Posts Tagged ‘superheroes’



Thursday, October 11, 2007

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I’m probably not going to write anything extensive about Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple‘s new Omega the Unknown miniseries until the whole thing gets published, but here’s a post just to note that the first issue is out. (For those who want a more thorough review, Jog has written a good one.)

I’ll limit my remarks to these:

1) It’s nice enough, but I’m not sure if Dalrymple’s art really works for this story. Jim Mooney‘s fairly generic ’70s superhero art in the original series really effectively set the tone, and pumped up the creepy “what’s happened to the Marvel editors?” factor a great deal. Dalrymple’s drawings, on the other hand, are too weird on their own to create that clash of expectations. Still, it’s way too soon to say anything definitive, and I’m not sure exactly where this story’s going yet. It may work in the end. And it’s nice to see Marvel experimenting art-wise in any case.

2) I think it’s funny how many of the online reviews of this comic have mentioned the literary tone of the dialogue, and attributed it to Lethem’s background as a novelist. It’s funny because that aspect of the new comic comes pretty much directly from the Steve Gerber & Mary Skrenes original.

3) So far, the new Omega is following the original plot very closely. Only a subplot featuring a mysterious superhero called the Mink (civilian name: Mr. Kansur) is new. His part in all this remains to be seen, but considering that the comic credits the script to Lethem and “Karl Rusnak” (hey, that’s “Kansur” backwards!) I imagine that’s where a lot of the action will be.

UPDATE: Using my crack journalistic skills, I’ve learned that Rusnak is a real person (and Lethem’s best friend from childhood). Still, my Sherlock sense is still telling me that that name’s a clue!

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A Possibly Tedious Clarification


Sunday, September 16, 2007

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Sorry if this post is boring, but I want to highlight one recent comment from Jon Hastings, partly because it makes a really good point, and partly because it gives me an opportunity to make clear something that I haven’t been trying to say over the past few days. Hastings writes:

I find myself agreeing to all of your points, but can’t help being, emotionally at least, on Noah [Berlatsky]’s “side”. For me at least, there’s so much baggage from old internet arguments over the merits of super-hero comics vs. alt/art comics that I find it is really easy to make the kinds of mostly baseless, sweeping judgments that Noah is making here. My beef was never really with alt/art cartoonists, but rather with those comics critics (self-appointed or otherwise) who I saw as using the work of those alt/art cartoonists to attack my beloved super-hero books.

I’m not at all unsympathetic to this view, and couldn’t be less interested in using “serious” comics as a cudgel against other kinds of comic book stories. I think it’s understandable for long-time comics readers to occasionally get a bit defensive when it sometimes seems like only relatively straight, self-evidently serious works approaching “proper” subject matter (Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, etc.) are seen as respectable in the wider world. (I don’t think this is actually altogether true, mind you, but it can feel that way.) Maus, at least, I think fully deserves its high reputation (I haven’t read the other two, which I guess should be my next homework assignment), but really, this is one more reason to say God bless Robert Crumb, the one artist to have broken through who can’t by any means be separated from the comic book’s anarchic and fantastic roots.

Over on the Fantagraphics blog, the great designer Jacob Covey also commented on this sort-of-stupid blog fight, and his take is really pretty smart, though I’ll admit I had to read it a couple times before I got some of it. Covey writes, “The subject is ‘art comics’ versus superhero comics– a distinction I already find vague and silly seeing how the two ideas rely on a black and white separation though I see a vast overlap. Not to mention that this [precludes] the one genre from ever being considered art, which is a bit presumptuous.” I agree with that comment entirely, except to say that I wasn’t trying to argue that “art” comics are inherently better than superheroes.

Covey also very kindly describes Comics Comics as “the definitive fringe art-comics periodical”, while admitting that with PictureBox as a whole, he can’t help but feel “there’s a bit of validity-through-outsiderness going on at times.” I can’t speak for PictureBox (though I imagine Dan might take some issue with that), but at least in terms of Comics Comics, that couldn’t be further from our intention. That’s why we’ve covered so many “mainstream” subjects in the first place, from Dick Ayers and Steve Gerber to Alex Raymond and the Masters of American Comics show. Whether or not we’re successfully realizing our goals is of course for others to judge.

In his second post, Berlatsky made at least one point that I really agree with: “The cultural space within which a work is produced, and the way it is received, has a lot to do with a medium’s health.” If critics are capable of doing anything at all (and they may not be), they can help shape that cultural space. There are many great traditions in comics, from the Harvey Kurtzman legacies of comic satire and unglamorous war and historical stories, to superhero tales (which at their best can be wonderfully surreal and pregnant with political subtext and sometimes just silly fun), to less easily classifiable work like that of Fort Thunder and Jim Woodring, and a whole lot more besides. All the various contributions of Japan and Europe and elsewhere should be included, and yes, I think that comics that deal with real life in an at least somewhat realistic and serious manner should be, too. Few readers will, or should, find all kinds of comics equally to their taste, but the cultural space I would like to encourage has a place for all of them, and will judge each work on its own individual merits, not on arbitrary generic guidelines.

Again, I apologize for this kind of boring stuff, but I don’t want to be misunderstood, and thought it might be good to have this on the record.

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Recent Comics Reading


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

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We haven’t done this in a while.

Jack Kirby‘s Fourth World Omnibus, Volume 1
Everything went right with this book, which collects the early issues of Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics for DC (Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle), with the stories printed in order of their original publication. Some have complained about the paper stock, which is superficially reminiscent of newsprint (I’ve heard this “choice” came down to a production mistake, though that may just be rumor), but it works very well, in my opinion. The coloring is as good as it gets for this kind of archival treatment. In terms of story, this is pretty close to the deep end for pure Kirby weirdness, and those who haven’t read much by him might be better off starting with his ’60s Marvel work. Or maybe not. The ’70s period finds Kirby’s art and bizarre ideas as close to “art comics” as he would ever get.

This has been one of the most widely reviewed comics collections of the year (deservedly so), so I won’t go on too much longer, but I do want to say that I really enjoy how Kirby throws in subplots and imagery with incredibly disturbing implications (the underground government cloning facility, the fact that the very first person they decided to clone was Superman (an incredibly incautious choice, I’d think)) in an almost offhand manner, barely commented upon by the characters. There are a lot more levels to these stories than might seem initially apparent.

Richard Sala‘s Delphine #1-2
I’m also really enjoying this new series from Sala, which is part of Fantagraphics’s Ignatz line. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t really get Sala’s work in time to follow The Chuckling Whatsit and Mad Night in their original serialized form, so it’s great to get another chance with this new series, which seems to be loosely based on the Snow White story. Sala’s done some great work with short pieces, but these Judex-like serials are where he really excels. One panel in the first issue actually made me jump (well, not really jump—I was sitting down—but the sedentary equivalent of jumping, anyway). Good stuff.

Rick Geary‘s Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Borden Tragedy
For some reason, Rick Geary’s drawing style has never really appealed to me—it seems too twee or something, I guess—but enough people whose taste I trust have recommended him to me over the years that I finally decided to give him a try. I’m glad I did. This narrative reconstruction of the infamous Lizzie Borden trial and the murders that led up to it is masterfully done, and a pretty obvious riposte to my ignorant lament that not enough comics were taking advantage of the form’s natural strengths for exploring historical topics. Geary uses a tremendous amount of innovative layouts and formal techniques (pretty much everything I imagined earlier, as well as others I hadn’t anticipated) to great effect, and this is a compelling true crime tale. In the end, it may seem like not much more than a well-executed genre piece, but when considered with the other titles in this series (which I definitely plan on sampling), that judgment may prove too harsh. And there’s certainly a place for good genre work, anyway. I’m still not the biggest fan of Geary’s drawings, but they do what he wants them to, which is what counts. (I’m sometimes repelled by Steve Ditko‘s art, for that matter, and he’s one of my favorites.)

Josh Simmons‘s House
I’ve enjoyed a few of Josh Simmons’s mini-comics over the years, but this is a real step up, and a very promising book-length debut. This short, atmospheric horror story follows three young people exploring a strange, abandoned house, and the first half of the book is filled with surprising and even exhilarating moments. I don’t want to give the plot away, but after being so pleased by the beginning of the book, I was a little disappointed by the ending, which felt too protracted and schematic for my taste. The author pretty clearly intended that effect, though, so maybe I’ll be more receptive after a few re-readings. In any case, Simmons displays an original voice, and this is inexpensive and impressive enough for me to recommend it to anyone interested in horror or wordless comics. I am excited to see what Simmons comes up with next.

Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head, Vols. 1-4
What is wrong with me? Everyone else in the world, from Dan to seemingly every comics reviewer on the Internet, is raving about this manga, but four volumes in, I’m still indifferent. So far, the story follows two high-school students trapped in a train tunnel after some kind of apocalyptic incident, and their struggle to survive and escape. It’s all put together extremely well, but follows the J-horror/apocayptic fiction formulas so closely that I’ve never once felt surprised. I’ve been assured by others that the series gets better as it goes, but I’m about ready to give up. This feels a lot like any number of “good” television shows (Lost, Heroes) that I don’t feel like I have the time to follow, and I don’t think the fact that these characters are drawn is going to keep me going. I am probably wrong about this series.

Finally, in the so far, so good files:

Osamu Tezuka‘s Apollo’s Song
I haven’t finished this yet, but I’m loving it, and I’m really glad that Vertical is putting out these relatively obscure Tezuka titles. When the Phoenix volumes came out, I wasn’t really ready for them. The bizarre and wonderful storytelling in this, Ode to Kirohito, and Buddha has given me new eyes.

Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman‘s Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives
This book is too expensive if you can’t find a deal somewhere, but so far, this is nothing but great, brainless, golden-age fun. I can’t read too many of these stories at once, but it’s terrific in small portions.

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PShaw Speaks Out


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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He‘s also sent a nice recent strip to New Bodega.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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1. I don’t want to turn this blog into an all-Lauren Weinstein, all-the-time promotional vehicle, but it’s been a good month for her. First, there was the new Believer interview, and now she’s mentioned in the same breath as the great Daniel Clowes in a New York Times review of Ariel Schrag‘s new anthology Stuck in the Middle. Which is too awesome not to mention.

2. I also don’t want to turn this blog into an all-Patrick Smith, all-the-time promotional vehicle, but he is apparently the 146th greatest cartoonist of all time, which is also too awesome not to mention.

3. I enjoy Sean T. Collins’s blog quite a bit, but I don’t really agree with this sentiment from a recent post:

The thing that most irks me about [Alan] Moore’s work, even his best work, even his work I enjoy a great deal, is how ostentatiously writerly it is–the way his Godlike Authorial Hand shows in every move machination of his clockwork-precise plotting. And the thing is, to employ a criterion frequently used to lambaste superhero comics of a very different sort, what does this say to you about life, anyway? I think it’s awesome that there’s a completely symmetrical of issue of Watchmen, but it has sweet fuck-all to do with the way the world actually works.

First of all, who said art has to tell you anything about life? Who says art has to tell you anything about anything? This is not a criterion I use to evaluate comics. (I realize that not everyone will agree with me on this.)

Secondly, whatever a person might think of Alan Moore’s work in particular (I mostly like it, especially in the work from his pre-ABC years), this kind of complicated, thought-out, formalistic art has a very long and healthy pedigree, and I for one find discovering the hidden riddles, subtle thematic symmetries, and multiple levels of meaning buried in a well-conceived example of that kind of work to be one of art’s primary pleasures. It’s why I like the books of Nabokov and Borges and Gene Wolfe, the comics of Ware and Clowes, and the films of Kubrick. This kind of art may not reflect “the way the world actually works”, but it can certainly reflect the way the artist’s mind works, and can provide a readerly pleasure otherwise unavailable. A comic or movie or whatever that really reflected the way the world works would be as chaotic and unformed and nonsensical as life itself, and very difficult to understand.

Which isn’t to say that I disagree with Collins’s larger point: art doesn’t have to be so deterministically planned out to succeed, and certainly more improvised fictions also have their particular charms and effects. (And it would be foolish to deny that over-plotting can be stifling, and that Moore’s comics sometimes suffer from that.) But both strategies can work, and I imagine most artists use a little bit of both as a matter of course.

Also, I have to say that judging from the recent mainstream comics I’ve read, it’s simply not the case that writers are over-thinking their comics’ formal aspects.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Collins put up another post, clarifying his problems with Moore, and making his argument a lot more supportable. I don’t really think Moore is quite as guilty (in terms of leaving “only one way to skin the cat” of his stories) as Collins does, but it’s certainly a fair point.

4. On a somewhat related note, a Jon Hastings post referenced by Collins does a really good job of explaining one of the more common problems with current mainstream comics. (I’m referring to part II of the post.) This argument seems a lot more convincing and specific than the standard complaint that the problem is just “too much continuity”.

When I read superhero comics as a kid (and I didn’t read very many, other than the odd issues my mother bought me for long trips or on days when I was home sick), the references to past events and other comics titles were often the most exciting parts. They indicated that there was a whole big world of this stuff to explore, Iron Man and the Hulk had had tons of previous adventures, and if only I could track down Avengers #89, Hulk #55, or whatever, I could follow along. (I never actually went ahead to do that, and left the mysteries unsolved by continuing to read superhero comics only very sporadically, but I may have enjoyed the ones I did read all the more just because of that. I never spoiled my imagined versions of their incredible adventures by actually reading them.) Which is all just to say that I think Hastings is making sense when he explains why comics “continuity” references doesn’t always work that way anymore.

5. And now the bloviating ends.

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Marvel Should Publish This Already


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

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If you enjoyed Peter Bagge‘s essay on Spider-Man in the second issue of Comics Comics (which was partially inspired by the time he spent creating Megalomaniacal Spider-Man), you might also like this page from his aborted shelved* Incorrigible Hulk, which is currently making the internet rounds.

(via Again With the Comics)

*improved word choice stolen from Dirk

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On The Other Hand


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

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After posting yesterday and then emailing a bit with Tom Spurgeon, I got an email from Peggy Burns (see, this is why it takes forever to publish stuff–we’re all just talking to each other all the time) and two things occurred to me: one, if we want the NYCC to be different, we should set up there and participate. As Heidi/Beat pointed out, the only way to make a change is to participate. So, what if PictureBox and Fantagraphics and D&Q, etc etc set up as a block and invited interesting guests? Change? Maybe. On the other hand, I’m not sure that anyone other than the mainstream comics fanatics will pay $20-$40 to get into a comic-con–not with the far easier and cheaper MoCCA just a few months away. But then, as I mentioned in the comments section, the fact is, the comics read by many of the artists I publish are NYCC-fare–Chippendale’s Berserk and Daredevil, etc….maybe it would be an interesting meshing of sensibilities. But then, the environment of the NYCC is just pretty hostile to anything not insanely loud and fannish. So, to be continued, I suppose, in more distracting conversations.

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Monday, March 5, 2007

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I spent a few hours at the Comic-Con last weekend. It’s a pretty easy target, but I guess I was struck by the huge divide between my culture and theirs. With the parades of costumes heroes and oddballs, down-at-the-heels superhero artists, and just plain oddities, like Neal Adams, I wondered what all of this had to do with the medium of comics rather than the business and nostalgia of comics. The answer, of course, is that, historically, they’re one in the same. Comics, even in these pseudo-sophisticated days, are as trashy as ever. I can’t decide if I cynically like that or detest it. But as I sat at the Abrams booth signing my book, I kinda thought, “wow, I have nothing in common with these people.” Which makes me wonder, of course, who our (tiny) audience really is for Comics Comics and other PictureBox publication. Who knows. It’s a funny thing, selling these kind of books in that sort of venue, but it’s one among many, and when you’re marginal to start with, you have to try for as many little corners as possible. Eventually it adds up. But man, what a place. What a thing.

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The Nostalgist


Sunday, February 4, 2007

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I recently picked up Darwyn Cooke‘s Spirit and Batman/The Spirit. Cooke specializes in nostalgia-inflected revivals of superheroes. His mini series New Frontier was an epic re-imagining of the DC Comics heroes. It was good fun–a light, affectionate version of Watchmen. I’m not sure it adds up to much more than beautifully drawn fan-fiction, which, minus the “beautifully drawn” is more or less what a lot of superhero comic books are these days. In Cooke’s case, the drawings really make the work. His style is the best version of the contemporary strain of comic book drawing that began with Bruce Timm‘s Batman animated series. Influenced by the design atmospherics of Alex Toth and, in a later generation, the smooth renderings of Steve Rude, it’s a cartoon language that embraces the dynamism inherent in superheroes while glossing over the violence and darkness that has been so prevalent in comics in the last 20 years or so. I like it for its elegance and it’s always-1920s look (even if that clean nostalgia feels extremely easy), but am slightly put off by how sexless and toothless it is. Toth had bite, especially in his pre-1970s work, with grit piled on top of his impeccable formalist sense, while Cooke smooths out all the rough edges, replacing all tension with a soft-focus nostalgia for an imagined past. But really, I buy most of Cooke releases, just to peek at the elegance of the drawing. With these two comics, though, I realized that problem is that appeal is, in fact, just the drawings.

The two Spirit comic books, both with Batman and without, are fun exercises, but feel soulless, like a storyboard more than a story. The Batman/Spirit emphasizes the humor in both characters, but does little with either, and The Spirit comic just demonstrates that the fun of that character was not super heroics, but rather the incidental, O’Henry-esque stories creator Will Eisner used the Spirit as an excuse to tell. But more interestingly, while the drawings are, as usual, slick and fun to look at, it turns out that Cooke isn’t a great comic book storyteller. Comic book storytelling requires pictures that flow into one another, and a sense of the page as a whole. Cooke, however, thinks more like the animator he once was, creating single isolated moments in sequence, as opposed to groups of pictures that work together. His panels are often crowded with information, weighing them down in a way that works against his smooth surfaces and slick drawing. It’s a curious problem–a good cartoonist who can’t quite frame a story. The similarly talented Steve Rude suffers from it too. I wonder if that level of polish simply works against the flow of comics. It’s over-determined, in a sense, preventing the motion of the story and keeping readers at a remove. Toth worked in a cartoon shorthand, always emphasizing both elegance and minimalism and allowing readers to enter the story with him. Cooke, in his eagerness to describe every bit of his nostalgic world, over-renders, weighing it down and leaving the rest of us to watch with disinterested curiosity.

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I Spoke Too Soon


Monday, December 4, 2006

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I was wrong, and in a good way. Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is starting to get some well-deserved hype, this time a longish, overwhelmingly positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is an unalloyed good thing, both for Brunetti and for the field as a whole. But…

Well, maybe it is just a little alloyed, but only because the reviewer was one lazy and condescending (at least in this instance) critic named David Hajdu, who is probably best known for his book about the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Positively 4th Street. I say lazy and condescending because it is quite clear from reading his review that he didn’t bother to do the relevant research, but still felt qualified to act as a generous mandarin, bestowing status on a “disreputable” art form that has finally earned his good graces.

Take for starters his description of the book’s editor:

Brunetti, a comics artist and writer himself, is best known for his comic-book series “Schizo,” a hodge-podge of spare, poetic vignettes heavily influenced by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.”

It seems likely to me from this that Hajdu only read the two pages of Brunetti comics included in the book under review, but let’s be generous and assume he skimmed Schizo‘s unusually gentle fourth issue. Hajdu clearly didn’t bother checking into the earlier issues, which might well be the most scarifying comics ever drawn. “Spare”, “poetic”, and “Peanuts” are not the words (well, “poetic” maybe, but not the way Hajdu means it).

Here’s a less important one:

[Brunetti] likes the funnies to be funny; we get few adventure stories — not even, among the historical selections, a panel of “Little Lulu” or Carl Barks’s “Donald Duck,” both of which were more dramatic than literally comic.

Hmm. Little Lulu always seemed pretty funny to me.

More from the maestro:

[Brunetti] is indifferent, even silently hostile, to superheroes, none of whom appear anywhere in the book … There is no question that the vast bulk of superhero comics are factory-made product, rather than works of individual expression; still, at least a few mainstream comics published in recent years — including a series of Batman stories drawn by David Mazzucchelli, who has other work in the anthology — are as artful and subtle as some stories in this book.

Mazzuchelli‘s work on Batman is greatly accomplished, but so many of his other, non-superhero comics are superior that it would be very strange to include it while skipping the rest.

More than that, considering the nature of this anthology, Hajdu’s argument is just silly. Only when discussing comics do people feel the constant need to glorify or excuse work on licensed properties in this way. You’d never find a critic reviewing an anthology of contemporary literature and bemoaning the lack of excerpts from Star Wars novels. (Who knows, maybe there’s a book about Yoda that’s just as good as the story about a novelist suffering writer’s block at Yaddo—it would still feel out-of-place in a book meant to showcase stories that are personal and intimate.) If Hajdu really feels like comics are now finally “suitable for adults”, maybe he could treat them with the respect (and expectations) accorded to other adult media.

Hajdu continues by calling for the deletion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb‘s “clumsy noodling” and praising Kim Deitch “for her [sic] cynical romance with the past and sheer kookiness of spirit.” I love Kominsky-Crumb’s work, but I guess I should give Hajdu a pass here, seeing as everyone’s entitled to their own taste. But would it be too much to ask that, if he’s going to say an artist may be “the literary voice of our time”, and do it in the New York Times, that he actually bother to conduct enough research to get the Possible Voice of Our Time’s gender right? [UPDATE: The Kim Deitch gender mix-up was apparently an editing error, in which case the writer should of course be excused.]

Here’s his final paragraph, a wonderful mixture of clichés, misconceptions, and patronization:

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games. There are no Etch a Sketch drawings in the Museum of Modern Art and no View-Master slides in the International Center for Photography. While it took more than a century for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults, the fact that the comics made it here at all testifies to their resilience and adaptability.

Ugh. Well, I guess it’s good that comics are more of a legitimate art form than the old View-Master, but this seems like faint praise to me.

(By the way, this isn’t the first time Hajdu has written about “grown-up” comics for a prominent cultural publication, or the first time he’s proven himself not quite up to the job.)

I should stop whining. What does it matter really? It’s nice overall that the big cultural arbiters are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate would take their own jobs just as seriously.

And what is Hajdu up to next? He’s working on a new book, a history of the comics. As he graciously acknowledged in a 2003 interview, it’s something he “knew virtually nothing about before”, but he’s found that doing the research “is the fun part”. I hope that the new year finds Hajdu having lots of fun.


Oh, and one more thing, related only in general theme: When you’re putting together a large-scale, scholarly exhibit of the Masters of the American Comics, ostensibly in order to demonstrate the artistic significance of the form and its practitioners, and you display one of the most famous and iconic comic book covers of all time, go ahead and make the effort to find out who drew it. Don’t just credit Harvey Kurtzman on a guess. Especially when Basil Wolverton‘s signature is clearly legible, right at the bottom of the page.

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