Monday, February 25, 2008

From Abstract to Archie

Abstract art is a frequent source of laffs in teen comics of the '60s and early '70s. And the distance from abstract to cartoon is sometimes just a few well-placed lines . . . here to read the rest of this post...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Do You "Qualify for the Giggling Academy?"

When I bought the new Lost Teen Titans Annual recently, I expected (based on the hype) a "wacky" '60s-style comic. No such luck. Yet this week I picked up a comic that's entertaining in the way I had hoped the Titans book would have been.

Tiger Girl 1 (Gold Key, 1968) seems to be a kind of superhero parody, but it takes seriously much of the drama of 'superheroics' (at least I think it does). Written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, who was 54 at the time, it uses the "swinging" vocabulary of ‘60s teen comics like Bunny, with references to "groovy-thrill lovers," "way-out doings," etc. Yet it also plays the romance plot with a straight face (at least I think it does), such as in this panel, when Titan the Great pines for his fellow circus performer, Tiger Girl:

He's not behind bars, just closing a tiger cage - but the staging of the scene is likely intended to add a little pathos to his words, for Tiger Girl prefers the more physically streamlined goverment agent, Ed Savage.

There can be something compelling about a comic when it's not really clear what the author is going for (is it serious; is it a parody?). Siegel relies excessively on expository dialogue, and I can’t tell if he’s doing so to mock others’ use of this device (it's rampant in comics of the era), or simply as a way to get information across.

What makes the issue most entertaining to me is the writing - the silly phrases that populate the story:

I can’t pinpoint why, but "he gloats prematurely" sounds funny, and it's an awkwardly formally thing to say as you are about to be crushed by a giant cat statue's severed head. More of the same:

[above] "I return the towering stumble-bum to you . . ."

It's the insertion of "unerringly" that I like . . .

Maybe if the comic had been drawn in the more serious, muscular style of 60’s Marvel superheroes, these things might be less humorous (and is Wolf Hound about to fall over, above?). But Jack Sparling’s art is scratchy and energetic - and even when the villains are bulky, there’s something clownish about them, and in Wolf Hound's case, his ears change position as his emotions change, making him look even sillier:

[When he's telling the Men of I.N.F.A.M.Y. about his powers in the panel above, his ears are down.]

And speaking of clowns, one of the good guys is a Ditko-esque circus performer named "Laughing Boy":

Are we supposed to think that the guy who just got his brains bashed in is asking the question, as a way to let young readers know that he is ok, that his head is not a bloody mass? It's not clear, because there are others in the scene who could be speaking. The over-the-top, gleeful violence of this sequence is out of place in a way, but that's part of why it works.

These are the kinds of things I was hoping for in the Teen Titans Annual - silly jokes, "wacky" word play, etc - but it just fell flat . . . and plot-wise, the annual was convoluted; things didn't seem to make sense, and not in a good way. At times, its ambitiousness worked against it.

Tiger Girl 1 offers up some of the gestures towards feminism found in late '60s superhero and romance comics, but it seems confused about this, and backtracks pretty quickly:

This comic is the most interesting writing I have seen from Siegel, but unfortunately, there was no Tiger Girl 2. here to read the rest of this post...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Crickets #2

Although Sammy Harkham ’s Crickets #2 continues the serial Black Death begun in #1, the issue marks a radical departure in his approach to the title, signaled most visibly by the stunning cover, in which bold colors run into and around drawings of the comic’s many characters.

Issue 2 is an anthology, featuring 13 stories that range in length from a single panel to 15 pages (for the second part of Black Death, the sole story in #1.) And there's a new focus: comedy. Scenes of slap-stick humor weave their way throughout many pieces, with characters tripping, falling into (and out of) wells, and getting buckets stuck on their head. All of this action is accompanied by cartoony stars, sound effects, and curly motion/emotion lines drawn in a style reminiscent of early 20th-century newspaper strips like Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids.


Katzenjammer Kids:

While physical comedy is common, Harkham is equally at home working in many different modes: the fantasy aspects of Black Death, the harsh reality of father-daughter drama in Mother Fucker, the bible adaptation of Elisha, and light comic autobiography—a series of strips recounts moments from a tour with cartoonists Kevin H. and Anders Nilsen (with guest appearances from Gary Panter and C. F.). Harkham edits the massive and influential international art/comics anthology Kramer Ergot, and Crickets 2 reads a little like an issue of MAD magazine might if they put him in charge . . .

Like many of the artists I admire, Harkham creates stories that seamlessly shift between different emotional registers. Black Death, a picaresque narrative in which a wounded man, a Golem, and a donkey wander through a forest and encounter all sorts of dilemmas, is equal parts physical comedy and psychological drama. It moves between scenes of slapstick and explorations of Jewish mysticism (with a touching 3-page black and white flashback about the Golem’s origin and exile)

and ends with a horrifying, perfectly-paced cliff-hanger. Harkham ’s beautiful fine line work ensures that every story (even the one with the Johnny Ryan punch-line) has a sense of delicacy, no matter how high or low the comedy, or how violent the scene. The panels are always beautiful to look at, especially Black Death’s forest scenes, which are colored in a way that's a little denser and looser than issue 1. Here's a panel from #2:

from #1:

Harkham is one of group of younger cartoonists deeply interested in the medium’s history, and his work makes it clear that he thinks carefully about the techniques he uses. The issue begins with a story about Napoleon (the general and gag cartoonist) that explores how drawing eyes as dots affects a reader’s reaction to a character. This approach is fundamental for Harkham, and so the opening story works as a kind of commentary on the narratives to follow, and it encourages readers to think about his cartooning styles in general.

[One of the things that works well in the above panels is the way that, after a discussion of empathy and drawing, Harkham shifts to a very long shot of the army in which no eyes can be seen, withdrawing from us the thing he had just discussed.] And Napoleon’s struggle with a deadline prefigures Harkham ’s own; two of the short strips towards the issue’s end deal with the gap between issues of Crickets.

The comic is full of magical transformations (the Golem), grotesque characters (The Elephant Man), and violence, bringing together Harkham ’s interesting in religious traditions, horror movies (he draws himself as a werewolf in #1), and freaks. In Elisha, he retells the story of the biblical prophet in a dead-pan, lightly comic manner in which the dramatic cadence of biblical language is replaced by casual, 21st-century conversational dialogue -- yet it maintains a kind of intensity. The story is only 2 pages long, but at nearly 70 panels it has a density comparable to many entire comic books (I read a recent Marvel comic in 3 minutes, less time than it took to read Elisha).

[The book has a few funny visual puns like the one above: the holy man with his 'head in the clouds'.] The prophet revives a dead boy by breathing into his mouth as the prophet's face melts into the boy’s, a transformation that’s echoed on the issue’s cover as a face melts into thick streams of color. In a way, these kinds of transformations are symbolic of the issue's approach to genres, in which so many tropes from one genre blend into another.

Harkham's restrained use of color is a real highlight -- below is a sequence from the comic's last strip, which uses a palette different from the others:

This strip returns to characters from Harkham's Somersaulting, which appeared in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase 3. Here's a row of panels from Somersaulting that shows another approach to color and demonstrates Harkham's sparse sense of panel composition -- I also like the dramatic contrast from panel to panel (a lot of the connecting actions are 'left out') which makes for an unsual sequence:

If all you knew about 'alternative comics' came from sources like the message boards at, you might get the idea that an art comic or an art comics anthology is just autobiographical or fictional stories about guys whining or doing nothing. But, Crickets is a great response to any such argument: Harkham tells a wide range of stories and displays considerable skill at all of the crafts (drawing, dialogue, lettering, coloring, pacing, etc) necessary for great cartooning. here to read the rest of this post...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Thirst: Aerial Gallery by Ivan Brunetti

The Aerial Gallery consists of fifty serialized artworks printed onto banners along Las Vegas Boulevard, running from the Arts District to City Hall. The exhibit will be on display from February 28, 2008 to February 2009.

Here's a preview of all 50 banner images (click the image to see a bigger and somewhat readable version). Crazy to imagine seeing these all along the boulevard. I wonder if anyone will realize that they are sequential, especially with all of mega visual clutter of Las Vegas.

Here's the info for a talk, reception, and unveiling--all of which Mr. Brunetti will be a part of:

Artist Lecture:
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154
Alta Ham Fine Arts Building, Room 257
Wednesday, February 27, 2008, 5:30 PM

Project Dedication, officiated by Mayor Oscar Goodman:
Las Vegas Blvd. and Fremont Street
Thursday, February 28, 2008, 4:00PM

Meet the Artist Reception to follow at Downtown Cocktail Room:
111 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89101
Thursday, February 28, 2008, 4:30 PM to 7:30 PM here to read the rest of this post...

Friday, February 1, 2008 here to read the rest of this post...