Swimming in Darkness, by Lucas Harari, published by Arsenal Pulp, is an exceptional graphic novel on so many levels. It manages to get you to see comics in a totally refreshing way. This is certainly no easy task to accomplish, especially for the serious comics reader who is perhaps a little too primed to expect the unexpected. As for me, I am in a privileged positon as a reviewer that folks in the comics industry keep up with. As another year comes to a close, one that leaves us without Tom Spurgeon, one of our beloved leaders in the comics world, I feel all the more determined to pick my comics wisely and keep to meaningful reviews, upholding a standard carried forth by my trailblazing colleagues like Rob Clough, Frank Santoro, and Johanna Draper Carlson, just to name a few. All this comes to mind as I contemplate this book. This is what comics is all about and, if I was to choose just one book to represent what is possible within comics, no one would fault me for choosing this one. It is utterly stylish, graceful, and packed with a finely-tuned sense of suspense.
Pierre is odd man out.
Any good story needs to hook you in and, with this tale, there are plenty of hooks. We begin in Paris, as a downpour compels a man to seek refuge in a tavern. The reader is quickly swept up with intriguing stories, and legends, within other stories, and bits of speculation, hosted by one narrator upon another. We begin with the ghostly narration of presumably the author of the book himself as he kicks off a tale he heard from his father, Harari, the elder, as it were. It’s the father who stumbles in out of the rain and encounters Pierre, our protagonist. It turns out that Pierre was a student of Harari. Pierre had shown great promise during his formal study of architecture up until he abruptly left school. Harari is curious about what became of Pierre’s dazzling academic work. But enough about Harari. Our story quickly takes off to the Swiss Alps as Pierre is determined to make up for lost time.
A mystery daring to be solved.
Pierre is marching off in search of the legendary Vals Thermal Baths, designed by the famous Swiss architect Paul Zumthor, ensconced deep within the bowels of a delicate and rarefied resort hotel cradled within the mountain range. It’s been said that a secret passage connecting the thermal baths to the heart of the mountain lures a foreigner to his death every hundred years. Enter Pierre! This is such a finely drawn work that compliments, stroke for stroke, such a tightly woven narrative. And then there’s that meticulously modulated color scheme of blue and red maintaining a steady balance, or delicious imbalance of cool and warm. As I’ve said before, here is a prime example of what I believe to be an ideal graphic novel: a highly compelling work created by a cartoonist auteur that is a stand-alone book of about a hundred or so pages. There are so many fine examples and this is absolutely, without a doubt, one of them.
The secrets lie within plain sight.
Swimming in Darkness is a 152 page hardcover, in duotone, with a new English translation by David Homel, published by Arsenal Pulp. For more details, visit Arsenal Pulp right here.
From time to time, I like to go back and explore work. The Crippler’s Son, is a short graphic novel quite worthy of a revisit. It is by Max Riffner, published by Fantagraphics, and available as a digital comic at comiXology. What strikes me as interesting about this book is the attention to character development and a strong consistent look throughout. Riffner favors a classic indie style (James Sturm, Daniel Clowes), very clean lines, understated tension. He puts his considerable talents to use here in the service of a story about, James, a young man at a crossroads. James is drifting, a diffident individual trapped in banal settings. He has a life but he’s not flourishing. On the first page, we get a clue as to what preoccupies James: the lackluster career of a pro wrestler known as, The Crippler.
The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner
Aside from that seemingly obscure interest in pro wrestling, James is a medical student and he has a lover, Mike, who he struggles to emotionally connect with. As we progress, we discover just how important pro wrestling is to James. As it turns out, pro wrestling is at the nexus of James’s existence. There’s a significant family connection that has the potential to empower or destroy James. This is quite a quirky premise and my hat goes off to Riffner for pulling it off. Lots of fun action to boot. Riffner brings the scene to life with plenty of kayfabe!
The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner
The Crippler’s Son, by Max Riffner, is highly recommended. Now, just a few more words about the creator. As all of us cartoonists know, there is no guaranteed financial gain from the act of creating a work of comics. You do it because you love it. If you get good at it, it will show and demonstrate that you take your art seriously. Such is the case with Max Riffner. I think he’s found a wonderful balance between following one’s passion and making a living that fits and compliments it. Be sure to visit him and learn more at his website right here. And pick up a digital copy of The Crippler’s Son at comiXology right here.
Prof. Jonathan Turley says that there might indeed be a case to be made for impeachment but that the process is moving too quickly. That’s definitely a big takeaway and speaks to the highly partisan nature of the house hearings. Turley also pointed out that it takes time for the public to catch up. If that is the best argument against pursuing impeachment, it certainly begs the question, How can abuses of power really be ignored?
Prof. Noah Feldman
Today’s hearings offer a great amount of historical information and insights. The four constitutional scholars who testified today: Noah Feldman, Pamela S. Karlan, Michael Gerhardt, and Jonathan Turley.
Prof. Pamela S. Karlan
Three professors came out in full agreement that President Trump has abused power and that it reaches the level of impeachment. Prof. Turley disagreed only to the extent that the process of impeachment is running too quickly.
Prof. Michael Gerhardt
If you were looking for something that might hit you in the gut with a common sense approach, Prof. Karlan offered this analogy: “Let’s say there’s a state dealing with a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and the governor is on the phone with the president. What would you think if the president tells that governor that he will get federal aid but, first, he has to do him a favor and dig up dirt on his political rival?”
Prof. Jonathan Turley
It’s not easy keeping up with the news. And the impeachment hearings are incredibly worthy of the public attention. Prof. Turley is saying that the public needs time to finally pay attention. It’s an argument that Republicans are willing to accept. Only time, precious time, will tell if that argument is enough.
Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75. Howard was one of those essential artists who contributed work that touched, saved and transformed many lives. Thanks to his groundbreaking work as the founding editor of Gay Comix, which began in 1980, Howard Cruse was instrumental in getting underground comics — and later mainstream comics — to address LGBTQ issues. Take a look at the video below for a panel discussion with all the editors of Gay Comix:
A very informative obituary, compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher, follows, along with selected related images.
Stuck Rubber Baby, 25th anniversary edition, published by First Second Books
Pioneering Gay Cartoonist Howard Cruse Dies at 75
(WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS., Nov. 26) — Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75.
His husband of 40 years, Ed Sedarbaum, said that Cruse succumbed to complications from lymphoma at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, MA. Cruse, who lived in Williamstown, Ma., had been diagnosed in August.
Cruse’s masterwork, the bold graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, was published in 1995. It was based on Cruse’s interior struggles as a closeted gay man during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Widely translated, Stuck Rubber Baby has won numerous awards, including a critics prize at the Angoulême International Comics in France, the Harvey Award, Eisner Award and United Kingdom Comic Art Award for Best Graphic Album.
Stuck Rubber Baby will be reissued in a 25th anniversary edition by First Second Books in May 2020.
Howard Russell Cruse was born May 2, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, as the younger of two sons born to Clyde and Irma Cruse. The family moved to Springville when his father, a photojournalist, was ordained as a Methodist minister and assigned to Springville Methodist Church. Cruse’s creative talents were encouraged by both his parents. His first published work was a 1959 comic strip called “Calvin” in the St. Clair County Reporter. Young Cruse also had cartoon art published in the humor magazines Fooey and Sick. He was mentored through an ongoing correspondence with famed cartoonist Milton Caniff, the creator of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” newspaper comic strips. At age 16, Cruse was invited to visit Caniff in New York City.
Howard meets Milton Caniff in 1961 at Sardi’s in New York City
At Birmingham Southern College, Cruse became involved in the theatre program, designing sets and appearing In several productions. He wrote and directed his own play during his senior year. For the college literary magazine, Quad, Cruse satirized the conservative organization the John Birch Society. The controversial work appeared in print, but the faculty advisor insisted on running a full-page disclaimer.
After graduating from BSC in 1968, Cruse joined Birmingham’s WBMG-TV as art director and a puppeteer on “The Sergeant Jack Show.” He became romantically involved with a man, Don Higdon, for the first time. During this time, Cruse created “Tops & Button,” a cartoon panel about two squirrels, which ran daily in The Birmingham Post-Herald from 1970 to 1972. He also created the subtly subversive “Barefootz,” which debuted in the University of Alabama’s newspaper Crimson White. “Barefootz” would appear in several Birmingham-area publications during the decade, and later in underground comic books. In 1977 Cruse relocated to New York City to make cartooning his full-time profession. In 1979, he met Eddie Sedarbaum and they moved in together. The couple was married in 2004. Cruse’s career reached a personal and professional breakthrough in 1980 when he was founding editor of Gay Comix, an underground anthology for lesbian and gay cartoonists. Cruse’s own work, exploring his conflicted childhood and repressive Southern upbringing, appeared in these comic books.
Wendel comic strip
In an era before the formal passage of LGBT rights, these frank cartoon explorations of gay culture, politics, sex, and camp had a huge influence on young people in the closet. During the four years of his editorship, Cruse received letters of gratitude from readers all over the country, many who had considered suicide. During this period, Cruse did many pro bono illustrations to support fledgling LGBT organizations, as well as mentoring of young queer cartoonists. Cruse created a high-profile poster about gay male safe sex practices in 1985 for New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Cruse’s profile as a cartoonist grew with the debut of “Wendel,” a comic strip about a gay everyman, his lover, friends and family. It appeared in the national newsmagazine The Advocate from 1983 to 1989. He also contributed frequently to The Village Voice. Cruse and Sedarbaum became active in LGBT and AIDS grass-roots politics, joining the direct-action organizations ACT UP and Queer Nation. Cruse and Sedarbaum left New York City in 2003 and moved to Western Massachusetts, settling first in North Adams and then Williamstown.
Stonewall illustration for The Village Voice, circa early 1980s.
Cruse frequently appeared at comic book conventions over the decades, and was the guest of honor at academic and fan conferences, especially those addressing the subject of queer comic art. His final published comic work appeared this year in Northwest Press’s horror anthology “Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers.” Cruse was among LGBT cartoonists and illustrators appearing in the documentary “No Straight Lines,” scheduled for a 2020 release.
Stuck Rubber Baby
Cruse’s work has been collected in several books, among them, Barefootz Funnies (Kitchen Sink, 1975-79), Wendel (Gay Presses of New York, 1986), Dancin’ Nekkid with the Angels (St, Martin’s, Kitchen Sink, 1987) and Wendel on the Rebound (St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
In addition to his husband Ed Sedarbaum, Cruse is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter, and his brother, Allan Cruse.
Donations in his memory can be made to New York City’s LGBT Community Center, the Queers & Comics Conference, and Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County.
Memorial services, open to the public, will be held in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and New York City in the near future. Exact information will be posted on howardcruse.com/
Obituary compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher
Gahan Wilson was, in many respects, the ideal cartoonist for distinctive, wild and funny cartoons in the leading magazines of the day, National Lampoon, Playboy, and The New Yorker. I just got news of his passing. I had donated to a GoFundMe campaign for his care and received updates from his son, Paul Winters. The announcement begins: “The world has lost a legend. One of the very best cartoonists to ever pick up a pen and paper has passed on. He went peacefully – surrounded by those who loved him. ” Since I do my best to travel in various relevant circles, I did end up having the pleasure of meeting Gahan Wilson. I was in that famous green room that The New Yorker kept as a holding pen for cartoonists awaiting to see the legendary cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, back when The New Yorker was located in rather cramped, but thoroughly charming, offices in Times Square. So, I kept putting off going in to see Bob since I wanted to soak up the atmosphere. I got a chance to chat a bit with old-timers and new emerging talent. As an artist-writer-cartoonist, I was there with a legitimate batch of cartoons but I was mostly there just to be there since a visit to New York wasn’t something I did regularly. Anyway, there was Gahan Wilson. He was quietly seated on one of the big sofas. This was circa 2005. Gahan smiled and asked to see my cartoons. He nodded and picked out the ones he liked. “Good luck, kid,” he said. It was shortly after those words of encouragement that another cartoonist suggested I should go in before I missed my chance. For some reason, there was no list. You just went in. Very informal. So, I went in and Bob was Bob. In other words, he batted me around like a piñata. Before I knew it, I was done. In the end, Bob offered words of encouragement too. After that, I took one last look over to the green room. Gahan was there, smiling, very quiet, observing as a good cartoonist does, probably thinking up his next deliciously diabolical and weird cartoon. Oh, I had signed a waiver when I had first arrived. Apparently, I had picked the day that a documentary on Gahan Wilson was being filmed. It was released in 2013, Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. And, if you happen to see it, you’ll see me in Bob’s office getting a thrashing, all in good fun, but a thrashing none the less. Funny thing is that I didn’t mind it at all, which is what a good cartoonist does. And how can one complain when in the presence of such greats as Bob Mankoff and Gahan Wilson? You just don’t. You’re grateful for the moment in this fleeting life. Rest in peace, Gahan.
While they stock all kinds of comics, Orbital Comics in London has quite an impressive collection of small press comics. Will Humberstone, Orbital Comics indie comics expert, assisted me in tracking down some of the store’s best titles currently in stock. I include here all the titles that he suggested. While I was in the store, I was impressed with a very tidy and organized shop. I found an upbeat environment with first-rate customer service. By all means, while in London, do make sure to visit Orbital Comics! I begin with some photos of the shop. This includes staff members who worked on some of the titles reviewed here: Ryan Jenkyns on Forged #1, and Valentina Sannais on Starfall #1.
Ryan Jenkyns and Valentina Sannais
Small Press Reviews
Forged #1 by Michael Eckett and Ryan Jenkyns
Forged #1, written by Michael Eckett and illustrated by Ryan Jenkyns, is a sweet all-ages ongoing series that proves to be a rather nice showcase of talent. I can see big things ahead for this series mostly geared toward younger readers. A boy off on big adventures! Stay tuned.
Starfall #1 by Adam Blackhat and Valentina Sannais
Starfall #1, written by Adam Blackhat and illustrated by Valentina Sannais, is an action adventure story with quite a lot to unpack. It seems that we are picking up the story right in the middle of momentous events with characters dealing with a lot of issues. Oh, and they also happen to have superpowers! Much to enjoy here and we’re only getting started. Visit the webcomic here.
Barky and the Bootmaker by Jasmine Parker
Barky and the Bootmaker, by Jasmine Parker, raises the bar high as this is a professional illustrator so maybe it’s a little unfair for someone with finely-honed artistic chops to blast into the slower-paced world of indie comics–or is it? It’s debatable, I suppose, but I really truly favor those comics creators who do work hard at their craft, keep polishing it, and demand a high level of excellence in their work. And then you have to ask, When is a work too slick? Ah, now there’s the rub–when to know you’ve got just the right vibe in your comics! I guess you have to sniff it out. In this case, Ms. Parker does a fine job with a very silly story that will have the tikes rolling in the aisles.
The Blade of Arozone by J. Edward Scott
The Blade of Arozone, by J. Edward Scott, is one of those little books where maybe I’m just not connecting with it all the way even though I really want to. If you enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, then this might work for you. I think the best thing going here is the artwork. There’s a lot of promise here. For such a short work, you need to wow your reader with something really tasty. Not too busy either. So, keep on truckin’ and really have fun. Maybe I’m not seeing quite enough fun in these opening pages while I do see that elsewhere from this artist online.
Stutter by Joe Stone
Stutter, by Joe Stone, almost lost me with the cover. But, once I leafed through it, I knew that here was a serious cartoonist that I would need to focus on and give him his due. I can see that care has been put into character development, composition and pacing. Yes, it is an autobiographical story about one man’s struggle with stuttering. It has a nice crisp clarity to it. The style is a confident clean line, a cartoony semi-realistic approach that a lot of cartoonists use today. Stone is among one of the better examples I’ve come across. It’s an impressive and sharp mini-comic.
Shivers in London, Part 1 by Niki S. Banados
Shivers in London, Part 1, by Niki S. Banados, is another all too brief work that leaves me wanting more. Again, lots of promise here just like in Mr. Scott’s The Blade of Arozone. The art does have a nice ethereal quality to it but I’d just have to see a lot more of it. If this is an opener meant to entice the reader, then I need more of a wow factor. That said, I’m intrigued and look forward to more.
Cat Disco by Rebecca K. Jones
Cat Disco, by Rebecca K. Jones, is a work that has come to the party prepared to rock out. Now, fair warning, Ms. Jones is a seasoned illustrator so she has a lot more toys to play with and a lot more experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read or anyone interested in becoming a better cartoonist. This story is told with sly wit and great confidence. It’s not easy to pull off but this is the sort of work that can carry the reader away. It’s a story about a house cat who decides to take a walk on the wild side and see what the street cats do at night–and then it goes on to deliver! You too will believe that cats love to disco! Bravo!
Heads by Ed Stockham
Heads, by Ed Stockham, seemed at first glance to be one of those classic twee mini-comics that tries one’s patience. However, years of mini-comic reading have taught me to not rush to judgment. Now, the art is very simple and raw but there’s a confidence running throughout that won me over. I think Mr. Stockham’s work, based on this little book plus what I see on his website, has just the right combination of a good sense of timing, artistic sensibility, and joie de vivre.
Seller on the Threshold by Claude T.C.
Seller on the Threshold, by Claude T.C., is a masterful little work by someone who spends a lot of time drawing and loves it. I see here a wacky sense of humor and the creative discipline to back it up. Is this the work of an inspired amateur who works at a professional level? Or is this the work of a professional who works at the level of an inspired amateur? You see what I mean, don’t you?! It’s polished, but not so slick that the life has been sucked out of it. This is the good stuff.
Some Short Stories by Knifeson Yu
Some Short Stories, by Knifeson Yu, is a collection of light vignettes where very, very little happens. This is an all too brief wisp of a sampler. But I like the wee bits of teaser found here. Seems like the work of an animator who is happy to just dabble in comics for now. We shall see.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays by Dan White
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays, by Dan White, is another impressive work by a professional illustrator. This is A-game work. The story is a lot of silly fun, reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes but very much its own thing. Cindy keeps seeing all sorts of amazing creatures and going off of all these larger-than-life adventures. Okay, maybe it’s a lot like Calvin Hobbes but it’s still very much its own thing! Five stars and lots of glitter!
Endswell by Peter Morey
Endswell, by Peter Morey, pay perhaps be the most ambitious work of the whole lot here in its own way. I mean, it has an ambiguous and quirky cover. You can only hazard a guess as to what it’s about. And, even once in, you don’t know for sure where it’s heading but you’re hooked. The opening pages have that ideal crisp and clear quality that is so crucial to bring the reader in. The characters are really saying things that are interesting and advancing the plot. You know the main character has got some problems and he’s taking part in some sort of therapy, whether he really wants to or not. All very intriguing. This gets an A-plus and whatever else I can say that is upbeat and supportive. Seriously, really good stuff!
Archie vs. Orbital by Joe Jinks and Will Humberstone
Archie vs. Orbital, art by Joe Jinks and script by Will Humberstone, is a fun little book that pits the Archie gang against the Orbital Comics staff! This is lighthearted fun as you might expect. That said, it is far more involved than you might expect too! The pacing is spot on and it has a tasty factor about it. Archie and the gang are not very nice in this comic. Think horror, scary horror. I recommend you pick it up.
Ben Katchor: Conversations. Edited by Ian Gordon. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019. 220pp, $25 paperback.
The scholarship of comic art is booming, so far as “booming” means well-attended university classes on comics and the identification of icons among the artists, a la literary theory and teaching. This is not an altogether agreeable development for understanding the history of comic art, first of all because the iconic identification tends to push at least 95% of the artists into the background, also because the background itself, the historical context, can slip dangerously away. Never mind: we take what we can get, often tasty and nourishing tid-bits of a larger, still mostly hidden history.
Katchor is definitely sui genesis, a considerable thinker, In a field where better- and lesser-known artists are inclined to explain themselves through their drawing, and when pushed, to talk about their lives or their own work rather than the comic art of the age, let alone comic history, he is rare. Is it perhaps his being personally soaked in the history of diasporic Jewry, of which his Yiddish-speaking father, survivor of the Holocaust, was a prime example? Or just as likely the boyhood in Brooklyn that he talks about, the now-vanished world of mulit-purpose candy and cigar shops with racks of dime comics?
Whatever the case, Katchor has often said that he identifies not at all with the mainstream Superhero genres and lost interest in them fairly early. He explains that he owes more to his experience in the small-scale, typesetting experience in New York of the 1970s, in another world that has faded so completely that it seems archaic as the once-booming garment trade in downtown Manhattan. This experience offered him, we can guess, a way to orient himself toward the physical presence of older buildings, neighborhood vernaculars of older people in particular, things to keep in memory and rework in his art. His maiden voyage into the book world. Julius Knipl—begun as a newspaper strip in 1988—is a tour through an imagined but not wholly imagined city, reality stretched out and reworked in art and dialogue.
The source of this volume is another key because Katchor was serializing, in at least a few of the alternative weeklies and then more and more. He sometimes shared a page with Lynda Barry (recent MacArthur winner) or the later best-selling Alison Bechdel. He had the steadiness of a schedule to meet, ideas to cook up with art.
Toward the end of the old century, he had a regular gig at a prestige architectural magazine, Metropolis, and he began his long stint of teaching. Within the classroom, he made yet more important observations. His students, uninterested in the Art Speculation market of gallery painting, were more interested in “comics” but not necessarily like any comic art yet in existence. They were entering a phase of publishing and self-publishing, with scant chance of making real money or even having much distribution, but ample opportunity to find themselves within their work.
His own work is so unique, in a way cut off from the history of comics, newspaper comic strips as well as comic books, and yet it is impossible to look at any of his books—Hand-Drying in America, and other Stories is his most recent, until The Dairy Restaurant appears next Spring—and not see the kernel of comic art in what he prefers to call “picture stories.” The German word Bildergeschichte, “combining pictures and stories” (p.77) is certainly workable, but to that general definition Katchor adds the unique notion “autographic writing,” a literary-visual tradition with the very handwriting of the artist inscribed in the work. Lynda Barry has often made a similar point about young fingers getting ready to draw anything: drawing is an extension of drawing around the fingers.
There is another angle of Katchor that I wish to pursue. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, offered a history of sorts, of criticism if not scholarship of comics. Its publisher, the University Press of Mississippi thereby made itself an early claim on scholarship in the field at large, and has continued to be one of the leading scholarly publishers on comic art. As in the title of the Heer-Worcester anthology, comics were for past generations seen as a form of literature. To my mind, Katchor seems to defy rather than accept a “literary” slot for the drawing of a certain kind of comic, but then again, perhaps not.
It is memorable that Gilbert Seldes, whose Seven Lively Arts (1924) offered the first major defense of the popular culture distrusted when not ignored in the genteel culture of the day, was also the first to point out that comics were actually destined to be “despised” in extremis. Their very popularity among the unwashed and barely literate classes of Americans naturally placed comics at the bottom of the bin, most obviously with the most vulgar of pulp productions, i.e., pornography. They were wicked, corrupting literature.
(Not that this association was entirely mistaken. The comic book industry giants arising in the ‘thirties had indeed dabbled in pornography, and the “Tijuana Bibles” had a long and fruitful run until the breakdown of censorship rendered irrelevant.)
The quiet move from genteel rejection to ambivalence and a sort of acceptance tracks with the Depression years to the War years, most notably the Cold War to follow, and the post-Vietnam rethink of American culture at large. As Heer and Worcester note in their introduction to their volume, the largely aesthete Partisan Review, refining its cultural views while moving politically from an anti-capitalist perspective to a ferocious Cold War liberalism, already precipitated by the later 1950s a degree of discomfort. What was wrong here? The complaints against “conformity,” directed against popular culture as much as the manners and morals of suburbia, seemed to apply also to intellectuals steadily making their way upward in the expanding college scene.
Or perhaps it was a professorial search for newer subjects, newer angles of vision likely to be interesting to undergraduates and the publishers of high quality paperbacks. More interesting critics and mostly younger critics, in any case, began to look in new directions. They were for the moment swimming against the tide washing over the New York Times as well as the literary magazines.
Someone described Robert Warshow, a favorite writer of the PR and surrounding circles, as possessing a 1950s view of movies and comics much the same as the cop in his cruiser, assigned to policing the ghetto, “understands” the dangerous neighborhood. The “Free Enterprise art” (in Henry Luce’s memorable phrase) of the high culture alternative seemed to repudiate, in one fell swoop, the Popular Front art of the New Deal era, anti-fascist Hollywood, the WPA-funded post office murals and the 1930s-40s literature of social struggles. Not that all of the painter-abstractionists, by any means, agreed with existing Cold War politics. Some were committed anti-capitalists and a few, following Picasso, even remained Communists! But the trope held fast until—it broke.
After Vietnam, even during the later years of the invasion and mass bombing of Southeast Asia, the older assumptions of Cold War liberalism, artistic quite as much as political could not be sustained. Surely nothing repudiated these assumptions quite as drastically as the Underground Comix, arising out of the equally rebellious Underground Press. Ferociously antiwar (if also, at times, noxiously sexist) and even ecological, their very presence inspired youngish men and women to experiment with the familiar “vulgar,” genre, seeking to reinvent what a comic could be.
The underground generation and a somewhat younger cohort would create the feminist comic, rediscover the “wordless comic” (of the classic 1920s-30s woodcuts, along with older versions) and in Raw magazine, show proof that global art, global audiences had come to a new stage of defining comics, and just in time. Comics no longer occupied the center of attention in a newspaper trade that was dying, anyway. That painting genre that meanwhile survived and even flourished among the investors’ set actually disguised an important positive kernel: figurative art had made a comeback. Alice Neel an elderly leftwing counterpart, in her way, to the most artistic-minded of the younger comic artists, could stand for the ongoing artistic rebellion. Neel, too, Went Naked.
Here we may return comfortably to Ben Katchor, The lush color pages of Hand-Drying in America seemed to bring out something never hidden but never quite fully expressed in his previous work. He would say afterward that the imaginative depictions of an early Manhattan (and fictional offshoots, the re-imagined favorite vacation spots of lower middle class Jews generations ago), along with the inhabitants and their language, were in fact his own dreamscape. Hope is not quite lost, in the troubled real world around us, because anything is possible for the dreamer. “No one,” he commented to a critic after the volume was published, “has yet seen these strips as a dream critique of the waking world.” We could fairly call this observation “surrealist,” but in spite of a fondness for elements of the vernacular, surrealists were largely caught within a set of assumptions about what is revolutionary or not. Katchor evades the distinctions.
He does, however, share the harsh criticism of capitalism that marked the surrealists, now so many artistic generations ago. He is not and cannot be a literalist in his work, but he has become an insightful as well as a ferocious observer about the direction the system is taking us. Occupy Wall Street, centered in the very neighborhood where he practiced the small business of the typesetter, seems to have loosed something in his mind, awaiting a spark. And then there’s repression. “I feel like we’re replaying World War I, with the Espionage Act being revived and journalists being threatened for merely doing their jobs,” he tells an interviewer. “And on top of that, the ecosystem is collapsing. It’s a nightmare…”
He adds, in a note to the reviewer, that Julius Knipl was, after all, a critique of the world, “aligned with those people who were unhappy to see the gentrification” of yesterday’s New York, with the end of the street and cafe life that made it so interesting. If his fellow art school students of the 1970s saw making comics a form of professional suicide, Katchor saw this as a political act. He quotes the formidable art critic Meyer Schapiro, writing under a pseudonym in the New Masses of the early 1930s on an art exhibit of the John Reed Clubs, as insisting that a good revolutionary picture “is not necessarily a cartoon, but it should have the legibility and pointedness of a cartoon, and like the cartoon it should reach the great masses of workers at little expense.”
Too soon, the John Reed Clubs were folded into the American Writers Congress and once again, the famed novelists drawn to anti-fascist politics were exalted, with their prestige and style far from comics (that the last phase of the Writers Congress, in Hollywood, would highlight scriptwriting for Hollywood is another contradiction too distant for consideration here). The Daily Worker itself had a couple of excellent comic strips for some years. It cannot be said that they were taken seriously as an art form.
Now, perhaps, after all this time, including the rise and fall of the wildly explosive and critical EC comics, followed by the rise and fall of the underground comix genre, something is on the way again. If it happens, if it is actually happening, we can thank Ben Katchor for his insights as well as his own artistic contributions. He’s a deep thinker of a genre that has few, indeed.
Tom Spurgeon, a heroic champion of comics, especially small press comics, has passed away. It saddens me greatly to find this out today. There is definitely a personal note to this. Tom was always a great supporter of independent comics and all of those folks within that orbit through his regular posting on his blog, The Comics Reporter. He was gracious enough to include me among this group and would mention my efforts here at Comics Grinder from time to time. I did get to meet Tom a couple of times in person and he was always the gentleman, generous with his time and always upbeat. The comics industry knows his name very well. He will be missed.
Do a web search and you’ll find numerous folks offering tips and inspiration on how to create art. Among your many options, you will find Danny Gregory. What sets him apart is a combination of amiable personality, common sense advice and guidance, and a certain tenacity that hooks you in. Danny Gregory is known for a number of inspirational books, including The Creative License and Art Before Breakfast. His latest book is How to Draw Without Talent, another useful and fun look at getting into an art habit. This title also happens to tie in with Sketchbook Skool, an educational and art community platform founded by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Don’t let criticism inhibit you.
This is a book made up of one simple bit of guidance built upon another bit and so on. Before you know it, you are immersed in a book that is intended to be highly accessible and motivational. The idea is to get folks who are interested in pursuing art to go ahead and make the leap. There are a number of approaches and there’s plenty of room for various books and methods. What is appealing about Danny’s way of doing things is that he opts for a very straightforward narrative. He’s a regular guy appealing to regular folks. And isn’t that the majority of us readers? Danny wants to knock down anything that might get in the way of someone new to art. He invites readers to join in and emphasizes that no prior knowledge is required. In fact, as the title suggests, no prior talent is required either! That’s a good solid message: Don’t worry, be happy, and dive in.
It’s interesting that what Danny offers actually crosses over and will appeal to any background. You can be something of a seasoned artist and still get something out of what Danny has to offer. Much of what Danny is about is finding ways to keep your interest and engage you in a variety of exercises. If you like what you see in this book, then perhaps you’re ready to level up and take a Sketchbook Skool “kourse” where you follow along video instruction as well as have the opportunity to participate in the SkoolYard social network. The kourses are reasonably priced and you keep the videos to pursue at your own pace whenever you like or to complete right along with fellow students in real time. I’ve recently gotten involved with Sketchbook Skool and find its creative world to be quite useful and rewarding. That said, this new book proves to be an excellent place to start your own creative journey. You’ve got nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.
Easy to follow exercises.
How to Draw Without Talent is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, available as of November 26, 2019, published by Penguin Random House.
Here is one more comic that I picked up at Short Run over the weekend. This title, Exit, by Miles MacDiarmid, got my attention because the creator chose to include Pres. William Howard Taft on the cover of his work just like I did for a book collection of my own work, A Night at the Sorrento and Other Stories. Taft! Taft! Taft! Was he a great American president? No, not great. But there’s something about him, right? Well, he figures in MacDiarmid’s comic in a similar way as it figures in mine, more of an absurd MacGuffin creature. So, a cartoonist with a offbeat and erudite sense of humor is a very good thing and so it goes with this book, Exit. I also see from MacDiarmid’s website that he does fine art. So do I. I think it’s an important distinction among cartoonists that I can relate to all too well. I think MacDiarmid is someone who loves to create work and is restless, always looking for something new to do. You can see that in this book. It’s just classic absurd fun, that’s really all you need to know. Seriously fun stuff!
Exit by Miles MacDiarmid
What goes on in Exit? How about What doesn’t go on in Exit? There’s a state of frenzy running throughout these pages where you fell anything is possible. You don’t get that with any work in comics. It’s hard to do and too many cartoonists sink down to something very predictable and easy. It is those rare artist-cartoonists who dig deeper and live and breathe their comics than have the potential to reach the level of, say, Simon Hanselmann. And that reminds me that I want to do a proper review of Simon’s latest book, even if it is rather late. I hope to do a proper interview with him too. We should both be dressed in drag for it too. And, no, I am NOT digressing. Simon’s work comes to mind because I see a similar energy in MacDiarmid’s work. The next big step would be to keep going, stay consistent, keep pushing and things will continue to come together as they already are!
Exit is published by the arts collective, Freak Comics. Everything there looks fresh and delicious so go check them out right here.