Friday, December 25, 2009

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Book of the Decade: Ice Haven


There is a panel in Daniel Clowes’s “comic-strip novel” Ice Haven in which a boy named Charles tears up a paperback copy of The True Story of Leopold and Loeb.

It’s a moment of real anxiety for Charles: he believes that if he is found with the book, he will be linked to a murder he didn’t commit. Giant beads of sweat hover over his head; his hands and arms are drawn multiple times to simulate the act of tearing; and the word “SHRED” appears twice above torn pieces of the book. Charles’s head is as big as his torso. His mouth—like that of many comic characters drawn in profile (Little Lulu, Henry, Charlie Brown)—is nowhere to be seen. The panel is funny in the way we expect a cartoon drawing to be—full of exaggerated effects. But because Clowes has carefully unfolded the plot and put Charles in a web of troubled relationships, the reader experiences the force of his anxiety.

Many graphic novels distance themselves from their “funny page” origins: to be legitimate, the argument goes, comics need to imitate as much as possible the realism of film. Clowes, however, reveals no discomfort about the seriousness of his predecessors.

Applying a warehouse of cartooning techniques in traditional, unusual, and poignant ways, Clowes again shows himself to be the foremost practitioner of the literary comic.

Ninety pages long and composed of 37 stories, Ice Haven has at its center a crime story—the kidnapping of a boy. But around this plot nearly a dozen others circulate, some of which have little or no connection to the crime. The method of narration, too, constantly changes. Some stories are told in the third person,

others by one of five main characters who function as first-person narrators. Some speak directly to the reader,

one narrates through letters,

and another rambles aloud—is he talking to the reader or to himself?


For visual inspiration Ice Haven looks to the Sunday funnies, in which different genres of strips drawn in distinct styles sit side by side, combining in the reader’s field of vision (in a way film frames never could) to create a kind of imaginary cartoon world.

Clowes draws on his knowledge of American comic-strip techniques to vary word balloons, lettering, and coloring to reflect the different modes of narration. A vignette with Leopold and Loeb (whose crime haunts the novel as it did Clowes’s Chicago childhood)

features a classic big-nosed style of cartooning on beige pages meant to resemble faded newsprint; a story about a prehistoric resident of the town of Ice Haven borrows the look of The Flintstones; and the vignette “Our Children and Their Friends” mimics the ground-level, static perspective of Peanuts.

The result is like a prose novel written by a dozen different authors. Taken alone, each of the stories might remind you of a cartoon you’ve seen before. But much of Clowes’s innovation lies in the interplay of styles.

The technique succeeds because of Clowes’s obvious affection for a range of genres and formats that cover the history of American comics. His use of these forms is never clichéd, like the work of so many literary and cinematic postmodernists who engage in genre-hopping. Instead, Ice Haven evokes the pathos that can make such genres as, say, detective fiction compelling. Recalling Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Clowes’s PI Mr. Ames desperately seeks but fails to find a satisfying relationship, in part because he unwittingly lives out hardboiled clichés: his desire to rescue troubled women makes him blind to the troubles in his marriage.

Even stilted genres such as teen romance are mined for genuine emotion. Like the heroines of the romance comics Clowes read as a child, the teenager Violet is sympathetically portrayed as a victim of family problems who yearns for marriage as an escape. She is both an idealist who sings songs from musicals and a self-absorbed stepsister who is cruelly unaware of the devotion she inspires in a younger brother. On Ice Haven’s back cover are portraits of its “cast of characters” with an exhortation (written by Clowes): “You will feel as though you know them!” The exclamation point might make the line seem ironic, but it’s not.


Clowes has found a home for his writing in Hollywood, but Ice Haven is decidedly unlike a film. Its pacing often seems a conscious reaction to the rapid-fire editing used in so many current films, TV shows, and video games. Mainstream comics rarely go too long before crowding pages with dozens of motion lines emanating from flying superheroes or frenetic teens to compensate for lacking film’s action; Clowes embraces the medium’s stillness. We are asked to examine each character and each panel carefully, looking for subtle shifts in facial expression and wondering what happened to the characters between the panels. We must contemplate them and our own responses. In scenes in which Charles stands still, nearly silent, holding the same blank facial expression, Clowes gives the reader information through other, subtle details: the speed at which Charles bounces a tennis ball, for example, conveys his emotional state as he reacts to other characters’ speech.

You always need to read Clowes with a kind of attention that comic strips have rarely demanded, or even wanted.

On repeated readings, Ice Haven’s crime plot recedes into the background, revealing the book as a story about its peculiarly American namesake (its name on the title page is lettered in stars and stripes) and a kind of Midwestern melancholy, where people wander the streets and talk with neighbors but rarely understand each other. When the poet Random Wilder meets Vida Wentz (the granddaughter of his poetic rival), she awkwardly delivers a prepared speech about her admiration for his writing, handing the poet her self-produced zine. The pompous Wilder accepts it with appreciation, but when safely indoors, tosses it aside: “Hasn’t one Mrs. Wentz done enough damage to the world of letters? Must her befouled lineage carry forth the tradition?” He later reads it and is deeply moved, so much so that he “can’t bear to have it in the house”; unfortunately for Vida, she finds it when searching through his garbage—she has been stalking him. Such strained, disappointing encounters are at the heart of Ice Haven. When characters offer a friendly greeting to the convenience-store clerk, Kim Lee, they get silence and a blank stare in return,

and when a “throng of Ice Havenites” crowd the street to learn about the crime, few of them even look at each other. Only two female characters are able to escape the pull of the town’s melancholy: as the comic ends Violet leaves her distant husband for Hawaii and Vida follows Clowes to Hollywood to become a writer and “the biggest whore ever!!”

In Ice Haven’s second panel Charles reads a manual entitled Do It Yourself.

Perhaps this is Clowes’s reference to the DIY ethic of the 1960s underground “comix” movement in which cartoonists such as R. Crumb, Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman exercised almost complete control in the creation of their comic books. The vast majority of comics are today, in contrast, corporate products. The art, writing, coloring, lettering, and book design are done by different hands, a team assembled by and subservient to a corporation’s editorial apparatus, whose primary concerns are the marketability and licensing of characters. Clowes is Ice Haven’s auteur, taking responsibility for every aspect of his book: he even hand-lettered all the mundane publication information and chose the kind of paper.

The only mark that Clowes didn’t make himself is the back cover’s mechanically generated price code, which he incorporates into his design by putting it into a hand-drawn word balloon spoken by Clowes’s shill, a cigarette-smoking comedic bunny who hypes the book. It’s not surprising that the most important graphic novels (which include works by Clowes, Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Chris Ware) have been created in this time-consuming and solitary way. Clowes even prefers to be called a “cartoonist,” a term that evokes a vision uncorrupted by collaboration and connected to past masters such as Charles M. Schulz, George Herriman, and Frank King.

Even those who see comics as an important art form often worry that the medium will always be limited in its ability to express the nuance we expect from great films or literary fiction. In his manifesto Modern Cartoonist, Clowes writes that the graphic limits of the form are not something to lament but to exploit. One of our earliest experiences with art, he writes, is drawing cartoons—so reading intentionally cartoony comics such as Ice Haven can conjure up our childhoods. The town’s comic-book critic, Harry Naybors, offers a more abstract, but equally compelling explanation of comics’ appeal: “While prose tends toward pure ‘interiority,’ coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics,’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

In a self-referential moment, Clowes has Naybors explicate the cartoon world he lives in; he notes that Clowes has a reputation for misanthropy. Ice Haven refutes this claim. The book’s final story features 12 nearly identical panels—a young boy lies almost motionless on his bed—interrupted only by occasional short lines of dialogue.

It is in this kind of stillness that Clowes’s humanity—his tenderness toward the loners and misfits that populate Ice Haven—comes through. Ice Haven demonstrates, perhaps more so than any other graphic novel, the great range of the medium. Clowes’s comic is complex, absurd, funny, touching, and profoundly cartoony.

[This essay first appeared in the Boston Review, Jan. 2006. The text has been changed slightly, and images have been added.]


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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Self-Storage




These were drawn over the years for Giant Robot group show grids and are parked here in the spirit of blog as self-storage unit. I think the kanji says, "Piss off!" I copied it out of a Japanese-English phrasebook.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

American Boyhood from 1830-1885


The University of Tennessee Press has just released Boys at Home: Discipline, Masculinity, and 'The Boy-Problem' in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. I began the project around a decade ago, while a graduate student at the University of Virginia. A few chapters have been published along the way, but I feel a sense of relief and satisfaction that the book is finally in print.

A few related things:
1. An old Blog Flume post that has images from boys' books of the period, some of which appear in the book.
2. An uncorrected proof of part of the introduction (it's close to the final version).
3. An excerpt from the UTP's promotional copy:

. . . Ken Parille seeks to do for nineteenth-century boys what the past three decades of scholarship have done for girls: show how the complexities of the fiction and educational materials written about them reflect the lives they lived. While most studies of nineteenth-century boyhood have focused on post-Civil War male novelists, Parille explores a broader archive of writings by male and female authors, extending from 1830-1885.

Boys at Home offers a series of arguments about five pedagogical modes: play-adventure, corporal punishment, sympathy, shame, and reading. The first chapter demonstrates that, rather than encouraging boys to escape the bonds of domesticity, scenes of play in boys’ novels reproduce values associated with the home. Chapter 2 argues that debates about corporal punishment are crucial sources for the culture’s ideas about gender difference and pedagogical practice. In chapter 3, “The Medicine of Sympathy,” Parille examines the affective nature of mother-daughter and mother-son bonds, emphasizing the special difficulties that “boy-nature” posed for women. The fourth chapter uses boys’ conduct literature and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – the preeminent chronicle of girlhood in the century – to investigate not only Alcott’s fictional representations of shame-centered discipline but also pervasive cultural narratives about what it means to “be a man.” Focusing on works by Lydia Sigourney and Francis Forrester, the final chapter considers arguments about the effects that fictional, historical, and biographical narratives had on a boy’s sense of himself and his masculinity . . .

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Mechanicals




Here is unused artwork by Daniel Clowes for Victor Banana's album Split. I think I may have pasted these up around the same time the Neil Smythe CD was being mastered. The Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron soundtrack had sold well enough to break even, so, drunk with power, I assumed I would be able to release a whole line of products. There's a panel in the Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron book this reminds me of--a character admonishes, "I'm sick of everybody using my store as a through street!" Since the formats are now forgotten, I've posted these templates for any old-timer who wants to make a cassette for their big rig.




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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Abner Dean's Notebook, Part III.

[Part one and part two . Click on images to enlarge. The commentary in italics below the cartoon is Dean's.]
__________________________________________________

Nearer to the heart’s desire

As long as there’s anyone making a more beautiful mud pie in a column of sunlight in the heart of despair -- there’s hope. Hope for a world reconstructed. Nothing has to be the way it is. Only the earth has continuity (or what we consider continuity in relation to our limits) -- man is not complete -- nor are his mores. He and they are changing. There is a slow and bloodless revolution in progress. None of our concepts or constructions are necessarily permanent. Out of a good mud pie may come a new world.

It would be easy to read this drawing as a condemnation of the character in the sunbeam, who seems completely oblivious to the suffering around him. (He looks at the dog, not at the parade of people). In this way, he seems to share the sense of self-delusion often possessed by Dean's main characters. But here, as elsewhere, Dean's comments show an appreciates for those who try to imagining new ways of seeing, thinking, and making art. Even if the result appears comical (an ordered mound of dirt and water), it shows a desire to imagine -- and to try to create -- a better reality, one that can have positive social consequences.

So rather than coming from above, it is as if the beam of light emerges (like the flower) from the mud pie, a comment on the generative power of art, and its ability to illuminate social realities in an abstract way. Perhaps Dean is telling us it's not that the main character ignores the suffering around him, but that the others overlook the hope in their midst.

[In the third to the last sentence, Dean writes (gradual) in a different pen above "and," suggesting that he may have wanted this sentence to read: There is a slow and gradual and bloodless revolution in progress.]

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Unintentional Connections

I was reading a '70s issue of The Avengers and I thought about Ivan Brunetti. In his excellent book

he points out "some common pitfalls," one of which is "unintentional connections" between images in different panels:

A page in The Avengers #152 [1976] (pencils by John Buscema) seems to have this problem:

Two connections -- the leg in panel 1 'joining' the arm in 3, plus the torso in 2 'jutting' from the hip in 1 -- create some visual confusion and impede a clear reading of the fight scene.


On the first reading, the connections felt like a flaw to me, but looking at the sequence again, I'm not so sure. When you take in the page as a whole, they give the fight a sense of circular motion. Or they're a result of questionable planning. . . [The cover of the issue is by Kirby and Ayers]

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Love Punishes the Guilty!






This story was originally published in The Comics Journal Special Edition of Winter 2004, but in black and white and on a single page measuring 12 by 12 inches. Reformatting it meant redrawing the opening:


Maybe this new version will appear years from now in a barrel scraper.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Abner Dean's Notebook, Part II.

[See here for part 1, which explains some things.]________________________________________________


This thing has meaning [click on images to enlarge]

The beginnings of philosophy -- now if you can only find the meaning you have the all. But it’s good even if you only come to the point of suspecting a meaning. If you can be part of the flow and aware of it at the same time (which doesn’t seem apparent here) you can get out of your bucket.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Believer 2009 Art Issue!



We're pleased to announce that the new 2009 Art Issue of The Believer features:


  • The debut of the new monthly "Comics" spread, including all-new strips by Tim Hensley, Lisa Hanawalt, Matt Furie, Charles Burns, Al Columbia, Tom Gauld, and many more, edited by Alvin Buenaventura

  • A huge fold-out double sided poster with art by Jerry Moriarty
  • An interview with Aline Kominsky-Crumb by Hillary Chute
  • An interview with cartoonist and musician Peter Blegvad
  • and so much more...

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unseen on Covers


A few days back, I wrote an appreciation-analysis of Moench, Jones, and Madsen's Batman Unseen #1 and #2. The comics racks at my local shop has somewhere around 70 new comics today -- and Batman Unseen #3 is the only cover to have a word balloon. This choice clearly seems to be part of the author's decision to evoke a retro feel, and though a word balloon on a cover shouldn't seem like a risk, given current trends, it almost seems a little subversive; and it's a small reason why this comic stands out to me . . .

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Notebook

Abner Dean’s papers include notebooks in which he commented on dozens of cartoons from his 1947 collection What Am I Doing Here? In this commentary he adopts different personas: in some he talks as if he were a character in the drawing; in others he sympathizes with or scolds characters or the reader in his own voice; in many he offers either straightforward or obscure observations on the cartoon; and in others he moves between these approaches. Dean’s comments are a strange and compelling form of criticism on his own work, the kind that we don’t often get to hear from an artist. I don't know why Dean wrote these kind of notebooks, when they were written, or if he ever shared them with anyone . . .

I use quotations from the notebooks in an essay on Dean in Comic Art #9, but on the blog today (and in the next few weeks) I will post cartoons and writing from Dean that did not appear in that essay. [Dean's text is in italics below, in part because it's in cursive in the notebooks -- click images to enlarge.]

You can give too much of yourself

Of course you recognize yourself -- you're the man inside the lunch counter! Or are you someone else in this group? Look again -- inside yourself.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

video

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Unseen

Perhaps out of some misguided allegiance to my youth (when I was a “reader-collector” of Marvel and DC comics), or even out of some need (equally misguided) to prove to myself that I'm not an “art comics snob,” I've long been scanning the new comics racks for a mainstream-superhero title that I could “follow.” With the exception of Marvel’s Omega the Unknown (by a team fully outside of the mainstream stable of writers and artists), nearly every comic I have purchased or read in the store (a lot) has been a disappointment, especially the horrible Jimmy Olsen one-shots of the past year. Even the work of Grant Morrison (I just stopped reading his Batman and Robin), is a kind of letdown. I have been told for decades, and once believed, that Morrison is not just a great writer of comics, but a great writer. In his current Batman series, Morrison creates villains who are pretty creepy, scenes that are somewhat disturbing, and avoids most of the clichés that bury other writers. Frank Quitely’s art is stylish, but his line is so thin at times that it seems to disappear into the color. The comic’s solid, but that’s about all I can say for it.

I have been reading another Batman series, one that rises above corporate sub-mediocrity to the level of interesting and successful entertainment: Batman Unseen.

[click images to enlarge ]

What first attracted me to the comic, and one of the main reasons it works, is Michelle Madsen’s coloring, which manages to be both “moody” and bright, almost garish (attractively so) in its gloss. She avoids the coloring clichés that plague many current superhero comics, such as "muddy brown scene with indistinguishable characters" means “this story is seriously intense and grim.” Here is her "signature" in first panel of issue #2: a stained glass window with blocks of bright colors.

The way that artist Kelley Jones designs the white spaces on some of the pages functions in concert with Madsen’s color schemes. Jones uses a lot of white space and large gutter-like areas to ensures that all of the elements of the layout are easily read. And the pages often have an "airy" and open feel, a look that's surprising in a comic that uses so many horror tropes:

While computer fonts typically clash with the natural hand of the artist, Madsen's bold coloring of the sound effects here integrates them into the look of the panel and page by echoing the colors of nearby objects -- I still prefer hand lettering, but the coloring helps:

The comic evokes the simple and blocky color patterns of silver age superhero comics and makes use of computer-based shading effects in a manner that's unobtrusive:

Though Jones’s art often creates the dark atmosphere typical in Batman comics, it always displays a nice blend of comedic exaggeration and horror tropes; so the story never gets weighed down, trying to tell us visually that we must take it seriously, even when we are seeing some fairly dramatic images of Gotham:


(I like how the areas of red and yellow stand off against the grays and blacks. Even a night scene that's dense in Jones's trademark shadows and thick black areas somehow becomes bright.)

The humor in Jones’s art is not ironic or parodic -- the story is a crime drama and works as such; but again, there’s something about the cartoony aspects of his art that keep the brooding within bounds, as in this dutch angle panel with angular shadows:

Subtitled “A Lost Tale of Bruce Wayne as Batman,” Batman Unseen appears to be completely outside of the cosmic crossover continuity chaos that makes so many current mainstream comics unreadable for me. It’s a bit of a throwback, a very pulpy comic with a mad scientist-invisible man, and some two-bit hoods directed by a super-villain type. But writer Doug Moench never overplays his pulp hand in a self-conscious way, and nothing is being revised, rebooted, etc . . . There’s very little pretense: it’s far more entertaining detective fiction than collectible superheroic drama, and it helps that the comic focuses more on the cast of criminals than on Batman.

One pulpy feature that works very well is the way that Moench and Jones open each issue’s many chapters with an image of Batman as a kind of host-narrator, a silent version of the horror comic convention of the comedic narrator. There’s a light humor to many of these set ups that, for a moment, takes us out of the narrative's continuity and contributes to the comic's "ludic sensibility":

Here’s a two-page spread from issue #1: an ad for a DC comic (Blackest Night) followed by the last page of the Unseen story. It offers an unintended contrast, one that sets Jones's approach side-by-side with the typical machismo that pervades many superhero comics. In the ad, all of the characters' hand and mouth gestures and poses evoke, in their "extreme attitude," the unfortunate excesses of the 1990s Image comics house style. Jones uses some similar gestures and poses, but renders faces, hands, and bodies very differently. And the attractive, light and loose lines he employs to draw the disappearing scientist and his lab materials shows an artistic playfulness and stylishness absent in the ad and comics like the one it's selling:


So far, Batman Unseen has been an entertaining comic.


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