Thursday, October 16, 2008

What I read tonight, 10/16/08

Some mini-comics...

Three Very Small Comics Volume III by Tom Gauld: As the title suggests, this is three tiny books, all folded neatly into a little paper pouch. Gauld has always struck me as a somewhat amusing but ultimately not substantial artist, whose stories give me a chuckle or a moment of contemplation but soon slip away from my mind entirely. The one exception I've encountered so far is here, an eight-panel story called "The Art of War" that I originally read in issue #7 of art/comics magazine The Drama, and which is here reformatted into an accordion-fold little booklet with one panel per small "page." It's a perfect encapsulation of the unchanging horrors of war across a huge span of time, from man's earliest forays into killing other men to the far reaches of futuristic battles. It's simple and economical, with a single line of dialogue stretching across the first seven panels, leaving the last as a silent beat to let the repetition and monotony hit home. It's a great story, and even better in this format — which emphasizes its formal qualities — than it was in its original appearance. "Gardening," formatted as a more traditional but still tiny book, is less affecting, but its quiet, rhythmic story is nevertheless amusing and charmingly ambiguous in its oblique commentary on class warfare. Gauld's greatest strength is his masterful deployment of silence, which here gives a brief story an unexpectedly languid, patient quality. I think, for this reason, Gauld will really come into his own if he moves beyond shorter strips and creates a work of some length, where his signature themes and concerns — power, war, manual labor, the countryside — can be developed in more depth. The final comic here folds out into a big poster, a dialogue-free cabinet of curiosities that gives Gauld more opportunity than usual to flex his drawing chops, molding all sorts of weird objects and creatures. It's pretty forgettable though.

National Waste #7 by Leif Goldberg: I like Goldberg best when he's indulging the two extremes of his style, either lushly painted absurdist landscapes (as in his Kramer's Ergot appearances) or sketchy semi-narrative vignettes, as in the weirdly fun previous issue of National Waste. He's doing neither here, and this is basically just a grab-bag of roughly collaged images, few of which cohere or go beyond sketchbooky nonsense. The one exception is a truly wonderful surrealist sequence in which an oil truck backs into some kind of processing plant, then squeezes out a tube of dough-like material from its back, with faces drawn on the round end of the tube. As each face is sliced off in thin strips, a fresh one is revealed below, and the faces all flutter down into a hole in the ground. Does it mean anything? Eh, probably, but mostly it's just a striking, inexplicably moving sequence of images, maybe even Goldberg's best stretch of pure comics. It reminds me quite strongly of Helge Reumann's work, especially the wordless strips he's contributed to various issues of Kramer's Ergot. Goldberg's sequence is surrounded by a whole bunch of fluff, but this core of weird beauty alone makes the book worth looking at.

Core of Caligula by C.F.: Just 8 pages long, collecting a series of strips originally published as two-sided single sheets. It's brief, sort of a narrative, about a guy who's released from a hospital, finds a tape recorder, and wanders around in a daze recording things... and showing his penis a lot, I'm not sure why. It's not as coherent as the world-building on display in Powr Mastrs so far, but the drawing style is similar, with loose but suggestive linework that can occasionally be dazzling in its effect, as in a panel where a man gets "vaporized" by the hero's unexplained cosmic powers. Also, only a naif genius like C.F. could find the unsettling poetry in lines like, "I pissed and it was black/ stars in the piss."

King-Cat Comics & Stories #65 by John Porcellino: My previous encounters with Porcellino, scattered stories here and there, have usually left me with negative impressions: the art is simplistic, the stories dull, the writing monotone. But he's such a widely respected artist that I had to give him a more in-depth shot, and indeed there is some fine work here. This issue of his long-running 'zine is dedicated to places he's lived and visited over the years, and I appreciate the gentle pacing of these explorations. Despite the simplicity of his drawings, there's often a "rightness" to his compositions, and he can often suggest great beauty with a few simple lines. I say "often" because, at other points, his art is just rough and uncommunicative. In the story "Scott County Memories," one large panel describes a park in a valley, hidden from view by farm fields. Without the text narration, the drawing itself would be indecipherable, a vague assembly of lines that could be a river, a road, a cliff, almost anything: but certainly nothing as specific as what's being described. And yet the very same story features a panel of an empty interstate running between hills, the road stretching towards the curved horizon, and it's lovely and evocative, suggesting everything with a few lithe lines. How the same artist could produce such lovely images and such inept ones with the same basic style is beyond me. His writing itself, both in the comics and especially in the accompanying text essays, is similarly uneven. He sometimes tends towards cliches ("I was not yet an adult but I knew I wasn't a child anymore") and adverb/adjective pile-ups, but he also comes up with some nice verbal imagery: "In the afternoons, in Fall, in the evening, I'd wander through my neighborhood: the weird little houses, the Church, children's bikes knocked over on front lawns... Above me the sky rolled mysterious, the Midwestern sky in Fall." These lovely bits of prose and drawings are obvious evidence that Porcellino is worth more of a look than I'd originally thought.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Two new Naoki Urasawa series in English in 2009

I discovered today, with much excitement, that Viz is going to be releasing two long-running manga series by creator Naoki Urasawa, whose Monster is finishing up serialization with its eighteenth volume this December. It's long been known that Viz would release Urasawa's mystery/suspense/occult masterpiece 20th Century Boys, which they held back at the request of Urasawa himself, who wanted Monster published in English before the later and, in his opinion, more mature series. Viz has also announced now that they will be publishing Pluto, Urasawa's adult reimagination of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka's seminal children's manga about a boy robot. Both series will begin their English serialization in February 2009, with new volumes coming on a bimonthly schedule. It's obvious that Monster must have done well for Viz since they're going ahead with not only the series that everyone knew was next, but also the one that everyone was hoping would be coming soon. It's gratifying to see their commitment to this phenomenal creator bearing such rich fruits.

Pluto (volumes 1-3 of ? in February, March, April 2009)

20th Century Boys (volumes 1-2 of 22 in February, April 2009)

And anyone new to Urasawa should certainly get caught up with his remarkable series Monster, which will be complete by the end of this year with volume 18. The thriller storyline focuses primarily on a Japanese surgeon living in Germany, who saves a young boy in an operation and inadvertently becomes a murder suspect when the boy grows up to be a monstrous killer and a shadowy underground political figure. It's an addictive page-turner that blends politics, social commentary, and pulpy genre elements.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

10 Ideal Books to Introduce Readers to Comics

Since I obviously love lists, here's a primer of comics that, taken together, would make a perfect introduction to the artform for those who haven't read much of modern comics. This is a topic that has occupied me from time to time over the years, and I wanted to finally set down my personal recommendations so I'll have something to point to if anyone asks. The idea is that if you read through the books on this list, you will doubtless come out the other end with a good idea of the artform's potential, its many styles and genres, and what kinds of artists you like and don't like. To that end, each item on the list also includes a brief indication of "where to go next" if you especially like one or two of the books included here.

Acme Novelty Library #18 (Chris Ware)
Many people would doubtless recommend Ware's well-known graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth instead, but to my tastes, this slim volume, collecting many of Ware's "Building Stories" single-page strips from various newspapers and magazines, is a much better indicator of the cartoonist's formal ingenuity. Ware's characters are invariably depressives with sad, boring lives, and the young woman who meanders through these stories — a slightly pudgy, unnamed girl with a prosthetic leg and a broken heart — is no exception. In other hands, this book would be a total drag, but Ware's mastery of comics language turns each page into an exciting exercise in design and storytelling. There is no better book for demonstrating what can be done with the sheer form of comics. The content is more or less neutral, consisting of routine anecdotes from daily life, but the form is dazzling: floor plans for buildings are reborn as storytelling devices, and Ware's minimal text zips around the page in abstract mazes, arrows indicating the flow of the story and the points of interest within the page. Other pages give a similar diagrammatic treatment to the human body itself. These stories reward intense, focused reading with a wealth of details and nuances.

Where to go next: Jimmy Corrigan, mentioned above, is a logical next step, although in that case Ware's depressing material is a bit more overwhelming and may be hard to take for some readers, even while his formal brilliance is still very much on display. Ware is also a good gateway to other creators who meld low-key storytelling with formal invention: Daniel Clowes (Ice Haven, David Boring), Kim Deitch (Alias the Cat, Boulevard of Broken Dreams), Dash Shaw (Bottomless Belly Button), and Dave McKean (Cages).

Buddy Does Seattle (Peter Bagge)
Peter Bagge's rubbery style traces the slacker lifestyle of hapless twenty-something Buddy Bradley, a representative of the grunge generation whose slobby ways and lack of ambition propel him through one hilarious story after another. Bagge is careful to neither glorify nor humiliate his creation, poking much fun at Buddy but also emphasizing his warmth, humor, and peculiar sense of integrity. These stories establish Buddy and his friends as complex, fully formed characters with a rich history and organic development over time. Bagge sometimes reaches for emotion and nuance, but more often his stories are wild and woolly, wallowing in the sex, drugs, and endless partying of Buddy's formless life.

Where to go next: Buddy's antics continue in the sequel Buddy Does Jersey, or you can travel back in time to Buddy's earlier years, living with his family in The Bradleys.

The Cowboy Wally Show (Kyle Baker)
I have deliberately made an attempt to keep this list from skewing too heavily towards the dominant stereotype of modern comics as whiny and depressing, but in case Chris Ware's introspective loneliness or Joe Sacco's uncompromising war reportage get too heavy for you, Kyle Baker's hilarious account of a multimedia cowboy entrepreneur should provide just the right corrective. The relentlessly dumb, offensive, and corpulent Cowboy Wally is captured in Baker's mockumentary about the media mogul's many TV shows, films, and testimonies before Senate subcommittees. Baker's dialogue is hilarious, and his art, a delicate balancing act between photorealism and caricature, gets the humor across with expressive faces and an impeccable sense of timing. There are stretches where the humor crackles like a particularly "on" stand-up routine, and others where the over-the-top parody is like This is Spinal Tap translated to the page.

Where to go next: Some of Baker's other books — You Are Here, Why I Hate Saturn — are only slightly less funny and sharp than this masterpiece. If you like this book (and there's no reason you shouldn't) go get some more Baker, immediately. Some other preeminent cartoon humorists: Michael Kupperman (Snake n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret), Joann Sfar (Vampire Loves), Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York). To find a similarly raucous, idiosyncratic comedic voice, though, you'd have to turn to E.C.'s Segar's Thimble Theater, the early 20th Century newspaper comic strip that gave birth to Popeye.

Curses (Kevin Huizenga)
No modern cartoonist gets more from less better than Kevin Huizenga, whose spare, minimalist style belies his great formal sophistication. Huizenga's stories mostly concern his generic everyman Glenn Ganges, whose minimally sketched facial features can convey a surprisingly wide array of expressions, but who never really develops much of a personality of his own. Instead, Ganges is a device for Huizenga's stories about suburban mysticism, religion, science, parenthood, and finding the sublime in the most prosaic places. This collection gathers together short stories published in several different venues over the course of a few years, but it is nevertheless a consistent overview of Huizenga's concerns and style. His stories can be formally inventive, particularly in their treatment of time, and range from the mundane (in one story, Ganges' mind wanders for six pages while he simply gets the mail from his mailbox) to the surreal and supernatural (an elaborate fantasy about a "feathered ogre"). Huizenga is the youngest and newest artist on this list, but he's already catapulted into the highest ranks of the artform as far as I'm concerned.

Where to go next: Curses is Huizenga's only full-length book so far, but he has published an equally impressive body of work in his mini-comic series Or Else (especially the very experimental and unfortunately out of print issue #2) and Ganges (#1 and #2), his entry into Fantagraphics' lavishly produced Ignatz series. Huizenga's contemporary Anders Nilsen is just as promising, but has yet to amass a really impressive body of work all in one place, instead scattering varied experiments across multiple anthologies and self-published comics. Dogs and Water, an abstract wartime parable, is his best book so far. Both Huizenga and Nilsen have also appeared in the experimental anthology Kramer's Ergot, which is the place to look for some of the most exciting avant-garde work currently being produced. Issue 6 and Issue 4 are currently available, with the massive Issue 7 coming soon. Another Kramer's alum, John Hankiewicz, is represented by the collection Asthma, which rounds up some of his obtuse, difficult, strangely poetic comics. Definitely not for neophytes, but if you find yourself drawn to Huizenga's more dazzling formal flights, this might be a next step.

Epileptic (David B.)
No summary of modern comics would be complete without an acknowledgment of autobiography (in fact, this list has two: see also Mary Fleener below). This introspective genre has dominated much of the conversation surrounding modern independent comics. It's not an easy genre to do well, though, and the French cartoonist David B. stands so far above many of his peers that some of them might as well just give up. His account of his brother's epilepsy and its affect on their family is inextricably interwoven with dreams, fantasies, and visual metaphors that turn each page of the book into a dense tangle of imagination, reality, and memory.

Where to go next: On the basis of its two issues so far, David B.'s new series Babel promises to be even better than its predecessor, further blurring the lines between reality and metaphor, while mixing in historical and political material with the autobiography. He has also contributed three utterly remarkable short stories of historical fantasy to the anthology MOME, an uneven series that frequently showcases amazing and mediocre work side by side. As such, it's not really a good starting point for new readers, but if you want to see a broad overview of the young, upcoming creators working today — good, bad, and promising alike — reading the full run of MOME is an easy way to do so. David B.'s work is featured in volume 3, volume 4, and volume 12

From Hell (Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell)
Most of the comics on this list were chosen for their relative accessibility and compactness — no sense hitting a new reader with a massive, intimidating brick of a book that will overwhelm them right from the start. But From Hell is an exception, a 500+ page masterpiece that is surely one of the best, most audacious and ambitious graphic novels the artform has produced as of now. Writer Alan Moore takes on the legend of Jack the Ripper, positing a speculative solution to the murders, but more importantly using the investigation into the famous case as a framework on which to hang his ruminations about history, spirituality, psychogeography, gender politics, and morality. Moore's dense text interweaves the stories of Inspector Abberline, the Ripper's victims, the Royal family, and Moore's candidate for the Ripper himself: Dr. William Gull. Along the way, the story pauses for mystical time-traveling visions, linkages of the Ripper to other important historical moments of the era (most memorably, the conception of Hitler), and a breathtaking chapter that provides a tour of London's most famous sites with commentary on their secret occult meanings. Moore's vision is fully realized by artist Eddie Campbell, whose scratchy, expressive pen-and-ink drawings are perfectly matched to the writing's eccentric, eclectic style.

Where to go next: If Moore's writing intrigues you, it's hard to go wrong with his anarchist parable V For Vendetta, with art by David Lloyd. He's also written several great books which deconstruct and expand upon the language of superhero comics as few other writers have: Watchmen (with Dave Gibbons), Promethea (a magical textbook disguised as a superhero book, with J.H. Williams III and others), and the unfortunately uncollected Miracleman. If Campbell's stunning art is what really gets you here, his autobiographical series Alec is the obvious next step, followed by his short experimental work The Fate of the Artist, which reconsiders his approach to autobiography through a multitude of comics techniques. These two books also display Campbell's wry, surprising sense of humor, which will provide quite a contrast to Moore's serious tone.

Life of the Party (Mary Fleener)
Mary Fleener's raunchy, sexy, funny, inventively illustrated stories from her rock n' roll life prove that autobiography need not be the boring, sad-sack genre it has come to be known as from its more famous practitioners. Fleener's stories of playing in bands and hooking up would be enjoyable enough just based on her observational wit and sharp storytelling sense. But even more impressive is her art, which ranges freely from attractive clean-line cartooning to elaborate art-deco patterns and cubist abstractions. At her most abstract, she can suggest emotional states by dissolving forms into geometric figures and swirling patterns, creating tension through her carefully modulated use of lights and darks. The result would be intoxicating even if the stories were dull, and when combined with the details of Fleener's active life, the inventive art is simply perfect.

Where to go next: Fleener's closest kindred spirit is undoubtedly Julie Doucet, whose dream diary My Most Secret Desire and autobiographical account My New York Diary are strikingly drawn, revealing, and far from staid. Also worth noting are Chester Brown's The Playboy and I Never Liked You, which are closer to conventional autobiography but still have the frisson of energy and idiosyncratic style that sets Fleener apart. Megan Kelso's The Squirrel Mother is a great collection of short stories, some fantastical and some slice-of-life, told with a sparse but charmingly stylized aesthetic. Finally, Fleener, Doucet, and Brown have all done the art for stories written by Dennis Eichhorn and collected in his Real Stuff, which also contains great art by Peter Bagge, Joe Sacco, Jim Woodring, and many other cartooning greats. Eichhorn's life is, if anything, even more outrageous than Fleener's, and his colorful, blunt writing style perfectly captures his asshole demeanor and the hilarious situations he finds himself in.

Madman Comics (Mike Allred)
If you ask most people in the US what they think of when they hear the word "comics," they'll probably say something about superheroes. This list doesn't include much in the way of superhero fare because it is specifically targeted at two types of prospective readers: those who are already well-versed in American superhero comics, and those who don't care to be. Nevertheless, I felt like the list would be incomplete without at least one nod to the prevalence of the capes-and-tights crew, so I'm including Mike Allred's incredibly fun, charming, and often uproariously funny tribute to costumed heroics. Allred's character Frank Einstein is a reincarnated hipster whose goofy adventures include travels through time, tangles with aliens and mad scientists, brushes with the minions of Hell, and perhaps most importantly, worries over his squeaky-clean romance with his sweetheart Joe. Allred's pop-art aesthetic is reflected equally in his vibrant drawings and his golly-gee, whiz-bang pattering dialogue. These stories don't require much context to enjoy, so a good place to start might be with the first color stories, from the series originally called Madman Comics, now collected in either the Madman Volume 2 softcover or as part of the recently released Madman Gargantua, a complete compilation of every Madman comic. These stories are some of Allred's most fun and smart, culminating in an amazing sequence where a beautifully executed 13-page fight scene is paired with Frank's internal musings on philosophy, religion, and mortality.

Where to go next: Allred's poppy visuals are married to the wry, ironic writing of Peter Milligan in the duo's run on Marvel's X-Force (later X-Statix), which despite its title had little to do with the characters who previously bore that name. Other purveyors of smart, light-hearted pop-culture takes on superhero tropes include Robert Kirkman (Invincible), Brian Michael Bendis (Alias, Powers), and Grant Morrison (Seaguy, The Filth).

Safe Area Gorazde (Joe Sacco)
Starting with Palestine, his account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Joe Sacco has been using comics to document world strife and current events in ways that few other artists have. His journalistic instinct is sharp and incisive, tending towards anecdotal storytelling rather than big-picture analysis. In Safe Area Gorazde, one of several books he's done about the Balkan conflicts, he gets down and dirty on the ground with soldiers, mercenaries, politicians, and civilians on all sides of the conflict, collecting interviews and aural histories into a stunning, passionate entreaty for decency, peace, and justice. Sacco's style is cartoony, though his dense crosshatching infuses his art with a sense of realism and weight. His stories are often heartbreaking and terrifying, but he also leavens the horrors of war with his sense of humor and his ear for convincing dialogue, including the inanities of everyday life. One of his characteristic themes is the way that normality continually tries to reassert itself even under the most horrific conditions. His work is bracing, powerful, and profoundly humanist, a much-needed tonic for the spread of political apathy and ignorance.

Where to go next: All of Sacco's books are worth reading, starting with his ground-breaking Palestine. His other books on the Balkan states include The Fixer and War's End. Otherwise, there are basically no other cartoonists who attempt long-form comics journalism in the same way or at the same level as Sacco, but Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (a memoir about his father's experience in Nazi concentration camps) is very much worth a look as well. For more contemporary political material, the finest commentator in comics is arguably Jules Feiffer, whose long-running Village Voice comic strip is being collected by Fantagraphics, starting with The Explainers.

Tekkonkinkreet (Taiyo Matsumoto)
Any list of this sort would be hopelessly incomplete without at least one manga contribution, so Taiyo Matsumoto's urban adventure epic will have to stand as the token manga choice, pointing the way towards the breadth and variety of Japanese comics. Matsumoto's stylized character designs and warped perspectives are perfectly suited to his rapidly paced action sequences, including some of the best fight scenes in comics. His two protagonists are a pair of street urchins (nicknamed Black and White) living in a distopian future where rival gangs control rigidly maintained territories, while corporate forces seek to muscle in for themselves. Matsumoto's brisk, punchy art carries the book, but his writing is equally strong, deftly balancing action, humor, violence, and pathos. It's fun and fast-paced without sacrificing heart or intelligence; a very rare combination.

Where to go next: If American comics tend towards a dichotomy between arty/literary comics on one end and superheroes on the other, the Japanese manga industry is dominated by genre work of all kinds. In addition to sci-fi action books like this or Hiroki Endo's Eden, there's horror (Junji Ito's terrifying Uzumaki and deliriously weird Gyo; Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom; Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte), hard science fiction (Makoto Yukimura's space opera Planetes), thrillers (Naoki Urasawa's addictive Monster), contemplative fiction (Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man), and soap opera (Ai Yazawa's Nana). This is a hopelessly incomplete list, but a manga primer could easily take up a whole other list (or ten) in itself, and with my limited knowledge of the Japanese comics scene I am certainly not the person for that particular job. If it turns out that manga's where it's at for you, the titles above should provide a good starting place, though.

I should also note: the ONLY reason that this list does not feature the work of the Hernandez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert, is that there is really no easy way to be introduced to their long-running series Love and Rockets, which has been collected in an oft-confusing array of books. Within this shared comic, each brother has crafted continuing stories featuring their own casts of characters, plus one-off shorts and other ephemera. The series started off somewhat slow back in the early 80s, with both brothers struggling a bit before really finding their voice, another reason it's difficult to recommend their books to new readers. It's equally difficult to jump in at the middle, since so many of their stories depend on the long back histories they've crafted with their characters. But Fantagraphics Books has recently released a new set of affordable paperback collections that simplify things greatly, so there's really no excuse now for anyone not to check out Jaime's Locas, an exactingly drawn soap opera about former punk rock girls growing up and deciding what to do with their lives, or Gilbert's Palomar, a sweeping epic about the inhabitants of the eponymous South American town. Fantagraphics also provides a very handy guide on how to read Love and Rockets

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Amy and Jordan

Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan is a pure expression of nihilism, despair, and misfortune, each individual strip a haiku of suffering starring the luckless, pitiable title characters. It's no coincidence that Beyer's standalone book starring the same duo was titled Agony. This relentlessness makes Amy and Jordan a perfect comic strip to be read as a comic strip; other strips survive or even improve with the transition to book collections, but Beyer's malicious masterwork is best read in small doses. Read too many in one sitting and you risk being overwhelmed by Beyer's outlook, which is so stringently negative it verges on self-parody. Each strip is an utterly self-contained examination of the suffering of Amy and Jordan, a pair of sometimes-lovers who seem forced by cruel destiny to cohabit together despite their mutual antagonism and lack of affection. The horrors that befall this unlikely couple are sometimes perpetrated on each other, but more often it seems as though the world itself is conspiring against them. They are attacked by "demons carrying carving knives," they're poisoned by food gathered in the sewers, they inexplicably lose limbs or are shot, stabbed, and drowned, they're thrown away as trash; just to list a few of the nasty adventures they're put through week after week.

Sometimes Beyer's miniature tragedies have the sting of social and political commentary: the duo are poor, perpetually unable to get jobs, and Amy's degree from "Nothing School" turns out not to be much help, go figure. In one of the most horrifying episodes, Jordan walks down the street, stumbling across an injured bird, an abandoned baby lying in the gutter, and a severed human head, but he can't find the one thing he's looking for: some money to put food on the table for Amy and himself. The strip is a chilling portrait of disconnection, urban blight, drugs, and rampant crime, all of it adding up to the creation of a generation who feel constantly assaulted from all sides, unable to connect with one another. The willful absurdity of the situations is Beyer's warped version of political cartooning or caricature: through all the horrifying imagery, one can recognize the society Beyer is critiquing.

And yet, despite everything, there's a streak of cruel, bitter humor running through Amy and Jordan, and this saves the strip from being just another run-of-the-mill atrocity showcase. Beyer's humor is hard to explain, mostly because nothing about his strips seems all that funny when they're merely described. The humor is there anyway, though, in Amy and Jordan's blunt acceptance of the unspeakable tragedies that befall them, and especially in the odd, distancing way that Beyer presents these vignettes of woe. Indeed, each installment of the strip is an exercise in inventing the most illogical, ludicrous, and distracting ways of telling the supposedly central story. Beyer takes the art of the panel border to such extremes that the borders frequently overpower the actual panels. In one installment, the joke is that the borders have become so big that there is no longer space for the main characters — confined to a tall, thin rectangle where she is barely recognizable, Amy bemoans her fate and then disappears from the strip, leaving the last of these thin rectangles completely white, surrounded by the busy design of the supposed "borders." Even when things aren't quite this extreme, the strip often gives equal space to the non-narrative imagery, and in many strips the story panels alternate with equal-sized panels taken up by design elements and dividers. Sometimes, the story zigzags across the strip, forcing the reader's eye to dart snake-like across the page, as though following Amy and Jordan through a maze. In other strips, the panels are being eaten by fish, or else spiraling downward while shrinking into unreadability, the narrative collapsing into a pit. In one particularly dazzling strip, the panels are jagged vertical wisps that form wings extending from the back of an insect, who actually takes up most of the space that week. Beyer's deconstruction of his own storytelling turns each weekly strip into a dense, torturously constructed poem in which the free-ranging despair of the story sits uneasily within a framework of formal ingenuity and imagination.

Amy and Jordan is not an easy comic to get into. After all, this is a strip that ends one episode with the dubious punchline: "Someday I'll be down there under the ground. Just another piece of rotting meat helping to keep the air pure and the landscape beautiful... I can't wait." Calling Beyer's wit "gallows humor" would perhaps be understating the case. His crude, purposefully ugly drawings also take some getting used to, but his art is perfectly suited to the urban bleakness he portrays. These lumpen, misshapen characters, their heads like deformed potatoes with the orifices sloppily carved out, reflect on the outside what they must feel like inside. Moreover, their simplified, designy appearance — especially Amy's checkered dress and matching checkered hair — aligns them with the outrageous flights of fancy going on outside the panel borders. It's all part of the same ludicrous, horrifying, fascinating vision, the monstrous world flowing from Beyer's pen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Krazy Kat

When I was younger, I read the comics pages of the newspaper voraciously, at any opportunity I had — good, bad, funny, unfunny, dramatic, whatever, I didn't care. I was, I'll admit, fairly indiscriminate in reading it all, though there were of course some strips I liked more than others. And there was one strip that, though I barely understood it, I felt strangely drawn to and intrigued by. That strip, of course, was George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which appeared sporadically in the local paper despite the fact that it had ceased publication with its creator's death some thirty-five years before I was even born. I didn't know that at the time, though, and its occasional appearances seemed to emanate, not from another era, but from another planet altogether. Some vagaries of syndication had doubtless brought the strip back as a space filler, and I imagine it showed up whenever the paper's editors had a little extra room for one reason or another, but it was a very odd choice for a fill-in. Its unpredictable scheduling, there one day, gone the next, only contributed to the weirdness and mystery surrounding Herriman's creation: I could expect the resolutely dull Cathy to be there anytime I picked up a paper, but Krazy Kat would only show up unexpectedly, tucked off in a corner, a self-contained little island of surreality warping my young mind before I'd ever even heard the word "surreal."

At the time, I didn't quite get the strip and chalked it up to my age. I read every word of Krazy Kat every time I stumbled upon it, and loved its nonsense language, stylized art, and weird non-plot, but it always seemed like it was going over my head; I figured it was one of those things that, as parents love to say when a conversation gets uncomfortable, I'd understand once I got older. In the consistently juvenile funny pages of the late 80s and early 90s, Krazy Kat's sporadic resyndication was an icon of adulthood for me, probably the first hint I ever got that there were comics that were not exactly intended for little kids to read. In some ways, I was right, and rediscovering Krazy Kat as an adult is one of the great joys of comics. And yet, in many other ways, my reaction to the strip hasn't changed as much as I would've guessed as a kid: it still seems weird and utterly sui generis, its nonsense language still occasionally puzzles me, and possibly the most important thing I understand about Krazy now is that it is really not meant to be completely understood at all. Surrealism is its essential character, a surrealism rooted in every aspect of the strip, from its anthropomorphic characters to its shifting backgrounds that destabilize the sense of location to its periodic breaking of the fourth wall to its punning, multilingual dialogue and narration, which return language to its roots in Babel.

I won't bother to summarize Krazy Kat in too much depth. By now, every comic fan should know that the strip centers around an unrequited love triangle featuring an androgynous cat (Krazy) who loves the mouse (Ignatz) who continually beans him with bricks. Krazy takes these bricks, with great delight, as love tokens, while the third figure of the triangle, the dog Officer Pupp, has his own affection for Krazy and protects him/her from Ignatz by chasing and jailing the angry, violent rodent. All of this takes place, in one strip after another, in an amorphous Southwestern desert where the scenery, and even the time of day, changes unpredictably from one panel to the next. Herriman wrung an endless variety and depth from his basic scenario, which changes in its particulars from one strip to the next but always maintained the same dynamic: cat loves mouse, dog loves cat, mouse hates everyone. The setup has allowed for endless interpretations, some centering around Krazy's androgynous sexuality, some on the ethnic and racial flavor of the strip's babbling language, some on the emotional undercurrents in the love story, some on the surrealism of the art and narrative: all are valid, because Krazy Kat's iconic simplicity and ambiguousness allow for a virtually unlimited array of ideas to graft themselves onto it.

Analyzing the strip in this way can be interesting, but the real appeal of Krazy Kat lies not necessarily in its social, racial, or sexual shadings, but in its pure, undiluted artistry. Herriman's design sense was unparalleled, especially in his Sunday pages, where — except for a period of syndicate-mandated formats in the mid-1920s — his style was totally unfettered and unconstrained by any rules. Herriman was a stylist before anything else: whenever he was let free from restrictions, as he was in the daily strips at several points in the 1920s, his formats evolved away from the staid panel-by-panel layouts of his contemporaries, towards inventive layouts that made use of the space he was given as a whole design unit. The "panoramic" dailies collected in Fantagraphics' The Kat Who Walked In Beauty are evidence of Herriman's keen eye for design, turning each daily strip into a mini-Sunday where the panel borders disappear or are reconfigured into unusual designs. Whenever he was able to, he thought of the space he had not in terms of panels that could divide images from one another, but in terms of the totality of the page, the way a whole strip or page could work together, combining individual images into a unified design. During the mid-1920s, edicts from Hearst forced Herriman to draw his Sunday pages in relatively conventional layouts of rectangular panels, but as soon as these restrictions were lifted, he immediately returned to the idiosyncratic design of his earlier and later work. His style evolved over time, too, from the wordy early pages with their many tiny panels and bursts of effusive, heavily stylized narration, to a more streamlined approach in the later pre-color years, gradually moving towards a more laconic style when the Sunday pages were finally printed in color, Herriman seeming to realize that the bold primary colors of the Hearst printing presses were best suited to large, dramatic images and minimal text.

Herriman's stylistic evolution over the years indicates his primary concern with the formal properties of his chosen artform. In his hands, the eternal story of Krazy, Ignatz, and Officer Pupp became an excuse for endless riffs and inspired flights of imagination flowing from his pen, a process that was sometimes literalized in strips where pens, ink, and references to the cartoonist entered the strip in a meta-commentary on the art. My young self thought he didn't really get Krazy Kat, that he'd understand more of it when he "grew up," but actually he got more than he realized about what really mattered with Herriman's art: the pure joy of the energetic drawing, the striking designs, the improvisatory beauty devised from the continually recycled plot and its many variations, so often compared to jazz.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Revisions and Discussion

You may notice that the list of "essential" comic strips, seen in the side panel or in the original post, has been updated following input from commenters at several places, most notably on the message board for The Comics Journal and the Cerebus Yahoo group. The list still does not include every strip that could arguably be called classic or essential by strip fans, but I hope it does provide an interesting overview of the medium's hundred-year history and broad potential. The discussion surrounding the initial list has prompted me to make a few clarifications, as follows:

- I liked Andrew Mansell's defense of the idea of canons so much that I should certainly quote it here: "Why a canon? This could go back and forth forever, but the best reason for a canon is so it can be used as a basis for quality going forward. Argue all you want about the Fantagraphics Top 100; nearly 10 years later, it holds up pretty well and it has established a benchmark... Without a canon, there is just too much material and not enough time. A canon can be a guideline that can be reviewed and updated and argued about!" I couldn't have said it better myself, and Andrew succinctly captures the intent of this project: to provide a list that, while not definitive in itself, will provide a basis for debate and learning and, of course, reading!

- The list now includes single-panel cartoons along with multi-panel strips. I was initially indecisive about this. However, I decided it made more sense to include them than not, since both single panels and strips were designed for the same medium and share real estate with one another in the newspaper comic pages. The difference between the single panel and the daily strip is akin to the difference between a daily and a Sunday strip: primarily one of breadth and space rather than a fundamental distinction that should cause separation. Moreover, the fluidity of the format often allowed daily strips to morph into panels or vice versa, either for sporadic single installments or as a more permanent switch. Gasoline Alley, for one, started its life as a panel and sporadically returned to the format in its daily installments before becoming a multi-panel strip for good.

- I have also decided to include alternative strips within the purview of this list. The presence of Jules Feiffer's eponymous Village Voice strip in the original list already opened the door to letting in other cartoonists whose work might appear in alt-weeklies or other oddball venues rather than in large newspapers. There is no fundamental difference in format between Feiffer or Zippy the Pinhead and, say, Cathy: only a difference in mass appeal and target audiences. For this reason, it makes sense to include several of the great alternative strips in this list alongside their more widely read newspaper brethren. In particular, I'd be remiss in not singling out Mark Beyer's remarkable Amy and Jordan, which makes the most inventive and original use of the comic strip format I've ever seen.

- The initial inclusion of The Spirit in this list was, upon reflection, a mistake. Eisner's Spirit, good as it was, was also quite different in format from anything else appearing in newspapers. The multi-page stories certainly belong more obviously with the then-developing comic book medium, rather than the newspaper strips, which were always confined to a single page at most. Eisner's work arguably straddled both worlds, but his superhero-influenced main character and longer page counts move him much closer to the burgeoning comic book medium. The Spirit definitely belongs on a different list.

- In addition to these theoretical adjustments, I have also simply added some strips that originally fell through the cracks more from personal taste than any fundamental criteria of the list. My own taste for early humor strips is fairly limited, which is perhaps why I needed other voices urging me to include Barney Google and Bringing Up Father, two strips for which I can say I appreciate their importance and artistry, but have no real personal fondness for them. They're added now anyway, as are several other strips which missed the cut only from unforgivable ignorance, now remedied (Sam's Strip, King Aroo).

- Finally, so many people have questioned the inclusion of Boondocks that I feel I have to specially defend its presence now, before going into more detail when it gets its own post. Nobody would contend that Aaron McGruder has the draftsmanship or artistic verve of a Herriman or Segar: simply put, he doesn't, not even close. But then again, in the newspaper pages of the last few decades, I'd be hard-pressed to identity any artists who do come close. What McGruder does have is a caustic, inventive wit and a blunt sense of social commentary that, combined, briefly made Boondocks the most refreshing, exciting, and enjoyable piece of real estate on the comics pages. I can still remember my first encounters with his angry, virulently political strip standing out on pages cramped with dull, repetitive, unfunny variations on familiar formulas. And his post-9/11 strips managed to respond intelligently and fearlessly to the growing jingoism, blind patriotism, and censorious impulses already swirling around in that time period, and which would soon after reach full flower. Those strips were bracing then, and now seem perceptive and prophetic of the ways in which 9/11 would be exploited in the following years.

Anyway, the list is now more or less in its final form, though I reserve the right to return with further modifications. Posts on the individual entries will begin appearing soon.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Introduction

The idea of a comics canon has continued to be a recurring topic for many fans of the artform. Comics are just over 100 years old now, but for such a young art there seems to be strikingly little agreement about the key works of comics. According to Eddie Campbell, there are only "a few dozen so-called 'graphic novels' worth reading," though this pronouncement is surely flavored by Campbell's well-known preciseness about what constitutes a "graphic novel" in the first place. Countering him, Alan David Doane presents a list of "100 must-read graphic novels," but his list is marred by an imprecise definition of the graphic novel that includes things that would be excluded by even the most inclusive definition: collected newspaper strips and multi-creator anthologies, for example. Matthias Wivel is more exact in his definition, as well as more catholic in the types of comics he considers, and the result is a list that makes sense as a consideration of one particular trend in comics history: the long-form, finite story or self-contained short story collection.

These lists, and the discussion surrounding them, made me think about the idea of assembling a comics canon in a more meticulous, inclusive way. Lists of comics make little sense when newspaper strips sit up against modern independent graphic novels and serialized superhero stories. How to compare Mark Newgarden's short story "Love's Savage Fury" to a run on Amazing Spider-Man or Chris Ware's massive Jimmy Corrigan graphic novel? How to rank Charles Schulz's 50-year endeavor on Peanuts in comparison to an issue of a comic series or an anthology of gag panels? The artform of comics permits a fairly wide variety of expression, and comics of varying lengths and formal properties have been collected in an equally large range of media, from newspapers to comic pamphlets to bound books to the Internet. This heterogeneity in publication format makes it difficult to come up with a broad comics canon that makes sense of the full range of potential that the artform can contain. This is one reason why my previous effort at assembling a comics canon at this site was short-lived and abortive.

As a result, I've come to the conclusion that we can only make sense of the comics canon by considering like works in relation to one another, rather than to the entirety of the comics artform. It seems to me that, instead of there being one monolithic comics canon that encompasses everything, there are in fact many smaller canons: of newspaper strips, underground comics, superhero comics, genre comics (war, horror, sci-fi), modern independent comics. This is the genesis of my current project, which will attempt to form the outlines for some of these miniature canons, starting with a list of essential newspaper strips, from the dawn of the artform up to the present day. The list below is my own impression of what the canon might look like for comic strips, starting with a list of 30 works that can be considered absolutely essential to an understanding of this subset of comics. In assembling this list, I did not consider historical importance as a particularly heavy weight if the comic itself has not held up so well over time — thus, no Yellow Kid — and I realize that to some extent this list is inevitably flavored by my own personal tastes. There is perhaps a bias towards graphically striking artistry and inventive design rather than strips in which the writing is the focus, though this tendency is reversed in the few strips included from the latter half of the 20th Century.

This is not intended, as it stands, to be a definitive list, and I encourage input from readers as to what is missing. It is highly likely that I will be adding more entries to the list at some point, and I hope there will be some discussion in the comments section about what constitutes an essential newspaper strip. In the coming months, I will be writing about the individual strips included on this list, not necessarily in any order, though eventually I hope to have a post up about each strip. I will also be developing some of the other specific canons I mentioned above, leading towards a meta-canon that will truly encompass the broad boundaries of the comics artform without pretending that all comics are the same. In the meantime, here is the first draft of my comic strip canon.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (Winsor McCay, 1904-13)
Little Nemo In Slumberland (Winsor McCay, 1905-13, 1924-27)
The Kin-der Kids/Wee Willie Winkie's World (Lyonel Feininger, 1906-07)
Polly and Her Pals (Cliff Sterrett, 1912-58)
Krazy Kat (George Herriman, 1913-44)
Bringing Up Father (George McManus, 1913-54)
Gasoline Alley (Frank King, 1918-69)
Thimble Theater (E.C. Segar, 1919-38)
Barney Google (Billy de Beck, 1919-42)
Little Orphan Annie (Harold Gray, 1924-68)
Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy (Roy Crane, 1924-43)
Fritzi Ritz/Nancy (Ernie Bushmiller, 1925-82)
Mickey Mouse (Floyd Gottfredson, 1930-76)
Dick Tracy (Chester Gould, 1931-77)
White Boy/Skull Valley (Garrett Price, 1933-36)
Little Joe (Ed Leffingwell, 1933-72)
Silly Symphony/Donald Duck (Al Taliaferro, 1934-69)
Flash Gordon/Jungle Jim (Alex Raymond, 1934-43)
Terry and the Pirates (Milton Caniff, 1934-46)
The Ambassador/The Little King (Otto Soglow, 1934-75)
Prince Valiant (Hal Foster, 1937-71)
Up Front (Bill Maudlin, 1940-45)
Gordo (Gus Arriola, 1941-85)
Barnaby (Crockett Johnson, 1942-52)
Buz Sawyer (Roy Crane, 1943-89)
Steve Canyon (Milton Caniff, 1947-88)
Pogo (Walt Kelly, 1948-75)
King Aroo (Jack Kent, 1950-65)
Peanuts (Charles Schulz, 1950-2000)
Dennis the Menace (Hank Ketcham, 1951-2001)
Feiffer (Jules Feiffer, 1956-2000)
Sam's Strip (Jerry Dumas, 1961-63)
Doonesbury (Garry Trudeau, 1970-present)
Zippy the Pinhead (Bill Griffith, 1976-present)
Bloom County (Berkeley Breathed, 1980-89)
The Far Side (Gary Larson, 1980-95)
Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson, 1985-95)
Amy and Jordan (Mark Beyer, 1988-96)
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (Ben Katchor, 1988-present)
Leviathan (Peter Blegvad, 1991-99)
Boondocks (Aaron McGruder, 1999-2006)