Sunday, October 9, 2011

Comics Review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated, R. Crumb

This is a slightly revised version of an expanded review that was originally published in The Comics Journal #301. The original, unexpanded essay was in published on October 4, 2009 on Pol Culture.

The master cartoonist's long-awaited Biblical adaptation is finally here, and it is a stodgy, repetitive effort--one that suggests the graphic novel is beyond his creative capacities.

Robert Crumb is undeniably one of our greatest cartoonists. Before him, the best comics artists--for example, Winsor McCay, Harvey Kurtzman and Charles M. Schulz--were commercial entertainers before they were anything else. They always produced their work with one eye on the audience. If they had to make a choice between following their muse and alienating their readers, concern for their readers always won out. Crumb was the first to embrace the Romantic ideal of the artist. Following his muse was paramount, with self-expression and art for art’s sake the highest goals. There were no limits on subject matter with Crumb. And he has used his freedom to develop a satirical eye and command of nuance that is unmatched by any of his peers. Each new Crumb strip has been an event for readers for over four decades now.

Ironically, it has always been a challenge to recommend work by him to those unfamiliar with his œuvre. Most people need to get acclimated before being confronted with his more extreme material. There is also the problem of format. Crumb has always embraced the increasingly anachronistic magazine format for comics; he doesn’t like thinking about his work in graphic-novel terms. (He once said the thought of the work involved in producing a book-length effort was enough to make him physically ill.) My usual solution has been to refer people to the Kafka for Beginners book he produced with writer David Zane Mairowitz. The underlying material is familiar to most readers to at least some degree, and Crumb keeps his excesses in check. Most importantly, his earthy, anxious artwork is very much at home with the adaptations of Kafka excerpts, dramatizations of the writer’s life and satirical pokes at Kafka’s contemporary readership. My only reservation in recommending it is that Crumb was perhaps a bit too sympathetic to Kafka’s work. A great adaptation would have had the two’s sensibilities at odds to a degree; it would provide a great reading of both Kafka and Crumb as artists.

The Book of Genesis, when it was announced as a work-in-progress a few years back, was promoted as the magnum opus we have never gotten from Crumb. When considered relative to the Kafka effort, it promised to duplicate that book’s strengths and transcend its shortcomings. Described as a comprehensive adaptation of the Biblical material, the Genesis project would be a book-length effort. The material would make it accessible beyond the coterie of Crumb’s readership. And best of all, it promised the enlightening discords readers didn’t get from Crumb’s handling of Kafka. The thought of Crumb’s trenchantly satirical perspective illuminating this hoariest of ancient texts was irresistible. One hoped for the pot at the end of the artistic rainbow: a rich, defining statement from a great contemporary talent, and a brilliantly irreverent reading of a monolithic cultural touchstone. One anticipated a work that could redefine one's view of both artist and subject. This material has managed it before; just think of John Milton and Paradise Lost.

Well, the book has now been published, and it is a strong reminder of the truism that one should never get one's hopes up in the arts. (I hasten to add that I didn’t anticipate anything as accomplished as Milton.) Anyone expecting an imaginative retelling of the Biblical material, or an inspired effort from Crumb, isn't going to find it here. In his introduction, Crumb writes, "I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes." He can say that again. His treatment of the material is grindingly literal-minded. It is barren of any hint of satire, irony or even allegory. In short, it is a plodding, R-rated Classics Illustrated rendering of the Biblical text. Crumb often isn't even in especially good form visually.

Crumb's timidity in imposing his point of view on the material goes beyond eschewing a satirical or other conspicuously re-imaginative approach. He won't even give it his own narrative rhythms. One of the pleasures of Crumb's work is the loose, open pacing he employs; combined with his incomparable eye for detail, it gives his work a lifelike texture that few cartoonists can duplicate. However, in Genesis, he doesn't allow scenes to play out and find their own shape. Instead, he largely adopts the monotonous, illustrated-text approach of Prince Valiant cartoonist Hal Foster. A snippet of exposition is accompanied by a panel that largely repeats the same information. No thought has been given to using the text as a counterpoint to the images. The dialogue scenes aren't much different. Talking heads and indifferently posed figures tediously expound at one another. Crumb's usually acute dramatic sense largely abandons him. He grossly overuses manic-eyed, raised-hair expressions for dramatic emphasis, numbing whatever effect they might have if used more sparingly. The rare, reasonably well-dramatized scene, such as Tamar's seduction of Judah in Chapter 38, isn't enjoyable so much as it is a relief from the rest of book's dramatically repetitive tedium.

The individual drawings aren't especially interesting, either. Crumb's figure drawing is frequently desultory, and his treatment of the character's faces is often hackneyed. He makes an effort to individualize the men's faces, but the refusal to shape the scenes dramatically makes the characters largely indistinguishable from another. In one chapter, he models a trio of brothers after the Three Stooges, and it barely registers. The female characters fare even worse. The most prominent ones, including Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, all look like Crumb's Devil Girl. Crumb's vision of God is a retread of the Michelangelo cliché of the stern, robust old man with a long, flowing beard. The one character I was really looking forward to seeing Crumb's treatment of was the Garden of Eden's serpent. It's a letdown; Crumb makes the character an indifferently drawn rehash of one of Wallace Wood or Mark Schultz's lizard people.

The drawing is probably at its most interesting when Crumb models it after the work of one of his idols, Pieter Breughel the Elder. Crumb frequently falls back on Breughel imagery when the text requires him to illustrate the more abstract verses. However, even that wears out its welcome. One can take only so many images of earthy peasants tilling the land, or herding livestock, or sitting down at communal gatherings before the sight has one's eyes sliding off the page.

The overwhelming problem with Genesis is that Crumb doesn't seem to have thought it through as a dramatic piece. The scenes are not played off each other for dramatic effect, and he doesn't imagine the characters as distinct, idiosyncratic personalities whose interactions are greater than the sum of the parts. He just seems to have illustrated each verse, one after the other, without any consideration as to how they might contribute to a larger whole. When one reads the most accomplished graphic novels, such as Maus, Watchmen, or Black Hole, one sees that the authors carefully weigh each moment with an eye on the reading experience of the entire book. It’s the main reason the books are so understated dramatically; it makes the climactic passages all the more effective. At their poetic best, they take an idea, and seeing the need to present it in different terms for the sake of their and the reader’s interest, reimagine it as a trope--a metaphor, an ironic moment or whatnot. As the books develop, they create new tropes out of the previous ones, and one reaches the end with one’s view of the original idea transformed again and again. Compared to these books, Genesis seems creatively lazy. It comes across as hackneyed, and the saddest aspect of it is that it is hackneyed in Crumb’s own terms. His unrelenting dramatic fortissimo makes the entire book feel flat, and he doesn’t build his ideas into tropes--he lets them degenerate into clichés.

Genesis isn’t a slothful effort; producing it took five years of Crumb's life, with the effort apparent in every intensively cross-hatched panel. But it comes across as more of a test of his artistic endurance than an opportunity to expand his creative range. Perhaps he was right to once feel physically ill at the prospect of having to produce a book-length effort. The problem, though, has proved not to be the amount of work that would need completion; it's that he's not up to the creative challenges such a project entails. I should emphasize that there's no shame in being only a master of short pieces, as Crumb most assuredly is. I love Alice Munro and Ernest Hemingway's work, but I've never been that taken with their novels, either.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Comics Review: Stray Toasters, Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published in The Comics Journal #299.

This 1988 graphic novel by Bill Sienkiewicz is more enjoyable to look at than to read, but one will have a grand time looking at it.

Bill Sienkiewicz was easily the most visually striking and idiosyncratic adventure cartoonist of the 1980s. He came into his own when he eschewed the house styles of Marvel and DC and embraced a multitude of visual approaches in his work. And he generally mixed them up in the same project; whatever struck him as appropriate for a given scene or panel was what he used. It often seemed there were more art styles on display in his books than one would find on a tour of the New York gallery world, but Sienkiewicz almost never failed to make them work. Neo-Expressionism had come to comic books, and triumphantly.

Stray Toasters, first published in 1988, was the only extended effort that he wrote as well as illustrated. He tried to give the story the same eclecticism he brought to his art—it’s a hallucinatory mishmash of detective fiction, monster movies and dream narratives, with bits of media satire and absurdist humor throughout. The protagonist is Egon Rustemagik, a burnt-out criminal psychologist who’s investigating two series of murders--one of housewives and one of small children. His personal life is caught between his ex Abby and his current flame Dahlia, who both end up tied to the murders through their relationships with Todd, a semi-autistic boy who has his own connection to the monster who’s been killing the women. The monster is the proud achievement of the insane doctor… and, well, let’s just say the story’s whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Sienkiewicz relies on internal monologues to move it along, but he doesn’t successfully orchestrate the voices of the various characters. They end up bogging things down. The writing’s saving grace is the humorous material, which includes television parodies, a therapist who treats patients with S & M scenarios and, in frequent interludes, a devil’s postcards to his family in hell.

However, no matter how often the story falters, the art is nothing less than remarkable. Every scene has its own distinctive look, with the rendering running the gamut from watercolor and pencil to found-object collage. Some sequences are so visually eloquent that they almost don’t need words, like the scene in chapter 1 where Abby takes Todd into her home, or Dahlia’s whacked-out cathartic ritual in chapter 2. Sienkiewicz was a tremendous cartoonist and illustrator in his prime. Even when the libretto is gobbledygook, his images soar.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Comics Review: American Flagg!: The Definitive Collection, Volume 1, Howard Chaykin

This review was originally published, with minor copy revisions, in The Comics Journal #299.

With American Flagg!, Howard Chaykin created one of the great adventure-comics series. After a long wait, it's back in print--and it reads better than ever.

Sexy, smart and smashingly well executed, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! made just about every other adventure comic in the 1980s look like drivel. Originally intended as a futuristic take-off on the TV series Gunsmoke, Chaykin created a satirical pop dystopia that cut to the heart of the Reagan-era zeitgeist. He exaggerated various cultural trends--the emphasis on style over substance, the feeling of information overload in a media-driven culture, the lionizing of ruthless opportunism for its own sake--and took them to hilarious and sometimes chilling extremes. Unfortunately, due to the original publisher’s bankruptcy, the series has been out of print for close to 20 years. But after innumerable delays, the most recent due to the challenges of restoring the detailed art, the first 14 issues have finally been collected in a handsome hardbound volume. (Two trade paperbacks featuring the same material have also been released.) Rereading it, one finds that Flagg! hasn’t dated at all. If anything, it reads better now than it did in 1983 and ‘84.

The story takes place in 2031. Thirty-five years earlier, after a series of domestic and international calamities, the political and business leadership of the United States relocated to a colony on Mars, reconstituting themselves as a political-corporate-media combine called the Plex. They govern what’s left of the United States—both east and west coasts have been devastated—and provide all legitimate broadcast media. The remaining earth-side communities in the U.S. are centered around massive commercial-residential malls, which also serve as the headquarters for the resident Plexus Rangers, the Plex’s law-enforcement wing. Their principal responsibilities are to maintain the peace in the malls and protect the Plex’s remaining agricultural and industrial operations from the impoverished outside populace, many of whom have reorganized themselves into gangs and militias.

The Rangers’ newest recruit is Reuben Flagg, an actor who was drafted after being replaced by CGI technology on his television series. He’s assigned to the Chicago Plexmall, where he serves as a deputy under Chief Ranger Hilton “Hammerhead” Krieger. It’s the first time he’s ever been to Earth, and he’s disgusted by what he finds. The more benign militias have sold broadcast rights to their turf battles—fought with with rifles, howitzers and tanks—in exchange for weapons and money. The more extreme ones will kill themselves and their families rather than be captured after running afoul of the Plex. The most horrifying moment for Flagg comes when he sees a teenage girl murder her brother and commit suicide rather than face arrest. The more affluent mall residents are appalling in their own way. All that seems to matter to them is casual sex, recreational drugs and vegging out on the steady diet of porno, animated cartoons and reality TV broadcast by the Plex. Flagg was brought up with an idealistic view of America by his parents on Mars, but having his blinders torn off leaves him with little choice but to acquiesce. At least the casual sex is fun. However, after Krieger is murdered, Flagg finds himself promoted to Chief Ranger and made the unexpected heir of a pirate TV station Krieger operated. Armed with his new authority and the station’s resources, he vows to do his modest part to undermine the Plex and return America to something more like the country he imagined.

That final, hopeful note notwithstanding, Flagg! sounds almost unbearably grim, but it’s anything but. The darkness of the milieu is leavened by the irreverently witty atmosphere Chaykin provides. Parodies of advertising and the media abound—absurdist catchphrases like “The Geopragmacrats—manifest is the only destiny we acknowledge” echo across the pages. There's also plenty of promo imagery for the various TV shows, including “White Sluts on Dope,” “Firefight—All Night Live!” and “Interspecies Romances.” (“Tonight—a man, a woman… and a duck.”) The news media specializes in fawning over visiting VIPs, crime-scene sensationalism, and laying odds on the various wars that erupt from the whacked-out geopolitical scenarios Chaykin has dreamed up. A healthy share of the dialogue is smartass banter, and Chaykin thankfully doesn’t handle the sex with dead-earnest seriousness. He likes the humor in flirtatious foreplay, and he certainly gives himself plenty of opportunities to indulge in it—Flagg gets laid in almost every episode, with Chaykin often keeping the reader on the scene up until the bodies hit the bed. One character says that life in 2031 is “like a funhouse—without the fun.” One wouldn’t want to live in Flagg’s world, but when it comes to reading about it, sorry, one can’t agree.

Beyond the humor, a reader is also carried along by the dynamism of Chaykin’s storytelling. He plays words and images off each other like no one else. He’ll use a panel as a static tableau for the dialogue, which he breaks up into strings of alternating balloons in an extremely successful rendering of the rhythms of human speech. The dialogue is often used to lead one’s eye across the page to where it joins with an emphatically visual element—examples include a close-up of a character’s face, a full-page action pose, or even a logo, sound-effects banner or some other kind of advertising-style graphics. Chaykin’s pages don’t look like anyone else’s, either. Most cartoonists’ pages, no matter how sophisticated the construction, rarely look like more than collections of panels. Chaykin’s pages often resemble posters, with the panels and other visual elements layered in a way that creates a coherent design whole. He makes everything he puts on a page function both dramatically and decoratively, creating a balance between storytelling and visual flash in which the sum is greater than the parts.

Chaykin’s style, ahead of its time in the 1980s, may have finally found its moment. When Flagg! was first published, a number of people complained that it was too difficult to read. Chaykin was fond of beginning dialogue scenes with the speakers off-panel or buried in the background of a panoramic drawing, and he often mixed the conversations with background chatter from the TV broadcasts. People have since become far more used to multi-tasking in their experience of the media, and the layering of unrelated information in a single space has become so common that it’s now the standard in television news programming. One no longer has to point to Robert Altman movies and their use of overlapping sound to explain what Chaykin is doing; all that’s needed is to turn on cable news.

Chaykin’s influence on other creators is also being recognized. In his introduction to this collection, author Michael Chabon rightly mentions Flagg!’s contribution to cyberpunk style, and he takes care to note how much landmark adventure comics like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are indebted to Flagg!’s concepts and tone. If one is making a list, the film RoboCop definitely belongs, as it appropriated a great deal of Chaykin’s satirical vision and flourishes. (The film’s producers apparently agree; they included Chaykin in the film’s acknowledgements.) There’s also Miller and Gibbons’ Martha Washington series, which is unimaginable without Flagg! It features a similar mix of dystopian adventure and political and media satire, with the most conspicuous debt being the character of Martha herself. She’s a dead ringer for Flagg! supporting character Medea Blitz, and despite the superficial differences in their backgrounds, their personalities are virtually the same.

Flagg! falters at times. Its most conspicuous weakness is Chaykin’s handling of the women. Male characters like Flagg and Hammerhead have distinctive personalities from the get-go, but Chaykin can’t manage a memorable female character unless, like Hammerhead’s daughter Mandy and the businesswoman Ester Maria de la Cristo, she’s a manipulative, opportunistic bitch. Chaykin tries to give the women some complexity to counterpoint his cheesecake visual treatment, but he can’t seem to flesh out the outlines. Several female characters, such as Medea Blitz and the Jewish Nazi Titania Weis, behave one way when they’re introduced and another way during later episodes. The shifts are deliberate, but Chaykin can’t reconcile the contrasts. Medea goes from being an incorrigible bad-girl brat to a straight-arrow, take-charge leader, but one can’t see the seeds of the later character in the earlier one or feel the remnants of her old self after she’s changed. Chaykin’s superficial handling of another female character also undermines a significant plot twist in the later episodes. A woman the others thought had left their lives years earlier turns out, thanks to amnesia and a case of mistaken identity, to have been living among them for some time. Chaykin doesn’t seem particularly interested in the character in the early episodes, so he neglects to give the twist much foreshadowing. The other members of the cast show no signs of being even unconsciously aware of the truth, and so, when the revelation comes, it carries no punch.

However, flaws aside, Flagg! is an exhilarating piece of pop entertainment. At the top of his game while working on the feature, Chaykin poured more into it than any reader expected, and sometimes more than they wanted. He left us with a dense, witty rollercoaster ride that carved out its own stylistic niche and then saw the rest of the media to catch up with it years later. The excesses of ‘80s culture that he satirized have only become more pronounced as time has gone by, so his satirical touches, which one might expect to have become dated, seem more relevant than ever. It’s good to finally have American Flagg! back in print, and here’s hoping it takes its rightful place as a comics classic.