Saturday, December 29, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #14: Tim Gaze

100 Scenes, a graphic novel by Tim Gaze

With Tim's permission: to Antoni Tàpies in memoriam...

Comics writer and historian Alfredo Castelli said that, even if, for the best of his knowledge, the first newspaper Sunday Comic Section in the U.S.A. to regularly adopt  the title "Comics" in short was published by the St Louis Globe Democrat in 1902, the word "comics" was well established to refer to the art form by the 1910s only. I don't know who, at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century (I suppose) first applied the already existing word "comics" to fulfil this new function...
On the other hand German art historian Wilhelm Worringer used the already existing word "abstraction" to apply it to the visual arts in the title of his book Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Abstraction and Empathy), published in 1908. The concept predated the actual invention of abstract high art by some Russian painter (probably Wassily Kandinsky, but Mikhail Larionov is also a possibility - and how about Kasimir Malevich and Czech painter František Kupka?).
I'm saying the above because I joined the two concepts and coined the expression "abstract comics" (I wouldn't be surprised if someone in the below comments proves me wrong though...). Andrei Molotiu reminisces:
I first began thinking of abstract comics as a concrete possibility during a discussion with Domingos Isabelinho on the TCJ board in the summer of 2002, on a thread with the rather awkward title, "Is there a Hemingway or Faulkner of comics?"-- or something of the kind.
I don't remember any of this to tell you the truth. In fact, I didn't pay any attention to my "discovery" (so much so that I saved a few TCJ's messboard threads, but not this one). Abstract art was, to me, such a natural thing that I mentioned abstract comics without giving it a second thought. Here's the only thing that I remember (or misremember, but I hope not...): at some point in the thread the two possible readings of a comics page came about. It's possible that I mentioned French comics scholar Pierre-Fresnault Deruelle and "his" theory of the linear (a vectorial succession of panels - what I call "a reading") and the tabular (the page as a random visual whole - what I call "roaming"). (I didn't know it at the time, but said analysis is not by Deruelle who published it in 1976. Said theory's author is Gérard Genette who published it in 1972 - he called the former a "successive or diachronic reading" and the latter a "global and synchronic look[.]") to illustrate these two readings I posted the image below by Lettrist writer, filmmaker and draftsman, Isidore Isou:

Isidore Isou, 1964.

I said at the time that the page could be read/viewed in two ways: (1) as a drawing (the global look), (2) as an abstract comic (the successive reading). (I don't remember my exact words back then, but I don't want to imply now that the former isn't part of a comics reading proper.) Anyway, this took too much space already and, in the doubtful chance that you, dear readers, are still interested, too much of your patience and time. Sorry for the self-indulgence!...
Contrariwise to what happened with Wilhelm Worringer the expression "abstract comics" didn't predate abstract comics. Looking back we may found many examples in other fields. The one below is by Portuguese visual poet Abílio:

"Humor" by Abílio, 1972.

My favorite example comes from the comics field though. I mean the following example from Cuba:

The Amorphous and Disheartening of Vacuous Dialog by Chago Armada, 1968.

One of the roots of abstract art is Symbolism, the Gauguin inspired Nabis especially as we can see below:

The Talisman, the Aven River at the Bois d'Amour by Paul Sérusier, 1888.

It was fellow Sérusier Nabi painter Maurice Denis who said:
Remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or any anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.
Kandinsky's abstract art was born in an atmosphere similar to the Pont Aven one, in Munich this time. I mean the Blaue Reiter (the blue rider) lyrical Expressionist group, of course. Around 1912, when his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published, Kandinsky was interested in Theosophy and Symbolism (he admired Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck). In fact, when he seemed to be occupied mainly by formal problems he stressed the importance of his work's content (1925):
I would really like the spectators to go beyond the fact that I chose triangles and circles. I would like them to see what's behind my paintings because that's the only thing that interests me. I always viewed the problems of form as secondary... I know that the future belongs to abstract art and I'm dismayed when other abstract painters don't go any further than form...

First Abstract Watercolor by Wassily Kandinsky, 1910.
 Other wings of abstract art starting with Malevich and the Constructivists will be more formalist, but we'll have to jump a few years in order to arrive at Tim Gaze's book 100 Scenes, a graphic novel. Before leaving Kandinsky, for now, I want to stress what's in common between the two: they both had/have an interest in music (in Tim's case it's Dubstep). Following Lithuanian painter and musician Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Kandinsky believed in a synesthetic relation between colors and sounds (1912):
Yellow is disquieting to the spectator, pricking him, revealing the nature of the power expressed in this color, which has an effect on our sensibilities at once impudent and importunate. This property of yellow affects us like the shrill sound of a trumpet played louder and louder, or the sound of a high pitched fanfare. Black has an inner sound of an eternal silence without future, without hope. Black is externally the most toneless color, against which all other colors sound stronger and more precise.
It's easy to know where Tim Gaze is coming from because he tells us so in his Notes. He cites three main references: Andrei Molotiu's abstract comics and "ground-breaking volume Abstract Comics: The Anthology (2009)[;]" Surrealist art and techniques (collage books and decalcomania paintings by Max Ernst); Henri Michaux's Tachiste (Pierre Guéguen, 1954) sequential work. One may say that, briefly, Surrealists and Tachists (Informal Art, Art Autre - Art of Another Kind -, as Michel Tapié put it in 1951, 52) advocated a spontaneous, irrational, kind of art. Both groups were fascinated by drug use, magic, popular art and, sorry for using an expression that I don't like much, outsider art (Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut)... Informal artists are the European equivalent of the Abstract Expressionists in the U.S.A..

100 Scenes, A graphic Novel by Tim Gaze, 2010. 

Tim Gaze says that his graphic novel "touches upon two emerging areas: abstract comics [...]  and asemic writing." I'm with Kandinsky when he said that "[t]here is no form, there is nothing in the world which says nothing." Writing may be asemic as writing, but a sign is a visual entity signifying with visual means (as Tim put it: "[t]hese areas transcend languages, and offer the possibility of inter-cultural communication without words." (Just like music, right?...) As Tim puts it, polysemy is high in his book:
This is an open novel, for you to project your mind into.
Every page is a stimulating field for your imagination.
So, there's no predetermined meaning here, entropy is at its fullest, we have achieved maximum energy.
We may start with the cover of 100 Scenes above. I asked Tim if the book had anything to do with Katshushika Hokusai's One hundred views of Mt. Fuji. He answered me that "only the title has any connotation of Hokusai." So, false clue there, I would say... First of all: is this a novel as the cover claims? How can it be if there are no characters or plot? Isn't the concept of "graphic novel" stretched to the breaking point? I would answer yes to the first question and no to the last one. We don't even need to go further than the cover to understand these answers. There are at least two reasons to explain them:
(1) The cover of a book is what Kandinsky called, the basic plan. Without the title (without the words) the basic plan would be a square (as we can see above). So, it's the book's format that limits the basic plans' choice.
(2) A drawing on a gallery wall (or a comics original panel) has a materiality (white pentimenti, irregular intensities of black, the paper texture, etc...) lacking here. What we have above is an image of an image of an image (a copy of a monoprint): i. e.: in McLuhan's terms the hot drawing cooled down creating a distance that, in Benjaminian terms, provoked the loss of its aura. Hence: there's a movement from the visual arts to literature: the graphic novel...
Having established that we may now answer the second question: the comics people co-opted the word "novel," but graphic novels have their own specificity being nothing like novels.
The drawings in 100 Scenes result from various tensions, then (to use another Kandinskyan word): human made / machine reproduced; line / texture; black / white; positive space / negative space; centered / decentered; stillness (the basic plane) / movement (the drawings); chaos / order; regular rhythms / irregular shapes; etc... From page to page we witness a restless, lively world. It's like a godless theogony (another tension?) in which trial and error coexist. I'm on the verge of denying the abstract nature of this graphic novel, so, I'll stop now...

Page from 100 Scenes: the regular rhythm, the irregular shapes, in ascension.

I'll finish with part of Henri Michaux's postface to Movements, 1951:
Whoever, having perused my signs, is led by my example to create signs himself according to his being and his needs will, unless I am very much mistaken, discover a source of exhilaration, a release such as he has never known, a disencrustation, a new life open to him, a writing unhoped for, affording relief, in which he will be able at last to express himself far from words, words, the words of others.

Page from Movements by Henri Michaux, 1951.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #13: Carl Barks

Walt Disney's Donald Duck "Lost in the Andes" by Carl Barks

The book with the title above is the first (the seventh, according to editor and publisher, Gary Groth) of a new Carl Barks Library published by Fantagraphics (the first CBL was published by Another Rainbow). There are a few differences between the two: CBL 1 was published in 30 handsomely made volumes encased in 10 slipcases - CBL 2 will probably also be 30 volumes, but with a more comic booky look (i. e. smaller); color wasn't completely absent from CBL 1, but it was way above 90 % b & w - not so CBL 2 which will be in color. That last aspect occupied most of the pre-publication discussions about the project on the www. We all know how bad the coloring of the classics has been until recently, but new printing technologies solved said problem. The only obstacle to a good coloring in comics reprints these days is the absolute disrespect for both the material and the readers that most comics publishers always showed. Not so Fanta, right? Well... yes and no...
Only a fool could think that in a colored drawing the color isn't part of the art. So, how come that we can continue to say that a drawing is by Carl Barks alone when it was colored by someone else? The fact is that we can't and that's all good and dandy if the colorist is the original one because those were the creators of said drawing even if we have no idea of what the latter's name was. In this reprint we do, don't we?: Rich Tommaso. So, what we're buying isn't really "Lost in the Andes" by Carl Barks... what we're buying is "Lost in the Andes" by Carl Barks and Rich Tommaso.

"Lost in the Andes!" by Carl Barks and an anonymous colorist working at the Western Publishing Production Shop (I can't believe that no one was curious enough to investigate who these colorists were): Four Color # 223, April 1949.

The Same page by Carl Barks and Rich Tommaso, Walt Disney's Donald Duck "Lost in the Andes," 2011.

When there's no contour line the colors are really the drawing and there're differences between the original and the recolored page. This can be seen above, but it's more clear in "Truant Officer Donald" (Walt Disney Comics and Stories # 100, January 1949). In said story's reprint the shadows in the snow are completely different. Another problem is caused by the absence of the old Ben-Day Dots. Some may think that these were a nuisance, but the dots had a transparency sorely lacking in modern coloring: while the old shadows look like shadows, the new ones look painted on the ground and lack flexibility. Even if mostly true to the original (all the one-pagers were originally published in black and magenta but "Ornaments on the Way" - Four Color # 203 - and "Sleepy Sitters" - Four Color # 223) many of the colors are also too saturated in the reprint version (which is odd because Rich Tommaso said that he toned the colors down), but that's a problem even in Fantagraphics' excellent Prince Valiant reprints.
To be blunt: if kitsch is something pretending to be something else this edition is definitely kitsch, but you know what Abraham Moles said: kitsch is the art of hapiness...
All these problems were avoided in the Popeye series. Why did Fantagraphics proceed differently in their CBL project? Beats me, but I can guess: Fanta wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want to produce a collection both for the serious collector and for children. Well, this serious collector is perfectly happy with CBL 1, thank you!...
Another hint suggesting that I'm right is the time period in Carl Barks' career selected to start this new CBL. Any collector would expect a reprint in chronological order, but no such luck. What we have is a potpourri of longer stories, ten-pagers and one-page gags from December 1948 to August 1949. In this Gary Groth did agree with Barks himself who considered this to be his most and best creative period. Besides he also said that "Lost in the Andes" was his favorite Donald Duck story. I beg to differ: I prefer later, darker, more satirical, Barks, but that's irrelevant, really, because I would start a CBL where most things usually start: at the beginning. Yet another Barksian coincidence re. the commercial part of the enterprise is the quantity of Christmas stories included in a book that was published just before... Christmas. If you can't see the irony of this in a Carl Barks book I gather that you don't know much about his work...
None of this matters much though. The above mentioned potpourri isn't that bad  (I would repeat what was done in CBL 1, but that's just me) and collectors can always put this tome on the shelf in the seventh place.
To favor interested adult readers and smart inquisitive kids each story has a presentation by a comics critic. The critics are very good. Their texts are interpretations of the stories; convey information (I was pleased to learn about American life during the forties reading Jared Gardner's comments), and give us close formalist readings that are brilliant: Donald Ault is particularly good at this (his intro is also great if slightly hagiographic; his analysis of "The Crazy Quiz Show" - originaly published in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories # 99, December 1948 - is an instant classic of comics criticism).
Don't get me wrong , I love Barks. He's one of four or five genre mass media artists that I admire... but... is there really a need to whitewash him? Because that's what we see in the above mentioned comments.  This book has its share of racist imagery and the critics don't hide the fact. The problem is that they make up excuses. Jared Gardner does it commenting "Voodoo Hoodoo" (Four Color # 238, August 1949). To quote him:
[...] our "villain," Old Foola Zoola [fool Zulu?] is drawn with all the maniacal monstrosity of similarly racist representations of African witch doctors that remained largely unchanged from nineteenth-century cartoons in Puck  and Life through Abbott and Costello's Africa Screams (1949). And yet  Foola Zoola's outrage for the wrongs done to him and his people by Scrooge and his hired thugs is presented as entirely justified.
That's just the problem: it isn't presented as justified at all. If it did he wouldn't be a fool and he wouldn't be a racist caricature, would he? Also, why are there quotation marks on the word "villain"? That's what Foola Zoola is, period.


  As can be seen above (panel from "Voodoo Hoodoo" in CBL 2; is that a Barks cameo at the window?) Bombie the Zombie was inspired by the above illo drawn by Lee Conrey (American Weekly, May 3, 1942; as published in CBL 1).  

 Whitewashing, as it were, in another "Voodoo Hoodoo" panel (in CBL 1, this time). Not much of an improvement if you ask me (November 1986). Above: the same panel as published in Fantagraphics' CBL 2.

Uncle Scrooge may be presented as an impossibly rich miser, but he's never a villain. Carl Barks (in an interview with Michael Barrier, 1974):
I never thought of Scrooge as I would think of some of the millionaires we have around who have made their money by exploiting other people to a certain extent. I purposely tried to make it look as if Uncle Scrooge made most of his money back in the days before the world got so crowded, back in the days when you could go out in the hills and find the gold.
If Uncle Scrooge is or isn't a thief is just a matter of perspective. He would be if he exploited white people, but oh,  no!, he could never exploit the noble savages because they have no use for their riches. Dorfman and Mattelart saw this perfectly well (in How to Read Donald Duck, Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, 1975 [1971] - translation by David Kunzle):
There they are in their desert tents, their caves, their once flourishing cities, their lonely islands, their forbidden fortresses, and they can never leave them. Congealed in their past-historic, their needs defined in function of this past, these underdeveloped peoples are denied the right to build their own future. Their crowns, their raw materials, their soil, their energy, their jade elephants, their fruit, but above all, their gold, can never be turned to any use. For them the progress which comes from abroad in the form of multiplicity of technological artifacts, is a mere toy. It will never penetrate the crystallized defense of the noble savage, who is forbidden to become civilized. He will never be able to join the Club of the Producers, because he does not even understand that these objects have been produced. He sees them as magic elements, arising from the foreigner's mind, from his word, his magic wand.
That's what Francesco Stajano and Leonardo Gori refused to see when they mentioned the people abused by Gladstone (in "Race to the South Seas," March of Comics # 41, 1949) while failing to mention the stereotyped natives mumbling "Ola eela booka mooka bocko mucka!" and worshipping Uncle Scrooge or Uncle Scrooge's spats, of all things, or both... The above is also valid to describe the Plain Awfulians in "Lost in the Andes." Said people is just one in a series of noble savages that Scrooge and Donald meet over the years. Barks had a bucolic sensibility: against superficial interpretations that present Uncle Scroge as an apology of Capitalism, he believed that the earth is the true value and gold is worthless (cf. for instance "The Twenty Four Carat Moon," Uncle Scrooge # 24, December 1958). These inhabitants of utopia live in a primeval innocence: Donald Duck (at the end of "Lost in the Andes"):
[they get their warmth] [...] from their hearts! They had so little of anything, yet they were the happiest people we have ever known!
Stefano Priarone says that "Lost in the Andes" is a satire of conformism. A leftist reading would say that it is a comment on the vulnerability of third world peoples to American mass culture. Both readings are possible and it is also possible that, following Donald's speech above, there's no satire at all. All interpretations are ideological, of course... One could expect a Marxist reading from David Kunzle, but here's what he wrote (Art Journal Vol. 49, No. 2, Summer 1990):
How much real sympathy does Barks show for natives, the victims who through weakness and stupidity, or else innocence and simplicity, become willing accomplices to, indeed the very instruments of, their own dispossession? It is hard to say. The facts that our contempt for Scrooge, the great dispossessor, is mixed with admiration for his energy, that Huey, Dewey and Louie are cast as virtue incarnate, and that Donald himself is a victim (actually, a loser on the winning side) tend to neutralize our sympathy for the foreigner-victims. But their resistance, funny and futile as it so often is, lends them a measure of dignity - and reality. 
The star of the show isn't Uncle Scrooge, though. The star is undoubtedly Donald Duck. Even to Dorfman and Mattelart's Donald is a sympathetic character (Carl Barks: interview with Edward Summer, 1975):
Instead of making just a quarrelsome little guy out of him, I made a sympathetic character. He was sometimes a villain, and he was often a real good guy and at all times he was just a blundering person like the average human being, and I think that is one of the reasons people like the duck.
Dorfman and Mattelart (in How to Read Donald Duck - translation by David Kunzle):
We Latin Americans tend to identify more readily with the imperfect Donald, at the mercy of fate or a superior authority, than with Mickey [Mouse], the boss in this world, and Disney's undercover agent.
David Kunzle (also in How to Read Donald Duck):
Donald Duck [...][is] an example of heroic failure, the guy whose constant efforts towards gold and glory are doomed to eternal defeat.

Donald Duck, the eternal loser, becomes purple with envy, in "Race to the South Seas" as published in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck “Lost in the Andes."

Carl Barks was no ordinary genre creator. He followed some tropes of pulp, but he also had his own formula (Donald Ault cited by Thomas Andrae and Geoffrey Blum in the CBL 1):
Th[e] emphasis on cosmic irony led Barks to create a formula for his ten-page stories: a six-to eight-page buildup of our expectations against mounting probabilities, following by a two-to four-page reversal culminating in the fulfillment of our original expectations, but in a surprising and ironic manner.
[F]our narrative impulses [...] inform Barks' stories. In the order of their complexity, these are: 1) excessive coincidence; 2) conflicts escalating in a chain reaction; 3) events threatening to move beyond control of both the characters and the narrator; and 4) reflection on the narrative processes controlled by Barks himself.
The cosmic irony mentioned above is my favorite Barks' trait: he was a master satirist. Carl Barks (in an interview with Donald Ault, Thomas Andrae and Stephen Gong, 1975):
I read some of my stories recently and thought, 'How in the hell did I get away with that?' I had some really raw cynicism in some of them.
I told it like it is. I told the kids that the bad guys have a little bit of good in them, and the good guys have a lot of bad in them, and that you just couldn't depend on anything much, that nothing was going to always turn out roses. (Interview with Donald Ault, 1973.)
Readers can attest to that reading and viewing his masterfully paced, written, drawn and designed pages in Walt Disney's Donald Duck "Lost in the Andes. All this in spite of this edition's recoloring problems... if these are viewed as problems at all, that is... which I very much doubt...

 Carl Barks circa the end of WWI. Photo as published in Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by Michael Barrier, 1981.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Hand Made

Why isn't Pierre Alechinsky considered one of the greatest comics artists of all time beats me completely.

Pierre Alechinsky, Hand Made, 1967.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


As you (yes, I mean you, my faithful 5 or 6 readers - sorry about that, I'm feeling optimistic this fine morning!, maybe I should have written 2 or 3)... anyway, I digress... as you probably remember I posted my favorite 34 comics a while ago. That list is flawed because of a couple of reasons, both memory related: 1) I read many of those stories ages ago - maybe if I reread them now, I wouldn't put them so high on the list, or maybe I wouldn't have put them there at all; 2) there are great stories that I, for some reason, forgot. One of those is definitely Unspent Love # 11. Looking at my list now, maybe I would have put it at #8.

Why this correction, now? Obviously because I reposted my Hooded Utilitarian post about Shannon Gerard and reread Unspent Love # 11. If I stumble upon more great comics that I forgot, or if I, for some reason, reread one of the comics on the list and I don't like it I'll say so here. For instance, I recently reread Jack Slingsby and, even if it's very good, maybe I overrated it a bit because the adult theme caught me off guard the first time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #12: Shannon Gerard

Unspent Love or, Things I Wish I Told You by Shannon Gerard

Shannon Gerard is a Canadian multimedia artist (aren't they all these days?) based in Toronto. She presented her book / webcomic Unspent Love as follows:
Originally drawn and written as a series of online vignettes for the comics publisher Top Shelf Productions, Unspent Love addresses themes such as hope, fear, and human frailty. The project was later produced as a multi-media bookwork with the support of Open Studio’s Nick Novak Fellowship (2010).
A third iteration at YYZ Artist's Outlet in Toronto will evolve the project in a series of narrative images, unfolding between November 2010 and October 2011. The experimental space of the wall allows imaginative storytelling possibilities to develop through layering, time-lapsed animation and wheat pasting.
The Open Studio hand-bound artist's book that Shannon mentions above is gorgeous, as you can see below:

Unspent Love, or Things I Wish I Told You, Open Studio, 2010.

In an interview Shannon Gerard said;
I am just telling pretty simple stories from my life -- anyone can do that. And I am using materials and methods that a lot of people can understand and recognize. Also the stories are personal, so I want the books to have definite evidence of the hand of the artist all over them [in the lettering, for instance].
[M]ost of my books so far have been about all of the love and fear and losses and hope and fragility of relationships either beginning, ending or never totally materializing.
In another interview Shannon Gerard quotes Lynda Barry saying that what she does is “autobifictionalography.” This means that her autobiography has some fiction mixed just like every fictional narrative has some autobiographical subtext.
Shannon Gerard's drawing method relies exclusively on photos of family and friends acting. This has some advantages, but also some disadvantages. As she puts it in her Inkstuds interview (she disclaimed correctly that she's not one - a stud, I mean):
In a lot of cases I trace right over top of photographs. That is really limiting in terms of like line quality an' there's definitely limitations to it in that way.
The characters in Unspent Love have an individuality that is rarely seen in comics, but the drawings have something of a mechanical feel to them. The regularity of the lines, the absence of shading, remind me of the clear line. Even so during the last half decade a progress can be detected in Shannon Gerard's drawing abilities: the tracing look vanished replaced by a more fluid naturalism:

Hung # 2, Drawn Onward, Self-Published, 2006.

Unspent Love, or Things I Wish I Told You, Open Studio, 2010.

If I understood correctly (and I really don't know if I did), Shannon Gerard says in her Inkstuds interview that she compensates the lack of spontaneity of her drawings with a creative approach to page layout. In fact one of her trademarks is the depiction of the same character in various positions in fictional and reading time and fictional and page space. This is the same effect that gave Italian comics artist Gianni de Luca his place in the pantheon:

"Romeo e Giulietta"'s first page (Romeo and Juliet) by William Shakespeare and Gianni de Luca, Epipress, 1977.

Unspent Love, or Things I Wish I Told You, Open Studio, 2010.

One of the most interesting aspects in Unspent Love are the image-text relations. Mostly the image shows a character and the words describe a situation. This leads to the problem of focalization. Being autobiographical (or, you know... autobifictionalographical...) the narrator is a fictional character (s/he always is) somewhat related to the artist-writer, but that's not what I read-see in other instances: what I read is an interior monologue uttered by the character that I'm seeing. There's a complex creative system at play because the actors play Shannon Gerard's own stories: her interior voice mixes with their bodies in an oblique relation. In one particular case (my favorite section of the book, the wedding) the images and the words don't describe the same point in time creating a lapse that is quite jarring.  

An interior voice and an exterior image of the world in one of Shannon Gerard's (and mine) favorite cartoonists' stories.
Panel from "The most Obvious Question" by Lynda Barry, Raw, High Culture For Lowbrows, Vol. 2 # 3.

Reading Unspent Love we may think that the text leads the narration (if we can call it that) while the images are just illos. Nothing is further from the truth: if we know how to decode them the drawings give us crucial information about the characters (did I mention already that the characterization in Unspent Love is exquisite?): I'm talking about their mood: dreamy, absent minded, loving, joyful, etc... but also their taste in clothes, mannerisms... etc... In her Inkstuds interview Shannon Gerard says that the drawings interpret the narrative. I say that the drawings are part of the narrative.

A disjunction between image and text, or is it?
Unspent Love, or Things I Wish I Told You, Open Studio, 2010.

As part of trash culture comics in the restrict field have been poorly written, with some exceptions, of course, throughout their history. Words fail me to express how much I admire Shannon Gerard for bringing adult themes and great writing to comics (and I don't mean the usual adolescent tripe that passes for adult in the comicsverse). Unspent Love has strengths precisely where your average comic fails miserably. Shannon Gerard's writing is not only beautifully poetic (she doesn't like the word because it's too pretentious; what kind of a world is this, in which an artist feels embarrassed for being a poet?), it's also full of great ideas. Discover those ideas yourselves, if you didn't already, because revealing them here would mean spoiling your fun...
I don't want to finish this post without mentioning Sword of My Mouth, a Post-Rapture Graphic Novel (a post-apocalyptic story written by Jim Munroe and drawn by Shannon Gerard, No Media Kings / IDW, 2010) and Hung (a self-published comic book miniseries to go along with her thesis – see below – the cover of issue number two is reproduced above: Hung # 1, Never Odd Or Even, 2005; Hung # 2, Drawn Onward, 2006; Hung # 3, Lonely Tylenol, 2007).
Shannon Gerard wrote a thesis about autobiography in comics (Drawn Onward, Representing the Autobiographical Self In the Field of Comic Book Production, York University, 2006). Here's how she presents her book:
The recent proliferation of once underground comic books in the popular media has spawned a vibrant body of critical work about the form and its cultural meanings. Perhaps owing to its relative infancy, the field of comics 1 scholarship, while enthusiastic, has been inconsistent. The current debate seems to be over exactly which analytical approach to take. The search for a suitable critical template has led some scholars to consider comics from the perspective of literary criticism. Other academics use the lexicon of the art critic to focus on the formal design concerns of cartoonists, or attempt to locate the format 2 within an art historical context. Due to the sequential narrative element of comics, many film studies majors have embraced the genre. Given that the reading of comics bears much in common with other fan-based and emotionally resonant sub-cultures like alternative music, a cultural studies perspective seems to provide another piece to the puzzle. However, as comic books represent a unique hybrid of various literary traditions, visual art movements and cultural perspectives, not one of these approaches works in isolation.
Since comics are resistant to conventional analysis, the resulting limited academic work can be frustrating, but I believe the inherent tensions in the field of comic book production are its greatest strength. As with any field of study, these intersections provide dynamic places for various existing ideas to pool together and for new ideas to crystallize. The pronounced interdisciplinary anxieties of comics scholarship make it one of the most exciting areas of inquiry to recently emerge in the academy. Broadly, my thesis attempts to highlight some of the frictions between these varied fields so that a better vocabulary for talking and writing about comic books can develop.
More specifically, my interest is in considering comic books as a form of life writing. I am focused on the autobiographical work of several artists currently working in North America, namely Lynda Barry, Chester Brown, Seth, Matt Blackett, and Shary Boyle. As this paper shall set out, the work of these five artists further demonstrates the complex narrative possibilities presented by the particular conventions of comic book design.
In the context of examining the life writing practices of other comic book artists, I aim not only to expand my academic engagement with comic books but also to develop my own visual art practice. Together with this paper, my thesis takes the shape of three short autobiographical comic books. The union of creative and academic work represented by my thesis is meant to echo the various cultural discourses which meet in the comic book format.
1 A letter S is used at the end of the word "comics" in terms such as "comics history" or "comics scholarship" to specify that a field of study is being discussed. The singular word "comic" sounds too much like an adjective. The term "comic history" might be misread to indicate a historical account of something quite hilarious.
2 Where possible, I have tried to avoid the use of the word "format" as it implies a limited view of comic books as a series of design choices. On the other hand, the word "genre" does not indicate the wide range of creative sub-categories within the field of production. In some ways, the inclusion of such flattening terms is problematic to my aims, but in others, it highlights the basic tension of my struggle for a suitable vocabulary.
To read the book's first thirteen pages, click here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #11: Andrea Bruno

Sabato tregua (Saturday's truce) by Andrea Bruno

Deregulated financial capitalism immersed Southern Europe in a deep social, economical, and political crisis. The euro's cohesion is at stake at the moment while PIGS countries (hail racism!), especially Greece, see their sovereign debt credit ratings descend into garbage (PIGS countries are: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain; in 2008 the acronym became PIIGS with the inclusion of Ireland). IMF imposed restrictions choke the economy provoking unemployment. On top of that grim scenario Globalization dislocated factories from the so-called first world to become sweatshops in the so-called third world (if you think that slavery doesn't exist anymore, think again...). Entire communities were destroyed with millions of unemployed people from all over the world (add post-colonial and post-communist to post-industrial) flocking to the major cities in search of a life. This created huge social problems with riots in France, for instance. Riots in Greece are part of everyday life by now...
These are, in a nutshell, our difficult European times. Any artist worth his or her salt should acknowledge them one way or the other. That's what Italian comics artist Andrea Bruno eloquently does...

Panel from Sabato tregua (see below). Canicola, 2009. Not paginated. 

Sabato tregua is a big format book (18,5 x 12 inches, give or take) reminding two other similar experiments: French Futuropolis' 30 x 40 [cm] collection, U.S.A's Raw, in its first series incarnation (both appeared during the eighties). It was published by the art collective from Bologna, Canicola ("Cannicula," or the star Sirius which announces the hottest days of Summer). Andrea Bruno had the idea to revive this huge format; another book (Grano blu - blue wheat -, by the great Anke Feuchtenberger), was already published in the same format. In case that you're wondering, Canicola's books have a (not very accurate, sometimes...) English translation at the bottom of the page. In the image reproduced above the character that is off-panel, Mario, says (I transcribe from the book's translation):
What are you doing here?
While Christine, says:
Did you know [that,] since the shoe factory closed[,] the population of this town has decreased by 40%[?]
And, then, she continues:
Once it was a workers' town, now it's a thieves' town. When a robbery happens in the nearby towns, the police come[s] here immediately to start the[ir] search.
While Christine speaks there's a three panel zoom in that ends in a medium shot. Conversely Mario's face is hidden most of the time by melancholic shadows. The same thing happens to other characters, but it's not only that: Andrea Bruno's "dirty" style disintegrates the physical world to mirror the disintegration of post-industrial communities.

Sabato tregua: "Let's go": a melancholic view of the world under capitalism.

Another disintegration occurs to the story. Andrea Bruno says a few interesting things about this particular aspect of his work:
What do we mean by "linear discourse?" The storyline, the plot may not be the only way to unify a narrative? Maybe images, signs and moods can also become the parts that "sustain" a story and give it an identity. I try not to do "antinarrative" comics, but I don't like to draw stories that tell it all.
Andrea Bruno presses ink soaked cardboards  to the surface of his drawings. He uses white paint almost as much as he draws and paints with black India ink. The result is a very distinctive graphic style in which chance plays a part, blobs are as important as lines and the white surfaces are as important as the black ones. White, as in Alberto Breccia's drawings (the old master has to be cited), is pretty much an active part of Andrea Bruno's drawings, not just negative zones...

Anni luce (light years), original art, Miomao Gallery, 2007. A car is burned during a riot. A violent technique to depict violent acts.

Wherever millions of famished immigrants go, xenophobia and racism follows. Here's what Andrea Bruno has to say about it:
I try to suppress the surface of well being, of the main fashions and customs, to show landscapes and relationships reduced to the bone. The denunciation is not direct, it's more in the presuppositions than in what I choose to show. I prefer the peripheral vision. Racism and inequality, in my comics, are not denunciated, but appear as 'normal,' so to speak.  The effect renders them, maybe, even more hateful.

Sabato tregua: "Mario, [are you] a friend [of the] niggers, now?"

Andrea Bruno appeared in English in Suat's Rosetta # 2.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #10: Alan Dunn

East of Fifth by Alan Dunn

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

Title page of East of Fifth.

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

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

 East of Fifth, page 95.

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

East of Fifth, page 59.

East of Fifth, page 89.

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

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

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

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

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

East of Fifth, page 38.

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

East of Fifth, page 5.

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Monthly Stumblings #9: Hergé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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