Posts Tagged ‘reviews’



Saturday, October 24, 2009

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I’ve futzed around with this piece after initially publishing it, retaining the ideas but rearranging and clarifying a bit, I hope. Anyhow, I normally try (though not that hard) to avoid writing about press, but I must note a few things about David Hajdu’s review of Crumb’s Genesis in the NY Times Book Review. Look, I’m not cynical enough to dismiss the Times, as many do, as stodgy or useless, etc. Instead, I’m somehow naive enough to still believe in it as an institution that has tremendous resources and can produce great work. Nevertheless, I also realize that (and sort of understand, from a logistical point of view) irresponsible or ill-informed writers like Hajdu slip by when writing about a somewhat specialized topic. After all, this stuff matters most to those of us who take it as a primary subject. But in the spirit of trying to improve the discourse around comics, Hajdu should be addressed. Especially because again and again Hajdu pops up with some ill-formed opinion or straight up error (and we at Comics Comics, like groundhogs, pop up and object like the big fucking nerds we are). So, onto the review. In a somewhat positive, though oddly condescending piece, Hajdu commits a number of blunders. We’ll start with this doozy:

“The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” brags a banner on the cover. This is scarcely the first time the Bible has been adapted to comics pages, of course. In the first decade of the comic-book business, the man who claimed to have invented the medium, M. C. Gaines, founded a whole company on a line of ‘Picture Stories From the Bible.’ (When he died suddenly, his young son, William M. Gaines, inherited the company, and in a 20th-century case study in the enduring vagaries of primogeniture, the son discontinued the Bible strips and started publishing lurid, spicy crime and horror comics.)

Given that Hajdu wrote a book (The Ten Cent Plague) involving those exact “lurid” comics, he should also know that Crumb’s “brag” on the cover is a knowing nod to his medium. As with the works inside, Crumb’s cover text and design is a consciously mid-century comics stance. That is, like Crumb’s childhood comics, the cover is garish and loud, and interior pages rely on established cultural/visual types and straightforward storytelling in the Stanley/Barks vein. It’s a brilliant, thoroughly subversive choice that works both on a literal and meta level, commenting on the history and form of comics-the-medium. And further, as Hajdu well knows, Bill Gaines sought to produce, yes, sensationalist comics, but he also instituted the most rigorous set of standards yet (and in the case of crime and horror comics, maybe ever) imposed on comic books. He aimed for literary quality as he understood it. Hardly just the “lurid, spicy” comics of Hajdu’s description, though he was obviously trying to make a cocktail party smarty pants comment about fathers and sons, blah blah). And yes, the Bible has been in truncated comics form many many times. But as Hajdu also knows, that is hardly Crumb’s point. His task was a word-for-word adaptation.

And then there is this classic:

At points, Crumb withholds exactly the kind of graphic details he built a career on revealing: In an image of circumcision, he shows us two splatters of blood, rather than the actual penis being cut. Onan practices coitus interruptus turned away from us. This book, I believe, is the first thing by Crumb ever published without a single image of flying sperm or a sharp blade approaching male genitalia.

Besides the sheer idiocy of saying Crumb “built a career” (whatever that means in an underground context) on anything besides drawing exactly what he needed to draw, the facts are simply wrong. Crumb has been making “clean” comics right alongside his “dirty” stuff for over 30 years now: American Splendor; the blues biographies; the P.K. Dick biography; the Kafka book; right up to his recent masterful memoir of his brother Charles. This kinda knowledge is not the area of specialists — it’s the stuff of and Wikipedia. Crumb doesn’t need me to defend him (oy vey) but his efforts deserve better than this utterly wrong characterization. It is all the stranger since Hajdu has, in fact, interviewed Crumb himself and would have to be willfully and then persistently ignorant not to know better.

But wait, there’s more:

For all its narrative potency and raw beauty, Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man. Crumb, a fearless anarchist and proud cynic, clearly believes in other things, and to hold those beliefs — they are kinds of beliefs, too — is his prerogative.

This seems an especially disingenuous statement. First, Hajdu’s interpretation of Genesis is strictly that of a believer — I can’t see how, as an irreligious reader, you come away with that interpretation. I mean, there are two conflicting accounts of creation. Not exactly orderly. Also, Crumb is not, as far as I know, an anarchist, but he is, by his own account, spiritual. Which is to say, Crumb seems to be exploring the sacred. Maybe not Hajdu’s sacred, but sacred nonetheless. A quick scan of Crumb’s statements (From Vanity Fair, just one Google search away: “I would call myself a Gnostic. Which means, I’m interested in pursuing and understanding the spiritual nature of things. A Gnostic is somebody seeking knowledge of that aspect of reality”) on the matter will give you that much.

Anyhow, one wonders why an author would persist in writing about a subject he clearly disdains and isn’t interested in actually learning about, but I guess that’s between Hajdu and his own idea of the sacred. Next post I’ll be happy, I promise.

[UPDATE: I realize it seems odd/rash to pick on this one piece of writing out of the avalanche of material devoted to Crumb’s Genesis, but it strikes me so wrong headed that it just needed to be addressed. If nothing else, given the talk of mature comics criticism, etc., it seems important to me to address writing that, whatever else I might say about it, aims for seriousness, and is generated by someone who claims a certain authority in the field.]

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The Effort


Saturday, December 15, 2007

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I enjoyed Rich Kreiner’s review of Comics Comics. It was, as Tim noted, too kind. So this isn’t an argument, thank heavens. In a long parenthetical thought, Kreiner wonders about our criteria for coverage, and also about our seeming fascination with the fact of something existing, as though the effort alone was enough to qualify our interest. I can’t speak for Tim or Frank, but, as for me, well, Kreiner might be on to something.

Sometimes I see things so sublime or so ridiculous that I have to just wonder about them. It’s not that I like them, per se. I don’t like Dave Sim’s Collected Letters, but what drives a cartoonist to undertake such a project is interesting to me because (a) Sim is clearly a man with his own vision and (b) he’s a hugely important cartoonist, no matter what you might think of the quality of his work. And, on the other hand, there are artists like like Steve Gerber or Michael Golden, both beloved Comics Comics figures.

Let me digress for a moment: During the most recent SPX, me, Frank, and Tim went out to dinner with a large group that included Gary Groth, Gilbert Hernandez and Bill Griffith. Gary ribbed us about Steve Gerber, etc., and Frank, in a moment of comics euphoria confessed his love of Michael Golden’s work to the entire table. I don’t think Bill even knew who we were talking about, and Gary seemed duly horrified, while Gilbert smiled beatifically, as if to say, “I love that this guy loves Golden, but I’m not saying a word”. I mean, Gary’s fought for sophistication in comics for 30 years, and now he has to listen to three knuckleheads talk about Golden and Gerber. Oy vey. See, all three of us were formed, in a sense, by The Comics Journal, and to an extent, by Groth’s own sensibility as a publisher and editor. But we also came up at a time when we didn’t (and still don’t) have to choose between art and hackwork. We can like both, and enjoy both on their own merits, precisely because Gary won the battle for sophistication and seriousness. His efforts have allowed us to sit back a bit and examine the things that got passed over, shunted aside or simply spit at. That means that Frank can talk about Michael Golden because he’s fascinated by his figuration in the context of action comics. Frank wouldn’t, at least, not sober, make a case for Golden as an artist in the same way he does for Gilbert. But then again, he did just post about Nexus. I guess what I’m saying is that a central tenant of Comics Comics is a kind of enjoyment of something within its context. Steve Gerber is an interesting comic book writer. That is enough to make him worth examining for us. And, he, like Golden, like Rude, et al, is someone who has willingly labored in a field with few rewards and a lot of creative restrictions. Those “rules” that these guys bump up against make for an interesting friction and can produce, accidentally or intentionally, interesting work. And part of is also that, to an extent, we take the greatness of someone like Dan Clowes for granted. He’s been written about, been hashed over. For us, it’s perhaps more fun to dig through a body of work that has yet to be poured over, and to find artists whose visions carried them into strange places under odd restrictions.

So, Rich Kreiner, yes, we, or at least I, sometimes like things just because they exist in an odd space, and occupy a strange little niche. And while I’ve never been a proponent of confusing effort with merit (i.e. the praise for something like Persepolis is primarily because people were impressed enough that a comic could be about Iran that they ignored how slight the actual content was), sometimes noting the effort is worthwhile. And I thank Kreiner for making the effort to write about us. Now if we can just make enough time to do that next issue….

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