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Ranking the Masters


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Friday, February 18, 2011


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Gary Groth twitted: “The greatest artists who worked n commercial comics? My vote (in order); Carl Barks, Jack Kirby & Harvey Kurtzman (tie), John Stanley.” The list seems on target but the ranking can be argued with. These are all superb cartoonists and as such, their writing/art needs to be seen as an integrated whole. Still, some of them are stronger on the writing front, others as visual artists. And of course Stanley, Kirby and Kurtzman all did a lot of collaborative work, including some of their best work.

So if I were ranking them as visual artists I’d say Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks, Stanley. If I were ranking them as writers I’d say Stanley, Kurtzman, Barks, Kirby. But what if writing and art can’t be separated? What if I had to rank them simply as cartoonists? A really tough choice. Purely a personal matters but I’d say Stanley, Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks. But that’s a ranking that could easily change at the drop of a hat. Fun factoid: three of these cartoonists (Stanley, Barks, Kurtzman) were doing their best work at the exact same time, circa 1950-1955. That was the real Golden Age of commercial comics.

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Canada Reads Revisited


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Thursday, February 17, 2011


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Over at the National Post, there is a panel discussion about the recent Canada Reads contest and how various comments made by the jury reflect popular attitudes about comics and the graphic novel. The panel consists of me, Chris Butcher and Darwyn Cooke. Go here to read.

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Compare and Contrast


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Wednesday, February 16, 2011


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Cover, Walt and Skeezix Volume 1, Chris Ware (after Frank King).

Top portion of Stumptown poser, by Brandon Graham (After Chris Ware after Frank King).

(Just so there is no misunderstanding, I want to make it clear that this post is not meant to be a criticism  of Brandon Graham. His poster is lovely and I’m gratified that the Walt and Skeexiz books are informing the sensibility of younger cartoonists. The full Stumptown poster can be seen here. Thanks to Tom Spurgeon for calling attention to this poster. Everyone should buy the Walt and Skeezix books!)

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Cartoonists that Never Were: Friedrich Engels


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Tuesday, February 15, 2011


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A cartoon of Frederick William IV and the Prussian bourgeoisie drawn by F. Engels, 1849.

In recent years, there has been a surge of critical interest in the fact that many major writers were also, on the side at least, doodlers and drawers. Off the top of my head, such writers include Thackeray, Kipling, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, John Updike and Guy Davenport. There are many critical insights to be gained by thinking of these writers as “cartoonist manqués” (to borrow a phrase from Updike). Thanks to Kent Worcester we can add another notable name to the list: Friedrich Engels, the co-creator of historical materialism. For those not familiar with him, Engels was to Karl Marx what Gerhard has been to Dave Sim. Engels was also a lifelong doodler and sketcher. Many of his letters are filled with drawings. He had an excellent sense of draughtsmanship. I would love to see someone familiar to Engels life and thought do an analysis of his drawings. The website www.marxists.org has a vast collection of Engels’ letters, sometimes including the drawings that accompanied them For a sample, page, see here. I’ve posted a few of Engels’ drawings below.

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Examining Canada Reads


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Wednesday, February 9, 2011


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Lemire's Essex County

 Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel Essex County was one of the five nominees for Canada  Reads, a very influential (at least in terms of book sales) Canadian book award. Lemire didn’t win, but just his nomination and the debate around the book among the jurors opened a fascinating window into how comics are regarded by the larger culture. If you go here, you can find podcasts of the entire Canada Reads show for the year. Essex County is extensively discussed on round one (where it was eliminated).

For those interested in learning more about Canada Reads and its place in the Canadian literary ecosystem, I have an in-depth article on that very topic in The Walrus. You can read it here. My own take on Essex County can be found here.

An excerpt from The Walrus article:

It’s a measure of how profoundly Canada Reads has reshaped our literary landscape that the show has turned novelists — usually a rather introverted lot who spend their days locked away wrestling with sentences — into arm-twisting politicos eager to woo the crowd. The show’s importance can be explained in simple economic terms. Only a small circle of Canadian novelists, such as Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland, earn a living from their craft. For the vast majority who fall outside this fortunate club, only two surefire roads to bestsellerdom and financial security are available: you can win either the Giller Prize or Canada Reads. This is the bleak reality behind the unsettling eagerness of writers lobbying to be shortlisted.

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Aside From Wuthering Heights, What Have You Done For Us Lately, Emily?


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Wednesday, February 2, 2011


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Breakdowns

Every time Art Spiegelman wins a public honour, a familiar cry can be heard among some comics critics. “Oh, no,” the lament goes, “why is Spiegelman winning praise again? He only has one good book to his name, Maus? He’s overrated.”

These frequently expressed opinions are profoundly wrongheaded. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the claim that Spiegelman is a one book author, that doesn’t diminish his stature: Ralph Ellison was also a one book author: aside from Invisible Man, Ellison’s legacy consists of an inferior posthumous novel and a scattering of strong essays. All of Flannery O’Connor’s worthwhile fiction can be found in single Library of America volume. Emily Bronte’s oeuvre could also be easily confined to a thick but still manageable volume needed to gather together Wuthering Heights and her poetry. Yet is anyone really willing to gainsay the legacy of Ellison, O’Connor, or Bronte?

But of course Spiegelman has more than one book to his credit. To my mind Breakdowns is a pivotal a book in the history of comics as Maus. Just as the more famous holocaust memoir was a springboard for graphic novels and historical/political narratives in comic book form, Breakdowns is a wellspring for comics formalism, a vital and still underdeveloped and underappreciated tradition.  It’s harder to gauge the importance of In the Shadow of No Towers but only because we’re all too close to the events of 9/11, and our possessive memories of that trauma still hinder any predominately aesthetic response to such a work. All I can say about In the Shadow of No Towers is that it articulated something I distinctly remember about the aftermath of 9/11 which almost every other account avoids: the frenzied and baffled anger of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It’s a book whose stature will rise once we are far enough away from 9/11 to confront it.

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Kickstarting Black Eye


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Wednesday, February 2, 2011


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Cover for Black Eye

Friend of Comics Comics Ryan Standfest is putting together an anthology called Black Eye which will “collect original narrative comics, art and essays by 42 international artists and writers, all focused on the expression of black, dark or absurdist humor.” All the art and writing for the book is done and now Ryan is raising money for the printing. He has a kickstart page devoted to this purpose, which can be accessed here. This page also has more information about the project, including the rewards that will be given to funders such as a limited edition of the publication. I’m involved with Black Eye but even if I weren’t I would say that this is a project worth supporting: Ryan has a great curatorial sensibility and the tradition of visually shocking material that he’s gathering together is an important one in comics history, although currently underrated in our fey and sensitive age.

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