Monday, December 29, 2008

The Imprint of Personality: Comics Comics and Mineshaft

Rob reviews the latest issues of the comics-related publications COMICS COMICS(#4) and MINESHAFT (#23).

COMICS COMICS' mission of examining things not quite on the beaten path means that the reader is exposed to some odd items that they may not have been aware of or even actively avoided. What I like best about COMICS COMICS is the way it reflects the personalities of its three main guiding lights. It's at its best when it's simply an outlet for Tim Hodler, who has become one of the best of all comics critics. He not only fully engages a work on its own terms, he is also able to articulate the nature of that engagement with a great deal of clarity and style. Frank Santoro is considerably less precise in the way he describes what interests him, but his sheer enthusiasm for a particular kind of aesthetic is so powerful that it sweeps the reader along. Ringleader Dan Nadel has an endearingly cranky print persona.

While I cringed when Nadel started to rant about comics needing to be "dirtier", I was delighted that he published his initial material on Woody Gelman, the patron of Topps who gave a lot of work to Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, among others. Nadel is dead-on when he describes Gelman's hidden but crucial role in comics history, both in terms of his patronage of two giant talents and the actual influence of the products themselves as subversive cultural artifacts. Their nature was entirely disposable, yet they had a sort of cumulative cultural weight. They provided an outlet for jokes, weirdness and imagery that delighted but did not condescend to children. Gelman was that sort of in-between figure that could make this happen; he was a collector with an affinity for underground culture, and he immediately recognized Crumb and Spiegelman as harbingers of a new underground. He was an emissary of a corporation yet had no hesitancy to employ underground artists; indeed, he viewed them as his most valuable contributors. I hope Nadel continues to pursue this study, perhaps in an upcoming issue of COMIC ART.

Hodler took on two of comics' biggest iconoclasts with his reviews in Steve Ditko and Dave Sim. Hodler obviously came in with preconceptions about both artists, yet fairly engaged their most recent works. He praised their innovations in projects that failed to work on other levels. He also heaped scorn on their didacticism, especially when it was built on a foundation of disingenuousness as in Sim's JUDENHASS. Hodler rightly calls Sim on the way he used out-of-context quotes from famous people to build up his historical anti-Semitism claims. Sim needn't have gilded the lily by quoting Mark Twain out of context if he wanted to find such evidence. Hodler's other review, an epic outline of Kentaro Miura's BERSERK, laid out an compelling csse as to why and how the series' ultra-violent, hypersexualized and adolescent qualities in fact had layers of subtext that only paid off as the story revealed itself.

Santoro provides the voice and viewpoint of the artist in COMICS COMICS, and it's a forceful and idiosyncratic one. I loved the way he and Nadel broke down an old Ogden Whitney page; I felt like I had genuinely learned something after studying what they wrote. His introduction to his interview with British artist Shaky Kane is a bit all over the place (much like his writing in general), yet it snaps back to its main, forceful ideas unexpectedly after each digression. More than anything, one can feel the enormously powerful passion Santoro has for comics and the entire breadth and width of its history, embracing artists and comics that are often ignored by fans of alt-comics. The interview itself felt a bit perfunctory in comparison. It was too short to really delve into the artist, but some of the questions asked felt more like particular technical points Santoro wanted to know about to satisfy his own curiousity rather than questions designed to bring clarity to a wider audience.

Joe "Jog" McCulloch's article on Gerald Jablonski's comics was delightful. I'm generally resistant to reviews that focus on how a comic made them feel at a given time of their life, but Jog takes that basic structure and fully engages and breaks down the utterly loopy nature of Jablonski's comics. As always, the comics solicited for this issue were excellent and looked great on the huge (something like 21x17") broadsheet format. I wish all of Dan Zettwoch's comics could be printed in this format, given the crazy amount of detail he includes in his strips. There was another page by an uncredited artist (Ted May?) that also took advantage of the sheer size of the page with a cleverly designed adaptation of Poe's "The Masque Of the Red Death".

Having read a number of issues of MINESHAFT now, what I like best about it is the organic nature of its construction. It started as a place for Everett Rand to publish images of underground art that he owned, and snowballed into a place where a certain generation of comics creators started to submit new work. It's become a depository for fascinating fiction and cultural critiques that don't have a ready home, fascinating presentations of historical cultural detritus worthy of another look, and of course lots of sketches and comics.

This issue was actually more comics-heavy than some recent volumes. Sarah Sveda and Ed Piskor (not an underground artist, but he certainly carries that vibe to his work). Their "Grob Schwank" series, written by Sveda, was absolutely hilarious and disgusting. Piskor's art looked a little like Jack Davis' here as he brought that MAD feel to his exaggerated figures and gestures in a story about a pervert gynecologist. Aaron Lange's "Washington Beach", a sort of send-up of Archie Comics by way of The Hills was both cleverly designed and pleasantly smart-assed. Frank Stack's latest "Dirty Diana" is more of the same over-the-top adventure serial silliness, done in his usual loose, sketchy style. There's even a quick story by Harvey Pekar and Tara Seibel, wherein they talk about why he stays in Cleveland.

As always, MINESHAFT is a treasure trove of sketchbook work. Crumb contributes his usual assortment of odds and ends, while Sophie's sketchbook feels much more at home here than in MOME. Pat Moriarty's totem pole drawings and accompanying article as to why he started making them were intriguing, and it was fun to see a drawing from the new Bill Griffith collection. The highlight of the issue, however, was seeing Kim Deitch's sketchbook progress on his fascinating new comic about Kathryn Whaley. Here, Deitch focuses in on the concept of the phonograph being invented much earlier than Edison, and his delight when he learned that there in fact were voice recordings prior to Edison. Deitch's sketchbook work is actually much more accessible to my eye than his slicker, heavier finished work.

Two other items of special interest here: Bruce Simon excavating the pages of Sexology magazine--published in the 1930s--and Jay Lynch's mind-boggling cover. The former is the sort of cultural mining that MINESHAFT does so well, as the questions (and some answers) reprinted here are hilarious yet indicative of a desperate search for open answers to a topic that few dared discuss publicly. The level of detail and density of gags on Lynch's cover is a strong indicator why he draws so little of his own work these days. Rand doesn't grouse about the way things are, he simply goes about finding what he does like and getting it out there, issue after issue. Any fan of comics with the slightest interest in the underground and post-underground era will wonder where this zine has been all their lives once they finally lay their hands on a copy. The imprint of Rand and partner Gioia Palmieri can be felt surely as the COMICS COMICS trio on their publication. It's felt in what they choose to publish and the artists who likewise reach out to them.


  1. the red death comic in CC#4 is by Mike Reddy

  2. Thanks, Sammy. Where else would I have seen his work?

  3. Mike also has a great story in the latest Ganzfeld. And he's done some amazing stuff in the next issue of Injury which should be out this spring.

  4. Ted,

    Did Mike do some spot illos in the last Injury?

  5. no, but he and I have a collab strip (plus back-cover pinup) in the next one. the spot illos in #2 were out of my sketchbook.