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Post #645 • October 14, 2005, 7:21 AM • 32 Comments
I swear that I was planning to do a comics roundup before Peter Schjeldahl did, underwhelming some already in the know. (I've had a soft spot for Schjeldahl since 1994, when he came to my grad school studio and showed great mercy upon me. I'll say this: he didn't do so badly with that review, considering that he was obviously bamboozled and had to retreat to Mad Magazine to get his bearings. That bit about "the incommensurable functions of reading and looking," though - sorry, sir, but this hypothesized incompatibility would come as great surprise to the Chinese, not to mention the Medieval West, or aficionados of Pop Art, or, well, never mind.) I think comics may be about to have their moment. Although sophisticated things have been going on in them since George Herriman and Winsor McKay, we've reached a critical mass of people taking them seriously, evidenced by Chris Ware's new serialization in the New York Times Magazine. Do we have a need to tell stories visually? If so, the last 100 years of visual art have been largely unkind to the impulse. Perhaps in order for art to become everything that art can be, it had to shed that storytelling function. Scott McCloud almost says as much; Clement Greenberg does too somewhere, I'm sure. Even with the return of the image in the 1950's, even with the issue-oriented work of the 1990's, even with the super-personal, lowbrow, and pop-derived work of the present, storytelling still finds no entry except as encrypted messages that must be teased out by force of semiotic interpretation.
But storytelling fits comics perfectly, and so do an increasingly interesting range of artistic styles that threaten to render both the standard superhero aesthetic and much of what passes for expression in the contemporary art world obsolete. So in what will be a regular if totally unscheduled feature, here are some comics I'm paying attention to.
I found out about John Porcellino's work when it was included in McSweeny's Quarterly Concern #13 as a seperate insert, as if it belonged in its own realm. I was drawn to its simplicity, and it actually focused some ideas I had for a comic project that I have been working on. It turns out that he's a Buddhist born the same year as me, living a parallel life out in San Francisco. (Chris Ware and both of us are all the same age, apparently.) I found his most recent effort, King Cat Comics #64 (as well as the books below) at Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Issue #64 deals with the recent death of his father, just this past April, although his reminiscences are interspersed with other experiences. The whole thing seems made up as it goes along, but to good effect; line drawing that couldn't be simpler reinforces the feeling that this book is a gift to the world from Porcellino, who feels content to relay his moments of raw appreciation for it. One two-panel, one page story says, in its entirety, "Biding my time in this beautiful city, walking past the ocean, I want to go home." Basho echoes through his work, but not self-consciously. If anything, the stories are too much told, not enough shown, and the prose works don't always gel as anything more than confessional, but it all functions according to a zine aesthetic of raw feeling over production values. I would enjoy seeing a graphic-novel-length effort from him. I don't know if he has ever attempted such a thing, and writers given to haiku don't always have epics in them.
Big Questions #7: Dinner and a Nap by Anders Nilsen also features a photocopy aesthetic, but is drawn with an understated polish. I find myself coming into the middle of a story in which humans don't talk but animals do, and predators sometimes forsake eating prey in favor of torturing them psychologically. I won't pretend to have any idea about what's going on, but there's a human going around eating bugs while birds overhead comment on him and his kind, and meanwhile, a snake seems to have captured a bird named Algernon in his lair, and has been holding him hostage while he finds out more about his mission and life. Also, a woodpecker dies suddenly.
Nilsen often uses white space where bordered panels might go, giving some passages about the human walking around in the woods a distinctly outdoor feel. When the bit with the snake comes around, the background switches to a dark, cross-contoured, spooky cave, and changing from one to the other creates a jarring effect that adds to the unease in the story.
The Fifth Name by Santiago Cohen retells a story by Stefan Zweig about a man who goes from warrior to judge to sage in an attempt to free himself from sin. Set in ancient India, Virata forsakes all, four times, taking on a new identity each time as he changes himself utterly for the sake of virtue, in the end achieving a level of goodness that few of us would be able to bear if we cared what the consequences would be.
The Fifth Name is printed two-color, black and gray, and rendered with a rough brush, with a few typographic and stylistic nods to Ben Shahn. In the foreward, R.O. Blechman warns: "The book may be difficult to enter. The words and the phrasing have all the strangeness of an exotic language." But it's a language that compensates for its strangeness with poetry; in one panel, Virata sits peacefully by an open balcony, smiling, and the text says, "He listened to the sweet music with which the morning is alive." Mostly, though, it's quite a bit easier to follow than that, and the 128-page story procedes in a religious-sounding but gripping manner through to the end.
October 14, 2005, 11:12 AM
Chris Ware got his BFA from the same school I did; he had this great machine in one of the student shows which was a vending machine that dispensed little comic books if you inserted a key into the gizmo (as if it were a coin, not a lock). Robert Rodriguez (the director) had a comic which ran in our school's daily paper and Chris Ware also had a strip which ran in the paper and which ended up being one of the first Acme Novelty Library books. Those years of mine were steeped in comix, and I had an awesome collection which one of the stinking wet hurricanes of the late '90's (Irene, I think), mostly ruined by flooding my darn place. I even used to read King Cat; a friend really liked it. It's not a cheap hobby, so I haven't really built my collection back up.
Miami has no good store for "alternative comics", as far as I can tell.
October 14, 2005, 12:28 PM
The minute "Comic Book" becomes "Graphic Novel" we are in trouble. Entertainent leaves quietly by the back door as "art" marches grandly in the front.
Schjeldahl, a Tom Wolfe style writer who covers his inability to see with interminable cutesy phrasing, did make a good point: "Nearly all art movements are launched by work that, when the dust clears, turns out to have been their definitive, peak contribution."
True. But then, unaccountably, he follows this with the utterly inept (and dead wrong) observation that "'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon' looms over the busy ramifications of Cubism as “The Waste Land” looms over the modern poetry that it inspired." Good grief!
October 14, 2005, 12:31 PM
Why must art abandon its story telling function? Literature CANNOT do without its story telling function. Art CAN do without. But that is not the same as saying art MUST ABANDON it. Wow. Tell that to Michaelangelo or his ghost. Tell that to the people who love the sistine Chapel.
October 14, 2005, 1:16 PM
The minute "Comic Book" becomes "Graphic Novel" we are in trouble.
It was a last-minute coinage by Will Eisner to describe what he was doing, to a publisher whom he was trying to sell his project to. Purists refer to them as Comics. Art Spiegelman prefers Comix, as in co-mix, to mix together, which is cute.
Can anybody verify or disprove Kathleen's probably-correct assertion that we don't have alt-comics shops down here? I'm about to research that.
October 14, 2005, 2:00 PM
Comics don't have to be narrative. They are words and pictures in sequence. "Graphic novel" is a bad name because it's ties the form to one kind of literature.
I went to grad school at UTexas after Ware had left - the glory days of the school paper left with him. By the tine I got there they weren't interested in anything but Dilbert-looking frat-joke strips.
October 14, 2005, 3:36 PM
tates comics on university blvd in lauderhill (borward) is the best alternative comic book store, and amanda and tate are personal friends.
October 14, 2005, 5:38 PM
speaking of art marching grandly in the door, check out my the ACCH art in the toon age show.
October 14, 2005, 6:33 PM
I check up weekly on an unsyndicated comic-strip called "Bob the Angry Flower". I've done so for some number of years now. I was about to describe it as unorthodox, but that word doesn't quite work in reference to comix. One can find the complete backlog of Stephen Notley's strips at www.angryflower.com
Scott McCloud's neat disection of form and content is a little too neat. But simplistic treatment of a difficult and complex idea is what comics do best. That's what makes them funny - the ridiculously extreme reduction of otherwise inexplicable and irreducible reality.
Odd that no one has mentioned Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comics, where the author and the artist(s) have clearly demarcated boundaries of contribution to the final product. The author writes, and the artist draws - any collaboration is minimal.
Contemporary superhero comics are quite awful, usually just selling copy on the backs of past successes (not to mention the tits and asses). The hero story is no longer so heroic, and nineties antiheros have nowhere left to go, just hash and rehash. Except maybe for The Tick, which quite blatantly acknowledges the lame irony of superherodom.
October 14, 2005, 6:38 PM
Hmm. I shoulda read Schjeldahl first, huh?
October 14, 2005, 6:53 PM
Well, no, it's common knowledge.
I have to confess to not liking Pekar all that much. Respect, yes; enjoy, eh.
wwc: Comics don't have to be narrative. Flatboy: But that is not the same as saying art MUST ABANDON [its story telling function].
Both true. What I meant was that the comic form is ideally suited for storytelling even as it can be made to do all kinds of things, and that art had to go through a phase where it did without storytelling, in order to explore where, say, abstraction would go. I didn't mean give it up permanently or retroactively.
October 14, 2005, 7:15 PM
Better not let respect and enjoyment get too far apart, Franklin.
October 14, 2005, 7:24 PM
I think comic books are only a short remove from animation, especially considering McCloud's own definition of comics hinging on 'series'. There are a number of animated shorts, films and TV series that I enjoy quite a lot more than print comics. Samurai Jack by Genndy Tartakovsky, for example, blends art, story and music in a multi-disciplinary sort of symphonic arrangement that is just so good. Tartakovsky's Clone Wars is also astounding.
October 14, 2005, 9:52 PM
I'm not surprised that oldpro picked up on that comment about enjoy and respect, Franklin. I enjoy Pekar's stories, less so the cartooning (with the exception of R. Crumb's, which I am regularly surprised by).
October 14, 2005, 10:22 PM
The stories of Pekar as Everyschlub just don't call to me.
Yeah, it was an Oldproish thing to say, about respect and enjoyment, but to me they're parallel concerns. Obviously, I respect something more if I enjoy it, but there are things out there that I respect on the basis of craft or innovation or something similar - some virtue that theoretically leads to success but in practice doesn't always get there. I respect Pekar's labor-intensiveness, his honesty, and his ear for dialogue. What he has done for the medium is admirable. But his work seems to want for sublimity and charm, and I find myself not enjoying them despite their candor. It's too bad, because all the pieces are there, but that's how it goes.
October 14, 2005, 11:32 PM
"I think comic books are only a short remove from animation, especially considering McCloud's own definition of comics hinging on 'series'."
I disagree - McCloud missed a huge way comics can work. If I draw three panels, a comb in the first, a bone in the second and a phone in the third, there is no series or time dilation a la McCloud, but there is a connection. It just isn't a narrative in any of the ways McCloud describes, and it's not a short remove from animation. Too often comics are thought of as little movies, but that cinematic way of making them, while able to hold some really great work, isn't the whole story.
October 14, 2005, 11:46 PM
My goodness, "Old Proish"... sounds like someone's Hungarian grandpa.
October 15, 2005, 2:20 AM
if you are interested in seeing narrative used in an interesting and compelling way , if you love story telling, I suggest the MANIFESTO(one) show.............saw it today...........a must see for you modernist types...
..regardless of your prior convictions....
October 15, 2005, 8:09 AM
Lover Girl sounds like our friend Trista pushing her pomo wares once again, Franklin.
October 15, 2005, 8:40 AM
Lover, the only "prior convictions" I have regarding this show were formed when its curator posted the press release for it here on my blog, and it was drivel from top to bottom.
As for "us modernist types," my tastes extend past the art that people characterize as Modernist. My allegiances are simple: I believe that visual art should be good visually. The only reason I "must see" a show is because it has great art, by which I mean visually great.
One of the artists (Rucci) is a friend and I'm going to see the show for that.
October 15, 2005, 8:57 AM
Regarding McCloud, he carefully defines comics at the beginning of Understanding Comics: juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence. Animation is not comics because the images are not juxtaposed.
Because of the way time works in comics, even in the example Wwc describes, there is some passage of time - we would feel that we were looking at things in a particular order over the course of a few moments.
October 15, 2005, 1:20 PM
"I think comic books are only a short remove from animation, especially considering McCloud's own definition of comics hinging on 'series'."
wwc, I should have said 'sequence', not 'series'. But my statement isn't any less right. I didn't, couldn't, claim that animation is comics. Just that it is a reasonable extension of what comics can aspire to. An animated short is made of sequential images, many (most) of which happen to move.
And I would argue with McCloud - animated images actually are juxtaposed sequentially, one with the next. Every scene is juxtaposed with the next, but the length of time that a viewer pauses for each panel (moving or not) is determined by the artist-director's cut rather than the viewer's attention span. Alt-animation goes hand in hand with alt-comix.
Obviously I'm not a purist in this area. I more easily feel whatever it is that I feel when watching a cartoon or reading a comic, than when considering a sculpture, say. I approach the sculpture with much more seriousness and anticipation. Which is not necessarily to my credit. I've got nothing more than $5 riding on a video rental, or comic purchase. Whereas a sculpture...
October 15, 2005, 4:15 PM
October 15, 2005, 4:18 PM
See 'current exhibition' on link above
Stubled upon accidentallly this afternoon...
October 15, 2005, 5:57 PM
Relevant, yes, as an illustration of Entertainent leaves quietly by the back door as "art" marches grandly in the front. Looks pretty unpromising.
October 15, 2005, 7:34 PM
Art for knit-wits
October 15, 2005, 9:46 PM
Good point on animation as images in sequence as well - though the time it takes to view them isn't up to the viewer, it's the editor's job to push the viewer around. In comics, like literature, one can move at one's own pace, at least partly. More active viewing in a way.
I've always thought of McCloud's books as conversation-starters, never intended to be the final word.
October 16, 2005, 1:23 AM
"...though the time it takes to view them isn't up to the viewer, it's the editor's job to push the viewer around. In comics, like literature, one can move at one's own pace..."
Yup. That's what I wrote too, I think (#22). Placing some onus in the lap of the audience is a good thing, and moving pictures are always in danger of taking the viewer for a fool.
There's some good stuff on your site, wwc.
October 16, 2005, 6:35 PM
Hey, wwc, we know each other. "Team Litho" ring a bell?
October 16, 2005, 8:12 PM
Aw, how cool...
October 17, 2005, 9:50 AM
Ahab, thanks for the love.
Kathleen, email me so we can figure this out, but aye, ancient Team Litho is still in my heart.
I'd also like to make an offer to the Artblog denizens since I've been lurking for months and have enjoyed all your wrangling. I make (among other things) the kind of non-narrative comics I've been advocating in this thread, and I'll send a book gratis to anyone who emails me in the next 24 hours with a mailing address.
I know you all come down heavy on self-trumpeting so I hope this doesnt violate that guideline - if so, flame away or feel free to delete this post.
October 17, 2005, 10:33 AM
Wwc, no prob. And count me in on the offer. I'll e-mail you today.
October 14, 2005, 9:58 AM
Last night, Chris Meesey showed me an amazing Book by Chris Ware - Acme Novelty Library - I think Meesey was on the money when he said "he is one of the best comic artists working right now" Check it out.