Monday, July 16, 2018

Funky Flashman

DC Comics' "Himon!" by Jack Kirby (Mister Miracle # 9, Jul.-Aug. 1972) is not the comics story that I hate the most. That dubious honor, if I remember correctly, goes to Pedro and Me (2000) by Judd Winick, but since there're 100 miles between yours truly and my copy of said "graphic novel," "Himon!" will have to do as a target for my participation in the 5th Anniversary Hooded Utilitarian Hate Roundtable. "Himon!" isn't even the worst Jack Kirby story... on the contrary, Charles Hatfield, in his book about Kirby Hand of Fire (2012, 206), included it among "the most deeply personal comics Kirby ever made." Since Charles did such a good job analyzing "Himon!" I must agree with him that said story has its merits. This is good because I don't want to incur in the same fault I accuse superhero comics artists and writers of (i. e.: of being Manichean). Then again is it fair to judge an artist for a really small amount of his input while most of it is big corporation owned dreck produced in a work-for-hire situation? In any case I'll use other aspects of Boy Commandos, New Gods, The Eternals and the aptly titled Mister Miracle Super Escape Artist series to illustrate my points.

1 - Manicheism:

"Mystivac!," Mister Miracle # 12, Jan.-Feb. 1973.

Jack Kirby's superhero comics are Manichean. Reality is seen in black and white in these primary colored comics. From a purely visual point of view this means that the baddies are ugly (as seen above) and the goodies are mostly good looking. We can find the roots of this line of thinking in the ancient pseudoscience of physiognomy: the absurd idea that one's outer appearance is a mirror image of our personality. To further examine how Jack Kirby used physiognomy we just need to compare Mister Miracle and Big Barda...


 "Apokolips Trap!!," Mister Miracle # 7, Mar.-Apr. 1972.

...two young athletes owning handsome physical appearances... with Granny Goodness and Darkseid below...

 "The Pact!," New Gods # 7, Feb.-Mar. 1972  (as reprinted in Jack Kirby's New Gods # 4, Sept. 1984). Scott Free (Mister Miracle) arrives in Apokolips. (Stupid! Stupid! Garish colors! Give me old Benday Dots anytime! And yet, need I say it?, this is still thousands of times better than today's gradient-ridden computer coloring.)

The former is an old woman and the latter is a stony faced Neanderthal. The baddies' mugs are more masks than proper faces; their facial expression (it's mainly one) shows that they're always in a bad mood. In a Manichean war of good vs. evil Jack Kirby equated good with youth and good looks and evil with old age and other species or subspecies. We can't also forget that young people were the reading target for these comics (Kirby's clients) and our shallow hedonistic media revere youth and good physical appearances. Instead of choosing racist stereotypes like Ming in Flash Gordon (fortunately Jack Kirby may be accused of many things, but not of being a racist - Mister Miracle # 15, for instance, is there to prove it), Jack Kirby, as I mentioned above, advocated speciesism. His bad guys were surely insect-like and reptilian (with the occasional furious cat, mad dog, and devilish goat thrown in for good measure).

 Insecto-Sapiens! Untitled, Mister Miracle # 16, Oct.-Nov. 1973.

(Below is an intelligent attack on physiognomy - I know, it's an easy target, but still...)

James Gillray, "Doublures of Characters or striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy. "If you would know Men's Hearts, look in their Faces.","  Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, November 1, 1798. On an unrelated note: look at the hand-coloring and weep!

Manicheism, of course, is part of an us vs. them ideology in which we, obviously, are always the good guys. Listen to Jack Kirby himself (in "Kirby on Survival," Jack Kirby's New Gods # 6, 1984):
They are evil, we are good. They are plotters and traitors, we are loyal and clever.
In "Himon!" Manicheism is still a problem, but at least it is aptly used to show how, in a dictatorship, almost everyone (Auralie, for instance, is an exception) is infected by the ugliness of the leader.

 To paraphrase Charles Hatfield in Hand of Fire (219), everyone's infected... "Himon!," Mister Miracle # 9, July-Aug. 1972.

2 - Formula:
It's no secret: superhero comics are formulaic. If you let me indulge in a personal note for a sec. I must say that this is reason enough to stop me from enjoying these stories: if the comic is Manichean and it's just an endless row of fights why should I bother reading it if I know beforehand who will win? This is exactly what happens in most of the boring issues of the Mister Miracle Super Escape Artist series: Mister Miracle vs. Steel Hand; Mister Miracle vs. Overlord and Granny Goodness; Mister Miracle vs. Doctor Bedlam; etc... etc... ad nauseam... Trying to understand why people like these comics and films I suppose (and I use the word advisedly because this is no scientific conclusion) that readers and spectators like to feel the epinephrine of violent action (without the consequences produced by violence in the real world, of course). They also like to root for the righteous good guys... It's kind of a sports thing, I guess...

 Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in self-referential mode. Boy Commandos # 1, Winter 1942 - 43 (as reprinted in Mister Miracle # 6, Jan.-Feb. 1972).

In the image above two characters that stand for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby explain how "[They]'ve been getting [their] characters in and out of jams." That pretty much sums it all up: in these formulaic comics the heroes get in a jam and, then, they get out of it. In Mister Miracle # 5 the baddie, Virman Vundabar, says to Mister Miracle, after he got out of yet another jam (to quote the fanboys when talking about art comics: "yawn!"):
I know! A mother box! [everything is emphatic in these stories] With the aid of a mother-box, you thinned your atomic structure and transferred yourself out of the coffer!!
To which the latter answers:
Not so! [...] I play it fair -- and you know it!!!
Mister Miracle won by three exclamation marks to two. On the other hand I reckon that he was wrong and the baddie was half right: it wasn't the mother box that saved Mister Miracle, but he was far from playing it fair. He escaped because of the formula imposed by the author, Jack Kirby. The game is definitely rigged. In "Himon!" the same thing happens to ruin my enjoyment of the story. The dei ex machina are an easy solution to every problem: Scott Free (Mister Miracle) is blinded by the ideology imparted in Granny Goodness' school?, no matter, Metron and Himon will put him out of his wrong ways; Himon is killed by an angry mob?, of course not, he has the ability to replicate himself (it was one of those replicas that seemed to be assassinated); Scott Free fights some of Darkseid's minions?, piece of cake... he easily wins... etc... In conclusion: Everything is too easy for yours truly's taste.

"Himon!," Mister Miracle # 9, July-Aug. 1972: you bet that's not him.

 3 - Cardboard Characters:
These characters are as thin as the paper they were printed on. Mister Miracle barely exists. At the beginning he's just a strange being who came from another world. We know nothing about him except that he's a super Houdini. From Mister Miracle # 4 (Nov.-Dec. 1971) until Mister Miracle # 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1972) a series of short stories (two and four pages) give us some feedback to understand Scott Free a little better, but is that enough? He was born in Goodiesland (aka New Genesis), but because of some kind of pact between Darkseid and Highfather (a kind of Moses) he was transferred to Baddiesland (Apokolips) where he grew up in Granny Goodness' orphanage to become part of Darkseid's military elite. The truth is that no real characterization exists. If the hero (the main character) is flat what can we expect for the other characters? Nothing at all...
At the end of "Himon!" we find the melodramatic panel below:

 "Himon!," Mister Miracle # 9, July-Aug. 1972. Is that eye leaving stage left? 

That's OK, by me, but... who are you exactly? How can one find something that doesn't exist?
These cyphers can only be used as personifications in allegories, but we all know how heavy handed that can be. Plus: a Manichean one can only achieve kitchy results... Certainly not the status of great art that some claim for Kirby's work...

4 - Glorification, Glamorizing, Sanitation of Violence:
This is the part in which my love/hate relationship with Jack Kirby's art reveals itself. Not being completely blind I can see how (see above when I guess why people like action comics and films) the drawings are powerful. That's exactly the problem: they're too powerful. So much so that Art Spiegelman put the topic in the following terms (in The Comics Journal # 181, Oct. 1995, 106):
[...] the triumph of the will, the celebration of the physicality of the human body at the expense of the intellect, is very much an impulse in Fascist art. It has a lot to do with the motor for Kirby's work, even though I understand that his work is filled with characters who fought the Fascists.
Kirby's double-page spreads are particularly good examples of the above. With them Kirby aimed to grab the reader by the guts from the beginning. To do so he knew he needed to create the most spectacular images he could muster. This meant huge battle scenes with lots of what Charles Hatfield called Kirby's technological sublime and the clash of titans. 

 "Earth --- The Doomed Dominion," New Gods # 10, Aug.-Sept. 1972 (as reprinted in Jack Kirby's New Gods # 5, Oct. 1984). The mannerist composition dividing the realm of the gods from the realm of the humans (or... whatever they are) is quite interesting.

We have seen that there are a few problems with Jack Kirby's superhero stories, but enlightened readers tend to value the drawings and the drawing style instead of the narratives. As if the former can be, in comics, totally separated from the latter. It can't: both the iconical content of the drawings and the lines as such are a unit, a meaning generator. The Manichean content, for instance, is in the text, but it is also in the narrative drawings, as we have already seen. Plus: it's the lines, colors, and textures that convey the physicality and the powerfulness of the images; marks have meanings. Kirby's graphic style is a cubo-futurism which underlines and glorifies, technology, youth and violence. In the above panel, for instance, extreme violence is given to us in awesome spectacle. Being a children's comic the nasty consequences of such a shock are spared to us because these are super beings and nothing can really harm them. What escapes my reckoning is why do they attack each other if there are no consequences of the attack? Logic doesn't matter though, what really matters is that the kinetic and colorful show must go on.
Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote the following about kitsch (in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984, 248):
Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.
Also (253):
Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.
Giving us not only a fascistic glorification and aestheticization, but also a sanitized version of violence Jack Kirby's work is the perfect embodiment of kitsch.
Again, "Himon!" is a bit different. In the below panel we don't see them exactly, but innocent people die (my question is: aren't Jack Kirby's readers so inured to violence that they couldn't care less? Besides, who cares about cyphers?):

 "Himon!," Mister Miracle # 9, July-Aug. 1972. 

5 - Feminism?
Of course not. Even if Big Barda is a physically empowered woman (as we have seen, there's no intellect in Jack Kirby's comics) look below to see who the only scantily clad character is:

 "The Closing Jaws of Death!," Mister Miracle # 4, Sept.-Oct. 1971.

On the other hand the panel below could be a poster to announce a SlutWalk, so, I may be wrong...

"Mystivac!," Mister Miracle # 12, Jan.-Feb. 1973.

In conclusion (a):
(After probing into a small part of a huge corpus):
On the mass culture side of things Jack Kirby not only contributed enormously to the superhero mythos, he also inspired ideas for films like Star WarsMan in Black, or Pure Steel (more than dubious feathers to wear in one's cap, but anyway...).
Jack Kirby's superhero stories are Manichean formulaic romps performed by cardboard characters. His drawing style and visual imagery are an emphatic cubo-futurist fascistic glorification and glamorizing of violence, youth and technology. On the positive side he was particularly good creating complex panel layouts and used the comics medium to great effect sometimes; for instance (note the sequence of the archers' movements from left to right):

 "Apokolips Trap!!," Mister Miracle # 7, Mar.-Apr. 1972.

Jack Kirby could also surprise the reader from time to time breaking, for example, the dichotomy handsome/good vs. ugly/bad:

 "Mother!," The Eternals # 10, Apr. 1977.

Other times he committed crass mistakes. Probably because of an excess of work and deadline pressure:

 The final sequence of "Paranoid Pill!," Mister Miracle # 3, July.-Aug. 1971.

 The continuation of the sequence above in "The Closing Jaws of Death!," Mister Miracle # 4, Sept.-Oct. 1971. Where did those ropes come from?

Being such a loud comics artist Jack Kirby's work seems to have been created by his character Funky Flashman. Even if said character is a caricature of Kirby's, by then, rival Stan Lee...
Conclusion (b):
What about "Himon!," then? It's as simplistic and Manichean as all the other stories, but, at least, Kirby used Manicheism to show how the dictator's ideology infects the people (the "lowlies"). The narrative formula is also there (the use and abuse of the dei ex machina, Metron and Himon, is too facile a device; on top of that Scott Free can't lose a fight and he can't be killed - even if "in a jam" we know that he will end up all right). The characters are flat, but, at least, there's some internal conflict in Scott Free (that's a slight improvement over other, more pedestrian, stories). Apart from the above there are some pursuits, fights, and explosions (yawn!) and the usual glamorizing followed by sanitation of violence. The sequence in which Willik orders the burning of the "lowlies" may go against the grain (up to a point, as we've seen above), but that's one exception, not the rule. So is the story "Himon!" in Jack Kirby's oeuvre.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Jack Slingsby

It was Friday, September 26, 2008, almost ten years ago. That day I wrote my second post on this blog. The sites I linked to that time are long gone (I recently updated the post erasing those links because they're useless now, as, I'm sure, most of the links I posted over the years are). If you followed those links at the time you could have read the magnificent "Carol Day" story arcs for free. Now you can't anymore, but almost... You can't say that paying $3.68 for an absolute masterpiece of the comics form isn't a bargain.

David Wright, "[Jack Slingsby]," Daily Mail, 1964.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The Expanded Field of Comics And Other Pet Peeves

Ana Hatherly, The Writer (1975).

Still in shock after seeing that the comics’ subculture continues as deaf and insular in its aesthetic criteria as ten years ago (since the infamous The Comics Journal’s list) not having moved one iota, I remembered Dwight Macdonald who, in Politics Vol. 2, No. 4 (Whole No. 15), April 1945, wrote:
It would be interesting to know how many of the ten million comic books sold every month are read by adults.[…] We do know that comics are the favorite reading matter of men in the armed forces, and that movie Westerns and radio programs like “The Lone Ranger” and “Captain Midnight” are by no means only enjoyed by children. […] This merging of the child and grown-up audience means [an] infantile regression of the latter unable to cope with the complexities of modern society.
I certainly don’t agree that an infantilization of grown-ups’ cultural habits means that people can’t cope with the complexities of modern society, it may simply mean that comics readers want (for a while) to escape those complexities. Hell, I suppose that they want to escape life itself, or, at least, those parts of life that can’t be depicted by kitsch… Did you notice how death and exploitation are almost completely absent from this top ten’s list (and I don’t mean death of a Daffy Duck kind; Maus and the death of Speedy are an exception)? Have you noticed how lifeless these comics are? (And I mean “lifeless” in the sense of not related to life in any way – Dwight Macdonald also helped me to realize this when he said to Pauline Kael, when they were discussing North-American films: “How did vitality get in there? I mean, crudeness I give you, but vitality? It’s possible to be crude and not vital, you know?”)
I couldn’t agree more with David T. Bazelon, who, also writing in Politics (Vol. 1, No. 4, May 1944), wrote:
"Superman" gives vicarious satisfaction to explicit social frustrations. It cannot be tragic or displeasing, nor can it contain that essential realism which is a quality of all good art. For it has a purpose: this is art in the service of social neuroses. And that service is the meaning of most comic strips... Pearls are produced not by serving but by opposing disease.
Only now did I understand the true meaning of the phrase “comics are not just for kids anymore.” What it really means is that popular comics, even if they continue to be children’s comics, are also enjoyed by adults. With the above phrase and other similar ones people from inside the ghetto of the comics subculture want to sell a false image to the laymen and laywomen (it was now definitely proven to me that the above reading is the right one or they’re lying).

Francisco de Goya, The Disasters of War (published in 1863).

I’m not saying that The Hooded Utilitarian’s top ten list (and beyond) is completely devoid of value. As I put it last May 10 on this very blog: I have nothing against popular entertainment. I also think that a good art vs. bad art kind of black & white view of things isn’t exactly clever or productive. I enjoy a lot of pop pap (Gasoline Alley, for instance) it’s just that I don’t think that it fares well alongside Tsuge’s work or Fabrice Neaud’s work. That’s my whole point, while the pap is canonized meatier work is forgotten.
I suppose that one could say that even meatier work (if that’s possible) is also not included, but there, the infantilization of the reading public is not the only barrier. Essentialism is frontier number two (an even more powerful one this time).
Rosalind Krauss wrote an important essay about how perplexing the concept of sculpture had become at the end of the seventies: Sculpture in the Expanded Field (October, Vol. 8, Spring, 1979). I borrowed her concept of an extended field and applied it to comics.
Rosalind Krauss criticized historicism in her essay. Historicism is also a problem in comics’ expanded field's case for two reasons: (1) because my field expansion is in great part ahistorical; (2) because some critics view comics as an unchanging art (Alan Gowans) or a posthistorical art (David Carrier).

Frans Masereel, From Black to White (1939).

Arriving here I can only go on after an analysis of what I called, the origin’s myth and the problem of a comics definition.
There are, at least, five cultural fields which can help to expand comics as an art form: (1) Medieval (or older art) painting and book illustration; (2) the wordless engraving cycle; (3) Modern and Post-Modern painting; (4) Concrete and Visual Poetry; (5) the cartoon. None of these fields are linked to comics on the gentiles' heads. For a variety of reasons they all have problems to be accepted by the comics milieu as well. Let's briefly examine some of these objections:
1. Medieval comics (let's call them that way) weren't produced for the enjoyment of the people: they weren't reproduced, they were highly expensive items, they were owned by aristocrats. Since the beginning of fandom comics have been viewed as popular art: a child of the Industrial Revolution and modern visual mass communications (hence: comics were born in America with the publication of a Yellow Kid page in the New York Journal: "The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph," October 25, 1896; this is a position that American scholar Bill Blackbeard always defended). Besides this sociological criterion we must add two formal ones in this particular case: the existence of juxtaposed panels and the existence of speech balloons. Denying the latter some European scholars (Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters, for instance) argued that comics started with Rodolphe Töpffer's first "Histoires en estampes" (Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was drawn in 1827 - Histoire de M. Jabot was published in 1833; Töpfferians who are also print fundamentalists must say that Jabot was the first comic, other Töpfferians will say that Vieux Bois is the real McCoy). In his book The Early Comic Strip (1973) historian David Kunzle argued that the first comics were created shortly after the invention of the mechanical printing press by Johann Gutenberg (Hans Holbein's Les Simulacres et historiées faces de la mort is among the first books that he cites, but his most famous example is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, c. 1682). David Kunzle later converted to Töpfferism (More recently he published a book titled Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer, 2007). Barlow's two pages fulfill Bill Blackbeard's criteria, by the way: they were printed, they have a grid, they even have speech balloons or something similar (Robert S. Petersen called them "emanata scrolls").

 Anon., Canticles of Saint Mary by Alfonso X the Sage (c. 1270).

2. Engraving cycles, from Jacques Callot to Eric Drooker, aren't as difficult to accept (in the comics corpus) by the comics milieu as Medieval illustrations. This happens because they were born from an idea that art should be more democratic: engravings are cheaper than paintings and sculptures. Even so the high / low divide may be a serious objection here. Even if Frans Masereel had a leftist sensibility and his cycles were (are) published in book form, he was a serious painter, he was in the wrong side of this sociological fence. If I defend Picasso as a comics artist the comics milieu calls me a snob and an elitist (doing their usual mind reading they say that I want to include highly regarded gallery artists in the comics canon just to elevate comics' status). Formal features are a problem also: engraving cycles have no speech balloons or page grids.

Jacques Callot, The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633).

3. To the comics milieu paintings and poems (visual or otherwise) are not comics, period. Original comic art has been exposed in galleries, museums, and comics conventions (a strong tradition in Europe's comics conventions gives original art an important role as an attraction factor), but I don't mean that. What I mean is comic art meant to be exposed as unique objects on gallery walls. Most people would call these objects paintings inspired by comics. Don't take my word for it though, the artists themselves call "gallery comics" to what they're doing. Sorry to indulge in name-dropping, but I mean: Christian Hill, Mark Staff Brandl, Howie Shia. Andrei Molotiu could also be part of this list; ditto Paper Rad: they all have strong links with the comics milieu. As for Brazilian painter Rivane Neuenschwander, American painter Laylah Ali and Swiss painter Niklaus Rüegg, I have no idea, but both Ali and Rüegg are interesting examples because, not only did they paint, their paintings were also original art (in the comics sense) for the publication of comic books (by the MOMA and Fink Editions, respectively).

 Niklaus Rüegg, Spuk (2004); a Carl Barks comic without the characters.

4. During the fifties Brazil was at the avant garde of poetry. Inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé's "Coup de dés," Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrammes, Dadaism, Ezra Pound's Imagism, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, Pedro Xisto and others created Concrete poetry. In a Concrete poem typography and the pages' negative space is as important as words. Sounds are more important than meaning (or new meanings are born when words are reorganized on the space of the page and reinvented). Concrete and visual poetry viewed as comics may prove that comics without images may exist in the same way as comics without words.

 Álvaro de Sá,  Process-Poem (c. 1967).

If we consider stained glass windows as comics (something that is not as far-fetched as it seems) Medieval comics were also meant to be viewed by "the masses" even if they weren't printed (David Kunzle opines differently though: "A mass medium is mobile; it travels to man, and does not require man to travel to it.") As for grids and speech balloons it's possible to find said features in Medieval comics, believe it or not. Here's what Thierry Groensteen wrote on the Platinum List (Jan 18, 2000):
Danielle Alexandre-Bidon, a specialist of the Middle-Age, has given a lot of evidence of the fact that comics existed in the medieval manuscripts, during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Hundreds, if not thousands of pages, with speed lines, word balloons, sound effects, etc. The language of comics had already been invented, but these books were not printed. After Gutenberg, text and image were not so intimately linked anymore, and one could say that the secret of comics was lost, until Töpffer rediscovered it.
This is revealing: even the most fervent defender of Töpffer as the "father of the comic strip" says here that he "rediscovered it." This is something like saying that Columbus rediscovered America (he couldn't discover it simply because he found people already living there when he arrived).
The comics origin's myth is essentialist: it's an arbitrary choice that's based on an equally arbitrary definition (the latter precedes the former). (And I'm sure that I'm not the first one to say this, elsewhere or around here.)
The two more common (or so it seems to me) kinds of definitions are based on social (comics must be reproduced and distributed to the masses) and formal premises (essential characteristics of comics are sequentiality, word and image relations, the word balloons, the juxtaposition of the panels, etc...). Social definitions of comics have two problems: (1) The sorites paradox applied to the concept of "masses." If one grain of wheat doesn't make a heap two grains of wheat do not; [...] if three thousand grains of wheat don't make a heap three thousand and one grains of wheat do not; etc... When do we stop not having a heap to finally have one? This paradox can be applied to print runs. (2) Social definitions of comics are usually used to deny that Medieval comics are comics (they aren't reproduced). What I say is that they must have been reproduced at some point because I've seen them and I have never seen any original drawings. There's a third point: how come an original comics page is not a comic, but an exact repro is? Leonardo de Sá cleverly argued this point saying: the original art is not a comic the same way as the repro of a painting is not a painting. Not bad, I would say... but… using Nelson Goodman’s theories about fakeable and not fakeable arts, painting is one-stage autographic while comics are n-stage (my theory) autographic. That’s why a repro of a painting is not a painting while the original art of a comics page is a comic.
Formal definitions of comics have problems also; I'll mention two. (1) Any formal definition arbitrarily chooses some features and forgets others. This means that, if I chose to say something like "the speech balloon is essential to comics" (oops, there goes Prince Valiant) or "word and image relations define comics" (oops there go "mute" comics out the window) no comics exist at all. Why? Because all comics have panels without speech balloons, without words, etc... A comics reading experience would be something like this: now it's a comic, oops, now it isn't, etc... (2) All art is based on experiment. More inventive artists are always pushing the limits of their art forms. Comics are no exception, but if we put a formal corset around them what happens is that: (1) we lose some very important artistic achievements (some who defend comics exactly because they're mass art couldn't care less, obviously, but I, for one, do) and (2) we seriously limit the creativity of the artists who chose to create comics. Another problem is that we can't look back to, let's say, Charlotte Salomon, and view her work as comics (again: some who defend comics...). It seems that all comics have sequentiality, but even this point was argued by Eddie Campbell in a discussion with yours truly many moons ago: he included one panel cartoons in the comics concept. Me?, I have no definition of comics whatsoever. I prefer to say with Saint Augustine: If no one asks me, I know what they are; If I wish to explain them to him who asks, I do not know.

 Charlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater?, CD-Rom (2002 [1940 - 42]).

So, denying essentialism we can look back or look around and find great comics. I have no solution for the ahistoricity of the expansion in time or social space. Picasso didn’t view himself as a comics artist (even if he liked comics) and the art world around him didn’t either. However… if older art historians say that Picasso’s Songe et mensonge de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco) are engravings (which they are, of course) more recent ones (Juan Antonio Ramirez, for one) say that it is a comic. This means that we (even if part of this “we” doesn’t belong to the comics milieu) may look in unexpected places and notice multiple instances that can be considered comics (Frans Masereel is a no brainer by now, for instance; I’m sure that Paleolithic painters didn’t call “painting” in the modern sense to what they were doing). As for comics as an unchanging or posthistorical art it may be true (I have my doubts) if we consider it as low mass art, but aren’t we excluding heaps of alternative artists, then? I’m trying to be reasonable, but, to talk frankly, I’m tempted to say that this is utter nonsense.
I didn’t vote for any artists and work on the expanded field (maybe Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage counts as part of it; Robert tells me that there were indeed some votes in said field: Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, and a few others), but if I did almost all my ten choices would be in that category, I’m afraid... Who, in the comics’ restrict field can rival Callot, Goya, Hokusai, Picasso? No one, I’m sure… Not even George Herriman and Charles Schulz.

Pablo Picasso, Dream and Lie of Franco (1937).

Note: huge chunks of the above text were previously posted on my blog The Crib Sheet.

[And now, exactly seven years, one month and two days after it was first published, this, one of my most beloved texts, returns home, to its crib. Unfortunately it reminds me of my old me, and how passionate he was.]

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

Jul 1
Top 15 de los mejores cómics ever: 
15. No 
14. puedes 
13. hacer 
12. un 
11. top 
10. así 
9. porque 
8. depende 
7. de 
6. los 
5. gustos 
4. de 
3. cada 
2. uno 
1. Calvin y Hobbes

[The above is a twit that reads: Top 15 of the best comics ever: you can't do it because there is no accounting for taste; #1: Calvin and Hobbes]

This, translated into Latin is "de gustibus non est disputandum," but #1 is a punchline and, let's admit it, it's quite funny. In the end what this means is that our ego is stronger than our beliefs. 

Let us go back to the "de gustibus" part though: if it is true for comics, why isn't it true for painting, or literature, or music? Why can we safely say that Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare or Mozart are indisputably in a 15 best painters or writers or musicians list while no one dares to say something similar about a comics artist like, say, Yoshiharu Tsuge?

I have no answer (I just have an opinion), but this simply means that the "de gustibus" proposition is both right and wrong: 1) it's right for anyone of us individually; 2) it isn't right for our culture because we, as a society, accept aesthetic criteria and choose accordingly.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Smart Cardboard?

David Mazzucchelli’s formal innovations in Asterios Polyp are almost sixty years old.

The image above shows two 1953 "Pogo" newspaper comic strips by Walt Kelly (as published in Pogo, volume 10 – Fantagraphics Books). Sarcophagus Macabre, the vulture, “talks” in courier font (June 10) while the Deacon Mushrat speaks in Gothic Blackletter (June 11). Plus: Sarcophagus’ speech balloons have the format of a condolence envelope.

As we can see above David Mazzucchelli also used different speech balloons formats and fonts as characterization (see also Derik’s post).
Sarcophagus Macabre’s name, species, and ascribed balloon format are enough to know what he is, but the courier font needs an explanation: he’s an hypocrite because he expresses condolences sending form letters written with a (cold, of course) machine. The Deacon talks in Gothic fonts because he’s a cleric (he reads the Bible and he’s a conservative, not because he's a Christian, but because he's defined by Middle Age writing).
In Mazzucchelli’s case Asterios'  mother "talks" in D'Nealian cursive script (an anachronism) indicating candor and childishness while the father talks in pseudo Greek fonts. He was indeed Greek, but since ancient Greece is known, among other things, for its Mathematicians and Philosophers, the fonts also connote a rational man. Notice also the wavy line that defines the mother's speech balloon and the father's rectangle (with no edges; he's a mild-mannered man). 
Saul Steinberg drew the two couples below (as published in The Passport, 1954). Do we start to see a pattern... and a problem? Men are "square," rational beings, women are vague, intuitive, entities.

As we can see above (in a panel from Asterios Polyp), adding magenta (hot) for Hana and cyan (cold) for Asterios it's the same view of men and women, the same stereotyping... Ooops! I used the "s" word!...
In a famous essay art historian E. H. Gombrich mentioned "wit" to describe Saul Steinberg's drawings. Here's what he said:
In many of his drawings it is the line of the graphic medium which seems 'an echo to the sense.' His 'Family' [...] shows us the father firmly modelled, the mother with undulating lines, the grandmother all but fading away between hesitant pen strokes, and, of course, the child drawn in the style of children's scribbles.
From here it is but one step to the representation of what are called our synaesthetic reactions, the depiction of one sense modality by another.
The ekphrasis sounds familiar by now... The synaesthesia I frankly don't see (it lacks that "one step," I suppose). I will not deny the wit and creativity of Saul Steinberg's visual solutions (some would say visual writing), but drawing attention (pun intended) to just a singular personality trait is a simplification. It has great applications in political satire, no doubt, but it's not so great a device in a serious (graphic) novel.   

David Mazzucchelli agrees with me (or, his character does, as seen above), but he risked the blunt approach nonetheless as seen below (with a pint of self-irony: comic books, really?!)...

Comics are sequences, so, David Mazzucchelli could explore Saul Steinberg's ideas in a more complex way: showing mood transformations, for instance (see below).

Hana goes from undefined (painterly, as Heinrich Wölfflin put it) to defined (linear; ditto). Wölfflin's opposition (inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy) was one of Asterios' favorite aesthetic theories; the other two being essentialism and Louis Sullivan's famous diktat "form follows function." She goes from magenta (irrational, life) to cyan (rational, thinking).
The procedure is welcomed, but were the googly eyes and the Utamaro mouth really necessary?...
If you read 'til here you must be saying by now that I hate Asterios Polyp. Well, I don't, I like the tour de force, but I must plead guilty of double standard. I’m not the only guilty one though: many critics forgive a cliché and a stereotype (calling it “an archetype”) in adolescent and YA genre comics while vigorously attacking the same flaws in art comics. I did the opposite and I still think that Asterios Polyp is one of the best comics published in 2009. I'm sure that I'm misguided though because I failed to read all those marvels published by the big two...