Tuesday, December 29, 2009

High-Low and the Comics Reporter

Tom Spurgeon of the indispensible link & commentary blog The Comics Reporter interviewed me regarding ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19 as part of series of discussions about the emblematic comics of the decade. ACME #19 was my pick for best comic of 2008, and it will be a certain top 5 pick for best of the decade. Here's a link to the interview, and I'd like to publicly thank Tom for his kind words about me and the opportunity to think through his interesting and challenging questions.

TCJ Post #12: Various CCS Comics

Here's my review of assorted comics from CCS students Jose-Luis Olivares, Melissa Mendes and GP Bonesteel.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

TCJ Post #11: Chuck Forsman's Snake Oil

Here's my review of issues #4 and 5 of Chuck Forsman's series SNAKE OIL.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TCJ Post #10: Only Skin #4 and One Thousand Lies

Rob reviews two new minicomics from CCS folks: Sean Ford's ONLY SKIN #4 and Laura Terry's ONE THOUSAND LIES.

TCJ Post #9: Aaron Cockle's Annotated

Rob reviews issues #3 and #4 of Aaron Cockle's comic ANNOTATED.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TCJ Post #8: Jen Vaughn & Morgan Pielli

In his first CCS review catch-up column, Rob considers the work of Jen Vaughn and Morgan Pielli.

Friday, December 18, 2009

TCJ Post #7: Awesome 2

Here's my 6th Comics Journal blog entry, a review of the anthology AWESOME 2.

Sequart Reprints: TCJ #291

The Comics Journal has been the gold standard for comics writing and journalism for three decades now. Let's check in on the newest issue (#291) and see where the magazine currently stands. The Journal has always been known for three things: no-holds-barred journalism about the comics industry, revealing and thorough interviews, and incisive criticism about the form. At its best, the Journal is a reflection of its editor-in-chief, Gary Groth. Groth has made a lot of enemies over the years by exposing the repugnant business practices of many comics publishers, helping to shame them into doing the right thing. His frequently scorched-earth reviews have also bruised many an ego. As the Journal has grown older and more respected (and Fantagraphics as a publishing concern has expanded), Groth has had less of an obvious presence in each individual issue of the Journal. His writing has become more infrequent, and while his opinions are no less forceful, he seems more interested in creating light than heat these days.

How interesting any particular issue is depends on the philosophy of the managing editor at the time. There's a tension as to what exactly the Journal should be covering. Should it try to cover every aspect of comics, and run the risk of printing interviews and columns that detail inferior genre work? How best to cover manga, children's comics and webcomics? Should the Journal pursue more rarified, idiosyncratic coverage of art comics or should it try to appeal to the average comics fan?

Looking at the terms of the last three editors, it seems that the Journal suffers a dip in quality when it tries to provide a wider appeal. Under Milo George, the Journal interviewed and delved into some incredibly challenging and fascinating creators and comics. As a reader and critic, I learned a lot from these issues and couldn't wait to read the next one. His successor, Dirk Deppey, made it a point to cast a much wider net. However, he often did this in the most confrontational and quirky ways possible, like devoting an entire issue to shojo manga. Deppey did a lot to improve the look of the Journal, with a more appealing format and the welcome addition of classic comics reprints. While I didn't find Deppey's vision of the Journal as compelling as I did George's, that vision was clearly formulated and consistent.

Under current editor Michael Dean, the Journal feels like it's drifting while looking better than ever. It's now being published twice a quarter in an attractive book format. Each issue is lavishly illustrated and has continued to reprint interesting public-domain comics. Dean was the Journal's former news editor, and now that he's managing editor, the news section has dwindled to out-of-date bullet items. The Journal was never about printing it first, it was about getting the details and doing real reporting, and I'm not sure that's a priority anymore.

In issue #291, mainstream artist Tim Sale is featured with a 37-page interview. While Sale has his virtues because of his unusual approach, the interview felt pretty by-the-numbers. A fan of Sale might be interested in specific projects or details like his color-blindness, but it didn't do much for me as a reader who had read little of his work. An interview with up-and-coming artist Josh Simmons is considerably more interesting, in part because Simmons himself has led such a fascinating life. His tales of traveling with a sex circus certainly beats the zillionth question asking artists what kind of pen they use. I think that's a tribute to interviewer Kristi Valenti, who was both knowledgeable about Simmons' career and clever enough to steer the interview in some interesting directions.

This issue's review section was, for the most part, remarkably strong. It was led by the welcome return of Groth, penning an amazing 27-page review of Ralph Steadman's book The Joke's Over. The book details his relationship with the legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Groth's review is an essay that is about as much his own thoughts on Thompson as it is about Steadman's book and career. Thompson was obviously a huge influence on Groth's career, as he was on many modern journalists and writers. Both Groth and Steadman explore Thompson as daring, visionary writer vs. Thompson feeling the need to live up to his own legend--Thompson the drugged-out, violent cartoon character. Groth's conclusion that Steadman in many ways succeeded in true Gonzo journalism as his career went on where Thompson failed is backed up by explorations of several fascinating projects late in his career, as well as this book. Steadman found a way to control his demons in ways that Thompson did not. This article serves as a fantastic primer on both artists, interspersed with bold insights and connections.

Rich Kreiner (always a welcome presence in the Journal) contributes a review of Lat's TOWN BOY that focuses both on its formal qualities and Lat's ability to create a sense of time, place and character. Shaenon Garrity reviews a couple of odd choices: a collection of early Carol Lay stories and a couple of issues of the Bob Burden/Rick Geary (!) GUMBY comic. In the former, she lays out a convincing argument why the IRENE stories of Lay deserve consideration as part of the comics canon, and praises the latter for its weirdness but wonders about its audience. The major misfire in this issue was Jason Rhode's review of Rich Tommaso's MIRIAM. When a review starts with the phrase "Bad art dispenses cheap sincerity like VD gets around a state college", you know that the author is more in love with the sound of their own voice than actually engaging the comic on its own terms.

The comics section focused on Dan Gordon, who was best known for his animation work but did plenty of teen and funny animal comics as well. The comics here were amusing and well-crafted but eminently forgettable. It was interesting to see the work of a popular-but-forgotten artist reprinted, at least. The preview of Danica Novgorodoff's SLOW STORM showed off the artist's moody, expressive style.

R.C. Harvey's column on the controversy about how to award Pulitzer Prizes in editorial cartooning was excellent. While I've never agreed with Harvey's reductionist theories on how to catagorize comics, I've always appreciated his wide-ranging interest in comics in all their forms, but especially editorial and newspaper comics. This is exactly the kind of diversity in covering the form that the Journal can excel in, without pandering to a specific demographic. On the other hand, while Tom Crippen's column on the various changes Marvel has put Spider-Man through was certainly well-written, it seemed to repeat its main points over and over: Marvel has lost track of how to make its characters actually fun.

The Journal shines when its writers discuss ideas about comics that are personal and idiosyncratic. That's why the heartfelt appreciation that William Stout wrote for the just-deceased Dave Stevens was so moving. Stout knew that he couldn't write an all-encompassing article that revealed every detail of Stevens' life; instead, his own anecdotes about Stevens' life paint a rich portrait of his life. I wish a figure as important as Steve Gerber got the same kind of treatment. Again, Crippen got the details right and had some interesting insights, but Tim Hodler had more interesting things to say about Gerber in the pages of COMICS COMICS than Crippen did here--and that wasn't even an appreciation.

At this point, how good the average issue of the Journal will be depends on whether or not Groth writes something in it, the skill of the individual interviewer and how interested one is in the interview subjects chosen. As long as Groth is still involved with the Journal, it will remain a powerful force in the comics world. While the Journal may not be at its most provocative at the moment, it still sets the standard for comics criticism and commentary. It'll be interesting to see how long Dean remains managing editor and if the news division of the Journal is revived.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TCJ Post #6: Comic Diorama

Here's a link to my review of Grant Reynolds' COMIC DIORAMA at The Comics Journal.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rhythm & Rhyme: Asthma, The Blot & Comics-as-Poetry

Over at the Comics Journal, I've published an essay I'm particularly proud of. It's on what I'm calling Comics-As-Poetry, and I explore this idea in the work of two artists whose work I admire greatly: John Hankiewicz's ASTHMA and Tom Neely's THE BLOT.

Here's a link to part one, part two and part three

TCJ Post #5: Sulk 3

Here's a link to my fifth post at the Comics Journal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

3rd TCJ Post: Funny Aminals

Here's my third in a series about CCS anthologies at the Comics Journal site: Funny Aminals.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd TCJ Post: Dark Corners

Here's a link to my second TCJ column, a review of the CCS anthology DARK CORNERS.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sequart Reprints: I Am Going To Be Small/Art D'Ecco

Jeffrey Brown is best known for his episodic, autobiographical comics about assorted relationships. While the relationships inevitably go down the tubes for poor Jeffrey, he is often able to mine a lot of humor from his travails. Still, someone who just read Brown's books like CLUMSY, UNLIKELY, ANY EASY INTIMACY, etc. would come away thinking that he's incapable of doing anything but humorously bitter relationship comics. However, anyone who's read one of his many minicomics over the years would see a very different, absurd side of Brown. Nine years worth of these comics was just collected by Top Shelf in I AM GOING TO BE SMALL, a massive brick of a comic with rapid fire, one-off gags on page after page.

New Zealand's Andrew & Roger Langridge, on the other hand, have always been known for their linguistically & visually dense humor. The two were long a well-kept secret in the comics world, as their ART D'ECCO and ZOOT! series were never big sellers. Roger would continue on in comics and illustration, achieving some success with his later FRED THE CLOWN series. However, the writer-artist combo of Andrew & Roger's trio of characters from ART D'ECCO have been collected in one glorious volume by Fantagraphics: THE LOUCHE AND INSALUBRIOUS ESCAPADES OF ART D'ECCO. (That's "disreputable and unwholesome" for those scoring at home.)

Both books are very funny, and while one could say that both are similar in that they are primarily gag books, their approach and execution is completely different. The very experience of reading each book is almost viscerally different. One flies through the breezy gags in Brown's book, while each thick pen line from Roger Langridge and every absurd scenario and painful pun from Andrew Langridge encourages the reader to not only linger on every panel, but to read each story multiple times. While both books enthusiastically mine the absurd, many of Brown's gags are still rather personal. The Langridges, meanwhile, seem to draw their inspiration from a tradition of visual and verbal tomfoolery. While Will Elder's "Chicken Fat" visual style is an obvious influence on Roger, the strip as a whole seems to be more influenced by TV and radio comedy than any comics in particular.

SMALL is a reflection of Brown thinking up and trying to get down gags as quickly as possible, while the ideas are still fresh. It has a sketchbook quality, and it seems like a lot of the quasi-autobiographical gags came from pages he was working on for other projects. His plain, sketchy art style draws the eye from gag to gag quickly. The book is so huge (300 pages plus) and has so many gags that this carpet-bombing strategy works well. If a joke fails, the eye quickly moves on to the next one. The visuals here are mostly in service to the verbal component of the gag. For example, a panel captioned "On Great Sex" had a woman ask a man "Are we too different?" The man replies "No" but is thinking "Yes", but isn't about to admit it. Another panel is a parody of the infamous cat poster "Hang in There"--except that instead of a cat hanging from a branch, the branch is empty. A pimp walks down the street and thinks, "These bitches practically sell themselves". The visuals give just enough information to set up Brown's jokes and wordplay.

Yet Brown is not merely a writer who draws. What makes his comics work is his keen understanding of the rhythms of comics. It's long been his greatest skill as an artist: his ability to set up a situation, set up a beat, set up another beat and then finish up a joke or anecdote with a satisfying conclusion. He's also great at modifying the mood of his panels with subtle facial expressions, especially in his eyes and eyebrows. Even in his more rapidly-produced panels, the expressiveness of his characters is essential to making his jokes work.

Brown's understanding of timing & pacing, his fatalistic sense of humor and his expressive character work are best encapsulated by "Cuticle", an extended section of the book. There are four character: a bunny, a bear, a bird and a cat. The bunny and cat are girls, the bunny and bird are boys. Frolicking out in the woods, Brown puts the four through a parody of every relationship drama he's ever written about, and then some. The bunny tells the bear that she'll go to the concert with him, but "just as friends". There's a silent panel after that (a pause for a beat), and the bear replies "Afterwards, can we have sex just as friends?" Later, bunny wonders to bear why she hooked up with a particular guy, saying that he "exudes this kind of sweetness". Bear replies "yeah", then there's another silent panel, then he adds "Like rotting fruit." Bird is a repulsive character full of fratboy machismo, which is funny because he's tiny compared to the other characters. When Bunny accuses him of being homophobic, he denies it, noting that he owns gay porn. When Bunny rolls her eyes (in yet another silent panel), he indignantly blurts out "What? Girl on girl is still gay."

What's interesting about the Langridge brothers is that while one can spot a host of influences in their work, the end result is entirely unique in the world of comics. Roger Langridge has talked about how important Spike Milligan and the Goon Show were in forming his comedic sensibilities, and one can also see evidence of Monty Python-style absurdity and obscure references in the jokes Andrew throws in. He doesn't care if the average reader gets all of his references, and in truth it doesn't matter. The situation itself is so funny, and the visuals by Roger are so dazzling, that every single panel is still funny on its own. Like a Will Elder comic, each page is so densely packed with visual and verbal jokery that it can take multiple readings to unpack everything. Even then, one may not recognize a reference or two until much later. Despite that, one can follow the surface of the narrative and still thoroughly enjoy it.

That said, this experience can be an exhausting one. Their style of humor can be unrelenting; I found that reading the book in small doses was the best way to fully enjoy it. I mentioned Will Elder before; while the visuals on the page are packed the way Elder is, the way stories play out is more like a Looney Toons creation. The narratives are paper-thin, just frameworks to allow the fun to unfold and to give the characters a place to interact. Everything flows from the main three characters, in various combinations. There's the eponymous star of the book, Art d'Ecco, a white-tuxedo wearing sleazebag who's the amoral straight-man. There's his opposite number, Art Nouveau, a black-tuxedoed creature who's d'Ecco's frequent antagonist and walking Dada event. Lastly there's the Gump, a triangle-shaped pile of naivete, idiocy and sheer filth. Their actions, reactions and retaliations provide the bulk of the first level of humor in the book.

This combination allows the Langridges to go in any number of directions. They can get scatological, absurd, referential, punny or philosophical--sometimes all on the same page. There are several brief stories in the collection, but the meat of the book is in four stories. The first (done for this collection) sees D'Ecco trying to track down back issues of the original comic because someone is paying big money for them on eBay. On one page, we learn that famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the original letterer of the comic. When the Gump suggests that d'Ecco could buy a llama if he could find more copies of the comic, Art replies "There's no cause for a llama". Things do not go well for our Mr. d'Ecco when he forks over money to one collector to buy a few.

The story that has the most absurd asides is "No Erect Penises", a tale of d'Ecco simultaneously pursuing a career of writing pornography and leading a censorship campaign. Non-sequitur joke panels pop in out of nowhere, like "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is skiing", and indeed there's a panel where a bunch of blind people are oblivious to a skiier above them. Then there's a laugh-out loud panel of a classic Ditko/Romita Spider-Man pose (when he's dressed as Peter Parker but we "see" half a Spider-Man face to indicate his spider-sense is a-tinglin') and earnestly lamenting "Why are the nice guys always straight?"

The masterpiece of the book is "La Trahison des Images". The title is a reference to the famous Magritte painting of the same name, and its English translation is "The treason of the images". The layman will know it well: it's a drawing of a pipe that underneath it says "This is not a pipe". And of course, it isn't a pipe, it's a painting of a pipe. The image is not reality, and the Langridges take this concept and run away with it. The story concerns d'Ecco's quest to find the Gump after he disappears with his housekey. He later teams up with a woman (who later refers to her new name as (groan) "Eva Prawn") to track him down to a cult leader's fortified compound in the middle of the desert. Said leader turns out to be Art Nouveau, whose awesomely nonsensical "sermons" are the highlight of the story. I especially appreciated the Sly & the Family Stone reference thrown in there.

The most straightforward story set-up is "The Secret History of the World", a desert island tragi-comedy starring the Big Three. Their attempts at setting up governments, economies, alliances and systems of punishment feel the most like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The oily nature of each character prevents them from even noticing that another cast-away has joined them on the island, and she manages to escape without them ever realizing she was ever there.

Roger's style in this book is less decorative than it is in his own Fred the Clown comics. Like Jeffrey Brown, facial expressions drive everything he does. The three stars of the book have a settled, iconic look and it's up to their faces to sell the comedy. Unlike Brown, Langridge uses a lot more exaggeration in his facial expressions. This works especially well with the Gump, whose lack of normal human physical characteristics makes it easy to twist him around like a baloon animal. Even if this book is less lush-looking than his other work, his ink line is astonishingly assured and beautiful to look at. His use of negative space, his panel design, his composition and understanding of panel-to-panel continuity allow the reader to navigate through a lot of detail. His pages are always busy but rarely cluttered, and he just has a way of being able to guide the reader's eye to where it needs to go. About the only other humorist I can think of today who makes comics that are as beautiful to look it is Michael Kupperman.

Reading the Langridges' book, we are immersed in their crazy world. We may not know biographical details about the authors after we have read it, but having an understanding of the mechanics of what they find funny is enlightening on its own terms. With Brown, the biographical details he reveals are incidental and entirely in service to his jokes. It's not that his ego is so staggering that he has to work himself into even his gag work, but rather that this is the medium in which he does it. Humor is often derided in critical circles because of a supposed lack of profundity, but I would argue that for great humorists, the body of their work is often quite revealing of depth. In a documentary made about him before he died, Jacques Derrida made a reference to Heidegger when asked about biographies of philosophers and what should be in them. Heidegger said that the proper biography of a philosopher is as follows: "He was born. He thought. Then he died. The rest is anecdote." What he meant was that the work tells us all we need to know. In much the same way, the Langridges and Brown were born, they made people laugh, and one day they will die. Thankfully, they're still making me laugh.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

First TCJ post: Werewolf

My first post for the new Comics Journal website is up, and it's the first in a series about recent anthologies from the Center for Cartoon Studies.