5.01.2009

Graphic Novel Of The Month

Strips, Toons, and Bluesies: Essays in Comics & Culture (Princeton Architectural Press): There are many books about comic books out there. When you’re flipping through one and find the work of Winsor McCay, The Killer by Jacamon & Matz, Tijuana Bibles, Jimmy Corrigan, and the first appearance of Black Panther in Fantastic Four, such an eclectic blend of selections might be worth a look. Overall, Strips, Toons, and Bluesies does a good job showing the progression from the origin of comic books (leaning heavily on Toppfer’s The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck from 1842 – which is precisely why I cite that year in “About Me” over there -> on the side), to newspaper strips, to collected editions of said strips, to the staggering sales and market penetration numbers of the pre and post-War period. The essays cover the influence of the subversive Tijuana Bibles, the temporary decline and eventual rise of superheroes (and their self-perpetuating presence in the direct market), and glosses quickly over the Seduction of the Innocent period. It hits good notes around the underground “comix” movement centered largely in 1960’s San Francisco, understands some of the present day mini-comics dynamic, touches on alternative comics, and spends some quality time discussing taboos around African-American depictions in the 1960’s and how comics may have been unwitting allies in the Civil Rights Movement, being the first to adopt stereotype-defying depictions and self-reflexive commentary. For my taste, a little too much time is spent on the Hernandez Brothers of Love & Rockets fame (but that’s just personal preference), though the points about their artistic style are certainly in depth and handled with great critical respect. There are a few points I disagreed with, one in particular quite strongly. While some complimentary observations about mini-comics are to be found, such as “the diligence, commitment, and wit of today’s mini-comic artists impresses,” the authors counter them with confounding statements like “I’ll confess that I find the attachment to hand-lettering medieval.” Really? Medieval? That’s a pretty strong word to throw around. Why? Isn’t hand-lettering endemic to the mini-comic, which is hand drawn, hand assembled, and usually “mass produced” at Kinko’s – all sans involvement of the personal computer? One could just as easily say that computer lettering is cold, clinical, impersonal, and soulless (not to mention inaccessible without said PC) without backing it up with any further explanation. I don’t mind an opposing opinion or bold statement, just elaborate and explain why. The book never does. It just moves right on to sweeping characterizations like “all the variations on the not-Marvel-or-DC theme – underground, alternative, and mini; amateur and professional – share persistent motifs: brooding remembrances of childhood, a weakness for revenge fantasies, self-absorption, alienation, anxiety about authority, and an adolescent sense of melodrama. Comics can seem like an illustrated literature of loserdom.” Wow. Such a pinnacle of generalization and incorrect positioning, lacking any real empirical evidence to support its own conclusion. How many comics have these academics actually read? Notice that the piece doesn’t say “most” of these comics or even “the vast majority,” which I might have agreed with, or certainly not objected to as completely. In no uncertain terms, it says “all” of these comics. I’d grant you that maybe 80% of mini-comics could fit that bill even, but to say “all” and then expand the scope of your argument to include underground, alternative, basically anything not published by DC or Marvel – that’s just ridiculous. One need only look at the output of small publishers like Sparkplug Comics, Oni Press, Archaia Studios Press, Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Elephant Eater, AdHouse, etc., etc. (this list is essentially endless), or hell, even any of the mini-comics I’ve done (ranging from low budget crime tales to the hypocrisy of Corporate America) to adequately refute the book’s broad claim. That major blunder aside, the book does provide a good high level summary of the industry’s rise and spotlights some issues that don’t necessarily often get discussed much in similar books about the medium, such as the direct market phenomenon. Strips, Toons, and Bluesies makes the observation that “underground and alternative comics are now rarely, if ever, sold in heads shops and the like, they are confined by this ‘direct market’ to the superhero comic shop it serves, and superhero comic shops are the worst place to sell anything other than superhero comics.” For example, Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, considered a success in most circles, manages only to sell approximately 20,000 copies per issue through the direct market venue, yet that number is still only less than half of what a run of the mill 1970’s underground comic sold. “Perhaps the publishers of underground comics should court not only literary bookstores but also head shops and porn shops, to get back to the world of sex and drugs from which they came. After all, more average Americans smoke pot and buy vibrators than read Aquaman.” Love that! By covering such a wide swath here (oh, let’s say the history of the entire comics industry), the book is understandably a little quirky about where it chooses to focus and spend time discussing issues, but what is chosen is (mostly) done remarkably well. The editors included a timeline of significant industry events, which I enjoyed because it’s not necessarily a standard linear timeline. It looks more like the diagram that Jack Black’s character does of the “history of Rock & Roll” in the movie School of Rock, with lines of influence going everywhere, Motown to the side, British punk and The Clash over here, Rolling Stones about there, Dylan influencing Springsteen up there, etc. It simultaneously tracks film animation as a corollary art form, distribution methods, and significant advances in printing and production. This was a very original and thought provoking way of framing the timeline. I found a 2004 publication date on this, so it may be a bit dated, but I was surprised to find it (having never seen or heard of it before) in my museum store on a 50% off table during a recent sale! It is still available on Amazon, eBay, etc. Grade A-.

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