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.