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.