Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sequart Reprints: Activate

In the mid-90's, when I started to fully engage the world of alt-comics, some of the first artists I encountered were the KEYHOLE duo of Dean Haspiel & Josh Neufeld. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the comics of Nick Bertozzi, whose development as an artist was rapid and remarkable in how quickly he matured from work to work. In the mid-90's, Haspiel created a livejournal group called ACT-I-VATE, designed to bring together a group of artists serializing their comics on the web. There are now 28 different series on the site in various stages of completion. Some have seen publication in print, and others will even likely get published by a major house. They are certainly an interesting alternative to the sort of thing I'm used to on the web: variations on comics about video games, role-playing games, derivative sci-fi, manga rip-offs, etc. I realize that there are obviously plenty of intelligent strips online, but on first perusal it's like walking into a comics store that is almost entirely mainstream-oriented. I am not interested in reading strips like PvP or Penny Arcade, and I am especially not interested in reading knock-offs of those strips. Having an alternative like ACT-I-VATE (and sites like has been important for both fans of alt-comics and webcomics readers alike.

After a couple of successful years as a livejournal presence, the group now has its own dedicated website. Since the site has expanded so much, with a roster of 24 artists, I'll be taking a periodic look at the site, exploring the work of three artists at a time. I'll start with comics by Haspiel, Neufeld and Bertozzi, those three artists whose work I've been following for a decade.

Let's start with Josh Neufeld's THE VAGABONDS. Using the same title as his occasional series from Alternative Comics, Neufeld spins the same sort of stories we're used to from him: travelogues, meditations on war, disaster and art, and a touch of the absurd. The advantage of seeing his work online is that he gets to use color. Like most of his work, his use of color is subtle--the use of blue & orange for his funny riff on steroids & baseball (imagining the Mets' mascot as a rage-fueled abuser), washed-out greens for a story about Neufeld reacting to seeing a film about Viet Nam, a light & friendly green for a little "travel tips" bit. My favorite of his strips here is "Post-Traumatic Skyscraper Anxiety", a triumph of design and tension. Embodying many New Yorkers' fear of buildings coming down post-9/11, Neufeld cleverly creates a linear narrative with his captions and contrasts that with panel design that is at once meant to be read as a gestalt and as individual panels. It's not a profound or revolutionary observation, but it's heartfelt and well-crafted. Neufeld is mostly working on his A.D.: AFTER THE DELUGE strip at the moment (to be reviewed in a later column), but his contributions here made a great place to start.

Dean Haspiel is serializing a couple of Billy Dogma stories here. IMMORTAL is finished, while FEAR, MY DEAR is still in progress. IMMORTAL is probably the strongest work overall I've seen from him in his long career. Billy is "the last romantic anti-hero" and these comics have always been a blend of superheroics, romance and Haspiel's own eccentricities and beliefs. Billy is Dean's own stand-in, and so these stories have elements of autobiography to them, at least on an emotional & philosophical level. Everything about his work, from dialogue to art, is about as stylized as one can get. The one problem I've always had with his art is that he makes it too slick, too much like a typical mainstream superhero comic. That's especially evident when one compares his rough pencils to final product--it's obvious that the energy and power of those initial sketches doesn't always translate into a final product, robbing it of the visceral quality that is so clearly his aim.

With IMMORTAL, Haspiel let go of that need to over-render and provides a story that still has all of the warmth and oddball humor of a typical Billy Dogma tale but that also packs a punch and a crunch to the reader. The platform for reading it works quite well, providing a single panel at a time but allowing the reader to quickly page through. Haspiel immediately sets the tone with a stark red-and-black palette, extensive use of shadow and silhouette, and a grittiness reminiscent of Will Eisner or Frank Miller (only with much different goals). The story concerns the tumultuous love affair between Billy and his girl Jane Legit and how it awakens an immortal god from outer space. One can see all of Haspiel's many influences at work here (Kirby, Chaykin, Simonson), synthesized to provide an experience that has echoes of each of them yet is straight out of Haspiel's id.

The follow-up series, FEAR, MY DEAR, is just about a third of the way through, so one can't offer a full judgment of it. The story concerns Billy learning that the eighth deadly sin is love and confronting his own past, in what can be called a slam-bang allegory. It lacks the same kind of punch as IMMORTAL and is a bit murkier and talkier. As a reader, I can say that IMMORTAL had me frantically clicking ahead to the next frame but FEAR, MY DEAR feels like a bit more of a slog. There are still plenty of striking visuals and there's still that rawness to his art that was so appealing in IMMORTAL. We'll see how this one develops.

Nick Bertozzi offers up three features, each of which is completely unlike the other. EARNEST SHACKLETON, a story about Antarctic explorers trying to survive a desperate sea voyage, was later printed in the third volume of the anthology SYNCOPATED. This is a fairly naturalistic story that has a certain breathless quality, as Bertozzi adapts a real-life event into comics form.

From a naturalistic style and thrilling adventure, Bertozzi switches over to a highly-mannered, warped tale about anthropomorphic sweets called PECAN SHANDY. The title character is a dreadful, self-centered fop whose font is an affected cursive script. He winds up in a series of misadventures that are mostly caused by his own selfishness, and while he winds up paying a heavy price, he enacts a humorous form of revenge in the end. I don't associate Bertozzi with straight-out humor, but this was a very funny strip, mostly because of his extreme stylization in his art and his use of fairy tale-style pastels.

The most ambitious of Bertozzi's three strips is PERSIMMON CUP, a sci-fi/fantasy/world-building exercise that follows the quest of a creature named Garo and the female creature he loves, named Persimmon. It's a twisted world of pirates who live in rivers, stone monoliths that offer wisdom, traveling inside of other creatures and other assorted oddness. I'm not sure that the web is the best place for this strip, I think that it will flow a bit better on the printed page. I do like Bertozzi's total commitment to his world in his strip, leaving out or muddying exposition and forcing the reader to figure out what's going on. Bertozzi's use of color here is a key element to his story, something that's been true of his work since he had the opportunity to start using color. In my next look at ACT-I-VATE, I'll take a different path and examine the work of three cartoonists I've never read before.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sequart Reprints: Arf

This is a golden age for publications about comics and their history. There are more reprints of classic comics (and in better formats) than ever before. There's a broad range of books and magazines focusing on specific creators, the creative process, and the greater historical context surrounding their work. Beyond long-running publications such as The Comics Journal and Hogan's Alley, the more recent Comic Art takes the production values and painstaking research of this practice to another level. In the same vein, Craig Yoe's ARF books provide a stunning array of articles focusing on unusual features from familiar artists, eye-popping work from obscure or long-forgotten artists, clever collections of comics on particular themes, and primary materials that link the fine art world to the comics world. The slickness of the format suggests a stodgy coffee-table book, but the light and irreverent touch of Yoe makes this book a comics joyride instead of just a history lesson.

There are some repeating motifs in the first two volumes of ARF. One of them is how cartoonists portray fine art. One issue had a series of strips on artists and their models, while a second one took on trips to the art museums. This section serves as an appetizer of sorts for the reader, easing them into the book with a series of gags. The range of artists includes famous 19th century illustrator George Cruikshank, Dan DeCarlo (later of ARCHIE fame, but then known for his pin-ups), Wally Wood, R.Crumb, Hugh Hefner, Chester "Dick Tracy" Gould, Charles Addams and Pablo Picasso (!). Yoe makes it a point to discuss Picasso's links to comics in particular elsewhere.

Another motif is Yoe unearthing some visually arresting work by an artist likely to be unknown to a modern audience. In MODERN ARF, he introduces us to Hy Mayer, a cartoonist known for doing "worm's eye views" of events like weddings, skating rinks and theatres. It literally looked like the floor was transparent and he was sketching what he saw from below. InARF MUSEUM, we meet Charles Bennett. He drew these astonishing "Origin of the Species" cartoons which show humans evolving into and out of animals' shapes, all done in a circular form not unlike MC Escher. The effect is eye-popping and well served by the book's slick format.

Yet another theme is Yoe taking some subject he finds interesting and displaying multiple variations of it throughout history. In MODERN ARF, he looks at the origins of the MAD icon and figurehead Alfred E. Newman, whose image preceded its use in MAD by decades. In ARF MUSEUM, Yoe did a feature on the giant ape with woman archetype, which may have been inspired by a famous French sculpture. There was also another bit on cartoonists' take on tattoos. These features were amusing but somewhat ephemeral; they don't invite multiple perusals by the reader.

More interesting to me was his discovery of magazine articles by two of my favorite classic cartoonists: Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg. In MODERN ARF, there's a story by Gross about modernist furniture design and a vicious feud between two rivals. Gross is a master humorist and the article is sprinkled with all sorts of wacky illustrations. In ARF MUSEUM, Goldberg penned an article about wanting to own a piece of furniture that was out of the ordinary and even depraved. So he had the Goldberg Electrolier (a sort of odd chandelier) created, only to find that every expert and aficionado of art mistook it for some sort of piece relevant to their field of expertise. Once again, the supporting illustrations here were simply marvelous.

I adored the concept and presentation of the continuing series, "Cartoonists Go To Hell". Jimmy Hatlo is profiled in MODERN ARF and Art Young is showcased in ARF MUSEUM, but what's interesting is that they used similar concepts in their strips. That concept was depicting the well-deserved punishment in hell for the annoying people in life: the man who invented the corset gets eternally constricted; annoying neighbors who mow their lawn at 6am get awakened every hour by a lawnmower on their heads, etc. It's interesting that both artists considered their own version of hell having to look at their own work for eternity. With the dark-red background befitting hellfire, this fun feature speaks to the pulp and lurid aspects of comics that make them so appealing.

Of course, the book's hook is "the unholy marriage of art + comics". So it's no surprise that two of the biggest features in the book centered on two of the most famous artists of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. For the latter, we saw a comic strip he drew for his sister when he was 12, and the storyboard for a film that he never made. The strips made by the former were of greater interest. Picasso did a lot of numbered, sequential panels that were remarkable. Even if they looked quickly sketched out, the composition and fluidity of each panel just goes to show how versatile an artist he was. Many consider Picasso to be the greatest artist of the 20th century, and it's obvious that he could have been its greatest cartoonist if he had felt like it.

Both features are followed by the influence of the fine artists on comics: Dali's visual tricks were much parodied and copied in comics, with Steranko in particular using both Daliesque imagery and the 60's op-art that was also inspired by the Surrealists. Picasso's cubist revolution had a strong influence on Art Spiegelman's early career, as evidenced by a couple of strips collected in BREAKDOWNS. Even stranger was "Touchdown For Picasso!", a public service strip drawn by Shelly Moldoff that encouraged jocks to enjoy culture.

Perhaps my favorite strip in either book was a reprint of an obscure Jack Kirby strip titled "The Fourth Dimension is a Many Splattered Thing". Three pages into the strip, the hero goes to a strange dimension and the world turns into a warped, cubist-inspired nightmare. On the flip side, Yoe makes the connection that since Kirby was the co-creator of the modern romance comic, his images directly informed the work of Roy Lichtenstein.

There's yet more to see in the pages of ARF: never-before printed covers of Yellow Kid comics, unpublished strips by Patrick (Mutts) McDonnell, a feature on Italian artist Antonio Rubino, and a bit of Yoe's own art. The key to making the books work is Yoe's design sense. The fonts, the iconography and the art Yoe commissioned for each artist he profiles all create an environment that allows the art to speak for itself. One does not read ARF for a detailed textual analysis or critical assessment of each work presented. Like Comic Art or Comic Book Artist, each work is presented with a great deal of enthusiasm, and it's left for the reader to decide how significant it is. Yoe's widespread embracing of comics & illustration in all their forms throughout its history is what sets ARF apart, and one can't help but to get swept up in his zeal. You can catch more ARF-related materials at Yoe's blog:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

November's Posts From TCJ

Here are the links to my November columns and reviews from

The conclusion of my month-long focus on the comics of the Center For Cartoon Studies

The latest batch of comics from Silber Media.

Several side projects from Tom Neely.

The third issue of Robin Enrico's minicomics series Life of Vice.

Some observations about Sam Henderson's new minis.

Two minis from Gabrielle Nowicki

Sarah Glidden's How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less

Fear of Failure, by Thom Ferrier.

Trigger #1 and You Can't Be Here, by Mike Bertino and Nicholas Breutzman, respectively.

Al Burian Goes To Hell, by Al Burian.

Obligatory Artifact and RDCD Fist, by Jason Overby and Justin Skarhus, respectively.

The anthology Make, edited by Robyn Chapman.

Make Me A Woman, by Vanessa Davis.

Quick comments on comics by Katie Skelly, Anders Nilsen, Richard Moore, and the participants in the latest Shiot Crock.

Dungeon Monstres Volume 3, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Carlos Nine and Patrice Killoffer.

An interview with cartoonist Dina Kelberman: Part One and Part Two.