30 June 2021

Poison River by Gilbert Hernandez (No. 31)

Poison River (1988-1992, Revised 1994)
by Gilbert Hernandez

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
A failure as a series, a masterpiece in collected form, Gilbert Hernandez's Poison River tested the limits of the comic book series over a dozen issues of Love & Rockets - a four year haul. Sprawling in scope, this multigenerational novel took Gilbert back in time: its last page prefaces his first Heartbreak Soup story, done years before, but from an entirely different viewpoint - a breathtaking narrative coup. Before then, Poison River follows Luba (Gilbert's signature character) through a violent man's man's world of drug trafficking, political terror, police corruption, and sexual predation - a far cry from the bucolic, woman-centered microcosm of Palomar in Heartbreak Soup.

Gilbert puts Luba (and us) through the wringer - and takes pains to develop complex new characters along the way, characters deeply implicated in the novel's corrupted cultural landscape. Foremost among these are Luba's mother Maria, a skin-deep beauty whose perfection verges on self-parody, and Luba's husband Peter, within whom chivalrous paternalism (Luba calls him "Daddy") and a ruthless political will vie for position.

These characters are bound by the demands of "business", a bland euphemism for any sort of brutality ratified by political and economic ambition. Violence spreads - sometimes personal, sometimes gauzed over by the language of commerce. Peter, through an elaborate underground economy, helps deal drugs; his young wife, cloistered by Peter's chauvinism, injects them. Deals are made, deferred, consummated; on one of them hinges the fate of Luba's firstborn. Against this savage backdrop, Gilbert highlights moments of unexpected tenderness: characters do things you don't expect, for reasons darkly hinted at but nonetheless persuasive.

Poison River's pages often skip back and forth through time without warning, and stunning revelations come with ease - there are points in the novel where offhand remarks force you to rethink all that has come before. Baroque, fragmented, and serialised at a glacial pace, Poison River proved too tough to follow in magazine format, but, as revised and collected in 1994, stands as a novel of ferocious brilliance.


29 June 2021

Flies On The Ceiling by Jaime Hernandez (No. 24)

Flies On The Ceiling (1988-1989)
by Jaime Hernandez

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Despite its lesbian/punk "Betty & Veronica" surface, the depth of Jaime Hernandez's Locas series was laid down from the very start of Love & Rockets: Hopey's rage, Maggie's insecurity, and the romantic Molotov cocktail when the two combined; Terry's jealousy and how it hid a profound sense of inadequacy; Daffy's... well, never mind Daffy. Most striking of all was Izzy Ortiz: we saw her as a present-day depressive punk bruja, only to be introduced in flashbacks to a more conventional, more stable Isabel. It took almost ten years for Jaime to tell us the story of Izzy's transformation, but it was worth it: Flies On The Ceiling is the best Locas short story from Love & Rockets and, I would argue, the best story Jaime has ever created, period.

Regular readers developed a feel for Izzy's personality over the years and seen her character given depth by her Cassandra-like role in The Death Of Speedy Ortiz. They also recognise the house from the cryptic "How To Kill A..." from Love & Rockets #1, as well as the potent visual markers of pre-Mexico Izzy. When her hair had grown long, we know that the change is complete, something significant has happened. When she tell us about the flies on the ceiling, references in past stories take on a whole new level of meaning. 

But this story functions just as well as a stand-alone fable, a tale of self-destruction. Isabel seeks to escape her past (including a divorce, an abortion and attempted suicide) and in Mexico unexpectedly finds a chance at redemption. When she finds out the devil has followed her, she runs yet again - to no avail. And when the Devil tells her, "It's not your sins but your guilt that allows me to come to you," the story takes a harrowing nightmarish turn. Jaime not only employs the ambitious narrative leaps that give his stories a distinctive economy and rhythm, for this story he creates a magical-realist symbology that resonates powerfully as psychological horror. The chiaroscuro clarity of his art makes the surreal extremes unnervingly accessible, allowing a seamless blend of dreams and memories and the unexplained. The ending is nuanced in its contradictions and confrontations: a conquering of fears, an acceptance of consequences, a loss of hope. The ultimate tragedy is writ clear in the last panel: that Izzy's fate, like all people's, isn't her burden alone.


28 June 2021

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book by Harvey Kurtzman (No. 26)

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1959)
by Harvey Kurtzman 

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
In the four decades between 1952, when he drew his last Frontline Combat story, and his death in 1993, Harvey Kurtzman produced only one substantial narrative piece of work as an illustrator: Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book.

Coming off the cancellation of the Playboy-backed Trump and subsequent failure of the self-published Humbug, Kurtzman picked up his drawing tools again at the request of publisher Ian Ballantine, who hoped to duplicate the success of the Mad paperbacks with original paperback cartoon books.

Kurtzman's concept was a quatrain of extended satirical strips: "Thelonius Violence", a Peter Gunn parody narrated in bebop jive, complete with musical soundtrack effects; "Organisation Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite", a sardonic look at the corporate world, in which Kurtzman got in his digs at the magazine industry; "Compulsion on the Range", a witty fusion of in-vogue Freudian pop psychology into the TV series Gunsmoke; and "Decadence Degenerated", a funny but deeply serious story of a small-town lynching, build around Kurtzman'z own appalled recollections of a stay in the Deep South.

At 140 brilliant pages, the Jungle Book is certainly Kurtzman's most substantial graphic achievement. The vigour and immediacy of the brushwork, the bold use of tones, the hypnotic pattern of sustained and broken visual rhythms from panel to panel and page to page, make it one of the most formally inventive comic books ever published. And Kurtzman's mordant wit, freed from the constraints of shorter magazine pieces, would never again display as pitiless a bite.

That last Frontline Combat story, a meditation on fate, was called "The Big If". Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book provides the biggest "if" in comics history: What if it had been a success? What if Kurtzman instead of being forced to leapfrog from more failed anthologies to the compromised Little Annie Fanny to teaching and illustration jobs, had been able to recreate himself as a one-man satirical storyteller - writing and drawing for magazines and books? What if he had succeeded in caving a niche in the mainstream publishing world, into which the whole next generation of cartoonists could have poured - short story writers, essayists, and novelists who just happened to work in the comics form?

Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book remains one of the art form's most stunning successes, and one of the fields most heartbreaking failures.

Like most of the other copies of Jungle Book I’ve seen, mine is like a murkily printed newsprint portfolio. The glue binding is just a memory. I keep all the loose yellowed pages in a plastic bag. I’ve handled these pages with all the care due a sacred text, but it just won’t hold up under many more re-readings...  Nowhere else is there such a large body of Kurtzman’s drawings, and Jungle Book was an important step toward making comics Adult Entertainment.

He is as good as any cartoonist in history that I know of. Some of his greatest stuff was done in a little Ballantine Book called Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book published around 1959. Kurtzman did all the drawing as well as the writing. I hope somebody will reprint it someday in its entirety on good paper, as I'd like to own a copy.


27 June 2021

In The News: Chris Ware

Angoulême BD Festival: Chris Ware 2021 Grand Prix Winner!
Last week, voted for by previous recipients, Chris Ware was declared the winner of the prestigious Angoulême Festival Grand Prix. Traditionally the Grand Prix winner is the subject of a major exhibition at the next year's festival and will draw the Festival's official poster... and Chris Ware will be no exception. Book your flights now to France for the 2022 Festival!

Lewis Trondheim's Tribute To Chris Ware
French comics superstar Lewis Tronheim released this awesome tribute to Chris Ware on Twitter to celebrate his 2021 Grand Prix award! Trondheim was a previous recipient of the Grand Prix in 2006, and is known best in USA/UK for the series Dungeon.

Brick Magazine: Chris Ware Cover!
The latest issue of Brick Magazine features a stunning cover by Chris Ware. Brick is an international literary journal published twice a year out of Toronto, Canada.

Just opened at the MCA in Chicago is a major review of comics from that city. Chicago has been a center for comics for decades - a haven not only for making and publishing cartoons, but also for innovating on the medium. Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now tells the story of the art form in the influential city through the work of Chicago’s many cartoonists: known, under-recognized, and up-and-coming. On Twitter, artist Ben Towle shared the above photo with the comment, "The Chris Ware room was 100% utterly astounding. Hard to believe that a human being can actually create stuff like this."

The Lost Buildings of Louis Sullivan:
In September 2021, the Chicago-based, architecture-focused WrightWood 659 centre will host a Chris Ware co-curated exhibition focused on the lost Garrick building designed by architect Louis H. Sullivan. Also due for release in September is Louis Sullivan's Idea, a book by Tim Samuelson and designed by Chris Ware, celebrating the life and work of Louis Sullivan. Samuelson and Ware previously collaborated on an episode of This American Life in 2004, which is still available as a deluxe 'Lost Buildings' DVD. A fascinating interview with Tim Samuelson can be found here, where he discusses his life-long obsession with the disappearing old buildings of Chicago.


Presspop Toys: Chris Ware 'Building Stories' 1,000-Piece Puzzle!
A jigsaw puzzle of Building Stories by Chris Ware: a numerous awards and honors winning graphic novel masterpiece. The puzzle is an original "remixed" drawing of the work. The packaging box, in the form of a building, was originally drawn by the artist, and takes a pull out drawer style. Features, ORIGINAL UNIQUE PUZZLE PIECES made from original molds based on what Chris drew. A must have for Chris Ware and Building Stories fans with surprises and newly added concepts.
Size 49cm x 60cm. US$50
Release Date: September 2021

26 June 2021

Ballbuster: Bernard Krigstein's Life Between The Panels

Bernard Krigstein
Portrait by Drew Friedman

(from The New Yorker, 22 July 2002)
The current "Spider-Man" movie will sell more Spider-Man toothbrushes, action figures, and frosted Spidey-berry-filled Pop-Tarts in its wake than actual Spider-man comic books: comics are simply not the popular form of popular culture that they were in their mid-twentieth-century heyday, though what the bastard form has lost in popularity it has been gaining in legitimacy. Barely an eyebrow now raises when cartoonists receive serious academic and critical attention, museum exhibitions, MacArthur grants, and Guggenheim fellowships.

Anyone interested in crossing the ever-narrowing divide between High and Low culture ought to contemplate the work and troubled career of Bernard Krigstein (1919-90), a postwar comic-book illustrator who had the privilege and the misfortune of being an Artist with a capital "A" working in an Art Form that considered itself only a Business. Krigstein was never associated with a specific character (the most sure ticket to comics success), and he never wrote his own stories (a handicap in a narrative medium). He wasn't beloved by publishers, editors, or readers. What reputation he has rests on a handful of short stories he illustrated in 1954 and 1955 for EC comics (the folks who brought you Tales from the Crypt and Mad), but one of those stories, Master Race, was an accomplishment of the highest order - a masterpiece.

All eight pages of Master Race are exquisitely reproduced in Greg Sadowski's new coffee-table biography, "B. Krigstein" (Fantagraphics; $49.95), as are a few other key stories and some sample pages, but the entire project is as quixotic as the career it describes. Ominously subtitled "Volume One (1919-1955)", the book offers a profusion of the artist's juvenilia, paintings (including student copies of Renaissance works in the Met), minor illustrations, sheaves of wartime sketches, and letters to his wife, Natalie (who wrote the foreword), and even a reproduction of his college transcripts. This detailed sifting of the remains wouldn't seem like folly if the subject were, say, Jackson Pollock or some other fabled hero anointed by the Gods of Art History. The book is probably the one Bernard Krigstein would have wished for himself, but it is not the book he needs: a well-selected anthology culled from the couple of hundred comic-book stories he illustrated, mostly in the nineteen-forties and fifties. As it stands, the current book is best read as a poignant bildungsroman about a disappeared type: the mid-century lower-middle-class New York Jewish intellectual, drunk on art and culture, struggling to survive morally and aesthetically in the commercial wilderness.

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, reminds us that the early comic-book industry was a specifically Jewish milieu, virtually an extension of the rag trade. It was invented by a Jewish printing salesman and popularized with stories created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland about an immigrant from the planet Krypton. Many of the first generation of creators - like Will Eisner, Bob Kane (Kahn), Stan Lee (Lieber), and Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg) - were first- and second-generation New York Jews. And, while many of them were intelligent, very few were educated, and only Krigstein was a true intellectual. He would have had more in common with the staff of Partisan Review or Commentary than he did with his colleagues on Nyoka the Jungle Girl, Space Patrol, and Strange Tales of the Unusual.

Krigstein first heard what he later called "the sound of art" in junior high school. He opened a book on art appreciation and got bitten by one of Cézanne's apples. At Brooklyn College, his future wife persuaded him to switch his major from accounting and commit himself to becoming a "fine" artist. Economic need made Krigstein, like many other aspiring painters, stumble into comic-book work. Unlike the others, he began to sense the form's potential and, without condescension, put all his skill and insight into testing its limits. His paintings looked back to representational values that were at least fifty years out of date; his comics were visionary and looked ahead at least that far.

After he abandoned the field, in the nineteen-sixties (and was abandoned by it), he said, "I found that comics was drawing and... shed all criticism of the form as I worked in it." Usually hampered by banal scripts, Krigstein reflected:

My futile idea was that action in comics, as in any art, doesn't end with one person pounding another person in the jaw. There's also the action of emotion, psychology, character and idea. I yearned to have stories which dealt with more reality and people's feelings and thoughts... a kind of literary form, let's say even a Chekhovian form, where one could delve into real people and real feelings.

Manny Stallman, a more typical comic-book artist, once turned to Krigstein's brother in disbelief and said, "Bernie's actually taking this stuff seriously!"

Commercial art, for all its constraints, seemed like the only haven for figurative artists at mid-century, and Krigstein took a craftsman's pride in his accurate perspectives and his researched images based on observation. Without looking cramped, his well-balanced panels began to teem with crowds of individually articulated figures. He disdained shortcuts and easy solutions, and replaced the cartoonist's vocabulary of sweat marks and action lines with a painter's language of composition and form. It's as if the other cartoonists were expressively drawing Yiddish while Krigstein eloquently drew Hebrew.

Combative by nature, he fought the indifference and deadlines of the assembly-line shops for the right to ink his own panels. Astoundingly, at the zenith of the McCarthy era he led a battle to unionize freelance comic-book artists so they would all receive standardized rates, health benefits, and a modicum of respect. After his organizing efforts crumbled, in 1953, Krigstein had the good fortune to hook up with EC comics. The scripts were notches above the rest, and the outfit sought the best illustrators, encouraging them to develop individual approaches.

Nearing the height of his powers, Krigstein adjusted his style for each of the EC stories he was assigned: stately calligraphic panels influenced by Eastern art for adapting a Ray Bradbury fable set in ancient China; a scratchy German Expressionist approach for a story about an evil hypnotist seen from the murderer's point of view; crisp fifties modernism for the tale of a murderously curdled suburban marriage. All displayed Krigstein's cool intelligence and mastery. All were elegant - even beautiful - though somehow uningratiating. Highly respected by his EC peers, Krigstein was not a favorite with EC readers, who preferred Wally Wood's obsessively detailed rocket ships and Graham Ingels' fetid corpses.

Krigstein began to vibrate with the inner language of comics, to understand that its essence lay in the "breakdowns," the box-to-box exposition that breaks moments of time down into spatial units. "It's what happens between these panels that's so fascinating," he said in a 1962 interview. "Look at all that dramatic action that one never gets a chance to see. It's between these panels that the fascinating stuff takes place. And unless the artist would be permitted to delve into that, the form must remain infantile."

Krigstein became ravenous for more panels than the rigidly formatted short scripts permitted; he took to subdividing the pre-lettered art boards to allow more and more—albeit smaller and narrower—boxes on his pages. Then Al Feldstein, EC's primary editor and scriptwriter, assigned him a six-page story, "Master Race." A memory-haunted concentration-camp refugee, Carl Reissman, enters a subway car and recognizes the cadaverous stranger who sits across from him. A flashback details the horrors of the Third Reich and finally reveals that Reissman had been a perpetrator - the commandant of a death camp. The stranger chases him down an empty platform, where Reissman slips and is crushed by an onrushing train. Whether the mysterious stranger was a former victim who once swore revenge or a projection of Reissman's guilt is left unresolved.

Feldstein thought of this as one more "snap-ending" story patterned after O. Henry, much like the three others he cranked out each week. It just so happened that this one was about the Nazi death camps and postwar guilt at a time when the culture was unwilling to reckon with the catastrophe in any medium. Krigstein seized on the script as a chance to demonstrate his own and the medium's possibilities. He begged for twelve pages and was begrudgingly granted eight.

Krigstein's formal qualities as a storyteller—not the story's subject matter - make Master Race a tour de force. He encapsulates the decade of Nazi terror powerfully but with restraint, never slipping into the Grand Guignol that made EC notorious. The two tiers of wordless staccato panels that climax the story have become justly famous among the comics literate. They have often been described as "cinematic," a phrase thoroughly inadequate to the achievement: Krigstein condenses and distends time itself. The short chase that ends Reissman's life takes up about the same number of panels given over to the entire Hitler decade; Reissman's life floats in space like the suspended matter in a lava lamp. The cumulative effect carries an impact - simultaneously visceral and intellectual - that is unique to comics.

Hardly anyone noticed the story, published in Tales Designed to Carry an IMPACT #1. It was barely distributed, lost in the aftermath of the devastating 1954 Senate investigation into the relationship between reading comic books and juvenile delinquency. As EC and the rest of the comics industry evaporated around him, Krigstein briefly went to work in his father's dress factory. After several months of filial squabbles, he turned to freelance magazine, book, and record-jacket illustration, where his integrity and his contentiousness eventually limited his success. He vainly tried to interest book publishers in a massive comics adaptation of "War and Peace," but by 1962 had settled into a twenty-year career teaching illustration at New York's High School of Art and Design, to subsidize his devotion to painting.

I was a cartooning major at Art and Design in 1963. Only vaguely aware of Krigstein's comics, I gave him a wide berth. He was a small, barrel-chested man with a reputation among my illustration-major friends as a tough teacher, humorless and completely dismissive of comics. I was delighted to learn from Sadowski's book that the initials Krigstein used when signing his early superhero pages, "B. B. Krig," stood for the nickname he had earned in the Army: Ballbuster.

I met him only once, in the early seventies. John Benson, the editor of an EC fanzine called Squa Tront, wanted to expand and publish a panel-by-panel analysis of Master Race that I had written in 1967 as a college term paper. We went to visit Krigstein at his painting studio, on East Twenty-third Street, so I could read it to him and get his responses. Krigstein at first demurred that those days were long behind him and he didn't remember much about the work. As I began reading, he entered into the analysis avidly, acknowledging a reference to Futurism in one panel, to Mondrian in another, denying a reference to George Grosz in yet another. He basked when I pointed to a visual onomatopoeia that conjured up a subway's rumble. It was as if messages he'd sent off in bottles decades earlier had finally been found.

At the end of the paper, I had compared his approach to that of some important contemporaries whom I also admired, including Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. When I read that paragraph, Krigstein darkened. "Eisner!" he shouted. "Eisner is the enemy! When you are with me, I am the only artist!" He yanked me further into his studio and pointed at the walls. "Look!" he roared. "You see these paintings?" I saw several large, molten, and lumpy Post-Impressionist landscapes in acidic colors. "These are my panels now!" His voice betrayed all the anguish of a brokenhearted lover.

© Art Spiegelman

25 June 2021

Master Race by Bernard Krigstein & Al Feldstein (No. 76)

Master Race (1955)
by Bernard Krigstein & Al Feldstein
(Impact #1 cover art by Jack Davis)

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Master Race is one of the justifiably exalted comics of the 20th Century, and a stunning showcase of comics storytelling for artist Bernard Krigstein. Intended for an issue of Shock SuspenStories, Master Race appeared in the first issue of the New Direction EC title Impact, and remains its most memorable story.

The script, credited to the underrated Al Feldstein, tells the story of a chance meeting between a former concentration camp commandant and a camp survivor on a New York subway. The encounter ends with the former Nazi's death. As a straight piece of drama, Master Race is a solid, capable work of fiction. Feldstein's script is professionally forceful and provocative, while Krigstein's illustrations serve the story's dramatic highlights perfectly: the depictions of both the chase and the commandants crimes are magnificently expressive without veering into melodrama.

However, Master Race is best remembered for Krigstein's exploration of the possibilities of narrative in comics form. Expanding the script from six to eight pages, Krigstein opened up the story's graphic possibilities. His solutions to various storytelling problems are incredibly sophisticated: radical shifts in perspective between the pursuer and the pursued; building mood through panel size and text placement; switching from objective to subjective viewpoints; and showing dramatic highs by slowing down the action across a series of panels. The panels where Krigstein shows the passing of the subway cars through repeating images within the same panel are so astonishing, so adept, and so perfect they serve as arguments in and of themselves that Master Race is a rare artistic achievement by one of comics greatest forward thinkers.

Master Race is also one of the most studied comics of all time, most notably in the seminal piece of comics criticism "An Examination of Master Race" (by John Benson and David Kasakove, working in part from an Art Spiegelman essay and close reading of the story). A perfect marriage of artist, approach, and subject matter, Master Race rewards the constant reconsideration it richly deserves.

One of the most important stories in the history of comics and the history of the art of comics...

...I was a cartooning major at Art and Design in 1963. Only vaguely aware of Krigstein's comics, I gave him a wide berth. He was a small, barrel-chested man with a reputation among my illustration-major friends as a tough teacher, humorless and completely dismissive of comics. I was delighted to learn from Sadowski's book that the initials Krigstein used when signing his early superhero pages, "B. B. Krig," stood for the nickname he had earned in the Army: Ballbuster.

I met him only once, in the early seventies. John Benson, the editor of an EC fanzine called Squa Tront, wanted to expand and publish a panel-by-panel analysis of "Master Race" that I had written in 1967 as a college term paper. We went to visit Krigstein at his painting studio, on East Twenty-third Street, so I could read it to him and get his responses. Krigstein at first demurred that those days were long behind him and he didn't remember much about the work. As I began reading, he entered into the analysis avidly, acknowledging a reference to Futurism in one panel, to Mondrian in another, denying a reference to George Grosz in yet another. He basked when I pointed to a visual onomatopoeia that conjured up a subway's rumble. It was as if messages he'd sent off in bottles decades earlier had finally been found.

At the end of the paper, I had compared his approach to that of some important contemporaries whom I also admired, including Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. When I read that paragraph, Krigstein darkened. "Eisner!" he shouted. "Eisner is the enemy! When you are with me, I am the only artist!" He yanked me further into his studio and pointed at the walls. "Look!" he roared. "You see these paintings?" I saw several large, molten, and lumpy Post-Impressionist landscapes in acidic colors. "These are my panels now!" His voice betrayed all the anguish of a brokenhearted lover.

All they have to do is give him his own book, as they did with Kurtzman, and comic books could have jumped three or four decades in maturity inside of a year. No go. In fact, just the opposite happens. They start cutting the page count. To me it was an object lesson in the fact that innovation and business interests, while completely compatible are seen by businessmen as completely incompatible... If in later years, long after I'm dead, someone sees something in my work that seems - to them - as innovative as Master Race seemed - and seems - to me... Well, I'm pretty sure they will also see that what I achieved was only possible through self-publishing and, hopefully, I will have saved a handful of future creators from hitting a brick wall at their innovative peak that Feldstein and Gaines forced Krigstein to hit at his own creative high point.


Master Race
Impact #1, EC Comics, 1955
Original art by Bernard Krigstein

24 June 2021

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (No.49)

Understanding Comics (1993)
by Scott McCloud

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
When the venerable Will Eisner (see entries #15 and #57) offered his insightful Comics & Sequential Art (1985), he addressed the student and the academic with a hard-won how-to of explanations and examples that focused on the mechanics of the vehicle. Eight years later, Scott McCloud used comics to explain comics and, in effect, slipped the reader behind the wheel of the powerful and stylish medium. He congenially chatted about the wholly unique properties and wonderful accessories possible even while continually revealing the dazzling scenery that panel-by-panel narrative provides.

Using the vernacular to explicate the vernacular was an audacious, yet ultimately self-validating technique. For matters both philosophically ambitious and precisely concrete, McCloud not only pointed but effectively demonstrated comics' ability to convey and captivate. His topic may have attracted the attention of the cartoon cognoscenti, but it was the comics format that provided the hook for the casual reader. In deference to both audiences, McCloud made his treatise incisive, inclusive, democratic, and accessible, opening up the investigation of mysteries to common sense, common speech and masterful comics. Even as he exposed the tricks of the magical medium, he magnified the artistry involved. As the discussion progressed, McCloud proved congenially yet intellectually rigorous, a cartooning cross between Will Rogers and Umberto Eco. 

While the book may turn down some roads there was no great need to travel, the real disappointment is that McCloud's ruminations have yet to be met - at least in print - with the analysis and vigour they deserve. Perhaps that's why he's self-propelled and pulling away: his next book projected Reinventing Comics, rethinking the "Invisible Art" he'd so freshly fleshed out and animated.

With Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics the dialogue on and about what comics are and, more importantly, what comics can be has begun. If you read, write, teach or draw comics; if you want to; or if you simply want to watch a master explainer at work, you must read this book.

Understanding Comics is quite simply the best analysis of the medium that I have ever encountered. With this book Scott McCloud has taken breathtaking leaps towards establishing a critical language that the comic art form can work with and build upon in the future. Lucid and accessible, it is an astonishing feat of perception. Highly recommended.

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comics while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comics I’ve seen in a long time. Bravo.

Bravo!! Understanding Comics is a landmark dissection and intellectual consideration of comics as a valid medium. Its employment of comic art as its vehicle is brilliant. Everyone... anyone interested in this literary form must read it. Every school teacher should have one.


23 June 2021

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse (No. 86)

Stuck Rubber Baby (1995)
by Howard Cruse 

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Stuck Rubber Baby, published in 1995, was a big surprise for anyone who had followed Cruse's comic book career. The first surprise was its size - Cruse, who had up to this point specialised in short stories and strips, produced in Stuck Rubber Baby a novel of 210 very dense pages. Furthermore, Cruse's work had always been fairly light-hearted - for instance, Barefootz and his strips for Snarf and Dope Comix. But there are hints of what was to come - "Safe Sex", "Billy Goes Out" and especially the powerful "Jerry Mack" - three stories from Gay Comix, which Cruse founded and edited for several years.

Stuck Rubber Baby is the story of a young gay white man who comes out while becoming increasingly politicised by his town's civil rights movement. The town is Clayfield (a stand in for Birmingham, Alabama), and Clayfield has its own Bull Conner, Chopper Sutton, and its own Martin Luther King, the Rev. Harland Pepper. Toland starts off as a bit of a blank state in this massive bildungsroman, which is told as a flashback by the present day Toland. The structure is complex - within the larger flashback are more flashbacks and flash forwards. Toland's social conscious is awakened through a relationship with Ginger Raines, an idealistic and spontaneous folk singer / civil rights activist. Toland falls in love with her, and it's through his love for her that he both acquires a social conscience and admits (to himself and to the world) his homosexuality. Describing Stuck Rubber Baby makes it sound horribly didactic - but it's not. None of the large cast of characters is an idealised stereotype or a token, and the complexity of the plot makes any simplistic reading of Stuck Rubber Baby impossible.

Cruse's drawing took a giant leap here. His work, always very clean and leaning towards the cute end of the spectrum, is dark and dense. Cruse crams as many as 16 panels per page, giving the story a claustrophobic undertone - which is amplified by the tight, dark stippling. The drawing is all his own, but one can see elements of classic strip draftsmen like Milton Caniff and Al Capp in Cruse's drawing. In Stuck Rubber Baby, he achieved that level of graphic mastery. This, combined with the moving, well told story, make Stuck Rubber Baby a classic.

The everyday activism of principled people is an ongoing force for good in this country. And Howard Cruse’s visceral, visual account of America’s recent past is a testament to it. Stuck Rubber Baby contributes with grace and force to the vision of a just world.

The 25th anniversary edition of Stuck Rubber Baby was released in 2020 by First Second Books.

Howard Cruse TCJ Interview (1995)

22 June 2021

Madman's Drum by Lynd Ward (No. 69)

Madman's Drum (1930)
by Lynd Ward

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
More technically accomplished than the highly-successful God's Man, which preceded it in publication by a year, Madman's Drum is woodcut artist Lynd Ward's strongest and most representative book. Ward's picture novels, along with those by Belgium Frans Masereel, humorist Milt Gross, and a number of lesser known but often remarkable artists, are some of the comics mediums most lauded works. Because such artists worked towards the expectations of an arts audience rather than the customers of a commercial printing concern, their themes, aims and subject matter often closely resemble those in art comics from decades later.

Ward once wrote, in an introduction to a collection of his work, "Of all the graphic media available to artists today, the simplest is wood. Images cut on wood and inked and impressed on paper are not only the least technically complicated to produce, but are also the most ancient." One of the strengths of Madman's Drum is how perfectly Ward's use of woodcuts imparts a sort of timeless air to a story with historical and generational weight. Madman's Drum tells the story of a curse transferred from a slave holding past, through the slave-holder's son and onto his children. Because of the heavy inks of the woodcut picture, the story becomes timeless and, in a dramatic sense, inevitable in its drastic conclusions, achieving a power of persuasion that does not exist in later, more overtly political works of the artist.

Ward was also never more effective in utilising the strengths of the woodcut in service of symbolism. The central image of the curse, a grinning, jester-like face, is chilling and well-used. But other symbols are more nuanced without losing the story's fable-like feel: the rejection of religion by the slave-holder's son is obviously depicted in his discarding crucifix, but what exactly is meant by that crucifix's role in the death of his mother? Like the great novels of the 19th Century, Ward's work gains strength through the ambiguity of his symbols and their obvious dramatic power, rather than a specific, strident interpretation. Madman's Drum is a work worthy of constant reconsideration.

Perhaps the most provocative graphic storyteller of the twentieth century.

In Madman’s Drum Ward tried to tell a story spread across generations that had themes that reverberated and had a layered narrative of how different people, connected by blood, work through their lives. In the course of trying to give a back story to every character - that was the most interesting thing he tried to do - he wanted each character to have their own narrative reality, something that one associates with a good novel. That’s easier for George Eliot than it is for an illustrator trying to tell a story. The result is that this book requires a lot of rereading, not to enter deeper into the story but to penetrate what the hell the story is. Although there are sequences that are done very, very deftly and intelligently, this book doesn’t have the streamlined quality of Gods’ Man. Ward got more ambitious visually in Madman’s Drum and tried to engrave more finely in the wood; sometimes this led to good results but sometimes to something a bit murkier. I don’t mean to put the achievement down. It’s an interesting work and there are things I like about it. But because of the aspect of kitschiness in Gods’ Man that led Susan Sontag to put it into her canon of works defining “camp” - and because Madman’s Drum strives but fails at its ambition - I consider both interesting more for the territory they open than for the territory they ultimately colonize.


21 June 2021

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (No. 42)

Ghost World (1993-1997)
by Dan Clowes

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
With his graphic novella Ghost World, Daniel Clowes brilliantly bridges the gap between two styles of independent comics: smarts funny books like his own Eightball and character-driven autobiographical comics. What emerges is a modern comics masterpiece, a hilarious and affecting coming-of-age story.

Two wickedly funny teenaged girls, Enid and Rebecca, struggle with sex, identity, loss of innocence, and those eternal adolescent questions: "What should we do now?" and " What should I do with my life?". Enid might be going off to college. Rebecca might wilt without her. Both might be in love with their quiet friend Josh. 

This would be terribly precious and sentimental if these young women didn't think so fast and talk so sharp, like their clear forebears, Hopey and Maggie in Jaime Hernandez's Love & Rockets stories. Enid and Rebecca try to carve persona out of sheer attitude. But Clowes slices beneath the surface anger to show the sense of loss that haunts them, particularly Enid. The ghosts in her world are reminders of how much she has changed and will change, ghosts summons by old toys, old clothes, old songs. Ghost World captures that painful first flowering of nostalgia. Clowes reminds us that even the most perfect adolescent friendships are as brittle and fleeting as the pop passions of youth. 

The story marks a clever maturation for Clowes, from laughing at people to caring about characters who laugh at other people. He teases us with autobiographical elements - the anagram name Enid Coleslaw, the appearance of a "Perry" cartoonist names David Clowes - as if to say "There's a lot of truth here." But despite the too-rich dialogue, the story's emotional authenticity is never in doubt. Simply put: You'll laugh, you'll cry.


20 June 2021

Covering The Classics: The Unusual Suspects

In 2006 Penguin Classics began reissuing titles in their catalogue featuring cover art by notable comics artists. Below are some further covers issued after the initial launch of the Penguin Classics Deluxe series, which expanded the line-up of artists used (addressing the initial criticism from Dave Sim (Cerebus) that the choice of artists used consisted of "the usual suspects"). 

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
Cover art by Julie Doucet

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl
Cover art by Ivan Brunetti

James & The Giant Peach
by Ronald Dahl
Cover art by Jordan Crane

The Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
Cover art by Killoffer

White Noise
by Don DeLillo
Cover art by Michael Cho

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
Cover art by Lillie Carre

Revolutionary Suicide
by Huey P. Newton
Cover art by Ho Che Anderson

Metamorphosis & Other Stories
by Franz Kafka
Cover art by Sammy Harkham

19 June 2021

Covering The Classics: The Usual Suspects

In 2006 Penguin Classics began reissuing titles in their catalogue featuring cover art by notable comics artists. Below are some covers from the initial launch of the Penguin Classics Deluxe series, which at the time drew criticism from Dave Sim (Cerebus) for the choice of artists being "the usual suspects"

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
Cover art by Art Spiegelman

The Portable Dorothy Parker
by Dorothy Parker
Cover art by Seth

Lady Chatterley's Lover
by D.H. Lawrence
Cover art by Chester Brown

by Francois Voltaire 
Cover art by Chris Ware

Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon
Cover art by Frank Miller

The Jungle
by Upton Sinclair
Cover art by Charles Burns

by Mary Shelley
Cover art by Daniel Clowes

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
Cover art by Joe Sacco

Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions
CBR: The Sublime Variant Covers of Penguin Classics Graphic Deluxe Editions

18 June 2021

Gasoline Alley by Frank King (No. 29)

Gasoline Alley (1918-1951)
by Frank King

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Fondly niched  as the strip in which the characters aged, Gasoline Alley was created by Frank King (1883-1969) in 1918 at the behest of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, who wanted a feature that would appeal to people just learning how to take care of the automobiles, which, thanks to Henry Ford, were becoming widely available to a middle class public. Set in the alley where men met to inspect and discuss their vehicular passions, Gasoline Alley debuted November 24, joining several other panel cartoons that King boxed together on a black-and-whte Sunday page called "The Rectangle". On Monday, August 25, 1919, Gasoline Alley began running weekdays and soon appeared regularly in strip not panel cartoon form. To attract female readership, King was directed to put a baby into the strip, and since his main character, Walt Wallet, was a bachelor, the baby appeared rather unconventionally - in a basket on Walt's front doorstep on Valentine's Day 1921.

With the baby Skeezix preoccupying Walt, the strip took on familial overtones and developed a stronger thread of continuity. As Skeezix green up, the strip's other characters quite naturally also aged. Walt finally married and had other children while King traced Skeezix's life - through grade school, high school, graduation, his first job (on a newspaper), the army in World War II, and then, upon discharge, a job in the local gas station. Skeezix married his childhood sweetheart, and they had children - who, naturally, grow older. Usually drawing in a pedestrian but throughly competent manner, King experimented wildly in the 1930s on his Sunday page, playing with both the form of the strip and the style of rendering it. The strip remained determinedly small town America, and what the Wallet family experienced, every American family experienced, a tradition continued by King's successors - Dick Moores (from the late 1950s) and Jim Scancarelli (1896-present).

...It was in Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams' Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics that I first saw, studied and spilled ink upon samples of King's work in my clunky attempts to understand his quiet genius, though this Smithsonian book only reproduced a few of the Gasoline Alley pages, so I eventually went out in search of surviving original newsprint examples, which in the days before eBay was not an easy task. Eventually, however, I assembled a small collection of King's large, colorful works, and it was living with these that cemented for me his unquestionable, unpretentious greatness as an artist. I purchased protective mylar sleeves that were more expensive than the original pages themselves, because just as the leaves that Walt and Skeezix walked through every autumn turned yellow and then brown, the woody paper they were printed on also rapidly darkened, as had all of the samples I'd hung up above my drawing table.

...the engine that kept Gasoline Alley running smoothly for almost fifty years under King's kind guidance was not an attempt to trace or impose a thread of meaning on his characters' lives any more than one can impose a course or meaning on one's own.

For lack of a better analogy, some writers tell stories and other writers write -- that is, they try to capture the texture and feeling of life within the limited means of their literary tools, and the story lives somewhere within. To my mind, King was really the first real "writer" in the comics, and its in these vista-filling sunday pages that he allows himself to write most eloquently. How many other cartoonists would dare make the colors of autumn the subject of their work? How lucky were the readers who received these temporary observations of life on their doorsteps every week; it seems almost inconceivable now that strips trading on such tenderness appeared in common newspapers...


17 June 2021

Cages by Dave McKean (No. 46)

Cages (1990-1998)
by Dave McKean

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
It took several years, two publishers and 500 pages to complete, but it was worth the wait in the end. Cages, Dave McKean's explosive graphic novel, is one of those artistic achievements that you're compelled to stand back from and just marvel at.

Really, it should be a total mess. What starts routinely enough as a tale about a small group of artists (a painter, a musician, a writer) all living in one London apartment building explodes into a vast canvass of dreams, stories, lies and hallucinations. As reality shifts and is shifted time and again, McKean similarly unleashes his prodigious artistic talents, pulling out all the stops - lifework, oils, photos, mixed media, full colour, duotone, you name it - in an effort to find new ways of communicating in the comics form. Seemingly building as he goes along McKean presents a densely structured narrative spiked with odd angles, baroque visual treatments and deceptively unmapped extensions. But you know what? In the end it all holds together.

More than that, it actually works. Sure it's wild and often out of control. But at the same time it's some of the smartest and most elegant cartooning of the decade. Some of it seems slapdash and rushed, while other parts seem coldly calculated and deliberate. And that's the way it should be. This is, after all, a book about creation and creation occurs in all sorts of ways from the spontaneous to the controlled. 

The success of Cages rests in the fact that McKean is one of the rare cartoonists with such a wide variety of tricks that he could pull off such a display. I can think of few cartoonists who could have pulled off a book as big and bold and brash as this one. But I'm certainly glad that I can think of one.

(from Neil Gaiman On Dave McKean)
I never minded Dave being an astonishing artist and visual designer. That never bothered me. That he's a world class keyboard player and composer bothers me only a little. That he drives amazing cars very fast down tiny Kentish backroads only bothers me if I'm a passenger after a full meal, and much of the time I keep my eyes shut anyway. He's now becoming a world class film and video director, that he can write comics as well as I can, if not better, that he subsidises his art (still uncompromised after all these years) with highly paid advertising work which still manages, despite being advertising work, to be witty and heartfelt and beautiful.... well, frankly, these things bother me. It seems somehow wrong for so much talent to be concentrated in one place, and I am fairly sure the only reason that no-one has yet risen up and done something about it is because he's modest, sensible and nice. If it was me, I'd be dead by now.