Tag Archives: Bohemians

One More Look: AVENUE D and SNAKE EYES

Snake Eyes #3 cover

Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.

Glenn Head’s Snowman in Snake Eyes

In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.

The World of Kaz in Snake Eyes

For me, as I’ve said many times, the truest/purest version of the art of making comics will inevitably come from an auteur cartoonist, alone at their drawing table focused upon their art, which ultimately results in a graphic novel. I think you go through a period of making all sorts of short-form comics leading up to full-on full-length graphic novel work. Some cartoonists will not complete this full cycle–and that’s just the way it goes. Maybe their collected short works would arguably add up to graphic novels. Anyway, comics is an art form. There are a bunch of other comics (typical corporate comics and cartoons, per se) that are, in general, not art, never intended to be art. So, it’s wrong to lump it all together, tie a bow around it, and giddily declare, “Comics are comics!” Because that’s not true and makes no sense, really. It’s just not that simple.

Mark Beyer in Snake Eyes

Now, Snake Eyes is a perfect example, showcasing various talents, and gets down to business. Glenn Head has led the charge with other collections, notably the more recent Hotwire, but we’ll stick with Snake Eyes for the purposes of this article. And I’ll tie it together, as I see fit, with Avenue D as we move along. What I want to say right away is that, with Snake Eyes, I see a correlation with the now defunct (at least for now) Best American Comics series, published by Houghton Mifflin, and formerly edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. I applaud Bill’s spirited work although I do think, at times, he was trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s fine to make the case that Raymond Pettibon’s work is so close to comics as to be comics, which I tend to agree with; and it’s also fine to advocate for everyone being welcome to create comics, no matter what skill level, if any at all, which I DO NOT agree with, especially in a showcase of the best work! Overall, I believe Bill did a wonderful job. Now, moving forward, I’ve been wondering if Glenn Head might be just the guy to helm the annual voyage of comics discovery for a while. He’s in a unique position, having gone through the entire process himself many times over, of spotting those individuals engaged in what could rightfully be considered some of the best work being created today. And, if not, hey, I’ll take the gig! I can absolutely do it–but Glenn would be an ideal choice.

David Sandlin’s very relevant, Wasper in White Now, from Snake Eyes

Moving right along, I think, if you closely study a really great anthology of comix, and there are a number of them, going back to RAW and to WEIRDO, what you will appreciate is that there are certain patterns, even certain ground rules, that indie cartoonists will follow, without ever being told to follow them, since your typical indie cartoonist has problems with authority–but not always. And that’s because a savvy cartoonist knows how to shapeshift if called upon to do a professional illustration gig. Not so much the other way around. A professional illustrator who attempts to slum it by cobbling together a mini-comic to show at a comics art festival will be spotted from a mile away. And why is that? It’s because you can’t fake a certain sensibility that involves putting everything you’ve got into it.  So, if your heart is set on making comix, then bring your A game and do it right. It all boils down to an ongoing observation of life and one’s self; drawing a lot of stuff that is purely about yourself that will be synthesized over and over again as you create your own universe.

Avenue D cover

Now, I’ll shift gears to a point or two I can make using Head’s Avenue D. What struck me, after having examined this and that by Head, is that Head steadily carved out certain areas of interest and certain recurring characters and motifs. That’s really what it’s all about: practicing, drawing and distilling until you reach a certain level of fluidity! You get to the point where you can draw hookers with big wigs in your sleep–or whatever else you like! And, I’m sorry, but like it or not, the world of indie comix, or at least the one chock full of underground DNA, is one that takes things to their limits. It can be a slippery slope. If you’re simply out to offend, you most likely will fail. But if you’re persistent as hell, then maybe you’ll succeed on shock value alone–but, then again, your work could just as likely he kicked to the side in favor of more diligent artists.

The Muhammad Ali Story in Avenue D

So, yeah, the main example I want to share with you from Avenue D is the Muhammad Ali story. Now, this is one version, perhaps the earliest version. But not the only one. I think it’s important to note that a serious cartoonist will return to certain subject matter, even the same story, and revisit it, redo it, and create something from it, for as often as it makes sense to pursue it. The same, yet different, more refined, Muhammad Ali story is depicted in Head’s graphic novel, Chicago. The gist of it is that a young and brash Glenn Head is in way over his head when he tries to mess with The Greatest of All Time! The actual content of the Muhammad Ali story is like a bunch of clay that can be molded into something else for as often as the artist pleases.

Bob the Snowman in Avenue D

Classy Gator in Avenue D

I will pretty much wrap it up here for now. As you can see, Head has other starting points he can play with and explore: a strange snow man or an alligator pimp are always handy on a restless sleepless night. The strange snowman is a wretched soul, barely hanging by a thread in an urban nightmare, and you are NOT meant to relate with him, at least not literally. The same goes for the alligator pimp. But these fellas are like long lost friends for some cartoonists when an urge to create strikes.

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Filed under Comics, Comix, Essays, Glenn Head

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 such a 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, do they? Maybe so but going down that rabbit hole is a pretty tall order. In the end, it seems that 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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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Noah Van Sciver

Interview: Paul Buhle and ‘Bohemians: A Graphic History’

Drawing of Paul Buhle by Steve Chappell

Drawing of Paul Buhle by Steve Chappell

Paul Buhle is busy these days with various comics projects. He is truly a friend to cartoonists. And, as we find out in this interview, there’s a good story behind that. In fact, there’s plenty to talk about when you engage in a conversation with Paul Buhle. Today, his latest book, co-edited with David Berger, is out and avaiable, “Bohemians: A Graphic History,” a 304-page comics anthology that explores the world of bohemians in America from about 1850 to 1950 (my review here). It is published by Verso Books and you can find it here.

Paul Buhle retired a few years ago from Brown University where he lectured on History and American Civilization. He has written and edited numerous books on labor, culture, and radicalism. Now, Mr. Buhle finds a good portion of his time devoted to editing books that tell their stories through comics.

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Filed under Bohemians, Comics, Comics Anthologies, Comics Reviews, Culture, History, Interviews, Verso Books

Review: ‘Bohemians: A Graphic History,’ Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger

"Where Bohemia Began," art by Summer McClinton, script by Paul Buhle

“Where Bohemia Began,” art by Summer McClinton, script by Paul Buhle

“Good morning, Bohemians!” So, the jubilant cry would have been heard in Paris, circa 1853. It can still be heard today from down the street where I live in Seattle and all across the globe. I am a bohemian. I’ve always identified as such as a writer, artist, and cartoonist. But what does it really mean and how did this concept come to be? In the new comics anthology, “Bohemians: A Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger, we get a full history. These short works are created by some of today’s most accomplished cartoonists, who also happen to be some of the best examples you will find of contemporary bohemians.

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Filed under Anthologies, Bohemians, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, Journalism