The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99
It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.
Mona Lisa Mania!
The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.
It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.
Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.
The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.
The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.
For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.
ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II: The Conquest of Heaven, A Demonic History of the Future Concerning the Celestial Realm and the Angelic Race Which Infests It
Martin Olson. Illustrations: Tony Millionaire & Mahendra Singh. Feral House. 2021. 224pp. $24.99
Martin Olson is one of the best humorists around. Olson is known around Hollywood as one of the nicest and most hard-working of comedy writers. His special brand of satire has made its way to numerous comedy series on HBO, CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, Disney, and FX. His last book was the critically-acclaimed Encyclopaedia of Hell, which includes a road map for a full-scale demonic invasion of Earth. Now, Olson tops himself with a sequel, The Conquest of Heaven, with Satan leading a coup of Heaven to replace God. Olson’s wry and relentless humor echoes Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.
Lord Satan dreams the Hell Cosmos.
This much-anticipated sequel picks up where Olson left off, writing again in the voice of Satan, we follow the Dark Lord’s latest scheme. Conquering Earth was mere child’s play when it comes to taking on the Almighty’s digs. And it’s not long before Satan runs into some difficulties.
After Hell’s army conquers Insignificant Earth and devours the human race in a celebratory feast, Lord Satan reveals that he will now journey deep into the universe to find the throne of the despised Creator. There Satan will depose God and take his rightful place as Emperor of Existence. Now, the secret sauce to making the story work hinges upon the voice of Satan. Again, that’s where the comparisons to literary giants like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce come into play. These guys satisfied that career high of nailing it, getting to channel Satan, as it were. And so Olson returns to those dizzying heights with his new book. Let’s dig in and see how he does it.
Lord Zyk battles the ghost of Abra Kadab.
First, you need to establish the character and, in Satan’s case, we’re talking about both a sophisticated creature and an egomaniac at an astronomical level. Satan is supposed to be all-knowing. But he’s also arrogant and pompous. Olson’s Satan maintains an other-worldly tone, full of regal turns of phrase and douchebag observations. In this excerpt, Satan has just set hoof on Heaven:
Yes, it was all Heavenly. All exactly what I hated.
I had come prepared with eye filters to screen out hideous beauty like the fountain. But I was unprepared for the audio component poisoning the air around me. Each festoon of flowers resonated with a different vibratory tone. Together, they emitted a hideously majestic symphony, a loathsome atmosphere of perfect harmony. Its precise overtones made my ears bleed. When I inhaled, the flowers’ sweetness produced cognitive dissonance with the natural filth that composed my lungs. I swooned, heaved deeply, and vomited the remains of a virgin I’d eaten into the azaleas. It was confirmed: perfect harmony was an unbearable toxin to my soul.
Satan is not exactly an easy guy to accomodate, even under ideal conditions, and here he is on arguably his greatest quest. Determined to discover the origin of his own creation, and to murder God, Satan must endure a series of obstacles in God’s Library akin to Alice in Wonderland, as well as match wits with a demented nun. And that’s just part of it, all leading to the shocking secret at the core of Creation. Could it have something to do with Satan? There’s a very good chance of that. To add some extra spice, there’s some other characters thrown into the mix like the equally pompous Lord Zyk and the wayward demon, Abra Kadab. The main thing is the journey which Olson masterfully keeps moving along. In this excerpt, Satan is dueling with a possessed book which has just lopped off his head. He’s later surprised to find out which book he’d been fighting:
Using a combination of my teeth and the vicissitudes of momentum, I climbed up my leg and torso until I reached the bloody stump of my severed neck. Through rapid licking, I then self-cauterized the wound, reconnecting my head to my body, and glared down at the culpable book.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the book that had decapitated me was a novelty edition of my own repugnant masterpiece of evil, Encycolpeadia of Hell, its ancient cover splattered with rose-red, black and purple coagulations of my royal demon blood.
What else might stand a chance against Satan but the very book prior to Olson’s latest misadventure with Satan? This kind of humor will delight readers of any age. Just think of vintage MAD Magazine. Sure, for the youngest readers, there’s the obvious parental discretion to keep in mind. This is, after all, a most unabashed Satan we’re dealing with here. The fangs. The claws. And everything else is all hanging out. But no risk of any exorcism! Honestly, if your kid is reading this, you can thank God that the kid has got good taste.
The more one digs into the comics medium, the more it rewards you as an immersive world of the mind. You can lose yourself in it as much as any other art form. Christopher Sperandio has taken quite a deep dive into re-working vintage public domain comics just as you would any other kind of “found art.” Check out some of his work on his Instagram. He is genuinely mesmerized by it and respectful of all the souls, many truly unsung heroes, who created the work in the first place. That said, when Sperandio hit upon a cache of original Mexican comic book pages at a public market, he knew right away that this wasn’t just another canvas upon which to recontextualize. This was something special that needed to be called attention to. Sperandio’s long and distinguished career features work that explores the interconnections between mass and museum culture. Sperandio teaches at Rice University where he specializes in working with the comics medium. He recently put together at Rice an arts lab, the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop (CATS) and this book is part of that.
A typical copy of Micro Suspenso, #305, circa 1968, 4 1/2 x 3 inches.
A mysterious packet of ink drawings sitting in a stall in a public market in Mexico City. At that point, the fate of these drawings, half a century old, was utterly dependent upon who might take notice of them. So, it’s something of a miracle that this set of drawings would catch the interest of the most ideal buyer. This bundle of originals was created by Julio Camarena for the comic book series, Micro Suspenso. There was no cover but the comic book could be dated to circa, 1970. The story, oddly enough, is entitled, “The Last Buyer.” With Sperandio’s purchase, this little batch of comic book art had fallen into academic hands and, as it turned out, Sperandio was to be the last buyer of this work prior to his immortalizing it in this book. To add a touch of intrigue, the originals were stolen and probably destroyed.
Julio Camarena is plucked from obscurity and joins the world of academia.
And so Julio Camarena, an obscure Mexican cartoonist, finds his work the subject of an academic study. Well, that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned, Sperandio has a working method that involves linking popular media to museum culture. And that is precisely what this purchase of drawings set into motion. We come back to the idea of a playground for the mind. When you stop and think about it, comic books (particularly strange and offbeat comic books) and museums, are both prime venues for some deep thinking, the stuff that dreams are made of! Sperandio developed his project step by step, bringing together the people and resources he needed under the CATS arts lab. In time, he had what was needed for an installation as well as a book.
From the pages of a comic book…
…to the gallery walls of a museum.
As a work of comics, “The Last Buyer” is more than just competent; it’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense. Right away, I was intrigued by the characters and their hint of Mod style sense. And who doesn’t like a good horror story about a possessed car? I’m Mexican-American, and I do read Spanish but not without some effort. I mean, the words don’t just jump out at me as they do in a work of comics in English. That sense of words jumping out is magical and it’s not happening when I’ve got a work of comics in Spanish. For the Camarena stash to fully function as a work of comics for a now predominantly English-speaking audience, the darn thing would need to be properly translated within the comic itself with the Spanish text replaced by English. There are notes at the back of the book with an English translation but that’s just not the same. That said, it’s a fun read. It is masterfully worked out, especially considering the tiny format that was common for these “micro-comics,” pocket-sized comics meant to be read on the way to work or in some less than rarefied environment. That said, of course, this set of drawings has totally become a creature of rarefied environments.
Page excerpt from “The Last Buyer.”
So, what’s so special about this stash of original comic book art that has been taken out of its natural habitat, as it were, and placed under a microscope? First, it’s a learning opportunity, right? Sperandio gets to share some of the history of Mexican comics and he even, early on, gets a chance to demonstrate how unfairly maligned the comics medium has been. His quote from 1999 by noted art critic Rosalind Krauss is priceless. When asked at a public lecture at Princeton University for her opinion on the comics medium, Krauss said the form was “unredeemable.” Ouch! Well, that was over twenty years ago and, I dare say, the general sentiment has changed. As for this stash of Mexican comics in particular, Sperandio is making the case that, yes, this little bundle of obscure comics is a historic and artistic artifact. And, while the originals are now gone forever, the originals had been properly digitized and so can now live on in print, as they were always intended to do. Sperandio, “the last buyer,” managed to pass on a little treasure to all sorts of future buyers, those who buy into the comic medium’s hard-won fight for credibility.
Where all this gets most interesting is in tracking down the one and only Julio Camarena, the cartoonist behind these mysterious comics. Camarena is given his due. He is not presented as some exotic but as the creative professional he was, part of a tradition, part of history. This is the moment when, if you were binge-watching on Netflix, the payoff is finally delivered. Sperandio has gotten to comment on Camarena. A contemporary cartoonist has provided his observations. And a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature has held court– and even quoted a scholarly report that concludes Mexico and Japan are the world’s only true comic book cultures. All very interesting but now Camarena speaks about Camarena! And, like any long-awaited moment, it’s a little poignant and also a little anticlimactic. Camarena loved his work, has no regrets, and has little patience with looking back. He was interviewed a couple of years ago by Mexican cartoonist Augusto Mora. It’s a wonderful exchange between the two creatives. Camarena sounds to be very savvy about the comics market. He simply doesn’t take himself too seriously or put his work upon a pedestal. He makes a comment towards the end that he regrets that Mexican publishers began to dabble in cheesecake pin-up comics in an attempt to boost sales. That went against their core family audience and so it was no surprise to Camarena when that phase of comics tanked. Ironically, the only photos of Camarena have him showing some of his pin-up work. It’s actually rendered quite well, in a classic tradition but, apparently, he didn’t have his heart in it. No, his heart was in the work he was a part of for most of his life, stories that enthralled readers across a wide spectrum. It was a magical time, a time for all kinds of stories whether historic, romantic, adventurous, or even supernatural.
Cartoonist Julio Camarena
So, did Sperandio’s examination of the Camarena stash of drawings stretch and pull it well past anyone’s intended purpose? Okay, sure, but it was all worth it! Indeed, this book is a ticket to play in the playground of the mind. Seriously, this is a most welcome addition to comics scholarship in general–and Mexican comics in particular. We can already find a number of books that gravitate to pretty familiar subjects like Los Bros Hernandez. Sperandio goes further and provides us with some much needed insight into the roots of Mexican comics and culture. This quirky book is a wonderful exploration of many things, not the least of which is the playground of the mind.
Early in this latest Jerome Charyn novel there’s quite an evocative scene of a bohemian living room which includes a framed print of Paul Robeson. It is a telling detail that gives a taste of how a character lives and breathes in their world. In this case, we’re being made privy to the inner world of the estranged wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. As a creature of the theater, and as a free thinker, it makes sense that she’d enjoy a portrait of a trailblazer of racial equality. All the more so given this was one of her husband’s greatest plays! It’s just a quick little reference but a tick of information that the reader makes note of. It is these ticks of information that accumulate and bring a picture into focus. It is these ticks of information that add up in this novel to give us an in depth look at one of our most celebrated of writers, J.D. Salinger, one who preferred not to be looked at in any close measure.
But Charyn dares to make “Sonny” Salinger the prime focus. To start with, Charyn brings the reader front and center into Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the infamous daughter of Eugene O’Neil. Oona was only 18 years-old when she married Charlie Chaplin, who was 53. Truth being stranger than fiction, Salinger and Oona did actually date for a while. Charyn gives us a charming look into what that might have been like: more a frenzied exchange of hormonal excess than raw passion but, something to write home about, nonetheless. The whole affair is capped off by a masterful scene which involves Sonny and Oona obligingly having dinner with Walter Winchell as he holds court at his reserved table at the Stork Club. There’s much talk about Winchell’s chicken burgers. Mostly, there’s much talk about what’s the talk of the town, given Winchell’s prized roost as the leading gossip monger and media kingmaker. Winchell has everyone eating practically right out of his hand, except for the most stubborn like Ernest Hemingway, who makes a delicious cameo at Winchell’s table.
Utah Beach, D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944.
In keeping with the novel’s title, much of the action sees young J.D. Salinger doing his duty as an American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. If that sounds complex and full of intrigue, well, it is. We find Salinger is witness to the whole Slapton Sands debacle where American soldiers, training for the D-Day Normandy invasion, become human targets, shot by British “friendly fire.” While that is being covered up, nearly lost to history in every real sense, Salinger moves on to the real thing and lands with a second wave on Utah Beach on D-Day all the way to Paris. There, he meets Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing. All the while, Salinger goes from one incident after another interrogating Nazis and collaborators. Ultimately, Sonny Salinger witnesses firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, where corpses are piled high one upon the other.
No one can blame J.D. Salinger for going through one existential crisis after another. Talk about someone too close to a subject to be able to get some perspective and see the full picture! Here is a man who made his wildest dreams come true and then went on to live a life of the deepest regret. What if Sonny Salinger had managed to convince Oona O’Neill to run off with him and somehow he’d also found a way to avoid the draft? That was never going to happen! Each of them had stars in their eyes and were in mad pursuit of something greater than themselves. And Salinger would never have avoided the draft, it just wasn’t an option. It was definitely not a foregone conclusion that The Catcher in the Rye would ever be published either. But so it was. J.D. Salinger did not invent the contemporary teenager but his book caught on like wildfire as an emblematic work about quirky, neurotic, youthful rebellion. There it was–and still is. The great American novel at its most popular! Since it publication in 1951, it remains a bestseller at astronomically high numbers for book sales. Since it was first published in 1951, more than 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold. Around 250,000 copies of the book are sold each year, almost 685 per day. This is not what Salinger wanted. And yet it was profits from just this one book alone that allowed him to brood in seclusion for decades. The book that should never have been published–but was. To this, Charyn has an answer.
The Catcher in the Rye
If there is one thing that makes a case for the inevitable nature of Salinger’s celebrated novel it is his war experiences. This makes up the bulk of Charyn’s novel which places Salinger in numerous trials and challenges. Charyn is a master at creating haunting moments. He lays one upon the other and deftly makes his case. In so doing here, Charyn answers the question of how it was meant to be for Salinger to write that novel that unwittingly summoned the world. One such moment finds Sonny confronting a special Nazi bicycle brigade. One night, he spots one of these killers, in his rain cape and in his hunter’s cap. The reader can’t help but picture that strange image of a young man wandering the city in a hunter’s cap in Salinger’s novel. That same image is on the original paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Sonny witnesses the killer in his hunter’s cap shoot two of his friends at close range, execution style. Sonny, more an interrogator than a marksman, immediately responds and shoots the killer dead.
Back on Park Avenue…
Ultimately, Sonny Salinger must return to civilian life, to where he left off before going off to war in the first place. It means creating some distance to all things related to war, except for the greater truths that make sense for his version of the great American novel. At least that seemed to be what mattered most for a time and he would see it through. Sonny would pick himself up. He was back on Park Avenue, back on track to pursue his literary dreams, at least for a while. And so Charyn brings the reader up to this point. Sonny now has time to observe something other than horror. Sonny now can ponder, with his sister, Doris, the mysteries of a basement floor walker at Bloomingdale’s. Sonny now can ponder the mysteries of bananafish. And, in time, as if inevitable in more ways than one, Sonny can preside upon the unleashing of a literary and pop culture phenomenon, the story of a troubled teenager in a hunter’s cap.
Comics Grinder has always got you covered for interesting tidbits, insights, and suggestions regarding comics, pop culture, and culture in general. Here are some quick suggestions for discerning Comics Grinder followers:
I’m going to keep this simple and jump right in with 10 items for your consideration beginning with Wes Anderson: The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan, an “unofficial and unauthorised” yet stunning tribute to the beloved filmmaker. 176-page hardcover with deluxe slipcase, fully illustrated. $35. From White Lion Publishers, an imprint of The Quarto Group.
Next up will please any fan of D&D, especially younger players or anyone who enjoys a trading card style description of characters. This is Beasts & Behemoths, the fifth and latest installment in the Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guide series. It is by Jim Zub, Stacy King, and Andrew Wheeler. 112 pages, full-color illustrations. $12.99. From Ten Speed Press and Penguin Random House.
Moving right along, this book will need to be in your kitchen and bar as soon as possible, whether you’re a D&D fan or not yet. Welcome to Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook. Yes, now you can eat and drink like a hero. There are recipes here for everything from Honey-Drizzled Cream Puffs to Sembian Honey-Glazed Rothe Ribs to Bytopian Shepherd’s Bread to Roll Rum! Seriously, this is an impressive cookbook with lavish illustrations alongside charming and meticulous D&D factoids and insights. If you’ve been looking for a way to hook yourself into the world of D&D, then seek out this cookbook. Fully illustrated. 240 pages. $35. From Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Quite honestly, this is the best gift for 2020 on so many levels.
If you are a fan of Critical Role, then you are in very good company as this is one of the most popular role-playing game communities ever. Now, you can join in on all the fun and get all you’ve ever wanted to know about this fantasy RPG livestream phenomena in one deluxe book, The World of Critical Role: The History Behind the Epic Fantasy, by Liz Marsham and the Cast of Critical Role. Just like the name suggests, go deep into this world with up-close and personal features on all the talent involved. Critical Role was established in 2015 by a group of friends with a passion for storytelling and has evolved into a multi-platform media company with a variety of shows, comic books, graphic novels, animation, podcasts and more. Its epic adventures and memorable characters attract millions of viewers live every week. Yes, this is a big deal and, if you’re new to it, then all the more reason to get this book. This is a 320-page fully-illustrated hardcover, $35. From Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Let’s shift over to the Star Wars universe and a most compelling book indeed. For anyone who cares about quality storytelling, and enjoys Star Wars lore, this is a perfect gift. From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back is an anthology celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back with forty acclaimed science fiction writers. You will find such gems as Hank Green chronicling the life of a naturalist caring for tauntauns on the frozen world of Hoth. Or about Charles Yu’s quirky look at what it’s like to be in Darth Vader’s death grip? So much to enjoy here. So kick back with a Roll Rum and get into some serious Star Wars storytelling. This is a 564-page hardcover, $35. From Del Rey, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
It’s impossible not to like the hilarious work by Yehuda Devir and Maya Devir with their comics adaptation of their everyday lives. It all began as a fun spoof on young married life. Yehuda would draw. Maya would art direct. Next thing you know, these candid illustrations went viral on social media. Welcome to One of Those Days, a collection of these funny and touching illustrations that just about anyone can relate to. This is a 272-page full color hardcover, $30. From Penguin Random House.
Dbury@50 Celebrates 50 Years of Doonesbury
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been around for fifty years and it’s time to celebrate. Enter, Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury, from Andrews McMeel Publishing, priced at $125. This includes a 224-page “user manual,” a poster, and a thumb drive which includes what looks like a little website presenting all the comic strips on a per week basis. The fifty-year milestone celebratory package takes readers through each year of the strip, providing historical context and featuring key storylines, and proves to be a valuable first step in preserving a significant comic strip for future generations.
Another huge property is anything and everything to do with Frank Herbert’s monumental novel, Dune. Was it ever really meant to be more than a novel? Well, how about a graphic novel? The answer is yes and no. Apparently, it takes more than one graphic novel to properly attempt to cover the novel. Enter, Frank Herbert’s Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1. It offers a good mix of the cinematic and more cerebral that should satisfy true believers and newcomers alike. This is a 176-page hardcover, $24.99. From Abrams ComicArts.
If anyone tells you that they’ve finished reading XX, the new mammoth novel by Rian Hughes, they are lying to you. This work clocks in at 992 pages. It actually weighs in at almost 3 pounds. Isn’t that close to the weight of a newborn baby? No, the average weight is around 7 pounds. Okay, I don’t want to overstate this. What I do want to say is that the book is huge and sometimes big books come with a lot of hype. In this case, we have an art house book with a lot of type, as in fancy footwork with various fonts. This is supposed to be a glorious melding of the literary arts with the graphic arts from a master designer. I’m not sure that I’m buying all that. If you are looking for something really compelling and unusual that is playing with the literary and the visual arts, you may still need to go back to 2000 and House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. That said, I’m still working on this mountain of a book and the basic story hasn’t really hooked me in yet. I’d love to know what you think if you have indeed made it to the end. This is a hardcover, $26.43. From Abrams.
How much do you like Batman? I love me a good Batman story, but I mean something really good. Well, a lot of good things came from Batman: The Animated Series. The higher-ups at the Big Two Publishers can be a mysterious bunch but, when they prioritize, they can achieve remarkable results. Look, iconic characters like Batman are only as good as the creative team behind a certain project. What made Batman: The Animated Series work out so well was the creative team led by Bruce Timm back in the early ’90s. It seems that Timm set the gold standard and it has been honored ever since. I have yet to see a subpar DC Comics/Warner Bros. animated feature. The book, Batman: The Animated Series, honors all that hard work and dedication with stellar artwork. Enjoy. This is a 144-page hardcover, $60. From Insight Editions.
Friends: The Official Cookbook. by Amanda Yee. Insight Editions. 2020. 176pp, $29.99. And $44.99 for the GIFT SET which includes a Friends apron.
Did you know there’s an official Friends cookbook? It’s not directly in response to the unofficial Friends cookbook but, let me tell you, that one was very disappointing for one particular reason. That book didn’t incorporate the show enough into the recipes! Wow! You would think that’s TV fandom 101! Of course, you must make such a cookbook relevant to the show you are paying tribute to, right? Am I right? Of course, I’m right! Seriously, this book is the real deal, a perfect mix of pop culture and foodie goodness. And now you can get the book or the special gift set which includes a Friends apron!
Friends. Friends. And More Friends. Can’t Have Enough Friends!
I don’t know about you but I always felt there was a bit of a subversive thing going on with Friends. It was, or it seemed to me, pretty self-concious that it was treading water, a sitcom for the post-modern era that really had nothing new to offer so it would revel in that fact and not in an ultra-clever way like Seinfeld but in a mainstream way, in a way that it could have its cake and eat it too. In other words, it wasn’t out to make a statement or even be especially funny. To me, Friends was amusing, meant to be utterly escapist and fluffy comfy. And so it all adds up, in a weird but fun way, as a show waiting to be turned into a cookbook! Anyway, the book is jam packed with quite an assortment of very practical recipes with intelligent tie-ins to specific episodes. You could actually give this to someone and they could very easily live off eating food prepared from this book for a year, maybe indefinitely. It’s that good a cookbook! Who knew, right?
Definitely Not Vegetarian Lasagna! Yes!
Of course, I gave this a try!
Now, this is one serious cookbook filled with one recipe after another! Check out Definitely Not Vegetarian Lasagna! Yes! Well, of course, I had to give this a try and, if I do say so myself, I achieved excellent results!
And get a Friends apron too!
And, of course, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, this book has got you covered with a sumptuous holiday dinner recipe. Perfect! For this post, I was a bit less elaborate but not by much. So, yeah, I chose to make a lasagna dish from the book to start with and I encourage you to do the same. It actually was a lot of fun and I’m not exactly new to cookbooks. I’ve tried my fair share of them. I think the book, like the show, is oddly amusing while also quite attractive. The layout and design is very upbeat and engaging. Any fan of the show would find that book and show are in sync. That said, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy. And, if you were wondering, yes, Insight Editions does have other pop culture themed cookbooks for you to choose from. Just go visit Insight Editions right here.
Insight Editions’ Friends: The Official Cookbookis one of the bestselling cookbooks of the year. Now, fans of Friends can enjoy the book’s 100+ recipes and an exclusive, new-to-market Friends Apron in the FRIENDS: THE OFFICIAL COOKBOOK GIFT SET(Insight Editions; 11/10). The gift set is on-sale today!
The Official Friends Cookbook. New for 2020, Friends: The Official Cookbook is the freshest officially endorsed Friends cookbook and features dozens of full-color images and delicious recipes from the beloved hit show. With over 100 recipes, readers will learn how to master Monica’s Friendsgiving Feast, Rachel’s Meat Trifle, Just for Joey Fries, Chandler’s “Milk That You Chew,” Phoebe’s favorite Faceless Foods, and of course, Ross’s Moist Maker.
Gift Set Includes Exclusive Turkey Apron. Not available anywhere else, this high-quality apron features adjustable straps, a large front pocket, and Monica’s iconic holiday turkey recreated in glorious full color.
Maybe like me, you grew up with Walter Foster books. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, these oversized (old Life Magazine format) books were already wonderful relics from a bygone era, most dating back two or three decades. I knew, right away, that they came from another time and place but they were so well put together and the instruction seemed so crisp and clear that I just loved them even if I had no idea how I was supposed to take that information and become a famous cartoonist in New York or a famous animator in Hollywood. No matter. That could always be dealt with sometime in the future. These same Walter Foster books have been reprinted many times over filling the heads of countless people of all ages with fanciful dreams that may or may not ever come true. It didn’t seem to matter. The books themselves were so wonderful! I have been looking at a recent book from Walter Foster, now an imprint at Quarto Publishing Group. It is a classic and brings up a lot of happy memories, Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair.
Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Animation with Preston Blair is a fine example of the lineup of Walter Foster books from Quarto in a contemporary trade paperback format. Preston Blair, born in 1908, was trained in fine art and illustration and went on to become a leading animator at Disney. Blair animated such famous work as the Hippos dance in “Dance of Hours” and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both in 1940’s Fantasia. Blair is also known for his work at MGM, most notably his animation with Tex Avery. And he is also known for his work at Hanna-Barbera for The Flintstones. Blair offers plenty in the way of lively and inventive examples.
A page from Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Upon a closer examination, it’s clear that this book is a treasure trove of samples and guidelines to inspire an artist at any level. A book like this will help get you on track because it makes no pretense and gets to the heart of the matter: page after page of straightforward drawing. And new animators will appreciate plenty of examples of anatomy, perspective, and various movement along with timeless principles.
From Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair
Combining two previous titles, this manual is organized into six chapters covering cartoon construction, character development, movement, animation principles and animated acting. The retro drawings alone are worth the modest price for this 128-page fully illustrated book. Solid instruction never goes out of style and is timeless. This is recommended for all ages.
For more details, visit Quarto Publishing Group right here.
WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)
Wisconsin Funnies. Catalogue edited by Terry Ann R. Neff. Exhibit co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle. Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2020, 248pp.
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
The Real vs. The Ideal, ink on bristol, by Lynda Barry, 1989.
I have nursed a habit, that became a way of life, that became a saving grace. Specifically, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to my own lifelong work in the comics medium. Being a cartoonist really is something very special. It is something so special that all sorts of interested parties want to be part of the magic and that includes all sorts of academic types, galleries and museums. That is all to the good. Comics is still a relatively young medium in some respects so anything that spreads the word can’t be all that bad, right? Comics is an art form, owing so much to countless American contributions and around as far back as there’s been a United States, only now getting the sort of recognition it deserved all along. We can’t, nor should we, include every single shred of work ever made but we have a great bounty of examples to hold up as bona fide works of significance and value. The art show currently on view at MOWA (extended to January 9, 2021) is another step forward. Let’s take a close look at the museum catalogue.
Frank O. King’s Gasoline Alley, page from 1922.
It takes a historian’s perspective to look at Wisconsin and explain all the comics activity there as having a lot to do with Chicago. Well, it’s true. A hundred years ago, Chicago was a home for newspaper empires with a high demand for cartoonists. This is made abundantly clear in Paul Buhle’s essay to this catalog. If a young cartoonist wanted to make it big, a very good place to hone their talent would be in nearby Wisconsin. Keeping to a historian’s long view, we come to understand that comics got baked into Wisconsin bohemian culture. By the 1960s, it was so much a part of the local art scene’s DNA to make you think you were sipping wine and munching on croissants in Paris, where they embraced comics, the Ninth Art, with great fervor as opposed to your average American, especially a corn-fed citizen right in the heart of farms and honest working folk. All sorts of factors simply added up over time. For one thing, never underestimate a cartoonist’s need for peace and quiet. A more methodical pace can lead to a more cerebral and productive life. Wisconsin native Frank O. King, who made the big move to Chicago, showed the way with his deceptively simple comic strip honoring Americana, a comic strip which was also amazingly innovative, Gasoline Alley, which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Take a look at the example above and you might see how this highly stylized format would have influenced another master of comics, Chris Ware. Along with King’s trailblazing work, add Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Claire Briggs (Casper Milquetoast), and Carl Anderson (Henry). For an in depth look, read Paul Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin.
From Denis Kitchen, Star Reporter, 1972.
When you consider what gives a certain place its character, you must think about its guiding forces. One such consequential force of nature in Wisconsin is Denis Kitchen. This is the story of an enterprising young cartoonist who bought some farmland in Wisconsin and converted the barn into a comics studio. From here emerged Kitchen Sink Press, the legendary comics publisher. In 1973, Kitchen joined the back-to-the-land movement and converted a barn in Princeton, Wisconsin and all sorts of comics emerged, underground and mainstream alike. Kitchen was in a position to continue to grow as an artist himself as well as publish the work of other artists and help them out when he could.
From Buddha Crackers by Michael Newhall, 1977.
Michael Newhall, one of the indie cartoonists in the area, rented a space at the Kitchen barn for $50 a month or, given that he was perpetually cash-poor, would pay Kitchen with a work of art each month. While Kitchen would be the first to joke around about whether there truly existed an underground movement or if it was all just a bunch of hype, there was no doubt that numerous like-minded souls gravitated towards each other. For example, Kitchen includes in the MOWA show a portrait of some of the leading cohorts of that era: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, and Skip Williamson. Of course, that is just one snapshot of some of the creative folk at the time. Other cartoonists that were part of the scene in one way or another included Peter Loft, Mark Morrison, Peter Poplaski, Trina Robbins, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, and even R. Crumb. Plus many others. Since Denis Kitchen is also an art dealer and collector, he also includes in his collection the work of some of the all-time greats of past eras like Al Capp, Will Eisner, Will Elder, Ernie Bushmiller and Milton Caniff. All these names are part of this amazing show at MOWA.
A Short History of America, serigraph by R. Crumb, 1993.
The catalog for the show does a great job of presenting the subject of comics in both an insightful and irreverent way. One thing all of us art lovers can’t help but address is what is it that we really want to see. What will it be that compels the viewer to seek out the museum in the first place? While this or that movement will come and go, at the end of the day, the actual human being who is investing time and energy to view an art show will have a significant say in what works advance and, over time, are bestowed with greater legitimacy. It may not always be a work invested in identity. It may not always be a work of raw and simple quality. Or a work of realism.
From Kings in Disguise, script by James Vance, art by Dan Burr, 1988.
From Alice in Watergateland by Bill Sanders, 1974.
From Dreams by Leilani Hickerson, 2011.
From Wildcat Bill From Grizzle Hill by Marty Two Bulls Sr., 2013.
What it will be, one hopes and expects, is work that best represents the comics medium. That, of course, needs to be carefully considered by those in a position to keep the ball rolling. That said, by presenting as wide a variety of thoughtfully selected work, MOWA does a great service to comics. Now, getting back to the catalog, if you want not only a taste of some of the best comics from the last fifty years, but also a fascinating look at the counterculture over the years, then this is the book for you. For an exploration of a particularly notable zeitgeist, running from the late 1960s to early 1970s, turn to a wonderful profile in the catalong of Denis Kitchen by James P. Danky. If there ever really was an underground comix scene, Denis Kitchen would certainly know.
The Bugle, cover art, ink on bristol by Dan Burr, 1975.
Danky follows the history of American underground newspapers, beginning in 1964, with a parallel narrative to Kitchen’s own career, starting with his leap into publishing in 1969 at the age of 23. Over the years, Kitchen became part of undergound comix history. In 1970, for example, R. Crumb invited Kitchen to publish his next comic, Home Grown Funnies. That title proved to be Kitchen’s all-time best-selling comic book, eventually totaling 160,000 copies. Among the landmark work that Kitchen published was some of the best graphic novel work by Will Eisner, including securing the rights to Eisner’s seminal work, A Contract with God. Kitchen would go on to develop The Bugle, his own contribution to underground newspapers. He would go on to other notable ventures, like his partnering with Stan Lee for Comix Book. The rest, as they say, is history–with much to share. For instance, much of the artwork for this art show comes from the collection of Denis Kitchen.
From Will Elder’s Goodman Beaver Meet S*perm*n, 1962.
So, with all the amazing achievements accomplished by cartoonists, why would any serious cartoonist who, by all rights, has created art, ever question whether they have truly created art? Because there are countless people who get in the way for countless reasons. Maybe their mother didn’t love them enough. For example, you have people from various other disciplines who suddenly lurch their way into the comics bandwagon. You have critics and academics who do it, not from sincere interest, but because it can seem like an easier way to gain attention and prestige. This results in more and more blathering from a pretentious echo chamber. No art form deserves this. Then there’s the more straightforward elitist prejudice against an art form from those in the establishment. The best example of this is the ongoing war between fine art painters and the artists who work in the comics medium, part of the larger highbrow vs. lowbrow war. Of course, hip painters are hip to hip comix, but I digress.
A typical comics blowhard. Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, by Jay Lynch, 1976.
And, by the way, if you think for a second that my referring to pseudo-intellectual blathering is just something I’m pulling out of thin air, I have news for you. It goes on all the time. Your typical review at The Comics Journal, for example, has perfected this posturing tone, a mix of hyperbole and odd use of language. And I’m really not sure for what purpose. It seems that many who aspire to something great get caught up in their own web of stilted expression. It brings to mind a scene in one of the comics on view at MOWA. It is an illustration by Jay Lynch for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, 1976. In one corner you see a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a cartoon wig. He is trying to impress a sexy woman in a Playboy bunny outfit. He drones on about his doctoral thesis on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy. He states: “the basic tenets of Bushmiller’s cosmology are to 20th century man essentially what Manichaeism must have been to your typical Albigensian.” I can see that a work of profound beauty, like Nancy, can inspire someone to overreach with the most curious of prose. But does it help advance the cause of comics? I only drag The Comics Journal into this because I know these folks can take it. In fact, one might argue that the quirky attitude at The Comics Journal can be traced back to the subversive humor of cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, who is included in the MOWA show.
From You Had to Be There: George Mosse Finds Himself in History, art and text by Nick Thorkelson, 2014.
Getting back to the hi-lo wars, Photography had to run the gauntlet and prove itself a legitimate art form up against Painting. And, today, a lot of painters are intimidated and in awe of photography as well as video. For comics, it seems like there’s still a bit of a problem about making proper room for it at the great Art table. This is a problem that doesn’t have to exist if common sense were allowed to rear its ugly commoner’s head.
From One Flower Child’s Search for Love by Trina Robbins, 1972.
That brings us to this show currently on view at MOWA. I sincerely believe that the biggest obstacle to understanding comics in the United States (because I don’t believe this dysfunction really exists elsewhere) is a disingenuous notion that comics need to be on some “separate but equal” plane outside of other art forms; or comics require experts to explain how to properly read and appreciate it. No doubt, thoughtful discourse is welcome but a lot of it comes down to common sense too. Some work meets the highest of standards and some doesn’t even come close and has not earned a place of honor. Some comics are so simple it seems like any child could have made them. And some comics are highly sophisticated and unquestionably demonstrate the work of a master.
From King-Cat Comics and Stories #75 by John Porcellino, 2015.
At the end of the day, a comic can tell you a lot if you’re willing to simply share some time with it. The MOWA show is an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time with some exceptional comics.
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
Kitchen Sink Press Headquarters, Princeton, Wisconsin, ink on bristol by R. Crumb, 1985.
Editor’s Note: It is a distinct pleasure to have Paul Buhle do the honors with a review of the new book by R. Sikoryak. As a side note, I had the opportunity to interview Sikoryak in 2019. You can read, and view, it here.
Deep thinking comic artists have been pretending to be non-serious since the early days of daily comic strip glory. Hard-working cartoonists stationed at their drawing boards would be seen as entertainers, and for a long time, they could hardly be anything else. If they had their own deep ruminations, they seemed to keep their seriousness to themselves. Even the fabulous Rube Goldberg, editorializing in 1949 about the fears of atomic warfare (the drawing got him a Pulitzer) made possible or probable catastrophe into a joke, his happy little domestic world, like any other domestic world, in danger of being blown to smithereens.
R. Sikoryak’s homage to Pogo in Constitution Illustrated.
“Pogo,” with a depth that at least a fair number of readers grasped in the work of Walt Kelly, may have marked a new stage, and never mind the earlier exceptions. Kelly was brilliantly droll but the issues were deadly serious. You could buy his books in oversized paperbacks, something that was also true of Li’l Abner, but for most readers, the heavy sexual suggestions of Daisy Mae surely overcame the New Dealish sub-content.
Talk about superheroes!
When comic art became “art” —from the most ponderous of underground comix to Raw Magazine—the old definitions seemed to go out the window. But did they? And so we get, sooner or later, to R. Sikoryak, the master of the droll, none better. If I were pressed to offer one candidate for author and book high definition comics today, it might well be Sikoryak and Masterpiece Comics (2009) and for this reason: the complex relation of text and image is not literal, random or even satirical in the usual sense. His art compels a second look or second thought, definitely not on the same wave length as the first one.
Sikoryak, born in 1964 and educated at Parsons, actually worked on Raw (so did Ben Katchor, among others), co-edited a Jam with Art Spiegelman, and set out on a career that includes books, illustrations for the New Yorker, World War 3 Illustrated and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also usefully raised the profile of other artists with his continuing Carousel slide shows.
He has one astounding narrative-artistic innovation, not entirely new but never so well developed before. As a post-modernist of the popular culture world, he recuperates the leading images of cartoonists of the daily and comic books perfectly, at least as well as the original artists drew them, but with entirely different dialogue. This could be a shtick and might be for other artists, but for Sikoryak, it is a serious method. The work of the original artists, be they E.C. Segar or Gary Larson, Chester Gould or Gary Panter, gains a new articulateness. The images are not randomly chosen, in other words.
The Unquotable Trump (2017), a political stroke, references what seems to me his seminal work, once again Masterpiece Comics, which quite literally goes through the Canon from the Bible to Dostoyevsky, with wonderful sidebars (Wuthering Heights re-enacted as an EC Comics horror-tale, for instance) taking apart the originals and re-enacting them.
Scrooge McDuck mashup.
His target in Constitution Illustrated is either more or less elusive. Precisely drawn versions of the most familiar and often the most familiarly banal comics, early classics to standard superheroes to the most miserable of the dailies—all are seen in these pages.
But wait. The text in Masterpiece Comics was taken from the apex of literature. The text in Constitution Illustrated is the…US Constitution itself.
What can you (that is to say the artist) do with THAT?
Americans now face the gravest constitutional threat within their own history, a history brief compared, for instance, to that the Chinese, but long in terms of a modern republic. Especially a republic claiming to be a democracy, even a model democracy.
Krazy Kat mashup.
The choices of “classic” comic art and excerpts from the Constitutional text are very carefully chosen. Popeye and Olive Oyl are seen on an eighteenth century frigate, warning Wimpy about Tax Duties on taxes and revenues. Albert Alligator (with a proper 18th century wig) warns a jury of Okefenokee residents about the rights of the accused at a trial. Nancy and Sluggo explain the apportionment principles in the election of a president. And so on.
One is more than entitled to ask: what does this add to the original? Or: are we only being entertained?
Sikoryak is too subtle to offer an answer. But there is an answer, underlying so much of his work. The inter-working of text and dialogue demands, like Brecht’s plays, the participation of the viewer. Passivity, the idea of this work as a joke, is repudiated. Whatever he was trying to do in The Unquotable Trump, he is also insisting upon here. Wake up, reader. Look at the constitution with new eyes. Or else.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.
Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman
Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.
Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.
As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.
Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.
So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.
It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.
Maters of American Comics
Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.
The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.
It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.
Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.
I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!
Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.