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Review: ‘Constitution Illustrated’ by R. Sikoryak

Constitution Illustrated by R. Sikoryak

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

Constitution Illustrated. by R. Sikoryak. Drawn & Quarterly, 2020, 128pp. $18.95.

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 men 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.

Peanuts mashup.

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.

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Eisner Awards 2020 and Observations

SDCC 2020 Judges!

Much like the winners list for the Angoulême Comics Festival and the Small Press Expo, it is very useful to take a close look at the Eisner Awards at San Diego Comic-Con. A reliable prime source in the study of comics comes from the biggest and most well-established comics festivals/conventions. Because of COVID-19, SDCC was a virtual event for 2020 and that has created added benefit. For starters, it’s a pleasure to have actor Phil LaMarr as host. It’s also an uncanny pleasure to have such a documentation of the winners. I doubt this will become the norm but this special video recap is priceless. One essential fact that ended up getting more attention than it might usually have gotten was a moment to focus on the panel of judges! It is so important to know who your judges are for many reasons including insight and credibility. This years judges: Martha Cornog, Jamie Coville, Michael Dooley, Alex Grecian, Simon Jimenez, and Laura O’Meara. Ah, perhaps one of these years SDCC will choose yours truly as a judge. I was a judge for SPX some years back so it could happen, but I might need a storage locker. Anyway, it’s a very big deal to know who your judges are and it makes industry news.

Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me

The top winners of the evening were Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me (Best Publication for Teens, Best Writer, Best Penciller/Inker; published by First Second/Macmillan) and G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s comic book series Invisible Kingdom (Best New Series, Best Writer, Best Painter; published by Berger Books/Dark Horse).

Multiple Eisners also went to Lynda Barry for Making Comics (Best Comics-Related Book, Best Publication Design; published by Drawn & Quarterly); Raina Telgelemier for Guts (Best Publication for Kids, Best Writer/Artist; published by Scholastic/Graphix); and Stan Sakai for Best Lettering (on Usagi Yojimbo, published by IDW) and Best Archival Collection/Project (Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter; IDW).

The Best Graphic Album–New trophy went to Are You Listening by Tillie Walden (published by First Second/Macmillan), while Best Reality-Based Work was awarded to George Takei’s memoir They Called Us Enemy (by Justin, Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker, published by IDW/Top Shelf). In the comics categories, Image’s Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene won Best Continuing Series, while Best Limited Series went to Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram (also Image).

The publisher that can boast the most winners is Dark Horse, with the three for Invisible Kingdom plus Best Graphic Album–Reprint for LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford, Best Adaptation for Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran, and a share of Dave Stewart’s award for Best Coloring. Other publishers with multiple awards include First Second/Macmillan (for Laura Dean and Are You Listening); Image for Continuing Series, Limited Series, Cover Artist (Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly), and shared Coloring; IDW for Sakai’s works and They Called Us Enemy; and Drawn & Quarterly for Making Comics and for Best Short Story (Ebony Flowers’ “Hot Comb”). Publishers with two trophies each include Fantagraphics, Scholastic Graphix, and VIZ Media.

The event was hosted by voice actor/comedian Phil LaMarr (MadTV, Samurai Jack, Futurama, Justice League), who announced the nominees and winners in 31 categories. Eisner Awards Administrator Jackie Estrada opened and closed the ceremony.

Sergio Aragonés presented the Hall of Fame Awards. The Judges’ Choices were Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell. The elected inductees were Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Louise Simonson, Stan Sakai, Don and Maggie Thompson, and Bill Watterson.Bechdel, Simonson, Sakai, and Thompson all accepted their awards via videos; Cruse’s husband, Ed Sederbaum, accepted on Howard’s behalf.

The Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, presented by Bob’s daughter Ruth Clampett, had three recipients this year: The Hero Initiative, Creators4Comics, and Comicbook United Fund.

The Eisner Awards are part of, and underwritten by, Comic-Con International: San Diego, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to creating awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contributions of comics to art and culture.


2020 Eisner Awards Winners

Best Short Story

“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers, in Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Single Issue/One-Shot

Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)

Best Continuing Series

Bitter Root, by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (Image)

Best Limited Series

Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest andIan Bertram (Image)

Best New Series

Invisible Kingdom, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Publication for Early Readers

Comics: Easy as ABC, by Ivan Brunetti (TOON)

Best Publication for Kids

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Publication for Teens

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Humor Publication

The Way of the Househusband, vol. 1, by Kousuke Oono, translation by Sheldon Drzka (VIZ Media)

Best Anthology

Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, edited by Diane Noomin (Abrams)

Best Reality-Based Work

They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)

Best Graphic Album—New

Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Graphic Album—Reprint

LaGuardia, by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Adaptation from Another Medium

Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran (Dark Horse Books)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material

The House, by Paco Roca, translation by Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics)

Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia (TIE)

Cats of the Louvre, by Taiyo Matsumoto, translation by Michael Arias (VIZ Media)

Witch Hat Atelier, by Kamome Shirahama, translation by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips

Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays, by George Herriman, edited by Alexander Braun (TASCHEN)

Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter Artist Select, by Stan Sakai, edited by Scott Dunbier (IDW)

Best Writer

Mariko Tamaki, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (DC); Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan); Archie (Archie)

Best Writer/Artist

Raina Telgemeier, Guts (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan)

Best Painter/Digital Artist

Christian Ward, Invisible Kingdom (Berger Books/Dark Horse)

Best Cover Artist

Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly (Image)

Best Coloring

Dave Stewart, Black Hammer, B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know, Hellboy and the BPRD (Dark Horse); Gideon Falls (Image); Silver Surfer Black, Spider-Man (Marvel)

Best Lettering

Stan Sakai, Usagi Yojimbo (IDW)

Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism

Women Write About Comics, edited by Nola Pfau and Wendy Browne, http://www.WomenWriteAboutComics.com

Best Comics-Related Book

Making Comics, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Academic/Scholarly Work

EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers University Press)

Best Publication Design

Making Comics, designed by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

Best Digital Comic

Afterlift, by Chip Zdarsky and Jason Loo (comiXology Originals)

Best Webcomic

Fried Rice, by Erica Eng, https://friedricecomic.tumblr.com

Hall of Fame

Judges’ Choices: Nell Brinkley, E. Simms Campbell

Voters’ Choices: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Stan Sakai, Louise Simonson, Don and Maggie Thompson, Bill Watterson

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Review: COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS, Edited by Kim A. Munson

Comic Art in Museums

Comic Art in Museums. Edited by Kim A. Munson. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 386pp, $30 paperback.

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.

Denis Kitchen

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.

Misfit Lit

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.

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L.A. Zine Fest 2020: A Few Observations and Updates

 

L.A. Zine Fest took place this year as a virtual series of events in May, an exciting alternative to connect zinesters, attendees, and other people who usually go to the fest. Let this serve as a friendly and helpful model for similar events that might still be grappling with what to do in 2020 and beyond. COVID-19 isn’t going to just disappear but we can remain vigilant and creative. From the comfort of my home in Seattle, I got to check out L.A. Zine Fest and I have some items to share with you from my connecting remotely with LAZF.

CDMX by Chynna Monforte

Here is a zine by Chynna Monforte which shares with the reader a recent visit to Mexico City. Chynna put on an excellent workshop as part of the schedule of events during LAZF this year. During her workshop, Chynna shared her techniques for putting together a zine which included a look at her own vast collection as well as some tips on laying out your zine in inDesign. Be sure to visit Chynna for all your design needs, particularly with print and web design.

Pages from CDMX

The robust colors just blow my mind. With her zine, CDMX, Chynna Monoforte demonstrates that there are no limits to what you can do with a zine. You can really put together a zine that is just as vibrant and professional as anything you’d find in a mainstream magazine.

Zines by Stainperfect

And here is a zine from Haruka Tanabe, an artist that goes by the name, Stainperfect, based in Tokyo and Osaka. This is an amazing artist and I am curious to learn more. Her work is very much in the autobio tradition of indie comics and it appears that autobio work comes naturally to her. For a long time, she had misgivings about her art but she finally took the plunge after finally gaining just the right support from a friend. Her earliest effort was the little zine, It’s Okay, which is an affirmation she makes to herself and shares with the reader. This led to deeper exploration, as in Midnight Drumbeat, a poetic look at a trip to Mozambique where she was a volunteer. More recent work includes, Loving More Freely: Exploring Polyamory, which explores relationships within polyamory and provides essential insight.

Page from Loving More Freely: Exploring Polyamory

L.A. Zine Fest curated readings, workshops, and discussion panels via Zoom that connected zinesters, creators, comix artists, and illustrators with each other and the general public. Workshops and panels  included everything from how to draw people who are different than you are to an exercise in making comics and “stream-of-consciousness sketching” in quarantine times.

L.A. Zine Fest 2019

LAZF teamed up with some of its 2020 exhibitors to create a select number of digital events and fun stuff for 2020. I look forward to what LAZF does for 2021, whether in person or virtual. Let’s all keep doing great work supporting the arts through the pandemic. Keep in touch with LAZF!

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Review: ‘The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz’

The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz

The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz. By José Alaniz. San Diego: Amatl Comix, an SDSU Press imprint, 2020. 128 pp. $18.99.

The college newspaper has a long tradition as an incubator of exciting talent. The Daily Texan, at the University of Texas, is a prime example, home to such notable alumni as Berkeley Breathed, Chris Ware, and Shannon Wheeler. Jose Alaniz’s The Phantom Zone first appeared as a comic strip in UT’s Daily Texan in 1992-1993. Now, imagine a book that not only collects some of the best work Alaniz did at UT but also provides a look at later work, including comics and scholarship. That is what you’ll find in The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz.

The Phantom Zone, circa 1992

This book is a very special treat on many levels. For those of you interested in the process of creating comics, and storytelling in general, this book is invaluable. As for me, I’m compelled to share this with you for a number of reasons. First, I feel a great connection to Alaniz simply for the fact that we’re both Mexican-American. We’re also of the same vintage but, more than just being part of the Gen X crowd, I had my own comic strip, Danny, running in The Daily Cougar, at the University of Houston in the late-80s. In my case, one of my characters was ripped off by another cartoonist and appeared in The Houston Post for a while. And then life moved on. I’d always been heavy into liberal arts, ever mindful of an uncertain future, but always faithful to my art. I made the big move to Seattle in the early-90s seeking a receptive creative home base. And so did Alaniz! Fast forward all these many years, and Alaniz found himself befriended by many of the same cartoonists in the community I was a part of. Small world! I have to say all this because Alaniz speaks to these similar building blocks. It’s also a big world too because I’ve never met Alaniz. Now, I hope that can be corrected. This book has proven to be such an awesome introduction!

The Phantom Zone, circa 1998

If José Alaniz had never kept up with creating comics, he would still have much to be proud of and satisfied with. Today, Alaniz is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Mr. Alaniz is the author of  Komiks: Comic Art in Russia as well as Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Both titles break new ground in comics scholarship from two very distinct approaches. Alaniz spent a good bit of time in Moscow and concluded that the Russian culture did not have much of any connection to comics so he investigated. Alaniz also found it intriguing how mainstream superhero comics explore issues of disability, death and dying and that led to him writing on that. Along the way, Alaniz probably missed creating comics on an ongoing basis. Once you’ve experienced the constant pace of creating a daily comic strip, at a significant level, it never leaves your system entirely. You have this compulsion to express yourself on a regular basis. The act of regularly creating comics gets under your skin. It is very intimate and intense. And it can metamorphosize into all sorts of other forms of self-expression: prose writing, including fiction and journalism, and engaging with other media as well. You are an exhibitionist, liable to walk around naked down the street if given half a chance. But the comics medium is a very specific thing and it has a way of calling back those who have participated at deep level just like a certain mistress may hold sway over a past lover.

Old Edinburg, Dead and Gone!

The Phantom Zone is an intriguing title for a comic strip. It seems to harken back to a good 0ld-fashioned adventure comic strips by such greats as Milton Caniff. Add to it the fact that Alaniz is playing with issues of youth, identity and culture, and it’s easy to try to draw some comparisons to the, by then, well established alternative comics scene of the time. Love and Rockets, the comic book series, and leading alt-comics title, by the Hernandez brothers: Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario, would undoubtedly have been known by Alaniz. It is asking a lot of any young person to try to live up to such giants as Milton Caniff and the Hernandez brothers but many an aspiring cartoonist is compelled to give it a go. Once you’re in the thick of doing a regular comic strip, all bets are off. An overriding worldview kicks in and guides the cartoonist. Comics can be a great equalizer since it cuts deep, ignores any fuzzy boundaries between high and low culture. Suddenly, Archie Comics and Popeye must be given their due, honored and respected. Academics traditionally would thumb their nose at the likes of Jughead and Brutus and dismiss these clowns as “drivel.” And, of course, they’d use such an arcane term to add to the sting. But a true cartoonist, someone actually writing and drawing in pursuit of something artful, they know the true value of such legendary characters. And so Alaniz bravely entered the fray. Soon, he had something brewing, riding upon the shoulders of too many other cartoonists to mention. It is fascinating to read the early college efforts and then compare that to later work revisiting the same characters.

Plastic People

From that experience, it was onward to further exploration in creating comics. Pivotal in this process, as Alaniz shares, is his taking part in monthly informal get-togethers with various cartoonists at a local Seattle cafe. Prior to the pandemic, each gathering was an opportunity for cartoonists to draw up comics that were then collected and printed into an ongoing anthology known as, Dune. I’ve often been invited but I never attended, mostly because it conflicted with my job. But I’ve had countless interactions with most of these cartoonists. As many of them can attest, I’ve been at the forefront of many comics events which they happily participated in. Some of the most notable cartoonists from this scene include: Max Clotfelter, Marc J. Palm, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Seth Goodkind, Jim Woodring, Eroyn Franklin and Megan Kelso. Again, I can’t stress enough how valuable this book can be to anyone interested in the comics medium. It all began for Alaniz with a youthful creative impulse and just look where it took him. Overall, The Phantom Zone comic strip does a decent job with carving out something in the auto-bio tradition. What is truly most compelling is the life that José Alaniz carved out for himself.

The Phantom Zone comic strip

Amatl Comix is an ongoing series that compiles the best in Latinx comics presented by San Diego State University Press.

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Review: ‘The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski’ by Noah Van Sciver 

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski

The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.

Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.

Fante dreams big.

I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.

Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with s perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.

A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.

Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing.  More importantly, he  has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.

While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.

Unlucky in love.

Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers. In the end, we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.

Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.

Long live bohemians, great and small.

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Atlas Obscura: Between the Margins at Letterform Archive

Letterform Archive

If you haven’t done an Atlas Obscura event, I highly recommend them. Now, with virtual tours the new normal, it is easier than ever to hop right on a cultural tour. A wonderful example was a tour with Letterform Archive, a non-profit museum and special collections library in San Francisco, California dedicated to collecting materials on the history of lettering, typography, printing, and graphic design. I am a huge fan of Atlas Obscura and urge you to get to know them. There’s a wonderful book on Atlas Obscura you will want to check out: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. The latest edition is available here. Getting back a bit to Letterform Archive, if you missed today’s tour, there will be more. Typically, the sort of workshops that Letterform Archive do involve an intimate gathering around a table as various items from the collection are compared and contrasted. I took some quick notes, so just to give you a taste, the first photo at the top is a nice snapshot of what was discussed. Going from the top left corner clockwise is a book created to commemorate the Arab Spring of 2012; the back of a newspaper by The Black Panthers, circa 1967; and a children’s book that replaces all the characters with dots.

Page from If Apples Had Teeth by Milton Glaser, 1960

Basically, this event all added up to a thoughtful discussion with a freewheeling zest to it. A wondrous way to spend an hour, all in the privacy of your own home. In fact, this is a clear case of a feast for the eyes. Much to see indeed. My favorite moment was a look at a children’s book by Milton Glaser, If Apples Had Teeth, from 1960. Milton Glaser recently passed away so this was a most fitting tribute. The boook evokes the uninhibited spirit of young imaginative minds so perfectly well. What kid doesn’t wonder what it would be like if apples had teeth? Well, apples would bite back, right? So, if you seek some culture and adventure during quarantine, then go look over your experience options at Atlas Obscura.

Atlas Obscura presents The Letterform Archive

 

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End of Teddy Roosevelt. Next, Columbus Circle?

From Alice in New York, updated text for 2020

There’s a moment in my graphic novel, Alice in New York, when my alter ego character questions how such an absurd statue could stand in America’s melting pot. At the time the story was set, in 1989, such statues were not only allowed to exist but were meant to be revered, although no one could say exactly why. Anyway, that now infamous statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with an African tribesman on one side and a Native American chief on the other is on its way out. I’d never noticed this but the darn thing only dated back to 1940. As anyone who knows their history can attest, Teddy Roosevelt was a good guy. He was a man of his time but he was also progressive in both word and deed. Look him up and you’ll find that he’s the real deal. But that statue showcases Teddy in the wrong light to put it mildly. The idea behind it has to do with Teddy being an avid explorer, not an enslaver. It would have fit into the less than woke 1940s. But Theodore Roosevelt, the actual human being, would have absolutely understood that this statue was a problem and it was time for it to go. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post:

As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.

From Alice in New York

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Okay, but now there’s the matter of an even more problematic statue and it’s a doozy. Mayor de Blasio, are you ready to take down the landmark statue of Christopher Columbus, the centerpiece to New York’s famed Columbus Circle?

From Alice in New York

In a statement released yesterday, Decolonize This Place said it welcomed the decision to remove the statue but noted that two of its demands to the city and the museum still remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.” Yes, the fact remains that, if you take a tour of the exhibits inside the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find even more stark examples of racial insensitivity. And, again, any group asking to rename Columbus Day can definitely get behind a campaign to tear down Columbus Circle! A petition has started on change.org asking for the renaming of the circle and the removal of the statue “from public view,” but recent comments from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggest that neither the statue, nor the name of the circle, is going anywhere. Lastly, let me add that I appreciate and am sensitive to the problems with Columbus Circle and state as much in my recent illustrated novel, Max in America.

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Review: ‘American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason’ by Brett Dakin

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.

Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.

During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics,  would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.

But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned  only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.

A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim,  to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.

Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.

As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.

Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books  as faintly masturbatory).

Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941

Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.

But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.

Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a  lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.

Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua,  New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily  (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.

Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers:  Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.

A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.

Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.

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.

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Review: ‘The Necrophilic Landscape’ by Morgan Vogel

The Necrophilic Landscape by Morgan Vogel

The Necrophilic Landscape. by Tracy Auch (Morgan Vogel). 2dCloud. Minneapolis, MN, 2015, 32 pages, $12.

When I learned about The Necrophilic Landscape, it struck me as something that I needed to become familiar with. As an indie cartoonist, I was saddened to learn about the death of Morgan Vogel, someone who was at the forefront of creating avant-garde comics. That’s not an easy thing to do well. Yes, anyone might try but few truly succeed. I had posted how Morgan Vogel reveled in using pen names. Vogel credits The Necrophilic Landscape with the pen name,  Tracy Auch. And then she goes one better and pretends to be the editor of her own work. Consider this brilliant literary prank which you can find quoted on the 2dCloud Instagram:
Why did you release The Necrophilic Landscape as you did, with the color removed and the title changed?
Morgan Vogel: “The Necrophilic Landscape” was composed in 2010 and then shelved after being rejected for a grant. At that time the author was influenced by gothic and genre literature such as Melmoth the Wanderer and The Devil’s Elixirs, or Edogawa Ranpo’s Detective Stories. In my personal work I try to avoid nostalgia in the use of these generic references to male authors. I was asked to edit “The Necrophilic Landscape” and turn it into something suitable for release. I chose to foregoround a theme that was only partially worked out in the original, that is– that the narrative takes place in an almost entirely male world. The most obstructive editorial decision I made was to remove a central passage which contained the original’s only depiction of sex or a female character. The printed version of the book is more disjointed as a result of this decision, but it seemed to me that the only explanation for the narrative’s total mystification of sexual reproduction could be that it takes place in a fantasy world that contains only men and male children. The change in title reflects my critical distance as an editor and was meant to refer to a concept employed by a feminist theorist I like of a male drive towards necrophilia (versus female ‘biophilia’). I believe the color was removed because scans of the original artwork were not available.”
Indeed, it’s good to have some background going in. Now, buckle up, this is going to be a deliciously bumpy ride. Okay. Comics can be many things. When someone casually picks up a comic and dismisses it for being, for example, “disjointed,” they are really missing out. To say a work is disjointed sounds impressive and authoritative. It’s the most used dis in academic circles and usually means the reader did not even bother to carefully read the work. Anyway, I just mention that because so much gets batted around by neurotic experts, insecure gatekeepers and pathetic tastemakers, jetsetters, and knee-jerkers. It’s an ugly world with a lot of ugly people. But a lot of good people too, no doubt, so let’s take a look at a little book that comes out smelling like a rose. I turn your delicate attention to The Necrophilic Landscape.

Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape

Morgan Vogel’s  life was cut short at the age of 34. By all counts, Morgan Vogel was the real deal: a bright light of creativity with a genuine sense of humor. A lot of works in comics, whether mainstream or alternative, barely register as worthwhile. The trouble, as I say, centers around a disrespect for the comics medium by various guilty parties. But dig around, and you find this. The key thing here is a sharp and subversive mind at play. The drawing looks crude but, in fact, it has a power to it. Gary Panter comes to mind. The writing seems dense at first but it has a way of disarming you. What you’ve got is a surreal poetic nightmare.

What you have is a work that employs the same kind of energy you can find in, say, the best contemporary painting or experimental theater. The actual narrative is about an all-male world in which sexual reproduction doesn’t exist and the primary class division in society is between men and children. So, heavy stuff but also an intriguing framework to explode upon the page, to explore the body and soul. And, amid the dark, there is some wonderfully light humor as in a scene showing how the children manage to outwit the men by disguising themselves as adults. The solution is as easy as something out of an early comic strip. One kid stands on the shoulders of another kid and they cover each other up with a big overcoat. Voilà, instant adult.

If this were a movie, it might be unwatchable but, thankfully, it’s a comic. There simply are things you can do in comics that you can’t do anywhere else. Lots of depictions of body horror can be uniquely finessed within comics and so it goes here. Top it off with the sort of melancholy you’ll find in a good Russian novel, and you’re all set and ready to go right into a morbidly happy oblivion. This book gets all the stars I can give it. I guess that’s five, right?  Strange. Loopy. Totally radically authentic. Talked about in smart circles but hard to find unless you know where to look. Simply put, this is the Maltese Falcon of indie comics. Seek it out.

Page excerpt from The Necrophilic Landscape

I’ll leave you with a parting thought. What makes me a good guide into the world of Morgan Vogel? Well, you can take your pick amongst a number of good souls. As for me, I happen to be someone who paid the price of admission into the indie comics community. I’ve experienced it in all its many facets and, I can tell you, it all can amount to a good kick in the teeth or a most rewarding loopy detour depending upon how you look at it. Believe me, I have nothing to prove. I choose to look at it as a natural extension of what I do creatively and I understand it within a broader context of all sorts of artistic endeavors. I just think that Morgan and I would have gotten along.

For more details on The Necrophilic Landscape and an impressive assortment of cutting-edge comics, visit 2dCloud right here.

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