Notebook jottings


by

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Glenn Head's Hotwire Comics

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.

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59 Responses to “Notebook jottings”
  1. Bill Kartalopoulos says:

    I was thinking about designers in comics myself recently. I’d add Michel Vrana to your list. I haven’t looked at his stuff in a while, but it seems like he was actively infusing comics design with standards of “proper” book design around the same time that Chris Oliveros and Tom Devlin were also making their mark.

  2. patrick ford says:

    Good point about Dell comics.
    There are very few comics I read as a kid or in my teens, I can still read and enjoy.
    This point was brought home to me twice over the past twenty years.
    In 1976 I stopped reading comic books, and didn’t start up again until the early 80’s.
    The main reason is I was in college and so broke I used to go into grocery stores, take a bite out of an apple when no one was looking, and quickly put it back with the bite side down.
    After I was out of school, and settled down in one spot, my mom decided it was safe to clear out my old bedroom closet so she could fill it with jars of her pickled eggs.
    Boxes of my old comics started to arrive on a weekly basis.
    I was eager to rekindle a warm nostalgic glow so I tried reading some.
    The vast majority not only failed to transport me to the days gone by, I found them so tedious that reading them was a difficult chore.
    The exceptions were Barks, Kirby, Stanley, and Kurtzman.
    Marvel and EC comics (I had a few originals, some of the old Cochran portfolios, and the Nostalgia Press book) were just impossible to read. The Al Feldstein prose that had once so impressed me had vanished, the chuckles I used to get from Stan Lee’s wise-cracks were replaced with by flat out glacial boredom. The plots of the Marvel books is another problem, they often make no sense what so ever (there is the very real sense that the picture story and the text are not the same), and if you’re no longer distracted by the pallid Steve Canyon style snappy patter every character is spouting the pot holes are deep.
    More recently when my children were between the ages of 4 and 6 I decided to give some of the old stuff another chance (I’d kept reading Stanley, Barks, Kirby, and Kurtzman, and even purchased many modern reprints of their work, and picked up all the Kirby stuff I’d missed between 1976 and 81).
    The same result except I noticed one difference, while I still had trouble slogging through an old issue of Spider-Man, or Green Lantern, I found the stack of Jesse Marsh Tarzan comic books, and all the Dell four color comics with art by Toth I’d purchased and never read were really quite readable. Not necessarily the kind of thing I’d choose to read on my own, but the stories were solid, and well crafted, they made sense, they weren’t sleep inducing. I also discovered the Superman family books from the early 60’s were a bit of fun to read, not up to the level of Kirby or Stanley (the kind of stuff that can stop me cold, not out of boredom, but because it makes me think), but again at least a decent read.
    Lois, Lana, Clark…now there was a super hero with problems.

  3. Ph says:

    Viva Jeet!!

  4. NoahB says:

    Hey Jeet. I think the issue many folks have is that there really isn’t any reason for the content to be so overwhelming if the design were just clearer. For instance, it wouldn’t be hard to set the site up so that you could find recent articles by R. Fiore at a glance without having to scroll past all the notices about the Ariel Schrag roundtable, or what have you.

    Still, I would prefer that people like tcj.com, and they’ve certainly been doing better with content this last week. And glad to hear you’re up to 20%!

  5. inkstuds says:

    Jonathan Bennett has been doing some great design work, also Helene Silverman,

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    At the risk of alienating some of the people that sit at the same lunch table as I do, I gotta say that I’ve never been able to appreciate Hotwire because of Mr. Head’s “abrasive” essay in Hotwire #1. If I remember correctly he makes fun of comics that look they are made “downtown” and sensitive comics “from Canada” and calls for an anthology that would restore comics to its old glory. Reading between the lines I read “things were better in the eighties when there wasn’t so much competition”. Much as I like Lane, Fleener, Altergott, White etc, Mr Head’s editorial just turned me off from the book. Maybe I’m missing a lot of good stuff, but, I dunno every time I flip through it at Copacetic it just feels leaves me flat.

  7. Steven H says:

    I was a little put off by that essay in Hotwire #1 as well, but this vitality of the comics inside reminded me a little of RAW (though I’m still missing a couple of issues!) That’s not a surprising connection since Fleener at least staked a claim in that series but maybe there are similarities in editorial intent as well (minus the French/Japanese love).

    As for TCJ, I love’em but… lines like “The big two need more artists like this that can bring storytelling to the next level. Someone, please, get this guy on a Batman book” from their review of Grampa’s Mesmo Delivery just make me cringe and almost revert back to kneejerk anti-superhero bitchiness.

    • gavin says:

      @ Stephen H – yeah, not my finest hour, I admit. Sean Collins’ review of Batman and Robin #9 makes a similar case, but more eloquently.

      Surprised Seth didn’t get a mention in the “heroes of design” considering his work on Peanuts has pretty much become the template for modern archival reprints.

  8. Michael Grabowski says:

    Viva Hotwire! It reminds me of Blab! before Blab! got too text-heavy. The covers are great, too. If only there were proper newstands where covers like vol. 2 could be displayed for a week or more. Too many books these days have more effort put into the look of their spines, and understandably so, given the spine-out display that most are limited to at the store. Hotwire, though, has had progressively great covers that deserve better exposure.

  9. In mentioning the improved book design, I thought it would be fitting to also give congratulations on the somewhat new Comics Comics site design. So much easier on the eyes! It can be really jarring to go between dark and light background pages.

  10. jason t miles says:

    Jeet,

    You missed Jordan Crane in the design category.

    I think J Bradley Johnson’s comic in Hotwire #1 is one of the most overlooked short stories of the past 5 years.

  11. For design see also: Michel Vrána and Paul Pope.

  12. Bill Randall says:

    “Lunch table.” heh

    Bill’s right on Michel Vrana, he had a very distinct signature. Also, I’ve got enough French to enjoy Baudoin, Fred, and Mathieu. Not enough for Groensteen in the original without a brain aneurysm, sadly.

    I had something else to say about TCJ, but wouldn’t you rather look at these digital exhibits from Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library? Are these even on the radar? Will they be there in a year? Does Comics Comics back up its database? I do worry at how useful a resource any comics writing online will be when it’s so vulnerable & ephemeral. CC’s migration from Blogger saved the comments but wiped the links to author pages. And I hate to think of Jog’s body of work evaporating, say, should Marissa Mayer spill her coffee. Don’t throw away old issues & pray for holographic storage.

  13. T. Hodler says:

    @Bill R.: Forgive me for what is probably a dumb question, but what do you mean by “wiped links to author pages”? Maybe we can fix that—I just don’t know exactly what you’re talking about!

  14. It’s always frustrating to me when people who prefer a certain kind of comics decide to advance that ball by railing against the imagined oppressive hegemony of another kind of comics. Just do your thing. Let your comics do the talking!

  15. Rob Clough says:

    Jeet,

    Thanks for the kind words. A few points:

    1. I agree with Sean & Frank that G.Head’s essay in the first issue served no purpose other than to lob grenades into comics camps whose work they didn’t like. Statements of purpose that attempt to make comics into a binary system (there are “fun” comics and “not fun/prettentious” comics, and there’s only room for one camp!) automatically make me skeptical.

    That said, Head contradicted himself by printing a number of more serious stories in Hotwire (Tim Lane’s stories are especially grim). And Hotwire has something for nearly every comics fan. R.Sikoryak has strips in there. Mary Fleener has some outstanding work in there. For you RAW fans, David Sandlin has a long story in the most recent issue. There’s also a lot in here that isn’t comics (another contradiction of his statement of purpose) and that doesn’t interest me, but there’s no other anthology quite like it.

    2. By the way Frank–while I agree that statement of purpose was alienating, Paper Rad had an editorial of their own in Comics Comics #1 that was every bit as alienating.

    3. Jeet, your description of the Ghost World roundtable was dead-on. I sometimes feel that the HU folks are more interested in heat than light, and this was one of those instances.

    4. A hearty second on Jonathan Bennett’s design. He’s been the secret weapon behind the success of the Toon Books line. They combine a sense of nostalgia and the modern in one package.

    5. About TCJ design: I do think it will get better sooner rather than later.

    6. Seth putting together the John Stanley Library reprints is a service to humanity. Now if he’d only reprint the covers, too….

  16. Jeet Heer says:

    There are two many good comments for me to respond to easily. But briefly:

    @Frank: yeah the editorial was a mistep. But Head is a really gifted editor. Head’s Snake Eyes — which Kaz helped edit — was one of the great post-RAW anthologies. I’ve re-read all three issues many times.

    @Bill and others: yes to all the suggested names for the heroes of design pantheon: Vrana, Bennett, Crane, Pope. I don’t know how I could have forgotten them, I’m so dim-witted. Gentlemen: we salute you!

  17. Robert Boyd says:

    I was an employee of Fantagraphics when we hired Dale Yarger to be our head designer. He brought so much design knowledge to Fantagraphics. This was before design migrated completely to computers, so we were still using a typesetting machine and mechanicals. Dale did magic with those things. He was way into distressing type and images.

    Now for most comics and books, his talents weren’t much of an issue. We had a policy of letting cartoonists design their own books for the most part. This was probably a mistake! But when Dale was set free to do his stuff, he did great things.

    Dale came out of the who Rocket/Sub Pop group of designers (including Art Chantry and Helene Silverman). (As Sub pop themselves put it: “Pavitt releases the vinyl compilation Sub Pop 100 (SP10), featuring Northwest punk bands the Wipers and the U-Men. The back of the record includes a black and white logo originally created for the “Sub Pop U.S.A.” column by Helene Silverman and Wes Anderson and revised significantly by Art Chantry. For the album, Dale Yarger stacks the word Sub above the word Pop, and a soon-to-be world-famous mark is born.”)

    It seems like comics design is, broadly speaking, more sophisticated now than it was then. But in the early 90s, Yarger made an important mark.

  18. Frank Santoro says:

    for Rob-
    “By the way Frank–while I agree that statement of purpose was alienating, Paper Rad had an editorial of their own in Comics Comics #1 that was every bit as alienating.”

    yah, but that was for a magazine of criticism. It wasn’t put in the pages of their own comic, y’know? I say let the work speak and then we can all fight it out in a separate text.

  19. Cricket says:

    I say there should be more crazy manifestos by cartoonists! CC has mixed comics and criticism and insane hotheaded rants; no reason why Hotwire shouldn’t do the same.

  20. Jeet Heer says:

    @Gavin: yes, of course, Seth. What the hell is wrong with me.

    @Boyd … hmmm… the design work at early and middle period Fantagraphics is something I have mixed feelings about. But you know much more about the period than me, so your informed comments are very welcome.

  21. Polyglot my ass says:

    Countries like Italy, Great Britain or Spain have very few to envy to your “three great comics traditions”.

  22. Jeet Heer says:

    @polyglot my ass. Sure lots of countries make great comics — I’m a Canadian so I know that. But I think its reasonable to say that the three main traditions are American, French, and Japanese. It’s not controversial to say that the German nations have produced more great classical music than the English-speaking nations, so why not say that the Franco-Belgian tradition has produced more great comics than Great Britain?

  23. Bill Randall says:

    @ T Hodler~ in Blogger, when you post a comment, your name links to your Blogger profile page, or the URL you put in. So when, say, complete stranger Jason Overby posts something smart, you click his name, follow it to his site and realize he’s one of the best cartoonists of his generation. In the new archive, all those links are now dead text. It’s not huge, but still a loss. Also, in the new design, links embedded in comments text show up as black rather than blue, like my OSU link above.

    Bravo on getting the old domain redirected properly to the new, though. There would have been blood if I’d tried it.

  24. Cricket says:

    Bill, peoples names do seem to link to the URLs they enter… maybe you mean for archived posts?

    Colored in-post links would be great, though.

  25. Cricket says:

    Perhaps names without links (like mine) should remain black and names with links (like Bill’s) should be colored.

  26. Scott Grammel says:

    “Am I missing any names?” Pretty egregiously, I’d say. Decades before DC, D&Q, Fantagraphics, and others finally got their general design work up to snuff, Kitchen Sink’s everyday design standards were across-the-board exceptional — not just books but even the comics themselves were things of real beauty. Names? Well, there’s Denis himself, and Pete Poplaski, and then I draw a blank. Anyone?

    The Hotwire books look like okay fun, and I appreciate the color and general high production values, but I still wish they were cheaper mags instead of pricey books. As much as I want Mike Wartella’s “Visions of Rasputin” (issue #2) in my greasy palms, I can’t justify the purchase.

  27. Jeet Heer says:

    @Scott Grammel: Yeah, Poplaski and Kitchen. Some of those books are really nice looking, although I thought the floppy landscape size of some of the comic strip reprints was a bit off-putting.

  28. Bill Randall says:

    @cricket– I said “in the new archive,” meaning comments once hosted at the blogspot.com domain and since moved here. In the Blogger-to-Wordpress shift, comments on old posts no longer have those author links. Is my English that bad? o woe

  29. Jeet Heer says:

    Two more important designers: Dale Crain (who has worked for many publishers) and Dennis Gallagher (who did the “Krazy and Ignatz” books for Eclipse).

  30. Cricket says:

    @bill no, your english is fine… my brain just skipped a few words…

    I’m digging these new colored links!

  31. I really don’t think there is any need to get overheated concerning Glenn Head’s railing against comic camps. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to writesome barbed invective that might get people’s goat. If someone feels alienated for that– tough. Once upon a time, artists saw hot-headed manifestos as a true challenge to take up arms and enjoy a good fight that advances the cause all around. These sorts of things are meant to provoke, to stimulate, to get the blood going. And it is in this sense, that it is of a piece with the character of Hotwire– a publication that keeps much of that raw energy going with the intent of dispensing a little provocation now and again. Can you imagine if every time we had artists lobbing testy critiques at one another throughout the history of art, it resulted in artists feeling “alienated?” This feels like artschool here– with kids walking on pins and needles, afraid to offend and stir the pot. You certainly don’t have to agree with Mr. Head and what he says, but you can respond to a challenge when you see one. Expecting a artist to respect every flavor out there, is like expecting a late night stand-up comic to remain virtuous. We need more eye-jabbing.

  32. Frank Santoro says:

    You must be new to this blog. Welcome. Glad you made it.

  33. Frank Santoro says:

    Cool. We promise to eye jab for your reading pleasure. Like Dirk and Heidi. Wait. No, that’s more like Mike Tyson ear biting.

  34. John P. says:

    A young cartoonist who is carrying on a lot of the UG sensibility, but with a contemporary feel at the same time, is Noah Van Sciver. http://www.noahvansciver.com. He keeps getting better and better! (Disclosure: and he’s a buddy of mine.)

  35. Bill Randall says:

    Ah, links.

    @john p
    If that “P” stands for what I think it does, link your name back to http://johnporcellino.blogspot.com/! Or http://www.king-cat.net/!

    • John P. says:

      ??? I’m slow with computers. How do I do this? Wha’???

      • T. Hodler says:

        When you first log in, the computer asks you to give your e-mail address (required) and a website (optional). If you fill in the website blank, it will make your name into a link to your site. Like how Bill R’s name links to his site. Does that make sense? (You may have to log out and re-log in to get it to work.)

  36. Scott Grammel says:

    Well, Jeet, I’d say KSP’s books were closer to uniformly attractive than just “some,” but then I was kinda dumbfounded by your comment that the “floppy landscape size of some of [KSP’s] comic strip reprints was a bit off-putting.” Since recent Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Rip Kirby, Mackies, Achewood, Heart of Juliet Jones, Apartment 3-G, and other reprint collections have all been variations on the horizontal landscape format, I can only guess that what you’re really complaining about is the softcover versions — and I’d maybe agree but I always bought the hardcovers, myself. If you were poor or cheap back in the day, I don’t see how you can blame Denis Kitchen for it.

  37. Jeet Heer says:

    @Scott.I own some of the Abner books in hard-cover and some in soft-cover. Whatever version, they are a bit awkward to hold. I prefer to read daily strips in a smaller, more manageable size. Seth’s Peanuts and Chris Ware’s Walt and Skeezix are perfect, for me. But this is quiblling really: Poplaski was and is an excellent designer, and there were other talented people at KSP.

  38. Caroline Small says:

    Mr Heer: In defense of the Ghost World roundtable: the willingness of the writers and other readers to talk in comments, both patiently and passionately, eventually convinced me that Ghost World was much more sophisticated than I’d previously understood. There were bits of the roundtable that I did not much enjoy either — but the target audience for criticism, even on sites like tcj.com, does not always have to be experts and afficionados of the work under scrutiny and a roundtable is one of the better places to take that risk and invite inexperienced readers into the conversation. A great thing about Web 2.0 is that even naive readers can talk to experts. We have to be able to engage naively without fear of being hazed, though; otherwise nobody new will ever learn to love comics.

    On Kael-quality essayists: I absolutely recognize and respect and appreciate the value of the best essayists and bloggers at The Comics Journal and other top comics criticism sites. But the perspectives represented by comics criticism period is more limited than that in mainstream criticism of literature and film, such as that published by the London Review of Books or Senses of Cinema.

    Most writing in/on The Comics Journal — one notable exception being Rob Clough’s valuable and multifarious review column — draws on 2-3 narrowly-defined approaches to comics history and aesthetics, approaches that are interesting and accessible primarily to readers who are already well-integrated into the comics industry, blogosphere, or subculture. The aesthetic or historical dots are rarely connected in ways that equally balance the comics perspective against other perspectives on the same historical moment or aesthetic phenomenon. Although often the histories are surveys that simply bite off too big a timeframe to even try, equally as often the essayists just pay less attention to the other perspectives and treat them with less care and depth than the comics-specific material.

    Without a doubt, for many if not most writers this is a deliberate choice to speak directly to the interests of their most likely audience. But you made the comparison to Pauline Kael, who deftly managed to pull off emotional and intellectual grappling with film while still popularizing it to a wide audience. Her readers included famous film directors and people who watched one film a year. I have seen the same collection of her essays on the bookshelf of my aunt, who probably hasn’t been in a theater since 1985, and the director of the AFI Silver theater, where I used to work. Kael’s prose was conversational and her cultural and aesthetic references familiar to a mainstream readership, yet she put them together to support insights about film that were fresh and sophisticated even to expert readers. Ordinary people cared about what she said, and creators took the time to fight back against her charges. Her ability to simultaneously engage and stimulate the “in-the-know” and the “know-nothings” is a talent that should not be elided.

    The shortage of first-rate comic creator/essayists — cartoonist equivalents of Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali, or Joan Didion — contributes to this shortcoming in comics criticism. Let me give some mad props to Ariel Schrag who just posted a really thoughtful response to this week’s Likewise roundtable over at Hooded U. If more creators even just engaged with critics in direct conversation, I believe that criticism and comics would benefit.

    One quick aside: My experience is opposite of Bill’s. I can, and have, read Groensteen in French. I don’t recommend it unless you have read Benveniste in French first. I nonetheless struggle with much BD, because it is often metaphorical. Cultural facility is equally important as linguistic dexterity, because parsing metaphor depends on more than a good vocabulary.

    Thanks for the chance to comment!

  39. Jeet Heer says:

    Dear Caroline Small: Thanks so much for the very thoughtful response. While following Tim’s “Art of Jaime Hernandez” thread it occured to me that one of the great things about Comics Comics is the very high level of the comments section and your letter offers more proof.

    On the the substantive end of things: there might have been a few fresh insights in the Ghost World roundtable, but they were buried under a mountain of malice, spite, and bad faith. In criticism as if other forms of thought, it’s important to frame the issues rightly. If you start off with nonsensical questions, you’re going to get not very helpful answers.

    You are of course right that no one in comics criticism is quite comporable to Pauline Kael at her finest. In that sense even Donald Phelps is closer in spirit to Manny Farber than to Kael (fittingly Phelps and Farber were close friends).

    But it might be a question of venues. The Pauline Kael who wrote for Partisan Review and Kultchur (a magazine edited by Donald Phelps, incidentally) was not the same as the Pauline Kael who wrote for The New Yorker.

    Douglas Wolk and David Hajdu come close: they write for the general readers of The New York Times, Salon, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic; but they are as informed as any “insider”.

    But, yes, you are right: it would be great to have a comics critic on the level of Kael.

  40. Jeet Heer says:

    I should add that lots of cartoonists do engage with criticism: see Scott McCloud’s various books, Art Spiegelman’s essays and many interviews, Chris Ware’s many essays, several books by Will Eisner. I actually think the best comics criticism is coming from cartoonists right now, something I explore a bit more in the forthcoming essay collection Chris Ware: Drawing Is A Way of Thinking.

  41. Denis Kitchen says:

    I very seldom have time to read or participate in lively discussions about comics aesthetics, but a friend forwarded the link to this thread and I’d like to add a couple comments. I appreciate Jeet’s observation that Kitchen Sink’s Li’l Abner volumes, in softcover, can be floppy and off-putting, which is why, like Scott Grammel, I prefer the hardcover versions. But there was a practical factor that outweighed aesthetics in making the Abner volumes 12 x 9 horizontal books: most of its readers were pre-Boomers in retirement age, often well into their 80s, and large type/readability were courtesies to these aging fans and their deteriorating vision. Numerous letters and phone calls from these aging Al Capp fans or their children over the years tell me that decision was right, floppy softcovers or not.

    Though the focus here has been on essayists and writers I’m glad to see Pete Poplaski cited here by some for his exceptional design in the days before digital design revolutionized everything. I watched Poplaski spend long intense hours preparing multiple layers of cover overlays, often a dozen or more, with intricate instructions to printers working in film. His directions for percentages of both gray and primary colors were all done in black and white — the final color was an abstract fixed in his head. Yet his covers —Steve Canyon magazines come especially to mind— rarely needed corrections at the proofing stage.

    And speaking of top designers, John Lind’s outstanding work on Eleanor Davis’ Secret Science Alliance (Bloomsbury),The Art of Harvey Kurtzman and Underground Classics (both Abrams/ComicArts) and various books for Tony DiTerlizzi (Simon & Shuster), all in he past year, deserve mention. I’ve had the pleasure of watching him design The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse, this June) in recent months and believe he deserves inclusion in the ranks of this field’s top designers.

  42. Jeet Heer says:

    Hi Dennis — thanks for the comments, which are very enlightening. I hope I didn’t sound too grudging in my comments on KSP and Poplaski. I own virtually every book you’ve ever published so obviously I’m a fan. My main point was to try and distinguish between the 1980s big book aesthetic of KSP and the types of books Chris Ware and Seth are doing now. But, yeah, Poplaski is a great designer and his covers especially are quite lovely — and he’s an excellent artist to boot! Looking forward to The Oddly Compelling Art of Dennis Kitchen.

  43. glenn head says:

    Regarding the HOTWIRE Comics Editorial from HW1:

    One of the problems with writing a provocative wise-guy manifesto is that if you succeed people tend to get worked up…. But then you’re like, “Oh My Goodness! What did I do? People seem so vexed!” Such is life.
    My attempt in writing that larky piece in HOTWIRE1 wasn’t to piss on other “schools” of comics, but rather to mark out some of the territory that I felt was missing from comics (especially comics anthologies). And then try to explore that territory in HOTWIRE.
    My point was that as comics get more literary, more serious (and more pricey) , they tend to lose some of their crude energy and vitality. The whole idea of getting a laff (or a kick) as the endpoint of a comic strip (or comic book) is fading out. I know–there are always exceptions. But comics as Immediate, electrifying, cheap thrill medium….that seems to be pretty much gone.
    Comics as a medium are always evolving, mutating, this way and that…. One of my all time favorites, Basil Wolverton, first made his way into my childhood second hand–not through his comics, but via the Rat Fink monster models that his work inspired. In buying them, building them, painting them, I experienced the cheap con of the carnival cartoon medium: “Hey kids–check it out! It’s gonna be great! The Thrill Ride o’ yer life!” When the painted monster model didn’t look halfway near as cool as the one advertised, I had to do it again. Until I got it right. That, pretty much, is how one learns to draw comics. Which, when they’re good they look like “Wow! this musta been some fun to draw!” Well I don’t know one cartoonist who finds drawing comics “fun”. And yet they are . Or should be when you read ‘em.
    Comics, cartooning; it’s always blending and bleeding into different cultural forms. In the same way that Kurtzman’s MAD prefigured Saturday Night Live, and underground comics paved the way for Groening’s The Simpsons…. It’s all progress. There’s no way to stop it. That’s what’s great about comics–It can be bathroom graffiti or it can be a graphic novel….
    Actually, it seems easier for comics to just be a graphic novel these days. And frankly it’s hard to imagine Chester Gould, Basil Wolverton, or Ernie Bushmiller ever being graphic novelists! Elsie Segar, sure, he was doing serialized entertainment with “Thimble Theater” right from the start. His Popeye after all, was much more about long narratives than Fliescher’s Popeye was. Which followed it.
    But again, what’s leaving comics is the “comic” element. When comics are deconstructed these days there’s no lack of insight or intelligence, just…laughs. Remember, when Kurtzman was taking comics apart, pointing up the intricacies of the medium it was a crack-up. And he was laughing AT the medium. Which is good. This medium has often been the court jester of all art-forms–it can withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous humor–it’s fired off plenty at everyone! Comics can TAKE it!
    Anyway, I’m not a populist. I don’t want HOTWIRE to be a throwback to some other era of comics. It isn’t, either. Take a look at an issue and you’ll see this for yourself. The variety of styles, both narrative and visual provides a high quality joyride to any comics consumer looking for a thrill or a good read…. But shit, it isn’t in any way dumbed down or anything. HOTWIRE cartoonists aren’t drawing for “the gum chewers” (E. Bushmiller). But don’t take my word for it. Read the books for yourself. Okay I’m tooting my own horn here. But I take these comics, the drawing and the editing of them very seriously, Whether it’s the juxtaposition of comics pages or making the art for them.

    Well there’s my little rant.

    • I hear you Glenn.

      On a related note– as much as I loved Kramers Ergot Number Seven, and thought it was beautifully curated and impeccably designed, I thought that it took the raw energy of the medium, and encased it in a high-priced container that felt a bit too fetishistic. I have long been a fan of Kramers along with Harkam’s great eye and enthusiasm, but Kramers Seven just felt like the wrong form of presentation to me, for work that was once available to all at a lower price, and something that you could either fold up, roll up, or just carry with you wherever you go. It isn’t just an issue of pricing and portability, but the fact that high-end editions betray the democratic origins of the comic book. I frankly yearn for the days of newsprint and staples and cheap printing, not from an aesthetic standpoint (for I am quite happy with the advancement of printing and biding quality), but from the view that the form was one of necessity rather than luxury. For unlike many other art or literary related markets, comics has traditionally been a form of transgression available to those without big bucks and specialized libraries. It should never be about the collectibility (something Marvel and DC has milked ad nauseum) but rather about the experience itself. Experience needn’t be over-produced or over-priced– I think we have enough of that to go around today. I believe that an anthology priced between $20 and $25 is a hell of a lot cheaper than most overpriced fetish collectibles out there. Could it be cheaper? Sure it could, but then again kids on bikes are not driving down to the newsstand to purchase the latest Hotwire and a bag of jerky. Instead it’s “grown-up” folk like us who (should) have employment. So in closing– I don’t think we can return to the 25 cent spinner rack variety (newsprint and all), but we certainly should not be heading toward the slipcased, foilstamped, sewn-in bookmark, heavy-duty stock variety. There must be a middle-ground in there.

      As for Hotwire’s genetic stew of gags and id– I think it’s great. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Stir them together in a provocative combo, and the two play off of one another so that you can laugh and then you can puke. Hopefully not both at precisely the same time. The full page drawings are a place to pause with a change of reading pace, before heading back into a narrative. In the end, they are both reading spaces that allow for a more complex experience.

  44. Kit says:

    As a young thirtysomething who’s never worn glasses, squinting at the tiny dailies in Fanta’s (amazing, design-wise!) Popeye collections often makes me long for 80’s-style “big book” horizontal repro.

  45. Rob Clough says:

    Glenn,

    Let me first say that I’m a fan of Hotwire. I gave favorable reviews to the first two volumes and plan to do the same for the third volume. Which is not to say that I like every single piece in there, but that I at least appreciate your particular aesthetic stance.

    That said, I trust you understand the irony in lamenting that comics are no longer a cheap-thrill medium, yet you’ve put together an anthology priced between $20 and $23. I don’t blame you for the price point or trying to put together the nicest-looking book possible, but the kind of cheap thrill discoveries you’re talking about are found in Mineshaft these days, not in a major release from a publisher.

    I don’t say this to be critical, but rather to point out that it’s dangerous to over-fetishize “cheap thrills”. Just because comics used to be printed on crappy paper with a slapdash coloring job doesn’t make them any better. It’s not a bad thing to want your comics to look nice, and I’m glad we’re in an era where publishing can make this happen. But the “cheap thrill” era of newsprint is gone forever, and you can’t get it back unless you make your own cheap zine and try to peddle it yourself. Honestly, the real “cheap thrills” these days are found on the web.

    I’m also glad that the humor comic is starting to make a comeback in terms of respectability. Guys like Michael Kupperman and Johnny Ryan, who were fairly obscure less than a decade ago, are now justly lauded. I completely agree with you that in terms of anthologies, humorists are still given short shrift, and I like that Hotwire gives gag guys plenty of room to operate. I would personally love it if Hotwire concentrated more in that direction and less in the id-soaked drawings of David Paleo, but that’s just my aesthetic.

  46. NoahB says:

    “On the the substantive end of things: there might have been a few fresh insights in the Ghost World roundtable, but they were buried under a mountain of malice, spite, and bad faith. In criticism as if other forms of thought, it’s important to frame the issues rightly. ”

    Not sure you realize this, Jeet, but Caroline is now blogging at HU.

    I think, personally, that you’re conflating malice and spite with bad faith. I think, actually, lots of things deserve malice, and even spite, and neither indicates bad faith (I do believe I detect an element of the first two in your own response to the roundtable…but not the third.)

    I also think you’re being presumptuous in your statement that “It’s important to frame the issues rightly.” There are various issues, surely, and various ways to frame them. Art isn’t a math problem.

  47. Jeet Heer says:

    @Noah. That’s great news about Caroline. I’ll look for her posts. She’s a strong writer. I’ll refrain from re-opening the Ghost World can of worms.

  48. NoahB says:

    Caro is great; we’re lucky to have her.

    Probably a different can of worms, but…I have to say, I find the enthusiasm for Pauline Kael by nearly everyone pretty baffling. Her prose is okay, but I find her insights pedestrian and her obsession with the trash/art dichotomy tedious. If comics criticism is going to look outside for a model, I’d much prefer Terry Eagleton or James Baldwin or any number of others, really.

  49. Jeet Heer says:

    @Noah. I love Eagleton and Baldwin as well, but I think one reason Kael is relevant is she wrote about a living popular culture whereas Eagleton, for example, mainly writes (superbly) about classic works of literature. And Baldwin, at least in the books I’ve read, is mainly concerned with political and social issues — very pressing ones and still relevant but still different from a writer who focuses on writing weekly reviews of an artform enjoyed by millions. Did Baldwin write any popular culture criticism? I seem to remember some jazz reviews but my memory is fuzzy.