Monday, June 21, 2010

Reading and Why

In a recent post at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong uses numerous ideas from Walter Benjamin as ways into an insightful discussion of comics criticism. Along with text from Benjamin, the thread features quotations and comments from a number of HU contributors, and me. Most of the writers, myself included, paint a fairly positive picture of their motivations in writing about comics. But such uplifting beliefs seem like only a part of the picture. No doubt, we are often motivated by things like a genuine desire to “express ourselves”, “learn about something by writing about it,” “entertain”, “raise the public discourse,” or “elevate standards.” All worthy goals . . . But

there are many other possible motivations, ones that we -- or speaking for myself, I -- would usually prefer not to think about. What follows below is a post I wrote a few months back (I had posted it once and then deleted it, thinking it too negative . . .).


When I'm tempted to write a screed against an artist, comic, or graphic novel, one I'll be clever enough (or self-deluded enough) to present as an “objective critique” (though clues to my real motive for writing will inevitably rupture this academic veneer), I try to remember to ask myself: “Why is it that I take this as a personal offense against me?” It’s one thing if the art endorses truly hateful or harmful ideas -- but otherwise, why am I so worked up? Why don’t I say, “This sucks” and move on? Or write a critique that deals with the art in a reasonable way?

But I sometimes think something like the following, which I'll put into words more honest than those I typically allow myself: “I need to set straight those readers and critics who just fail to get it, who foolishly admire X. If they were honest and read X carefully, they would feel just as I do. Must . . . correct . . . wrong . . . ideas. (My hard-drive has a few nasty critiques un-posted, like the first drafts of letters a therapist might suggest you write to your parents but not send . . .)

Sure, plenty of comics and cartoonists stink, and do so aggressively. But that’s life, right? I can enjoy a well-written critique of anything, but when it’s wildly out of proportion to the “offense,” the critic should do the hard work, not of analyzing the comic, but of analyzing his/her motivation: “Why does this make me so pissed off/angry/hurt/unappreciated? What sacred ideas of mine does it threaten? Am I even aware of these feelings or their origin? Do I evade dealing with them by characterizing my motivation in the unassailable terms of “high standards?” All of this, I can attest, is a lot less fun than going off on some cartoonist or comic book, or even another critic.

Perhaps at some level we all write because we want some kind of validation; it’s not simply a need to express ourselves or to direct fellow consumers toward or away from a given “product.” “My attack proves to others and myself that I am one who calls it like I see it -- Like It Is.” (Or: "My praise proves what a nice guy I am.")

(The Hyper-Aggressive Misreading always mistakes the subjective reaction for the objective fact.) And the best way to build yourself up is by tearing someone down, right?

The hyper-aggressive misreading likely stems, not from the critic’s interaction with the text, but from his/her ideas about something more amorphous, some kind of internal conflict triggered by, and then projected onto, the text (which therefore becomes invisible to the critic, obscured by self-deception). So the ostensible “reading” reveals only truths about the unsettled reader, truths that remain to be critiqued. here to read the rest of this post...

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The Spring 2010 issue (36.1) of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review was just released. It features ten essays on Hawthorne's writing for children, one of which is by me: here to read the rest of this post...

Friday, June 18, 2010


" How to Read Weathercraft; or, How I Read It and What I Learned."

1. Read only the interior pages, the story proper. Do not read the material on the book jacket, which gives information about the characters, their world, and the story. Do not think about the significance of the title, and do not look closely at the cover.

2. After a first reading, then read all of the material on the jacket: realize how much you missed, how much you could have understood if you had read with greater care. Realize, also, that if you had thought about the title (and/or the cover image), many scenes that mystified you would have been clear. Acknowledge that you are an inattentive, and at times even a sloppy reader; but don’t get down on yourself. It was great to begin with, and will be even better the second time.

3. Read it again; during the second reading, achieve a new, but still incomplete sense of clarity, much like MH himself. Realize that a good comic changes each time you read it; ponder the implications this has for any theory of comics; such theories typically do not have a good sense of the roles played by different types of readers in creating meaning, nor do they recognize what happens to things like closure on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th reading.

4. Watch the video at the Flog, in which cartoonist Jim Woodring works his way through the book. Again, realize that many of the things he talks about are clearly presented, but that you didn’t pick up on what was being laid down. Also, understand that some of the imagery is highly personal to Woodring, and so what it means to him and him and how it works in the story, is inaccessible to you, though on the book jacket he promises to explain some of it if you ask him in person. Plan to do so.

5. Read it a third time, thinking about Woodring’s video commentary, and recognize how cohesive it is. There’s a real clarity to the plot and to Woodring’s character designs and panel compositions. You will think that, in some way, the key to much of this is the artist's omnipresent wavy line, but will be unsure.

Plan to return to Weathercraft soon. here to read the rest of this post...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Buenaventura Press Closed

In January of 2010, I closed the doors at Buenaventura Press in Oakland, California. I was forced to let go of the dedicated employees who had worked so tirelessly for so little money in order to create art that we all believed in. This meant that I had to abandon all current and future projects and discontinue sales and distribution.

I deeply regret having to take these actions, but the press experienced a devastating financial blow that made it impossible to continue. (I will release more details about this problem in the future.)

I consider myself lucky to have collaborated with many of the best cartoonists and artists of this generation. I am genuinely proud of the books and prints that the press released, and I am extremely grateful for all of your support.

-Alvin Buenaventura here to read the rest of this post...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Best American Comics Criticism

In the introduction, editor Ben Schwartz frames the just-released Best American Comics Criticism in terms of ‘the rise of literary comics,’ which unofficially began in late 2000 with the simultaneous release by Pantheon of Daniel Clowes’s David Boring and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Though the growing prominence of the 'literary comic' provides a context, BACC’s reach is far greater, including pieces published from 2000-2008 on children’s, superhero, and newspaper comics, as well as literary graphic novels. Schwartz includes many kinds of writing, such as reviews, interviews, introductions to collections, historical and analytical essays, panel transcriptions, etc. -- and even a court document and two comics. In the pieces, novelists, critics, and academics write on comics; cartoonists talk to each other; cartoonists write about artists; critics interview cartoonists, etc . . .

The above lists get at one of the collection’s great strengths: it offers an extremely wide range of writing produced over eight years. Although I can imagine critical disagreements with some individual pieces, it’s harder to imagine objections to the philosophy behind BACC and the volume as a whole. While there’s a great deal to be learned by reading any such collection, Schwartz’s editorial approach makes BACC far more entertaining than I would have thought a collection of criticism could be.

(See the introduction and table of contents here.)

N.B.: An essay of mine is included, but don’t let that dissuade you from buying it; there are over 30 other pieces. here to read the rest of this post...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

“My Cola Silo is Out Back”: Wally Gropius

Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was released a week ago, and while I closely followed the story during its Mome serialization, the book (which has many new pages) is a whole nother thing. It has quickly become one of my favorite graphic novels. Here are some reasons why:

Parody and/or Something Else?: It’s Hard to Describe
What is it? Is it a parody? Maybe, but Hensley’s sense of parody is so original that it’s difficult to characterize the book or his approach. Wally Gropius is formally and thematically parodic in that it imitates visual, character, and plot conventions of Dell, Harvey, and Tower teen comics and children’s comics. For example:

 The “teen comic that never misses an opportunity to pun” -- like Harvey’s Bunny (one of the “Blog Flume’s Top 50 Comics”) or dozens of other 1960s comic books. (Click on images to enlarge.)
 The “male teen pop star pursued by countless female fans” -- like DC’s Swing with Scooter and many others.

 The “omnipresent visual money pun” -- objects in the shapes of money symbols -- which, of course, come from Richie Rich. (“Cola Silo,” I assume, is an allusion to Uncle Scrooge’s Money Silos.)

 The “adult condescension toward teenage habits” -- from every teen comic ever.

 The familiar character types and drawing styles -- from comics like Richie Rich, Ponytail, Thirteen Going on Eighteen, Tippy Teen, Beetle Bailey, etc . . .

 And the libidinal/obsessive energy present in Harvey Comics, Archie, and countless teen comics is taken to a disturbing place -- taking the “grope” in “Gropius” to new highs and lows.

In this last instance, Wally Gropius is the kind of parody that works as commentary on the earlier material, by exposing, in an exaggerated yet insightful way, energies/ideologies that animate the source comics [more on this later]. But this, too, oversimplifies things . . . The comic is too odd to be described as “commentary.” It seems far more synthetic than parodic: it blends recognizable influences into something truly new (I always avoid the word “truly,” but in this case it’s needed). And yet, it’s not that far from being a teen comic -- remove a few scenes, a few words and it’s kind of “tween friendly.” It’s hard to describe.

Sensical or Nonsensical?
The dialogue and scenarios are often weird/absurd, but they always make sense; they can easily be understood as exaggerations of, or skewed takes on, typical tropes of kid’s comics. The plot of Wally Gropius has been described as surreal or random, but it’s coherent and far more complex than I first thought, especially when I read it during serialization. You’ll likely need to read it few times before you can understand how some of the characters, such as Plenty, fit into the narrative, and how Banks and the reporter are connected. The apparent sense of absurdity might distract an inattentive reader (I include myself in this group) from the fact that things fit together in very specific ways.

The Joy of Drawing
The book is an encyclopedia of cartoony facial expressions and bodily gestures, and should be studied at the CCS as such. WG radiates a real sense of joy, of “cartooning unfettered.” The visual surfaces -- bold colors, elegant compositions, and assured inking -- are extremely inviting. Enjoy the faces and hands in this sequence:

The Ludic Punisher
Puns rule, both visual and verbal. Take the subtitle, for example: “The umpteen millionaire” -- Wally is a “teen millionaire.” The “ump” in umpteen foreshadows the many sports jokes/puns, which all seem to stem from the Huey Lewis’s “Sports” album conceit, a metaphor that pervades the comic. Umpteen also oddly modifies “millionaire” (traditionally what comes after umpteen must be a plural noun) in that Wally has umpteen millions in the bank. (And umpteeen just sounds funny). [See another Hensley ump joke here.] See also the back cover’s riff on Ox, Fort Knox, Babe the Blue Ox, and “olly olly oxen free.”

Writing and the Logic of Saddest and Married
Hensley is one of the best, and most idiosyncratic, writers of text in comics. Toward the end of the novel, Wally launches into a brilliantly executed disquisition on the linguistic and logical problems of marrying a girl who also must be “The Saddest Girl in the World.” A compelling interrogation of “the limits of language” by a recently-pummeled teenager millionaire at his wedding; and it’s also brilliantly staged by Hensley.

Allusive Density
Part of the fun of rereading is finding more puns and allusions, such as the images and literary references to suicide -- Mishima, Sylvia Plath, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. It’s a web of allusion, jokes, and puns about things that are funny, and things that aren’t . . . The constant visual jokes also recall the side-features in kid’s comics that asked readers to find the dozen eggs -- or the like -- in a single drawing.

Money-pun in lower left corner: "Penny pinching"? "Money’s tight"?

Quote Ability
Hensley creates unforgettable phrases that, if there’s any justice in the world, will appear in all of the best quotation dictionaries:
“The Book as Art Object”
Like Clowes with Wilson and Ice Haven, Chris Ware with Jimmy Corrigan and recent Acme Novelty Librarys, or Seth with George Sprott, Hensley in Wally Gropius has exercised careful control of every aspect of the book’s design, creating a beautifully designed object that seems strangely modern while clearly showing its debt to earlier forms, such as the European album format of Tintin collections:

Note the band across the front cover with the subtitle and the head of the main character (the red-headed Wally is Archie [freckles] + Tintin [rouge cheeks]), and “Hensley” is placed where “HergĂ©” would be; also note the style of the encircled page numbers). For all of Hensley’s interest in past comics, there’s little that’s really nostalgic about the book and its design. Though it gives off a comforting sense of familiarity (evoking the thick covers of a beloved children’s picture book), this feeling is challenged by the book’s at time uncomfortable contents. And the peculiar clarity of Hensley’s drawing and inking on the cover -- and a phrase like “the umpteen millionaire” -- instantly tell us that we're not in Riverdale.

Sex and Sublimation
Gropius tells a strange story about sexual desire and sublimation. One of Wally’s songs argues for teenagers redirecting their urges into a sport (there’s that metaphor again), in this case a marathon ping pong session that must end in frustrated teens spewing vomit, which perhaps functions as a “surrogate oral ejaculate”: the body will ‘out’ its desire in some way. This part of the narrative about human nature and self-censorship -- like much of the book, really -- lives on the edge of cartoony comedy and disturbing revelation. The book’s approach is all the more profound because it blends ‘funny’ and ‘upsetting,’ such as when Jillian beats the shit out of Wally: it's a "boy meets girl, girl beats boy" story . . .

The book deals with many such “issues,” and could be read in a number of “serious” ways: as parable about celebrity; a meditation on female suffering, histrionics, and culture (or a reimagining of teen Sturm und Drang in the “Bieber-fever” media climate of the early 21st century); a critique of beliefs underlying the popularity of sports and connection between sports and patriotism (or an exploration of a nationalistic sentimentalism); a harsh critique of misdirected mothering; etc . . . While I think it’d be fine to see the book as “about” these things (as a parody that criticizes or even mocks some of its subjects), this approach also seems misrepresentative. . . There’s a weird tension between the book’s appealing surfaces and its “content” that disrupts attempts (at least my attempts) at generalizing about the comic.
As Hensley recently said at the LA Times blog: “I have a love/hate relationship with those old comics. There are things about them I'm nostalgic about, but there are things about them that infuriate me as well.” These conflicted feelings play out in the book.

Each Panel / Page is Beautifully Designed

The book’s size (printed larger than it was in serialization) is a real plus in drawing attention to the elegant, uncluttered panel compositions.

Hensley’s Skill as a Letter and Title Designer

Color and Space
A while back, I wrote about a number of other things I liked about the comic:

Other Highlights:
+Best use of photo/drawing collage since Fantastic Four Annual 3.
+Oddest Abu Ghraib allusion, one that makes sense in the context of the previous panel’s images and reference to patriotism and sports.
+Most Disturbing Scene of Extispicium in a Teen Comic.

Eight Sources For Further Study:
1. Eric Reynolds Interviews Tim Hensley at the Flog
2. Gary Groth Interviews Hensley in Mome
3. Amazon Message Board Interview
4. Five Questions for Hensley at the LA Times Blog
5. Daniel Clowes on Wally Gropius at The Daily Beast
6. Dash Shaw on Wally Gropius at Comics Comics
7. National Anthems
8. Huey Lewis and Sports here to read the rest of this post...