Monday, July 30, 2018

The Blind Men and the Elephant



 Hanabusa Itcho, Blind Monks Examining an Elephant. Itcho, by the way, not Hokusai, contrarily to popular myth, coined the word "manga."

Speaking of stories... you know the parable: the blind men feel different parts of an elephant's body and, afterwards, they disagree on what an elephant looks like. Such is the nature of truth; knowing only part of it we can't grasp... speaking of pictures, the whole picture. In another version the men and the elephant are in a dark room, so, as the great Mevlana Rumi put it in this version: "If each had a candle and they went in together/ The differences would disappear[.]" If you didn't get it already, and there are absolutely no reasons for you to know where I'm heading, I'm referring to the Eddie Campbell vs. Suat Tong or the "picturaries" (as I called them) vs. "literaries" controversy. I guess that the differences of opinion can be extended in an "us vs. them" kind of way to The Hooded Utilitarian (the non-essentialists) vs. The Comics Journal (the former Comics Comics - a great name to describe their philosophy echoing Eugeni Dors' "painting-painting"). As I see it there are really two disputes, not just one: the aforementioned "various ways to look at an elephant" (Eddie vs. Suat) and the essentialist debate (THU vs. TCJ). I'll try to address the two.
I'm worlds apart from Rumi's greatness and I don't believe that the differences will be solved by my saintly intervention, but, in a true meta-critical stance, I'll try to do my best. I'll state from the start that, obviously, I'm an interested part in this debate. Coming from a "picturaries" background, I graduated in Studio Art, I pass as one of the literaries. I don't see myself as one, though. To explain why let me examine the core (as I see it, of course) of the text that started the whole thing: Eddie Campbell's "The Literaries" at TCJ's website:
What appears at first to be taking a more stringent view is in fact applying irrelevant criteria. It dismantles the idea of a comic and leaves the parts hopelessly undone.
See that elephant over there? Besides, this is where the two debates converge: essentialist Eddie views literary criteria applied to comics as misguided because the true applicable criteria must be about pictures. And yet, what does Eddie consider to be literary specifically? The story or, the plot. The only problem is that in comics the drawings are the story too. To prove it I don't need to go any further than Lee and Kirby's (et al.) case in point below, given to us as an example of non-literary excellency in the aforementioned "The Literaries" blog post:


 Stan Lee (w), Jack Kirby (p), Frank Giacoia (i), Sam Rosen (l), anon. (c), "The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!," Tales of Suspense # 85, January 1967 (page 8).

Curiously enough in the above example it's the words that are self-referential and non-diegetic while the images tell the whole story: two characters beat the crap out of each other. If story equals literature who's a literary now? Eddie Campbell himself inadvertently acknowledges this when he says:
Now, I am cognizant of the fact that the multitude of kids reading that Captain America were just thinking about what Cap and Batroc were doing to each other.
Exactly so because they were reading a story (the use of the word "reading" is, if you ask me, a co-option by the literary field because those putative kids were interpreting images). Why did this co-option of everything narrative by literature occur? Eddie Campbell didn't invent it. It's one of the dogmas of Modernist art of the Greenbergian kind. But Clement Greenberg didn't invent it either. Here's what Paul Cézanne said according to Joachim Gasquet, writing in 1912/13 (not exactly a reliable source, but still...):
I don't like literary painting. [...] [T]o want to force the expression of nature, to twist the trees, to make the stones grimace like Gustave Doré, or even to refine like da Vinci, that's all still literature.
And yet Eddie Campbell doesn't go that far. What he likes in the above page is clearly the expression (here's what he says about a performance by Billie Holiday; we can't compare comics with literature, but, apparently, it is OK to compare comics with literature if in a song; Eddie isn't much of an essentialist, after all, even if he used the very word "essence" below):
I’m not talking here about technique, a set of applications that can be learned, or about an aesthetic aspect of the work that can be separated from the work’s primary purpose. The performer’s story is the essence of jazz music. The question should not be whether the ostensible “story,” the plot and all its detail, is worth our time; stories tend to all go one way or another. The question should be whether the person or persons performing the story, whether in pictures or speech or dance or song, or all of the above, have made it their own and have made it worthy.
So, Eddie Campbell wants us to pay attention to the artist's expression (Cézanne/Gasquet would call him a literary I'm afraid). That's one blind man feeling the elephant and I don't deny his importance and value. But what about the other blind men? Don't they feel equally important parts of the beast? Why this rage against the story?
I can't talk for others, but what I value in a comic isn't the story per se. What I really value is the meaning. This may be clichéd, but so be it: I believe that great artists reach some kind of truth. (They may be as blind as Itcho's monks, but they're very good feeling the little part of reality that interests them.) Doing so I considered already that the technical skills of the artists and writers, their ability to convey feelings (their expression or lack thereof because an artist may choose to convey ideas mainly) were capably handled. This isn't an either or kind of situation. That's why the claim that we literaries value Fun Home over Cliff Sterrett doesn't make any sense (it's an obvious straw man). Besides, meaning can be found in every mark that the artists and writers create on the page. I don't see why meaning has to be associated with story and why story has to be associated with literature. By claiming meaning for my main criterion am I calling it the whole elephant? Maybe I am, but I'm as biased as the next guy. Why choose this elephant instead of that one is my next question? 
That leads us to the essentialist problem (counseled reading: Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone): why can I compare a comic with another art artifact? Because meaning is something that we can find in every work of art. Exalting the comicness of comics to us non-essentialists doesn't make much sense: yes, a comic is not a piece of music, but can't we find cadences, internal rhythms in a comic? Again, why do we accept that those qualities are in music alone and not everywhere? Yes a drawing in a comic may be read in a narrative context (so, now the story is important again?; Eddie goes in and out of his philosophies as it suits his arguments), but aren't these drawings lines and textures and compositions as all other drawings?
I could go on, but I prefer to analyze Lee and Kirby's (et al.) page above from my point of view. I must acknowledge first the fact that it is a segment of a larger story (ten pages). I never write about stories that I've never read or are in progress, so I'm breaking one of my rules here... for now... This is wrong because, I don't know?, judging a comic by one of its pages is the same thing as judging a book by its cover, isn't it (that's what Eddie kind of did in Kurtzman's case)? Also, doing so, it seems to me, dismantles the idea of a comic and leaves the parts hopelessly undone, right? Gérard Genette (p. 34) said that there are two readings in a comics page:
in [visual] forms of narrative expression, such as the [fumetti] or the comic strip (or a pictorialstrip, like the pre-della of Urbino, or an embroidered strip, like the "tapestry" of Queen Matilda), which, while making up sequences of images and thus requiring a successive or diachronic reading, also lend themselves to, and even invite, a kind of global and synchronic look—or at least a look whose direction is no longer determined by the sequence of images.
(As a side note: it's interesting to realize that the great critic and theorist, one of the literaries if I ever saw one, acknowledges the existence of visual narratives while Eddie doesn't or tactically avoids acknowledging them.) The successive diacronic reading (what Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle called the linear reading) of words and images gives the reader the succession of events, the narrative. The global synchronic look (what Fresnault-Deruelle called the tabular reading) gives the viewer more of an aesthetic feeling. Both readings exist in all comics and the latter is what Eddie and Noah are talking about when they speak of "something else" and "ab ex." I doubt that many will read the above page in a linear way (what's the point: it's just two guys in funny costumes fighting), but I will do just that:
What we have here is a nine panel grid, a static page layout if there ever was one, which isn't bad for the intended purpose: the page layout contrasts with the action going on inside the panels. The first panel shows Batroc in one of Kirby's famous foreshortenings. Another of Kirby's tropes is the character invading the gutter as seen subtly here. What's interesting in these three panels is Batroc's leg in the air pointing up. In the second strip what's pointing up are Captain America's hand (when he receives a blow) and, again, Batroc's arm and hands. Those who have limbs pointing up are losing balance and, hence, are losing the fight. The last strip is pretty much the consummation of the scene with Batroc falling on his back. The last panel depicts post-action fatigue and domination if you know what I mean. The guy who fell into the passive role in the doggie style position was feminized and lost the fight. Also interesting is the back of Batroc in the second panel mirroring Cap's back in the 7th, but with opposite meanings: powerlessness in Batroc's case and absolute power for Cap. So, not only do these images tell a story, maybe it's not exactly the story intended for the frantic one (i. e. the infant reader). 
What does the global synchronic look tell us, then? First of all there's a rhythm of circular speed lines and straight shock lines (notice how Cap's are a lot more powerful than Batroc's sissified ones) constructing a texture that gave Noah the ab ex aspect that he mentioned. These are there to underline the violence and speed of the actions, but, more than that, to unify and create a relentless cadence in the page design. Here, again, the page functions differently in the three strips: a vertical thin speed line is counteracted in the next panel by a more powerful also vertical one. Things begin to change in that very panel though because the rhythm becomes horizontal until, at the end, returning to vertical completing a full circle with Cap's might (in crescendo) replacing Batroc's frailty. The full shot is consistently applied, but the feet deny that on panels one, two, five, six, seven, eight (it's a device used by Kirby frequently: the characters don't fit - as a curio see here the same effect used in 1109!). Cap starts on the viewer/reader's opposite side to end up near his/her standpoint inverting positions with Batroc, in a kind of dance, as we have seen above. The 180 degree rule is broken from panel two to three. The point of view changes around the fighters. There's a curious symmetry in the page with a kind of knot at the center. The last panel has no gutter (or has a virtual gutter) to show that something changed: the positions are now the same as those in the first panel, but Cap circles his prey in triumph (the symbolic order was restored; citizens may calmly eat their freedom fries again - Batroc, if you don't know, is French and speaks with a heavy French accent - notice also the stereotypical pencil moustache and beard; I know that Europe was a female, so, it's only natural that Batroc had to lose in combat against a macho American hero). The colors are loud and out of sync at some places. The background colors divide the page in, more or less, a dynamic diagonal. (If you allow me a personal note I always liked the imperfections of the old coloring.) Cap is garbed in white and primary colors (red and blue), Batroc is secondary colored (orange and purple). Looking at their colors alone no one can deny who will win. All this may seem exhilarating to Eddie, but I suspect that nostalgia plays a role also: "for me this page, and others of a similar stripe, opened up a whole new different way of thinking about comics (I was nine; I’d been thinking about them for quite a few years)."
Who are these people though? From now on Eddie will call me a literary, I'm afraid, but I insist, how come?, I analyzed drawings until now, nothing else! When Eddie asks and answers quite absurdly "how does that Marvel comic stand up if you take away the pictures? It doesn’t." I say it does, a bit, but not that page above and why is that? That's right: because if the pictures disappear the story disappears too. Storywise it's interesting to note the micro-use of the known formula of popular tales (identified by Propp) "win-lose-win."  
"The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!" is a superhero ten-pager with the usual macho boasting, dick waving contest and misogyny of old comics. The plot (oops!) is simple enough: Cap fights Batroc to save Agent 13 of Shield (aka Sharon Carter). After a plot twist Batroc and Cap team up against agents of Hydra to save the mam'selle who, obviously, has an infatuation for the gallant Nationalist hero. How many times do we need to read another damsel in distress kind of story? I want my time back! See how those nine pages did lack for a full appreciation of the comic?
Am I denying all the good compositional things that I said above about page 8? Of course not, but why should I forget everything else either? And isn't the final product more important than just an aspect of the whole thing? What's the meaning of this comic according to your truly? Woman, even if they're agents of Shield, are frail little creatures who need the strong Nationalist hero to save them from the bad bad guys (that Manicheism again! Jeez!). Jack Kirby may have made the superhero genre his own, but he certainly didn't make it worthy.
Even worse: the apparently good things said above about page 8 aren't ultimately in the service of a formula as noted already? (As I said elsewhere, the game is rigged: the dashing Nationalist hero always wins.) And how about the innocuous violence? Isn't it going to give the impression to the frantic ones that it's OK to beat the crap out of the bad guys (violence is an abstraction, after all)? Are the frantic ones, or their modern day descendents, doing it right now somewhere, on this poor planet Earth, in the holy name of the plutocracy?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A alma é o negócio em que se perde sempre


João Bénard da Costa em imagem que ilustra a entrevista de 1990. Se ele cá voltasse!...

Por um acaso feliz deparei com esta entrevista de Manuel S. Fonseca a João Bénard da Costa (originalmente publicada n'"a revista" do jornal Expresso de 1 de Dezembro de 1990). Já o escrevi neste blogue, João Bénard da Costa foi o meu mestre. Foi na Cinemateca que aprendi a ver cinema: primeiro ainda no Palácio Foz, depois na rua Barata Salgueiro, antes e depois do incêndio; guardo ainda o meu primeiro bilhete de "antes do fogo" (fui ver um filme de David Wark Griffith, não sei qual, o bilhete, sobre isso, nada indica, no dia 5 de Novembro de 1980 às 18.00 horas). João Bénard da Costa foi um crítico muito influênciado pelos Cahiers du Cinéma, revista cuja matriz crítica se pode encontrar neste texto de François Truffaut: contra "une certaine forme de cinéma du seul point de vue des scénarios et des scénaristes". Contre la littérature dirais-je. É compreensível: muitos já não se lembram (eu próprio não vivi esses tempos, não sou assim tão antigo), mas o cinema viveu as mesmas dores de legitimação que a banda desenhada sofre hoje. Nessas condições socorreu-se da literatura como bengala (a mesma estratégia usou a fotografia ao imitar a pintura). Aquilo a que Truffaut chama "la Tradition de la Qualité" não é mais do que um cinema visto pelo prisma literário. Os Cahiers, pelo contrário, reivindicaram o cinema como arte visual e daí ser o desprezado, na altura, bem entendido, Hitchcock o seu padrinho fundador.
Na verdade, tudo isto me soa demasiado à crítica de banda desenhada que mais abomino para me deixar confortável. Não que deteste Hitchcock, bem pelo contrário, mas Hitchcock está longe de ser, como diria João Bénard da Costa, muito lá de casa (my crib's assiduous visit, diria eu). Ou seja, não posso dizer que os meus gostos cinematográficos coincidam com os de João Bénard da Costa, a não ser quando ambos achamos John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Rossellini e Visconti mestres incontestáveis.
Coincido com João Bénard da Costa em mais algumas coisas, mas não poderei nunca dizer como ele "O cinema não é uma arte narrativa — a história de um filme é o que é menos relevante num filme". Não posso porque acho que nem os Cahiers nem Bénard perceberam algo que a banda desenhada me ensinou: as imagens também são narrativa. E não perceberam porque eram herdeiros de uma tradição essencialista que vai de Lessing ao tardo-modernismo. A literatura não é dona exclusiva da narração e João Bénard da Costa, que amava o cinema mudo, e Stroheim e Murnau e Fritz Lang, tanto como eu, deveria sabê-lo.
Em resumo: o que faz de João Bénard da Costa o meu mestre não é o cinema, é outra coisa muito mais importante: uma atitude perante a vida e a arte em que ética e estética se confundem.
Daí a citação abaixo... Não poderia finalizar melhor esta entrada no meu blogue:
[JBC] Com o aparecimento da cultura de massas deixou de haver uma «aristocracia da cultura». Ao que tem de se saudar do ponto de vista social e político, opõe-se o «reverso da medalha», isto é, uma tirania de gostos ditados por pessoas sem preparação. E tal como há pessoas cegas aos valores morais, há também pessoas cegas aos valores estéticos. São sempre minorias as que não são cegas, nem a uns valores nem aos outros. Esse abastardamento passa, aliás, pela compreensão do ter­mo «cultura». Há uma ideia, que teve em Portugal expressão importante no pintassilguismo, e num teórico como o Eduardo Prado Coelho, segundo a qual, desde um prato bem cozinhado, a um bom quadro, a um livro, tudo é indistintamente cultura. Essa concepção revela já uma grave crise vinda do interior do mundo que vive dessas mesmas referências culturais.
MSF — Outro tópico re­corrente no seu livro é a nos­talgia. Nostalgia de uma visão romântica da criação que faz de cada autor um «génio mal­dito», que vê na estreia de cada filme um escândalo.
JBC — Há dois tipos de nostalgia. Quando falo das sa­las de cinema, de um modo de vida, essa é a componente pes­soal da nostalgia. É como se falar das casas da minha infân­cia, de pessoas que já morre­ram. São circunstâncias irrepetíveis que se evocam. Outro tipo de nostalgia surge quando, ao comparar dois modos de vida, nos perguntamos se existe ou não uma perda. Parece-me evi­dente que existe uma perda e que ela é relevante na discussão dos actores, dos realizadores e da qualidade das suas obras. Muitos deles entraram em cho­que com o gosto dominante e pagaram a factura. Fizeram o tal negócio com a alma, que é o negócio em que se perde sem­pre, como dizia o outro. Era essa a grandeza da arte. Punha-se a alma em jogo e perdia-se, quan­to mais não fosse, o corpo.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

J'Accuse


In July 2007 David Enright was at a Borders bookshop in the UK with his wife and two children when he stumbled upon a copy of Tintin in the Congo by Belgian comics artist George Remi (aka Hergé). The couple couldn't believe their eyes: was this filth at children's reach? Worst: was it addressed to them? Here's what he said:
"So you are married to a monkey and have two little yard apes. Good job. Got bananas?" This is one of the letters and emails that my Ghanaian wife and I received, when we asked that the Hergé book Tintin in the Congo be removed from the children's sections of bookshops back in 2007.
According to The Telegraph (July 12, 2007), after being contacted by Enright a spokesman for the CRE (Commission for Racial Equality), said:
This book contains imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the 'savage natives' look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles.
It beggars belief that in this day and age Borders would think it acceptable to sell and display Tintin In The Congo. High street shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it.
That same month, on July 27, 2007, a Congolese citizen living in Belgium (see above), Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, read an Enright related article in a newspaper and decided to act filing suit in a Belgian court against Tintin's copyright holder, Moulinsart Foundation. After patiently waiting for three years Mondondo, now supported by a French anti-racist organization (CRAN: Conseil représentatif des associations noires - representative council of black associations), extended his suit against Tintin in the Congo's publisher, Casterman. The suit was also filed in France.
Mondondo and the CRAN wanted Moulinsart and Casterman to ban the book or, as an alternative, if the first plaint failed, they wanted a warning to be put on the cover of future editions as well as a foreword inside explaining the colonial context in which the book was created (basically they wanted the French-Belgian editions to follow the British Egmont edition). On February 10, 2012, the Brussels Court of First Instance rejected the applicants’ claims. The same thing happened at the Brussels Appellate Court last December 5.
Here are some of the court's allegations:
If we were to follow the appellants, for whom it would suffice to take into account the simple intent of publishing a book, that would require banning today, for instance, the publication of some of the works of Voltaire, whose racism, notably toward Blacks and Jews, was inherent to his thought, as well as whole segments of literature, which cannot be accepted [as] the passage of time must be taken into account. Hergé limited himself to producing a work of fiction with the sole objective of entertaining his readers. He carries out therein candid and gentle humor.
It is above all a testament to the common history of Belgium and the Congo at a given epoch[.]
The Telegraph, again (February 13, 2012) also translated the following court statement:
It is clear that neither the story, nor the fact that it has been put on sale, has a goal to... create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment[.]
Read here the whole document in French.
I'm not a lawyer or, more specifically, I'm not a Belgian Lawyer, but come on! "candid and gentle humor"? How can a book that dehumanizes the Congolese people depicting them as childish and lazy and in need of white peoples' guidance contain "candid and gentle humor"? Are racist jokes "candid and gentle humor"? And how does the entertainment purpose excuse anything? Plus: how can the environment depicted in this blatantly racist book not be "hostile, degrading [and] humiliating"? The known argument that the book reflects its times' prejudice doesn't hold water either as I've shown, here. Hergé could not invoke an insanity defense. He was responsible for creating racist imagery and racist writing. Others, like Alan Dunn, for instance, at roughly the same time, didn't do so.
There's another reason why Hergé couldn't invoke the insanity defence mentioned above: he's dead since 1983. Again, I'm no lawyer, but how can a court judge a dead man (guessing his intentions!) is completely beyond me. I know that the "goal" part above is what matters to the court, but in the dubious case that they are psychic isn't there something called criminal negligence in the Belgian law? What they should be judging is how can today's copyright owners ignore the racism in one of their books refusing to do anything about it. I can understand why did the Brussels court mention the banning of a book by Voltaire, but Mondondo and the CRAN didn't want to ban Tintin in the Congo in their secondary plaint, they just wanted to add some heads up and some informative paratext? Here's what the court had to say about that:
As for the subsidiary inclusion of a warning it is not only an interference with the exercise of the freedom of expression it also hampers the moral right to the integrity of the work which can't be contested because the defendants don't own it [Fanny Rodwell owns the moral rights to Hergé's oeuvre, not Moulinsart and Casterman].
From now on we're informed that a foreword constitutes a violation of a "work's integrity." I can understand the reasoning behind the idea that such a foreword would be a violation of Moulinsart's and Casterman's freedom of expression (as well as Fanny Rodwell's moral rights) though. Said foreword would be forced on them by the court. You're wrong if you think that I'm on Mondondo's side on this. I agree with him only when he says that the court suit was a means to force Moulinsart to seat at the conversation table. I understand the strategy, but it was doomed from the beginning: big corporations don't deal with the little guy. When I repeatedly say on this post that I'm not a lawyer what I really mean is that I don't want to discuss matters I know little about. (What I do know, however, is that they are lousy comics critics at the Brussels court.) What's unfortunate is that the publishers themselves don't comply with Mondondo's wish for a foreword of their own free will as they should. It shows that Continental Europe is still way behind America and the UK when these matters surface in the public sphere.
Another quote in the court's decision (written by De Theux de Meylandt), states:
We see in particular that Tintin in the Congo does not put Tintin in a situation where there is competition or confrontation between the young reporter and any black or group of blacks, but puts Tintin against a group of gangsters... who are white[.]
I'll let a Portuguese anthropologist living in Maputo, Mozambique, José Flávio Teixeira, answer to the above for me (in a review of Deogratias, a book about the Rwandan Genocide by Belgian comics artist Jean-Phillipe Stassen):
Beyond a self-centered gaze (ethnocentric: what interests him, above all, is how "his people" behave themselves elsewhere and how they get astray from the recommended "good behavior") what the book states (distractedly) are two fundamental points: the perennial (the need for?) European leadership; the inferior malevolent capability of the Rwandan people (the African people). Thus crystallizing the racism, affirming white superiority: “people” (race, because, in the end, the book is about race) who are more in the lead, who are more corrupt, meaner. More human, right?
Going back to the UK, Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative politician, criticized the CRE (see above) for their support of Enright's views (she said that their claim was ludicrous):
It brings the CRE into disrepute - there are many more serious things for them to worry about.
This reminds me of that American officer, after Belgium's liberation, who refused to accuse Hergé of collaboration with the Nazis under the excuse that he didn't want to cover himself in ridicule. It's a well known fact: comics are less powerful, less corrupt, less mean. Less of an art form, right?

Best News, Ever

Who would have thunk it? In that aberration called San Diego Comic Con Drawn & Quarterly gave us (talk about roses in the gutter: no pun intended) the greatest news ever in the history of Western Comics! The esteemed boutique publisher will do all of us poor Japanese speaking impaired comics readers the pleasure to finally fully enjoy the work of the greatest author (restrict field) this art form as ever produced: Yoshiharu Tsuge. The Tsuge project will be seven marvelous books long. The nerdy fanboy in yours truly is thrilled and speechless, really!...


Another rose announced in the gutter btw (still, no pun intended) is this one.

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.

You may also want to visit http://carol-day.com/.

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...