Not the Bears

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

About a month ago, on February 24th, Jan Berenstain passed away at the age of 88; she and her husband Stan were best known for their series of Berenstain Bears children books. Below is a review of a collection of the earliest Stan and Jan cartoon work; this review was first posted to the Thought Balloonist site on August 19, 2008. (Click on the images below to make them larger.)

Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain by Mike Berenstain (Abrams, 2008, $35).

First, note the discrepancy between the image and the title of this post. The cover of my library copy of Child’s Play doesn’t include “The Berenstain Baby Boom” subtitle on the cover, for reasons unknown to me.

Second, I should admit up front that I’ve always disliked the Berenstain Bears children’s books. The members of the Bear family are defined in broad, simplistic strokes–Papa Bear is a self-confident, bib-overall-wearing dope, while Brother Bear is a typical rough-and-tumble, sports playing boy–and never grow throughout the 100+ volumes of the series. The fact that the central characters are identified only as Father, Mother, Sister and Brother Bear, without any proper names, reflects how vacant and generic their personalities are. The art, too, reinforces this vacuity; visually, the main way to tell the difference between Brother and Sister Bear is that Sister wears a pink bow in her hair.

The protagonists remain empty and static, of course, because the Berenstain Bears books are relentlessly didactic, and it’s easier to invent a story that transmits a moral if your characters keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food (1985), Father, Sister and Brother eats candy until they get “chubby” and Mother Bear teaches them healthy eating and their doctor encourages them to exercise; In The Berenstain Bears Forget their Manners (1985), Father, Sister and Brother Bear burp explosively and neglect to say “Thank you” until Mother Bear penalizes them with chores; in The Berenstain Bears’ New Neighbors (1994), Papa Bear mistrusts the Panda family that moves in across the street until the rest of the Bears teach him tolerance and multiculturalism; lather, rinse, repeat. (The sole exception to this sermonizing I found was The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation [1989], where the Bears have a rotten getaway but laugh it off when they return home.) When I read these (and other) Berenstain Bear books out loud to my kids, they figured out the formula in record time–they knew they were listening to a lecture–and they drifted away to their rooms in search of a non-judgmental space to exercise their imaginations.

I was surprised, then, that I liked Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain as much as I did. Child’s Play‘s prose, written by son Mike Berenstain, is a career biography of his parents that begins in 1941, when Stanley Berenstain and Janice Grant met as freshmen at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, and ends in 1964, as Stan and Jan’s focus shifted from gag cartooning and magazine illustration to children’s books. Mike Berenstain gives us all the basic facts, and his prose wraps the art in historical context; he comments, for instance, on a Stan-Jan double-page spread titled Gymnasium, first published in Collier’s in 1949, by noting that “the elevated track circling the interior of the gym places the scene firmly in the aging urban schools of the 1940s” (28). The real attraction of Child’s Play, however, is the pictures. As young artists, Stan and Jan scrambled to find as many viable markets for their drawings as they could, and reprinted in Child’s Play are gag cartoons, magazine covers, book illustrations, and samples from Sister, a relatively unsuccessful syndicated comic strip that ran for a little less than two years (1953-54). It was a relief to discover that Sister was, as Mike Berenstain points out, “a female sibling of Dennis the Menace” (74) rather than a harbinger of the Bears’ didacticism:

There’s a lot to love about this Sister strip: its wobbly panel shapes, its stupefied, perpetually open-mouthed father character, even its nutty disregard for the delineation of a natural, commonsensical world. (Look at that seventh panel–even crouched down, Dad would never fit through that doorway into the stacks. But what about the adult librarians? Were they all bent over like Quasimodo?) Sister‘s verve is at least partially due to the variations in line width, as fine lines (like the strands of the librarian’s hair that spill over the border of panel two) mingle with spot blacks and thicker marks like Dad’s eyebrows in panel four. By the time the Berenstains begin to draw the Bears, the line widths are more uniform, more sedate, flatter, and less exciting.

Even in the early phase of their joint career chronicled in Child’s Play, though, Stan and Jan drew in a less line-intensive style for some of their gag cartoons. Their central market in the early 1950s was Collier’s, one of the few magazines to publish cartoons in full color, so the Berenstains kept it simple, dropping in watercolor hues rather than lines to add another dimension to their art:

The above gag again stars Sister, who made her first appearance in magazines before her short-lived migration into comic strips. A later variation on Sister, called It’s All in the Family, ran in either McCall’s or Good Housekeeping between 1956 and 1988. Virtually all of the art in Child’s Play has to do with kids and families, and Mike Berenstain indicates that this focus on family life was based on advice from the editor of The Saturday Evening Post rather than a desire on Stan and Jan’s part to be the artistic chroniclers of the Baby Boom zeitgeist. Child’s Play is a celebration of two talented cartoonists who were unabashedly commercial, and who occasionally, at the beginning of their careers, came within striking distance of creating art.

My favorite Berenstain work is an outgrowth of Stan and Jan’s frustration with, in Mike’s words, “the tendency of magazines and newspapers to shrink cartoons down to near-postage stamp scale in order to cram more copy, more pictures, and more ads onto a page” (24). To showcase their cartooning more effectively, Stan and Jan began to craft big panoramic cartoons that were eventually published as Collier’s covers and interior single and double-page splashes. These are beautiful and overwhelming in their detail. They encourage the reader to move his or her attention around the image, taking in one event (a father tugging multiple sleds up a hill) and then an adjacent event (the building of a snowman), and yet another, in a dance around a locale and theme. Below is one such big cartoon, titled Freeze:

I’m grateful to Mike Berenstain for unearthing images like these, and for persuading me to re-evaluate his parents’ work. I still can’t stand those Bears, but I love Sister and Freeze. In the second half of Child’s Play, Stan and Jan settle into their cozier, simpler Bear-style, and for that reason I can’t unambiguously recommend spending $35 dollars on the book, but I checked it out of my local library and found it the proverbial pleasant surprise.

Consumed by Despair

March 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

What’s my favorite website or blog? Given that the Interweb offers up an almost infinite cornucopia of weird-ass information put up by weird-ass people, that’s a tough decision. I have my more-than-once-a-day visits to the Comics Journal website, The Comics Reporter, Robot 6 and The Hooded Utilitarian, but alt-comix obsessives already know about these. I also frequently check the sites of individual creators whose work I like (like my pal Ben Towle’s blog), but again, I suspect most folks do the same. Two blogs, however, that I compulsively read and immoderately enjoy—and both of which occasionally veer into comics and comics-related topics—are Jeff Sconce’s Ludic Despair and Consumed and Judged.

Sconce describes himself as “involved in media education at an undisclosed location [Northwestern University, cough, cough] in the great cultural Other that is the American Midwest.” During the 1990s, I met Jeff a couple of times at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, so I knew he was smart, irreverent and funny, and his two blogs are likewise so. Ludic Despair runs Sconce’s longer essays about politics and culture, and can be (surprise!) a downer—there is, after all, much rotten in the State of the Union—but Sconce is snotty and sharp enough to bring the funny too. Whether he’s dissecting Rush Limbaugh’s stone-age attitudes towards American women, or Diablo Cody’s stone-age attitudes towards breeding and the family, he always makes me laugh and think. Last summer, instead of writing indignantly about the impending release of the Kevin James film Zookeeper (“How dare Hollywood hurl this swill at us?”), Sconce instead wrote a checklist, a “comprehensive inventory” of scenes and events that he guessed would be included in the movie, such as:

–Kevin James involved in comically futile fitness routine;

–Kevin James’ comic double-take at hearing first words spoken by talking animal;

–Feces thrown;

–Feces stepped in;

–Joke about sexual allure of “swollen” or “red” hindquarters;

–Zoo animals execute a cooperative caper to assist Kevin James, but without his knowledge (each animal displaying a distinctive “skill”); and etc.

Go read Sconce’s original post. It’s as witty a condemnation of the contemporary Hollywood “comedy” as any I’ve read—though I still find myself wanting to watch Zookeeper armed with his checklist, curious to see how much he got right.

One recent comicy post on Ludic Despair was Sconce’s tribute to Mike Kelley, the alt-musician (in the band/collective Destroy All Monsters) and gallery artist who committed suicide in January. Sconce talked about his own encounters with Kelley (one of which is documented in the book Mike Kelley: Interviews, Conversations, and Chit-Chat [1986-2004] edited by John C. Welchman), and reproduced an image from Kelley’s Kandor project, a series of sculptures inspired by the bottled city in old Superman comics. Here’s a Kelley Kandor:

Because of Sconce’s post, I’m now a Kelley fan, and I’m eager to read PictureBox’s new book, Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973-1977.

Sconce’s other blog, Consumed and Judged, is more specific in purpose than Ludic Despair. On Consumed, Sconce finds the most disreputable books he can—he spends too much time at garage and library “discard” sales—and reviews them, plowing through stuff like How to Be a Clown (1977) and Caligula: Divine Carnage (2001) to unearth humor and absurdity. If I had a running list of “Funniest Posts I’ve Read on the Internet,” the top slot might go to Sconce’s Consumed piece on Jeanne White’s Cats in Pictures: How to Photograph Your Favorite Feline (1965):

White basically provides information about lenses, lighting, depth of field, etc. that would apply to any object, feline or no. In the cat psychology department, however, we are told cats do not appreciate a “hail-fellow-well-met” approach, and that not treating them “gently” during their photog session will result “in a picture of a peeved pussy!” And no one wants that, at least in this context.

Recently, Sconce stumbled onto a cheap collection of nurse-themed paperbacks, and has begun to post their pulpy, painted covers on the Consumed blog. If you’re one of those comics fans that also likes illustration art (like I am), you should gaze at Julie Jones: Cape Canaveral Nurse (1963) and Art Colony Nurse (1969) here and here. As a tribute to Sconce’s spirited excavation and dissection of both past and present American culture, I present below the covers of pulpy novels that inhabit my own bookshelves. I may never read these books, but they feel to me like precious messages from a long lost zeitgeist, and I’ll never throw them away. I bet Sconce never throws away his books either, thank God.

I wish everyone would post paperback covers on their blogs and websites. Flood the Internet with crass pulp imagery? Yes, please. (Would it be so different from the Internet we have now?)

Taniguchi Blossoms

March 22, 2012 § 5 Comments

This is my contribution to March 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast. The MMF is (in Johanna Draper Carlson’s words) “a virtual book club in which anyone can participate,” and where manga bloggers make a particular creator or book the subject of a flurry of posts over the space of a single week. March’s MMF focuses on the great Jiro Taniguchi—oddly appropriate, given that Taniguchi was the only manga artist to collaborate with the recently-deceased Moebius (on Icaro [2001]).

1.

“A Blanket of Cherry Blossom” is probably my favorite story in Taniguchi’s The Walking Man (1992; translated by Fanfare / Ponent Mon in 2004). “Blossom” begins with the Walking Man—the unnamed hero whose strolls comprise the book’s Zen-like adventures—renting a video and, while walking home, coming upon an expansive courtyard with an old, beautiful cherry tree. He feels the tree’s bark, he buries his hand in the blossoms the tree is shedding upon the ground, and he lies down by the tree’s trunk and stares up at its branches. Then a beautiful woman hovers into his field of vision. She says to the Walking Man, “You’re in my place!”

Like the Walking Man, the woman rubs her hand against the tree bark and touches blossoms. She sits with her back against the tree, and then the story seems to skip slightly forward in time. On a page turn, we see the woman telling the Walking Man about her relationship to the tree: “I moved away…before it flowered. I just wanted to see it one more time.” She too lies down by the tree trunk. She talks about a childhood when she’d “often lie here…and fall asleep,” and then she closes her eyes and dozes.

On the final page of the story, the Walking Man returns home, only to realize (with the help of his wife) that he’d left the rented video back at the cherry tree. He retrieves the video. The woman is gone. He immerses his hand in the blanket of cherry blossoms covering the ground again.

2.

The movie the Walking Man rents is La Petite Voleuse (The Little Thief, 1988), directed by Claude Miller and based on an unfilmed story by François Truffaut (who died in 1984 at the age of 52). In Voleuse, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Janine, a 16-year-old kleptomaniac trapped in a particularly cruel 1950s French school and an unstable home life. (Both her mother and father have abandoned Janine, and she is raised by an aunt and uncle.) Janine runs away from home, dabbles in crime, loses her virginity; the film plays like a version of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), but this time with an aimless, damaged young female protagonist.

In Taniguchi’s “Blossoms,” the woman has deeply nostalgic memories of the tree. Did it provide her with what little stability and beauty she remembers in her own childhood? By referencing La Petite Voleuse at the beginning of his tale, does Taniguchi hint that the woman’s past is as troubled as Janine’s?

3.

The woman is glamorous and impeccably dressed. The Walking Man is silent as she speaks of her childhood and her love for the tree. He stares at her, however, and his glances are sometimes secretive, as in the panel where he looks at her backside (with a slightly guilty expression on his face) as the woman leans away from him.

As she lays on the ground and naps, the Walking Man remains by her side and an unknown amount of story time passes—during which the Walking Man is free to look at her beautiful body and face while she sleeps.

The central conceit of Taniguchi’s Walking Man is that our anonymous protagonist is a sensitive observer: he sees the joyous and poignant aspects of everyday life that the rest of us habitually ignore. Yet is his gaze always that of a detached, innocent seer? In “Blossom,” could his gaze be sexual, fueling dreams of intimacy with the beautiful woman (as opposed to his wife, who makes an appearance in the story and who Taniguchi always draws as a cute, down-to-earth and decidedly non-glamorous gamin figure)? At the end of “Blossom,” night falls as the Walking Man returns to the tree to retrieve the Voleuse video. When he places his hand on the ground again, into the blossoms, and onto the spot where the woman was sleeping, is he trying to touch the warmth of her body, the ghost of her presence?

4.

Here are the two close-ups of the Walking Man touching the ground and the blossoms:

The same gesture, but with variations: the first touch occurs during the day, and the second at night, and the hands are reverse-images of each other. This aesthetic strategy—repetition with variation—dominates the structure of Taniguchi’s “Blossom.” Both the Walking Man and the Beautiful Woman derive sensual pleasure from touching cherry blossoms; both recline under the tree, and as each reclines we see their faces in close-up. Further, both are portrayed in aerial shots as they lie on the ground, their bodies reclining in opposite directions. Repetition with variation.

“Blossom” is also bookended by the Walking Man performing the same act—picking up the video—but in different locales (the video store, the tree).

How much does repetition with variation shape Taniguchi’s career as a whole? The Walking Man stories are all variants on a single formula—the observer sensitively perceives and responds to the quotidian world around him—while A Distant Neighborhood (1998/2009) places the possibility of “do-overs,” of repetition with variation, at the center of its plot. Why is Taniguchi so interested in stories that replace forward momentum with recurrence, cyclical organization, incremental change, and echoes of the past in the narrative present?

5.

Taniguchi’s art is the antithesis of expressionism: he represents the world with as much objectivity as he can, and the results are both breathtaking (in its cascade of details) and a little abstract, a little detached, not unlike the Walking Man himself. When Taniguchi draws the branches of a cherry tree, it’s a triumph of accretive detail, a network of overlapping forms rather than an emotional celebration of plant life. (A Taniguchi tree is not a Craig Thompson tree.) Taniguchi’s art is cool, more like mapmaking than passionate storytelling.

Another story in The Walking Man, “A Nice Hot Bath,” begins with the eponymous character reading Jonathan Lipman’s book about Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs for two business buildings in Racine, Wisconsin. Is Taniguchi acknowledging here the inspiration he takes from blueprints, from architecture?

6.

Why do I love Taniguchi’s manga so much? Is it the contradiction, the frisson, between the perfection of his diagrammatic art and the repressed but percolating emotions of the characters that inhabit his settings? At the end of A Zoo in Winter (2008/2011), the young couple—one of whom is an autobiographical stand-in for Taniguchi himself—read the manga they’ve written together, while sitting in a cozy spot at the hospital that provides an extraordinary view of the nearby village. They’re swathed in beauty, but this beauty—like all beauty—will pass. They both know the girl is going to die, and they know they’ll never consummate their love, yet they smile, in a perfect exhibition of mono no aware.

How painful is a life of missed opportunities? How painful are long-term losses and regrets? Do occasional moments of magnificence—such as the blissful visions that the Walking Man extricates from even the dingiest neighborhoods—justify or redeem suffering? Isn’t life disappointing? Or is it coherent and transcendent, if we only had eyes to see?

Jonah Hex: Storytelling Ambiguity and the DC Reboot

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Note: This is the third of three posts on DC’s recent Jonah Hex comic that I’m re-posting from The Panelists. The first two are here and here. I’m re-running these Hex pieces because they compliment a essay I’m writing on All-Star Western that’s forthcoming on the Comics Journal website.

“Storytelling Ambiguity…” originally ran on The Panelists site on July 25, 2011.

Blame this post on Tim O’Shea of the Robot 6 comics website. One of my favorite Robot 6 features is the Sunday “What Are You Reading?” column, where regular Robot critics and invited guests chat about the comics and books that (surprise, surprise!) they’re currently reading. (Back in 2009, I was flattered to be a “Reading” guest.) Anyway, in the July 17 [2011] installment of “What Are You Reading?” Tim wrote the following about Jonah Hex #69 (September 2011):

Drawn by Jeff Lemire, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray reveal Jonah getting to confront his dear old dad. The story far exceeded my highest expectations. And all it is two men talking for the bulk of the tale, and yet it is much more than that. Glad to see the writers will still get to play with Jonah in the DCNuverse.

I’m a fan of the Gray/Palmiotti Jonah Hex series (I praised it here and here), but reading Tim’s capsule review made me realize that I’d fallen behind on the comic: the last four months’ worth were buried in the “books to read” pile next to my bed. So I fished Jonah Hex #69 (titled “The Old Man”) from the pile, eager to see if I agreed with Tim. And I did, though I’m not sure #69 is significantly better than other good issues of the series—it’s remarkably consistent, and just about the only comic book I buy every month.

There is something interesting about the conclusion of #69, however, that I want to discuss, though to do so I need to summarize the story in detail. Spoilers ahoy…!

Page one opens with an old man (guess who?) riding into a proverbial dusty Western town, carrying gold that he’s wrenched out of nearby mountains. The story also begins with some captions of painfully purple prose (“The sun was just going down, a hissing globe of fire and torment”), but mercifully Gray and Palmiotti quickly shift to an extended dialogue scene inside the town’s saloon, where four men hatch a plot: they’ll follow the old man, kill him once they’ve located his mine, and steal the gold. Jonah Hex is drinking in that saloon too, and he overhears the group’s plan.

A day or so later, Hex rides up to the mine and discovers the corpses of the four would-be thieves. Hex also finds the old man mortally wounded, shot in the stomach—obviously in a skirmish with the saloon rats—and waiting to die.

Hex himself isn’t after gold. Rather, he reveals that he’s the old man’s son, and he’s come “ta watch” his father die, as implied payback for the cruelty and abandonment Jonah suffered as a child. The story then tightens into a tense conversation between the two men, a No Exit-esque confrontation between Jonah and his abusive father (named Woodson Hex, though not identified by name in issue #69). We know this isn’t a heart-warming family reunion when early in their chat they exchange the following words:

Throughout the conversation, Jonah guzzles from a bottle of whiskey, and Woodson repeatedly asks for a drink. Jonah doesn’t give him one. Instead, he mentions that as a child he spiked his father’s drinks with piss:

The twists and turns of their jabbing, guarded conversation, and the rhythms of Lemire’s layouts, lead to an inevitable conclusion: Woodson dies while Jonah looks on. Then the last two pages of the story are wordless. In the first, Jonah breaks his promise to the buzzards by burying his father and memorializing his grave with a pile of stones:

And below is the last page.

So what happens in this conclusion to “The Old Man”? I see at least two different interpretations, both of which hinge on panel three of the final page. Is Jonah pissing on his father’s grave? That would be consistent with the pissing motif we saw earlier in the story, and with Jonah’s contempt for Woodson. But Jonah might also be simply pouring whiskey on his father’s grave, as a sign of respect akin to rappers’ libations on the graves of their homies. The hooch in panel two looks the same color as the liquid in panel three, and Jonah has already shown his father unexpected respect by burying his body. The point, of course, is that we can never know the full story, because Gray, Palmiotti and Lemire withhold crucial visual information from us.

This artful cultivation of ambiguity is an example of the thoughtful storytelling in Gray and Palmiotti’s Hex scripts–and I get the feeling that Tim O’Shea appreciates Hex as much as I do. But I disagree with Tim when he writes that he’s “glad to see the writers [Gray and Palmiotti] will still get to play with Jonah in the DCNuverse,” not because Gray and Palmiotti should leave the title, but because I wish the DCNuverse would leave Jonah Hex the hell alone. The imminent reboot of DC titles is remaking Jonah Hex into a new comic called All-Star Western, and here’s the official PR about it, from the list of 52 upcoming DC titles at Comic Book Resources:

Even when Gotham City was just a one-horse town, crime was rampant–and things only get worse when bounty hunter Jonah Hex comes to town. Can Amadeus Arkham, a pioneer in criminal psychology, enlist Hex’s special brand of justice to help the Gotham Police Department track down a vicious serial killer? Featuring back-up stories starring DC’s other western heroes, All-Star Western #1 will be written by the fan-favorite Jonah Hex team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by Moritat.

All-Star Western sounds like a repudiation of everything I currently like about Jonah Hex. I love the fact that Gray and Palmiotti write each issue of Hex to be “done in one,” with a complete story designed to be easily understood by first-time readers. Smothering Hex with DC’s complex continuity (Gotham City, Arkham, etc.), combined with the decreased page count for the lead Hex story, will probably kill off the “done in one” aesthetic.

Also, while I liked Moritat’s (a.k.a. Justin Norman’s) art on the recent Spirit comic, I was dismayed that the All-Star Western PR made no mention of Jordi Bernet, the prodigiously talented cartoonist responsible for more issues of the Gray/Palmiotti Hex than any other artist. Will Bernet draw for All-Star Western? In the current Jonah Hex, Bernet issues have alternated with issues drawn by accomplished guest artists, including Russ Heath, Darwyn Cooke, J.H. Williams III, Fiona Staples and (upcoming in Jonah Hex #70) Ryan Sook, and I hope we don’t lose this variety in the shift to the new title. I’ll review All-Star Western after a few issues come out.

Here’s the big question, though: am I the only one who cares about Flashpoint and the DCNuverse less than a lanky stream of piss?

Hells and Tribulations

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Note: This is the second of three posts on DC’s recent Jonah Hex comic that I’m re-posting from The Panelists; the first is here. I’m re-running these Hex pieces because they compliment a essay I’m writing on All-Star Western that’s forthcoming on the Comics Journal website.

“Hells and Tribulations” originally ran on The Panelists site on January 21, 2011.

In addition to the talents of Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Jordi Bernet (whose art appears above, from the cover of #57 [September 2010]), Jonah Hex is a good comic book because of canny scheduling. Because Gray and Palmiotti write their stories to begin and end in a single issue, they’re able to recruit an array of talented cartoonists willing to draw a single, self-contained comic but reluctant to commit to an ongoing series. Gray and Palmiotti also write their scripts far in advance, to allow the Hex guest artists to do their best work, insulated from deadline pressures. The results can be impressive, as in the checklist of some of my favorite Hex issues listed below. I came late to Hex–it’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve become a fan–but I’ve bought all of these comics for cover price or less in a handful of comic shops. I hope you’ll have similar good fortune; I hope you’ll stumble across Hex comics drawn by Russ Heath and Darwyn Cooke the next time you dive in a dollar bin.

From JONAH HEX #12. Art by Paul Gulacy.

Issue 12 (December 2006): “Bloodstained Snow,” illustrated by Paul Gulacy. Ever since Master of Kung Fu, I’ve had a weakness for Gulacy‘s detailed, somewhat-posey, photo-Steranko style, and it’s remained remarkably consistent over the years. The visuals here are more noir than Gulacy’s usual, a tight fit with Gray and Palmiotti’s nasty little script about the tensions between a prejudiced town and the “Mormon scum” unable to buy food and blankets, starving and freezing on the town’s periphery.

Issues 16-17 (April-May, 2007): “The Ballad of Tallulah Black,” illustrated by Phil Noto. These two comics introduce Black, a female doppelganger for Hex. Her past is as tortured as his, and she’s likewise scarred–in a too-obvious allusion to Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven (1992), Tallulah’s face and “nethers” are cut up by a psychotic john.

From JONAH HEX #16. Art by Phil Noto.

But that’s just the beginning of her problems. Poor Tallulah reminds me of both Patient Griselda and Sam Raimi‘s Ash, two other characters who undergo travails so horrific and extreme that the whole sick mess escalates into pitch-black humor. (As Tallulah herself says, “There’s for sure a Heaven, ‘cos this life ain’t nought but a series of hells and tribulations.”) Noto‘s art is less impressive than many of the other Hex contributors–he clutters up his panels with too many Photoshop patterns–but the computerized weightlessness of his images provides an intriguing counterpoint to Tallulah’s “one damn thing after another” history.

From JONAH HEX #25. Art by Russ Heath.

Issue 25 (January 2008): “My Name is Nobody,” drawn by Russ Heath. Gray and Palmiotti have roped several industry veterans into drawing Hex, including Dick Giordano (Hex #51 [March 2010] is, as far as I know, Giordano’s last comic book) and Russ Heath. The elegiac “My Name is Nobody” (a title cribbed from a 1973 Tonino Valerii spaghetti western) takes place in 1899, near the end of the West as a frontier, and not so far off from Hex’s own taxidermied death in 1904. “Nobody” begins with Hex holding off fifteen Mexican bandits during a mountaintop siege, and ends with him evading his responsibilities as a husband and father, drunkenly and tragically embracing his status as a wandering nobody.

From JONAH HEX #33. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

Issue #33 (September 2008): “The Hunting Trip,” and issue #50 (February 2010), “The Great Silence,” drawn by Darwyn Cooke. These issues are a must for fans of Cooke‘s Parker adaptations. In fact, I might prefer these comics over The Hunter and The Outfit; the Hex pages are bigger and in full color, which to my eyes flatters Cooke’s art more than the compact Parker format. (Also, the dark blue tones of the Parker books sometimes make it difficult for me to read the captions and word balloons–I wish all the Cooke Parkers were big and yellow like The Man with the Getaway Face one-shot.)

Gray and Palmiotti write some fairly ferocious scripts for Cooke. “The Hunting Party” is told from the point of view of a mute boy whose father dies of exposure after losing his leg in a bear trap. Hex then saves the orphan from wolves, but refuses to become a surrogate father, just as the story refuses to lapse into sentimental cliche. Gray and Palmiotti contrast scenes heavy with verbiage (mostly first-person, interior-monologue captions by the boy, telling his tale as a flashback), and wordless pages designed by Cooke for maximum clarity, impact and violence. “The Great Silence,” an even more violent story, opens with Hex and Tallulah Black indulging in a night of drinking and fucking to celebrate a “fine and profitable adventure” of bounty hunting, after which Tallulah tries to begin a new, less debauched life. The tone of “The Great Silence” is initially playful; when Hex returns to bounty hunting, for instance, Cooke stages his activities as a series of slapstick gags involving outhouses and sex with sheep:

From JONAH HEX #50. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

The story however, grows more somber as it goes along, and at its conclusion chronicles a single death infinitely more tragic than the opening carnage. “The Great Silence” is another borrowed title–this time from a classic spaghetti western directed by Sergio Corbucci in 1968–and both the earlier film and the later comic are nihilistic, unsparing popular art.

Issue #35 (November 2008): “A Crude Offer,” drawn by J.H. Williams III. This may be my favorite issue of Hex. Williams‘ art is beautiful in the ways you’d expect, with action scenes full of sprawling double-splashes, irregularly-shaped panels, and a depiction of the southwest similar to Williams’ evocation of MoebiusBlueberry in Seven Soldiers #0 (2005). More impressive, however, is how Williams tones down his stylistic flourishes to mesh with Gray and Palmiotti’s script. When the second act moves Jonah into a seemingly innocuous dinner with a sheriff and his wife, Williams’ layout becomes conventional and right-angled:

From JONAH HEX #35. Art by J.H. Williams III.

These normal pages disintegrate into a psychedelic freak-out as the story veers off in an unexpectedly perverse direction. In a September 2008 Newsarama interview, Williams expressed the desire to do a long-form Hex graphic novel with Gray and Palmiotti, and that’s a project I’d rather see than Williams’ continuing Batwoman, as innovative and cool as that Bat-book might be.

From JONAH HEX #60. Art by Brian Stelfreeze.

Issue #60 (December 2010): “Blood Lies Bleeding,” drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Here’s a tale of mistaken identity that sets up a future nemesis for Hex. I’d only seen Stelfreeze‘s art a few times before, mostly on comic book covers, but I like the thick vertical lines he uses to represent rain (aided by Dave Stewart‘s atmospheric, monochromatic coloring) during the bloodbath in the second half of the issue.

If you’ve given up on pamphlet comics altogether, the trade paperback Bullets Don’t Lie collects Cooke’s “The Hunting Trip,” the J.H. Williams III work, and other stories, including two drawn by Bernet–a south-of-the-border matador epic, and the sheriff-in-the-desert tale that I discussed in my last post. Personally, I like to buy Hex in floppy form. I still find going to the comic shop on Wednesday to buy pamphlet comics a comforting ritual, even when those comics are about cannibals, murderers, and men who lose their legs in bear traps.

Comics Like These Make the Cemetery Man Smile

March 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Note: During 2011, when I was writing for The Panelists, I devoted three long blog posts to DC’s Jonah Hex title. I want to re-run these Hex posts here, because I still think it’s a woefully underrated comic, and because I’ve got a long “think piece” on All-Star Western, Hex’s “New 52” replacement, going up at The Comics Journal soon, and these earlier posts give the TCJ essay some historical background.

“Comics Like These…” was originally posted on The Panelists site on January 20, 2011.

From JONAH HEX #28 (April 2008). Art by John Higgins.

I ignored Jonah Hex for a long time. The character–a disfigured, amoral bounty hunter created by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga, and introduced in DC’s All-Star Western #10 (March 1972)–was popular enough to have his own long-running western comic from 1977 to 1985, but I didn’t care. Back then, I didn’t read anything but superhero stories.

I’ve since expanded my tastes somewhat, especially for westerns. My father was a John Wayne fan, and once I got over my hormonally-mandated hatred of everything my parents valued, Dad and I bonded over movies like Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1948). I read a broader assortment of comics now, too, so when a friend recently told me that DC’s reboot of the Jonah Hex comic book (begun in late 2005) was worth reading, I gave it a try. And it is a good comic, partially because writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, and their talented artistic collaborators, practice storytelling virtues unique in these days of Blackest Night, Brightest Day and sprawling event books.

Here’s one such virtue: Gray and Palmiotti write each individual issue of Hex to be self-contained and “done-in-one,” to allow new and casual readers to hop on at any point without fretting about continuity. Even so, Hex’s life does have a beginning and end. When Michael Fleisher wrote the original run of 1970s-80s Hex comics, he charted out the character’s history, from Hex’s troubled childhood (his father sold him to a tribe of Apaches) to his bizarre death (in 1904, he is killed during a card game and, in a Fleisheresque touch, his corpse is stuffed and mounted). Gray and Palmiotti follow and frequently refer to Fleisher’s chronology (a version of which can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Hex). Issue #30 (June 2008) begins with a double-page spread which wordlessly chronicles such events as the origin of Hex’s facial damage, and the collapse of his marriage to Chinese immigrant Mei Ling.

Within the parameters of Fleisher’s Hex biography, however, Gray and Palmiotti skip around with improvisatory abandon, following, for example, an issue starring the middle-aged Hex (#60, December 2010) with an unrelated flashback to Hex and Mei Ling’s honeymoon (#61, January 2011). A footnote by editor Wil Moss in #61 explains away this leap back in time with admirable flippancy: “Yup, believe it or not, once upon a time, Jonah Hex was actually married!” Fine. Go back in time all you want, fellas. As long as the story is fun to read (which it is), continuity and chronological order be damned.

In addition to using Fleisher’s biography as a springboard for individual tales, Gray and Palmiotti use other narrative strategies–most notably repetition–to bring poetic unity to the series. Hex #16 (April 2007) begins with two surreal vignettes: Hex and a curiously stoic little girl watch a man commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree, and a woman named Talllulah Black (who I’ll write about more in my next post) is gunned down by land snatchers. Black survives the attack, and while bleeding on the ground is visited by the girl from the first scene, who speaks the line “Days like these make the cemetery man smile.” Almost three years later, in issue #50 (February 2010), Tallulah is once again gravely wounded, and while unconscious, she dreams of the little girl:

From JONAH HEX #50. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

This repetition serves two different functions. First, Tallulah was introduced in #16, and her last appearance (so far) was in #50. If Gray and Palmiotti plan to write Tallulah out of the series altogether, the appearance and reappearance of the little girl neatly bookends Tallulah’s presence in Hex’s life. [Not so: Tallulah appears again in the last issue of Hex, #70.] Also, the symbol of a little girl takes on added poignancy in the context of issue #50′s specific story–about which I’ll say no more.

Gray and Palmiotti collaborate most often with Spanish cartoonist Jordi Bernet. There’s a big gap in my own awareness of Bernet’s work. I remember reading, over twenty years ago, two or three volumes of Catalan‘s Torpedo, a series of books by Bernet and writer Enrique Sanchez Abuli, about a ruthless gangster in 1930s New York. (In doing online research for this review, I discovered that other publishers brought Torpedo to American audiences: under their short-lived Hard-Boiled Comics imprint, Fantagraphics put out four Torpedo comics in 1993-4, and currently IDW is releasing collections translated by–wait for it!–Jimmy Palmiotti.) Also, I own a Bernet-Abuli Catalan book titled Dark Tales (1991), an entertainingly perverse collection of E.C.-inspired stories designed to disturb as many prudish grandmothers as possible:

I’d lost track of Bernet’s career since the early 1990s, but his Hex art retains all of his singular virtues: he still draws in a bouncy, scratchy line that’s a welcome alternative to the dominant styles (photorealism, pseudo-manga, Kirby derivatives) of mainstream American comics. Like his inspirations Alex Toth and Joe Kubert, Bernet excels in deceptively simple storytelling rather than surface flash. One example is the following page from Hex #38 (February 2009):

This page is near the climax of the issue, as a vindictive ex-sheriff slowly kills Hex by beating him, and refusing to give him water, out in the desert. Panel one stretches vertically across two tiers of the page, a composition that spatially emphasizes the initial power disparity between the two characters: the sheriff stands erect and strong, the literal and figurative apex of his strength the canteen he drinks from. (The tail of the first word balloon points directly to the canteen and the water.) In contrast, Hex is too weak to stand, and is consigned to the bottom of the right-hand side of the panel.

The next two panels cinematically dissect the space presented in panel one. We first zoom in on Hex, whose laughter undermines the sheriff’s power position, and whose eyes remain hidden to both the sheriff and us. We can’t read Hex’s emotions–contrary, incidentally, to the usual function of a close-up–and we wonder if he’s playing mind games as part of a last-ditch counter-attack. In panel three, we zoom in on the sheriff, who shares our unease; he looks warily at Hex, wonders “What the hell is so funny?” and pulls the canteen down from its previous height.

Panel four then continues to chip away at the power relationship established in panel one. As the sheriff bends over to speak–he wants Hex to acknowledge that he’s really going to die out there in the desert–he lowers the canteen and himself closer to Hex. In response, Hex’s strength seems to increase. He raises his head, says a complete sentence without coughing, and then our eyes slide over to panel five and the vultures. The sheriff is confident that Hex will be the birds’ victim, but as he points to the vultures, he also gestures back to the fourth panel, reminding us once again that the struggle between the characters isn’t as one-sided as panel one would indicate. Hex survives, of course, even as the sheriff becomes vulture lunch, and I admire how Bernet’s layout emphasizes Hex’s eventual, inevitable triumph in several subtle ways. More generally, I’m glad that Hex has become a regular English-language showcase for Bernet’s craft.

Though I praise Gray, Palmiotti and Bernet here, I don’t think that Hex is perfect. One aspect of some of the stories that disturbs me is the use of torture as entertainment, complete with extremely sadistic visuals. (Hex is surely one of–if not the–most violent comic ever published by DC.) In issue #26 (February 2008), for instance, Hex discovers a farm where two women trap men in a barn, cut off their arms, legs and tongues, and feed them like pigs. The men-pigs eventually get their revenge, though, by biting and eating the women to death. This story is subtitled “A Grindhouse Western,” which gives a fair sense of its exploitative aesthetic.

From JONAH HEX #26. Art by Guiseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini.

And a rare two-part story (issues #40-41, April-May 2009), featuring the Mengele-like surgeon Sawbones, is a full-blown splice of the western genre with movie “torture porn” like Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005). The story ends with Hex preparing to try out his own pain-inflicting techniques on Sawbones.

From JONAH HEX #41. Art by David Michael Beck.

Typically, narratives that include torture don’t disturb me–after seeing Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008), I understand that even a genre as disreputable as torture porn can produce valuable work–but the fact that Hex is the putative “hero” of his comic, and still participates in grindhouse violence and torture himself, unsettles me. Perhaps I identify with Hex too closely, though Gray and Palmiotti don’t give me much alternative: virtually everyone in Hex’s Wild West is even a bigger scumbag than he is. Maybe, too, the static drawings of the comics page remind me of other, less fictional torture images like the Abu Ghraib photographs. Or maybe I’m just a prude with an old-fashioned belief that torture is a dicey subject for entertainment. All I can say with certainty is that Hex is not for the squeamish.

Jonah Hex isn’t Footnotes in Gaza or Big Questions, but it is a genre comic that provides humble but genuine pleasures, like a 1950s Budd Boetticher B-western that turns out to be much better than you expected.

Next Post: A checklist of top-notch Hex issues not drawn by Jordi Bernet.

John Porcellino at Chapel Hill Comics (Includes Detours)

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I took a fun comics-related day trip. About midday, I drove to Winston-Salem, picked up uber-cartoonist and good friend Ben Towle, and together we went to Chapel Hill for a presentation and signing by John Porcellino at Chapel Hill Comics. Here’s a little photographic record of our trip.

Anybody who reads Ben’s blog knows that he’s a music guy–note how many bands made it into his “Year of Weekly Portraits” project–so we got to Chapel Hill early so Ben could visit a CD/vinyl shop across the street from Chapel Hill Comics. Above: Ben looking like he wants to kick my ass (and maybe I deserve it?) while holding up a Dame Darcy 45 he found and bought at the record store.

Chapel Hill Comics is absolutely in the highest echelon of comic shops—great environment, great selection, a great presence in one of America’s coolest college towns. Below: the exterior and interior.

I had met John Porcellino at a conference in Iowa last October, so I introduced Ben to John and we all had a nice talk before John’s presentation. (John and Ben both drew books for the Center for Cartoon Studies biographical series—John on Thoreau, Ben on Amelia Earhart—but weirdly enough, I don’t think this came up in our conversation.) John then spoke to a small but appreciative audience in the back room of the store, projecting images and stories from the first fifty issues of King-Cat Comix and leap-frogging through topics important to his life and art: punk rock, zine culture, Kirby and Ditko monster comics, the sacredness of everyday experience, and writing and drawing an entire issue of King-Cat on company time. As a speaker, John is humble, attentive to audience questions, charming: everything you’d expect the man to be based on his work.

I didn’t want to take any pictures of John during his presentation, because I was afraid that the camera flash would be distracting. But here he is after his talk, signing books and comics at the front of the store.

Ben and I bought King-Cats from John and prowled through the rest of the store. Below is another shot of Ben on the rampage, while Chapel Hill Comics owner (and artist and Alphabeasts moderator) Andrew Neal looks admiringly on.

The obligatory “stuff I bought” list: Fatale #2, the fourth and final Planetary trade collection (“Spacetime Archaeology,” ooh), and the oversized, Paul Lyons-edited Monster, featuring the art of several Fort Thunderers (Drain, Ralph, Chippendale, Goldberg, Brinkman) and others (DeForge, Kolchalka, C.F., Rugg). A cover detail from Monster, just because it’s cool:

Mr. Andrew Neal will have an eight-page strip in the next Monster. North Carolina represent!

I also bought King-Cats #71 and #72 (the most recent issues), both of which I read when I got home,  and both of which I found poignant and moving, given that John made them in what he calls “the lowest point of [his] life so far.” Best wishes to John as he continues his “March 2012 Tour”–he’ll be at Duke University tonight (3/15/12), in a Q and A session hosted by the mighty Rob Clough, and you really need to go.

Despite Ben Towle’s uncontrollable anger, and despite the fact it snowed and killed off half the crops, it was a good day at Chapel Hill Comics.

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