Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present - Coda: What is an Artist? (Part Two)

"Aristophane was a better artist than Jack Kirby, obviously. Joost Swarte is better than Hergé."

Domingos Isabelinho

If you read part one of this post you know what it's about. So, here we go again...

Jack Kirby:

Jack Kirby is the king of machoism, mechanophilia and manicheism. He achieves his manicheistic goals coupling goodness / beauty and evilness / ugliness which is a long tradition going back to Medieval speciesism. Talking of which, Kirby doesn't shy away from said visual short cut, as we can see below:

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l),"The Quick and the Dead!," Mister Miracle # 14, DC Comics, June / July 1973.

Jack Kirby (w and p), Vince Coletta (i), John Costanza (l), "Super War!" [exclamation marks are all over the place in Kirby's comics], The Forever People # 2, DC Comics, April / May 1971. The beautif... er... the forever people are the goodies. Two minor debatable aesthetic choices though: was that cleavage, front and center, really needed? Was there a need for the black character to be called Vykin "The Black"? As Fredrik Strömberg put it in Black Images in the Comics: "Quite often the reader gets a feeling that a Black character is included just to be the Black character in a certain context."

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l), Glynis Wein (c), "The Russians Are Coming!," The Eternals # 11, Marvel Comics, May 1977. More beautiful people. 

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l), "Apokolips Trap!!," Mister Miracle # 7, DC Comics, April 1972. The bad and ugly.

Jack Kirby (w and p), Vince Colletta (i), John Costanza (l), "X-Pit!," Mister Miracle # 2, DC Comics, May / June 1971. Granny Goodness above is a misogynous stereotype, the harpy. It seems that the baddies are not only ugly, they're also always shouting.

I said all I wanted to say about Jack Kirby already. His stories, or the stories that he drew, are formulaic dreck, but a couple of things in his oeuvre are interesting. For instance:

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l), Glynis Wein (c), "Mother!," The Eternals # 10, Marvel Comics, April 1977.  

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l), Glynis Wein (c), "Astronauts!," The Eternals # 13, Marvel Comics, July 1977.  

Jack Kirby (w and p), Mike Royer (i and l), "Spawn," The New Gods # 5, DC Comics, October / November 1971.

Jack Kirby, "Out of Mind's Reach," Pro! magazine, FNL, October 21, 1973.

I can easily imagine a twelve year old saying - Awesome!! The problem is that I'm not a twelve year old, so, I need more than awesomeness from the art and writing that I'm reviewing. This is just the spectacle of cheap and superficial entertainment. What's behind it, then? As I put it in my The Hooded Utilitarian article there's: 1) a glorification, a glamorizing and a sanitation of violence; 2) a fascination with cosmic power translated in the power of machines (gods are literally shown as machines above). All this is in complete accordance with Futurism (Kirby's style is a cubo-futurism of sorts) and Fascist aesthetics.

An addendum: 

Jack Kirby (w and p), John Verpoorten (i), Gaspar Saladino (l), Glynis Wein (c), "The Day of the Gods" The Eternals # 1, Marvel Comics, July 1976.

As we can see above in The Eternals, at least, Kirby was highly influenced by Aztec art. This happened because he was under the influence of Erich von Däniken's quack theories about astronaut gods.

Stan Lee (s), Jack Kirby (p), Vince Colletta (i), Sam Rosen (l), "Where Gods May Fear to Tread!," The Mighty Thor # 132, Marvel Comics, September 1966.

Countless pages were written about who did what at Marvel Comics during the 1960s. I couldn't care less, really, but the above (one of Kirby's famous collages...) is such a wacky invention I bet that it was spawned by Jack Kirby's fertile imagination.

NOTE: I'm going to reread Aristophane's Conte Démoniaque, now. Since I'm such a slow reader, I'm very sorry, but it will be quite a while until my next Aristophane post.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Barron Storey's Paper Planes

While waiting for Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present - Coda: What Is an Artist? (Part Two) I give you one (an artist that is): Barron Storey, ladies and gentlemen!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present - Coda: What is an Artist? (Part One)

"Aristophane was a better artist than Jack Kirby, obviously. Joost Swarte is better than Hergé."
Domingos Isabelinho

Nothing is obvious, ever, but, in this case, even less so. That is why I want to explain myself.

First of all I mean "artists" not "draftsmen." This is an important distinction and I bet that my scarce readers, enlightened as they are, misunderstood me. Anyway, what, in my humble opinion, did Aristophane and Joost Swarte do so well and what did Jack Kirby and Hergé do so poorly?

An artist, to me, is someone who senses the world around and conveys her / his vision of it through art. In order to do so a comics artist (or a team creating comics) needs to master her / his craft. This means that Jack Kirby and Hergé were great craftsmen, but were they great artists? Because craft is important, I don't deny that, but it is far from being enough... A world vision isn't enough either, by the way, because it may be clichéd and trite. (Talking of which, to quote a cliché, a world vision is like an arsehole, everybody has one.)

Conversely a poor artist bowdlerizes reality, uses stereotypes and cardboard stock characters, follows Manichean genre formulas, etc...

Georges Remi (aka Hergé):

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Tintin au Congo" [Tintin in the Congo], le petit "Vingtième," November 20, 1930. A racist blackface minstrel character.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Tintin en Amérique" [Tintin in America], le petit "Vingtième," September 29, 1932. Racist "yellow peril" characters.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "Le Lotus Bleu" [The Blue Lotus], le petit "Vingtième," December 6, 1934. A racist buck teeth, pig-nosed, Japanese character.

Georges Remi (Hergé), "L'étoile mystérieuse" [The Shooting Star], Le Soir [a Nazi newspaper in occupied Belgium!], November 19, 1941. Racist Anti-semitic characters while Jews were chased all over Europe.

Apart from these racist representations Hergé's world is Manichean and misogynous. In time he got fed up with these simplistic representations of the world and tried to be a gallery painter. Unfortunately for him, he also failed in the intent. He did not fail, however, in creating an industry and becoming a very wealthy man. That is the ultimate success story in our value free, anything goes to make a buck, Western World...

In spite of all this I have some fondness for his bourgeois play (theatre de boulevard), Les bijoux de la Castafiore (The Castafiore Emerald) and for some of his clever formal devices, but that's about it...

Joost Swarte:

I'm not a huge fan of po-mo irony, but if I were Joost Swarte would absolutely be my cup of tea. He's an intelligent, sophisticated, visual thinker if there ever was one (and believe me, there were). Unfortunately for the art form (if you have a narrow definition of same, that is...) Joost Swarte is more of an illustrator and a graphic designer these days than a comics artist. His print series (you can see a couple of prints below) are some of the greatest ironic comments on the human condition and modern life produced by a comic artist.

Joost Swarte, "De spiegel" [the mirror], print by Caro, 1983. 

Joost Swarte "Libre enfin!" [free at last], Enfin! [finally] portfolio, Futuropolis, 1981.

From the intro to Enfin! (by Étienne Robial?):
Life is a long battle for money, sex and power, for light and inspiration... to end irrevocably as a moneyless, sexless, powerless corpse in dark earth, inspiring nothing but worms and chrysanthemums. Free at last... The futility of human striving, the irony of results being the negatives of our goals, has been Swarte's inspiration for the portfolio.
Swarte's peculiar use of empty spaces helps him to convey the feeling that his characters are lost and overwhelmed by huge forces beyond their control (even if they are oblivious to the situation like the fellow leaving jail above).

Joost Swarte, Untitled [Joost Swarte and Robert Crumb read Crumb's The Book of Genesis with a little "help" from god], print by Griffioen Grafiek, 2009. Notice blackface minstrel Felix the Cat on the background.

The image above illustrates the fact that Joost Swart and Robert Crumb belong to the same generation (Crumb b. 1943; Swarte b. 1947). They both share the same camp (underground) aesthetic finding graphic inspiration in the comics that they both read when they were children: Walt Disney funny animals and "big foot" style comedy for Crumb, Tintin albums for Swarte. Ideally this creates a second degree post-modern feeling that's distancing and cool. Joost Swarte is also inspired by art deco cartoonist extraordinaire (as was Hergé, in fact) George McManus (as you can see below). Furthermore, the use of technical perspectives (isometric projection above) coupled with a clear line aesthetic (Swarte coined the term) underlines the emotional distancing of Swarte's drawings.

George McManus, "Bringing Up Father," Sunday comic strip, April 28, 1940.

Both Swarte and Crumb admire early 20th c. mass culture, then, warts (racism, for instance) and all... Being campy one assumes that Crumb's and Swarte's racist imagery cannot be read as racist, right? Well, wrong!

As David Pilgrim, of the Jim Crow Museum put it: "When satire does not work, it promotes the thing satirized"

Robert Crumb, "Angelfood McSpade," Zap Comix # 2, June 1969. ("When satire does not work, it promotes the thing satirized".) For a more thorough exploration of the issue, see here.

The problem is not as blatant in Joost Swart's case, but it is not totally absent from his work either. His most famous character, Jopo de Pojo, has a racist echo in the third degree. According to Swarte Jopo de Pojo is a blend of his favorite comics characters:

Joost Swarte "Jopo de Pojo," design for a t-shirt, 1980; recolored for a print by Griffioen Grafiek, 2011.

Earl Duvall (w and p), Al Taliaferro (i), "Silly Symphonies: Bucky Bug," Sunday comic strip, January 10, 1932.
[Jopo's] trousers come from Tintin. The badge on his jacket is the symbol from the title of the Krazy Kat comics. His head is inspired by old Disney bug characters, and a sort of early Felix the Cat. As I am a music lover I included elements of a musical note in his head. A (shiny) black ball as his head, and a hairdo like the flag. 
The Disney bugs are the second degree, but, since those bugs had racist tones, the third degree reading has a, albeit distant, racist subtext.

Joost Swarte, "I'll Play the Blues For You," as published in Raw Vol. 1 # 1, Fall 1980 [1977]. It's not difficult to guess why Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly let this page fall from their anthology of the first three issues of Raw (vol. 1), Read Yourself Raw.

Notice, however, that "I'll Play the Blues For You" is the only page by Joost Swarte with offensive blackface minstrel imagery.

A final note:

Ethics and aesthetics are the same thing to me, but, since I'm in explanation mode, I want to explain why. As Charles Johnson put it in Fredrik Strömberg's Black Images in the Comics:
If these images spring from an epistemological difficulty or a technical dilemma related to draftsmanship rather than purely racist intent ([...] that, of course, is the very point of art, comic or otherwise: to put us "over there" behind the eyes of Others), then we should call this visual short-hand for people of color by its proper name: intellectual and creative laziness.
[..] these Ur-images of blacks, are a testament to the failure of the imagination (and often of empathy too) [...].
Maybe I focused this post on stereotypical representations of comics characters too much, but what Charles Johnson says above could be easily transposed to other features of comics like plot formulas, Manicheism and frivolity. All of the above are epistemological failures, used to make a buck... In other words: unethical imagery is not a product of aesthesis. Hence, it does not put us "over there" in any creative and meaningful way... In art criticism poor ethics stops being a moral problem to be an aesthetical failure due to the laziness of hacks... or... the demands of their bosses.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present

Dan Mazur, Alexander Danner, Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present, Thames & Hudson, 2014

While flipping through the book it was my whole life as a comics reader that I saw passing by.
Domingos Isabelinho

History and comics was never a good match. There are a few reasons why: 1) most so-called comics histories were written by fans which means that they weren't written by professional historians (comics fans are public servants, businessmen, lawyers, etc... etc... few have any kind of aesthetic education, I guess - if they did have such an education the comics canon would be much different from what it is, for sure...); 2) fans are also collectors and collectors are completists obsessed with who did what and raw data, hence, comics histories written by fans are not histories proper, but collections of facts; 3) comics fans writing comics histories don't use any methodology available to art historians; 4) apart from their own perspective as fans they don't approach their object of study from gender, post-colonial or queer studies... etc... I mean, they don't practice the, by now, quite old, New Art History; 5) comics fans have not a shadow of critical sense because they're fanatics and fanatics, as we know, don't think... to them everything is equally good (they are what Tom Spurgeon called, the Team Comics); 6) comics fans are absolutely parochial ignoring everything that falls outside of their interest area. I could go on...

What would be, then, a great comics history? It depends. To avoid social contextualization is almost impossible, I would say; formalism has a bad rep these days. Is it wrong to do close readings of particular comics, then? Of course not, if those close readings are done has a means to an end and not as an end in itselves. On the other hand that's just my take. The truth is that many perspectives are possible. For instance, here's what John Lent said (International Journal of Comic Art Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 2014, 21):
Using elements in the communication paradigm (communicator, message, channel, and audience), comics studies fall short at every stage of the continuum, except for the message (text), which receives considerable attention. 
John goes on saying, for instance, that "the publishers [are] virgin research territory." This means that a history of comics may assume many forms and not all of them involve aesthetic evaluation. Two of the best comics histories (if not the only two worth mentioning), David Kunzle's monumental history of comics from the 16th. to the 19th. century (in two volumes) and Comics Strips and Consumer Culture 1890 - 1945 by Ian Gordon, are two such books. Which is unfortunate for yours truly because I would love to see an old fashioned aesthetically discriminative account of the history of comics, brimming with white dead men and all (with the occasional Geo Herriman thrown into the mix for good measure, of course).  

Is Comics, A Global History, 1968 To the Present by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner such a book? Well, yes, and no... Yes, because everybody is in there; no because you just need to look at the cover to see that, if The Shadow is included, the authors also included a lot of dreck. 

The problem, or the question, that I'm really facing is as follows: comics are both an art form and an industry (even if most people just view them as the latter), can a history of comics ignore half of that equation? I would, for the most part, of course, but I would be completely wrong if doing so. Because, you see?, aesthetically it's impossible to separate the two. Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner are perfectly correct when they stress Charles Schulz's Peanuts influence on North American alternative comics artists. And that's just an example. They're also right when they talk about Jack Kirby's influence on Aristophane's Conte Demoniaque. And yet...  I would never say things like "the high level of artistry and imagination comics creators could bring to the form, in the decades when it was primarily a commercial children's medium." This in a legend to a mediocre Tintin magazine cover by Bob de Moor!, of all people! Since the above quote practically opens the book, that's what I call to start with the wrong foot. Also, the fact that mainstream artists (I'm strongly fighting against the urge to use the word "hacks"!) have influenced other artists doesn't mean that they're on the same aesthetic level: Aristophane was a better artist than Jack Kirby, obviously. Joost Swarte is better than Hergé.

Giving equal space to Moebius and Fabrice Neaud does a disservice to the history of comics. I understand that Mazur and Danner answered my above question by writing a history of the best that the industry has to offer (I don't have any doubts about that either) and the best that the art form has to offer. This, at first glance, seems like the right thing to do, but it throws everybody into the same indiscriminate cauldron (that damn Asterix!, my metaphors are proof enough that I'm being influenced by the book I'm reviewing!, help!).

Now, the good parts are very good. Chapter 16, for instance, is one of the best syntheses that I've read about French / Belgian alternative comics of the 1990s. As I said above, everybody is in there (except the Canicola collective and Pierre Duba, that is) and flipping through the book when I received it I was immediately struck by memories of reading The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James and Raw magazine, Mat Brinkman and  John Porcellino, Baudoin and Vincent Fortemps, Yoshiharu Tsuge and Alberto Breccia along with many others who filled my comics reading hours. Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner wrote reviews of every author's work contextualizing it in comics streams, never leaving the closed comics world to venture into society's larger realms. That's OK to comics readers, I suppose, but it may be too fannish to those who don't read comics regularly (will they buy this kind of book though?).

The best this book has to offer, beyond including the best comics artists of the last, panorama changing, forty five years, is the global approach. To return to historiography, the global (transnational) look at historical events is a contemporary tendency that tries to transcend national(istic) historical narratives. As the first attempt to do so in comics historiography this book is a landmark. Maybe not as important as Kunzle's books, but that's a tall order to match.

Since I should change this blog's title to "Viva Oesterheld," I'll finish with another pet peeve. The book's intro goes back before 1968 to find the roots of adult comics. In doing so it features Ltn. Blueberry by Charlier and Giraud (Moebius) failing to mention Sgt. Kirk by Oesterheld, Pratt et all. That's like citing Van Meegeren instead of citing Vermeer (also, I don't agree that Pilote magazine is that important). Finally, how can anyone cite the mediocre British comic strip "Modesty Blaise" and forget the masterpiece "Matt Marriott"? Kudos to the inclusion of "Carol Day" by David Wright, though.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 25, 2008

This blog is 6 years old since last September 25. Did the situation of the real great artists in comics history improve since then? Are they recognized as such instead of the parthetic comics canon that we had 6 years ago? Not by any far-fetched stretch of the imagination! The situation is as if people considered the greatest films of all time to be B series films instead of the masterpieces by Mizoguchi, Ozu, Rossellini, Bergman, et al... In other words: money continues to talk and the canon continues to be upside down.

James Edgar (w), Tony Weare (a), "Gospel Mary," [London] Evening News, April 3, 1973.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More Landscape Panels By Hugo Pratt, Héctor Oesterheld and Stefan Strocen

Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), "El Sargento Kirk: Ruta de sangre" [blood route], Misterix # 441, April 26, 1957.

Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), "El Sargento Kirk: Ruta de sangre" [blood route], Misterix # 443, May 10, 1957.

Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), "El Sargento Kirk: Ruta de sangre" [blood route], Misterix # 445, May 24, 1957.

Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), "El Sargento Kirk: La boda de Walpi" [Walpi's wedding], Misterix # 448, June 14, 1957.

With these images I want to give you a hint of how great an edition of Oesterheld's, Pratt's, Strocen's Sgt. Kirk would be if the Pratt estate didn't prevent it from happening.

Con estas imagenes quiero mostrar lo excelente que seria una edición del Sgt. Kirk de Oesterheld, Pratt y Strocen si Cong no lo impidiera.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chester Brown As A Gothic Artist

When someone mentions Italian Gothic painting in your presence I bet that the first name coming to your mind is Sassetta. A few others are also likely candidates, of course, but, to me, at least, Sassetta has the added interest of being the Chester Brown of painting. More than that: painting was his technique of choice to do... comics (others use drawings and words, that's the only difference). If you don't believe me just imagine his paintings as panels in a comic because that's what they really are: panels in polyptychs and predellas. There are three problems to view them as such though: 1) they're scattered all over the museums of the world; 2) some disappeared; 3) instead of being viewed as comics telling the life of Anthony or the life of Francis the visual tradition of the West, since the Renaissance, prefers to present them as single images. That paradigm shift also explains why comics are viewed as a minor art form. One = genius; two = stupid.

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poors From a Florentine Jail1437 - 1444.

Chester Brown, Yummy Fur # 4, Vorterx Comics, April, 1987.

To help me prove my point I ask you to look above at the walls - planes -, some in the shadow, some not. Look at the doors that are just simple holes (rectangles) opening said planes to nowhere, or, if you want, to an ominous blackness... There's also a notorious absence of depth because the walls block the view creating a claustrophobic space. Look at the eerie atmosphere of it all...

Chester Brown, Louis Riel # 3, Drawn & Quarterly, December 1999.

Just like Sassetta's characters above, Louis Riel doesn't seem to be running. On the contrary, he seems to be frozen stiff, floating in space.

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony Beaten by the Devils, 1430 - 1432.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 3:1 - 4:17," Yummy Fur # 17, Vortex Comics, August 1989.

Chester Brown, The Definitive Ed Book: Ed the Happy Clown, Vortex Comics, May 1992.

Many of Chester Brown's comics have a religious text and/or subtext. His demons though, are usually beautiful and young (sometimes too young as you can see above). They're not, like Sassetta's, Frankenstein-like creatures born of speciesism. Below though, Sassetta also represents the devil as a beautiful woman tempting Anthony. The only speciesist detail are the bat wings. 

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Guise of a Woman, c. 1435. 

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness, c. 1435.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 14:1, 14:2; 14:12 - 14:23," Underwater # 3, Drawn & Quarterly, May 1995.

Gothic space doesn't ignore linear perspective, but it is not Naturalistic either. There's a stereotyping of rocks and trees that results in a kind of frozen expressionism. The trees above are very important to create the mood of both pieces. Chester Brown's backdrops are a bit more Natural than Sassetta's, but not much. He is careful to keep everything quite simple and to the point. There's a kind of dance in the composition lines of Sassetta's painting that leads quickly to the church (Anthony is inviting us to follow a path that's not a bed of roses; that's what the leafless trees are saying; the animals are allegories of worldly temptations). There's the same idea in Chester Brown's panels: Christ is alone going upward with determination against a strong wind.

Chester Brown, "Knock Knock," Yummy Fur # 31, Drawmn & Quarterly, September 1993.

Trees are very important for Chester Brown. They represent sexual desire in The Playboy, but he goes as far as to identify himself with them in the above panel.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 14:24 - 14:31," Underwater # 4, Drawn & Quarterly, September 1995.

Chester Brown's compositions are absolutely flawless He has a tendency to use diagonals in order to enliven his hieratic drawing style (another Gothic feature). What's also great about him is his stunning use of the black and white areas.

Chester Brown, "The Playboy Stories: Part Two," Yummy Fur # 22, Vortex Comics, September 1990.

In the above panels there's no explanation for the ground to be black while the trees are completely white. The trees and Chester have no shadows creating a two-dimensional space that reminds the Nabis. The branches are entangled to convey Chester's feelings beneath his hieratic mask. One could say that (unforgivable sin) Chester's panels are decorative. And yet, there're purposes... The same purposes that we can find in Gothic painting: to be clear, to be slightly off (not quite Naturalistic... or not Naturalistic enough; but I'm being anachronistic in the latter's case), to create an engaging and disturbing atmosphere...