Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Comics Comics

COMICS COMICS is a publication that's a direct extension of its editors' interests. Dan Nadel's PictureBox is a publishing concern that's all about the margins of comics, works that are hard to classify. Like everything else Nadel publishes, COMICS COMICS is an expression of his love of comics and a manifestation of his desire to examine the medium with a fresh eye. There are few preconceived notions in COMICS COMICS, as the writers take on a dizzying range of what comics have to offer.

The first issue of COMICS COMICS was in a smallish magazine-style format. The second and third issues were printed on huge, 16" x 22" newspaper broadsheets. It's a format that's both a throwback to the newsprint era of comics and something that no one else is doing at the moment. Pragmatically, it's an ideal format since it allows full-page strips to be published in all their glory.

The best quality of COMICS COMICS is that one can enjoy it even when its articles or comics don't match up with one's aesthetic. For example, issue #2 features an extensive interview with P.Shaw, an artist whose work has never interested me. Nadel's line of questioning was revealing and gave me an appreciation for the artist I hadn't had before. In particular, Shaw's varying artistic approaches weren't just employed for technical reasons, but actively reflected his social and political interests as well.

On the other hand, there are times when reading it when it feels like the features were done exclusively for me. Tim Hodler's 2-part retrospective on Steve Gerber's career is a good example. Hodler's an exemplar of COMICS COMICS' willingness to dip into mainstream comics and emerge with unusual examples of expression. Gerber's weird work for Marvel is a perfect case for this sort of treatment. Hodler came to Gerber's comics as a new reader and he's quite perceptive in discussing the kind of bizarre muddle that marked them. Gerber was not always successful, but he was always willing to experiment and push the limits of mainstream comics.

Hodler was perceptive in identifying THE DEFENDERS as Gerber's most successful comic. It wasn't just because of the absurd situations the characters found themselves in and the way Gerber played it straight, but also because of Gerber's palpable sense of anger on the page. The comics were never didactic but were rather consumed by Gerber's sense of righteous indignation over corporate greed, commercial crassness and ecological destruction. Hodler also notes that while Gerber's comics were never massively successful, they touched a chord in readers who had never seen comics like these before and identified with Gerber's anger. Of course, the absurd elements were another part of the attraction; one never knew what was coming next in a Gerber comic, even though he had to hew to a mainstream formula. The only problem with the essay was that it was too short; I would have loved to have read his thoughts on Gerbers' other work.
Issue #2 has comics work by some of my favorite artists. Lauren Weinstein did a bizarre page reminiscent of her earlier, Vineyland-era work. One of my favorite underground artists, Justin Green, contributed an amazing, full-page "perpetual calendar" reflecting the months of the year as a sort of mobius-strip roller-coaster.

COMICS COMICS also likes to print rants, ravings and personal statements by well-known artists. Issue #2 featured a rant on Spider-Man by Peter Bagge, filled with blustery Bagge-isms that were hilarious. Issue #3 had a loopy essay on the meaning of life by Kim Deitch which was just short of incoherent, but still amusing. Nadel's own rant on the Masters of American Comics show was cutting and direct. He attacked the show in terms of how they chose the artists for the new canon, context for the audience and a lack of proper critical analysis. When he wonders why Lionel Feininger (a fine artist who did some comics) and Art Spiegelman (with only one significant work, though a great one, to his name as an artist) made it in, he answers his own question later in the article: because these are artists that the general art-audience will recognize their names. The show was a failure, because the curators didn't have enough faith in comics to present a show that was on comics' own terms—not the terms of the art world.

Overall, I found #2 more interesting than #3. The reviews were of a wider (and weirder) range of comics, including Dave Sim's letters, Wally Wood's CANNON, Golden Age Fred Kida comics, Moebius, and some things from other odd corners of the world of comics. Whereas the comics and books reviewed in #3 could have appeared in an issue of THE COMICS JOURNAL, like Doug Wolk's book on comics, assorted David Sandlin comics, Mutt and Jeff and some recent superhero comics. The reviews felt a bit less personal and much more perfunctory in this issue. The exception was Frank Santoro's mini-essay on Frank Miller's RONIN. Santoro noted that this was Miller's most successful work, one where he broke through his influences. Santoro also contributed an essay on color in comics in #2 that's interesting because it's from an artist's point of view.

The most disappointing article in #3 was Sammy Harkham's interview with Guy Davis. It felt more like an interview one might find in COMIC BOOK ARTIST than in COMICS COMICS, withDavis not having much of substance to talk about. That it was so dull was especially surprising because I generally like interviews conducted by artists, but this one was a had too much nuts-and-bolts methodology and not enough insight into the creative process. On the other hand, the transcript of a talk between Lauren Weinstein & David Heatley was enlightening both in terms of how they make their comics, but why. Both artists do autobiographical comics, but Weinstein discussed how many fictive elements she uses in her work to make her stories coherent. Heatley noted that he prefers to make his "David" character more of a blank slate, choosing to convey emotional truths and moods rather than worry about presenting himself as a character. Despite the fact that this is a transcript of an event with a time limit rather than a proper interview, both artists wasted little time in revealing interesting information.

Even if a feature falls flat, COMICS COMICS adeptly destroys the line between high and low in the comics art form. As appealing as the articles are, I'm drawn just as much to the ephemera: little side illustrations that often sardonically comment on the articles themselves, or odd little lists by the likes of Mark Newgarden. The ultimate mark of COMICS COMICS is that I can hand it to any comics fan, and no matter their interests or depth of knowledge, they will both learn something new and have an established belief challenged.

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