Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE
Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.
From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain
You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.
You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.
from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
I ask that you keep going on this journey with me. I have been carving this niche for years and I feel like I’ve got it at quite a cozy level with just the right content and pacing. That said, it’s time for another thoughtful interview. For my video interviews, I add here a few notes and observations. Traditional journalism, like hard news reportage, will take an interview and create a concise summation. Some magazines are known for their long sprawling interviews where everything is transcribed. Of course, we also have a long tradition of various talk show formats, some thoughtful and some that are so casual as to blur right in with a dance segment on Tik Tok. Hey, I have nothing against fun and entertainment and I’ll engage in that when it makes sense. But, for interviews, I take them seriously, prepare for them, take off my Joe Cool hat and don’t engage in any dancing. Although, in a metaphorical sense, a good interview is sort of like a dance. The person conducting the interview leads while the person who is the subject of the interview goes about picking up one cue after another and making something out of it.
A bus driver finds solace through the suspension of disbelief.
Anyway, I say all this because it’s particularly relevant to this interview. Essentially, this is an interview about interviews: how to conduct one, what it means, what you attempt to get out of it. I interviewed Julia Wald about her new book, The Suspension of Disbelief (review), an illustrated collection of interviews she conducted about life and work during Covid-19. In the course of the interview, we ended up talking about what it means when you’re working at a restaurant during a world-wide pandemic and suddenly it’s like all the lights are out and then, just as suddenly, you are out of a job, your source of income. We discuss who might have stepped in to help and who didn’t.
A disadvantaged man finds hope through knowledge.
And, finally, once an artistic and talented person is inspired to create a book about Covid-19, what responsibility, if any, does she have to the vulnerable people she has interviewed? Well, part of the answer goes back to the dance. If the dance partners have established a sense of trust, then there’s a very good chance that something worthwhile will result that everyone can be proud of. We focus in a bit on American journalist Studs Terkel (1912-2008), the icon of what came to be known as “literary journalism.” Terkel was most active from the 1950s to 1990s, creating his seminal collection of interviews, Working, in 1974. He was part of that old-fashioned gumshoe journalist/creative tradition: loyal to his readers and listeners, to his Chicago, and to the art and craft of journalism. Julia says that Terkel inspired her on her Covid-19 project and it shows and, ultimately, it demonstrates that she did right by all who she interviewed. Julia did it the right way, the old-fashioned way that involves hard work and integrity. It’s the best way. And it’s what inspires me to keep going on this journey.
It seems ages ago that I posted a drawing early last year about the developing “new normal” living conditions during this pandemic. Well, as much as things have changed with vaccines on the way, we still have a journey ahead of us. Perhaps it’s safe to say we’re at the halfway point, or better. Let us hope so! For now, we keep doing all the safe things we’ve been doing and, when it’s our turn, we get vaccinated. 2021 is now here. Let’s all make the most of it as best we can.
Gipi is one of the great cartoonists. His approach is to treat the page in a heroic fashion, as both canvas and stage, employing a variety of techniques and styles. In one work, he will typically shift from loose sketchbook line drawings to haunting panoramic watercolor panels. We see this kind of work in the States but we see even more of this in Europe. Gipi is part of that Italian breed of cartoonist who sings for his supper through fierce and daring visual storytelling. I was rifling through a stack of books and papers just the other day and Gipi’s The Innocents nearly hit me on the head. I took that as a sign. It is a story about lost youth and their comeuppance. That title was part of an amazing Ignatz collection published by Fantagraphics. A title that is currently on my radar is One Story, also published by Fantagraphics and one of the most ambitious works by Gipi that I’ve come across.
Gipi commands the page like a canvas or a stage.
Any artist, or magician worth his salt, is a master of illusion. Any given number of strokes of ink or paint on the page may seem marginal or of undetermined worth–and sometimes they don’t seem to quite add up! There are times when no one notices any of these potentially perceived mistakes or accidents that require further reflection. Or the culmination of all these marks does add up without much doubt but it still doesn’t seem to meet some fickle taste. Only a determined, persistent and consistent effort will ultimately win the day and that is what Gipi does. He’s the one who is constantly drawing. He is a cartoonist who unmistakably acts like any other artist, whatever the medium. And, in the process of all that problem-solving, a universe emerges. In the end, he can make it look easy. Ideally, and in general, you want all the elements on the page, even the splotches and rough gestures, to simply read as part of the narrative. Each mark belongs on the page. Gipi has the temperament and the confidence to pull that off.
Gipi, cartoonist as visionary artist.
Going hand in hand with a heroic attitude to mark-making is the actual script to which Gipi runs with as if his very life depends upon it. These sort of stories are the ones that need plenty of room to run, as they are larger-than-life stories about life! The reader can ease up on applying cold logic and allow the tale to cast its spell. For most readers, this will not be a problem at all. We begin in the present. Gipi charms the reader with his overwhelming sense of weltschmerz. Gipi shows us that the older you are, the less you can acknowledge your age when facing the mirror. An aging beauty can only see through a vintage lens. Cut to our main character, a former fiery rebel who is not aging into the perfect Lothario he intended to be.
Just drive off in a Maserati.
Next, our aging rebel finds a kindred spirit and they drive off in a Masareti. Remember, the plot is going to keep shifting. So, our main character is one Silvano Landi. It turns out that Mr. Landi is under heavy medication in a psych ward. He is drifting in and out of recollections, all very lucid and vibrant as hell. What Silvano sees, we see. A team of professionals are determined to keep Landi nicely sedated with increasing amounts of Bituprozan, in keeping with their standards, in order to address his “Schizophrenia with Monomaniacal Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors.”
“A bare tree. Why?”
The team is both impressed and bewildered by a series of drawings Landi has done of a service station and a tree. They admit the work is dazzling but it is also so clearly out of the norm, and most disturbing. God help any artist at the mercy of psych bureaucrats! As for Landi’s request to go outside, well, the team won’t tolerate that at all. Silvano Landi is a famous writer, after all. He must get the most careful and strict of treatment.
Navigating a psych ward.
The story now takes a determined turn. We move over to Landi’s great-grandfather, Mauro, and the trenches of World War I. From here on out, we alternate between Landi, Mauro and all points beyond. As you’ve come to appreciate from this writing, this is all pure Gipi! Ah, and this is where the plot thickens as we venture off into geopolitics and so much more. It is absolutely not my intention to go over every plot point but, instead, to give you a good generous taste.
A tree grows at the end of the world.
My goal in a post like this, as always, is to provide you with a guided tour, part of my exploration of the most provocative and challenging works in comics. I happen to relish expressing myself in well-chosen words and this exceptional work inspires that effort. Keep in mind, Gipi is not exactly alone but he’s also definitely among the very best auteur cartoonists. If you had only one cartoonist to read, Gipi will win you over on many levels. None the least is, again, that deliciously melancholic sense of raw and jaded sophistication–and exhausted experience.
An eyeball plops onto the floor, is picked up, and then turns into a doorknob. That is the best moment in comics for this year. 2020 has been a very spooky and sad year and so this little graphic novel is all the more made for this moment.
There’s a lot of comics theory out there being tossed around. It’s very easy to start one of those erudite conversations about comics and ponder about what lies between the panels. Well, it’s a vast nothingness. It’s the gutter space. And, while you’re advised upon how you can manipulate the gutter space, slice it and dice it, the fact is that, in general, you don’t really want to call attention to it. No, it’s mostly the panels where the action is and that is what cartoonist Katie Skelly mindfully builds. Her gutter space is neutral. That’s where time passes. In fact, the panels could all be nothing more than a grid and we, as readers, would be satisfied. But a good variation in panels can do a lot of the heavy lifting in order to enhance the reading experience. Maids is Skelly’s latest graphic novel and it is quite an experience.
Beautiful narrative flow.
If you aware of this book, then you already know this is a stylish take on a true crime story, set in 1930s France, with the simple enough plot of two maids who murder the mansion’s inhabitants. For a story such as this, it is all in the telling–or showing. Skelly takes delight in presenting us the two culprits, two young women, Christine and Lea. These are two down-and-out girls who stumble upon working together for a rich family. By and by, we get to know the two girls, just barely out of their teens. What’s interesting is that they are far from likable. In fact, they are more likely to steal and loaf around than much of anything else. In turn, the rich family is not particularly villainous. They are more or less right to find the two girls to be repulsive. So, plenty of gray area to consider. No clear hero or villain. And yet, some may read a story here of a worker’s revolt. What is happening here is more open-ended than that. This is less a call for class warfare and more of a macabre journey we might enjoy on a cold winter’s night and, for that, Skelly has masterfully delivered.
Rise and shine!
For more details, visit Fantagraphics Books right here.
There’s a scene in The Big Chill, the landmark 1983 movie about the sighs and regrets of the Baby Boom generation, when the Kevin Kline character says, “They don’t make music like that anymore.” The Boomer group of friends have been reunited and they’re listening to Motown hits. In fact, The Big Chill soundtrack led to a big revival of interest in some great classics from the ’60s. Well, the comics of James Kochalka could be one of the beloved artifacts to Generation X, a generation smart about a lot of things, like nuance and understatement. So, the legend goes, James Kochalka walked into the offices of Top Shelf Productions stark naked and screamed that he was an elf and began scrawling a series of simple but compelling drawings on the walls with his own excrement. After the Top Shelf top guns, Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, had subdued him, they surveyed the damage and concluded they had a wild genius on their hands. Well, maybe I just made that up but, no doubt, Top Shelf and Kochalka did form a very tight bond and you can argue that the very best results were comics dealing with an epic battle between monkeys and robots. It was, to be sure, in sync with a zeitgeist and something that has stood the test of time.
An epic battle between monkey and robot.
Monkeys and robots do not mix. Monkeys are real. Robots are artificial. When robots and monkeys collide, blood will shed. Cartoonist James Kochalka was thinking about monkeys and robots and collisions during a house party some twenty years ago. As he puts it, he was just having fun when he was struck by the idea to take his monkey and robot thoughts over to a drawing board. The first collection of Monkey vs. Robot comics was Published by Top Shelf Productions in 2000. The rest, as they say, is history: indeed, the book had a huge impact on the indie culture of the time. This was well after the game changer boom of The Simpsons; well within the era of the alternative comics boom; and well before the expansion of the twee attitude in youth culture we’ve seen in such places as Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. For a golden span of time, if you were looking for a comic with a cute aesthetic but also packed a nice punch, then the go-to comics were coming from Kochalka.
Simian vs. Mother
Now you can own the Monkey vs. Robot collection which includes the original graphic novel with its sequels. Having just read the whole book, I am pleased to revisit the original and compare it with the whole vision. It strikes me how the whole Monkey vs. Robot saga reads like a true epic! These comics are far too sophisticated to be considered only to be storyboards for some amazing animated feature. Instead, while the comics do make me wonder about an animated version, the quality of movement and pacing keeps me moving along from panel to panel in the unique way that only the comics medium can provide.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
James Kochalka rose from the ranks of the indie crowd to follow through on his specific vision. While there have been many imitators, his comics are the real deal, authentic and resonant, like his sharing something personal with the reader. Kochalka tapped into a way of drawing that reads as something unique to that artist, like his own handwriting. Many aspiring cartoonists put the cart before the horse, feel entitled to be recognized as cartoonists, but forget to create anything compelling. The secret to how Kolchalka makes his deceivingly simple artwork come to life is the fact that he’s invested the time and effort to bring his comics to life. So, you end up with elves you care about as well as monkeys, and even robots, you care about! That said, this 20th anniversary collection is truly epic!
Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic is available as of October 27, 2020. For more details, visit Top Shelf Productions right here.
Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back at the Society of Illustrators, March 11, 2020 to October 24, 2020. Photo by Steve Compton.
Comics on a gallery wall are no longer a novelty as in years past. In fact, comics are now seen by more people, from all walks of life, as a legitimate art form. In Comic Art in Museums, Kim A. Munson explores the role of comics in the greater world of art. I had the distinct honor of interviewing Munson last week. We begin our conversation with a classic work on the study of comics, an essay by the noted scholar, Albert Boime, that is included in Munson’s anthology. It is from Boime’s 1972 essay that we get such a clear and in depth definition of the comics medium. I place a number of images here from the new show, Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back, at the Society of Illustrators (128 East 63rd Street in NYC), March 11 – October 24, 2020. See the Women in Comics page for contextual information and artist bios. Exhibition curated by Kim Munson and Trina Robbins with special thanks to Karen Green and John Lind.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I think there’s one essay that might do the best job of explaining how comics fit in the greater world of art. And that’s the 1972 essay by noted UCLA professor Albert Boime. I love how he lines up so many facts and examples and really connects the dots from the early days of graphic journalism to the American Civil War reportage, the Ash Can School and so on. Could you speak to what’s going on in that essay?
KIM A. MUNSON: One of the things that really inspired me was this essay that I originally found in grad school. As an art historian, I’ve always recognized the value of theory but that’s never really been my thing. It’s like another tool in the toolbox. I’m very much a social art history person who wants to write about movements and art, and everything, in the context of its era–how everything interconnects. Albert Boime does a masterful job of that talking about how all of the artists moved in and out of commercial illustration and fine art. He didn’t box the artists in. He also speaks well to all of the artists in relation to all of the art movements. And he even ties in all in with the Vietnam War which was a hot topic when he wrote the essay. When Boime wrote this essay, it was during all the Pop Art survey shows, and shows presenting comics as art. Boime passed away some years back. His son specializes in Pop Art and teaches in San Diego. We were to speak on a panel but that’s had to be postponed until next year.
Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative show from 1967.
In my review of the book, I focused on the American contribution and connection to comics. Would you like to talk about comics on a global stage from the material in the book?
For myself, as an American and a Californian, my emphasis is on the U.S., that’s true. Seeing things from a U.S. lens. But I really did try to incorporate other viewpoints. And give people credit for breakthroughs they had in other countries. John Lent wrote this incredible article on the Cartoon Art Gallery in Dubai, the challenges they had and the community they built there. Jaqueline Berndt is a manga scholar who has been teaching all over Europe, who just completed a fellowship at the Tokyo Manga Museum. She wrote an incredible piece on manga exhibitions in Japan evolving from being very library-like to more of an appreciation of the actual artwork. And there are longer pieces, like an essay on the 1967 show, Bande Dessinee et Figuration Narrative. It kick started comics getting back into museums again. It was a real reply to Pop Art. There’s an essay on the first international comic art show and conference in Brazil in 1951 put together by this group of radical intellectuals.
That Paris show in 1967 was pivotal, of course. Some of these shows went on to be extended and toured for years. This same thing happened in the United States.
The Paris show from 1967 was at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is part of a wing at the Louvre. That show’s original run was a month and then it extended and toured to six other cities in Europe. The National Cartoonist Society, in the U.S., had extended runs that toured that actually went on for a couple of decades. It’s pretty incredible.
From Women in Comics show: Ethel Hays
There are arguments to be made about comics as an art form, the purpose and mechanics of comics, and then there’s specific arguments about content, like the portrayal of race and gender. Could you speak to that from the essays in the book?
First, I have to say, this is such a rich topic. I have at least another book in me about this. Once the canon was re-established in the 1970s, people were able to open up and focus on specific topics, whether it was race or gender, whatever the topic. I was going over essays related to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. There’s this one essay, which is in the book, from 1992, by Dwayne McDuffie, on one of the first shows of African American art in the U.S. He was writing about his discovery of the comic book character, Black Panther; the representation of the world of Wakanda, where anything is possible; and how that affected him as a kid.
She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists, May 20-November 2006.
Regarding women in comics, I have Trina Robbins. I just co-curated a show with her in New York, which no one can see at the moment. When the Masters of Comics show came out in 2005, it was controversial for only having male artists. Trina immediately called their bluff and started doing counter-programming about it. She spoke at the Hammer and the Jewish Museum. And she curated a show of her own, an all-women show (She Draws Comics), at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York at the same time as Masters of Comics. I include the text of her presentation in the book that demonstrates that women cartoonists did exist and were popular.
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York had a nice run on its own.
I think it was in 2012 that they were absorbed by the Society of Illustrators.
Society of Illustrators 128 East 63rd St, NY
There’s plenty of stories of museums that run out of funds or something happens and they move on and maybe become something else.
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art was on Lower Broadway for a number of years. It was a third floor walk-up. It put on great shows but, without a lot of money coming in, it finally cratered. The Society of Illustrators absorbed their collection. They have a five-story building in New York City. They have a second floor gallery dedicated to comic art. And, a couple times of year, they usually have other big comic art shows aside from that.
From Women in Comics show: Trina Robbins
I’ve been to the Society of Illustrators and, I’ve got to say, that is a place anyone will enjoy, whether you’re big into comics or not. It’s a beautiful space and the top floor is just gorgeous, a great place for lunch.
The restaurant is wonderful. I’ll take the opportunity to mention to everyone that the current show at Society of Illustrators in the main gallery, which is two floors, is Women in Comics. The first floor is from the collection of Trina Robbins, about 90 pieces covering everything from Nell Brinkley in the Flapper era all the way to the underground comics in the 1970s. And then, on the lower floor, I have 20 contemporary women artists, including five Eisner winners. It’s a great show. Just this morning, I saw that New York is going to allow the Met, and some other museums, to re-open on August 24. I’m hoping that will include Society of Illustrators. The show is scheduled up to October 24.
Then there is the whole process of one artist establishing their position within the context of an art movement. Mainly, that ties in with comics establishing its own position. Could you speak on that from the material in the book? I know that’s a lot to talk about. What comes to mind when you think of Art Spiegelman?
Art Spiegelman is a very interesting case. He’s a person who is interested in exhibitions and someone who was interested in cultural legitimization for comics really early on. I remember that he was in early shows, going back to 1969. He had a very real passion about being included in shows. I interviewed him about Masters of Comics when I was working on my thesis. And he was the one who told me about the 1951 comic art show at the Met. He’s been sort of on the forefront of trying to figure out how comics are best seen: how to show them and still have narrative. You’re showing them as artwork without dumbing them down or something. I have a piece in the book about his touring show that originated in France. And there’s another piece on Art Spiegelman’s own private comic art museum. It was about his collection and his mentors and inspirations, the artist as curator.
Carol Tyler: Pages and Progress, January-March 2016, University of Cincinnati.
So, we come back to the whole idea of comics displayed upon a gallery wall. Boy, if I were to write a book on this: discussing the purpose of comics on display, comparing comics in book format and on the wall. Comics certainly function in more than one format. Would you speak on that?
Narrative is such an important topic. And exhibitions. It’s kind of a conflict in a way. People can only read so much standing there in the gallery. Obviously, comics is a narrative format. So, you want to give enough of the story so that people get the gist of what the artist is saying. Obviously, you’re taking pages out of context. The book presents essays that look at this from different ways. Andrei Molotiu, the art historian, asks whether it’s an act of violence or an act of contextualization when taking work out of its context. Molotiu talks about how your eye is led to different parts of the drawing if you’re seeing the work on the wall or reading it in a book. And there’s a sequence of articles that mention Crumb’s Genesis, which toured all over the place, presenting all 200 pages from the book–and how overwhelming that is. Even Spiegelman said that his Maus has been shown in its entirety and that’s not the way to go.
It’s interesting how curators decide how to show the work. Carol Tyler presented much of the work in one of her books on a clothesline because she’s a Midwestern girl and that spoke to her. Denis Kitchen gets around this by showing short story arcs of just a couple of pages or focusing on cover art. It’s an important thing for curators to deal with since narrative is such an important part of comic art.
We’re an excerpt culture, a sound-bite culture. I don’t believe people would have difficulty seeing something out of context or more concise. People simply read so much faster, process information so much faster.
You can do a lot with wall labels too. You can show a couple of pages of something and contextualize what the rest of the story is. It’s also important that some of the places that have the space will have some kind of reading area. One thing that Spiegelman and I discussed was showing every page of Maus for a show on this huge lightbox. I saw the show in Toronto and it had the lightbox display with a long bench with a print copy of Maus at both ends. So, you could go back and forth between the lightbox display and the actual book.
One reason that I included Charles Hatfield’s essay on Crumb’s Genesis was his talking about the exhaustion of trying to look at the whole thing.
The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.
I did get to see that show when it was at SAM (Seattle Art Museum) and I recall enjoying it, getting to study one page at a time and then briskly walking by many pages only to come back later. Maybe, as a cartoonist myself, I was processing it a little differently from a casual viewer.
Actually, I wish I had caught that show. Robert Salkowitz provides a great essay in the book about the show. That show (Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb) not only displayed Crumb’s Genesis but it also included work from Goya and Albrecht Dürer, placing them as ancestors to Crumb’s work.
There’s a special edition that Art Spiegelman put together for Maus. It’s called, MetaMaus. So, there’s an example of a multi-media presentation to compliment the original work. It’s on a CD-ROM so it’s a bit dated now but still very useful. I guess it just depends on what might work to give things a little oomph. A lot times, you just want to read the book or see the originals on the wall and that’s it. Not everything needs that oomph.
There’s a place for that. Charles Hatfield’s essay talks about the Jack Kirby show (California State University) and how it included iPads. There’s one gallery that has one whole issue of Kamandi. So, on an iPad, you could see sketches right along with the finished pages in the gallery.
Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, August 24 – October 10, 2015, California State University.
The original idea for Masters of Comics was to create some sort of hub and spoke display where you would show a key creator and then have all the spokes of the creators who were influenced by that key person. That would make for a great interactive display where you could pick an artist and see the branches that grew out from that key person. I think that would make for an incredible multi-media show.
Lynda Barry comes to mind. She’s a born cartoonist and born instructor. She seems always be on. She makes me think of what can be done beyond the page. She loves to draw on glass, in the spirit of Picasso.
Oh, yeah. I’m happy to say she is one of the artists in Women in Comics right now at Society of Illustrators. When Masters of Comics first came out, I remember so many people asking why Lynda Barry wasn’t included. So, when Women in Comics came around, Lynda Barry was the first person I needed to get for the show!
From Women in Comics: Illustration from Sex is a Funny Word (Fiona Smyth)
It’s a case by case situation on comic art as to questions of narrative and exhibition. Some comic art work could originate as an installation. I can certainly see Lynda Barry doing this–work that is first, maybe only, seen as a mural.
Actually, Gary Panter does a lot of work like this. There’s a experimental form of work known as “gallery comics,” and I include an essay by Paul Gravett, a UK curator who has experiments a lot with this. The idea is that you have a series of alternative narratives as you walk through the gallery space. There’s a lot of multi-media involved with some of these. It’s very interesting to take the sequential nature of comics and play with it.
The youngest cartoonists coming on board I guess may still need to wait a bit to be fully represented at this point. Maybe for another book. I think of someone like Dash Shaw and I believe he could do very well with a gallery comics format.
I was just on a panel at San Diego Comics Fest with Bill Sienkiewicz and Liam Sharp. The two of them are good examples. Their work has so much detail. It looks great on the printed page and displayed on the gallery wall. Liam’s original work is drawn over-sized to begin with. And, of course, Bill’s work is just amazing.
For Women in Comics, I was careful to show a wide range of talent going all the way up to the younger artists like Tillie Walden and Summer Pierre. It’s interesting to see younger artists working in a lot of media. It’s interesting to see how they pull it together through their process.
Things have evened out between traditional and digital. It can be anyone’s guess as to how some work is created. And then you have some younger artists who prefer to keep to the most traditional hand-made methods.
From Snow, Glass, Apples
Yes, or it’s a mix. Like Colleen Doran, who is in Women in Comics. She won the Eisner for Snow, Glass, Apples, the Neil Gaiman adaptation of the Snow White story. (2020 Eisner for Best Adaptation from Another Medium, Dark Horse Comics) It’s this incredible style evoking Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Her process involves scanning her art, drawing on it, then continues to scan and draw again. The final version is pen and ink. Some artists are totally digital. It’s fascinating to see how artists use technology and make it fit with their style.
Is there anything that I haven’t brought into our conversation that you’d like to talk about. Any essay that we may have missed?
One thing to mention from your review of the book. You talk about Alexi Worth. The article that I close with is Alexi Worth on the Charles Hatfield show of Jack Kirby. Worth is writing about Kirby in the context of Pop Art and other art movements. I think he did a good job of contextualizing Kirby’s artwork within the art of the time and also took into account the limitations of comics. Kirby was cranking stuff out. And you had the limitations of printing comics back then. My own essay on the interest of comic art in the ’30s and ’40s allowed me to create a sort of chronology of how comics have been represented since 1930. I had no idea that Milton Caniff was such a pioneer of comics exhibitions! That was a big revelation for me. I spent two weeks at the Billy Ireland library and came away with hundreds of photos of letters and files. It’s just incredible the stuff that they have.
Comics at Columbia University!
The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is on my list of places to go. I did, by being in the good graces of Karen Green, get to spend a significant amount of time with the comics and graphic novel collection at Columbia University.
Columbia is pretty amazing. Karen is a close friend of mine. I was very happy to collaborate with Karen Green on an essay on the artist Jonah Kinigstein and his sort of “comics as art” criticism. That’s a very interesting area: artists that are criticizing art movements and artwork. In Jonah’s case, he was a traditional artist who was really pissed off with the Abstract Expressionist movement and their sort of dismissal of representational art. His cartoons are just absolutely caustic. They’re very satirical. So, Karen interviewed him. He’s 96. I’m glad we got his story in the book because he’s a fascinating character.
I hope to meet up with you at some point, within comics circles.
Yes. I’d love to go to the Museum of Pop Culture and we might meet up then.
Thank you, Kim.
COMIC ART IN MUSEUMS is a fascinating treasure trove of in depth information on the comics medium. You can find it here.
WOMEN IN COMICS is currently showing at Society of Illustrators. Keep checking for updates on when the exhibit will open to the public (possibly as soon as August 24th).
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.
The bits and pieces that make up the texture of everyday life.
James Lloyd is a fellow cartoonist who I consider a friend. Oh, but it’s been many years since I can say that I’ve seen Mr. Lloyd in person. James Lloyd is from Vancouver, BC. I’m from Seattle. So, we do need to properly meet up one of these days. Here’s a James Lloyd comic that was slated to debut at this year’s annual Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF), which had to become a virtual event this year. It’s entitled, Black Sunday, and is a beautiful work full of local color, all the bits and pieces that add up to the texture of everyday life. But keep with it as this comic unfolds into a look back at the Fall of Saigon. Yes, that’s the Black Sunday that’s being referred to here. Keep going and you’ll discover a story of searching for family roots and confronting the gentrified Little Saigon in Vancouver. Lloyd makes a comparison between the South Vietnamese forced out of their homeland in 1975 and the more recent squeeze that the Vancouver South Vietnamese business community has experienced from developers. How often can one be pushed out after doing everything to play by the rules?
From the Fall of Saigon to the gentrified Little Saigon.
James Lloyd is an excellent artist and he is not someone to sit on his hands and is ready to offer up praise and support to a colleague. Praise and support means everything within the comics community which is made up of a lot of loners who would love nothing more than to go back to their drawing board. Well, let’s hope we can all do our part to keep shedding some light on remarkable labors of love.