Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anke Feuchtenberger's Somnambule

Anke Feuchtenberger is a German graphic designer and comics artist. In a recent interview by Mark Nevins (European Comic Art, Volume 2, # 1, Liverpool University Press: 65 - 82) she talked about her influences (67, 68): "Well, I grew up in East Berlin, in a house full of art books. My father was a graphic designer, and my mother was an art teacher. So rather than children's books, I spent a lot of time looking at art books. These were strange books for a five-year-old girl, things like the posters of John Heartfield, books about Käthe Kollwitz and Rodolphe Töpffer, and collections of paintings from the Italian Renaissance. My father had a lot of catalogues from the 'Poster Biennales' in Warsaw and Finland, and I loved to look at those posters. I also really liked the work of some of the Renaissance painters, especially Matthias Gruenewald [sic] and Hieronymus Bosch. Those images filled my imagination every day. [...] One of my early very serious experiences with art came when I was 15 years old. I got up all my courage and visited a female painter I adored, and I showed her my drawings. Her name is Nuria Quevedo []. She's Spanish, and was in exile in East Germany." Anke Feuchtenberger also says, in the same interview, that she doesn't like Picasso's work. That's strange though: Nuria Quevedo's influence is easily traceable in Feuchtenberger's style, and Picasso's influence is also easily traceable in Quevedo's paintings. Quevedo did serious caricatures like, for instance, Chago Armada. I wonder if that's one of the usual features in Second World graphic artists. Maybe José Alaniz's book on Komics (comics from Russia: will talk a bit about the subject. I also wonder who started doing that? My bet is Pablo Picasso, but I could be wrong (George Grosz and Saul Steinberg are other possibilities and Paul Klee and William Steig come to mind... but maybe Gus Bofa is the real name to cite here; I guess that an historical investigation is in order...). Anyway... there's a thin line between caricature and expressionism... It would be very difficult to determine which expressionist drawing is no longer expressionist, but a "serious" caricature and vice-versa... Besides, who can say for sure if William Steig's lonely ones (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942: ), for instance, are funny or "serious," or both?...
Talking about one of her most famous books, with Katrin de Vries (Die Hure H, Jochen Enterprises, 1996; W the Whore, Bries, 2001), Anke Feuchtenberger seems to confirm the idea that her work may be labeled "feminist" (ditto: 81): "Her name [Die Hure H] should create fantasies about danger, pleasure, sexuality, and so on. We used the character as a door which opens up wide possibilities for thinking about the female body, the history of the female body, and the opportunities for a woman in society [...]."
The "message" in "Die see jungfrau" (the young woman from the sea, according to my translation: published in Die kleine Dame - the little lady -, Jochen Enterprises, 1997), a story also written by Katrin de Vries (and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "Den lille havfrue," the little mermaid, published in Eventyr, fortalte for Børn, fairy tales told for children: C. A. Reitzel, 1837), focuses on the politics of the female body. Unfortunately I don't speak German, but it seems to me that the young woman from the sea refuses her identity and wants to be a normal (or should I say: standardized) woman. In order to become one she doesn't hesitate to bleed to death because she cuts her fish tail in two.
Anke Feuchtenberger's Somnambule (an almost wordless book, by the way; Jochen Enterprises, 1998) goes the other way around destroying the simplistic feminist labeling... Here we can find one of Feuchtenberger's more recognizable visual metonymies: the detached (flying) head (strangely enough this is the second time that this metonymy appears at The Crib: the first one it belonged to - with some differences nonetheless - Edmond Baudoin). In "Gewächs haus," the greenhouse (a story inspired by Katrin de Vries), a man is the victim because, even if he tries to fly away using his propeller head, he can't do it. Two women keep him captive shaping him in their way, planting him, really (hence the title).
These stories are about power and domination, about killing what one loves (it's the mystery of the vowels again: another link to Edmond Baudoin: cf. my post about him). To confirm everything that I said so far you may read/see "Blind Schleich Song," something like "blind creep song," acording to an internet translator (a story that's part of Somnambule), here: (a male human caterpillar tries to flee using his head propeller, but the human female bunny character doesn't let it; the caterpillar's head detaches itself from the body functioning as the moon, or a night light; in order to read this story you just have to think about the caterpillar as a stage before a metamorphosis occurs - the body turns into a butterfly - and a head detaching from the body as a sign that the latter can be imprisoned - in this case: prevented from growing up -, but our imagination can't be contained; even so, the head loves the bunny because it stays with it nonetheless).
It downs on me now that this post should have been called something like: Anke Feuchtenberger's and Katrin de Vries' beautiful stories... The latter isn't really the author of Somnambule, but she greatly influenced Anke Feuchtenberger's work during the mid to late nineties.
She also deserves to be in The Crib's canon.

Anke Feuchtenberger's site:
Anke Feuchtenberger's and Stefano Ricci's boutique publishing house:

Somnambule's wraparound cover cut in two halves like the see jungfrau's tail (Jochen Enterprises, 1998): our old selves are falling behind us all the time while new ones are born...

PS Feminists are, to me, the best critics of mainstream comics writing today. This happens because, being mostly male, other critics overlook misogynous messages and buy every stupid fantasy that passes for art in mainstream comics. That said I strongly endorse a visit to this particular post ("Bingo: The Callers Enclue You") in Karen Healey's blog:

Girls Read Comics and they're pissed:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reviewing a Review

I began writing about comics in a fanzine published by my good friend Manuel Caldas: Nemo [in the subtitle's last version], O Fanzine Dos Que Gostam Da Banda Desenhada (Nemo, the fanzine of those who like comics - March, 1986 - June, 1998). This is a strange concept: no one likes music or cinema (i. e.: all music or all films). Anyway, it was back then, in Nemo # 21 (March, 1996), that I initiated my campaign against most mainstream comics (the exceptions being Carl Barks' duck stories, Matt Marriott by Reg Taylor, James Edgar and Tony Weare, lots of stories written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and a couple of David Wright's Carol Day story arcs; I'm not sure if comics by Carlos Trillo and Alberto Breccia are mainstream or not). I tried to explain my reasons, of course... but Manuel wasn't kidding when he put that subtitle on his fanzine's cover: some people do like all comics, especially the mainstream ones (they think that alternative comics are badly drawn, so, I'm not sure if they like all comics or just the "for the youth from 7 to 77" kind). Needless to say that I was "the enemy within" subsequently ... I was bitterly expelled from the escapists' (aren't they all?) paradise...
Most of what I wrote back then I recently found in a review of Martin Sheridan's Comics and Their Creators (Hale, Cushman and Flint, 1942) by the New York Intellectual David T. Mazelon. It was published in Dwight MacDonald's Politics magazine (May, 1944: 117 - 118). Unfortunately some of us are condemned to reinvent the wheel, I suppose...
Bazelon opens his review writing that: "Mr. Sheridan has something to say about some seventy-five comic strips. But what he says is singularly unimposing. Each of these strips is covered by a thumbnail biography of the creator, or an interview in the worst newspaper manner. The histories of the cartoonists and their work are presented by banal anecdotes, salary figures, and relative merits at golf. Sheridan's understanding of the comics and the men who draw them really seems to be limited to a hungry appreciation of their salaries." This is a criticism of the author's approach (from the point of view of the social critic and art lover), not a critique of American newspaper comics and comic books (that comes later). (Bazelon also quotes Sheridan's publishers when they say that his book will appeal to "every young-minded American" - it's the "from 7 to 77" cliché again -; he counterattacks stating the existence of the "undiapered reader;" as a huge fan of the "babymen" epithet I have to add that I laughed with gusto when I read the expression.)
He goes on quoting Sheridan and sandwiching comments: "The comics cartoonist "is expected to please everybody." He believes that readers "will follow the strip which offends no one." With these directives, the tendency, of course, is to produce vacuous stereotypes." I could not say better...
I also agree with Bazelon's aesthetic ideas (if they were born with Romanticism, so be it): "One of the greatest effects of good art is to make people see themselves differently, by identification in new, fruitful perspectives. This is the other side of artistic creativeness, for it is the expression of such perspectives which provides the artist's essential worth. However, when the needs of class control determine the material of art, and when these needs are reactionary and disease-like, creativity is sharply limited or completely smothered. Art is dangerous; it tends toward freedom." In the highly commodified world of the 21th century this statement seems a bit naive, but I believe in its core idea: the stereotype can never be great art. And mainstream comics are stereotype-ridden...
To see how the New York Intellectuals changed their minds about mass consumption of the arts from 1944 to 1960 we just need to compare these two quotes... Bazelon (being a revolutionary idealist): "This approach [by Sergei Eisenstein who roughly says that if we give something good to the people they will like it] conflicts with the Philistine attitude that good art is for a small section of the population, while any trash can be tossed to the masses." MacDonald (being a post-revolution realist): "the great majority of people at any given time (including most of the ruling class for the matter) have never cared enough about such things to make them an important part of their lives. So let the masses have their Masscult, let the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc., have their High Culture, and don't fuzz up the distinction with Midcult." ("Masscult & Midcult," Against the American Grain, Vintage Books [Partisan Review, Volume 17, # 2, Spring, 1960 - Volume 17, # 3, Summer, 1960], 1962: 73). As Neil Jumonville put it: "[the New York Intellectuals] disliked mass culture partly because the working class never turned out to be as revolutionary, noble and cultured as radical intellectuals had hoped. Some of the Partisan group had assumed that, if unimpeded by capitalist commercial values, the mass of citizens would voluntarily seek out high culture themselves. When it became evident that would not happen, most New York Intellectuals deplored middlebrow as much as lowbrow culture." (The New York Intellectuals Reader, Routledge, 2007: 205.) Pierre Bourdieu confirmed scientifically what Dwight MacDonald suspected: high culture is not the culture of the dominant class, high culture is the culture of the dominated fraction of the dominant class (La distinction, Les Editions de minuit, 2002 [1979]). In a word: the intelligentsia. Large parts of the dominant fraction of the dominant class have middlebrow or even lowbrow taste because these "things" are not "an important part of their lives."
Bazelon likes Krazy Kat by George Herriman and that's about it. I put no American newspaper comic strips in my canon, but being forced to do it I would also choose Krazy Kat (see header above), some Sunday Pages from Gasoline Alley by Frank King (the dailies' story arcs seem as bowdlerized as the Sunday Pages, but they're not half as poetical), Dot and Dash by Cliff Sterrett (for their formal ingenuity), some Skippy by Percy Crosby (and not Peanuts... having to choose between the master and the apprentice I choose the former), but not much else... David Bazelon condemns Bringing Up Father (by George McManus): "[Jiggs] prefers corned-beef-and-cabbage and poker with the boys to the life that wealth offers. The sop here is patent[;]" Radio Patrol (by Ed Sullivan and Charles Schmidt) because: "Almost tautologically, art serving banalities itself becomes banal" (I'm not sure if I agree with this one, but that's a story for another time); The Timid Soul (by H. T. Webster): "an extreme caricature against which the pin-point ego of any harassed petty-bourgeois can release itself."
After saying that "Politically, Superman is a pre-fascist creation" David T. Bazelon ends his review contradicting what psychiatrist Lauretta Bender (who was part of Superman's publisher, National Comics' - later DC -, editorial board) has to say about said character: "(He) would seem to offer the same type of mental catharsis Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama." Bazelon: ""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."

The cover of Politics, May, 1944.

PS A page about David T. Bazelon:

PPS This is post # 100. I'm amazed that I arrived this far, really...