Our Henri

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last year at around this time, the comics community discovered that Bill Blackbeard had died. Here is my tribute to Blackbeard, originally posted on The Panelists on April 26, 2011.

Bill Blackbeard, circa 1970.

For superb obituaries of Bill Blackbeard, go here and here.

When I teach the history of comics and graphic novels, I always take my class on a field trip to the microfilm readers in our campus library. The library’s only got two microfilm readers left standing, so I pick two students at random and ask them to perform a couple of tasks. First, they have to find a newspaper on microfilm that carries Terry and the Pirates in their comics section. This isn’t hard to do, given Caniff’s popularity during the 1930s and ‘40s. Second, I ask the students to hunt down a specific Terry strip: the daily for October 16, 1941, when Raven Sherman dies in Dude Hennick’s arms, a comic strip milestone. Invariably, when the students bring this strip up on the screen of the microfilm reader, it looks like shit, all blurry focus and surface grit.

This is actually much better than the TERRY images we find on Microfilm.

Then I talk about Bill Blackbeard. I outline the facts of his collecting life, especially his acquisition of the Library of Congress Naval collection, and claim that without Blackbeard’s efforts, much of comics history would be a smudged mess. “It’s Blackbeard’s preservation of original newspapers, combined with digital restoration techniques, that give us results like this,” I say, and then I break out the October 16 daily as reprinted in all its pristine glory in the IDW Terry books. (Before the IDW volumes, I used the NBM reprints, which were still considerably better than microfilmed newspaper versions.) The students get it—they understand why Blackbeard’s work was so important—and to the students I’ve taught in film history classes, I mention that Blackbeard is the comics medium’s Henri Langlois.

Blackbeard’s importance goes far beyond his role as a preservationist. Dozens of cartoonists cite his co-edited (with Martin Williams) Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics as a major inspiration, and its oversized opulence reverberates in such contemporary anthologies as Kramers Ergot #7 (2008). Also, his work was a major influence on Nicholson Baker’s critique of contemporary libraries (as Kristy Valenti and Jeet Heer also point out). Baker begins his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), a jeremiad against such library practices as throwing away books and newspaper collections, with an account of meeting Blackbeard and being impressed by his efforts and ideas. Let me quote Baker at length:

A man named Blackbeard told a reporter that he had a story for me. He wouldn’t reveal any details to the reporter (who was Nina Siegal, of the San Francisco Bay Guardian); I was supposed to call him. I didn’t make the call right away, though, because the squabble over the San Francisco Public Library was sufficiently distracting, and because my family and I were packing to spend a year in England. Some weeks later, going through some papers, I found the name, Bill Blackbeard, and his number, which I dialed. Blackbeard had a formal, slightly breathless way of talking; he was obviously intelligent, perhaps a little Ancient Marinerian in the way that lifelong collectors can be. He had edited collections of comic strips (early Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, Krazy Kat), and he ran something called the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art—a one-man curatorship, apparently—which owned, he said, a very large number of ex-library newspaper volumes, including one-of-a-kind runs of the great early Hearst papers. Some of what Blackbeard told me I couldn’t quite comprehend: that the Library of Congress, the purported library of last resort, had replaced most of its enormous collection of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers with microfilm, and that research libraries were relying on what he called ‘fraudulent’ scientific studies when they justified the discarding of books and newspapers on the basis of diagnosed states of acidity and embrittlement. I said that it all sounded extremely interesting and that maybe he should write about it himself: I thanked him and hung up. I was tired of finding fault with libraries; in theory, I loved libraries.

Almost two years later, I thought of Blackbeard again, and I decided to pay him a visit. He had by this time sold his newspaper collection, which filled six tractor trailers, to Ohio State University, and he had moved to Santa Cruz, where his wife liked to surf. He was in his early seventies, fit, clean shaven, wearing a nubbly gold sweater and a baseball hat turned backward. One room of his very small house was filled with dime novels and old science-fiction magazines in white boxes. In his youth, he’d written for Weird Tales; he’d driven armored vehicles in the Eighty-ninth Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in the Second World War; and in 1967, filled with an ambition to write a history of the American comic strip, he’d discovered that libraries were getting rid of their newspaper collections. The San Francisco Public Library had, Blackbeard said, an ‘incredible treasure trove.’ Staff members told him that they would love to have him take it away, but unfortunately he was a private citizen—the library’s charter permitted the transfer of material only to a non-profit organization. ‘I became a non-profit organization so fast you couldn’t believe it,’ Blackbeard told me. Soon he had acquired a bound run of William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, which the Hearst Corporation had donated to the Los Angeles Public Library (the library kept the custom-made burnished mahogany shelves), and another American run from the Stanford University Libraries. He went around the country picking up newspaper volumes, which he called ‘files,’ a usage that confused me at first. Sometimes he cut the comic strips of Sunday sections out and sold the remains to dealers; sometimes he kept the volumes whole. ‘When I suddenly discovered that I could have any of them that I wanted, I just went off my rocker. It was the most wonderful thing in the world.’ Blackbeard also told me about a test that librarians were using on paper, in which they folded the corner of a page back and forth until it broke. (viii-ix)

This test is invoked in the title of Baker’s book, Double Fold. It’s a test to determine the fragility of paper, which both Blackbeard and Baker argue is much more resilient than librarians presume, and infinitely preferable to crummy microfilm scans of Terry dailies. Blackbeard inspired Baker to write his expose of dubious library procedures, and Double Fold ends with Baker following Blackbeard’s example. In 1999, when Baker heard about the British Library liquidating their foreign newspaper holdings, he started his own non-profit, the American Newspaper Repository, and bought more than ninety runs. (In 2004, Baker deposited the holdings of the American Newspaper Repository at Duke University’s Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library.) With the images found in these newspapers, Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano put together the invaluable The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (2005), which I also use in class: while the two students hunt down the Terry strip on microfilm, the rest of gasp at how ravishingly beautiful the drawings and engravings in Pulitzer’s World were, and lament the state of the contemporary newspaper.

Thank you Bill, and thank you Nicholson. As Al Williamson said in his interview in The Comics Journal #90 (May 1984), “God bless the collectors. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have any history left” (89).


The Sexiness of Uncle Scrooge

April 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here’s another post that begins by discussing movies, and then veers off into comics.

On Friday (4/6), a new Whit Stillman film, Damsels in Distress (2012), opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Director Stillman isn’t prolific—Damsels is only the fourth film of his twenty-two year career, after Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998)—but I’m patient. I like the preppy, hyper-erudite, rambling, theatrical, and aesthetically and ideologically conservative stories Stillman tells, so whenever there’s a new Stillman film, I’ll drive to an art theater to see it.

I realize that everyone might not feel enthusiastic about Stillman’s films. I might be susceptible to his work because I’m a secret prep wannabe, because I went to a Catholic school with a formal dress code, because I favor Oxford shirts with button-down collars, because I own dog-eared copies of both The Official Preppy Handbook (1980) and its sequel True Prep (2010), and because no matter how much lip-service I give to avant-garde art and punk, there’ll always be a part of my brain swaddled in Izod. Chip Kidd co-wrote True Prep (with original Preppy Handbook author Lisa Birnbach), and mentioned in True Prep is Daniel Clowes, an alumnus of the exclusive University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, so maybe there are more preps in comics than anybody realizes…?

Beckinsale and Sevigny in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.

Anyway, I also like Stillman’s films because he knows a little about comics, and makes jokes about them. The central characters of The Last Days of Disco are Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny), two recent Hampshire College graduates with low-level jobs at a New York publishing house during the early 1980s. Charlotte and Alice frequent a chic nightclub, and try to pick up handsome, well-heeled men there, but Charlotte is a more successful flirt than Alice. Early in the film, during a conversation in the disco’s bathroom, Alice says that she found Hampshire men to have “extremely dim intellectual interests,” and elaborates on their dimness with a mock apology: “I’m sorry, I don’t consider the guy who did Spider-Man comics a serious writer.”

A bit later, Charlotte gives Alice some advice on how to seduce men:

You’re a good conversationalist, but there’s something of the Kindergarten teacher about you. It’s really nice, but the guys you like tend to be on the ethereal side. They can get pretty far away from any kind of physicality. This is gonna sound dumb, but it really works: wherever you can, throw the word “sexy” into your conversation. It’s kind of a signal…like, “There’s something really sexy about strobe lights.” Or, “this fabric is so sexy.”

Alice then hits it off with a young lawyer named Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) at the club, and they retire to his apartment, where Alice turns up her sexual aggressiveness (“I’m no Kindergarten teacher!”) while discovering that Tom collects Uncle Scrooge comics and original art by Carl Barks. Barks is “considered a bit of a genius,” says Tom. Even though Alice is confronted with yet another boy who fetishizes comics, she’s aroused enough to overlook the dimness this time, and the scene plays out like this:

The above clip was purloined from Youtube; apologies for the anamorphic distortion. You really should rent or buy the Criterion Collection DVD of Disco, and watch the whole movie. And then listen to the commentary track on the Criterion disc, where Stillman glosses this scene thusly: “In my family we have a huge Uncle Scrooge cult. We adored Uncle Scrooge’s kids [Huey, Dewey and Louie?], and my sister does collect Uncle Scrooge comics, so we have her very precious Uncle Scrooge comics collection in that plexiglass box there.”

Will there be references to Spider-Man, Uncle Scrooge and nerdy Hampshire boys in Damsels in Distress? I’ll let you know. And will Fantagraphics ask Stillman (or his sister) to write an introduction to one of their Complete Carl Barks volumes?

Note: One of my favorite comics-related events is the monthly reading group held at the Charlotte, NC comics shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, and on April 28, the Heroes folk–led by the avuncular Andy Mansell–will tackle the Donald Duck “Lost in the Andes” Fantagraphics book. You should go. More information here.

Moebius’ Grand Conversation

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Below is a post that originally appeared, in slightly different form, on The Panelists site on July 28, 2011. I’m proud of it.

Jean "Moebius" Giraud, 1938-2012.

On June 4, 2011, Ben Towle and I organized a panel for HeroesCon 2011 titled “The Master of Screaming Metal: A Tribute to Moebius,” and we began our panel by screening Moebius Redux (Hasko Baumann, 2007), a documentary that nimbly touches on all the key moments of Jean Giraud’s professional and personal life. Addressed are Giraud’s youth (he traces his love for drawing to the sense of abandonment he felt when his parents separated), his stint in art school, his work for Pilote and Métal Hurlant, and his collaborations with Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dan O’Bannon and Stan Lee. All three are interviewed in Moebius Redux, though Jodorowsky has the best line: “I shit on the United States.”

The documentary also devotes time to lesser-known incidents in Giraud’s life, such as his two trips to Mexico (in 1955 and 1965) that fueled his Blueberry mise-en-scene and contributed to his “great pleasure in drawing situations where people find themselves in the middle of the flat desert.” (During the 1965 Mexico trip, Giraud took mushrooms that threatened his psychic integrity, and opened to him “the world of the unconscious”; in the same year, another trailblazing cross-hatcher, Robert Crumb, dropped acid and channeled hallucinogenic imagery into his comics.) The gossipy part of me wishes that Moebius Redux dished more details about Giraud’s involvement in Jean-Paul Appel-Guéry’s Iso-Zen cult, mainly because Giraud’s own on-camera description of this period is so tantalizing:

My family and I stayed in the group for four to five years. It was not always easy. We were asked to do things that were difficult, sometimes physically, sometimes morally. Some things were at the limit. Of course, there is a limit that cannot be crossed–that of your human dignity.

How close Giraud came to this limit remains unsaid, though otherwise Moebius Redux is a fine survey of the man’s life and career. See the documentary if you can. While I was arranging the screening at HeroesCon, director Baumann told me that the movie had been publicly shown in the US only twice before, at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con and at the 2007 Fantastic Fest at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. (If you’d like to arrange a showing for an event, e-mail Dagmar Bogaslawski at Avanti Media [d.boguslawski@avantimedia.com], and thanks to Hasko and Dagmar for their help with the HeroesCon panel.)

One aesthetic disagreement I have with Moebius Redux, however, is that the film accepts the established wisdom that Giraud’s art and storytelling underwent a radical change when Giraud transitioned from his early style into his “Moebius”-signed work. The canonical story goes like this: in his early work–in the stories by “Gir” for the magazine Far West, and for the first Blueberry volumes–Giraud was a commercial artist, mining his audience’s interest in westerns without using the comics medium for personal (and idiosyncratic) expression. While drawing journeyman western art, however, Giraud the man was getting weirder, changing as a result of his mind-blowing Mexican hallucinations, his exposure to American underground comics and the broader ideas of the 1960s counter-culture. Eventually, his weirdness became manifest in his comics. Critics point to “La Déviation” (“The Detour”), a rambling, digressive, exposition-heavy, trippy story published in Pilote in 1973, as the birth of Moebius. Admittedly, it seems poetically apt that a “Detour” would provide Giraud with the escape he craved from the road of mainstream, genre-based comics illustration.

A page from "The Detour" (click to enlarge the illustrations in this post).

Moebius Redux reinforces both the notion of Giraud-as-chameleon and the idea of a radical division between the “Gir” and “Moebius” styles. At the beginning of the film, Jim Lee describes Giraud’s artistic versatility thusly: “As an artist, you’re always looking for your style. When you’re younger, you’re absorbing stuff, but then you go, ‘Wow, I’ve got to create my own identity. What style is me?’ And here was this guy who was awesome, and he’s goin’, ‘This is me, and tomorrow, this is me.’” Likewise marveling at Giraud’s diversity, Mike Mignola says, “How is this the same guy? It’s an amazing ability to almost become different people–you know, when he works in different styles.” Later in the film, Giraud talks about the dual consciousness he felt that led to the emergence of the Moebius persona:

I did a good job. I met my deadlines. I was presentable and got to the meetings at Pilote on time. But deep down I was in turmoil. I felt different. My mind was teeming with bizarre science fiction, avant-garde ideas, surrealism, sexuality…totally transgressive. Well, maybe not totally, but fairly subversive anyway. I was like a subversive secret agent infiltrating Pilote. It was exhilarating. I was a bit of a masked man.

Moebius is born, then, when Giraud finally rips off his mask, and decides to channel surrealism, sexuality and science fiction directly into his art.

I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this way of looking at Giraud’s evolution. Perhaps the reasons behind my skepticism are personal; I adore the Blueberry albums–Ballad of a Coffin may be my favorite Giraud work–so I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the Westerns represent Giraud marking time and meeting deadlines before Moebius arrives and summons “La Déviation” from his subconscious. Even putting aside my personal taste, though, I’d argue that there’s less disruption between the “Gir” and “Moebius” periods than Lee, Mignola and even Giraud himself believe. In fact, I see profound similarities that stretch across “Gir” and “Moebius” and Giraud’s entire career, and I’d like to discuss a few of these similarities in the rest of this post. (At the very least, this’ll provide a pretext for staring at some of Giraud’s ravishing drawings.)

First, I’d question the division between Gir’s Westerns and Moebius’ science fiction. Of course, one obvious fact about Giraud’s career is that he’s worked on parallel tracks since the 1970s–even while he’s furiously contributed to the Moebius oeuvre, he’s continued to draw Blueberry albums. (He’s also written all the Blueberry stories since writer Jean-Michel Charlier’s death in 1989.) What I mean to say, however, is that there’s a lot of Western elements in the Moebius work too. Many of Gir’s Westerns and Moebius’ science fiction comics address the same themes and include the same narrative elements, partially because the general boundaries between these two genres are highly permeable. Both the Western and the science fiction genres present characters who explore and/or colonize frontiers, and in the process meet “aliens” that inhabit that frontier; both genres are also vitally concerned with the roles technology plays in this clash of cultures. In the Western, white settlers interact with an Indian “Other,” while importing technologies into the West–guns, mining, deforestation, and the railroad–that terraform the wilderness.

Giraud's cover for the Marvel/Epic Lieutenant Blueberry volume GENERAL GOLDEN MANE (1991); the general is drawn to look like Kevin Costner in DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990).

Most of these genre conventions and East/West tensions appear in Blueberry. Mike Blueberry begins as a cultured gentleman, until circumstances cast him into both the West and disrepute. Like other Western heroes–such as Little Big Man‘s Jack Crabb and Dances with Wolves’ John Dunbar–he proves to be resourceful and empathetic enough to integrate fully into an Indian tribe (in The Long March [1980]). In such early “Gir” Blueberry volumes as The Iron Horse (1970) and Steelfingers (1970), business corruption in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is at the center of the drama. In fact, the themes of East/West, white/Indian conflict and technological change combine in The Long March, where Blueberry comes up with a plan to save the Apaches by hijacking a train.

These themes and plot devices continue into much on Giraud’s science fiction. One particularly glaring example is the classic short story “Ballade,” which I remember reading in the US Heavy Metal in 1977. The title itself is evocative of Westerns–such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)–and the opening page introduces a protagonist riding an ostrich-like steed into the uncharted frontier of a “bio-forest.”

Clearly, this character is a hyper-erudite “Easterner” rather than a taciturn badass; if you’re looking for Clint Eastwood in Giraud’s science fiction work, Arzach’s your man.

On the next page, Giraud introduces ”Ballade”‘s Indian surrogate, a horned forest faun (named “Loona” later in the story), who notes that the adventurer, whom she calls a “mountain pooh,” is reading the poetry of Rimbaud–the perfect literary choice for an emissary from an aestheticized, declining civilization.

As “Ballade” proceeds, Pooh settles down for the night, only to be attacked by an armored monster. Luckily, though, Loona steps in and saves Pooh, through her superior knowledge of the bio-forest environment. This is another narrative element appropriated from Westerns, where Indians are almost always much more knowledgeable about, and thus more capable of surviving, the barren environmental conditions of the American Southwest than Eastern settlers. On page six, Loona chases away the monster by doing what is essentially a raindance:

Despite their differences, Pooh and Loona become friends, and travel across a savannah together. “Ballade” ends on a tragic, surreal note, however, as the two are abruptly gunned down by an advancing phalanx of soldiers.

Giraud’s clinically specific identification of the ammo the soldiers use to murder Pooh and Loona (“Kleer Tak 59″) is another of “Ballade”‘s Western allusions. Guns are the key instruments the white man uses to “tame” the West, and many Western narratives center on the social and spiritual effects of advances in gun technology. Consider Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), where the film’s climactic bloodbath emphasizes the contrast between old-time handguns and rifles (and the old-timers who wield them) and a machine gun capable of Taylorized slaughter. (Though it’s not a Western, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo [1961] has much in common with the genre, including a similar technological gap between Toshiro Mifune’s sword and a pistol used by one of the bad guys.) So “Ballade” ends with the tank rolling on, ready to raze the bio-forest, poised to decimate indigenous peoples and cultures. History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep…!

I’m arguing that Giraud is a genre-splicer, and that’s not news; it’s hard to miss how film noir is imported into a science fiction framework in “The Long Tomorrow” (written by O’Bannon) and The Incal (written by Jodorowsky)–even though in the latter, John DiFool’s status as “a class ‘R’ licensed private investigator” becomes unimportant as the story spirals out into Jungian fantasy. Sometimes Giraud’s collision of science fiction and Western tropes is just as obvious, as in “Major Fatal,” the strange little improvised short story that opens Marvel/Epic’s 1987 edition of The Airtight Garage:

The last panel of the above page, which is the first page of “Major Fatal,” cracks me up: Houm lives in a future civilization that’s bred creatures to look like ancient horses simply because horses and Westerns are cool. This obsession with appearances–with iconography purloined from genres for their beauty and style–goes a long way towards defining Giraud as an artist. Giraud’s indisputable greatness lies less in his storytelling than in his ability to delineate dense, fully-realized, and unutterably cool environments. For me, it’s his hyper-detailed evocations of locale that place him in the canon of great cartoonists.

A graveyard by Giraud, from the frontispiece to the Marvel/Epic volume BLUEBERRY 2: BALLAD FOR A COFFIN (1989).

Blueberry lovingly depicts such clichéd western locales as graveyards and saloons with an authority no other Western cartoonist can match, and Giraud’s self-proclaimed love for Mexican desert landscapes is present in every outdoor scene. Jack Jackson, a man who knew his Tex-Mex culture, described Giraud’s Blueberry art in understandably glowing terms:

No one has created as real a desert environment in comics. In it, you expect everything to either “stick, sting or stink,” as we say in Texas. Just as John Ford’s films left us in awe of Monument Valley’s harsh majesty, Giraud’s pen and ink rock formations and vistas convey the ruggedness of the Southwest in comparable fashion. We never lose our sense of place as Charlier’s tales unfold, nor our sense of time. (Comics Journal #144 [September 1991], page 61.)

This authority, this confidence, carries over to his renderings of the science-fiction cities of “The Long Tomorrow” and The Incal in particular, whose structure is bookended around John DiFool’s enlightened return to the dense, multi-layered environment of the series’ beginning. The end of The Incal reminds me of famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

John DiFool remembers: we see the stunned look on his face, we understand that he now knows the place for the first time, and we realize that we’re reading a narrative as concerned with the spirituality of human evolution and environments as Alan Moore and J.H. Williams’ Promethea. And of course, it’s Moebius’ work as a creator of environments that might be his splashiest contribution to popular culture. As Moebius Redux makes clear, “The Long Tomorrow” set the visual template for Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and audio-visual cyberpunk, and Giraud contributed costume and mise-en-scene designs to such films as Alien (Scott, 1979), Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) and The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997).

Giraud’s abiding interests in Western conventions and complex environments connect the Gir and Moebius phases of his career, but I’d argue that Giraud has deliberately blurred the boundaries between his two primary artistic personas in other ways too. Although he disingenuously claims, in Moebius Redux, that he’s three people—Giraud, “Gir” and “Moebius”—Giraud has brought Gir and Moebius together by importing the Moebius visual style into the later Blueberry albums. Earlier Blueberry adventures are comprised of the heavy brush lines and spot blacks Giraud inherited from European adventure cartoonists like Hugo Pratt, as in this page from The Lost Dutchman’s Mine (1972):

In the above example, Giraud drew Blueberry’s hair, clothing folds and rock patterns with an ink-clotted brush, but in later Blueberry volumes, Moebius goes West. Giraud uses less brush and more pen–à la Moebius–and the result is a thinner, sleeker, more controlled line, maybe influenced by ligne claire, combined with sparser, more open backgrounds. A page from The Last Card (1983):

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this visual shift. One mentioned by Jack Jackson in his Comics Journal article is that Giraud began to draw bigger, moving from original art sized at 12″ x 16″ to a more expansive 20″ x “26 in later Blueberry books. (It’s easier to include more negative space in your pictures when you have more space to begin with.) Still, I’d agree with Jackson that more recent Blueberry art “shows the giant strides Giraud made during his experimentations with the medium of sequential art as ‘Moebius’” (61).

In addition, it’s not just in Giraud’s art where “Gir” and “Moebius” share ideas and styles. In what is perhaps the best article on Giraud in English, a terrific appreciation of The Airtight (or Hermetic) Garage, Matthias Wivel argues that during the 1990s some of the textual playfulness typically associated with Moebius leaks into the Blueberry saga. Here’s Matthias at length:

Through the second half of the ’90s and the first years of the present decade Giraud was on the ascendant. His major work of this period was his first independent Blueberry story after Charlier’s death in 1989, “Mr. Blueberry” (1995-2005). Our hero arrives at the town of Tombstone in the days leading up to the showdown at the OK Corral, only to be shot in the back immediately and spend the rest of the story bedridden in a room at the town saloon, reading Moby-Dick. Here he reminisces about his first meeting, as a youth, with the Apache chief Geronimo. Interviewed by a hack writer from the East Coast, who has come in search of the Wild West, he describes the legendary Apache as his “red whale,” while a myth is in the making outside their windows. In other words, an elaborate conglomeration of clichés in service of what essentially is a rather flimsy story offering little insight into the myths it purports to probe. Sumptuously executed and packed to the gills with playful intertextual references, its very life on the page becomes its point. A delightful folly. Very “Moebius.” (263)

Matthias goes on to observe that the “work actually signed ‘Moebius’” during this period is less quintessentially Moebius than the metafictional play of “Mr. Blueberry.” At least in this one instance, “Gir” is more Moebius than Moebius.

Giraud doesn’t bother to keep his “Gir” and “Moebius” personas separate, and it might be worth noting that audiences seemingly had no problem with this intermingling of styles either. It’s telling that in 1979, two Charlier / Giraud Western comics were serialized in Métal Hurlant. The Blueberry story Broken Nose ran in Métal Hurlant #38-40 (February-April 1979) and later in the year, in the midst of a contractual dispute with their Blueberry publisher Dargaud, Charlier and Giraud created a new western hero, the luckless Reconstruction soldier Jim Cutlass, to continue their collaboration without Dargaud’s help. The dispute was eventually settled, and Charlier and Giraud returned to Dargaud and Blueberry, but only after album’s worth of Cutlass material was also serialized in Métal Hurlant (issues #44-46, August-October 1979). The fact that the Cutlass story, Mississippi River, appeared in the magazine most associated with the Moebius persona indicates that publishers and readers didn’t fret over the distinctions between the science fiction of Métal Hurlant and the Westerns published by Dargaud.

My quibble with Moebius Redux and other examples of Giraud criticism, then, is with the tendency to overstate the degree to which “Gir” and “Moebius” are “different people,” with radically different artistic styles. Perhaps we need a new metaphor to describe Giraud’s particular brand of aesthetic schizophrenia; maybe we should think of Giraud, Gir and Moebius in conversation with one another, sharing ideas and swapping concepts, in a perpetual dialogue that enriches the work of one of the most singular, mercurial and accomplished comics creators ever.

I delivered an earlier version of this post at HeroesCon 2011. Thanks to Shawn Daughhetee and Andy Mansell for letting me to play in their sandbox. Thanks also to Erin Guffey.

In addition to Matthias Wivel’s article on The Hermetic Garage, I’d recommend all of Jog’s incredible coverage of Jodorowsky, Moebius, and post-Métal Hurlant French comics, including his commentary on The Incal.

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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