Meet Boris and Cupcake. They’re your typical art students which means they’re far from typical just about anywhere else. These guys are definitely living inside a bubble that is inside a number of other bubbles. This is a fact that doesn’t get them very far in the real world–or the art world, for that matter. What it all adds up to is the hilarious new graphic novel, Art Comic, by Matthew Thurber, published by Drawn & Quarterly.
Satire runs amok in this send-up of contemporary art with Mr. Thurber’s surreal sense of humor taking things to a high level. It’s an important distinction to make. Thurber is not simply foisting upon his readers a series of rants. He’s actually worked out his narrative to such a precise degree that it reaches a peak of whimsical perfection.
You don’t need to know a thing about art to enjoy this book and, in some ways, you may be better off not knowing a thing. In fact, let this graphic novel teach you all you’ll ever need to know about the art world. Humor, at its best, is capable of being quite educational. Just go along for the ride and you can’t help but pick up a little on the theory of art, the business of art, and even the art of art. You’ll also learn a few things on how to best tell a story simply by not taking anything too seriously. This is a wacky yet savvy book. Thurber does an admirable job of giving it all, the drawing style, the narrative, the jokes, all the way down to the coloring, just the right light touch. I reach out to my friends and loyal readers to assure you that, even if you don’t usually read comics or follow art, you will enjoy this if you have a healthy sense of humor.
Berlin is a monumental work in comics. Few cartoonists will come close to such an achievement–and it couldn’t have been created by a nicer guy. What came across, over and over, during this talk is the fact that Lutes is very accessible and down to earth. That open approach plays into part of what makes his landmark work so special. It all began when teenager Jason Lutes wanted to make sense of a documentary about the holocaust he was suddenly exposed to in a high school history class. The teacher for that class was an alcoholic who made no effort to hide his struggles. He literally set up the movie for his class and left to get a drink. That abrupt and careless action ultimately triggered an in depth exploration of Weimar Germany through a creation of an expansive work in comics that would take 22 years to complete.
#ProtectMueller march in Seattle on 8 Nov. 2018
It was not lost on anyone during Lutes’s talk related to the dismantling of the German government of the 1920s that concerned citizens, just outside on the streets of Seattle, were protesting Trump’s own inroads into dismantling the U.S. government. Timing is everything. That Thursday night book talk directly coincided with protests across the country in support of protecting the Robert Mueller investigation after Trump installed a loyalist as acting Attorney General of the United States. Details are everything. If you follow the characters and the rich narrative of Berlin, you can’t help but get an eerie sense of having a mirror held up to the past and to the present.
Cartoonists holding each other’s works: Jason Lutes with David Lasky
Authenticity is everything. What is so appealing about comics by Jason Lutes is the solid storytelling. That involves a dynamic use of the comics medium: a crisp consistency in step with strategically placed visual elements that are pleasing to the eye and move the story forward. A quick example: I was standing in line to get my copy of Berlin signed and I made a point of poring over each page as I flipped my way through. Right around the midpoint, there is a page made up of wordless panels showing a mysterious figure in a row boat. He reaches the shore to find what looks like a vicious snake. He picks it up by its jaws and overpowers it. That same character reappears in the book as does the snake, both providing just the right doses of symbolism as well as pure entertainment. It’s important to note that, while Lutes referred to vast amounts of research and reading, he also fondly recalled the influence of key works in pop culture. Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel about Weimar Germany, by Alfred Döblin, holds as much importance to Lutes as his viewing of the original Star Wars movie as a kid. Altogether, what you have in Berlin is an honest look from an individual processing and distilling at a meticulous level.
Cartoonists Revisit: Jason Lutes with Jennifer Daydreamer
For many in the audience that night, it was an opportunity to revisit a respected work and commiserate with a friend and colleague. Seattle is a lightning rod for countless creative people and that includes a high number of independent cartoonists. There’s a certain sensibility to the alt-comics artist with Jason Lutes being a prime example. As he discussed in his lecture, it was Seattle that he gravitated to in the 1990s. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Lutes moved to Seattle and worked for the comics publisher, Fantagraphics. He subsequently worked for the alt-weekly, The Stranger, just as it began publication in 1991. During this era, Lutes became part of a group of cartoonists that went on to form an integral part of the Seattle comix scene. That group included some members that were in attendance that night: Megan Kelso, David Lasky and Jennifer Daydreamer. It was a treat to have part of the gang together again on such a special occasion.
Chester Brown is one of our treasured cartoonists, right up there with such greats as Seth and Daniel Clowes. Now, do the greats always get it right? No, I won’t say that but, on their worst day, I would prefer them over many another cartoonist. That said, Chester Brown’s latest graphic novel appears to be an ambitious continuation to “Paying For It,” his memoir on his relations with prostitutes. For his new book, he explores, among other things, the morality of prostitution by taking it all the way up to Jesus Christ in “Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,” published by Drawn & Quarterly.
The narrative follows what seems like a loosely based collection of Bible stories but it turns out to be a carefully grounded argument in favor of the significant place for prostitutes in the Bible. In fact, Chester Brown argues here that the Virgin Mary was a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It can be asking a lot for some readers to accept. However, Brown provides a good deal of scholarship to back him up. And he lays it all out with compelling comics.
The book is really great in its honesty and clarity. I see where it might make an overly sensitive person feel sad with all the depiction of unfairness but that’s not the point at all. Chester Brown paints an authentic picture of the matter-of-fact harsh life of the Biblical era. Morality was a whole other creature in the Bible. We require this world depicted clearly in order to buy into the narrative.
Brown is making the case that this is just how things were, this is how these people would have reacted to various behavior, and this is how the God in this Bible would have responded. It all follows a Biblical logic. And this allows Brown to make his argument seem all the less controversial. Sure, it would be well within reason that Mary could have, even would have, been a prostitute or engaged in prostitute-like behavior. It is not beyond the realm of what one would expect in the world of the Bible.
All this begs the question as to just how Brown and/or the Bible defines prostitution. How did people view prostitution in the world of the Bible? All things being relative, according to this graphic novel, residing in another village could inspire just as much, if not more, scorn than just being a prostitute. Ultimately, it was just another part of a harsh world. It was out in the open and, even if it inspired scorn, people were more honest about it than they are today.
Just as interesting as Brown’s observations on prostitution is his evocation of the world of the Bible. In Chester Brown Bible stories, we best see that world for what it is by having Brown turn up the heat a bit more. For instance, Brown includes the story of the prodigal son, the wayward lad who misspent his inheritance on prostitutes. The boy is embraced by his father and provided with a lavish celebration. There is the younger obedient son, the one who stayed home. But when he protests to his father, the father does not only ask for understanding, as commonly depicted in the Bible, he also explicitly chastises his loyal son for not having more initiative. The corrupt son is viewed as the hero. Might makes right. The industrious son is viewed as a fool. What Brown suggests is that this is going on implicitly in this story as well as in other Bible stories. It certainly feels that way.
“Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus” is a 280-page hardcover available now. For more details, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here.
We learn a lot from Dan Stafford’s documentary on cartoonist John Porcellino. “Root Hog or Die” provides us with some basic truths that resonate as we explore the life of someone both unique and, by his own account, just an average guy trying to make a life. The whole point here is to embrace the average. As Porcellino states at one point, he’s concerned to see an erosion of “the middle ground, when a person can live without an elaborate ambition and yet not be sleeping by some dumpster.”
John Porcellino has a remarkable thing with his ongoing self-published zine, “King-Cat Comics and Stories.” This is a zine, and mini-comic, that has been around for 25 years. King-Cat dates back to 1989 and, in all that time, John P has shared his life with his readers. For his new book, “The Hospital Suite,” published by Drawn and Quarterly, he focuses on one aspect of his life and turns his personal journey into a universal one.