Posts Tagged ‘mini-comics’

You’re the Töpffer! (or, The Worst Blog Post Headline Ever)


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Read Comments (4)

There have been too many explosive and exciting posts around here lately, so how about something a little more sedate and twee?

The July issue of Harper’s magazine includes a long review (subscription required) of David Kunzle’s two recent and indispensable books on Rodolphe Töpffer. Written by art critic Jed Perl, it’s generally a smart, thoughtful piece, and displays none of the condescension you commonly find in articles like this printed in the mainstream press. He still gets comic books wrong, of course, but it’s kind of interesting (to me) just how he goes astray.

Most of the review is about Töpffer and the books themselves, and Perl only addresses Töpffer’s relationship with comic books in general near the end of his article. First, he takes issue with Kunzle’s speculation that Töpffer’s work has been neglected by American comics fans because of “a narrowness of vision, a chauvinism that cannot bear to see the invention of so fertile, popular, and American a genre conceded to a European master.” Perl disagrees:

I’m not sure that the problem with Töpffer is that he is European so much as that his work is nearly two hundred years old. After all, much of the comic illustration done in nineteenth-century America can feel equally anachronistic to cartoon aficionados of our day. It is in the very nature of the popular arts, which are overwhelmingly oriented toward the present, that even their most powerful traditions will be reformulated with a vengeance that crushes the sort of art-historical niceties that quite naturally interest a scholar such as David Kunzle. Intellectually, I can see that Töpffer is on a continuum with the contemporary graphic novel, just as I can see that the silent movies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are on a continuum with the comedies now playing at the multiplex. But viscerally, what I feel very strongly, perhaps most strongly, are the differences. What is most striking in contemporary graphic novels is the dizzying overlay of influences, the thickening stew of twentieth-century allusions. Graphic novelists like to mix elements of earlier comics and noir movies and potboiler mysteries and art deco and art moderne and create a contemporary brew, a brew that’s frequently laced with irony. And when I turn back from this work to Töpffer’s picture books, I find that I’m face to face with an unself-consciousness that feels alien, strangely and wonderfully so.

First of all, on the question of why Töpffer’s neglected, I favor Kunzle slightly more than Perl, though both of them are basically right. (The fact that good, readily available English translations of the strips didn’t previously exist probably hasn’t helped.) What’s more interesting to me, though, is just how alien and anachronistic Perl thinks Töppfer’s work is. The most surprising thing about reading Töpffer, in fact, is just how contemporary and of-the-moment his comics seem. (Incidentally, I also think Perl’s wrong about Keaton and Chaplin, whose films haven’t aged poorly at all; there are still plenty of people who watch their silent movies for fun today, far more than watch dramatic silent films such as, say Intolerance. They aren’t as alien as all that. I wonder if humor ages better than drama?) Barring the clothing styles, and the occasional reference to politics, culture, and then-current events, Töpffer’s strips aren’t that different (except in terms of quality and skill) from many of the mini-comics you can find sold at MoCCA or SPX.

Perl goes on:

The aggressiveness of so much comic art is fueled, at least in part, by a need to compete in the commercial world. I sense that pressure in the work of Hogarth and Daumier, whose caricatures can be fearsomely real, with evil and folly solidly evoked. Even Winsor McCay’s magnificent early-twentieth-century Surrealist dream-worlds have a sharp punch to them; they are meant to stand up to all the other news in the Sunday papers. Töpffer is a very different case. He approaches even the least sympathetic of his imperious professors and self-indulgent young men with a certain gentleness of spirit. It’s significant, I believe, the Töpffer originally conceived of his picture books as entertainments for his family and friends; he was, at least initially, remote from the commercial world, and could afford to affectionately embrace his nutty subjects.

Perl’s kind of right here, and a lot wrong, in totally charming ways. First, while I take his point about commercial concerns, that argument cuts both ways; there’s a reason for the cliché that satire closes on Saturday night. Daniel Clowes’s “Why I Hate Christians” wasn’t exactly a blockbuster money-making idea, for example. And, you know, Ziggy and The Family Circus seem to have done pretty well. Secondly, I think it’s kind of wonderful that he thinks that “graphic novelists” are actually competing in the commercial marketplace. Outside of a few superstars and flukes, the newspaper strip world, and the DC/Marvel axis, comics has to be one of the least profitable media businesses in the world North America. It would be kind of great if this misconception spread around, though. And third, I think a trip to the USS Catastrophe site is in order for Perl. Töpffer’s not the only artist making minimalist, gently humorous picture-books primarily “for his family and friends” and “remote from the commercial world.” Signing himself up for a subscription to King-Cat wouldn’t be a bad start, either.

I’m really not trying to pick on Perl here, because in the main, this is actually a fine, smart article. His errors of interpretation are only worth highlighting for the way they suggest that the public conception of the form may be changing (and the ways it definitely isn’t). It would be kind of hilarious if this idea of the aggressive, wealthy, alpha-male cartoonist really caught on.

Labels: , , , , ,

Dennis Worden


Friday, January 4, 2008

Read Comments (5)

I found this mini-comic at Copacetic in the quarter bin. Bongo Dick.”The rejected strips of Dennis Worden.” Remember Stickboy? He makes a few brief appearances in this mini from 1986. But, for me, the best part of these “rejected” strips are the one pagers, like this one. Also, Worden fills in the negative space at the bottom of some pages with TV Guide capsule reviews from ’86. Channel 42 was showing: MOVIE – biography “The Winning Team” (1952) Ronald Reagan, as the immortal Satan’s son, eyes the Presidency. Rossano Brazzi, Don Gordon. (1hr., 50 min.) I dunno if Worden had a computer back then or not to emulate TV Guide’s font but I sure was fooled. Channel 13 was showing “Ramrod” -western (1947) A sheep herder’s daughter (Veronica Lake) starts a bath with cattle barons, giving everyone a hard time. Joel McCrea.

Labels: , , , ,

Galactikrap #2


Monday, November 19, 2007

Read Comments (6)

I wrote this review in my notebook a few days after SPX this year. Recently, I thought about posting it, and as I was assembling this, Patrick Markfort wrote an excellent review of it over at Comics-and-More. But I thought I’d post mine anyway. So here goes: Maybe I’m biased but my favorite SPX comic so far has been Brian Chippendale’s Galactikrap #2. This comic sort of got lost in the shuffle after Maggots was released and I think that’s too bad. It’s an awesome standard digest-sized 52-page black + white mini-comic with two card-stock silkscreen covers stacked on top of each other. The story begins on the inside front cover, so the second cover is actually page two of the story, but the feel of the book is that there are two covers — you know what I mean, geez.

As I said, the story begins on the color pages — it made me think of some Japanese manga where the first and last few pages of the book are colored with a limited palette, while the rest is in black-and-white. (When I mentioned this to Brian he said that’s what he was going for a little bit) It’s especially nice because the color section informs the B+W section and lets me re-imagine how the B+W pages might look in color. It’s an interesting tension and one that Chipps has in much of his work, but not often as directly as in this particular comic. The open, playful colors also really help to “open” up the dense B+W panels. I can see it all in a new light.

Brian is economizing in new ways by “fixing” the page layout & moving the reader THROUGH the panels very directly. The depth of focus is deeper & wider than usual for him. He fills the frame with focused “speed lines” and mark-making. Nothing new but it seems to me this is a different Chipps than Ninja or Maggots. I think his poster and collage work are more center stage here and in service of the comic’s narrative velocity (and responsible for it in many ways). Brian’s always frenetic but here it’s a focused energy that is well organized with diamond-like precision. The action scenes throttle by with unheard of speed and terror.

Terror? Well, it’s like Brian can create this labyrinth of locales, of settings that feel very real and solid. He renders livable landscapes that teem with energy and scope. And when shit goes down in these mutant sci-fi worlds, I feel present, there. It’s uncanny. I think Brian has absorbed this single-camera point-of-view from certain comics and early video games, and that view has mutated into this buzzsaw that cuts away view after view of worlds unseen and hidden. It’s like you’re inside Brian’s notebook when you’re reading Galactikrap — and the stories are playing on an animated reel that just keeps rolling.

The comic is broken up into three sections, more or less. The first section could be read as a sorta Seinfeld momentary mishap, or it could read as a window on to a class struggle — strip away the mutant sci-fi futurepast setting, and it’s a story about consumers getting fucked over by the MAN. It tells the story of Su Long, a cute girl with a funny hat, trying to buy a muffin with her debit card. Her card gets denied. She rattles off her 35-digit account number to customer service over her “cellie”, and is told that her card has been deactivated because she recently made several purchases in a “strange part of town.” So the bank puts her card on hold because of suspicious activity. Su informs the customer service agent that because of this she’s now stranded in said strange part of town “with no money and no way home. And no muffins.”

This section is laid out in a way that creates a grid when the comic is held open — two same size gutterless panels per page. This is repeated for most of the comic — and when it does change, the layout goes full-page. The POV of the “muffin story” is also fixed — a medium shot of the muffin stand, the proprietors, & the customers. Figures come in and out of the frame, and the stationary shot of the transaction gives it, well, a stillness, and a sort of deadpan sitcom tone that works quite well. The characters’ expressions and dialogue create a subtle play of tensions and genuine laughs that reminds me of The Simpsons somehow.

The stillness and dry humor of the muffin section perfectly sets the table for the second section, which is an action bonanza that really must be seen to be believed. These are bigger, fuller panels. I believe they are drawn smaller, & that Brian’s enlarging his images much like he does in a lot of his poster and collage work. Consequently, the panels open up and because the panel structure is still fixed, the narrative breathes in ways I don’t normally associate with Brian’s pages.

There’s enough air for the action to really catch fire in the second section. A sewer devil has stolen a mother’s baby, and the Deep Cutz Force, a three member “pitch black ops team” goes after them. Sent by the military to gather children for “covert use, parent surveillance, foster home directionals, high school white washes, super soldier experiments and the needs of the State.” Fuck yeah! This is my kind of comic.

Deep Cutz Force takes off through the sewers, and meets up with the devils for a showdown. Clear and precise, yet open and free, here Brian is less concerned with mark-making just for the sake of it and instead appears focused on using the lines and his customary ballz-out approach to move the reader through the story. The pages fly by. The force of the lines and the movement and action of the characters are remarkably staged in this section. It all comes together beautifully and is executed with a certain skill that I feel is above and beyond Ninja. The action explodes at the tail end of the fight scene when Raw Star, a cute girl with cool hair and hot hands, shows up to blast a devil in half. But where is the child? Behind a well-guarded door that leads us to section three.

The third section opens up with some Teamy Weamy members trying to find a public bathroom. They try to use Snakezilla’s bathroom which is, like, a giant store in a building shaped like Godzilla. Only the assembled team is tricked by a member of Gang Gloom who slugs them with a bat, and sends them flying into a trap door beneath Snakezilla. The comic ends with a cliffhanger of the characters falling into a bottomless pit. These last two pages are printed in color on the heavier silkscreen covers.

Is it genre stuff, like a mainstream comic? Not really but close. Brian can do what no one else can do. Look close: it’s Brian’s TONAL perception that allows him to “see” these drawings, these movements, and fix them to the page. What’s fixed really is the SOUNDTRACK of the narrative. The marks, the velocity of his lines and the organization of space and movement — it’s musical. One’s eyes know (and one’s body feels) the BEAT and moves with the drawings. Rolling, rolling. Sort of like manga, sort of like some American action comics, but it’s effortless here, very much like the clearest manga but more like a John Coltrane blowout version of it or something. Brian’s playing the song sideways — he’s more like Yokoyama, really, than anyone else in American comics. I think Yokoyama’s work is the clearest of all manga I’ve come across; it’s musical to me, and it even almost looks like sheet music. The reader’s eyes follow the symbols and marks so fluidly that it creates a completely different experience, for me, than reading almost all other comics. There is a similar BEAT that moves the reader through Chippendale’s Galactikrap, one thats been there since Maggots. So just as Yokoyama is using the form to tell his futurepast adventure stories, so too does Brian use genre trappings to get at the heart of the movement, the action, the beat.

Labels: , , , , ,



Sunday, October 28, 2007

Read Comments (14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,