As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I have a long and abiding love of the autobiographical work of Mr. Eddie Campbell– a man perhaps forever followed by “the artist best known, along with writer Alan Moore, for creating From Hell.” I’ve nothing but admiration for From Hell, but by virtue of its subject and co-creator, the murder book inevitably overshadows Campbell’s achievements with his autobiographical works, which are massive.
Of the four so-called Alec books, my dead on favorite is How To Be An Artist. It’s not simply my favorite work by Campbell, but my favorite work in comics, period. As this is a wildly idiosyncratic choice in many ways symbolic of the Ideal, I decided that it was time to once more crack the old bastard open.
Told across 14 chapters, How To Be An Artist is expansive and messy– in its 128 pages, it’s partly a history of Campbell-as-Alec’s life and early professional career, partly an examination of Art with the capital A, partly an exploration of what it means to be an artist, and partly a history of comics in the 80s and the Rise and Fall of the First Wave of the Graphic Novel. Every page bursts with ideas, visual and verbal.
I chose this page because it demonstrates several of Campbell’s techniques. Most apparent is the 9-panel grid giving the illusion of Sequential Narrative. Certainly, Artist has sequential moments, but it’s better understood as a series of one-off panels on an overarching theme. Occasionally, as in the first tier, these panels will be narratively interrelated, but often as not they’ll be meditations on a central idea occupying either the book, the chapter, or perhaps just the page.
Tying the panels together is the hand-lettered narrative. Several things here are remarkable. It’s in the second person, which is difficult enough, but it’s also present tense. This device is one of the hardest things for a writer in any field, let alone on pages dominated by drawings. Campbell never loses the surety of his voice.
Interestingly, there are some pages where Campbell drifts near a Stan Lee level of word count per page, but because there’s no attempt to have a cohesion amongst the individual drawings, a really wordy chunk can be put with something that’s almost a sketch. The key is flexibility, where the final impact is a balance measured against itself and its page. We also see several examples of Campbell’s sampling & collage. Being a history of comics and art, Campbell gleefully throws in work from his various friends and forbearers. Again, what impresses is the flexibility of his page and the ability of the so-called medium of comics to incorporate anything.
For the record, this is the only time in the history of comics that an artist living in Thatcher’s Britain is happy. Just saying.
Fuck, this page is awesome. Beginning with a pleasant enough drawing of the Artist intoxicated on the apparent success of the ’80s graphic novel boom, Campbell quickly moves to the bastard sons of achievement: gossip and jealousy. In this case, the rumor is that beardo Alan Moore has bought his mother a house with his big 1980s American dollars– Campbell then establishes that, in truth, Moore bought his mother a greenhouse. For her plants. The greenhouse is then employed as a literary and visual metaphor for a very universal condition of envying another person’s success.
Tier three is where the whole thing becomes a masterpiece. The previous set of ideas are enough for another person’s entire book, but Campbell then gets all Socratic and riffs in the final three panels on an idea that’s not only funny, but also deadly true. I distinctly remember reading this page in 2003 and feeling like I was encounter a glimpse of a great insight: other people’s successes have nothing to do with your own, nor your failures.
So much of our culture, especially amongst folks inclined towards the arts, involves hating other people for their success. But, really, why? What’s the point? This isn’t to say that one can’t call The Dark Knight Returns a shit book, or that one shouldn’t wonder if Frank Miller is not one of our leading intellectual lights, but there’s a huge difference between disliking an artist, or an artist’s work, and resenting them for their success.
Now, with all that Ayn Randian blather out and done, draw your attention back to that third tier: it’s nothing but a bunch of very loose sketches, almost stick figures, beneath about 100 words. Dudes like Joe Quesada will go on and on about how comics can do things that no other form can– like show a jackass in tights lifting a car while eating prunes– and that I won’t deny, but these three panels demonstrate exactly what separates comics from every other form of expression.
Basically, you can’t do that anywhere but here.
There’s probably a very dense and boring book published by Fantagraphics tracing the development of Cinematographic Technique in comics– beginning surely with E.C. and the endlessly flogged “Master Race” of Krigstein– but I think it’s fair to say that the major recent milestones were the massive success of the first X-Men and Matrix films.
Together, these films represent the moment when the Great Beast of Hollywood realized that CGI had made flying dudes credible & when the Great Beast and the world’s various mainstream comics artists, writers, and publishers glommed on to a new truth: that action oriented comics could be used as idea incubators for massive media rollouts. Storyboarding itself is nothing new, but with the technology to render on film anything that can be drawn, comics present the novelty of having a completed product which has been, in theory, market tested.
This gets us to 30 Days of Night, the comic most recently adapted for the big screen. I haven’t seen the film, but a few guinea pigs have assured me that it’s terrible. One might note that the original comic series is also trash & is a work that embarrasses its readers by forcing them to think that somewhere, somehow Grown Adults put endless hours into its production– yes, one could, but one will not. For if nothing else, a work should be embraced on its own terms, and judged as to whether or not succeeds in its own purpose.
Therefore, discussing 30 Days of Night as though it were a comic is unfair. Better to recognize the thing for what it is: a visual outline, a treatment conceived for an eventual screenplay, developed entirely around a relatively high-level concept (Vampires in Alaska with No Sun and All Fun) and employing a condensed visual staccato in support of the concept. To expect character development, plot intrigue, coherent storytelling or even an ounce of depth is a great folly– the thing is what it is and nothing more.
Read as a pitch intended for the nancy boy personal assistants of Studio Executives here in the fiery city of Los Angeles, 30 Days of Night makes a perfect semiotic sense. Each panel reinforces either certain prevailing cultural stereotypes– the basic building blocks of genre filmmaking– or reminds the reader of nighttime or vampires, its two major motifs.
In terms of greater trends, 30 Days of Night is fascinating– as it was published in 2002, relatively early in the comic adaptation boom, I wonder if this is not the first book published entirely with the eventual film adaptation in mind. It’s a fascinating harbinger of the dark years ahead. 30 Days also speaks to an often abused aspect of comics– the incredible elasticity of the medium. Like cinema, comics can be anything and incorporate everything.
I’m reminded of late 60s Godard where 1/3 to 1/2 of any given film was guaranteed to be youthful Parisians reading Mao. Boring as it was, and perhaps not the intent of their creator, these films demonstrated that you can shove anything in a film and it’ll at least function. 30 Days of Night reminds us of the same thing in comics. You could shuffle the pages across its three individual issues and still have a functioning work. As much a quality of the artwork as of the writing, the books must be read as little more than extended riffs on the same three ideas: VAMPIRES. NIGHT. DEATH.
Given its intended function, 30 Days works perfectly. Yet if we went back and judged the series on its merits as a comic– keeping in mind our previously Idiosyncratic Ideal– we find that 30 Days of Night is entirely a failure, an unnecessary story ineptly told, existing without any purpose or reason. Is there a single person alive who needs 3 issues of one-dimensional vampires terrorizing one-dimensional humans? Did anyone enjoy the, ahem, Spartan attempts at a human interest love story? Was the art so compelling in its astounding approach to its rarefied topic that it changed forever how we, as readers, would think about vampires with no sun and all fun?
If there’s any love for comics in your heart, you could almost develop a Townie attitude and want to defend your home from the fancy fellas who’ve come in and mucked up your village green with their rotten litter.
Sitting one seat behind Roky Erickson at a screening of Creature With The Atom Brain, watching him watch the movie. And having the crowd’s laughter remind me of the rising tides of angst and embarrassment of Anthology Film Archives days. B-Movies and urban sophisticates mixing like vinegar and baking soda.
Is there such a thing as an Ideal Comic, and would anyone be foolish enough to try defining it?
Sure, why not?
Here’s a working definition: “A narrative which functions most perfectly
within graphic illustration.”
Clunky, but it hits the main points: it’s gotta be at least slightly narrative (otherwise you’re doing numbers in a series) and it’s gotta be something that works best within what people awkwardly call “the medium.” Graphic illustration sounds like porno circa 1964, but is a broad catch-all that avoids a favoring of, say, ink washes over photo collage. You’ll note that nothing is said about the limiting term “Sequential Art.” Narrative ain’t sequence, ladies.
This ad hoc definition ends the never ending battle of ART COMIX versus SUPERHEROS by indirectly pointing out, that, hey, both sides suck. We gather a strange insight from Jack T. Chick who, upon seeing Mao-era Chinese propaganda comics, realized that something about the essential cheapness and their very low threshold of entry (a pen and very modest talent), allows a didactic directness and immediacy unavailable in other artistic forms. In essence, Chick sussed out an unfortunate truth: if you’ve got something to say, but no way of saying it, you can always make a comic. In rough terms, this is why present day superhero comics are usually movies made by Hollywood failures or people with no hope of directing, and contemporary art comics are often boring roman-a-clef novels or memoirs authored by people who can’t write.
Rather than start off trashing people’s work, I’d like to try the novel approach of praising a few books that highlight the Ideal. First up is the recent Phonogram, by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. This is the best series I have read in four years.
Phonogram is about a bunch of British wanker magicians for whom music is their magic. The series rambles on about Britpop and is, to a certain frame of mind, readable as the final and inevitable apotheosis of record store employees and music journalists as Gods of Their Own Making. Is there a book which sounds more horrible? Britpop! Again: Britpop! Written and drawn by English people who like it! So. As one may deduce, this is a title with a lot going against it; and yet, it works. It really, really works.
This is not to say that there are not problems. The writing of the first issue, featuring a truly sad HEY! IT’S LESBIANS! reveal, is far weaker than the next five, and while I think McKelvie’s art is great, it must be said that the dude has a real problem drawing faces that I can differentiate. Thankfully, Phonogram‘s characters are all music hipsters, so they can be identified by hair styles and piercings. Theoretically, one could argue that this is an hilarious comment on the Follower Paradigm of popular music fronts, or that the characters were all born in the Forest of Dean, but I’m pretty sure neither is the case.
Also, yeah, it’s a six issue series about, you know, Britpop.
Minor complaints aside, Phonogram is the Ideal Comic. There’s no place but comics where a creative team could get away with this story and not be laughed out of the building, let alone be able to compellingly build an extremely dense symbolism on top of, well, Britpop. Britpop. Blur! Oasis! Manic Street Preachers! And lesser bands that you’ve never heard of! (We exclude Pulp from this sordid mess.) Used for necromancy and geomancy and every other -mancy striking the author’s fancy. Where else but comics could this work?
By sticking to a black-white-and-grey color scheme, McKelvie has achieved something close to a perfect method of having the graphics strengthen, inform and drive the narrative without overwhelming it. The use of half-tone is wonderful; it evokes the distant world of zines and mainstream publishing’s last gasp before it gave over to the Internet and Adobe. It unostentatiously reminds us that coming at 94-96, Britpop was the last hurrah before music fandom moved to the web, a place where it’s languished and withered on shit blogs and, worse yet, Pitchfork.
Gillen has chosen the only medium that could support the story’s essential goal– to examine what seemed, at the time, like a modern mythology being made from nothing. It’s too sparse for a novel, too dense for a film, and too weird for either. Pop music always has been about image and wish fulfillment; what better place to examine that kind of fantasy than comics?
That, basically, is Ideal.
And here’s one really great page:
Over the last few years there’s been so much upper middle class blather about comics as fine art that it’s overshadowed a far more significant development: the embrace of manga by the West’s 13 year old girls. In the not too distant future, a point will come where the vast majority of the mythic New Readers ages 13 through 25 shall have come to the form with no point of reference to traditions that have dominated in the Occident.
A few weeks ago, I attended a panel about the Future of Comics at the Los Angeles Public Library. Each of the guests proved to be thoughtful and concerned with comics but I came away with the impression that, with one exception, no one had any clue about the coming sea change. Let me put it this way: Daniel Clowes, an artist I admire very much, owes an enormous debt to the work of R. Crumb. Crumb, in turn, owes an enormous debt to the funny book animals of his youth, which in turn owe an enormous debt to early newspaper strips. Whomever is penciling New Avengers owes an enormous debt to those horrible guys at Image, who owe an enormous debt to Neal Addams and John Byrne, who both owe an enormous debt to Steve Ditko and especially Jack Kirby, who both owe an enormous debt to the newspaper strips of the 1930s.
Both chains of influence are totally arbitrary and made up on the spot to illustrate a point: no matter how far modern Western comics go in their varying directions, all strains are based on modalities of operation that have evolved over decades. The distance between an artist like Clowes from a book like New Avengers is far, far less than the distance of either from Naruto. If the New York Times has suddenly discovered that Whizz! Bang! Comics Aren’t For Kids! this revelation only came after they read, and understood, the basic language of the quote-pornographic-unquote Eightball #22. The idea of “not just for kids!” contains an implicit truth: each writer of the latest iteration of this kind of article must have, necessarily, read comics as a child. The reason why they now realize that Eightball is for adults is because they have a comparison with when they learned comics grammar in their youth.
If that’s confusing, let’s make it simple: go to Borders and choose a random manga title. Not good manga that’s been recommended by tastemakers, but just some crappy title about some crappy girl who loves some crappy guy who loves another crappy guy, none of whom will ever in a million years kiss, let alone have sex. Make sure everyone is in some kind of outfit you only vaguely recognize as clothing.
OK. Try and read that thing.
Come back when you’ve failed.
Right now all across America there are hundreds of thousands of early teenagers for whom that very book is no problem. To whom that book is Amazing Spider-Man #300. They speakee a different language than you, Kemo Sabe. Now, run that scenario in reverse, with those kids trying to read not only Ghost Rider #13 (guest starring World War Hulk!) but also Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings.
Two questions to ask are these: what happens when you have an entire generation of kids who’ve learned a different language? What happens when they grow up?
I’m really not sure. There’s an obvious counterargument, which is that kids seem to have no problem picking up accessible comics and understanding them– one of the few real success stories of the last years has been Jeff Smith’s Bone selling something like two and a half million copies in its Scholastic trade paperbacks. But I wonder if Bone‘s success is an indicator of anything other than the eternal appeal of a very specific style. If Disney had a clue, they could haul out the early Gottfredson Mickey Mouse strips and the Barks Duck stories and have the same trade success. Could Marvel? Would the Byrne/Claremont X-Men work with kids? Would any of the Spider-Man runs of John Romita, Jr.? (No offense to Romita. I’m a fan.) Would any of the “For Kids” comics being published by DC?
So. This has served as the preface to the multi-part examination I’ll be doing. The examination itself will not necessarily deal with this particular topic, but I suspect it will loom like a spectre over Europe. Influencing, dig?
Next post: I’ll define the Idiosyncratic Ideal of Comics using Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, probably the best series I’ve read in the last four years.
Amongst the comics cognoscenti, such as it is, there’s been yet another iteration of endless debate as to What Are Good Comics and Can’t They All Get Along brought on by Heidi McDonald’s slightly incoherent but well meaning post on the topic of the Chris Ware edited 2007 Best American Comics anthology. I haven’t read the Anthology, but I’m familiar with every artist in the anthology. Even though lots of her arguments are ridiculous, I do understand where McDonald’s coming from. Given the choice between reading 90% of the artists present and sitting around doing nothing, I’d rather do nothing. This isn’t to say I’d go and run and pick up, say, World War Hulk. I’d rather twiddle my thumbs and curse God.
Since I tend to find both ART COMIX and Superhero comics utterly horrible, I’ve decided to run a multi-piece exploration of What Makes Comics Good to my totally idiosyncratic tastes. But that’ll start tomorrow. In the meantime, I wanted to post the John Romita, Sr. cover to the recent Daredevil #94– it escaped me at the time of its publication, but I figure putting it here on the blog means I can come and look at it whenever.
Awesome. And for once, thank god, Marvel has managed to pair Romita with a colorist that doesn’t make the thing look horrendous– I remember a few pages from Amazing Spider-Man about 3 years ago where the coloring totally destroyed the art work and made it seem as if Romita had lost the touch. My only complaint is how weirdly placed the logo is– but that’s comics design. Awful as usual.
Also, by the way: Dave Sim has admitted that I am one of the most important people alive.
In its luridness, the film comes very close to mirroring the sensationalist and gory popular entertainments of the Elizabethan era. These were the years that gave the world The Spanish Tragedy and Kit Marlowe, a man who penned Tamburlaine braining himself against his bars and the Jew of Malta boiling to death. Decades later and John Ford, the last great playwright in the tradition, would author The Broken Heart, in which our protagonist opens his veins and bleeds out on stage. There’s a whole spectrum of red hues and coagulate gore in them years and I would argue that Golden Age functions exactly and properly along those lines.
Once one gives up cherished notions of What a Costume Drama Should Be and accepts Golden Age as something else then it’s easy enough to like. I shall be interested to see how it plays in jolly old England itself– another analogue to the film is perhaps the bounty years of Hammer Studios, a style seemingly still cherished on the distant island.
Not that it needs another blog post, but Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize has shocked my lefty brain. It was hard, so hard, to have lived through the chaos of the 2000 election and its aftermath. There was a general sense of deflation not so much at Gore’s defeat as Bush’s ascendancy. It was impossible to imagine where both men would end up in the year 2007.
Gore has, at this point, assured his reputation as a master of all causes true & pure and positioned himself as a force with which to be reckoned. It’s his game to lose, which is why, presumably, he’s not foolish enough to run for President. Gore’s triumph is as surprising as the complete self-destruction and perpetual humiliation which Bush will spend the rest of his life trying to live down. Frankly, in 2000, it was hard to imagine either men achieving much acclaim or ill-repute; both seemed like mediocrities running in the vacuum of an exiting Big Dog.
Bush appeared to be an idiot-savant heir apparent who was a little less racist and homophobic and classist than other men in his party and Gore was soft centre-left and incapable of campaigning. In his efforts to distance himself from any association with ideas Democratic or Clintonian, Gore was like a dog on its back, begging for the long hand of an imagined Middle America to scratch its stomach. They were, frankly, pathetic. It was inconceivable that one man would end up with a Nobel and the other would go down (at least for the next few decades) as the most unnecessary Presidential war monger in recent memory. (Shallow a defense as it is, let us remember that LBJ and Nixon inherited their idiotic conflict.)
This realization has dovetailed with my own recent thoughts about Boethius and his Wheel of Fortune. The Wheel has been hideously prostituted for television, but for centuries it had been a clever way of expressing the notion that once you’ve peaked there’s nowhere to go but down and once you’ve bottomed out you must also, inevitably, go back up. Both Gore and Bush make me think of– weirdly– Stalin. The Wheel of Fortune metaphor/image’s great flaw is that it ignores the impact of individual personality.
Which is to say, yeah, you might end up at the top of the Politburo, but how does an anonymous bureaucrat end up as an Iron Dictator who falls only upon death? How does a joke President end up destroying his reputation and the reputation of everyone who’s worked for him? And how does a guy best known for wearing too much makeup at a debate end up with a Peace Prize and the toast of the cognoscenti?
Or, to take another example of another candidate having his true nature revealed– would Gore have stood around, helplessly, as a deranged hippie was savaged by the police at one of his events?
Drudge in Hollywood
On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan