Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Short Take: Nashville (1975 film)

Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, accomplishes what one might think impossible. It's a successful naturalistic satire. Satirical techniques work at cross-purposes with naturalism: they're rooted in exaggeration, and their aim is to heighten absurdities until they're unmistakable. Altman meets the challenge by centering the film on the outsize personalities of show business, specifically the performers and hangers-on in the country-music capital. The film's two dozen characters include the stars, the wannabes, and the various press and businesspeople who surround them. They're already exaggerated personalities, and as Altman shows, human to the core. The character who's the center of attention is the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), and she's a microcosm of the film's contradictory approach: warmly observed, deeply sympathetic, and an utterly vicious caricature of country superstar Loretta Lynn. (Lynn, a good sport, found most of the portrayal quite amusing.) Altman's open-minded, improvisatory style opens up a world of possibilities. One feels anything can happen and probably will, from the bedroom farce that climaxes with Keith Carradine's performance of "I'm Easy," to the assassination attempt that uncomfortably anticipates the murder of John Lennon. Several of the actors are standouts: Blakely; Carradine; Geraldine Chaplin, who plays a pretentious, fish-out-of-water BBC reporter; Henry Gibson, as the cantankerous Grand Ol' Opry patriarch; Michael Murphy, quietly smarmy as a smooth-talking political operative; and Lily Tomlin, in a rare non-comedic role as an adulterous gospel singer. Most of the songs were composed by the actors who performed them. The screenplay is credited to Joan Tewkesbury.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Short Take: Ex Machina

Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, is an absorbing, intelligent effort--part psychological thriller, part meditation on technology. Domhnall Gleeson stars as a young computer programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the remote estate of his company’s CEO (Oscar Isaac). Once there, he finds he has been chosen to help evaluate a breakthrough artificial-intelligence project. The CEO has developed an android with a feminine personality (Alicia Vikander), and he needs the programmer to help assess the extent the android can relate to people. Until its climactic section, the film is mainly a series of dialogues between the programmer and the CEO, and the programmer and the android. The conversations between the two men relate to psychology, morality, and other implications of the CEO’s invention. The drama comes from the contrast in their personalities. The CEO is a brash, uncouth epicurean, while the programmer is introverted, intellectual, and more than a little taken aback by his host’s manner. The film’s suspense is in the scenes with the programmer and the android. Alicia Vikander’s specialty is projecting guilelessness, and she and Garland keep the viewer guessing about the android’s motives. Is she as sympathetic as she seems, or is she manipulating the young programmer for her own ends? Or is the CEO using her to determine the malleability of others? Garland adopts a deliberate, clinical tone, and as engaging as the film is, he may have overdone it. There are two gruesomely violent scenes near the end, but the bloodletting carries no shock. And the whole movie is upstaged by a moment of impromptu dancing by Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno, who plays the CEO’s housemaid. It’s the only scene with the juice--and fun--of life’s pleasures. The film is a superior piece of science fiction, but it may be a little too cerebral for its own good. The finely crafted screenplay is credited to Garland. Rob Hardy was the cinematographer. The Oscar-winning special effects are by Andrew Whitehurst.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Comics Review: The Complete Popeye, Volume IV: "Plunder Island", E. C. Segar

This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian in 2010. It was part of a contributor's roundtable on E. C. Segar's Popeye. For other contributions to the roundtable, click here. Matthias Wivel's piece, which was written partially in response to my essay, is of particular interest. Click here.

No reference is made in my essay, but it was written shortly after two articles by Caroline Small on the state of comics criticism. (To read those pieces, click here and here.) Small's arguments, and the comment discussions they prompted, informed aspects of what I wrote.

Reading through my reviews of E. C. Segar's The Complete Popeye, Volume I (click here), Volume II (click here), and Volume III (click here), one repeated phrase jumps out at me: “largely of historical interest.” The challenge I gave the work was for it to transcend that description. It occasionally did. There were flashes of satirical and absurdist genius every now and then. “The One-Way Bank” storyline from Volume II and the finale of “The Eighth Sea” storyline from Volume III stood out. I was especially taken with Volume II’s “The Nazilia-Tonsylania War.” Its treatment of government and military folly ranks with Dr. Strangelove (almost) and Duck Soup. (No pun was intended with the name “Nazilia,” by the way.) But Segar was generally far more enamored with farce and slapstick for their own sake than he was with satire. That greatly limits the appeal of his work, at least for this reader. Farce and slapstick that don’t connect with anything more profound are best in small doses. They tend to wear out their welcome fairly quickly. Unfortunately, that’s the bulk of what one finds in the first three volumes, and as readers of my original reviews can see, I got myself over my disappointment by convincing myself that the strips in the first three collections were preludes to the more celebrated material (such as “Plunder Island”) that was featured in the fourth and fifth volumes. Segar’s Popeye enjoys canonical status in the world of comics, and I wanted that reputation to be truly warranted. I didn’t want to believe that, despite occasional moments of brilliance, the strip was best considered a noteworthy pop-culture period piece.

“Plunder Island,” the Sunday-strip continuity showcased in Volume IV, is widely considered Segar’s finest work on the strip. On its own terms, it’s an entertaining treasure-island quest story, one that Segar’s talent for farce considerably livens up. The best moments are the most incongruous ones, such as the scenes where the smooth-talking moocher Wimpy saves his own neck by romancing the story’s villains, the Sea Hag and her monstrous henchwoman Alice the Goon. I also got a kick out of the story’s climax, wherein Popeye realizes that he can’t just take the treasure--that would be stealing from the Sea Hag--so he decides to win it away from her by playing craps. The story is a more sophisticated version of many of the animated Popeye cartoons I saw as a kid in the 1970s--the dialogue is certainly a lot denser than what one finds in children’s animation--but I’m afraid that it’s nothing more than a strong exemplar of what it now appears Segar’s Popeye generally was. It’s not the epitome of what the strip could be at its best. Storylines like “The Nazilia-Tonsylania War” were the exceptions, not the rule. On the whole, Segar’s Popeye is a moderately enjoyable slapstick-adventure farce and a likable example of Depression-era popular entertainment. The strip doesn’t offer a lot more than that, and it leaves me, as it somewhat did with Noah Berlatsky (click here, wondering about the basis of its canonical status and the comics canon in general.

My own guess is that when dealing with ostensibly “classic” comics, the basic standard has been that they hold their own with the popular entertainment they appeared alongside of. Comics like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and the E. C. comic-book line look positively impoverished when considered against their contemporaries among the avant-garde of writing, art, and filmmaking. But they compare pretty well to the popular movies, radio, and fiction of their day. The same is true of Segar’s Popeye. No reasonable person would consider it on the level of William Faulkner, Vasily Kandinsky, or Jean Renoir’s work, but it looks right at home when viewed alongside the efforts of Mae West or W. C. Fields. I have nothing against the popular-entertainment standard for determining “good” comics, by the way. If a comic entertains people, it’s doing its job. And if it’s entertaining people to the extent that it becomes a pop-culture phenomenon, which Segar’s Popeye certainly did, then it’s doing its job terrifically well.

The problem arises with the perception that it’s a canonical work. Harold Bloom provided a fairly uncontroversial definition of literature’s canon when he described it as “the choice of books in our teaching institutions.” I think that holds true when talking about any media being studied. The canon is the material used to teach students about the art form. The prospect of Segar’s Popeye being used to teach students about comics just doesn’t sit well with me. The strip’s stature points to the need for a new standard of canonicity for the field. Comics needs a T. S. Eliot, André Bazin, or Clement Greenberg to up-end our understanding of the medium and our judgments of its works. I perceive Segar’s Popeye as a period piece, but I can’t summon a rigorous aesthetic basis for that view. All I can muster is my own idiosyncratic opinion. I also don’t see much of anyone else doing differently. The strip makes me feel more like a pretentious comics fan than a critic when I write about it. The salve to my self-esteem is that I’m not as pretentious as those who put it on its pedestal to begin with.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Superman Case and Best Outcomes

This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published at The Hooded Utilitarian on November 1, 2012

Readers of my comics criticism know that I’m a strong advocate for thinking outside the box of the comics subculture. I ask for comics to be examined from a more culturally rounded perspective, and I do my best to live up to that standard in my own work. I have a polemical bent, and calling out others for being locked into subcultural attitudes has been par for the course. Over the last few months, I’ve felt compelled to extend this to historical and business issues within the field. The most recent examples have been my comments on the summary judgment against the Joe Shuster heirs in their efforts to reclaim a portion of the Superman copyrights from DC Comics.

The verdict was issued on October 17, 2012. Two days later, tcj.com co-editor Dan Nadel linked to Tom Spurgeon’s commentary at The Comics Reporter. (Click here.) Nadel called Spurgeon’s post (click here) “the most cogent analysis” of the decision. I’d read the piece earlier that morning. It was hardly an analysis, and “cogent” was probably the last adjective I’d use to describe it. It featured a rhetorical broadside against DC Comics that misrepresented the company’s dealings with the Shuster heirs in the most inflammatory and Manichean terms. (The key sentence: “It’s darkly, stab-both-your-eyes-out ironic that Warner/DC’s parsimony in forcing an elderly woman to haggle for a 23-year-old’s income with everything she had at her disposal is actually benefitting the company down the line.”) The verdict and the exhibits that provided the history of DC’s dealings with the Shusters were both available online. Spurgeon clearly hadn’t read either. (DC hadn’t forced anybody to do anything, there was no haggling, and at the time she didn't have anything to legally bargain with.) Worse, Spurgeon hadn’t even paid much attention to the news report he linked to in his opening paragraph; he wrote the piece from the erroneous impression that DC had been dealing with Shuster’s widow rather than his sister. (Spurgeon corrected his references to her after complaints.) In short, the post was ignorant and prejudiced about the case.

Spurgeon obviously buys into the fan-community myth that Joe Shuster and Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel were hapless victims of the greed and villainy of DC Comics. After reviewing the compensation history, one may come away with a different impression. The two earned the 2012 equivalent of at least $5 million from Superman during the character’s first decade. They would have earned a great deal more if they hadn’t filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to regain the property in 1947. (I’ve read the court filings and the preceding contracts. Almost all of the non-speculative grievances were over things they clearly had no claim to, such as money from Batman. The speculative grievances--namely being shorted for monies owed--were determined groundless.) The cumulative income of Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs from a 1975 pension agreement with DC has been the 2012 equivalent of over $6 million. That’s altogether more than $11 million between the two parties in 2012 dollars, and the Shusters alone would have stood to make at least an additional $2 million had they not chosen to pursue the partial copyright termination that resulted in the most recent verdict.

If that kind of compensation is what it means to be victimized by DC Comics, please let me know where to sign up. Siegel and Shuster sold Superman outright in 1938. There is no evidence of bad faith in the transaction. For the equivalent today of about $2,500, DC bought a comics feature that no other publisher was interested in. When the commercial potential of the property became apparent, the company voluntarily increased its contractual obligations to the creators. Siegel and Shuster were allowed to participate in the expanded publishing opportunities, and they were given a percentage of the non-publishing licensing revenue. They were extremely well paid before they burned their bridges with a largely senseless lawsuit in 1947 and 1948. They were able to negotiate a new settlement in 1975, and they enjoyed a handsome pension afterward. Their heirs have been treated generously. The two suffered economically during the time between the lawsuit’s end and the 1975 settlement deal, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they were akin to the lottery jackpot winners who quickly end up in bankruptcy court. Judging from the paper trail of exhibits in the various cases, as well as Larry Tye's recent book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, they were financially irresponsible people who squandered a truly enviable amount of money. (Shuster in particular was quite the spendthrift.) I just don’t see how that’s DC’s fault.

However imperfectly, DC has made a pretty consistent effort to equitably deal with Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs. The company has negotiated settlement after settlement after settlement with them in an effort to resolve matters. That’s why I was especially struck by the end of Spurgeon’s post, where he wrote:
[…] it’s hard for me to see this as a best outcome. I think it’s okay to want best outcomes.

Well, that raises the question of what he would think a best outcome is. Spurgeon doesn’t allow comments on his site, so I sent an email asking on October 19. He posted it with a reply on October 29. (Click here.)

It’s very clear that Spurgeon and I take a very different view of intellectual-property ownership. He obviously feels there is something inherently illegitimate about anyone but the original creator owning a copyright or patent or whatnot. Apart from public-domain laws, I personally see little difference between a copyright and a piece of tangible property such as a car or a house. It’s something that can be sold from one party to another, and the sale should be governed by the basic rule of transactions: If both parties are competent, uncoerced, and acting in good faith, the transaction is inviolable. If the purchaser proves better able to exploit the goods or property than the seller, then good for the purchaser. I think any reasonable adult recognizes this is a possibility in selling anything. If I sell a developer a piece of real estate for $20 per square foot, and the developer, for whatever reason, is later able to sell it for $100 per square foot, the developer is entitled to the money. I have no claim on it, and there’s no reason I should.

I’d be very curious to read the ethical reasoning why the sale of Superman in 1938 should not be binding on Siegel and Shuster. Or why their 1948 decision to give up all remaining financial interest in the property for a cash lump sum was not something they should have to treat with respect. Or why they (and now their heirs) should not be expected to honor the multitude of settlements DC has made in its truly quixotic efforts to find a permanently satisfactory common ground with them. Is it because authors and their heirs should be considered the same as minor children, and therefore not competent to enter into contracts? Or is it because they enjoy some sort of exalted status by which the rules that everyone else has to follow in every other circumstance should not apply to them? Or is there something else?

My guess is that the “exalted status” view of authors is what is guiding this. A related view has managed to find expression in our copyright laws. In tandem with the incessant extensions of copyright protection over the past century or so, a truly astonishing innovation has been introduced: legally mandated time-limited ownership for purchasers, with the original seller having the rights of termination and reclamation. If an author sells his or her copyright to a publisher, the author or the author’s heirs now have the right to invalidate the transaction after a certain period of time. The justification is that the author couldn’t have known the future value of what he or she had sold, so he or she should have a certain amount of time to exploit that at the current owner’s expense. Just imagine if we expanded this to other kinds of transactions. General Motors could legally repossess my prized Camaro without compensating me. After all, to paraphrase Spurgeon, I’ve had it a long time. Why shouldn’t I give it back? GM couldn’t have possibly foreseen that the car would have collector value, so it’s only fair that they be allowed to take advantage of this. By the same token, DC Comics could reclaim all extant copies of Action Comics #1. The company sold them for pennies back in 1938; they couldn’t possibly have predicted that copies would eventually change hands for up to a million dollars apiece. Or should the Siegel and Shuster heirs have the right to reclaim those, too?

This ill-considered do-gooder revision to the copyright law is what opened the door to the present litigation from the Siegel and Shuster heirs. And DC is of course fighting this for the same reason I would fight to retain ownership of my Camaro. The property was bought fair and square, and a good deal of time, labor, and money has been spent on its upkeep; it’s wrong that the original seller should be allowed to take it back.

Actually, DC is fighting this a lot harder than I would (or could) for my Camaro, and for a very good reason. I’m not answerable to anyone but myself with regard to that car. DC, though, has a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of Time-Warner to protect the company’s assets. They cannot pursue any solution to the Siegel and Shuster imbroglio that does not take the best interests of the company shareholders into account. We’re talking hundreds of thousands--if not million--of people. This is why none of Spurgeon’s proposed “best outcomes” can ever happen. Any one of them would likely result in a class-action shareholder lawsuit that would, just for starters, prompt the removal of the DC and Time-Warner executives responsible for pursuing any of those “best outcomes.” Those same executives could very well be facing litigation themselves for the rest of their lives if one of those “best outcomes” went forward. There would certainly be litigation seeking to have any of the pursued “best outcomes” set aside.

This is partly why I think “equitable and fair” is preferable to “best outcome.” Any proposed solution has to be reasonably acceptable for Time-Warner’s shareholders. Spurgeon is right to characterize my shift in terminology as “an almost willful renunciation of what [he is] talking about.” Approaching a problem in terms of “best outcomes” allows one to indulge in absurd fantasies. Looking at it in terms of what’s “equitable and fair” requires one to engage with the real world.

Let me end by shifting gears away from the Superman case. We need to try to understand issues relative to all perspectives at play in them. It should be imperative to know where both sides are coming from before reaching a conclusion. Uninformed, knee-jerk partisanship should be avoided. Sometimes parties we sympathize with are in the wrong, and sometimes parties we see as antagonists are in the right. A fuller view of a situation may lead one to decide that one’s initial sympathies are misplaced. As writers and readers about the field, that fuller view should be our main goal. Achieving it the real best outcome, at least for us.

This post prompted a lively comments discussion in its initial publication. Click here to read.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Comics Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color, Julie Maroh

This review was first published at The Hooded Utilitarian on December 17, 2013.

The small Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press had a happy surprise this spring. At the Frankfurt International Book Fair last October, they finalized the contract to publish the English translation of Blue Is the Warmest Color, the 2010 début effort of Belgium-based cartoonist Julie Maroh. The acquisition may not have seemed like much; the book’s biggest distinction was having won the Audience Award at the 2011 International Comics Fair in Angoulême. A film adaptation was in production, but it’s not clear the people at Arsenal Pulp were aware of it. The film certainly didn’t influence their decision to take on the book. The company specializes in LGBT-oriented material, and Maroh’s coming-of-age romance between a high-school student and a twentysomething artist--both women--was a good fit. But when the film premiered at Cannes in May, it was an immediate sensation. Director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux shared the Golden Palm, the festival’s top prize. Arsenal Pulp, in response to the interest the film generated, stepped up their edition’s publication to coincide with its North American release. The first printing immediately sold out, and the publisher may be on its way to the biggest commercial success in its history.

The buzz surrounding the film, which I have yet to see, inspired me to seek out the book. One never knows what to expect in these situations. Film adaptations of good books miss far more than they hit, and the reverse is often the case as well. A good movie (or at least a well-reviewed one) doesn’t mean the source material is especially worthwhile. It’s as true of comics adaptations as prose ones. For every American Splendor and Ghost World that’s worth checking out, there’s a Road to Perdition or A History of Violence where the book doesn’t rate much interest. With Blue Is the Warmest Color, it’s been widely reported that the film took a lot of liberties with its source. Most of this focus has been on Abdellatif Kechiche’s handling of the story’s sex scenes, which Julie Maroh denounced as pornographic. But I gather Kechiche also gave the story a completely different final act, and he even changed the protagonist’s first name from Clementine to Adèle, so it matched that of Adèle Exarchopoulos, the actress who plays her. Kechiche’s title for the film (and the one used for its release in France) is La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitrés 1 & 2 (The Life of Adèle—Chapters 1 and 2). He was clearly looking to put as much distance between Maroh’s book and his film as he could. But whatever the case, movie or no movie, Maroh’s handling of her story needs to stand on its own.

Her cartooning is impressive. Maroh is an extremely capable draftsman and dramatist. She does a fine, detailed job of evoking the Lille, France locations. Her handling of the characters is even better. She shows a remarkable command of dramatic nuance, and the story’s naturalistic tone feels effortless. Jaime Hernandez, probably the strongest draftsman among contemporary English-language cartoonists, couldn’t have provided a more skilled visual treatment. I actually prefer Maroh’s drawings to his. She has a looser, jazzier line, and the relaxed feel to the art gives the story an admirable fluidity.

Maroh’s style is cinematic, but in the opening sections she gets away from the overly literal storytelling that stunts the work of so many cartoonists. These early scenes deal with the teen Clementine’s conflicts over getting involved with Thomas, a popular boy at school. The complication is her attraction to Emma, an artist she’s seen walking around town. The drama is complemented with poetic effects. The story is told in flashback, and after a full-color framing sequence, the watercolor rendering is in gray hues. A shift of this sort is a movie cliché, but Maroh employs it as part of a larger strategy. The grays highlight the selective use of blue, which Maroh uses as a trope for Clementine’s desires and anxieties. It first appears when Clementine and Thomas see each other for the first time, and Maroh uses it to render Thomas’s shirt. As the story progresses, it’s used to render other things, including Emma’s hair, a balloon Clementine sees, and a condom package. The color and the objects it portrays are used to evoke an impressive range of meanings: Clementine’s curiosity about Emma and Thomas, how her attraction to Thomas is borne of insecurity and a desire to conform, her self-loathing over her resistance to sleeping with him, and the intensely sexual nature of her interest in Emma. Maroh’s handling of the last is especially striking. Clementine dreams of being in bed with Emma, and Emma’s hands and forearms turn blue as her caresses become more intimate. The storytelling’s poetic element makes for an admirably fresh treatment of a teenager’s world being turned upside down by discoveries about her sexual identity. The first act creates high expectations for the rest of the book.

And that turns out to be a major letdown. The sequence in which Clementine breaks up with Thomas ends on page 24. Maroh all but abandons her poetic effects for the rest of the book’s 156 pages. Blue is used as a trope in only one other scene. Clementine gets off the phone with Emma, and she’s giddy that the two are going to see each other the next day. The blue flows over the wall Clementine is sitting against, and it colors the sky the following morning. But after that Maroh just uses the blue decoratively, specifically for the coloring of Emma’s hair. The storytelling lapses entirely into the literal. Maroh doesn’t even use the blue as a poetic element in the splashy scene in which Clementine and Emma first have sex. The book doesn’t completely lose visual interest. Maroh’s considerable drawing ability never falters, and her cartooning has some bravura moments. The most conspicuous is the wordless four-page sequence in which Clementine’s parents kick her out of the house upon discovering she and Emma are involved. But after the opening sections, Maroh’s visual choices never challenge the reader, or enrich the story’s moments with new meanings. She relies entirely on plotting, dialogue, and character soliloquies to carry the story, and her script isn’t up to the task.

The story is ultimately melodrama, and hackneyed melodrama at that. Most of the book after the first act is a series of scenes in which Clementine and Emma gradually come closer before pulling away. They’re both afraid of the commitments being in love demands, and Maroh lays on the angst with a trowel. There are plenty of other tired elements. Clementine discovers her parents are homophobic. Clementine’s lesbianism results in her being ostracized at school. Emma’s ex-lover Sabine angrily confronts Clementine after their break-up. Clementine even has a gay male best friend who is the story’s voice of wisdom. The story ends with Clementine and Emma forever parted after one dies from Ali MacGraw Disease. The one who survives looks out on the ocean and muses, “Beyond death, the love that we shared continues to live.” It’s all so stale, and it’s that staleness that makes the story so trite.

The tone is earnest, though, and perhaps Maroh thought that might provide the intensity needed to carry the reader through. I can only speak for myself, but the bulk of the book comes across as a collection of scenes from romantic comedies and melodramas that have long been run into the ground. An earnest rehash is still a rehash. The challenge for any contemporary artist is to, in Ezra Pound’s famous words, “Make it new.” Art is about communication, but the magic of art is communicating what hasn’t been said before, or at least what has been said in unfamiliar ways. Maroh gives the reader that magic in the visual poetry of the book’s opening scenes. The color blue is made to carry meanings one never expected, and those meanings keep changing. The rest of the book is just communication. Yes, the narrative is clearly presented, and I don’t doubt it’s heartfelt, but when I read, I want magic all the way through. If Julie Maroh hadn’t given up on that after page 24, her work might have been able to hold its own with any worthwhile film adaptation. I don’t yet know if Abdellatif Kechiche has cleared the bar she set for him, but she should have made living up to her work, much less outdoing it, a far greater challenge.

I Prefer Him as a Cartoonist

This is a slightly revised version of a "hot take" polemic that was published at The Hooded Utilitarian on February 14, 2013. It was part of a series of responses among Hooded Utilitarian contributors to the Eddie Campbell article in question. A listing of the other pieces is here.

The talk of many in the comics community this past week has been Eddie Campbell’s essay “The Literaries,” which was posted at tcj.com on February 6. (Click here to read.) The main target was Ng Suat Tong and his essay criticizing the EC Comics line (click here). However, most have taken it--and I think correctly--as an attack on the perceived values of The Hooded Utilitarian and its contributors. (Calling us “The Literaries” is a step up for Eddie; he used to refer to us as “jackals.”) His arguments are nothing new. He combines an angry defense of comics-cultist insularity with a broadside against those who look at comics through the prism of a broader interest in the arts. It’s the sort of thing that used to be directed at The Comics Journal by superhero fans during the magazine’s first two decades. I suppose it’s poetic justice that the publication is happily promoting such a screed now. Things have come full circle, and TCJ has undoubtedly become what it once beheld, although I don’t think even the most obtuse superhero fan stooped to claim that good stories were irrelevant to good comics. Arguing with comics-cultist solipsism is something I’ve done a lot of, and I know from experience that it’s a quixotic undertaking. But Eddie’s essay does offer the opportunity to clarify a few things. Given some of the commentary it has sparked, I’d say taking that opportunity is the best move.

Eddie’s opening paragraph is a masterpiece of misconceptions. I’m actually impressed at how many comics-cultist fallacies he managed to pack into just over a hundred words:

In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. The flipside of the medium having gained this kind of recognition is that it has also acquired a new species of critic who demands that comics be held to the standards of LITERATURE. Since the invasion of these literaries, I have been observing a tendency to ask the question: if this weren’t a comic would it stand up? Would the story be any good if it were prose and in competition with the rest of the world’s prose? If we take away all these damn pictures, would the stuff that is left be worth a hoot?

Eddie appears in the grip of the same delusion that afflicts a number of comics cultists. They assume because a handful of contemporary comics efforts have received the respect of the larger culture, that means the comics medium as a whole is now viewed with the same respect. I’m sorry, but no. Claims that comics are now on a par with literature still deserve to get one laughed out of the room. The opinion that comics can begin to measure up to just the last century of literature is utterly absurd, and deserves to be treated as such by any moderately erudite and discriminating reader. To the extent anything has changed, an outside reader might be more inclined to give a comics effort the benefit of the doubt now. That’s all, and it’s not much.

Comics have also not acquired a new breed of highfalutin critic as a result of any "recognition." I can only speak for myself, but I suspect my circumstances are similar to Suat’s and Noah Berlatsky’s and most other critics whom Eddie would likely include among “The Literaries.” I’m a long-time comics reader who also has an abiding interest in other fields, in my case fiction, poetry, fine art, and film. I’ve continued to follow comics because there are comics creators, such as Eddie, who produce work I find worthwhile. I enjoy thinking and writing about what I read, and that extends to comics. I don’t bring the “standards of LITERATURE” or any other snooty metric by which to judge material. All I ask is that I be reasonably entertained, and my tastes are pretty eclectic. I don’t care whether something is a superhero comic, young-adult adventure fiction, or a Clint Eastwood western, or, for that matter, a Tolstoy novel, a Jean-Luc Godard film, or lyric poetry from 13th-century Italy. If I find it reasonably engaging and I choose to write about it, I’ll treat it favorably. The flip side is that if I don’t like something, and I choose to write about it, I’ll treat it unfavorably. Again, I can’t speak for Suat, Noah, or other critics Eddie may have in mind with his diatribe, but I suspect their motives are about the same.

One aspect of being a critic with diverse interests who writes about comics is that you easily can find yourself at odds with the old breed of highfalutin comics critics. These are the ignorant (or insensible) blowhard cultists who liken Jack Kirby to Homer or identify Jaime Hernandez with Marcel Proust and roman-fleuve fiction. They're essentially name-droppers, and one of their favorite platitudes is that comics are the equal of other artistic fields. Their fellow comics cultists don’t get after them for this nonsense for at least two reasons. One is that this cohort doesn’t know much of anything about, say, Homer or Proust, or work in other media in general. As such, they’re not in a position to argue. The other is that this foolishness flatters their tastes, which is the only interest critical writing really has for them. But if one is familiar with the outside figures in question, or is willing to ask the logical question that if comics are the equal of other fields, then how do its best works compare, it is hard not to call out this sort of thing. However, one is not going to endear oneself to the comics-cultist cohort by doing so. Their tastes are extremely bound up with their self-esteem. As such, they take arguments that Kirby or whomever should be treated with a more discriminating perspective as a personal attack. Worse, they often act as if the silliness you're calling out never happened, which leads them to erroneously take you to task for making pompous, pretentious comparisons.

One can see this at work in Eddie’s essay. The question that Suat is implicitly starting with in his EC piece is that if this material is among the best this medium-that-is-the-equal-of-all-others has to offer, then how does it stack up when considered against the best work outside comics? He begins with the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Mad, generally considered the peak book of the EC line and arguably the field’s greatest humor effort, and he observes that compared to the most accomplished comedy material from other fields--work ranging from Aristophanes to Monty Python--the achievement of the individual Mad pieces is relatively modest. This is not to say that Suat does not respect Kurtzman and Mad. If he didn’t, would he have included this sentence in his article?

Harvey Kurtzman was undeniably a master of the form and the influence of Mad on American and European artists is inestimable.

That seems pretty laudatory to me. Eddie, though, only sees Suat’s call for perspective, and he interprets it as a dismissal of Kurtzman and Mad altogether. He mischaracterizes Suat’s position with this rhetorical question: “Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman?” He then goes on to sneer at Suat as a haughtily pretentious snob, one who “while[s] away his lunch hour with the immortals on Parnassus.” Eddie seems entirely oblivious to the fact that the claptrap he appears to have unquestioningly swallowed--that comics are “on a par with Literature”--is what Suat was actually criticizing, at least relative to the EC comics line.

Moving back to the more general aspects of Eddie’s argument, he claims that we “Literaries” are demanding that comics be evaluated in a way that excludes consideration of their pictorial content. All we’re interested in are the words. Um, wow. That’s a straw man if there ever was one. If Eddie or anyone else can point to a critic in our cohort who has argued that the pictures in a comic aren’t at least as important a textual element as the verbal matter, I welcome the link.

But Eddie doesn’t really develop that line of attack. Which is probably for the best, as it’s completely ridiculous. He just shifts gears to claim that we “Literaries” have an inappropriate preoccupation with evaluating comics as stories. We’re applying “irrelevant criteria” by doing so. In Eddie’s view, the proper criteria are those that celebrate isolated flourishes without regard to the greater whole. And he provides examples: the sophisticated temporal construction of a single-image sex gag by Harvey Kurtzman; the energetic design of a costumed-character fight sequence by Jack Kirby; the gritty detail of a Jack Davis panel depicting a dead soldier slumped over his machine gun. For Eddie, the strength or weakness of the larger narratives these incidental bits contribute to is not germane. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Eddie feels the only purpose of the larger narratives is to give the cartoonists an excuse for showing some flash.

That’s right, folks. If you’re reading a comic for the overarching story, and judge it by how effectively it tells that story, or even to what extent that story is worth telling at all, then in the view of Eddie Campbell (and Dan Nadel and Kim Thompson and Jeet Heer and Tom Spurgeon and Heidi MacDonald and numerous others), you’re reading and judging it wrong.

Part of me just wants to point to Eddie's article and its reception among the comics-cultist crowd as Exhibit A as to why none of these people should be taken seriously by anyone outside the subculture. They’re of course entitled to their enjoyments, but they are so preoccupied with their abstruse little fixations that they seem completely divorced from the impulse that guides people to becoming audiences for cartoonists and other storytellers in the first place. The reason I can’t entirely dismiss the essay is because I’ve seen similar arguments in a field outside of comics, where they've been around for six decades and don't appear to be going away. They can be found in film criticism, where they are a key part of the so-called auteur theory.

For those not familiar with it, the auteur theory has its roots in the criticism François Truffaut wrote before becoming a filmmaker himself. Andrew Sarris popularized the aesthetic in the United States during the 1960s. It is frequently misunderstood as an argument that the director should always be considered the author of the film. What Truffaut and Sarris were actually arguing was more or less the opposite. In their view, the director is not always the author of the film. With some films the screenwriter should be considered the author, or an actor should be considered the author, and so on. The best films, though, are directors’ films, which are films where the directors do not subordinate themselves to the screenplays. They instead use the screenplay as a taking off point for their own vision. In practice, as Pauline Kael noted, this amounted to "shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots" (I Lost It at the Movies, p. 303). From the standpoint of an auteur critic, writer-directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Stanley Kubrick (until Barry Lyndon) were second-rate filmmakers. They were concerned with realizing their screenplays as best they could, rather than using the scripts as a starting point for something else. A first-rate film director was someone such as John Ford or Howard Hawks, for whom the screenplays, at least in the eyes of the auteur critics, were beside the point. (Contemporary auteur-critic favorites include Joe Wright, Clint Eastwood, and Andrew Dominik.)

Sarris trumpeted the rise of the auteur theory as the burgeoning triumph of visual aesthetic values over literary ones. In a laudatory 1963 review of the Otto Preminger film The Cardinal, he declared:
The primarily visual critics will hail it and the primarily literary critics will deplore it. […] If I side with the visual critics on Preminger, it is because we are in the midst of a visual revolution which the literary establishment is apparently ignoring if not actively resisting (Confessions of a Cultist, p. 111).

Sarris’s contemporary Dwight Macdonald, who had no use for the auteur theory, didn’t think much of The Cardinal. In his view, it was “stupid,” “in dubious taste,” and “trashy” (On Movies, pp. 155-156). His rejoinder to Sarris’s declaration was especially memorable:
I promise to cease my resistance to the Visual Revolution, turn in my membership card in the Literary Establishment, and consider all future works of Mr. Preminger entirely in ocular terms--20/20 critical vision--as soon as he gives us a movie without plot or dialogue (p. 157).

With that, Macdonald pretty much sums up my feelings about the critical attitudes of Eddie and his fellow travelers. When a cartoonist gives us a comic without a story--Andrei Molotiu’s work is a good example--I’ll be happy to discuss it entirely in terms of its visuals. But if, like Kirby or Kurtzman or even Eddie Campbell, the cartoonist is presenting us with a story, I’m going to treat the visuals as part of a means to an end which happens to be that story’s realization. And one of the first questions I’m going to ask is how well it has rewarded my engagement relative to other comics, and work in other media as well. If Eddie considers that “inappropriate criteria,” that’s his problem, not mine.

There is a certain irony about Eddie’s piece. I cannot think of another English-language cartoonist who has done more to translate literary form and technique into comics terms. With “Graffiti Kitchen,” he did a superb job of realizing the comics equivalent of the personal essay à la Henry Miller; the interplay of exposition, absurdist commentary, and the evolving tropes that unify the material are nothing less than masterful. The Fate of the Artist, to pick another example, just as brilliantly incorporates strategies derived from postmodern literary theory. From Hell, "The Birth Caul," and "Snakes and Ladders," his collaborations with Alan Moore, certainly appear to be trying to compete with literary work on literary work's terms. “The Literaries,” as Eddie calls us, would seem the natural audience for his comics, and several contributors at The Hooded Utilitarian, including myself, consider his material, both on his own and with Alan Moore, among their favorite comics of all. One would think we’d be the last critics he would attack.

In closing, I suppose Eddie is like François Truffaut, whose filmmaking efforts were often far removed from his critical attitudes. In films such as The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child, he didn’t treat the story material as a springboard for something else; he engaged with his content and realized it with an extraordinary richness. Dwight Macdonald, thinking of the chasm between Truffaut’s criticism and his better films, once wrote, “I prefer him as a director” (On Movies, p. 305). My attitude towards Eddie is much the same: I prefer him as a cartoonist.

Notes: The article prompted some reasonably engaging comments during its original publication. Those can be read here. A post by Matthias Wivel, written partially in response to this essay, also rates attention. Click here. The comments on that post are worthwhile as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Frazetta in Perspective

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on The Hooded Utilitarian on June 29, 2010.

Untitled illustration (1963)

Frank Frazetta, who died on May 10, 2010, has probably received more celebratory tributes upon his death than any comics-related figure since Charles M. Schulz. It's for good reason: like Schulz, he is one of the few who succeeded in becoming a pop-culture icon in his own right. My attitude towards his work is more ambivalent than what one usually finds. But I’m not here to knock Frazetta or otherwise take issue with the tone of the tributes. I’d like to examine his work at a more critical distance, and I don’t think those goals are mutually opposed.

I do want to engage in some hyperbole, though. The man could draw and paint. He was a master at depicting the human figure. The dynamism of his figure construction was only surpassed by the deft, sensual touch of his rendering. His men had a sculptural, athletic quality, and they rarely felt posed or stiff. Frazetta had a knack for capturing them in the midst of balletic movement. The male figures in repose often had an air of violent portent about them. As for his women, well, no artist has ever depicted women as sexily as Frank Frazetta did. He didn’t favor the lanky, lean-hipped ideal the mass media has championed for the last few decades. His women were curvy and plump, and he rendered them like he was feeling them up in the process. (While paging through his Pillow Book monograph, an old girlfriend said to me, “I like this guy! He makes cellulite look sexy!”) Ironically, the sexiness he gave his women got him fired from Playboy magazine. During a journeyman period in the 1960s, he briefly assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder with their Little Annie Fanny strip. William Stout, who assisted on the strip later on, once told me he asked Kurtzman why Frazetta didn’t work out. Kurtzman said that editor Hugh Hefner saw Frazetta’s treatment, and in some fairly rude language, said that Frazetta's style made the character seem too sexy. Given that Frazetta was never one for pornographic poses, one can only surmise that Hefner was worried Frazetta’s Annie would show up his centerfold models. If so, he was probably right.

From "Squeeze Play," Shock SuspenStories #13 (February-March 1954).

The comics work Frazetta headlined himself is a mixed bag. Apart from a couple of strips he drew for Warren’s Creepy magazine in the mid-1960s, all of it was produced between 1946 and 1955. He was a teenager at the start of that period, and most of the work he produced is very much that of a novice artist learning his craft. In the 1980s, DC and Fantagraphics did Frazetta a disservice by bringing, respectively, his 1950-1951 “Shining Knight” work and 1952 “Thun’da” strips back into print. The storytelling in both is, to be charitable, quaint, and the figure drawing, usually the highlight of Frazetta’s art, suffers from rampant problems with proportions and is generally quite gauche. I picked up both at the time out of curiosity. My impression was that if these were typical, his comics work wasn’t worth paying attention to. Frazetta’s drawing skills didn’t come into their own until the very end of his early comics career. Anything produced in 1954 or 1955 is just beautifully drawn. Examples include most of his romance comics, “Squeeze Play” and the unfinished text story “Came the Dawn” for EC, and his "Buck Rogers" covers for Famous Funnies and Weird Science-Fantasy. The romance work from 1953 is of the same standard. The work apart from that is really only for completists. One sees flashes of the mature Frazetta here and there, but for the most part it’s like watching a talented player get kicked up to the majors before his time.

From "Empty Heart," Personal Love #28 (August 1954).

Frazetta’s paintings for fantasy-adventure paperback covers in the 1960s and 1970s are what made him famous. My favorite argument with their champions is whether his comics pieces from late 1953 to 1955 are actually the superior efforts. I don’t think they are, mainly because they haven’t had the same impact on the popular culture. But I do think the romance and E. C. material holds greater artistic promise. My main reservation about Frazetta’s paintings, apart from a general antipathy to the sword-and-sorcery adventure genre they epitomized, is that even when the subjects are ostensibly original, they’re little more than rehashes of pulp-suspense tropes from his childhood--material rooted in Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, 1930s monster movies, and so forth. But the romance and E. C. material, with their focus on the mundane, made him think outside his box. They challenged him in a way the fantasy material never could, and he responded by bringing a delightfully fresh surface to what were otherwise some pretty humdrum stories. Frazetta often said that his childhood art teacher wanted to send him to Italy to learn how “to paint the street scene.” The teacher died before it could happen, and I, for one, feel the loss. There’s no telling what Frazetta’s talent and eye would have done with such subjects under the tutelage of a disciplined instructor.

The Barbarian (1965)

But Frazetta’s paintings did bring a fresh perspective to their subjects. His principal achievement was to heighten the male adolescent fantasies that inform the material to an unprecedented degree. The Barbarian (1965), the first and most famous of Frazetta’s paintings for the 1960s republication of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories, may be the best example. The protagonist, a living sculpture of muscle and sinew, has asserted his dominance over all others and stands, stoically triumphant, over a heap of their remains. A woman clings to one of his legs, her appearance and action suggesting subservience, a desire for protection, and sexual availability. In short, the painting is an all but perfect inversion of the adolescent male’s central insecurities--those of physical strength, the competence to handle the world’s challenges, and sexual appeal to women. The protagonist’s indifferently domineering attitude towards the woman is a masked expression of the fear of women’s ability to assert authority in an interaction. What gives the painting its power is that it is so starkly lacking in awareness of the irony it depicts, which makes it a wish-fulfillment fantasy to be reckoned with. It’s not the least bit politically correct--I fully agree with those who find its misogyny and glamorizing of might-makes-right violence repugnant--but there’s no denying that it resonates with common human desires. In art, resonance is often all that matters.

The Death Dealer (1973)

In any case, when one goes through the more offensive tropes in Frazetta’s artwork, there are bigger fish to fry. One is the rape imagery. A recurring scene in his art shows a subhuman creature--often a Neanderthal--carrying off one of Frazetta’s trademark half-naked Amazons over his shoulder. There is no salvation in sight. But the aspect of Frazetta’s art I find most shocking is his fascination with executioners. The attitude behind it is about as anti-social as they come. In most cultures, the executioner is both a terrifying and pathetic figure. He’s terrifying because he has the state’s license to slaughter his fellow citizens (criminals, yes, but still), and his victims can do nothing to defend themselves. But he’s also pathetic: he does society’s dirtiest work for it, and his fellow citizens repay him with ostracism--he’s shunned in his interactions with others. Most of Frazetta’s executioner scenes simply emphasize the former and ignore the latter. One would think that this is horrifying enough, but it’s nothing when one considers the images that did confront the pathos. His response was to invert the executioner’s alienation from society into a romantic, self-reliant pose. I am writing, of course, of The Death Dealer (1973) and its affiliated paintings, in which Frazetta reimagined the executioner figure as a knight-errant. The imagery is appalling; it takes society’s disgust with itself, and turns it into a heroic point of pride. And sadly, The Death Dealer became perhaps its creator’s most famous and popular work.

Cat Girl (1984)

But no matter how odious some of Frazetta’s imagery could get, he always came up with something that redeemed his more offensive moments. It was usually the women who saved him. Cat Girl (1984) is a reworking of a 1967 magazine cover illustration. The most popular of his later efforts, it is a lusciously atmospheric inversion of adolescent male anxieties about women and sex. The protagonist is a gorgeous, plushly-figured woman, wholly unabashed by her nudity and the viewer’s gaze. Everything about her speaks to her desire to be seen as a sexual object. But she is flanked on all sides by leopards--the deadliest and most agile of predators--and while they appear willing to let one approach, there’s no knowing if they’ll let one depart. The protagonist may be offering sex, or she may be using it as a lure to one’s doom, or she may be doing both. One looks at her and feels both lust and terror. That tension is not an unusual subject for a painting. Pablo Picasso evoked it in 1907's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (click here), considered by many to be the greatest painting of the twentieth century. It is also present in Henri Matisse’s 1904 masterwork Carmelina (click here.) Cat Girl is nowhere near the level of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon--Frazetta can’t begin to compete with Picasso’s stylistic originality—but I think it’s a stronger work than the Matisse. Carmelina explores the subject entirely through characterization; its central dynamic is the contrast between the harshness of the protagonist’s face and the sensuousness of her body. Frazetta’s treatment is far more poetic; the drama is created through metaphor. I think Cat Girl is the finest thing he ever did, and one notes that he was extremely fond of it himself. The original was kept framed above the drawing board in his studio.

I could discuss more. This talk of how Frazetta once outdid Matisse makes me want to visit the subject of fine art versus illustration, and how few illustrators apart from Doré will ever stand alongside the giants of Western fine art. I feel the compulsion to talk about how Frazetta, a wonderful illustrator at his best, could never be considered a great painter. But enough. As one of his audience, I always end up coming back to my awe at his figure drawing and my delight in his rendering ability. No matter how repellent I find some of his images, I admire others a great deal. Frazetta was a working-class guy, so I imagine he preferred beer to wine. So with that in mind, let’s kick back and raise a mug in his honor. His work offers more than enough justification for a toast.

Untitled and undated painting, most likely from the early 1980s.

The comments for the original, unrevised post were rather lively. Click here to read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Short Take: Strangers on a Train

The 1951 thriller Strangers on a Train may be Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining film. A rich layabout (Robert Walker) becomes acquainted with a champion tennis player (Farley Granger) during a train ride. He knows about the athlete's marital troubles, and he proposes what he considers a perfect bargain. In exchange for murdering the athlete's wife, he wants the athlete to do away with his detested father. That way, both their problems are solved. Since the two are otherwise strangers, neither would have a discernible motive, and the police would never suspect them. The athlete refuses to take the idea seriously, but the layabout is perfectly earnest. After the train ride ends, he won't accept their going their separate ways. He kills the athlete's wife, and tries to coerce the athlete with blackmail: Commit the murder, or be framed for one. The plotting is ingenious, and Hitchcock delivers some of his finest suspense sequences. They range from the spectacular (the climactic fight aboard a runaway merry-go-round) to the amusingly mundane (trying to retrieve a lighter from a storm sewer). The visual tropes, most notably the eyeglasses signifying murder, are used to brilliant and varied effect. The two stars are perfect. Farley Granger has a too-polite, go-along-to-get-along softness that makes his character seem a natural target for manipulation. Robert Walker takes the viewer right inside the layabout's joy in scheming and perversity. The best thing about the performance is the creepy, vaguely effeminate manner he affects. It gives the layabout's interest in the athlete a strong homoerotic edge, and one is never quite sure of where he wants to take their relationship. Overall, the various intrigues are marvelously played. The director has never seemed so light on his feet. The film is loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1950 debut novel. The screenplay is credited to Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, although reportedly none of Chandler's work is present in the completed film. The actual script was written by Ormonde with Hitchcock and Hitchcock's wife Alma. Kasey Rogers, who plays the ill-fated wife, is credited as Laura Elliot. The other cast members include Ruth Roman, Marion Lorne, and Patricia Hitchcock (the director's daughter). The fine black-and-white cinematography is by Robert Burks.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Explaining the Joke

This essay was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on September 28, 2011.

Many of you have probably seen this. It was created by the blogger D. B. Echo, who posted it online on August 15, 2010. It has since gone viral. Paul Krugman himself posted it to his New York Times blog on September 18. I saw it a little while later when Warren Craghead added it to his Facebook page. Nearly everyone I know thinks it’s the most laugh-out-loud funny thing they’ve seen in a good while. I believe it might be worth discussing why.

For those not familiar with Paul Krugman, he’s a Princeton economics professor who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. He is also one of the most prominent journalists in the United States. Since 1999, the New York Times has published a biweekly column by him. It was joined a few years ago by a frequently updated blog. Krugman is also a mainstay of news-discussion programs on television. He most frequently appears on ABC’s This Week.

Krugman’s prominence as a journalist comes from his being one of the few genuinely contrarian voices in the U. S. establishment media. He’s a knowledgeable principle-before-party liberal, and he’s not afraid to call anyone out. Democrats, Republicans, his peers in the press and the economics profession--none are exempt from his incisive and occasionally polemical critiques. Krugman was George W. Bush’s most consistently outspoken critic during his presidency. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, it often seemed Krugman was the only figure giving a public voice to those who objected to the administration’s conduct. He has also proved a thorn in the side of Barack Obama. Krugman has frequently criticized the inadequacy of Obama’s economic policies and legislative strategies. A good deal of his writing for the Times these days is concerned with puncturing right-wing economic arguments and disparaging the international trend towards austerity policy. His views are so much at odds with others in the U. S. media and political establishment that he may be the closest thing we have to a latter-day Cassandra. The only consolation is that he speaks for the multitudes that have found themselves marginalized by--if not outright victims of--the political discourse in both the U. S. and abroad.

The picture above isn’t of Krugman, of course. It’s of actor George Clooney, in what is probably the most famous still from the 2005 film Syriana, which Clooney starred in and helped produce. (He won an Oscar for his performance.) It’s probably Clooney’s least glamorous role. To play it, he gained 35 pounds, grew a full beard, and shaved his hairline. The character is a middle-aged CIA operative in the Middle East who grows increasingly disgusted with the shortsightedness, double-dealing, and overreaching tendencies of his superiors. The moment depicted is when he reaches his breaking point and turns on the agency. One wouldn’t normally think of Clooney and Paul Krugman as lookalikes, but the beard, paunch, and salt-and-pepper hair make them all but indistinguishable from a distance.

Humor is rooted in dissonance, and a good deal of what makes D. B. Echo’s effort funny is the contrast between the Clooney character’s affect and Krugman’s normal public demeanor. Krugman’s detractors often characterize his writing as “shrill,” but he’s a polite, genial fellow in his public appearances. No matter how pointed his arguments with George Will (his usual TV foil) and others get, he never raises his voice or acts rudely. He’s by no means passive, but he’s hardly intimidating, either. One looks at the Clooney character’s ticked-off, don’t-mess-with-me attitude, and one can’t help but think that’s what’s simmering underneath Krugman’s calm exterior. The burning car is the icing on the cake. It’s a sensational trope for a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment. The frustrations of arguing in vain are recast as violent, action-adventure melodrama.

What pushes this piece beyond funny and makes it outright hilarious, at least for some of us, is that Krugman has become an icon of liberal politics in this country. He’s become an identification figure--a synecdoche, if you will--of liberals in the contemporary U. S. If one considers oneself liberal, or at least to the left of the establishment political discourse over the last decade or so, one likely sees Krugman as one’s voice in the debate and champion in the arena. One feels the frustration of seeing one’s objections to the military actions and oligarchic economic policies borne out by what has followed, and one imagines on some level (with justification) that Krugman shares these views. One gets tired of the talk--the efforts “to reason with you people”--and one imagines oneself saying the hell with it in a spectacularly defiant moment. The identification with Krugman that one brings to the image becomes one’s identification with the scenario it shows. It’s quite cathartic, but the absurdity of imagining Krugman playing out that large-than-life situation is compounded by the absurdity of seeing one playing it out oneself. Like much great humor, the piece invites the viewer to laugh at both what it depicts and oneself as well.

The D. B. Echo piece is text and imagery working together, and I can’t help but think of how its sophistication relates to comics. It does something one rarely sees from comics creators: the words decontextualize an image and recontextualize it in new terms. D. B. Echo treats the image poetically; he uses the text to transform the visual scenario into an allegory of an unrelated situation. Most comics treat the image as an end in itself; they don’t use it as a signifier that can be exploited for multiple meanings. What you see is what you get; everything is literal, and nothing is ambiguous. The D. B. Echo piece makes me wonder if that’s a distinction between comics that are mediocre and comics that offer more. Great comics should do what this piece does: transform the image to create a resonance that is both wide and deep.

However, all this pedantic analysis aside, D. B. Echo has given us something that’s brilliantly funny. I wanted to share it with those who haven’t seen it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Eras of Crumb

This is a revised version of an essay that was originally published on The Hooded Utilitarian on April 17, 2012.

From The East Village Other, October 4, 1968

The work of Robert Crumb has its challenges for critics and scholars. He has rarely committed himself to large projects; his work is mostly short pieces. He’s been a restless and prolific artist, and a fairly consistent one in terms of quality. Conceptually, he works from impulse, which leads to him maintaining an even keel in terms of execution: the drawing is invariably first-rate, and he never strays outside a certain range with his approach to emphasis and pacing. And there’s a fair amount of diversity to his material; one can’t say that if one has read one Crumb strip, one has read them all. Even pieces in the same thematic vein have enough differences to defy efforts to treat one as representative of the whole. But a responsibility of critics and scholars is to distill an artist’s oeuvre down to something manageable for a prospective audience. Walt Whitman, for instance, published nearly 400 poems in his career compendium Leaves of Grass, but knowledgeable critics can generally limit the number of particularly worthwhile ones down to at most a dozen consensus choices. With Crumb, though, almost no one can agree on which strips to single out, and it's rare for one to be especially committed to the efforts one picks over others. Designating what constitutes Crumb’s most representative work can create a quandary for anyone who tries.

As such, I certainly understand the temptation to say, as Jeet Heer does, that “the whole of Crumb should be seen as a single project.” If the choices are that difficult, why make them? Isn’t it best to just say there are no short cuts to understanding Crumb’s work? If one wants to engage with his material, one must engage with all of it?

I understand, but I can’t agree. I think it’s an abrogation of critical responsibility. Besides giving new readers a starting point (and highlighting for others what they may have missed), a critic has an obligation to explain what an artist’s work is about and the contribution it makes. This demands highlighting specific efforts to make those arguments. Claiming it’s all one project--and, implicitly, of equal significance--allows the critic to sidestep this duty. If one doesn’t make choices and argue for them, I’m not sure a critic can be said to be engaging with Crumb’s work very deeply at all. Breaking down his career into more manageable pieces is necessary.

When editing the results of the Best Comics Poll in 2011, I hit upon the idea of categorizing Crumb’s work by period. This is the strategy art historians use when dealing with figures such as Picasso, and I think it’s also applicable to Crumb. When it comes to getting a handle on Crumb’s career, this probably offers the best way to go about it. One can characterize the material in terms of the various periods--I believe the groupings are easier to agree on than the relative merit of individual pieces--and then highlight the efforts one feels best reflects Crumb’s work at the time in question. With the poll, I designated two of Crumb’s periods as the Counterculture Era and the Weirdo Era. I’d like to expand on that with a list of six distinct periods that cover his career: Tyro, Early Counterculture, Later Counterculture, Post-Counterculture, Weirdo, and Illustration. The categories aren’t perfect; there is overlap between them. But I believe they sum up Crumb pretty well. The following are my thoughts on the periods and what one will find in them.

From "Harlem Sketchbook," Help! #22 (January 1965)

The Tyro period begins with Crumb’s adolescence, and the amateur strips and fanzines from that time. It continues into his career as an aspiring commercial artist, and ends in 1966. For the most part, what one sees here is Crumb developing his craft as a draftsman and cartoonist. The highlights include Crumb’s greeting-card work for American Greetings, the Harlem and Bulgaria illustrations he produced for Help! magazine, and the 1960s adventures of Fritz the Cat. This is the material in the first three volumes of Fantagraphics Books’ The Complete Crumb Comics. The highlights all appear in the third book.

The work of the Early Counterculture period is the material that earned Crumb his fame, and I firmly believe it is far and away his most important contribution. These are the comics from 1967 and 1968, and they include the strips in Zap Comix #0 and #1, the Cheap Thrills album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the various contributions to underground newspapers such as Yarrowstalks and The East Village Other. (These strips are featured in The Complete Crumb Comics Volumes 4 and 5, as well as in the Head Comix collection.) With this work, Crumb introduced the thinking of the Beats (and their Surrealist forebears) to comics. The work rejected the sanitized, conformist, and commercialized modes that defined the field. Instead, it embraced an improvisatory spirit, complete freedom of imagination, and a sardonic, gritty view of the surrounding world.

From Zap Comix #1 (1968)

Conceptually, the work also reflected a major development in the world of fine art. The dominant mode of painting in the 1950s had been abstract expressionism, which had taken existentialist improvisation to its extreme end: content was gone; all that mattered was evoking impulse, feeling, and mood using stroke, line, and color. Pop Art, the movement that followed, was the opposite: it favored dissonance over direct emotion, and it embraced the totems of the commercial culture that abstract expressionists were rejecting through their move away from representationalist imagery. The late 1960s brought a synthesis: the imagery and styles of popular culture were imbued with the abstract expressionists’ existential intensity. The key figure in painting was Philip Guston, a former abstract expressionist who used cartoon Klansmen and Cyclopses to dramatize feelings of doubt, anxiety, and self-loathing. Crumb's Early Counterculture work preceded the Guston paintings by at least a year. (Guston’s first cartoon paintings were exhibited in 1969.) But Crumb was working in the same stylistic space: the imagery of commercial art, particularly that of the Depression era, was made to serve his every expressive impulse and narrative whim. The Early Counterculture work not only defined Crumb as a major figure in the world of comics; it’s earned him a spot in the history of 20th century visual art as well.

The Later Counterculture period, which encompasses 1969 through 1976 (Volumes 5 through 11 of The Complete Crumb Comics), may very well feature Crumb’s most controversial work. Jeet Heer, for one, has identified this as the period when Crumb became Crumb. As Heer notes, Crumb came under the influence of S. Clay Wilson: “Wilson was the artist who unchained Crumb’s unconscious, who gave the final push for Crumb to shove aside his internal censor and be utterly honest...” Heer and others feel this work is when Crumb came into his own as an artist. Others, though, see it as when his work turned a nasty and unfortunate corner. Conceptually, it degenerated into a very ugly solipsism. There's a fascination with taboo: racism, violent misogyny, incest, sexualized children--all rendered from the mindset of a pornographer. A harsh and intellectually shallow anger towards society emerges as well. Crumb did some of his most popular work during this period--Home Grown Funnies, by some accounts, is his largest-selling publication--but others may find the material boorish and fundamentally uninteresting.

Cover to American Splendor #4 (1979)

I have to say that the most impressive material from the Post-Counterculture period--published between 1976 and 1979 and featured in The Complete Crumb Comics, Volumes 12 and 13--are among my favorites of Crumb’s work. It was during this period that Harvey Pekar began publishing his memoir-comics series American Splendor. Crumb was one of the cartoonists Pekar enlisted to illustrate the stories. Subordinating himself to another creator’s material got Crumb’s imagination out of the misanthropic box in which it had become so distastefully trapped. Pekar’s scripts, though gritty, didn’t reflect the same kinds of attitudes. The material was humane, it valued naturalism, and it relied on quiet ironies for its effects. The demands of illustrating it seemed to awaken something in Crumb. He developed an impressive command of dramatic nuance while working on the stories. I’m not alone in thinking these collaborations are among the best comic-book comics of the pre-graphic-novel era.

A Short History of America (1979; revised 1988)

The best work Crumb did during this time was 1979’s “A Short History of America,” a 12-panel strip (expanded to 15 panels in 1988) that was first published in the CoEvolution Quarterly. At the time, Crumb had been doing some environmentally themed editorial cartoons for the publication, but this piece certainly ranks all of them. It focuses on a single expanse of land from decades past, and, in each succeeding panel, shows how that land evolved with the times up to the present day. It’s poetic; Crumb defines and redefines the image so the changes to it become the piece’s content. He is understated with his social critique, and the dispassionate tone makes the point--that technological development gradually corrupts and devastates the land--all the more powerful. It’s a extraordinarily effective piece of work.

However, as strong as the best of the material from the Post-Counterculture period is, a good deal of it is among the worst of Crumb’s career. Apart from the work with Pekar and the CoEvolutionioary Quarterly, Crumb was more acidly misanthropic than ever. As R. Fiore wrote in 1988, “As the ‘70s wore on Crumb wore down. Crumb’s stories got to be like a continuing saga entitled Four Pages of Bitching.” Fiore also notes that things reached the point where he gave up entirely on Crumb’s work for a time. His observation is accurate; the negativity of the material is extremely tiresome and repetitive.

Cover to Weirdo #14 (Fall 1985)

Many think the material from the Weirdo period, from 1980 to 1993 (and largely collected in Volumes 14 through 17 of The Complete Crumb Comics), constitutes Crumb’s best work. If one is of the opinion that the Late Counterculture work is better than that from the Early Counterculture period, that judgment is understandable. But it’s not one I share. Crumb's imagination is still trapped in the same box. The major difference is that the dramatic skills he developed while working with Pekar allow the material to breathe a bit more. Also, his CoEvolutionary Quarterly contributions, which was modeled after the work of 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, sparked a greater interest in rendering technique. The art gains a superficial gravitas. But conceptually, most of it is not much different than the material he produced during much of the 1970s. The efforts at satire are shrill and shallow, and often devolve into rants. He tries his hand at Pekar-style verité pieces, but these tend to be tiresomely self-pitying on the one hand, or outright obnoxious on the other. (The nadir of the latter strips is probably “Memories Are Made of This,” in which he recounts his date-rape of an acquaintance.) Again, the highlights come when Crumb escapes from his solipsism by engaging with another author. His collaborations with wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb have a pleasant breeziness, and he does well with a few of the adaptation pieces (such as of James Boswell or Richard von Krafft-Ebing). Crumb fans will certainly find the period of interest. One can easily see his development from what came before, as well as the seeds for what comes next.

From the Vues de Sauve portfolio (1991)

After the Weirdo period, Crumb entered what I call the Illustration period, which is where he is now. He doesn’t appear terribly interested in producing comics anymore. His efforts for the past two decades have been largely given over to producing single-image illustrations. It’s a logical progression from his work in the 1980s. As noted, he developed a greater interest in rendering technique, and his most striking efforts during that time are probably the intensively cross-hatched cover drawings he produced for Weirdo magazine. When one looks at his best work from the Illustration period, namely the Art & Beauty issues, or the Vues de Sauve portfolio pieces, one sees an artist who just wants to enjoy his ability to make handsome pictures. Introducing Kafka and The Book of Genesis, the two major comics projects, seem in retrospect efforts to find a halfway point between comics and illustration, but the monotonous dramatizations in the latter demonstrate that comics no longer much engage Crumb’s interest. If one approaches Genesis as a collection of single-image illustrations of the Biblical verses, it seems a more successful effort. That project may well be a coda to his career. Illustration may be the place Crumb has chosen to retire.

In closing, this is one critic’s analysis and evaluation of Crumb’s career. I hope it’s of more interest than a pronouncement that his work is a single big project and one should just read all of it. Breaking his work down into distinct periods does, I think, help one to get a better handle on Crumb, no matter what one’s opinion of this or that individual effort. I certainly don’t think this essay is the last word. With Crumb, no essay ever is.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rereading the Locas Stories

This is revised version of an essay that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on March 26, 2012. It was a contribution to a roundtable on Jaime Hernandez's work. For the index to the roundtable, click here.

Over the last several weeks, in preparation for this roundtable, I’ve been rereading the Locas material I have on my bookshelves. This is volumes 1 through 11 of the original Complete Love and Rockets trade paperback series. It covers the first dozen or so years of Jaime Hernandez’s career, beginning with the early “Mechanics” efforts and culminating with "Wigwam Bam." For those familiar with the current publishing plan for the work, these are the stories in Maggie the Mechanic, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., and nearly the first half of Perla la Loca. Because of the recent attention given to the stories "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglers," I've sat down with them as well. Here are some thoughts and observations.

I’m still in awe of Hernandez’s draftsmanship, design sense, and all-but-unsurpassed skills as a visual dramatist. And I again found myself impatient with the bulk of his stories, which are invariably slight and undeveloped. Most never get beyond the level of sketches, and the longer they are, the more meandering they tend to be. (“The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and "Wigwam Bam," the most ambitious of the extended pieces, are inchoate sprawls.) In general, Hernandez doesn’t tell stories so much as play voyeur on his characters. His work often feels like the comics equivalent of a reality TV show, albeit one shot by a world-class cinematographer.

This is perhaps what gives Maggie, Hopey, and the others the quality that makes his fans see the characters as real as people in their own lives. (The elegant visuals also provide a basis for aesthetic appreciation that isn't available for viewers of The Real World or Jon & Kate + 8.) In most narratives, characters are in service to the larger effect of the story. This leads to aspects of their personalities being heightened for the story’s purpose. But since Hernandez’s narratives are often not conceived in terms of overall effect, the heightening is absent, and the result for some is that the characters become a source of relaxation in the manner of hanging out with one’s friends. For my part, I can’t enjoy characters and narratives in this way. I tend to see characters in stories as a means to an end, not the end in themselves.

I don’t think all of Hernandez’s stories are negligible. There are times when he demonstrates the narrative chops of a good prose-fiction writer, particularly with the short character studies he produced between “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and "Wig Wam Bam." The smartly constructed “Tear It Up, Terry Downe” makes deft, varied use of irony and reversal, and it has a good sense of humor besides. “Spring 1982” is beyond smart; it’s fairly masterful. Here, irony and reversals are used as effectively for dramatic purposes as they were for comic ones in “Terry Downe.” Hernandez takes the reader inside the Doyle Blackburn character, his propensity for violence, and his feelings of self-disgust. One sees the character’s violence from all sides: how it allows him to make his way in the world, how it defines and disrupts his relationships, and how it stands in the way of his finding any lasting fulfillment. The running-water motif is brilliantly used to organize and pace the narrative. This piece and "Terry Downe" can hold their own with most contemporary fiction.

“Flies on the Ceiling” is generally cited as the most accomplished of the stories from this period. It’s about the efforts of the Isabel Reubens character to flee her sense of guilt, and how this has resulted in that guilt defining her. With this story, Hernandez has moments of artistry more dazzling than he has ever shown elsewhere. Montage is used in a brilliant variety of ways: to condense the passage of time, to dramatize multiple perspectives, and to render the central character’s internal conflicts. Dream sequences are stunningly used to escalate the narrative tension. The command of pace and rhythm at times is nothing short of astonishing: in particular, the shifts between condensed-time single-moment montages to standard multi-panel scenes feel as natural as can be.

But it’s maddening when Hernandez undermines this largely tour de force effort midway through. The two-page dialogue between Isabel and the devil (who personifies the guilt she can’t escape) is exasperating. The sources of her guilt are made thuddingly, redundantly explicit. Worse, the scene degenerates into a taunting match, which disrupts the carefully wrought tone that comes before and afterward. The rest of the story moves up and down the scale of portent, and this scene completely throws one out of that. Hernandez regains his footing once he moves on, but the wrongheadedness still leaves one wanting to punch the wall.

I’m also put off by Hernandez’s insistence on building effects out of one’s knowledge of Isabel from other stories. A minor example is the gang-member tattoo she sports on her shoulder. The tattoo is an ideal trope for being unable to escape the past, and Hernandez certainly calls attention to it. But he doesn’t make any other reference to her gang experiences. If one doesn’t know or recall the earlier material, it comes across as an ostensibly relevant but conspicuously undeveloped detail--in short, a lapse. The story’s ending is similarly problematic, although on a much greater scale. The devil tells Isabel, “I may turn up as flies on your ceiling.” Now for those who have read “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and recognize the reference to Isabel’s dissociative episodes, this means quite a bit. The guilt that has haunted her is going to return in bouts of madness. The phrase “flies on your ceiling” is a fairly chilling trope. But if one hasn’t read the earlier story or doesn’t remember it, how is one supposed to take this? In light of the devil’s other statements to Isabel, especially “You’re not afraid anymore,” one is apt to think the devil, having lost his hold on her, is exiting in a moment of empty bravado. It comes across as a hollow taunt. That’s exactly the opposite of what’s intended! Hernandez tries to build the ending out of an Easter egg for his long-term readership, and he ends up with the yolk on his face.

Hernandez’s Easter-egg storytelling tactics were present even before “Flies on the Ceiling.” If the more recent stories “Browntown” and “The Love Bunglers” are any indication, they have become an increasingly integral aspect of his material. Hernandez’s admirers don’t see this as solipsistic or undisciplined, though. Rather, it’s indicative of how the Locas stories are, to quote Jeet Heer, “a wonderfully cohesive and organic work.” One can expect the comparisons to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy to follow. (Click here.) However, Proust and Updike, unlike Hernandez, didn’t take reckless chances on confusing the reader. The narrative plan of Proust’s work is in place from the start, and Updike took care to design the individual Rabbit books as reasonably autonomous units. Proust’s framing scene and his “Swann in Love” novella notwithstanding, the two authors also develop their narratives chronologically. Hernandez, by contrast, just seems to be making it up as he goes. The stories superficially appear to be autonomous pieces, but they’re not. They also jump back and forth across the timeline of Hernandez’s narrative world, but they require that one read them in the order they were created to be properly understood. “Flies on the Ceiling,” for example, takes place before the Maggie-and-Hopey narrative that grounds the series, but one has to read “The Death of Speedy Ortiz,” which was created first but takes place much later, for it to have its full intended effect.

With Proust and Updike, one also notes that their narratives were strongly realized from the very first page. The dozens of pages prior to “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” (generally seen as the beginning of Hernandez’s more ambitious work) are thinly conceived banality, and a good deal of what follows isn’t much of a step up. But one still has to wade through it all to fully grasp the more accomplished pieces. The Locas stories have their moments, but overall, they're an erratic, haphazardly conceived mess.

(After this article first appeared, Fantagraphics Books, Hernandez's publisher, started comparing Hernandez to Updike on the jacket copy of his books. It's a peculiar move for reasons aside from the ones given above. Updike's work, for all its virtues, is notoriously sexist and WASP-centric. It doesn't seem a desirable comparison to make when marketing work about the life and times of a bisexual Hispanic woman and her circle of friends.)

Hernandez doesn’t really remind one of Proust or Updike. The most analogous figure is a contemporary, Cerebus cartoonist Dave Sim. The two cartoonists--both technical virtuosos--came along when open-ended serials were the norm for comics, but they weren’t very far into their careers before literary fiction began to assert itself as a new model. Caught in a transitional period (one they admittedly helped bring about), they tried to create work that combined the values of both approaches.

Hernandez's Easter-egg aesthetic is a conspicuous reflection of this. He's transplanting highbrow literary effects into a serial-fiction structure. The applause this has earned from certain circles of comics fandom isn't surprising. As anyone who's been around a Trekkie knows, particularly obsessive fans place a high value on details and resonances that more casual audiences miss. It's unfortunate that Hernandez, with all his talent, undercuts his work by catering to this proclivity at a larger readership's expense.

That said, I do think Hernandez’s work is somewhat better than Sim’s. It’s far less of a thematic free-for-all, and unlike Sim, Hernandez smartly ditched the pulp and children’s-entertainment aspects of his material before they became incongruous with his ambitions. But he and Sim both ended up with very similar things: artistic projects that are unwieldy leviathans, intermittently brilliant, but ultimately accessible to only a devoted cult audience. One wishes it was otherwise, but Hernandez's material is what it is, and one can only accept or reject it. In my case, it's the latter.