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.

SC(omics)MS

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week, I wrote about an article from Cinema Journal–and Cinema Journal is the official academic publication of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS). SCMS was founded in 1959 as “The Society of Cinematologists,” a professional organization for film teachers and scholars, and changed its name to the Society for Cinema Studies in 1969. In 2002, “Media” was added to the organization’s name, to reflect research in new media and other forms of visual communication, including comics.

Interest in comics among SCMS members is currently spiking. In Cinema Journal 50.3 (Spring 2011), Bart Beaty edited a special “In Focus” section on comics studies, with articles by Greg Smith, Angela Ndalianis, Scott Bukatman, Catherine Labio and Darren Wershler, and and an extended conversation among Bukatman, Smith, Thomas Andrae and Thomas LaMarre about the state of American comics scholarship. (In the fall, I’m teaching an undergraduate Honors comics class, and I’ll assign my students to read this “In Focus” section; it’s a lively introduction to the field.) Also last year, scholar Matt Yockey successfully lobbied to create a SCMS Comic Studies Scholarly Interest Group, an organization-within-the-organization dedicated to promoting the “critical analysis of all aspects of comics production, circulation, and reception through original research and teaching practices.” Founding members of the Comics Studies SIG include (among others) Andrae, Beaty, LaMarre, Ndalianis, Yockey, Will Brooker, Corey Creekmur, Henry Jenkins, Derek Kompare and myself; go here for the SIG’s Mission Statement and Bylaws.

Coming up this month (Wednesday, March 21-Sunday, March 25) is the SCMS Annual Conference, held this year in Boston, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers. The final conference program is now online, and the following papers and events address comics:

Wednesday, March 21, 4-5:45pm: As part of the “Pornography Across Media” panel, Sho Ogawa (University of Kansas) will present “Imaginary Bodies and Masturbatory Desires: The Representation and Reception of Intersexuality in Japanese Pornographic Comics.”

Thursday, March 22, 9-10:45am: As part of the “Media Industries in Transition” panel, Shawna Kidman (University of Southern California) will present “Men in Tight Places: How the Comic Book Industry Collapsed and Lives to Tell about It.”

Thursday, March 22, 3-4:45pm: As part of the “Rewriting the National” panel, Andre Carrington (New York University) will present “Color Against the Real in the Bande Desinee—Aya.”

Friday, March 23, 12:15-2pm: Two papers on the “Gay Expectations” panel: Ramzi Fawaz (George Washington University) with “Consumed by Hellfire: Demonic Possession and Queer Desire in American Superhero Comics of the 1980s” and Ryan Watson (University of Iowa) with “Lewis Klahr’s Pony Glass: Queer Collage Animation, Retroactive Contingency, and the Everyday.” (In Pony Glass [1997], experimental filmmaker Lewis Klahr animates 1960s drawings by Jim Mooney, Gil Kane and Kurt Schaffenberger to chart Jimmy Olsen’s crush on Superman.)

Also on Friday, March 23, 12:15-2pm: A workshop on “Teaching Comics Studies,” with Bukatman (Stanford University), Suzanne Scott (Occidental College), Smith (Georgia State University), James Thompson (Duke University) and Yockey (University of Toledo). This workshop is sponsored by the Comic Studies SIG.

Saturday March 24, 4-5:45pm: As part of the “Video Games Industry Studies” panel, Kathryn Frank (University of Michigan) will present “Imagining the Cult Media Audience: Comics and Video Game Industrial ‘Synergy.”

There’s hundreds of other fascinating presentations (on animation and gender, on fans and fandom, on [adult swim], on films and media of all kinds) so in case you’re in or near Boston next weekend, here’s information about registering for the conference.

It’s exciting to see so many comics papers at this year’s SCMS, although my younger self would’ve been more skeptical. When I decided to write about comics, about 11 or 12 years ago, when I was burned out on (ahem) “academic discourse,” I mistrusted scholarly work on comics—I preferred (to the point of fetishization) fanzines and other fan outlets, because they felt more authentic, more enthusiastic, more subjective, more gut-level. But criticism isn’t a zero-sum game, and nowadays I value both good fan and good academic comics criticism. I suspect SCMS will provide a lot of the latter next week.

Darrow on Moebius

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

A Geof Darrow cover to WOLVERINE #300.

In 2011, Ben Towle and I organized a panel at Heroes Con titled “The Master of Screaming Metal: A Tribute to Moebius.” The panel consisted of three parts: a screening of Hasko Baumann’s fine documentary Moebius Redux (2007), an interview with Geof Darrow—a good friend and colleague of Jean Giraud’s—conducted by Ben, and a presentation by me on the similarities between the “Gir” and “Moebius” art styles. I was proud of my involvement with this panel.

Adam Daughhetee has unearthed an audio version of part of the panel—most of the Darrow interview—and put it up at the Dollar Bin website. Here’s a link to the audio. Give it a listen: Darrow’s got some intimate and hilarious stories to tell. (Alejandro Jodorowsky to Darrow: “Why do you want to fuck your father?”) And thanks to Adam.

For Moebius

March 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

News is breaking across the Internet that comics artist Jean Giraud—Moebius—has died at the age of 73. Here’s a link to a French-language obituary from Le Monde. I wish I had met Giraud, wish I told him what his bizarre, sexy, visceral and ultimately healing vision of the world(s) had meant to me. I wrote a couple of pieces about Moebius for The Panelists, and one is below, about a panel from the Blueberry album The Outlaw (1974). It was originally posted on January 6, 2011.

The House of Genre

Originally from LE HORS LA LOI (THE OUTLAW, Dargaud, 1974), written by Jean-Michel Charlier and drawn by Jean "Moebius" Giraud. The above panel is from Marvel/Epic's translation of THE OUTLAW in BLUEBERRY 2: BALLAD FOR A COFFIN (1989).

…time to draw the next box. In this panel, Mike Blueberry rides his horse to Guffie Palmer’s dilapidated house.

You start by lightly penciling in Blueberry and the abandoned shack in the foreground, and Guffie’s house in the background. As you tighten your pencils, you playfully decide to draw Guffie’s “dump” as similar to the Bates mansion in Psycho. (The movie fans who read Blueberry for allusions to Ford, Peckinpah and Leone westerns will surely catch this nod to Hitchcock.) Once the main elements of the composition are clearly defined, you transition to inking, using brush lines to indicate the textures of different surfaces: think feathering on the stones, and heavier, suppler lines for the wood of the fence and the beam. You move your brush across the panel, adding patches of grass to the land, and spot blacks to Blueberry, his horse, and the lightning-split sky behind the house. Details pile up. You consciously emulate Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, and other adventure strip artists in your attempt to create a picture that is simultaneously realistic and dramatic.

The picture is beautiful, but you’re curiously unfulfilled by its beauty. When you began Blueberry ten years ago, you devoted endless hours to honing your craft, even as Charlier’s plot became more baroque, more complex. You would write later that “I think I had been at the top of my form, at least in terms of the excitement and pleasure I derived, with the previous stories, The Lost Ducthman’s Mine (1972) and The Ghost with the Golden Bullets (1972). Now I felt like a marathon winner who just crossed the finish line, and who is told that he must run again, and again. I had a feeling of frustration, of being trapped.” You’ve poured your youthful enthusiasm into a series that you’ve outgrown; your vocation’s become a job, and sometimes a chore. You get angry and depressed when you think about drawing cowboys, horses, haunted houses, genre tropes and chessboard plots for the rest of your career.

From "The Detour," originally published in PILOTE in 1973; this page is from ARZACH (Dark Horse, 1996).

So you decide to break out of the box and reinvent yourself with a new pen name, “Moebius.” You change your art style, and write trippy, messy scripts. Deviating from a linear plot becomes a symptom of blessed freedom.

Your heart flows through your images again. You cleave your career in two: as Moebius, you explore new roads with new collaborators (particularly Alejandro Jodorowsky), but you also continue to work with Charlier, partially because Blueberry is the cash cow that subsidizes Moebius’ rebellion. But after Moebius becomes world-famous, and even after Charlier dies in 1989, you continue to tell new stories about Mike Blueberry. You ride back again and again to the haunted house, the House of Genre, you felt so compelled to escape. Why? Are you smuggling some El Topo sensibility into Blueberry‘s Ford/Peckinpah/Leone world? Or do westerns–and popular genres in general–mean more to you than you ever realized?

Gene Colan: Routines and Exceptions

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I realize that the first few entries on this blog have been as much about movies than comics–Heaven forbid!–but below is a post about artist Gene Colan that is full-tilt 100% comics-focused. I originally posted it on The Panelists site on June 29, 2011, six days after Colan died.

I was sorry to hear about Gene Colan’s death, though my own opinions of the value of his art have changed over the 40-year period that I’ve been reading comics.

When I was a kid, I probably owned more comics by Colan than any other artist, but this had less to do with his visual style than with the fact that he drew Daredevil, my favorite superhero comic. I can’t remember why I loved Daredevil so much. Maybe because a neighborhood friend gave me a copy of the ancient Daredevil #10 and I double-bagged that comic, fetishing it as a potentially priceless artifact? (I eventually ripped open the bags and read that comic to tatters—take that, Benjaminian aura!) Maybe because I thought Marvel (and scripter Gerry Conway and artist Colan) showed guts when they moved Daredevil to San Francisco and renamed the comic Daredevil and the Black Widow? (The title change lasted exactly fifteen months, from issue #92 [October 1972] to issue #107 [January 1974].) Shallow reasons, yup, but I was a shallow kid. I grew up Catholic, and in eighth grade participated in a sacrament called Confirmation, where I reaffirmed my commitment to the Church by adding a Saint’s name to “Craig Joseph Fischer.” I chose “Matthew,” supposedly to celebrate one of the authors of the New Testament, but secretly in tribute to blind lawyer Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s alter ego. Told you I was shallow.

Later on, I lost track of Colan, partially because I drifted away from Daredevil when Don Heck took over the art, and partially because the ‘80s weren’t an inspired decade for Colan. (I sampled a number of his DC projects—Night Force, Wonder Woman, Nathaniel Dusk—but they underwhelmed me then and they underwhelm me now.) Also, my tastes underwent a seismic shift when I discovered Kurtzman and Krigstein, two masters of panel layouts and silent storytelling. Everyone knows the final page of Krigstein’s “Master Race,” with time sliced as Reissman falls on the subway tracks, but I was just as impressed with a page from Two Fisted Tales #23 (October 1951), where Kurtzman’s breakdowns adroitly create suspense by alternating between a jeep driving away from a cannon barrage, and the gun muzzle blasting shells at the escaping infantrymen. Compared to Kurtzman and Krigstein’s precision, Colan’s layouts seemed sloppy and indistinct, as if he’d draw a page as a full-page splash first, and then drop in the panel borders after the fact.

Recently, though, I’ve had occasion to revisit Colan’s art while reading the Dark House Archive editions of the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, and I like it better now. Colan’s layouts are often odd, but not arbitrarily so: the jagged Expressionism of his panels often serves a narrative purpose. “A Matter of Routine!” (Eerie #5, September 1966) begins with a Man-in-the Gray Flannel Suit leaving his workplace, riding the train home, and struggling with existential ennui (click to enlarge):

Even though the content of the story emphasizes George Simmons’ boredom, the panels slant on the horizontal axis, blossoming into irregular shapes that hint at an off-kilter world just beyond Simmons’ field of perception. These irregular shapes continue on page two of the story:

The shape of the final panel of page two—the way it expands to take up a significant portion of the right margin—pulls us into the story’s only splash, as Simmons enters the Land of the Dead:

So Colan’s crazy canted angles appropriately guide us into a crazy world, and “A Matter of Routine!” becomes a felicitous blend of subject and form.

Maybe I’m nattering about “A Matter of Routine!” because the story also seems like a perfect metaphor for the artistic predicament of the comics artists of Colan’s generation. After Simmons is brought to the Land of the Dead, he is tortured by demons, one of whom opens a ledger and discovers a celestial clerical error: Simmons is still alive. As a result, Simmons is sent back to Earth (“…we’ll have him for good soon enough!”) and the tale ends with him unlocking his front door once again. (You can read the whole story online here.) All seemingly returns to normal, though the story’s final caption destabilizes any abiding sense of “normalcy”:

You freeze with your hand on the key, suddenly afraid to move…it’s just your house, only your house behind that door…or is it? You can never be sure…and for the rest of your life, opening your front door, if ever you open it again, can never be…a matter of routine!

I don’t mean to be tasteless by discussing a story involving “the Land of the Dead” so soon after Colan’s own death, but routine, and the avoidance of routine, was undoubtedly central to the careers of the dozens of Silver Age mainstream comics artists. These artists were expected to churn out pages, meet onerous deadlines, and negotiate with a baroque gauntlet of writers and editors, just to earn a rotten pay rate and toil in a culture industry reviled by tastemakers and highbrow critics. Given these conditions, it’s no wonder that many of these artists became hacks, and their art became routine.

But today’s pop-cult historiographers sift through reams of lousy comics to re-discover those cartoonists who challenged the business-as-usual ethos, who avoided aesthetic routine despite the many onerous burdens of their trade, and Colan was, at least in the early part of his career, one of these cartoonists. He cared enough–was bothered by demons of self-expression, or perhaps just took inordinate pride in his art–to forge a swirly, shady, unique style, and drew for such idiosyncratic companies as E.C. and Warren, and that’s why I celebrate his life and achievements now.

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