Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.
In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.
For me, as I’ve said many times, the truest/purest version of the art of making comics will inevitably come from an auteur cartoonist, alone at their drawing table focused upon their art, which ultimately results in a graphic novel. I think you go through a period of making all sorts of short-form comics leading up to full-on full-length graphic novel work. Some cartoonists will not complete this full cycle–and that’s just the way it goes. Maybe their collected short works would arguably add up to graphic novels. Anyway, comics is an art form. There are a bunch of other comics (typical corporate comics and cartoons, per se) that are, in general, not art, never intended to be art. So, it’s wrong to lump it all together, tie a bow around it, and giddily declare, “Comics are comics!” Because that’s not true and makes no sense, really. It’s just not that simple.
Now, Snake Eyes is a perfect example, showcasing various talents, and gets down to business. Glenn Head has led the charge with other collections, notably the more recent Hotwire, but we’ll stick with Snake Eyes for the purposes of this article. And I’ll tie it together, as I see fit, with Avenue D as we move along. What I want to say right away is that, with Snake Eyes, I see a correlation with the now defunct (at least for now) Best American Comics series, published by Houghton Mifflin, and formerly edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. I applaud Bill’s spirited work although I do think, at times, he was trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s fine to make the case that Raymond Pettibon’s work is so close to comics as to be comics, which I tend to agree with up to a point; and it’s also fine to advocate for everyone being welcome to create comics, no matter what skill level, if any at all, but I DO NOT agree with it being inserted into a showcase of the best work! Overall, I believe Bill did a wonderful job. Now, moving forward, I’ve been wondering if Glenn Head might be just the guy to helm the annual voyage of comics discovery for a while. He’s in a unique position, having gone through the entire process himself many times over, of spotting those individuals engaged in what could rightfully be considered some of the best work being created today. And, if not, hey, I’ll take the gig! I can absolutely do it–but Glenn would be an ideal choice.
Moving right along, I think, if you closely study a really great anthology of comix, and there are a number of them, going back to RAW and to WEIRDO, what you will appreciate is that there are certain patterns, even certain ground rules, that indie cartoonists will follow, without ever being told to follow them, since your typical indie cartoonist has problems with authority–but not always. And that’s because a savvy cartoonist knows how to shapeshift if called upon to do a professional illustration gig. Not so much the other way around. A professional illustrator who attempts to slum it by cobbling together a mini-comic to show at a comics art festival will be spotted from a mile away. And why is that? It’s because you can’t fake a certain sensibility that involves putting everything you’ve got into it. So, if your heart is set on making comix, then bring your A game and do it right. It all boils down to an ongoing observation of life and one’s self; drawing a lot of stuff that is purely about yourself that will be synthesized over and over again as you create your own universe.
Now, I’ll shift gears to a point or two I can make using Head’s Avenue D. What struck me, after having examined this and that by Head, is that Head steadily carved out certain areas of interest and certain recurring characters and motifs. That’s really what it’s all about: practicing, drawing and distilling until you reach a certain level of fluidity! You get to the point where you can draw hookers with big wigs in your sleep–or whatever else you like! And, I’m sorry, but like it or not, the world of indie comix, or at least the one chock full of underground DNA, is one that takes things to their limits. It can be a slippery slope. If you’re simply out to offend, you most likely will fail. But if you’re persistent as hell, then maybe you’ll succeed on shock value alone–but, then again, your work could just as likely he kicked to the side in favor of more diligent artists.
So, yeah, the main example I want to share with you from Avenue D is the Muhammad Ali story. Now, this is one version, perhaps the earliest version. But not the only one. I think it’s important to note that a serious cartoonist will return to certain subject matter, even the same story, and revisit it, redo it, and create something from it, for as often as it makes sense to pursue it. The same, yet different, more refined, Muhammad Ali story is depicted in Head’s graphic novel, Chicago. The gist of it is that a young and brash Glenn Head is in way over his head when he tries to mess with The Greatest of All Time! The actual content of the Muhammad Ali story is like a bunch of clay that can be molded into something else for as often as the artist pleases.
I will pretty much wrap it up here for now. As you can see, Head has other starting points he can play with and explore: a strange snow man or an alligator pimp are always handy on a restless sleepless night. The strange snowman is a wretched soul, barely hanging by a thread in an urban nightmare, and you are NOT meant to relate with him, at least not literally. The same goes for the alligator pimp. But these fellas are like long lost friends for some cartoonists when an urge to create strikes.