Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 10: Alan Dunn

East of Fifth by Alan Dunn

Fredrik Strömberg wrote Black Images in the Comics (Fantagraphics Books, 2003). In the foreword of said book Charles Johnson stated:
[...] while the cartoonist and comics scholar in me coolly and objectively appreciated the impressive archeology of images assembled in Black Images in the Comics, as a black American reader my visceral reaction to this barrage of racist drawings from the 1840s to the 1940s was revulsion and a profound sadness.
Jumping to page 86 we can find the inevitable Ebony White (the family name has to be a joke) accompanied by Will Eisner's (the character's creator) comment:
I realize that Ebony was a stereotype because I drew him in caricature - but how else could I have treated a black boy in that era, at that time?
Well... Eisner could have asked East of Fifth 's author Alan Dunn

Title page of East of Fifth.

 “Will Eisner’s Almanack of the Year” [December 26, 1948] as published in DC Comics’ Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives Vol. 17 (July 4 to December 26 1948), 2005.

As you can see above both “Will Eisner’s Almanack of the Year” and East of Fifth were published in 1948. Sacred cow defenders usually utter the same excuse that Will Eisner used above. Basically: he's not to blame, he lived in less enlightened times, etc... On the other hand the Eisner (or McCay or Barks, etc...) critics say something like: that's true, nevertheless other creators didn't fall into the trap of racist imagery. The latter's problem is that they never give any example... Until now: clearly belonging to the second group I believe that great art gives us a complex view of the world, hence: it has no place whatsoever for the simplistic and offensive imagery of racists. See below how Alan Dunn portrayed black people in East of Fifth and compare the depiction with Will Eisner's pickaninny.

 East of Fifth, page 95.

 As we can see above, it's not that difficult. Alan Dunn just needed to caricature black people in the same way as he caricatured everybody else. What he couldn't change was black people's role in society. In this image, as housemaids in a party. Even so, he didn't resort to job stereotyping either. In the second image below the fourth character in the background row (counting from the left) is a middle class black person (a poet) attending a white people's party. In this sequence racism is clearly viewed as embedded in 1940s society (also: on page 92 an employee says: "Cab for Mrs. Eelpuss - white driver"). (Even if they appear here together the two images are 30 pages apart. Braiding is the formal device that links East of Fifth the most with comics. The book is also an example of what I call a locus .)

East of Fifth, page 59.

East of Fifth, page 89.

 Some cartoonists praise stereotypes because, according to them, it's an immediate way of conveying ideas. Looking at the image above I can see why: not that it really matters, of course, but without the usual short cuts (and forgetting page 59) it's not immediately obvious that the gentleman depicted is indeed black. My question is: is this offensive immediacy really worth it? I don't believe that Will Eisner was a racist. As Robert Crumb famously put it on the backcover of his comic book Despair (1970): "It's just lines on paper, folks!" (before that Crumb depicted a character named Nutsboy tearing apart a woman and saying "it's only a comic book, so I can do anything I want" - see below).

Robert Crumb, "Nutsboy", Bogeyman # 2, 1969, as published in The Complete Crumb Comics # 5, Fantagraphics Books, July 1990.

I'm not denying Robert Crumb or any other artist, for that matter, the right to draw "anything [s/he/they] want," but drawings have consequences as we have seen at the beginning of this post. In the story "Angelfood McSpade" (see below) Robert Crumb shows his camp tendencies exploiting a racist imagery that, I suppose, Crumb sees as his cultural trash heritage. As I see it Angelfood is marijuana (the character is an allegory), but that's irrelevant for this post. The point is that kitsch or no kitsch, camp or no camp, it's a racist depiction and I can't decide who to blame more: Will Eisner who uncritically swallowed his times' imagery or Robert Crumb who reveled in it.

"Angelfood McSpade", Zap # 2, June 1968, as published in The Complete Crumb Comics # 5, Fantagraphics Books, July 1990.

John Crosby (1912 - 1991) was a media critic. In one of those happy circumstances that happen once in a blue moon one of his columns "Radio in Review" fell in my hands. It was published in the New York Herald Tribune (July, 1948) and it's about East of Fifth. Sharp as a knife Crosby understood (with Göethe, looking at Töpffer's drawings, many years before) that this book had an unnamed form: the graphic novel. Here's what he said in his column "Radio in Review: East of Fifth, West of Superman" (New York Herald Tribune, July, 1948):
[...] "East of Fifth," by Alan Dunn, a cartoonist who is also a subtle and polished writer, is the story of twenty-four hours in the life of a large, fashionable Manhattan apartment house and, of course, of its occupants, told in cartoons with an accompanying text.
I bring it up here because Mr. Dunn's book may well be a brand new art form, a sort of sophisticated, literate extension of the comic books, rather horrifying in its implications to writers unable to draw. This isn't the first book in which cartoons and text tell a complete story but, to my knowledge, it's the first time anyone has attempted serious literature in this field. In this unreading age, when all the arts and much of journalism tend towards pictures, Mr. Dunn's comic book for adults is certainly significant, just a little distressing and thoroughly captivating.
Alan Dunn juggled with three forms: literature, comics, but above all, cartoons (he was a New Yorker cartoonist). While printed words carry the load of the narrative cartoons are lively comments on the little events that occur in the building (see below).
Alan Dunn was an architecture cartoonist. He was as interested in the machinery of the building and the personnel running things as in bourgeois life inside it. The tone is a bit too breezy (it reminds Ben Katchor's cool and detached, if poetical, remarks, sometimes).  A suicide occurs, in a masterful ellipse, nevertheless. It barely disrupts the hustle and bustle of city life though... and, maybe, that's the whole point: the book ends with a drawing and a phrase alluding to "the cold metropolis of the north."

East of Fifth, page 38.

Going back to Will Eisner it seems to me that, at least in the 1970s, he was influenced by Alan Dunn's work. It's a shame that, by then, it was too late to avoid Ebony...

East of Fifth, page 5.

Will Eisner, The Building, Kitchen Sink, 1987, as published in The Will Eisner Companion by N. C. Christopher Crouch and Stephen Weiner, DC Comics, 2004.

I end this post with page 134 of East of Fifth. It's now the wee hours and someone complained about the noise of a character's typewriter. He then switches to handwriting in a great visual device that will be used, years later, by Charles Schulz.

East of Fifth, page 134.
Update by Noah: This post inspired a roundtable on R. Crumb and race, all of which can be read here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 9: Hergé

Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) by Georges Remi (aka Hergé)

Reproduced above is page 32 of Tintin au Congo published  in the children's supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle (the twentieth century), "Le petit vingtième" (the small twentieth), September 18, 1930. Tintin au Congo was serialized in "Le petit vingtième" from June 5, 1930 to  June 11, 1931 (110 pages in toto). The album (or graphic novel if you will) was published in 1931. Tintin au Congo is Tintin's second adventure.
The page has five panels organized in what Benoît Peeters called (in his book Case, planche, récit - panel, page, narrative) "Utilization rhétorique" (rhetorical use): the panels shrink and enlarge according to the subject matter enclosed in them. The larger last panel shows nine characters. The second and fourth ones show three. In the second panel Hergé drew, on the left, just one foot of a character that's fleeing the scene. Doing that and adding speed lines the reader gets a strong feeling of speed. Unlike the hero, Tintin, and his sidekick, the dog Snowy (Milou), this character is not cool facing danger. An old automobile and an old train are the props. Hergé cleaned the background and reduced everything to what's essential for his storytelling. The tracks and the stones are there to tell us that the scene happens on a slope.
The train changes its direction dramatically from the first to the second panel. It enters the scene from left to right in the first panel and, in the second one, it comes from the opposite direction. I don't need to remind you that, since we read from left to right, when an object enters the scene coming from the right it's facing us, not travelling smoothly with us. The contrast is even bigger because the train operator is smiling in the first panel (it's a pleasant day, everything is fine, and it doesn't matter that the soot is falling on the passengers because they're black already). A big onomatopoeia follows in panel three and, to everybody's surprise, the car wrecks the train instead of the other way around. Tintin confronts the enraged group in the final panel.
This page is part of Hergé's humorous vein. By wrecking the train he surprised everybody, from Tintin and the train operator to the reader. Only Snowy isn't surprised (she has an exclamation mark in her thought balloon). Knowing nothing about physics she can only say: "what a wreck!" In the next page Tintin wants to make amends. His car will push the train, but, first, the train operator and the passengers need to put it back on track (sorry as he is he won't help though; he just gives orders). They don't want to because they're lazy. Tintin even scolds an homosexual (see below).
Hergé's space tends to the foreground for the reasons explained above. André Bazin said that the composition in depth allowed more freedom to the spectator, but Hergé doesn't want that, does he? He has a story to tell and he does it well. If you look attentively to the first panel you can almost hear the train and see it move. The stones, the smoke, the steam, make it move in a way that's akin to Walt Disney's animation of the 1920s and early 1930s.  It's obvious to me that the clear line was born in the simplification necessary to do animation during the first decades of the 20th century, not anywhere else.

 Still from Walt Disney's Mickey's Choo Choo, 1929.

Tintin's position shows him backtracking, not on the diegetic space, but on the space of the page. Tintin did wrong, but,  in page 33, he advances again. The passengers, on the other hand, switch places with him. He ends up on the right of the page in the last two panels. The social order is restored because of our hero’s resourcefulness.
This page is pretty crammed by Hergé’s standards, but the white dominates. Black spots punctuate the page drawing an open “Z” that points to the next page. On page 33 these spots draw a self-contained semicircle that also indicates a return to order. Tintin even manages to conduct the homosexual into the circle.
Light is allover the place. Hergé didn’t want to draw a naturalistic lighting because that would imply lots of shadows smearing his perfect world. Lines enclose everything in continuous surfaces. The metaphorical open lines either indicate speed or violence. Other open lines indicate small wrinkles on the slope.
Since we’re dealing with caricature the proportions are all wrong approaching those of a very small child (3,5, 4 heads in the last panel). Tintin isn’t a lot taller in the aforementioned panel with his 4,5 heads, but that half head of his speaks volumes...
Dear readers: please tell me what's wrong with this post?

Apologies to Mr. Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo. You would be my hero if I had one.

[I left this post unfinished on purpose. It needs the following comments:

Noah Berlatsky:
Ummm…is what’s wrong with the post that you’re focusing on formal successes rather than on the racist content?
Though you do get at the racism at a lot of points…. I especially like this line: “Hergé didn’t want to draw a naturalistic lighting because that would imply lots of shadows smearing his perfect world.” Low-key, but that’s some quality sneering…

Domingos Isabelinho:
You got it Noah. I would be a complete imbecile not to notice when I was touching the racism in the page(s). This proves, once again, that form and content can’t be separated. However… I think that it is wrong and ambiguous not to say certain things more clearly. For instance: there’s a poor taste joke in the first panel and I didn’t say that it is a joke, that it is in poor taste and that it is one of the most racist images in the history of comics. Not to mention the homophobic stereotype and the stereotype that depicts all black people as lazy people.

I can’t pass the foot in panel 2: black people are also cowards. In another part of the book they’re depicted as stupid and childlike. In these pages they should have said to the powerful white man (boy?) something like: you’re to blame, do it yourself or pay someone to do it if you can’t do it alone. But no, the powerful white man starts giving orders left and right and the black people obey him. Why? Because he could call the army? That’s possible, but, then, isn’t the great white hero a tyrant?
This post could be twice the size. It should be twice the size. No critical work is done until the critic deals with the social implications of the work under scrutiny.

Oh, yes, and how do they look? As ridiculous pastiches of white people. They want to be like their oppressors, but they’re too stupid to understand anything. Plus: those lips, those lips!…
Oh, man! Am I glad that you asked! What a relief!
Thanks a lot!…]

Thursday, October 25, 2018

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Sabrina and Barcazza

I just ordered My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Sabrina and Barcazza (I would love the opportunity to buy the B&W version of Barcazza, but now it's too late; it was either the French or Spanish version or the Italian color revamped reprint... oh well!... in a nutshell: bummer!). In a few days I'll see what all the hubhub is about and I'll report my impressions.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 8: Mat Brinkman

Mat Brinkman's Depressed Pit Dwellers and Heads, 44

Presumably you don't need to be told Fort Thunder's story all over again. That's why I won't be doing it at this time... You're welcome!... I'll add only this: those RISD students were multimedia artists drawn to many art forms: from music to comics, from assemblage to knitting. That's why Mat Brinkman had one foot in the printing world and the other one in the art gallery milieu. He chose both, but don't expect to find his work in the direct market venues. Most likely it's not in there...

Instead of Fort Thunder's story I'm going to tell you why the art form of comics needed the expression "graphic novels" (like that: in the plural form) and how it became part of our current language (you know all this already too, but I insist on my narrative because it isn't stressed enough when people discuss what's a graphic novel)... Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly (ditto other alternative comics publishers, I'm sure), knew that, in order to sell his books, he needed to find alternatives to the superhero dominated direct market (in other words, he needed to flee the comics ghetto). He needed to sell in regular bookstores, but, in there, his books were lumped in with superhero comics collections and newspaper reprints. He needed to convince the BISAC to create a new label to be used in bookstores: "Graphic Novels". This category would consist of "extended-length illustrated books with mature literary themes", as Matthew Shaer put it in the link above. I don't know if, a few years later, even after the creation of said category, Chris Oliveros was completely successful. According to Eddie Campbell (the creator of the hilarious Graphic Novel Manifesto): "the librarians and to some extent the book trade have decided that the graphic novel is a young readers' genre. [...]  [H]ere is the sequence of events: circa 1980 [after the impact of Will Eisner's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories] it was decided that comics had grown up and the grown-up version would be called 'the graphic novel.' [An expression coined by Richard Kyle in 1964, but with earlier uses in other languages; as all concepts its meaning changed over the years though.] This has been forgotten and [...] we're right back where we started."

Frankly it's not my aim to discuss the graphic novel phenomenon. To me it's just a marketing device that I applaud because it helps to find new readers to the comics that I champion the most. Apart from that I understand Eddie Campbell when he said that the graphic novel is not a format (it's a genre, to echo the "it's not a genre, it's a medium" mantra, usually applied to comics; Eddie could be absolutely right if we think that a comic book is not always comical and it certainly isn't a book), but many different things have been called graphic novels: from a collection of short stories (Will Eisner's A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories) to autobiography and biography at the same time (Maus by Art Spiegelman) to journalism (Joe Sacco's Palestine). That's why I say that a graphic novel is a format that pretty much stands for "trade paperback" and "prestige format" in the public's mind. That's also why the direct market easily co-opted the expression:

Forbidden Planet, London, UK.

Anyway, bookstores are just one of the possible alternatives to escape the comics ghetto. Another alternative is the art gallery. Art galleries publish art catalogues and artists' books. They're, therefore, also publishers...

In Mat Brinkman's Heads, 44's print run of 1000 boutique comics publisher Picturebox and The Hole art gallery joined efforts. According to the book's back cover Brinkman exhibited his monster heads in Mail Order Monsters at Max Wigram gallery in London (UK). I can't resist reproducing part of the gallery's press release:
Tapping into an underground music and graffiti vibe the selection of works in the show also finds reference in computer-programme aesthetics. Taking its title from a 1980s videogame (which allowed you to build your own monster) the show suggests an approach to the figuration in contemporary art practice which brings together fictional fantasy with the post-human figure of techno-dystopia, depicting the body as broken, decaying, uncanny and monstrous.
Brinkman's monster heads were also exhibited in New York Minute: 60 Artisti della scena newyorchese at the Macro Museum in Rome, Italy, Melissa Brown and Mat Brinkman at M & B gallery, Los Angeles, among other places like Berlin (Germany) and Athens (Greece).

Before Heads, 44 there were the Depressed Pit Dwellers, a book published in 2008 by art brut French publishers Le Dernier Cri who titled it simply Monsters on their website. Depressed Pit Dwellers is an eleven colors silk screen book with a print run of 200.

Double-page spread in Depressed Pit Dwellers showing Mat's unorthodox use of the silk-screen.

As we can easily imagine from the print run numbers above we're far from comics as a mass medium, but, on the other hand, we must add the number of gallery and museum goers who saw Mat Brinkman's drawings. I have no idea which numbers we're talking about though...

In the pre-history of these two books are Mat Brinkman's comics published mainly in mini-comics and the newspaper Paper Rodeo. All collected in two books: Teratoid Heights (Highwater Books, 2003) and Multiforce (Picturebox, 2009).

In another post I said:

What's Fort Thunder, really? If I had to define it with one word it would be: noise. It gave the name to the artists' group and noise-rock was played there. But is there such a thing as visual noise? Yes, there is: in information theory (Shannon-Weaver model) noise is everything that distorts the transmission of information. (Instead of simply saying "noise" I should have used the more accurate expression "semantic noise," though.) This means that Fort Thunder is some sort of Dada (Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau is the grandfather of the Fort), Funk (Jim Nutt et al - I personally have a soft spot for Roy de Forest and Nicholas Africano), Punk (Gary Panter comes to mind), aesthetic. Not to mention Art Brut, New Image, Figuration Libre, etc... etc...
Nothing new under the sun? It depends: no one cited above invested in comics as the Fort Thunder artists did (except Panter, of course); they brought their generations' imagery (the eighties' video games and other cultural detritus) to the forefront.

In Depressed Pit Dwellers the reader/viewer can find a new visual device in Mat Brinkman's work: since silk-screen is a gradual process of adding layer upon layer of colors it's obvious that Mat Brinkman would, trying the technique in a funky way, loose unity and accordance (to gain entropy). The monsters, and everything around them, drawn in black, are transparent beings showing their brightly colored innards.

Single page from Depressed Pit Dwellers.

Other times, as we can see above, the "degradation" comes to its paroxysm and reaches a kind of abstaction.

Another Double-page spread in Depressed Pit Dwellers.

In the image above the process used in Heads, 44 can be detected already. Here's how The Hole's press release describes it:
As Mat drew, each of these ink-on-rice paper “heads” would seep onto the next sheet, forming the basis of that drawing, and so on. We’ve reproduced this work by printing on fine vellum with extra dense black ink which was quick-dried with UV lamps. Watch as marks coalesce, animate, and come alive.
As Ao Meng put in his great review:
In this way an organic, wordless narrative emerges. Some of the heads are chillingly detailed, while others explode into almost pure Rorschach-blot abstraction. Some of the images are so obscure that as individual works they would be difficult to identify as faces. However, the magic of “Heads, 44“ as a comic of sequenced art versus a collection of related works is that the physical transparency of the paper allows the viewer to see the next image underneath the current page. The viewer is always between pages, experiencing multiple images at once.
To the question: can Mat Brinkman reproduce the same transparency effect that he used in Depressed Pit Dwellers using black ink only? The answer is: yes he can. As we turn the vellum pages two additional tones of gray appear creating textures with the thick black ink (two pages later the black is light gray, one page later it's dark gray). This is a Darwinian process of gradual mutation that begins with the monster and ends in nothingness... Info theory entropy joining bio entropy: loose blotty cells that have barely a reason to stay together...

Heads, 44's last page. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

24 Frames By Abbas Kiarostami

I recently said on this blog that  "I prefer the Kiarostami photographer to the Kiarostami filmmaker". Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love his films, but somehow I love his photos even more. Well, it seems that he indulged me because... just look at his last film... Just look!...

Monthly Stumblings # 7: Aristophane [Boulon]

Les soeurs Zabîme (the Zabîme sisters) by Aristophane [Boulon]

Can you imagine yourself in Kupe's lighthouse (that ideal comics library filled with books that don't exist in Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville)? I do sometimes, but, even if I wholeheartedly agree with Kupe's point of view (which is: "The official history of comics is a history of frustration. Of unrealised potential. Of artists who never got the chance to do that magnum opus. Of stories that never got told - or else they were bowdlerized by small-minded editors...") my particular lighthouse has a few books whose content does exist, but isn't available. Books like Santiago "Chago" Armada's Sa-lo-mon, or Rafael Fornés' Sabino, or James Edgar's and Tony Weare's Shannon Gunfighter or Isepinal the Apache, or Héctor Germán Oesterheld's and Francisco Solano López's Amapola Negra (Black Poppy), or Martin Vaughn-James' The Park...

Cuban artists "Chago" Armada (left) and Samuel Feijóo (photo published in Signos # 32, 1984). The drawing is Armada's.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Monthly Stumblings # 6: Otto Dix

Der Krieg (the war) by Otto Dix

When I think about German Expressionism the Isenheim Altarpiece (1506 -1515) by Matthias Grünewald comes quickly to my mind. I know it isn't exactly an Expressionist painting (I'm aware of the anachronism), but all expressionism (and some Surrealism too: Max Ernst, for instance) is there already.
One of the topics explored by Matthias Grünewald in his altarpiece is ergotism, as we can see in the polyptych's wing shown below:

It represents Saint Anthony being harassed by demons, but if you look closely on the lower left corner of the painting you will see a patient afflicted with Saint Anthony's fire. This disease was caused by the ingestion of ergot infected rye and other cereals. Ergotism produces  seizures and hallucinations (hence the demons) as well as gangrene of the limbs and peeling. Ergotism also explains the strange look of Matthias Grünewald's Christ in the aforementioned altarpiece. There was a spiritual connexion between the son of God's suffering and the suffering of the diseased.
The depiction of human pain (often psychological pain instead of physical agony) isn't the only theme explored by Expressionist painters (and it certainly isn't this artistic movement's monopoly), but it certainly is an important part of the aforementioned style. Otto Dix remembered Matthias Grünewald and the polyptich form (a tryptich with a predella: a gallery comic) when he painted Trench Warfare, 1929 - 1932, his own version of human suffering in WWI: