a nuclear family, the democratic ideal, and the man-child hero whose boyish hi-jinks often lead to high adventure.” Saba tightly defines Americana here, and to that list I might add “idealism tinged with tragedy”, as the strip begins with the boy Prince losing his mother and embarking on a solo quest to find himself. Foster imbues this and all of the other strips I’ve read with a modest humanity. Where Foster’s illustration heroes N.C. Wyeth and J.C. Leyendecker tended towards grandiosity and dynamism Foster emphasizes the human scale of these adventures and keeps things relatively quiet.

I can see where readers might cringe at Foster’s idealism and, well, cleanliness. There is nary a hair out of place, no nod to the dirt, grime, and grotesqueries of the time. Even when Val skins a goose and wears its skin as a mask — a mask later swiped by Jack Kirby for his character The Demon — it’s bloodless. But Foster’s sensibility is so wonderfully innocent and immersed in depicting virtue and honor that to let anything else in would have polluted a clear, defined well of ideas. Prince Valiant is a perfect pre-angst fantasy in which rational justice wins out.

Foster’s artwork completely reinforces the ideal order. The page above is arranged with larger set-up and concluding panels sandwiching a middle section of rapid action, expertly choreographed so that readers can follow Val in and out of a room, and then savor the ultimate conclusion in the last couple panels. A demonic but playful Val, a terrified Ogre, and finally a clearly victorious hero. The figures, while well posed, are never stiff — they have an inner life and animation. Also, Foster, while a stickler for detail, knew when to leave it out: Most of the action plays out against solid colors — yellows and blues expertly rhyming with one another to create a unified page.

This page is remarkable for its wide range of approaches, settings and emotions. In the beginning Val make an emotional proclamation (swiped from a film still, perhaps?) and then Foster races him off to the forest. Look at that bottom left panel. After a couple panels of plain backgrounds, Foster immerses us in the forest (A damn straight Wally Wood forest) with great detail and then, with some flourish, exists Val onto a plateau above the “sinister castle” a skull perched just behind him. Val is on the cusp, and the weight of his adventure is made evident by the panel size and velocity of the action. Meanwhile, the yellow of Val’s shirt picks up his cloak, while the various browns of the woods and cloth are all delicately arranged for maximum readability.

Both of these pages also reveal a key part of Foster’s appeal: He shied away from the chiaroscuro and noir angularity of the Caniff-ian school of adventure comics and instead kept his spaces fairly level, colorful and enticing. These are comics that look accessible but contain a tremendous amount of quiet sophistication. Foster’s sense of place, color, and body language is just stunning. But again, he was never showy. It’s a realism that never calls itself “realistic”.

And the story itself? I thoroughly enjoyed it. Foster himself seemingly didn’t have great ambitions besides to write something that satisfied him and entertained his readers. I found this first book completely engrossing. Prince Valiant opens up a world that I wanted to stay in — a wide-eyed early 20th century approach to fantasy with a now-vanished sincerity and wholesomeness. It’s an all too rare pleasure in comics. I now understand why so many cartoonists after him sought to regain that Foster magic, despite the futility of such an anachronistic exercise: It’s a near-perfect distillation of purity (the high moral pulp sought by mid-century guys like Gil Kane and Alex Toth), skill (inarguable drawing ability), and success. Wally Wood chased it his entire career, and was asked to try out to be Foster’s replacement on the strip, but was not given the gig. But everyone from Russ Manning (who was an heir to Foster on Tarzan) to Charles Vess to Ryan Sook (his Wednesday Comics Kamandi) have tried to claim a little bit of Foster’s legacy. And of course the comic strip itself continues under different hands. But it is not so much the characters I’m attached to, but rather Foster’s masterful spell.

I confess to not having anything terribly profound to say about Foster. I suppose I’ve been surprised by and taken with the sensitivity, grace, and fluidity of his work, as well as what a fine comic strip Valiant really was. Foster understood page design and the interplay of color and form about as well as anyone I can think of in the 1930s, but recently he tends to be relegated to illustration rather than comics history. Certainly I’ve made that mistake. The recent reprint publishing activity has had all sorts of interesting effects, particularly in the way certain artists are re-contextualized. The revival and re-packaging of Valiant is particularly significant, as it no longer seems like an oddball project in the Fantagraphics catalog, but rather a prestige item that takes it place alongside other relevant books like Love and Rockets and, dare I say, Prison Pit (in terms of cartoon clarity and craft, the two have something in common. I also loved Prison Pit). This new project gives Valiant something it was long missing: currency. And I’m looking forward to exploring more of it in the years to come.

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Origins of the Comics Journal


Monday, August 3, 2009

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The first issue of the Comics Journal I ever read was #58 (September 1980), with a Daredevil/Electra cover by Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein. So I’ve been reading the Journal for nearly 3 decades, off and on (mainly on). The magazine is about to hit issue 300, so this is a good time for a retrospective.

It’s difficult for anyone now to understand how baffling and upsetting the Journal was in its early years. It looked like a fan magazine but it was harshly critical of comics. Instead of the happy patter of the Bullpen Bulletins it was filled with long interviews with writers and artists bitterly complaining about working conditions (work-for-hire contracts, nasty editors). And it kept saying that comics should be an adult art form, judged by the same standards applied to film and literature. Most of the reviews, at least to my young fannish eyes, seemed incredibly abrasive.

One reason the Journal struck such a discordant note was that the comics community was much more cohesive in 1980 than it is now. As Frank Santoro pointed out in an earlier posting, the direct market created a common ground. So the Journal was read by Roy Thomas, Art Spiegelman, Dave Sim and the very young Hernandez Brothers (who did some lovely pre-Love-and-Rockets fan art for it, always a highlight in the issues of the early 1980s).

If the direct market was a bridge, then the Comics Journal was the main reading material of the bridge.

Frank is right to say that the bridge is over. To borrow a haunting title of a Paul Goodman short story, we have witnessed “the break-up of our camp.” It’s difficult to imagine Roy Thomas, Spiegelman, Sim and the Bros. sharing reading material these days. The comics world is too splintered into different factions. As a result, the Journal has lost its centrality, its ability to generate debate and part of its circulation. To put it another way, part of the greatness of the Journal in its salad days was that it was read by a large number of people who hated its editorial stance, yet felt it was a necessary read (and these people needed to hear what the Journal said). These days, I’d guess that most readers of the Journal are already in alignment with the magazine’s outlook.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that the Journal was not born of an immaculate conception: it had ancestors who contributed to its DNA. What were the early influences on Gary Groth? (I’m working here on the convenient fiction that Groth was the main shaper of the magazine. A more scholarly article would factor in other key players like Mike Catron and Kim Thompson).

A genealogy of the Journal would include:

1. The more intellectual side of fan culture. As the very name of the company Fantagraphics should tell us, Groth came out of fan culture, was a teenage fanzine maker. Some of the shoddiness of the early Journal (the terrible fonts, the slapdash layouts, the often hideous covers) was a holdover of fandom. But fan culture was more diverse than we sometimes think. Aside from all the geeky celebrators of superheroes, there was an intellectual elite of fans who held comics to a higher standard: Bill Spicer, John Benson and Mike Barrier being three good examples. These fans and the magazines they edited (Graphic Story Magazine and Squa Tront) had a wider scope of interest than most superhero fans (Barrier was the great Barks expert, Benson did pioneering work on Kurtzman, Eisner and Krigstein). This provided a grounding in comics history that strongly influenced the worldview of the Journal. These fans also often talked about the promise of adult comics and longer narratives: the graphic novel as a theoretical possibility before it became real.

2. Rolling Stone & Playboy. The long interviews the Journal ran were probably inspired by Rolling Stone magazine and maybe Playboy. I know later Groth was a reader of the Paris Review, which runs lengthy, well-researched career-spanning interviews. But I doubt if Groth was aware of the Paris Review when he first started.

3. Hunter S. Thompson. Tied to Rolling Stone was the figure of Hunter S. Thompson, whose impassioned, macho journalism had a big impact on Groth’s no-nonsense, gun-toting persona (although thankfully Groth doesn’t share in the Thompson mind-destroying drug use). One reason for Groth’s ill-fated and temporary alliance with Harlan Ellison was that Ellison was a poor man’s Hunter Thompson.

4. Counterculture politics. Politically Groth came of age during the tail-end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Watergate scandal. He was too young to experience the idealistic/optimistic side of the 1960s (the rise of the Civil Rights movement, for example). Rather, he came to political consciousness during one of the darkest times in modern American politics, when Nixon’s lawlessness led to a constitutional crisis. This helps explains Groth’s pessimistic anti-authoritarianism and his suspicion of established powers. It’s no accident that Groth once damned Jim Shooter by comparing him to Richard Nixon.

5. Gil Kane. I don’t think we can overstate the influence of Groth’s friendship with Gil Kane. Kane’s great 1965 interview with John Benson (in the original incarnation of Alter-Ego) was the model for what a good, free-wheeling Journal interview should be. Whatever his talents as an artist, Kane’s true medium was conversation: he was one of the great comics talkers, pouring out a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes and analysis. (Kane’s only rival as a comics talker is Art Spiegelman). No wonder the Journal kept interviewing Kane: He was the well-spring of smart comics chatter.

In interviews, Groth has talked about other influences, notably New York intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald. But I think these came later. The early Journal really doesn’t, to my mind, read like Partisan Review or Dissent. It really owes more to Graphic Story Monthly and Rolling Stone. The New York Intellectuals never really grappled with the nasty underside of mass culture the way the Journal would (despite Macdonald’s intermittent career as a film critic).

The Comics Journal was very much the product of a historical moment. That moment has now passed. In some ways, the magazine is the victim of its own success. We all know now that comics can be art. The question is, how the does the Journal re-invent itself for a very different era than the late 1970s? What sort of comics magazine do we need now, in the 21st century, now that alternative comics are a subculture strong enough not to need to engage with commercial comics?

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