Thursday, December 27, 2007
One of the most tired and unimaginative criticisms of ‘alt comics’ is the following: desperate for validation by the literary elite, cartoonists create boring stories about the uninteresting problems of average people so that The New Yorker and their ilk will reassure them that they are worthy. This argument presumes an intimate knowledge of the cartoonists’ psyches that the critic never has; and those who make this argument are rarely good readers of the comic that’s right in front of them, so how can we put much faith in their analysis of a human being? Most artists would like to be appreciated by smart readers, but to reduce the many motivations that drive them to a single, overwhelming need to be loved by the ‘tastemakers’ shows a real lack of depth or suggests that The Critic is posing (“He’s too smart to really believe that, right?”). Why is he upset that others create comics that he doesn’t like? I assume that artists are trying to make a comic that they believe is good, interesting, funny, moving, or truthful, etc, even when I think it stinks.
Then The Critic will direct his attention to the reader, psychoanalyzing him by making (surprise!) the same argument. This reader, the critic says, thinks that “if the elitists like the comics I like, then I can feel good about myself and the comics I read; respectability, long sought, will finally be mine.” (I have never met anyone like this . . .) So, if you make or like a comic the critic doesn’t like, it must be because you are deeply insecure: he can see no other reason and can’t imagine that other people think differently than he does or like different kinds of stories. Why, though, does this critic constantly return to the issue of validation?
Comics in general have not achieved the status of, say, the novel, but the debate about acceptance is really on its way to being over, a fact that makes these complaints a waste of time, and a bit foolish. Comics by ‘alt-cartoonists’ in particular are being reviewed and printed in mainstream periodicals; their books are being published by major publishing houses, being made into films, and being read in more and more high school and college courses . . .
A cartoonist whose work I sometimes like and whose political essays I usually agree with makes some of these complaints here. Not only does Rall rehash these arguments and offer confident claims about cartoonists’ and readers’ sex lives, but he shows himself to be a shaky reader by the unfounded assumptions and misrepresentations he makes; for example, he calls woman in Ware’s strip a “spinster,” an often derogatory term almost never applied to anyone as young as this main character. Here’s another one: “Daniel Clowes' "Mister Wonderful" treads standard art-comics territory: unattractive boy meets dowdy girl.” It matters a great deal that these main characters are not a boy and girl, but two middle-aged adults with decades of relationship trouble behind them, a history that two teenagers simply could never have. Clearly Rall is trying to be cute here, but he intentionally misrepresents the age of the characters in Clowes’s and Ware’s comics to make them appear to be something they aren’t. If after reading a review/essay, you come away with a completely mistaken impression of what the comic is about, you know the writer is not to be trusted . . . . Is he afraid that if he describes them accurately, they might actually sound appealing?
“I don't know why anyone cares about what other people read,” Rall asks. It’s a good question, one he should ask of himself . . .
Sunday, December 23, 2007
The following is not a best-of list or a series of reviews, but short discussions of why these books are some of my favorites from 2007, and would be favorites in any year in which they appeared. I focus a few things that I find particularly interesting in each story as a way of trying to explain something that I find appealing about the cartoonist’s approach in general.
In the middle three panels, the ha ha (which begins as a line of dialogue and then appears as images) becomes increasingly larger as the panels become increasingly smaller; not only does the ha ha come to dominate the way Natalie thinks about the relationship, it dominates and even overwhelms the confines of the last panel; it is too large to be represented within it. In the third panel of her memory, the ha ha is placed in between the two word balloons and you read it as a part of a sequence of text: her words are interrupted as she hears his laugh in her head and then he asks a question. But you also experience the words as a part of the panel’s picture; they are Natalie’s thoughts, but they assume the shape and presence of physical objects, casting a literal and figurative shadow. Comics is often defined as a medium in which two distinct things - words and images - are used to tell a story. But Clowes’s art here complicates that claim by blurring any boundary between them.
The kinds of things I talked about in Hernandez and Clowes are often absent from his work. Tomine prefers mid shots and medium close ups and only occasionally uses slightly high angles -- this creates a rhythm different than Hernandez’s and yet one that’s equally engaging. Unlike Mister Wonderful, every page in Shortcomings uses either 6, 7, 8, or 9 square or rectangular panels arranged in a traditional grid and has a consistent margin size and gutter size; there are no thought balloons or narration boxes; sound effects are limited to roughly two different types of hand-lettered ‘fonts’ with some, but not much, variation in lettering size (page 43 is an exception); and there are no motion or emotion lines or any similar kinds of effects . . .
He uses the whisper version of the word balloons, in which the balloon is made up of dashes, and the telephone conversation word balloon, in which the tail of the unseen speaker’s balloon takes the zig-zag shape often used to represent electricity:
This story is also remarkable for the ways in which it interweaves a series of recurring and connected images -- sleeping people, cut or wilting flowers, a circular birth control pill pack, a clock, the main character’s leg and prosthesis, a quarter, rooms, windows -- and ties them to themes of alienation, sexual desire and frustration, incompleteness, maternity, mortality . . .
More so than many cartoonists, Ware repeatedly focuses on objects, showing how the most mundane item can be invested with emotional weight (perhaps in Ware objects perform the role of geography in Hernandez . . . ). The main character engages in reveries about other people’s lives inspired by seemingly random objects, such as a camera, or in this case, a hook:
Friday, December 21, 2007
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The Patent Room is one wing of the great Shorpy photoblog family (Shorpy is worthy of its own post). Filled with beautiful and interesting patent application drawings from the distant past and fairly recent. It's a massive collection, organized into Toys, Architecture, Airplanes, Cars, and Trains. The scans are clear and clean, available at large sizes, and they're lots of fun to browse. Random selection follows…
click on images to see them larger.
This one is great. There is a phonograph inside the toy truck! Looks like the back wheels spin the record under the tone arm… I wonder how well that worked?
Posted by J. Bennett at 1:06 PM
Monday, December 17, 2007
All that I know about Raymond Savignac I've only just read in this five year old Obituary from the New York Times. He's one of many great illustrators and designers who's work I've seen for years, but I never took the time to find out who's work it was. It's thanks to my favorite blog, Grain Edit
As usual I'm the last one to "discover" this artist only to find that all their posters command extremely high prices, even modern reproductions, and books about the artist are out of print and highly collectible too. Oh well. I'll settle for perusing the archives at the Savignac Store.
Friday, December 14, 2007
From 1996 until 2006, I sat in a small enclosed room each week and typed closed captioning and subtitles for thousands of television shows and home videos. As I worked, I would write down time codes where there were interesting images, and at the end of the day, since I often finished early, I would cue a frame and draw it in my sketchbook. Thus was born the zine Ticket Stub...
In 2006, the company downsized, and the entire editorial staff at our location was terminated during union contract negotiations; R.I.P. Ticket Stub.