by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Below are some jottings from my notebook. They are not substantial enough to be essays but might spark some thought or debate.
Praise for the competition. Lots of spitballs have been thrown at The Comics Journal‘s new web format, some of them hurled by mutinous writers from the Journal itself. I care more about content than format, so I don’t agree with the general line of criticism. For me the biggest problem with TCJ these days is that there is an overabundance of good stuff. It’s hard to keep up with the magazine since it offers so much to read every day. Put it this way: the magazine features long essays by Donald Phelps, Gary Groth, and R. Fiore. These aren’t just three of the best comics critics around, they are among the best essayists around period. Phelps is a critic of the stature of Manny Farber or Pauline Kael. (In fact, the Library of America’s great volume American Movie Critics has essays by Farber, Kael, and Phelps). Fiore and Groth are a notch below that Olympian level but there essays are as good as anything found in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Believer or n+1. Aside from these key writers, the magazine offers regular essays from a strong cohort of intelligent, informed critics — Clough, Worcester, Ishii, Kreiner, Suat Tong, Crippen, Garrity, etc. (Anyone who isn’t on the list shouldn’t be offended, I’m writing off the top of my head.)
A resource for the future. As it stands TCJ is perhaps too eclectic and too overstuffed but these are necessary evils. Unlike more specialized sites like Comics Comics, TCJ does try to cover the whole field of comics — as such it is resource, but can only be read selectively. To put it another way, right now I’m not interested in Kevin O’Neill but in the future I might well be, so I’m grateful for the 30,000 word interview they’ve posted. It will be of use in the future. The magazine incarnation is like that as well. You shouldn’t ever throw away old issues. You never know when you might want to read the novel-length two-part interview with Burne Hogarth (issues 166 and 167), as I recently did.
There are things on TCJ site I don’t like. The Ghost World roundtable was painful: like watching a circle of chimps struggling to understand Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and becoming very angry in the process, eventually erupting in uncomprehending fury. Still, the glory of the web is that you can just click away from such train-wrecks. I’ve even started to appreciate Noah Berlatsky, who sometimes makes a good point (about 20% of the time).
Linguistic dexterity. The three great comics traditions are American, Franco-Belgian, and Japanese. Ideally a comics expert should know English, French, and Japanese. As far as I know, the only people who fit the bill are Peter Birkemoe (owner of The Beguiling) and Sylvain Rheault (of the University of Regina). How many other polyglots are there?
Dell Comics Are Good Comics. It sounds like a simple-minded credo but it’s true: Dell comics were good comics. Arguably it’s one of the most important commercial comic book companies ever, at least the equal of EC, DC, and Marvel. Dell employed three of the all-time greats: Carl Barks, John Stanley, and Walt Kelly. Not to mention Jesse Marsh, Russ Manning, and Alex Toth. So why do we know so much less about Dell than about the competitors? Who were Oskar Lebeck and Helen Meyer? Why do we barely know their names but know all about Bill Gaines and Stan Lee? As a friend recently noted, Dell is underrated because they published kids comics and girl comics. So they weren’t “serious” and “adult” like EC and Marvel. But aside from Kurtzman’s books and Krigstein’s handful of stories, the best Dell comics were better than what EC offered. The absence of Dell is the great blind spot in the standard account of comic book history. Fortunately there are critics working to overcome this blind spot. More, anon.
The Heroes of design. Comic books and cartoon books are much better designed now than ever before. While it’s true that in the past some cartoonists took an occasional interest in book design (Walt Kelly and the young Charles Schulz come to mind), in the past most comic book volumes were pretty shoddy. Who are the great heroes of design who changed things? Francoise Mouly, Chris Oliveros, Chris Ware, Chip Kidd, Tom Devlin, Jacob Covey, and Adam Grano. Am I missing any names?
The living underground. Are underground comics still a living tradition? Crumb, Deitch, Spiegelman, Tyler, and others still continue to do great work, but they’ve moved on and matured from their underground days. Most art comics now are much different in tone – quieter, more subtle – than anything found in the undergrounds. The best argument that the underground tradition is still alive is Hotwire Comics, edited by Glen Head (one of the most underrated cartoonists around, incidentally). Hotwire Comics is a visual assault, abrasive, confrontational, willing to poke and prod the audience: a real live wire that can shock. Everything a good underground comic book should be. No graphic novels here, just jolting stories, many only a few pages long. This style of cartooning is very much out of fashion right now, but that makes Hotwire all the more necessary, I think.